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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Official Secrets Acts

20. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): To ask the Solicitor-General if she will make a statement on her policy relating to prosecution of offences under the Official Secrets Acts. [89226]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): The Attorney-General's consent is required to bring a prosecution for most offences contrary to the Official Secrets Acts 1911 or 1989. The Attorney-General considers first whether there is enough evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. If there is sufficient evidence, the Attorney-General considers whether a prosecution is needed in the public interest. The more serious the offence the more likely it is that a prosecution will be needed.

Andrew Mackinlay : Ah, so the Attorney-General is to blame then. Next time, I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Lady will counsel her clients in the security and intelligence services that the Official Secrets Act is a deficient and blunt instrument, as well as one that does not meet European norms. Cases such as Shayler, Ponting or Sarah Tisdall, where the judge says, XYou wicked, wicked man—six weeks in the slammer", really do not advance national security. We need new, modern legislation that will protect our critical interest as well as allowing justice to prevail and allowing people to give the truth when there has been bad mismanagement or irregularity in the security and intelligence services.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes three points. The first was on whether we are compliant with our European obligations. The House of Lords has considered the Official Secrets Act and has decided that it is in compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998.

I think that my hon. Friend's second point related to the sentence in the Shayler case. In fact, the judge said that his starting point would have been 18 months in the circumstances of that offence, but he reduced it because the offender had spent time in prison in France.

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On new legislation, obviously the Home Office will keep that issue under review and I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments will have been heard.

Finally, on the accountability and lawfulness of the security services, it is obviously right that the security services are not above the law and that they should be accountable. We take that point very seriously.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): On the point that the Solicitor-General has just raised, does she accept that the 1989 Act currently assumes that the internal procedures of the Security Service are incapable of failure? However, given that any procedure is capable of failure, should someone have to be put in the position of committing a crime in order to reveal a crime, without the possibility in law of entering a defence?

The Solicitor-General: I think that it used to be the case that it was assumed that the procedure was incapable of failure and that has, rightly, been looked at. The absolute prohibition on a member or former member of the security services giving out intelligence information is mitigated in relation to the public interest in a number of ways. First, as the hon. Gentleman understands, the person can tell their superiors. If that is not acceptable and the person does not want to do that, he can, if he is alleging unlawfulness, go to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Attorney-General or the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. If someone applies to give out information and is refused by his management, he can judicially review that decision as unreasonable. Of course, we also have the Select Committee which scrutinises the security services. I agree with where the hon. Gentleman is coming from: we must have the right opportunities for unlawful actions to be disclosed if they are taking place, but I hope that the procedures that I have described are actually working in that way.

Victims of Crime

23. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): To ask the Solicitor-General what steps she is taking to publicise the right of (a) victims of crime and (b) members of the public to seek the review of unduly lenient sentences. [89229]

26. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): To ask the Solicitor-General what measures her Department plans to take to ensure that victims of crime and their relatives are informed of their right to ask the Attorney-General to consider the referral of a sentence to the Court of Appeal on the grounds of undue leniency. [89232]

The Solicitor-General: Where a victim complains that a sentence is too lenient, either they or the Crown Prosecution Service can ask the Law Officers to review the sentence. We can then, if we consider it unduly lenient, refer it to the Court of Appeal. We keep the issue of unduly lenient sentences, including publicity of them to victims and the wider public, under review.

Mr. Turner: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for that answer, but I would draw her attention to the words,

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On 24 October, I asked her an identical question to the one I am asking today, and she did not give me an answer at all. So what steps is she taking to publicise to victims the right that they have to draw the matter to the Attorney-General's attention within 28 days if they believe that an unduly lenient sentence has been given?

The Solicitor-General: The actual steps that the hon. Gentleman asks about are that, where there has been a conviction and sentence, the case will have been prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service, and it is the responsibility of the CPS to liase with the victim. If the victim complains about the sentence being too lenient, there is an obligation on the CPS to consider it. The CPS can then refer it to us or, if it is not prepared to do so, the procedure is that it should tell the victim, XWe, the CPS, are not going to refer it to the Law Officers, but you can."

I anticipate the hon. Gentleman's thoughts, as he will not be able to make the next point, which is that the problem is the time limit: the complaint has to be made within 28 days of sentence. There is an absolute cut-off point, so that the sentence increase should not hang over a defendant when he has been convicted. I know that that causes difficulties, but we want to be sure that the CPS tells victims if it is not going to refer a sentence to us.

Mr. Marsden: My right hon. and learned Friend is well aware of the concerns that I have raised about this issue involving cases in Blackpool, where manslaughter verdicts relating to domestic violence were followed by sentences that the relatives and I consider to be excessively lenient. I am very well aware of her concerns about the issue, but given the problems that arise from time to time not least with the CPS and the information process in this respect, if we are not to be proactive in taking further publicity steps about this right, will she at least undertake to consider whether there should be a wider review, in which the whole question of the 28-day period is properly reviewed, because it is clear from a number of examples that the right is not always automatically adequate to assist victims or their relatives in the present circumstances?

The Solicitor-General: The first point that I would make in response to my hon. Friend's question is that, when the House discussed the Criminal Justice Act 1988, it was specifically decided that this would not be a general prosecution right of appeal against sentence, nor would it be a victim's right of appeal against sentence; it

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was a kind of special, exceptional jurisdiction. I know that that feels very uncomfortable for some victims who would like to appeal.

As for the process, there are difficulties with the tight time limit. Again, it was decided by the House—it is in statute, in primary legislation—that the application has to be referred within 28 days or it falls. That is designed to protect the defendant from the sense that he has an increase in sentence hanging over him.

As for domestic violence sentencing, my hon. Friend knows that sentencing is obviously a matter for the judges, but the Attorney-General and I have referred a number of domestic violence sentences, involving both homicide and assault, during the past 12 months, and we will refer domestic sentences where they appear to us to be unduly lenient.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Solicitor-General should be aware that the public's main concern about unduly lenient sentences relates to unduly lenient sentences for burglary. Will she take this opportunity comprehensively to reject the ludicrous statements by the Lord Chancellor, supporting Lord Woolf's guidelines, and say today that she agrees instead with Prime Minister's spokesman that those who commit burglary should face lengthy custodial sentences? There has been enormous Government confusion on that. The Lord Chancellor is entirely wrong, and ordinary people want burglars to be sent to prison.

The Solicitor-General: I entirely agree with the Lord Chancellor, and I stand strongly behind what he said. As far as unduly lenient sentences for burglary are concerned, they are not referable by the Law Officers to the Court of Appeal because they are triable each way. Only cases that are only triable on indictment are referable to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Will the Solicitor-General confirm that in cases of unduly lenient sentences, and in all prosecutions, a claim for public interest immunity will only be made by the prosecution on the grounds that public disclosure of the material would constitute a serious threat to national security or to protect police informants?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right. The provision is wide-ranging in relation to public interest immunity, which allows material to be kept from the defendant. He is absolutely right that national security and the protection of informants are grounds for claiming public interest immunity, but they are not the only grounds. The courts have said that other categories of public interest might qualify, but, clearly, it is an exceptionally serious matter.

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