HC Deb 04 December 2003 vol 415 cc644-7
20. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the recruitment and retention of staff, with particular reference to prosecutors. [141776]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps to improve recruitment and retention of staff, particularly lawyers, which has resulted in a 26 per cent. increase in the number of lawyers in the CPS since 2001.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Will she accept my sincere tribute to her personally for her hard work and the committed attempts that she has made to raise working-life standards in the CPS? I especially draw attention to her commitment to the training of non-legal staff so that they can obtain qualifications that enable them to aspire to go on to become prosecutors. Is not that the best way to improve working conditions in the CPS and to aid recruitment and retention?

The Solicitor-General

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments and I will pass them on to those in the CPS who have worked on the CPS law scholarship programme. We want to ensure that administrative and clerical employees in the CPS have the prospect of becoming lawyers if they have the interest, potential and capacity to do so. That is what the CPS law scholarship scheme will do. We originally planned to have 213 CPS law scholars; this year—the first year of the scheme—we have 231. That is good not only for the CPS but for the legal profession, as it will reform the profession from the bottom up.

21. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

What progress has been made on improving the co-ordination between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. [141777]

The Solicitor-General

Proper co-ordination between the police and the CPS is vital at all levels. At ministerial level, the Attorney-General and I work with our ministerial colleagues in the Home Office. In Essex, the chief crown prosecutor, John Bell, and the chief constable work together as part of the local criminal justice board. The police and the CPS work together on the front line as a prosecution team in Essex.

Bob Spink

The right hon. and learned Lady is having a very good morning, as I, too, shall congratulate her on her answer. I thank her for her answer and congratulate the Government on their initiative. The CPS in Essex is running the only whole-county pilot and has shown how valuable such a scheme can be. Will she join me in congratulating Essex CPS, and will she roll out the pilot scheme across the whole country so that other areas can benefit from it.

The Solicitor-General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations, which are justly deserved by the prosecution team in Essex. The team warmly welcomes his interest in its work. I know that he has been to Southend and Chelmsford and paid close attention to that work. It is important that everyone works together in the criminal justice system. The police, the CPS and the courts all have their separate roles, and each is independent, but they must all work together.

As hon. Members are being so nice to me, I am getting worried that people might think this is turning into something of a resignation session, so may I invite the next questioner to launch an attack on me?

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab)

I will not take up my right hon. and learned Friend's request to launch an attack on her.

The new justice centre being built in my constituency will house the police, the CPS, and the probation and victim support services. That is the way things should be in the future. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will come and have a look at the centre. What input is her Department having into that exciting new scheme?

The Solicitor-General

As my hon. Friend knows, we very much support the new all-in-one justice centre in Nuneaton, and the CPS is very much part of it. I visited the centre at the very outset, but I should like to keep up with progress there. It is important that people do not have to go from pillar to post, as it is sometimes quite difficult for them—and especially for victims and witnesses—to find their way around the system. If we want to deter people from committing offences, and to know that the justice system is working properly, that is the way to do it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

Is the CPS working with the police to develop clear guidelines on prejudicial publicity, given the impact that it might have on failed prosecutions or the fairness of trials? That applies particularly to the police, and perhaps to members of the Home Office ministerial team. Why does the Attorney-General intervene so rarely in matters of prejudicial publicity? When is he going to do a better job in that respect?

The Solicitor-General

When complaints are made that reports or comments might prejudice a fair trial, the Attorney-General always acts on them. He always investigates such complaints, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that he always makes the right decision about what to do. In each case, a balance has to be struck between the need for free speech, an open press and a right to know, and the need to ensure that defendants can have a fair trial. That is the ring that the Attorney-General holds. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how the Attorney-General has acted in any individual case, perhaps he will let me know.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that CPS staff are based in Cardiff's Rumney police station? Does she agree that that means that there is a much better chance that charging standards are got right, especially in cases of assault?

The Solicitor-General

I agree with my hon. Friend that it certainly does. In the past, the problem has been that the police have investigated a matter and charged someone, after which the case has been sent to the CPS. A CPS lawyer has then looked at the case and reviewed it, and decided either to change or downgrade the charge, or to drop the case altogether. That process built disappointment into the system for people who thought that their case was going ahead, only to discover that there was not sufficient evidence. The work that my hon. Friend has described means that CPS staff are able to advise the police right at the start of the process, and will ultimately bring the charges themselves. Right from the outset, therefore, the system will be fairer—for both defendants and victims, because a case will either be going to trial in court, or not.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

I was going to say that I intended to treat the right hon. and learned Lady far more gently than has been the case with the Home Secretary and his spin doctors over the past 24 hours, but in view of her earlier anxieties about what might happen to her career if she is not treated more harshly, that might not be the right thing to say.

I return to the important question about the Home Secretary and his expressions of view when arrests take place. It is not merely a question of whether that might be a contempt of court, or prejudicial to a fair trial. The problem is that it could lead to the embarrassing possibility that it is suggested in court that a fair trial might be prejudiced. Does the Solicitor-General agree that every Minister, and the Home Secretary in particular, ought to have that very much in mind before they express any view on a matter that is subject to police investigation?

The Solicitor-General

Everyone—that includes absolutely everyone—must have in mind the issue of whether it will be possible for somebody to get a fair trial. That is the case. The role of the Attorney-General is to ensure that that happens and to enforce the law of contempt if a fair trial is not possible because it has been prejudiced.