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Attorney General

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 30 March 2023

The Attorney General was asked—

Illegal Immigration Bill: ECHR Compatibility

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights. (904392)

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. (904393)

5. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the convention relating to the status of refugees. (904398)

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1, 2 and 5 together. By convention, where the law officers have been asked to provide advice, the contents of any such advice is not disclosed outside Government. That protects our ability as legal advisers to give the Government full and frank legal advice.

I somehow suspected that the answer would be something like that. The Attorney General knows that I am one of her admirers, and long have been so, right back to the days of her maiden speech, when I remind the House she said:

“The European convention on human rights is a masterful document, and we must remain a signatory to it...In this country, the courts are unable to quash an Act of Parliament. It seems we need to re-state that, while our courts should have regard to the decisions of the ECHR, these are on the same footing, and Parliament is sovereign.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1113.]

Will she confirm that that thinking still informs her assessment of these questions? If she can, I think the rest of us can join up the dots for ourselves.

Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the admiration is entirely mutual. I also assure him that I heard very recently the Prime Minister, from this Dispatch Box, assure the House that it is the Government’s policy to remain a signatory to the ECHR.

Articles 12 and 13 of the trafficking convention require states to support a trafficking victim’s physical, psychological and social recovery, including through a rest and recovery period, but clauses 22 and onwards of her Government’s awful Illegal Migration Bill expressly deny trafficking and slavery victims access to such support. I too have a lot of respect for the Attorney General, but she will lose support and respect if she continues to allow that Bill to proceed in blatant breach of the trafficking convention.

As I have said, all lawyers have a duty of confidentiality to their clients and I am simply not permitted to tell the hon. Gentleman, or indeed anybody else, what legal advice has been shared between our office and that of the Government. The use of the Human Rights Act 1998 section 19(1)(b) statement does not mean that the Bill breaches the ECHR. It just means that the Home Secretary cannot state that the Bill is more likely than not compatible with convention rights. If legal challenges are made, we will take all steps to defend our position in court.

Can the Attorney General clarify what assessment she has made of the legality of the amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill that are aimed at sidestepping the convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as ignoring the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights? If those amendments were to be accepted by the UK Government, what does she think it would mean? Does she think it could put the UK’s place on the Council of Europe at risk?

As I have said, I am not able to share my assessment, but perhaps it might be useful for the House to know when a section 19(1)(b) statement has previously been used. It was used in relation to the Communications Act 2003 by Tessa Jowell, who used words very similar to mine just now:

“That does not mean that we believe the Bill to be incompatible…and we would mount a robust defence if it were legally challenged.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 789.]

It was challenged. It was challenged all the way up to the ECHR, and I understand that in the end the Government won by nine votes to eight.

I have no doubt, and nor has anyone in this House, about the Attorney General’s commitment or that of Conservative Members to the European convention on human rights. Beyond the fact that the section 19(1)(b) statement, while unusual, is not unique, does she agree that it is also important to remember that our whole case law system depends on existing legal precedent being tested from time to time in the light of changing and emerging factual circumstances to which case law or existing statute can be applied? The testing of the legal position is not any kind of illegality or impropriety at all.

I agree wholeheartedly. I feel it is perfectly proper for lawyers—Government lawyers, in this case—to test a novel idea before the courts. In fact, one reason I very much enjoyed my career in the Government Legal Service is that Government lawyers frequently do so. It is one of the main reasons why people ought to apply to join.

Thank goodness I am not a lawyer! We have an excellent Minister, who has spent the whole of this question not answering it. Three questions on the Order Paper, about three completely different conventions, have been grouped together; I have no idea why. It seems to me that what we want is the Minister to answer the question.

May I try a question on the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings? It is clear that people who come across in boats are smuggled. That is not part of the convention, but people who are already here who are forced into prostitution or slave labour should be protected by that convention. Will the Attorney General tell us—please answer!—whether the Illegal Migration Bill will be amended so that those people are still protected? A yes or no will do.

My hon. Friend is a staunch defender of the procedures and the propriety of our activities in this House. I know that he will agree that it is important that the Law Officers convention is upheld. As I have said, I cannot share my advice with this House; I would very much like to do so, but I am unable to. For the Government’s position, I refer the House to the explanatory notes that accompany the Illegal Migration Bill.

Last month, the Attorney General told the Justice Committee:

“It is particularly important that they”—

Government lawyers—

“work to keep the Government acting properly and within the rule of law”.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee found in January that the Government had

“twice knowingly introduced legislation in Parliament which would…undermine the rule of law: the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”

This Illegal Migration Bill, even before the Attorney General’s own Back Benchers are finished with it, is a further example of that. When will her

“first duty…as an officer of the court”—

those are her words—trump her loyalty to a lawbreaking Government?

My first duty is to the court and to the rule of law. I have absolutely no hesitation about restating that as often as the hon. Gentleman wishes me to; it is something that I believe very deeply, and I know that the Solicitor General agrees. Our advice on the Illegal Migration Bill is not something that we are able to share with the House. The use of the section 19(1)(b) statement is, as I have explained, unusual, but not unprecedented and certainly not improper.

It is no secret that the Attorney General has reservations about the Illegal Migration Bill, and it is also no secret that those on the far right of her party are intent on rebelling to push the Bill further into breaking international law. Will she do the honourable thing today, and confirm that if the Prime Minister concedes on this, she will make a stand and declare the Bill unlawful?

I am very pleased that the Illegal Migration Bill passed its Committee stage in the House without amendment.

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions

3. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (904396)

Tackling violence against women and girls remains a key priority for the Government. We are doing everything possible to make our streets and homes safer for them, not least through our joint national action plan, which has seen a significant increase in the volume of charges for adult rape since January 2021.

Government statistics published this morning show that 29% of Crown court cases have been open for more than a year, and Rape Crisis reports that, according to the response to a freedom of information request, there is a record backlog of sexual assault and rape cases, with trials frequently postponed. What impact does the Solicitor General think that that backlog—the situation in the courts—is having on the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute rape cases?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. It is correct to say that the time between charge and completion is being reduced, but she is right: it is still too long. One factor that will encourage victims to stay within the criminal justice process, which is what we all want to see, is the provision of support by independent sexual violence advisers, and guidance is being put on a statutory footing in that regard.

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that I spoke to her local chief Crown prosecutor in person yesterday, in a neighbouring Bristol constituency, and she is doing an excellent job. Last year, the number of suspects charged for adult rape in the CPS south-west area more than doubled.

I am sure that the whole House wants to see much higher prosecution rates for people who commit the appalling crime of raping women and girls. What impact does the Solicitor General think that the brilliant Operation Soteria will have on the current prosecution rates?

My hon. Friend is right to mention Operation Soteria. There is, in fact, a link with the question from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), because Operation Soteria was founded in her area. It is making a significant difference, and the volume of adult rape suspects charged has more than doubled in the last year.

Fraud and Economic Crime: Prosecutions

4. What steps she is taking to help ensure effective prosecution of perpetrators of fraud and economic crime. (904397)

We are determined to strengthen our response to all forms of economic crime, including fraud, and the Government will soon publish a new fraud strategy to address this threat. Both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office play an important role in bringing fraudsters to justice.

As the Solicitor General will know, each September the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime, organised by Professor Barry Rider, meets at Jesus College Cambridge, and the issue of establishing a dedicated anti-fraud or economic crime agency is frequently raised. What consideration has been given to that proposal, and what is the Solicitor General doing to promote education about fraud, and prevention and discouragement of it, through effective early compliance?

I am indeed aware of that symposium, because I have been invited to speak at it this year, and I very much hope to see the hon. Gentleman there so that we can discuss this subject even further. As he will know, the National Economic Crime Centre, which was launched in 2018, leads the UK’s operational response to economic crime. As for his wider question, he will be aware of the Government’s fraud strategy, which will be released soon.

Every day that passes, more lives are destroyed by fraud. We urgently need a Government who understand the scale of that crisis and have a plan to tackle it. Five months ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that

“the Government will shortly publish our fraud strategy…to block more scams and better protect the public.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 859.]

The Solicitor General has told us again today that the strategy will come shortly. Do the Government have a different concept of time? What do they mean by “shortly”, and how much longer are we going to need to wait—or is this just another example of the Government making big promises on crucial issues and delivering absolutely nothing?

The shadow Attorney General is not right about that. The fraud strategy will be published. In terms of delivery, she will be pleased to hear that last year the CPS prosecuted over 6,000 defendants where fraud and forgery was the principal offence, and the conviction rate was over 80%. This is a Government that have delivered and will continue to deliver in this area.

People Traffickers: Prosecutions

6. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers. (904399)

Last week I met the Minister for Immigration to discuss how we can increase the prosecution rate further for those who engage in this dangerous offending. I am pleased to report that there has been a significant increase in all immigration prosecutions since the end of June last year, with the CPS bringing 260 prosecutions and so far securing 164 convictions.

Increasing prosecution rates is an important way of tackling people trafficking, but another is ensuring safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum. The all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls, which I co-chair, has written to the Government looking for support for those very vulnerable groups. Does the Attorney General accept that her assessment for the Government of the Illegal Migration Bill might be better if safe and legal routes were progressed at the same time?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work on that important APPG; she will have heard my answer to the previous question. The Government need to use every tool available to us to stop these dangerous crossings. One of those tools is prosecution, which is going well. Another tool is working closely with the French Government, and it is important to note that the French have prevented 31,000 crossings this year, which is nearly 50% up on this time last year.

The Government are working flat out to stop people smugglers from continuing their evil trade and to ensure that they are brought to justice. What assistance is the Crown Prosecution Service providing to investigators on small boat pilots and other people traffickers?

The Crown Prosecution Service is working hard on these prosecutions and will not hesitate where people are suspected of immigration offences whenever the legal test is met. It is focusing on the pilots of small boats and also on disrupting the supply chains of people traffickers and organised crime gangs.

Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection

7. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the effectiveness of ongoing sentences of imprisonment for public protection. (904400)

The Attorney General and I meet the Secretary of State for Justice regularly and discuss numerous issues. Where they touch on legal issues and advice, the hon. Lady will know, and will have heard the Attorney General clearly set out, that the Law Officers’ convention applies.

Imprisonment for public protection sentences were abolished in 2012, but that did not apply retrospectively. A constituent of mine whose son is serving an IPP sentence dating from before then has told me how this causes continued uncertainty and disruption for the whole family, and concern about their son’s mental health deteriorating. Can the Minister commit to working to reach a consensus on how best to address these long-standing IPP cases?

The hon. Lady raises a very serious point, and I am grateful to her. IPP sentences were first introduced in 2003, and she is right that they were abolished in 2012, but not retrospectively, nor properly could they have been. Further reforms were introduced last year, but it is right that, by definition, those in prison on IPP sentences have not been assessed as safe to release. However, I will certainly put her in touch with the Prisons Minister to discuss the matter further.

Crown Prosecution Service: Legal Trainees

The CPS runs an award-winning and highly competitive legal training scheme, which has seen hundreds of trainees undertake a training contract and/or pupillage across England and Wales with the CPS since 2012.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his answer. Building on that, can he tell the House what steps he is taking to encourage people from a more diverse background to consider the law as a career?

I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The CPS has extended its postgraduate qualification requirements to include new solicitors qualification examinations, which opens up the career to a more diverse audience. Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to know that for the last three years the CPS was ranked No. 1 in the Universum rankings as a highly attractive employer to law students. I commend to my hon. Friend, and indeed to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a visit to your local chief Crown prosecutors to find out more and to encourage law students to sign up to the CPS. I addressed the CPS leaders conference in Bristol yesterday, and they are very keen to meet us all.

Antisocial Behaviour: Prosecutions

We know the serious impact that persistent antisocial behaviour can have on both individuals and the wider community. Those who commit antisocial behaviour will face swift and visible justice, increased fines and enhanced drug testing as part of the Government’s new action plan.

As the Attorney General says, antisocial behaviour has a terrible impact on communities such as Winlaton in my constituency, so I am glad that the Government have finally seen the light and increased sentences. Does she regret that the Government allowed the use of community sentences to fall by 62% between 2010 and 2021, and that the sentences became so much weaker?

I know there has been a particular problem with antisocial behaviour in the hon. Lady’s constituency. As a result, Northumbria police will receive trailblazer funding for both immediate justice and hotspot policing. I think it is important that the courts are able to use the wide range of sentences available to them.

Ynys Môn has received more than £695,000 from the safer streets fund, and I am delighted that some of the money is being used by Môn Communities Forward for first aid courses and by North Wales police for free boxing sessions for women and girls at the canolfan in Holyhead, which the Attorney General is welcome to attend. Can she confirm to my Ynys Môn constituents that, in addition to making Anglesey’s streets safer, this Government are committed to cracking down on antisocial behaviour?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency. The plan unveiled this week will have a real and visible impact on antisocial behaviour around the country. It will be interesting to see the learning we get from the areas that have been targeted because there are particular problems. I think the impact will be swift.