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Independent Public Advocate

Volume 828: debated on Thursday 2 March 2023


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made yesterday in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“Today I can announce that we intend to legislate as soon as possible to introduce an independent public advocate, to put victims and the bereaved at the heart of our response to large-scale public disasters; to make sure that they get the support they deserve through public inquests and inquiries; and to make sure that they get the answers they need to move forward in their lives.

I know the whole House will recall that fateful day of 15 April 1989, when thousands of fans prepared to watch the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Ninety-seven men, women and children lost their lives, unlawfully killed in our country’s worst ever sporting disaster. What happened at Hillsborough was a monumental and devastating tragedy.

Of course, for Hillsborough’s survivors and the bereaved, that terrible day was just the beginning of a 34-year ordeal. It was followed by an appalling injustice. Fans were blamed for their own injuries. Survivors and the bereaved were blocked at every turn in their search for answers. We must learn the lessons of Hillsborough and we must make sure that this never happens again.

In terms of the wider context, major disasters of that kind are mercifully quite rare in the United Kingdom. But, as Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester bombings have shown, when they do happen, victims, families and the communities that are affected and represented have not received the answers to their questions, nor the support they need. We are duty bound, as a Government and as a House, to make sure that that never happens again and positively to ensure that those families and communities never again have to struggle in anguish against a system created to help them, in order to get the truth, and some measure of accountability.

The independent public advocate will go some way to making good on the Government’s long-standing promise to ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough victims, and other victims, is never repeated. It will be passed into law and be made up of a panel of experts to guide survivors and the bereaved in the aftermath of major disasters. It will deliver six important outcomes that I will outline for the House.

First, the IPA will provide practical support to the families of the deceased, and individuals, or their representatives, who have suffered a devastating or life-changing injury. That practical support will include helping them to understand their rights, such as their right to receive certain information at inquests or inquiries, and signposting them to support services; for example, financial or mental health support. The IPA will help victims every step of the way, from the immediate aftermath of a tragic event, right through to the conclusion of investigations, inquiries or inquests. We will make IPA support available to the closest next of kin relative, both parents where they are separated or divorced, or to a close friend if there is no close family. The IPA will also offer support to injured victims or their representatives.

Secondly, the IPA will give the victims a voice when they need it most. It will advocate on their behalf with public authorities and the Government; for example, where they have concerns about the engagement and responsiveness of public authorities such as the police or local authorities, or where the victims and bereaved want an investigation or inquiry set up more swiftly, to ensure maximum transparency.

Thirdly, the IPA will give a voice to the wider communities, not just the directly affected victims and bereaved, that have been most affected. We will set up a register of advocates from a range of different professions, backgrounds and geographical areas, including doctors, social workers, emergency workers, members of the clergy, people with media-handling experience—often that is another burden that victims will not have experienced—and others. Communities will be able to nominate an advocate to act on their behalf to express their concerns and ensure that their voice is heard as a community.

Fourthly, the IPA will be supported by full-time, permanent staff so that it can act swiftly when a tragedy occurs to make sure that the support is there for the victims and the families from day one. Critically in this regard, the IPA will be there to consult with and represent victims and their families before any inquiry is set up, so it will be able to make representations on the type of inquiry, whether it is statutory or non-statutory, and other important functional issues, such as the data controller powers available to any inquiry and the relationship it may have with the IPA in the exercise of such functions.

Fifthly, the scope of the IPA will be extended to cover events in England and Wales, but of course we are mindful of the devolved settlements, so we will work with all the devolved Administrations to ensure that our plans are co-ordinated with the support offered outside England and Wales.

Sixthly and finally, although the IPA is first and foremost about doing better by the victims and survivors, it will also be in the wider interests of the public. It will ensure that we achieve a better relationship between public bodies, the Government and the bereaved; that we get better, quicker answers; and that we can learn and act on the lessons from such tragedies more decisively.

The preparatory work is well under way to establish the IPA, and we will place it on a statutory footing as soon as possible. I will say more about the legislative vehicle shortly.

Of course, there have been other important reforms in recent years to support and empower victims and their families. We have made inquests more sympathetic to the bereaved, with a refreshed, accessible guide to coroner services. We have removed means testing for exceptional case funding for legal representation at an inquest. If families meet the exceptional case funding criteria, they will be entitled to legal aid whatever their means.

More broadly, we are putting victims at the heart of our justice system by quadrupling victims funding compared with 2010 and through the upcoming victims Bill. The creation of the independent public advocate to give greater voice to the victims and the bereaved of major tragedies is the next important step forward.

I know that Members across the House will join me in paying tribute to the Hillsborough families for their courage and determination despite every setback. They have always maintained that their struggle for truth and justice for the 97 was of national significance, and I agree entirely. I also pay tribute to the families of those who died in Grenfell Tower and the Manchester Arena bombing. Our hearts go out to them for their loss and I pay tribute to them for their dignified courage.

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to honourable Members in this House and those in the other place who have campaigned tirelessly on the issue, including my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the right honourable Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the honourable Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), Lord Wills, the Mayor of Liverpool and others, for their steadfast commitment to establishing an IPA. I will continue to work closely with parliamentarians, the Hillsborough families, the Grenfell groups and the families of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing to ensure that their experiences are taken into account and we get the detail of the IPA right as we establish it.

I pay particular tribute to the right reverend James Jones KBE for his work on the Hillsborough disaster and his important report. I met him last week and the Government will respond to the wider report this spring. We know in our heads and hearts that there is still much more to do to heal the wounds from that horrendous and heartbreaking tragedy, but this is an important step forward. The IPA will make a real difference. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the Statement which he just read out; there is much to welcome in it. I add my thanks to all those mentioned in it. Above all, the Government’s action yesterday is a tribute to the heroic campaigning of the Hillsborough families over decades. However, as the families themselves have said, the Government have not gone far enough.

Your Lordships will recall that the idea of an independent public advocate was born in your Lordships’ House seven years ago, when the Private Member’s Bill of my noble friend Lord Wills had its Second Reading; my noble friend sends his apologies—his health prevents him being here today but I know that he supports what I am going to say. As a Minister, my noble friend was the key architect of the Hillsborough panel. His experiences led him to draft his Public Advocate Bill, which was supported by all sides of your Lordships’ House at Second Reading. Since then, he has continued to campaign for it, alongside the right honourable Maria Eagle, who has championed it in the other place.

Two key elements of that Private Member’s Bill are missing from the Government’s Statement. First, the Statement denies effective agency to bereaved families in calling the independent public advocate into being. We should understand how profoundly the Hillsborough families and others bereaved by public disasters have felt let down by successive Governments in the aftermath of a public tragedy. We must offer them reassurance that others similarly bereaved in future will not be similarly let down. We must give them the agency that the Government are currently denying them.

Secondly, the independent public advocate must have the power to establish a Hillsborough-type panel. It was only that panel which exposed the cover-ups in the aftermath of the disaster and secured the transparency that the families deserved and for which they have campaigned. The Labour Government who set up the panel and the Conservative Government who supported it to its conclusion set a welcome precedent. This Government must not now row back on that precedent.

Yesterday, through this Statement, the Government indicated their willingness to make changes to their earlier proposals. I welcome that. We will hold them to that commitment to ensure that bereaved families in future receive the agency and transparency that they are owed and for which the Hillsborough families have campaigned for so long and so heroically. I have one question for the Minister: when might we expect to see the victims Bill?

My Lords, this is one piece of legislation that I am very glad to see but very sorry, of course, that it had to happen. We have here a response to things going very badly wrong. The three examples mentioned are things that we did not expect to go wrong but did, with horrible consequences. They all have in common that they happened quickly and on one day. I can think of a few other things. My noble friend Lady Brinton, who hoped to be here but has not been able to make it, gave the example of contaminated blood. Would this be caught by any definition as a case where independent public advocacy is required?

I am still not clear on whether one person or a panel is coming through here. That is probably my fault. When will the trigger point to get involved be? Will it be case law? Will it be a judgment? To add to that, my example was the accounting cock-up—I cannot think of any other way to put it, although that is putting it too mildly—with the Post Office system. That is a massive problem that has caused tremendous harm and, it is assumed, loss of life through suicide on numerous occasions. Where the trigger point will be is very important.

My noble friend Lady Brinton was also going to ask how much resource could be called on. It will probably have to vary because there will be differing circumstances and different bodies to call on. How will the Government have the resources to follow it through? Will they set a precedent of what is initially available and where to go, because in all three cases—here and in the two that I have just mentioned—there will be slightly different requirements to do stuff. A fixed panel will not to be able to do it—end of story. There needs to be a greater degree of flexibility than just having a panel. The capacity to call in expertise as one goes through will be needed.

I hope we will have further discussion on this before we get legislation. We will have to know, or we will have yet another long and brutal session in Committee and on Report to get this out. An issue such as this should not have that because we have had all the discussion already. We know what we are trying to get at. If we know that we will be removing a few cases from this which have to go somewhere else, then fair enough. There will have to be a line drawn somewhere, but there will be an argument about what the trigger point is.

My principal point is: what is the trigger point for having the body brought into action? That must be set. If the Government do not know now, can we know the process by which they will decide? The first time that we decide will be incredibly important for what follows. Will resources after that follow the individual case or will they remain in place? Let us ensure that we know exactly what is happening here, because I am afraid that without that, we are getting nowhere.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for their comments and interventions. I begin by indicating and reiterating the willingness of the Government to work collaboratively across party with all these measures and to consider possible changes to the scheme that I have briefly outlined. Speaking for myself, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, it seems very sensible to have those discussions in early course so that we do not get into a legislative battle when the Bill is already set in stone.

On the specific points raised, and subject to my renewed expression of willingness to discuss this, whether to give agency to the families is a very important point for further discussion. At the moment, it is envisaged that the Government should trigger the appointment or operation of the public advocate in particular circumstances, but the question of what power to give the families to trigger it is for further discussion.

Similarly, the power to establish a Hillsborough-type panel is something that we need to consider in some detail, not least with a view to avoiding duplication. We have had some expertly conducted inquiries—on Grenfell by Sir Martin Moore-Bick and on Manchester Arena by Sir John Saunders. One does not want to duplicate or overconfuse the issue; we need to work out the exact relationship between that kind of statutory inquiry and this kind of operation. Those are matters for further discussion.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised the issue of scope. The concept at the moment is that of an event—a specific disaster like the three that we have been talking about: Hillsborough, Manchester and Grenfell. Whether contaminated blood, the Post Office and the NHS-type scandals that we have unfortunately experienced over the years fall within the definition is for further reflection. They are probably not events, as presently constituted, so we need to think about this further. Will this have a roving remit for everything that goes badly wrong somewhere in the system or is it directed specifically at major disasters? At the moment, the Government’s thinking is the latter but, again, I express my willingness to consider this further.

On resources, clearly this will not work unless sufficient resources are available. Exactly how that is done, where they come from and on whose budget they fall are all details that need to be refined.

We have taken a decision in principle. It is now for everyone to work collectively across the parties to sort out the details and make this work, in the interests of the families, whom we will consult fully to make sure that we have filled in the gaps, closed the loops and got a good working system to make sure that Hillsborough never happens again.

My Lords, as we speak about this broadly welcome announcement, the much-admired Sir John Saunders is literally in the process of delivering his final report on the Manchester Arena disaster. That is an inquiry that started life as an inquest. In the Statement, the noble Lord referred to the cost of inquests but not to the cost of inquiries. One of the most compelling conclusions one draws from the Manchester Arena inquiry—as I am sure Sir John Saunders would recognise—is the great skill and proper attention to detail of the solicitors and counsel who appeared for the families in that inquiry, some of whom had to be paid from funds raised by the families, not from public funds.

Can we be assured that the IPA will ensure that families remain properly and independently represented by solicitors and counsel at such inquiries as those into Manchester Arena or Grenfell? Is it recognised that what is being announced, far from being a cost-saving venture, may increase the costs of representation on the issues raised at such inquiries? It would be in the spirit of this announcement to recognise that as a proper inevitability of giving victims the correct voice.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, makes a very powerful point. I think it is related to all the issues we have in this particular area, in relation to legal aid, costs to the system, legal aid for inquests and other inquiries. The principle of proper representation is accepted, I am sure, on the part of the Government. How exactly we implement it and where the funding comes from is a matter for further discussion, I hope on a consensual and collaborative basis.

In the same spirit as that question from the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, I have a concern about equality of arms in terms of representation before inquests and inquiries across the piece. I understand concerns about spiralling costs in some of these matters, but it seems to me that often, particularly in inquests but also in inquiries, public bodies are heavily represented. It seems totally iniquitous that public money will be spent with no upper limit to represent those public bodies that may be in the frame for negligence or wrongdoing, but that there is only exceptional case funding and tighter caps on the victims and their families. Is this perhaps something that the Minister, in the collaborative tone that he has adopted, might think about? Might that potentially be within the scope of the Bill itself, or at least the package that should support this enterprise?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for that question. The question of equality of arms is very much on the Government’s minds at the moment. The point has also been raised by Sir Bob Neill and the Justice Committee that there should be parity and equality of representation. We should do something to level up the ability of families who are up against what appears the be the apparatus or full panoply of the state, as part of levelling up in general. I think that the IPA is an important step in that direction; exactly how we ensure that kind of equality of arms, how it is funded and how we go about it, is something I look forward to having further discussion with all parties about.

My Lords, that brings me to adopt the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we really do need to know in statute what the trigger point should be. I ask that we now consider, when it is decided that we will have an IPA intervention, how that will relate to coroners and the inquest system, because these disasters almost invariably will involve deaths. One of the things during the quashing of the first Hillsborough inquest that struck the court was how many processes there had been—all perfectly legitimate and entirely in accordance with the statutes. But we do need to have one process, as the Minister said.

Finally, if this is going to be a government decision, I have two points. First, is it susceptible to judicial review? Secondly, how can we make sure that the Government respond quickly? One of the problems with this case and others is that there has been a sort of lassitude in government responses. If a disaster such as this happens, what is needed is a very urgent response.

My Lords, I thank again the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for those comments and questions. Again, I think that these are matters for further reflection; it is very important that the noble and learned Lord has put them on the record. The questions of judicial review and how quickly and so forth are for further consideration; it is certainly envisaged that the independent public advocate would be able to act very quickly.

I think, if I may say so, that the Hillsborough situation was, tragically and very regrettably, distorted by a cover-up that defeated even one of the noble and learned Lord’s predecessors, the Lord Chief Justice at the time, Sir Peter Taylor. Any system that you can devise will always have difficulty coping with that kind of situation. But, in terms of speed of process, not repeating the process, having one process and defining the trigger event, those are all very important issues that we need to reflect on further.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for repeating it. In line with some of the questions that have just been put to him, can I press him slightly further on the phrase used in the Statement, “major disasters”? The Secretary of State would presumably decide on behalf of the Government that such and such an event is considered a major disaster that triggers the independent public advocate. Is that correct? Do the Government have any sense of what a major disaster is going to be defined as being?

My Lords, I think the statute will have to make an attempt to define what it means by “major disaster”. As presently envisaged, one is thinking of what one can loosely describe as one-off disasters, such as the ones we have been discussing: perhaps the 7/7 bombings, the Paddington train crash of some years ago and those kinds of things. At least so far, government reflection has not extended to things such as the Post Office scandal, which arose over many years, or the contaminated blood scandal, which arose over many years, or the North Staffordshire NHS scandal that eventually came to light, because those were ongoing things going wrong. They were certainly in one sense disastrous, but it was not quite envisaged that they would be a disaster in terms of the statute. However, I say again that the exact scope of this new independent public advocate is a matter for close consideration.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement repeated by the Minister today, and we look forward to the legislation, of course. I go back to the inquest issue, because it is intimately connected with the Statement that has been made today. I was pleased to hear the Minister say in reply to my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti that the Government were looking very carefully at equality of arms. I put it to him that the only way of dealing with that issue—I cannot think of any other—is increasing legal aid at inquests for interested parties. Is there an alternative? If there is one, what is it?

My Lords, the Government have already announced a review of civil legal aid, and inquests are within the scope of that review. We will therefore take the powerful point that the noble Lord has made under advisement in that context.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for the Statement in relation to the independent advocate. It is essential that we move forward with this as quickly as we can within the Bill. Thinking through the wider ramifications, particularly in relation to case law, what the scope is and what the trigger points are, are critical. My noble and learned friend mentioned that the staff would be permanent. For how long would those staff be permanent, and over what period? We almost look at not only the diversity in arms to call, so to speak, but also the diversity of skills and expertise, and that will change depending on what triggers those particular investigations. There will need to be an end-to-end process. I wonder whether the independent advocate is going to be someone who is going to be appointed and is going to be there for many years or whether it is a short-term appointment for a specific period, so that victims can be empowered to have confidence in the system.

I thank my noble friend for those questions. It is not at present envisaged that a person will be permanently appointed as the independent public advocate and always there on the off-chance that a disaster happens. What is envisaged is that there should be a permanent secretariat, which I think would have to be provided by the Ministry of Justice. When a disaster happens, that secretariat would become engaged, make immediate contact with the families, the emergency services and everybody else involved in those tragic and difficult events, and very quickly—I really do mean very quickly—make a recommendation to the Secretary of State to appoint an independent public advocate.

Such a person would be appointed and, from that point onwards, would take over the job of making sure that the victims and their families are fully supported in the areas of mental health and other problems, and are prepared properly for inquests and so on. The gap that is identified at the moment—of who is looking after the victims, the families and the bereaved—would be filled by that function. Details need to be fleshed out, but that is the broad scope as envisaged, subject to further discussion.

My Lords, I too welcome this announcement and the Government’s willingness to have ongoing discussions to shape this. Can my noble and learned friend the Minister reconfirm that families, survivors and victims—those with first-hand experience who have not had a chance to feed into this process since the 2018 consultation—will be given a voice? As we have talked about, their voice needs to be heard now so that we can shape this correctly. Secondly, there is an assumption that there may be an inquiry. There might not always be an inquiry; it might just be that the independent public advocate and panel help people through said disaster. As part of the ongoing discussions, can we make sure that the question of whether they have the power to compel evidence will be raised? That was a big problem with Hillsborough. If there is not to be an inquiry, that may be an important part of their role.

I thank my noble friend for those questions. I can confirm that the families will be involved in the discussion and creation of this new office. The question of the powers of the independent public advocate, particularly to compel the production of documents and so forth, also needs further discussion and elaboration.

Sitting suspended.