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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon):
The Electoral Commission has received several representations about the timing of counts at the forthcoming UK parliamentary general election. The issue has also been discussed at recent meetings between the commission and individual
Members of Parliament and with representatives of the BBC. The commission has written to all returning officers asking for information about when they intend to begin counting in the general election. As of 13 November 2009, it had received responses from 429 out of 650 constituencies, of which 225 will begin their count on polling day and 48 the day after. Some 156 were undecided. Details of responses received by constituency are available on the commission's website.
Mr. Robathan: I am grateful for that response and glad that the Electoral Commission is considering the matter carefully. The truth is that Parliament and politics are less popular and of less interest than they used to be. If we are to forgo the count on the evening of polling day, people will not even have a Government the next day. We must have a count as soon as possible afterwards, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a representation.
Mr. Streeter: I do receive that as a representation. My hon. Friend knows that returning officers, whose role is independent in statute, make the final decision about when a count is held. The Electoral Commission's foremost concern is that the count be accurate and the voters have confidence in the result, but my hon. Friend's representations are certainly well received.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is extremely rare that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), but he refers to part of the tradition of our system. Although it is impractical in a handful of constituencies, will the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) press the Electoral Commission to encourage returning officers to hold counts on the night of the election?
Mr. Streeter: The Electoral Commission does not look to influence the decision of returning officers, and the hon. Gentleman knows that the requirement to check signatures and dates of birth on postal voting statements accompanying postal ballot papers is the issue that has arisen about the forthcoming general election. Naturally, the commission will look at the outcome of the next general election and the processes, and make appropriate representations after that.
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): After the House of Lords required the DPP to produce his interim policy for prosecutors on cases of assisted suicide in July, my office was consulted by him, as is appropriate for a superintendent Department. The DPP's interim policy is now the subject of public consultation and a final policy will be issued next year.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful for that answer. One of the things that concerns me about the DPP's interim guidance is that serious disability is one of the factors that he will consider in assessing whether a prosecution is not in the public interest. I wonder about the message that that sends out to people with a disability about the extent to which we want a society that helps them live independently and gives them a good quality of life rather than encourages them to take their own lives.
The Solicitor-General: I cannot for one minute think that any innuendo of that kind could be appropriately drawn. The court asked the DPP effectively to list, as a policy, all the factors that were capable of being taken into account. That is as far as the reference to disability goes. It would probably be odd to leave out disability caused by, for example, life-limiting illness in a case of someone assisting a suicide. The cases are complex and sensitive, but no innuendo such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman could possibly be drawn. The DPP is consulting publicly to try to get every factor and to balance them. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it was not the DPP's wish to produce any guidelines. Let me emphasise again that each such case, when it arises, will be considered carefully on its merits.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The Judicial Committee in the House of Lords put the DPP in an invidious position in asking him to declare the law. That is a matter for Parliament, not the DPP. Do the Government have any plans in the near future to revisit section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961?
The Solicitor-General: The Bribery Bill will no longer require the consent of the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General before a prosecution for an offence under the measure can start. Instead, it will require the consent of the director of the relevant prosecuting authority. The Bill does not alter the role of the Attorney-General in any other way.
John Barrett: I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but what can she do to assure the House that never again will the Government use bogus reasons for not proceeding with Serious Fraud Office offences? I simply mention the murky BAE Systems-Saudi arms deal.
The Solicitor-General: I suppose precedent would be a help because there never has been such behaviour by the Government. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the House of Lords said about the decision. First, it made it clear that the director of the SFO, not any member of the Government, made the decision. It was also clearly stated: that
"It may indeed be doubted whether a responsible decision-maker could, on the facts before the Director, have decided otherwise".
"systematic deficiencies... make clear the need to safeguard the independence of the SFO".
The Solicitor-General: The only power would be a power to use a direction in a case where national security was at stake. There is a process to go through before that happens. It has not happened for many, many years. Normally what would happen, even in a case where national security was at a premium, is that the director would take it into account when evaluating the public interest.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Solicitor-General believe that the proposed Bribery Bill would deal with the Leader of the Opposition's promise to make amendments to the inheritance tax regime which will benefit only the people on his Christmas card list?
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The Solicitor-General seems to have missed the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) was making-that because all reform of the Attorney-General's office has been removed from the Constitutional Reform Bill, the power of the Attorney-General to superintend in general the prosecutions put forward by the directors has been left unaffected. Has the Solicitor-General received any guidance, information or assurance from the OECD that it is satisfied with the arrangements that will now be in place, because if she has not, the lack of independence of the directors will continue to be a blot on the reputation of this country and may leave British business in a very difficult position?
The hon. Gentleman really does not live in the real world. He should try telling Richard Alderman or Keir Starmer that they are not independent: they are extremely independent individuals, and rightly so. There is a detailed protocol, which I commend to the hon. Gentleman, so that he can understand this area rather better than he appears to do now. The superintendence function has specifically been cast into
a protocol to make its limits very clear. Our current law complies with the OECD convention, which the OECD makes very clear.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Why does the Solicitor-General propose a difference between the function of the Attorney-General on extra-territorial crime under the Bribery Bill and on other offences committed overseas?
The Solicitor-General: So far as I am aware-it is not my Bill, but a Ministry of Justice Bill-the recommendations of the Joint Committee have played a role there. I am obviously answering on behalf of the prosecution departments today, as I always do, but a good deal of note has been taken of what the Joint Committee said, and that was its position.
The Solicitor-General: The Bribery Bill, already referred to, will provide a modern and comprehensive scheme of bribery offences to equip the prosecutors and the courts to deal effectively with bribery both at home and abroad.
Hugh Bayley: When I introduced my draft International Bribery and Corruption Bill in February 1998, it was opposed by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who sits on the Conservative Front Bench today, and who described it as "fundamentally naïve". Has my hon. and learned Friend discussed the Bribery Bill with the Opposition Law Officers and will they now support it?
The Solicitor-General: I do not think there is anything fundamentally naïve about this Bill. At first sight, it looks as if the Bill is going to hit the spot and will be much more modern, clearer and less fragmented than what applies currently. Whether the Opposition will support it, I do not know. It will be introduced in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Bach, and when it comes here it will be dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who I have no doubt at all will have conversations with the Opposition. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who has had a long-term interest in this issue and has focused primarily on ensuring that bribery and corruption go out of overseas development funding? I hope that he will be pleased with the Bill when it comes through.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Has the Solicitor-General had representations about alleged systematic bribery in overseas offices by entry clearance officers, allowing people effectively to buy visas to enter this country?
The Solicitor-General: No, I have not, although I have read, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has, about some suggestions along those lines. When they are brought to the attention of the authorities, they will, of course, be taken very seriously.
The Solicitor-General: Our eighth national pro bono week, which is dedicated to raising awareness of pro bono work, took place two weeks ago. The number of activities increased to 128 from 82 a year before. The Attorney-General and I hold a pro bono reception to showcase such work to MPs, and we have introduced a guide to pro bono, which we have distributed to every MP. That guide informs MPs about sources of pro bono work in their constituencies, so that, if they cannot handle a problem, they can contact a lawyer who can help.
Mr. Amess: As Members of Parliament, we have constituents who come to our surgeries with legal problems, and we try to get them legal aid and access to pro bono, which is not easy. Why has access to justice become so expensive under Labour?
The Solicitor-General: I do not think that it has. I receive the same sort of inquiries, and I can usually find a local lawyer to help if I cannot deal with the matter myself. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the guide to pro bono, he will find many networks that have local membership. Therefore, people can get something pretty close to their needs pretty quickly.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As the processes of the Infrastructure Planning Commission get under way, has my hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about ensuring that individuals and communities have access to proper legal advice?
The Solicitor-General: I have not had such discussions, but I understand the nature of the issue. From general knowledge, I am aware that some bodies help with planning applications, so I am sure that citizens will be able to find assistance if they want to be represented.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the Solicitor-General accept that de facto pro bono work has increased substantially as a result of the Government's restrictions on the level of legal aid fees available to members of the Bar?
The Solicitor-General: No, the number of acts of legal assistance has increased significantly through the reorganisation of the legal aid system. For instance, there were 2.5 million acts of assistance in the last year but one, and 2.9 million this year, and they have increased in both the civil and criminal areas. Pro bono is in addition to all the work done under legal aid, and it is an important part of a lawyer's experience and training. As with most volunteering, it is good not just for the recipient but for the person who does it.
The Solicitor-General: We have frequent and regular meetings with the DPP, and we discuss a range of issues. If there were particular concerns about prosecutions for burglary-perhaps the hon. Gentleman has some to raise-we would talk to the DPP about them, but under the terms of the protocol to which I have alluded between the Attorney-General and prosecution departments. In 2008-09, the Crown Prosecution Service conviction rate for burglary was 87.1 per cent. nationally, and 91.3 per cent. in Norfolk.
Mr. Bellingham: I am pleased to hear that, but does the Solicitor-General share my view that burglaries are invariably incredibly traumatic, and often lead to dreadful scars that last many years and tear families apart? Does she agree that as long as there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, burglaries should always be prosecuted through the courts, and never dealt with by out-of-court procedures such as cautions or penalty notices for disorder?
The Solicitor-General: I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. I imagine that he refers to dwelling-house burglaries, which can be extremely injurious to the people who suffer them. There is an annexe to the DPP's guidance on when to use conditional cautions, and burglary is not included among the offences for which they should be used.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Yesterday, I had a meeting with Slough Town Against Crime, which is an alliance of shops, police officers and public bodies. One of the participants suggested that prolific shoplifters who have been barred from shops and have shoplifted again ought to be prosecuted for burglary. Will the Solicitor-General raise that matter with the DPP, as it would be a practical way of tackling the appalling problem of prolific shoplifting, which is blighting Slough town centre?
The Solicitor-General: This is an old, knotty problem in the law. In order to be a burglar, someone must enter as a trespasser. There have been prosecutions when people have gone from the public side of a shop to the private side, behind the counter. That has been deemed to be entering as a trespasser, and I can see an analogy with the case cited by my hon. Friend. I think that the local chief Crown prosecutor would have to examine each case in order to make a sensible decision, but my hon. Friend's idea does have merit.
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