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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2020


Clause 1: Murder, manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, after “prisoner” insert “is or was 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, Amendments 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14 and 15, in my name, are in substance the amendments I introduced in Committee. Now as then, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for supporting them. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who cannot be here today but has great experience in these matters and has written to express his support.

I will speak to the first two amendments, which are repeated, out of necessity, at relevant places in the Bill. The two stand together and make connected points. First, the Parole Board must consider the prisoner’s state of mind and whether for some reason, such as the presence of mental disorder, they cannot form the requisite intention to withhold the information. Secondly, the board must be satisfied that the prisoner has the mental capacity, within the meaning in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to decide whether to disclose. In moving these amendments, I put on record yet again my support for the principle of this Bill and my admiration for Marie McCourt. I acknowledge the Bill’s importance to grieving families in achieving closure in the most terrible circumstances.

In Committee, the Minister expressed two objections to my amendments. I am very grateful to him for taking time to discuss them in advance of today. His first objection was that my amendments would prevent the Parole Board taking into account any previous occasions on which the offender had had the opportunity to co-operate with the authorities and reveal a victim’s whereabouts, but had refused to do so. He argued that if this offender later became unable to make a disclosure for reasons of deteriorating mental health, for example, my amendment would leave the board unable to consider any prior refusal to co-operate in assessing the risk the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence. The amendments tabled today meet this objection by including the potential for historical consideration.

His second concern is more fundamental and goes to the heart of what I see as the underlying problem with the Bill. Throughout its progress, he has repeated the Government’s view that the board’s discretion to consider all possible reasons for non-disclosure must be unfettered. He contends that my amendments give undue prominence to one factor among the many the board will take into account when making a public protection decision.

But in effect this is exactly what the Bill does. It turns consideration of non-disclosure—already a standard practice in parole panels—into a statutory duty. But it fails to create a parallel statutory duty of what must be a fundamental responsibility of the board in coming to its view: to consider whether the prisoner is able, for reasons of mental capacity or disorder, to disclose that information. The Bill therefore comes dangerously close to collapsing together the question of whether there is missing information with that of whether the prisoner should be held responsible for it.

Even if the Bill is not, in law, creating a new criminal offence of non-disclosure, the effect of deliberate non-disclosure is inexorably going to lead to the conclusion that the prisoner poses a risk and, as a result, requires to be kept in prison. Therefore, the Bill is in effect creating a statutory hurdle to release in those cases where deliberate non-disclosure is established. Given this, it should be explicit that that statutory hurdle can exist only where the prisoner can be held responsible for their own actions—that is to say that they are not suffering from a mental disorder or otherwise from impairment of mind or brain that should be seen as alleviating that responsibility.

The noble and learned Lord the Minister has been consistent in arguing that the Parole Board must be allowed to take into account a wide range of factors in making its decisions. But in relation to the Bill, which is so tightly focused on non-disclosure, there are really only three possible scenarios a board would face. The first concerns those cases where disclosure is not possible because the prisoner, for whatever reason, was not party to the disposal of remains and so genuinely does not know where the body is. Of course, there will also be cases where prisoners continue to protest their innocence. This is a problem for the board, but it is not what the Bill is about.

The second scenario concerns the non-disclosure cases where the verdict is not disputed and the facts of the case leave no room for it to be argued that the prisoner does not know where the victim’s body is located. In both those scenarios it is simple. There is either an inability to disclose or there is deliberate non-disclosure, which is culpable. The prisoner who persists in this wilful refusal, amplifying again the distress already visited on the family of the victim, must take the consequences, and in its efforts to address this particular issue, the Bill has my full support.

But it is the third scenario that my amendments address—a scenario on which the Bill is silent. It is the scenario in which the prisoner, for reasons of mental disorder, cannot form the requisite intention to withhold information, or lacks the mental capacity to take the decision to do so. By failing to mention any possibility of the contrary, the Bill assumes that the prisoner has the ability to disclose, thus making any non-disclosure culpable. Prolonged detention for non-disclosure in such cases would be unfair, unjust and a potential infringement of human rights.

By elevating non-disclosure to statutory status, the Bill already departs from the Government’s stated policy of leaving to the Parole Board decisions as to what weight, if any, it gives to the many factors it must consider. The Government have accepted, at the Dispatch Box here and in the other place, that the board should take state of mind and mental capacity into account. But the Bill provides the board with no guidance as to how its statutory duty is to be performed with regard to this. By extension, it fails to guide victims’ families as to what they should expect of the Parole Board in cases of this kind. My amendments would address this discrepancy by elevating in parallel the related imperative to take the ability to disclose into account.

If the Minister is not willing and able to accept these amendments, as I fear he is not, and this guidance is to be dealt with outside the statute, can he at least provide clarity as to what this guidance to the Parole Board is to be, where it is to be found and how its use will be monitored? I would be grateful if he could confirm definitively what training members of the Parole Board receive to support them specifically in making determinations under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. If the board’s responsibility to take mental disorder and mental capacity into account is not to be a statutory duty, it will be vital that its members are fully conversant with the Act and its use within the criminal justice system. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for her introduction to this group of amendments, to which I have added my name. I entirely support her careful analysis of the problem they seek to address.

There is no doubt that the Bill has been drafted with the best of intentions, and, as I said when we discussed them in Committee, I completely understand the policy reasons that lie behind it. I have the deepest sympathy for those it seeks to help. We have tended to focus on cases where the failure to disclose has been in murder or manslaughter cases, where the question is where the victim’s remains were disposed of. But cases about the identity of children who are the subject of indecent images are just as distressing to the victims and their families. Our amendments, which are not intended in any way to undermine the Bill’s intentions, extend to both of them. That is because the Bill, as drafted, gives rise to the same problem in both cases. I recall the noble and learned Lord the Minister agreeing with us, in the virtual meeting to which he very kindly invited us, that what matters for the purposes of our discussion is the substance of the issue our amendments raise, not their precise wording. The same cannot be said of the Bill; its precise wording does indeed matter.

It is the wording of the new Sections 28A(1)(c) and 29(1)(c) that create the difficulty. I entirely understand the noble and learned Lord’s point, which he made in Committee and repeated to us in our meeting, that subsections (2) and (3) of those sections do not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account, and that he does not want to limit the scope that this leaves to the board. The problem lies in the meaning that is to be given to the words “has information” and “has not disclosed” in subsection (1), which sets the context for the whole exercise. There is a gap here, which the Bill leaves open. Cases of deliberate refusal where the prisoner has the information, is able to disclose it and fails to do so are covered by these words. These are the obvious cases that are so distressing. They can be seen as cases where the prisoner is deliberately prolonging the agony being suffered by the victim’s families and, in the children’s case, by the victims too. Their predicament is horrifying, and it is right that everything should be done to address it. The word “non-disclosure” is absolutely right for use in these cases. It carries with it the notion of intention, as the noble Baroness made very clear. For very good reasons, it was these cases that were in mind when the Bill was being drafted to give statutory force to “Helen’s Law”.

But what about those whom the board believes have or had the information because of the way the crime was committed but, for the reasons given by the noble Baroness, are simply not able to disclose it to the Parole Board because they lack the intention? That is the gap that the Bill leaves open and our amendments seek to fill. It may be said that, as matters stand today, cases of that kind can be dealt with by the Parole Board perfectly well, with all the understanding that they deserve. The Bill assumes that what the board does now must be transformed into a requirement—a statutory duty—and all that this entails. It is designed to change something, not leave things as they are. One can see, by looking at Amendment 17, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, what this may lead to. The context for any judicial review will be set by the terms of the statute. The board needs clarity on this matter.

Are the cases described by the noble Baroness within the scope of these new clauses at all? Our Amendment 1 would make it clear at the outset that they are not, because they are not non-disclosure cases in the proper meaning of that word—they lack the intention. As an alternative, our Amendment 2 would make it clear that, without in any way limiting the scope of the matters that the board can take into account, the prisoner’s mental capacity to disclose the information is indeed one of them. It would provide the assurance that those prisoners need, and the Parole Board needs too, that a decision made on that ground would stand up to scrutiny.

I hope very much that, when he comes to reply, the noble and learned Lord will set out as clearly as he can what guidance has been given to the Parole Board about how it should deal with these cases under the statute, and will answer the various questions the noble Baroness has put to him. I hope, too, that his mind is not entirely closed to the possibility of addressing this difficult issue by an amendment at Third Reading if it seems, on further reflection, that this would be a better way to proceed.

My Lords, first, I wish to associate myself with the expressions of support and sympathy of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for those who have campaigned so strongly and so well for the Bill to be brought before the House. It is a very important Bill.

Secondly, I support these amendments because the ability of a prisoner to recall what has happened is, of course, paramount and of considerable importance when the Parole Board is considering its decision. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I keep my further observations for the second group of amendments, which I will be speaking to in a moment.

My Lords, we have discussed the arguments behind these amendments in Committee and, to some extent, at Second Reading. I am not sure that much has changed since. For my part, while I entirely accept the motives and intentions of those behind the Bill itself, as well as the amendments in this first group, I remain sceptical about the utility of the Bill as an addition to the criminal law. That said, I have every sympathy—who would not?—for the living victims of the abhorrent criminals covered by the Bill, and know why they, and those who support the Bill so enthusiastically, want it enacted. I am sure it will be very soon.

Both the Minister and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern were not favourably impressed with my suggestion of a discrete criminal offence. From memory, only the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was prepared to agree with me about the value of the Bill in its current form. My suggestions have now sunk below the waves and can be forgotten. However, I urge the House, despite the experience and wisdom of those supporting these amendments relating to the offender’s state of mind—either through the greater emphasis demanded of the Parole Board in Amendment 1 of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, or through a Newton hearing under Amendment 3 in the next group, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—not to curtail the Parole Board’s independence and discretion.

As I indicated in our earlier debates, I would like the Parole Board’s work to be more accessible to the public. Despite the powerful analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I agree with the Minister’s argument in Committee—which he seems to have repeated in his meeting with the noble Lords—that the Bill in its unamended form enables the Parole Board to fully consider the offender’s state of mind and their reasons for not disclosing the requisite information.

As was pointed out in our earlier debates, when considering the public safety implications of permitting a long-sentenced offender to return to the community, the Parole Board is looking at information and coming to a decision many years after the offence and the trial. A finding made by the trial judge shortly after the verdict about the offender’s failure to disclose the site of the victim’s body or—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, properly reminded us—the identities of children in criminal images is valuable, and will surely be brought to the Parole Board’s attention, as will be the effect of that finding on the judge’s sentence. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, pointed out in Committee, we need to be careful not to confuse punishment for the original crime and the public safety implications of the prisoner’s much later release.

It must seem to many noble Lords that, not for the first time, I have got to the church by way of the moon. However, in short, let us leave the Bill as it is. It will be no more effective if amended.

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier: the Bill is best left as it is. Although it is a limited purpose Bill and to be welcomed, there is plainly a need for a proper review of the Parole Board in due course. That is the occasion on which we should look at matters in the round.

In my experience, the Parole Board approaches the exercise of its discretion with the greatest possible care and, in cases where there are issues of mental capacity, takes infinite care to ensure that it has available all the necessary information, including reports from the prisoner. Occasionally, mistakes are made. However, there is always the remedy of judicial review, and it seems to me that it would be much better to leave the Bill as it is, allowing any errors on matters as obvious as mental capacity or findings of the trial judge to be taken into account. The Bill should be left alone; we should not amend it.

Earlier this week, we considered the state into which the law of sentencing has got by a piecemeal approach. It is not something we should do in criminal justice. Although I shall have something to say in detail about Amendment 3, I accept entirely the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. However, my acceptance of their analysis of the proper approach does not persuade me that it is necessary to amend the Bill. The issues can be safely left to the discretion of the Parole Board, and there is a remedy if it fails to do that.

My Lords, I spoke in Committee and, subsequent to that, I had an exchange of correspondence with Marie McCourt. I would not like anything said today, and I do not think that any noble Lord would mean it, to take away from the need to right the hurt that she, and those dear to her, have felt.

I said on the last occasion that the Parole Board itself needed a thorough overhaul and the Minister, if I remember correctly, agreed with me. My concern here, as it is in many places, is that any law brought in to right a specific wrong can often be wrong itself—you need a much more generalist approach.

None the less, I welcome the Bill. My point is that, when you deal with mental capacity, you also have to remember human frailty. The fact of the matter is that people can just forget. There is at least an element of possibility that someone could just forget what they had done. It is also possible that they could just forget who photographs were of. I know that that may not be a popular thing to say but, going back many years to when I was in the Territorial Army, we used to have exercises where we dropped people and they then had to find their way to places. I was always amazed at how people could not recognise things. There is a genuine defence that someone has just forgotten.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister can assure us that we are not passing a law that will go to Strasbourg to be interpreted. When I look at this, I wonder whether it will pretty quickly end up in the European Court of Human Rights, where it will not be us doing the legislating but the judges in Strasbourg. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that he really does think that it is proof against even a reasonable prospect of a challenge in the court.

Finally, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that wording matters. It can matter quite strongly in the case of a Bill such as this one.

My Lords, I share the sympathy that has been expressed for the families of the victims who are behind the motivation for the Bill.

I looked carefully at the background to this issue to see what effect—[Inaudible]—stage had on the Bill to see if there is a necessity for the amendments that are proposed today. I examined paragraphs 32 and 33 of the Explanatory Notes, which say, among other things:

“The proposed change is to put Parole Board practice on a statutory footing … the Bill will not result in any change to current Parole Board practice and it is not anticipated that there will be any impact on the prison population”.

I also listened carefully to the Minister, who, in effect, repeated that analysis in relation to today’s proceedings.

I share the view of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Garnier and Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that we should not interfere with sound parole practice if Parole Board practice is—[Inaudible]—the Parole Board would be much more transparent—[Inaudible]—subject to closed hearings, national security and certain views of—[Inaudible]—confidentiality could be heard in public. What have the Government done to obtain the views, on both this Bill and the amendments that were passed earlier, of the current deputy chair of the Parole Board, His Honour Peter Rook QC—a very experienced and admired judge—and his predecessor, the former High Court judge, Sir John Saunders? I have a suspicion that, if consulted, they would say, “Well, first of all, we would prefer Parole Board procedure to be kept flexible and not to be circumscribed in any way by this Bill”, which—[Inaudible]—any changes to Parole Board practice.

Secondly, I would expect them to say that attitudes to cases change over the years, and that the Parole Board must be a living instrument, dealing with applications—[Inaudible]—released from prison, often many years after the event. I think that I once prosecuted a defendant who was sentenced to a whole-life tariff, remains in prison on that tariff and has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights at least once. He happens to be the person who—[Inaudible]—which was just mischief-making. That is another example of the flexibility that the Parole Board needs in order to take account of the activities and attitudes of people who have committed dreadful offences such as these.

My main point is that the Parole Board should retain its flexibility to deal with all these issues as part of the larger picture in each case. On balance, I feel that the Bill in its original form does that more successfully than the Bill would do with the amendments added.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for the clear way in which they introduced the Bill and for signalling their intention not to push this amendment to a vote.

When we discussed this matter at an earlier stage of the proceedings, I explained that I am one of a number of Peers who has taken part every time we have discussed mental capacity legislation since its pre-legislative state in 2004. I remain concerned that mental capacity legislation is not widely understood or implemented in a variety of professions—even in the medical profession, where one might think that it would be. Given the incidence of mental illness in the prison population, one would think that such legislation is widely understood by practitioners. When we carried out the review of the Mental Capacity Act, that turned out not to be so.

I do not doubt that the Parole Board should be as free as possible to exercise judgment. It is not for those of us outside who do not have access to all the facts of a particular case to second-guess it. My questions during earlier stages of the Bill were about the training of professionals in the criminal justice system, particularly the Parole Board, and the reliance on Mental Capacity Act advisers, Mental Health Act advisers and so on. I have not had answers to those questions; therefore, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I remain concerned that there is a gap in the legislation.

Like others who have spoken to Mrs McCourt, I really want this legislation to work and I do not wish to see gaps through which people who have the capacity and have information but are withholding it can slip. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made a valid point. I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, will resist putting these words in the Bill, but can he tell us what regulations and guidance will arise as a result of our discussion?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, very much for moving her amendment. In Committee, I supported the amendments. I also echo the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who contacted me personally to say that he very much wishes he could have been here to support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

It must be said that a number of extremely eminent lawyers have, in essence, spoken against the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. My response to those eminent contributions was best articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. My experience is that many different parts of the criminal justice system do not understand mental capacity legislation properly and that, even if they do, it is often not used to its full extent. That is because such a large proportion of the people we deal with in the criminal justice system as a whole have mental capacity issues.

I support in principle what the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has said; I understand that she will not press her amendments to a vote. I hope that the Minister will say something more constructive about addressing the perceived gap in the legislation regarding further review by the Parole Board and the practicality of a possible remedy through judicial review. These are all active issues which have been explored in our debate. The Minister should acknowledge that the concerns raised are real and explain to the House why it would not be necessary to meet them in the Bill.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and other noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Perhaps I may reiterate the position of the Government, which is that we consider that the amendments would unnecessarily fetter the discretion of the Parole Board. I do not accept that there is a gap in the legislation, as suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.

I shall initially address Amendment 1 and related Amendments 5, 8, 11 and 14, which would ensure that the Bill’s provisions applied only to prisoners who are, or have previously been, “able” to disclose relevant information but have not chosen to do so.

The Bill affords the Parole Board wide scope subjectively to consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, which is after all an independent judicial body with experience in assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all relevant circumstances into account when making a release assessment.

The board must be satisfied that the offender no longer poses a risk to the public, and this high bar can be met only after it considers all elements of an offender’s case. This already includes an offender’s current and past “ability”, whether mental or physical, to disclose such information. The Parole Board may already consider all possible reasons, in its own view, for any non-disclosure, including historic refusals.

There is some uncertainty as to the meaning of the term “able” in these circumstances, and it would be unclear what criteria the board would use to make their determination. In many cases, there are varying degrees of ability, or varying degrees of information, that the prisoner can disclose, and the interpretations of ability in each case will differ—a point made by a number of noble Lords. The Parole Board in its current practice uses a flexible approach to take into account all elements of a non-disclosure. To use “able” in a determinative and inflexible way would cause unnecessary confusion and potential inconsistencies in its application. That has the potential unfairly to prevent the board when applying the Bill’s provisions from considering a non-disclosure by an offender in many circumstances; for example, the case of an offender who had rendered themselves “unable” to disclose due to illicit drug use in prison. There are clearly other examples of how that difficulty could arise.

By specifically avoiding reference to particulars in the Bill, we are deliberately not limiting the board’s ability to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. I say in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that the Parole Board is possessed of considerable expertise in these areas, including that of mental health.

That leads me on to Amendments 2, 6, 9, 12 and 15, which would explicitly direct the Parole Board to take into account one possible reason for non-disclosure; namely, whether the prisoner has or had the mental capacity to disclose information. The Bill places a broad statutory duty on the Parole Board to take into account non-disclosure on the part of a prisoner and, in doing so, it must consider all the reasons for such non-disclosure. It is therefore for the board itself, as now, to take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing this information may have on its subsequent assessment of suitability for release. I remind noble Lords of what is provided for in Clause 1(2)(b), which states:

“When making the public protection decision about the life prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account … the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s nondisclosure.”

That wide remit clearly would embrace all the issues that have been touched on in the debate.

The noble Baroness correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure. However, we do not believe that there is any material benefit in referring to this as a possible reason for non-disclosure in the Bill, as the Parole Board will take all relevant factors into account when assessing a prisoner’s suitability for release. If one factor were to be explicitly stated, it could be asked why other reasons for non-disclosure are not also placed on a statutory footing, such as a geographical change that prevents the location of a victim’s remains being identified or circumstances where mental impairment does not amount to “mental capacity”. As one noble Lord observed, there may be cases where people have simply forgotten or decided to blank matters out of their mind over a period of many years. Clearly, the noble Baroness does not wish to preclude any other relevant factors, but any delineation of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be in order to preserve a flexible approach takes away from the subjective approach that we invite the Parole Board to take. This approach is expressed in Clause 1(3), which states:

“This section does not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account when making a public protection decision.”

It is for the board to take these matters into account when conducting its assessment.

There are significant practical difficulties in attempting to give examples on the face of the statute, which could lead to unnecessary confusion. That is why a decision as to mental capacity is one of many that would have to be considered. However, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in respect of all decisions it makes. A decision where a relevant mental capacity issue was not taken into account would clearly be amenable to challenge by judicial review. That is why we believe that the more sensible approach is to leave these matters to the considerable expertise and experience of the Parole Board and not to attempt to take one or two factors out of context and place them in the Bill.

I say in response to one or two points raised in debate that the Parole Board already has expertise available to it in dealing with matters of mental capacity. We are not moving away from the current guidelines; we are essentially expressing in statutory form that which can be found there already. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked whether the matter would go to Strasbourg. I simply draw his attention to the certificate given by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice pursuant to Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights.

I acknowledge the concern expressed about mental capacity. I reiterate our view that that is well embraced by the broad terms of the Bill. I therefore invite the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.

My Lords, I am grateful to the many noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in support of my amendments, and I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for adding their names to them. All noble Lords who spoke supported the aims of this Bill, but several shared concerns that the wording creates difficulties. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, noted, the words “has information” and “has not disclosed” leave a gap in which the third scenario I outlined, where the prisoner is not able to disclose for reasons of mental disorder or mental capacity, is not covered. It does not provide the clarity that the board requires. I echo what I fear is the futile hope of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that the Minister might be persuaded to reflect further following today’s debate and consider a government amendment at Third Reading.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, spoke with great experience and authority about the widespread lack of understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and its application within the criminal justice system. For reasons of time today, I did not repeat the observations I made in Committee about the extent to which issues of mental health might be a problem. The paucity of knowledge about the scale of the mental health challenge in our prison population, along with the potential for and the reasons behind mental health decline during incarceration, are there in Hansard. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I consider that they remain real concerns in the light of this report of poverty of understanding of the Mental Capacity Act.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and, as I said earlier, for taking the time to discuss between Committee and today’s debate, and I am only sorry that he has felt unable to take on the concerns that we have collectively expressed. However, I appreciate his confirmation that any decision that does not take mental capacity into account could be subject to judicial review. I wonder whether he could clarify his response to my earlier question, along with that put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, as to where guidance on this could be found, and how it would be applied and monitored if it is not to be a statutory duty. Where is the guidance on application or consideration of mental capacity and mental impairment?

Finally, could the noble and learned Lord specifically address the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in Committee and again today, and in writing on 19 May by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, as to what training in the Mental Capacity Act and its application is mandated for members of the Parole Board? I understand that they possess expertise in mental health matters, but that is not exactly the question that was asked.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.

We come now to the group beginning with Amendment 3. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 20, at end insert—

“(c) where a Newton hearing took place before the trial judge prior to the prisoner’s sentencing, any findings of the judge as to the reasons for the non-disclosure, including the mental capacity of the prisoner.”Member’s explanatory statement

This amendment requires the Parole Board to take into account the findings of a Newton hearing (a short hearing held before a judge without a jury to resolve disputed facts before sentencing) regarding the prisoner’s reasons for non-disclosure, if one was held after a verdict or plea of guilty.

My Lords, the issue that my amendments seek to address is to determine how the withholding of information is to be judged a factor mitigating against the release of a prisoner on parole. The Parole Board makes a public protection order and, as the noble and learned Lord the Minister reminded us a moment ago, it must not give a direction for release unless it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.

This Bill requires the Parole Board, in making a public protection decision, to take into account, first, the prisoner’s non-disclosure of the whereabouts of the remains of a victim in murder and manslaughter cases or the identity of victims in the case of indecent images and, secondly, the reasons, in the view of the Parole Board, for the prisoner’s non-disclosure. The Parole Board must take on the difficult task of investigating the reasons for non-disclosure many years after the event, after the tariff period has expired—which, typically in murder cases, is 15 to 20 years. This lapse of time makes it unsatisfactory from the board’s point of view and, I would suggest, from the public’s point of view. But it is also unsatisfactory from the prisoner’s point of view because, although the proceedings affect his liberty, the onus is on him to satisfy the board that he has a proper reason, no doubt on a balance of probabilities.

Secondly, he will probably not be represented. He is entitled to have representation by a solicitor, but legal aid is very limited. He is of course required to set out his case in writing in advance of a hearing on reading the dossier that is sent to him, with or without the help of a solicitor or a friend. Thirdly, if the issue is one of mental capacity, he will of course have great difficulty in representing himself and he has no appeal, save for the discretionary and difficult route of judicial review.

It is highly unsatisfactory also from the point of view of the victim or the victim’s family. First, the prosecution is not represented. Unless the board itself steps into the arena at a hearing, assertions made by the prisoner will not be subject to proper challenge. Secondly, the victim or the victim’s family have a very limited role—nothing save to supply either in writing or orally a victim statement of the impact of the crime on them. Thirdly, the proceedings are, for good policy reasons, held in private—but that means that the issues which are discussed do not receive the light of day.

These difficulties were highlighted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, at Second Reading. I am sorry to see that he has now found his way to the moon. His proposed solution, of having a second jury to investigate the reasons for non-disclosure post trial, was impractical, as I think he himself has admitted. He was suggesting that a consecutive sentence should be imposed which would come into effect at some indeterminate future date, presumably after the Parole Board had made a decision to release the prisoner. A consecutive sentence after a mandatory life sentence would not by definition be appropriate. However, although he has resiled from his position, his suggestion that the reasons for non-disclosure of information should be investigated at the time of the trial is obviously very sensible. At that moment, the judge is apprised of the circumstances of the case, as are both the prosecution and the defence.

What is the appropriate mechanism? I have suggested a Newton hearing. My amendments do not make the holding of a Newton hearing mandatory, but they do encourage the holding of such a hearing if there is a dispute about the reasons for non-disclosure at the time of the trial. For example, it might be the mental capacity of the accused or, as I suggested in Committee, where the defence is, “Well, I was part of a group and I do not know what happened to the body; I was not party to its disposal.” They also deal with the situation where a prisoner might seek to argue a subsequent loss of mental capacity: “I cannot remember now why I could not remember at the time of the trial.” That is not a very persuasive argument for meriting release in any event. I suggest that, before sentencing, the judge should inform the defendant, if it be so, that he is sentencing on the basis that critical information is deliberately being withheld, unless the prisoner wishes to contest that assumption. If the prisoner does not, that is the end of the matter. Fifteen years later the prisoner can hardly with success raise reasons for his non-disclosure which he was not prepared to adduce before sentence. However, if he does contest the basis of his sentence that the judge has indicated, a Newton hearing is entirely appropriate.

The purpose, principles and procedure of such a hearing were thoroughly explored by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, then Deputy Chief Justice, in 2003 in the case of Underwood and others. That case has been followed in a recent case in the Divisional Court last July. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said:

“The … principle is that the sentencing judge must do justice. So far as possible the offender should be sentenced on the basis which accurately reflects the facts of the individual case.”

He said of the 1983 Newton case, which gave rise to this procedure, that it was

“a classic example of an imperative need to establish the facts. To proceed to sentence without doing so, would have been productive of injustice.”

It may be said—the Minister may say it—that the issue could be resolved before a jury by charging an accused in addition to murder or manslaughter with the common law offence of preventing the lawful and decent burial of a body. There is no point in so doing. Any sentence for such a common law offence would be bound to be of a lesser magnitude and would run concurrently from the day it was imposed. It might very well prevent the judge increasing the tariff on the main charge by reason of the aggravating factor of concealing the body, for which he has just imposed a sentence of imprisonment.

I recall the “mummy in the cupboard” murder case in Rhyl in 1960, which drew international attention. The defendant, a boarding house landlady, had stored the body of a tenant of hers in a cupboard. It was 20 years before it was discovered in a mummified condition. The issue at trial at Ruthin assizes was whether the stocking around the deceased’s neck had been used to strangle her. There is no evidence that the material was stretched. The ferociously intense cross-examination of Andrew Rankin QC is etched on my memory as one of the most dramatic court scenes I ever witnessed. Andrew was then a Liverpool junior—perhaps he was the Rumpole of the north—and the expert Crown pathologist he was questioning passed out completely and ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor of the witness box. The defendant was acquitted of murder but convicted, not of the common law offence of preventing a lawful burial—which had not been brought but of which she was clearly guilty—but of collecting the £2 a week that the deceased’s husband had posted to her in the belief that she was alive. That was just over £2,000 over 20 years. She received 15 months’ imprisonment.

As for failing to disclose the identity of children pictured in indecent images, there is no separate offence. No criminal offence is committed by such failure and the accused is not obliged to say anything unless he or she wishes to do so, so that is not an appropriate alternative route. However, in any event, such an argument of adding an additional count cannot be made where there is a plea of guilty: if there is no trial, there is no jury. Where there is serious disagreement between prosecution and defence as to the basis of a plea, a Newton hearing is essential and commonly held.

I have looked at the current sentencing guidelines. There are listed four statutory aggravating factors, such as offences against emergency workers or those committed because of homophobia. I have also looked at the list of 21 other aggravating factors in the sentencing guidelines, none of which includes the concealment of information of the nature with which the Bill deals. The list is said to be non-exhaustive, but it illustrates the importance of the Bill. The campaigns have found a chink, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, which deserves to be filled.

I therefore commend these amendments as providing a sensible, contemporary—at the time of trial—resolution of issues which would be difficult for the Parole Board to determine 15 or 20 years later. Of course, I pay tribute to the Parole Board’s experience and to the discretion which it frequently exercises. Nevertheless, it is difficult for it to determine something after such a lengthy time.

I propose to test the opinion of the House on these amendments but, whatever the result of the vote, I hope that the Government will reflect upon the issues which they raise and that they will introduce these or similar provisions in the other place, which will provide a sensible solution to the problems we are discussing and ensure a justice for all the parties in which the public will have great confidence. I beg to move.

My Lords, I find difficulty with these amendments, and I will look carefully at the detail to understand exactly what is involved. As a Scottish lawyer, I was brought up in the Scottish system, where Newton decisions are utterly unknown. Since training in the law of Scotland, I have acquired a certain amount of familiarity with the law of England and Wales, and I have come across these Newton hearings, and indeed the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the case which has been cited, and the explanation he gives for having them.

It may be wise just to look a little bit further into the detail which is required or which requires a Newton hearing. In the law of Scotland, the indictment of a serious offence requires the detail of the offence to be set out. If the accused wishes to plead guilty, he has the option to plead guilty to the indictment as served, or to plead guilty with items in the indictment which are matters of detail deleted. The prosecutor then has the option either to accept that plea, which will be of the offence with the details as agreed by the accused, or to proceed to trial. However, there is no room then for difference of opinion at the sentencing hearing about what the detail of the offence was, so there is no need for anything resembling a Newton hearing.

In England and Wales, the situation is somewhat different in that an indictment requires a description of the offence which does not, or may not, involve the same degree of detail. Therefore, the Crown may accept a plea of guilty from the accused when there is in fact quite a difference between them as to the detail of the offence, and that difference may make all the difference in the world to the seriousness of the offence. Therefore, when the question comes up for sentence, the exact amount of detail and what the details were becomes utterly relevant, but there is no way of resolving that, because there is no jury trial. Accordingly, the judge has to have a hearing when he determines what in his or her view actually happened. The result of that is that the accused has come to accept in effect a plea which has the effect of being not what he wanted but something that the judge decided he should have wanted.

This is the reason for the Newton hearings. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, to make the matter just, you have to know what happened. That is because the plea has not been sufficiently detailed to determine that. That is why these hearings have to be held. I once thought that it might be possible to get to a better solution by making it a requirement of an indictment to have more detail in it, but that has not so far happened. Who knows what may happen yet?

That is the situation of the Newton hearings. I understand the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford —with his great experience of both English and Welsh law on this subject—to suggest that if there is a dispute between the accused and the Crown about whether the accused has, justifiably or otherwise, refused to disclose what has happened to the body, the matter would be subject to a Newton hearing. I think that, if that happens, a Newton hearing is inevitable. Fortunately, I think that the noble and learned Lord who will follow me explained that that circumstance is usually taken into account at the conclusion of a hearing, including of course the jury trial, if the matter has become an issue between the parties at that stage. On the whole, it seems likely that this kind of question would be resolved without difficulty. It must be pretty much a matter of clear fact at the time of the trial and, therefore, the judge would usually take account of the situation agreed between the parties as to whether the accused has disclosed where the body went. This is on the assumption that the accused accepts that he committed the murder. I believe that the consequence of all that is that the number of Newton hearings with this subject matter will be relatively small.

I have to say that I speak on this matter subject to the observations of those learned in the law of England who will follow me. This is a matter of course only for the Crown Court, and therefore does not involve the magistrates’ court in which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is so experienced. In my view, accordingly, there are a very limited number of circumstances in which this arises at all but, if it does arise, it is obvious that the decision of the judge in the Newton hearing will take place before he commits sentence. Therefore, Rule 5 of the Parole Board Rules requires that if the observations of the judge at trial before sentence are available, they are to be considered. The rules already take account of the exceptional cases, if any, in which a Newton hearing has taken place in relation to this matter. I therefore cannot see that it is at all right to modify the Bill by such an exceptional circumstance, which in any case illustrates a possible need for improvement in the law of England and Wales.

It is a pleasure and privilege to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in this debate. It is important to observe at the outset that I consider this amendment the kind of amendment that shows the danger of trying to make piecemeal amendments to a very limited-purpose Bill.

If I may be permitted, I will first say a little about the law of England and Wales in relation to the role of the judge and of the parties in determining the facts for sentencing. The least common form of determining the facts is a Newton hearing. More commonly, the facts—if there is to be a plea of guilty—are determined on the basis of plea. Both procedures are set out in cases to which reference has been made, but they are now codified in division VII B of the Criminal Practice Directions. By far the most common method of determining the facts is the determination made by the trial judge for the purposes of sentencing. Although a jury determines guilt or innocence, save in a most exceptional circumstance, it is for the judge who has heard all the evidence to determine the facts on which he or she will sentence. If the judge follows the correct approach to this, there can be no dispute before the Court of Appeal in relation to the findings made, as set out in the 2018 judgment of Mr Justice Sweeney in the Queen v King.

Thus, what this amendment seeks to do, on the face of it, is to refer to the least common means of determining facts for the purposes of sentence, leaving out a slightly more common means, but not so common in murder or the other cases covered by the Bill where a life sentence will be involved—that is, a basis of plea agreed with the prosecution—and leaving out of account entirely what would normally happen, which is that the trial judge would have made findings. In the case of murder, this is particularly important because, as I mentioned in Committee, if the body has not been found or has been dismembered so that it cannot be found, this is provided as an aggravating factor under Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the judge must make findings about it—and, in my experience, they invariably make findings about it—and it would be essential for the Parole Board to take that into account to avoid any risk of double punishment.

I therefore regret to say that, on its face, the amendment, if it seeks to deal with the narrow issue of what the Parole Board should do, is not a good amendment, because it leaves out the most common form of the determination of facts. However, if the wider purpose, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is to encourage the taking place of Newton hearings after a trial, I venture to suggest that this is a most undesirable process. The trial judge will have heard the evidence; it is plain that, if a body has not been discovered, its whereabouts have not been discovered or the identity of the victim is unknown—as happens often in indecent image cases—this is bound to have been debated at the trial, and the trial judge will, as the law stands, have made the necessary findings. It is to those that the Parole Board should have regard.

If, however, it is thought that there should be a different procedure and that we should look at this matter again, I respectfully suggest that this is not the Bill in which to do it, and that this provision does not achieve what is intended. It illustrates that, if there is a problem with the way in which facts are determined—I believe there is no such problem—this is a matter that should be part of a wider investigation and not undertaken in this limited-purpose Bill.

I therefore propose to vote against this amendment on various completely different grounds. First, it has the potential to impair the discretion of the Parole Board by expressing reference to a particular means of determining the basis of sentencing and leaves out the more important. Secondly, it is unnecessary for the way in which the Parole Board approaches cases for the reasons I gave last time. Thirdly, the Parole Board is under a duty to look at what the judge has found. Fourthly, if there is a wider purpose, this is something that should be examined separately. This amendment achieves none of these purposes and I urge the House to reject it, if the House is divided.

My Lords, the intention behind this group of amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford is to provide the Parole Board with an increased level of relevant information on disclosure by including the issues raised by so-called Newton hearings.

As many noble and learned Lords have said, a Newton hearing may be held when a defendant has been found guilty at trial or entered a guilty plea but the issues in dispute that could affect sentencing were not fully resolved in the trial and therefore not resolved by the jury’s verdict. In the course of a Newton hearing, the prosecution will call evidence and test defence evidence in the usual manner, including calling witnesses to give evidence if required, and the defence will also present its evidence. When the issue is within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant, as is the case in the two situations defined in this Bill, the offender should be prepared to give evidence. When they fail to do so without good reason, the judge may draw such inferences as they think fit.

It is this increased level of information that would become available to the Parole Board when taking into account the issue of disclosure when considering parole. I do not see that increasing the level of information made available in any way fetters the discretion of the Parole Board. It just gives it more information on which it can judge the issue.

In addressing the principle of Newton hearings in Committee, the Minister made two points. He said, first, that invariably the judge would take into account the matter of non-disclosure when sentencing and, secondly, that Newton hearings “are not that common.” Putting these two points together, it is clear that the matter is considered but not guaranteed. Very few Newton hearings probe deeply into the reasons for non-disclosure. I venture that this is particularly so after a guilty plea at trial.

In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that Newton hearings provide a route to

“achieving the best possible result”—[Official Report, 20/5/20; col. 1158]

when non-disclosure has to be considered, and I agree with his analysis. Judges will have heard the facts as laid out in the trial and will have to make a judgment when non-disclosure is an issue. These amendments seek fundamentally to encourage trial judges to use the Newton procedure when the question of disclosure is under consideration. At this stage the maximum influence of the trial judge can be brought to bear on the disclosure question.

This would provide some comfort to victims. The offender’s refusal to provide the information will be public. The “I can’t remember” or “I can’t deal with the situation” answers will have been examined. Victims will see the questioning and cross-examining of the prisoner, hear the answers given and be able to see any signs of remorse. They will see the judge’s skills in tackling the defensive screen that offenders may build around themselves. This public record will be of immense use to the Parole Board in its consideration of the disclosure issue for many years into the future. It will be able to examine and probe the answers given at the time of sentencing with a much greater armoury of knowledge than the original court case might provide, especially if the Newton hearing were to take place following a guilty plea.

The trial judge will have presided over the original trial, and for the same judge to carry out the Newton trial before sentencing is a real help for victims. They know that the judge will have heard all the arguments and is in the best place to discover reasons for non-disclosure. Most importantly, it would provide reassurance to victims that this matter had been dealt with fully and properly and that the justice system was aware of their concerns.

Newton hearings are a fairly recent legal procedure and, as we have heard, only in England and Wales, but in the matters relating to the purposes of this Bill, such a hearing could have profound effects on the outcome for victims. Justice is not just a point in time for them; it can last a long time, and a lifetime for some. For victims coming to terms with their grief, anguish and hurt, it can last for ever. That is why the justice system has to do everything in its power to fully investigate non-disclosure at the earliest possible stage in the process.

These amendments, in 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, particularly if the hearing had determined whether there was remorse and whether the perpetrator had knowledge of the victims that he or she had chosen not to disclose.

However, although the amendments do not place a requirement on the judicial system that there be Newton hearings, their passing would send a powerful message to prosecutors of the significance of such a hearing, particularly for its impact on victims. I commend these amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response.

My Lords, this is an interesting group of amendments, and my party will abstain if a vote is called. I listened carefully to the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, summarised the situation clearly from my perspective: Newton hearings are, in any event, the least common form of determining facts. The determining of facts is most often done by judges when summing up the case and, if there is a basis of plea, that would be the basis on which the sentence is made. If it is not accepted, there could be room for moving to a Newton hearing.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, Newton hearings occur throughout the whole of the English and Welsh system. As noble Lords may know, I sit as a magistrate in London and we occasionally do Newton hearings. They are used as a method of resolving the seriousness of the offence in some cases, but it seems we are talking about a very narrow set of circumstances here. In particular, the judge will have sat through the whole trial in the first place, and it will be for the lawyers on both sides to go through all the aggravating and mitigating factors, including the non-disclosure of a body. Of course, if the judge is not satisfied that that has been gone into sufficiently, they themselves can ask questions of clarification, if I can put it like that, of any witnesses giving evidence. It seems unlikely that this procedure would ever be used, and as such it should not be in the Bill.

A number of noble Lords spoke about calling witnesses again. It could be an extremely traumatic event for some people to have to be called twice to establish the facts of the case. Surely, it would be far better if all the facts—including the reason for the non-disclosure of the body or of the identity of children who have had sexual images made of them—were established in the trial itself, rather than elements of the trial being repeated in a Newton hearing. I will abstain on this amendment for the reasons I have given.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government remain of the view that these amendments would place too much emphasis on findings of mental capacity at a Newton hearing, particularly the findings made for the purposes of sentence.

In sentencing an offender, it is for the court to consider the punitive element of an offender’s sentence and, in doing so, to take into account the failure to disclose information in setting the tariff. By reflecting this in the sentencing remarks, victims can be assured that due consideration has been given to the non-disclosure. Tariffs must be served in their entirety and irrespective of any disclosure of information after a trial, so the tariff cannot be reduced because of subsequent disclosures. This is an entirely sensible approach, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, acknowledged when we discussed this matter in Committee. The trial judge is more able to determine the appropriate weighting with regard to non-disclosure when setting the tariff.

On the other hand, the Parole Board’s role is in relation to the preventive element of the sentence. The consideration that the Parole Board must make is whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release on licence if the offender’s risk can be safely managed in the community. The Bill places a statutory duty on the board, when making that wider assessment, to consider the non-disclosure of information by an offender and the possible reasons for it. The board will take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and what bearing this information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release. When it comes to consider these matters, it must of course take account of the judge’s sentencing remarks. Those, in turn, will be informed by such issues as non-disclosure. I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for his detailed analysis of how the court approaches these matters in practice and why, in the context of the Bill, it would not be appropriate to simply import the notion of the Newton hearing for the purposes of the Parole Board’s determination.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state may be a significant reason for non-disclosure—a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, when she spoke to her own amendments. But to limit this to the specific context of a Newton hearing, and to place that in the Bill, appears to us to be too narrow an approach. The Parole Board should be free to consider all reasons, including those that may arise as a result of a Newton hearing—unusual though they may be—and we should therefore avoid any specific delineation in the Bill.

As new subsection (3) in Clause 1 makes clear, the breadth of matters which the board may take into account is, essentially, as wide as possible. In addition, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in all decisions, so a decision where a relevant Newton hearing or an issue of mental capacity was not taken into account could be subject to judicial review. I venture that this is not the Bill in which to approach the whole issue of sentencing guidelines or findings of fact for the purposes of those guidelines. That is already accommodated, and it is in these circumstances that I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, it is clear that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, does not like the system of Newton hearings, but the fact that the defendant has refused to disclose is not necessarily part of the offence. The reasons for his refusal to disclose the whereabouts of a body, or the identity of a child involved in indecent images, may not emerge in the course of a trial and may not be discussed before the jury. A jury listening to a case may not investigate the mental capacity of the defendant before them. If that is not an issue in the trial, examined on both sides, then the judge would have difficulty in forming a view of his own without hearing evidence.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, referred to the basis of plea as being the more usual way in which these matters are sorted out. I am completely familiar with the formation of the basis of plea, and the arguments that go on as to whether an agreement can be reached between the defence and the prosecution. However, if a person pleads guilty to murder or manslaughter and there is no trial, and there is a disagreement between prosecution and defence, how is the judge to come to a conclusion as to the degree to which the refusal to identify where a body is buried is to be part of his sentencing process—that it is an aggravating factor which he is to take into account? He has not heard any witnesses. He has just heard that the counsel disagree on what the basis of a plea would be.

Consequently, in those circumstances there would be bound to be a Newton hearing along the principles outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I feel that I am facing considerable senior opposition from the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Mackay, but I am fortified by the considerable support given to these proposals in Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, as your Lordships will recall.

As for what the Minister has said, I make it clear that I am not limiting the Parole Board to the findings of a Newton hearing that has taken place some 15 years before. The Parole Board is bound to look at a whole amount of evidence, particularly reports from the prison, medical reports or the victim’s statement. There are all sorts of factors and issues that the Parole Board is to take into account. I suggest not that it should be bound by the findings of a Newton hearing but that it is another factor that ought to be taken into account. For that to happen, it is necessary that there is a Newton hearing in the first place where there is an issue about whether there is an acceptable reason—I will not say a proper reason—for a failure to disclose in the circumstances that we have been discussing on the Bill. More thought ought to be given to this and, for that reason, I will press my amendment.

Amendment 4 not moved.

Clause 2: Manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure

Amendments 5 to 16 not moved.

Amendment 17

Moved by

17: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—

“Parole board database

(1) Within six months of this Act being passed, the Parole Board must create and maintain a database of family members of victims to whom the circumstances referred to in sections 28A(1) and 28B(1) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 apply.(2) At each stage of an offender’s parole application the Parole Board must contact the relevant persons to provide them with information pertaining to the application, including but not limited to—(a) the timings of hearings where the prisoner’s release from prison is being considered;(b) a relevant person’s 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;(d) decisions of the Parole Board; and(e) any other rights that a relevant person has relating to the provision of information.(3) The parole board must remove a relevant person from the database if they, or their parent or guardian (if applicable), do not wish their details to be included in the database.(4) Within one year of the database being created, the Secretary of State must undertake a review of the effectiveness of the Parole Board’s actions under this section, with a report to be laid before Parliament.(5) 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—(i) the victim, or(ii) the suspected victim’s parents or guardians if the victim or suspected victim is under the age of 18.”

My Lords, Amendment 17 is in my name and the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Newlove, and the noble Lord, Lord German. I thank them for supporting this amendment. It is a joint effort and builds upon the one tabled in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord German, which had support across the House and the support of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Let me indicate at the start of the debate that if the Minister does not accept this amendment, I will test the opinion of the House.

This amendment adds a new clause, which seeks to put the victims and their families at the heart of the Bill. It is a clause about respect being given to victims and their families by ensuring that there is a process in place, set out clearly on the face of the Bill, where there can be no dispute about people’s rights or the Parole Board’s obligations regarding communications with victims and their families. In explaining why this amendment is necessary, we must consider the reason for this Bill in the first place. To quote from GOV.UK, the Bill

“places a legal duty on the Parole Board to consider the anguish caused by murderers who refuse to disclose the location of a victim’s body when considering release”.

Thanks to the tireless campaigning of mothers such as Marie McCourt, the Government have rightly recognised that not having your child back to give them “a final goodbye”, in Marie’s words, is harrowing and painful and that legislation is needed to get closure for families such as the McCourts and to relieve the anguish that they feel.

This Bill is about alleviating the hurt that non-disclosure of information causes to families and places a duty on the Parole Board to act. This amendment does the same. It seeks to relieve the anguish that victims and their families experience from not knowing information about parole release hearings and places a duty on the Parole Board to act. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is for families to be fully informed and involved in parole hearings about release, and, when mistakes are made in the flow of information communication, how much anguish this causes victims and their families. As I noted at Second Reading, sadly, many parents involved in the Vanessa George case 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, but the system places the onus on the victims and their families to keep in touch.

This amendment asks for this small group of people to have the right to receive proper, accurate and timely communications and information from the Parole Board. It shifts the responsibility from the victims and their families to the board. At a meeting a few months ago, the current 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. This amendment addresses that concern.

The Minister will say, as I am sure that he did in Committee, that processes already exist for victims and their families to receive information. Yet despite this, as in the case of the victims of Vanessa George and their families, some find out about the offender’s release via the media and Facebook. This amendment stops that from happening. It does not stop a prisoner being released, it just sets a duty for the Parole Board to ensure that communications with victims and their families are made, that they are fully informed at each stage of the process and fully aware of their rights. The requirement is to maintain a database, which is not onerous in number, and have it set up within six months of the Bill getting Royal Assent. It allows victims and their families to opt out of receiving information and communications. It is not now the family’s responsibility to opt in. To ensure that this is working as intended, proposed subsection (4) of the new clause requires the Secretary of State to undertake a review of the effectiveness of the Parole Board action and lay a report before Parliament.

Finally, proposed new subsection (5) sets out, so that there is clarity and no dispute, who the relevant persons are and who needs to be communicated with. I hope that the noble and learned Lord recognises the anguish caused to victims by the Parole Board process and by ineffective communication, and will accept this amendment as it seeks to improve communications and the publicity surrounding parole release hearings. I beg to move.

My Lords, this amendment has two principal functions: first, to ensure that victims are contacted about each stage of the parole application; and secondly, to provide victims with information about the Parole Board’s hearing of the case and about their rights in the course of the application.

The principle of opting out of these two functions is an important change from the current opt-in approach. The amendment seeks to place an obligation on the Parole Board to maintain a database of victims’ contact details, but with victims able to choose not to be on the database and therefore not to receive information. Fundamentally, this provides a right to information which they can choose not to receive if they so wish. In Committee, I sensed that the Minister had some sympathy with these issues. He told us he would be happy to discuss further an opt-out scheme for victims and the provision of improved engagement for victims. I would be grateful if he could tell us whether the proposed meeting on this matter has taken place.

Like other noble Lords, I believe that more needs to be done to support victims. In this tightly defined Bill, that is not necessarily possible, but there are some matters which relate to the Parole Board’s functions where we can act. There are considerations which affect the way in which the Parole Board should engage with victims. In Committee, I raised the importance of the system being modernised. Your Lordships’ House has learnt, if nothing else from this Covid-19 pandemic, to make best use of digital technology. Surely victims’ views can be taken by videolink, rather than having them travel in person to the prison where the perpetrator is located.

Victims will always struggle to come to terms with the grief they have suffered, and sentencing and conviction is just the start of the process. The parole process can easily add to a victim’s pain. Everything that can be done must be done to minimise the trauma it can cause, so opting out is the new right that this amendment provides. The amendment also sets out the information to which victims are entitled. The amendment does not seek to limit the information provided to victims, as proposed new subsection (2)(e) makes clear. For that reason, the review of the amendment’s operation in proposed new subsection (4) is important, as it will ensure that the process, the information and the victim’s rights are as effective as they can be in a situation of such anguish.

The opt-out principle built into this amendment is crucial. There are far too many examples of victims finding out the result of the parole process from media reports, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said. I am sure noble Lords will understand that the pain caused by reporters calling victims to ask for their comments on the results of the parole process, when they had no knowledge that it was taking place, is immense. By way of example, Members will recall the case of John Worboys, which was debated in your Lordships’ House.

Within the narrow scope of the Bill, which leads to only a relatively small number of cases to be considered, maintaining the database should not place a large administrative burden on the Parole Board. These parole cases are of great significance to victims; victims have a right to know what is happening and have a right to their say. They deserve a consistent and fair structure for exercising these rights. Modern technology makes keeping in contact with victims much easier. Tracing victims if they have changed address, telephone number or email is now much simpler and quicker.

In the letter sent to us from Marie McCourt—the mother of Helen—whose inspired campaigning has led to this Bill, she says that its passage will help many other families who are in the same situation as she is. Others have suffered the anguish Marie has been through, and some have remained silent, so I pay especial gratitude to her for the fortitude and strength she has shown in speaking out and ensuring that this piece of legislation has been brought forward.

We have a duty to ensure that the Bill is as strong and powerful as it can be. This amendment strengthens rightful engagement with victims, provides a voice for them if they want it, and gives that fundamental reassurance that the parole process is as fair as it can be and, at the same time, does not fetter subjective mechanisms for the Parole Board’s operation. I commend it to the House.

My Lords, I was unable to attend Second Reading due to logistical circumstances resulting from Covid-19. I was therefore delighted to watch the speech of my noble friend Lady Finn. I was further delighted to watch Committee and the debate on the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. Sadly, it resonated not just with what I am going through, but with many victims whom I saw in my former role as Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales.

The Bill has been of not only professional interest to me, but personal. I must declare that I know Marie McCourt very well and the organisation she has set up. I have true admiration for Marie for facing the challenges over the years in wanting to know where the body of her late daughter, Helen McCourt, is lying. That must be heartbreaking, and she is fighting against time. That is why I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord German, and support this amendment tabled by them.

Victims must be given correct information right the way through the criminal justice system. After all, they are involved in the process. You cannot split the two. I see for myself the strain on Marie’s body of ensuring she gets justice for Helen, hence what the Bill is about: Helen’s law. I also understand that people from the noble judiciary will have concerns about the rule of law and the human rights and mental state of the offender. I am very dignified in what I have to go through personally, and Marie is exactly the same. I understand that this legislation would not apply to many prisoners, but that is not the point, because we should not further remove the needs of the families of the victims, causing them to suffer more than anybody else in our criminal justice system.

Speaking as somebody who is currently going through the parole system and finding information while in the victim contact scheme, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned, and speaking to the Victims’ Commissioner, I say that victims have to be able to opt out of this scheme. Too many victims are given this information at a traumatic stage. We are also seeing a cut to victim liaison officers, who are the relationship between the offender and the victim.

I am not asking to remove the rights of an offender, I am asking that the Bill thinks about the victim on a level playing field. It has taken many years for Marie to get this where it is. As somebody who knows exactly what it feels like, I ask your Lordships to understand that this is a balance for victims. The victim contact scheme has many options—and no disrespect to what my noble and learned friend will say at the Dispatch Box, but it is very piecemeal. You are waiting around for information; you are waiting for that phone call. You just have to wait. You have no control. This amendment gives a duty to the Parole Board, as the Bill will state that it is a legal duty for the Parole Board to ensure that it always considers victims from the beginning to the end.

Many people do not understand what a victim personal statement feels like to write and read out to people, whether by videolink or on a prison estate. I can assure noble Lords that it is heart-rending and emotional and, when you come to the last word and the last full stop, you are asked to leave the room. I have attended many as Victims’ Commissioner and I have seen the discourteous attitude of offenders who are not bothered and their legal representatives who want them not to speak. But taking the emotion out of this, this proposal sets the right footing to go along with the national Victims Strategy that the Government released 18 months ago. We have to balance them for the sake of our criminal justice system; to give victims the confidence to do what it says on the tin.

There are not many such prisoners, but families who are going through this are running out of time once they know the prisoner will be released. While victims are given exclusion zones—another issue that I am personally dealing with at the moment—that does not reduce the anxiety that you suffer on a daily basis. For all you know, the offender coming out of prison knows exactly where the body lies and exactly what community you live in. The body could be right there, and he could disturb you again. That is too little and too late to give confidence for our victims. That is why I support the amendment to get a database for victims so that they feel that they are at the centre of the Parole Board’s system.

Please include this proposal in the Bill for the reasons that victims have challenged for many years—for their heartache to be recognised and to give them some closure, because, at the end of the day, the criminal justice system should be a level playing field for everybody.

My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, with some humility. She speaks from the heart and from bitter experience. I got to know and respect her greatly from the time we spent on committees together. I also pay tribute to Marie McCourt—whose campaign has been so dedicated and now, I hope, effective—and to my noble friends who put together this amendment.

I spoke in Committee about the issue of those who would never disclose where bodies were buried and drew attention to the tragic impact of the behaviour of the Moors murderers on the family of Keith Bennett all those many years ago. But I want this afternoon to refer to a case that is not about a body that was not disclosed by the perpetrator but the simple issue of a failure to disclose when someone is released or there is a change in their circumstances. That was brought to my attention by Frances Lawrence, the widow of Philip Lawrence, who was a head teacher murdered many years ago. Frances was supported by the then Home Secretary—now the noble Lord, Lord Howard—and my predecessor as Home Secretary, Jack Straw. When I became Home Secretary, it was my privilege to introduce the first substantive measure in relation to victims through the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.

We have come a long way since those days, and mention has already been made of the greater ease that technology now provides for the Parole Board to be able to keep in touch but also to have a double or triple lock on the way in which proceedings sometimes go wrong. Therefore, there can be little excuse for the failure within the system to notify the victims when there is a change in the perpetrator’s circumstances. It is crucial that that should take place, given—as has been spelled out much more eloquently than I can this afternoon—the pain and distress that comes from finding that information out in a phone call from the media, reading it in the local newspaper or hearing it on the radio. If we can do anything to alleviate that, we should do it, and I can see no reason for not accepting the amendment.

There are times when we can see technicalities or difficulties in process or the way in which bureaucracy might be increased. Perhaps we can see administrative or bureaucratic reasons why something would not work. I see none of those in this amendment, and I hope that we will approve it.

My Lords, I strongly support the Bill and I am conscious of the sort of hurt that the basic matter on which this Bill is founded can cause to people for many years. It is also very important that victims are at the centre of the criminal justice system, and the Parole Board is only part of that, albeit an important part.

I think that it is much easier and more definite if victims are properly included in the victim contact scheme. In other words, victims should be notified about anything that affects them. This is certainly one thing that they should be notified about, but I feel that having a system only for this particular matter—for the Parole Board—is taking the victim from the centre of the victim contact system out to a special place. In my view, unless we have a victim contact system that deals with all the possible interests of victims in what is going on, particularly in relation to those who have done them harm, there is a serious risk that the system is not sufficiently efficient.

It is also important that we keep in contact with victims. That involves finding out if there is a change in their circumstances—in their addresses or in any other matter that affects giving them notice. It is therefore important that a comprehensive system is set in place. I entirely agree with almost all that has been said about contact with victims, but I am not sure that it is wise to set up a system which deals with only one aspect of the criminal justice system rather than a system that deals with the whole lot, which the victim contact scheme was supposed to be. If it has deficiencies, as my noble and learned friend said, the thing to do is to put those right.

My Lords, the House will know that I am not a lawyer. As it happens, I spent about 20 years of my life in the communications industry. One lesson that I learned was almost to a word what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay just said. In the time available, I have not had a chance to look at the contact scheme—what it should do, what it does do and what it might do. While I say a huge thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for the way in which she put the situation, I want to be informed by my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench what exactly the victim contact scheme is supposed to do at the moment. I find it inconceivable that it does not do the majority of the items that are listed under Amendment 17, but maybe it does not. Maybe there are holes in it.

It may well be that, in certain cases, the Parole Board is not doing its job properly, but the fact that we include something in the Bill will not actually alter that situation one way or the other, except for those responsible to be cautioned or whatever.

The real issue is still the moving problem of the whereabouts of the body, or the disclosure in the case of Ms George. I have some sympathy for the new clause, but before I make any decision I would like to know what the victim contact scheme is supposed to do. I do not know what audit has been done of the system, particularly in relation to the cases that we considered earlier. We certainly need a comprehensive system. Of that I am quite certain, but whether this new clause helps us get there, I do not know. I will have to listen to the Minister before I can make any decision.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Newlove, not just for their contributions today but for the discussions that my noble friend Lord German and I have had with them about this amendment since the previous stage of the Bill and for their valuable assistance in refining the proposals today, which are somewhat different from those that I put before the House in Committee. In particular, I thank them for enabling us to come up with an opt-out, rather than an opt-in system, in which we have set down a clear definition of victims and relevant persons.

I want to deal with the question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, concerning why we have the proposal in the Bill and do not leave it to the more general workings of the victim contact scheme. In one sense, they are right. We should have a victim contact scheme which works for all victims in every case, but we do not. We should have a special measure in the Bill because these are victims of a particularly horrible situation. It is not just that they have been victims of a crime; they continue to be victims of the failure of a convicted prisoner to make a disclosure about a particular matter. That is of a sufficiently different order from other crimes for the Government to have brought forward this Bill, which applies solely in those circumstances.

As other noble Lords have said—the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said it perhaps more clearly than anybody else—parole hearings in these cases carry a weight even greater than those of other crimes, so it is even more important that the administrative processes, which our criminal justice system quite frequently gets wrong, should not revictimise these people. We are not asking for very much, we are just asking that there be a database, that they be on it and that they have an automatic right to information at all times.

I do not want to repeat the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, about the position in which victims’ families find themselves, as I think she said it all. However, having talked to Marie McCourt, I think that we are talking about 100 cases at most. For these cases, which the Government have decided are sufficiently special for us to have a separate law, we should have this system as outlined, and if it works well, there is no reason why it should not be applied more widely either under other legislation or in the often-mentioned general review of the Parole Board.

I hope that the Minister will appreciate that we listened to what he said at earlier stages of the Bill and that we have brought forward an amended proposal which is modest but of immense importance to a very small number of people.

My Lords, I support the amendment and I support my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley. She set out very clearly the reasons for the amendment, and the majority of speakers have supported her. I found the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, particularly moving. She spoke from the heart, as always, and, sadly, she spoke from bitter experience. It was particularly interesting that she talked about the practicalities of getting information from the Parole Board, even when you are very well known to the board as a victim.

My noble friend’s amendment would put in place an opt-out rather than an opt-in system, and the various elements of that are specified in the amendment. The argument against the amendment made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was: that is all very well, but why are these victims different from the other victims within the whole of the criminal justice system? The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made the point very clearly: the reason they are different is that they continue to be victims because of the non-disclosure of the information.

There are roughly only 100 such victims in the country. I hope that any review of the work of the Parole Board will look at making a much wider opt-out system available in the future, but, now, we have the chance to legislate to address the concerns of this very particular group. The Parole Board has a heavy weight of responsibility but this is an opportunity for the House to make a tangible difference to these victims’ lives, and it should seek to do so. I support my noble friend.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I quite understand the concern that has been expressed about the victims of crime and the victims of these particular crimes.

Perhaps, first, I may make a number of rather technical points in relation to the scope of the amendment. Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause does not apply to those receiving a determinate sentence for the offences contained in the Bill. However, I am confident that the amendment was meant to apply to all sentence types, and I will proceed with my remarks on that basis. Additionally, “relevant persons”, as defined in proposed new subsection (5), would include offenders beyond the scope of the Bill—namely, all those convicted of murder or manslaughter—rather than being restricted to the circumstances set out in the Bill. Again, I will proceed with my remarks on the basis that this was intended to be confined to offenders to whom the Bill applies.

I turn to the substance of the amendment. First, it would require the Parole Board—I emphasise: the Parole Board—to create and maintain a database of victims’ family members in cases captured by the Bill. The board would have to remove a family member from the database if they did not wish to be included. Secondly, it would create an obligation on the Parole Board to provide information to certain groups of victims and, indeed, suspected victims and their families.

This amendment effectively replicates some elements of the victim contact scheme for a limited group of people, and places the duty on the Parole Board to administer it rather than the National Probation Service. With respect, the Parole Board is not equipped for such a function. There is already a well-established process delivered through the victim contact scheme to provide victims with information about the date and outcome of parole hearings, and they can request a summary of the Parole Board decision. This process also facilitates victims requesting the imposition of specific licence conditions for the offender’s release, such as exclusion zones, and assists them in submitting a victim personal statement which will be considered by the Parole Board panel. The Government see no justification for replicating the excellent service provided by the victim contact scheme for a particular group of victims’ families in a limited way.

Proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment proposes an unfettered right to

“information pertaining to the application”,

which may include confidential information relating to the offender, such as police intelligence, which may breach the offender’s confidentiality rights and put their safety at risk. The Parole Board must balance the rights of victims with the rights of the offender.

If there is any suggestion that the parole decision is legally or procedurally flawed, victims may ask the Lord Chancellor to consider making a reconsideration application on their behalf, and the Lord Chancellor can ask the Parole Board to look at the decision again. Victims will receive a detailed letter setting out the reasons why the request for reconsideration was successful or unsuccessful. The victim liaison officer will provide information regarding judicial review if requested.

There are significant practical difficulties in operating such a scheme on the opt-out basis suggested by this amendment. The Parole Board would need to ensure that the correct contact details for each victim are recorded; if a victim does not respond to the offer of contact, it would not be appropriate simply to send updates to a last known address, for example. This amendment would duplicate much of the work delivered under the victim contact scheme but could not replace it entirely. That means that victims would have to receive contacts from and share information with both the Parole Board and the victim contact scheme, which would in turn add to their distress at a potentially very difficult time.

We are currently trialling a new process whereby all eligible victims are referred directly to the National Probation Service, to ensure that they are all offered access to the victim contact scheme directly by it, thus ensuring that we reduce the risk of victims opting out before they are clear about the benefits of the scheme. The new process also incorporates a standard referral form that provides the service with the address, telephone number and email address of victims to allow for multiple methods of contact.

We recognise that receiving information about parole hearings is of great importance to many victims, and we endeavour to support them through the existing victim contact scheme. We consider that this support is far better delivered by the National Probation Service than by being placed on the shoulders of the independent Parole Board, which, as I indicated, is not equipped to carry out such a service.

The amendment also contains a requirement to review the database’s use within one year of its creation. However, as some noble Lords observed, cases such as those detailed in this Bill are extremely rare and it is unlikely that a review after one year could result in any significant, reliable findings.

I emphasise that we are concerned with the position of victims. They are provided with information under the victim contact scheme, which is administered by the National Probation Service. The victim liaison officer will provide information to those who wish to receive it. Where the Parole Board considers or reconsiders a case, victims will receive a detailed letter setting out the reasons why, for example, a request for reconsideration was successful or unsuccessful. We are ensuring that the victim’s personal statement comes before the Parole Board when it has a hearing. We plan to enshrine support for victims in a victims’ law, as we have indicated, but before we do this we will revise the victims’ code to give them more clarity on their rights around access to support and greater flexibility over when and how a victim personal statement can be made.

The noble Lord, Lord German, referred to engagement on this matter. I can indicate that my honourable friend Alex Chalk, the Minister with responsibility in this area, has been endeavouring to arrange a meeting with the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Barker, to discuss this matter. I do not know whether they are aware of that, but I am advised that this is in train, if I may put it in those terms. In these circumstances and, in particular, having regard to the distinctive role of the Parole Board on the one hand and the National Probation Service on the other, with respect to the victim code, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I am very grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord German, Lord Blunkett and Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Newlove, and for the pertinent questions and comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for clearly setting out how the move from an opt-in to an opt-out approach is an important change that needs to take place.

The speech by my colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, was passionate and well thought-out; I hope it brought home to noble Lords why this amendment is necessary. As a former Victims’ Commissioner, from her personal experience, and from her friendship with Marie McCourt, she passionately set out the anguish created for families and victims by the parole process and the lack of effective communication; that communication has to change. The victim contact scheme is, in her words, piecemeal, and the wait for information very distressing.

My noble friend Lord Blunkett recognised how this amendment would relieve anguish and pain; I thank him for his support. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred to the victim contact scheme. I thank them for their questions but, as other noble Lords, and the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, from her personal experience, pointed out, that scheme is well under par. As my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, it is this Bill that is before us at this time. There is no reason why these amendments should not be accepted; the proposed new clause would also put in place a review after 12 months.

I am disappointed that the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment. The explanation for not supporting victims and putting a duty on the Parole Board is very disappointing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, noted, and as I tried to outline in my opening speech, the Government have recognised that these families need a separate law to relieve their anguish. Let us please now allow them a separate clause to make sure they are communicated with properly. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Sitting suspended.