HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc454-5
30. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What responsibilities he has to ensure that criminal investigations are not unduly prolonged. [39141]

The Attorney-General

Neither the Director of Public Prosecutions nor I have any powers or responsibility for the investigation of alleged criminal offences. The conduct of criminal investigations is a matter for the police, who have a general duty to investigate allegations as expeditiously as possible, consistent with the interests of justice.

Mr. Prentice

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer. However, he will know that, in some other common law jurisdictions, police investigations that have dragged on for a very long time are called in, perhaps after 12 months, for review by an independent body, to ascertain the reasons for that delay. Given the Attorney-General's responsibility for the Serious Fraud Office—where investigations can roll on for years and years—and the concerns expressed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and others about police corruption, in which investigations may be put on the back burner by serving police officers, would not such an independent review body be a very useful safeguard?

The Attorney-General

This matter could well be considered. However, my hon. Friend—who I know has looked into the matter—will understand the difference between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The principle underlying establishment of the CPS was to separate the investigative process from prosecution. The situation is not the same in the SFO. Moreover, matters concerning the police are for the Home Secretary. Delay at any stage in investigating alleged criminal offences is a matter that can properly be taken into account by the CPS when considering a decision on whether to prosecute. Furthermore, the courts may take account of delay in all instances in which a case is made of abuse of process.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

With regard to the Attorney-General's wider responsibilities for the enforcement of the law, does he agree that, in a civilised society, it is precisely when feelings are running very high that enforcement of the rule of law is at its most important? Although no one in the House would approve of the fact that someone who has committed an appalling crime should seek to profit from it, is it not the case that, when the court has made an order to seek to protect the innocent in those matters, everything should be done to ensure that that order of the court is not set at nought? Will the Attorney-General liaise with the Lord Chancellor and others involved in the matter to ensure that the innocent are protected when the courts intended them to be protected, and that they do not become the victims of either press frenzy or mob rule?

The Attorney-General

I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments. I agree also that the rule of law is of paramount importance specifically when feelings and passions are running as high as they are in that specific instance. The official solicitor is the child's guardian ad litem and is responsible for taking whatever action is necessary in the child's interests. I shall certainly take into account the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments and draw them to the attention of the Lord Chancellor. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I share concern for the welfare of young people. Whenever anonymity is at stake, one must do what one can to ensure that it is preserved. I am sure that the official solicitor will take into account the right hon. and learned Gentleman's observations.