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28 Nov 2002 : Column 457continued
The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): I believe that CPS London is becoming more effective. We regard sustaining the improvement in CPS London as essential, as Londoners are entitled to the protection of a good criminal justice system. London is the focus for much serious crime, and the reputation of CPS London sets the reputation of the CPS nationally.
Mr. Gardiner: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her response, but there is a particular aspect of efficiency on which most Londonersindeed, most of the national populationwould like an assurance: that those who perpetrate hoax calls during the fire brigades dispute are being pursued with the full vigour of the CPS in London, with a view to prosecution.
The Solicitor-General: I can reassure the House that that is certainly the case. The Director of Public Prosecutions has issued guidance on charging in hoax call cases, which are being fast-tracked. I am not aware of any such cases in London, but in one case in west Yorkshire, a man is awaiting sentence for making hoax calls, and another man is being prosecuted in Staffordshire for making three hoax calls. A man has been arrested in Manchester, another is awaiting sentence in Cumbria, and an ongoing investigation is taking place in Lincolnshire. These cases are being taken very seriously, as the Prime Minister said on Wednesday.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): My right hon. and learned Friend will know that I take a particular interest in the issue of racism within the Crown Prosecution Service. Can she tell us what progress has been made in tackling racism within CPS London, with particular reference to the staff and the prosecution policy?
The Solicitor-General: I welcome and endorse the stance that my hon. Friend has taken on the issue of race discrimination. It is very important that CPS London, and the CPS as a whole, is a fair and non-discriminatory employer that offers equal opportunities to all staff, both lawyers and non-lawyers. It is also very important that, whether dealing with defendants or victims, it adopts a non-racist and equal attitude. Since investigating the CPS, the Commission for Racial Equality has approved it as having proper procedures, which will be taken forward.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Attorney-General superintends the CPS; he acts as guardian of the public interest and of public safety, irrespective of party politics. In the wake of the firefighters' strike, there is secondary picketing on the tube in London, and the threat of it elsewhere. Yesterday, the Prime Minister
The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right: in these matters, the Attorney-General's approach is concerned with the public interest, not the Government interest. However, if the question of initiating a prosecution arises, the police must first investigate and produce evidence of an offence for the CPS to consider. They have not done so in relation to any picketing offences, so it has not fallen to the CPS to consider files brought forward by the police concerning the suitability of prosecution.
On the second point, about the Attorney-General's powers to seek an injunction in the courts against someone he suspects may be about to commit a criminal offence, if he does that his arguments will be set out to the court first, and thereafter he will explain to the Lords, and I will explain to the Commons, what the basis of that application was.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): There remain grave misgivings about the conduct of the Crown Prosecution Service and others in the Burrell case. In the other place on 6 November, in reply to my noble Friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, the Attorney-General by implication criticised both the prosecution and the judge in relation to a public interest immunity application. Many would argue that more trenchant criticism was deserved. Will the Solicitor-General confirm that the application should never have been made and assure the House that steps will be taken to ensure that there is no further abuse of public interest immunity by the CPS?
The Solicitor-General: There has been no abuse of public interest immunity by the CPS. If there had been, the Attorney-General and I would have taken it with absolute seriousness. If the prosecution has information that could help the defence, it is under a duty to disclose it, and in no circumstances should such information be withheld. That is fundamental to our principles of justice. There was never any intention to proceed in the Burrell case withholding information that could have helped the defence. The question was whether the CPS was to drop the case, in which case disclosure did not arise, or whether it was to proceed, in which case there would have been disclosure. It would have been quite wrong to go ahead with the case without disclosing the information that the Queen had subsequently given.
The Solicitor-General: The Crown Prosecution Service learns lessons from all its cases, as is right and proper. I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that there is no need for any public unease about this case. If anything was going wrong with prosecutions, the Attorney-General and I would be absolutely on to it, I would disclose it fully to the House, and we would want action taken to sort it out. That is not so in this case. I hope that hon. Members will accept that, and feel reassured accordingly.
The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): I receive letters about serious fraud cases, and the Attorney-General and I regularly meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office, Ros Wright. I have not met small firms' representatives specifically to discuss fraud, but I am well aware that it is a problem not only for big companies and rich individuals but for small business and people on low incomes. The work that the CPS and the SFO do on fraud is very important.
The Solicitor-General: I am aware of the views of the Bar Council on all aspects of the Criminal Justice Bill. We take its views extremely seriously. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Bill emanates from the Home Office. There will be a Second Reading and a full debate next week. I suggest that she raises those issues with the Home Secretary, and in the House next week.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Solicitor-General aware that small firms often suffer disproportionately from fraud? There have been many scams recently, including the Nigerian e-mail scams, the UBR reduction offer scam and the grant application offer scam. Such scams sap morale among small firms, and divert attention from the creation of wealth and jobs. Is the right hon. and learned Lady going to make an effort to tackle the problem and streamline the prosecution of fraud process?
The Solicitor-General: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is right to say that fraud is not a victimless, technical offence. It can cause redundancies, real hardship and the loss of homes and businesses. As far as we can tell, it costs the economy about £14 billion a year. We work closely on this matter with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and the Treasury. We need a cross-Government approach, and sufficient resources to investigate and prosecute fraud. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter today.