HC Deb 19 February 1998 vol 306 cc1178-82
30. Mr. Gareth Thomas

When he expects to receive the Glidewell report on the future of the Crown Prosecution Service.[28775]

The Attorney-General (Mr. John Morris)

I expect to receive the report in March.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that concise response. Does he agree that the move towards a more localised and less bureaucratic system of prosecution is long overdue?

The Attorney-General

Yes, and that is why we have already decided to reorganise the Crown Prosecution Service into 42 areas. We wish to continue with that and to improve liaison between the police and the CPS. The broad concept is of a localised, national service with as much devolution as practicable to each locality.

31. Mr. Baker

What progress he is making with his review of the Crown Prosecution Service. [28776]

The Attorney-General

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr. Thomas).

Mr. Baker

I recently visited the CPS office in Eastbourne which serves my constituency, and was surprised by the tight financial constraints under which it operates. Is that why a whole class of minor offences such as vandalism and so on are apparently not being pursued for prosecution? My constituents are worried about the fact that minor crimes do not result in prosecutions. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider that in his review?

The Attorney-General

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman visited the Eastbourne office on 8 February. He raised a number of issues and there was a fruitful discussion.

The hon. Gentleman asks about minor offences. Sir Iain Glidewell will consider that issue as part of his review of the CPS. I will need to consider the findings of that review and any implications that his recommendations may have for the exercise of prosecutable functions.

Mr. Cranston

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about one aspect of the Glidewell inquiry—the role of child witnesses? Is the inquiry addressing that important issue, particularly the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service handles child witnesses?

The Attorney-General

Before I answer my hon. Friend's question, I must congratulate him on being elevated to a bencher of my own Inn.

I can only speak for the Crown Prosecution Service. I am pleased to say that the CPS published a review of the subject on 28 January, which considered cases involving child witnesses. It found good-quality advice and review, improved processing times, increased use of transfer proceedings to ensure the swift progression of cases, a good working relationship between agencies and motivated and committed staff. It also identified some areas for improvement and the CPS will work to bring that about.

I am reasonably confident that that comes well within the purview of the Glidewell review. I am sure that those carrying out the review will share my hon. Friend's concern and the concern that I feel, having appeared in some such cases. My experience is that the system does its best. There may be room for improvement to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are protected.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Since the Attorney-General has linked the two questions, would it be fair to assume that he is not making any progress with his review of the Crown Prosecution Service pending delivery of Sir Iain Glidewell's report? Can he tell the House, pending receipt of that report, what the 42 Crown prosecutors that he appointed for each area last May, are doing? On a specific matter, will he bring the House up to date about the steps he is taking to implement the Government's policy on fasttracking for cases of young offenders?

The Attorney-General

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the decision was taken fairly soon after the Government took office to set up the 42 areas. It had been hoped to make progress with formal appointments by the end of the year. Sir Iain Glidewell indicated during the autumn that, such was the nature of his inquiry, he thought it would be wrong to go ahead with appointments at that stage before his full report had been published. He was most anxious in his interim discussions to ensure that there were persons of the right calibre to carry the kind of local decisions that he regarded as important to devolve from headquarters. That is why that happened. In the meantime, those units are working in close liaison with the police areas. I hope that we will be able to make progress during the year and that there will be further progress after the publication of the Glidewell report.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Will the Attorney-General answer the second part of my question about fasttracking for young offenders?

The Attorney-General

I am sorry about that. There were a number of points in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question.

On fasttracking, we have adopted in substance the Narey report and many of the proposals are in the Crime and Disorder Bill, which I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been burning the midnight oil while studying. That will be a major factor in ensuring the speedier appearance before our courts of persons generally and youngsters in particular. There have been innovations in many parts of the country where the time taken to bring young offenders to court has been substantially shortened during the past few months.

Mr. Sheerman

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that, when we have a Crown Prosecution Service that is closer to the community, it will stop prosecuting and criminalising children accused of prostitution? Those under the age of consent are brought before the law and sentenced, giving them a criminal record when they are still children, while the pimps who run them and the punters who hire their services are not prosecuted. When will my right hon. and learned Friend stop the nonsense of prosecuting children and criminalising them when they are not even old enough to give assent to sex?

The Attorney-General

I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern. Individual decisions on prosecuting must be taken by the Crown Prosecution Service. The responsibility of the CPS is to consider the evidential test—whether the evidence is there—and to examine with great care in each case the public interest test on whether a prosecution should be continued. If my hon. Friend has a particular case to bring to my attention, I shall ensure that the CPS is made aware of it.

32. Mr. Burnett

What plans he has to increase the number of lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service. [28777]

The Attorney-General

I have asked Sir Iain Glidewell to examine the organisation and structure of the CPS and to make recommendations that take account of the need to operate within existing provision. He will no doubt consider whether a redistribution of resources is necessary.

Mr. Burnett

In the light of evidence recently given by the Director of Public Prosecutions to the Public Accounts Committee that many barristers return briefs to the CPS at the last minute, at the outset of the trial, causing chaos to the criminal justice system, will the Attorney-General or the DPP review the policy on the appointment of barristers to do Crown work? If so, when will that review be completed and published?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman has rightly alerted the House to a matter that is causing concern to the CPS. Mechanisms were set up in 1996. Since then, because of continued dissatisfaction, there has been an agreement with the Bar that there should be a monitoring service to examine the situation in each set of chambers, month by month. That came into effect on 2 February this year. Every six months there will be discussions between branches and the heads of chambers to see what can be done about the late return of briefs.

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Bar and solicitors are frequently at the mercy of the timetabling of the courts. One cannot anticipate with any precision, to put it mildly, when the case in front will finish. Those are some of the problems. Having said that, no doubt there is considerable room for improvement.

Mr. Kidney

Before the CPS considers taking on more lawyers, should we not examine how to make best use of the lawyers that it already has? Could we not do that by rationalising the rights of audience? Does my right hon. and learned Friend really support a situation in which briefs go out to private barristers, often to be returned very late, while there are solicitors in the CPS with limited rights of audience in the Crown court and barristers with none?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is essential that the rights of audience be resolved. I remind the House that my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is committed to a full examination of the rights of audience. I hope that there will be some expedition on that.

Mr. Hawkins

Will the Attorney-General bear in mind the fact that the work load of many Crown Prosecution Service lawyers is already very heavy? Last Friday, I visited the Guildford headquarters of the south-east branch of the CPS and spoke to the chief crown prosecutor there, Christopher Nicholls, who said that, certainly in Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Hampshire, CPS lawyers were already fully committed. I also spoke to several CPS lawyers when they came back from court late that afternoon, and it was clear that their work load was extremely heavy.

Will the Attorney-General encourage Sir Iain Glidewell to consider their work load in his report and in particular the problem caused by the routing of cases? Will he liaise with his colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that cases from Surrey are not transferred on a regular basis to the Old Bailey?

The Attorney-General

I will ensure that the Lord Chancellor is made aware of the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question. As for the first part of his question, having been a practitioner up to 1 May, I am conscious of the great pressures on CPS lawyers and of how hard they work. The problem is in ensuring that a distinction can be made between their managerial and their legal functions. It is one matter that Sir Iain Glidewell will be examining closely. It will certainly be within his terms of reference to consider the impression that too much lawyers' time is taken up in management. If lawyers could be freed from that, they would have more time better to do their work in the courts.