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Attorney General

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023

The Attorney General was asked—

1. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the Crown Prosecution Service’s written responses to complaints. (906610)

Although progress has been made, the CPS acknowledges that there is more to do to ensure that every complaint gets a high-quality response in a timely manner. I will be discussing this very issue with the Director of Public Prosecutions at our next meeting.

I am sure the Solicitor General will be aware that the CPS Inspectorate recently conducted an investigation into the response to complaints from victims of crime. It found that almost half were below standard and only a third were “adequate”. Do victims of crime not deserve better?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her serious and important question. It is of the utmost importance that victims are well supported by all parts of the justice system. Improvements need to be made. It might be worth pointing out that in the Inspectorate’s report, the complainants were looked at, from victims, defendants, witnesses, the police and others. There is clearly some way to go, but the CPS has accepted each and every one of the recommendations.

Russia: International Accountability

2. What recent steps she has taken to establish international accountability for Russia’s actions against Ukraine; and if she will make a statement. (906611)

8. What recent steps she has taken to establish international accountability for Russia’s actions against Ukraine. (906619)

We are supporting my counterpart in Ukraine, Andriy Kostin, and Ukraine’s judiciary with an ongoing package of practical assistance. They have opened over 100,000 files into alleged Russian war crimes. There is a growing body of evidence that serious crimes have been committed. Together, we will ensure that allegations of war crimes are investigated robustly and independently.

While the House is naturally focused on what has happened in the middle east and the Hamas attack against Israel, the war in Ukraine continues. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the abduction of young children from Ukraine to Russia?

Forced deportation of children is particularly abhorrent. In July, the Foreign Secretary announced 40 new sanctions against Russian officials who have been involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and the spreading of hate-filled propaganda. We continue to work closely with the Ukrainians. I am seeing Andriy Kostin in person again next week, and we remain involved at all levels, from the International Criminal Court to local prosecutions.

In the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, what steps is the Attorney General taking at international judicial level to ensure the rule of law is upheld?

At the end of last month, I was honoured to appear personally before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I made the UK’s submissions in the case against Russia concerning the genocide convention. It was an important moment for the international rule of law. I fear this will be a long process, but we will pay our full part.

I thank the Attorney General for her response and understanding of our requests. Unfortunately, one thing that is not mentioned much about Ukraine is that when east Donbas was invaded and Crimea was taken over, many Baptist pastors went missing. They were abducted, kidnapped and killed, and nobody has been held accountable. Will the Attorney General intervene in that situation and help to give accountability to those families who have lost loved ones?

The hon. Gentleman always speaks so passionately, particularly on behalf of those involved in helping others with their religious beliefs, making sure that they are not persecuted around the world. I have heard what he has said.

The Attorney General has rightly said that international accountability for Russia’s actions in Ukraine is very important. She will also be aware that some deep concerns have been expressed that Russia may be exploiting the very volatile and fragile situation in Israel and Palestine, with its reportedly close links with Hamas and accusations of facilitating international terrorism. Does she share those concerns, and what efforts does she think the international community can take to counter that?

The UK has a strong track record of supporting international law, and we ask that our friends and partners do the same. It is clear to us that all parties should abide by international law. It was very much brought home to me in that room in The Hague that Russia and Ukraine have not been in many rooms together during the past 18 months, but a courtroom brought them to the same place, and that shows the power of international law.

Crown Prosecution Service: Access to Justice

3. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (906612)

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (906616)

The Government are committed to ensuring that victims are treated fairly and compassionately. We know that joined-up working across the criminal justice system works, and we know that supporting victims makes a real difference. That is why we are spending four times as much on victim support as was the case in 2010.

There are victims of crime in our country who have had to wait years for their cases to come to court, who have bravely given testimony to ensure that the criminals who robbed or attacked them are convicted, and who, this week, will have to watch those criminals be bailed rather than jailed, because the prisons are too full to pass sentence against them. What message would the Attorney General like to send to those victims?

The message that I want to send to victims today is that they are very important to this Government. We want them to come forward and we want to investigate and prosecute the crimes of which they are the victims as well and as expeditiously as we can. I listened to what the Lord Chancellor had to say on Monday and I was impressed that he is putting those prison places in the right part of the system, focusing on those serving time for longer, more violent and more worrying offences, with those at the other end of the prison system—those on that revolving wheel of going in and out of prison—being treated in a different way. We want and he wants—it was clear to me that he feels this very strongly—to reduce crime, and he is making sure that the whole of the criminal justice system and the prison system works to achieve that aim.

Shockingly, according to the latest figures, more than 6,400 Crown court cases have been waiting more than two years to be heard. That is up more than two thirds on last year alone. What does the Attorney General have to say to the victims, who, to their despair, have found that their lives have been put on hold while they are waiting for justice? And what does she say to those who can no longer cope with any more delay even if that means having to let their case collapse?

I am happy to say that the hon. Gentleman and I share a local Crown prosecution area in Thames and Chiltern where the local victim attrition rate is well below the national average. It is running at about 13%. Any attrition is too high, and we want to make sure that we support victims to enable them to continue to bring their cases. That is why we have put in place about 800 independent sexual violence advisers to help those victims feel supported and able to go to trial.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a series of very distressing break-ins to small owner-manager businesses in Leighton Buzzard High Street. I know that the owners and Bedfordshire police were disappointed in the response of the CPS. Would it be possible to get the CPS together with those business owners to try to improve things in the future?

I am sorry to hear about those distressing cases. Of course, either the Solicitor General or I would be delighted to meet our hon. Friend to discuss this further.

Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting the brilliant Women’s Budget Group in Parliament for the launch of its report on gender gaps in access to civil justice. Across the board, from employment and benefits to domestic violence and housing, the report found too many women reaching crisis point before they got the help that they needed, as well as increasing numbers getting no help at all and having to represent themselves in court. Will the Attorney General raise those findings with the Justice Secretary and look at how the Government can address the disproportionate impact on women of our country’s legal aid deserts?

The right hon. Lady makes an important point. I read with interest some of the work that she had been doing with others for whom I have enormous respect in this important area. I know that she is very capable of raising those matters herself with the Justice Secretary, but I reassure her that the access of everybody to justice is very much at the top of my agenda and his.

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecution Rates

4. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (906613)

9. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (906620)

We are committed to tackling violence against women and girls, and have introduced new specific offences to target those crimes. We are steadily increasing the number of rape prosecutions. We are working on new ways to recognise the relationship between rape, domestic abuse and stalking. Close working across the system is the key to effective prosecution.

At Labour’s recent conference in Liverpool, my right hon. Friend the shadow Attorney General highlighted the shocking statistic that it is 200 times more likely for a woman to be a victim of stalking in this country than it is for her stalker to go to jail. Does the Attorney General agree that it is time that we started treating stalking with the seriousness that it deserves, including giving victims of online stalking a right to know the identity of their stalker?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue, and I reassure him that the Government are absolutely committed to helping stalking victims to bring their cases to prosecution. The Lord Chancellor has made that something of a mission during his time in the House; I remember my many years with him on the Justice Committee when he talked of little else. We are working in the CPS on new ways of ensuring that the complicated relationship between rape, domestic abuse and stalking is properly considered across the system.

Prosecution rates for violence against women and girls remain low, and that simply is not good enough. Next month, we will mark White Ribbon Day, when men show their commitment to ending violence against women and girls. What discussions has the Attorney General had with colleagues across Government about White Ribbon Day, and what more can be done to increase prosecution rates and eradicate violence against women and girls once and for all?

A great deal of work is going on across Government to tackle violence against women and girls, and I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that a great deal of really good work is happening in her area in Wales. When I visited the Cardiff office earlier this summer we had some very productive discussions about the implementation of the new CPS charging model. I encourage her to meet Jenny Hopkins, who is the chief Crown prosecutor for her specific area, to hear more about how that hard work has brought some really positive results.

Just before the recess, the then Director of Public Prosecutions gave evidence to the Justice Committee and highlighted the specific areas of work being done to improve the victim experience in relation to rape and serious sexual offences. While there is more to do, would the Attorney General accept that there has been real progress from the position even, say, 10 years ago? What is the latest position in relation to the key targets that were set from the end-to-end rape review?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and for reminding me that I should pay tribute to the outgoing DPP, Max Hill, for his five years of excellent work on our behalf prosecuting crime. I am sure that all of us across the House would like to wish him well in the next stage of his career.

On my hon. Friend’s specific question, the rape review set challenging targets. We have worked very hard across Government—the Home Office, AGs and the Ministry of Justice—on three of those targets in particular, and we are exceeding them considerably. We are in a much better place. Many more cases of rape are being prosecuted and rapists are being convicted. We need to continue to build on that progress—we will not rest on our laurels—but there has been real improvement. If anybody is a victim of rape, I encourage them to come forward. We will support them, and we will prosecute.

Solicitors: Civil Society

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the contribution of solicitors to civil society. (906614)

As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor agrees, solicitors and, indeed, all legal professionals play a vital role in upholding the rule of law. As Solicitor General, I take this opportunity to thank Government Legal Service lawyers for their exceptional work every day, often under pressure, on some of the most high-profile cases in the country.

That is all very well, but the Justice Minister denounces lawyers for parading their politics, while the Home Secretary believes that there is a racket of “lefty lawyers” undermining the law. Does the Attorney General not agree that, instead of deflecting blame from the serial ineptitude of a broken Home Office decimated by her colleagues, she should stand up for the profession as impartial arbiters of the rule of law?

The Attorney General and I often meet legal leaders across the profession both to celebrate their achievements and to hear their concerns. It is right to say that lawyers acting in the best interests of their clients should never be criticised for so doing. But it is also right to say, as the Lord Chancellor has also said, that it is the strong tradition of lawyers in this country that they simply act for their client without fear or favour and do not necessarily associate themselves with the cause. I agree 100% with the Lord Chancellor.

Mr Speaker, you have heard about the “law tour” that the Attorney General and I recently entered into. We met some lawyers in Welshpool and heard from high street solicitors about the importance of their practice, not only in Wales but on the Welsh borders. My hon. Friend should look out for more details about the law tour.

Serious Fraud Office Director

7. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the appointment of the new director of the Serious Fraud Office. (906617)

The Attorney General and I met the new director, Nick Ephgrave, yesterday and discussed the SFO’s priorities, including continuing to deliver its day-to-day mission and driving forward lasting improvements to its operations.

I have been contacted by constituents who have been victims of financial scams carried out by large organised criminal gangs, which often target the more vulnerable in our communities. What steps is the Solicitor General taking to end the scourge of these frauds and scams, and will it be a priority for the new director of the SFO?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the SFO announced a criminal investigation just last week into a suspected fraud at Safe Hands Plans, a funeral plan provider with 46,000 plan holders before its collapse last year. My hon. Friend has raised this very point during an earlier debate, and I am grateful to him for that. I am sure that he will agree that the announcement of the SFO’s investigation is a significant and welcome step.

Will the new head of the SFO take the job very seriously and look again at some of the big fraudsters and at the penalties? Will the Solicitor General ask the new director why Bernie Ecclestone did not go to prison for massive fraud against the tax system?

The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the new director. He is the right candidate for the job. He brings a wealth of experience. He will listen to what the hon. Gentleman says and to what we all say in this Chamber. He has expertise in leading large, complex and multidisciplinary law enforcement organisations, and we look forward to supporting him in his work.

His Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate inspects not only the CPS, but the SFO, so it was remiss of me earlier not to pay tribute to the inspectorate and to the chief inspector for his work.

I join the Solicitor General in welcoming Nick Ephgrave as he takes on one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement. His arrival in post was announced by the SFO abandoning the three long-running and expensive prosecutions of Rio Tinto, Eurasian Natural Resources, and the Alpha and Green Park group. That follows a chain of failed cases, from G4S and Serco to Unaoil. With permanent staff vacancies of around 25%, and a case load that has fallen by half in recent years, why should the new director think that this lame duck Government will make the SFO a hawk in the world of financial crime?

I will ignore the snide comment at the end but I will address the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which he is right to ask. It is also right to say that it is always disappointing when cases are closed, but criminal investigations that no longer meet the public interest test, as he well knows, simply cannot continue. That is the code that Crown prosecutors take, and he will understand why that is the case. It is right to trumpet the SFO’s achievements; it is also right to challenge it. I know that staff recruitment and retention will be one of the priorities for the new director.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Question Time, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that air quality in our country was improving. There is no evidence for that statement and, although I do not believe that she meant to, she misled the House.