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Parole System: Public Protection

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022

Today I am publishing the root and branch review of the parole system, and copies have been deposited in the Library.

I start by paying tribute to the chief executive officer and the chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales, Martin Jones and Caroline Corby, and to all the staff who work so tirelessly to discharge their important responsibilities. They are dedicated and committed public servants.

Before I address the detail of the statement, and with your forbearance, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will update the House on this morning’s news. In the light of the Parole Board’s direction to release Tracey Connelly, and having carefully read the decision, I have decided to apply to the Parole Board seeking its reconsideration.

More generally, the role of the Parole Board in deciding on the appropriateness of releasing a criminal offender from prison, including many convicted of very serious violent and sexual offences, is clearly of paramount importance to protecting the public and to maintaining and sustaining public confidence in our justice system. It is the first duty of Government to protect the public.

In recent years, a number of decisions to release offenders who committed heinous crimes have led to disquiet, concern and, regrettably, an erosion of public confidence. Take the case of John Worboys, who is serving a discretionary life sentence for rape and other sexual offences. The Parole Board’s decision in January 2018 to release him on licence caused deep concern among his victims and the wider public. It was subject to a successful legal challenge, after which the Crown Prosecution Service successfully prosecuted him for attacking four further women.

I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the case of Colin Pitchfork, who was convicted of the rape and murder of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. The Parole Board decided to release Pitchfork in 2021, and it rejected the challenge by the then Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). The understandable public anxiety was further compounded when Pitchfork was recalled to prison just two months after release for approaching women in breach of his licence conditions.

I make a broader point that in these kinds of cases, and in many others that do not attract the same level of media attention or public interest, victims feel their trauma and raw fear are neither recognised nor understood. Likewise, the public inevitably begin to question the reliability of decision making when serious offenders are recalled to prison for breaches of their licence or for committing further offences on release.

To give the House a sense of scale, in 2020-21 the Parole Board’s annual report stated that 27 offenders went on to be charged with a serious further offence following release directed by the Parole Board panel. There were 40 cases of serious further offences being charged in each of the preceding two years. Placed in context, it is fair to say this is only a fraction of all cases, but more than once a fortnight an offender goes on to commit a serious offence while subject to supervision.

At present, victims who wish to challenge a decision by the Parole Board to release a prisoner have the option of asking the Justice Secretary to apply for the decision to be reconsidered, which is an important innovation that I exercised today for a person convicted in the harrowing case of Baby P. There have been 39 interventions since the challenge mechanism was set up two years ago, with four leading to a change in the release decision.

Following the review published today, I believe the case for reform is clear and made out. In arriving at this conclusion, it is worth pausing to acknowledge the shift in the Parole Board’s approach over time. The statutory test was established in 1991 and states

“The Parole Board must not give a direction”—

for release—

“unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”

It is clear from this that the overriding test focuses on public protection. However, in the absence of further guidance from Parliament, the way in which the release test has been interpreted and applied over time has shifted, moving away from Parliament’s original intention. In fact, as early as the Bradley judgment in 1991, the High Court concluded:

“The Parole Board have to carry out a balancing exercise between the legitimate conflicting interests of both prisoner and public.”

To summarise, the statutory test has morphed over time from a strict public protection test to a balancing exercise between, on the one hand, the responsibility of the state to protect the public and, on the other hand, the rights of the prisoner. Whatever the rights and wrongs, that was palpably not the original intention of Parliament.

I make it clear that I am not criticising the courts, which have sought to apply a generic statutory test without more prescriptive guidance from Parliament, nor am I criticising members of the Parole Board, as I hope I have made clear. It is worth saying that, contrary to public perception, it is often fiendishly difficult to come to a reliable assessment of an offender’s risk many years after their original crimes. Although psychiatric assessments and social science can offer guidance, risk assessments in such cases are inherently uncertain and imprecise. We need to be more honest and open about that in our public debate.

In any case, I believe the focus in this critical decision making has become adrift from its original moorings. This Government will again anchor Parole Board decision making on the cardinal principle of public protection. When it comes to assessing the risk to victims and public safety, we will introduce a precautionary principle to reinforce public confidence in the system. In cases involving those who have committed the most serious crimes, we will introduce a ministerial check on release decisions, exercised by the Justice Secretary.

The package of reforms published today will strengthen the focus on public protection at every stage. First, we will revise the statutory test for release and replace the current approach that balances the rights of dangerous offenders against public safety with an overriding focus on public protection, by providing in primary legislation further detailed criteria for the application of the statutory test.

Secondly, we will make sure that the Parole Board is better equipped to make credible and realistic assessments of risk. It is striking that, as of last year, only 5% of all Parole Board panel members come from a law enforcement background. Again, I make no criticism of the current panel members, but that is a significant deficit. I believe the deficit is wrong, and our reforms will ensure that the people we charge with making finely balanced assessments of future risk have greater first-hand operational experience of protecting the public from serious offenders. We will change this imbalance by mandating the Parole Board to recruit more members with operational law enforcement experience, and the Ministry of Justice will run a recruitment campaign to bolster its numbers. Critically, in Parole Board cases involving the top-tier cohort of serious violent and sexual offenders, we will require by law that at least one of the three panel members has a law enforcement background.

The third key reform is that, for the top-tier cohort of high-risk offenders who have committed the most serious offences, we will introduce ministerial oversight of Parole Board decisions to release such offenders back into the community, based on our assessment of the dangerousness of the offender, the risk of serious further offending and public confidence. These top-tier offenders will comprise those serving sentences for murder, rape, terrorism and causing or allowing the death of a child. In those cases, we will make two specific changes. The Parole Board will be able to refer a case to the Justice Secretary if it cannot confidently conclude whether, on the evidence, the statutory test for release has been met. In addition, we will introduce ministerial oversight over any decision to release any offender in the top-tier cohort of serious offenders. Under our reforms, in that top tier of cases the Justice Secretary will have the power to refuse release, subject to judicial challenge, on very clearly prescribed grounds, in the upper tribunal. I believe that is warranted as an extra check and safeguard to protect the public. I have not yet ruled out entirely an alternative model that could establish a three-person panel chaired by the Justice Secretary with the same power to refuse release, subject to judicial review in the normal way. We will consider further detail of the mechanism in order to strike the most effective balance.

We are making these reforms because the concept of risk is notoriously difficult to assess in these kinds of cases. We are doing it because the public expect their safety to be the overriding consideration and because, ultimately, it involves a judgment call about public protection, and the public expect Ministers to take responsibility for their safety. Let me be equally clear that there is no such thing as a risk-free society; we cannot guarantee that no one released from prison will go on to commit a serious crime. Let us be very clear about that as we have a more honest debate about the assessment of risk. Nevertheless, I believe that these measures are necessary to reinforce public safety and public confidence, and we will legislate for them as soon as possible. I should also say that we will do so alongside our proposed Bill of Rights, to ensure that the will of Parliament and that focus on public protection is not undermined by the Human Rights Act. Indeed, our reforms to parole yet again highlight the compelling case for a Bill of Rights.

Our fourth reform will increase victim participation in parole hearings, thereby delivering on this Government’s manifesto commitment. I recognise that parole decisions will be immensely and acutely traumatic moments for many victims, as they are forced to remember, go through and revisit the ordeal and suffering that they have already been though. Some will not wish to be involved, whereas others will want their voices to be heard, and I believe they should have that right. So we will give victims the right to attend a parole hearing in full, for the first time, should they wish to do so. In addition, we will require the board to take into account submissions made by victims and allow victims to ask questions through those submissions. The voice of victims will be at the centre of the process, not just some lingering afterthought.

Finally, although separate from parole decision making, similar considerations of risk and public concern have arisen in the context of decisions to transfer prisoners to prisons in open conditions. That is why in December 2021 I changed the process to introduce a ministerial check on such decisions, guided by similar principles to those that I have already set out. That is what led to my decision this month to reject the Parole Board’s recommendation to move Steven Ling, who raped and killed a woman, to an open prison. I declined the move in the interest of public protection and public confidence.

In sum, our reforms will ensure that those offenders who present the highest risk to public safety are reviewed more rigorously, with additional ministerial oversight. Protecting the public is the Government’s top priority. The proposals in this review will reinforce public safety. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement earlier today. It is hugely timely, given the disturbing news about the potential release of Baby P’s killer. I fully support the Secretary of State in seeking a review of that. In broad terms, I welcome his statement too. It is crucial that public protection is paramount and that victims are right at the heart of the criminal justice system. Currently, too many victims feel that their views are not taken sufficiently into account, either in parole decisions or in sentencing, and that leads directly to public safety concerns, which must be taken more seriously. Labour will put public safety at the core of our contract with the British people. Sadly, the same cannot be said of this Government.

It is less than two months since the convicted sex abuser Paul Robson walked out of a low-category open prison in Lincolnshire. After he escaped, the public were warned that Robson was a serious danger to women and children. He clearly should never have been in a low-security prison in the first place. The Parole Board made that recommendation, but it was the Secretary of State who approved it. He or his predecessors already had the necessary powers, they just did not use them. So what will stop him making serious mistakes like that again when he exercises his new check and oversight powers in, potentially, hundreds more cases? Labour wants victims to have the right to make a new personal statement saying how they would feel if the prisoner is released. We would like any assessment of the risk to the public to include the risk of re-traumatising the victim, and to prevent released prisoners from living near their victim if that is against the victim’s wishes. Will the Secretary of State consider those additional proposals?

The appalling decision to release the multiple rapist John Worboys was only stopped after the Centre for Women’s Justice sued the Government, using rights established by the last Labour Government. Sir Peter Gross’s review made sensible proposals to improve these rights, including the UK’s margin of appreciation over interpretations we would all object to. But the Secretary of State will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if he uses that concern as an excuse to take away British rights that protect British people from dangerous criminals, as they did in that case. Too many victims of crime do not get a say over what happens to criminals because those criminals are never prosecuted in the first place. That is because this Conservative Government cut 21,000 police officers and still have not replaced them, despite imposing the highest rates of personal taxation for 70 years —that is 21,000 people with law enforcement experience that his party sacked, whom he might now approach to sit on parole boards, as he suggests.

The Secretary of State spoke about rape cases in this statement, but only 1.5% of reported rape cases ever make it to court. Those that do now take more than 1,000 days, on average, before the trial starts—these are the longest delays in British legal history. What message does he think that sends about public safety and public protection? Under this Government, prosecution rates for crimes including burglary, robbery, car crime and fraud are so low that they have, in effect, been decriminalised. There are so few police left that victims are told to fill in a form online and hardly any of them ever hear anything again. It is no wonder that the Government stand accused of going soft on these crimes. Does he recognise that letting criminals get away with crime damages public safety and erodes confidence in the justice system, which is something he is telling us this afternoon that he wants to strengthen? The Victims’ Commissioner has called on the Government to establish a new victims’ right to review. That would give victims the power to challenge decisions by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute or to drop prosecutions. The Secretary of State did not mention that in his statement, so will he tell us whether he intends to introduce proposals along those lines in future?

Public protection requires victims to be active participants throughout the criminal justice process, including in parole decisions. Their insights strengthen public safety and public confidence in the system. Today’s statement is a step forward and it recognises some of the Government’s mistakes, but it could have been bigger.

Let me start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his support for the decision taken today in the Tracey Connelly case. I think he also gave wholesale backing to the reforms I set out in my statement, which is important. I want to welcome what I therefore hope will be cross-party support when we come to legislate for them; he cannot support the aims and then not will the means, and I hope that that becomes clear as we take the proposals through the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about absconds, which is an issue of significant concern. I should say to him that between 2009-10 and today, the level of absconds from prisons has fallen to a third of the level it was under the last Labour Government. He might want to think a little about that before he makes unfounded assertions.

In fairness, the hon. Gentleman did ask about the case of Shane Farrington, who absconded on 24 March but was rearrested on 26 March. He is ineligible for a return to open conditions for two years. The hon. Gentleman made a point about our being empowered to do something; actually, that took place in October and I changed the rules in December, as I have made clear to the House.

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the role of victims. We are making important changes and I welcome his support for them. I gently point out that, even before the spending review, the level of victims funding was three times the level it was at under the Labour Government. He talks about victims; our record is infinitely better, but we are restless to do far more.

More generally, the history of the reforms we are undertaking took place on Labour’s watch, because in 2008 Labour gave up the power to block the release of prisoners who had been sentenced to more than 15 years and then legislated to make the changes—in fairness, they were forced on that Government by the Human Rights Act—permanent. As a result, the number of those recalled on life licence skyrocketed, going up almost sevenfold. The hon. Gentleman should, then, have a little more humility about where the problem came from.

The hon. Gentleman criticised our approach to the Bill of Rights, but it is clear that we cannot pursue the reforms I have set out and reverse the challenges that were made under the Human Rights Act without our Bill of Rights. Again, the question for the Labour party is going to be whether it just wills the ends or is willing to back the means.

Last month, I picked up my copy of the Daily Mirror, as I do, and read through it. I read that the hon. Gentleman had said that under the previous Labour leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), Labour had appeared to care

“more about criminals than their victims”.

That is a greater measure of humility, but the hon. Gentleman should take a bit of responsibility for his record. He and the shadow Cabinet voted against extra funding for more police officers. They voted against the tougher sentences for dangerous offenders in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—the kind of thing that would protect victims and the public. I am glad that, on this issue at least, the hon. Gentleman is showing that he is willing to support measures that will stand up for victims and protect the public. The proof of the pudding will be in how the Opposition vote when all the measures come before the House.

The statement was excellent. My right hon. Friend is clearly revelling in an area of policy in which he has a great deal of expertise. One aspect of which I did not hear mention was the concept of punishment. Some offences, particularly the sort we are dealing with in this context, are absolutely heinous. It baffles the public as to why, for example, someone who led a home invasion in the New Forest that resulted in the burning alive of an entire family, although not until after the woman had been repeatedly raped, should be considered for release at the end of what is admittedly a long sentence. Most people would feel that people forfeit their right to liberty when they commit offences of that gravity. Where does punishment fit into all this?

I totally understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes. In truth, parole is about risk and, rightly, public protection. Either the tariff or the overall sentence should deal with the element of punishment, rather than parole. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. He will know that whether it was Harper’s law, Tony’s law or the wider reforms to sentencing that we are making in the PCSC Bill, we have strengthened sentencing, in the teeth of opposition from Opposition Members.

In fairness, I do need to draw a distinction in respect of the reforms I have set out: they are really about public protection and the amorphous concept of risk in these cases. That itself also goes to the issue of public confidence in relation to the tariff and the punishment element that my right hon. Friend mentioned. Both are important, but with parole we focus on risk. I say that because I want to be clear that we are not adding another sentence on top of a sentence. The question, from the point at which an offender becomes eligible for parole, is whether they satisfy the statutory criteria. Is it safe to release them, or do they present an ongoing risk to public protection? That is the core focus of the reforms I have announced today, but I heed my right hon. Friend’s wider point.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and welcome the broad thrust of his recommendations. I notice that the second reform deals with the assessment of risk. The Secretary of State’s proposal is to employ more people with a law and order background, which I am quite happy to accept. I also notice that the report by the charity Justice published in January this year recommended:

“Enhancing the Parole Board’s programme of training to include”—

among other things—

“critical analyses of offending behaviour programmes and risk management tools”.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to take that recommendation on board?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and reasonable question. We will look at everything on training. The truth is that the members of the Parole Board come with a vast depth of experience; my question is whether we have the range right. Psychiatrists and psychologists have a critical role to play, and judges and lawyers inform the process, but if we say that our overriding focus is public protection and we have finely balanced questions of risk in relation to people who have committed a so-called index offence many years previously, I would have thought that, particularly for top-tier cases, the public would want to know that the grizzled police officer, for example, who has seen such cases before and knows the pattern of behaviour is also there to provide that dimension of critical thinking.

The hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about critical thinking. We need to make sure that the Parole Board panels, particularly for the serious, top-tier cohort, have a broad diversity of experience so that we can take a precautionary approach and protect the public.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and continue to be impressed by how he and the Ministry of Justice are gripping so many complex justice matters all at once. This is about not only public safety but the perception of public safety. The public rightly care about law and order. I hear strong words from those on the Opposition Front Bench, but we can see from the lack of turnout among Labour MPs that they prefer to politick on this issue rather than to do the hard graft of scrutiny.

On scrutiny, I really welcome that my right hon. Friend is putting victims at the heart of Parole Board decisions and allowing them input. Will he say a little more about how the Parole Board has taken to those proposals? How can we support victims as they go through that process? Some of them will find those steps distressing even if they want to take them.

I thank my hon. Friend for her tenacity on these issues. She makes the same point as the one my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made about public confidence. There is no escaping that, particularly if we think of the history of parole and licence conditions and of how we ended up with life terms after the abolition of the death penalty. The public need to have confidence that sentences match the crime and that their safety is of paramount importance.

My hon. Friend asked about how we will help victims through the process; that is critical, because it must be gruelling and traumatic for them. I know from the consideration that I have given the matter and from the evidence I have seen how difficult it will be. We have already made some improvements in the process for victims: in 2018, we introduced written decision summaries to improve transparency for victims; in 2019, we introduced the reconsideration mechanism, which I exercised today; and in 2021, we announced our intention to enable public hearings and for victims to be able to attend them as observers, and we are now giving them a much fuller role, as I explained in my statement. On top of that, of course, is the statutory release test. When the Parole Board considers that test, it will take clear account of victims’ submissions and victims will be able to ask questions through their submissions.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for the statement; I am encouraged by the steps he has introduced today to address what one victim said to me was a “reprehensible” parole system. That lady contacted me after the murderer of her son was released and she saw him in the local Tesco. She received no warning that he had been released early. Will the Lord Chancellor confirm that the legislation will include a legal obligation to inform victims and their close family? Will he be in touch with the Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss the legislation proposed for this place that can also be introduced in Northern Ireland?

The root and branch review will set out all the victims’ rights in the process. The hon. Gentleman will be able to see that. Copies are now available in the House. Of course we respect the devolved settlements on this, but we are always willing to engage with the devolved Administrations around cross-cutting issues and those of common concern.

The public will rightly expect that their protection is the overriding concern when serious offenders are assessed either for release by the Parole Board or, indeed, for transfer to an open prison, a subject on which my right hon. Friend touched. I know from my own time as non-executive director at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service that open prisons can be an extremely important part of an offenders’ rehabilitation, especially at the end of a very long sentence. We have seen recent cases where the current test has clearly not worked effectively. Does my right hon. Friend agree that time in an open prison should always be regarded as a privilege, certainly never an automatic right? Will he confirm that the measures that he has already introduced, and that he is going on to introduce later today, will result in a more cautious approach that will make sure that the public is always safe?

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I do not think that there is a trade-off. In fact the two things go together: we want to protect the public as well as identify those who can be released into open conditions or into society—those who are ready to play the right role, to reintegrate back into society, to work, to look after their families and to stay clean of drugs. All of those things go together. Ultimately, our objective is to protect the public, drive down crime and reduce reoffending.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for engaging with me over my one-punch awareness campaign, something about which I am deeply passionate. Victim support is at the very heart of that campaign, because, as we all know, the victims of crime and their families do not stop suffering the moment the crime stops being committed; they can suffer for months, years and even the lifetime that follow. That is why the victims of crime need to be at the very heart of our criminal justice system to ensure that they receive the support, protection and reassurance they need. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these proposals will improve victim support and public protection, particularly for victims of the most serious crimes?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tenacious campaign and say that I know how difficult that must be for her. None the less, it is very important, and she brings a huge amount of experience, particularly personal experience, to the Chamber and to the changes that we are making. I agree with what she has said. I have set out for the House the changes that we are making for victims in relation to the parole decision-making process, but they are only one element of a much broader strategy, and we will, of course, be introducing a victims’ law. Again, I hope the whole House can rally around that, so that victims feel that they are front and centre of this, that they are listened to, that they are taken into account, and that they are part of the criminal justice system, not an appendix to it.

When Paul Robson escaped from the North Sea Camp open prison in my constituency, the sudden presence of this violent rapist in the community was deeply traumatic not just for his victims, but for all those people who live in and around the area that the prison occupies. By definition, although the Parole Board does immensely difficult work, the fact that he absconded means that he was in the wrong place. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that what he has announced today makes it far less likely for a convict such as Paul Robson to be in those conditions and to place the public at risk in the way that he did when he absconded?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. The changes that we made in December should give him some reassurance. There is no risk-free approach here. What we do is try to create safeguards to mitigate as best we can while maintaining a free society. I also note that, under successive Conservative Governments, the number of absconds has fallen, from 296 in 2009-10 to 101 in 2020-21—a third of the level. We have the security right, but we will continue to make sure that we reinforce it.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. Does he agree that, in those most serious of cases, the public do not expect politicians to throw up their hands and say, “Well, it was a decision for the Parole Board”? They expect them, as the ones accountable for keeping them safe, to step in and do so because it is their No.1 job.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. On that decision making, the frustration is that if we delegate from this place or from accountable Ministers, particularly when we are talking about judgment calls, not things that require a purely technocratic or scientific approach—psychiatry and psychology can only take us so far—the public feel that we have abdicated our responsibility. We are taking back control to provide a safeguard in those high-risk cases, and that is exactly what the public already expect of us.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. We sometimes forget that the most important reason for having prisons is not necessarily as a punishment, but to keep the public safe. I know that my constituents in Peterborough would want the Parole Board always to be risk averse on public protection when it comes to releasing criminals found guilty of serious crimes. Can he reassure the good people of Peterborough that he understands their concern and that public protection is at the heart of these proposals?

My hon. Friend is right: public protection must be the overriding priority. Moreover, it is important that the credibility of measures such as open conditions and release on licence is sustained as well. The rehabilitative work that we do—encouraging offenders into work and getting off drugs—is critical to reducing reoffending and also to protecting the public. The credibility will be eroded if we do not make sure that we have the safeguards right.

I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement. Last week, two prisoners absconded from Thorn Cross prison in my constituency, bringing the total to five so far in the first three months of this year. Shane Farrington, as the Lord Chancellor has already mentioned, was one of those who absconded. He was sentenced for killing another prisoner and for escaping from custody in 2018. Understandably, people living in Appleton Thorn in my constituency are asking what he was doing in an open prison in Warrington. Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that the changes being announced today will prioritise the safety of people living close to open prisons, and assure me that the Government’s priority is to cut the number of absconds from open prisons, such as the one in Warrington South?

Order. Just before the Lord Chancellor answers that question, may I say that, although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been waiting a long time to ask his question, he made a preamble and then asked two questions. That is not what this is about. Each person has the chance to ask one question. We do not need a preamble. The preamble comes from the Minister who is making the statement. We do not need all of that stated over and over again. I am making this point now before we come to the next statement, which I appreciate will be controversial. We will have short questions and as short as possible answers. I appreciate that the Minister has to give a full answer, but we do not need a preamble. It is not a speech; it is a question.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I heed your advice, as always. We have already cut the number of absconds by a third. Of course the measures that I introduced in December—not the ones that I have announced today—will further allow an extra safeguard, which, I hope, will give my hon. Friend’s constituents some reassurance.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his thorough answers. We will now move onto the next statement. I will pause to allow people to enter and to leave the Chamber. I also remind hon. Members that, after this item of business, we have six hours of very important consideration of Lords amendments. That will take us well into the evening.