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Minster Status

8. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Whether the Church Commissioners allocate funding to the Church of England for the purpose of assisting the consideration of applications for minster status. [321513]

Sir Stuart Bell: Minster status in and of itself has no legal meaning, so the Church Commissioners do not allocate funds for it. That is an example of God moving in mysterious ways.

Mr. Pelling: Would it be possible, when God oversees this process, to put aside the issues of mammon? The business community in Croydon is pushing the idea of minster status, but is it more a matter for the religious ministry of the Church and its Christian care and compassion within the diocese?

Sir Stuart Bell: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who wants a minster in Croydon. Coming from the north-east, I have one in York, another in Beverley and one in Sunderland. I would be happy to speak to the bishop on the issue, and the hon. Gentleman might also wish to drop him a line.


The Solicitor-General was asked-

Rape Cases

10. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. [321514]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I have frequent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions about the prosecution of rape cases. He is at the start of
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a national programme of visits across the entire service, a primary focus of which will be discussing with front-line staff cases involving violence against women and rape. The notion now is that we know what good practice is, but it needs to be spread consistently across the country.

Mrs. Moon: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that excellent response. In January, I addressed an excellent south Wales CPS seminar on the investigation and prosecution of rape, and saw first hand the improvement in the way in which the criminal justice system responds to rape and that the number of prosecutions is increasing. However, how are we going to support CPS staff when they are faced with defence lawyers in court who claim that a woman's behaviour-the amount of alcohol she has consumed, how she dresses and whether she was flirtatious-was an invitation to rape? After all, we do not say that leaving a window open is an invitation to burglary. How can a woman be responsible for a man's action purely because of how she dresses and so on? I would welcome my hon. and learned Friend's comments on that.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. May I tell her how much positive feedback there was from the CPS on her address earlier this year?

The CPS now takes very seriously the way in which myths and stereotypes can affect its own decision making-it tries to train that out-and how they can be highly relevant in court. Whether the CPS or barristers are doing the advocacy, the CPS makes a point of ensuring that the use of those myths and stereotypes is challenged. Judges-obviously totally independently of the Government or the CPS-now have comprehensive training from the Judicial Studies Board, which includes discussion of how to deal with the kind of assumptions that juries can make or be persuaded to make. There are some new directions in the new bench book, in which the judges are exploring what they can properly say to juries to ensure that a balanced approach is taken, so that the evidence is evaluated in a fair and informed way without that kind of prejudice taking a role.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I just make the point that there are nine questions in this section, and I would like to get through as many of them as possible, so we need to keep it tight.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): How prevalent is the practice of plea bargaining across the United Kingdom in relation to rape or serious sexual attacks?

The Solicitor-General: I would have to write to the hon. Gentleman with precise figures, but I am sure that sometimes plea negotiations take place. Sometimes a complainant is not very keen to carry on with a prosecution, and some lesser verdict might none the less put the man on the sex offenders register and fire a shot across his bows, as it were. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants detailed figures, I will write to him with them.

Serious Fraud Office

11. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Serious Fraud Office in deterring and prosecuting economic crime. [321515]

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The Solicitor-General: I am reasonably pleased with the significant progress that the SFO has made over the past two years. It has reduced the time taken to deal with referrals from the public to 20 working days on average, and reduced the time by an average of nine months to investigate and prosecute crime. It has a 91 per cent. conviction rate, achieved its first ever serious crime prevention order this year, and recovered assets valued at more than £8 million-progress in the right direction.

John Howell: I thank the Solicitor-General for that answer, but when Jessica de Grazia looked at the SFO and produced her report back in June 2008, she identified a number of serious failings and deficiencies. What steps has the Solicitor-General taken to deal with those failings and deficiencies?

The Solicitor-General: There was, of course, a whole transformation programme flowing from the de Grazia report, and there was a new director in the form of Richard Alderman and a good deal of change in the higher management echelons of the SFO. The progress made was independently evaluated by the Cabinet Office capability review team in December 2009, and it regarded the SFO as having made very significant strides and improvements since that transformation programme came into play.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I am sure the Solicitor-General will agree that it is important that the SFO has sufficient resources to carry out its functions on economic crime, but can she confirm that the SFO has not received any specific funding for its anti-corruption work for at least 12 months?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, that is right, as I understand it, but none the less a good deal of work is going on in that direction. I think that there is a question later on this, but probably about 9 per cent. of the funding has, I think, gone into that area, and two specific sections of its work force are dealing with it. Clearly, any specific funding comes through a different kind of funding stream for particular cases. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the SFO has always been funded in that way, and clearly any such demands will be treated sympathetically.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Fraud is now costing the United Kingdom about £30 billion a year compared with an estimated £13 billion only three years ago. It seems that the SFO is increasingly using plea bargaining as a tactic to move its cases along. Does the Solicitor-General accept that our current statutory framework is in need of reform to accommodate that?

The Solicitor-General: I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman thinks that the statutory framework needs to be amended to cope with plea bargaining. A new framework set up by the Law Officers has been accepted and taken forward by the SFO, and is currently very much in play. I do not think that he should take the view that fraud increased from £13 billion to £30 billion between the two assessments, because they were done on wholly different bases-the second one postdated
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the setting up of the National Fraud Authority, which has done a far more thorough job because it has had the resources to do so.

Fraud is a real problem in this country today. Plea bargaining has a role to play in the quick dispatch of cases, but it always has to be made clear that people who commit fraud will be punished severely by the courts and will not be able to buy their way out of trouble.

Mr. Djanogly: We are actually receiving independent reports that the framework is not fit for purpose. What assurances can the Solicitor-General provide that the SFO is developing its flexible case criteria to minimise growing concern about overlap with other counter-fraud organisations, and has she considered a unified agency?

The Solicitor-General: I am not sure what input the hon. Gentleman is getting, but I would be pleased if he could forward to me the comments that he says back up his question. It does not seem to me that the plea bargaining structures, which is the point he started with, impinge very strongly on any statutory framework, but, as I said, I would be pleased to hear. The various agencies tackling fraud-the SFO, the CPS fraud section and the NFA-work together very closely, and where there is evidence of potential or historical overlap, they work consistently and as quickly as they can to remove it and ensure a streamlined approach.

Action Fraud Helpline

12. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Action Fraud helpline. [321516]

The Solicitor-General: Action Fraud is a helpline and website offering a central point for individuals and small to medium-sized businesses that have been the subject of fraud. It offers the option of being referred to Victim Support and gives fraud prevention advice, and although it has only been in place since October, it has certainly increased the amount of fraud reported, and assisted in intelligence gathering.

Rosie Cooper: Can the Solicitor-General tell me whether the Action Fraud helpline is up and running in my area, and say precisely how it will help my constituents who have been the victims of fraud?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, it is now. The Acton Fraud helpline started in October 2009, and it is functioning nationally, but the question is how to promote it. We need to promote it region by region, so that instead of it being inundated with complaints straight away, they come in at a rate such that it can expand to meet them. Although the helpline started in the midlands, it is now in the north-west, where my hon. Friend's constituency is, as well as the north-east, where mine is. The helpline will offer information to prosecutions, if that is practical, as well as victim support, and it will absolutely ensure that evidence of fraud brought by individuals goes into the intelligence that we use to try to wipe out fraud more broadly.

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Retail Crime

13. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many prosecutions the Crown Prosecution Service has brought for offences related to retail crime in the last 12 months; and if she will make a statement. [321517]

The Solicitor-General: The records maintained by the CPS do not identify retail crime separately, but the Office for Criminal Justice Reform says that 72,609 defendants were proceeded against for stealing from shops and stores in 2008. That is the latest figure, which exceeded the figure for the preceding year, which was 67,644.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply, but does she share my concern and that of retailers, particularly small shopkeepers and newsagents, about the rising tide of retail crime, including burglaries and shop theft, when a degree of violence is used? What measures does she expect her Department to be able to take to prosecute such cases successfully and to send out a strong message that her Department and the Government generally are dealing seriously with the increase in such crime?

The Solicitor-General: We do take crime very seriously. It is an established principle of sentencing that when a theft or other retail crime is visited upon a small business, the degree of violence is an aggravating factor to take into account, because it can obviously cause more damage. That is a principle that we support entirely. As I said, convictions have increased, and we intend to be vigilant to ensure that they continue to do so.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Will my hon. and learned Friend satisfy herself that the Crown Prosecution Service has not successfully prosecuted cases on the basis of police files that were compiled using evidence illegally obtained by New s of the World phone hacking?

The Solicitor-General: Yes-I am not sure that any connection has been made, but I am very well aware of the issue, and it is an issue well raised.

Serious Fraud Office

14. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How much the Serious Fraud Office spent on investigating offences of trans-national bribery in 2009. [321519]

The Solicitor-General: The SFO very much recognises the importance of that work. It has an anti-corruption and an international assistance unit working successfully with foreign Governments, and around 15 large-scale anti-corruption cases are currently under investigation. So far this financial year, the SFO has spent about 9 per cent. of its funding on such work.

Hugh Bayley: The SFO needs more money to investigate and prosecute bribery cases. The Solicitor-General will have seen that BAE Systems was required to pay $400 million to the US Department of Justice in relation to the al-Yamamah case. Will she consider how financial penalties paid in such cases in the UK could be used to fund the cost of enforcing the law against bribery?

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The Solicitor-General: Yes, there is a relationship already between asset recovery, in a broad and not technical sense, and a premium on that, as it were, for the organisation that has recovered the assets. The issue is one that we are looking at, in order to ensure that, in the criminal sense as it were, the polluter pays.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In the context of asset recovery, will the hon. and learned Lady warmly commend the co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, which are working increasingly closely together to combat all forms of crime, in all parts of the island of Ireland?

The Solicitor-General: Yes, I am sure that is something that should be thoroughly commended, as part of a pattern of co-operative behaviour that is reflected across the UK these days.

Rape Cases

15. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What recent steps she has taken to reduce the time taken between charges being brought and court proceedings in rape cases. [321520]The Solicitor-General: The Crown Prosecution Service tries to ensure that at the time of charge, cases are as trial-ready as possible, so that subsequent delays in the court process can be avoided. Ensuring that whenever possible one specialist rape prosecutor takes on a case from start to finish contributes to better case management and better timeliness.

Mr. Cunningham: How does the number of reported rapes compare with the number of convictions for rape?

The Solicitor-General: The conviction rate from charge to conviction is 58 per cent., which represents a significant increase on what the rate has been historically. By analogy, 65 per cent. is the conviction rate for robbery. There is obviously still room for improvement, but things are going in the right direction. It is imperative that we send out a message that rapists are now being convicted at that rate, so that women-and, indeed, men-have the confidence to report, and do not feel that they will be put through the mill again. There is still a large drop-out rate between complaint and getting to court, but we are trying to tackle that in a range of ways. We now have 30 sexual assault referral centres, and a whole phalanx of independent sexual violence advisers who befriend and support a complainant from the minute they come to the police until the end of the case. This gives the complainant better sustenance than they would have had before.

Serious Fraud Office

16. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What the policy of the Serious Fraud Office is on assistance for those who have lost substantial savings to fraudsters. [321521]

The Solicitor-General: The Serious Fraud Office puts victims at the heart of its work. In this financial year it has recovered about £9 million from fraudsters, and £4 million of that has been paid back to victims.

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John Robertson: My hon. and learned Friend and I both served on all 39 sittings of the Standing Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. It was never stated in those deliberations that the money had to go back to the victims. Why has only £4 million of that £9 million gone back to the victims? Does that meet their needs and reflect how much they lost in the first place?

The Solicitor-General: The SFO puts a premium on ensuring that money is repaid to victims whenever possible. Sometimes, however, it is not practical to identify where money has come from. On some occasions it has come from organisations, and is returned to them; on others, it comes into the public purse. When dealing with assets recovery, the SFO's intention is, first and foremost, to ensure repayment to identifiable victims.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Insider trading is one of the most awful kinds of fraud. Is the Serious Fraud Office able to cope with looking after the victims of this specialist fraud, especially in the light of the fact that if the opposition got into power, they would abolish the SFO?

The Solicitor-General: Like a large number of the things that the Opposition would do if they got in, that would be seriously unwise. The SFO very much has its eye on the whole insider trading agenda. It has specialists to look into it, and they can help to support the victims of that particularly heinous form of fraud.

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