Of the 1,068,750 defendants tried in the magistrates courts during the year 1991–92, 1,040,997 were convicted or pleaded guilty, representing a conviction rate of 97·4 per cent.
Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the increasing anxiety among police officers that attacks and assaults on them during the course of their duty are not being prosecuted with the necessary severity by the Crown prosecution service, which often downgrades the charges made, or even drops them altogether? Given that 239 officers in Surrey were assaulted in 1992 alone, is that not an outrage and should not people who assault police officers in the course of their duties automatically be locked up?
I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that things are not as gloomy as the picture that he has just painted. Whenever offences are reduced in gravity, it is always done consistent with the interests of justice. There is a wide range of penalties to deal with assaults and obstructing the police. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, as compared with assaults on other victims, the use of custody as a penalty for police assaults is consistently higher—nearly twice as high for a section 20 assault, three times as high for a section 47 assault and five times as high for common assault.
In view of the appalling and worsening crime wave, what is the explanation for the apparent reduction in the number of cases coming before magistrates courts? Have any instructions been given that there should be greater use of cautioning and, if so, by whom? And is that connected with the Government's attempt to limit costs in the courts?
The Crown prosecution service is not responsible for the number of people charged or arrested. Last year, the discontinuance rate in the magistrates court was 13·3 per cent. and in the Crown court it was 7·8 per cent. Those rates were not gravely different from those of the preceding year. The purpose of the Crown prosecution service is to weed out weak cases. There is absolutely no point in the Crown prosecution service conducting cases that are going to result in an acquittal. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that discontinuance does not take place on ground of cost.