HL Deb 03 March 2004 vol 658 cc659-70

3.18 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in another place by my right honourable friend the Solicitor-General to an Urgent Question. The Answer is as follows:

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I think that this Statement has been provoked by a question asked this morning by my honourable friend the shadow Attorney-General in another place for answer by the Home Office. The question related to a statement made by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary yesterday. He said, accordingly to an article in today's Daily Mail by the deputy political editor, Mr Paul Eastham: We have agreed now that, right across the country, the CPS will become the Public Prosecution Service and will become much closer to being understandable by the public". On the statement by the Home Secretary, I should like to make two observations. First, it appears that a decision has been taken to rename the Crown Prosecution Service the "Public Prosecution Service". Secondly, it seems that the Secretary of State for Home Affairs has participated in taking that decision.

Arising from that, I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General two questions. First, does he regard himself as the Minister responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service? If he does, can he tell the House when the decision to change the name was taken, and whether the Queen was informed before it was taken?

My second question concerns the exclusiveness of his responsibility. It is trite constitutional law to say that it is wholly undesirable for any political interference to have taken place in a decision to prosecute. That is true, not only as a matter of substance, but as a matter of perception. It is vital that there is a clear separation between the political arm of the constitution and that arm of the constitution that has to be wholly impartial in relation to the liberty of the subject— that is, the Attorney-General. In those circumstances, how can he explain why the Home Secretary had to agree with this decision?

I should like to make two further observations before I sit down. The first is that, irrespective of the matters to which I have just referred, would it be wise to change the name? In my submission, it would not. If you change the name to "state", you clearly implicate the Government, and therefore the political arm of the constitution. If you change the name to "public", you do the same thing, because the Government—as the democratically elected government—regard themselves as the incarnation of the public interest.

The right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary went on to explain the decision that he is supposed to have made by saying that it would be quite wrong for the Crown Prosecution Service—or the "Public Prosecution Service" as it now appears to be — to be impartial in relation to prosecutions. The public should know that it is on their side. But, with great respect, the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary has misunderstood the whole point about describing the Crown Prosecution Service as the "Crown" Prosecution Service. It is described in that way in order to make it absolutely clear that it is independent from party politics.

My second observation concerns a phrase that the right honourable and learned lady the Solicitor-General used repeatedly in another place when she responded to some apposite questions posed by the shadow Attorney-General. She talked about the principle of partnership in relation to those agencies that are involved in the prosecutorial process. I was surprised to hear this, as I understood that the principle that was animating the Government's vision of the constitution was the principle of the separation of powers.

As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the Government are not only keen to see the principle of the independence of judges respected, but also the perception that they are entirely separate from the legislature or the executive arm. That is why—despite the fact that they accept that there has been no evidence of political interference with respect to Her Majesty's judges whatsoever—they are determined to set up an independent Supreme Court. Yet here we have the Home Secretary blatantly breaching the principle of separation of powers by engaging himself in a decision that should be none of his constitutional business whatsoever.

3.24 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, can the Attorney-General confirm the report in today's Daily Telegraph, that he took a sharp intake of breath when he heard of the Home Secretary's latest lollipop from his bran tub?

As the Attorney-General is aware, we on these Benches broadly support many of the Government's proposals for legal and constitutional reform. But would be not agree that they seem to be making an awful mess of this with various initiatives that seem to be popping out without due notice and consultation, and which undermine public confidence in a process of reform which should be winning public approval?

Can the noble and learned Lord indicate how the Government are going to get their act together—between his office, the Home Secretary and the noble and learned lord the Lord Chancellor—so that we get some indication that Ministers are singing from the same hymn sheet as they bring forward these complex and important measures?

As a layman, I am aware that we have a Director of Public Prosecutions. On the other hand, Her Majesty's judges and Crown Courts have a great deal of public respect and confidence. People want a system of prosecution that is credible, consistent and trusted. In order to have that, we need coherence such as I have urged over the whole matter of constitutional reform. The Home Secretary should not be responsible for some of those matters; they should properly be dealt with by a ministry of justice. As I have said, there should be some sense that Ministers are talking to each other and working to a coherent programme, instead of indulging in high-profile gimmicks that damage public confidence.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I want to start by making one thing clear. I want to leave the House and the people of this country in no doubt. I stand for the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service. No one will challenge that while I am Her Majesty's Attorney-General.

It is crucial to confidence in the criminal justice system that everyone knows that each decision to prosecute—or not to prosecute—is made independently, in the public interest and without political interference.

Everything that I am going to say in answer to the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord McNally, must be understood behind that clear and unequivocal statement.

When an Urgent Question was asked of the Home Secretary in another place this morning—as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said—it seemed important that, as the Minister responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service, the Attorney-General and my deputy, the right honourable lady the Solicitor-General, should respond. I hope that noble Lords who are concerned at yesterday's events would think that it was right for the Ministers responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service to come and deal with this question.

Before I go on to some of the wider questions, let me deal with the position of the issue that was raised yesterday. It is not the first time that a suggestion has been made about a change to the name of the Crown Prosecution Service. I floated it myself at the beginning of last year. It has been mentioned in the press several times since. The Director of Public Prosecutions has himself mentioned it in the press. I am bound to say that it would do a lot of good if we could bring the temperature down in relation to this matter. I am surprised that some people have found renewed outrage in something that had already been floated. But I recognise that there are strong interests.

Let me make this clear: the name change remains under active consideration. The Director of Public Prosecutions and I have made it clear that we are in favour of the name change, but we are still considering it. He is discussing it with his staff but no final conclusion has yet been reached.

Let me deal with why it may make sense. I want to make it clear that it is only a part—and some, including me, would say that it is only a small part—of a much more important and much bigger programme of reform, to which my right honourable friend referred in the Statement. However, the reason why it might make sense to make the change, and the reason why the Director of Public Prosecutions and I believe that it does, is that it would clarify that the Prosecution Service in this country serves the public, not the Government—absolutely not the Government. It serves the public of this country in the public interest at all times. No prosecution can proceed unless the prosecutor in charge of the case is satisfied, not only that the evidence indicates that there is a realistic prospect of conviction but also that it is in the public interest to proceed.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out, there is nothing surprising or unusual about referring to the concept of public prosecutions. We have had since the late Victorian age a Director of Public Prosecutions. He has never been a director of Crown prosecutions. This House approved, the creation of a Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland—and it is a public prosecution service in Northern Ireland. I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, made the point that he did, but I reject any suggestion that calling something the public prosecution service carries with it any implication at all that it is for the government, or that it is anything other than a prosecution service for the benefit of the public in this country. That is all.

I turn to the other questions that have been raised. It is plain from what I have said about the process that no final conclusion has been reached. Whatever may have been said in any newspapers or elsewhere in relation to the matter, no final conclusions have been reached. Questions do not therefore arise in relation to the particular involvement of particular persons. I have made it clear that there can be no political interference and therefore no interference by anybody—other perhaps than the Attorney-General—in any decision to prosecute. There certainly cannot be interference by any other Minister.

Notwithstanding that fact, there will be questions in relation to the organisation of the public prosecution service—the Crown Prosecution Service—in which others will have a legitimate interest. After all, the service works on a budget that comes from the taxpayer. We are not at the point at which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been involved in a decision in relation to that. However, even if that were the case, I would not regard it as interfering in the slightest with the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service or with any prosecuting decision. With respect, it seems to be going far too far to suggest that for Ministers to have a view and even to take part in decisions in relation to a name change can conceivably affect the independence of the prosecuting decisions, on which we all agree.

I turn to the question of partnership. We have recognised and realised that in order to have an effective, efficient and fair prosecution and justice system in this country, it makes sense for the different parts of the justice system to work together. They must do that always in accordance with their own particular missions and principles. Noble Lords passed, in the Criminal Justice Act, a very important measure, which gives the Crown Prosecution Service the responsibility for deciding what charge should be given in any case, or whether a charge should be made at all. That necessarily involves a close co-operation, or partnership, between the police and the prosecutor. It does not subvert in any way the independent decision of the prosecutor on whether the case should go ahead, but it involves working in partnership.

So, too, we have demonstrated that by working in partnership with court management, we can enable victims and witnesses to be better served, so that courts are ready to take their cases when they arrive, are protected from defendants who intimidate them, and all that sort of thing. I am very strongly of the view that with that sort of partnership, which we have in the National Criminal Justice Board and the local criminal justice boards across the country, we are really helping to serve the people of our communities—the public—and enabling us to have a better justice system. I very much hope that your Lordships will enthusiastically support many or all of the changes that are being proposed, which we shall bring before noble Lords when we are ready to show them the full agenda. All those changes are towards the same objective, of a prosecution system which, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, put it, is credible, trusted and effective. Ultimately, we are involved in reducing crime and the fear of crime.

I do not in fact agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the concept of a ministry of justice, but that no doubt is for others on another day. I conclude by thanking both noble Lords for the questions that they asked and the comments that they made. I hope that I have covered them all; if not, I am sure that they will be put again. The fundamental point about independence—that it is for the Attorney-General to support that independence—is absolutely my view. What is up for discussion may be the name change; what is not up for discussion is the independence of the Crown Prosecution Service. That is non-negotiable.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, having had the privilege on three occasions of serving as one of Her Majesty's ambassadors abroad, and having for five years been the head of Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service, can I have an assurance from the noble and learned Lord that no thought whatever is being given to either removing or diluting that important and much valued connection between the Diplomatic Service and the Crown?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I am aware of absolutely no suggestion of that. The reason why I identified my own title as Her Majesty's Attorney-General was to indicate that the proposal has nothing to do with discourtesy to the Queen or any lack of pride in the long historical connection that we have to Her Majesty.

Lord Slynn of Hadley

My Lords, has the Attorney-General just said that there is no intention that Her Majesty's judges will cease to be Her Majesty's judges?

Lord Goldsmith

None whatever, my Lords.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, following on that answer, would the Attorney-General like to take the opportunity to deny the newspaper reports that appeared over the weekend, suggesting that the Home Secretary wished to change the name of Her Majesty's Prison Service to remove the references to "Her Majesty", much to the consternation of the Prison Officers' Union? If that is the case, are we not entitled to expect that Parliament is told these things in advance of the newspapers? Are we not entitled to conclude that there seems to be a link between the Home Secretary's view of the name of the prosecution authority and of the Prison Service? That suggests that an attempt is being made to marginalise the role of the Crown in our constitution.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, not at all. With regard to the Prison Service, the Home Office is not planning to drop all references to the Crown. That is untrue.

Lord Campbell of Croy


Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I said "all references". I will finish the question, if noble Lords will allow me to continue. This is important. The noble Lord made an observation from a sedentary position, as they would say in another place.

Every individual prison and young offender institution, whether public or private sector, will continue to be known as Her Majesty's prison X, or Her Majesty's prison Y. Every prison officer working in public sector prisons will continue to wear the crown on their uniform and will continue to be a civil servant working to the Crown. That seems a strong endorsement of the present position, whatever may be the name of the organisation in which prison officers and others involved in the correctional services are employed.

It is apparent from what I have seen that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary may have been responding to a question that was put to him. There was no announcement of a change yesterday; final decisions or conclusions have not been reached.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, could my noble and learned friend confirm that a public prosecution service—which would be rightly named because it is after all in the interests of the citizen that the rule of law is maintained, not in the interests of the state—could prosecute the Crown, for instance, as employer?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I need to think carefully about the substance of that question.

The Public Prosecution Service will continue to be the service that prosecutes on behalf of the public. At present the Crown embodies the public. The difference is in relation to the name. It will continue to prosecute all persons who can be prosecuted.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that justice was originally administered by the monarch and, since then, by those in the name of the monarch? Has there been consultation with the monarchy about the proposals? Do the Government observe the conventions of consultation with the monarchy?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I wish to make two points in response to the noble Lord. First, I emphasise that the proposed change is part of a wider and more important programme of reform and strengthening of the prosecution service in the interests of the public. It will help to reinforce the message that that is what the prosecution service is for. We are confident that many people do not understand the meaning of "Crown" in Crown Prosecution Service as opposed to what is meant by public prosecution service.

Secondly, in response to the noble Lord, I want to reinforce the importance of the independence of the prosecution service. None of that will change.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, I welcome the clear statement of the Attorney-General that there is no question whatever of diluting the independence of the prosecution service. As he is head of the prosecuting service in this country, why did the Home Secretary trail the matter yesterday? Was the noble and learned Lord comfortable with that? Will there be changes with regard to the form of indictments, which are currently Regina v Defendant? Will the change need legislation?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I am the Minister responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service, which I have made clear today. The Home Secretary would be the first to agree that when announcements need to be made it will be for me with the consent of the director of public prosecutions to make them.

It is not proposed to change the form of indictment. That is no part of what is being considered. As we take the discussion forward, the need for legislation will be considered and determined before any change is implemented.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, following from the previous question, will the noble and learned Lord assure the House that there is no intention to change the name of the Crown Court?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, none at all, but following on from the comments made by other noble Lords, it would not be for me to talk about it if there were.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord said that one of the reasons for changing the title was because people would understand more readily that a Public Prosecution Service was more independent. Is he suggesting that the term "Crown Prosecution Service" had some mysterious meaning that indicated to the public that it was not independent?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I did not intend to suggest that the present name indicated to members of the public a lack of independence. I was reinforcing the message about independence. My point was that some members of the public do not really understand who the Crown Prosecution Service is for. One frequently hears people in court talking about, "my barrister", but they do not fully understand what the public prosecution service—to use the term generically—is for. They do not realise that it is to prosecute on behalf of the public in the interests of the public. It is not about prosecuting on behalf of a particular victim, and it is certainly not about prosecuting on behalf of a particular individual or the Government.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick

My Lords, if defendants are to appear in Crown Courts before Her Majesty's judges and, if convicted, are sent to Her Majesty's prisons, why is a change of name from Crown Prosecution Service to Public Prosecution Service even being considered?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, that is exactly what happens in other places, including Northern Ireland. Defendants are tried by public prosecutors on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions before Her Majesty's judges and sent to Her Majesty's prisons. What surely matters most of all is that, first, we should reinforce and stand behind, as I do, the independence of the prosecuting system. Secondly, we should have a prosecuting service that responds to the needs of the people whom we are there to serve. That includes recognising that we are there on behalf of the public. At a time of substantial reform, that should properly be reflected in a change of name to bring it into line with the name that its head—the Director of Public Prosecutions—has.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has skilfully reduced the temperature, as he set out to do in his first—and for that reason, I suspect—very lengthy response to interventions. That will enable him and those who take a different view to look dispassionately at the discussion that we are having. He cannot fail to notice the extreme sensitivity of the proposal and the great weight of not only sentiment but also logic that attaches to the use of the Crown as a symbol of national authority and independence. That is why the Crown prosecutor is engaged in preserving the Queen's peace.

Before any decision is made, it is important to have thorough and wide consultation, including those in the Crown Prosecution Service itself, and not merely the director. Although the Statement is about the Crown Prosecution Service, as the noble and learned Lord has already acknowledged it is in the context of a highly controversial news story over the weekend that was raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. He was choked off during Question Time, but was allowed off the leash in the Statement to ask about the future name of Her Majesty's Prison Service.

Does the noble and learned Lord see that although the juxtaposition of those two stories may be fortuitous, to those outside they each appear to sustain the same suspicion that there is an intention to erode the apparent involvement of the Crown in the constitution.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Lord Elton

My Lords, shaking the head may show that one does not agree with a point, but it is a matter of fact that that is how the issue affects all those who have just loudly said, "Hear, hear". Will the noble and learned Lord please tread gently, and following on from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will he try to remember what joined-up government is?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, as he often does, brings the temperature down. I am grateful to him for that and for his comments.

On an historical point, we were prosecuting to preserve the Queen's peace long before the Crown Prosecution Service was introduced in 1986. On that small point, I beg to take issue with the noble Lord.

There have been discussions within the Crown Prosecution Service and its staff. I hope that I have made that clear. Certainly a press statement issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions made that clear yesterday. That is precisely what he is engaged in at the moment. It is very important. Thousands of staff are engaged in the service and it is absolutely right to discuss the matter with them.

I also understand the point of sensitivity. But I would say again that I have indicated clearly to noble Lords— and it is in the press records—that I was the one who first raised the issue at the beginning of last year. It had nothing to do with eroding the position of the Crown in relation to any other area or indeed in this area. I recognise that it may be an unfortunate juxtaposition of matters, and it may be precisely because of that—as I understand it—that the Home Secretary responded to a question which has led to our debate today.

I should have added that—and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that I did not answer his question properly in relation to the palace—the palace is aware of the change. There will be further discussions as the decision takes place. I have spoken to the palace, but only very recently, in relation to this matter. But I have made it very clear that there has not been a final decision or a conclusion to this issue and that certainly there will be consultation with the palace before we reach that point.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, what work is being done on the provisional costings involved in this name change? Surely that work should be done before we proceed further down this very sensitive route.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. One has to balance—as indeed the former Director of Public Prosecutions said in a radio interview today—the benefits, which I believe will be significant, against the costs. We have absolutely no wish to do something if the cost of it will be disproportionate to the benefit that will be received. That point must be looked at.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord speaks of Northern Ireland, but he knows well that there is a particular reason and sensitivity why for the 1.25 million people in Northern Ireland it has been decided to call the service the Public Prosecution Service. That is not a good argument to pray in aid for the 55 million or 60 million people who exist under the Crown Prosecution Service.

I appreciate what the noble and learned Lord has made clear to the House. I think that he has made some very helpful announcements to clear up some of the confusion that his colleague has left behind: and he has made clear statements which obviously will be honoured. While the noble and learned Lord has discussed this matter in a rather smaller forum, I hope that he has found this exercise today not unhelpful in guiding him to what the conclusion might be if he were ever to consider the matter further.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, absolutely, and I genuinely always do find hearing what your Lordships have to say on these issues important and things that need very carefully to be considered.

I take issue with the noble Lord in relation to the position in Northern Ireland. I am responsible also for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland. It makes enormous sense, to my mind, that it is clear to the people of Northern Ireland—as it would be clear to the people of England and Wales if we made the same change—that a prosecution service is there to serve them and to serve in their interests.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord in a position to say yes or no to this question? Did the Home Secretary say what the papers say he said? Surely his officials have been in touch with the Home Office and the noble and learned Lord is in a position to answer that simple question. If the answer is that the Home Secretary did say what the papers say he said, was he not saying quite plainly that a decision about this matter has been made?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I do not know whether the reports that the press have put forward are correct records of what the Home Secretary said. But they cannot in fact be right for this reason; that, as I have made clear and as the Director of Public Prosecutions has made clear, a decision has not finally been reached.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that it would generally be very helpful to the process of government if, before we had a debate on a report from a Minister in the Government flying a kite that apparently does not yet have wind behind it, we first had the full development of a proper hypothesis?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I repeat to my noble friend Lord Tomlinson that it is not the first time that this proposal has been discussed in the press. It arose for the first time when I suggested the idea at the beginning of 2003 and it was reported in the press at that stage. It was reported subsequently and was referred to when the Director of Public Prosecutions referred to this issue only two or three weeks ago. It seems to be because of the context and the reference to the Home Secretary that it has attracted this degree of attention.

But what is important—and I hope noble Lords will be as enthusiastic about debating this with me at a future date as they have been about debating the name change—is the overall future of the prosecution service and how it is going to prosecute and protect the people of this country. There have been important changes already. The charging initiative has increased guilty pleas and has produced conviction rates which are 30 per cent up in the pilots that we have carried out. The prosecution service is achieving conviction rates above 90 per cent in magistrates' courts and Crown Courts. It is taking charge in areas concerning antisocial behaviour, domestic violence, homophobic crime and many other areas which are important to the people of this country.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say what surveys he undertook before he came to the conclusion that the public did not understand what the Crown Prosecution Service was and that it therefore needed a change of name? Do the Government and the noble and learned Lord not understand that, taken together with the proposals which will come before us on Monday to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor and to expel the judges from this Chamber and, indeed, the proposals to change the name of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, there may very well be a suspicion among many people that the Government intend to abolish the monarchy by stealth?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, when I first suggested this change at the beginning of 2003, it had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the suspicions referred to by the noble Lord. We have information —not from formal national opinion poll surveys, but from what prosecutors on the ground know—that some people have difficulty in understanding what the prosecution service does.

I conclude with this final comment. I have made it clear throughout that I am the Minister responsible. It is my job to protect the independence of the prosecution service. That is what I shall continue to do.