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Lenient Sentences

31. Mr. Hawkins: How many appeals against over-lenient sentences have been made since 2 May. [22333]

The Attorney-General: The Law Officers between them have referred 52 sentences to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the Attorney-General agree that the introduction of appeals against over-lenient sentences was a popular and successful measure introduced by the previous Government? Does he agree that both the victims of the crimes that led to those over-lenient

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sentences and the public in general feel that that is a worthwhile power? Will he look carefully at extending the consultation between prosecution authorities and the police, and the victims of the crimes concerned, when an appeal against over-lenient sentences is considered in future?

The Attorney-General: I have observed what has been happening over the years, and I am sure that the change has turned out to be worth while, although I concede that, at the beginning, many of us had doubts. Those were not confined to one party and went much wider than politicians--to the judiciary as well--because there was concern about the dangers of double jeopardy. That is taken into account by the courts, although it is not in the legislation. I, like my predecessors, receive the views of the prosecutor and independent Treasury counsel. We must have regard to current sentencing practices. When the judge delivers his initial sentence, he has regard to all the circumstances, including the victim.

Mr. Lock: Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us what the Court of Appeal has made of sentences referred to it by him? I accept that every case that comes before him must be judged on its merits, but can he give us some guidance on whether his view that there are over-lenient sentences is, by and large, supported by the decisions of the court?

The Attorney-General: Of the 52 sentences that I and the Solicitor-General have referred since 1 May last year, 19 have been reviewed by the Court of Appeal, of which 13 have resulted in increased sentences. In six of those 19 cases, the Court of Appeal held that the sentences were unduly lenient, but exercised the court's discretion not to increase the sentence. The remaining 33 sentences are yet to be heard. The figures for the last few years are of roughly the same order.

Mr. Swinney: I have expressed to the Attorney-General the concern of one of my constituents, Mr. Brian Pithie, about what he considers to be an over-lenient sentence in the case of Philip Dale at Winchester Crown court. Will the Attorney-General give an assurance that he will look at the case and consider referring the sentence to the Court of Appeal for its leniency to be tested?

The Attorney-General: All cases referred to my office are considered personally by me or by the Solicitor-General, whoever is available. The law lays down that that has to be done within a period of 28 days from sentence. That is the limitation and that means that sometimes there are few days left, as I am sure my predecessor will be the first to agree, before reference is made. The cases, however, are personally considered--they have to be and always have been.

Discontinued Prosecutions

32. Mr. Gordon Prentice: What considerations are taken into account when determining not to proceed with a prosecution on the grounds that it is against the public interest. [22334]

The Attorney-General: The code for Crown prosecutors sets out factors in favour of and factors

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against a prosecution. Factors against a prosecution include the youth or old age or infirmity of the defendant. In cases of any seriousness, however, a prosecution will usually take place unless any factors against a prosecution clearly outweigh those tending in favour.

Mr. Prentice: The reasons also include possible embarrassment to the country and its international relations but, notwithstanding that and the other factors that the Attorney-General cited, when a prosecution does not proceed and the person who has been investigated is rich and powerful, has been in authority and may even have been a Member of the House, is there not a powerful case for saying that the public interest requires that the reasons should be given?

The Attorney-General: The reasons that are taken into account are set out fully in the code for Crown prosecutors. As regards ex-Members of the House, my hon. Friend has gone over the ground on more than one occasion and I have nothing to add, save that the police are investigating the matter.

Mr. Burnett: Do the same considerations apply in respect of prosecutions for tax evasion and why are there so few such prosecutions? Would the Attorney-General ever be assisted if a Department of State prepared a case against a Minister in that same Department?

The Attorney-General: Prosecutions in Inland Revenue matters or decisions on whether to compound matters alleged to be due are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is responsible for that side.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Would the Attorney-General be consulted if there were an investigation of a Minister of the Crown, particularly if it reflected on something that he did outside the House rather than on his duties within the House? If so, at what point would that come about and would he be consulted about any prosecution?

The Attorney-General: As I said previously with regard to a former Member of the House, generally there would be no reason for me to intervene, it would be extremely unlikely and I hope that I would not. That has been the tradition where there has been political involvement.

Mr. Owen Oyston

33. Mr. Campbell-Savours: If officials in his Department saw papers in relation to the prosecution of Mr. Owen Oyston. [22335]

The Attorney-General: No.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: This is a very difficult case to raise because we are talking about a rape trial where the victim and the witness for the defence were teenage girls, and the prosecution hinged on their evidence.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me whether he thinks it fair that, under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, a victim should have total anonymity and be protected from cross-questioning as to

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her character when the witness in the defence, as happened in this particular case, is subject to very close questioning as to her character? Indeed, her whole previous life is laid bare as part of the prosecution's case. Are we seeing natural justice when cases are conducted in that way?

The Attorney-General: My hon. Friend has put very carefully the matters that I know are of concern to him. He is right to refer to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976. It is a matter for the judge whether he gives anyone leave to ask questions regarding the victim. The test will be that he will grant leave only if he is satisfied that it would be unfair to the defendant to refuse to allow such evidence. As regards a witness and whether

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questions about previous sexual experience should be allowed, that is also a matter for the judge. As regards the 1976 Act, it was brought up to date in 1994.

I am also concerned about anonymity. The anonymity of complainants in cases of rape and other specified sexual offences is protected from the time of the complaint, whereas the current legal position does not prevent media identification of juvenile offenders before the point of charge. However, the effectiveness of these provisions, when set against the increasing use of global information technology and publications outside the jurisdiction of the courts, is a matter of proper concern, and I am giving very careful consideration to it.

Returning to the gist of my hon. Friend's questions, if he has any new matters arising from the case to which he referred, these can be looked at by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

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Business of the House

3.32 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor): The business for next week is as follows.

Monday 26 January--Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Third Day).

Tuesday 27 January--Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 pm, there will be a debate on development in the countryside and the green belt, followed by a debate on the London underground. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Wednesday 28 January--Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (First Day).

Thursday 29 January--Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Second Day).

Friday 30 January--Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week is as follows.

Monday 2 February--Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Fourth Day).

Tuesday 3 February--Consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill (Fifth Day).

Wednesday 4 February--Until 2 pm, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Police Grant Report (England And Wales).

Thursday 5 February--Motions on the English revenue support grant reports.

Friday 6 February--Private Members' Bills.

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