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Domestic Violence

3. Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): If he will take steps to increase the rate of prosecution in cases of domestic violence. [3379]

The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his election?

The Government take domestic violence very seriously. The Law Officers support the work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking to increase the rate of prosecution in such cases. The increase in the provision of specialist domestic violence courts, the training of all CPS prosecutors in domestic violence cases and improvements in support and safety for victims have all led to an increase in the rate of prosecutions leading to a conviction. The CPS works with other agencies to ensure that, where possible, the evidence is available to prosecute such cases effectively.

Ian Mearns: Has any additional consideration been given to making special provisions for children where cases of domestic violence occur in settings where children are present or where children are victims or witnesses to acts of violence in their own homes?

The Solicitor-General: It is estimated that about 750,000 children witness domestic violence during any given year. Clearly, a great deal needs to be done to ensure not only that those children are protected, but that, if appropriate, they can give evidence in courts in such a way that does not frighten them and that leads to proper convictions being arrived at. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that will certainly be considered further.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): What plans does my hon. and learned Friend have for victims who have no recourse to public funds?

The Solicitor-General: It depends on what my hon. Friend means by the phrase "recourse to public funds". A number of victims will be protected or assisted by independent domestic violence advisers. We now have 141 specialist domestic violence courts. As she will know from her private practice as a family lawyer, people can be assisted in a number of ways. The main thing is to ensure that they know what is available and that they can be assisted before, during and after the court hearing.

Rape Allegations

4. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on policy on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. [3380]

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The Attorney-General: I have had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters and will continue to do so as and when issues arise. Rape is one of the most serious and damaging of all crimes, and I support the current work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases. If there are to be any changes to the law or procedure in respect of rape trials-for example, the introduction of anonymity for defendants in such cases-as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear last week, they will take place only after the issues involved have been fully researched and debated. The views of all those with relevant knowledge and expertise, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, will be fully taken into account.

Jim Dobbin: Victims of rape need to feel confident that those accused of rape will be treated as serious offenders. Does the Attorney-General agree that extending anonymity to those defendants will stop victims coming forward and send a signal that it will be difficult to accuse people?

The Attorney-General: I do not think that it will in any way lessen the seriousness of the matter; on the contrary, it will emphasise the seriousness. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that anonymity for defendants in rape cases existed between 1976 and 1988. Indeed, I defended rape cases over that period and saw that trials were conducted without difficulty and with no lessening of the gravity of the offence. However, such matters can and will be debated, and if they are debated with a proper emphasis on detail, I believe that we will reach the right solutions.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): If we go down the road of balancing victim anonymity with anonymity for the person accused, is not the important consideration that if the prosecution has good reason to believe that evidence will be brought to light if the identity is known, it should be possible to waive anonymity?

The Attorney-General: Yes; my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have no doubt that that issue is one of those that can be examined. It is worth bearing in mind that the existing anonymity for complainants has the consequence, for example, that there are occasions when a history of false complaints made to someone other than the police does not come to light before a trial takes place. However, that has not been put forward as an argument for removing anonymity for complainant victims. He is correct, however, that such matters can all be looked at properly when we examine this area of the law.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): May I begin by welcoming the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Solicitor-General to their posts-it must be like going back to chambers? I also thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the kind words about his predecessors that he set out at the beginning of Question Time, which were gratefully received by Labour Members.

There has been a lot of confusion about this area of policy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has, like several of his colleagues, spoken about the matter as if
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we were conducting a debate, but I remind him that the coalition agreement states that anonymity will be extended to defendants in rape cases. Will he lead the Government from the front by admitting that they have got this wrong, accepting that they have made a mistake and dropping this disastrous and retrograde policy?

The Attorney-General: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's welcome; indeed, I welcome her to her role of shadowing the Law Officers in the House. She will be aware that my role is to provide legal advice about policy decisions made by the Government, and she can be reassured that I will ensure that exactly that happens.

As for this policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear when answering questions last week that he wished to engage in a debate to examine this procedure and area of the law, which have caused concern. That is exactly what I invite the House to do, in the spirit in which such debate should be conducted.

Crown Prosecution Service

5. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How long on average it took for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute in cases referred to it in (a) Northamptonshire and (b) England in the latest period for which figures are available. [3381]

The Solicitor-General: During the year ending May 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service took an average of 13.6 days to complete a pre-charge decision in Northamptonshire, and 8.1 days in England as a whole.

Mr Hollobone: What encouragement and advice can my hon. and learned Friend offer to Northamptonshire CPS so that it improves its performance and gets up to the national average?

The Solicitor-General: I have absolutely no doubt that my hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour, will give his own encouragement to his local CPS. A lot has been done, although a great deal more can be done, and I am sure that, between us, we will keep Northamptonshire CPS up to the mark.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I welcome the Solicitor-General, who is my near neighbour, to his new post.

When Members of Parliament write to the CPS to make representations on behalf of constituents about cases that it is considering, are there any guidelines on how long it should take the chief Crown prosecutor to write back to them?

The Solicitor-General: All letters from Members of Parliament, whether to the headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service, or to the chief Crown prosecutor for a particular area should be answered speedily. Occasionally, work has to be done to provide a full answer, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his kind remarks, will understand that it is better to receive a thorough answer a few days late than a half answer on time.

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In-house Advocates

6. Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): If he will estimate the cost to the public purse of the use by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocates in the Crown court in the latest period for which figures are available. [3382]

The Attorney-General: In 2009-10, the full cost incurred by the Crown Prosecution Service of in-house advocate deployment in the Crown court was £18,552,313. The CPS estimates that it would have cost £27,833,588, excluding VAT and fees, to use self-employed advocates for that work, representing a saving of £9,281,275, excluding VAT. I acknowledge that the methodology for calculating the cost of Crown advocate deployment has been disputed by the Bar Council. I understand that discussions are taking place between the CPS and the Bar Council to try to resolve the matter and to look more generally at sustaining the role of self-employed advocates in the Crown court.

Mr Buckland: Will my right hon. and learned Friend go further and accept that the best guarantee of cost-effectiveness and quality in the Crown court is the independent bar?

The Attorney-General: I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is widespread recognition, including by the CPS itself, that the referral bar has an important role to play in the prosecution of offences, and that that must be sustained. It is my intention, working with the head of the CPS, to ensure that that happens.

Rape Allegations

7. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of rape. [3383]

The Attorney-General: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave to Question 4.

Kevin Brennan: Does the Attorney-General agree with the Lord Chancellor that there should be a free vote on this?

The Attorney-General: It will be for Government members who are introducing the policy to decide whether that matter should be subject to a free vote or not.

Domestic Violence

8. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What recent representations the Crown Prosecution Service has received on steps to increase the rate of prosecution in cases of domestic violence. [3384]

The Solicitor-General: Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the House. Records of representations received by local CPS offices are not kept centrally. I can tell him, however, that the Director of Public Prosecutions has not received any recent representations on steps to increase the rate of prosecutions in cases of domestic violence.

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Karl Turner: May I ask the Solicitor-General what he proposes to do to build on the success of the Labour Government in tackling domestic violence?

The Solicitor-General: That is a wide question that I do not have time to answer, except in an Adjournment debate. As I said in my answers to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends at the beginning of Question Time, the Government take domestic violence every bit as seriously as the previous Government. It is worth noting, however, that the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 included a power to introduce restraining orders. Until I reminded the then Government during the course of debates on the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 of those powers, they did nothing about introducing restraining orders for four or five years. Their record was therefore rather patchy.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Boundary Review (Constituencies)

1. Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What discussions the Electoral Commission has had with Ministers on timing of the next parliamentary boundary review. [3387]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): The Electoral Commission has no statutory responsibilities in relation to parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are the responsibility of the four boundary commissions for the United Kingdom. The Electoral Commission has therefore had no discussions with Ministers about the timing of the next parliamentary boundary review.

Mr Hanson: Will the hon. Gentleman make sure that the Electoral Commission makes representations to boundary commissioners and, indeed, to Ministers to ensure that before any boundary review takes place, registration in constituencies rises and that activity is under way to increase it so that the 3.5 million people who are missing are put back on the register, and that any future boundaries truly reflect those who live within constituency boundaries?

Mr Streeter: I will obviously pass on the right hon. Gentleman's comments to the Electoral Commission but, as I said, it has no responsibility for the boundary review. It is, however, concerned about low voter registration, and it estimates that between 8% and 9% of the eligible population in England and Wales is not registered. It is working with electoral registration officers and others to try to improve the position.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked-

Women Bishops

2. Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What progress the Church of England has made on proposals to enable women to be consecrated as bishops. [3388]

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The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Tony Baldry): Before I answer that question, may I pay tribute to my predecessor, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell)? He has been the longest serving Second Church Estates Commissioner ever, and he did an excellent job. The legislation to enable women to become bishops reaches the General Synod's equivalent of Report early next month in York. Depending on what is decided there, the legislation will then go to the 44 diocesan synods, and I understand that the earliest date that the General Synod can take a final decision, and when the matter can eventually come before the House, is 2012.

Diana R. Johnson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role. Does he not agree that the intervention of the two archbishops, with their proposal on the legislation to enable women to become bishops, will create a two-tier system of bishops? Women will no doubt be on the lower tier, and does that not send out completely the wrong message from the established Church of this country about the role of women bishops?

Tony Baldry: I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words at the beginning of her question. There are clear majorities in the General Synod in favour of women becoming bishops, but, as the proposals by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York yesterday demonstrated, there are still efforts to try to find ways to reconcile those who have deep-held opposition to the measure. Under legislation, it is important that the Church decides the way forward, and we should give it the space to do so. However, it is also very important that the Church hears the voices of this House about how we see those matters, because ultimately the issue will have to come back to this House.

Church Repairs (VAT)

3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the rates of value added tax applicable to church repairs. [3389]

Tony Baldry: The General Synod at its February meeting made it clear how important it feels the listed places of worship scheme is. The scheme has managed to rebate some £12 million back to listed churches each year, and that is particularly important when a system has not yet been found for the European Union to remove VAT on repairs to listed places of worship.

Miss McIntosh: May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment and pay tribute to his predecessor? Will my hon. Friend look at removing the anomaly between the high rate of VAT on church repairs and the zero rate of VAT on new buildings? Will he, indeed, campaign for a lower rate of VAT throughout the European Union- [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I must say that there is still quite a hubbub from Government Back Benchers, and it is being contributed to by members of the Government. Surely they want to hear the answers from the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

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Tony Baldry: I remind any colleagues interrupting that it was Gladstone who observed that the most important business of the House was Prayers at the start of the day.

My hon. Friend has been an assiduous campaigner in supporting repairs for church buildings, and the simple fact is that each year the Church of England spends £110 million on repairing and renovating listed churches. The vast majority of that money comes from church congregations and local communities, and, even in these straitened times, we have to come to a collective view on whether we are going to maintain that very important part of our national fabric and heritage.

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