HC Deb 08 June 2004 vol 422 cc31-50WH

2 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con)

It is fair to say that crime affects everyone. Last year, there were more than 1 million cases of reported crime in the Metropolitan area; a staggering amount. That figure has to be put in the context of bringing criminals to justice.

The last year for which I can obtain relevant data is 2002. In the financial year 2002–03, the number of crimes reported in the Metropolitan area was 1,080,000, and in the calendar year 2002 there were 54,249 convictions. That is not a direct comparison, but it indicates the scale of things: less than 6 per cent. of the crimes committed led to convictions. I do not suggest for a second that that weak figure can be laid at the door of the Crown Prosecution Service. However, with that in mind, the debate is set against the background of two CPS inspectorate reports on the London CPS in 2001 and 2003.

I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be the first to acknowledge that the situation in 2001 was dire; the system was closer to collapse than many may have imagined. There were serious failures in the fundamentals of bringing criminals to justice. The police were bringing in the suspects, but the courts were not trying them. Cases were frequently not ready for trial and a high number of cases was discharged because the CPS was not ready to proceed. About 46 per cent. of briefs were not delivered to counsel on time. In 38 per cent. of cases, the CPS was in breach of its statutory duties on disclosure.

Having read my critical remarks, the Director of Public Prosecutions wrote to me, saying that the situation was regularly the fault of witnesses, the police or the courts and not of the Crown Prosecution Service. I was even more surprised when the Solicitor-General wrote to me in similar vein. That prompts the central question: who has overall responsibility for case management? Which Minister accepts responsibility? Does any single Minister accept responsibility? The Solicitor-General's letter, which implies that the worst is behind us, prompted me to secure this debate. I suspect from the tone of the letter that she believes that things are better than they appear on the ground.

Mercifully, the 2003 report paints a more optimistic picture than its 2001 predecessor. However, in the executive summary, there are phrases such as there is further work to do…there is still work to be done …there is still some way to go…has not yet fully implemented the national guidance…Issues relating to timeliness of primary disclosure, and the effectiveness of secondary disclosure, still need to be addressed…remains at an unacceptable level". Those phrases are littered throughout the report and suggest that despite the improvement—and improvements have been made—there is a long way to go. There is more money, and more staff; 100 new lawyers have been recruited. There have been structural changes that should result in more decisions being made at operational levels for the delivery of effective prosecutions. There is a reported improvement in morale.

However, I continue to have grave concerns about the efficiency of the Crown Prosecution Service in London. The re-inspection in October 2003 showed that many of the recommendations in the original report were only partially implemented. Considering that we were starting, and I quote from the report, in many cases, at a very low level", that is doubly alarming. The underachievement seems to stem from problems with case ownership and management, staff quality, and effective and timely intervention by managers to identify and remedy inadequate case preparation. In short, there may have been improvements, but the benefits have yet to be seen in court. The Solicitor-General is responsible for all those issues.

Bringing prosecutions to court remains inefficient and costly. Offenders are not brought to justice, witnesses are demotivated and victims lose confidence in the criminal justice system. The reforms in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which unifies the administration of the courts, will do little to solve such practical problems.

I welcome the modest increase in staff recruitment and the reduction in the number of casual staff in the administrative grades Those steps, and the provision of better training and career paths, should help to improve the professionalism of the service. However, they are only small steps, and the report states that the high number of casual staff in administrative grades continues to cause operational difficulties.

In a letter to me on 5 March, the Solicitor-General acknowledges that a collaborative approach to "joining up justice" through multi-agency communication is critical, and I agree. She says that things are getting better as a result, bat I regularly hear reports that files are still not being updated on a timely basis. That results in ineffective days it court because, too often, witnesses are not told the date, so they do not turn up. The CPS does not provide advance information and primary disclosure. It falls to the court to decide whether the interests of justice are served by proceeding in such circumstances. Has it occurred to the Solicitor-General how the victims feel when an adjournment is not granted and the case collapses because the CPS offers no evidence? The public's impression of the judicial system suffers, and justice is not seen to be done.

The report finds that between October 2002 and March 2003, 69.5 per cent.—more than two thirds—of trials in magistrates courts were listed as ineffective. Clearly, collaboration between the police, the criminal justice units, the CPS and the courts is not yet working as well as it should. Yet again, that raises the question not so much of who is responsible but of where overall responsibility for the management of a case lies.

The consequences of inadequate preparation cut both ways. Defendants obviously have the right to a fair trial. If, as the report finds, there are failures in primary and secondary disclosure, it is difficult for a court to refuse to grant an adjournment. That means more cost, more delay and a risk that witnesses will not return to court on a later date. The result is often that there is no prosecution, and police and court time is wasted.

Article 6 of the European convention on human rights deals with the right to a fair trial. Quite properly, it is considered to be against the interests of justice to hear a case when the defence has not been served with the information on which the prosecution has relied or has not used because it might under mine its case. That is included in primary disclosure. If that single aspect of case management were improved, a considerable number of case adjournments could be avoided.

The inspectorate's update reported: Handling of secondary disclosure generally, and timeliness of primary disclosure in the magistrates' courts, are priorities", and I am sure that the Solicitor-General will agree. Those words are, however, code for the fact that these remain problem areas, and I would be interested to hear what developments there have been since the report was published.

Defendants seem to have spotted that these problems create a potential loophole. The original report concluded that a higher than average number of defendants in London elected to be tried in the Crown court in either-way cases or to plead not guilty. They do so in anticipation that the CPS will not be ready to proceed at the next hearing. In short, if they spin it out, the case will never come to anything. That is a massive indictment of the system. The 2003 report does not review whether things have changed in that respect, so could the Solicitor-General report on the problem?

In raising concerns about the standard of CPS work, I acknowledge that some of the delays arise as a result of the defence not being ready for court. But the courts have a remedy if a defendant or defence witness declines to come to court when the case is ready to be heard: they can hear the case in the absence of the defendants or defence witnesses, provided that they are satisfied that the defendants or defence witnesses have been given every opportunity to attend. The defence is far less likely to cause a delay than the prosecution.

I am told that COMPASS—the case management IT system—is operational throughout London. In theory, that means that Crown prosecutors and caseworkers can track the progress of cases on screen and take timely action to ensure that the file is ready for court. That is great in theory, but does it actually happen? The Solicitor-General told me that the system is having a significant impact on case ownership and management. It may have been installed on time and on budget—a remarkable feat by this Government's standards—but is it making a difference? By all reports, that difference is not evident on the ground.

Technology is not solving the use of agents, whose deployment in 50 per cent. of cases continues to create its own problems. The report concludes that there is still widespread concern about the quality or preparedness of some agents. Agents do not receive files early enough to prepare for court and, all too of ten, files are missing entirely. Agents claim to be unable to make decisions in court on the ground that they are "just agents". That is a basic problem, and must be addressed.

Regrettably, the advocacy skills of the CPS and its agents are largely unsung by magistrates and Crown court judges whose evaluation is completely swamped by their concerns about the inefficiency and lack of preparedness that result in too many cases being adjourned. The inspectorate's report notes that there remain concerns about the quality of some counsel in serious cases and the caseworker cover provided". Why? What is going wrong? The Solicitor-General brought to my notice the report's favourable comments on the training given by CPS London to prosecution agents, yet the report also states that trial advocacy training has not been provided for CPS prosecutors, a need identified during the course of the last inspection". Why not? Again, that is basic.

I do not need to tell the Solicitor-General, a fellow London Member of Parliament, that many Londoners are the victims of crime. My constituents in Croydon are no exception. There has been a welcome shift in the criminal justice process to consider the impact of crime on victims, who now have the right to be informed of progress on the prosecution and to make a statement, which can be read out in court, on the impact that the crime has had on them.

The police have received their fair share of brickbats in debates on narrowing the justice gap. However, I commend the Met's introduction of victim and witness focus desks to provide a single point of contact to deal with the needs of victims and witnesses. The work of the court-based witness service to help them to understand how court proceedings work and to encourage them to have the confidence to give evidence is to be applauded, especially as the service is manned by volunteers.

Improvements have been made recently, and I recognise the huge effort that individuals and organisations have made to narrow the justice gap. None the less, crime and the fear of crime are still high on the agenda of London residents. I hope that the CPS in London can build on the progress made to date. The least that we should expect is that prosecutions that are brought to court are heard without delay, and that justice is done and seen to be done.

I did not secure the debate for political advantage. The Solicitor-General knows that I have corresponded with her for several years, and I hoped that there would be a substantial improvement in the period between the two reports. In an area where justice and the application of justice are highly relevant, it is critical that justice is applied as effectively and efficiently as possible. Those of us who have close contacts with magistrates and with people who work in the courts realise how effective they can be. I give the Solicitor-General every support in achieving the objectives, as, I am sure, will my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), but the sad fact is that an awful lot remains to be done.

2.15 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD)

I begin my short contribution by raising a case that is currently being heard. Referring to its merits would be sub judice, so I shall refer only to its existence and the fact that it is taking an inordinate amount of time. As a result of the incompetence of the Crown Prosecution Service, the Serious Fraud Office, the defence, the prosecutors and perhaps even the judge herself, the fraud case involving the Jubilee line extension is taking an inordinate amount of time and vast sums of money are being disbursed in its prosecution. I ask the Solicitor-General to look into the matter urgently.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) rightly talked about Her Majesty's inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an important body of individuals on whose work we must rely. The inspectorate has expressed views about the CPS and its difficulties. I am not sure whether the inspectorate has been able to make a formal inspection and report in relation to Customs and Excise prosecutors. Not too long ago, owing not least to the unhappy events well documented by Mr. Justice Butterfield in his "Review of Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions Conducted by HM Customs and Excise", those prosecutors were brought under the aegis of the Law Officers' Department. I welcome that, but wonder whether there has been an opportunity for the inspectorate to look into that prosecuting service, which is housed in London. If so, has the inspectorate reported and what was the thrust of the report? Perhaps I have missed it. If so, I apologise, although I should like the Solicitor-General to let me have a copy of it.

Before I leave the subject of the inspectorate, I am anxious for the Solicitor-General to say who inspects the small prosecution departments that do not come under her aegis. I believe there is a light-touch relationship between the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, and the prosecutors for the Health and Safety Executive, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Inland Revenue and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I am anxious to know who monitors and inspects those bodies to ensure that they do not go on a frolic of their own and that high standards are maintained. There was something seriously wrong with the CPS. I regret to say that things do not seem to have improved substantially, although in fairness there have been some improvements. Attention has been drawn to Lord Justice Glidewell's important report on the CPS, published in 1998. It went to the core of the problems that then afflicted the CPS, both nationally and in London.

In a critical article inThe Times on 11 June 2002—I accept that that was two years ago—Mr. Robert McFarland made some compelling points: had there been a fundamental change; were the reforms properly acted on, and had recommendations been properly and completely implemented; and had there been a fundamental shift of emphasis towards the efficiency and standards that we expect from our national prosecution service? As the hon. Member for Croydon, South said, many stories, both in London and nationally, still emanate from the CPS about its inadequacy and lack of proper case preparation, about files being moved from one individual or department to another, and about prosecution failures. Cases such as that of Damilola Taylor, which hon. Members will recall, highlight the relevance of a succession of damning external reports.

Sylvia Denman's report of July 2001 is also relevant. Ironically, it arose as a result of events that took place at the Croydon branch of the CPS, and it is the hon. Member for Croydon, South whom I should congratulate on securing this debate. Sylvia Denman made a number of recommendations on race discrimination in the CPS. I would welcome the Solicitor-General telling us whether those recommendations have been listened to and properly acted on, and that the dreadful events described in Sylvia Denman's report will not occur again. There should be a proper ethos in the CPS when it comes to dealing with ethnic minorities.

In December 2001, the inspectorate's report on the CPS in London concluded: many of the serious weaknesses we identify can only be addressed through a substantial development and strengthening of both senior and middle management". In April 2002, a report produced by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary on the handling of cases involving allegations of rape concluded that there was a need for a more professional approach at the outset if the criminal justice system is to secure more convictions and greater support for current and future victims. On the CPS's role, the inspectorate said that the approach too often tended to be one of only considering any weaknesses, rather than also playing a more proactive role in seeking more information and trying to build or develop the case. The common themes have been inadequacy and failure. There are too many lawyers who are either overstretched, incompetent, or both. There has been poor management, inadequate IT systems and an inability for the three pillars of the criminal justice process—the police. the CPS and the courts—to work together effectively.

There has been much criticism, but I want to end on a more positive note, because it is essential to realise, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South said, that the CPS is not a party political football that we are kicking about. It is important that the public have every confidence in the justice system, every confidence that prosecutions are being brought competently and conscientiously, and every confidence that a system is in place to secure the conviction of the guilty and ensure the acquittal of the innocent. I am anxious to hear the Solicitor-General say that the thrust of Lord Justice Glidewell's three main recommendations will be met and for her to tell us when that will happen so that greater priority is given to more serious cases, so that we have a new organisation, structure and style of management, and so that we establish firmly the proper role of the CPS in the criminal justice process.

2.25 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing the debate. He spoke about the thorough nature of the review and has followed the performance of the CPS in London over a significant period by asking questions and corresponding with Ministers and others.

Serious matters have been raised and both policy and operational issues have been mentioned. Although we are debating the CPS in London, the question arises as to what extent its problems are reflected around the country. For instance, the London inspectorate report of October 2003 refers to high proportions of casual staff, even though London CPS staff are paid more than non-London staff. Is the high cost of living in the capital having a detrimental effect on recruitment, or is London CPS losing trained and senior staff to other public bodies like the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Serous Fraud Office?

Historically, it was generally accepted that when the CPS was founded in 1986 the quality of its staff was lacking, not least because of the initial need to recruit a lot of people quickly. However, mangy now think that the quality of staff, particularly outside London, has been steadily improving. There is no shortage of quality recruits coming to the CPS in Cambridgeshire. Is there some particular problem in London to which the Solictor-General can point?

Another thing that has been nagging me is the extent to which the Government know what is happening on the ground. It is not just a case of whether they know what is going on, but which Department takes responsibility for the CPS on the ground. My hon. Friend reiterated the point made in the inspectorate's report of October 2003: London has an unacceptable problem with discharge committals and with cracked and ineffective trials in the Crown curt.

In a written answer on how many cases brought before the CPS had been dropped and for what reasons, the Solicitor-General admitted: The Crown Prosecution Service holds no historical records showing why cases did not proceed".—[Official Report, 15 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 7W.] Will she confirm that that information could be provided for new cases? More specifically, is that situation related to the practicalities of only recently introducing computerised case-management systems? Does she have any information to share with us on how computerisation is likely to improve the quantity and quality of case management? To what extent is there still a problem with CPS staff not having the necessary computer skills to use the equipment? What is being done to remedy that? Why are the offices of our criminal prosecutors only now being computerised?

There is no doubt that London has specific problems. From March 2001 to March 2003, the annual cases handled per CPS lawyer fell from 674 to 458 and the number of committals for trial per CPS lawyer fell from 60 to 50. That was despite the number of lawyers rising from 240 to 350 and running costs increasing from £35 million to £47.5 million. Those statistics follow an emerging pattern for all public services over recent years. With more staff comes more expense but lower productivity.

How do the Government propose to reverse the state of affairs within the CPS? They have made some proposals. One of the more bizarre proposals is to change the name of the Crown Prosecution Service to the public prosecution service. Where do we stand on that name change? If it does go ahead, how much will the rebranding cost? Will the Crown remain as the prosecuting party, and if it does, what is the point of the name change? Another interesting proposal made by the Attorney-General recently is that the career paths of the CPS staff should be reviewed to encourage talented people to join up—for instance, by enabling CPS staff to become judges. Will the Solicitor-General elaborate on those proposals? Has she considered the human rights implications of CPS lawyers who are employed by the state acting as part-time judges?

Another problem is that in some types of crime, such as organised crime or animal rights terrorism, specialist teams of defence solicitors and counsel have been going around the country and outgunning local non- experienced CPS lawyers. Will the Solicitor-General elaborate on the proposed moves to set up specialist groups of prosecutors to take on specialist cases? Will those teams be based in London, and if they are, will they be a separate body or pulled from regional teams case by case? Does the Solicitor-General foresee that the future effectiveness and productivity of the CPS could be improved through specialisation?

One London CPS problem that comes through strongly in the October 2003 inspectorate report is that work remains to be done on leadership and governance. The inspectorate acknowledged that a new Government framework was being developed, with the intention of devolving accountability and responsibility to geographically based sectors. It would help if the Solicitor-General could provide an update on how that process is developing and if she would comment on the inspectorate's finding that there is still work to be done on people and performance management skills.

My understanding is that the CPS is to be permitted to take the decision to charge, rather than receive the papers only after the police have made such a decision. That seems eminently sensible, as it has the potential to reduce tension between the police and the CPS and reduce duplication of effort. However, the proposed roll-out of the plan seems to be somewhat haphazard, with only two London areas operating the new scheme. Can the Solicitor-General confirm whether the costing of the scheme in London, and around the country, has been properly worked out? For example, how many more CPS lawyers and CPS caseworkers will be required to be based in police stations?

We should deal with more than just operational and management issues. Above all, there are policy and confidence issues to consider. If members of the public do not think that the CPS is prosecuting fast enough or well enough, that creates a confidence problem in our criminal justice system. I recently received a letter from a lady who had been mugged in broad daylight as she left a shop. The woman stole her handbag, which contained her cheque book. By the time the police identified the assailant, which they did by tracking down the six stolen and forged cheques, the mugger was already in prison having had 120 other offences taken into consideration. The CPS, following national guidelines, refused to prosecute her for the six new offences, saying that it went against its overriding duty of fairness. If the offences that had been taken into consideration had been 126 rather than 120, would the sentence have been worse? The CPS said no. The victim, however, was staggered that the criminal could not be prosecuted for the crimes committed against her. After all the hassle and upset of helping the police in their investigation, she was left thinking, "Why did I bother telling the police? What good did it do me? I have come off worse."

The system seems to be wrong. Yet again, we see the law working in favour of the criminal rather than the victim, while the CPS takes the blame for a failure in national policy. I am interested to hear what plans, if any, the Solicitor-General has for strengthening the case in favour of victims and for the CPS to prosecute on that basis.

It seems that there are other proposals to improve contact between the CPS and witnesses—for instance, to inform them of the progress of a case. That is necessary not only for compassionate reasons but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said, because it would help to ensure that people turn up and court time would not be wasted. It is a good idea, but no one seems to know what it would involve. We may be wiser were the Solicitor-General to elaborate on that. Has the she considered making a statement on the future of the CPS and the reorganisation proposals? A full debate on the subject would be worth while.

2.36 pm
The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on opening the debate, and on bringing the matter to our attention. He had some sharp things to say about the Crown Prosecution Service in London, but I welcome the opportunity to respond, because we all agree that these are important matters for Londoners. It is important that those who might be victims of crime should feel that justice will be done; and it is important that the public in London should have confidence that justice will be done. That is also a major deterrent; if people think that they are going to be caught and brought to justice, they are less likely to commit crime. I am sure that we all agree on the seriousness to Londoners of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

I am the Minister accountable for the CPS in London. Hon. Members will be aware that the CPS is independent. It bases its prosecution decisions on the evidence in each case, but it also takes account of whether a prosecution is in the public interest. However, although its decisions are made independently, the CPS is a public service and is accountable to the House through me. I exercise close and careful superintendence over the CPS in London. I have to remember at all times that although Members of Parliament and the public want the CPS in London to be accountable, they also want it to be independent. They do not want me or any other Minister taking such decisions. I walk a fine line of proactive supervision without trespassing on the prosecutor's independence.

Richard Ottaway

The approach set out by the Solicitor-General is right, but it is not the answer to my question: who is the responsible Minister? I was looking at the wider issue, mainly framed around the letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The letter said that the CPS is not responsible for the delays, but that they are caused by witnesses, the police and other factors beyond its control. My question was aimed at finding out which Minister is responsible for the overall picture.

The Solicitor-General

I hope to answer as many of the hon. Gentleman's questions as possible, including the one of which he has just reminded me. I hope also to answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett); and I welcome to his position as shadow Solicitor-General the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). If I have not answered all their questions by the end of the debate, I undertake to do so in writing. However, I listened carefully to the points raised, and 1 shall set about answering them.

Having described the overall framework, I should explain that in London the police are accountable to the House through Home Office Ministers and the Home Secretary. The courts in London are responsible through the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie). However, when all is said and done, nobody in London wants to hear it sail that something has not happened because "It is not our responsibility, it is somebody else's". Nobody will think that we have a fantastic police force if there is a problem with the CPS or the courts, as a result of which ofenders are not brought to justice. The point was strongly made in the Glidewell report that although the CPS and the courts need to maintain their independence, they have to work together in close partnership. Nobody wants to hear either organisation claim that it played its part and so if something has gone wrong it is the fault of somebody else. That is no good to anybody; it serves only to undermine public confidence.

I acknowledge that there have been problems. They were detailed in the December 2001 inspectorate report that the hon. Member for Croydon, South mentioned. I stand by what I have said to him in person and in letters: the situation is improving. Let me explain how and why. So that cases do no fall through the gaps between the police and the CPS or between the CPS and the courts, various parts of the criminal justice system in London are working together in much closer partnership. Each borough now has a criminal justice group, comprising the police, the CPS and the courts. They are working together at borough level to ensure that more offenders are brought to justice, that there is a better deal for victims and that there is greater public confidence.

That is not an airy theoretical position. The agencies are working together in every borough. That is replicated London-wide: the chief Crown prosecutor, Dru Sharpling, the Metropolitan police, the courts and the probation service work together across London's criminal justice system. Inter-agency co-operation and partnership is cemented at borough and national level. That is new; it used not to happen. I remember that, when I first became Solicitor-General, a complaint about a case would go to the police in the first instance. The police would claim that it was the responsibility of the CPS, which had messed it up, and the complaint would be passed along the line. The focus is now much more on working together to get things right, rather than working separately to apportion responsibility.

Such co-operation occurs not only at borough level and London-wide but also among Ministers. Baroness Scotland at the Home Office, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, and I meet monthly, as do the heads of the agencies, to monitor the progress of the criminal justice system in London. That, too, is new; individual Ministers used not to keep such a close watch on individual London agencies. Now we not only do that, but we work toy ether to try to ensure that progress can be made. I thank all who work at borough and at London level, in particular the chair of the London criminal justice board, Dru Sharpling, for the new work that has been done to develop that partnership. It is producing results and will continue to do so.

In response to the proposals in the Glidewell report, there are now trial units for separate, specific consideration of more serious cases, backed up London- wide by a casework directorate in London dealing with the most specialist and serious cases. There has been a big change in management in the London CPS. The Attorney-General and I have full confidence in those who are leading the CPS in London. I hope that the results that are coming through will inspire more confidence than has been shown by hon. Members.

Mr. Burnett

I thank the Solicitor General for giving way. With your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to welcome the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) to his new role and congratulate him on his appointment.

Obviously, it is important to have strong leadership and example. It is also vital to have continuity. If staff are coming and going, that is disastrous. If files are partly prepared by one person and then handed on to another, it is difficult to mount a successful case. What is important is good leadership, quality of staff and continuity, and a real endeavour at work. I hope that that is what is going on.

The Solicitor-General

I agree with all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Djanogly

Further to the previous intervention, the Solicitor-General said that she holds meetings on a monthly basis to discuss the CPS in London. The management issues that the inspectorate said were a problem were occurring until October 2003, so will she explain how they have improved sir ce the full report?

The Solicitor-General

I will.

I agree with the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon that what is needed is strong leadership, a confident team of lawyers who are ably supported, and continuity on cases. I will address all those points in due course.

One of the problems in the CPS in London was simply that there were not enough lawyers. With the best will in the world, if there are too many cases per lawyer, there will not be a good quality of case preparation, so if there are more lawyers, that leads not to lower productivity but to better case preparation. The Government are committed to have more lawyers in the CPS, and we have made progress on that nationally, and particularly in London. Since 2001, when I became Solicitor-General, there has been a 49 per cent. increase in the number of lawyers in London. Lawyers should have time to prepare their cases properly.

When new people arrive it takes them time to bed in; obviously, they are not as experienced as those who have been around for 20 years. However, there has been a big increase in lawyers, and, interestingly, there has also been such a close correlation between that increase and an increase in guilty pleas that one would think that the lines that mark those rises were the same. The hon. Member for Huntingdon made a fair point when he said that some people may plead not guilty hoping that their case will fall by the wayside. When there were more lawyers in the CPS in London there were more guilty pleas because solicitors were clearly advising their clients to enter a guilty plea early it order to get the full discount for that, because the case might not fall apart and that would result in them being convicted.

I am sure that there being more lawyers has led to higher quality case preparation, to the ability to focus more on the interests and concerns of victims and witnesses, and to a greater likelihood of solicitors advising their clients that they will probably face justice if they are guilty, so if they are guilty the best thing to do is to plead guilty.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South said that CPS advocacy is unsung by magistrates and Crown court judges. We need to unpick that a bit. In my view, and in the view of CPS London, the DPP and the Attorney-General, it is not a good idea to have a high number of solicitor agents in the magistrates court. It is much better if our own prosecutors can be in court, prosecuting their own cases, which they know and understand, and on which they can make a decision. Magistrates say that they like the person who appears before them to be someone who knows what is going on in a case, rather than someone who tells them they must pop out and make a phone call, and then returns with the news that the prosecutor is not there, so they cannot get a decision.

Because we have more lawyers, we have needed to use fewer independent solicitor agents. The number of designated caseworkers has also increased. Those are people who are not qualified solicitors but who can be in court, representing cases at certain stages of the process. As well as more CPS advocacy, which is welcomed, and more designated caseworkers, there are more higher court advocates. Those are prosecutors in the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than the independent Bar, who can take a case through various stages, including, sometimes, up to trial in the Crown court. Instead of the Crown Prosecution Service instructing independent counsel, the prosecutor, properly trained as a higher court advocate, will conduct the case.

Mr. Burnett

I am encouraged by what the Solicitor-General says. I believe that it is wrong to take a merely accounting view of such matters. Nevertheless, we are here to ensure that there is value for money. One pointer to that will be the savings gained by using the Crown Prosecution Service to carry out its own advocacy, instead of hiving the work out to independent counsel. It would be interesting if the Solicitor-General could, in a few months' time, produce some statistics to show the savings made.

In addition, the Solicitor-General mentioned a 49 per cent. increase in the number of lawyers. I should like to know the figures for cases handled per lawyer, immediately before she was appointed and now. I should also like to know the number of successful prosecutions per lawyer, then and now.

The Solicitor-General

I do not have those figures with me, but I undertake to give them to the hon. Gentleman. However, I said that the number of guilty pleas, which he may count as successful prosecutions, had increased, and I believe that there is a correlation between that result and the increase in the number of lawyers.

I said something about CPS lawyers routinely doing their own advocacy in the magistrates court and increasingly working in the Crown court, and I want to mention the quality of CPS lawyers. I want to put this as delicately as I can, but sometimes the legal profession outside the CPS has not been as fair as it should have been to lawyers within it. The law is a chronically hierarchical profession and those at the independent Bar sometimes feel that they are the crème de la crème and that anyone who is not at the independent Bar, and heading towards the judiciary, is second rate.

I challenge that view. Many people in the Crown Prosecution Service have chosen it, and do an excellent job. They are not people who could not make it at the independent Bar. They believe in what they are doing, which is very important, and they do it to an excellent standard. Many CPS lawyers are women who have chosen to work for the service rather than the independent Bar, not least because the latter requires people to go zooming around the country at the drop of a hat. People in the CPS believe in the work that they do, and some find that the lack of family friendliness, and various other aspects of the independent Bar, make working for the CPS much more desirable.

Sixty-five per cent. of lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service are women. I am not prepared to hear that those lawyers are less good than lawyers outside the CPS. They might not look or sound like a High Court judge, but are their legal brains any less good? I would say not. We must recognise that there has been a lot of snobbery about the CPS in the legal profession.

The CPS should be held to account, and individual cases and statistics from across cases should be carefully considered. We should account to Parliament for what the CPS does, and it is right that Members such as the hon. Member for Croydon, South should not only take up individual cases but look across the piece. However, we must also guard against the sense that the CPS is the poor relation in the law. I have looked at CPS branches, trial units and prosecutors in court, and I have talked to people, and I would be very depressed if they were as they have been described. In reality, however, I am always struck by the contrast with how they are seen from outside.

Mr. Djanogly


The Solicitor-General

I am going to deal with the inspectorate's report. In fact, I feel that I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question before he even asks it.

Mr. Djanogly

I thank the Solicitor-General for giving way and for her mind-reading, but I wanted to ask about a different issue. She is not wrong about the way in which the legal profession views the CPS, and I agree with most of what she says, but I return to the issue of specialisation. In an age of specialisation, in which big money goes into defence teams, is there not a need for specialisation in what, generally speaking, is a proficient organisation?

The Solicitor-General

I have made a note of the hon. Gentleman's point and I will deal with it.

We could build confidence in the criminal justice system if people thought that it understood them, and that judges and prosecuting counsels understood a great variety of different walks of life. Public confidence in the justice system has been held back because of the narrow cadre of people from which the judiciary is chosen. That is why I very much support the progress that the Attorney-General is making in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs in opening up to CPS lawyers the possibility of taking up judicial appointments. That will give us a much more diverse judiciary—more women, more people from ethnic minorities and, heaven forbid, more people who did not go to public school. Those involved in court cases will see that the people on the bench are more like themselves. They will see that the criminal justice system, and the justice system generally, is fair, rather than narrow and elitist. Such steps will also widen the pool of people who can be put into the judiciary.

Of course, the human rights issues have been considered. Prosecutors employed by the CPS will not judge in CPS cases, but there are many other tribunals—immigration tribunals, tribunals dealing with Customs cases and courts martial—in which a prosecutor can build up part-time judicial experience before taking a full-time appointment. We are making progress on the issue, and the result will be good. That will also tackle the problem of people thinking that they will have to leave the CPS and go to the independent Bar if they want to join the judiciary. We do not want to lose some of the most advanced advocates because they feel that they will not be able to go into the judiciary if they stay at the CPS.

The CPS is taking forward its law scholarship scheme, which enables people who may have no post-school qualifications to train as lawyers. Again, that is diversifying the legal profession, which, although it has been diversifying, still comprises a relatively narrow group of people. We want everybody with the necessary commitment and intellect to have the opportunity to become a lawyer.

All hon. Members who spoke mentioned victims and witnesses. There are two reasons why we should take special care with them. First, it is a matter of principle. It is horrible to be tho victim of a crime, and victims need proper support. They do not want to be in a system that makes them feel worse. Secondly, even witnessing a crime can be a horrible experience, and going to court can be daunting. We need to be supportive, nice, helpful and kind to victims and witnesses not only as a matter of principle but because trials will collapse if they do not give evidence. If we want to bring offenders to justice, it is practical to provide better support for victims and witnesses.

The police and the CPS are working in partnership to staff focus desks that keep victims and witnesses in touch with the progress of their cases. We do not want to return to the situation in which people read the results of their cases in newspapers because no one had told them what had happened.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South asked whether it had occurred to me how victims feel when they go to court and their cases collapse. I agree that that is a problem. The Government are strongly focused on it and are giving greater attention and support to victims and witnesses. A great many things are being done to ensure that witnesses are warned in advance, kept in touch with developments in their cases and given better support. I pay tribute to the witness service, which is improving what it can offer in terms of pre-trial visits to the court, so that witnesses and victims see courtrooms and have everything explained in advance. That is particularly important in Crown court cases.

Mr. Djanogly

On dealing with victims and witnesses more humanely and efficiently, the problem is that when they are not dealt with in a way that they feel is appropriate, they have a sense of helplessness and do not know to whom they should speak. That has come through to me in correspondence from constituents. The lines of communication between MPs and the local CPS can be a tenuous way of getting answers. Has the Solicitor-General set her mind to that issue, whose importance is widely reflected across the country?

The Solicitor-General

Yes, I have. The joint work between the police and the CPS on additional victim support provides victims with a single point of contact and regularly updates them on case progress. That is important not only so that people clan be kept informed as a matter of courtesy, but so that my difficulties with transport or any other problems hat might prevent them from getting to court are dealt with in advance, which avoids unnecessary adjournments. Those issues are being carefully considered and progress is being made.

COMPASS and the computer system were mentioned, and I was asked whether I know what is going on in CPS London. As a result of the introduction of COMPASS, there is a much greater ability to manage cases effectively and with greater accountability. When we first came into government, there was no computerisation at all: no one had a screen on their desk. That was six years ago, and we have made progress since then. Now that COMPASS has been rolled out and everyone has been trained to use it, there is less paperwork and it is easier to track trials. We are also better able to look at the figures and discuss the rate of discharge committals, discontinuances, ineffective trials and witnesses not turning up. We could not have had that discussion before because everybody would be speaking on the basis of anecdote. Now we have much greater accountability and the police, the courts and the CPS are all working from the same figures. Therefore, we can work out what the problems are and see whether or not the situation is improving Discontinuance is when the CPS discontinues a case. The discontinuance rate in London is down. Discharge committals are also down and conviction rates are up. That is the direction of travel. We can monitor those rates and will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South asked about hearing trials in absence. The most important thing is to make it clear to defendants that they must turn up because if they do not they might be penalised for an offence under the Bail Act 1976 or have their trial heard in their absence. The Attorney-General has been liaising with the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs on that and the London Criminal Justice Board has considered how widespread the warnings are to defendants that if they do not turn up, they can be tried in their absence.

Hon. Members talked about the inspectorate reports—the original one in December 2001 and the reinspection in 2003. Of course, there is more progress to be made, but it is clear from examining those reports that huge progress has been made. We can have confidence that progress will continue to be made because we have strong leadership in CPS London. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Croydon, South shakes his head, but if he examines the direction of travel, and compares the 2001 report with the November 2003 report, he will see the improvement, and things have continued to improve since then.

The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about discontinuances, but, as I said, they are down, and he should acknowledge that that is good. If he is concerned about discharge committals being down, I can say that that situation is improving, which is good. If he wants the conviction rate to increase and the numbers of offenders who are brought to justice to increase, I can say that that is happening. The direction of travel should be looked at and we should ask ourselves whether things are improving and there is a sustained improvement. All of us would always like things to go faster, but the building blocks are in place and things are undoubtedly improving steadily.

Richard Ottaway

I acknowledge that the direction in which things are going is the right one. However, there is a grave danger that the Solicitor-General is going to believe her own rhetoric, which is not satisfactory. If she has time, perhaps in her car on the way back to her Ministry, she should read the overview to the 2003 report. It is only four pages long and will take her five minutes to read. Every paragraph, summarising every aspect, criticises, in a most serious and emphatic way, what is going on.

The Solicitor-General

Of course I have read the overview. I talked to the inspectors and know exactly what is going on. I did not say that everything is perfect, but that the building blocks are in place. There are more lawyers, computerisation, better partnership, and more focus on victims and witnesses. The hon. Gentleman must agree that those are building blocks, and they are in place and showing results. The further proposals in the reinspection report produced by the London inspectorate are being acted on. Nobody is resting on their laurels. People are working their socks off to create the improvements to which the public are entitled and which we all want to see.

Mr. Djanogly

Although I do not deny that people are working their socks off, it might aid my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South if the Solicitor-General could examine the four pages of the conclusion to the report and write to us. I do not think that there is enough time now to run through the conclusions and address the issues that they raise, to see how we have moved on from October last year.

The Solicitor-General

I shall certainly send anybody any letters that they might like to receive. However, I hope that I can do better than that. Since the inspection on which the report was based, lawyers have been introduced into police stations and have been advising them on charges so that the case can be got right from the outset. As a result, the discontinuance rate has fallen by 16 per cent.

I am not being complacent, believing my own rhetoric or being over-optimistic. I am looking at the figures from 2001, from the 2003 report and since that report. I am not saying that we are virtually there; we still have a long way to go. However, the building blocks are in place. No one is going to sit back and assume that things will get better continuously, of their own volition. It all has to be worked at, but we need not have an apocalyptic view of what is going on. The hon. Member for Croydon, South talked about the situation being close to collapse, and I would not want people to take that view because that is not the case.

Sylvia Denman's report was very much under discussion when I first took office in 2001. There has been intensive work to improve relations between staff and to improve the recruitment and promotion of ethnic minority staff within CPS London, and to produce better relations between CPS London and the community that it serves.

I was also asked about specialist prosecutors, which have been established in the past few years. As a result of one of the inspectorate reports, every rape case—I think that the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned rape cases—is dealt with by a specialist prosecutor. The intention is that they should be handled from beginning to end, and that is what happens in nearly all cases. The same specialist deals with a case from beginning to end in order to have continuity.

We also have training for all prosecutors in dealing with domestic violence, it being so prevalent, and each branch has a domestic violence specialist who can liaise on domestic violence with outside organisations and collate information, while acting as a point of reference for their colleagues in the CPS. There is specialism on street crime, as part of the street crime initiative. A team of specialist animal rights prosecutors have been dealing with animal rights extremists. A ministerial committee brings together the DTI and all the Departments concerned. The Attorney-General sits on that committee and has pulled together a team of specialist prosecutors to deal with this very tricky manifestation of an unpleasant set of offences.

Specialists are considering how we can deal with crimes that present particular challenges. I pay tribute in particular to those who have been working so hard to tackle the problem of bringing to justice those who are guilty of domestic violence and rape. They are never going to be easy crimes to prosecute, but a great deal of work is going into it. We have to continue that work if we are to see an improvement.

One of the things that I also hope will build confidence in the CPS and in the criminal justice system in general is better engagement with the community. Since I have been Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham, the relationship between the local community and the police has been transformed, particularly after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. That has paid dividends because people have been more prepared to give evidence to the police and to report crimes.

It is important, too, that the CPS engages with the community, while keeping its independence. It should be prepared to go to schools, to invite people to visit it and to talk about the work that it does. That does not mean discussing individual cases and whether we should or should not prose cute, but it should at least talk about the work that it does. For many people, the CPS has been a bit of a mystery, heard about only when it is blamed for a problem that arises at the end of a case. That has been a problem.

The CPS has been getting out and about, trying to engage with the community in London. However, part of that community engagement is a two-way process. As Members of Parliament, we are all used to going to see our commander of police; that is the first thing we do. If there is an issue with a big hospital, we go to see the chair of the trust board and the chief executive, and we go to see the head teachers of our local schools. We would certainly do that before complaining about them in the newspapers.

The problem is that there has not been an understanding relationship between Members of Parliament and the Crown Prosecution Service. Members on both sides of the House need to recognise that the CPS can talk to MPs and that MPs can talk to the CPS, without trespassing on its independence. The hon. Member for Croydon, South would then at least have the chance of hearing the CPS's view on the problems that he might want to raise. Everybody has a right to raise anything in the House and in the newspapers, but I contrast how people deal with the police, hospitals and schools with how they deal with the CPS. That contrast exists partly because the CPS is seen by many as faceless and people do not know who their local chief Crown prosecutor is.

Richard Ottaway

The Solicitor-General will be aware that I have studiously avoided going to the press and have kept our correspondence private during the past three years. Will she deal with the specific problem of primary and secondary disclosure? That is the real weak spot and she has not yet addressed it.

The Solicitor-General

I was not taking a sideswipe at the hon. Gentleman; I was merely saying that people need to get to know each other. Just as the police and the prosecutors need to get to know each other to work in partnership, we, as accountable Members of Parliament, need to get to know the prosecutors to understand the work that they are doing. I was not in any way, shape or form criticising him.

There is a new protocol on disclosure. Hardly a day goes by without the Attorney-General thinking about disclosure, and I have plenty of notes on the subject. It is an issue. We need to be sure that disclosure is properly dealt with before a case comes to trial in a magistrates court or the Crow n court. That is why the case preparation project, which involves certifying a case as ready for trial, is so important. It ensures that a person does not get to court and find that the case has to be adjourned because certain issues are raised. Disclosure is very important. It is not an easy issue; it is very difficult. However, the police and prosecutors are working closer on it and trip wires are in place to ensure that disclosure takes place before a case is certified as ready for trial.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon asked about other prosecuting departments. He is right that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is subject to the Law Officers, although it belongs to the Department for Transport. Similarly, the Health and Safety Executive looks to the Law Officers, as do the Environment Agency and courts martial. That is different from the CPS.

Mr. Burnett

I know under whose aegis which prosecutor lies. The CPS is inspected by Her Majesty's inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service. I am anxious to know who monitors and inspects the small prosecution departments.

The Solicitor-General

I know that the hon. Gentleman is asking about inspections, but before I deal with that, I want to add the Serious Fraud Office to my list of agencies that report to the Law Officers.

The cases of the smaller prosecution departments are subject to audit; they do not have an inspectorate in the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service does. Reviews of individual cases or systems will be conducted from time to time, but there is no separate inspectorate to consider prosecutions by either the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or the Health and Safety Executive, because the number of cases is small. However, the Attorney-General and I superintend such agencies and meet routinely to consider all the issues arising. Indeed, I have a meeting with Environment Agency prosecutors this afternoon after the debate.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked whether there should be a prosecution when a victim has suffered a crime, but the defendant has in the meantime been imprisoned for something else. Such cases will have fallen foul not of the evidential test, but of the public interest test. We must consider whether prosecuting such cases would he in the public interest. I agree that it is unsatisfactory to tell victims that bringing to justice someone who is already in prison will not make any difference, but there is a record of the offence even if they are not prosecuted for committing it.

The National Criminal Justice Board has discussed the issue. The manner in which the public interest aspect of the code for Crown prosecutors is put into effect is being reconsidered. We cannot say that we should focus on victims, but still be able to tell them, "Well, you might have suffered that crime, but we're not going to prosecute because he's already guilty of so many other offences". That is a justified grievance, but it is at least on the way to being dealt with.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked about the name change, which is being discussed. The Crown Prosecution Service has been transformed. It is making moves earlier in the process by giving advice on the charge and then deciding on it. The service is broadening its role in the middle of the process, with extra support and involvement of victims and witnesses, and with CPS advocates going into court. The CPS is involved further on in the process, advising the judge or magistrate about the appropriate sentence and challenging factually erroneous mitigation. All that, in addition to computerisation, more lawyers, designated case workers and the judicial appointment commission, has involved enormous changes in the service in the past few years.

Such change can be encapsulated by redescribing the Crown Prosecution Service, which, as I have said, is a bit of a mystery for most people. We can explain the system by saying, "This is the public prosecution service". That would also help people to understand what the service does. The fact that I, for instance, appear on behalf of the Crown is well known to hon. Members, but it is baffling to people outside the House. People should understand that the CPS prosecutes in the public interest and has gone through many changes, and a future change might involve the name change.

I am confident that there is sustained progress. Is there more work to be done? Of course there is. However, I conclude by thanking those dedicated, hard-working lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service in London, many of whom do successful and important work, but who are rarely thanked and almost never in public. I want them to go from strength to strength.

3.24 pm

Sitting suspended