The attorney general is to press for an explanation from the Crown Prosection Service over the failed sexual assault and rape cases brought against Nigel Evans and other public figures as the fallout over the prosecution deepened.
Dominic Grieve will discuss the unsuccessful prosecutions with the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who has strongly defended the CPS against allegations that there was not enough evidence to bring a case against Evans, a senior Conservative MP.
As some Tories called for a higher threshold of evidence for sexual offence cases, Labour and a number of charities warned that political pressure on the CPS not to charge high-profile figures sent out a damaging message.
The CPS, which has endured cuts of 27.5% in its budget under the coalition government, is already reviewing failed high-profile prosecutions such as those of the actors Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache as well as Evans. It believes it was right to prosecute in those instances, but the failures have prompted criticism and ignited a debate around the judgments of which cases to take to court.
Professor Liz Kelly, director of the child and woman abuse studies unit in London, said she feared the debate around the Evans trial was sending an “extremely negative message to survivors of sexual violence”. She added: “At this time of ongoing high-profile trials, political interference undermining work to improve prosecutions of sexual offences should desist,” she said.
Lee Eggleston, chair of the Rape Crisis charity, said it was “critical, in light of recent cases, to ensure that all survivors of sexual violence have specialist support, whether or not they report”.
Support for the CPS also came from the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry. She said: “It’s vitally important that the CPS takes on difficult, high-profile cases where it believes there is a realistic chance of conviction and a public interest in going ahead.
“In the aftermath of its much-criticised decision not to prosecute Jimmy Savile, the CPS last year carried out a wide-ranging review of how it handles cases involving allegations of sexual offences and it would be precipitate for it to tear that up and embark on yet another one.”
The cuts imposed on the CPS have led to severe challenges to the way it copes with its workload. More than 730,000 defendants were prosecuted by the organisation last year. That figure, however, has been falling as crime rates tumble and police take over charging decisions for a proportion of low-level offences.
The overall success rate for CPS prosecutions has remained at an impressive 85% or 86% for several years, although figures for sex offences, where there are usually no independent witnesses, are inevitably lower.
Nonetheless, between 2007-08 and 2012-13 CPS conviction rates for rape cases rose from 57.7% to 63.2% – the highest recorded CPS conviction rate for rape since its records began.
On Friday A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said: “The running of individual cases is a matter for the independent CPS and the DPP. However, as part of his role superintending the CPS, and as would be normal in high-profile cases such as these, the attorney general will discuss these cases with the DPP at their next regular meeting.”
The post-case review of the Evans file is not a re-examination of the decision to bring charges against the former Commons deputy speaker but an investigation into how proceedings were managed. “It’s not unusual for a case to be looked at after an acquittal in terms of handling,” a CPS spokesperson said. “It’s a look at the handling to see if we could have done better.” The review will consider, among other issues, the support given to witnesses and the presentation of the case.
The row over the prosecution came as the Conservatives’ new code of conduct for MPs was leaked in the wake of allegations that Westminister is rife with harassment and bullying. The document sent out by the whips showed it will be voluntary and tells MPs that grievances are “entirely a matter for you to handle”.
It describes the relationship between MPs and staff as “something which neither the house nor the party has any legal locus upon”.
The reason for the new code is that complaints “can give rise to potential harm to the party’s reputation if not handled properly and with consistency”, rather than concern for any potential victim.
Rumours of inappropriate sexual behaviour and bullying within parliament have so worried John Bercow, the Speaker, that he has ordered the parties to do better at addressing complaints. A Channel 4 survey found a third of workers in parliament had experience harassment of some kind during their time in Westminster. Labour is also establishing an independent complaints procedure.
Evans, the Tory MP for Ribble Valley in Lancashire, was found not guilty of all nine counts on Thursday following a five-week trial at Preston crown court, where he was accused of abusing his power to attack young Commons workers between 2003 and March last year.
Saunders defended the decision to prosecute him. “The police only start an investigation when somebody comes to them and complains, and it’s their duty to look and investigate all the circumstances and see if there are other victims there as well,” she said.
“We know in many cases people don’t see themselves as victims, whereas looked at objectively they are. They often don’t think themselves victims because of the power of the alleged offender.They may be in a position of power, they may feel that they love them or that they’re somehow looking after them. We’ve seen this regularly in research from Barnardo’s, and in cases of domestic violence.”
The DPP has rejected calls for a wider review demanded by David Davis MP, a Tory former shadow home secretary, supported by a number of Evans’ colleagues.
Responding to complaints from Davis that lesser charges were bundled together in the Evans case to “reinforce” a more serious alleged offence of rape, the CPS insisted that the practice is widely used.
Attempting to show a pattern of offending is neither new and nor restricted to sexual offence cases, the CPS said. It is often deployed in shoplifting cases, a spokesperson added.
“It’s not about strengthening a weak case. It can add weight by showing the context and pattern. It also spares a defendant multiple retrials.”Saunders was not involved in the original decision to prosecute Evans. She was, at the time, head of the London region of the CPS.
Revelations about Jimmy Savile’s predatory behaviour have unleashed a torrent of historical sexual offence allegations, many involving other celebrities, to which police and the CPS have had to respond. That process has generated some criticism that prosecutors are too caught up in the headlines.
But while the former DPP Lord Macdonald has reminded prosecutors that they need to “keep a cool head” in investigations of historical abuse cases, many criminal lawyers are more concerned at the lack of resources to prevent delays in less high-profile cases. Lucille Harvey, parliamentary branch secretary at Unite, told Channel 4 that the union had been told of MPs who had threaten to “ruin” the lives of researchers if they brought complaints about harassment.
Margot James, Tory MP for Stourbridge, also said she believes there was an “issue with the culture” in Westminster although she had not seen signs of it herself.
Any threats of ruined lives sounded like an “abuse of power and position”, she said, but the new Conservative code of conduct was a “good start”.
Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary, also suggested the director of public prosecutions might want to be more cautious about bringing more high-profile sex offence cases in future.
“I understand why they made these decisions,” he told Sky News. “I suspect, at the same time, they will now review these prosecutorial decisions, and in a sense, I think the public and press demand that there has to be somebody in the dock in these high-profile, historic cases of allegations. That pressure may now reduce.”