|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
28. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): What the purpose was of the recent Conference of European Chief Justices and Attorney Generals sponsored by Her Majesty's Government in London; and what the cost was to the Law Officers Department. 
The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston): A conference of presidents of the supreme courts and Attorneys-General of the member states of the European Union has taken place every two years since the 1970s. The conference is not, formally speaking, an EU event. The theme of this year's conference was human rights, focusing in particular on the impact of the European Court of Human Rights over the past 50 years, the relationship
Ann Clwyd: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that under the international law principle of universal jurisdiction, those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide can be prosecuted in any country? Did the EU meeting discuss the responsibility of various EU countries to prosecute war criminals, particularly Iraqi war criminals, and what is the role of the United Kingdom in all this?
The Solicitor-General: I cannot reveal the substance of the discussions as they proceeded on the basis of the Chatham House rules. My hon. Friend knows that we and other European states are determined that, for example, there should be an international criminal court. Draft legislation on that will be published in the fairly near future. The United Kingdom Government and other European Governments are also signatories to instruments such as the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
My hon. Friend will know also that the acts of the Government and of the UK courts in the Pinochet case have been warmly welcomed throughout the world in establishing that there should be no hiding place for war criminals.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Solicitor-General share with us his view of the status of any agreed charter or convention on human rights, even one that is not incorporated in the treaties, in the light of his discussions with his colleagues in other countries? Does he take the view that is circulating in parts of the Government that any such agreement, even if not in the treaty, could be used in the European Court of Justice and could become part of UK law, even though the Prime Minister is saying that it would not do so?
The Solicitor-General: We have made it clear that the charter must be simply declaratory; it should not create any new competences. That is accepted by President Herzog, who chairs the convention that is drawing up the charter. We are absolutely clear about that: no new competences and a purely declaratory charter. We take the view also that a charter would set out clearly for EU citizens the rights that they have. We consider that to be very important.
We are aware of the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but we have said clearly that the European Court of Justice must not go beyond existing rights. We have said that social rights are better dealt with in other ways. Some of the social rights that have emerged--in terms, for example, of a fair balance between family and work life--are legally pretty meaningless.
Mr. Bercow: Given that the Attorney-General is thinking of dispensing with the services of Treasury juniors--barristers in private practice who undertake important prosecutions at the Old Bailey--will the Solicitor-General confirm that they do outstanding work and provide excellent value for money? Does he agree that to dispense with them could cause an unnecessary increase in the costs of his Department?
The Solicitor-General: Treasury counsel at the Old Bailey prosecute heavy cases involving, for example, the Official Secrets Act and terrorism. They also prosecute in murder cases, which throughout the country are also prosecuted by ordinary counsel from the Bar. My noble and learned friend the Attorney-General has requested an inquiry into whether it is appropriate for cases of murder, rape or robbery heard at the Bailey always to be handled by Treasury counsel. But we accept that some important cases should be dealt with by a specialist cadre of barristers at the Old Bailey.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): What proportion of the costs incurred related to the expense of employing Queen's counsel? Does my hon. and learned friend agree that the Government should do all they can to push down those exorbitant fees, whereby some barristers earn more than £1 million a year? Is everything being done to get the Government's legal bill down to sensible proportions?
The Solicitor-General: All Treasury counsel at the Old Bailey are juniors, not silks. Civil work by counsel representing the Government is done by juniors. We have various panels representing levels of expertise whose members are all juniors. Only exceptionally are silks employed, and that has to be approved by me personally or by the Attorney-General. The Bar accepts that there must be a discount on fees for Government work, so we are certainly conscious of expenditure. When the Attorney-General or I appear, we charge absolutely nothing.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): What impact do the costs referred to by the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have on the budget of the Crown Prosecution Service? On Monday in another place, the Attorney-General announced a slight increase in the CPS budget. Given the costs we have just heard about and the 3 per cent. per annum budget savings, how much money will be left to improve the performance of the CPS?
The Solicitor-General: I am pleased that we have been able to secure £15.8 million extra for the Crown Prosecution Service on a budget of about £350 million per annum--and I am confident that we will do well in the comprehensive spending review for the next three years. The CPS budget is quite separate from that for counsel employed by the service, which is uncapped. The CPS is always highly conscious of the fees payable to prosecution counsel. The complaint is made, quite legitimately, by counsel who appear for the CPS that they are paid much less than defence counsel--which disparity we are trying to address.
The Solicitor-General: A busy programme of training and guidance has already been provided to Government lawyers on the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. The training takes the form of conferences, training events, departmental in-house seminars, and attendance by Government lawyers at external training events. An updated version of "Judge over your Shoulder", an information booklet aimed at non-lawyers, is available on the Treasury Solicitor's website.
In addition, Departments are supported by three cross- cutting committees. Two of them consider the human rights aspects of civil and criminal proceedings, and the third, a Cabinet Office committee, considers human rights issues on which a collective view is required.
Mr. Jenkins: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Will he give the House an assurance that the Government lawyers will be ready on the implementation day of the Human Rights Act 1998, which is only weeks away?
The Solicitor-General: There is an extensive training programme, as I explained. There is also a training programme for the Crown Prosecution Service, jointly with the police. Some 3,000 lawyers and others have to be trained in the CPS, and I am confident that the training will be completed by the end of July.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I have no doubt that Government lawyers are well trained for the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998; my concern is that Ministers are not. I asked the Home Secretary last Monday what training Ministers were receiving to bring them up to date with their own legislation, and he was not able to answer the question. Perhaps the Solicitor-General can answer it on his behalf. What has he done, and what has the Attorney-General done, to make sure that Ministers know even the slightest bit about their own legislation?
The Solicitor-General: I certainly would not say that Ministers are all-knowing, but they know a great deal about the Human Rights Act. They are conscious that it is one of the most important steps that the Government have taken. As always, the Opposition are turning wine into water. As I have said on previous occasions, the Act is a significant development in persuading the country that a rights culture is important.