HC Deb 03 March 2004 vol 418 cc899-910

12. 30 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)(urgent question)

To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement on his role in relation to the Crown Prosecution Service and on its renaming to delete reference to the Crown.

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer this question.

As Minister responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service, the Attorney-General has initiated and is leading a substantial programme of development and reform of the CPS. The Home Secretary fully supports that programme, particularly the closer working between the CPS and the police that it involves. Some months ago, the Attorney-General first raised the question of whether, to reflect that programme of change and reform, the name of the Crown Prosecution Service should be changed. Further discussions are under way. The Attorney-General is making a statement on that in another place this afternoon.

Mr. Grieve

I thank the Solicitor-General for that extremely brief statement, but frankly, I am sorry to see her at the Dispatch Box. The question was specifically put to the Home Secretary, because it is what he said yesterday that requires scrutiny by, and an answer to be given to, this House. It was the Home Secretary who made the comment on the Crown Prosecution Service. In the same speech, he refereed to ensuring that magistrates and district judges hold public meetings to be influenced in their decisions as judges.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett) indicated assent.

Mr. Grieve

I note that the Home Secretary nods with approval

Will the Solicitor-General confirm that neither matter to which I have referred is the Home Secretary's departmental responsibility? Or are we to understand, from yesterday's comments, that there has in fact been a substantial change of policy on this matter? Were the Home Secretary's remarks approved by the Attorney-General and, for that matter—in relation to the judiciary—by the Lord Chancellor prior to being made?

Does the Solicitor-General agree with me that the Home Secretary and the Home Office should have no departmental role in the operation of the Crown Prosecution Service or the judiciary because of the risk of political interference? Is it not for the Attorney-General, through his oversight, to protect the independence of the CPS and for the Lord Chancellor to do so in relation to the judiciary? If so, what are the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General doing about that, in relation to what they have said to the Home Secretary on this matter?

What is the background to the proposal on the CPS? The principle in this country is t hat the Crown is the font of all justice, independent of politics. Prosecutions are brought in the name of the Crown precisely to emphasise that point. A prosecutor, as I well remember, is reminded at the outset that his role is not partisan, but is that of a minister of justice. How does that square with the Home Secretary's comments that he wants the prosecutors to be on the side of the public? The Solicitor-General might have no difficulty agreeing with me that the public interest and the interest of a neighbourhood might not be one and the same.

Why has there been neither an announcement nor any consultation whatever with Parliament on the proposals? Why was the Queen not informed of what the Government have proposed on such an important change?

We learn today that, in response, the Government's spokesman to the Lobby gave the impression that the Government were now retreating on their proposal on the Crown Prosecution Service, emphasising that it was only an idea at the earliest stages of consultation. Will the Solicitor-General please tell the House who is right: the Home Secretary in his utterances yesterday or the Government's spokesman this morning? The House is entitled to know how the matter stands.

The diminution of the role of the Crown is all of a piece with other Government proposals relating to the Prison Service, where officers who derive from the Crown their power to detain are going to lose their—

Mr. Blunkett

No they are not. The hon. Gentleman should not read the Express.

Mr. Grieve

The Home Secretary intervenes from a sedentary position. If he were answering this question—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Home Secretary will have to be quiet. The shadow Solicitor-General is asking a question.

Mr. Grieve

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry that the Home Secretary has not taken the opportunity to answer this question. We shall not have the benefit of his words.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that the problem with all these proposals is that they risk undermining the independence of the judicial system and the administration of justice? They will also undermine the Crown in its central role of ensuring the non-politicisation of the system of justice and, in the process, they will undermine our freedoms. Is it not significant that these comments come at a time when the Home Secretary is seeking vastly to extend his powers into the judicial system by a number of means? They include the removal of judicial scrutiny of asylum cases and the substitution of an administrative system, the desire that judges should conform to his ideas, and the removal of the ability of the Lords of Appeal and the Lord Chief Justice to speak in Parliament. Is it not the case that what is now happening—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Grieve

I am asking a question.

Mr. Speaker

I know that the hon. Gentleman is asking a question, and I am listening. What I am trying to say is that the question is too long—[Interruption.] Order. An urgent question should be an extension of Question Time. The hon. Gentleman is putting such a long series of questions that I must now stop him. I call the Solicitor-General.

The Solicitor-General

I have sought to answer this question because the hon. Gentleman asked about the Crown Prosecution Service. I therefore thought that it would be helpful to him and to the House for me to answer it, as the Attorney-General is responsible for superintending the Crown Prosecution Service. That is why I am here at the Dispatch Box.

I should like to make it clear that there is no risk of politicisation of the Crown Prosecution Service. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he is no more committed than the Attorney-General or me to the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service or to its carrying out its work in the public interest according to the code of Crown prosecutors. We stand by that and defend it, as the hon. Gentleman would expect us to. I think he knows that. The question then is whether it is right for Ministers responsible for the police to work together with Ministers responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service, and for them in turn to work together with the Ministers responsible for the courts. Of course it makes sense for there to be a partnership. We have argued, as has the hon. Gentleman, for good partnership at local level between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, in the public interest and the interest of justice. The hon. Gentleman has been a supporter of that principle, which I welcome.

It is right, too, that this principle should be embodied at area level, through the local criminal justice boards, which we have often discussed in the House. That involves a partnership between chief constables, chief Crown prosecutors and those responsible for the magistrates courts and Crown courts. That, too, is part of the partnership in the public interest and the interest of justice. Of course, people have their own independent responsibilities within that. Nothing changes that, but it is right that they should work in partnership. Just as we are asking people to work in partnership at local and area level, so it must be right that the Ministers responsible for those different agencies work together. That is what has happened.

The hon. Gentleman made a great many other points. He asked why the Home Secretary said what he did. The answer is that he was asked a question. If the Home Secretary is asked a question, it is right that he should answer it. I would point out —[Interruption.] He was asked a question when he was engaged in a consultation. He was making a wide-ranging speech and he was asked a question that relates to an issue on which the Attorney-General has the lead. He was quite right to answer; it would have been very odd if he had not done so, so he answered.

Conservative Members are in danger of getting ahead of themselves, so perhaps I might remind them that there has been discussion of this matter for some time. There is a broad-ranging programme of reform, with which the House has been involved, such as proposals for the criminal justice system under which the Crown Prosecution Service should take over from the police the responsibility of charging. That involves prosecutors working with the police in police stations. That was in the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

The House was involved in discussing that as well as in discussing the opportunity for prosecutors to be able to appeal against terminal rulings.[Interruption.] Conservative Members wonder why I am raising these points, but I am trying to explain that those are the building blocks of a programme of improvement and change in the Crown Prosecution Service that will make it a self-confident prosecutor in the public interest in all areas. [HON. MEMBERS: "Make a statement about it. "] Conservative Members say that we should make a statement, but this has been discussed at Solicitor-General's questions. Such issues have been discussed in Committee and in the House.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

What about the name change?

The Solicitor-General

I will come back to the name change. Conservative Members should bear with me, because the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised many more questions in addition to the name change. I think it right that I should try to answer those. I am not trying to avoid the issue of the name change, but I have been asked many other questions.

I understand that prisons will remain known as Her Majesty's prisons, but, as a means to bring together the probation service and the Prison Service, the overall service that employs those who work in probation and in prisons will be called the National Offender Management Service.

Mr. Duncan

Name change?

Mr. Speaker

Order The hon. Gentleman should not shout across the Chamber. I call David Heath.

Mr. Duncan

But what about the name change?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I tell you, Mr. Duncan, that you are defying the Chair. You will not do that. I call David Heath.

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

I also regret the fact that the Home Secretary is not apparently accountable for his words when he interferes with the business of another Department of State.

I believe that there is a case for the name change proposed for the Crows Prosecution Service, if not least to bring it in line with the nomenclature of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a post that, after all, we have had for 124 years. Indeed, there is a case to be made for increased transparency and effectiveness on behalf of the service. However, is it not important to differentiate between the activities of the prosecution and the judiciary and those of the Executive and the state? Is that not an important differentiation, which is made by the use of the term "Crown" and which needs to be maintained in the dealings of the Crown Prosecution Service?

Will the Solicitor-General confirm that there is no question of changing the practice of mounting prosecutions in the name of the Crown? Will she confirm that for any name change to take place there would need to be primary legislation, not least the amendment of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985?

Whatever merits there may be for the case, it is simply not a matter in which the Home Secretary, of all Secretaries of State, should be involved because of that separation of the judiciary and the prosecution from the executive arm of the Home Office. Is this not, yet again, an argument for having a fully effective Department of Justice, which would take away such judicial matters from the province of the Home Secretary?

Lastly, does not this episode smack of the confusion over the removal of the title "Lord Chancellor" and the proposals introduced last year? Is it not time for considered reform of the judicial system, not the disintegration of our systems by press release, Cabinet reshuffle or ministerial asides?

The Solicitor-General

Of course, the Home Secretary is accountable for his words, but the shadow Attorney-General tabled this question, and the Attorney-General, to whom I am the deputy, is responsible for superintending the Crown Prosecution Service. Sometimes, during Solicitor-General's questions, you will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that. I get asked questions about the police. I do not say, "That it is not a matter for me, I am not going to answer that question. " If I think that I know the answer, I seek to give the House the information for which it asks and I say, "This is a matter for the Home Secretary, but I understand…" Similarly, if a Member asks a question that relates to issues that are the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, I do not say, "Nothing to do with me, go and ask somebody else. " I seek to answer such questions. Similarly, if the Home Secretary is asked at a public engagement a question related to the wider criminal justice system, which finds its centre of gravity within the Crown Prosecution Service, it is perfectly fair for him to answer the question, and he is accountable for his words.

Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. We cannot have joined-up government, joined-up agencies and partnership in the interests of justice, and at the same time a kind of narrow, paranoid departmentalism. I am not in any doubt of the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service, nor do I fear for it. I stand here to defend that, as does the Attorney -General in the other place. All Crown prosecutors know that they have that backing from the Attorney-General and they implement the code accordingly. I therefore urge Members not to read something into the proposal when, on reflection, they know that it is an important programme of reform, of which partnership is an important part, that the Attorney-General is in no doubt about the importance of having an independent prosecution service, and that that is the situation.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

As one who pestered Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, before my right hon. and learned Friend was born, with pertinent questions, may I ask whether this does not show that the Attorney-General should be in the House of Commons? Given the quality of the question asked earlier by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), might not he be an admirable candidate?

The Solicitor-General

It is a matter for the Prime Minister to appoint the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, and I take seriously my responsibility to account to this House for the work of the Attorney-General. I do not therefore think that there is less accountability to this House, as I am absolutely clear and open with the House and speak on behalf of the Attorney-General in this House.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

May I ask Her Majesty's Solicitor-General what prior consultation there has been with Her Majesty's judges, those who command the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force or officers of regiments with the prefix "Royal"? Does she not understand that this country has a long and proud history, and that the title "Royal" reminds us of that? Does she not understand, too, that few people who are not zealous republicans have any sympathy for the type of policy now being described?

The Solicitor-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will recognise that too few people know what the Crown Prosecution Service is, and what it does. We want to make sure that people have confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole. They understand what the police do, and they understand what the courts do, but many of them are baffled about what the Crown Prosecution Service does. One of the things that the Crown Prosecution Service has been doing is seeking to engage with local communities to ensure that people understand what it does in the public interest. The question is whether, as part of a whole range of reforms—which I have already set out to the House, and which I do not want to rehearse again—changing the name would contribute to people's understanding of the enhanced and reformed role of the Crown Prosecution Service. Hon. Members should not therefore get too concerned about this.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether judges had been consulted—

Mr. Hogg

Her Majesty's judges.

The Solicitor-General

Her Majesty's judges, or her Majesty's regiments.

There has been discussion within the Crown Prosecution Service, with the Director of Public Prosecutions. When the Attorney-General first mentioned the idea as a possibility, it was reported in the newspapers. It would not be true to say that no substantive change is being made, but I know that the whole House supports that change, and that it will be in the interests of everyone in the country.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)

Having removed the word "Crown" from the title of the Crown Prosecution Service, will the Government proceed to get rid of Crown immunity, especially in health and safety matters?

The Solicitor-General

Having said that government is joined up, I do not think it would be right for me to answer a question about Crown immunity. What I will do is draw my hon. Friend's question to the attention of my colleague who is responsible for such matters.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Are the Government backing off from the idea of a name change, and how much would it cost if it went ahead?

The Solicitor-General

No, there is no backing off. There is sensible discussion. It would be premature to discuss the cost, but I would say "As cheap as possible".

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend come to the Rhondda to discuss with my constituents the changes to the Crown Prosecution Service and to its name? I think she would find that they would say, almost universally, "Hear, hear" to what the Home Secretary said yesterday. They would like a Crown Prosecution Service that is on the side of the public, because their experience so far has been, on the whole, that it only makes itself known to them when it is saying no to a prosecution and they are victims of crime.

The Solicitor-General

I think that people have welcomed the changes undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service on the Attorney-General's initiative. I think they want the service to be strengthened, reformed and improved. It will be a good thing if that can be made more visible by means of a name change that will enable the public to understand the process better. People understand the concept of Her Majesty's judges and are familiar with judges, but they are not familiar with the concept of the Crown Prosecution Service. Given that it is a public service that is responsible for prosecutions, it is important for people to know how it works, and how the criminal justice system works to protect their interests.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP)

The Solicitor-General will know that the title of the Crown Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland was changed to "Public Prosecution Service" two years ago by the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Would the Solicitor-General have a quiet word with her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to establish whether the sun, the moon and the stars fell out as a consequence?

The Solicitor-General

I congratulate the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland on the extensive changes it has undertaken, and congratulate the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions in particular. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out earlier, the Director of Public Prosecutions in England and Wales is called simply that, and does not have "Crown" in his title.

I urge Members not to run away with themselves, but to focus on the substance. If a name change can assist in terms of the substance, it should be considered and implemented; but the objective is reform and improvement in the Crown Prosecution Service. We are certainly not backing off from the proposal that, as part of that, a name change should be considered.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

As you will understand, Mr. Speaker, I hesitate to ask a question lest I be accused again of toadying, self-serving sycophancy—but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the original question of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was based on synthetic anger, inaccurate newspaper reports, pedantry and semantics? Will she confirm that in Scotland the procurators fiscal are quite capable of conducting prosecutions on behalf of the Crown without having the word "Crown" in their title?

The Solicitor-General

That is true.

I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is reading rather too much into the proposal; on the other—without wanting to give him too much encouragement—I commend him for taking the accountability of his position seriously enough to present such issues to the House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con)

Does the Solicitor-General accept that the proposed name change gives the impression of an increasing tendency towards touchy-feely republicanism? It is felt that implicit in the new title is a degree of movement towards state control. This is not just a matter of semantics. As the Solicitor-General knows, I tabled a written question to her on the nolle prosequi issue vis-a-vis the Katharine Gun prosecution—a serious matter, in respect of which she replied to me yesterday. Does she not accept that the role of the Attorney-General as holder of a prerogative right of the Crown to drop prosecutions is one of the most important constitutional issues before us today? Does she not agree that changing the name of the Crown Prosecution Service is actually a retrograde step, at a time when we should be emphasising the importance of the integrity and impartiality of the judicial process?

The Solicitor-General

I do not see any contradiction between the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service and a change in its name. The two are not polar opposites.

The hon. Gentleman says he has gained the impression that this is something to do with touchy-feely republicanism. Perhaps I can put his mind at rest. There is no intention of making the Crown Prosecution Service touchy-feely—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about republicanism?"] I shall come to the point about republicanism. Let me deal with "touchy-feely" first. That is nonsense. We are talking about a serious programme of improvement and reform, involving many more prosecutors who will be able to bring offenders to justice swiftly, look after victims and witnesses properly, and make sure the system works. That is not touchy-feely; it is practical work in the public interest.

As for republicanism, the name change was intended to give the public a better understanding of the new, reformed role of the Crown Prosecution Service. It is about moving closer to the idea that the public can understand the public interest.

The hon. Gentleman did indeed ask me a question about the Katharine Gun case, and I have answered it. The answer to his further question about whether the Attorney-General's ability to issue a nolle prosequi was important is yes, it is. Is it going to be changed? No, it is not. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in the Katharine Gun case it was not appropriate or necessary even to consider a nolle prosequi, because it was a question of evidence.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind tie House that Back Benchers are allowed only one supplementary question, not four. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) might remember that next time.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that then: is a real danger of loss of public confidence in the criminal justice system, much of it focused on the Crown Prosecution Service? There is confusion over its role and timidity in prosecutions, a turf war breaks out between the CPS and the police from time to time, and there is a failure to liaise with victims of crime. For all those reasons, should we not proceed rapidly with reform of the CPS?

The Solicitor-General

I welcome my hon. Friend's question. He is absolutely right about the importance of public confidence in the criminal justice system; he is absolutely right about the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the important role of the criminal justice system; he is absolutely right in saying that improving the way in which the system works must mean greater partnership; and he is absolutely right about the need for the Crown Prosecution Service, during the process of prosecutions, to give victims more support and information. It is on those issues that the House should focus.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD)

Have Ministers learned nothing from the mishandling of the announcement of the abolition of the Lord Chancellor? The Prime Minister admitted that it was not handled as well as it should have been, and it created anxieties about the independence of the judiciary from government. Given that there is no evidence that replacing the term "Crown" with the term "Public" will in some way enhance public confidence in the CPS—in fact, that it is determined by the factors that Members have referred to today, such as the extent to which account is taken of the concerns of victims of crime—why does the Solicitor-General believe that it is a significant factor in what is otherwise an important process of reform?

The Solicitor-General

A name change for the Crown Prosecution Service will not by itself establish public confidence, but as part of a wide range of reforms it may well contribute to it. The right hon. Gentleman asks whether we have learned nothing from matters relating to the Lord Chancellor, but I should remind Members that the Attorney-General has been leading reforms of, and improvements to, the CPS since 2001. This is a long and ongoing programme of reform and change, and there is nothing sudden about it. What is sudden is the shadow Attorney-General's raising in this House the question of the name change, which I am attempting to answer. But there is no sudden programme of reform; indeed, we have discussed this issue continuously in the House.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con)

Is not the prospect of magistrates' public meetings somewhat reminiscent of Bucharest under Ceausescu?

The Solicitor-General

No, but the question of the judiciary's engagement with the public, in whose interests they do justice, is a difficult and sensitive one, and it is obviously important to get the balance right. However, in respect of the more effective prosecution of domestic violence, for example, I have welcomed seeing the magistracy and occasionally Crown court judges at conferences on such violence. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is to be welcomed. We can trust the magistracy and the judiciary to know where to draw the line, and they do not need the hon. Gentleman to point out to them that they have to be independent. They know that, and they guard that independence jealously.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con)

May I assure the Solicitor-General that in the courts in which I sit as a recorder, nobody is in any doubt as to what the Crown Prosecution Service means and what it does? Is she not in danger of becoming involved in an utterly fatuous desire to "modernise" the name of the prosecution service simply because the Government think it a more trendy thing to do? What is important is that the name be maintained, but that the functions of the CPS be improved through all sorts of methods. Changing the name is a simple waste of time and money.

The Solicitor-General

I question whether everyone in the hon. and learned Gentleman's court is in no doubt about the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. I would hope that that is so, but I wonder whether all jurors really understand that role, and I suspect that many do not. I wonder whether all victims really understand that role, but I suspect that many do not. The same goes for witnesses and for those who might have the great opportunity to be in the public gallery when he is sitting as a recorder.

The hon. and learned Gentleman says that the change is a waste of money, but as I said, there will be no waste of money. He also asks whether the change is "trendy", and the answer is no.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

The right hon. and learned Solicitor-General, for whom I have a lot of respect, talked about synthetic anger, but surely she must agree that her Government are obsessed with name-changing, political correctness and dumbing down the Crown. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, surely every single penny should be concentrated on the front line.

The Solicitor-General

There is no question that this is part of some obsession with name changing for its own sake, and I absolutely deny that suggestion. The hon. Gentleman asks whether the change is part of dumbing down, but ensuring that the public understand the services that are so important to them is not dumbing down; it is legitimate and in the public interest.

I get the sense that half the Opposition Members do not actually agree with what they are saying; in fact, many of them are more sensible than they are making out. Many agree with what we are doing, support the Crown Prosecution Service and understand its work. I ask them not to go off on a political tangent and make this a political issue. As Members will understand, the Attorney-General and I have never sought to use the CPS politically in any way, shape or form. This is not a dumbing down, trendy initiative, and if Members think hard about it, on reflection they will agree.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

Is the logical follow-on from this proposed change replacing Crown courts with people's courts within a few years? Does the Solicitor-General not realise that we in the United Kingdom are deeply proud of our royal traditions and that we wish to maintain them, instead of having the "people's this" and the "people's that" and becoming some kind of ersatz North Korea?

The Solicitor-General

These thin end of the wedge arguments are wrong. For many years, the Director of Public Prosecutions has led the Crown Prosecution Service, and the fact that he is the DPP has not necessitated any other change anywhere else in the system. So I urge Members to step back, think a bit more calmly about this issue, consider whether they support the process that the CPS is going through—I know that they support the building blocks of the reform led by the Attorney-General—and not to lose sight of the important substance of reform and get themselves into a whirl about the name change.