Questions to the Attorney General

31st January 2019

Attorney General Rt Hon Geoffrey Cox QC MP answers questions from MPs.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Money Laundering

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting money laundering. [908914]

The Crown Prosecution Service plays a central role in combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the pursuit of asset recovery within our criminal justice system. Dealing with illicit finance through the prosecution of money laundering offences remains a critical priority for our prosecuting agencies. Just last year, more than 1,400 convictions were sustained where it was the principal offence charged in the Crown Court.

It seems that the Government need to get an even firmer grip on the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service. Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any plans to strengthen oversight in that way?

My hon. Friend must remember that the financial action taskforce in December carried out an evaluation of system responses to money laundering. Of the 60 countries assessed, the United Kingdom emerged first for having the most effective system in the world for combating money laundering. Set against that background, we can make improvements and I hope to make them through the governance changes that I am introducing. We are instituting a ministerial board, which I shall chair. We shall have a much stronger grip on information coming from the Crown Prosecution Service, and we hope to anticipate problems before they arise.

Will the Attorney General further outline how much money seized from criminal assets in the assets recovery scheme has been reinvested into community funds in the past year?

Last year, £80.1 million was recovered by the Crown Prosecution Service, but I am afraid that I am not in a position to help the hon. Gentleman with regards to the community funds. I can undertake to write to him with those details, and I hope that he will be satisfied with that.

Soldiers and Veterans: Protection from Prosecution

2. What steps the Government are taking to protect soldiers and veterans from prosecution. [908915]

The Government are unstinting in their admiration and gratitude for the work of the armed forces. We expect the highest standards of our service personnel, and the overwhelming majority meet those expectations, serving with great honour and distinction. The Government are taking very seriously the concerns that have been expressed by this House about investigations and prosecutions of veterans in historical operations. The Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I are looking carefully at the measures available to us, and we shall be making announcements during the course of this year.

Does the Attorney General agree that we need urgently to derogate from the European convention on human rights? Apart from anything else, it is the right thing to do. It is also on page 41 of the Conservative party manifesto, and there is clearly overwhelming public support for protecting our soldiers and veterans from legal pursuit.

I can confirm that we shall give consideration to a derogation from the convention before future military operations commence. That will necessarily depend on the nature of the operation, and the circumstances and facts of the activities that we are contemplating, but it will now be a consideration that will be taken into account before any military operation.

The writ of the Attorney General runs large, but it does not extend to Northern Ireland in criminal matters, where he features as the Advocate General. Will he give a commitment today that any scheme that is brought forward to protect our service personnel extends to them, wherever they should live in this United Kingdom?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation. No area of the United Kingdom can be left out; plainly that would be wrong. As he knows, that does not mean that there may not be particular considerations peculiar to Northern Ireland that have to be taken into account, and I am in discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about those considerations.

Is the Attorney General aware that servicemen of my age who served in Northern Ireland through the ’70s will be petrified about the fact that there is a letter about future prosecutions coming down the line, even though they were investigated decades ago? We need to move forwards so that this House decides whether our veterans are protected in the same way as it seems this House protects terrorists that were out there then.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have the greatest respect for all those who have served in our armed forces. My own family were an armed forces family, and I am acutely anxious to resolve this question to the satisfaction of this House. The measures that we have in mind would not be peculiar to one area of the United Kingdom, would be comprehensive and, I hope, would give dignity, peace of mind and assurance to all those who have served in our armed forces. We are anxious to make announcements as soon as possible.


Leaving the EU: Priorities

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. [908920]

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. [908922]

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the priorities for his Office. [908924]

In relation to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, my priority is to support the delivery of the Government’s objectives. That includes giving legal and constitutional advice within the Government on our international negotiations and treaty obligations, the programme of domestic legislation to implement the consequences of exit, and of course supporting preparations for future international co-operation between the law officers departments and with prosecution and other criminal justice officers.

I suppose we should congratulate the Attorney General on his appointment to the glorious new negotiating troika that is going to solve in the next two weeks all the problems that the Government have not been able to in the past two years. During that time, how open will he be with the House about the legal advice that he is providing so that we can make informed decisions about the new deal that is going to be negotiated—or will we have to keep dragging him kicking and screaming to the House through Humble Addresses and other procedures to get that information out of him?

I have already said to the House that in future, on matters of law that are particularly relevant to the House’s consideration, I and the Government will consider releasing advice that has been given on these questions. I will not give any guarantee in advance, but let me make it plain that I shall listen carefully to the House and, in so far as it is needed, I will endeavour to satisfy them.

One of the matters that the Attorney General decided was a priority was to launch a case in the Supreme Court challenging the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament, which has just passed the Continuity Bill. Not only did the Government delay that by taking that action but they then mounted a retrospective power grab through the unelected House of Lords to remove from the elected Parliament of Scotland the power to pass legislation that it had already passed. What was the cost to the taxpayers of the United Kingdom of that Supreme Court case?

The Government won that case, as the hon. Gentleman quite knows. The truth is that it has gone back to the Scottish Parliament, and the system is working. It is the purpose of the referral system to delineate and demarcate the proper boundaries between the devolved Governments and Westminster. That is what the Supreme Court decided. As to the cost, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman if he would like me to.

In December a ferry contract was awarded to Seaborne Freight without competitive tender, due to extreme urgency, but the Government have known for years about the possibility of no deal. Will he release the legal advice that permitted the Department of Transport to proceed under regulation 32?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, that is not a subject within my ministerial responsibility. The legal advice inside any Department is a matter for that Department; it does not come automatically to the Attorney General. There is an important principle of confidentiality and privilege associated with legal advice, which I hope the House will not lose. The matter that he has raised is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the Secretary of State.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the most pressing practical priority for the prosecuting authorities is to secure continued access to the critical database systems available under the Eurojust criminal co-operation arrangements, and that that requires as an absolute priority achieving a deal to ensure continued data regulation alignment so that there can be lawful access to those databases?

As my hon. Friend well knows, the Government are keen to establish with the European Union the closest possible security partnership for precisely the reasons that he gives.

Can the Attorney General give a reassurance that EU citizens who live in this country on 29 March will have their rights protected, whether we have a deal or a no deal?

If we find ourselves in the backstop, the withdrawal agreement allows the EU to make the decision whether our trade arrangements avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Would a simple, workable solution for both sides be to allow an independent body to make that decision?

Article 20 of the proposed Northern Ireland protocol allows already for either party to discuss and agree with the other that the backstop is no longer necessary, and that is arbitrable under the dispute resolution mechanism of the withdrawal agreement. I do not necessarily accept the characterisation that there is a veto. The European Union under the proposals would be bound by the duty of good faith and best endeavours, and it could not just decline to consider a reasonable measure put forward by the United Kingdom.

May I return the Attorney General’s attention to the question of Seaborne Freight? He, like me, will be well aware that if the Department for Transport has avoided competitive tendering under regulation 32 without a proper basis in law, it could face legal action. Has he been asked to advise on the matter, and how much money has been set aside for the contingency of court action concerning the potential illegality of the procurement process and any claim for damages?

The hon. and learned Lady, who is a lady of great distinction in the legal profession, knows quite well that I am bound by the Law Officers’ Convention. I realise why she is trying to tempt me to give fuller answers, but I cannot disclose either the fact or the substance of any advice that I may have given. As for her substantive question, I suggest that she address it to the Secretary of State.