The proceedings were conducted in a Virtual Committee via video call.
My Lords, this Virtual Committee will now begin. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege, and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching.
I shall begin by setting out how these proceedings will work. The Virtual Committee will operate as far as possible like a Grand Committee. A participants’ list for today’s proceedings has been published and is in my brief, which Members should have received. The brief also lists Members who have put their names to the amendments, or expressed an interest in speaking, on each group. I will call Members to speak in the order that they are listed. Members’ microphones will be muted by the broadcasters except when I call a Member to speak and whenever a Question is put, so interventions during speeches are not possible and uncalled speakers will not be heard.
During the debate on each group I will invite Members to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. Debate will take place on the lead amendment in each group only; the groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. Whenever I put the Question, all Members’ microphones will be opened until I give the result. Members should be aware that any sound made at that point may be broadcast. If a Member intends to press an amendment or to say “Not content”, it will greatly assist the Chair if they make this clear when speaking on the group. As in Grand Committee, it takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not content”, an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part.
We now start with the group beginning with Amendment 1. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” if the Question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.
Clause 1: Murder, manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 11, leave out “the Parole Board believes” and insert “the prisoner has been certified by two registered medical practitioners as not suffering from irreversible memory loss; and
(d) the Parole Board reasonably suspects”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the next in the name of Lord Blencathra would make it mandatory for the Parole Board to reject parole applications where a prisoner refuses to say where and how they disposed of a body, and the prisoner has been medically certified as not having irreversible memory loss.
My Lords, these little amendments are straightforward—at least, in my view. If passed, they would make it mandatory for the Parole Board not to release any prisoners who refused to divulge where and how they have disposed of the bodies of their victims. I have built in an exception for the minority who may have genuine and irreversible memory loss and are therefore unable to state that.
The reason for the amendments s quite simple. We all know that even when there is no criminality but a person is killed and no body is found, or someone is lost at sea, relatives find it very difficult to get closure. But where someone has been murdered, we have all seen the terrible distress of the parents—for example, of the Moors murders victims or of those murdered by the IRA—when the perpetrators will not reveal what they did with the bodies. It is, we are all told, one of the most difficult things for relatives to contend with. Can one imagine the anguish and the sheer injustice of it if a convict refuses to reveal what they have done with the victims, they continue to thumb their nose at the relatives of the victims and the Parole Board, but they can still be considered for early release?
My noble and learned friend and other noble and learned friends may say, “Well, don’t worry, in those circumstances the Parole Board would be highly unlikely to release that convict”, but why should it be at the discretion of the Parole Board based on its “belief” as to a person’s honesty and integrity?
If a convict, in full possession of their faculties and their memory, refuses to divulge what they did with the bodies of their victims, why should the Parole Board be put in the invidious position of having to come to a subjective judgment based on psychologists’ reports. Parliament should say that, in such circumstances, no one will be considered—I stress “considered”—for early release until they say what they have done with the bodies. If a convict refuses to admit that they have done anything wrong in killing someone, would they be considered for release? I believe not. Thus, if they will not talk about the disposal of their victims, they should automatically be excluded from any consideration of early release.
It is not as if the Parole Board has a great track record of coming to the right judgments, as we have seen in the Worboys cabbie rapist case. He should never have been considered for early release and is rightly still behind bars.
Only last week, Mr Justin Russell, the Chief Inspector of Probation, released a report stating that the number of murders by offenders released on probation rose from 70 in 2015 to 114 in 2018, an incredible increase and a fifth of all homicides in England and Wales. Of these, two-thirds had been assessed as “low or medium” risk on release, which meant that there was a lesser level of supervision and checks by probation officers and police.
This is not the time or place for me to set out my views on the naivety of many on the Parole Board, who swallow any old guff that the psychologists put in front of them: that a convict has seen the error of their ways and is now safe to release. Indeed, I do not have to make that observation, since the statistics that I have just cited speak for themselves.
Sociopaths, psychopaths, serial killers and rapists such as Ian Brady, Worboys and Joseph McCann are incredibly devious and calculating. If they can qualify for consideration for early release by keeping quiet about what they did with the bodies, why on earth should they own up? By doing so, they might trigger a further investigation which could lead to a further charge for another murder. Also, there might be such revulsion at how they disposed of the bodies that no Parole Board would ever dare consider them for early release. Therefore, there is an incentive for them to keep quiet and let everyone think that they killed their victims nicely and gave them a Christian burial.
We should use the certainty of no consideration for early release as the only weapon we have to get those people to talk. The Parole Board cannot do that, since the Bill allows them to consider their application and come to a belief judgment. If we remove that possibility, there is a chance of getting them to talk about what they did to the bodies. For the sake of grieving relatives and for the sake of justice, I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendments because of the change that took place when the challenge to the right of the Home Secretary went through the judicial system and the safeguard that existed was therefore withdrawn. I do not share the view that the Parole Board is full of naive people. It has an incredibly difficult job and needs all the support and guidance it can get. I have my own disagreements with it, including on the case of David McCauliffe, who has been in prison for 32 years and did not commit murder or rape, although he did commit some totally heinous crimes.
I speak to this amendment because, like other Home Secretaries, I had to deal with Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. When Keith Bennett’s aunt, on behalf of the family, made her appeals to me to see if we could get an identification of where the little boy, Keith, was buried, my heart went out to the family. It was one of those distressing moments that Home Secretaries and now Justice Secretaries have to deal with in cases of murder, particularly where the body has not been identified and there is not therefore the opportunity to grieve properly or to lay the remains to rest. Winnie Johnson, Keith’s mother, died in 2012 without ever knowing where he was. No parent should have to put up with that.
As I have spoken about already, like my predecessors I was able to block the release of the Moors murderers because the power then existed with the Home Secretary. For reasons relating to human rights—it was not to do with the incorporation of the ECHR into the Human Rights Act but with the appeal that went through the judicial system—that power was taken away and, as described, now rests with the Parole Board.
In the circumstances, we are asking the impossible of the Parole Board: to make a judgment on a situation in which somebody has knowingly refused to identify the place in which they put the body of the individual they murdered. For the parents of a child, that is so horrendous as to require a much more rigid approach than we would normally take in giving judges and the Parole Board, quite rightly, the discretion they need to deal with cases. That is why I am in support.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s Amendment 1 and the amendments in the next group to be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and spoken to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, are concerned with the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity at the time of his application to the Parole Board for release on licence. The amendments may start from different places but end up in more or less the same place. The difference between them is where the assessment of the prisoner’s state of mind begins.
In short, if one agrees with my noble friend Lord Blencathra, it is essentially for the prisoner to persuade two doctors that he is not pulling the wool over the eyes of the Parole Board about not being able to remember where the victim’s remains are. If I correctly anticipate the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, it is for the Parole Board to be satisfied that the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity is of such a quality that he is able to disclose, but has not disclosed, their whereabouts.
With the greatest respect to my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord, I am not entirely sure that there is much of substance that separates them. In reality, they are doing nothing more than accentuating the need for greater certainty at the Parole Board hearing about the true state of mind and knowledge of the prisoner seeking release. It could be said that my noble friend wants a dispassionately independent or objective assessment of the prisoner’s state of mind from two medical professionals to inform and bind the Parole Board panel, fettering its discretion, whereas the noble and learned Lord is prepared to leave it to the Parole Board panel to reach its own conclusion on the matter without expressing a view on how it obtains the information necessary to reach its conclusion, so long as it takes into account the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity to make the requisite disclosure.
It will be recalled that my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General said at Second Reading that
“the Parole Board must particularly take account of what, in its view, are the reasons for this non-disclosure. This subjective approach will enable the board to differentiate between circumstances such as when, for example, the non-disclosure is due to a prisoner’s mental illness, and cases when a prisoner makes a deliberate decision not to say where a victim’s remains are located. Subjectivity is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill. It is for the Parole Board, as an independent, court-like body, to decide what bearing such information has on the risk that a prisoner may present and whether that risk can be managed safely in the community. The Bill reflects the established practice of the Parole Board but goes a step further and puts a legal duty on the board to take the non-disclosure into account.”—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col. 195.]
The amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Blencathra brings with it an emphasis familiar to those of us who have had the privilege of listening to his speeches on criminal justice policy in your Lordships’ House and previously in the other place, where he served as a Home Office Minister and a knowledgeable Back-Bencher. He was always listened to with great respect and I often agreed with him.
On this occasion, however, I am not persuaded that what he has proposed adds anything to what my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General said at Second Reading. His amendment is, of course, characteristically clear and forthright. It leaves no room for doubt about he wants and intends to happen. I accept that prisoners convicted of murder or manslaughter should expect justice but not sympathy when asking the Parole Board to order their release after 20 or 30 years of a life sentence if they have not disclosed what they have done with their victim’s remains, particularly when they could have disclosed that information at or before conviction or sentence, when they must have known, or were more likely to have known—even with a trial some time after the event—precisely where the victim’s body was to be found.
The Bill as currently drafted does not preclude the Parole Board but commands it to take the prisoner’s non-disclosure into account, and, as my noble and learned friend said at Second Reading, the Parole Board is a “court-like body”. Knowing, as I do, a fair number of judges who have taken part in Parole Board hearings and been members of it, I have no doubt that its hearings will be conducted in a court-like way and that Clause 1(2) and Clause 1(3) in murder and manslaughter cases, and their equivalent provisions in cases of indecent photographs of children, will be resolutely and fairly applied.
All this is fine as far as it goes within the terms of the Bill itself. However, as I said at Second Reading, although Members of Parliament, Members of your Lordships’ House and others outside Parliament and politics have campaigned for the Bill with the best of motives, it is, in my judgment, a Bill that will disappoint. I listened with care to what was said at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House, having read the debates in the other place. I do not wish to be offensive, but mostly I heard and read enthusiastic applause. What Marie McCourt and the public at large need is a law that is clear, that deters and that bites. Such a law can be based only in a specific criminal offence of non-disclosure, tried not by a court-like body, but in public, by a judge, in an actual court, with suitable sentencing powers. Until we get to that point, while appreciating what the supporters of these amendments are getting at, I suggest that we let this Bill, imperfect as it is, pass unamended.
My Lords, there is clearly great public concern underlying this Bill. However, as he did in a very persuasive speech at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, has just asked whether it will make any difference whatever. The more speeches one hears, the less convinced one becomes that this is in fact going to change anything. What it does is put the discretion that currently exists, and the facts that currently have to be taken account of by the Parole Board, on a statutory footing. However, it has not been made clear at any stage why putting these on a statutory footing will make any difference to the current arrangement, where it is required to take account of these factors anyway.
In his persuasive speech at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, argued that non-disclosure of a body should itself be an offence which could lengthen a sentence. However, the response from the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General raised as many questions as it answered. He said that the sentencing judge will
“take account of the non-disclosure when deciding on the length of the tariff”.—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col. 214.]
Therefore, it is a factor at the moment, but it is also a factor in respect of the Parole Board. To a lay observer such as me, that leaves us in the somewhat confusing position of not knowing where the penalty lies. Does it lie at both ends? Is a longer sentence imposed because of non-disclosure, and because it is a factor in respect of the Parole Board, or not? I would be grateful if the Minister could address that further.
Underlying all this, completely understandably, is massive public concern, which focuses particularly on especially gruesome cases. My noble friend Lord Blunkett said that, in the past, decisions on such cases have been made by the Home Secretary, reflecting—to be direct about it—public sentiment, which tended to go with those crimes that got the most media coverage at the time they were committed. Now, this discretion lies with the Parole Board, but the big problem is that the Parole Board is not really accountable to anyone at all. I welcome the Minister’s point about the role of the courts themselves, because the judge is formally required to consider factors when imposing a sentence. As we explore how we give effect to the real intention of the Bill, I wonder whether there might be some role for the courts—a judge—to take the final decision on whether a prisoner should be released in these circumstances.
My Lords, having not been able to take part in Second Reading, I welcome the chance to take part in today’s debate. I appreciate that we are now in Committee and therefore I will keep my comments brief.
I hope that the Bill will not disappoint, for I think it achieves something of immeasurable value. To all who have lost a loved one and who wait, day by day, if not hour by hour, to be reunited with them, it says that their son, daughter, mother or brother has not been, and will not be, forgotten. It gives victims dignity and it reassures their families that they are not alone in their quest to lay their loved one to rest. This might seem small comfort, but, in the circumstances, it is an important message to relay.
The families’ needs are paramount, and I fear that, despite the best of intentions, Amendment 1 could end up causing further distress. Irrespective of the fact that a “no body, no parole” rule does not allow for potential miscarriages of justice, should it be open to legal challenge, families may find that their suffering is in fact made worse over time. Given that they have already suffered in ways we cannot possibly imagine, I know that this is something we would all wish to avoid.
More generally, I hope noble Lords will not mind if I take this opportunity to welcome the inclusion in the Bill of the statutory obligation for the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about the identity of children featured in the taking and/or making of indecent images. I declare my interests as set out in the register as someone who works with the victims of child sexual abuse as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. I work on the Truth Project, which runs parallel to the inquiry and was set up so that victims could come forward and tell their stories—so that after years, very often decades, of not being listened to, they could finally be heard. While their experiences are, of course, different, the effects of abuse are all too often the same: lack of self-worth, guilt that this was somehow their fault, lives gone unfulfilled and people’s futures fundamentally changed through no fault of their own.
I would argue that, as a society, we are still coming to terms with the reality of child sexual abuse, so I welcome that the Bill acknowledges the very real harm that these indecent images can do. That is a big step forward and another way in which the Bill offers crucial support for victims and their families. I thank noble Lords for allowing me to make these extra comments. I hope that we will pass the Bill unamended.
My Lords, we heard at Second Reading the case of Helen McCourt. I have looked at how many more cases there have been in England since then of murder convictions where there is no body. There have been quite a number, with victims including Sarah Wellgreen, Jenny Nicholl and Danielle Jones. The interesting but predictable correlation is that the victims are all children and women. The last male victim was Mark Tildesley, aged seven—like Keith Bennett, a child murdered by an older man. I refer noble Lords back to terms that I used at Second Reading: power games and the misuse of power. It is no coincidence that it is young children—young boys and girls—and women who are the victims of crimes where there is no body and yet a murder has taken place.
This is more than a moral crusade, more than an ethical issue. It is more than trying to shape public demand—although I am sure that public demand is huge on this. I recall the heckling outside the Old Bailey many years ago, when a man was about to be convicted of murder and the call went out, “Hand him over to the women of Bermondsey.” Then, and now, we could get a significant majority in the country to acclaim that as a concept. That is not the way we do justice—but if we do justice using legislation through the parliamentary system, where there are weaknesses we need to address them. The fact that young children and women are the victims demonstrates the power game continuing behind bars. It is a misuse of power—the understanding that the murderer retains power over the family and friends grieving the lost one. The murder is motivated in these cases by that power. Therefore, the law needs to address how we deal with that. It is a double anguish, a double punishment that the families receive. It would not be a double punishment if this amendment were passed.
Therefore, to echo what others have said about the case that above all others dominated my early years, the Moors murderers, and Winnie Johnson’s public anguish, which we saw over many decades in our media, while there are many more anguished families who are less vocal and choose other ways to grieve, I do not think that we have the system right. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.
My Lords, my noble friend who proposed these amendments has been well known to me as a very clear, well-informed campaigner for many years in a number of different situations. I am also very conscious of the tremendous pain that is felt by a family who have lost a loved one in circumstances where they are unable to come to closure because they do not have the body of their loved one. However, we have to look at this carefully and that is what I suggest we do.
These amendments deal with a situation in which the prosecuting authority did not have access to the victim’s body in a murder or manslaughter case. In former times, it was difficult to secure a conviction in such a case, but prosecutors’ powers and the means of investigation at their disposal has enabled success in such cases to be easier now. Where a prisoner has pled not guilty and persistently proclaimed his innocence, it will not be consistent with his position to give such information. The circumstances in which such information might not be available are many. It might be impossible for him to know what happened to the body, for example if he was not a principal in the case, but an accessory who gave the lethal weapon to the perpetrator at some distance from the scene, or he was not the person who took charge of the body after the crime and had no knowledge of what was done with it. These are just some of the circumstances in which what happened to the body might not have been known to the prisoner and where the Parole Board cannot know or have a reasonable suspicion that he did. Yet, in each of these circumstances, the family’s pain is the same as if he did know. The result is that it is not always possible to find a just retribution for that pain.
The fact that the prisoner would not disclose the fate of the body would be known and would be a consideration at the time of the sentence. Co-operation with the police in their inquiries is a relevant factor in the determination of a sentence. This would be an important element in that aspect of the sentencing decision. The extent of the prisoner’s involvement would be much more freshly known at the time of the Parole Board hearing.
The Parole Board’s function in making its decision is to consider whether it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the prosecution of further protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined. In my submission, it would be utterly contrary to that duty to refuse release, as proposed in the amendment, without any discretion to the Parole Board. I therefore object to the amendment and oppose it. To require the board to consider this matter, thus to commit it to the board’s discretion, is a wise and just way to recognise the severe pain inflicted on the family of the victim in the circumstances disclosed. The prisoner will know that this is to be considered and that this situation is unlikely to be a factor in his favour, so he might be encouraged to disclose what he knows.
In my view there are serious difficulties in making this matter a separate legal offence, as was proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, for whom, as a lawyer and otherwise, I have the greatest respect. This is a matter that would be difficult to disentangle from the jury’s verdict on the murder—and the last thing we want is two different verdicts on the same case by different juries. However, I do not need to elaborate on that today, because that is not what is proposed. I conclude by emphasising the fact that I do not consider this a just way of dealing with a very painful problem.
My Lords, I shall be brief, because a great deal has been covered already, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Mann; he spoke on Second Reading, as I did myself, and we explored some of this then. The Committee should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. As was said on Second Reading, the Parole Board seems far from ideal in the present circumstances, and to have the safeguard of two registered medical practitioners is the least we can do, particularly in a high-risk situation. We are talking about men and women who have carried out terrible crimes. Bearing in mind the risk that they potentially pose to society, the safeguards in the amendment would be very helpful.
My Lords, I welcome the debate, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has tabled the amendment, because it is right that we should subject the Government to scrutiny. In drafting it, the noble Lord has gone some way down the road towards matters that were discussed in another place, such as whether we should have a rule of no disclosure and no release at all. He has not gone quite that far; he is just seeking to stop early release. Members of your Lordships’ House should go back and read the debates in another place on that matter. If anything, the Commons was inclined to go down a more severe road than that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, but in the end it decided not to. We should pay attention to its reasons for that—particularly in the light of the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who, as ever, dispensed wisdom to those of us who are non-lawyers, which I greatly appreciated.
May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, what difference his amendment would make in practice? My understanding is that its main thrust would be to require two medical opinions, which the Parole Board would have to follow; it would take away the board’s discretion. Does he have evidence of the Parole Board making decisions, particularly in cases involving such high-profile serious offenders, either without taking account of medical opinion or disregarding it completely? That seems to be what his amendments suggest may happen, and I am not sure whether there is evidence for that.
The Parole Board has the most difficult of tasks. It is always likely to disappoint one person, or one side of an argument, or another. It frequently finds itself having to depend publicly the judgments it has made, so I would be surprised if it was routinely dismissing or not paying attention to medical assessments. Indeed, it would have to have a medical assessment made by a medical practitioner to determine somebody’s mental capacity. I simply wish to know from the noble Lord what deficiency in the proceedings of the Parole Board he seeks to address and on what basis.
My Lords, I am winding up for the Opposition on this short but very interesting debate. I want to open by addressing the point made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. He concluded in his support for this amendment that we are asking the impossible of the Parole Board. Although I recognise his immense experience, I question whether that basic assumption is true, and I take up the point just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we entrust the Parole Board with these extremely difficult decisions. All the members of the board who I have ever met are extremely responsible people. My understanding of this amendment is that it would require two medical opinions, after which the Parole Board would make its decision, and it is right that the Parole Board should have that responsibility.
My main objection to the amendment is that by making it inevitable in some way that people will find it impossible to get out of prison, they could be tempted to knowingly give wrong information and to do so as a form of torture, if you like, because they know that it will cause more distress to the parents involved. We should not give them that power. We should retain the responsibility and the subjective judgment of the Parole Board in making these difficult decisions.
I also listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the response to his points by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. They are both extremely experienced lawyers. I must admit that I was initially attracted to the solution proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, but I listened with interest to the objections of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and his method of solving the conundrum before us.
This amendment is not appropriate for the Bill, and I think we should pass the Bill as amended. While I acknowledge the point made by my noble friend Lord Adonis questioning whether the Bill is necessary, I think it is right that the practice of the Parole Board is put into statute, otherwise there may be other legal mechanisms of challenging the Parole Board’s decisions if it is adopting this practice but is not supported by proper legislation being in place. On that basis I would reject this amendment. We will consider the other amendments in due course, but largely speaking the Bill should pass unamended.
I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contributions to the debate in Committee —[Inaudible.]
Could the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, please lean a little closer to the microphone?
Yes, of course, although I do not think I could get much closer. Can you hear me?
That is better.
Despite Amendments 1 and 3 having—[Inaudible.]
Sorry, we are still not hearing you.
I am not sure what I can do about that. Can you hear me now?
That is better, yes.
I believe the host has stopped the video. I will continue, if I may. Amendment 1, as indicated, would require certification by two—[Inaudible] —the application of the release provisions to the prisoner. Of course if the result of the assessment is that the prisoner is found to be suffering from irreversible memory loss, the Bill’s provisions would not apply to that prisoner. The amendment creates a requirement for medical certification in all cases where the board considered the provisions might apply before such provisions—[Inaudible]—as part of the release assessment. That of course contrasts with the Bill’s current approach, which is to allow the Parole Board as an independent—[Inaudible]—prisoner has not disclosed. So the amendment alters the subjective test that requires the board to— [Inaudible]—which they had not disclosed to, I think I quote, “reasonably suspect” that the prisoner has such information. Again, the replacement of “believe” with “reasonably suspect” would lower the threshold—[Inaudible.]
I am so sorry to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, and I apologise to all noble Lords. We have to adjourn for 10 minutes while we try to sort out this technical problem. We will resume shortly after 3.25 pm.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
My Lords, we will now resume the Committee stage of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, and I hope that we will hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie. Perhaps I may suggest that he starts his remarks from the top.
I thank the Deputy Chairman of Committees and apologise to noble Lords for any inconvenience that has been caused. It is not clear what the problem was. [Inaudible.]
I was turning to look at Amendments 1 and 3, which, despite having separate effects on the Bill’s provisions, when taken together have the cumulative effect of preventing the Parole Board considering the release of any prisoner who has failed to disclose the relevant information, unless they have been certified as suffering from “irreversible memory loss”. [Inaudible.]
I apologise to the Minister but we cannot hear him properly. We will adjourn for five minutes in the hope that he will be able to dial in to speak in the debate. The Committee is adjourned until 3.34 pm.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
My Lords, welcome back. We are on Amendment 1 of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill. I hope we will now hear from the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie.
I thank noble Lords for their patience. I now turn to consider Amendments 1 and 3, tabled by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. Although they have separate effects on the Bill’s provisions, when taken together, the two amendments have the cumulative effect of preventing the Parole Board considering the release of any prisoner who has failed to disclose the relevant information, unless they have been certified as suffering from “irreversible memory loss”.
Amendment 1 creates a requirement for medical certification in all cases in which the board considers that the provisions might apply to a prisoner, before such provisions would apply as part of the release assessment. This contrasts with the Bill’s current approach which is to allow the Parole Board, as an independent expert body, to form its own belief as to whether a prisoner has the necessary information regarding a victim’s remains, which that prisoner has not disclosed.
In addition, the amendment alters the subjective test that requires the board to believe that a prisoner has information regarding a victim’s remains which they have not disclosed to a test that it “reasonably suspects” that the prisoner has such information. That would lower the threshold of the evidential standard required by the board to satisfy itself.
Of course, mental impairment, including irreversible memory loss, may well be a reason for such non-disclosure, and I fully expect the Parole Board to consider these issues after consultation with medical and other experts, as it does now. In these circumstances, I see no need for a prior medical assessment to take place, which may be unnecessary and which would unjustifiably fetter the board’s subsequent handling of such cases.
Furthermore, the reference to reasonableness here is, I suggest, unnecessary. As a public authority, the board is already obliged to act reasonably, and to prescribe this in the Bill may undermine these existing general law principles. I do not consider that to be the appropriate approach in this instance.
Turning briefly to Amendment 3, which would deny release to any prisoner who failed to disclose the information under consideration in this Bill, unless they were suffering from irretrievable memory loss, as set out in the preceding amendment, it raises very real difficulties. Parole Board consideration of the case would cease until the prisoner disclosed the relevant information or the medical evidence changed. Precluding release on such grounds may very well give rise to a challenge under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as once a prisoner has served their minimum tariff, and is found no longer to pose a risk to the public, continuing detention would be regarded as arbitrary for the purposes of Article 5. I will come back to elaborate upon that in a moment.
In addition, as was touched upon by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a failure to disclose relevant information may not be solely due to memory loss but, alternatively, may be due to mental impairment or mental ill-health, or could be a consequence of genuine changes, for example in geography, which meant the location of a body could no longer be identified. Furthermore, creating a blanket ban on release may even create an incentive for offenders to lie about the location of a body. In these circumstances, I encourage noble Lords to consider very carefully what the Bill currently enables the Board to do, which is to investigate these issues and to come to a subjective view in this context.
I will now touch upon a number of points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, alluded to the question of the Home Secretary’s former power to block release. I just note that the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary does have the power now to review a decision of the Parole Board, and has exercised that power.
With regards to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in the context of the sentences that we are looking at—that is, life sentences and certain extended sentences—there are two elements to the sentence: the punitive element and the preventive element. The punitive element is essentially the tariff which is set by the court at the time of sentencing, or the minimum period within the life sentence that the accused or convicted person is going to have to spend in custody. That will have regard to a number of factors including, for example, the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim.
The preventive element is addressed by the Parole Board, and not by the court. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern observed, the test there is whether it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be detained. An element for consideration at that point is whether a failure to disclose the whereabouts of a victim or victims would indicate a continuing threat to the public in that context. To have an absolute bar on the prisoner being released, on the grounds of non-disclosure, would not fit with the appropriate test which has to be applied by the Parole Board at the preventive stage. I reiterate that this would take us into territory where the whole process could potentially be challenged under Article 5 of the convention. It would be extremely unwise for us to legislate on such an issue in circumstances where we left that legislation open to future challenge from the court. That is hardly going to bring any comfort to the families of victims and others.
In these circumstances, I do not consider that it would be appropriate to go down the road suggested by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I would add only that I concur with the observations made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay on the matter of a further criminal offence of non-disclosure. As I indicated before, there is a common law offence of not disclosing the whereabouts of a body, but even if one was to be convicted of that, in the context of a life sentence having already been imposed, there would be another concurrent sentence and that could only lead to a degree of confusion. That is putting aside for the moment the very real difficulty that was identified by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of two juries coming to quite different conclusions on the evidence in related trials.
In all of these circumstances, I would invite my noble friend to withdraw the amendment.
I have had notification that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, wishes to speak after the Minister.
No, I simply wished to observe that we could not hear a word that the Minister was saying the first time around, but he was extremely clear the second time and I thought he gave a very effective response.
In that case, I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to reply to the debate.
My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his response and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. I shall try to comment briefly on all the points raised. I cannot say that I am disappointed with my noble and learned friend’s reply, since I had no expectation that our Ministry of Justice would countenance the radical proposal that some convicts not deserving of leniency should stay locked up.
Consideration for early release is not a fundamental right; it should be earned by a whole range of factors. Some of these may be subjective and judgmental, such as reports on the convict’s behaviour in prison, his attempts at learning a skill or trade, anger management and so on. Others, I believe, should be a simple statutory bar that removes any discretion from the Parole Board. One would be that a convict who admits that he killed a person but refuses to admit that it was wrong should not be considered for release until he is willing to make that admission. The other case, in my opinion, is the one before us today: no one should be considered for release if he has not given details of how and where he disposed of the bodies of his victims, with the exception for the minority who have genuine memory loss.
My noble and learned friend said that if a prisoner lies about the location of the body and it turns out to be false, he forfeits his right to consideration for early release. I am not suggesting that we take the prisoner at his word; we would not be so naive as to say, “Okay, you’ll get early release; you’ve told us where the body is”, and then a few weeks later discover that he has lied about it—of course not. Nor do I accept that a bar on early release would necessarily be in contravention of Article 5 of the treaty. My noble and learned friend said that it could—I think these were his words—“potentially put us in that territory”. That is far from certain.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who spoke with considerable authority on this matter. If my arguments are not convincing, I hope that the House will in due course listen to him. I was also moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said. He, too, had experience of the pain of the families of the Moors murder victims, who were deprived of closure because the killers kept that power. He stressed the word “power”, which is a very good term. If a prisoner can still be eligible for parole and not divulge information about the bodies, he retains that power over the relatives, the victims and the Parole Board.
I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier for his kind and typically overgenerous comments and, as usual, his very thoughtful and learned contribution. I hope that the Government will explore his idea of a proper court hearing to decide on disclosure, despite what my noble and learned friends the Advocate-General and Lord Mackay of Clashfern said. I take the point that my two doctors suggestion is another attempt to get some certainty when a prisoner may not be able to recall. I accept that getting certainty may be difficult for a wide variety of reasons, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern highlighted. However, I hope that he would agree with me that, where a prisoner considered to have memory recall simply refuses to divulge information, parole should not be considered in any circumstance. That is a quite different matter from a prisoner who is unable to recall, however that is determined.
In all my time in government, especially in the Home Office, I always found it impossible to get any legal changes through if my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern was opposed to them, because he could always find the legal loopholes in our proposals. In all honesty, our final Bills were all the better for his exacting analysis. He makes the point that a prisoner who refuses to disclose will have that taken into account in sentencing. That is true, but here we are considering whether that prisoner should qualify for early release based on their behaviour in prison. No matter how many extra years the sentencing judge may have added, that is a separate matter from consideration of early release, which depends on what someone has done in prison, not before.
I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I do not think that any of us knows about the internal workings of the Parole Board and how it considers evidence about a prisoner. My amendment is not a criticism of the Parole Board or a suspicion about how it operates in this regard; it is to remove the need for it to come to a subjective belief. I take the view that some things, such as a refusal to disclose where bodies are or how victims were killed, should automatically debar consideration of early release for thsose prisoners who do not have memory loss.
I am also grateful for the contributions of my noble friend Lady Sanderson, the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lord Naseby. While I do not accept my noble and learned friend’s arguments, this is not the place to persist with my amendment, so I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
We now start the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that if they wish to speak after the Minister, they should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if any noble Lord intending to say “Not content” when the question is put could make that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend a Bill in this Committee. The Committee cannot divide.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, after “prisoner” insert “is able to but”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to ensure that account is taken of the prisoner’s state of mind in determining whether they can make a disclosure.
My Lords, it has long been recognised that the withholding of information about the location of victims’ remains can have a devastating impact on the lives and mental health of their families. This Bill enshrines in law what is already the practice in parole boards, which is fully to consider the failure by a prisoner to disclose this information or, indeed, to disclose the identity of child victims of indecent imagery. By removing any discretion to disregard non-disclosure, the Bill will play an important role in helping families come to terms with what for most of us is unimaginable grief. It is for these reasons that I supported the Bill at Second Reading. In doing so again today, I repeat my tributes to Marie McCourt and to those people who have campaigned tirelessly over several decades to see legislation of this sort brought before the House.
Amendments 2 and 4 in Clause 1 and Amendments 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16 and 17 in Clause 2 make two connected points. The first is that parole boards must take account of the prisoner’s state of mind when determining whether they can in fact make a disclosure, and the second is that the prisoner’s mental capacity within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 to make the disclosure, is taken into account. Out of necessity, the amendments are repeated at relevant places in the Bill, so I am essentially speaking to two amendments, and these two amendments stand together.
My amendments address the concern I raised at Second Reading that, as drafted, the Bill fails to provide adequate protection for prisoners with mental health issues, and therefore seeks to balance the imperative for justice with the appropriate regard for human rights. Since that occasion, I have discussed these concerns with colleagues working in mental health and with others working in mental health charities, including the charity Rethink. I am grateful to them and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for their expert advice, and it is with their support that I have tabled these brief amendments.
In response to my questions at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said:
“We are confident that the provisions of the Bill are sufficient and effective to apply in the contexts of non-disclosure, psychiatric conditions and mental illness.”—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col 214.]
Speaking in the other place, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, further clarified the Government’s acceptance by saying:
“This subjective approach is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/20; col. 748.]
In other words, the Government accept that the approach has to take into account the circumstances of the particular prisoner. This acceptance is important because the consequences of deliberate non-disclosure will, in most cases, give rise to a longer period of imprisonment. The Government rightly accept that these consequences should not flow on a strict liability basis, but only where in effect the non-disclosure is culpable and where there is, as conventional principles dictate, the combination of a relevant act carried out with the requisite degree of either intentionality or recklessness.
This approach has to be correct; any other approach would come dangerously close to suggesting that the mere fact that there is missing information means that the prisoner should be held responsible for withholding it. While the Government’s acceptance of this key point is welcome, the Bill does not at present specifically direct the Parole Board’s attention to the consideration of whether, first, the prisoner has the mental capacity to decide whether or not to disclose the information, and/or, secondly, whether for some reason—for instance, because of the presence of mental disorder—they cannot form the requisite intention to withhold the information.
It is difficult to know how extensive a problem this might present, as it has always been challenging accurately to estimate the number of prisoners with mental health problems in England and Wales. The 2017 report from the Public Accounts Select Committee showed that people in prison are more likely to suffer mental health problems than those in the community, and successive reports from the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, the National Audit Office and others have all highlighted that it is unknown precisely how many prisoners have mental illnesses. Figures from NHS England in March 2017 showed that nearly 8,000 prisoners, 10% of the prison population, were receiving treatment for mental illness in prison. It is estimated that 37% of NHS expenditure on adult healthcare in prisons is on mental health, which is more than twice the proportion within the NHS budget as a whole. The Public Accounts Committee also found that imprisonment can exacerbate mental illness, due to what it describes as,
“a deteriorating prison estate, long-standing lack of prison staff and the increased prevalence of drugs in prison.”
This is highly relevant to the Bill, given that parole hearings are likely to take place some considerable time after sentencing.
The World Health Organization points to several factors that have negative effects on the mental health of prisoners, including exposure to violence, enforced solitude or, conversely, lack of privacy, absence of meaningful activity, insecurity about the future and inadequate mental health services. Prisoners with mental health issues are often subject to bullying and extortion; they may even have their medication stolen. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed concerns that its members are unable to deliver adequate mental health services in prisons.
These points bear repeating here because they demonstrate both the scale of mental health problems in the prison population and the potential for mental health to deteriorate during imprisonment. By extension, mental capacity may also change during imprisonment, given that, as defined within the Mental Capacity Act 2005, lack of capacity may be related to mental health, learning disabilities and neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia. The charity Rethink and other experts believe that these particular conditions are likely to be overrepresented in the prison system. Capacity is also specific to a given decision, rather than universal, meaning that a person who lacks capacity for some kinds of decisions may well be able to make others. The Mental Capacity Act code of practice is clear that a person can have capacity to make decisions in certain areas—for example, deciding what activities to undertake—while lacking it in others, such as a decision to disclose information. The potential for capacity to change over time, particularly with mental health conditions such as dementia, is especially relevant here, as the Government are rightly focused in the Bill on the present position. This makes it all the more important that parole boards are directed to take into account the current capacity of an offender to disclose information about a victim, the presence of mental illness at the time of the hearing, the place of the offender in their mental health recovery and their compliance with any treatment for mental health conditions.
As the Bill is presented, it would indeed be possible for the Parole Board to take these matters into account in the very broad discretion provided by each of the relevant clauses. This could also be amplified in any guidance provided to the Parole Board, but I contend that the Parole Board is not directed with sufficient precision to consideration of whether refusal to provide the relevant information is deliberate, and hence culpable. As the consequences of deliberate nondisclosure are, and are intended to be, serious, the test to be applied by the Parole Board should explicitly reflect this.
To conclude, my amendments would ensure, first, that specific focus is placed in that broad discretion on whether the refusal to disclose information is deliberate and therefore culpable, hence also relevant to consideration of the likely risk that the prisoner will pose; and secondly, that when considering questions of the prisoner’s capacity to make the decision to refuse to disclose the information, the Parole Board is doing so by express reference to the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This is of no little importance, given the time-specific nature of the test for capacity in the Act. The focus of the Parole Board’s attention should be on whether the prisoner currently has the capacity to make the decision, rather than the position historically. This will be of particular relevance where the prisoner has a progressive condition such as dementia.
The Parole Board’s broader discussion to take account of all other relevant factors remains unfettered by the amendments. I urge the noble and learned Lord to consider these amendments and the attempt behind them seriously. I believe that they in no way undermine this important Bill; rather, they strengthen it by directing the Parole Board explicitly to determine whether prisoners’ withholding of information is deliberate, conscious and therefore culpable, and not unimportantly a potentially legitimate signifier of continued risk. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 2 and 4, to which I have added my name. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for her introduction to the group. I too completely understand the policy reasons that have given rise to the Bill. I have the deepest sympathy for those who feel that they can have no closure until they are given the information that the Bill refers to.
A tragic headline in the Scotsman only three weeks ago read:
“We cannot say goodbye until Suzanne is found.”
This was a reference to the case of Suzanne Pilley, of whose murder her former lover, David Gilroy, was convicted in 2012. It is now 10 years since she went missing, and her body has still not been found. Her family believe that he is the only person who knows where it is. The problem is that Gilroy has maintained throughout, despite his conviction, that he is innocent. He says that he cannot reveal where the body is and that it had nothing whatever to do with him. There seems to be no way out of this impasse, but the family’s distress is very real and very deep. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said, sadly, it is not always possible to find a just solution to their pain.
However, we need to be very careful about exactly what it is that the Bill is trying to achieve—or, to be more precise, about the test that the Parole Board is being asked to apply when it takes non-disclosure into account. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, was quite right in his understanding that our amendments seek to leave it with the Parole Board to make the judgment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, said at Second Reading in the Chamber in April, this is not a “no body, no release” Bill, although that is what some campaigners would have preferred. We need to be clear: is the Bill about simply delaying release as a punishment, or securing the release of information? Surely, it is only by securing the release of the information that the board will be able to give closure to those most affected. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that it is the latter and that the point of the Bill is to strengthen the power of the Parole Board to encourage disclosure. “Encourage” is perhaps too mild a word because of course, we have to face the fact that disclosure must have been asked for repeatedly, time and again, ever since the prisoner was first interviewed by the police. Nevertheless, one can only hope that, however this is done, the board will be able to achieve that objective.
It is worth bearing in mind, too—I hope that the Minister can confirm this—that we are contemplating a conversation between the board and the prisoner which may take place many years after the date when the crime was committed. That is because the board cannot begin to consider the prisoner’s case for release until their case has been referred to it by the Secretary of State. That, at least, was the system I worked with when I was the Lord Justice General in Scotland. As I understand it, this system continues to be used for public protection decisions under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which this Bill seeks to amend. A case cannot be referred until the tariff component of the life sentence has been served, which nowadays for murder is normally not less than about 15 years. The timing is important, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, pointed out, imprisonment is likely to exacerbate poor mental health. The longer the period in prison, the greater its effect will be, so these will not be easy cases.
I greatly respect the work that is done by the Parole Board. I attended a number of its meetings in Scotland when I was Lord Justice General, as I needed to know how it went about its work in connection with some of the duties that I had to perform in that capacity. I found that great effort is put into gathering information about the prisoner, including their mental state, from a variety of sources, so that when it comes to consider making a public protection decision it does not start with a clean sheet of paper. It will almost certainly have a very large bundle in front of it to work through and study. It will also have to bear in mind that it may need to give reasons for its decision, especially when issues about non-disclosure come up. That is why I suggest that, in fairness to the board as well as to the prisoner, absolute clarity is needed as to exactly what the board is expected to look for when dealing with these very sensitive cases. It needs to be understood as well that this issue will become critical only when everything else in the prisoner’s history and conduct points to release.
At Second Reading, the Minister said that the subjective test that the Bill lays down will enable the board to distinguish between cases where, for example, the non-disclosure is the result of a psychiatric disorder or where it is a deliberate decision not to disclose. As I understand it, “subjective” means nothing more than that it is for the board to form its own view when making the public protection decision. That is as it should be, and our amendment would not disturb that in the slightest.
This still begs the question as to what precisely the board should look for when it comes to a non-disclosure decision where a reason as to whether to delay a release that would otherwise be appropriate may need to be given. With great respect, I think that the Minister was right to distinguish between a psychiatric disorder on the one hand and a deliberate decision on the other. The implication of what he said is that, if it is the former, the non-disclosure should not count against the prisoner when considering their case for release—for it to do so would be to adopt the unacceptable “no body, no release” approach. However, if it was deliberate, it should indeed count against them, with the further implication that they would probably not be released until they made a disclosure. As I understand it, if that is what the Bill seeks to do, the fact that the non-disclosure must be regarded as deliberate if it is to be taken into account needs to be stated clearly and unequivocally in it.
I support the noble Baroness’s amendments because this degree of clarity is missing in the Bill. The clarity that I suggest we need can be addressed in one or other, or both, of two ways. The first is simply, as Amendment 2 proposes, to insert “is able to but” in new Section 28A(1)(c) before “not disclosed” This would make it absolutely clear that the Parole Board should look for a decision that could be regarded as deliberate because the prisoner was able to disclose the information and their refusal may hopefully be changed by the threat of delayed release, so that the families could obtain closure. If the non-disclosure is not deliberate—for example, if the prisoner cannot help it due to mental disorder and is not able to address the point at all—delayed release until disclosure, which could never happen because of their state of mind, would be wholly unfair and unjust.
The second way, as Amendment 4 proposes, is to make express reference to the prisoner’s mental capacity as a factor that must be taken into account. The two amendments would give clarity to these provisions without in any way undermining the overall purpose of the Bill and the discretion of the Parole Board. They would, however, help the Parole Board in the performance of this new statutory duty.
I hope that the Minister will feel able to look very closely at these proposals. The board needs to know, with as much precision as can be achieved, what this measure expects it to look for when taking non-disclosure into account as grounds for delaying release when making the public protection decision. That is what subjecting it to a statutory duty requires.
My Lords, I will address the same amendments in this group as were listed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. Amendments 5, 6, 9, 12 and 15 will be addressed by my noble friends Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord German. I declare an interest as a member of an advisory board at the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I want to draw attention to the decisions being taken about a prisoner’s state of mind and their mental capacity to answer questions relating to the release of information about bodies. I was a member of the scrutiny committee in your Lordships’ House that did the pre-legislative scrutiny on the Mental Capacity Bill. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I took part in the passage of that Bill through Parliament. I was part of the body that reviewed it and have subsequently been one of the Peers who participated in the Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill.
When the post-legislative scrutiny of the Mental Capacity Act took place, it became very apparent that while it is widely regarded as being a very necessary and very innovative law, it is a law which is largely misunderstood and often ignored in practice. Some professionals, particularly in the world of health and social care, are very adept at understanding the concepts behind the Mental Capacity Act and are deploying them in their everyday work, but they are few and far between. Noble Lords who have listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, may have picked up on the fact that even within the medical profession, many practitioners simply do not understand what mental capacity and the tests of it are under this legislation.
During the review of the Mental Capacity Act, we spent virtually no time looking at the questions of how the Act is used within the criminal justice system, and I suspect that that was because it is not widely understood. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made clear, the Mental Capacity Act rests upon the capacity of a person to make a particular decision at a particular time. It is not lawful to make a read-across from a person’s incapacity to make one decision to an assumption that they cannot make another. Therefore, in every case, it is for the Parole Board to decide at that point whether the prisoner has the capacity to withhold information, and that may vary over time.
It is right that we should discuss this, and we should look at putting these provisions in the Bill for three reasons. First, there are some conditions under which mental capacity can fluctuate. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, some mental health conditions—the effects of drug and alcohol or degenerative diseases, the onset of dementia—may mean that over time the capacity of a prisoner to release this information diminishes.
The second is that there needs to be training and good practice for all practitioners throughout the criminal justice system in determining mental capacity. That includes members of the Parole Board. I wonder whether, in his summing up on this amendment, the Minister might say what training members of the Parole Board have and what guidance is available to them in making determinations under the Mental Capacity Act. Do they call on Mental Capacity Act practitioners, as people in social services do when they come to determine the capacity of an individual to make any decision?
In saying all this, I am acutely aware that, in some of these cases, the crimes happened a very long time ago. I understand that Helen McCourt’s case was one of the first in which DNA evidence was used. Some prisoners who have been in prison for a very long time could be victims of a miscarriage of justice. It is extremely important when we look at their refusal to impart information about the whereabouts of a body that we do so with great care and make sure that we are not misjudging a lack of mental capacity.
My Lords, I am addressing Amendment 5 and the subsequent amendments to the same effect in relation to similar subsections in the Bill. I did not have the opportunity of speaking at Second Reading, so perhaps I can make one or two observations before I come to my amendments.
First, it is my experience that prosecutions where there is no body are comparatively rare. They do happen, but I recall only three or four cases in my own career where such things took place. If the Minister has information on this, I would be interested to know how many people subject to the provisions of the Bill are currently incarcerated in prison.
The noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Mann, referred to the Moors murders case. I was present in court at the Chester Assizes during that case as a pupil in support of the late Lord Hooson, who appeared on behalf of Brady. I can testify to the distress and huge impact that that case had on the families of victims— but not only them. It had an impact on the counsel who appeared in the case and indeed, I believe, on the judge.
Brady subsequently attempted, many years later, to take the police to places where he said he had buried bodies—to no effect. We cannot know whether this was a genuine attempt on his behalf to uncover the remains or whether he was simply, as has been put earlier in this debate, grinding the knife into the victims’ families. It is a terrible indication of what can happen to families in these circumstances.
My other point relates to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. He relied on medical evidence, almost putting it in the place of the Parole Board. I prosecuted a double murder from mid-Wales which gave me a particular view. It was not a case where the bodies of the two victims were not available, but the defence was diminished responsibility. On the side of the defence in the original trial were no fewer than five psychologists and psychiatrists, giving evidence about the mental capacity of the defendant. On the prosecution side, there were four such expert views. After the conviction of the defendant, having observed their cross-examination in the witness box, one of the witnesses on behalf of the prosecution decided that the defendant really did suffer from mental incapacity. An appeal was launched on that basis. It was successful and there was a retrial in which there were then six experts for the defence and three for the prosecution. The defendant was still convicted of murder at the second trial by a majority of 11 to one.
What impacted on me was that members of the medical profession are accustomed to taking a history from patients, which they accept. There is no questioning of what they are told to any great degree. Therefore, to put the decision on the release of a prisoner undergoing life imprisonment in the hands of medical people is, to my mind, wrong. There should be a proper judicial process. I do not agree for a moment with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that the Parole Board will swallow any guff put before it—that is simply not what experience tells us.
Turning to my amendments, I was much impressed by the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, at Second Reading, in which he made points that he has repeated today. It occurred to me that his problem was, as the Minister described it, that giving a sentence for a separate offence of failing to disclose the whereabouts of remains would be ineffective because it would have to take place immediately and concurrently and could not be brought into effect at some indeterminate time in the future.
My mind turned to the Newton hearings, which are commonplace in court and in which a judge will determine, without a jury, when an issue is in dispute. It seems to me that a proper way of dealing with these cases would be that, if there was a dispute and the judge could ascertain that, then there should be a trial on that issue before sentencing. For example, the judge could announce after a jury’s verdict or after a plea of guilty that he would sentence on the basis that there had been a culpable and deliberate concealment of the remains.
If issue were taken by the defendant with that indication from the judge, a trial could be held on Newton principles, whereby at the time of trial—very much closer to the events with which the court was concerned—it could be determined whether the defendant had mental capacity and to what degree he was culpable. Prior to sentencing, the judge could come to a conclusion. In his sentencing remarks, he would make quite clear the degree to which the tariff was being extended by reason of a finding of culpability, and that would be built into the system so that the Parole Board would not consider the matter until the tariff had been completed. That would seem sensible, and the victim’s family would know from the very beginning that there had been a finding of culpability that had affected the sentence.
The problem at the moment is that the Parole Board comes to conclusions on issues that might be 15 or 20 years old, relying on medical and any other evidence before it. However, if a Newton hearing had taken place, the Parole Board would be very much strengthened in the view that it took.
I appreciate that with many prisoners currently serving life sentences or sentences of extended degree there will never have been a Newton hearing. However, if the provision that I suggest in my amendment were adopted, it would encourage judges, who could be given directions by the senior judiciary to follow that course, first, to say that they would deal with the defendant on the basis that he was culpable and, secondly, to hold a Newton hearing. In future, this might be a much more satisfactory way of dealing with matters than the current situation, in which the Parole Board looks at the matter with a lower standard of proof many, many years later.
My Lords, I support Amendment 2 and the other amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I contributed to the Second Reading debate on the Bill a few weeks ago in the Chamber, where the noble Baroness made a powerful speech. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Bill and pay tribute to the campaigners who have got us to this point.
The amendments before us allow us to have a debate on the detail of the issue in question. The balance that has to be stuck here is between justice and the denial of a funeral to a victim’s family, which brings further pain and distress to a family denied the ability to grieve properly, a prisoner with mental health issues and respect for human rights. These are extremely difficult issues that have to be approached with thoroughness. Decisions being made clearly and victims being listened to are an important part of the work that we expect the Parole Board to do.
The Parole Board has to take account of several factors in making its decisions. I have never met a member of the Parole Board, unlike my noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lord Ponsonby, but the Parole Board deserves our support in the difficult job that it is asked to do. I do not doubt that it undertakes its responsibilities with the utmost seriousness, making difficult and important judgments independently, and I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in that respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has posed a number of points for the Minister to address about the state of mind of the prisoner at a particular time as well as the prisoner’s mental capacity. I very much see the point that the noble Baroness is making: that these issues should be taken into account at the time of the hearing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply on these points and on other points made by noble Lords.
My Lords, I support the amendments in the second group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, particularly in relation to Amendments 2 and 4, which are reiterated in subsequent amendments. I reinforce my full support for the Bill and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward.
I support the concept of removing any discretion to disregard non-disclosure by prisoners when Parole Boards are reviewing their cases. This is because there is a very small minority of people who may have severe mental health problems but who are also well able to give the impression that they have complete amnesia. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said earlier about healthcare professionals believing what they are told by people with mental health problems. I actually worked in Broadmoor and introducing as part of the concept as a trainer that you should not read a patient’s records until you had got to know the patient a bit. That is sometimes quite shocking because you trust people but then find that significant things they have told you are in fact extremely inaccurate. So we must be clear that medics are not on the whole easily fooled by the very small minority of people who are able to display very significant selective amnesia.
Of much more interest to me at the moment in relation to this Act is that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and its subsequent amendments, as referred to by other noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, indicate that we have a growing population with significant acquired brain injury, severe psychosis and, of course, a range of neurodegenerative progressive disorders, known largely as the dementias, which mean that prisoners who have been in prison for 15 to 30 years may well have developed cognitive difficulty during the period of their imprisonment. When they then apply to the Parole Board, it is right that they have full access to a medical assessment in line with their human rights. I believe there will be a proportion of people who apply in this way who do not have sufficient cognitive ability at the time when they come to the Parole Board that they will be able coherently to remember the kind of issues that we have raised during this debate.
In summary, I support the approach of the charity Rethink Mental Illness that these amendments would provide an explicit reference to mental capacity, meaning that there would be consistency adopted by Parole Boards when reviewing individual cases. I would like to see the amendments supported, but I am also very aware that, in the review of the Mental Capacity Act, we were able to deal with some things by ensuring that they would be put into guidance for practitioners. That may be something to consider in relation to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull.
I wish to speak in favour of this group of amendments, particularly those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
Where a Newton hearing has taken place in respect to the relevant facts of an offence, it makes sense that those findings must be taken into account by the Parole Board when making a decision affected by the Bill. In effect, a rigorous “mini-trial” has been carried out, and a judgment given, so this information should quite obviously be used by the Parole Board.
In some circumstances, this might go in favour of the prisoner; in others, it might go against them. Either way, justice will be served by using the proceeds of Newton hearings. Without doing so, the Parole Board is at risk of ignoring or contradicting the findings of the Newton hearing which set the grounds for the prisoner’s sentence in the first place. That would not make sense and would create ripe grounds for judicial review of the Parole Board’s decision. It is almost inevitable, I would have thought, that a judicial review would conclude that it must be taken into account by the Parole Board. In the interests of clear legislation, and for the clarity of prisoners and victims, the Government really have to accept these amendments.
My Lords, I do not wish to contribute at this point, but I will listen to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull, and to support them, but before turning to that, I will make two points.
I entirely agree with and support the purposes of the Bill because, as has been shown on so many occasions, closure is impossible to achieve to any degree without knowledge of what has happened to the body of the deceased. However, there is another observation which it is important to make. If there is to be a proper review and recasting of the Parole Board system, which is long overdue, it is not sensible to make piecemeal amendments at this stage. Therefore, I urge that this Bill be passed without significant amendment.
The only amendment which I support, and I do so warmly, is that tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull. My reason for doing so is very straightforward. It is my experience that, when hearing evidence, trying to determine whether someone has had memory loss and whether that loss is genuine is an extremely difficult exercise. Medical opinion may well vary on either side of the argument. Therefore, it is very important that, if there is a case in which mental capacity or the mental state of the convicted person is to be examined, it is done very carefully before the board. It seems self-evident that if, after a long time in prison, a person is to be considered unsuitable for release because disclosure of the whereabouts of the body or other matters has not been made, the judgment should take into account, if the question arises, whether the prisoner has the mental capacity to recall the events, whether his mental health permits him to do so or whether this is all phony. That is a difficult determination and it should be done by the board.
I do not suggest that the Committee should adopt the other amendments. I will say one thing to try to clarify what has been said in relation to findings of fact made by the trial judge. As Schedule 21 requires a court to have regard to concealment of the body, it is my experience that invariably a judge has made findings, either set out in his sentencing remarks after clarifying matters if the plea is one of guilty, or after hearing evidence and reaching his own determination of the matter. In my experience also, a person who has not disclosed the whereabouts of the body, even for a relatively short period of time, is normally considered for a longer sentence because of that fact.
It is important for this Bill and for the Parole Board to bear in mind that the judge will have made findings many years before, and it cannot be right that someone is punished again if he has already been punished for non-disclosure of the whereabouts of the body. However, it seems to me right in principle that the suitability for release, which is a different consideration, is something to which the Parole Board can have regard, particularly taking into account the mental capacity and mental health of the prisoner, and a very careful distinction has to be made.
As the process of time at which the second assessment has to be made is very different to the original assessment by the trial judge, for which the prisoner will have been punished, it seems that this is pre-eminently a matter for the Parole Board having regard to all the factors that were before the judge, and all the evidence and other factors that are before it. In reviewing decisions of the Parole Board, my experience has been generally that it sets about matters of this kind with great care and takes into account all the evidence. I would leave the discretion to the Parole Board, subject to making it very clear what is put forward in the proposed amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I do not think that any further amendments to the Bill are required.
I have nothing to add on this group.
I have listened to what has been said in the debate so far with considerable interest. I am afraid that I was unable to attend Second Reading, but I have read the transcript of it with particular interest, and I am bound to say that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, had to say then was particularly important. I have been helped in my consideration by what has been said in the debate today.
We start off with the fact that anybody who knows victims who have been put in the position of those who were the sponsors of the legislation which we are now considering knows that what they had to go through because they were not able to find out what happened to their deceased relative causes the greatest anguish. They certainly deserve to be protected from suffering any more anguish than is absolutely necessary. The question before us is: what is the best way to achieve the redress to which they are entitled, bearing in mind the practicalities of our criminal justice system?
I was also very impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, and his reference to a Newton hearing. That deserves important attention, because it is a way of achieving the best possible result when this sort of problem has to be considered. The prisoner should know that if he is voluntarily failing to disclose information that he has, there is a risk that he will suffer a substantial increase in the period for which he is detained. That is the most likely thing to produce the result that anyone must hope for. And if that be so, the question is: what is the best way to achieve this in a just manner? It has to be done in a just manner, because if it is not, there is a danger of making the prisoner, quite undeservedly, the subject of some concern and sympathy.
That brings me to the Newton hearing, because I believe this is best left in the hands of the trial judge. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said the same thing—indeed, so did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. The judge has been listening to the trial and he knows the facts of the trial, so for him to deal with it is ideal. Otherwise there can be difficulty. What the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said about the sort of problem that could arise indicates why it could be important for the judge to deal with it. If he told the defendant that he was going to deal with it, there could be a Newton hearing in public, in which the victims would see that the matter had been investigated properly, and have the judge’s knowing response to what was causing them concern.
If at the end of the trial there were any reason for a prisoner to say, “I can’t recall”, or “I can’t give you information because I didn’t deal with what happened at that stage”, people would hear it, and hear the prisoner being questioned and cross-examined about it. The relatives of the deceased, too, would hear that process being conducted, so they would know that it had been fully investigated. If, as I believe would happen in most circumstances, the judge came to the conclusion that the defendant was erecting a smokescreen to try to hide what he was doing, which was so malicious, the judge would find the matter, and in due course it would, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, pointed out, be taken into account by the Parole Board.
It has been suggested that that should be done much nearer the time of the questioning being considered by the Parole Board—but I suggest that a better time would be not later in the day, when all sorts of other matters can arise to muddy the water, but immediately after the trial. The record on Newton hearings is very good; they have resolved problems where facts have needed to be resolved, and that is a process which can be conducted fairly.
It is also important that the situation should be one where justice has been done. If it is done in the way that would be carried out at a Newton hearing, that would be achieved. Although the amendments put forward so far may not satisfactorily deal with the situation, I suggest that there is plenty of time before the Bill becomes law to achieve what is suggested in the amendment I am addressing, as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. I suggest that is the sensible thing. One of the advantages of a Newton hearing is that the procedure which takes place is short and curtailed at the end of the trial.
My Lords, I too was precluded from taking part at Second Reading, but I have read the transcripts in Hansard. There are two substantive issues in this group of amendments, and neither of the two sets takes away the required subjectivity of which the Minister has spoken.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and my noble friend Lady Barker, seek to ensure that the prisoner has the mental capacity to provide the disclosure information required. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 defines mental capacity by saying that
“a person lacks capacity in relation to a matter if at the material time he is unable to make a decision for himself in relation to the matter because of an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.”
It follows that the Parole Board would need to have received the appropriate professional advice that this test of capacity would not apply. If the advice was that the prisoner lacked the mental capacity under this definition, that would be a material fact for the Parole Board to take into account.
It is presumed that the prisoner could therefore not be expected to provide an answer to the disclosure question if the test was not passed. This test is also a relevant issue in the decision to be taken by the Parole Board on grounds of public safety, which of course is the pre-eminent thing that it has to do. Many noble Lords have outlined in debating these amendments that the Parole Board’s task is to determine whether failure to disclose is both deliberate and culpable. These amendments provide more precision for the board to make its decision.
I now move on to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas. They have the intention of providing the Parole Board with an increased level of relevant information on disclosure by including the issues raised by Newton hearings. A Newton hearing may be held where a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has entered a plea of guilty but the issues in dispute which could affect sentencing were not resolved by the verdict of a jury. In the course of a Newton hearing, the prosecution will call evidence and test defence evidence in the usual manner: in front of a judge. This includes that it can call witnesses to give evidence if required. If the issue is within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant, as is the case with the situations defined in the Bill, they should be prepared to give evidence as well. Where they fail to do so without good reason, the judge may draw such inferences as they think fit. This increased level of information would become available to the Parole Board when taking into account the issue of disclosure in considering parole if these amendments were in place.
At Second Reading in the House, and in Committee today, as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, noble Lords have pressed the Government to make non-disclosure an offence at the time of a first trial. My noble friend’s proposal seeks to take the intention of the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and put them into an established legal framework. Newton hearings may be a fairly recent legal procedure, but in the matters relating to the purposes of the Bill such a hearing could have a profound effect on the outcome for the victims. Justice is not just a point in time for them; it can last a long time, and for some a lifetime. For victims, coming to terms with their grief, anguish and hurt can last forever. That is why the justice system has to do everything in its power to make this coming-to-terms period as short as possible.
The amendments to this tightly drawn Bill do not determine that there shall be a Newton hearing but simply that, if one has taken place, the Parole Board shall take note of its proceedings, which will provide it with internal and external information—for which I am sure it would be grateful—and will determine whether there was remorse and whether the perpetrator had knowledge of his or her victims that he or she had chosen not to disclose. It may be easier to achieve this disclosure, and hopefully provide solace to the victims, at this early stage.
While these amendments do not require that there are Newton hearings, their inclusion in the Bill would send a powerful message to the judiciary of the significance of such a hearing, particularly its impact on victims, and therefore they might become a regular feature in future—but they are not part of the Bill. I commend these amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response to these proposals.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord German, has just said, there are essentially two groups within this single group of amendments. The first was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on mental capacity and making sure that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is properly taken into account in the Parole Board proceedings. I was persuaded by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that while we should not do piecemeal reforms of the Parole Board system—I anticipate that the Minister will say there will be a larger-scale review of the Parole Board system—this aspect of the mental capacity of the offenders who come before the board should nevertheless be taken into account.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, was very persuasive in her speech. She alluded to my noble friend Lord Bradley’s report, in which he pointed out that it is unknown how many people in our prisons have mental disorders. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, it should be no surprise that quite a lot of prisoners’ mental capacity deteriorates because of their time in prison, for the reasons she gave in her speech. The other point she made was about dementia. We are often dealing with people on very long prison sentences, and dementia is becoming an ever more real issue. For those reasons, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.
The amendments in the second part of this group were introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who spoke about Newton hearings as a possible way of resolving this conundrum. I have some experience of Newton hearings in a much lower capacity in magistrates’ courts. I regularly have Newton hearings, trying to resolve whatever the issue of the day is. My experience is that, in practice, it is quite difficult to narrow the issues and look just at the issue in dispute in a Newton hearing. It is very often the case that the wider events surrounding the events as a whole are brought into the case, even when one is trying to narrow the issue.
While I understand the suggestion and think it interesting, I am also mindful of the points made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Thomas, that the sentencing judge will have heard the whole case in any event and can explain their view on the reason the offender has not disclosed the location of the body and make it quite explicit whether there is an uplift to the tariff because of the way the offender has behaved. I am open-minded on that point; I have just raised some questions that arise from my own experience in the lower courts.
Nevertheless, these amendments are interesting and constructive. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will treat them in that way.
I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to the debate prompted by these amendments. I begin with a number of general remarks which may well be familiar to noble and learned Lords, but perhaps not to everyone.
I believe there was a reference at one stage of the proceedings to early release, and I emphasise that we are not dealing here with any issue of early release. As I mentioned in response to observations from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we are generally dealing with a life sentence or extended sentence, and when we come to look at that, we can identify two elements—in what I shall refer to as a life sentence. There is the punitive element, which is the tariff fixed by the court, and a preventive element, which is the issue addressed by the Parole Board in the context of public protection. The Parole Board’s role comes into play only at the end of the tariff—the punitive element of the sentence—at which point the Parole Board has to determine whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release under licence, having regard to the public protection test.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, was quite right in observing that in most, if not all, of these cases, the judge will have made findings in fact that will address, among other things, whether there has been disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts. If that becomes an issue, there is scope for what is termed a Newton hearing. But generally, the trial judge—whether after plea or after trial—will be in a position to make findings in fact on that issue, and to then reflect those findings in fact in the tariff he imposes upon the individual in question when applying the punitive element of the sentence. I emphasise that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made the point that there should not be punishment again. That is quite right: it is not the role of the Parole Board to punish. The role of the Parole Board is to determine, by reference to the public protection test, whether at the expiry of the tariff it is appropriate for an individual to be released from custody, albeit under licence.
That takes me to an observation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who asked whether the object of this legislation is to delay release as a punishment. The answer is clearly no. The issue being addressed is in the context of public protection, and whether the failure to disclose indicates to the Parole Board that there is a very real and material question about public protection, and whether someone should be retained in custody. Indeed, if the object of this legislation was to punish, it would potentially be in breach of both Article 5 and Article 7 of the European convention. I stress that this is not the object of this legislation at all.
I turn specifically to the amendments tabled—first, to those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, which really have two limbs. The first is covered by Amendments 2, 7, 10, 13 and 16, and the second by Amendment 4 and subsequent amendments. The first limb would ensure that the Bill’s provisions apply only to prisoners who are “able” to disclose relevant information about the location of a victim’s remains but had not done so. The second limb would particularise a prisoner’s mental capacity as one of the possible reasons for non-disclosure.
The Bill in its current form affords the Parole Board a wide scope to subjectively consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, an independent judicial body with experience of assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all circumstances into account when making a determination about non-disclosure, including the ability, whether mental or physical, of an offender to disclose.
The amendments as drafted would confine the operation of the provisions to prisoners deemed able to make such a disclosure but who had not done so. However, there may be cases where an offender has had ample opportunity to co-operate with the police or the authorities over many years to reveal a victim’s whereabouts but has refused to do so. If such an offender later became unable to disclose—by reason of age or mental illness, for example—the provision of these amendments would not apply to that offender and the board would be unable to consider a previous refusal to co-operate in its assessment of that prisoner’s risk, yet these previous persistent refusals may well be considered as reflecting quite materially on the risk that the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence.
The current Bill avoids such difficulties by allowing the Parole Board to consider all possible reasons in its view to explain non-disclosure, including considering historical refusals. That flexible approach is underlined by Clause 1(3), which makes clear that the imposition of the statutory duty does not in any way limit other matters that the board must or may take into account when conducting such an assessment.
The existence of mental health difficulties or a lack of mental health capacity would doubtless be a relevant circumstance to be taken into account, but there would also be other relevant circumstances. By not specifically referring to particulars in the Bill, we are not giving some more significance than others; we are instead allowing the Parole Board to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. It is therefore for the board itself to take a subjective view of what the reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing that information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release, which is the relevant test that the Parole Board has to address.
We have deliberately avoided any delineation in the Bill of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be, to preserve this flexible and subjective approach. Noble Lords have correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure but there may also be other reasons, such as, as I mentioned, geographical change, mental impairment or issues of mental capacity that may not have occurred at an earlier point but will still be relevant to a current assessment. In these circumstances, I will be inviting the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
I move on to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which specify that where a Newton hearing has been carried out to ascertain certain disputed facts—generally where there has been a guilty plea, but it may take place after a trial—that should be considered by the Parole Board. The short point that I would make is that these are matters that it will be within the competence of the Parole Board to consider, and the board can call for all material pertaining to sentencing, including the terms of any Newton hearing that may have taken place. I apprehend that what the noble Lord may have in mind is perhaps to encourage judicial activity when sentencing in these cases to ensure that they address the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, observed, that is something that will invariably be taken into account by a trial judge in fixing a tariff for the sentence that he is going to impose.
If there is a dispute of fact that is material to the issue, there may be a Newton hearing, albeit my understanding is that they are not that common. I note the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that, in his experience, they can in fact be quite difficult hearings to determine. I emphasise that they clearly are a relevant basis for consideration by the Parole Board and, therefore, the Parole Board already has the means to call upon such material if it wishes to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised the question of the Parole Board’s competence to address issues of mental health. I would observe that, where such issues arise, the Parole Board is in a position to ensure that there is a suitable psychologist or psychiatrist board member of the panel who would be available when required. That expertise is available to the Parole Board when it comes to consider these cases.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked a very particular question about how many offenders at present in prison will be subject to the provisions of the Bill. I cannot answer that question immediately, but I will take steps to see if that information can be ascertained. If it can be easily and reasonably ascertained, I undertake to write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library.
I again thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to this debate. It appears to me that we ultimately have a common objective so far as this Bill is concerned but, at this stage, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, have indicated that they wish to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply, but I think it is necessary to distinguish where there has been a plea of guilty and where there has been a plea of not guilty in a trial. Very often, when a person pleads guilty, he will, with the assistance of his legal team, put together a basis of plea, which is handed to the prosecution for consideration. If it accepts the basis of plea, there is no problem but, if there is an issue, a Newton hearing will be held to determine whether the prosecution which refuses to accept the basis of plea is correct or whether the defendant who is pleading guilty is correct. The judge will sentence accordingly.
That is one situation. Another is after a trial, when there has been a finding of guilt. Let us take a circumstance where a group of people have attacked an individual and one of the group says, “I didn’t take part”—indeed, I remember a case where precisely that happened; the defence was, “I was trying to discourage them so they’d go away”—but, at the end of the trial, the defendant is found guilty. At that point, the judge says, “I will sentence you on the basis that you are withholding information as to where the body was buried.” The defendant could then say, “I’ve been found guilty, but the others took the body away and I want to be heard on that, because I don’t know where they went and where the body was ultimately buried. You cannot sentence me on the basis of the facts the jury has found—that I was a party to a killing—when I don’t know where the body went.” That situation does not involve mental incapacity at all and such a situation should be investigated at the time and not 15 or 20 years later by the Parole Board doing its best, unassisted by medical evidence because it would not arise. It seems to me that issues of that nature should be determined prior to sentencing for the actual offence, whether there is a plea of guilty or a finding of guilt. That should involve a hearing of the sort that I have proposed.
Obviously, my amendment does not require the Parole Board to order a hearing. As the Minister anticipated, my purpose is to encourage the holding of Newton hearings where necessary. I do not believe that they are quite as rare or unusual as he suggests. In this particular instance, with proper directions being given generally to judges to hold Newton hearings where appropriate, they would be useful and helpful to the board’s ultimate determination. They would be of great significance concerning culpability.
My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has observed. In cases of this kind, the judge will wish to take into account the disclosure or non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim and the circumstances in which the offender can or cannot make that disclosure. There may be circumstances in which that might necessitate a Newton hearing, and so be it. That would be done contemporaneously with the determination of the tariff in the sentence. When later on we get to the preventive element after the tariff has been served, the Parole Board will be able to call for all that material, whether it be a Newton hearing or otherwise.
I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has to say about the importance of determining these issues at the time of trial and sentence; I do not disagree with him at all. It may be that some element of encouragement will be given if it is required, although I take from the observations of the former Lord Chief Justice—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas—that there may be little requirement to encourage in a matter that is dealt with in this way day in and day out.
My Lords, I refer the Minister to his remarks about historic refusals. Reading proposed new subsection (1)(c), I do not get the impression that it is talking about historic refusals and I do not think that anything in the noble Baroness’s amendments would cut the ability of the board to look at them. What the opening words of the subsection are talking about is a situation where the board
“believes that the prisoner has information”—
talking about it in the present tense so that the board can consider it in a situation where it thinks that the prisoner is able to do something. That is where the words suggested by the noble Baroness would fit in very well.
Would the Minister like to reflect carefully on exactly what subsection (1)(c) is talking about and reconsider his point as to whether these amendments would cut out historic refusals, which would be highly undesirable, of course?
It does appear that the amendment has that effect even it was unintended. I will give the matter further consideration, as invited to by the noble and learned Lord.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, for his comments and I have listened carefully to his response. I also express my gratitude to all noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in support of my amendments. Aside from generously sharing his considerable expertise with me in advance of today’s debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, helpfully extended my arguments to include the possibility that the convicted prisoner is not in fact able to disclose the information because, despite the findings of the court at trial, they are innocent. One hopes that this is rarely the case, but of course history shows that it can indeed be so.
I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who sounded a useful warning about the general understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and concerns about the extent to which it is drawn on and applied within the prison environment. She raised an important question about training for practitioners in the criminal justice system, including members of the Parole Board, in applying the provisions of the Act. The Minister responded to a point about competence, but I am not sure that he responded to the point about training more broadly to enhance understanding of the Act within the criminal justice system. Perhaps he would write to us on that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, spoke from her position of vast experience, including in Broadmoor, and reminded us that medical personnel are usually well able to distinguish between genuine mental disorders and what was referred to earlier as “guff”. Her views of course bear considerable weight here.
I am grateful to the Minister for addressing the two limbs of my amendments in so much detail. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I was confused by his point about previous refusals not being taken into account. I am grateful to him for agreeing to reflect further on that, in response to the noble and learned Lord’s further comments. He argued that state of mind and/or mental capacity are just one of several reasons why disclosure might not be possible. However, given what we have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about understanding the Mental Capacity Act as it is applied within the criminal justice system, and the potential for the infringement of human rights, I contend that there is justification for expressly including this reason in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, set out very clearly the difficult balance between the rights of a grieving family, who have been by extension the victims of a heinous act, and the rights of a prisoner, convicted of that crime but who suffers a mental health disorder or who, for whatever reason, lacks the mental capacity at the time of the Parole Board hearing to disclose the information requested of him. I know that every noble Lord who has spoken today is acutely aware of this tension and of the importance of this Bill, not just in putting the needs of victims at the centre of the justice system and helping grieving families to achieve closure but as part of a wider and necessary process to increase the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the parole system.
My amendments do not seek to alter the intention of the Bill in any way. As the noble Lord, Lord German, pointed out, neither of the amendments takes away the subjective capacity of parole boards. They simply seek to add clarity through the insertion of the words “is able to, but”, and an explicit reference to consideration of mental capacity. I continue to believe that these simple amendments would support the Parole Board in the fulfilment of the new statutory duty that the Bill places on it by enshrining in law what government has already accepted: that parole boards need to take state of mind and mental capacity into account. This would empower them to do so with confidence and consistency.
I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for considering the amendments. I am disappointed that he has not been persuaded by my arguments and those of other noble, and noble and learned, Lords. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 to 6 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure
Amendments 7 to 18 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
My Lords, due to the necessity of a few short adjournments earlier this afternoon, I suggest that we continue without any further adjournments this evening.
My Lords, we now move on to the group consisting of Amendment 19. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” if the question is put could make that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee. The Committee cannot divide.
19: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of information to victims’ families
(1) Where the Parole Board makes a decision for which it is required to take into account a prisoner’s non-disclosure under section 1 or 2, the Parole Board must inform the relevant persons of—(a) the timings of hearings where the prisoner’s release from prison is being considered;(b) the relevant persons’ rights in relation to requesting a judicial review of the Parole Board’s decision;(c) the length of the sentence that will have been served by the prisoner at the time of the hearing; and(d) any other rights that the relevant persons have relating to the provision of information.(2) The Parole Board must take reasonable steps to contact the relevant persons to ensure they have access to the information in subsection (1).(3) The Parole Board must provide the relevant persons with the information in subsection (1) unless they declare to the Parole Board that they do not wish to receive such information.(4) In this section, the relevant persons are—(a) where the prisoner’s sentence has been imposed for murder or manslaughter, the victim’s parents or guardians, children and siblings; or(b) where the prisoner’s sentence has been imposed for an offence relating to indecent images as defined by section 28B of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (as inserted by section 1)—(i) the victim or suspected victim (if the victim’s identity is not known for certain) if the victim or suspected victim is over the age of 18; or(ii) the victim or suspected victim’s parents or guardians if the victim or suspected victim is under the age of 18.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Parole Board to provide the victim, suspected victim, or their family with information relating to the prisoner’s hearing.
My Lords, I was inspired to table Amendment 19, which stands in my name, by three experiences. The first was that, prior to the Bill’s Second Reading, I spent a considerable amount of time talking to Helen McCourt’s mother. She stressed to me the importance of families being informed fully and involved in hearings about release.
My second experience happened very many years ago. I knew Iris Bentley, and I watched her in her latter years as she came to the end of her decades-long campaign to obtain a pardon for her brother Derek Bentley. She was a woman of immense fortitude, diligence and grace. They are very different cases, but in both, the amount of time and effort it took for those women to seek and obtain justice from a system that largely ignored them was remarkable. They were two very strong, determined women who refused to be ignored. Not everyone is so resilient, and nor should they need to be. They should automatically be involved and included by the criminal justice system.
My third experience is that I lived for many years in a Pennine town. Anyone who did at that time could not be unaware of or unsympathetic to the suffering of the families of the Moors murder victims—and that suffering continues today.
From talking to Marie McCourt, I understand that there are at most 100 prisoners to whom this legislation would apply. There are not that many, but the families of their victims suffer perhaps more than anybody else in the criminal justice system. For them, not to be told that a release hearing will take place, nor where and when it will take place, is a trauma. These hearings might happen many years after there has been a conviction, but their importance to victims and victims’ families never diminishes. One needs only to look at what happened to the victims of John Worboys to know about the importance of making sure that people are informed and included.
By the time a release hearing is reached, relatives who are desperate to know what has happened to their loved one are running out of time and the means to compel the prisoner in question to tell them what has happened. It is wrong not only to ignore them but not to advise them that they might not be involved in something that they might see as their last hope of achieving a resolution.
My amendment would place in the Bill that it is the right of relatives to receive information about the timing and location of a release hearing and about their rights, particularly in relation to judicial review. In putting this in the Bill, my intention is that the Parole Board will know right from the moment that the sentence is passed that it is under an obligation to maintain contact with victims’ families and that the onus is on the board, not the families, to maintain contact. It is not unusual for families to be told that they have not been contacted because they have moved or their details have changed, and the Parole Board has simply failed to keep their details up to date.
Release hearings and the prospect of release are a time of heightened anxiety for victims’ families. It can be a grave disappointment that there is no further prospect of the prisoner disclosing information about the victim, but for some there is also the knowledge that the perpetrator will be released into the community and might well know or discover where their victim’s family lives. I know that victims are very fearful of that. At that time, the onus should be on the Parole Board to keep victims’ families fully informed. It is the very least that they should expect. This might be a seemingly simple procedural matter, but it is of immense importance to people who are victims of these prisoners. Therefore, it is in that vein that I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that much more needs to be done to support victims in the parole process. The amendment would provide information rights for victims and their families, which are desperately needed. As I noted at Second Reading, many parents involved in the George case sadly found out about her release on Facebook or via the local newspaper. That is completely unacceptable. I am sure that every effort was made to contact the parents in that case, but the system places the onus on the victim or their families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, eloquently set out. It is made their responsibility to opt in and keep in touch with victim liaison officers; it has to be the other way around. The Parole Board should have a duty to ensure that accurate information is given to victims and their families in an appropriate timeframe. The amendment would give them that reassurance.
I particularly welcome proposed new subsection (3). Rather than there being an opt-in approach, victims and their families should automatically be included in the scheme for information unless they opt out. In a meeting a few months ago, the Victims Commissioner and the chair of the Parole Board acknowledged that not all victims opted into the victim contact scheme. They noted that this caused distress to those who failed to opt in and who later discovered through third parties that the offender had been released. They agreed that the current requirement for victims to opt into the scheme was a concern. The amendment addresses that concern. In addition, technology should be developed to modernise information flow to victims and their families so that they can keep their contact details up to date and keep up to date with the details of the case.
The type of additional support outlined in the amendment will not only help victims and their families but help to build public confidence in the system. I hope that the Minister will highlight his support for the principles raised in the amendment, commit to improving the victim experience of the parole process and give assurances that the needs and experiences of victims and their families will be central to the pending review of the parole system. Will he indicate whether he is willing to discuss the amendment further before Report?
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and am sorry that I was unable to speak at Second Reading. I pay tribute to the ground-breaking work done by my colleague in the other place, Conor McGinn, following the campaign by Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen, who was tragically murdered and whose remains have never been found or their location revealed by her murderer, now released.
It is right that the refusal by serious offenders to disclose information about their victims—including the whereabouts of a murdered victim and the identities of child victims in the case of offenders who take or make indecent images—is always taken into account by the Parole Board when making decisions about their possible release, and will now be a statutory requirement.
I support Amendment 19 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord German, and believe the effectiveness of the Bill will be proved only if we can assure victims that their concerns are a priority in the justice system. Victims cannot be an afterthought; there have been too many occasions in the past when painful interviews with the bereaved, still suffering terrible grief, are broadcast in which they say that no one had told them in advance that those who had done terrible things to their loved ones had been released.
The Victims Commissioner reported recently that victims are less satisfied than ever that their views are taken into consideration. Can the Government assure the House that victim involvement in Parole Board decisions will improve with the passing of this Bill? I hope that the amendment will therefore be accepted. I know that the Government will point to a future, wider root-and-branch review of the operation of the Parole Board as a way of increasing transparency, but they have an immediate opportunity to do so by accepting Amendment 19.
Lord Naseby. No? I am not getting a response from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. If I do not hear any more, I shall move on to the noble Lord, Lord German.
My Lords, this amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lady Barker, puts victims right at the centre of the parole functions. The amendment has two major functions: to ensure that victims are contacted, and to provide victims with information about the Parole Board’s hearing of the case of the prisoner’s parole. Much more needs to be done to support victims. The issue of strengthening the victims contact scheme as a whole is important and, while associated with the Bill, is beyond the scope of it. I look forward to the Minister telling us when his root-and-branch review of the Parole Board will take place. “In the fullness of time” was the response we got at Second Reading, and I think we ought to know when full time will be up.
However, there are matters in the Bill that relate to the Parole Board’s functions and to the work it has to do for victims. There are considerations that affect the way the board should engage with victims. First, cannot the system be modernised so that victims’ views can be taken by video link, rather than having to travel in person to the prison where the perpetrator is located? This process can in itself add to the anguish felt by victims who have struggled to come to terms with the grief they have suffered. Sentencing and conviction is just the start of justice for victims. The parole process can easily add to a victim’s pain, and it is essential that everything be done to minimise the trauma this can cause, amplified by the heinous crimes committed, which are the subject of the Bill.
The amendment requires that victims should be contacted as of right. Too often we have heard cases where victims have just not known what is going to happen, and suddenly they find that the perpetrator is released into the community, they have no idea what the conditions were, and they have simply to face up to the fright and misery of that happening. It has to be at their choice that they actually receive the information about the Parole Board’s operations; they have to be given the option to do that. That means we must have an opting out of receiving information: in other words, it is the duty of the Parole Board to give information to victims—to do everything it possibly can to give them that information—and it is the victims’ choice whether they receive that information. Of course, that means that, over time, we would expect some people to say, right at the beginning, “I do not want to hear any more; I do not want to have any more information”. But at this particular point, at the point of possible release into the community, there has to be that option, and contact has to be made as of right.
We know of too many examples of victims finding out the result of the parole process only from media reports, as the noble Baroness just said, from social media or, worst of all—can you imagine?—from reporters calling victims to ask for their comments on the release of the perpetrator. Thus far the service has adopted much more of an opting-in approach to receiving information than an opting-out approach, which I think is crucial in making sure that victims have their rights upheld. For example, I am sure Members will recall the case of Worboys being debated in your Lordships’ House last year, when this matter came to a very important head. Within the narrow scope of the Bill, which leads to only a relatively small number of cases being considered, I do not think this obligation on the Parole Board will place a large administrative burden on its workings. But these Parole Board cases are of great significance to victims, and victims have a right to know what is happening and to have their say should they desire to. They need a consistent infrastructure for exercising these rights. This amendment enables victims to opt out of knowing about and participating in the parole process, but the default position is that they will always be given that opportunity.
With modern technology, keeping in contact with victims is so much easier. Tracing victims if they change their address, telephone number or email will be much simpler and quicker. Governments have databases which can make it much easier to locate people whose contact details have been mislaid. There should be an obligation, therefore, on the Parole Board to maintain the contact details of victims, so that when this time comes, as in the Bill it will do, it is obliged to make sure that the victims understand and know their rights, and that they have a right not to hear anything and to opt out of the information if they so desire. That is what this important amendment would do: give rights to victims that are recorded as being consistent, and which are so important to people who are suffering such misery.
My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment have supported it with some passion. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who moved it, spoke forcefully about relatives’ right to hear about release hearings and about putting the onus on the Parole Board to inform victims’ families, rather than victims’ families having to use their own initiative to remain in contact with the Parole Board. As she rightly said, this is very important for families. There should be automatic membership of the victims contact scheme. People should not have to opt in, although they should, of course, have the option of opting out.
My noble friend Lady Healy had it absolutely right when she said that of course we understand that there is to be a wholesale review of all aspects of the Parole Board, but that here we have an opportunity right now to do something about this, something that has received cross-party support and is very much in the spirit of supporting victims through this often very protracted process. It is a difficult process, but we can do something about it right now.
In his summing up, the noble Lord, Lord German, made the same points about putting victims at the centre of the Parole Board’s functions. He alluded to the benefits of modern technology. I have to say, again with my magistrate’s hat on—although I do not speak for the magistracy in any way—that even with the best modern technology, it is sometimes quite difficult to locate people, particularly if they do not want to be located. However, that is not a reason for not putting the onus on the Parole Board, and I very much support the amendments.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate on the amendment, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for her submissions on it. In the context of the Bill, we are dealing with particularly disturbing forms of crime and particularly disturbing consequences. However, we must have regard to all victims of crime, not just of these crimes, in determining the appropriate step to take in order properly to take account of their views, interests and concerns.
Processes are already in place, by virtue of the Parole Board rules, the victims’ code and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, that address the issues referred to in the amendment. Both the National Probation Service and the Parole Board communicate information to victims, and where a family member is affected by an offender’s action, they too, of course, will be victims and will be contacted. Where a victim wishes to receive information, this will be provided by their victim liaison officer. Victims can receive information regarding the date of a parole hearing and the outcome of a review. Indeed, they may request a summary of a Parole Board decision and can also provide a victim personal statement to the Parole Board to explain the impact of the crime upon them. They have the right to request that certain tailored licence conditions be applied.
Victims are also informed of the avenues for making a request for reconsideration of a decision. Such reconsideration will be carried out by the Secretary of State. Following a request for reconsideration, they will receive reasons why their request was or was not successful. Thereafter, a victim liaison officer will provide information regarding judicial review, if that is requested.
In recent times—I note the reference to the Worboys case—the National Probation Service has improved the way in which it communicates with victims, such as using email or telephone as opposed to letters, while being mindful of the victim’s preferred method of contact. We have also tightened processes to ensure that victims are informed of developments, such as being notified of the date of oral hearings, in a timely manner. We have expanded the criteria for victims who are eligible for contact under the National Probation Service Victim Contact Scheme. We are trialling a new process whereby all eligible victims are referred directly to probation to reduce the risk that they are not offered use of the victim contact scheme directly. Therefore, we have taken steps to improve the system. However, the Parole Board is an independent body and it requires a degree of flexibility in how it operates. To impose these statutory obligations on the Parole Board, and the Parole Board alone, would, I suggest, be going too far.
I hear what is said about the idea of an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme for victims and what is said about the need to improve the involvement of victims, particularly those in the present category. I will be happy to discuss that at a meeting, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, before the next stage of the Bill. However, I also note that there is a proposal for a review of the Parole Board. I cannot give a precise date for that review but, again, I will be happy to take that up in discussions with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. At this stage, however, I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, no noble Lords have indicated a wish to speak after the Minister, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on this amendment. It would have been easy to dismiss this as a minor procedural matter, but I have long held the view that when people have frustrations about the criminal justice system or indeed the workings of the Home Office, as many of those arise from the way in which the system works and the procedures that are adopted as from the decisions of substance that are made. Our criminal justice system can be extremely difficult to work with at a basic administrative level.
I particularly welcomed the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, for our proposal that there should be an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme. It is high time that we moved to that, and I do not think that it would necessarily put any undue obligations or administrative burdens on the probation service or the Parole Board. My noble friend Lord German spoke about the increased use of technology, which will be life in the new world for everybody. I think that it can be done in ways that minimise trauma to victims, maximise inclusion and make life administratively easier for those who are responsible for implementing it.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, recognised that there is cross-party support. I, too, think that it is a matter that could be looked at in the near future. I do not think that it has to wait for the full, wider review of the Parole Board. I very much welcome the Minister’s offer of a meeting. I hope that he might consider including in that some of the victims’ representatives, for whom this is not theoretical but a crucially important matter in their lives. We all wish to see this Bill make the statute book. Therefore, at this point, as the Minister predicted, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
My Lords, I am getting a little background disturbance. I am not sure whether it is intended to get my attention, but I shall proceed on the basis that it is not. That concludes the Virtual Committee’s proceedings on the Bill. The Virtual Proceeding will now adjourn until a convenient point after 6.30 pm.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.