HC Deb 06 November 1997 vol 300 cc391-4
33. Mr. Yeo

What are the current staffing levels of the Crown Prosecution Service; and if he will make a statement. [12646]

The Attorney-General

On 30 September 1997, the Crown Prosecution Service employed the full-time equivalent of 1,975.5 lawyers and 3,612 other staff, the majority of whom are case workers supporting lawyers at branch level to prepare cases for court.

Mr. Yeo

Is the Attorney-General aware that unless there is an immediate and substantial increase in Crown Prosecution Service staffing levels, his Government's much-vaunted aim of speeding up the workings of the criminal justice system will be just one more item on the ever-growing list of Labour's broken promises?

The Attorney-General

No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do me the favour of recalling that we stated during the election campaign that we would put to the people—as we did successfully—the policy that in at least our first couple of years in office, we would operate within the spending constraints laid down by the previous Government. Within that policy, Sir lain Glidewell is conducting his review and I am sure that he will point out any difficulties that arise from the operation of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr. Dismore

I visited my local Crown Prosecution Service branch during the summer and found there a highly motivated group of people working hard, obviously in trying circumstances. I was very pleased that when I raised a specific case, the service was prepared to review its decision and to agree to prosecute a case that it had previously not prosecuted. I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's point about the review by Sir lain Glidewell. When will it be completed?

The Attorney-General

On the first matter, I welcome very much my hon. Friend's visit to his area office of the CPS. I hope that all hon. Members, when they were given the branch reports during the summer, were invited to visit their area office, and I hope that those visits were carried out.

I am glad to know that the Crown Prosecution Service listened to my hon. Friend's representations. Ultimately, however, the service has to have regard to the independence of the prosecutor in reaching its determination. On the last matter, I hope very much that Sir lain Glidewell's report will be published in the new year.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

1 welcome what the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said about the motivation and good quality of the Crown Prosecution Service in his area. In light of the Attorney-General's decision to put more senior staff into the front line in the sense of having 43 chief Crown prosecutors—one for each police area—is he satisfied that he has sufficient staff to carry out other functions, such as caring properly for victims and witnesses, about which I am sure he would have told us if he had had the opportunity? That requires not only motivation but staff, including support staff, to assist the Crown prosecutors in court on the day. In that context, will the Attorney-General liaise with the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that there is somewhere for victims and witnesses to be cared for when the time comes?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Victim support has a high priority. I am sure that, if there are deficiencies in the CPS in terms of staff, Sir lain Glidewell and his review team will point them out. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced only recently that there will be additional money available for victim support. These are matters of great importance. Frequently, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there are practical problems in ensuring that witnesses are properly informed and properly cared for in the courts. The Lord Chancellor is fully aware of that and of the importance of carrying out obligations under the victims charter. The CPS plays an important role, with the police, in ensuring that those obligations are carried out.

34. Mr. David Heath

What plans he has to introduce local accountability in respect of the prosecution policy of the Crown Prosecution Service. [12647]

The Attorney-General

The Crown Prosecution Service is already exposed to substantial local scrutiny. Each branch, for example, now publishes its own annual report, commencing for the calendar year 1996. We are taking the process further through the reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service into 42 areas.

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer, which touches on management if not accountability. Does he, however, understand the dismay and frustration of communities, such as those in the Martock and Wincanton areas of my constituency, when high-profile police action takes place and the result is either a decision not to prosecute or, worse still, no decision on whether to prosecute after more than 12 months? Does he agree that there is a need for far greater transparency and far greater local accountability in the Crown Prosecution Service?

The Attorney-General

Matters involving the police are for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As regards local accountability, I hope very much that the reports that were published in the hon. Gentleman's area in July set out and put in the shop window the activities of the CPS in his area for the past year. He is concerned with local accountability. I know that he was invited, with all other hon. Members representing the south-west—and, it is to be hoped, other areas as well—to visit his CPS branch in July. So far, I fear that he has not replied. I hope he will do so fairly quickly.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Attorney-General agree that accountability in the Crown Prosecution Service—in which I declare a family interest—is very much dependent on the quality of the people employed in it? The quality is undoubtedly very high. If we are to have consistency between one area and another, we must obviously have a central and not a local direction.

The Attorney-General

The people at the coal face carry the primary responsibility to the public, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) who tabled the question is concerned with something greater. Whether the CPS should be a national service and whether there should be local scrutiny in the form of committees, such as a watch committee or a police committee, was debated in the House. The Philips report on that was rejected because it was felt that the paramount consideration should be the independence of the prosecutor as part of a national service.

Mr. Greenway

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just confirmed the central point about which I wanted to ask him. Will he therefore assure the House that, in whatever changes his Government decide to implement to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the CPS, its independence from local pressures will remain the central point of its operations?

The Attorney-General

I took part in the debate when the Crown Prosecution Service was set up, and made loud and clear my view that there were difficulties as regards local accountability, which were enumerated by example. It is important that local communities are aware of what is happening. It is important that there is liaison at the highest level locally with the chief constable. It is important that local communities can discuss and debate whatever is happening—hence, I hope, as an input into the public domain, the branch reports. Further than that I will not go.