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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Crown Prosecutions (North Yorkshire)

35. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): How many successful Crown prosecutions there were in North Yorkshire between (a) 1 January and 31 December 2000 and (b) 1 January and 31 December 2001. [31435]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): In 2000, there were 12,000 cases in North Yorkshire, of which 98 per cent. resulted in convictions, and in 2001 there were 11,000 cases, of which 99 per cent. resulted in convictions. As the hon. Lady knows, some cases do not make it to trial, but North Yorkshire's discontinuance rate is lower than the national average.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Solicitor-General for her reply. Will she take this opportunity to join me in congratulating the North Yorkshire Crown Prosecution Service on its excellent recent report? Does she share my concern that the figures that she quoted do not reflect the fact that reported crimes in the year ending March 2001 totalled more than 51,000? There is a large discrepancy between reported crimes and successful prosecutions.

The Solicitor-General: I am sure that the hon. Lady's congratulations to North Yorkshire's chief crown prosecutor, Rob Turnbull, and his team will be warmly received. They have done a good job, received a good inspectorate report and their figures are good. In particular, they have reduced to 51 the number of days that it takes to bring a young offender to justice.

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The hon. Lady raises the wider point of what happens before a case reaches the CPS, whether such a case is investigated by the police once reported and whether evidence is sufficient to proceed to prosecution. In North Yorkshire, there is a good, co-operative relationship, which the inspectorate described as better than elsewhere in the country. Co-operation between the CPS and the police has ensured that, if there is proper evidence, cases can be brought. However, it is clear that the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department—indeed, the Government as a whole—are concerned that there should not be crimes for which no offender is brought to justice.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Can the Solicitor-General say approximately how frequently such prosecutions were contracted out to solicitors and barristers in private practice in North Yorkshire during that period? Will she tell us—not just in respect of North Yorkshire but, more importantly, generally—how her Department ensures that costs charged to it by solicitors and barristers in private practice are competitive, reasonable and provide good value for public money?

The Solicitor-General: I do not have the exact figures, either for North Yorkshire or nationally, but I will provide the hon. Gentleman with them. He makes a very important point, but there are certain principles that we want to adhere to. In instructing agents, outside solicitors or barristers, the CPS must be fair to the public purse, but the relationship between the defence and the prosecution must also be fair. We do not want a well resourced prosecution facing down an under-resourced defence, or vice versa.

Furthermore, I hope that, for positive rather than negative reasons, there will be fewer instructed independent counsel and private solicitors in future. I want CPS staff to act as designated caseworkers, bringing their own cases on the Crown's behalf to the magistrates court, and CPS lawyers to act as High Court advocates, bringing their own cases in the Crown court. The CPS is taking forward that initiative, but, as I said, I shall provide the hon. Gentleman with the detailed figures that he has requested.


36. Vera Baird (Redcar): If she will give guidance to the Crown Prosecution Service on charging manslaughter where people have killed partners who have inflicted grave domestic violence on them. [31436]

The Solicitor-General: I am not planning to give guidance to the CPS on charging manslaughter where people have killed partners who have inflicted grave domestic violence on them. The CPS will always consider the full background circumstances of a case when deciding whether the charge should be murder or manslaughter, including whether the defendant has acted under provocation or with diminished responsibility. I am working closely with the CPS to ensure the vigorous prosecution of domestic violence.

Vera Baird: Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that a practical problem follows on from the failure to give that advice to prosecutors as yet? I am obliged for her answer, which reveals that things may

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change. The problem is that women who kill as a consequence of domestic violence are often acting in self-defence. Although they may appear to use excessive force, it is because the ferocity of an earlier attack has put them in great fear. Of course, that issue must be tried by a jury. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that jurors rarely try domestic violence cases in which the charge is murder because judges permit a woman who has killed in the heat of the moment under pressure to plead guilty to provocation manslaughter—a plea that she must take or run the risk of the life sentence that follows murder—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is far too long and, when I stand, the hon. Lady should be seated.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend raises some important and difficult issues. It is true to say that there is continuous consideration of those issues. We want to get it right and there are no easy answers. As she knows, each case has to be judged on the basis of the individual circumstances. Of course, we want to be sure that prosecutors study all the background to the case and have all the information. In the case that she raises, prevention is better than cure and we do not want domestically violent husbands to be murdered by their wives; we want them to be prosecuted, or we want the violence to be prevented in the first place.

Civil Service Pension Scheme

37. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): If she has made an assessment of the risk of the Government facing legal action under the Human Rights Act 1998 over the civil service pension scheme. [31437]

The Solicitor-General: I am afraid that I cannot answer my hon. Friend's question without breaching the long-established Attorney-General's convention that neither whether the law officers have advised, nor if they have what the advice was, is revealed outside Government.

Lynne Jones: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I live in hope, which will probably not be realised, that in the answer to my supplementary question she may shed more light on Government thinking. She will be aware that the majority of private pension schemes extend benefits to unmarried partners, that Members of Parliament have voted to extend benefits to their partners and that, later this year, the civil service

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pension scheme will change to recognise unmarried partners. In view of those developments, does she agree that the Government are vulnerable to challenge from teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers and members of the armed forces in long-term unmarried partnerships who are denied benefits for their partners?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has raised some important matters, but they are policy issues for the Cabinet Office. She then worked her way back to asking me the original question about legal advice, which I cannot answer except to say that, as regards the Human Rights Act, all Departments and Ministers are very concerned that all their actions should comply with the European convention. To the extent that we can, we assist them in doing that. It is not only secrecy that prevents me answering that question; there is a line of accountability which ends with the deciding Ministers and not the advising Ministers. In this respect, the Law Officers are advising Ministers, not decision makers. We are the deciding Ministers on the other issues about which I have been asked and we are fully accountable to the House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Is the Solicitor-General prepared to accept some advice from a Conservative Front Bencher on the question of the Human Rights Act, bearing it in mind that I want to be helpful? If there is a problem with the civil service scheme, is she aware that in the recent case of R v. the Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Simms, Lord Hoffmann made it crystal clear that if Parliament chose to do so, it could legislate contrary to the fundamental principles in the European convention on human rights, providing the actions taken by Parliament were clear and unambiguous? The option is there. Will she pass that advice on to Ministers?

The Solicitor-General: I will draw Ministers' attention to the Hansard containing the hon. Gentleman's comments, but in an ingenious and, as we would expect, complicated way he has asked the same question as was asked earlier on what our legal advice is. He has given me his advice, for which I thank him, and hon. Members and Ministers will read it. [Interruption.] As the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), points out, he has given it for free, which is welcome, but I cannot answer that point. I cannot engage in a discussion about the Human Rights Act's application to this particular point of policy. He will have to get one of his colleagues to ask the Minister with policy responsibility at the Cabinet Office.

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