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Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker’ s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

European Parliamentary Elections

7. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What plans the Electoral Commission has to make an assessment of the effectiveness of the arrangements made in the UK for the June 2009 elections to the European Parliament. [280577]

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Electoral Commission informs me that it plans to publish its statutory report on the administration of 2009 European parliamentary elections in October this year.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I welcome him to his new responsibilities, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who spoke earlier.

Will the hon. Gentleman pass on to the Commission a specific request that two matters be looked at? First, did the facility work for people who are European Union citizens and are allowed to vote here but have to fill in a form to make it clear that they are going to use their vote only in this country rather than in their country of origin, and how many people used it and so on? The second matter is how accessible the venues for voting are generally. I still take the view that they are often in hidden-away places that long-standing locals might know, not places where most of the public go in the course of their daily business.

Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission is extremely keen to increase voter turnout at all elections, and the hon. Gentleman’s point will certainly be taken into account. The commission would like me to inform hon. Members that it is keen to hear from many sources about the conduct of the elections that have just taken place, including Members of Parliament. If anyone has particular representations to make, they will be warmly received by the Electoral Commission, and I will certainly ensure that his comments are passed on to it.

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The Solicitor-General was asked—

Theft (Shops)

9. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many prosecutions have been brought by the Crown Prosecution Service for offences of theft from shops in each of the last five years; and if she will make a statement. [280579]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The Crown Prosecution Service records count defendants proceeded against for offences of theft and handling, but they do not separately identify the premises where the offence takes place, so we cannot tell the hon. Lady about theft from shops, which I believe she is interested in. I can, however, tell her the overall number of people prosecuted for theft, which is reasonably constant at around 140,000 to 150,000 a year, but the conviction rate has risen considerably over the period in which she has an interest.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that full answer. Will she support my private Member’s Bill, which will be considered tomorrow, in which I call for more cases to appear before the courts when there are persistent offenders or when the goods taken from a shop are of high value? The credit crunch has led to a higher incidence of shoplifting and shop theft, and I know that the Government are concerned about that. If a first-time offender is involved or goods of only a small value are stolen, I can understand the value of a fixed penalty notice, but the thrust of my Bill is to allow the cases that would best benefit from coming before a court to do so. That would allow for restorative justice, and for the offender to get some treatment if it is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We must not have the Second Reading debate now.

The Solicitor-General: I have a sense that the hon. Lady and I are growing old with her asking me questions about shoplifting and me trying to answer them even though we do not have the figures that she perpetually seeks. She knows that appropriate use of penalty notices is a constant concern within Government, and we keep it under review. She makes a powerful point about the impact of the credit crunch, which has to come into all our considerations. She knows that the decision whether to prosecute has a public interest component, and I am reasonably satisfied that all those factors are kept under review and applied consistently and conscientiously.

On the specific question whether I will support the hon. Lady’s Bill tomorrow, I am afraid that I will be in Redcar.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Has not the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) got an important point? The problem with fixed penalty notices, particularly for shoplifting, is that the person involved does not have contact with the prosecution authorities or the courts. The underlying reasons for the offending behaviour are never recognised, so they are not dealt with. It seems to me, and I think to a lot of
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people, that if we are stop those who shoplift because they have a drugs habit or extreme social difficulties, it is better that they are placed before a court, which can take appropriate action. Fixed penalty notices get in the way of that.

The Solicitor-General: It does depend on what kind of offender is before the authorities. Where there is a clear need that has a criminogenic component—drugs, drink or whatever it is—I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is appropriate that that be tackled. Otherwise, there is no getting to the root of the problem. It is intended that penalty notices should be used when those factors are not present.

There is a scale as to when diversionary penalties of one kind or another are intended to be used—knowing the hon. Gentleman’s responsibilities, I am sure that he has seen it—with a penalty notice for disorder right at the bottom. Where particular causes become obvious, there are such things as conditional cautions right at the top of the scale, which then leads quickly into court. I agree in principle that the hon. Gentleman is right, but we need to ensure that PNDs are used against the right people. They are a useful tool for the police, as they can deal on the spot with a minor offence that does not show any signs of the causes that he mentions, and as such they have considerable use, but in principle he is quite right.


10. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): What recent progress has been made in monitoring the Crown Prosecution Service’s performance in relation to prosecutions for rape. [280581]

The Solicitor-General: The Crown Prosecution Service has recently started a series of visits to police force and CPS areas. The visits are being undertaken by a joint team with the police to assist the implementation of recent guidance, assess current performance area by area and provide guidance on improving performance and sharing good practice.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. In February, I received a reply from a Justice Minister claiming that 59 per cent. of cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape or another offence. However, my hon. and learned Friend knows that that hides massive differences between police areas. In Dorset, fewer than one in 60 women secured a conviction for an attack when they reported rape, but in Cleveland, the area that my hon. and learned Friend represents, almost one in every five rapes reported to the police results in a conviction. Why does that difference exist, and what can we do to ensure that every area of the country meets and exceeds the standards that Cleveland has achieved, so that women who are raped can get justice?

The Solicitor-General: I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s diligent work on rape, about which she shares a powerful interest with me. There are two sorts of figures. She cited the figure of around 59 per cent., which relates to those going from charge to conviction, once there has been a charge. The much lower figures, especially those that the Fawcett Society puts forward, are from complaint to charge; there is a much higher
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drop-out rate before cases get to court. There are disparities between Cleveland and other areas. I am proud of Cleveland, though even Sean Price, the chief constable—pleased though he is to top the poll, as it were, for conviction rates for rape—feels that he has further to go before he is performing adequately. None the less, he is to be complimented.

My hon. Friend is right that the figures suggest that less attention is paid to that highly important offence in some areas. Of course, the figures have flaws because complaints and outcomes are likely to be separated by years, so they will not cover the same cases. However, one cannot disguise the fact that the figures are inevitably indicative of a difference in prioritising. The rape support group—the Home Office component of the partnership team, which also comprises the CPS—will talk to police forces specifically about that. To put it bluntly and crudely, the idea is to find out what is working well in one police area, take it to another where they are not doing so well and persuade them that they must implement it to attain much better results. However, having said that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is a very long answer. I hope that the Solicitor-General will bear it in mind that several other hon. Members wish to question her.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): May I support the campaign of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on this serious offence? In addition to disparities in various police regions in the United Kingdom, are not conviction rates in the UK significantly lower than those of many of our European counterparts? Does the Solicitor-General know the reason for that? Has any thorough research been conducted to ascertain what lessons we can learn from Europe to try to improve conviction rates in this country?

The Solicitor-General: I am thankful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) will be, too. It is important to do the work that he mentions. The differences that exist are evidence that there is nothing magic about getting a better conviction rate for rape. If one police force can do it and another cannot, the way forward is accessible. There are huge definitional differences between us and some European countries. The numbers of people who are prosecuted vary, too. I will not get this precisely right, but I point out that in Italy, essentially only stranger rape is prosecuted. It is relatively straightforward to get a conviction for that, whereas the difficulty here is rape that happens within a relationship, in which consent is the issue. That is much more difficult.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on this subject. I welcome the planned visits and very much hope that an early visit will be made to the CPS in Derbyshire, where one of my constituents suffered the appalling fate of having a case that had got to court dropped, apparently because of failures by the local CPS to communicate effectively with social services about key papers, with the entire
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range of cases against her assailant subsequently dismissed. Will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that that visit is given particular attention?

The Solicitor-General: I am thankful for my hon. Friend’s concern and support on this topic. I do not know about that case in Derbyshire, which sounds as if it may be a cause for concern. If he tells me about it, I will look into it and draw it to the attention of the CPS, so that it can investigate further and, if there is a need, accelerate the time ofits visit.

Fraud (Small Businesses)

11. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): When officers of the Serious Fraud Office next expect to meet representatives of small business organisations to discuss measures to combat serious fraud schemes aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises. [280582]

The Solicitor-General: Reducing the harm caused by fraud to individuals and businesses is a key priority for the Serious Fraud Office, although it investigates serious and complex fraud whomever it is aimed at. Last month Richard Alderman, the director of the SFO, met representatives of Transparency International and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it is now called, to discuss how the SFO could help small and medium-sized enterprises in that respect.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am obviously grateful to the Solicitor-General for that reply, but is she aware that a Federation of Small Businesses survey showed that online crime and fraud costs small businesses £800 a year on average and that more than half of smaller businesses report that they have been victims of crime in the past 12 months? That is a serious cost to smaller businesses, which are very important to the economy of our country. What additional measures does she believe can be implemented to reduce the current level of crime, which is so bedevilling small business, and electronic crime in particular?

The Solicitor-General: I do know about the FSB survey to which the hon. Gentleman refers—it is from February 2009, so it is quite up to date—which indicates exactly what he said. The FSB is working with the National Fraud Authority, and there are a number of agencies involved in the issue of fraud. Indeed, the National Fraud Authority, which used to be called the National Fraud Strategic Authority, is intended to have exactly that overview. [ Interruption. ] I am assured that NFA does not mean “No further action”; it means “National Fraud Authority”, and I am cheered by that reassurance. The FSB is on its programme board and stakeholder group, as is the British Retail Consortium and the British Chambers of Commerce. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises are directly acknowledged by the relevant authority and taken on board day to day.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Given that the SFO case load has increased by a third in the past 12 months and that it now faces budget cuts, could the Solicitor-General please identify the financial extent of those cuts and say whether they are likely to hinder the SFO’s ability to protect SMEs from fraud?

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The Solicitor-General: I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the specific details of the budget cuts, if that is what he would like. The SFO is going from strength to strength under the new direction of Richard Alderman. It is indeed contending with a rising case load, but it is coping with it well. The SFO has introduced a number of efficiencies and ways of distinguishing cases that can realistically go the whole distance from those that can be cut off short, so that a solution other than a conviction can be sought, such as a civil outcome. The SFO is genuinely trying to crisp up its act, and I am confident that progress is being made.


12. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What steps the Serious Fraud Office is taking to increase its effectiveness in prosecuting fraudsters. [280583]

The Solicitor-General: Since Mr. Alderman became the director of the SFO, he has overseen a comprehensive transformation of that body. It has a new structure, a new focus, a new approach to work and improved processes, which have already produced a number of improvements in prosecutions. We are confident that there will be more to follow as the changes bed in.

Rosie Cooper: I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer. Will she tell us a little more about what the Serious Fraud Office is doing for the victims of fraud and about how those people are receiving justice? Following on from the previous question, will she also say briefly whether she believes it has enough resources?

The Solicitor-General: The SFO has a high regard for the importance of looking after witnesses in fraud cases. Indeed, I have taken a personal interest in this. The Crown Prosecution Service does a good deal in this regard now, and its performance rate on the dropping of cases at the door of the court because of the non-appearance of witnesses, and so on, has got much better because of the attention it pays to victims and witnesses. The SFO deals with a completely different kind of case, of course, but it none the less well understands the need to ensure that witnesses and victims are supported. I have met two small business men who were the victims of fraud and who felt that, when their cases came to court two years ago, they were not treated as well as they could have been. We have learned lessons from that, as well. I do not think that the resources question that my hon. Friend has raised will take away from the effort that is now going to be put more fully into protecting victims and witnesses.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): There seems to be an increasing tendency for fraudsters to pick on vulnerable people. Will my hon. and learned Friend tell us what measures she has in hand to ensure that sentences take into account the fact that a vulnerable person has been picked on, in addition to consideration of the crime itself?

The Solicitor-General: The personal damage that fraud can cause, particularly to vulnerable people, is recognised. Historically, it has perhaps been seen as a crime that attacks victims slightly less than other crime, but being defrauded is very undermining and can sometimes tip
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people into as poor a state as they would find themselves in if they had been seriously assaulted. We are pursuing the protection of vulnerable victims, and when such vulnerability exists, the Crown will draw it to the attention of the judge. Guidelines on sentencing usually allow for aggravation to follow from the fact that a victim is particularly vulnerable, and that can increase the sentence.


13. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What steps she is taking to review the operation of laws on bribery. [280584]

The Solicitor-General: The Government introduced a draft Bribery Bill on 25 March this year, which built on a report published by the Law Commission last November. The Bill is currently being considered by a Joint Committee, which will report next month. My noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General will appear before the Committee on 25 June.

Richard Ottaway: Does the Solicitor-General share my concern that the Bill makes negligently failing to prevent bribery an offence? As I understand it, that means that, for the first time, an omission can be prosecuted. Does she not agree that that will have a profound impact on English law?

The Solicitor-General: I do not think that it is an entirely new principle. This is not about omission; it is about negligently failing to take steps to prevent bribery. There are businesses that are in pole position to see when bribery is going on, and if they choose to turn away, or if they do not have sufficient procedures in place to prevent it, it is probably a poor response to say that they have a valid defence. Of course they should be under an obligation to prevent bribery from damaging themselves and others, and they should be punished if they do not do so.

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