HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc1013-4
4. Helen Southworth (Warrington. South)

What assessment she has made of the recommendation of Lord Justice Auld that the charges against defendants should be decided by the Crown Prosecution Service rather than the police. [40758]

The Solicitor-General

Sir Robin Auld's review of the criminal courts, published in October 2001, proposed that the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than the police, should have responsibility for determining the charge against defendants except in minor or routine cases. This is to ensure that the right suspect is brought to court with the right charge and the right evidence.

Helen Southworth

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. In her opinion, is it more likely that allegations of domestic violence will proceed to court in cases where the Crown Prosecution Service was involved in the charging?

The Solicitor-General

It is sometimes thought that the police think, "Perhaps we should not put this case forward to the prosecution because it might drop the case. Therefore, there is no point." It might be that it is not clear about which are the best charges or what the best evidence is.

There are five pilot schemes, and we are examining how the prosecution can take forward charges rather than the police. The schemes will show whether by working together at a local level we can have the right charges and a better outcome. In difficult cases, such as domestic violence or where there is an element of racial aggravation, it is important to get the charges right at the outset. There is nothing more demoralising for victims than to see downgraded the charge as laid, or for it to be dropped altogether. The work that has been done in Halifax, for example, shows that the process has been taken forward successfully.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The Prime Minister said yesterday that crime rates had fallen under the current Government since 1997, but that is simply not the case in my constituency and many others. Much of that failure relates to the manner in which criminal charges are brought against defendants. Does not the Solicitor-General agree that the indictment by the recent inspectorate report on the CPS established the existence of understaffing and weak management—yet another failure on public services by this Government—and, furthermore, that the CPS fails to respond to defence correspondence and to disclose evidence? Did she note in last week's edition of The Sunday Times the remarks of the defence lawyer who said with regard to CPS failures: As a defence lawyer, I think it is great. As a taxpayer, it is disgraceful"? In other words, criminals are walking free and the Prime Minister was wrong.

The Solicitor-General

That particular issue concerns a defence lawyer who was trying to drum up business for himself and, more importantly, to plug the book that he had recently published. None the less, the hon. Gentleman made some serious points about the historic understaffing of the CPS, which has had insufficient lawyers and administration staff, and the fact that improvements have been needed. The inspectorate reports show that those improvements are under way. I refer him to the evidence that the Director of Public Prosecutions gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs last month. which could allow us to have cautious optimism that we will get the independent, fair and effective prosecution system that he and I both want.