HC Deb 04 June 1998 vol 313 cc499-502
29. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

What steps he is taking to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service adopts common standards across England and Wales. [42753]

The Attorney-General

The CPS issues guidance to staff to facilitate the consistent application of national standards on prosecution decisions, the consistent application of charging standards agreed with the police and agreed standards for victim and witness care.

Mr. Sheerman

Why is it that in some parts of England and Wales prosecutions take place that criminalise children who have been caught soliciting, and children exploited in that way are given a criminal record, whereas in other parts of the country the CPS and the police do not take any action, but do what they should do and go for the evil people who manipulate those children?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in home affairs generally and in this issue in particular, which he has raised in the House from time to time. I appreciate his continued concern.

I should explain that prostitution is not in itself a criminal offence; loitering or soliciting for the purposes of prostitution is a criminal offence. The overriding principle in cases involving young people is that they should be protected from harm. In such cases, the public interest may require the prosecution of a young person who persistently and voluntarily returns to prostitution; but each case is considered on its merits. If there is any particular divergence apart from that, or if my hon. Friend draws my attention to a particular case, I shall refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

The Attorney-General will know that the Glidewell report on the CPS referred to the widespread, but inaccurate, perception throughout England and Wales that the CPS constantly downgrades criminal charges and it said that a further study is required, but the CPS has already had to cope with a year's uncertainty waiting for the report. What does the right hon. and learned Gentleman intend to do about that recommendation and how much would a further study cost?

The Attorney-General

As the hon. and learned Gentleman, whom I welcome to the Opposition Front Bench in his new capacity, knows, the Government have accepted the broad thrust of Glidewell, which contains 75 recommendations in all. Unhappily, the CPS and Court Service statistics and, in some instances, the Home Office statistics, do not correlate, so further work is needed to get the basis of concern right. Sir Iain and his colleagues expressed concern and advocated further study.

Sir Iain noted that there were variations in discontinuances as between different offences. The Government as a whole, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I must consider how we approach the matter. We have invited anyone concerned to make representations by 31 July and I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) to do so. We shall take all the representations into account when determining the best means of proceeding, because there is a great deal of concern about the matter.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell me whether, as part of the reorganisation following the Glidewell report, it will be possible for judges who are concerned about particular aspects of cases that come before them automatically to have the right to report that information, over the head of the CPS, to Ministers?

The Attorney-General

The appointment of judges is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention. Judges have always been forthright in bringing into the public domain their criticism and concern about cases, from the highest to the lowest.

30. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What percentage of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by the police resulted in (a) prosecutions and (b) convictions in the last year. [42754]

The Attorney-General

During the year ending March 1998, the Crown Prosecution Service dealt with cases in respect of 1,354,208 defendants in the magistrates courts. It proceeded with 1,097,147 of those cases, amounting to 81 per cent. of the total. Convictions for the same period totalled 953,753 defendants, representing 98.1 per cent. of all cases proceeding to a hearing.

In the Crown court, proceedings were completed in respect of 105,083 defendants, of which 95,721 were proceeded with. That amounts to 91.1 per cent. of the total cases. In the Crown court, 87,273 convictions were recorded, representing 90.6 per cent. of all cases proceeding to a hearing.

Mr. Fabricant

I thank the Attorney-General for that detailed reply. Does he accept that there is concern among beat officers in the Staffordshire police and, I know, in other forces throughout the country that those high conviction rates—98.1 per cent. and 91.1 per cent., representing an average of over 90 per cent.—could be leading the Crown Prosecution Service to continue with prosecution only if it thinks that there is a high possibility of conviction? Is he aware that many beat officers who suffer assaults, albeit minor ones, feel that their cases are not proceeding to court simply because the CPS wants to maintain a high conviction average, rather than ensure that justice is done? Will the Glidewell report improve the situation for those police officers?

The Attorney-General

There is concern and, over the years, my postbag has, like the hon. Gentleman's, contained correspondence about the concerns of victims, families and the police. I have given the House general figures, which include the high number of uncontested cases. For contested cases, in the year ending March 1998, convictions were recorded in 74.5 per cent. of contested hearings in magistrates courts and 59.8 per cent. of contested hearings in the Crown court. The hon. Gentleman may want to reflect on that, because those are the figures with which we should be particularly concerned.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

It was not clear whether the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) was referring directly to discontinuances; perhaps I might ask my right hon. and learned Friend about what the Glidewell report says about discontinuances. Is he alarmed that in the past separate statistics for discontinuances have not been kept and that there has been no significant analysis of regional variations in discontinuation rates? Should not the public be reassured that cases that should be prosecuted are prosecuted and that those that should not are never even started?

The Attorney-General

Sir Iain Glidewell and his team were very disappointed that they were not able to reach conclusions about that because of the problem of the variety of statistics, to which I referred earlier. Obviously, my hon. Friend will examine the details in the report, as will the House. On discontinuances, the report noted that there was a variation between offences. For some offences involving violence against the person, there was a higher rate of discontinuance than for offences such as motoring offences. That variation caused concern, and the team reflected on the matter and suggested that there should be a further study, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) mentioned, and that in cases of doubt and difficulty a second opinion should be obtained within the prosecuting authority.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

Does the Attorney-General agree that the percentage of convictions in contested cases in the Crown court could and should be improved by simple measures? First, there should be higher salaries for CPS lawyers. Secondly, and most important, there should be less form filling and paperwork for those involved in the service. Thirdly, wherever possible, the CPS headquarters should be near the courts where the service operates.

The Attorney-General

I know of the hon. Gentleman's experience, both judicially and in practice. What will help is a better interface between the CPS and the police, and Sir Iain makes detailed suggestions about the best way to integrate the two. The Home Secretary and I must study them carefully. The views of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the police will be very important in that respect. They have said that they welcome the move to the 42 areas, in which there will be a chief Crown prosecutor who will be akin to the chief constable. I very much appreciate their reaction.

On form filling, Sir Iain found that there was over-centralisation, undue bureaucracy and insufficient autonomy to the chief Crown prosecutors. I hope that, with the appointment of a chief Crown prosecutor in each area, and with real devolution and a slimming down of headquarters, we can achieve what the hon. Gentleman and I agree is necessary.