Crown Prosecution Service: Racial Bias - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:28 am on 25 April 2024.

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Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour 11:28, 25 April 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of racial bias in Crown Prosecution Service charging decisions.

Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour

My Lords, as a very happy Evertonian, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we know that some ethnic groups are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and we need to understand why so we can address this. The Crown Prosecution Service commissioned research which found that outcomes of CPS decision-making differ by ethnicity. However, the research did not identify the reasons for this, so the CPS has proactively commissioned further work to explore the impact of other contributing factors, to address this important issue.

Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, as the Minister knows, told me from the Dispatch Box that

“race plays no part in individual charging decisions”.

However, the Crown Prosecution Service itself, as has just been said, in its report last year,

“found evidence of disproportionality in relation to ethnicity in the outcomes of our decision-making”, and that,

“ethnic minority defendants are significantly more likely to be charged for a comparable offence than White British defendants”.

Can the Minister explain why?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as we all know, individuals commit crimes, and it is up to us to ensure that they are treated fairly and equally. The Lammy Review, published in 2017, found no issues with the outcomes of CPS charging decisions. Given the level of ethnic disparity across the CJS and the fact that the Lammy Review was undertaken some time ago, the CPS commissioned further independent academic research. The findings of this research, while challenging for the CPS, are an important step in ensuring that the CJS is fair and functioning for all sections of society. I am pleased that further work is being undertaken to provide a deeper understanding of this issue and to find solutions as to how best the system can address it. That work will help to identify any issue with processes, and we expect it to be completed in the last part of 2024.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the disparity and bias that we know about is not new. The MoJ and the Crown Prosecution Service have extensive data. This question has come up time and again. There have been reviews and there has been research. I find it very disappointing for the Minister to say that we do not why this is still happening. We know that black defendants spend an average of 70% longer in prison awaiting trial and sentencing than their white counterparts—the Government’s own data shows this—and we know that black and Asian people in prison are more likely to be serving longer sentences than other groups. Do not these shocking figures really lay bare how racism and injustice is hardwired into the criminal justice system? While sentencing and remand decisions are made by independent judiciary, the Government have a responsibility to tackle this. What is being done to end these disparities?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Baroness’s comments that individuals are necessarily being treated differently. However, the research did find an issue, and the CPS is taking several steps to ensure that this work is both credible and robust, including development of an independent disproportionality advisory group that will provide independent scrutiny of its internal research regarding disproportionality to provide confidence that the work is suitably focused, rigorous and transparent.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall Conservative

My Lords, in June 2020 the CPS launched its digital 2025 strategy, which includes how it is going to embrace new technology, including AI. Given that there are many concerns about data bias and algorithm bias in artificial intelligence, what conversations has my noble friend’s department had with the CPS about ensuring that this will not introduce more bias into the system?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the CPS itself demonstrates a remarkable ethnically diverse workforce. While that does not answer my noble friend’s question precisely, this is an organisation that shows that it has an ethnic-minority background of 23%, well above the 15.4% for the Civil Service and the 19.3% for the working-age population. I will try to respond to my noble friend in writing on his specific point.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that my liking for “The Godfather” movies makes me no more or less likely to be a member of the mafia? If I am right about that, why are young black British men being prosecuted for serious violent offences in reliance of evidence of their liking for rap and drill music?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we do not accept that they are more likely to be prosecuted. The point is that we have identified that ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and we are researching to find out exactly why that is the case. The raw data suggests that they are being charged more aggressively than the white majority, but we do not understand the factors behind that. The review that we have commissioned will report later this year on exactly what factors we can identify.

Photo of The Bishop of Derby The Bishop of Derby Bishop

My Lords, I hold responsibility in the Bishops’ prison team for children in the youth justice system, so my question arises not only from access to what I find to be quite disturbing data but also from direct contact with children in the justice system. What steps are His Majesty’s Government taking to eliminate racial bias, including in charging, against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in the youth justice system, who are often hidden within official statistics?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling all sorts of racism and discrimination in society. The Government have a robust legislative framework to protect all individuals against unlawful discrimination. Our Inclusive Britain strategy, published in March 2022, set out a ground-breaking action plan to tackle negative disparities, promote unity and build a fairer Britain for all. The strategy includes 74 bold actions to improve outcomes for ethnic minority groups across education, health, employment and criminal justice.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, the Lammy Review was very clear. It said, first, that young men from ethnic minorities—particularly black young men—are more likely to be charged more aggressively, as the noble Lord has just accepted; they are more likely to plead not guilty, which means that they do not get the discount for pleading guilty because they do not trust the system; and they are more likely to be sentenced more harshly when the sentencing actually happens. Will the Government undertake to implement all the recommendations of the Lammy Review?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his question. As I said yesterday at the Dispatch Box, I am not going to make undertakings, but we take these conclusions very seriously and will act on them to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, three times when presented with evidence of how individuals are being treated differently based on race in the criminal justice system, the Minister has said that individuals are not treated differently based on race. Can he furnish the House with the evidence base that allows him to say that with such certainty?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, while we accept that the research from the University of Leeds, which covered 195,000 cases between January 2018 and December 2021, found that white British suspects had the lowest charge rate of 69.9%, and mixed-heritage suspects had a charge rate of between 77.3% and 81.3%, the statistics are alarming, which is why the CPS has responded by conducting this independent review on a timescale which I hope will please the House, reporting by the end of 2024.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, given the age profile of those who come up against the criminal justice system, would it not be wise to cross-reference with research that has been undertaken on school exclusions, which show a considerable reaction to authority from certain ethnic-minority boys in particular and a lack of training on how to deal with and understand that reaction?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the purpose of the additional review being conducted by the CPS is to identify all other factors that could be at play in delivering this data. Once we have the results of that at the end of this year, we will be able to come to firmer conclusions.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, forgive me: I was not clear enough in the phrasing of my earlier question. Young black men are being charged partly on the basis of evidence that they are listening to rap and drill music. This kind of cultural bias is being used in our criminal courts for very serious prosecutions. Is that right? Is that a practice that the Minister and His Majesty’s Government agree with?

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am grateful for the initial question. Of course, the Government do not agree with that. We have indeed provided guidance. The CPS is mindful that labels such as “gang” can lead to discrimination by racially stereotyping defendants. That is why prosecution guidance on gang-related offending is clear that prosecutors should not refer to gangs unless there is clear evidence to support the assertion. The CPS will make further improvements to its guidance, including on gangs, this year.