The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lye11):
Of the 1.5 million or more cases forwarded by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service each year, the total numbers not proceeded with in each of the years 1990–1993 were, to the nearest thousand, 227,000, 262,000, 281,000, and for the first six months of 1993, 143,000. These figures include for each respective year 79,000, 93,000, 88,000 and 52,000 cases, the substantial proportion of which could not proceed because the defendant had either died or could not be traced.
Can the Minister explain why, in the past five years when crime has increased by 50 per cent., magistrates courts have dealt with 40,000 fewer cases, Crown courts have dealt with 8,000 fewer cases and the number of cases that the Crown Prosecution Service has decided to discontinue has increased by 80 per cent? Does the Minister agree with the First Division Association survey of all Crown prosecutors that 86 per cent. have no confidence in the senior management of the Crown Prosecution Service?
The hon. Gentleman asks two quite separate questions, although there is some linkage. First, the number of cases coming to court has been reduced as a result of diversionary measures and, in particular, by an increase in cautioning which, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has announced, is likely to be restricted. Secondly, one of the reasons for low morale, in so far as there is low morale in the Crown Prosecution Service, is that it is constantly being wrongly blamed for discontinuing cases which it has discontinued for thoroughly sensible reasons. If such cases are brought to the hon. Gentleman or to other hon. Members, I invite them to ask for chapter and verse and to provide that to me, because in the huge majority of the cases that I have looked into extremely carefully there were thoroughly sensible reasons for the decisions.
If the Crown Prosecution Service thinks that it is not appropriate to proceed in one in six cases in which the police think that it is appropriate, is it not time to reconsider the 51 per cent. chance of conviction rule before the CPS brings its charges and also to reconsider the Crown Prosecution Service procedure of trying to accept pleas to lesser offences in the magistrates courts so that many cases do not go to trial before juries? What kind of deterrence is there in a system in which some of the people who are caught have no reason to think that they will be brought to trial?
My hon. and learned Friend has great knowledge of the criminal justice system and will wish to take to heart what I have just told the House. It is much better to look at individual cases in detail to find out whether there was a solid reason for whatever course was taken. I have done that, and in a very high proportion of the cases that I have examined there was a thoroughly sensible reason for the decision. To look just at bare statistics and draw the wrong conclusion would be a mistake.