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Crown Prosecution Service: Victims of Crime

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What role is being played by the Crown Prosecution Service in offering support to victims of crime.

My Lords, prosecutors have an essential responsibility in putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. A number of steps have been taken to make that a reality. The prosecutors’ pledge makes a series of specific commitments about the way in which prosecutors communicate with victims of crime throughout the life of a case. A new Crown Prosecution Service leaflet explains how it will deliver the pledge, and other prosecuting authorities have introduced similar commitments.

My Lords, I welcome that pledge and the way that we are giving more attention to the victims of crime, because often the courts seem to be there for lawyers, magistrates, judges and others but not for the victims. However, will my noble and learned friend do more for people who are caught up in an anti-social behaviour case that ends up in court? The anti-social behaviour aspects of crime and disorder cause more stress to society than some other crimes whose rates are dropping quite significantly.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that anti-social behaviour affects a large number of people. The most serious crimes are very important, but they do not directly affect so many. I agree that it is important to do all that we can to deal with victims of that crime. Many of the initiatives that we have introduced—direct communication with victims, witness care units, guidelines on acceptance of pleas and the victims’ code—take account of those issues. However, I will bear in mind what he said about those people.

My Lords, the shareholders of Enron could claim to be victims of crime. Will the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General tell us why the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to prosecute the NatWest Three and to have them extradited to the US to be prosecuted there?

My Lords, the position, which has been explained before, is that a decision was made by United States prosecutors to investigate the matter. The allegation—I emphasise that it is an allegation and that nothing has been proved—was that there had been a conspiracy between three British bankers and two co-conspirators who were Enron executives to take a sum of money from Enron, which is alleged to be a total of $30 million, part of which went into the pockets of those three.

There was never any complaint in this country to the SFO about that case. The United States investigated and produced evidence in relation to the case and asked for extradition. The British courts were then asked to review the decision by the SFO not to prosecute. They looked at that in detail and rejected the allegations. Therefore, the extradition goes ahead.

My Lords, one group of people who really are victims of crime are women who suffer from domestic violence. My noble and learned friend will be aware of the improvements that have been made, certainly since 1997, to counter it, but could he indicate what further support and help will be given to local police forces to counter what is still a very serious problem? It is a problem that occurred very seriously throughout the period of the World Cup.

My Lords, I do not know the statistics about the last point, but it would not entirely surprise me if that were right. I agree with my noble friend that this is an area on which we need to concentrate. A great deal has been done to gear up our response to domestic violence. Local police forces have been very much involved in that work. There are special co-ordinators who deal with domestic violence, and the courts take a different approach to it. I shall be happy to discuss with my noble friend outside the Chamber the particular steps that she would like to be taken, what more she would like to be done and whether that is possible.

My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord has taken the opportunity to talk very fully on the extradited three, could he tell us whether they are going to get bail and when we might know a decision on that?

My Lords, I did not take the opportunity. I was asked a question and thought that it was right for me to answer it—I had no intention of coming forward on that otherwise. I hope that noble Lords will think that I have at least attempted while on my feet to deal with an issue that, I know, is of public concern.

As the Prime Minister announced in PMQs yesterday, I have spoken with my counterpart in the United States to ask what their approach to bail is, and he has confirmed to me that US prosecutors will not oppose bail for the three individuals. There is the question of conditions for bail, which will have to be set and which will be for the court to set or for them to agree. That is all that I can tell the noble Lord at this stage. I hope that the House will think it helpful that I have given that information.

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend assure us not only that the rights of the victim will be taken into consideration but that proper and adequate punishment will be administered to those who are guilty of anti-social behaviour, which bothers so many people in this country? Can he assure us that the Government will not follow the Conservative Party down the philosophy of hugging a hoodie but rather will lock them up for misbehaviour, if that is what they deserve?

My Lords, everybody who is guilty of misbehaviour should be considered for an appropriate sanction if they have committed a criminal offence. I think that it is enormously important that this Government have recognised that anti-social behaviour, although it often simply concerns offences at the low end of the criminal justice calendar, can be hugely distressful to people and make people’s lives an absolute misery. The respect action plan that the Government have produced and in which prosecutors play a key part is essential to that. One thing that we have done is to have specialist anti-social behaviour prosecutors who help with others to deal with the challenge to which my noble friend refers.

My Lords, does the Crown Prosecution Service have instructions to supervise or control victim impact statements that are read out in court or, as is intended, victims speaking openly in court? The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will appreciate that anything that is said in court is subject to absolute privilege and may be reported in the press. I have come across some outrageous and untruthful things that were said in victim impact statements in order to influence the judge to pass a more severe sentence.

My Lords, I recognise a bit of a conflict here. First, it is important that the impact of an offence on a victim is understood by the court—not the victim’s views on what the sentence should be but the impact on the victim. I see a huge number of statements in my role looking at the sentences that have been passed, and some of them are very moving and plainly need to be taken into account. The judges need to see them, and prosecutors need to make sure that they have seen them. It will ultimately be for the court to control what is said. But there is another side to this—that defendants through their advocates often say in court things that are hugely distressful for the victims. They will allege, “I only did this because she led me on”. It is important in those circumstances that the victims, too, can come back through prosecuting counsel and say, “That is not acceptable”. That is one thing that I included in the guidelines that I issued to prosecutors last year—that must always be considered.