HC Deb 11 March 1999 vol 327 cc493-5
26. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

What is the breakdown of the reasons for cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service not resulting in prosecution in the most recent year for which figures are available. [74107]

The Attorney-General (Mr. John Morris)

Information available locally about the reasons for cases not resulting in a prosecution in the magistrates court is not collated centrally by the Crown Prosecution Service.

In the Crown court, the latest available figures show that 9.4 per cent. of cases do not proceed. In more than one third of those cases, the absence or refusal of a witness to give evidence is the cause. Other significant causes include the existence of other proceedings that may mean the public interest is not served by further prosecution and doubts about the evidence or medical factors.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

I thank the Attorney-General for those comments. Does he accept the recommendations in Sir Iain Glidewell's report, which call for a common approach to the collection of statistics by the criminal justice agencies? Does he accept also that it is only when that common approach is adopted that the House will be able to assess accurately the performance of the CPS and address concerns with regard to the levels of discontinuance?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We inherited an unsatisfactory situation, and we are determined to weld the criminal justice system into a properly integrated and coherent unit. I shall report to the House about that in due course.

As to the CPS power to discontinue, I can provide substantial reassurance to my hon. Friend—particularly in relation to discontinuance on public interest grounds, where criticism has focused. Of the CPS case load of 1.4 million defendants, public interest discontinuance on the grounds of small or nominal penalty accounts for about 25,000 cases a year, or less than 2 per cent. The figures also should be viewed in the wider context. For every 100 offences committed, 46 are reported, 23 are recorded, five are cleared up under current counting methods, and fewer than three are cautioned or presented to the CPS for prosecution. The 2 per cent. figure must be applied to the figure of three in order to put the CPS discontinuance into perspective.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

My question does not imply any criticism of the Director of Public Prosecutions, in whom I believe there is widespread confidence, but does the Attorney-General believe that there should be greater openness in the appointment of judges and senior legal figures? Furthermore, does he believe that we should have an appointments commission with public hearings not only for the appointment of judges but for other sensitive appointments, such as Director of Public Prosecutions?

The Attorney-General

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the DPP. The appointment of judges is a matter for the Lord Chancellor. The appointment of the DPP was done with the utmost transparency. The post of director was advertised; the appointments board was chaired by the First Civil Service Commissioner, and other permanent secretaries sat on the interviewing board. Ultimately, the decision was mine.

The appointment of 42 chief Crown prosecutors was announced on Monday. Those posts were also advertised, and many people applied. That process is very transparent, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

I am sure that the House will be extremely concerned to hear my right hon. and learned Friend say that up to a quarter of cases are discontinued because victims of crime are intimidated into silence or afraid to speak out. Will the Attorney-General tell the House what steps the Government are taking to protect those vulnerable witnesses, including victims of crime?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that my hon. Friend reads very carefully the number of discontinuances, which is small compared to the totality of the crimes that are prosecuted by the CPS. However, that matter will continue to be investigated through joint management performance indicators to ensure that difficulties with evidence or availability of witnesses are considered locally.

On the vulnerability of witnesses, last June, the Government published a document called, "Speaking up for Justice", which made some 70 valuable recommendations about witnesses. They are being dealt with by a supervising body on which the CPS is represented, and those measures that require legislation are included in part II of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill.

The CPS, with other agencies, is locally implementing many measures, including prioritising in appropriate cases, providing special waiting rooms and the use of suitable courtrooms where the witness does not have to face the defendant or public gallery and pre-court familiarisation visits. Those are just a few measures that are being taken to protect vulnerable witnesses.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am sure that the Attorney-General, to whom we are grateful for his answers so far, is anxious to be as transparent as possible about this matter. He will recall that discontinuances have averaged 11 or 12 per cent. since the CPS was set up. Will he clarify for the House what is the current overall level of discontinuances?

We welcome the 42 new chief Crown prosecutors for each police area. An assistant chief Crown prosecutor has also been appointed in London. We recall that Glidewell—and I believe, the Attorney-General himself—said that their objective was to match chief constables. However, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman considers their salary levels and the number of people that they have at their command, compared to the police, does he accept that they will need the full support of the DPP—which I am sure they will receive—and the Law Officers, if they are to come to grips in a friendly and constructive way with the police to overcome the problems that still exist in the interface between the two services?

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that there is still a great deal of work to be done on that interface. I assure him that the candidates for the 42 posts offered very strong applications. The salaries offered had a degree of flexibility, and do not seem to have inhibited applications—certainly not from within the CPS. I am very conscious that, if they had been even higher and were able to compete with those commanded outside the CPS, there might have been even more applications.

The number of prosecutions dropped in the Crown court rose by 15.5 per cent. to 8,680. Proportionally, that represented an increase of 7.2 per cent. of completed cases in the Crown court to 9.4 per cent. I am advised that part of the reason is, first, plea before venue procedures, which have obviously changed the format of earlier stages of the case. As a result of that alone, more straightforward cases have been diverted from the Crown court to finalisation in a magistrates court. Secondly, in part, the abolition of old-style committals has removed the opportunity of testing witnesses until the case has reached the Crown court, which means that a large number of cases have been dropped owing to witnesses failing to attend or to come up to proof.