HL Deb 26 March 2002 vol 633 cc39-40WA
Lord Merlyn-Rees

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations made by His Honour John Gower QC and Sir Anthony Hammond KCB QC in their report on prosecutions conducted by the Solicitors Office of HM Customs and Excise. [HL3512]

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

In the Parliamentary Answer given by the then Attorney-General on 12 March 2001 (colWA 68) he announced that the Government had accepted all the recommendations in principle but had opted for a phased approach to implementation.

Since that announcement, the Prosecutions Group of the Solicitors Office has forged ahead with a rapid programme of change to enable it to deliver legal services of a high quality in a responsive and flexible way. New managers and staff have been recruited, the organisation has been restructured and working practices are being reformed.

The Parliamentary Answer also referred to accountability for the prosecutions function moving from the commissioners to the Attorney-General on 1 April 2002.

Final agreement has not yet been reached on the implementation of Recommendation 4 of the Gower/Hammond recommendations which recommends that in relation to the prosecution function the solicitor for the Customs and Excise should not be funded by the commissioners but should have his own ring-fenced budget and be accountable for his own expenditure.

This recommendation is accepted in principle by the Government but there are technical issues relating to the estalishment of a separate vote which require further time to resolve. The Government are committed to the full implementation of Recommendation 4 no later than 1 April 2003, but in the meantime the Prosecutions Group budget will remain as part of the Customs and Excise vote, though it will be separately identified and managed by the solicitor for the Customs and Excise and financial accounts reports will be produced as if that budget had been established as a separate vote.

As a consequence of these revised arrangements, the Attorney-General will not assume full accountability for the prosecutions function from 1 April. Instead, from that date the following arrangements will apply:

  1. (1) The commissioners (and Treasury Ministers) will be responsible for and accountable to Parliament for: anything done in the course of an investigation; enforcement policy, including the resources to be deployed; prosecution policy, ie the seriousness with which offences should in general be treated and wider issues of departmental policy such as the disclosure of informants; decisions on alternatives to prosecution such as compounding, civil evasion action etc.
  2. (2) The Law Officers will be responsible for and accountable to Parliament for: the quality of legal advice given by investigation legal advisers; the quality of the Prosecutions Group casework decision-making in relation to cases referred to that group for prosecution; the application (the Prosecutions Group having consulted with Customs administrators, as appropriate) of prosecutions policy and public interest factors to individual defendants in cases referred to the Prosecutions Group for prosecution.

Inspection of the Prosecutions Group by the CPS Inspectorate will commence on 1 April 2002, and the Prosecutions Group will proceed with the trials referred to in the previous Parliamentary Answer.

The Government are satisfied that the arrangements that will apply from 1 April strengthen the involvement of the Attorney-General with the difficult and complex criminal casework conducted by the Solicitors Office, maintain the momentum of change that has been established and preserve an appropriate position on parliamentary accountability.