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Crown Prosecution Service (London)

8th June 2004

Serious matters have been raised and both policy and operational issues have been mentioned.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing the debate. He spoke about the thorough nature of the review and has followed the performance of the CPS in London over a significant period by asking questions and corresponding with Ministers and others.

Serious matters have been raised and both policy and operational issues have been mentioned. Although we are debating the CPS in London, the question arises as to what extent its problems are reflected around the country. For instance, the London inspectorate report of October 2003 refers to high proportions of casual staff, even though London CPS staff are paid more than non-London staff. Is the high cost of living in the capital having a detrimental effect on recruitment, or is London CPS losing trained and senior staff to other public bodies like the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Serious Fraud Office?

Historically, it was generally accepted that when the CPS was founded in 1986 the quality of its staff was lacking, not least because of the initial need to recruit a lot of people quickly. However, many now think that the quality of staff, particularly outside London, has been steadily improving. There is no shortage of quality recruits coming to the CPS in Cambridgeshire. Is there some particular problem in London to which the Solictor-General can point?

Another thing that has been nagging me is the extent to which the Government know what is happening on the ground. It is not just a case of whether they know what is going on, but which Department takes responsibility for the CPS on the ground. My hon. Friend reiterated the point made in the inspectorate's report of October 2003: London has an unacceptable problem with discharge committals and with cracked and ineffective trials in the Crown court.

In a written answer on how many cases brought before the CPS had been dropped and for what reasons, the Solicitor-General admitted:

"The Crown Prosecution Service holds no historical records showing why cases did not proceed".-[Official Report, 15 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 7W.]

Will she confirm that that information could be provided for new cases? More specifically, is that situation related to the practicalities of only recently introducing computerised case-management systems? Does she have any information to share with us on how computerisation is likely to improve the quantity and quality of case management? To what extent is there still a problem with CPS staff not having the necessary computer skills to use the equipment? What is being done to remedy that? Why are the offices of our criminal prosecutors only now being computerised?

There is no doubt that London has specific problems. From March 2001 to March 2003, the annual cases handled per CPS lawyer fell from 674 to 458 and the number of committals for trial per CPS lawyer fell from 60 to 50. That was despite the number of lawyers rising from 240 to 350 and running costs increasing from £35 million to £47.5 million. Those statistics follow an emerging pattern for all public services over recent years. With more staff comes more expense but lower productivity.

How do the Government propose to reverse the state of affairs within the CPS? They have made some proposals. One of the more bizarre proposals is to change the name of the Crown Prosecution Service to the public prosecution service. Where do we stand on that name change? If it does go ahead, how much will the rebranding cost? Will the Crown remain as the prosecuting party, and if it does, what is the point of the name change? Another interesting proposal made by the Attorney-General recently is that the career paths of the CPS staff should be reviewed to encourage talented people to join up-for instance, by enabling CPS staff to become judges. Will the Solicitor-General elaborate on those proposals? Has she considered the human rights implications of CPS lawyers who are employed by the state acting as part-time judges?

Another problem is that in some types of crime, such as organised crime or animal rights terrorism, specialist teams of defence solicitors and counsel have been going around the country and outgunning local non-experienced CPS lawyers. Will the Solicitor-General elaborate on the proposed moves to set up specialist groups of prosecutors to take on specialist cases? Will those teams be based in London, and if they are, will they be a separate body or pulled from regional teams case by case? Does the Solicitor-General foresee that the future effectiveness and productivity of the CPS could be improved through specialisation?

One London CPS problem that comes through strongly in the October 2003 inspectorate report is that work remains to be done on leadership and governance. The inspectorate acknowledged that a new Government framework was being developed, with the intention of devolving accountability and responsibility to geographically based sectors. It would help if the Solicitor-General could provide an update on how that process is developing and if she would comment on the inspectorate's finding that there is still work to be done on people and performance management skills.

My understanding is that the CPS is to be permitted to take the decision to charge, rather than receive the papers only after the police have made such a decision. That seems eminently sensible, as it has the potential to reduce tension between the police and the CPS and reduce duplication of effort. However, the proposed roll-out of the plan seems to be somewhat haphazard, with only two London areas operating the new scheme. Can the Solicitor-General confirm whether the costing of the scheme in London, and around the country, has been properly worked out? For example, how many more CPS lawyers and CPS caseworkers will be required to be based in police stations?

We should deal with more than just operational and management issues. Above all, there are policy and confidence issues to consider. If members of the public do not think that the CPS is prosecuting fast enough or well enough, that creates a confidence problem in our criminal justice system. I recently received a letter from a lady who had been mugged in broad daylight as she left a shop. The woman stole her handbag, which contained her cheque book. By the time the police identified the assailant, which they did by tracking down the six stolen and forged cheques, the mugger was already in prison having had 120 other offences taken into consideration. The CPS, following national guidelines, refused to prosecute her for the six new offences, saying that it went against its overriding duty of fairness. If the offences that had been taken into consideration had been 126 rather than 120, would the sentence have been worse? The CPS said no. The victim, however, was staggered that the criminal could not be prosecuted for the crimes committed against her. After all the hassle and upset of helping the police in their investigation, she was left thinking, "Why did I bother telling the police? What good did it do me? I have come off worse."

The system seems to be wrong. Yet again, we see the law working in favour of the criminal rather than the victim, while the CPS takes the blame for a failure in national policy. I am interested to hear what plans, if any, the Solicitor-General has for strengthening the case in favour of victims and for the CPS to prosecute on that basis.

It seems that there are other proposals to improve contact between the CPS and witnesses-for instance, to inform them of the progress of a case. That is necessary not only for compassionate reasons but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said, because it would help to ensure that people turn up and court time would not be wasted. It is a good idea, but no one seems to know what it would involve. We may be wiser were the Solicitor-General to elaborate on that. Has the she considered making a statement on the future of the CPS and the reorganisation proposals? A full debate on the subject would be worth while.

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