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Sarah Everard: Home Office Inquiry

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria they will use in deciding whether the Home Office inquiry into the matters arising from the murder of Sarah Everard should be converted into a statutory inquiry by way of the Inquiries Act 2005.

My Lords, the Home Secretary, in consultation with the chair, determines that if the inquiry cannot fulfil its terms of reference on a non-statutory footing, it can be converted to a statutory basis.

My Lords, just yesterday we read that the Centre for Women’s Justice is proposing to judicially review the Home Office on this matter, complaining that correspondence with that department has been substantively unanswered from the middle of last month. Does the Minister not agree that the breadth of concern, the depth and importance of the problem, the need for independence to be seen and done and the need, unfortunately, for powers to compel co-operation, all point to every rational criterion for a full Lawrence-style statutory inquiry having already been met?

My Lords, the duty to co-operate is already in place. It has been in place since February 2020. Regarding the Centre for Women’s Justice, we have not ignored the letter. We have been focused on identifying a chair so that the details of the inquiry’s scope and how it will operate can be confirmed as quickly as possible. The inquiry can then start addressing our concerns, those of the public and those of organisations such as the Centre for Women’s Justice. We will respond to them as soon as possible.

My Lords, the Macpherson report has been quoted many a time in this House because it stands for many changes in the legal system and beyond. In the case of Sarah Everard, many women up and down the country are demanding a judge-led inquiry where witnesses can be called to give evidence. I know how important it is to have a judge-led inquiry. As in the Stephen Lawrence case, the truth must come out, so will Her Majesty’s Government support a public inquiry into the Sarah Everard case?

I could not agree more with the noble Baroness that the truth must come out—both at pace and conducted in a way that would satisfy the family. As I have said, if the non-statutory inquiry cannot meet its commitments, it can be converted to a statutory inquiry.

The Minister must be aware of the deep public concern following the Sarah Everard case. Does she not agree that the fiercely independent Macpherson inquiry and report into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence went a long way towards restoring the trust of the black—and wider—community in policing? Can the Minister suggest any reason why a similar, judge-led inquiry with similar powers, now under the 2005 Act rather than the Police Act 1996, would not be the obvious best way of examining predatory police culture in certain quarters and restoring the trust of young women in this country in our police force, which is surely a vital consideration today?

I think the House agrees that trust and confidence in the police must be restored. We wish this inquiry to proceed at pace and to get to the nub of the various issues that it will look into. If the Home Secretary is not satisfied that a non-statutory inquiry is fulfilling those commitments, she can convert it to a statutory inquiry, but I must say that I think the whole House seeks the same end from this inquiry.

My Lords, on a slightly separate, but related, matter, what are the implications of the Sarah Everard inquiry for the Daniel Morgan inquiry, which reported in June, described the Met as institutionally corrupt and found numerous failings? Some work has already begun but, given the potential for overlap here and the Morgan family’s long wait for justice, will the Government consider including the delivery of the panel’s recommendations in their cross-government task force?

My noble friend is absolutely right that there is inevitable overlap here. HMICFRS is already inspecting the Metropolitan Police Service in relation to vetting and countercorruption, at the Home Secretary’s request, and findings from this will feed into the broader inspection that she has asked HMICFRS to undertake across all forces. There is work ongoing in the Metropolitan Police Service and in the Home Office to respond to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel recommendations, and the Home Secretary has already committed to provide an update in due course. Of course, any relevant evidence from this work can then be considered by part 2 of the independent inquiry, which will look more broadly at standards in policing.

We have made it clear that there must be a full statutory inquiry. The Government say that a statutory inquiry is too slow, yet the Home Office review of the Daniel Morgan case, which has already been referred to, took years, precisely because its work was made more difficult by the fact that the panel was not established under the Inquiries Act 2005, with its powers of compulsion. The evidence also indicates that the public spotlight of a statutory inquiry, and what it reveals during the hearings, promotes action while the inquiry is in progress and makes it harder for the final recommendations to be ignored or watered down, which is at least as important as any issue over the length of time the inquiry takes. Why do the Government continue to resist a full statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, in which the public can have full trust and confidence?

My Lords, as I have said, given the need to provide assurance as swiftly as possible, this will be established as a non-statutory inquiry because we want to get to the stage where conclusions are reached and changes are recommended quickly. This cannot be an inquiry that takes years to get to that stage. A non-statutory inquiry allows for greater flexibility, can be tailored to the issues and is likely to be faster, but we are able to turn it into a statutory inquiry if need be.

My Lords, the Minister keeps saying that the truth must come out at pace, but the Macpherson inquiry—a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act—took 20 months and the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel took eight years, mainly because the panel did not have powers of compulsion. What makes the Government think that the police have changed, when Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary only a few weeks ago described a “culture of colleague protection” in the police service?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that at the time there was not that duty to co-operate. The various things the noble Lord mentions will all be looked at in the course of the inquiry. He is absolutely right that some of the culture and practices will be interrogated deeply to see whether any changes are needed.

My Lords, having served on your Lordships’ Select Committee examining public inquiries legislation, I am still baffled as to why the Government are reluctant to announce having a statutory inquiry now. Why the prevarication? Surely when there is great public disquiet, particularly as to the safety of women, the Government’s preference should be for a statutory inquiry. No one, particularly the police at the highest level, should be able to avoid giving evidence on oath if the powers are there to compel the giving of such evidence.

As I have said, there is the duty to co-operate. That has been in place since last year. I take this opportunity, given that the noble and learned Lord has served under every Prime Minister from Wilson to Blair, to wish him a very happy 90th birthday for last week.

I might have the answer why the Government do not want to make it a statutory inquiry: since the inquiry can compel police officers and other witnesses to come forward and tell the truth, what comes out might be extremely embarrassing for not only the police force but the Home Office. Could it be that the Government want to protect those organisations rather than hear the truth?

My Lords, if the Government wanted to protect the organisations, we would not be calling an inquiry. We absolutely want to get to the bottom of this for every woman and girl in this country, or any mother or daughter, who feels so keenly what happened to Sarah Everard.