Abolish s.222 of the Local Government Act 1972. Transfer all prosecution powers of local authorities to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Currently (in England and Wales) local authorities bring their own prosecutions based on their own investigations by their own departments – including trading standards, environmental health, housing benefit, etc.
There is a lack of independent assessment of the merits of prosecution meaning that great expense can be incurred by businesses, particularly small businesses, if the prosecutions are unwarranted. It is not suggested that all prosecutions are unwarranted – clearly there are rogue traders, benefit cheats and poor environmental practices. However, the separation of these powers would be likely to force local authorities to engage in more positive forms of regulation – such as advice and support – rather than opt for prosecution as an easy option.
In addition, each local authority employs 3 – 4 prosecution lawyers at a cost of around £80m per year. Only a fraction of this is ever recouped from offenders. Lawyers often have to sit around in court waiting for their CPS counterparts to complete a whole bundle of cases before the local authority lawyer gets on to deal with just one. This is grossly inefficient.
Why is this idea important?
Local authorities are responsible for 80% of the prosecutions brought against business. This idea does not seek to take away their role in investigating business practices – but it does seek to ensure that there is a wholly independent decision made to bring a prosecution against that business. That decision can be set against a single national framework of guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
This will also force local authorities to be more robust in the whole process of how they investigate regulatory crime. It will raise the standards of practice across the board.
HM Revenue & Customs recently had their prosecution powers taken away after an horrendous blunder in a major fraud case. Yet local authorities are now taking on major crime cases – particularly in trading standards – where the same safeguards that were highlighted as requirements in the HMRC case are not being followed in local authority cases.
The £80m costs of local authority lawyers would be better spent on splitting it 50:50 – that is 50% to the CPS to continue the prosecution of local authority investigations and 50% reinvested in front line alternatives to prosecution – such as support for business advice services or training and development courses.