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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2020

Commons Reason

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

1A: Because it would duplicate existing arrangements to keep victims and family members informed of developments with an offender’s sentence.

As noble Lords are aware, the Bill amends the release provisions that apply to offenders who do not disclose information relating to cases of murder, manslaughter or taking or making indecent images of children. Throughout the Bill’s passage, there have been important discussions about the victims’ right to receive information as part of the parole process. I appreciate the importance and the sensitivity of these issues for many victims, and I emphasis the Government’s commitment to supporting victims throughout this process.

I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the signatories to her amendment for their contribution to the Bill. I and my noble and learned friend Lord Keen have had extensive discussions with the noble Baroness and other interested Peers. I hope that these discussions have reassured them of how seriously the Government take these issues and our ongoing commitment to work together to improve the existing system further.

In particular, we have discussed improvements made to the victim contact scheme, which provides victims with information about when the hearing will take place and enables them to attend to read a victim personal statement to tell the Parole Board how the crime continues to affect them. At the conclusion of the hearing, victims are informed of the outcome and of their right to request a summary of the Parole Board’s decision. The information and support offered through the scheme is provided by specially trained victim liaison officers.

The Government want to ensure that all eligible victims are able to benefit from the support and information provided through the victim contact scheme. As part of the review of the Code of Practice for Victims of Crime—known as the victims’ code—the National Probation Service, in partnership with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, is currently testing an opt-out system in a number of police force areas with the intention of rolling the scheme out nationally by mid-2021. To date, test areas have reported positive results, with increased referral rates and higher numbers of victims enrolling in the victim contact scheme, and we will keep the process under review.

The new process will be reflected in the revised victims’ code, due to be published shortly. It will require the joint police and CPS witness care units to automatically refer all eligible victims directly to the National Probation Service to be offered the victim contact scheme, rather than, as now, asking whether victims wish to be referred. That way the benefits of the scheme can be better explained by trained victim liaison staff.

The Minister in the other place stated that the honourable Member for South East Cambridgeshire, as the Minister of State responsible for probation services, will work with the Victims’ Commissioner on the rollout of improvements to the victim contact scheme. I therefore hope that the House will agree with the conclusions reached in the other place so that this important Bill can proceed to Royal Assent and commencement.

My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who supported Amendment 1 in my name on 1 July—the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Newlove, and the noble Lord, Lord German. This Bill is about alleviating the hurt that non-disclosure of information causes to families, and it places a duty on the Parole Board to act. In agreeing Amendment 1, this House recognised that victims can experience hurt and anguish because of inefficient and ineffective communications about parole hearings. 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, how much distress this causes victims and their families.

As the Victims’ Commissioner noted, a sizeable number of victims who qualify for the victim contact scheme decline to opt in. Further down the line, they are shocked to learn that the offender has been released, and they were neither aware nor invited to request licence conditions. That is why this House agreed that the opt-in approach was inadequate and did not work well and that it should be replaced with an opt-out system.

Today I want to put on record my response to the various undertakings given today by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, and the Government. I note their concerns about duplication and I am very grateful, as I am sure many noble Lords across this House are, for the Minister’s assurances. This move forward, with a nationwide rollout of an opt-out scheme for victims, to assess the victim contact scheme as part of a new victims’ code, which will mean that victims and their families will be contacted and receive information unless they actively decline contact, is very welcome news.

While I welcome the Government’s response, I have two questions. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, mentioned the trials that the Government have carried out in testing the new referral process. Do the Government intend to publish the results of these trials? Secondly, as the new opt-out system is rolled out, will there be a programme for tracing those victims who have declined to opt in so that they too can receive information about an offender’s potential release and support?

In conclusion, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, for her response today. The opt-out system will ensure that victims and their families are informed first about any release of offenders. This update to the victim contact scheme is long overdue and is a huge win for the campaigners—Marie McCourt and the families of the victims of Vanessa George, and the two Members of Parliament who championed the Bill, the honourable Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and the honourable Member for St Helens North. As the Bill moves forward to become law, I hope that the families will find some comfort from knowing that there is strength in legislation and better communication as a result of their campaign.

My Lords, I, too, want to thank the noble Baroness the Minister for her introduction of this matter this afternoon. It has been a privilege to take part in the passage of this legislation. This is not an area that I normally have involvement with, but it has been a great privilege to work with people having to work in the certain knowledge that what we do cannot be perfect. We cannot, in this legislation, force people who have committed heinous crimes to give information to the victims. But what I think we have managed to do, particularly during the passage of this Bill through your Lordships’ House, is to move the processes on a stage further in favour of the victims to improve the processes and procedures. I say that knowing that, since the last time we discussed these matters, Marie McCourt has had her request for a judicial review turned down and Russell Causley has been released without revealing to his family the whereabouts of his former wife, Carol Packman.

We will never be able to right those wrongs, but all that we can do—and I think we have done in this Bill—is to make sure that the system treats victims in a more humane way than it did before. I am very pleased that the national opt-out scheme will be rolled out. I echo the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and I wonder whether the Minister will be able to tell us how the whole system will be kept under review in terms of its impact on the probation service and on the perpetrators of crime, and the extent to which it will play back into assessments of them during sentencing.

The Bill is an enormous testimony to Marie McCourt, who has for many years conducted, with great dignity, a campaign not simply to deal with her own hurt but to alleviate the suffering of the small but significant number of people for whom this is the most horrible issue with which they have to live. In that vein, I welcome what the Government have said today.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for what she has said today and for the way the Government have encouraged cross-party support for the various elements of the Bill. The Minister spoke further about the testing opt-out system which will be trialled.

I also pay tribute to the campaigning of Marie McCourt and the other families who have been victims of serious offences. The campaigns, which will be partially successful today, will make a significant difference to the lives of victims’ families for generations to come; these campaigns, like Marie McCourt’s, did so in the knowledge that their own situation would not be materially affected or improved by this Bill. They did it to save others from the torment they have endured. I am very grateful to them.

The first part of this Bill forces the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information during release decisions for people convicted of murder or manslaughter and the failure to give the names of victims of sexual assault or the distribution of indecent images. This Bill puts into law what has been the current operating practice of the Parole Board. We are very clear that the withholding of this information is an ongoing form of control and abuse by the perpetrators, of which the family and friends are victims.

To paraphrase the Minister, this Bill is one step, but a significant one, on the road to properly addressing the systemic challenges faced by victims in our criminal justice system. We in the Opposition look forward to a more comprehensive approach to ensuring victims are at the heart of the processes which convict and punish the guilty and release offenders when they have served their time.

I thank my noble friend Lady Kennedy. She won her amendments in this House at an earlier stage of the Bill, which were then reversed in the Commons. The intent of her amendments was to put victims on a more even footing with offenders. In that sense, she was successful. We heard that the Minister thinks that some of the intentions can be met in other ways; we accept that, although we look forward to a wider context in which victims’ rights will be addressed.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy told me on several occasions that she was very inexperienced in the ways in which the House of Lords worked, but I was never deceived by her. I knew she was a very experienced political operator, and she has played a blinder in this Bill. She has worked across parties and across the Houses, and has been an advocate for the victims’ families. I thank her for the work she has done on this Bill.

Today’s legislation, plus the undertakings we have heard from the Minister, show that sometimes it is best to co-operate with the Government. All those who participated on this Bill, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, have done so in a spirit of co-operation from which we have all benefited. I am glad this Bill is soon to receive Royal Assent. It is one step along the road, but a significant one. It has shown Parliament working at its best.

My Lords, I reiterate my thanks to the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Barker, and others who brought this amendment for supporting what the Government are doing. I know that they will continue to make sure it works in future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, brought up the trials that some police forces are doing. I do not think their results will be released, but we know that really positive reports are coming out of them, with, as I said before, increased numbers of referrals but also higher numbers of victims enrolling in the scheme, which is good news. If there are any results, I will make sure that the noble Baroness receives a copy of them. She also asked about the tracing of the opt-ins. I have not heard about any tracing; I will go back to the department and ask, but it is not something we have traced. It is quite difficult when somebody says “No” to keep asking, “Why not?” or “Do you want to?”. However, I will make sure she gets that information as well.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, very much for bringing up Marie McCourt and the families, as other noble Lords have done. She has worked tirelessly for this Bill, and we thank her. I also put on record my thanks to one or two other noble Lords who raised really important issues under the Bill, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for their positive engagements on mental capacity. Once again, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the signatories to her amendment for raising these important concerns about the victim contact. Finally, the House should recognise—and I recognise—Marie McCourt, Helen McCourt’s mother, for her tireless campaign.

Motion A agreed to.