House of Lords
Wednesday 24 November 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
NHS: Primary Care Surgeries
The Government are clear that the NHS is not and never will be for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic. Regardless of whether a service is run by an individual, a partnership or any other organisation, all providers of NHS core medical services are subject to the same requirements, regulations and standards. Patients will continue to receive high-quality care, free at the point of use.
I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I have two points to make. Once they know what is happening, NHS staff and the public increasingly oppose this move. A group action by Islington patients is going to court to challenge the change of control to an American profit-making company. First, will the Minister respond to such a groundswell and urge the Government to stop the encroaching control of the NHS by American health insurance companies? Secondly—
Centene has a bad reputation across America. Since 2000, it has paid many millions of dollars in fines for 174 contract-related offences across the States, so will Her Majesty’s Government forbid the appointment of Centene-related staff and former staff to NHS CCG boards and their sub-committees?
I thank the noble Baroness for her speech. In answering, as this is for judicial review, I am sure she understands that I cannot comment on it. But I saw an interesting documentary over the weekend, so let me just read some words from it:
“Yes the NHS is a public service but how it spends its vast procurement budget, how it uses IT, how it fashions new processes and pathways for patients, plainly benefit from private sector experience.”
I admit I have plagiarised these words from Tony Blair, the last Labour Prime Minister to win an election.
Is the Minister familiar with the research that shows that the longer the relationship between a patient and a GP, the less likely the patient is to need out-of-hours care or emergency hospital treatment, or to die, within 12 months? Are patients not right to be afraid that profit-making will interfere with those important relationships?
My Lords, one of the concerns is the transparency of agreements between clinical commissioning groups and these private companies. Are CCGs required to make absolutely transparent any arrangements they have made with these private companies?
The noble Baroness will understand that it is not for the Government to intervene in the decisions of CCGs. All who believe in devolution and decisions being made as close to the people as possible believe that we should not be interfering. These decisions are made by CCGs and it is not for the Government to interfere.
My Lords, I entirely welcome the Minister’s assertion that much of what is great about the NHS is the collaboration with international partners and the private sector. During the pandemic, many things that went well, including the vaccine, relied on that. With a special session of the World Health Assembly next week to discuss new global agreements on pandemic preparedness, what steps will the department be taking to foster international and business collaboration?
I thank my noble friend for that important question. International engagement remains crucial to tackling the pandemic and ensuring future resilience. In my first few weeks in the job, I have had a number of meetings, at bilateral, G7 and other levels, to make sure that we are fostering international health partnerships. “It is also really important that we understand the contribution the private sector can make towards making the NHS better for all of us.” Those are the words of Alan Milburn, also a former Labour politician.
My Lords, I declare that I am a fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners. Do the Government recognise that, with an increasing number of GPs working salaried and part-time, it is essential that they have security in their contracts? There is a tension when commercial providers need to provide profits to their shareholders, which can work in the opposite direction to the needs of the community, as the medical staff should be working as a co-operative to improve services locally.
I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to the work of GPs, who are at the front line and, quite often, are the gateway to many services across the NHS and the wider healthcare system. It is important that we recognise some of the pressures they are under, but also work out how to help them and, indeed, patients. As I have said in the past, I will be a champion of patients and it is important that patients have access to their GPs, as a gateway to further services.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Minister says that the NHS is not up for sale, would he care to speculate what would motivate an American health insurance company to buy into a UK primary care GP market? Was this procurement carried out under the Covid relaxation that allowed contracts to be awarded without competition, or the usual procurement regime?
I wish I could read the minds of those who bid to run these services, but I am afraid I will have to admit that I cannot. The contracts are awarded at the local level by CCGs. It is their decision and it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene.
My Lords, my local GP, who has been extraordinarily busy during this pandemic, tells me that he just wants to get on with treating people who are ill and preventing others from becoming ill. He is not interested in fighting off unwanted backdoor interference from Americans or any other predators. Will the Government give proper support to our NHS, without which some of us might not be around to pass on these views from the front line?
We all understand the importance of the role that GPs play in our NHS. I remind noble Lords that, when the NHS was created, once the state had seized the voluntary hospitals and hospitals from churches, it left GPs independent. It has been left up to them how to run their services. What is important is that we expect all GP services to offer the best-quality care, despite the business model they use.
My Lords, I commend the Minister for congratulating Tony Blair, who, of course, led the best Government of modern times in this country. The Blair Government trebled health spending in real terms—three times the rate of growth under this Government. I encourage the Minister to learn further lessons from Tony Blair, in particular to significantly increase health spending and leave the National Health Service in a better condition than he found it, rather than, as is now happening, in a worse condition.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord on his contributions to the Blair-Brown documentary, which I am sure a number of noble Lords enjoyed watching and learning from. It is important that we learn the right lessons from whichever political party, so when Tony Blair, a former Labour Prime Minister, says that we should encourage the private sector to be more involved in partnership with the public sector, we will take that advice.
My Lords, I have great respect for GPs, but with general practices paid for the number of patients registered with the practice, profit-driven services might carry the risk of some GPs choosing to register younger and fitter patients, who will need to be seen less often than older patients. Would the Minister really be comfortable if that situation played out?
I am sure that noble Lords agree that it is appropriate that GPs register as many patients as they are able to see, and that their patients, whatever their needs, can access our great system of healthcare in this country. I would indeed be concerned if there were barriers to accessing GP services.
My Lords, the Financial Conduct Authority is the designated anti-money laundering supervisor for banks in the UK. The FCA uses data-led supervision programmes to assess its target firms. It issues guidance so that supervised entities understand the AML risks they are exposed to. The Treasury’s 2019-20 supervision report found that 86% of the 177 financial institutions subject to FCA active supervision were compliant. In instances of non-compliance, the FCA takes robust action to deter future breaches of the regulations.
My Lords, the FCA has secured only one criminal conviction of a bank for money laundering, which was actually volunteered. Numerous leaks, such as the Pandora papers and the Paradise papers, show that UK banks are involved in illicit financial flows, yet the FCA is missing in action. What prevents the Minister commissioning an independent inquiry into the involvement of banks in illicit financial flows?
My Lords, the noble Lord tells only part of the story. A number of major fines have been imposed on financial institutions in the last few years: Deutsche Bank, £160 million in 2017; Standard Chartered, over £102 million in 2019; Commerce Bank, £37 million in 2020; and Goldman Sachs, £48 million in 2020. We have rigorous oversight and we continue to review it the whole time.
My Lords, earlier this year we held a debate on the Church Action for Tax Justice report Tax for the Common Good. When we discussed British Overseas Territories, we looked at the whole issue of tax havens and were assured that this was being addressed, yet the latest Pandora papers reveal that they are still used by shell companies to hide property sales and to avoid tax. Would the Minister agree that, since we are responsible for the defence of these territories, they have a duty to stop siphoning this money off from the UK?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to raise the issues in the Pandora papers and the jurisdictions he refers to, but we are making steady progress in closing the tax gap. Indeed, we have closed it by nearly a third in the last 15 years. In 2005-06 it was estimated at 7.5% and in the last year, 2019-20, it was down to 5.3%. In the last 10 years we have collected some £250 billion that would have been lost if these measures were not in place.
My Lords, I declare my technology interests as set out in the register. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is time we got real about AML and KYC? Does he agree that we need a digital ID, not just for individuals but for corporate and other entities, and to further increase work on digital currencies, not least a potential Britcoin? If we did this, it would go at least some way towards “laundering out, safety and security in”, and “laundering out, social and economic growth enabled”.
My noble friend is right to be concerned about the vigilance we need to deploy in this area, because it is a fast-moving target. We are always reviewing the situation. In July this year we published a call for evidence, which closed only a few weeks ago, in October. We will respond by June next year, looking at the issues my noble friend raised.
In a recent speech on money laundering, the FCA’s executive director of enforcement highlighted the emerging risk to consumers of online offers from unauthorised companies, investment scams and other too-good-to-be-true propositions. The FCA warning list of such firms has doubled in just over a year. Can the Minister assure the House that there are no plans for regulatory easing of money laundering post Brexit? Will the Government increase the resources of the Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency so that they can enforce legislation effectively and protect the high number of consumers now at risk?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness will probably be aware, in 2018 we created a helpfully named quango oversight group called OPBAS, the professional body supervision group. It produces an annual report, which is always hard hitting on any failures—as indeed its most recent one was. This illustrates that we are entirely self-critical, to ensure that we are watching these developments carefully.
My Lords, in assisting the World Alliance of International Financial Centers, I have found that while we may not think that the UK, as a non-EU financial centre, is a money laundering hub, apparently the rest of the world does. Might inconsistent definitions globally between regulators, legal jurisdictions and international law about who or what is a money launderer be a major part of the problem? As a financial centre, we should ensure the same levels of compliance for all industries, including the property sector, to dispel the notion that money launderers’ illicit money or investments can be under cover here.
My Lords, it is a harsh judgment to say that we are a honeypot for international money launderers. We are one of the largest financial centres in the world, so the volume of money passing through our system is colossal. We have been judged by the FATF as one of the most effective regulators of this area in the world. We have the second- highest level of fines so far. As I mentioned in response to earlier questions, we continue to review the situation carefully. For example, at the moment we are looking at Companies House legislation to make sure that registrations there are more carefully vetted.
My Lords, 10 December 2021 will be the fourth anniversary of the Government’s United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Strategy, which in 2017 committed to bringing forward a draft Bill in that Session of Parliament
“for the establishment of a public register of beneficial ownership of overseas legal entities.”
Are Her Majesty’s Government still committed to such a Bill? If so, when will we see it?
My Lords, we are certainly committed to that. I am afraid I cannot give a date yet. As the noble Lord will know, we are trying to put a huge amount of legislation through both Houses, but we recognise that it is a priority. In February this year the economic crime plan was set out. It listed seven priorities, and dealing with the issues he referred to is included there.
My Lords, any money launderer worth his or her salt is no longer going through the banks. They are basically engaged in Web3 and using decentralised finance, known as DeFi for short. Does the Minister understand that this makes even more critical the kind of register the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, just described, but also a register of the beneficial owners of property in the UK, which is frequently the way in which criminals, dictators and others choose to wash out their money?
My Lords, in 2018 the National Economic Crime Centre was launched to tackle fraud and money laundering. Has it brought a single prosecution? We read reports of banks having potentially forged customers’ signatures on court documents to repossess homes and businesses. Have the NECC or the FCA brought a single investigation? Is the Minister content with this state of affairs?
My Lords, the National Economic Crime Centre leads and co-ordinates the UK’s response to economic crime. Prosecutions for economic crime are pursued by the National Crime Agency and other enforcement partners. Annually, some 7,900 investigations, 2,000 prosecutions and 1,400 convictions take place in connection with money laundering-related activities.
My Lords, I take the prevention of money laundering as an important imperative. However, I am not sure the banks are dealing with it sensibly. I have had calls from banks asking about my monetary transfers. One bank, which I will not identify, could not contact me as I was away, so it wrote to me in what I regard as a threatening manner, saying, “If we have not received this information about transfers by” a particular date, then three days hence, “we will have to restrict access to your accounts. This will mean you will not be able to withdraw money or make mortgage payments or other standing orders and direct debits.” I am aware of business customers placed in dire financial straits without fault because their accounts have been frozen for so-called security reasons. Does the Minister agree that disrupting normal business commerce just to increase numbers of checks is unacceptable and that the banks need to get the balance right?
My Lords, it is extremely difficult to get the balance right, because the banks are damned if they do and damned if they do not. I am sorry the noble Lord had personal difficulties in that situation, but if it had been a fraudulent transaction with large sums lost, I think he would have been even more upset. We have to err on the side of caution. The banks need to improve their ways of intervening and use artificial intelligence to be more effective and not go after false alarms.
The temporary pavement licence provisions introduced in the Business and Planning Act 2020 and subsequently extended have a national smoke-free condition requiring businesses to provide seating where smoking is not permitted. In addition, local authorities can attach their own conditions, including those that prohibit smoking. The Government have committed in principle to making the pavement licensing permanent and will provide further details in due course.
My Lords, the pandemic has of course seen a major expansion in the use of pavement space, alongside which the Government have committed to deliver a smoke-free nation by 2030 to improve our health. How is the Minister working with his Health colleagues to bring this all together for smoke-free pavement licences to play their part in the forthcoming tobacco control plan? Will the Government take the opportunity to adopt the tobacco amendments to the Health and Care Bill when they come before this House from the other place?
My Lords, this Government can walk and chew gum at the same time. We are working closely with my noble friend the Minister and colleagues at the Department of Health. I should probably declare a personal interest as the son of a vascular surgeon who served on the Chief Medical Officer’s Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health in the period when the noble Baroness was an esteemed Minister in the Administration in the first decade of this century. Of course we have not committed to how we will move forward with regard to the future of this legislation, but it is important to achieve the target of reducing smoking while reviving our economy.
My Lords, I refer to my interests as set out in the register. The pre-pandemic hospitality industry was the third largest private sector employer and created almost 5% of GDP. At present the industry is achieving just 55% of its pre-pandemic sales but is working hard to fully recover. Does the Minister agree that now is not the right time to be discussing more red tape and restrictions for an industry that helps to drive economic growth, social cohesion and job creation?
I agree entirely with my noble friend: we need to see the revival of that industry. We believe that that can be done by taking a proportionate approach of keeping those people who do not wish to smoke in outside pavement space segregated from those who do. In that way we can provide an environment that enables people to exercise their personal choice and enables those areas where smoking rates are higher, which are typically in the north of England, to get back on their feet, which is vital.
My Lords, there is good evidence that exposure to smoking not only damages children’s health but makes them much more likely to go on to become smokers themselves, copying the role model of the adults they see. How does the Minister justify the Government’s current policy on pavement licences, which exposes children to a significant risk of addiction to a lethal product? Do the Government have any evidence that extending smoke-free areas would damage the hospitality industry at all?
My Lords, we need to recognise that we are making excellent progress. We as a Government are committed to reducing the harms caused by tobacco and have made long-term progress in reducing smoking rates, which are currently at 13.9%, the lowest on record, but we need to balance the endeavour to reduce smoking with the need to revive our economy.
My Lords, does the Minister not see an inconsistency between his continued assertion that we are, to quote the words that he used when replying to my Motion of regret on this subject on 14 July,
“on the journey towards a smoke-free 2030”—[Official Report, 14/7/21; col. 1844.]
and the Government’s repeated reluctance to accept that 100% smoke-free pavement licences enjoy overwhelming public support, to say nothing of the overwhelming majority of noble Lords, who are also in favour? Will he at least undertake to find out the experience of the 10 local authorities that have chosen to go smoke free with their pavements to find out whether they have experienced any problems and indeed if their hospitality industry has suffered any ill effects?
My Lords, I have to accept that we are on a journey. We need to learn from local areas, particularly those areas that have chosen locally to introduce a ban on smoking in the way that I think many local Lords are pushing for. We need to learn from that; you test what you want to expand and you expand what you have tested. We will look carefully at their experience.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that these areas are an extension of inside that is outside and that surveys show that smoke-free areas, inside and outside, are popular, healthier and child friendly? I am glad that he says that he will now work, this time, closely with the Department of Health. Will he ensure that he identifies, sees through and rebuts material that comes from other lobbies?
My Lords, any government Minister needs to be aware of when they are being lobbied. It is important to understand where the information is coming from and whether there is a prejudicial interest. It is also important that we in government work across departments to make the right decisions at the right time.
According to Keep Britain Tidy, cigarette butts are the most littered item. They also have the highest levels of toxicity and are the least recovered, leaching into the ground and into our water systems. What are the Government doing to ensure that the tobacco industry pays towards the costs of cleaning them up and driving down such pollution?
My Lords, all previous legislation to reduce the harm done by smoking has been on a national basis, such as the ban on smoking on public transport and the ban on smoking in public places. However, despite representations from the Local Government Association that any ban under this measure should also be on a national basis, the Government declined and left it to local discretion. Will the Government follow up the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and, in the light of that, consider giving a clear health warning about the risks of damage from smoking and introduce a total ban on smoking on pavements?
I thank my noble friend for making the point about how progress has been made and that it has been on a national basis. However, as someone who spent 20 years in local government— 16 as a councillor and four in City Hall as deputy mayor—I know that sometimes it is right to recognise that we do not have problems equally on a national basis. Smoking rates are higher in the north of England, so let us learn from there first before we take the next step.
My Lords, I recall the intense pressure that was put on me in the 1980s when I introduced a Bill to ban smoking in public places. Will the Minister tell us what representations and meetings he and his colleagues in his and other departments have had with representatives of the tobacco industry? If he cannot tell me today, will he write?
My Lords, it could be said that the Government control too much of our lives. Does the Minister agree that it is right to let local authorities set their own local conditions with regard to smoking on pavements, rather than Whitehall issuing a mandate for pavements to be smoke free? Could he give some examples of where it is working and decisions have been made locally?
My noble friend has not had the opportunity to serve as a Minister—although it may happen in future when potentially I move on—but she has been a very distinguished leader of a local authority and chairman of the Local Government Association, so for her to make that statement means that it is clear that we need to learn the lessons from local government and ensure that we act in a way that builds on those lessons. It is right that some decisions are taken locally; I entirely support that view.
My Lords, would I be right in thinking that the Minister’s view is that if people want to smoke and kill not only themselves but other people, that is all right? Could he tell us how many people have been convicted for smoking in non-smoking areas on the pavements?
My Lords, I have to say that that is putting words in my mouth. We want to discourage smoking. As I said, we as a Government are trying to move towards a smoke-free 2030. We are trying to ensure that the smallest possible number of children take up e-cigarettes—we are seeing great progress on that. We are taking a number of measures to eradicate this and hit that target. At the same time, we believe in personal choice. That is something that this Government strongly believe in and it is also a route to seeing a stronger bounce-back and a stronger economy as a result.
My Lords, is there anywhere in the public square where smokers will be left in peace and permitted to indulge in a legal, if anti-social, habit that they as adults freely choose to indulge in and even enjoy? Does the Minister consider that the rather grungy lean-to behind the bike sheds that noble Lords who smoke have been banished to is suitably far away from any restaurants or bars to be safe from overzealous public health regulators in here, or might we be driven into the Thames? I am asking for a friend or two.
Ofcom: Appointment of Chair
My Lords, the essential criteria for the role of chairman of Ofcom have been publicly available on the public appointments website since the process launched on 1 November. The panel, whose names have also been published, will be responsible for assessing candidates objectively against these criteria. The process is fair and open and the Secretary of State has been clear that she wants the best candidate for the role and to be presented with a choice of candidates from a broad and diverse field.
I thank the noble Lord for his Answer and say how pleased we are on these Benches that so many Conservative Ministers are celebrating the creative industries this week. Does the Minister agree that my Question would not have had to be asked if the Prime Minister had heeded warnings, including from Julian Knight MP, chair of the DCMS Select Committee, not to pursue bending the rules to suit the reapplication of the person of his choice? Going forward, will the Minister assure this House that choosing the next chair will be conducted in a way that ensures the integrity and independence of the process, as is fit for Ofcom’s global reputation as an independent regulator?
My Lords, the original competition was rerun because of the disappointing number of candidates. As the previous commissioner, Peter Riddell, wrote, one of the reasons for that was no doubt a result of speculation in the press at the start of the process about candidates said to be preferred by Ministers. It is regrettable that that speculation may be putting people off. We want to see a broad and diverse range of people applying so that the right person can get this important job.
My Lords, I commend the Minister for his honesty but now that plan A is out of the way—with Paul Dacre having thought better of it and decided to continue with his senior editorial role at the Mail newspapers—can he update noble Lords on plan B? Would the Minister like to come clean and tell the House who the preferred candidate is? Can he also ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, gets a set of application forms this time?
I cannot be drawn on speculation about candidates, either in the first round or now. This has always been a fair and open competition, run in line with the governance code. It is ongoing and we want to see the best candidate appointed to the job.
My Lords, whatever one’s view of Paul Dacre—I happen to regard him as a person of great integrity and ability who would have been a sensible choice to share Ofcom—surely what we should focus on now are his remarks about the Civil Service’s attitude to the private sector and wealth creation. Does the Minister agree with those remarks that Paul Dacre made and, if so, what does he plan to do about it?
Again, I cannot be drawn into speculation on who may or may not have applied, but the general thrust of my noble friend’s remarks makes an important point. Civil servants do a brilliant job in delivering the laws that we enact in this place and in another place, but it is important that there is oversight not just from Ministers but from a broad range of people with experience in those fields. We want a broad range to apply to be the chairman of this important regulator.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to the Daily Telegraph, the term popular in the 1980s that “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie” is back in fashion? That of course referred to the late and much lamented Viscount Whitelaw being available to Mrs Thatcher to curb her exuberances. Does he think that the present Prime Minister needs a Willie and, if he does, could he not look to the Privy Council Benches for an ideal candidate?
I think that the noble Lord may be ranging a little from the topic. Like me, he is a former political secretary to a Prime Minister; it is a pleasure to serve Prime Ministers in whatever capacity and they benefit from a range of experience, as do all Ministers.
My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, I think that Paul Dacre would have been an excellent candidate to run Ofcom. When he stood down and withdrew his name, he said that the blob was in charge of the selection process and that it would never have shortlisted him for consideration by Ministers. Was he right?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while these appointments to key bodies should remain in the hands of Ministers, there have to be proper checks and balances and that the candidates put forward to the Minister have to satisfy clear criteria of competence? In this case, will he, first, clearly condemn the fact that someone in government, probably a special adviser, leaked the name that we are talking about to deter other good candidates from applying? That was the purpose. Secondly, will he criticise the Secretary of State for having failed to get Sir Paul Dacre on the list the first time round, then altering the criteria to make it easier for that to happen?
I will not join the noble Lord in speculating on the Kremlinology of how the name came out but I agree with the former Commissioner for Public Appointments that it is regrettable that it did. As he has said, this
“appeared to pre-empt the outcome of the competition”
and “risks undermining public confidence”. There is a governance code that governs these public appointments processes. This one has been run in line with it and continues to be so.
Does my noble friend agree that Ofcom is a statutory body with many, and increasing numbers of, serious statutory responsibilities? In that respect, what we are looking for in a chair is somebody who can bring a high calibre of judgment to those statutory responsibilities, not treat Ofcom as any kind of discretionary vehicle for their own prejudices. Does he therefore agree that we need somebody with that judgment, rather than prejudices, and that the same has to be true of the selection panel?
My Lords, this is an important job and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State wants to get a broad and diverse field of candidates to choose from, so that we can select the right person to chair this important regulator. That is why the governance code makes sure that the process for choosing that person is open and fair.
My Lords, regardless of his suitability for the job, Paul Dacre’s stinging critique of the blob rang true with many of us, especially as only yesterday Dame Kate Bingham accused the Civil Service of groupthink and risk aversion. Does the Minister agree that, whoever is recruited, they will need to be sufficiently independent of mind to face down the blob? They should break Ofcom out of any sort of groupthink—the sort that led one of the most powerful regulators in the land to so unwisely be captured by the gender ID lobbying group Stonewall, perilously threatening impartiality in the media in the coverage of women’s sex-based rights.
On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, yes, this underlines the importance of having independent people appointed to oversee such important regulators. It also underlines the need for boards with a broad and diverse range of views. All government departments and regulators such as Ofcom benefit from that breadth of experience and views.
Windrush Compensation Scheme
Private Notice Question
My Lords, we remain committed to ensuring that people receive every penny of compensation that they are entitled to and we have offered more than £37.2 million. There is no cap on the amount that we will pay and we have removed the end date of the scheme. Suggestions that only 5% have received a payment are misleading; 29% of the claims that we have received have had a payment. We are processing claims as quickly as we can and continue to make improvements. Many of these were recognised in the Home Affairs Select Committee’s report, but we recognise that there is more to do and will consider the report carefully.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I declare an interest as chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee, which is placing a national Windrush monument at Waterloo station, where I arrived when I was a 10 year-old in 1960. It will celebrate the enormous contribution of the Windrush generation to Britain.
But the Windrush scandal has created a stain on British history, and many innocent people branded as illegal, now in their 70s and 80s, are still traumatised by the burden of proof and the treatment that they have endured. There is an overwhelming feeling of distrust and a feeling that their compensation claims will never be paid. So to reassure these British citizens who have served this country well for generations, will the Government consider appointing an independent body to deal with the Windrush compensation scheme before any more of these claimants pass away?
First, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness and all that she has done for the Windrush generation. I totally agree with her that the scandal of it, which spanned several decades, and Parliaments and Governments of every colour, is indeed a stain on our history.
With regard to the evidence, we have designed the scheme to be as simple as possible, and its whole rationale is to pay compensation, as opposed to not paying it. So the scheme operates on the balance of probabilities, and we will work with individuals to support them to provide and obtain as much information as possible to support their claim. We want to make it easy, not difficult, for them to do so, so caseworkers will contact other government departments and third parties, such as previous employers, if necessary. In July, we published refreshed casework guidance that clearly sets out how caseworkers should apply the balance of probability and go about gathering that evidence. We want people to receive the maximum amount of compensation, not the minimum, to which they are perfectly entitled.
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s Question refers to people who have applied to the compensation scheme, but what proactive action will the Government take to reach out and contact those who may be eligible to apply but still do not trust the Home Office and so have not put in an application yet?
As I said previously in Questions about the Windrush scheme, we have reached out not just to communities where we think applications might be forthcoming but to communities and faith leaders overseas, because we want as many people to apply as are entitled to—not just entitled to but deserve—the compensation for their suffering. To go back to the noble Baroness’s previous question, moving the scheme out of the Home Office would risk significantly delaying vital payments to those affected.
The Home Affairs Committee report said:
“We can only conclude that four years on from the Windrush scandal, vital lessons have still not been learned by the Department.”
It is four years on. What is the Minister’s explanation for this shameful failure?
My Lords, it was possibly a year ago, even two years ago, that I stood up and acknowledged that the scheme was not running as swiftly as it could, that people were not getting the compensation that they should and that we needed to do more to reach out. I fully accepted that criticism.
But, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, we continue to make improvements to the scheme. The result of this is evidenced in the amount of compensation paid out rising from less than £3 million, which it was at the time, to over £31.6 million, with a further £5.6 million having been offered. We have brought in some new support measures to those claiming on behalf of relatives who have passed away. We have also increased our number of caseworkers to over 80, with another 34 coming online shortly. For those needing more support in applying, we have funded an organisation to provide free independent claimant assistance to individuals.
My Lords, I welcome my noble friend the Minister’s personal commitment to this issue, which is very recognisable in the answers that she has given. However, only one in 20 people eligible for compensation have received it. The Government need to move faster and at pace because, as the Minister has indicated, people have died, and it would be nice for others to see resolution in their lifetimes.
I thank my noble friend for that. That claim that only 5% of people, or one in 20, have received a payment is actually a bit misleading. When we first set up the scheme, we made an estimate, which I remember saying to the House was quite difficult to make, of the number of people we thought might be eligible. That estimate was originally 15,000 and was then revised down to 11,500. It is now 4,600. Obviously, we will try our best to ensure that anyone who comes forward gets the compensation that they deserve. We now estimate, based on what I have just said to my noble friend, that 29% of people who have submitted a claim have received a payment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s tireless efforts. We now know that there are lengthy delays, even in clear-cut cases, to making an initial payment. But we know that the Home Office is capable of moving quickly: it has tabled 18 pages of new offences and police powers for the police Bill within two months of the Home Secretary asking for them. So what is it about the Windrush generation that means that they are not a priority for the Home Office?
I think that statement is incorrect. The Windrush generation and the Windrush scheme are a priority for the Home Office. I have been through some of the improvements that we have made: we are increasing the number of caseworkers, and the amount of compensation has risen quite dramatically since we put some of the changes in place, from £3 million to over £31.6 million, with a further £5.6 million having been offered. There is no cap on the amount of compensation that we will pay out. We have also removed the time limit so that as many people who can apply do.
Some of the cases can be quite complex and therefore take longer than might be normal—and, of course, we are going back decades in time—but we are keener than ever, and it remains a priority, to ensure that anyone who is due compensation will be paid it.
My Lords, the Wendy Williams was clear about the importance of trusted community and grass-roots organisations in reaching claimants who might be nervous about interacting directly with the Home Office, but we now hear that the stakeholder advisory group that brought those bodies together to help government to
“build trust with the affected communities”
has been disbanded. So what will government put in place to offset the absence of that group and to ensure that those communities can be reached?
My Lords, as I said, we have done extensive community outreach. Since 2018, we have held approximately 200 engagement and outreach events across the country, including approximately 120 one-to-one surgeries to help people with their documentation for the Windrush scheme. We have held 80 public engagement events to raise awareness of the scheme. I will certainly take the stakeholder engagement point back to the Home Office, because it is a good point.
My Lords, I quite understand why it is necessary to be very sensitive and careful about handing out compensation money. After all, we have seen a very few awful cases of compensation claims when it came to Grenfell, for instance, which were simply criminal. However, I associate myself with every single sentiment which the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, has expressed. Windrush is an example of injustice, and at a time when there are wicked people trying to tear apart races in this country, putting one against the other, the solution to this Windrush scandal cannot come soon enough.
Well, I think I associated myself with pretty much every point that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made. As my noble friend said, the Windrush scandal is an injustice, and for decades no one did anything about it. We will do what we can as quickly as we can to ensure that people get the compensation that they deserve as soon as possible.
My Lords, I come back to the point made by my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett about the delay and the four-year period. I do not think that my noble friend received any satisfactory explanation as to why it has taken so long. The Home Affairs Committee has called for the scheme to be transferred from the Home Office to an independent organisation, and a National Audit Office report into the compensation scheme found that the scheme was
“not meeting its objective of compensating claimants quickly”.
As I am sure that the Minister will be aware, on 21 June—some five months ago—the shadow Home Secretary called on the Government to give control of the Windrush compensation scheme to a new independent body following systematic mismanagement—that mismanagement being the delay and how few people have so far been compensated. I do not think we have heard any convincing answer as to why responsibility for the scheme should not be handed over to a new independent body.
Clearly the Home Office has failed; it has been criticised by the National Audit Office for that failure. We have had four years of delay. The Minister, on behalf of the Home Office, has not been able to tell us how many more years it will take the Home Office to complete this process. Can I urge her to go back to the Home Office and suggest that the management of the scheme is now transferred to a new independent body, as we called for five months ago, as the Home Affairs Committee has now also called for, and in the light of the National Audit Office report that said that people were not being compensated quickly?
I thought that I had pointed out both the improvements to the compensation paid since we made changes in December and the difficulties in suddenly moving a scheme out of the Home Office to an independent body. It would not necessarily result in faster and higher payments. As I have said, neither the amount of the payment nor the length of time in which people can apply for compensation are capped.
When someone is deported, it is usually for criminality. I do not have up-to-date figures on people who have been deported who would also be eligible for Windrush. Rather than make them up at the Dispatch Box, which I am disinclined to do, I will get those figures to my noble friend.
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the noble Baroness the Minister, who we all have a lot of respect for. She said two years ago that she was frustrated at the delays. She has done her best at the Home Office and there are still huge delays. It was recommended months ago that the scheme should be transferred to an independent body. Would it not give greater trust and confidence to the people who are seeking compensation if some action was taken on this?
I did try to explain what action has been taken, which has meant that compensation has risen from less than £3 million to over £31.6 million, with a further £5.6 million being offered since the changes were made in December. As I have explained, transferring out of the Home Office would not necessarily result in further improvements.
My Lords, the time allowed for the Question has now elapsed.
Health and Care Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Conformity Assessment (Mutual Recognition Agreements) (Construction Products) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Local Audit (Appointing Person) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Motions to Approve
Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021
Motion to Approve
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
Committee (11th Day)
Relevant documents: 1st, 4th and 6th Reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 6th and 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 7th Report from the Constitution Committee
My Lords, before my noble friend Lady Blake comes to move her Amendment 292H, everybody will have seen what the plans are for today by looking at the groupings. They basically involve five groups dealing with things that have stood over from the pre-protest section of the Bill, and then three or four groups dealing with all the protest sections in the Bill, including one group, I think, dealing with all the proposed new clauses that have been added.
On any basis, the grouping is inappropriate. The proposed new clauses have the additional feature that they have not been debated at all in the Commons, from where this Bill originated. They have had no Second Reading of any sort in this House and now, to have Committee stage with them all crammed in effect into one or two groups means that there will be no proper scrutiny in this House.
Can I make a suggestion and ask a question? In relation to the new clauses, could we treat, without any additional formality, the proceedings today as a Second Reading in effect and then have an additional day in Committee so that there is proper consideration? In addition to that, could one have more time to deal with these very important clauses?
My concern is that this marginalises the House of Lords in relation to considering these provisions in detail—although I am sure that was not deliberate on the part of the Whips. It may well be that these provisions are needed; our role is to look at them line by line. The effect of the way in which this has been done is that now that is not possible. The House as a whole was entitled to look for protection in that respect from the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip. Instead, they have just gone along with the Government, like so many institutions, in pushing the institution to one side—and it is not right.
I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in what he has just said. I have heard two rumours—one, that the Government Chief Whip is urging people to keep their comments on the Bill today short. I wish to declare to the Government Chief Whip that that is not possible, bearing in mind the number and complexity of issues that we are supposed to debate today. The other rumour that I have heard is that, if the House is still debating at 2 am, only then will the debate be adjourned. If that is right, looking at the timetable, that means that the most contentious parts of the Bill—the new amendments, as the noble and learned Lord said, which have not even been considered by the House of Commons—will be debated either side of midnight. That is no way for this House to be treated.
My Lords, I have not heard the rumour about keeping comments short. We are about to begin the 11th day in Committee of this Bill. In total, this House has sat for 60 hours in Committee, including starting early and going beyond 10 pm, as well as allowing three extra days. By the time when we finish today—and we intend to do so—we will have considered and debated more than 450 amendments.
As for the new clauses, they have been agreed with the usual channels and with the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I would say to noble Lords who have spoken that we intend to finish Committee today.
I support the noble Lords who have spoken. Quite honestly, this is no way to treat the House of Lords. Especially as we get older, we do not want to stay up until 2 am—and, quite honestly, this Bill should have been four Bills. I think that everybody on the Government Benches knows that. Therefore, the 60 hours of debate and 400 amendments is not that that unusual. Bringing in these amendments at the last minute is really scandalous, and very typical of an arrogant attitude towards your Lordships’ House.
I no more want to stay until two in the morning than does the noble Baroness. We will get to the public order new measures later on. I understand that the Liberal Democrats wish to vote against them, and ultimately I shall introduce them but will withdraw them, so there will be another occasion on Report to discuss them as well.
Can I confirm, though, that we will be going on until such time as we conclude the Committee stage—that is, as far as today and the early hours of the morning are concerned? So if it takes until 2 am to get through this list, we will be here until 2 am, and if it takes till 4 am, we will be here till 4 am. What the Minister said was a statement of hope that we would finish tonight; it is not an undertaking from the Government that we will not go on beyond midnight, even. Can I be clear on that?
Can the Minister then confirm, if the Government accept that it is unreasonable to force through these new amendments—these eighteen and a half pages of new offences and police powers— and that therefore they are going to withdraw those amendments, they also undertake to have the accepted gap between Committee and Report, which is 14 days, rather than the shortened period that has appeared in Forthcoming Business?
If the Committee will allow, I can answer some of these questions. We intend to have an Order of Consideration Motion so that, on Report, items will be taken as much as they can be in the same order as they are in Committee—so there will be plenty of time to consider these matters. We have discussed, in the usual channels, how the arrangements for this Bill should take place. I completely accept that it might go quite late tonight. We have spent a lot of time on this Bill—I accept that. But this is the Committee stage, and it cannot go on for ever because, if it goes on and on, the House of Lords looks as if it is preventing the Bills that have been passed by the House of Commons from going ahead.
The noble Lord shakes his head. As my noble friend the Minister has said, there has been ample time to talk about this Bill—and all we are saying is that, after three extra days, we have to draw this to a conclusion at some stage. This is not an unreasonable number of amendments to deal with—we have often done this in the past. The key, of course, is that we actually get on with it and that noble Lords have a view to the rest of the Members of this House. None of us wants to stay up too late. It is perfectly doable to have this number of groups—we have done it before—if noble Lords are able to be brief and succinct and make their point.
On the government amendments, the idea of having them in Committee is that we can debate them today. My noble friend has said that she will withdraw them, and that allows Report to go ahead—and, if necessary, noble Lords can vote on them.
My Lords, I do not want to elongate this procedural debate before a lengthy debate that we are debating the length of, but the protest provisions in this Bill have been some of the most contentious—and not just in your Lordships’ House but in the country. They are not the final provisions or the final part of this Bill, even, yet they have been saved for the latter stages of this Committee, and the later hours of this last day will include this raft of new and even more contentious amendments. That is the reason for this suspicion and the concern that your Lordships’ House has not been shown the appropriate respect of a second Chamber in a democracy, when dealing with provisions that are, arguably, contrary to the human rights convention, and are certainly thought to be very contentious and illiberal by many communities in this country.
Something that we did last week was to start early. Why could we not start earlier today so that we did not need to go into the early hours of the morning? We could have started at 10, which would have been a reasonable start for most people.
My Lords, I have listened to this with great fascination. I am afraid that the Chief Whip is being slightly disingenuous. He says that all this time has been spent in Committee in this House on this Bill. Nobody disputes that; it is a fact. But what is significant is that this is new material which has not previously been considered anywhere—except within the bowels of the Home Office perhaps. It is new material and that is why this House needs the opportunity to scrutinise it. Without that scrutiny, it will pass into law without there having been adequate discussion of what are clearly important provisions—they are important because, otherwise, I presume the Government would not have brought them forward.
292H: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977
(1) Where a local authority is investigating an offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, the police must cooperate with the relevant local authority and provide relevant information to it. (2) Local authorities must review such information that they have received every year.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would support procedure for dealing with illegal evictions.
My Lords, this amendment would improve enforcement against illegal eviction. It would provide for stronger partnership between the police and local authorities to combat this serious crime, requiring co-operation and the sharing of relevant information by police forces. In almost all cases, an eviction is legal only if it is performed by court-appointed bailiffs. Anything else is an unlawful eviction, and renters have been protected from these since 1977 under the Protection from Eviction Act. A landlord may seek to deprive a renter of their home through harassment, changing the locks, cutting off electricity or other utilities, and other tactics that circumvent the legal system. This is a criminal offence, with penalties including up to two years in prison. Although those protections have been in place for years, in reality tenants are far too often left unprotected. In effect, there is a failure to enforce the law. In 2019-20, local authorities across England reported 1,040 cases of homelessness caused by illegal eviction, yet there were only 30 prosecutions of offences under the Protection from Eviction Act.
We have to ask what is behind that exceptionally low prosecution rate. The impact of cuts to local authority budgets has meant that many local authorities do not have tenancy relations officers who are trained in this area of law. More crucially to today’s debate, this issue of training also applies to police forces, with significant problems arising because forces lack officers and call handlers who are fully trained to respond to such incidents. Where the police do not recognise the criminality of these tactics on the part of landlords, it leads to underreporting of incidents and to those reported being routinely classed not as a criminal offence but as civil matters or breaches of the peace.
Although London Councils reported 130 incidents of homelessness caused by illegal eviction in 2019-20, the Metropolitan Police recorded only a 10th of that number of offences. In addition, in recent evidence to a Senedd committee, Shelter Cymru explained that it had encountered police assisting illegal evictions of tenants from their homes.
Amendment 292H is a small step which builds on the principle of partnership between local authorities and the police, strengthening their ability to prevent illegal evictions, prosecute offenders and ultimately deter landlords from using such tactics. It would require the police to provide local authorities with the information they need to investigate suspected offences and, as part of that, to increase police forces’ awareness of the offence. As part of a much-needed package, these changes must also inform police training programmes to ensure that illegal evictions are recognised and responded to.
The key questions for the Minister are: what are the Government doing to improve the dismal prosecution rate of this offence and what is being done to find and replicate good practice by police forces on this issue? For example, South Yorkshire Police routinely provides Sheffield council with incident logs to help support eviction cases.
The process of being evicted is most likely to be a traumatic experience when done legally. Being evicted illegally, often with nowhere to go and with one’s belongings dumped on the street, can be devastating. Renters should know that, when they reach out for help, police and local authorities will both recognise and be able to provide support against illegal activity. Failure to do so erodes trust and paves the way for increasingly serious problems, including homelessness.
I look forward to hearing from my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Armstrong on their important amendment in this group, which addresses protecting children both from violence in their own home and from exploitation outside it. Since the delay from the other evening, there are two additional amendments in the group, Amendments 320 and 328. I look forward to hearing the contributions on those. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to speak to my Amendment 292J. This is a pretty heroic group of amendments in a bid to assist the Committee.
There is a connection between the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Blake and mine, because her amendment is about encouraging collaboration between the police and local authorities. I too want to see such collaboration. I want to add to that the NHS and other local bodies and, essentially, give a huge boost to support for services for vulnerable children. If we were able to do that, it would have a massive impact on the lives of those vulnerable young children but also ensure that far fewer of them went through our criminal justice system in later life, hence my justification for bringing this amendment to your Lordships today.
I am very much relying on the recently published report of the Public Services Select Committee. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who excellently chairs the committee, is with me today, and I pay tribute to the members, some of whom will make a brief intervention in this debate, and the staff for their excellent work and the report.
The number of vulnerable children was increasing before Covid hit us, but, since March 2020, the crisis has accelerated. More than 1 million children are now growing up with reduced life chances, and too many end up in our criminal justice system. Despite this, the Government have not yet recognised the need for a child vulnerability strategy. Unfortunately, the results of not having one are readily evident. Our inquiry showed a lack of co-ordination on the part of central government and national regulators, which has undermined the ability of local services to work together to intervene early and share information to keep vulnerable children safe and improve their lives.
This poor national co-ordination means that many children fall through the gaps. In 2019, the Children’s Commissioner warned that more than 800,000 vulnerable children were completely invisible to services and receiving no support. We think this unmet need is likely to have grown during the pandemic. The Select Committee surveyed more than 200 professionals working with children and families and they reported increases of well over 50% during the past 18 months in the number of children and families requesting help with parental mental ill-health or reporting domestic violence and addiction problems in their home.
The problem is that public services are just too late to intervene before trouble comes. In our most deprived communities, too many children go into care and have poor health and employment outcomes. They are excluded from school or end up in prison.
We need to deal with these structural weaknesses. Part of that is to do with the way in which priority is given nationally and locally, but it is not divorced from cuts to local authority budgets, which in turn have contributed to a lack of support and collaboration and undermined efforts to improve life chances for deprived children. A particular problem we have identified is the silo working of so many national bodies; they seem to set different targets and funding mechanisms and often work to prevent collaboration between different public services. This is where a national strategy would really come into play. Even the sharing of data between agencies seems to be inhibited; at the end of the day, it is quite extraordinary that public bodies seem to be unable to share data that would improve the life chances of young people if only they could collaborate.
I am sure my noble friend will refer to many of the recommendations in the report, but the one that relates to our amendment is the requirement for a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police to improve children’s life chances. There is already a duty in the Children and Social Work Act placed on safeguarding partners—the police, the NHS and local authorities—to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in local areas. That is the foundation, but it does not compel authorities to co-operate and intervene early to support children at risk of poor long-term education, health or well-being outcomes. Barnardo’s told us that it would be a real advantage to have a statutory duty on the relevant public authorities to commission specific, specialist domestic abuse support for children who have witnessed domestic violence in the home, as one example of what could happen if we were to go down this route.
So there is a persuasive argument for the Government to introduce a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police to improve long-term outcomes for children in their areas and to ensure that early help is provided to children living in families with serious parental addiction or domestic violence concerns, or parental mental ill-health, to those who are at high risk of criminal exploitation and to young carers. When we think about what this Bill seeks to do, I can think of no better way to try to prevent people going into the criminal justice system than to invest more in vulnerable children. I hope the Minister can respond positively.
My Lords, I support Amendment 292H in particular. It is a bit of a stretch to have included Amendment 292J, which has been clearly explained, in this group, but I support it as well. I am afraid the inclusion of Amendments 320 and 328 has caught me out, because I know that my noble friend Lady Bennett would have liked to have spoken on those.
On Amendment 292H, it has been extensively reported that, despite the Protection from Eviction Act, the police routinely fail to assist tenants against illegal evictions. Part of this, as the noble Baroness said earlier, is lack of police, but it is also lack of training on this Act. Many police wrongly conclude that this is a civil matter and not a criminal one. As we know, this could not be further from the truth, and I hope the Minister can confirm that the police have power of arrest to prevent an unlawful eviction, so that we are all completely clear.
This has been a problem for quite some time, and it will only get worse in the coming months as winter comes on and Covid protections against evictions lift. Many frustrated landlords will want to kick people out of their homes, and some will knowingly or unknowingly try to evict without following the correct procedures. So I hope the Minister can confirm that police have power of arrest and that the Government will outline what is being done to ensure that the police properly protect tenants.
My Lords, I support Amendment 292H and declare my interest as director of Generation Rent. I also add my voice in support of Amendment 292J in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others. As my noble friend Lady Blake of Leeds said, it is a criminal offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 for a landlord to try to evict a tenant themselves. Local authorities and police officers have a crucial role to play and have the powers to stop illegal eviction and to prosecute offenders. However, the law on illegal evictions is not enforced nearly as much as it should be. Generation Rent research has shown that less than 2% of cases result in a prosecution.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, there are too many instances where a tenant calls the police for help with an illegal eviction, only to find that the police officer dismisses the issue as a civil matter, despite it clearly being a criminal act. This was highlighted very well in a 2020 report by Safer Renting, a charity which helps tenants enforce their rights. If the Minister has not read it, I urge her to do so. In London in 2018, for example, there were 130 cases of homelessness due to an illegal eviction, but only 14 incidents were recorded by the police.
We need a stronger partnership between the police and local authorities to combat this serious crime. Requiring co-operation and sharing of relevant information by police forces is necessary. This amendment will help secure that co-operation. In addition, more needs to be done to reset police attitudes to illegal evictions, with better training of police officers and call handlers so that they know how to respond correctly when a renter is being illegally evicted. We need better data recording and the publishing of that data on incidents between landlords and tenants. Authorities need the powers that currently exist with regard to enforcing safety standards and licensing to demand documents from parties of interest to cover investigations into illegal evictions. The sentencing guidelines should also be addressed; only two of the 10 fines handed down in 2019 were of more than £1,000. Fines can even be lower than the £355 it costs to make a legal claim for possession through the courts. They are far too low to act as any real deterrent to the crime.
Illegally evicting someone is a grave offence, and it affects the most vulnerable renters. Amendment 292H is a step forward. It will improve enforcement of this crime through ensuring that closer working relationship between the police and local authorities which is necessary for proper enforcement and prosecution.
My Lords, I will intervene briefly to support my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who is a member of the Public Services Committee, which I chair. I am delighted to see other members of the committee in the Chamber this afternoon. We published our report only on Friday and I am sure the Minister will be relieved to know that I will not go through its recommendations in great detail. I am sorry the Chief Whip has gone; I was going to say that I hope we will get an opportunity to do that properly on the Floor of the House in the not- too-distant future.
The amendment, despite its length, is quite simple and straightforward. It arises from our report on vulnerable children, which was published last Friday. The report demonstrates very clearly that the country faces a crisis in the growing number of vulnerable children —or “children in need”, as the Government tend to say. The committee found that, since 2010, money at local level has been moved from early intervention and programmes of prevention to crisis intervention. I do not blame those at local level; they had to bear large cuts because of the austerity programme and, legally, they cannot avoid crisis intervention. If something goes wrong, they have a duty to remove a child from the home, exclude them from school or get them into the criminal justice system if they are in real trouble. We know that, as early support for families is reduced, there is evidence that children are more likely to end up in crisis and require being taken into care or excluded from school, or even ending up in the criminal justice system.
The amendment seeks to protect families and children through a duty on agencies at the local level to provide early intervention to help prevent that crisis and breakdown, and it encourages and puts within that duty collaboration between those local agencies. One of the quite shocking things we heard, given that this has been talked about for so many years, is that one agency would very often not know what was happening with the child or the family if they were directly involved with another agency. We think that that level of co-operation and collaboration at a local level is also essential.
This provision would protect what local agencies feel is necessary in order to have that early intervention, which, if it works well—and we know it can—will prevent necessary crisis intervention later on. In the long term, this would save us money as taxpayers and as a society. That is the problem: we never get to the long term, because since 2010, the money spent on early intervention has been slashed. In my own county of Durham, 66% of the funding they were spending on early intervention has now been switched to crisis intervention. In Sunderland that figure is 81%. We found in our inquiry that this had happened most in the areas of greatest need around the country. For us as a nation, that is unacceptable.
There are huge pressures on local authorities in relation to children, and even more have been flagged up since our report was published only last Friday. The County Councils Network report earlier this week predicted a rise in the number of children requiring care, and yesterday the Home Office said it was going to require more local authorities to accept unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I approve of that responsibility being shared, but it tells us that the pressures at that heavy end are not going to lessen at this time. The only way to reduce those pressures is by giving families support at the time that will help them to avoid crisis down the line. I know that if a new duty is placed on a local authority, the Government have committed themselves to it and it is in legislation that they will fund—although certainly never as much as the local authority wants—that new responsibility. So, there is money attached to a new duty, and that is one of the reasons why we put this in the way we did.
As a nation, we cannot afford this continuing and escalating crisis in the number of children who are vulnerable and in need. This is spelled out in the amendment, so let us really back what we know can work in terms of early intervention. I ask the Government to signal that they understand what this amendment is about and that they are going to make sure that this sort of thing happens in the future.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support Amendment 292J in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. It has been a real pleasure to serve on that committee with them, and it was brilliantly chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. I did not agree with everything she said this afternoon, but we always disagree well. I do agree with the terms of the amendment, and I think the arguments were tightly set out. The points around siloed working are critical, and if we do not do this, we will see more of the pretty harrowing examples that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to. I am pleased to give my support to this amendment.
My Lords, my Amendment 320 and the consequential Amendment 328 are—slightly surprisingly—in this group. Together, they would finally repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes homelessness a criminal offence.
I am grateful to the homelessness charity Crisis for devising these well-crafted amendments. I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Sandhurst, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for adding their names to these amendments. They join the long list of distinguished parliamentarians, including William Wilberforce in the 1820s and Winston Churchill in the 1930s, who have opposed this objectionable legislation. Indeed, last month the Prime Minister himself spoke out, saying:
“No one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live, and I think the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 752.]
Since there can be no objection from the Treasury, as there is no expenditure involved, it seems, therefore, that the moment has arrived. After almost 200 years, the antiquated and misguided Vagrancy Act can at last be laid to rest.
Certainly, the importance of repealing the Act remains, although I will not repeat my Second Reading speech on this theme. Suffice to say, punishing people for being homeless is entirely the wrong approach. Fining people up to £1,000 for sleeping rough or begging and giving them a criminal record is surely a travesty, making their recovery and reintegration into society more difficult than ever. It inhibits the referral of those sleeping rough to the community and social services that can help them, and as long as being homeless is itself a criminal offence, homeless people are deterred from engaging with the law when they are the victims of dreadful violence and abuse, as they so often are.
I note that rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be victims of crime than the rest of us. Among the examples provided by Crisis, I note the quote from a man in Oxford, who said that
“in my nine years on and off the street, I was violently attacked, shouted at and even urinated on by total strangers. Enduring this abuse was hard enough—I didn’t expect the law to hold my very existence against me.”
Other case studies from Crisis demonstrate just how counterproductive the Act is in blocking the chance for agencies to help and instead penalising and fining those least able to pay.
However, it is now clear that, to the highest levels of government, Ministers have accepted the case for repeal. Nevertheless, in case there are any lingering doubts or hesitations, perhaps I could offer some observations on possible objections to these amendments.
First, securing this repeal has been inhibited to date by the problem of finding the parliamentary time for the Government to do what they want to. Clearly, this obstacle is behind us now that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides the opportunity for this to be expedited right away. Indeed, it would absorb far more parliamentary time if the Government were to prepare a fresh Bill to be taken through its 10 stages in the two Houses. It would also take more time if the Government turned down the opportunity before us and required these amendments to go to a vote, with all the extra toing and froing that this would entail. Missing this moment now would surely mean a long, frustrating and pointless wait for the next legislative opportunity, which might be years away.
Secondly, there is the objection that the amendments themselves need revising. The Minister raised such an objection at Second Reading: she noted the devolution implication, given that it extends to Wales. This is an important point and has now been the subject of discussion with the key people in Wales. Welsh Government Ministers have themselves advocated a repeal, and the Ministry of Justice has now been notified that the Welsh Government have indicated their full support for the amendments to apply to Wales as well as England. The necessary legislative consent Motion from the Senedd is scheduled once further amendments are made to the Bill. A tweak to the amendments before us has been prepared to embrace this Welsh dimension, and this can be brought forward, I hope with government approval, on Report. The devolution issue here is one of extra support from Wales. I add that the Vagrancy Act has already been successfully repealed in Scotland.
Thirdly, it might be argued that there are still parts of the original legislation covering aggressive begging and anti-social behaviour which need to be preserved, complicating any repeal of the Act. However, this line of argument ignores the far more extensive powers now available under other legislation, notably the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, will draw attention.
There are compelling arguments for the police to use these powers very sparingly in so far as they embrace homeless people, but it cannot be said that the necessary powers do not exist. To support necessary action by front-line police, Amendment 320 includes the totally non-contentious but none the less valuable subsidiary provision for updated guidance on the 2014 Act to be disseminated, promoting the preventive approach now adopted by most police forces.
Fourthly, it is said that it is not worth bothering with repeal of the Vagrancy Act since the number of people charged under it has been declining. However, the Act is still used as a fallback, even though other, more appropriate measures are available. Under pressure from local members of the public, the Act is still deployed.
Moreover, the symbolism in this repeal should not be underestimated; it demonstrates a more enlightened understanding of homelessness. The Government could be rightly proud of making this symbolic gesture alongside their good work in responding to homelessness in the pandemic with their Everyone In initiative; their support for the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, Bob Blackman MP’s Private Member’s Bill, which I had the honour of taking through your Lordships’ House; and their excellent funding for the Housing First projects.
The Government have the laudable objective of ending homelessness by 2024. Removing the barrier of the Vagrancy Act that still hangs over homelessness policy must be an essential step in this direction. I hope the Minister will agree that there really are no arguments for further delay. It has been over three years since the Government committed to look again at this issue and no difficulties have been uncovered. It is almost 200 years since this controversial measure was enacted; let us not kick the can any further down the road. At last, here and now, we have the opportunity to get this done.
I would be delighted to meet Ministers to discuss any further tweaks that could improve these amendments before Report, an offer I am sure goes for the other noble Lords supporting these amendments. Because of the way amendments have been grouped today, I will not be invited to sum up the position after the Minister’s response, so perhaps I can be clear now that I intend to take these amendments to a vote on Report if we are unable to agree a form of words to repeal the 1824 Act. However, I hope it will not come to this and I eagerly anticipate the Minister’s response.
My Lords, first, I will say a brief word on Amendment 292J, proposed by noble Lords on the Public Services Committee, on which I and my noble friend Lady Wyld also serve. It backs one of the recommendations made in last week’s report and I support the case being made. Indeed, on 25 October, I tabled an amendment with the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, to help exactly the same group as mentioned in this amendment, namely children at risk of domestic violence and criminal exploitation. In that amendment, I argued for them to be given housing priority, so I hope the Minister will reply sympathetically to the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others.
I have added my name to Amendment 328, which is consequential to Amendment 320, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I add a brief footnote to what he said, in support of the campaign which he has long championed. On 23 April 2020, in an Oral Question about the Vagrancy Act 1824, I asked the Minister if he agreed that
“attitudes to those who sleep rough have softened over the past 200 years and that legislation which refers to ‘idle and disorderly’, ‘rogues’ and ‘vagabonds’ living in ‘coach-houses’ and ‘stables’ has no place in modern legislation”.
Later in that exchange, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, weighed in, saying:
“If Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which was enacted after repeated harvest failures created an army of the dispossessed, were presented to us today, beyond the archaic language to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, has already referred, we should reject it as being vague and uncertain, and arguably tarnished with an improper reverse burden of proof.”—[Official Report, 23/4/20; col. 84.]
We have heard the Prime Minister’s words on this. The former Secretary of State at the then MHCLG said that, in his opinion, the Vagrancy Act, whose short title is
“An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in England”,
should be repealed. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, here we have an amendment that would deliver government policy. At Second Reading, the Minister said she was sure the House would hold her to account on her assurance that she was on the case—so here we are.
This is not the first attempt at repeal. On 17 August 1911, Sir William Byles asked the Home Secretary
“whether the new Recorder of Liverpool, Mr. Hemmerde, K.C., has just sentenced a young man, Edward Gillibanks, to twenty-five strokes with the birch, in addition to twelve months’ hard labour, for being an incorrigible rogue; and whether, in view of the effect of this form of punishment, he will consider the desirability of proposing the repeal of the Vagrancy Act”.
The Home Secretary, one Mr Churchill, replied:
“I cannot say that I think the punishment inflicted on him supplies an argument for repealing the Vagrancy Act.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/8/1911; cols. 2103-04.]
Let us hope we fare a little better today.
It is now common ground that the Act does nothing to resolve or tackle the causes of homelessness. On the contrary, by directing rough sleepers down the criminal justice route, it risks isolating them from the very sources of help now generously provided by the Government, which can help them to rebuild their lives.
The right approach is set out in the thoughtful and comprehensive approach of Westminster City Council, detailed in its rough sleeping strategy, which outlines how rough sleeping can be sensitively handled in a borough to which the magnetism of the capital attracts so many. Every rough sleeper is offered a personalised and sustainable route away from the streets, based on their circumstances. The council has remodelled its services to accept women, who make up some 17% of rough sleepers, and can accommodate women who will not be parted from their dogs.
Westminster also makes it clear that it needs powers to deal with those who behave aggressively or anti-socially. The amendment contains the necessary provisions and my noble friend Lord Sandhurst will refer to other provisions on the statute book to deal with unacceptable behaviour. We have the perfect vehicle to bring our legislation up to date. I hope we are pushing at an open door and I look forward to the Minister’s gracious speech of acceptance.
My Lords, I give the support of our Benches to Amendments 320 and the consequential amendment, Amendment 328, to which I have put my name. We also support Amendments 292H and 292J. I ask for the indulgence of the Committee in allowing me to speak now, as I was unable to speak at Second Reading. I am also very conscious that time is short for the weighty matters that we are trying to achieve today, so I will try to be succinct in covering what should have been two separate interventions.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, has summed up only too well why the Vagrancy Act 1824 should be repealed, so noble Lords will be relieved to know that I will not repeat his arguments. That we still criminalise homelessness in 2021 is a stain on our societal conscience. Some 200 years ago, starving children were imprisoned for stealing bread, people hanged for petty theft and poverty was attributed—this is the key point—to individual fecklessness. The fact that vagrancy remains a crime is an anachronistic throwback to those times and repeal is long overdue.
Having dealt with several police chiefs in my 16 years as a directly elected mayor, I know that the very fact that begging and homelessness were in themselves crimes evoked different attitudes in different offices, in both the council and the police. This resulted in conflicting approaches to how we should work and how effective we were. We had to work together and go on a journey to find a truly multiagency approach. On that journey, we had to challenge some very firmly held views on the stereotypes of homelessness and what we believed might work. Repealing this Act would change this culture and ensure consistency of approach towards the homeless.
A concern that one might have in agreeing to the amendment is whether the police would feel that they would be unable to deal with some of the genuine issues that occur—I know because we have used some of these tools. When an area has a significant number of homeless people in the community, would they feel a loss of some powers? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, will expand on that. From my experience, I know that there are plenty of other arrows in the antisocial behaviour quiver to deal with such issues. Thus, we hope that the Government will give serious consideration to our amendments.
I have briefly mentioned the challenges of partnership working, and such working is at the heart of Amendments 292H and 292J. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, we have the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, which, in the vast majority of cases, works. It ensures that eviction follows due process and, very importantly, that anyone evicted has a right of appeal. It gives them more time to find somewhere to live. Most importantly, they are not deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless, which is critical for being eligible for help from the local authority.
Cutting to the chase, in my experience, the police and local authorities play pass the buck this one—if they respond at all. A survey by the charity Safer Renting found widespread ignorance within police forces of the details of their powers in the Act, many wrongly believing that it was a civil matter. There was even some evidence of the police helping landlords to evict illegally. I am in no doubt that this amendment would strengthen those partnerships, obliging the police and local authorities to share information—a point well made by several noble Lords. The data issues on sharing information are mystifying. Most importantly, it would act as a deterrent against landlords who are quite willing to break the law. Almost inevitably, when it comes to light, they are breaking the law in other housing and tenancy matters.
The noble Baroness cited the 2019-20 figures. We should be concerned about the disparity between offences and prosecutions. It signifies that either the authorities are not taking it seriously or they are not gathering the correct information to enable a prosecution. This amendment addresses that. It is also true that it is usually the vulnerable and marginalised who are the victims of rogue landlords and they need and deserve our protection. The Act should be taken seriously. It is not at the moment. The amendment would ensure that that happens.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would also encourage greater co-operation and collaboration between the relevant authorities on the protection of children—surely there is nothing more serious than that. It is necessary, because I recognise from bitter experience that it is only by working together that we can begin effectively to challenge these ills in our society. But it is sometimes necessary for the Government to do their bit and insist on that co-operation, in order to drag the agencies to the table to start making a difference by changing lives in partnership.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 320 and 328, which would repeal the Vagrancy Act. This 197 year-old Act does nothing to tackle and resolve homelessness, and nor does it prevent antisocial behaviour. In fact, by criminalising rough sleepers, it prevents them accessing vital services to support them to move off the streets. This is important in the context of people trafficking—modern slavery. Its victims are those likely to end up sleeping rough on the streets to escape danger. They need our help. Criminalising rough sleeping marginalises the most vulnerable and may mean that rough sleepers move away from, not towards vital support. It does not address the underlying causes.
The Act now has only two effective provisions. Section 3 makes it an offence in any public place to beg or cause a child to beg. An offender can be locked up for one month. Section 4 addresses what we call rough sleeping. It also encompasses those who are in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose. This is used to deal with people who are thought to be “up to no good”. The fact is that there are perfectly good ways of dealing with all those people both within and without the criminal law. Indeed, on 9 March the then Secretary of State said in answer to a Parliamentary Question that the Act should be repealed. In this amendment, we offer a fully drafted way forward. If minor changes are needed, they can be made—there is no problem there.
The number of convictions for rough sleeping and begging have fallen consistently in the past 10 years. Indeed, in 2019—the most recent year for which figures are available—only one person received a custodial sentence for begging, and only 16 received a custodial sentence for being in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose. The numbers are tiny. Let us throw away the sledgehammer. The police, local authorities and other agencies have ample powers.
Let me explain very briefly. The Highways Act 1980, Section 137, makes it an offence wilfully to block free passage along the highway. That is punishable by a fine. The Public Order Act 1986, Section 5, makes it an offence to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour. That, too, is punishable by a fine. Moving to civil measures, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a wide range of measures to deal with the different types of anti-social behaviour. Recourse can properly be made to those measures for people who are repeat nuisances. They are all available under the 2014 Act.
Taking it very summarily in the short time available, there are civil injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance. Breach of those civil injunctions gives rise to civil contempt, with all the remedies available for that—up to 2 years’ imprisonment for the worst offenders, but it is done properly. Secondly, there are criminal behaviour orders. These can impose requirements as well as prohibit certain activities. Thirdly, there are community protection notices. These can be issued by the police, a social landlord or a local council if behaviour is detrimental to the quality of life of a local community. Fourthly, there are dispersal powers, under which a local council, following consultation with the police, may issue a public spaces protection order to place restrictions or impose conditions on activities that people may carry out in the designated area.
In respect of that, since 2014 the Home Office has issued statutory guidance under the 2014 Act, recently updated this January. Our amendment, as noble Lords will see from its terms, will strengthen that. We propose a co-ordinated package. Where something has to be done, the police and local authorities have the powers to do it. We ask the House to act now to put an end to this prehistoric, unjust and inappropriate law. I commend the amendments.
Briefly, I entirely support the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, and there is no point in repeating what have been compelling, eloquent and, I believe, unanswerable points. Long experience has shown that arguments do not get better by repetition.
What I wanted to do, however, was to make four quick points from my experience in support of Amendment 292J in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. First, the category of person dealt with is easy to identify. Therefore, that is not an answer. Secondly, the evidence of the risk of future offending is compelling. That in relation to Wales is set out—I need not repeat it—in the report of the Commission on Justice that I chaired and there is masses of such evidence. Thirdly, the proposal is plainly value for money. One has only to look at the cost of what it takes to deal with those who have gone wrong. Fourthly—surprisingly, some may think—the proposal would have enormous public support. When we canvassed views about it, and when I did so as a judge, one always found that the overwhelming majority felt that these people deserved a chance and support.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Thornhill has spoken comprehensively on these amendments, so I can be brief. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, for introducing the amendment. She rightly points to the failure of the current legislation to adequately deal with this problem on the basis of the facts that she presented. Something clearly needs to be done to ensure that the police play their part. If South Yorkshire Police can do it, why cannot every force? We support this amendment.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his Amendment 292J. Noble Lords may have seen the ITV “News at Ten” last night on how young people are increasingly being exploited, particularly by drug dealers. That is in addition to a 6% increase in reported domestic violence during lockdown, when many more children would have become vulnerable. There is too much emphasis on the criminal justice system as a way to deal with these vulnerable young people, rather than there being a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police, as this amendment suggests. We support it.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, introduced Amendments 320 and 328. I remember being told as a young constable about the antiquated legislation—the Vagrancy Act 1824—introduced to deal with soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. That was in 1976—not the Napoleonic wars, when I was a young constable; they were a bit earlier. People should not be criminalised simply for begging and sleeping rough. There is adequate alternative legislation to deal with anti-social behaviour and the Vagrancy Act is now redundant. As the explanatory note says, these amendments would require police officers
“to balance protection of the community with sensitivity to the problems that cause people to engage in begging or sleeping rough and ensure that general public order enforcement powers should not in general be used in relation to people sleeping rough, and should be used in relation to people begging only where no other approach is reasonably available.”
On that basis, we support these amendments as well.
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I have great sympathy with the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, to firmly stamp out the illegal eviction of tenants. This distressing activity has no place in our society and it is an unacceptable practice carried out by rogue landlords, perpetrated on tenants.
I totally agree that the police and local authorities need to work together to tackle that. Many noble Lords have spoken in today’s Committee who have experience of this type of multiagency working. It is essential in terms of supporting the vulnerable, and there are many examples of that. I always talk about the troubled families programme, which is one such intervention but it is such an important one because some people have multiple problems. It is a fantastic way for agencies to sort them out together. Local authorities and the police also have mechanisms in place to work collaboratively to tackle criminal landlords. The police are also able to establish protocols for information sharing, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, spoke about. We expect them to use those protocols to their full extent to aid investigations into illegal evictions and enforce the law.
If the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, has examples that suggest a lack of effective co-operation, I should be very happy to pass them on to my colleagues in DLUHC. As has been pointed out, there are lots of good examples of how interventions have worked well, particularly in Westminster. If there is an issue, the solution here is not more legislation. The existing powers we have are sufficient. But I accept that it is incumbent on the police and local authorities to work collaboratively to tackle crime in their areas, including on illegal eviction investigations. As regards the point about police saying that issues are a civil matter, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, mentioned, the police have powers of arrest and it is important that those powers are used appropriately, including on illegal eviction investigations.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, explained, Amendment 292J would provide for a new duty on specified authorities to collaborate to support children affected by domestic violence or those children at high risk of criminal exploitation. We touched on these issues when we were debating the serious violence duty. Some of my initial comments on the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, apply here as well.
Ensuring that vulnerable children remain protected is such a high priority for the Government and society. In 2017, we introduced significant reforms requiring local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and chief officers of police to form multiagency safeguarding partnerships. They were fully established in 2019, and we continue to work across government and with local partners to ensure that they are as effective as possible. With strategic oversight from health, policing and local authority leaders, those multiagency safeguarding arrangements can co-ordinate identification, protection and intervention for those at risk of harm in a way that best responds to local circumstances. I should say that the troubled families programme often identifies other interventions that are needed.
As safeguarding partners, local authority, police and health leaders already have a statutory duty to collaborate in their child safeguarding functions, which includes working together to identify and respond to the needs of children in their areas. These partners are able to name other authorities, as noble Lords will know, including representatives from the education and criminal justice sectors, as relevant agencies in their arrangements. Where named, these agencies are under a statutory obligation to comply with those arrangements. That duty to collaborate in supporting children at risk of, or affected by, these crimes therefore already exists on a statutory footing. However, we recognise the imperative to give focus to the twin issues that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, raised in his amendment.
Does the noble Baroness accept that there is a problem with that situation, which happens often at the crisis level and not the early intervention level? It also excludes any organisation, such as a voluntary sector agency, that may be working with a child if they are not one of the three official statutory agencies.
What I was trying to say was that legislation is in place but, if it is not always followed in practice, it would be very helpful to know about it. However, I accept the final point that the noble Baroness makes.
I turn to the issues that the noble Lord raises in his amendment. If you consider first children impacted by domestic abuse, it is totally unacceptable that some children have to witness abuse carried out in their home by those whom they should trust the most. This Government have demonstrated their absolute resolve to tackle domestic abuse and its impact on children, both in legislation earlier this year—the Domestic Abuse Act—and through the upcoming domestic abuse strategy.
As part of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act, children are recognised as victims of domestic abuse in their own right where they see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse. This is an important step which will help ensure that locally commissioned services continue to consider and address the needs of children. Further, the Act created the role of the domestic abuse commissioner in statute to provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues and to oversee and monitor the provision of services for victims, including children. The provisions of the Act came into force on 1 November.
It is really important that young victims receive the right support at the right time—which was precisely the wording that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, used—to help them cope and recover and to mitigate the long-term impact of their experiences. We are determined to continue to improve the standard of support for victims of crime. This year the Government will provide £150 million to victim support services, which includes an extra £51 million to increase support for rape and domestic abuse victims. That includes support for children and young people.
Through the children affected by domestic abuse fund we have provided £3 million this year for specialist services for children who have been affected by domestic abuse. This funding is enabling a range of therapeutic interventions for children, such as one-to-one or group support. In addition, the Home Office is this year providing £169,000-worth of funding to Operation Encompass, a scheme which connects the police to schools through a specialist support helpline for teachers concerned about children experiencing domestic abuse. The helpline was established during the Covid-19 pandemic, as noble Lords might recall, and we are continuing to fund it this year.
Turning to the matter of child criminal exploitation, the Government are investing in specialist support for under-25s and their families who are affected by county lines exploitation in the three largest exporting force areas—London, the West Midlands and Merseyside. The Government are also funding the Children’s Society’s Prevention Programme, which works to tackle and prevent child criminal exploitation, child sexual abuse and exploitation, and modern-day slavery and human trafficking on a regional and national basis. This has included supporting the #LookCloser public awareness campaign, which focuses on increasing awareness and encouraging reporting of the signs and indicators of child exploitation. We also fund Missing People’s SafeCall service, which is a national confidential helpline for young people, families and carers who are concerned about county lines exploitation.
Through cross-government efforts we are working to identify areas of learning with regard to child criminal exploitation and improving our response to it. The Home Office and the Department for Education are currently testing the effectiveness of how multi-agency safeguarding partnerships respond to serious violence and county lines through a series of deep dives. We have recently received the findings from those reviews and are considering the best way to share the learning and practice with local areas.
In the wider landscape, the noble Lord will be aware that the Government will be consulting on a victims’ Bill. As part of that consultation, we will seek views on the provision of community-based support services for victims, including children. The consultation will carefully look at how local bodies collaborate to support victims and will consider the evidence to determine where legislation could be used more effectively. Therefore, although I am very sympathetic to the aims of the noble Lord’s amendment, I hope that he is sufficiently reassured by the extensive ongoing efforts to tackle these two issues, the existing arrangements in place and, indeed, our plans to consider the duty to collaborate further as part of the victims’ Bill.
Finally, in relation to Amendments 320 and 328, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Best, that the time has come—
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before we get on to the Vagrancy Act and the other amendments, she talked about treating children as victims of domestic violence if they witness it, and about child criminal exploitation. There is a third group: children who witness violence, particularly in the home, and suffer adverse childhood experiences as a result which lead them into committing crime. I remember attending a juvenile detention facility in Scotland, where almost every child in custody had experienced violence in the home as a cause. The Minister talked about two issues, but there is this third issue of adverse childhood experiences leading to offending behaviour, which I believe the noble Lord’s amendment addresses in a way that the Minister has not.
My intention was not to leave out that issue; we could have a whole debate on the effect of childhood abuse, trauma and witnessing violence on the future prospects of a person when they become an adult and their increased likelihood of going on to abuse, but my intention was not to dismiss it. I apologise that I did not mention it, but the intention certainly was not to dismiss it at all.
Finally, I move to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. As I said, the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act—some of the language that was used is so antiquated that it would perhaps be alien to some of this generation. I agree that nobody should be criminalised just because they have nowhere to live. Back in 2018, we committed to review the legislation following mixed views among stakeholders regarding the continued relevance of the Act, given that it is, as noble Lords have said, nearly 200 years old. I am sure that noble Lords can understand that announcing the outcome of this review has been delayed by several factors. One noble Lord mentioned the dedicated response for vulnerable individuals who are sleeping rough during the pandemic, which was outstanding.
It has been imperative to understand the full picture of how and why the Vagrancy Act is used, and what impact any change to or repeal of the Act will have. Rough sleeping and begging are complex issues, and the Act continues to be used. The review considered a range of factors and at its heart has been the experiences and perceptions of relevant stakeholders, including local authorities and the police. The Act continues to be used to tackle begging, and, if repealed, a legislative gap would be left that might impact on the police’s ability to respond to it.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 is not an alternative in this context. The powers in the Act are available to police and local authorities to tackle specific forms of behaviour that meet the legal tests in that legislation—for example, behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to a victim or community. As I have said, begging is complex, but plainly it does not always come with these forms of accompanying behaviours.
I was just about to say that I have not finished my answer.
Begging is clearly complex but plainly does not always come with these forms of accompanying behaviours. We must ensure that there are no unintended consequences in repealing the Act. We carefully consider the operational impact for the police, who play a very important role in local partnership approaches to reducing rough sleeping, as well as ensuring community safety and tackling crime. Although the police will often not be best placed to provide support to vulnerable individuals, enforcement can form part of moving people away from the streets when working closely with other agencies and coupled with a meaningful offer of support. It is important that the police have effective tools to respond to behaviour that can impact negatively on communities.
The anti-social behaviour powers to which my noble friend Lord Sandhurst referred do not have the immediacy of a criminal offence. We need to consider further whether there is a continued place for criminal law in tackling begging.
As I have previously stated, the Government do not wholeheartedly agree that the Vagrancy Act is outdated and inappropriate—I am sorry; we do agree. I am quite tired today. The Government agree that the Vagrancy Act is outdated and inappropriate for modern-day society. However, as I have outlined, it needs to be considered alongside consideration of what more modern replacement legislation should look like.
To that end, in relation to subsection (4) of the proposed new clause, I share noble Lords’ ambition to make sure that those who are rough sleeping are supported appropriately. We know that not all individuals who are rough sleeping beg and that not all individuals who beg are rough sleeping. There is a range of circumstances in which an individual may beg, including forced begging; a perpetual cycle of begging can have a detrimental impact on the health of an individual, as well as impeding engagement with support. We also know that some people engage in begging with various motives. Where an individual is truly destitute, it is paramount that a multiagency approach is wrapped around them to provide the necessary support, but we must recognise that this does not always happen. We need to ensure that legislation creates the right environment in which to deliver effective services and engage with vulnerable people constructively.
In relation to subsection (5), I am not convinced that additional guidance is needed on the use of anti-social behaviour legislation beyond existing statutory guidance. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was introduced to provide simple and effective powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, and existing statutory guidance makes it clear that those powers are not there to target vulnerable people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or begging without there being accompanying behaviour that meets specific legal tests. Therefore, we believe that the position that subsections (3) to (7) of the proposed new clause seek to specify are an already-established position reflected in statutory guidance.
I accept that these are relative points of detail about the drafting of the noble Lord’s amendment. The central point is that the Government are committed to completing their review of the Vagrancy Act as soon as practicable. This helpful and timely debate will inform that process. I would like to extend an offer on behalf of Eddie Hughes, the Minister for Rough Sleeping, to meet the noble Lord, Lord Best, and other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate ahead of the next stage.
When I voiced my support for something needing to be done about the Vagrancy Act, there was a general acknowledgement that something needs to be done about it. I extend the invitation to the noble Lord, Lord Best—and, indeed, to my noble friend as well if he so wishes—because it would be an important discussion ahead of the next stage. What I was trying to say in my rather long-winded explanation is that there are some complex things in the Vagrancy Act that need to be unpicked and understood, with consideration of the legislation on the back of that.
I hope that this is an appropriate time for me to ask the Minister two questions in relation to her answer on this group.
First, in contrast with the Minister’s answer to the subsequent amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, the answer to Amendment 292H in the name of my noble friend Lady Blake seemed to be that there are adequate powers for local authorities and the police to work together to protect people from unlawful eviction. However, there is obviously a difference between powers and duties. The intention behind this neat and compelling amendment is to do what the Government have tried to do in other aspects of this draft legislation: create a duty for people who already have powers to prioritise a problem and work together. Why not prioritise protection from eviction in the way that other types of crime have been prioritised, with duties and not just powers, in other parts of the Bill?
Secondly, I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer on vagrancy. I do not understand why, if begging is not causing harassment to people, it is a crime at all. The Minister talked about two sides of the begging problem: it is bad for the person who has to do it and potentially bad for the people who experience it. If it is bad for the people who experience it, there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, set out, adequate criminal laws, whether in anti-social behaviour or in other legislation, that cover unwanted harassment. If it is just about protecting people from unhealthy behaviours, we do not do that by criminalising people for being desperate and poor. When she meets her noble friends to discuss this amendment, will the Minister look at whether this review cannot be speeded up in time for Report? The Government seem able to move very quickly when it comes to adding extra powers to suppress protests, but it takes hundreds of years to repeal the Vagrancy Act.
I am sure that, when my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Best, meet Minister Hughes, they will cover some of the points made by the noble Baroness.
I do not think that this is about an acknowledgement that there are adequate powers; it is about the application of those powers. As I said to the noble Baroness, if there are deficiencies in collaboration at the local level, it would be helpful if they were brought to my attention.
I did not want to interrupt or contribute to this debate because there have been many eloquent speeches, but I want to ask the Minister a granular question. This is going to turn into a shaggy dog story in which everybody agrees that this 200 year-old legislation is out of date unless somebody sits down and does something serious about it with the intention of bringing the discussion to an end. As a question of fact, has parliamentary counsel ever been instructed to produce, or try to produce, legislation to replace the Vagrancy Act? If not, why not? If so, can we know something about the result?
I thank the noble Lord for trying to wrap the discussion up in that one important question. I will take it away. When my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Best, speak to Eddie Hughes, the Minister, we will see what progress has been made at that stage. But at this stage, I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
I apologise for interrupting. We have had an hour and 19 minutes on this, but the answer that the Minister gave on the problems with Amendment 320, to which I have put my name, were difficult to follow. She made the point that begging or sleeping rough does not in itself amount to action causing alarm or distress in the absence of other factors under the 2014 Act, with which I agree and which the drafters of Amendment 320 explicitly reflect in subsection (3). I am simply unable to understand her reasons for not accepting Amendment 320.
This is important. It is not possible to say, “Well, here are some incomprehensible reasons that nobody in the Chamber understands, therefore we need the completion of a review.” I did not follow whether the review is part of the way through, whether it is finished or whether there is an expected date for its conclusion. Will the Minister answer two questions? First, what is wrong with Amendment 320 if it precisely reflects what she said? Secondly, where has the review got to? When did it start and when will it finish?
As for what is wrong with Amendment 320, I explicitly said to the noble Lord, Lord Best, that the Government agree that the time has come to consider the Vagrancy Act. There is an opportunity to speak to the appropriate Minister before Report to answer some of the questions that have been asked this afternoon. I do not know the answer to the second question, but I will write.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the contributions that we have heard this afternoon. They have been incredibly thoughtful and based on evidence. On my Amendment 292H, we have heard many examples supporting the words that I used: there is evidence out there of what works, in the same way that there is evidence of what does not work. This is a real opportunity to get to grips with this issue for the sake of the victims of eviction and their families. I assure the Minister that everyone who has access to evidence will be extremely happy to supply it, with the expectation that it will be considered as we make further progress with this Bill. This is a real opportunity to get things right.
I thought that I was going back a long way, to 1997, not back 200 years, but it clearly is not good enough that, where there are powers, they are not being used. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti put it well: there must be an express duty to focus minds. It is not enough for us to say that in certain parts of the country this is being done. I can attest from my time as leader of Leeds City Council that there was incredible progress in this area and a real expectation that everyone would come to the table. Not sharing data was never an excuse. It was expected and supported by all the partners. It can be done everywhere but it is not being done everywhere. The resources are not there within the police or local authorities—they are diminishing—to ensure that enforcement is seen through. We are talking about innocent victims who suffer from the lack of enforcement. I made the point that all we are asking for is a simple change, through the amendment, that would bring to an end so much misery for people that does not need to happen.
I pay tribute to my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Armstrong for the work that has gone into their Amendment 292J. I support all the comments that were made about appropriate intervention at the right time. I get incredibly disappointed standing here and raising points while being told that millions of pounds are being spent. If they are not being spent properly and appropriately to have the necessary intervention to deal with the problem up front, then we all have some responsibility for accounting for that.
I hope that everyone agrees that more thought needs to be put into this. I sensed that the Minister had some sympathy with our expressions of frustration in both these areas and I hope that we can come to some accommodation, because it seems to me that we will miss a real opportunity if we do not bring this forward. The Public Services Committee, chaired so ably by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, has made the case clearly, as supported by other members today, for the early intervention model. This focuses on children. We know that when you get that early intervention right, not only do you get better outcomes for children and young people, as well as their families, but the resource that you spend can effectively be ploughed back and reinvested in supporting the early intervention that we know works. I am sure that all of us will supply any amount of evidence to demonstrate those points.
I am grateful for the interventions from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti on Amendments 320 and 328. I feel that we will be forced to come back to this issue. Again, this seems an incredibly wasted opportunity. We need to get this right and move on because, as we know, the opportunities to get a grip of this issue are few and far between. I hope that we will continue these discussions and that my noble friends will be included in those further discussions, particularly around the review and other matters. I also hope that we can move to some sensible, timely changes in what has been proposed. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 292H withdrawn.
Amendment 292J not moved.
292K: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Desecration of a corpse
(1) A person (‘D’) is guilty of an offence if—(a) D acts with severe disrespect to a corpse, and(b) D knows that, or is reckless to whether, their acts are one of severe disrespect.(2) In subsection (1)(a), disrespect to a corpse includes but is not limited to—(a) dismembering a corpse, including—(i) removing or attempting to remove identifiable body parts such as teeth, or fingers;(ii) decapitation or attempted decapitation;(b) destroying or attempting to destroy a corpse by means or burning or the use of chemicals.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), whether an act is one of severe disrespect is to be judged according to the standard of the reasonable person.(4) A person is not guilty of an offence under this section if—(a) the act would otherwise be criminal under section 1 of the Human Tissue Act 2004,(b) the act is also a criminal offence under section 70 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (sexual penetration of a corpse), or(c) the act is a lawful cremation under the Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008.(5) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both;(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years.”Member’s explanatory statement
The current common law offence of preventing a lawful and decent burial is rarely used. This amendment therefore creates a specific criminal offence of desecration of a corpse to address intentional acts of disrespect towards a deceased person’s remains.
My Lords, Amendments 292K and 292L in my name seek to create a criminal offence of desecration of a corpse and concealment of a corpse. At present, there are only common-law offences of preventing a lawful burial and obstructing a coroner by concealing a body.
Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen McCourt, still does not know what happened to her daughter who disappeared on 9 February 1988, or where her body was hidden or disposed of. Marie is one of those extraordinary women who absolutely refused to stop looking for her daughter, even though Helen’s murderer, who was convicted on clear DNA evidence, has not only served his term in prison but been released on licence. Despite being pressed repeatedly by the authorities over the years, he has refused to say where Helen’s body was left or what happened to it.
Marie has been arguing for decades that the desecration and concealment of a corpse is an extra-heavy sentence on the victim’s loved ones. She has supported the families of many other victims who have seen their loved ones murdered but have no remains to bury, or have heard of unspeakable desecration of their bodies.
In 2015 Marie started to campaign for a change in the law for these killers, seeking to require them to reveal where their victims’ remains were before being considered for parole. In July 2019, she was successful in getting that law changed—but not in time for her daughter’s killer. Marie was not doing it just for her, her family or Helen’s friends. She does not want anyone else to go through the agony they have faced for over three decades.
Others have also spoken out: Coral Jones, Tony Cox and Lesley Rees are the parents and family members of April Jones, Lorraine Cox and Michael O’Leary, who were also not just murdered but had their bodies desecrated by their murderers. Some remains were dismembered and some were burned. These families have had the extra distress of not knowing what happened to part or all their loved ones’ bodies. For these families there is no closure. More recently, Sarah Everard’s remains were burned by her murderer—although in her case police were able to find her remains.
At present, with the common-law offence of preventing a lawful burial, and these days with excellent forensic skills such as those used by police and forensic staff in the Sarah Everard case, it is possible to identify not just remains but also links with the murderer. The common-law offence of obstructing the coroner by concealing a body is rarely used, and there are no consequences for a convicted killer who continues to conceal the whereabouts of a body. Some killers enjoy having this last part of control over their appalling acts. They know that most families will never have a day without reliving the distress of their loved one being murdered. Refusing to disclose what they have done with the body, or where they have concealed a corpse or partial remains, is a form of control.
I thank Marie McCourt, Fiona Duffy and Claire Waxman, the London victims’ commissioner, and her office, for helping to brief me this. There can be few things worse for a family than hearing that a loved one has been murdered. To then learn that their remains have been further abused or have never been found causes unimaginable distress. The current laws are inadequate and mostly not used by prosecutors. These amendments say that these two offences should become criminal offences where an offender has done an intentional act of disrespect towards the deceased person’s remains. The second amendment makes it a criminal offence for an offender to refuse to co-operate in the recovery of their victim’s remains. These offences will punish an offender who has committed these unspeakable acts beyond murder, and also perhaps begin to bring closure to grieving families. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Brinton for introducing these amendments, which we support. The “Helen’s Law” campaign has achieved a great deal by persisting in campaigning for victims and their families by ensuring that failure to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body can increase the killer’s time in custody. These amendments go further, as my noble friend has explained. She has worked with Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, and others on these amendments, proposing to create specific offences of desecration of a corpse and concealment of a body.
These amendments address serious and real human suffering caused by preventing a victim’s family from recovering the body of their loved one, whose life has already been cruelly snatched from them. The proposed offences would respond to that cruelty in a way that may be inadequate in reducing the hurt, but at least they reflect the justified anger we all feel when killers compound their inhuman actions with further callousness and inhumanity. As my noble friend explained, the existing legislation is not only inadequate but rarely used. We support her amendments.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for the clarity with which she has put this forward. The driving force behind this amendment is Marie McCourt whose daughter Helen McCourt was murdered by Ian Simms, and the body was never found. Ian Simms never indicated where the body was, refused to acknowledge what had happened, and was eventually released on parole. Prior to him being released on parole, Marie had campaigned successfully for a change in the law, which said in effect that if you did not indicate where the body was, parole should normally be refused.
Now, very effectively and with great understanding, Marie McCourt has pressed for a change in the law to make sure that there is, in effect, a crime of desecrating the body of somebody you have murdered. This is a greater problem than previously. In recent times, 54 murder trials have taken place without a body. We on this side of the Committee strongly support this offence. It might be asked whether this matters if you are being charged with murder. It matters to the victims’ families and therefore it should matter to the law. That is why we support this amendment.
My Lords, I will address the two amendments in reverse order, starting with Amendment 292L. This creates a new offence of concealment of a body and repeals the existing offence of obstructing a coroner. As it stands, to obstruct or prevent a coroner’s investigation of any body found, when there is a duty to hold one, is to commit an offence. That offence is a common-law one, triable only on indictment, and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The common-law offence is therefore wide-ranging. Proof of the offence does not require a person to conceal or attempt to conceal a body, or proof of a specific intent to obstruct a coroner—only that the coroner’s inquest is obstructed or prevented.
Amendment 292L replaces that wide-ranging offence that covers several ways in which a coroner is obstructed with a more narrowly defined offence which relates to obstruction by concealing a body or to facilitate another criminal offence. The specific offence proposed by the amendment also has a maximum penalty of three years—less than the life sentence that can be imposed under the current law. This approach, in our view, creates gaps in the coverage of the law compared with the existing common law and reduces the ability of the court to sentence for the full range of the offences.
We agree that concealing a body in this context should always be recognised by the law, and it already is in several ways. First, in the circumstances where an offender is responsible for a homicide, the fact that they concealed or mutilated a body is a clear aggravating factor in sentencing. As a result, the sentence will be increased to reflect the additional harm caused. Noting what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said about the increasing number of trials that take place without a body, we acknowledge that as forensic techniques have improved, so has the determination or ingenuity of the criminal to try to erase traces.
Secondly, where the concealment of a body is part of a course of action that includes the killing, the sentence for murder—or for manslaughter, I imagine—will include that aggravating factor in deciding on the starting point from which the sentence should be imposed.
Thirdly, where an offender is convicted for murder or manslaughter and then considered for release by the Parole Board, the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information about Victims) Act 2020 may apply. That legislation was brought into being under the impetus of the campaign by Marie McCourt, to whom this side of the House joins the Benches opposite in paying tribute. That is where a person who has declined to disclose the whereabouts of a body goes before the Parole Board. As a result of that legislation, in such cases, the Parole Board must take into account any failure on the part of the offender to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s remains as part of its assessment of the offender’s risk to the public.
For these reasons, the fact that this amendment will replace a wide-ranging common law offence with a more narrowly defined one with lesser sentencing powers and that concealment is already reflected as an aggravating factor in offences, the Government do not think that this new offence is necessary and cannot accept this amendment.
Amendment 292K seeks to deal with the desecration of a body. The meaning of acting
“with severe disrespect to a corpse”,
to use the language of the amendment—desecration—could, under the clause, include several circumstances such as mutilation, hiding or concealment, which could also lead to obstruction of the coroner, unlawful burial or cremation, or otherwise preventing the lawful burial of a body. It could also mean taking photographs of bodies where it is inappropriate or unnecessary so to do. We understand the sentiment behind this amendment and agree that it is paramount that the bodies of those who died should be treated with dignity and respect.
The amendment is, I think, designed to address the issue of where a person desecrates a corpse to avoid detection for an offence. As I have said in relation to the other amendment, the desecration of a body is thus likely to be connected to another offence and, as such, is also likely to amount to a clear aggravating factor in sentencing. It is hence liable to lead to the imposition of a more severe penalty. The criminal law can intervene by way of a number of offences that may apply, such as the common law offence of perverting the course of justice and others in statute, for example the disposal of a child’s body to conceal a pregnancy or burning a body other than in a crematorium. Depending on the circumstances, other offences can include misconduct in public office where, for example, the offender is a police officer who came into contact with the body in the course of his duties.
However, we know that the offence proposed here is not limited to desecration that is connected to avoiding detection. It can cover a much wider range of inappropriate behaviours, including unauthorised photographs, causing injury to bodies and non-penetrative sexual activity. The Government have already announced an inquiry into the disturbing events that took place in Tunbridge Wells. I refer the Committee to the Statement on 8 November by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the other place. We also specifically said that we would look at the existing penalties for the offence of sexual penetration of a corpse. It may be that those reviews will highlight other issues that need to be considered, including the coverage of existing offences that deal with desecration. In that sense, we see this amendment as a helpful starting point, even if it was not intended for that wider purpose.
I do not say that the Government will adopt the specific approach taken in this amendment, nor am I ruling out further future changes to the law on the desecration of a corpse after consideration of the evidence that emerges following recent events. I hope that the Committee acknowledges the ongoing work that is taking place to establish the facts to be learned from these recent events but that, given the reassurance that these matters are being considered, the noble Baroness feels able to withdraw her amendment.
I thank all speakers for their thoughtful and moving responses to the difficult issues covered by these amendments. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Paddick for his support; he was absolutely right to talk about the devastating, inhuman and callous behaviour that these two amendments attempt to codify. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, reiterated the key legal arguments and had information that I did not—that there have been at least 54 murder cases where this is relevant. I thank them both for their support.
The Minister says that Amendment 292L narrows the area from the common law equivalent and that the sentence is less. The problem is that the common law equivalent is never used. The reality is that many prosecutors do not recognise it, and noble Lords know that there are a number of times when prosecutors do not go for more serious charges to ensure that they get something through a court that a jury recognises. But it is important to understand that we are not proposing to repeal the common law offence. It is vital to understand that. The amendment deliberately did not propose repealing the common law offence expressly to keep it on the statue book and therefore give the courts full discretion to use it, if they so wish.
On Amendment 292K, the Minister said it is paramount that bodies should be treated with respect, and he is absolutely right. He also said that desecration to facilitate the hiding of the body is an aggravating factor, but too rarely has that been recognised. I am grateful that he used the word “may” in possibly considering these issues as part of the inquiry into the Tunbridge Wells case. I spoke on the Statement on this matter in your Lordships’ House, when it came up two or three weeks ago, and one of the problems with the current crime of necrophilia, which, from memory, has been on the books since either 2013 or 2003—I apologise for not remembering which—is that it has never been used. We have these cases that either are too embarrassing to deal with or have concerns from prosecutors that they will not get past a jury.
Will the Minister have a meeting with me to consider changing that word “may” and to see whether it is possible to include this in the inquiry? Despite the acts of the Tunbridge Wells case being different, the consequences remain the same for the families of the bereaved. In the meantime, I am content to withdraw the amendment and will consider whether to bring both back on Report.
Amendment 292K withdrawn.
Amendments 292L and 292M not moved.
292N: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Strategy on stalking
(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, prepare and publish a document setting out a strategy for—(a) detecting, investigating and prosecuting offences involving stalking,(b) assessing and managing the risks posed by individuals who commit offences involving risks associated with stalking, and(c) reducing the risk that such individuals commit further offences.(2) In preparing the strategy, the Secretary of State must—(a) seek to adopt a multi-agency stalking intervention programme;(b) seek to ensure that risk assessments for stalking victims are carried out by trained specialist stalking professionals;(c) seek to ensure that any judge, police officer or other relevant public official involved in an investigation or legal proceedings involving stalking has attended and completed relevant training.(3) The Secretary of State—(a) must keep the strategy under review;(b) may revise it.(4) If the Secretary of State revises the strategy, the Secretary of State must publish a document setting out the revised strategy.(5) In preparing or revising a strategy under this section, the Secretary of State must consult such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(6) Subsection (5) does not apply in relation to any revisions of the strategy if the Secretary of State considers the proposed revisions of the strategy are insubstantial.(7) In this section—the references to “acts associated with stalking” and “risks associated with stalking” are to be read in accordance with section 1 of the Stalking Protection Act 2019;“multi-agency stalking intervention programme” means a programme through which public authorities, including police forces, probation services and the National Health Service, collaborate with each other and stalking advocacy support services to intervene on those carrying out acts associated with stalking, whether or not convicted of an offence, depending on the level of risk they pose to the victim and the public.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment aims to promote the early identification of and intervention on stalking, and better investigation and prosecution of the crime, by requiring the Government to develop a strategy that includes: the adoption of a multi-agency intervention programme, risk assessments for victims to be carried out by trained professionals, and training for relevant public officials.
My Lords, I rise to propose this amendment, because the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, is suffering from an extremely painful frozen shoulder. She has had an injection of cortisone, which I hope is having the desired effect and, if she is listening to this debate, I hope she is seated in a comfortable chair, because she deserves a good rest. I thank in advance the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who have also kindly added their names to this amendment.
This is déjà vu all over again. We keep returning to stalking, because we have not yet been able to take all its complexities on board, for all our attempts to deal with this bit and that bit, this piece of revised guidance and a bit of training, and this new perpetrator system to replace ones that have manifestly failed; for all the admonitions for different agencies and statutory bodies that are not co-operating as they are meant to, and despite pilots here and there, X millions of pounds spent here and new resources there. Despite all this effort and the extensive time that Ministers have spent at the Dispatch Box, the headlines keep on coming up with new cases of victims who are being failed, despite all the time, effort and resources expended to try to protect them.
It is not working. Just ask the elected Members of another place, particularly female MPs, what it feels like to be stalked, targeted, and even to require personal protection. What price democracy when its representatives are being systematically intimidated to the point that it inevitably begins to impact on their mental health—and even, as we have tragically seen recently, their personal safety?
I know that the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government are serious and well intended in their attempts to deal with stalking, but our contention is that the evidence suggests that they are not doing this well enough to make a tangible difference for the estimated 892,000 female victims of stalking for the year ending March 2020. That is according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
The Minister will not be surprised that, in evidence to back up the case I am putting forward, I will refer to Zoë Billingham’s September 2021 HMICFRS report, Police Response to Violence Against Women and Girls. Its findings are worrying. Its findings on the much-vaunted use of stalking protection orders, introduced in January 2020—18 months before this report—are on pages 56 to 59. The report found that the application of stalking protection orders by police forces is very inconsistent. Some are using them carefully and effectively, but others are doing little or nothing. One force had failed to issue a single stalking protection order, because its legal department thought that every case had to be approved in person by the chief constable. In fact, statutory guidance makes it very clear that decision-making can and should be delegated to superintendents.
The report examined 25 stalking protection orders in detail. Two findings stand out. A majority of the orders did not contain any positive request to be placed on the person subject to the order. The report rather dryly remarks:
“This is disappointing and may indicate that forces aren’t familiar with this important change of practice.”
The second finding was that the details of 16 out of the 25 protection orders and their conditions have not been circulated and communicated within the relevant police force, so the offices within the police force were not even aware that an SPO had been issued to somebody within their jurisdiction. What happens if and when SPO conditions are breached? The report says:
“We conclude that some forces do not pay enough attention to breaches of orders, the effect they have on victims and how well they”—
the police forces—
“perform in this important area.”
Enough of this report, but I strongly recommend that it should be required reading for anybody interested in or charged with the responsibility for reducing violence against women and girls.
Although it is often a significant factor in many domestic abuse cases, stalking is broader and more complex. Fifty-five per cent of stalkers are ex intimate partners, which would therefore be regarded as domestic abuse stalking, but that means that 45% are not. The latter group could be an acquaintance, a neighbour, a friend, a stranger or even a colleague. Surely it is imperative that all stalking victims are offered the same level of protection, regardless of their relationship, and sometimes no relationship at all, to the stalker. For all its many excellent new laws and guidance, the Domestic Abuse Act does not support the victims of this enormous group of 45% of stalkers.
This amendment has a straightforward aim: go back to the drawing board; look at the totality and complexity of stalking of all kinds; look at what we have tried and has worked, at least in part; acknowledge where we have tried and failed; look at the entire ecosystem within which stalkers sometimes seem to act with impunity; come up with an all-embracing plan to anticipate, prevent, intervene and even mitigate as appropriate; and deliver a solution that prioritises the protection of the stalked, prosecutes effectively when justified, tries to understand and work with perpetrators who could benefit from tailored prevention programmes, and creates a trained and educated set of voluntary and statutory agencies that are properly equipped to be proactive, rather than endlessly reactive.
In other words, it is to act swiftly to consider whether, for example, some of the very effective initiatives, such as the multiagency stalking intervention programme, known as MASIP, which is funded by the Home Office’s own police transformation fund, can be rolled out with alacrity. The early findings of the pilot schemes are extremely positive, so there is something ready— I hesitate to use the word “oven-ready”—to be rolled out very quickly.
This is what the amendment is asking the Government to do. If we do not do it, stalking will stalk us and the Government Front Bench into the foreseeable future. The Minister is already very familiar with the shock troops who support the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, on the issue of immigration and citizenship fees, known under the banner of the “Lister terriers”. I give the Minister fair warning that the Royall-Brinton group—the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Brinton—are gathering under the banner of “Stalk the stalkers”. There is far too much talking about stalking and not enough effective action, however genuinely hard Her Majesty’s Government have tried. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, has very ably set out the reasons why this amendment has been tabled, so I will be brief. Let me put it politely: the House will know that a number of us remain concerned that stalking is still not taken seriously by the Home Office, the Government and some parts of the criminal justice system. We know that training remains patchy, and that victims are still told they should be grateful for the attention of their stalker. That is why we tabled this amendment to create a stalking strategy—not for the first time; I have been tabling amendments on a stalking strategy for a decade—for training in recognising, and working in a truly multidisciplinary way to recognise, possible stalking perpetrators, and to let MAPPA professionals become involved at an early stage as soon as the possibility of fixated and obsessive behaviour emerges.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, told your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, on consideration of Commons’ amendments, that the Government were consulting with different key parties in the criminal justice system to amend the guidance on MAPPA and to recognise and manage stalking. I thank her for sharing the proposed revisions to the statutory guidance. She said:
“Once the revised guidance is settled, we will promulgate it through a Written Ministerial Statement, and this will provide an opportunity to update the House on the delivery of the other commitments I have set out. Noble Lords talked about having some sort of debate in this place, perhaps after the Summer Recess.”—[Official Report, 27/4/21; cols. 2180-81.]
When will this be brought back to your Lordships’ House for such a debate?
The noble Baroness also said:
“We are also legislating already in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to put beyond doubt the powers of duty to co-operate agencies to share information under MAPPA by clarifying existing information-sharing provisions. We are investing new resources to tackle perpetrators, with an additional £25 million committed this year.”—[Official Report, 27/4/21; col. 2182.]
I understand that that is not just stalking perpetrators but perpetrators of a range of serious crimes.
Despite her encouraging us to bring back stalking-specific matters to this Bill because they were not appropriate for the Domestic Abuse Bill, it is noticeable that there is still no sign of a stalking strategy. It is as if stalking protection orders, now passed, are the magic answer, when actually they are part of the toolkit for managing fixated and obsessive perpetrators who may not come under domestic abuse legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, demonstrated, the patchy application of SPOs is real evidence of the old problem continuing. The choice about how to apply the stalking laws remains with people inside the police and courts system.
In a case in Wales in the last two weeks, a man was charged with two incidents relating to stalking his ex-partner, but she had already moved home twice and it is evident from the case that this stalking had been going on for a considerable time. Can the Minister say what training is happening within all police forces and all the courts—family as well as criminal—and for social workers, among others involved in MAPPA?
It is 13 years since my stalker was convicted—after 100 incidents had happened—and close to 10 years since stalking was created as a separate offence from harassment, but people being stalked still have to face many issues in the system because there is no overarching strategy for dealing with stalking. It is time that there was.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has eloquently and bravely described on a number of occasions and brought home to us just how important it is to tackle stalking in an effective way. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who has been an inspiration during our discussions on these issues.
I will make just two points to emphasise the excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Russell. First, he mentioned the huge number of women who are victims of stalking and the disgracefully low number of prosecutions. The problem is not just the inconsistencies to which he and HM Inspectorate have referred. It is also clear that in too many police forces stalking is seen as a low-level nuisance behaviour issue rather than the serious crime it often is.
We know that a number of stalking perpetrators who potentially pose the highest risk to victims would not meet the threshold for the assessment and management of risk for a relevant domestic abuse or stalking perpetrator, as proposed under the MAPPA model. This is a big problem. As the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which does so much fantastic work in this area, has identified, stalking is often not recognised as a crime. The level of risk to a victim is therefore inadequately identified and addressed, and this has the potential to put many lives in serious danger.
I refer the Minister to Dr Jane Monckton Smith’s 2017 study of 358 homicides, all of which involved a female victim and a male perpetrator. It revealed stalking behaviour as an antecedent to femicide in 94% of those cases. That demonstrates why it is so important to work on prevention and action in relation to stalking.
The noble Baroness responded at great length to our previous debate in Committee, setting out the proposals and the actions her department is taking. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said, in the end they do not really amount to a cohesive strategy that will actually start to take this seriously. I hope the Minister will perhaps agree to reflect on this between now and Report to see whether we can take this any further.
My Lords, I believe the case for this amendment has already overwhelmingly been made from all sides of this Committee. The Green group would have attached our name to it to make it even more cross-party, had there been space.
I go to the words of one victim that, I believe, sum this up. They are taken from an article in the popular mainstream magazine Vogue, published this week. They are from a single victim whom it called “Chloe”, whose stalker was jailed after breaching protective orders more than a dozen times, even though he had never been convicted of stalking. Chloe told Vogue:
“The system designed to protect us is broken and reactive. It waits for harm … I will live in fear until the day he dies.”
Those are the words of lived experience. The system is broken. I believe the case for this amendment and for a strategy has been overwhelmingly made.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for moving Amendment 292N on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove; I wish her well.
Victims of stalking, including female Members of Parliament, are being failed, as the noble Baroness has just said. As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, set out in his opening speech, there were 892,000 victims of stalking in the year to March 2020, according to the crime survey. The noble Lord pointed out the findings of the HMICFRS report on violence against women and girls regarding the inconsistent approach across different police forces to stalking protection orders; that the majority of orders had no positive obligation on the perpetrator; and that officers in force areas were unaware that the perpetrators were even subject to the orders, so there was no enforcement of the orders.
There is clearly a need to address perpetrator behaviour, in addition to protecting victims. My noble friend Lady Brinton said—and I agree—that stalking is not being taken seriously enough. That is as much a cultural issue for the police and courts as it is for society as a whole. There is clearly a need for a stalking strategy to ensure a consistent and effective response from all the authorities involved, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, just said—not just the criminal justice system but charities and others that offer services to address the behaviour of offenders. We support this amendment.
I will be very brief as the case for this amendment has been so eloquently put by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and other noble Lords who have spoken. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who unfortunately cannot be in her place tonight, and to the other noble Lords who are signatories to the amendment, for their tireless work on this issue. In that context, I also pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon, who cannot be in the Committee today, for her dedication and years of leadership on this issue.
I know the Minister is also passionate about this issue, but for years the House has found itself returning to this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, said, and each time the answer from the Government is largely that the current system is adequate although improvements are needed in how it is delivered. Yet each time we come back to it, more women have been killed and more lives devastated. This amendment has our wholehearted support, and I hope we can now look forward to a clear and encouraging response from the Government.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for setting out this amendment calling for a strategy on stalking. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out, this can have a devastating impact on the victims that are pursued. I actually have much higher figures than those that noble Lords talked about today: an estimated 1.5 million people were victims of stalking in the last year. I assure noble Lords that this Government are utterly committed to protecting and supporting victims of stalking, as some of our work in the last few years demonstrates. We will do everything that we can to ensure that perpetrators are stopped at the earliest opportunity.
I sympathise with the aim of the amendment. I am less persuaded that we need a separate strategy on stalking to achieve that aim. Tackling stalking is already a key part of our new strategy, Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, which was published this July. Work is already under way to deliver the commitments made in relation to stalking in the strategy, and it would not be the best approach to have a separate strategy for each crime type that falls within the ambit of that strategy.
The VAWG strategy will help us better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes. In order to support victims and reduce the risk of perpetrators committing further offences, the strategy confirmed £11.1 million for police and crime commissioners to run programmes to address the behaviour of domestic abuse and stalking perpetrators. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, made a comment about money being spent here and spent there, and I accept that point, but, actually, money here and there helps to increase the capacity and capability of those agencies that are trying to tackle this problem. Since the publication of the strategy, eight PCCs have been awarded funding to provide programmes for stalking perpetrators. The aim of the programmes is to encourage behavioural change—one noble Lord mentioned that—in order to reduce the frequency and gravity of abuse presented by the perpetrator and to improve the safety and protection of the victim.
The Domestic Abuse Act of this year placed a duty on Ministers to publish a domestic abuse perpetrator strategy that aims to bring more perpetrators to justice and reduce reoffending. This will be published in the new year, as part of a holistic domestic abuse strategy, and it will help transform our response to domestic abuse, which also includes the risks associated with stalking.
As the noble Lord, Lord Russell, pointed out, in January of last year the Government introduced new civil stalking protection orders to protect victims of stalking at the earliest possible opportunity and help to address the behaviour of perpetrators before it becomes entrenched or escalates. I recall the valuable contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on this during the passage of the legislation that established those orders. Stalking protection orders can be used in relation to stalking carried out in any circumstances and have the flexibility to impose both restrictions and positive requirements on the perpetrator.
We have made very good progress on the recommendations from the review into stalking protection orders. The Committee will want to know that the Minister for Safeguarding recently wrote to all chief constables whose forces applied for fewer stalking protection orders than might be expected, to encourage them to always consider applying for them. The NPCC’s stalking lead also sent a letter to all police forces to the same effect, as well as outlining some of the findings from the review. The NPCC has identified examples of good practice to share with police forces and their legal teams.
Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service—HMCTS—has also issued a targeted point of guidance for magistrates’ legal advisers, outlining the conditions that can be included on an SPO and emphasising that conditions relating to monitoring or prohibiting cyber-related activity should be used, if appropriate. Furthermore, HMCTS has sent a notice to heads of legal operations to encourage early listings for stalking protection order hearings within magistrates’ courts to enable quick and early protection for victims. On looking at the hard numbers, we are working with the MoJ towards some figures being available for publication.
On progress that the Government are making on refreshing the MAPPA guidance, which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about, during the latter stages of the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act, the Government gave certain undertakings in response to a Lords amendment regarding the management of high- harm and serial domestic abuse and stalking offenders under Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements—MAPPA—such as updating the MAPPA statutory guidance and developing a threshold document. Good progress has been made on these commitments.
The Ministry of Justice expects to publish shortly a separate chapter of MAPPA guidance, entitled “Domestic abuse and stalking”, to raise the profile of this type of offending. The new chapter will highlight the importance of agencies making use of MAPPA to strengthen the effective management of serial and high-harm domestic abuse and stalking offenders. Once we have issued the guidance, officials will work closely with local strategic management boards to support implementation at a local level.
The Ministry of Justice has also made good progress on developing a thresholding document to guide practitioners in deciding upon the most appropriate level of management under MAPPA. The different levels ensure that resources are focused on offenders who pose the highest risk and that multiagency meetings are focused on the most complex cases. Stalking will be included in the supporting materials to illustrate the importance of considering all relevant cases for MAPPA management. We expect to publish this by the end of this year, which is not far away.
A new policy framework was published on 16 August this year, setting out clear expectations of the probation service’s management of all cases at MAPPA level 1, where formal MAPPA meetings are not held, including those of stalking perpetrators. The aim is to help to improve consistency in the quality of information sharing, the regularity of reviews and the identification of cases where additional risk-management activity is required.
The VAWG strategy also includes a commitment for the Home Office to work with the police to ensure that all forces are making proper use of stalking protection orders. As I have just said, the Minister for Safeguarding recently wrote to all chief constables whose forces applied for fewer SPOs than might have been expected.
With regard to a debate in this place, we in your Lordships’ House are very lucky that we are self-regulating, and it is in noble Lords’ gift to secure debates on issues such as stalking. I would be very happy to respond to one in due course, should noble Lords bring one forward.
I understand and appreciate the rationale behind the amendment, but I respectfully suggest that a separate strategy on stalking is not required because the new VAWG strategy addresses many of the issues that have been raised, and tackling stalking sits as a vital part of the strategy. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment on behalf of the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, as usual, for her comprehensive reply and praise the fact that, unlike some incumbents on the Front Bench from time to time, she actually listens to the debate and tries to respond to points, which can be a refreshing change. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this mercifully short debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out that there is still no sign of a comprehensive stalking strategy. We have heard that elements of it are coming together, but I am not sure that it would meet the requirement to be regarded as a completely comprehensive strategy—but we shall see when it happens. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, made an extremely good point about the contrast between the extraordinarily high number of victims of stalking—nearly 900,000 women in one year—and the derisory level of prosecutions. There are echoes of what is happening with rape convictions, and that parallel is worrying.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed to the case of Chloe. The phrase that resonated with me from that case was when Chloe said that she will probably live in fear for the rest of her life. That is the effect stalking can have on an entirely innocent individual. I sometimes think that not only do we not realise it; given the evidence from a lot of the agencies and individuals charged with trying to arrest or identify perpetrators, and to do something about it, I am not sure whether they understand the real effect stalking can have on people. That is where effective training comes in, to make them understand what they are dealing with and to help them deal with it in a much more proactive and sensitive way.
The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, speaking from direct experience of his time in the police force, once again put his finger on a critical problem. There is a cultural issue within the police force and some other statutory agencies that deal with stalking in understanding what it is in all its myriad guises, recognising it and knowing what to do about it—both for the victims and the perpetrators.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, echoed my déjà vu all over again by reminding us that the issue keeps stalking this House. It recurs again and again. The contributions have indicated just why that is the case.
I thank the Minister very much for her reply. I am pleased to hear of the different initiatives being undertaken, so the positive side of me welcomes that. The slightly more sceptical—and stalked—side of me thinks, “Here we go again.” Here we have a range of initiatives which may or may not be as joined up as we passionately believe they should be. Unless they are completely joined up, and unless one is clear about what they are there to do and how all the bodies and individuals involved are meant to act in pursuit of these initiatives, I have a horrible feeling. If Zoë Billingham’s successor did a similar report looking at the effect of all these initiatives in about two years’ time, I personally have no high degree of confidence that the findings would be different. That is a cause for concern.
I take the point that if we want to have a MAPPA debate, it is for this House to choose it. I am sure we will stalk the usual channels to try to ensure that it takes place. If the Minister is open to discussing this, in the extremely long time we have between now and Report, that would be very helpful. What I take away from this is that I understand all the initiatives taking place, particularly those focused on domestic abuse, for obvious reasons, but what about the other 45% of stalked women? I come back to those who are not in domestic abuse situations. Most of these initiatives are aimed at the domestic abuse arena, and I laud them, but what about the 45%? If we are to have a cohesive strategy—frankly, that is why we need one—the 45% have to be included so that we are looking at 100% of the problem. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 292N withdrawn.
292P: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Royal Commission on criminal sentencing
(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must establish a Royal Commission to carry out a full review of criminal sentencing.(2) In particular the Commission must make recommendations on—(a) how to reduce the prison population;(b) how to reduce violence and overcrowding in prisons;(c) addressing the particular needs of young people in custody;(d) addressing the particular needs of women in custody;(e) how to ensure that sentencing for offences is focussed upon reform and rehabilitation of offenders and reducing reoffending;(f) how to reduce the over-representation of people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in prison; (g) the imposition and management of non-custodial sentences; and(h) the abolition of some mandatory or minimum prison sentences.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would establish a Royal Commission to review criminal sentencing.
My Lords, I move this amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, who regrettably cannot be with us today. In the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election, there was a promise to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system within the first year of government. Of course, that did not happen; instead, we have this enormous Bill, which covers police, crime, sentencing and courts, with bells and whistles attached. It is a great pity that the Government did not carry out their manifesto promise, which might have produced much better and more targeted reforms.
Although the United Kingdom already locks upmore of its people, and for longer, than any other country in Europe, the direction of the Bill is to criminalise more activity and to lengthen sentences. Meanwhile, the state of our prisons gets worse and worse. There are too many prisoners, too few experienced staff, too many drugs and too much violence.
I illustrate the problem by referring once again in this House to Berwyn prison, some three miles from my home in Wrexham, north Wales. It is the largest prison in this country and the second largest in Europe. It opened in 2017: a modern, big prison to house 2,200 prisoners, although, despite overcrowding throughout the prison estate, the inability to recruit prison officers in north Wales means that no one has ever succeeded in filling it with more than 1,750. Some 80% of the prison staff in Berwyn prison have under two years’ experience in the Prison Service, and the pool of labour in north Wales has been exhausted. Although sold as a prison for Welsh offenders, 70% of the prisoners come from England and the purpose that was so trumpeted—rehabilitation—has been lost.
Dr Robert Jones of Cardiff University carried out a survey in 2020 and found that prisoner attacks in the previous year had jumped by 143% to 561 and assaults on prison staff were up 25% to 257. Over the same period, assaults in all UK jails had actually fallen by 8%. In Berwyn prison, there were 39 incidents per 100 inmates, compared with three in 100 in the open prison at Prescoed in Usk. On average, five weapon discoveries were made every week and there was an 84% increase in incidence of self-harm. All this is set alongside a continuing drug problem which caused the former police commissioner for north Wales, Mr Arfon Jones of Plaid Cymru, to call last February for prisoners to be given cannabis to tackle addiction and curb violence. The judges in the Crown Courts in north Wales have expressed their alarm at the number of prison officers who come before them for smuggling drugs.
A royal commission on sentencing is needed. In March of last year, the Government allocated £3 million for the royal commission on criminal justice in their manifesto, so the money is secured. While such a commission lacks statutory powers to summon witnesses and papers, it has prestige, which leads to change. I well remember the Kilbrandon royal commission, perhaps the last big one that we had. This was the Royal Commission on the Constitution, to which I gave evidence in 1973. Dr Gary Wilson of Liverpool John Moores University wrote of it, in 2017, to show its influence:
“Its report gave the first significant consideration to the case for devolution and advanced proposals which do not diverge radically in the most part from the devolution settlement eventually implemented in 1998.”
He said that it should be remembered
“for its importance in helping to get the ball rolling with the development of the devolution agenda in the 1970s which to some extent paved the way for the eventual successful introduction of Scottish and Welsh devolution”.
That is the effect of a royal commission: it calls for evidence from individuals and organisations, within and outside government, and produces a report. It is not tied to the policy of any political party. It may also undertake its own programme of research. The evidence is heard in public, and transcripts of oral and written evidence that it receives are published. Royal commissions address high-profile social concerns, issues that may be controversial or matters of national importance. They have been used, for example, to advance divorce law, police powers and procedures, the regulation of the press and even capital punishment.
Noble Lords will observe that Amendment 292P covers how to reduce the prison population and how to reduce violence and overcrowding in prisons; addresses the particular needs of young people and women in custody; seeks to find out how to ensure that sentencing for offences is focused on the reform and rehabilitation of offenders and on reducing reoffending—which we all talk about when we talk about penal policy but nothing happens; how to reduce the overrepresentation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in prison; the imposition and management of non-custodial sentences; and, lastly, the abolition of some mandatory or minimum prison sentences.
On that last point, the sentence inflation in my professional life has been incredible. That inflation springs from Parliament and the way that this place works. When judges see sentences being doubled, they feel they have to respond and put up the sentences accordingly. However, I maintain that a long and objective look at how we deal with offenders, free of rhetoric and populism, is essential for the safety and security of the people of this country. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for moving this amendment. I had not realised, until he mentioned it, his own critical role in the constitution of the UK as it is now through the evidence that he gave to the Kilbrandon royal commission, rightly described as important. Now we know where to look when we see problems in relation to the constitution.
I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying point that drives the way the noble Lord put his case. The criminal justice system is in a terrible mess. He described the position of the prison system, which is also a terrible mess and is not delivering on its aims, particularly to protect the public from crime and reoffending. However, it does not just go to imprisonment; the whole range of sentencing is now in a terrible mess. It goes even beyond that, to the way that the criminal justice system operates in terms of both its procedures and its effectiveness. Surely the time has come for a long hard look to be taken at the criminal justice system.
This is not remotely a criticism of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, because a royal commission is a worthwhile thing, but I can imagine no more profound exercise in futility than a royal commission promoted by your Lordships’ House, moved by the marvellous noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the wonderful noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. Can your Lordships imagine this Government —the Government who approximately an hour and a half ago wagged their finger at us and told us we had to finish the consideration of this Bill by the end of tonight, no matter what time it ended—listening to a royal commission’s proposal for an objective look at sentencing? My own judgment is that, sadly, although the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, makes a very powerful point, the same finger of this Government would be waved at the royal commission and no attention would be paid to it. I share the noble Lord’s feeling and analysis but I fear that, because of the nature of this Government, it would be a waste of time.
May I add a more hopeful note? It has been wonderful to see this Government bring forward Professor Ormerod’s work on the Sentencing Code and bring it on to the statute book, and in this Bill—this is a good point—the code is being amended rather than there being any new proliferation of legislation. So one ought to say thank you for that.
However, the Sentencing Code shows the problem. I do not know how often the Minister looks at it but it is a fiendishly complicated set of sentences that we have accumulated over the years. Although we have seen a lot of criticism of the 2003 Act, I would say in its defence that an awful lot of thought was given to it. It may not have been quite right, and there was one area which has gone badly wrong. As I complimented one side, I now compliment the other: when we looked at the 2012 reforms to sentencing, a huge amount of thought went into that. A lot of sentences that were thought to be apposite were brought forward or modified, but at least there was some thinking.
We have now reached a stage where we need—on, I hope a nonpartisan basis—to think again. Is it too complicated? The answer must be yes. Have we got the sentencing regime right in terms of its outcomes and, equally importantly, its cost and whether the money can be spent better? There can be no better mechanism for that than a royal commission. I would hope that the initial thoughts of those who drafted the manifesto could be taken forward, at least in that respect. I would hope, though maybe I am being optimistic, that when it was all laid out what an awful state our sentencing regime is in, logic would prevail and we would see some reform. However, that is just an expression of hope by a person who is not a politician.
My Lords, I support the amendment. My support goes back to the time when I served as chairman of the Justice Committee in the House of Commons. I became utterly convinced that the absence of a coherent strategy or policy for the use of custody and other disposals was extremely damaging and distorted the use of resources in the criminal justice system to an amazing extent, leading to unsatisfactory outcomes in reducing reoffending and many other respects.
If I had not been so convinced, even during the passage of this Bill we have seen further examples of an incoherent approach to sentencing. In the course of the Bill, it was announced in the press, but by a Minister, that there would be a mandatory life sentence for the manslaughter of emergency workers. The Daily Mail reports today that that provision will be included in the Bill, although it is not clear to me how that can be accomplished—it is not even in the government amendments tabled for today—but that would be a very significant change.
We are also told that the Government intend to provide for an offence of the theft of a pet animal with a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment. So you could get up to five years for stealing your neighbour’s cat by putting out a dish of milk and some bread because the cat seems a little underfed because your neighbours do not look after it as well as you think you would. It is absurd that we should get into that situation of sentence inflation—and there will be sentence inflation, as my noble friend referred to, because then you have arguments where legitimate organisations come to us and say, “There should be at least seven years for this offence because you get five years for stealing your neighbour’s cat.” That is how the parliamentary and political side of sentence inflation works. My noble friend has pointed to how it influences the judiciary as well, when minimum sentences cast—I was going to say “a shadow” but, rather, a particular colour of light on decisions about offences that fall short of the maximum sentence.
The reason I think a royal commission would be appropriate—notwithstanding the belief of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that no one in government would take any notice of what it said, whoever had appointed it—is that there are different kinds of issue that need to be considered. Some are philosophical issues and issues of principle while others are practical, but they all affect sentencing and all lead to the misuse of custody, either in its extent or, in some cases, in its use at all, when other disposals could be more effective in preventing crime and dealing with offenders.
One reason we get in such a mess over sentencing is that sentencing to custody is used as the main sign of disapproval of criminal behaviour. This is independent of any argument about its potential deterrent effect, which is almost invariably exaggerated beyond any reality. People look to the length of the prison sentence that can be given for something as a way of setting out how much society disapproves of that thing. Society needs to have ways of showing its disapproval of things but using custody inappropriately and expensively is not necessarily a particularly good way of doing so. It has very serious and damaging consequences. A royal commission needs to look at the whole issue of how society communicates its disapproval and whether that has to be by length of custody, rather than by some other means. It is quite clear that the politics of this is that Ministers start to believe that if society wants to show how bad it thinks something is then they as Ministers must introduce longer prison sentences for it. They fall into the same trap themselves.
I now mention a different kind of problem—I am simply giving two examples in what will be a brief contribution to this debate. I have given an example of principle and philosophy, but the other issue that strikes me forcibly is that the use of custody is influenced by it being, in effect, the default option. If a court sentences someone to custody, a van will appear and take the sentenced person away, and a place will be found somewhere in the prison or youth custody system. If what the court considers to be a better alternative is available, then the court may have regard to it, but the court must establish that the alternative is indeed available in that locality and in a form that meets the needs of the offender and is likely to have the right influence on the offender, turning them away from their criminal behaviour.
The resourcing of the two systems is of course quite different. The sort of disposal that might turn someone away from crime without using custody depends on a series of local agencies. Attempts have been made in recent years—very welcome attempts—to bring these agencies together, so that they can plan together. But the resources for custody are quite separate; they come out of central government. That has unreasonably influenced in favour of the use of custody because it has an availability that does not apply to some of the alternative disposals.
There are philosophical and practical questions that need to be carefully considered outside the heated atmosphere of the Commons and the atmosphere in this place when we are reduced to debating these things in far too short a time. I strongly support my noble friend’s amendment; we have to move in this direction somehow, and soon.
My Lords, I fear that I am going to venture still further on to the shores of Utopia. Having listened to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and indeed earlier amendments, and recalling my days, many years ago, working in a hospital and then for the Koestler Trust—which takes art into prisons—I could not help thinking of how both in hospital and in prison, and for police officers, huge time is taken up dealing with people who should simply not be there. This has been said a lot, and it will go on being said.
My Utopian contribution to this debate is that, really, we need another agency to deal with people who are mentally ill, thus taking time off the work of the police, who are often tied up for hours trying to sort out what to do with somebody who is mentally ill. Think of the doctors and nurses in A&E who are constantly dealing with mentally ill people and people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and also of the prison officers who are trying to deal with similarly afflicted people. My feeling is that maybe, one day, it will happen. It probably is Utopian, but we need a third agency to take the stress off police officers, prison officers and those working in the National Health Service.
My Lords, I support Amendment 292P, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, bleakly pointed out, the history of royal commissions under this Government is not particularly promising, which will not give much hope to the mover.
In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, it was announced that there was to be a royal commission on the criminal justice system, towards the cost of which £3 million was made available. But it has yet to materialise, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, can testify, because I regularly ask questions about the discourtesy to Her Majesty the Queen of asking her to announce something that the Government had no intention of implementing, judging by their continued failure to announce either its terms of reference or the name of its chairman.
I say this in the certain knowledge that the Minister will ask for this amendment to be withdrawn, as different Ministers have throughout Committee on this Bill, notwithstanding the obvious degree of consensus throughout the House in favour of one amendment after another.