Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680-686)|
THURSDAY 16 JANUARY 2003
QC, MP AND MS
Baroness Perry of Southward
680. I do not want to delay things because I
know the Attorney General is very busy, but could I just return
as one of the lay members of the Committee to what you said in
your very helpful briefing paper, and you have referred to it
again two or three times today, about what must be a subjective
judgment about whether a prosecution is in the public interest.
Could you just elaborate that in lay terms for us because it is
a subjective judgment, is it not?
(Lord Goldsmith) Again, I do not think it is a subjective
judgment, although that in itself may, I suppose, be criticised
for being subjective. Can I illustrate this by reference to what
the Code of Crown Prosecutors says, because it says that prosecutions
should not take place, even where there is the evidence, if they
are not in the public interest. It goes on to give examples of
what the public interests are and I am very happy to send a copy
of this to the Committee. For example, any serious crime it would
normally be in the public interest to prosecute. Any trivial matter
it may not be in the public interest to prosecute. Then there
will be other circumstances. A defendant who is extremely infirm
or sometimesthe Lord Chairman will recall these examplessomeone
who has just been sentenced to 15 years for armed robbery. It
is not in the public interest to continue with a prosecution for
some much lesser offence which is not going to add to the time
he spends in prison. There are some more esoteric areasfor
example, if the public interest concerns national security or
police intelligence methods or something of that sort. That might
lead a particular prosecution to take place or not. These are
all well recognised reasons and I emphasise that public interest
is not political interest. It is not the view of the minister
of the day. It is a decision which prosecutors make all the time.
681. That was the query in my mind which I was
driving at. Is there anything in the guidance or the law as it
stands which would prevent a future Attorney General from making
such a decision on political grounds? Supposing there were another
1920s case of enormous pressure being put on the Attorney General
by a government of any colour of the future not to pursue something
because it would embarrass the government or whatever. Is there
anything that would protect the Attorney General from that kind
(Lord Goldsmith) The precedent of the government falling
as a result of it is quite a strong pressure in itself.
682. It is a political pressure. You could get
a cunning government to figure out ways to take advantage of that.
That is not the kind of assurance I want, although it may be pragmatic.
(Lord Goldsmith) This is a very serious point. I regard
it as inherent in our constitutional arrangements that there are
certain decisions which are made by the law officers, independently
from government and which must be seen to be made independently
of government. The Campbell case is an illustration of
how seriously that has been taken in our political history. I
think that is a very powerful discouragement to any other minister
who might think in terms of trying to put pressure on a law officer
and he will consider how seriously that conduct would be taken.
683. Baroness Perry's question goes to the heart
of the task of the Attorney General. The leading textbook on the
subject incorporates the public interest in its title: "Politics,
the Law and the Public Interest". I thought the answer
to the question was given by you a little earlier when you made
reference to the Gouriet case. What the courts have said
until now, at the highest level, is that the Attorney General
is responsible to Parliament.
(Lord Goldsmith) Yes.
684. That is what happened in the 1920s and
that is exactly what happened in the Gouriet case.
(Lord Goldsmith) Yes.
685. There remains one point. Earlier on, you
very kindly offered to consult with me on a certain matter. I
would like to discuss with my colleagues how this fits in with
the proceedings of the select committee and maybe I would be permitted
to come back to you on that.
(Lord Goldsmith) Of course.
686. Although I may be dying to know what it
is you want to say, I must be sure that we get the proceedings
correct. Other than that, may I thank you very much? You have
been put to an hour of cross-examination, which is more than I
had anticipated. You have given us a great deal to think about
and I think you have dealt with some of the most difficult issues
that are before us. We shall study with great care what you have
said on the record.
(Lord Goldsmith) Thank you. In expressing thanks to
you for that, might I say this on my own behalf, which I might
not have said in opening? The Committee may not be at all surprised
to know that I am very pleased that the Committee is considering
this particular, potential offence. It seemed to me, at the time
when we were debating this within the framework of the anti-terrorism
legislation, that it was important. This is conduct which is
capable of being extremely damaging and a precursor to acts of
violence. I think it is undesirable that we should have what is
something of an artificial distinction between what might be seen
as particular religious groups and other groups because some groups
are considered as also constituting racial groups and others are
not. I thought at the time that it was undesirable that certain
groups were not protected from scurrilous, evil, hateful propaganda
directed against them. I was disappointed at the time that Parliament
chose not to take it up at that stage and therefore I am pleased
that the Committee is considering it now in the context of Lord
Chairman: I think you can be assured that the
matter is going to be given very thorough consideration in this