The Crown Prosecution Service: Gatekeeper of the Criminal Justice System - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 254-259)


10 FEBRUARY 2009

  Chairman: Mr Wooler, Chief Inspector and your two deputies, Mr Hyde and Ms Hobbs, welcome to all of you. I know you have some opening remarks but I think they follow quite naturally from the opening question which Mr Turner is going to ask. I shall let him do so and that question will enable you to give some opening comments.

  Q254 Mr Turner: Could you tell us one thing you think the CPS most needs to improve on in terms of its day-to-day business?

  Stephen Wooler: The area where the CPS needs to improve most is in securing greater consistency across the organisation in its systems and procedures. One of the things we have found in the years of inspection has been tremendous variation not only between the 42 areas but within some of the larger areas in order to deliver its basic business. The linkage between those comments and the specific areas is actually around case preparation in the magistrates' courts which the CPS has been working on over the last year or so, partly as a result of the findings of our overall performance assessment, partly as a result of comments in the Cabinet Office's capability review of the CPS and, similarly, in the Crown Court there is a need also to reinforce the systems and processes which underpin case preparation. If I had to pick one thing, that would be it.

  Q255  Mr Turner: Yes, the different areas have different views about priorities.

  Stephen Wooler: I am talking about the delivery of the business. In terms of priorities, the Service as a whole has very strong leadership from the top and some very clear priorities are signalled in terms of the national initiatives which it is pursuing. I am talking about the way that those are implemented at area level and at unit level in order to deliver the basic business, which is the handling of the cases before the court, the public front shop window.

  Q256  Mr Turner: Do you think that is more popular than a local choice?

  Stephen Wooler: What the public in any area will want to see is that there is effective handling of cases, fair, firm prosecution and that, in terms of improving the efficiency of the Service, is where the emphasis would lay. In terms of local priorities, it is right that the Service must operate to consistent national standards but responsive to local needs. That is why the Service has been working quite hard in its membership of the local criminal justice boards to develop its community engagement and develop that responsiveness. It is a balance between having consistent national policies which are applied in the areas and the responsiveness to local needs and the prevalence of particular types of offence locally.

  Q257  Dr Whitehead: What does responsiveness to local needs actually mean in terms of the question of a locally responsive service but with national standards and national guidelines? Has the oscillation between centralism and decentralism which has characterised the CPS over recent years in terms of its organisation been in part a search to find an answer to that question?

  Stephen Wooler: The Service certainly has been trying to find the balance between the national service and local delivery. That is what the Glidewell review was about some 10 years ago and that very much pointed in the direction of the 42 largely autonomous areas. To come back to your question, society obviously is structured differently across the country. Where, for example, you have perhaps large immigrant, black and minority ethnic populations or immigrant populations there you will have particular needs and the Service has strong policies in relation to racially aggravated crime, for example. I would expect in areas where there are large BME populations to find strong community engagement ascertaining the extent of problems, working with the police to ensure that there are firm and clear policies and that those who may be the subject of racially aggravated hate crime know that they will be supported if they come to the authorities and report that. That is what I would be looking for on an inspection. I mentioned immigrants because of course that is a group of society which may well be subject to exploitation. I know that there are parts of the country where that is a big issue for the local Chief Crown Prosecutor because he or she must work closely with the police to ensure that they are supportive and that they are looking into those types of situations. I can think of East Anglia where there are large numbers of people working in very lowly paid jobs, subject to possible exploitation, possible abuses and we have seen some quite serious consequences of that up in Morecambe Bay for example. That was an example of exploitation which had not been checked. Now there is a much greater awareness of those types of issues. When I say that it is a national service but responsive locally, then that is what I have in mind and indeed particular areas subject to the prevalence of particular types of offence and offending.

  Q258  Dr Whitehead: In the inspection regime there is not really a category saying you were particularly good at being locally responsive.

  Stephen Wooler: In our inspection regime we certainly looked at the effectiveness of community engagement and when we talk about community engagement we are not just talking about the Service going out and projecting its image to the local community and local population, we are talking about actually engaging, talking about what the problems are and then looking within the parameters of national policies to adapt and to respond to those problems.

  Q259  Dr Whitehead: At first sight, in terms of the way that the outcome of the inspection is phrased, one of the local CPS organisations will say "Hang on a minute. What about the police doing a good job in my area in their local responsiveness or bringing the prosecutions to the point where I can take decisions?" or "Is the Court Service operating effectively so that what I do is going to be as good as it could be?". Bearing in mind what is therefore essentially a matrix of what the national performance is, the local responsiveness is and the other agencies' impact on the judgments which are made, how confident are you that the judgments which eventually come out about the grading of the critical aspects of the CPS actually works?

  Stephen Wooler: We are pretty confident that in the overall performance assessment, which is clearly what you are referring to, we look at the interaction of the CPS with its criminal justice partners very fully indeed. For example, when we look at the aspect, the first aspect is the statutory charging regime, the quality of advice is in it. We have just concluded and published a report which we did jointly with the Inspector of Constabulary on statutory charging which found very constructive ways of improving the Service for the benefit of the public overall and where we looked to the CPS to be more flexible, more responsive to the police needs in the way that it delivers pre-charge decisions but also we were looking very much at the role of the police in the preparation of files, the supervision of investigating officers, to make sure that the CPS had the quality of the material that it needed to take properly informed and sound decisions. That was something we were able to do perhaps more effectively than we can as a single agency because we were working with partners there. I think that we try to reflect not only the way that the CPS behaves towards the other criminal justice agencies and how its performance affects them, but we make allowance. We do flag up in our reports where we think that the CPS's performance has been affected by the way that others have discharged their duties: police file quality being perhaps a prime example of that but from time to time we touch on the way the courts are run and scheduled, the impact that may have, the impact that may have on others like victims and witnesses. It is a circle and the better the treatment by the criminal justice system as a whole is for victims and witnesses, the more likely it is that one will retain their cooperation, their support in a case and the more likely that you will successfully bring offenders to justice.

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