HC Deb 27 July 1982 vol 28 cc441-3W
Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether Her Majesty's Government accept the recommendations on prosecution arrangements made by the Royal Commission on criminal procedure in part II of its report; and whether they have any proposals for early action on this matter.

Mr. Whitelaw

The Royal Commission found the existing prosecution arrangements in England and Wales to be deficient in respect of fairness, openness, accountability and efficiency. It considered whether the right course would be to set up an independent prosecution service organised on a national basis, on the lines of the procurator fiscal service in Scotland, but rejected this option because it believed that, if applied on the much larger scale appropriate to England and Wales, such an organisation would prove bureaucratic and top heavy. Its preference was for a locally based system, and it recommended that statutory provision should be made for the appointment of a Crown prosecutor for each police area, with the following functions: the conduct of all criminal cases once the decision to initiate proceedings had been taken by the police, with discretion to alter or drop charges; the provision of legal advice to the police on prosecution matters; and the provision of advocates in the magistrates' court, to the exclusion of the police, and briefing of counsel in the Crown court. At local level the Crown prosecutor would be accountable to a police and prosecutions authority. At national level my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General would have responsibility for prosecution policy, and he or I would have responsibilities with regard to the administration and finance of the prosecution service similar to those which I have in relation to the police.

The Government recognise that there is a strong case in principle for establishing in some form a prosecution service independent of the police. At the same time we have to bear in mind the need to contain public expenditure and public service manpower, and to ensure that any changes made or planned keep within the limits of available resources. Moreover, we share the reservations which have been widely expressed, not least in the debate in this House last November, about the Royal Commission's proposals on how such a service should be organised and controlled. These proposals envisaged that a Crown prosecutor for each police area should be appointed by a local supervisory authority, subject to central Government approval, and should be accountable to that authority not only on administrative matters but also, in what the Royal Commission called an "explanatory" mode, for this general policy. We share the misgivings that appear to be widely felt about whether these proposals would be workable, and about the effect that they might have on the independence of prosecutors' decisions.

However, the alternative of a service organised on a national basis raises quite a different set of problems which were not examined by the Royal Commission in any detail, and which have not otherwise received the study that they require. At present the only national prosecuting agency dealing with crime in general is the department of the Director of Public Prosecutions, dealing with a relatively small number of cases, though they include the most important. An expansion of the Director's responsibilities to take in all prosecutions, regardless of their importance, would mean a dramatic change in the nature of the Director's office and in the size and organisation of his Department. There would be implications, too, for the nature and extent of the Law Officers' accountability to Parliament for prosecution decisions. There would also be some danger, as the Royal Commission feared, of creating a bureaucratic and too heavy structure. For these reasons it would, in the Government's opinion, be unwise to dismiss altogether the concept of a prosecution system organised on a local basis: there may be alternatives to the Royal Commission's scheme which would avoid the dangers both of over-centralisation and of the kind of local accountability which the Commission proposed.

For the purpose of carrying out a further analysis and study of these problems, the Government proposes to reappoint the working party on prosecution arrangements which last year carried out a preliminary assessment for Ministers of Part II of the Royal Commission's report. This is a working party of officials under Home Office chairmanship, comprising also representatives of the Lord Chancellor's and Law Officers' Departments, and including the Director of Public Prosecutions. Given that the Government do not find the Royal Commission's proposals acceptable as they stand, the working party's task now will be to advise Ministers on what would be the best model for the organisation of an independent prosecution service on some other basis; what problems would arise and how best they could be solved; and what the resource implications would be. They will not be limited to considering organisation on a national basis, but will be able also to examine local, regional and ether possible forms; and they will carry out their tasks in consultation with representatives of the bodies which have an interest in the subject—including the prosecuting solicitors now in office, the legal profession as a whole, local authorities and the police.

The Government do not, however, intend to await the outcome of the study before taking steps in the direction which the Royal Commission wanted. The Commission itself saw the transition to an independent prosecution service as a gradual process. In keeping with that view, we propose to take three steps which we regard as interim measures. First, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General proposes to give to all who prosecute on behalf of the public some guidance on criteria for prosecution which will be closely in accordance with the spirit of the Royal Commission's recommendations. My Department will bring this guidance to the attention of chief officers of police. Secondly, the Director of Public Prosecutions will, with the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend, ask chief officers of police to consult him in every case in which the chief officer wishes to continue criminal proceedings contrary to the advice of the solicitor having the conduct of the proceedings. Thirdly, we shall maintain the policy of favouring the establishment of prosecuting solicitors' departments; and my Department will proceed to draw up models for the organisation of prosecuting solicitors' departments with a view to promoting efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Interim measures on these lines will be taken after consultation with bodies outside Whitehall, and will be supplemented by research aimed at updating the information obtained by the Royal Commission about the working of the existing arrangements.