Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (Third sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Steve McCabe, † Sir Charles Walker
† Anderson, Lee (Ashfield) (Con)
† Atkins, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)
† Champion, Sarah (Rotherham) (Lab)
† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)
† Dorans, Allan (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)
† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)
† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)
† Philp, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
† Wheeler, Mrs Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)
Williams, Hywel (Arfon) (PC)
Huw Yardley, Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Campbell Robb, Chief Executive, National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders
Helen Berresford, Director of External Engagement, Nacro
Sam Doohan, Policy Officer, Unlock
Dame Vera Baird DBE, QC, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 20 May 2021
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
I remind hon. Members to observe physical distancing. They should sit only in the places that are clearly marked, and it is important that Members find their seats and leave the room promptly to avoid delays for other Members and staff. Members should wear face coverings in Committee unless they are speaking or medically exempt. Finally, questions to witnesses should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee agreed on Tuesday—we have plenty witnesses and only a finite amount of time. There is one other issue: we have some problems with the cameras, so we can see and hear the witnesses, and they can hear us, but they cannot see us.
We will now discuss the lines of questioning to this morning’s witnesses before we start the session in public.
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of witnesses
Campbell Robb, Helen Berresford and Sam Doohan gave evidence.
I call the first panel of witnesses. Campbell Robb is the chief executive of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and Helen Berresford is the director of external engagement for that organisation, so we have two from NACRO. Sam Doohan is policy officer at Unlock. I would like each witness to introduce themselves very quickly so we can crack on with questioning.
Campbell Robb: I am Campbell Robb, chief executive of NACRO for the last two years. I am really pleased to be here—thank you for the invitation.
Helen Berresford: I am Helen Berresford, director of external engagement at NACRO. Thank you.
Sam Doohan: Hi, I am Sam Doohan, and I work for Unlock. We are a charity that focuses on the challenges of people with criminal records.
Great. It is nice that we can hear you in the ether. We cannot actually see you either now, so you cannot see us and we cannot see you. We would quite like to see the witnesses if that can be organised. Who would like to ask the first question? I call Sarah Champion.
Sam Doohan: There are some things in the Bill that will help to some degree, but there are some omissions. A good deal of the youth offending regime, with regard to criminal records, will stay the same. Larger changes in the Bill, particularly around cautions, are not being made for young offenders, so they will face the same regime as now and will not receive any benefit.
Another critical omission is that once the Bill passes it will still technically be possible for someone to commit a crime as a child, be convicted after they turn 18 and then receive a criminal record as if they had committed the crime as an adult. We are very keen to see some change to that. We firmly believe that we should stick to the principle that young people deserve not only a second chance but special treatment and consideration.
Helen Berresford: While there are some things in the Bill that we welcome in terms of young people—for example, the changes to remand, which will make a really big difference to what has been an ongoing issue for a while—we have a number of concerns about some of the proposals, which will likely increase the number of children and young people in custody and the time they spend in custody, with no evidence of the impact that that will have on either reducing crime or reducing reoffending. We have seen significant progress over recent years with the decrease in the numbers of children being sent into custody. That has been a really positive story, but we are very concerned that a number of the proposals in this Bill will reverse that and increase the number.
Helen Berresford: Some of the proposals will increase the sentencing, such as some of the proposals around sentence length and the starting tariffs for murder, for example, and some have implications for increasing the numbers, such as the changes to detention training orders. There are a number of different proposals that will likely increase the numbers of children and young people going into custody.
Campbell Robb: I would add that, overall, some of the welcome things around problem-solving courts and some of those things could be extended into the youth, and we need to see more of that. I would like to see some more discussion during the passage of the Bill about some of the non-custodial approaches that could be introduced in the youth estate, as well as in the adult estate.
Sam Doohan: To a large degree, Unlock would say that we are happy with the direction of travel, but we do not think that the Bill in its present form goes far enough. There is something of a split in the criminal records regime, essentially between those who go to prison and those who do not, and we are happy to see that the majority of people who do go to prison will see reduced spending periods for their convictions. However, we are still quite unhappy to see that some people will still disclose for life. We believe that needs quite close attention paid to it.
Further down the regime, even when we talk about what in the grander scheme of things we might think of as quite minor offences, the criminal spending regime around road traffic offences, and speeding in particular, is radically out of step with everything else in the rest of the spending regime. People end up having to disclose, say, a speeding ticket for five years, which is longer than if they had gone to prison for a year. We think that not only does this need to change and be brought into step, but that on the whole we should emphasise not only faster spending but fewer situations in which people legally have to disclose, and a higher standard of demonstrable need to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record.
Helen Berresford: We would very much agree with that. At Nacro, we run a criminal records support service, and we receive thousands of inquiries every year from individuals who are trying, and often struggling, to navigate a very complex system. We very much welcome the direction of travel and the proposals in the Bill to reduce that burden, which is also felt by employers. That is a really important part of this: lots of the employers who we support struggle to navigate the system themselves, and that can lead to them being more risk-averse when it comes to employing people with criminal records.
I agree completely with what Sam said. There are some anomalies and outliers here, and this Bill is a real opportunity to deal with them. Motoring convictions is a great example of that, and I think that can be fairly easily dealt with. There are a couple of other points that come up in this Bill, such as the new out-of-court disposals and the diversionary caution. A simple caution previously did not have a disclosure period, and I think putting one in only increases barriers, which is contrary to the Government’s direction of travel. I think there are some real opportunities to go further and tidy that up, but we very much welcome the direction.
Campbell Robb: I have nothing to add—[Interruption.]
Sorry, Mr Robb, we did not hear that because we have a bell going off in our ears. Could you repeat that?
Campbell Robb: I hear the bell ringing. I was just agreeing with both of them; I have nothing to add.
Have we got the balance right? To what extent is an employer entitled to know somebody’s criminal history? Can we do more to work with employers to get them to understand? Companies such as Timpson, for example, have been very good at taking on people who have criminal pasts, and rehabilitating them. Does the Bill move in the right direction on this? Does it protect employers from potential criminal activity from employees and does it make it easier for people to get into work?
Sam Doohan: The direction of travel is certainly positive. At the same time, we do not think the balance is right yet in the overall rationale for employers at the basic level, who are not obliged to ask for a criminal history and have a free choice whether they do or not. The fact that employers can ask because they are nosy is not fair to applicants at any level.
A 2001 study commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions said that a lot of the problems around employers asking come from the recruiter and the person who chooses to ask. The study broke that down across several categories, including age and position within a company. There are various factors that make people more willing to ask and more willing to discriminate if people disclose a criminal past.
Another factor that came out from that was that employers would, if given scope to do so, claim that just about any job you can imagine had some tangential relationship to someone’s previous criminal history. Perhaps in a very loose sense, that could be argued to be true, but we see driving convictions being held against people in jobs that do not involve driving, or people with a driving ban, who cannot legally drive, having that conviction held against them for pushing trolleys in the car park in Asda. There is some rationale in allowing employers to ask, but we do not think the balance is there yet. It is being used just to discriminate.
Helen Berresford: The balance point is a really important one. We work with employers as well, and understanding their needs is a really important part of that. For a lot of the employers we have supported, it is about transparency and knowing what they can ask and understanding that point. The system is so complex and arbitrary at the minute, and the transparency is not there, so the faith and trust in the system are not automatically there. We have to get to a point where it is transparent, easy to navigate and much simpler.
Sam’s point about motoring convictions is absolutely right. We have supported people who have had job offers withdrawn because an employer has come across their motoring conviction, which has absolutely nothing to do with the job that they would be doing. It is about relevance for the job. That is a really important factor.
Campbell Robb: As both my colleagues have said, this is a step in the right direction. There is more we would like to see in the Bill. The other point is that, when we get through this, whatever the new regulations are, the Government, working with ourselves and employers, need to really think through how we talk about this. We need to run campaigns and explain to employers and work with businesses and business organisations, so that we do not just all talk about Timpson—which is brilliant at this and does a very good job, but we want to have dozens of organisations. We know they want to do more in this space, but feel put off and worried by the complexity that comes with it. We would like to see a bit more in the Bill, but we also want to work afterwards with the Government and employers to make the measures work better.
Campbell Robb: We work every day with thousands of people who are coming out of prison, trying to settle them. We work with employers across the country to find either permanent or short-term opportunities. Criminal records are just one barrier to many people who are trying to get work when they come out of prison. It is about training and education, rehabilitation in prison and what is available then, and suitable accommodation. There is whole range of factors.
The new changes to the probation system, which I know the Justice Committee has looked at recently, are hopefully opening up some opportunities for all of us who work in this space, to provide a more rounded service. These changes to criminal records will help a bit, but they will make a big difference if we can go just that bit further.
Campbell Robb: It is simple: the answer is yes. The commitment in the Bill to community sentences, treatment requirements and problem-solving courts is a real step in the right direction for non-custodial, rounded approaches to sentencing and rehabilitation. When we work with problem-solving courts in the areas that have them, our experience is that they do work. We need to provide that rounded approach to non-custodial sentences, which is to do with treatment, problem solving, a good probation service, training and development. In short, the answer is yes. These are a good thing. We would like to see more of them. The evidence is generally positive, both for pathways out of addiction and into employment, and for reducing reoffending. We look forward to working with whoever is providing them to really get that.
The second thing to add is about better awareness among judges about the success of these courts and how to use them. When the Bill is passed, how do the Government intend to work with the judiciary and other providers to make sure problem-solving courts become more available and better used?
Sam Doohan: While we talk about the further end of the criminal justice system, rather than the sentencing part of it, one thing that we see as being particularly positive about problem-solving courts is that while, yes, they are potentially more expensive up front, they have a much stronger ability to head off reoffending, which saves money further down the road in potential future court cases and prison sentences.
We see it as a false economy to say that problem-solving courts cost more in the immediate term. The Government’s White Paper, which led to this Bill, put the cost of reoffending at something like £18 billion—a huge amount of money. For relatively low-level offences that, in the grand scheme of things, are typically associated with reoffending over a more protracted period, if there is no intervention, that extra money is well worth it. We just have to invest it up front and make sure that the solutions actually work.
Sam Doohan: Certainly, in the present climate, we would probably see a pilot as a political necessity. However, we would expect a pilot to be very positive. We see no reason why it would not be. It would be nice if we could make them happen tomorrow—have ring-fenced funding and have some long-term commitment to them—but if it takes a year or two years to prove the point and make them a permanent fixture of the justice system, that would be more positive in the long run.
Campbell Robb: The evidence from the Bill suggests that most of the approach in it will lead to longer sentences and people in prison for longer. It is also disappointing that there is nothing in the Bill that tackles the issue of the 30,000 short sentences of under six months that are given out every year, which cause significant damage to the individuals involved. We understand the desire of the Government to meet what it feels is the public’s desire to see longer tariffs for some crimes. However, we could have done so much more, particularly on short sentences, to really think through who is ending up in prison, why and for how long.
Campbell Robb: I misunderstood, sorry. On treatment orders and the others types of things that we have just been talking about, if they are too harsh or too difficult to pass, or if people have been set up to fail, there is a danger within those that if they are not done properly with the individual and they do not understand the consequences of what they are doing, people could end up back in prison for failing on a relatively minor breach of a treatment order. It is hard to say there is evidence of that, but there is some concern that that might be the case. I hope that answers your question.
I will bring in the Front Benchers in three minutes. Mr Dorans, do you want to ask a question?
Are all the Back Benchers content and happy? Mr Levy, I did not see you hiding behind the Perspex. You have three minutes before I bring in the Front Benchers.
Campbell Robb: Central is the answer. We as an organisation have been working in this space for nearly 50 years, and we feel that the partnership between the new probation service and organisations such as ours, both locally and nationally, is absolutely essential. We need local partnerships in sentencing and pre-sentencing, and in problem-solving courts and the treatment centres. Local charities and national charities should be working together with the statutory services, providing a wraparound—ideally, to stop people offending in the first place.
When people first hit the criminal justice system, we need to bring in organisations such as ours and others in order to be able to work with people and to keep them out of it through education, training and apprenticeships that we can offer at a whole range of levels. When they are in the system, it is about making sure that they get out as soon as possible, and that they get the rehabilitation and education they need when they are in it. Charities are definitely a part of the process, and we would want to see relationships between charities supporting this work.
You have more time. Do you want to hear from any other witnesses?
Yes, if we have time.
Sam Doohan: I would certainly say that there will continue to be, and there should continue to be, a strong partnership between Government and the charitable sector, but it should also be clear in Parliament’s mind that Government services for probation, youths and all manner of things should not take as read that the charitable can fill in any shortfall. It is important that we work together—we can make more of a difference together than we can separately—but things such as, for example, informing employers about criminal records and the risks associated with hiring someone who has a criminal record, which is the single biggest piece of information that changes an employer’s mind about whether to hire people, are at the moment done almost exclusively by the charitable sector. We are happy to do that work—it needs to be done and it is important—but having more resource and focus from the Government to ensure that message gets out far and wide would be extremely valuable on a number of levels.
Thank you very much.
Helen Berresford: I am happy to go first. You are right that we are concerned about the disclosure period. One of the other points that I would raise is that obviously the new proposal is for two tiers—a diversionary caution and a community caution. One of the things that we would really like to see from this is a growing use of out-of-court disposals to keep people out of the formal justice system, which we know has a positive impact. The more we can use them, the better. What we do not want to see with this new approach is more people being given the upper-tier caution as a result of it being two tier. We want to see more people coming into out-of-court disposals more broadly. We need to be aware of the risk of more people having the one that has more conditions attached to it, which makes it more difficult.
The second point is very much about the disclosure period. If we take the disclosure period out, we have much more of a chance to use out-of-court disposals in a positive way that does not put up additional barriers and gives people the chance to move on and not to get engaged with the formal justice system.
Sam Doohan: I entirely agree with Helen about the disclosure periods for the new upper-tier caution. That is certainly a problem; I will not re-tread that entirely. One of the other concerns that we have about the new cautions is that now, at least in the adult regime, there will only be conditional cautions, which require a fairly in-depth process of paperwork to set and monitor conditions and ensure compliance. There is now no other caution option available. Those cautions will be delivered largely on an individual officer level and by individual forces.
As a result, forces will be much more hesitant to use a caution. Whereas in the past, they might have been quite content to give a simple caution and send someone on their way with a formal warning or reprimand, now the force in question will have to take on the burden of monitoring, compliance and potentially re-arresting someone if they breach conditions. They will be forced either to go above the caution and see more cases through to prosecution, even though it would not necessarily be in the public interest to do so, or not to take action at all.
As we know with the criminal justice system as a whole, when we start having these slightly weighted decisions about who falls into what tier of disposal, those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, along the lines of race and religion, almost universally fall into the harsher end, and those who are not do not. We are creating a system that incentivises busy working police officers to say, “Actually, I am going to make this the CPS’s problem, not mine, and I have the choice of who to do it to.” Is that going to lead to good criminal justice outcomes? We think it may not. We do not know yet—I stress that—because it has not been studied, but it does have the characteristics of a system that will not have the desired outcomes.
Campbell Robb: We do have that concern. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that that might be the case, and that it was in the public interest to continue. We know that, at every stage, young BAME youths, in particular, are disproportionately likely to be stopped and searched, and to end up in the system in different ways. We do have that concern. We would like to see more evidence used to understand what the impact of the proposals might be. We know from previous proposals and reports, such as David Lammy’s, that the system is not working in the way that it could, and there is nothing in the Bill that will positively change that. We urge the Government to think about whether there is more that we could do on that through the passage of the Bill.
Sam Doohan: One important thing to keep an eye on is that the out-of-court disposal family is one that requires co-operation from the person who is receiving the disposal. That is fine if you have a community that is reasonably homogenous and where there is no tension with the police, because people are much more likely to co-operate. They may not see the police as being friendly, but they at least understand the interaction better.
Where there is less community cohesion and there are people from all manner of underprivileged backgrounds who historically do not have good relationships with the police and are less likely to be co-operative, that again puts us in a situation where the out-of-court disposals and their relatively lesser impact on someone throughout the rest of their life will end up going to people from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and those who end up being prosecuted and receiving full convictions will be people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Helen Berresford: No, I think that is right. Sam has just explained that very well. I think that there is a risk. We can see across a number of the proposals and, as Campbell said, the Government’s impact assessment the impact on people from black and minority ethnic communities. Out-of-court disposals are a good case in point in terms of how we ensure that they do not discriminate. We can see it at every stage. We need to be looking at how we reduce the disproportionality in the justice system, and what actions we can take to do that. We can see that some of these proposals do the opposite.
Helen Berresford: We know from the evidence that community orders are more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences, which are ineffective at doing that. We want to see much better use of community sentences where they are more effective. Community sentence treatment requirements are a really good example of how we can do that, ensuring that we also put in the drug treatments and mental health support that are needed alongside it. That is really important.
A lot of these orders have the potential sanction of being sent to prison if breached. We do not support that as a way forward. We do not think that that is effective. If a community sentence is not working, we already know that a short prison sentence is less effective, so it does not make sense that that is the penalty. There is evidence to show that continuing the support in the community, to ensure that we are actually dealing with the issues, is more effective. It is about ensuring that community sentences are not setting people up to fail, and that the conditions around them try to help with their different needs, such as alcohol and drug treatment, mental health treatment, and homelessness. All those different parts need to be addressed. That is where the focus is.
Sam Doohan: The one thing that needs to be considered with community orders and criminal records is that when a community order is given alongside another disposal and it becomes an ancillary order we have to be very careful about how long we set the orders for. At present, the full conviction does not become spent until the full ancillary order is completed or ended by the court. A lot of orders are given for three years or five years. Some are given for life. We need to be aware of that, so that we are using orders in a proportionate way that matches the intention of them. They should not be given out simply as a five-year ban from this location, say, which will in fact end up with someone taking six years before what is probably a relatively minor conviction is taken off their record.
Campbell Robb: It is one part. To isolate it solely as being effective on its own is not something— It can be a very useful method of keeping people out of prison, but it has to be wrapped around the probationary offer and the other offers available to the individual, so that they have meaningful engagement, either through unpaid work or training or development, and are in stable, suitable accommodation, so that they are not moving all the time. So, in and of itself, it can add some benefit, but it cannot be taken as a single thing.
Thank you very much. Mr Philp.
May I start with problem-solving courts? Clearly, as with so many things, it is important that the implementation is right; there are some things that work and some things that do not. Can you give your views on the things that have worked and the things that have not worked in problem-solving courts that we have tried in the past—I think there was one in Merseyside a few years ago—and the lessons that we might learn from problem-solving courts in the US, as we design and implement the pilot?
Helen Berresford: This is not something that we have significant expertise in at Nacro, in terms of learning from previous pilots. With any of these things, we have to understand, as you say, what has worked and what has not worked.
The point that we made earlier about the role of building judicial confidence, which was picked up on, is a really important one, and that confidence has to be central to problem-solving courts as we roll them out. Getting the right people involved and the right support functions is important. One of the important purposes—is it not?—of problem-solving courts is that you bring the right people into the discussions and keep them engaged.
I will just refer, for example, to community sentence treatment requirements. We know from our experience of what we have seen that engaging with the judiciary in that process has a really positive impact. That is one of the things we have seen and that we would like to see much more of in the roll-out of CSTRs, and I would say the same for problem-solving courts.
Sam Doohan: In addition to building interest and engagement in the judiciary, one of the other issues is also building interest and engagement among the local population. The courts need to be credible, both to offenders and to the local population. That is probably the biggest step that needs to be taken. If local people think that someone will effectively get just a slap on the wrist and that the problem-solving court does not solve the problem, they will not bother reporting minor crimes and, to some degree, neither will the police. It is very important that that credibility takes centre stage and that the whole process has some faith that its measures will actually be successful.
First of all, do you share that analysis, particularly where a CSTR might be an alternative to a short sentence? If you do share that analysis, what do you think we can do to encourage the wider use of CSTRs, in addition to the extra money for the actual treatment that is being provided at the moment? I ask that because I would like to see them being used a lot more.
Campbell Robb: Yes, we would too, and I think the evidence suggests that when they are used properly they can have a significant effect, on both the addiction or the mental health issues that people are suffering from, and ultimately—we think in previous studies, but not recently—potentially on reoffending. So we are very supportive of them.
I think that, as you would expect us to say, they need to be part of a wider network that is available, ranging from wider drug treatment services, through the NHS and other public health bodies, to job opportunities. They are part of a holistic approach—part of a whole series of interventions that can help people.
On their use as an alternative to sentencing, we could not agree more. That is the work that Nacro does every day, with hundreds of people across the country. If we can use them to help support people through their mental health issues, or drug and alcohol issues, and keep them out of the criminal justice system, then absolutely; we could not agree more. We are very supportive and would want to work alongside to get more of them up and running as soon as possible.
I agree that having the judiciary, as well as the public, see them as a viable alternative is something we all need to work on once the Bill becomes an Act, so that we really get that buy-in and momentum behind them so that they can be used more widely.
Helen Berresford: We have seen an increase in their usage in the test sites. The only point I would add, without repeating my earlier comment, is that building judicial confidence will be an important part of this. That is a really important thing to learn from. Continually evaluating and learning as we roll these out will be really important, learning where they have worked and where they have not. If we can build that in, I think there is a really positive role for community sentence treatment requirements.
Sam Doohan: There is also an issue with building faith with offenders and the people who will potentially receive treatment. One of the concerns that we hear with these kinds of disposals is that people are worried that their criminal record will show that they have been in drug treatment or mental health treatment. In general, although not in the absolute, that is not a problem, because it will not show up and they will not have to disclose it. But people do not know that and they do not necessarily have a great deal of faith that it will not show up three, four or five years later, when they have turned their life around.
I mention that in particular because a DWP study from 2010, I think, found that the only group who, in employment terms, were discriminated against on a par with people with convictions were alcoholics and drug users. Therefore, ensuring that people understand the full ramifications of co-operating with a drug treatment programme—that it will be private, to a large degree, and that it will give them the opportunity to move on positively afterwards—would go a long way.
Helen Berresford: Our preference—and yours too, I hear—is very much about looking at community sentences, where they are more effective. If there is an option of custody, I think we really need to build that in as an absolute last resort, and it is worth looking at how we can ensure that is the case. Certainly, on a broader point, in the past we have seen increases in recall to prison, and in some cases people have been recalled for very minor breaches of their conditions, and nothing to do with committing a crime. It is really important that we ensure that is not what we are doing. If there is a condition about prison as a last resort, we have to make sure that it is for a very significant reason and that it is truly a last resort.
Sam Doohan: Broadly speaking, statutory minimums cause problems. The reduction of judicial discretion means that cases cease to be individual and start to be set by central Government policy. Although it can be argued either way, depending on your taste, were we to follow an American model, where if you get three strikes and then a very long prison sentence for a relatively minor crime, under the current British criminal records system that would almost certainly be disclosed for life, and it would not just be a fairly stiff sentence for repeat offending; it would become a life sentence immediately. That is something always to be aware of when thinking about where we set not just sentencing guidelines, but sentencing minimums in particular. If the judge thinks that six months is appropriate, we should not be the ones to argue with that.
Campbell Robb: We agree that judicial discretion is paramount. We think that is a very, very important consideration. For any changes, it is important to be aware of that and to have an urgent space to see what impact those minimum sentences are having across the piece, in terms of numbers, time and then rehabilitation.
I thank our three witnesses for a very strong performance and for answering the questions so fully—it is much appreciated.
Examination of witnesses
Dame Vera Baird, QC, gave evidence.
We now move on to our second session. We have Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner. Dame Vera, could you introduce yourself for the record, please? Not that you need a great deal of introduction, as you were formerly of this parish, but just for the record.
Dame Vera Baird: Good morning. I am Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales. I hope you are receiving me. Over.
Excellent. We are receiving you—brilliant. I am not sure if you can see us yet, but we can certainly see you. I call Mr Goodwill.
Dame Vera Baird: Thank you very much, Mr Goodwill. It is very good to see you again—we were next-door neighbours at one time, constituency-wise.
I will focus on the digital download point, because it is extremely key. Clause 36 in the Bill is very problematic. We have done some considerable work on it, which I would like to mention. First, let me compliment the Home Office team who drafted it and who approached us to ask what we thought of it. Let me explain that I fully understand, as I guess the Committee does, that the purpose of clause 36 is different from the area Mr Goodwill has just rehearsed.
I understand from Mr De Meyer, who is the NPCC police officer I have mostly been talking to about this, that people say to the police, “Someone is harassing me” or “Someone sent me this. Look at my phone—there is the evidence.” The police are worried that if they take the phone, they might be in breach of the investigatory powers legislation, so they are seeking a statutory power to take a phone off somebody who is voluntarily giving it up. That was good to understand—that is fine—but the power as set out at the moment does not contain any protections for the complainants who are in the position that Mr Goodwill has mentioned.
If I may, I will briefly rehearse the position as it is seen from the victim’s point of view. If you look at a Rape Crisis survey 18 months ago, or if you talk daily to ISVAs, you will find that the view is that on the ground it is practically routine for rape and sexual assault complainants to be asked to hand over digital devices, and for most of the material on it to be trawled, so far as they are aware. Apparently, according to my network of stakeholders, the CPS frequently seeks a level of material straight away, before it charges, and if a complainant refuses, the case just does not get considered for charge. That is very, very troubling, and it has a chilling effect not only on current victims, but on reporting, and it could impact victim attrition.
We did an analysis of a data set showing that one in five victims withdrew their complaint of rape at least in part due to disclosure concerns. Home Office data shows an increase of rape complainants withdrawing pre-charge, and it is right to say that many senior police officers, including Mr De Meyer, accept that there has been a big blow to the confidence of the public in the police because of the whole issue of digital data.
In my own former area—I was the PCC in Northumbria until not quite two years ago—the Home Office funded a pilot of independent legal advice for rape complainants dealing with digital download. That pilot disclosed that about 50% of the requests for digital download of rape complainants’ devices were not necessary or proportionate. Of course, we must take some comfort from the fact that that means the other 50% were, and my understanding is that this pilot worked well. It was praised by 23 of the 25 professionals involved in it because it also speeded matters up: where there was a legitimate request for a particular section of the contents of the device, the independent legal advisor was able to get to grips with its reasonableness and advise if it was reasonable, and it was then very quickly accepted. None the less, 50% of requests were not in that category, and we do know that it influences people about reporting rape when they fear that not only their own personal data, but the data of everybody else who is on their phone—their little brother, their sister, their mother, anyone they may confide in—will also have to be disclosed.
The last three points that I really want to emphasise to let you appreciate the seriousness of this problem are that in 2020, the Information Commissioner published a report about exactly this, and outlined a series of ways in which the police were not complying in a number of respects with data protection legislation. The gateway for consent was one of the concerns, and there was an internal report by the CPS two years ago, which found that 60% of its requests for digital download were over-intrusive and not necessary. A little bit later, HMCPSI found about 40% were in the same category. The police have now done a lot of work to try to shift policy backwards, and this new power—which has no obvious nod, even, in the direction of the protection of complainants—came out of the blue from a different Department of the Home Office, and has absolutely none of the protections that, in policy terms, the police have been looking towards for quite some time.
We have the ICO, the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs’ Council all meeting with us, and we are very pleased with that. We asked whether we can draft some amendments to this that will safeguard the protection the police need, but will also offer protections for complainants when the power is used for this—as it will be, of course. In a very lightning run through them, there is no definition of agreement. What it says is that an authorised person can take information from a device if it has been voluntarily provided and there is agreement to give the stuff, but there is no definition of agreement, and we know very well—as I have just recited—that often, there is a sort of implicit threat that if you do not, that is the end of the story. We defined agreement in a fairly obvious way—fully informed and freely given. There is no requirement at all for the police to specify the nature of the material, let alone the actual material, that they want to look for. It is just all or nothing: you agree or you do not agree. A big concern is that although it is described as information that needs to be relevant if it is being sought, it does not make reference to the very important turn of phrase in the legislation, which is a “reasonable line of inquiry”. It is much broader.
We therefore drafted some amendments that dealt with all of those points and a number more, and we offered them to the Home Office team. I am very pleased to say that the National Police Chiefs’ Council accepted them, and felt that they fulfilled all the requirements that it had and offered some excellent protections. I am very pleased to say that the Information Commissioner’s Office, although it is happy with the code of practice going way beyond this legislation, also accepted them. The Home Office did not. When we tried to probe why, the answer came:
“While the NPCC indicated they were content with your drafted provisions, they have also said they were similarly supportive of the draft we prepared. We incorporated their operational perspective…with the views of our technical and legal experts”.
I think we have to move on now. It is not that this is not important. It is hugely important, but you have asked one question and there was a 10-minute response. We have three colleagues. We cannot do that again. I call Mr Dorans.
Dame Vera Baird: I do not think that it does go far enough. Sentencing is not a territory that I want to get into particularly because victims’ views are very different about sentencing. It is by no means the case that everybody who is a victim of crime wants extremely heavy sentencing. There was a piece of research recently by RoadPeace that shows that they are not particularly strongly supportive of the increased sentences for driving offences, and would prefer driving bans rather than what they see as people who have driven dangerously but are not dangerous people being locked up in prison for a long time. They feel that long sentences may deter charging or jury verdicts.
Victims, just like everyone else, are a mixed bag, but what they want very much is to be treated decently by all the criminal justice agencies; to have adequate support and courteous engagement; to be kept up to date; to have all the entitlements when they come to court that will help them to give their evidence well; and to be supported right through, including after the sentence, going into the time when someone is serving their sentence—keeping them up to date about what is happening so that they might then more easily accept what happens when the individual comes out.
That whole procedural justice—what works for victims—is absolutely key. It does start to appear quite well in the new victims’ code of practice, but certainly that code of practice, which is about the sixth version of it that we have had, must be implemented, when the others have not been. There is nothing in the legislation here to help with that. The victims’ law is coming down the line and I hope that we can do more for victims in that.
Apologies for taking a long time about digital download. I meant simply to end by saying that all the problems that we have experienced can be solved by the drafts that we have prepared, which have been accepted by everyone but the Home Office. I urge the Minister in charge to look at that again.
Dame Vera Baird: I agree. I wonder whether the problem starts with the victim contact scheme and whether we are not embracing enough people into it. We have done some really good work with HMPPS about that. They are moving to a much stronger invitation to join the victim contact scheme and are offering all sorts of ways to do it, even after the event. That would put people in a position where their statement would be taken, and it would be read.
In fact, during the course of the pandemic, a lot of victims have gone online and read their statement to the parole board. The number of victims who have done that has gone up, and we think the online provision—giving satisfactory remoteness to an individual from a prisoner, but none the less communicating what is good—is probably a good model for the future, but it is imperative that that opportunity is given to victims.
Dame Vera Baird: In essence, yes, I do. We have just done a report about special measures, Ms Champion, and it would be good if you looked at it. The problem starts with the fact that the needs assessment is not done clearly by a single agency. It is all across the CPS, witness care units and the police. We have said that it should be in the witness care units. It should be done in a professional and thorough way with them co-ordinating it.
Then there is the real problem that the range of special measures, and the one that might suit you as a witness, are not always available and are not always offered even if they are available. There is a risk of some sort of court culture limiting the choice when the intention is that the best evidence should be given for the benefit both of the complainant, to cut the tension, and of the criminal justice system, to get evidence that it might not get otherwise.
Let me add that the roll-out of section 28 enables vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to pre-record their evidence weeks and weeks—probably, in reality, years—before a case can come to trial, and then be cross-examined on video too so that, many weeks before it comes to trial, they have finished their involvement in it. Obviously, it often just needs to be a choice, but that can be the default position to get a lot of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses out of the queue at the Crown court, put an end to their stress and record their evidence while their memory is fresh. I think that should be the default position available for all the categories that you mentioned.
Dame Vera Baird: I am not the lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners; I am the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, and I do not know about that conversation.
There are two difficulties. One is that an unauthorised encampment often causes great discomfort to neighbours of it—that is probably a gross understatement. The other concern I have—very frankly—is that my experience is that the appropriate statutory provision is not always made to provide Gypsies and Travellers with an alternative place that is lawful and so they, too, are put in a very problematic position.
I saw what Martin Hewitt from the National Police Chiefs’ Council said the day before yesterday. He said that he did not think the police needed more powers; it would be much better if more lawful places were made available. And then there is no difficulty with getting Gypsies and Travellers out of places where they should not be, because there is a lawful place to put them. So I am afraid at the moment we have kind of two sets of victims.
Dame Vera Baird: Yes, I do. It is very important that what victims want, which I have described—procedural justice, being treated with decency, being kept up to date and so on—is provided for in the process of delivering a caution. It looks as if victims are about as satisfied when the offender is given a caution as they are when the matter goes to court, so as long as they are consulted and they are treated as victims throughout, I think it is probably excellent to streamline the nature of this work.
There is one reservation: perhaps something needing a bit of looking at is the obligation to admit guilt in order to get an out-of-court disposal. Sometimes something like a deferred prosecution might be something that a person would be readier to accept, and it should be no more of a problem for a victim. But in principle, as long as victims are involved—we have a massive backlog in the courts, so if we can deal with justice for both sides in some other way, let us do it.
Dame Vera Baird: I am not an expert on sentencing and I do not think you particularly want my personal views. Do you want the perspective of victims on that?
Dame Vera Baird: It is hard to say because we do not get a lot of victims coming to us and talking about sentencing; they are usually talking more about their own treatment by the justice system. But what I can tell you is that although they are broadly supportive of different sentencing, the briefing that you have probably had—and that we certainly have had from RoadPeace, Brake and British Cycling—suggests that they are worried about the difference between a sentence where someone has caused death and a sentence where someone has “only” caused what might be the very most serious of harms, and they wonder whether there ought to be some nearer proximity between the two.
But victims do say quite clearly that they have concerns about making causing death by dangerous driving and causing severe injury by dangerous driving have much higher penalties, because of the factor I mentioned before: it might deter prosecutions, or it might deter juries, who can pretty easily see themselves in a driving seat when something goes wrong, from convicting. So they have that reservation.
I think the telling line is that victims are not sure why there is such reliance on custodial sentencing for people who may have driven dangerously but are not dangerous people. Is it not better to use driving bans more effectively and not to allow such leeway about the unfairness of it but to make them pretty well automatic? That is their take on it, and I do not think I can second-guess them.
To finish the conversation that we started at the beginning, it would be helpful if you could describe the impact that you think those amendments will have on the process and on the victims. Perhaps you could say a bit more about their sense of confidence in the system. What are we aiming for here?
Dame Vera Baird: We do have to protect the article 8 rights of complainants, and the open nature—the swingeing and unconditional nature—of these clauses does not do that. I have set out all the people who have commented on how commonplace it is for a victim to have their phone demanded and for it to be trawled, as it is called on the ground. I have set all that out.
The consequence, of course, is that complainants, who say they have been sexually assaulted—they are already injured, and we have already failed to protect them against crime. They are probably vulnerable. They are certainly very nervous. They have heard that it is not a nice thing to go to court. They probably know the conviction rate is very low. They have got together the courage to go and talk to the police and to discuss the case, and they seem to be met—my survey last year made this very clear—with police officers who are looking askance at them as genuine victims and saying, in effect, “Hand over everything there is for me to know about you, so that I can check whether you are a worthy person for me to get behind and prosecute this case.”
Other than sexual assaults, rapes and trafficking, and occasionally domestic abuse, I do not know of any other kind of case in which the download of phones is used in that way. It is not just the download of phones. Frequently the police ask for, and frequently the CPS requires, all health notes, psychiatric notes, school reports and social services reports, which obviously adds to the tendency to think that you are the one under investigation, and not the other. This is a massive deterrent and, not surprisingly, a good reason why people withdraw.
Following the pilot we did in Northumbria, which was highly successful, it is very important that there should be automatic legal advice. When someone’s article 8 human rights—we have an obligation to protect human rights—are put at stake by what the CPS has found are overly intrusive demands in 60% of cases, the only way to try to deal with it, given that there are a whole range of cases about it, is to get free, independent legal advice for the purpose of discussing and ordering with the police and the CPS what is appropriate to seek, what should be disclosed and what should not.
Our amendments say that, and we have sent those to the Government. I think we have also sent them to every member of this Committee. I hope that the Government will realise that although it has an end-to-end rape review—the purpose of which is to restore confidence and restore prosecutions—this piece of legislation is actually running in the opposite direction and is likely to make things worse.
Dame Vera Baird: What needs to happen is that section 28 needs to be the default option, so that rape complainants can finish with the trial while their memory is fresh and facilitate getting some trauma therapy, if that is what they need—section 28 and independent legal advice. I think it is fair to say to the CPS that if they require a level of data from phones and other places and they find something, however irrelevant, it may call the complainant’s credibility into question. There was a terrible case when I was a PCC in Newcastle, where it was put to a woman of 23 that she had always been a liar because she had lied by writing a letter to her school saying that she could not go to the swimming pool that day, and forging her mother’s signature. She was 12 when she did that. If something like that is found, the police probably think they have to disclose it to the other side, because they have a full duty to do so.
The point is not to look for ridiculously irrelevant material, or you are in pursuit of what I think victims think the police are looking for, which is the perfect victim. Of course, none of us would be a perfect victim in that sense, so that needs very much to be met by legal advice. It may be that once that material is found, there is no power in the CPS to do anything but disclose it. It is arguing at the beginning about what material should be sought.
It is absolutely clear that the Crown Prosecution Service has to start prosecuting rape. It now prosecutes around 1,700 cases a year, whereas for the best part of a decade, prior to a change in its approach to rape in 2016-17, it prosecuted 3,500 cases a year and got a corresponding number of convictions. Now it is prosecuting only half as many as that and getting convictions only in three figures, which is a terrific collapse. That approach, which changed, needs to be changed back.
There must also be good provision of independent sexual violence advisers. Anyone who comes to make a complaint, which is a very courageous thing to do given what they have gone through, the imbalance of power between them and the police and their complete lack of awareness of what the criminal justice system is like, needs a professional friend beside them to help them to cope. They may need to move house, if the rape was in the house, or move job, if the rape was connected with the job. At least a professional friend can help with those things, and you cannot expect a complainant to cope with that as well as with the criminal justice system. All that seems imperative. I am mindful of the Chair’s wish for brevity from me, so perhaps I will write to you with a longer list.
On the point about digital divides, do you accept that there is a need to clarify the law on this? At the moment, we have the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 and we have the Attorney General’s new guidelines, but presumably you accept that there is a need to set a framework in law in order to help and protect victims, and to protect the right of a free trial under article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998?
Dame Vera Baird: I think national legislation to clarify the law about this is imperative, but it is just not this national legislation.
Dame Vera Baird: Yes, of course we have to do so. I am not sure you will be doing that with this power. I think there is a real human rights challenge here already, and I am pretty satisfied that there will be data protection challenges too. Yes, of course data protection is the law and it is important. I do not think this fulfils all your obligations under that either.
“that information stored on the electronic device is relevant to a purpose within subsection (2)”.
That wording of course comes from the 1996 Act, doesn’t it?
Dame Vera Baird: I do not know which it comes from, but “relevant” is no good, Minister. “Relevant” is not a reasonable line of inquiry. Somebody who comes across the letter from the lady in Northumbria might think that is relevant. I do not think that finding it is a reasonable line of inquiry. A reasonable line of inquiry in the CPIA is the right test, and this is the wrong test.
Dame Vera Baird: There is a test of a reasonable line of inquiry under the CPIA. That is the test, and that is very much a narrower test than the one in the proposed clauses. I have to say, because we narrowed it from relevance down to a reasonable line of inquiry in our amendments, the police were happy to accept that, so I am not sure why the Home Office wants it to be wider than the police want it to be.
“satisfied that exercise of the power is necessary and proportionate”.
Again, that wording applies across the board in terms of criminal proceedings. Is that correct?
Dame Vera Baird: I have come across the terminology before, but it is highly subjective. Insufficient detail is gone into for it to have the meaning that it is important to have. I think it is a very good thing, if I may say so, Minister, that you have accepted that the backdrop against which we approach these clauses is a very, very undesirable one, where confidence has been lost by over-demands on vulnerable complainants’ personal data. It is hugely important therefore to put into the legislation every protection that can be put in, for fairness. Remember, there is a massive power imbalance in the relationship at the time of the requests—
The codes of practice under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, for example, are vital codes of practice that are relied on in court. If a police officer does not meet the standards expected by that code when interviewing suspects, for example—if there is a significant breach—the entire prosecution can fall. Do you accept that although we are rightly looking at the wording of the clauses, just focusing on those would not give the full picture? We also need to consider the importance that the code of practice will have. It will deal with some of the practice points that you have raised.
Dame Vera Baird: I do not think it is the right analogy to compare any code of practice. Let me tell you, the code of practice under this is invisible or non-existent. Codes of practice are discussed though they are the answer to it all. The first thing to say is that they do not have the power of statute, and if the legislation goes through as it is now, that is what the police will likely rely on. Of course a statutory code of practice under PACE has the consequences that you described, Minister, but that is because if you break the code of practice under PACE, it impacts on the defendant. The defendant can say, “Oh, that’s been done unfairly and jeopardised my fair trial,” and a breach can even be the end of a prosecution. There is absolutely no power for a rape complainant to have a similar resolution of a breach of any code of practice in this legislation. They can breach the codes of practice until they are blue in the face, and it does not make any difference to the trial.
Dame Vera Baird: I am sure you accept the difference, though, Minister—
Dame Vera Baird: There is no possible remedy or solution for the complainant that is analogous to the outright acquittal that can be a consequence of breaching the PACE code of practice, because that is about a defendant. This is about a complainant. What do you suggest would be the solution if the code of practice were breached in my case of rape and too much documentation was taken and disclosed? What is my remedy?
Dame Vera Baird: I would like to answer that, if I can. They are the only thing, because there is no sign of a code of practice. There is no draft code of practice at all. When I ask what my remedy would be as a rape complainant, you say to me that the police will be accountable, but how will they be accountable? It is not a crime and it is not a tort to break this code of practice, so what is the remedy if it is broken? It is not an analogy with the PACE code of practice. Do not over-rely on this code of practice, Minister. You and I share the aim of protecting complainants. Do not over-rely on a code of practice no one has ever seen and that does not have statutory form.
Dame Vera Baird: If those routes really do exist, have they been working, Minister? I do not remember any complainant being able to come to me as a PCC and complain about an individual case. Let’s face it: the dire situation where the public, or at least this sector of them, have lost confidence in the police has occurred at the time when all of those bodies that can call them to account have been in play, and they have not called them to account.
I will move on to unauthorised encampments. You were asked about the impact and you fairly conceded that residents can be victims in the context of unauthorised encampments. Clause 61 sets out the offence. The conditions that are laid down for the alleged commission of an offence include factors such as “significant damage”, “significant disruption” and “significant distress”. With your focus on antisocial behaviour, presumably you welcome the focus on those unauthorised encampments that result in those sorts of distressing conditions?
Dame Vera Baird: I would not want anyone to suffer from any of those, but causing damage—I do not know what that is. If you are on an unauthorised encampment and you have not got a lavatory so you dig a latrine, is that causing damage to the field? I think it depends how it is defined. I really cannot go much further than saying that unless there is proper provision of authorised encampments, you have two sets of victims. I quite agree with you that the people who are distressed, damaged or whatever by an unauthorised encampment are victims of that. There is no doubt of it—you have made your point—but I want you to take into account the difficulty of finding somewhere to camp in a lot of places, which forces people into an unlawful place. Of course, damage is not justifiable, but that is a factor to consider. I was so pleased when the NPCC appreciated that as well.
Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. I thank the witness again for her evidence.
The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (Fourth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Sir Charles Walker, Steve McCabe
† Anderson, Lee (Ashfield) (Con)
† Atkins, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)
† Champion, Sarah (Rotherham) (Lab)
† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)
Dorans, Allan (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)
† Jones, Sarah (Croydon Central) (Lab)
† Levy, Ian (Blyth Valley) (Con)
† Philp, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
Wheeler, Mrs Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)
Williams, Hywel (Arfon) (PC)
Huw Yardley, Sarah Thatcher, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Iryna Pona, Policy and Research Manager, The Children’s Society
Will Linden, Deputy Head, Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, Community Justice Scotland
Hazel Williamson, Chair, Association of Youth Offending Team Managers
Ellie Cumbo, Head of Public Law, The Law Society
Dr Kate Paradine, Chief Executive, Women in Prison
Ms Nina Champion, Director, Criminal Justice Alliance
Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director, Howard League for Penal Reform
Dr Jonathan Bild, Director of Operations, Sentencing Academy
Gracie Bradley, Interim Director, Liberty
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Programme Director, Military, Security and Police, Amnesty International UK
Professor Colin Clark, University of the West of Scotland
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 20 May 2021
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Iryna Pona and Will Linden gave evidence.
I will introduce our panel of witnesses. If they can see us and hear us, that is an improvement on this morning when they could only hear us. We will hear from Iryna Pona, policy and research manager at the Children’s Society, and Will Linden, deputy head of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit at Community Justice Scotland.
Colleagues, we have until 2.45 pm for this section, so just under 45 minutes. Will our witnesses introduce themselves for the record, please?
Iryna Pona: My name is Iryna Pona, policy and research manager at the Children’s Society, which is a voluntary sector organisation. We work with young people who are criminally or sexually exploited, who have experienced abuse or who have gone missing from home or care. We do policy and research and also work directly with children and young people delivering one-to-one support group work as well as therapeutic support for children.
We also have national programmes such as the disrupting exploitation and prevention programme. These programmes, as well as working with young people, also work with professionals to help them improve their responses to children who are criminally or sexually exploited. Our prevention programme funded by the Home Office also runs campaigns. The #LookCloser campaign is about raising the awareness of the public and professionals of child exploitation with the aim of better identification and better and earlier support for these children.
Thank you. Mr Linden next.
Will Linden: Good afternoon. I am Will Linden, deputy head of the violence reduction unit in Scotland. We are an independent unit as part of Police Scotland. We look at prevention in all of its guises in reducing violence from cradle to grave. We have been doing this since 2005. We adopted a public health model fairly early on.
Thank you. Our first question is from Sarah Champion.
Iryna Pona: I think having a definition of child criminal exploitation would be very helpful. When we did research on child criminal exploitation, one of the messages that we had from loads of professionals, both working with the Children’s Society but also working with the local authority and police, was that different services—
Sorry, I am a bit deaf and your link is a bit iffy. Is there any chance you could speak a little slower, please?
Iryna Pona: Of course, yes—sorry. I was saying that the lack of shared understanding of what child criminal exploitation is prevents co-ordinated, joined-up responses to children who are criminally exploited, particularly responses that happen at earlier stages, when the children are groomed for child criminal exploitation.
Also, when children come into contact with police and law enforcement agencies, we know that they are still more likely to be treated as young offenders rather than being seen as victims of crime. So having a definition that all agencies—police, social care, the voluntary sector and others—can share and understand in the same way will really help to change attitudes and also help with how support is provided.
We also believe that the definition needs to be quite broad and not just focused on county lines. We have seen in recent years that there has been a huge focus on county lines, which is really welcome, but the county lines model of child criminal exploitation is just one type of criminal exploitation. We know that children may be exploited in a variety of other ways and that these models constantly evolve and develop.
Having a broad definition that would explain to everyone involved that child criminal exploitation is when someone manipulates a child into undertaking criminal activity would go a long way to improving the responses to children who are criminally exploited and it would improve early intervention as well.
Will Linden: It is not necessarily my area of expertise, but I will just back up what Iryna said there. The challenge if you set a definition for child criminal exploitation is to make sure that the definition is wide and dynamic enough to cover things. The problem is that if we set definitions, we then work to them; we work to that bar—and if, for whatever reason, a young person does not qualify for or meet that definition, they can fall within the gaps in the system.
We have to be quite careful with the definition, to make sure that it is encompassing and that it is not fixed at any point in time; if we are writing it just now, the definition of “exploitation” and what happens to a young person who is being exploited will change. We have to be quite careful. It is important that we write a definition and have one, so that we understand what the services need to do, but we must not get absolutely fixated on it.
Iryna Pona: From what we know about this issue, definitely not enough data is being collected. In relation to child criminal exploitation, some data is collected through the national referral mechanism when young people are referred to it. From October 2019, it started collecting data specifically on child criminal exploitation, because of the huge increase in the number of referrals. It is really helpful, but in our opinion it is only the tip of the iceberg.
No similar data is collected through social care. I know that social care will introduce this as one of the factors in assessment—from this year onwards, I think. However, at the moment we do not know the true scale of child criminal exploitation. There is some proxy data, which is about how many children have been arrested, but I believe that at that point it is too late. We need to start identifying child criminal exploitation much earlier, to offer help much earlier.
There are also gaps in relation to child sexual exploitation. Some data is collected by the police and is available from them, but police data often focuses on crime; it does not always include children aged 16 or 17 who are victims of sexual offences because of the way the data focuses on crime. It is acknowledged in the Government’s sexual abuse strategy that that is a gap.
We also do not necessarily understand the progression from identification to prosecution of these cases. There is no clear data in relation to that, which I think impacts on how agencies can see the bigger picture, gather information and plan a relevant response to these really serious crimes. Regarding prosecution, some data is available, but it is very limited.
Will Linden: The Scottish perspective is very similar, but this comes down to the fact that we collect a lot of data on individuals and families—crime data, health data and social work data. The problem is that the data do not speak to each other.
We often hide behind GDPR and data protection rules. The datasets and the data holders need to be more aligned so that when we are trying to make some of the strategic decisions, we can interrogate the data better, understand the impacts on families and understand the impacts on young people. For me, this is not about collecting anything new; it is about using it smarter. From Scotland’s perspective, I do not think we are much further ahead than where we are in England and Wales now, because we need to get smarter at that too.
Will Linden: I come from a background of looking at prevention and looking at what works, both from a public health perspective and from a criminal justice perspective—not any particular one lens.
Looking at the Bill and what it is trying to do with violent crime reduction orders and other aspects, the intent is there to try to reduce violence. Some of the challenges I have with it regard the unintended consequences of the Bill. If you are going to use some of the measures in it, such as what are essentially increased stop-and-search powers and increased powers over individuals connected to, and guilty of, violent crime and carrying knives, we have to be sure that those are the targets that we want to target with this, because we really need to be focusing on those who are the most at risk of committing the highest level of violence.
For the majority of young people—it will be young people who are caught up in some of the violent crime orders—they will probably be one-off offences. What we will be doing is further criminalising them, and the unintended consequence is that we might be pushing them further down a criminal justice pathway. Looking broadly at the Bill, it is a good idea in principle, but it is about who we point it towards and who we target it at. If we are targeting it at a wide spread—everyone who is caught with a knife, or everyone who has something to do with violent crime—and everyone becomes a part of the Bill or a part of this order, the consequences could far outstrip the outcomes that we are going to try to achieve.
Iryna Pona: From the Children’s Society perspective, we are supportive of the intention behind the duty to bring together different agencies to develop a strategy to reduce and prevent serious violence in their areas. However, we know that the success of such a duty would rest a lot on how it is implemented locally. It is really important that the duty is formulated in such a way as to encourage the greatest focus possible on the safeguarding of children and on the early intervention and support for children and families, as opposed to being seen as a crime reduction initiative.
We therefore believe that for the duty to have a significant impact on reducing the criminal exploitation of children when criminal exploitation is linked to violence or children’s involvement in violence, it is important that the safeguarding of children is recognised and included in the name of the duty, encouraging multi-agency action to address the underlying causes of violence, such as poverty, poor housing, exposure to domestic violence, and criminal and sexual exploitation.
All those are really important, because I agree with what Will said. Potentially, if it is just treated as a crime reduction initiative and prevention is focused on police action, it is very different from when it is safeguarding and focused on offering the best support possible to children.
Iryna Pona: Yes. I believe it will help with interpretation of the duty locally, to enable it to be interpreted in a very similar way across the country and to focus attention on action that needs to be taken by different agencies locally on safeguarding children and taking action to provide support. It is not necessarily preventing escalation or further involvement in violence, but preventing as early as possible involvement in any violent activity. That would be really important.
I also think there are other simple ways in which the duty can be improved—for example, by making sure that when the strategy is produced, social care is part of the consultation, because it will have information about who the vulnerable children are, what the level of need is and how things can be improved locally.
There are different elements related to the duty—for example, about information sharing—that are also important. Information sharing is obviously a very important area. We agree that it is crucial that relevant information is shared to enable agencies working together to plan a better response to children. But there is also something in the duty and in the accompanying guidance that suggests that information may be shared or requested directly—for example, from schools—by the police about individual children. We would have concerns about that, because schools have such an important role to play; school is a place where children have trusting relationships with teachers and educators. It could undermine some of the trust that children have. We believe that there are already in place multi-agency structures—such as multi-agency safeguarding hubs or multi-agency risk assessment conferences—that are better placed for that information sharing about individual children.
So I think there are elements in this duty that are really important, but there are also ways to improve it.
Iryna Pona: Plugging is when young people are exploited by criminal groups to deliver drugs across the country and—sometimes—they are delivering those drugs inserted in cavities in their bodies. It is a horrific experience for children—it is also a great risk to their health. Unfortunately, it is something that a lot of children we are working with are experiencing. It is experienced by a lot of children who are exploited by criminal groups for county lines drug trafficking.
Iryna Pona: Yes. That definitely came up a lot when we were doing our research for the county lines report. Practitioners were—[Interruption.]
Why do not we bring in Mr Linden?
Will Linden: A public health approach to tackling violence is quite simple. It is about using an evidence-based approach to address the causes of the violence in the first place—looking at the challenges, the underlying situation and the underlying evidence, and addressing them before they becomes a wider issue. The public approach is nothing to do with specific trauma or with criminology; it is solely about applying what works at the earliest possible stage. It is evidence-based, it is tried and tested, and it is there to try to deliver long-term, sustainable outcomes. Obviously, over the last year we have all become aware of the public health approach in terms of dealing with the covid situation. This is the same idea: it is looking at what works. How do you vaccinate a community? How do you try to reduce violence? In relation to young people and violence, it is not necessarily about crime, prison and stop-and-search; it is about why they got to that point in the first place and what we can do about it.
Will Linden: There are a number of thoughts about that in terms of what has happened over the last few years. There are increasing levels of inequality and the reductions in the services that are available because of some of the decisions we have had to make; there are also issues such as social media and young people’s culture. What is interesting for me from a Scottish perspective is that although we have seen increasing levels of youth violence in England and Wales, we have not seen the same thing in Scotland. We have seen the level of violence change, go up and stabilise at a certain level, but not necessarily among young people. It is a different group and a different type of violence.
There is something particular happening within certain cultures in certain areas of the UK. We know that violence is not constant across the whole country; it is in pockets. For example, in Scotland, about 60% of the violence is attributable to less than 1% of the population at a very small geographic level. Although we talk about looking at a public health response to the whole country, it is sometimes about much more targeted interventions at a local level.
Will Linden: I do not hold much stock in the comment that violence is just increasing anyway, because throughout the western world violence has been reducing for centuries. We are safer today than we were yesterday, despite what the crime figures, and sometimes the newspaper headlines, tell us.
In Scotland, we looked at policing to start with. Policing is incredibly important, because sometimes you have to stabilise the patient and deal with the problem before you can put in prevention measures and deal with the underlying causes. For us, that was heavily about education. It was about looking at schools and access to young people, who were our initial target, our biggest group and our biggest challenge, predominantly in Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland, not in the whole of Scotland. That is who we targeted.
We targeted young people with education, programmes and advertising campaigns. We looked at how we could get people into jobs and mentor and support them. It was not a one-fix thing. It was about trying to understand the local situation, so in specific areas of Glasgow we looked at the gangs problem, and in Lanarkshire we looked at unemployment. It was about looking at different problems and trying to apply the solutions locally. That took a great deal of partnership working and a great deal of intelligence and information.
Will Linden: That is an important question, because they do have to fit in with existing structures. One of the successes we have had in Scotland in delivering on the strategy is because we are connected in. We are connected into policing. We are connected into the Government. We are connected into local government across the country. If you are introducing any new structures alongside that—VRUs; it does not matter what it is—how are they going to connect into local delivery and local services? More importantly, how is it going to connect into local communities?
If we are looking at strategies based on short-term turnaround—for example, we are going to provide x amount of money to provide a reduction in the next year—that is not going to work, because you are looking at how to build the building blocks, within these communities, areas and partnerships, that are going to deliver long-term, sustainable outcomes. That does not mean that the partnerships, in whatever area of the country they are, cannot get reductions just now, but what we want to do is to build upon those short-term wins in order to build long-term, sustainable reductions that are built into the system—that are not additionality.
Will Linden: We do not have any experience in what you are looking to do down in Merseyside or any other areas, but you need to think beyond the traditional route of crime indicators because of the length of time involved.
You can look at trying to reduce the levels of crime and violence, but what we are dealing with just now is a post-pandemic situation. Over the last year, we have seen significant changes to communities’ environments, so you might actually face increasing levels of violence and there might be increasing problems over the next year or two as a result of the consequences of the last year, and post recovery. If you just tie yourselves down to simple crime figures and recorded crime figures, you could be challenged on that. What we will have to do is to look at some of the other figures around things like community wellbeing, trust in the services, trust in policing and education figures, and try to take in a broad spectrum of outcomes, particularly when we are looking at young people.
If our outcome is solely about reducing crime, that can be achieved quite simply with two things. Recorded crime can be reduced by changing the law and stopping recording it; that is easy. But if you want to reduce the harm that violence causes our communities, you have to look at all the various measurements that measure harm. Some of those are simple, like the crime surveys. Others are much more complex, in terms of mental health or wellbeing. I would look to try to include as wide a sweep as possible, to try to get an understanding of its wider impacts, not just the simple ones.
Iryna, I am asking about the serious violence reduction units and how they are going to fit into other arrangements that are already there. From the perspective of the Children’s Society, do you have anything to say about how the new multi-agency collaborations are going to work alongside violence reduction units and existing structures that are supposed to promote collaboration between agencies?
Iryna Pona: First, apologies for being disconnected. There were some technical difficulties.
The violence reduction unit is obviously quite new, and they also work in very different areas. With the new duty to focus on serious violence, I think it is very important that in the way it works, it should be complementary and joined up with the work of the violence reduction unit. It is also important to understand that areas where there are violence reduction units receive additional funding to undertake violence reduction activity locally, but that is not available across the country. It is really important that the new duty is supported with appropriate resources and delivered locally.
The Children’s Services Funding Alliance, which the Children’s Society is part of, looked at the funding from 2010-11 to 2018-19 on early intervention and late intervention services. It showed that the funding for early intervention services reduced by 46% during that time, while the funding for late intervention services increased by 29%. That shows that there is not enough early intervention available. It is important that where there is activity that focuses specifically on diverting young persons from being involved in violence or violence-related activity, it comes together with funding to address the underlying causes of why young people may be in a situation where they may be exploited in a particular way or drawn into certain groups and activities.
It is really important to understand that local picture. In that respect, it is really important that violence reduction units and local safeguarding partnerships work together to understand those underlying causes and try to develop a strategy that will comprehensively address those local issues.
Sorry about this noisy room, colleagues. It is an extraordinarily noisy room.
It is driving me mad, so I do not know what it is doing to colleagues.
Will Linden: The impact on a child receiving a criminal record is extraordinary. It sets you on a pathway for life that makes things much more challenging. It can be traumatic and it can hamper you having a job or a career in the future. It can take you further down the criminal justice pathway, where you can get further involved in criminality but you are actually more likely to be victimised and to be the victim of crime. Having young people involved in anything to do with the criminal justice system is not, under any circumstances, a thing we should ever aspire to. The criminal justice system is one of the necessary evils that we require in society at present and we should do our best to keep young people out of it as much as possible.
Does anybody else have anything they would like to ask our excellent witnesses? No? Well, I thank the two of you for giving up your Thursday afternoon to join us. I am sorry that we lost you occasionally and that there was background noise, bells and banging, but we got there in the end, so thank you very much.
Examination of Witness
Hazel Williamson gave evidence.
Good afternoon, Hazel, and thank you for being ready to join us early. Hazel Williamson is the chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers. I have just introduced you, but I think we need to do you the courtesy of allowing you to introduce yourself very briefly.
Hazel Williamson: Thank you. I am very grateful, and I am delighted to be able to give some evidence today. Yes, I am Hazel Williamson, and I am chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers. I have been chair since September last year, and for two years before that I was vice-chair. My day job is head of Staffordshire youth offending service.
Thank you very much. We have a question straight away from Mr Robert Goodwill.
Hazel Williamson: In terms of custodial remand, we have seen a significant reduction under the previous legislation and the current legislation. Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we have seen a reduction in remand. Some of the challenges that remain for remand are around those robust packages, and in particular suitable placements, for our children and young people. We know that placements is a national issue for children and young people, and finding the most suitable is really difficult. What we know about our cohort in the youth justice system now is that they have changed over the past 20 years. They are presenting with significant trauma and abuse, often as a result of exploitation. That makes it really difficult for our local authority colleagues to source an appropriate placement.
Hazel Williamson: With remand into custody, we would always try to offer suitable alternatives wherever possible, whether that is a robust bail package supported by our youth offending teams or remand into the care of the local authority with that additional support. We know that in the custodial population, there are high numbers of children who have been looked after or are currently being looked after, along with other needs, but wherever possible we would try to work with our local authority to seek that suitable alternative to remand.
Hazel Williamson: In particular, I would like us to record remand decisions more robustly in the courts. We need clear decision making; we need it to be clear why we have made those decisions. Also, we should take the opportunity to encourage regular reviews of remand and seek alternatives wherever possible.
I think on a national footing we need to be working closely with the Department for Education and our director of children’s services to develop a more robust placement process and improve the quality of the market for placements.
Hazel Williamson: We are obviously supportive of anything that improves youth custody. We know that outcomes for children who end up in youth custody are poor and have been for some considerable time. The recent inspection reports will detail that we do not yet have the significant improvements we need in youth custody.
As an association of YOT managers, we believe that children in custody—custody should be a last resort—should be placed in small, secure units close to their homes. We do not advocate large custodial establishments where children are placed far away from their home; we would advocate small custodial units. As for the academy trust, it remains to be seen what the detail is around the secure school and how children will manage as part of the routine within that environment.
Hazel Williamson: If we look at the proposal for an extended intensive supervision and surveillance programme, it did not have great results when it was previously piloted, and it was not piloted on a scale to allow an effective evaluation. We as YOT managers are not convinced that the extended ISS is the way to go. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that custody is the last resort for children and young people.
The other proposal in the Bill that we as an association have been discussing is around intensive fostering. Staffordshire youth offending team—my service—was part of one of the pilots. That scheme was extremely expensive and did not necessarily get the expected results for those children and young people. So while we absolutely support robust alternatives to custody, I think we need to be consulting with our youth offending teams to try to examine what we think will work with the cohort of children we are dealing with.
Hazel Williamson: There has always been a disparity for our girls in the system. I am concerned overall that the numbers of children going into custody will increase with some proposed mandatory sentencing, and I am concerned that it will impact in particular on our girls and our black and minority ethnic children—particularly our black and mixed heritage boys. I am also concerned that it may impact on our children who are looked after. There are some particular groups in the youth justice system who I believe will be adversely affected by some of the recommendations in the Bill.
Hazel Williamson: I am not going to put a figure on it, but we know that we get better outcomes for children and young people who are placed in secure children’s homes that are generally run by people who are social work and social care-trained, and that provides a much more nurturing environment. It is a children’s home with security rather than a custodial environment overseen by prison rules.
Hazel Williamson: I think there is a missed opportunity in the Bill to really strengthen the rights of children, whether that is in the community or in custody. There is a missed opportunity in that we are not strengthening our welfare-based approach to how we deal with children and young people. We know that children are different from adults, and we should take a stronger welfare-based approach with our children and young people. I definitely think that could be strengthened in the Bill.
Hazel Williamson: Some things in the Bill mean that some of our children would receive mandatory sentences. I do not think it necessarily outlines for us how children’s welfare and the needs of children would be taken into consideration.
Hazel Williamson: That is really a commissioning contract that we have not been party to. In the association’s view—I go back to my previous point—children should not be looked after where they are governed by prison rules, primarily.
Hazel Williamson: It is slightly more. There is no doubt that paying for care for children where we want better results will inevitably cost us more. If we compare that with what it would cost for what is being proposed in the community, that also costs more. If we want better outcomes for our children and young people, we will have to invest, and invest a lot earlier.
Hazel Williamson: In terms of how we administer any community order, we work together with children and their families, or their corporate parent if they are a child in our care. We develop a holistic package that includes health. There is no doubt that health across England is patchy, in terms of provision for youth offending teams. However, health is a statutory member of all youth offending team partnerships. We would certainly advocate that the health offer is strengthened nationally, so that all children, whichever area they live in, get the right treatment at the right time.
We know that children who come into contact with our service have a significant range of unmet health needs, in particular speech, communication and language needs. We know that over 90% of the children we work with are often operating at an understanding age of between five and seven years old. So when we ask a teenager to navigate a very complex environment, their understanding is much lower than their chronological age.
Well done, Mr Levy. Right, are there any more Back-Bench colleagues who would like to come in before I bring in the shadow Minister, who is champing at the bit? No? I call the shadow Minister.
Earlier, I believe that I heard you correctly when you were expressing a view on the proposed changes to the test for custodial remand. Did you say that you were concerned that it could lead to more children being remanded in custody?
Hazel Williamson: No, that is not what I said. I believe that the Bill could lead to more children receiving custodial sentences. In terms of remand, we are pleased that the Bill strengthens the conditions for remand and that remand will be seen as the last alternative. However, in the courts arena we would like to see the reasons for remand being made really clearly recorded, and the decisions about it.
Hazel Williamson: In particular, we are looking at mandatory sentences for some offences. What we have to understand is that the children and young people who we currently work with in the youth offending service are different from those we were working with 20 years ago. Youth offending teams have worked really hard to reduce the number of children and young people in the statutory youth justice system, and we have much lower numbers now. However, what we have is an increasingly complex group of children and young people, who have often experienced exploitation, in particular criminal exploitation, and significant trauma.
For me, what is a missed opportunity within the Bill is that join-up regarding how we work with children who are exploited by our serious crime gangs, and we need to be thinking about a much more welfare-based approach to how we work with our children and young people.
We are also concerned about the differences proposed for some of our 17-year-olds. We believe that, in terms of youth justice, they are a child until they get to 18. There is also lots of evidence about brain development, showing that it can take children until they are into their early or mid-20s to fully develop.
We believe that there is opportunity within the Bill for more custodial sentences and we are particularly concerned about our black and minority ethnic children, including our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children.
“In this Chapter…‘adult’ means a person aged 16 or over”.
Do you think that generally—you have already alluded to some of this—the Bill gives sufficient consideration to research on maturity?
Hazel Williamson: I know that there is mention of neurodiversity in the Bill, but it does not go far enough. We should treat children as children until they are 18 and they should be sentenced as a child until they reach the age of 18. In an ideal world, we would look beyond that, because many people do not develop fully, in terms of brain development, until they are in their mid-20s. The cohort of children and young people we are working with have suffered significant trauma. We know that affects what would be the brain of a teenager who had not experienced trauma; the brain develops differently, if you have experienced significant trauma and abuse. Virtually all the children we work with in our system have experienced abuse to some level or degree.
So no, the Bill does not go far enough, in my view. That links to our earlier conversation about being more welfare and rights-based. We need to think about the rights of children. They should be treated as children until they are 18.
Hazel Williamson: If they have committed the offence as a child, they should be sentenced as a child. During covid, there have been some delays in court processes, which has meant some children being sentenced as an 18-year-old when they committed the crime as a child. Going back to our earlier conversation, we know that brain development does not change just at age 18. For me, if you committed the offence as a child, you should be sentenced as a child.
Hazel Williamson: We have talked about this as an association. We have concerns when there are not opportunities to have terms reviewed. What we know is that there will be significant changes. For example, the brain of a child who was sentenced to a long term at 17 will have matured significantly by the time they reach their mid-20s, so we should be enabling that review to happen along and through their sentence.
Hazel Williamson: What YOT managers say to me is that the biggest challenge is around funding. Youth offending teams have absolutely reduced first-time entrants; we have reduced children and young people going into custody. We are also reducing the reoffending rates for many of our children and young people. The assumption, therefore, is that youth offending teams do not need to be funded as much as they were previously.
However, youth offending team managers have been saying for some time that just because the numbers have reduced does not mean that we are not working with a complex group of children and young people. For many youth offending teams, the numbers they are working with have not reduced; it is just that the children are in a different space and place. For example, we might not be working with as many children on statutory orders, but we will be offering some kind of prevention and diversion to keep them out of the criminal justice system.
It is not always the case that because first-time entrants are reducing and the numbers of children involved in the criminal justice system are reducing, youth offending teams are not doing the same amount of work they have always done. Funding is really an issue, as is understanding the context and the numbers of children that YOTs are trying to work with across the country.
Hazel Williamson: Absolutely, and we know that, but children and young people who commit those offences as children should still be sentenced as children. We can use the strength in our youth offending teams, because we have seconded probation staff working with us, so we can have quite a balanced report for those children and young people, and support them with the transition from youth offending teams into probation. Age and maturity should absolutely be considered across the whole system, but our children and young people who commit offences when under 18 should be sentenced as children.
Hazel Williamson: What we know about sentencing is that people will make significant changes between the time they committed the offence and where they are at any given point in time. We have been working with children who have been awaiting sentence in the Crown court, and who are now past their 18th birthdays. They will have made significant changes up to the point where they are sentenced, and they were still children at the time they committed that offence.
Secondly, some new youth sentencing options, and sentencing options more widely, are made available in the Bill. Can you give us some commentary on how youth offending services and courts can make a success of those new sentencing options?
Hazel Williamson: I assume you are referring to the intensive supervision and surveillance, intensive fostering, and GPS monitoring?
Yes, for example.
Hazel Williamson: Okay. In terms of ISS, I have already indicated that its extension will require some resourcing. Intensive supervision and surveillance is already in place across the country for youth offending teams, and it is utilised to prevent children from receiving custodial sentences. I think that is already in place. There are concerns that the pilot of an ISS extended to 12 months did not give the results it needed to.
In terms of the intensive foresting arrangements, again, I go back to the fact that it is really resource-intensive and expensive, and it will require very close join-up with our local authority colleagues, who will be required to provide the foster carers to support it. On GPS—some trials have been taking place for GPS monitoring for our children and young people—there is some thought that it will certainly prevent some of our children and young people from being involved in those more violent crimes, and will reduce the risk of them being exploited. That is not the case from what we are seeing with children and young people who are subject to GPS monitoring and tagging. We also know that those children really struggle with the equipment, in terms of practicalities and charging the equipment. We know that GPS does not work for a lot of our children and young people in areas where it has been piloted.
As youth offending teams, we want to look for suitable and robust alternatives to custody for our children and young people. There is no doubt that it has to be done in partnership, but it will require some significant resourcing.
Hazel, thank you for that. When people ask—[Interruption.] Bloody hell, I am wrestling with my wretched mask—my mother-in-law made it and I wear it in honour and tribute to her. Hazel, when people ask me, “How should I prepare to give evidence to a Committee?”—be it a Select Committee or a Bill Committee like this—I shall say, “Watch Hazel Williamson.” That was crisp, concise and informative. It really was a masterclass, and it is appreciated by us all at the start of a very long afternoon. We are trying to find our next witness, who is being asked to appear 25 minutes early. If we cannot find our next witness, colleagues may go and have a cup of tea and stretch their legs. Thank you, Hazel.
Hazel Williamson: Thank you.
I will call a 10-minute break. The sitting is suspended until a quarter past 3.
Examination of Witness
Ellie Cumbo gave evidence.
Hello, Ellie Cumbo, Head of Public Law at the Law Society. Can you hear and see us?
Ellie Cumbo: I can.
Excellent. We have until 4.15 pm for this session, but I think we are going to end early. Thank you for joining us early. We are ahead of schedule. Would you like to introduce yourself very briefly?
Ellie Cumbo: Certainly. My name is Ellie Cumbo. I am the Law Society’s Head of Public Law, and I have been in post for two years. My substantive responsibilities are, as my title suggests, largely to do with public law, and we include criminal law within that definition.
Fantastic, thank you for that. Robert Goodwill, over to you, sir.
Ellie Cumbo: Certainly, there is nothing in there that sounds controversial to me. I should, however, flag that the Law Society at the moment does not take the view that it is right for us to comment on the public order provisions of the Bill. That is largely down to the fact that our role is to comment on how they will work in practice and whether it will be possible for them to be implemented by the police and understood by solicitors, clients and the general public. Much of that remains to be seen. It is, after all, the case that these are political decisions.
We of course take the point about fundamental rights. We want to point out that it has become extremely clear in the last year and a half that it is important not only that the law is clear and accessible in the ways that I just described, but that it is enforced in a way that is consistent and can be understood by the general public. That is something that we would call for. Beyond that, we have not seen fit to comment on these particular provisions.
Ellie Cumbo: I am saying that it is not within our remit. We have to judge our remit based on what we take to be in the interests of our members, which of course includes issues of principle such as the rule of law and access to justice. It may well be the case that there comes a point where, if great concern is expressed by those agencies and bodies with greater knowledge of how these provisions would be enforced in practice—policing bodies, voluntary sector bodies—we might see a need for us to add our voice to those concerns, but there are more appropriate bodies to comment on those at this point than us.
Ellie Cumbo: Again, clarity of the law is an issue of concern and interest to the Law Society and its members. We have not taken a view on that particular Law Commission proposal, but we certainly would not oppose it. Codification does not always come without disbenefits: in this case, we are not aware of any, but to reiterate, we have no strong view on that at present.
Ellie Cumbo: I am afraid so. I am sorry not to be able to assist the Committee on that, but we have taken a view that at the moment, that is not an area for our expertise.
Ellie Cumbo: Certainly. The heading for all of our concerns is access to justice and the impact, or potential impact, of some of the provisions on access to justice. Now, in some of those areas, it is more that we have a question and we would like to see more detail about how this will look in practice—the open justice provisions would be in that category—but there are two particular areas where our concerns are already sufficient to put us in a position where we do not support what the Bill currently proposes. Those are in relation to video juries and the pre-charge bail provisions.
Ellie Cumbo: I should say at the outset that we support the aim of those provisions, first to give clarity, and secondly to give the police a realistic opportunity to conduct investigations in hopes of preventing such measures as we have seen in recent years: the over-reliance on release under investigation, which the Committee may be aware that the Law Society has raised significant concerns about. At the moment, the risk is that a great many people—we do not know how many, and that is part of the problem—who are suspected of a crime but have not yet been charged with one are living in limbo for truly unacceptable lengths of time, as are all other potential parties to the case, including the complainants and potential witnesses. We understand that if the police have a little bit more time in which to put somebody on bail, that might reduce the need for them to feel that release under investigation is their only option.
However, at the other end of the scale, we do not want to return to the situation prior to 2017, where suspects could be on bail for indeterminate lengths of time. That too is a situation that places an unacceptable strain not only on defendants, as they are at that point, but on the other parties to the case, including complainants —potential victims. Our preference was for a middle way, so when this was consulted on in 2017, our preference was for an initial period of two months, followed by extensions up to four and up to six. That was what we felt was the appropriate middle ground. We feel that the potential to go to nine months before a court gets anywhere near the matter is excessive, but we do support the aim. We obviously want there to be greater certainty for all concerned.
I should just say, in closing, that ultimately what we really want, which I hope we could all agree on, is fewer delays, and investigations that conclude in a timely fashion. In our view, that is better achieved by greater investment of resources in the criminal justice system, rather than by what I might call a little bit of tinkering around bail time limits.
Ellie Cumbo: The first thing to say is that of course that uncertainty, that living in limbo that I referred to previously, affects solicitors and legal practitioners, too. Ultimately, though, I think what my members would say is that it is their entire duty to act in the interests of their client, so it is the impact on their clients that they are quick to raise with us, and the potential injustice not only for, as I say, suspects and potential defendants, but all other parties to the case.
It is probably worth also developing the issue of what this might mean for access to legal advice. The longer a case is put off, the greater the risk of disengagement by the suspect or defendant and by all others. Memories fade. Justice outcomes are potentially damaged by the time that there actually is a hearing, and that is not good for anybody.
Ellie Cumbo: I should say that we are in a middling position—again—on those provisions. We have not taken a stance against the provisions. Solicitors have adapted very well to remote hearings over the last year and a half, and they have been seen to have very great advantages, particularly in relation to administrative or interlocutory hearings where only the legal representatives are present. That has enhanced everyone’s convenience and the efficiency of proceedings in a very clear way, and our members are very clear about that.
However, we do have concerns about the fact that this is a very new development. It is foetal in terms of lifespan in the broader justice system. We would not be the first to raise concerns about the ability of vulnerable parties to participate in an effective way. In a survey that we recently conducted with our members, only 16% of them told us that they felt that vulnerable parties were able to participate effectively in remote hearings. We understand that the judiciary have taken notice of that. Guidance is available, in different jurisdictions, about the cases in which remote hearings are thought to be suitable. But it is still a developing agenda, and we are concerned that things should not move forward too quickly, because it is a substantive change and of course—as with so much in the criminal justice system—we know very little about the potential impact on justice outcomes and whether it is in fact in any way a risk to the right to a fair trial to conduct certain types of hearing in a remote way.
Ellie Cumbo: We certainly welcome it, yes. Many people might be surprised that it is not already the case that a British Sign Language interpreter can be present in those circumstances. Obviously, that is a reflection of the fact that the whole system takes the importance of an independent jury very seriously—it is perhaps the most important safeguard we have for the fundamental rights of those who are charged with criminal offences. That is probably why it has taken the length of time it has to get here.
Our view is that, given where the public consensus can be judged to be and the fact that BSL interpreters participate in other types of confidential proceedings, we do not think that at this point it would be sustainable not to move forward with these provisions. Obviously, we are pleased to see that the Government are taking seriously the risk that the jury might in some way be influenced unduly by the presence of a 13th person, but as long as those safeguards are in place, we are entirely supportive of those provisions.
Ellie, I am reeling from something that our Front-Bench spokesperson said in the last session. In chapter 3, on the extraction of information from electronic devices, in clause 36(10), the Government redefine an adult away from the definition in the convention on the rights of a child, which defines a child as a human under the age of 18, to
“ ‘adult’ means a person aged 16 or over”.
Could you comment on that extraordinary change?
Ellie Cumbo: I have not had the benefit of hearing that, so I think it would be unwise and unhelpful for me to do so. Could I come back to you on that?
Within the Bill, there are changes regarding the availability of live links and when a vulnerable witness could call for special measures. What reasons would a judge have to refuse the use of a live link?
Ellie Cumbo: It is important that judges maintain that discretion. It is difficult to give an overview because the examples of a judgment that it is not in the interest of justice to use those live links will be so case-specific. It would be difficult for me to enlighten the Committee any further on that, other than to say that we place great trust in the discretion of judges and believe that they would not refuse vulnerable people the ability to use special measures without good reason.
Ellie Cumbo: I think that would be difficult to assess in practice. I wonder if it would be helpful for me to consult some of our members who do defence work. It will sound to most people, including me, as though there is not an enormous difference between those two different situations, but I would not want to speak out of turn and be unhelpful. Is it acceptable for me to ask some of my defence practitioners who would be best able to give you an example of why that might or might not make a difference?
I would be extremely grateful for that. Thank you. I refer you back to one of your earlier answers. There are already huge backlogs in the justice system, for various reasons. Are there any measures in the Bill that cause you direct concern that it might increase that backlog?
Ellie Cumbo: I believe I would not be the first to note that anything that enhances the risk of a welter of contempt of court prosecutions is probably not desperately helpful. That is one of the reasons why we are keen to see the final detail around what I refer to as the open justice provisions of the Bill.
Of course, we support open justice and think it is of vital importance, but the reality is that there is a de facto limit in a physical courtroom of how many people can be observing trial proceedings at any given time and what they are getting up to while under the immediate eye of the judge. If any move towards the possibility of mass observation of court proceedings were possible as a result of the Bill, there would be a much enhanced risk of abuse and of people behaving in such a way that criminal proceedings against them ensue.
On a separate point, a concern that we have is that it puts a level of pressure on the parties that simply is not an issue in a physical courtroom, that something might go viral on social media.
Those are the concerns that we have about the open justice provisions. I am aware that I have gone slightly off topic, but certainly anything that puts further pressure on the criminal justice system in that way is not ideal in terms of dealing with the backlog. As I said with regard to the pre-charge bail provisions in particular, we would like to see significant further investment in the criminal justice system to clear that backlog, rather than changes that I think can be described as a bit of tweaking around the edges.
Would any other colleagues from the Back Benches like to participate? No. I call the shadow Minister.
Ellie Cumbo: That is another area of the Bill where, for the time being, we have chosen not to make significant comments. We comment on sentencing guidelines, but we view whether sentences should be tougher or softer as a political decision, and are slow to presume that our members would all have the same view.
Ellie Cumbo: I think I can safely say that criminal defence practitioners in particular worry about sentence inflation as a political trend in the long term, but I do not think that I could responsibly comment on the specific provisions of the Bill. As I say, I do not think that members’ views would all necessarily align.
Ellie Cumbo: Absolutely not, no. We are very clear on that.
Ellie Cumbo: I think it is worth saying that the absence of public consultation on that point is a cause for concern. Anecdotally—I am sure this is true for many of you as well—nobody I have spoken to in a personal capacity feels comfortable that such a change might be made. They certainly find that they want to know more about it, and the safeguards that would underly it. This is an area where, to me, there is an obvious need for public consultation, given the importance that we all place on the way that juries work, and the ability to be tried by a jury of your peers.
In relation to whether we have been consulted as the Law Society, we have had informal conversations. We were aware that the possibility of remote juries was under consideration at one point during the pandemic, but of course it was not then introduced, so the timing of putting it on the statute book now struck us as rather odd.
Ellie Cumbo: I think what is important is that we do not know. The problem with any change to the way juries work is the relative difficulty of having a baseline against which to compare changes. We do not know to what extent changes to the way juries operate would have an impact on fair trial rights and the justice of the outcomes.
One could only speculate about which particular categories of defendants might be impacted—the vulnerable, those who already have communication difficulties, and so on. I do not know how helpful that speculation is. The point is that you do not experiment with a decades-old system that is so important to ensuring our fundamental rights and freedom without significant evidence, including that there is a need for it and that it would in fact deliver additional capacity to the system, which has not been done yet. The evidence has not been produced that there would be a significant increase in capacity from the proposals.
Ellie Cumbo: Our preferred safeguard is that we do not do it. We are very clear on that. We do not believe it is appropriate to introduce remote juries, particularly at a time when demand for them is surely in decline.
Ellie Cumbo: As I said earlier, it has been a story of great success in many ways, enhancing the convenience of all parties, including solicitors, particularly in relation to those types of hearings—administrative hearings— where it is only legal professionals talking to each other. Why on earth should you not use a remote hearing for that?
But it is not just an innate conservativism that prompts those concerns about whether it is working well for all types of hearings and all types of people appearing in those hearings. This is a significant change that is difficult to analyse—in fact, I believe the MOJ itself is still in the process of evaluating its success. We are keen participants in those discussions and are keen that our views are heard. Our views are that where such hearings enhance the interests of justice, we are in favour of them and, where they do not, we are not.
Ellie Cumbo: Obviously we and our members have implicit confidence in the judiciary. We are great believers in the importance of our independent and expert judiciary. That is not to suggest that it is not possible to make their lives a little bit easier than the current provisions do.
There is guidance, as I referred to earlier, about where remote hearings are and are not appropriate, and it differs slightly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. That is not a comment on the judiciary but it is arguably a reason for further attention to be paid to how clear those messages are and how possible it is, with the best will in the world, for the judiciary to interpret them in a way that promotes the interests of justice.
Ellie Cumbo: No, I think I have had the opportunity to cover most of the things that the Law Society would want to. Perhaps I should have added into the conversation about pre-charge bail that we take the same view in relation to the removal of the presumption against bail: we understand the aim, but do not think this is the best way of achieving it. We would like to retain that presumption on the basis that it is still perfectly possible to use bail, but it can only be used where it is appropriate and proportionate to do so. We think that is an important safeguard.
That brings this session to an end. Ellie, thank you very much for joining us and for the crispness of your answers.
Ellie Cumbo: Thank you.
Examination of Witnesses
Dr Kate Paradine, Nina Champion, Dr Laura Janes and Dr Jonathan Bild gave evidence.
I say to the Committee that we are only going to run this panel for a maximum of 45 minutes. Our wonderful people in the Perspex booth doing the audio and visual will try to find the next panel so that we can end today at 5.30 pm. That is 15 minutes early, but we are running ahead of schedule.
We will now hear from Dr Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison; Nina Champion, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance; Dr Laura Janes, legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform; and Dr Jonathan Bild, director of operations at the Sentencing Academy. Welcome, all.
May I ask for short and crisp answers? You will be asked lots of questions and there are four of you. I will not delay further. Will you introduce yourselves in no more than 10 seconds each, please? We will start with Dr Paradine.
Dr Paradine: Kate Paradine, chief executive of Women in Prison. We work with women in communities and prisons, and campaign for the rights of women in prison.
Nina Champion: I am Nina Champion, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance. We are an alliance of over 160 organisations working towards a fair and effective criminal justice system. In addition, since the Bill was published, we have helped to convene a coalition of criminal justice and race equality organisations to examine and highlight how the Bill risks deepening racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
Dr Janes: Good afternoon. I am the legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. We work for less crime and safe communities, and we run a discrete legal service representing children and young people in prison.
Dr Bild: I am Dr Jonathan Bild, director of operations at the Sentencing Academy, which is a charitable organisation that promotes the use of effective sentencing practices and also public understanding of and confidence in sentencing.
Great. Mr Goodwill next.
Do it in the order you introduced yourselves.
Dr Paradine: In terms of improvement, we think that there has to be a focus on rehabilitation and not on sentence inflation and the ripple effect that that will have on the prison population, and particularly on the crisis in prisons. We welcome the focus on improving community sentences, but we feel that there needs to be a really close look at what that will mean in practice on the ground.
Certainly in terms of the impact on actually preventing rehabilitation rather than encouraging it, it is important that we consider what the knock-on effects are on the system. In terms of undermining improvements that are happening on the ground, whether it is diversion from custody or strengthening support services, the Bill does not address any of those issues as it currently stands. The ripple effect on sentence inflation is a real concern for us.
Dr Paradine: When we talk to probation officers, their concern is caseloads and the access to support services that help people to address the root causes of offending. We do not believe that probation officers need any more powers, and we do not think that they think that they need them, either.
The issue is access to a full, strong network of support services, particularly focused on the needs of women in the case of those that we address. For the purposes of enforcing sentences, there is not a problem with sentences not being harsh enough. Community support services that enable people to complete those sentences are what is really needed, not extra powers for probation officers.
It is Nina Champion.
Nina Champion: We certainly welcome aspects of the Bill around reducing use of child remand, criminal records reform and the focus on diversion from custody, but overall we are very concerned about the sentencing and policing aspects of the Bill, and about the lack of evidence that it will improve public safety or reduce crime. It will put great pressure on an already stretched criminal justice and prison system. We are particularly concerned that the cumulative impact of many of the recommendations will result in increased racial inequality in our criminal justice system.
Nina Champion: For that period of time, but when you look at all the evidence, there is none to show that keeping people in prison for longer will have any impact on public safety or on their own rehabilitation. We are concerned, for example, about provisions that keep people in custody for longer and then reduce the amount of time that they spend on licence in the community, which is absolutely vital to enable people to resettle into the community and have that supervision by probation. Reducing that could have an adverse impact on public safety.
The Government have clearly committed to trying to reduce racial inequality in our criminal justice system, but that has to be by actions and not just by words. They have to be able to show evidence that this will have the impact that they want, and there just is not that evidence.
Dr Janes: We at the Howard League also really welcome the provisions in relation to remands for children, but we do think that not getting rid of the rather Dickensian ability to remand women and children for their own protection and welfare is a real missed opportunity, especially now that there will be a requirement to consider welfare before remanding a child. We also welcome the criminal records changes, which are very good, but more can be done to make sure that the rehabilitation period reflects the date at which the offence was committed.
We are incredibly concerned about the cost. The impact assessment shows that the increase in prison time will cost millions of pounds. We are also very concerned about the impact on our prison system. With these proposals, in the next five years the prison population will increase to 100,000, which is unprecedented in our country. Just to put that in context, in only the 1990s we were at 40,000, so that is an absolutely huge increase, and the impact assessment states that that will lead to instability, compound overcrowding, reduce access to rehabilitation, and increase self-harm and violence.
Although covid has absolutely been a challenge for everyone and a tragedy for many, it has given a brief pause in the uptick in the prison population. Not building on that, and putting further strain on the prison system, really is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Dr Bild: I echo a lot of what Nina said on the sentencing provisions. We have concerns that they do protect the public but in only the narrowest of senses—only for those additional months, or perhaps years, that someone spends in custody. If there is a plan to do something with those people while they are in custody for that extra time to make them less likely to reoffend when they come out, we suspect that that may only kick the problem down the road by a few months or years.
We are very keen on the issues around public confidence in the criminal justice system, but we do not necessarily think the Bill will make a great leap in that direction because of the technical nature of many of the changes. What the Bill does do is to make sentencing ever-more complex and complicated.
A pre-requisite for public confidence is public understanding. One of the results of some of these changes will be that it will perhaps be more difficult than ever to really understand what a custodial sentence will mean in practice. There is much more uncertainty about what a length of custody actually means. Overall, it is yet more piecemeal change in sentencing, which further complicates the framework.
Dr Janes: Yes, the projections, as I just mentioned, show that it is set to go up to around 100,000. It is absolutely clear that many of the provisions in this Bill will see people spending a lot longer in prison. There is the increase in the minimum term. We know that with the DTO sentences we are likely to see up to 50 children at any one time in custody. The release provisions for the serious offences—four years or more—will go up to two thirds, rather than a half, which goes right back to the point that both Nina and Jonathan have made in terms of less time in the community under supervision, which is important for victims and confidence in the system.
Dr Paradine: Most women in prison have experienced much worse crimes than those they are accused of committing and that end up meaning that they are in prison, particularly domestic abuse, child abuse and other forms of sexual exploitation, so this is a massive issue. We are really concerned about the impact on women, on families and, particularly, on children in terms of the imprisonment of primary carers.
We support the Joint Committee on Human Rights proposals for an amendment that would require judges to record and consider what they have taken into account in relation to sentencing primary carers, including to prison, and to collect data on that, so that finally we have the data, which it is really shocking that we do not have, about the number of children and families affected when the primary carer goes to prison.
When a mother is in prison, in 95% of cases her child will have to leave their own home to go into care or to live with relatives. It is completely unacceptable that the measures up until now have not resulted in the change needed. This is an opportunity to make that small change. It does not require anything different, but it will make sure, hopefully, that the things that should be happening in court do happen, that imprisonment is not having a disproportionate impact on children and that their best interests are safeguarded.
Dr Paradine: That absolutely is the case. The majority of women are in prison for things like theft and non-violent offending, often linked to property, to mental ill health, to substance misuse and to multiple needs. The 5% of the prison population that is women is the most vulnerable of that already vulnerable population of people in prison. It is quite ridiculous that we plan to build 500 new women’s prison places, when what we should be doing is driving down the women’s prison population, which we can do if we invest in the right things and focus in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this Bill is a missed opportunity to turn the system around and to focus on rehabilitation, community intervention and making sure that prison is a last resort and not the first resort, which sadly it still often is, drawing people into a system that they find it difficult to escape from. We plead with you to make sure that we try and make sure that this Bill does not make a bad situation even worse.
Dr Bild: Yes, when it comes to primary carers that is a relatively stable area of law and it is a relevant mitigating factor. I understand that there has been an amendment moved to go into statute, which is something that would be sensible, but sentencing will already refer to the guidelines on that. I would defer to Kate on all of these issues; it is very much her area of expertise.
Dr Janes, you wanted to say something a moment ago and put your hand up.
Dr Janes: I would just add, on this point, that the really important aspect of sentencing is judicial discretion. That is essential if you want to really make sure we do not make women, children and disabled people—people from all sorts of backgrounds—suffer unduly. There is a real shift away from judicial discretion in this Bill.
Nina Champion: Some of the provisions will disproportionately impact women, and also black, Asian and minority ethnic women. For example, on the clause relating to assault on emergency workers, the equality impact assessment acknowledges that for that type of assault, which can often happen, for example, after a stop and search, it is more likely that women will be caught up by extending the maximum sentence in that provision. Of course, we want to protect our frontline workers, but these sentences have already been increased, even in 2018, and the deterrent effect just is not there. The proof is not there that it has any impact on protecting our frontline workers. What it does is catch more people up in the criminal justice system.
The other proposal relating to mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for issues around drug trafficking, will also capture more women and black, Asian and minority ethnic women. As Laura said, it removes judicial discretion to look at the individual circumstances of the case. We know that many women may have been coerced or exploited in drug trafficking cases. As Kate said, they are victims themselves. Introducing minimum sentences removes the opportunity for the judge to look at the individual circumstances of the case.
Dr Paradine: Yes, absolutely. This is a Bill that does not recognise the nuances of individual cases, including those relating to women. We know that hard cases make bad law, and many of the provisions are an example of that. We absolutely think that the needs of women have been overlooked.
We know that sentence inflation has knock-on effects throughout the system. There are many unintended consequences to, for example, focusing on the enforcement of community orders and including more and more enforcement measures without addressing the real issue, which is about support to ensure that those who have community sentences can complete them with the support that they need. From our point of view, many of these measures are not looking at individual cases and enabling the discretion on the ground that is needed to make sure we meet each case as we find it. We know that the women’s prison population can be radically reduced, but not with some of these measures, which do not take into account the unintended consequences—particularly the impact on women who are primary carers and the best interests of their children.
Nina Champion: I just wanted to add a point about the lack of overall consultation with this Bill and these provisions. Because it was brought in as a White Paper, rather than a Green Paper, there has been no public official consultation. Groups that will be disproportionately impacted by these measures have not had the opportunity to be heard, including organisations and individuals representing those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, women, or young adults. We really need to have much greater consultation before these measures are brought in to ensure that there are not the adverse impacts that Kate was talking about.
Dr Paradine: Yes, absolutely. The problem-solving courts pilot is one small green shoot of hope in this Bill, in that those sorts of measures, which will enable court and multi-agency support across the system locally to tackle the root causes of what brings people into the system, are really the answer here. We would like to see much more focus on those innovative solutions, restorative justice and out-of-court disposals, of course, which are a really untapped resource in terms of what could turn our system around.
We are concerned not only about the lack of consultation with all sorts of groups representing the interests of those affected by this system but with professionals working within it. We know that there is real progress with out-of-court disposals and the use of simple cautions, conditional cautions and all those provisions available to the police, and we think that those measures must be looked at really, really closely, to make sure that the unintended consequence is not to undermine progress that is already being made in doing exactly what you say needs to be done, which is to focus on a wide range of community solutions that enable us to tailor sentences and responses to individual cases, and actually turn these situations around rather than driving people into a system—indeed, a revolving door—that they find it difficult to escape from.
I think that the Howard League wanted to come in there, if I can see properly.
Dr Janes: Thank you very much; I just want to make a brief point. I completely agree with what Kate just said, but I will add to it that the Howard League is concerned about this increased use of electronic monitoring, and particularly, as was raised earlier, the lack of scrutiny of it by the courts. There is a real concern that, instead of it being an alternative to custody, it can become a gateway to custody, and a real concern that that could disproportionately affect women. I just wanted to add that.
Dr Bild wants to come in on this and then Nina Champion. Dr Bild.
Dr Bild: Sometimes there is a disconnect between what Parliament does with legislation and what happens in practice. Lots of relatively innovative and problem-solving options have been available, in theory, for a number of years. You can attach treatment orders—alcohol treatment orders, mental health orders or drug orders—to community orders and suspended sentence orders, but in practice it happens very, very rarely. Only a tiny proportion of community orders and suspended sentence orders will have what might be a rehabilitative order attached to them.
Part of this is a commitment to resourcing, as well. There does not need to be huge legislative change; this stuff is already on the statute book and it is already, in theory, available to sentencers. Anecdotally, sentencers are reluctant to impose an order that they are not entirely sure is available, and the defendant will not be able to benefit, through no fault of their own.
It is not necessarily only about finding new ideas, although new ideas are very welcome; it is also about properly resourcing, and showing some commitment to, what is already on the statute book.
Nina Champion: I just wanted to add that there are a couple of missed opportunities, in terms of a presumption against short sentences—there was a real missed opportunity here to divert people from custody—and to look at adult remand as well as child remand, as adult remand disproportionately affects women.
Also, just picking up on Kate’s point about restorative justice, the White Paper made some positive noises about the benefits of restorative justice, both for victims—in terms of coping and recovery—and for reducing reoffending, particularly for violent offences. However, the Bill does nothing to ensure that there will be more access to restorative justice. For example, the national action plan for restorative justice expired in March 2018 and has not yet been renewed. Those are the sorts of measures that really will make a difference for victims and reduce reoffending.
Dr Paradine: I am sorry to say that, no, we do not think that the current Bill does that. There are all sorts of ways in which the intent to reduce the number of women in prison radically and to divert women, and others, from the system is not played out in its provisions. For all the reasons that have been covered by the various members of the panel, it does not do that. Sadly, unless the Bill’s direction of travel is redirected towards rehabilitation and communities rather than prison and creating harsher sentences, any progress that has been made will unravel really quickly. The 500 prison places will sadly be the focus, rather than our hope that we could really transform the system in the way that it affects women, families and communities, and beyond that men and young people also.
There needs to be a really strong rethink of what the Bill is trying to do, and a focus on the real problem, which is community support services and the ways that we tackle the root causes of offending. There is very little in the Bill that convinces us that that is the focus, so we need a really strong rethink to focus on communities and not on prison. We know that victims want sentences that work. They do not want to see harsh sentences that do not work. Their interest is in stopping crime and reducing reoffending. Sadly, we do not think that the Bill as it stands achieves that ultimate aim.
Dr Bild: Yes I do. Of all the clauses, that is the one that I have the most concern about. I saw some of the discussion on Tuesday with Jonathan Hall, QC in relation to terrorism, but this is broader than terrorism, of course. It takes in a large number of offences that are violent, and certain sexual offences.
The problem I think it creates is twofold. First, there is an issue with the power being given to the Secretary of State. As I say, I saw the debate on Tuesday. I think it engages slightly different considerations than the changes that took place last year in relation to terrorism did. On this occasion, we are talking about the Secretary of State intervening on the sentence of an individual prisoner, which engages a slightly different debate to the Secretary of State changing the arrangements for everyone convicted of a certain offence. I would draw an analogy to the Home Secretary’s old role to set the tariff for life-sentence prisoners. That power spent about 20 years in litigation before the Home Secretary lost it. It is slightly different, but there is an analogy, I think, and I am not sure that it is an appropriate power for the Secretary of State to have.
There is also a real concern that the most dangerous people will come out with no supervision, no licence conditions and no support. In some respects, the more dangerous you are, the less you will be managed in the community. In terms of managing that—
Dr Bild: I am not sure that that will be a high-visibility issue for confidence in sentencing, to be honest. One of the huge problems we have is that we do not really know what goes on in magistrates’ courts. Magistrates’ courts themselves are very low-visibility things, so I do not think we should overstate the impact that these reforms will have on confidence.
Dr Janes: Yes. These minimum term reviews are very little understood, because they are rare, but I have done a number of these cases in my own practice, and it is a very unusual situation where we get to see the criminal justice system actually incentivising people to make consistent and genuine change. The current proposal pins that opportunity on the arbitrary date when you happen to be sentenced. All of us want to see the consequences of crime actually fit what happened, and we know that in the current climate, cases are delayed for all sorts of reasons beyond a young person’s control. That might be because of delays due to covid, or because extremely vulnerable young people have to have their sentencing delayed while they have psychiatric and psychological reports, so this proposal does not seem to have any rational basis. It seems to deprive the most vulnerable people of something we would want for them, which is to be incentivised to really change their lives around.
Dr Janes: That, I really cannot answer. As you say, the entire sentence is galvanised around the date of commission. As was said by the House of Lords in the Maria Smith case, that is because it is recognised—and has been for decades, and internationally—that children are less culpable than fully grown adults. There seems to be no rational rhyme or reason as to why the date of sentence would be chosen.
Nina Champion: Thank you for that question. We responded to the consultation on serious violence reduction orders to oppose them—well, we tried to oppose those orders, but there was no question to enable us to oppose it. That option was not given as part of the consultation; it assumed that these were going ahead before the consultation had actually happened. What we do know is that many respondents to that consultation said that one of their key concerns was the disproportionate impact of this provision, particularly on young black men.
We do not believe that serious violence reduction orders are needed, or that there is evidence that they will reduce knife crime. Of course, we all want to reduce knife crime, but rather than additional surveillance, we would rather see additional support for people convicted of these offences. We worry about these very draconian and sweeping police powers to stop and search people for up to two years after their release without any reasonable grounds. Reasonable grounds are an absolutely vital safeguard on stop and search powers, and to be able to be stopped and searched at any point is a very draconian move that, again, risks adversely impacting on those with serious violence reduction orders. For young people who are trying to move away from crime, set up a new life and develop positive identities, to be repeatedly stopped and searched, labelled and stigmatised as someone still involved in that way of life could have adverse impacts. It could also have impacts on the potential exploitation of girlfriends or children carrying knives for people on those orders. There could be some real unintended consequences from these orders.
In relation to your point about what could be done, if these powers were to go ahead, we would like to see a very thorough evaluation of them before they are rolled out nationally. I do not have much confidence in that, given that section 60 powers, which also allow suspicion-less searches to happen, were rolled out following a pilot after several months without any evaluation being published or any consultation. It is therefore absolutely vital that these powers are thoroughly evaluated. That could involve things such as looking at the age and ethnicity of those who were stopped and searched, the number of people stopped in the belief they were someone who had an order but did not—we might see increased stop-and-account of people who have got nothing to do with an order, in cases of mistaken identity for someone who is under one—or the number of times individuals were stopped.
We would like to see scrutiny panels given access to body-worn video footage of every stop-and-search that is done under these powers or in belief of these powers. It is crucial that the evaluation speaks to people who are directly impacted by these powers, interviews them and understands what the impact is. It should also interview and speak to the organisations working with them. Ultimately, it should also look at whether this has achieved its aim. Has it reduced knife crime within an area compared to non-pilot areas? Much could be done to ensure that the evaluation is thorough to avoid the roll-out of these powers, which we believe are not necessary and could have disproportionately adverse impacts. They are just not needed.
Dr Bild: Yes.
Dr Bild: Yes, I agree with that. I think the concern is the ability of a Secretary of State to have the power to intervene in the automatic release of a prisoner. That is the question. I agree that the ultimate decision will be made by the Parole Board, which is an independent tribunal, but there should probably be a bit more of a firewall between the Secretary of State and an individual prisoner’s sentence.
Dr Bild: I do not know if it is going to be made by the Home Secretary or the Justice Secretary. Yes, I agree on the final decision for release, but the halting of the automatic release will presumably be done by the Secretary of State.
Dr Bild: I agree with you, but the issue you have here is that somebody who is dangerous could be released into the community under licence. If that person serves their entire sentence in custody, that same person, who may be even more dangerous by the end of their full sentence, will be released into the community with no licence conditions, no supervision and no support. So yes, I agree with you that it is safer for the extra time that someone is kept in custody, but it is less safe once they are released.
Dr Bild: The Parole Board only has discretion in the sense that it has to follow its own rules. Therefore, it can release someone only when it is satisfied that they do not pose a risk to the public. The Parole Board would not be able to decide that now is a nice time to release someone and have a little bit of licence period; I assume that it would have to follow its rules. If it was not fully satisfied that the person is safe to release, I imagine that the Parole Board’s hands would be tied by its own rules.
Dr Bild: I would agree that that was the case last year in relation to the terrorism legislation, as I said earlier. I am not saying that it is not lawful, but I think that a different issue is engaged when a Secretary of State is making a decision on an individual case and not a blanket, “You have committed a certain offence, therefore this is your release arrangement.” That is the issue.
Let me move on. I want to ask a question to all the panellists, so perhaps the answers could be relatively brief, given that I am sure we are under time pressure. We had some debate some time ago in this session about the appropriateness of imposing minimum sentences, whereby Parliament specifies in statute that if someone is convicted of a particular offence, there is a minimum period of time that they must be sentenced to in prison, regardless of the facts of the individual case, and regardless of any discretion that the judge may wish to exercise. Can each panel member give the Committee their views on the appropriateness, generally, of statutory minimum sentences?