House of Lords
Monday 22 November 2021
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.
Personal Independence Payments
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to the First Tier Tribunal overturning 70 per cent of the decisions of the Department for Work and Pensions in respect of Personal Independence Payments assessments between April and June.
My Lords, in the majority of PIP cases, there is no appeal. From April 2013 to March 2021, 4.4 million initial decisions following a PIP assessment were made. By June 2021, 9% have been appealed and only 5% overturned at appeal. We have recently made improvements to our decision-making processes to ensure that more disabled people and people with health conditions get the support they are entitled to as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and welcome that reply—as far as it went. However, is it not high time that assessments right now are improved, which would make most of these PIP appeals unnecessary? If assessors need reports from GPs or other healthcare professionals, they should ask for them at the mandatory reconsideration stage. Does the Minister also agree that there is no point in reassessing those with a progressive condition?
I agree with the noble Baroness’s second point, and that is what we are doing. If a person has long-term health needs, they are not being reassessed as they were. We are changing the way we do things. Since 2019, we have had a holistic approach to decision-making, particularly in the mandatory reconsideration stage after the first assessment. That gives time for people to talk to the claimant and get further evidence to support their claim. This means that fewer people are now going to appeal.
My Lords, I welcome the improvements my noble friend has referred to in getting the decision right first time. However, she will be aware that there have been delays in the hearing of appeals, which have of course been aggravated by the pandemic. What steps is my noble friend’s department taking to ensure that the appeal time is brought forward in view of the stress that delays can cause to some applicants?
My Lords, the timings for appeal are difficult, because everybody wants time to get evidence in, allow assessors to talk to people and build a case. We are doing everything we can to make sure that we are making the right decisions, and in a timely manner.
My Lords, personal independence payments provide essential support for those who cannot meet their most basic needs. For every case where the department has been overruled by the tribunal, there is a desperate story of the person in need not receiving the support Parliament judged necessary. That this happens in so many cases speaks of a system that seeks to avoid providing support wherever possible, not one intent on ensuring it reaches those for whom it is meant. Can the Minister assure us that every effort will be made to make such tribunal decisions the exception rather than the rule?
As I have said, we are doing everything we possibly can, first, by having mandatory reconsiderations in-house with a separate team, but also by providing holistic decision-making support so that we can make sure we are working with people and that as few as possible cases go to tribunal.
Why, according to the latest official statistics, were there 36,000 social security and child support cases outstanding at the end of June this year and why did it take, as has already been mentioned, a mean average of 39 weeks—a figure that is going up—to dispose of them at tribunal? Does the Minister understand that the removal of legal aid for welfare benefits advice has led to fewer cases being sorted out and resolved well before they reach tribunal? Will she advise her colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to do something immediately to restore some modest legal aid in this area?
My Lords, legal aid was not available for representation before the First-tier Tribunal ahead of its reform, anyway; it was only available for advice and preparation. Tribunal proceedings are designed to be straightforward and accessible to all. They are inquisitory, not adversarial and the tribunal panel is trained and experienced in dealing with a wide range of applicants with individual needs. The DWP is supporting people—there is no need for legal aid in these tribunals.
I thank my noble friend for that question. The national disability strategy, which was launched this year, is exactly intended to help the disabled, and the Government want to support completely everything that is in it. At the moment, it is a bit early for operational outcomes, but we are working across government to make sure that disability is well understood by all departments, which is important. The needs and experiences of disabled people are central to policy-making and always taken into account by frontline staff.
My Lords, to return to the Question, before you are allowed to appeal, you have to undergo mandatory reconsideration by DWP. That takes two months, so the cases we are talking about were turned down by DWP, reviewed, turned down again by DWP and then went to tribunal, which upheld 70% of them. That is a long process, which is emotionally and financially stressful for sick and disabled claimants. In fact, more than 1,000 died while the process was still under way. Does the department accept that this process is still not working as it should?
The department accepts that there is more that it can do; there is always more it can do. The disability Green Paper means that we will talk to people—we have already gone out to consultation—particularly claimants and disabled people, and find out what more we can do. But the situation is not getting worse, it is getting better.
I thank my noble friend for that question. The consultation period for the health and disability Green Paper, to which I referred, has now run out and we are looking at the results. Through that, the department conducted extensive stakeholder engagement and talked to people with mental health problems and their carers about how we could do more to help them when they were being assessed, particularly for PIP. Interestingly, people with mental health problems are the largest group of people who now receive PIP.
Does the Minister not find it embarrassing, treating some of the most disadvantaged people in society in such a penny-pinching, niggling way when consultants are paid over £1,000 a day for work on a test and trace scheme which is not even working?
No, my Lords, those are two separate things. What we should be doing is looking after disabled people in the best way we can. We are looking after more disabled people and getting more disabled people into work, which is where they would like to be, supported by the Government. We are doing the best we can, but we will never be complacent and will continue to do more.
My Lords, under the special rules for terminal illness, people nearing the end of their lives—as I would rather call them—have their claims fast tracked. The average time from registration to decision for a claimant under this new scheme is three working days. I am sure noble Lords will think that is reasonable for this group of people.
Ethiopia: Tigray Region
My Lords, we have consistently called on all parties, not just the Government of Ethiopia, to end fighting and protect civilians. On 5 November, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonnen Hassen. She raised our strong concerns about the impact of continued fighting in Ethiopia and the appalling suffering of the civilian population. She set out the need for negotiations to avoid further bloodshed and deliver peace. All sides must agree a ceasefire and allow aid to reach starving people.
My Lords, last week Liz Truss committed to prioritising and funding combating sexual violence in conflict, with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, leading. Tigray must rank as the worst example of the use of sexual violence in conflict, yet there has been no public word about the results of the scoping mission to Ethiopia by the UK preventing sexual violence team. There is a desperate need for services for survivors and to secure legal evidence, much of which is in camps in Sudan. Will the UK back the call from Helen Clark and others on the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal to investigate allegations of sexual violence?
The noble Lord makes an extremely important point and he is right that sexual violence has been a grim feature of this conflict. The deployment by the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative UK team of experts resulted in a review of the needs and gaps in the response, which we are taking forward, including through a specialist role based in the Embassy. We expect that that work to support accountability will begin in January. We are not planning at this stage, I am told, to make the review public, but I am assured, following our encounter just a few minutes ago, that there will be briefings specifically for parliamentarians.
My Lords, this is a very unstable region of Africa. Ethiopia has proved crucial to stability in UN peacekeeping as well. Can the Minister say, first, how any diminution in the Ethiopian contribution to UN peacekeeping is being mitigated or compensated for elsewhere? Secondly, what is his assessment of the refugee crisis caused despite the welcome restoration of the transitional Government in Sudan?
My Lords, as we have just heard, the crisis has taken on an international character, with Eritrea effectively involved in fighting in Ethiopia against the TPLF, which fired rockets on the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Thankfully, recent clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan along their border have been limited. However, we believe that 80,000 refugees have fled northern Ethiopia into eastern Sudan. The stakes are obviously high as the risk of regional spillover escalates. As noble Lords would expect, we urge all parties to the conflict to recognise the dangers of a drawn-out, protracted conflict for the region.
My Lords, under Article 4 of the African Union’s constitution, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has the power to intervene on member states should acts of genocide or other war crimes be committed. To date, the AU has not intervened, other than to send envoys. Does my noble friend the Minister think that perhaps the time has come when it should do so?
My Lords, the African Union chairperson appointed a high representative specifically tasked to engage all parties to the conflict on options for peace. The Peace and Security Council has recognised and supported the important of former President Obasanjo, who is now in Ethiopia, visiting regularly and having productive discussions with both sides of the conflict. Our priority is to support the diplomatic efforts, particularly his efforts, as the form of intervention most likely to bring about a ceasefire and allow humanitarian relief to reach those in urgent need.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is in the interests of everyone in Ethiopia to get all parties to the negotiation table to try to reach some form of compromise? What lessons are the Government drawing from Tigray for the Oromia and Somali Regions? Does the Minister agree that there is a high risk of similar crises in the Horn of Africa? What action can be taken to avert them?
My Lords, there certainly is a high risk of the sort identified by the noble Lord. We regularly discuss the situation in Ethiopia with our G7 counterparts, African leaders and allies in the Gulf. The Minister for Africa discussed the situation with Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Omamo on 1 November and, on 12 October, joined a call of major donors chaired by the administrator of USAID, Samantha Power. On the same day, the Foreign Secretary joined a call on Ethiopia chaired by Secretary Blinken. We are in regular communication with the UN at senior levels and at the technical, working level.
My Lords, while these diplomatic efforts carry on, in Tigray, Amhara and Afar, 8 million people—5 million of them in Tigray— are in desperate need. Rates of severe malnutrition are extremely high. Healthcare facilities have been trashed. Supplies of essential medicines are at zero. Hundreds of thousands of people are cut off from supplies and at risk of starvation today. Every imaginable form of obstruction to humanitarian aid is present, but the main reason for the cut-off is the blockade imposed by the Addis Government. What steps are we supporting to ensure that Ethiopia opens the checkpoints today?
My Lords, the humanitarian needs in Tigray are at catastrophic levels, as the noble Lord said, with 90% of the population requiring life-saving aid. An escalation in violence has huge implications for vulnerable populations right across Ethiopia, potentially impacting on an estimated 20 million people already reliant on humanitarian aid and the 31 million people assessed as living below the poverty line. The humanitarian response in Tigray is at a standstill because of the limited availability of fuel and the fact that relief items have been depleted. Stocks cannot be replenished due to the blockade imposed by the Government of Ethiopia; we are putting particular emphasis on that area.
My Lords, as was referred to, the more encouraging news from neighbouring Sudan over the weekend was tempered by the even more disturbing news from Ethiopia. Are the Government aware of the reports of people being targeted in Addis purely on the basis of their ethnicity and the establishment of new concentration camps near the city, including in a primary school? What firm action are the Government taking, with their allies, to prevent ethnic-based conflict, which, as the Minister said, could be truly catastrophic for the region if it spreads across borders?
My Lords, the UK is engaging with Ethiopia—in fact, with both sides of the dispute—at every level imaginable and at every possible opportunity. We have a frank but constructive relationship with the Government of Ethiopia, which enables UK Ministers and senior officials to raise our concerns and have forthright discussions about the conflict in Tigray with them. We will continue to do this and raise all credible allegations as they are put to us.
My Lords, we have heard horrific allegations of sexual torture and rape in Tigray. Far too often, the perpetrators are just not held to account. I very much welcome last week’s announcement that the Government will host an international conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Government hope this conference will achieve?
My Lords, in 2022, the UK plans to host an international conference to mark 10 years since the launch of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. The conference will bring together partners from all over the world to end violence against women and girls. This will be an important opportunity to review progress, identify challenges and agree further action on sexual violence in conflict, as well on wider gender equity issues. Further information on the conference will be made available shortly.
My Lords, is not part of the tragedy that, in one of the most malnourished and impoverished parts of Africa, both sides—the United Front, with the TPLF, and the Government—can find the resources to wage a bitter civil war? How can the aid community intervene? Is there any real danger that the country might descend into ethnic groupings, as in the Balkans, and destabilise the region?
My Lords, the conflict has the capacity to spill even further out of control and expand beyond the northern region. We have struggled to deploy UK aid for the reasons I described in my answer two questions ago. UK aid was being delivered into and across Tigray before the Government of Ethiopia created a blockade. We are supporting partners so that they can quickly recommence aid delivery should that be possible, and we are putting pressure on the Ethiopian Government to address the blockade and remove it.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that he and the Foreign Office have received representations from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, which I co-chair, about torture, rape and starvation being used as weapons of war and the involuntary repatriation of Tigrayan refugees to Eritrea? Will the United Kingdom follow the United States in imposing targeted sanctions on the perpetrators of these crimes? What is being done to ensure that those responsible for what has rightly been described as a catastrophic, man-made disaster that is destabilising the whole of the Horn of Africa are brought to justice?
My Lords, we are appalled by the reports that we have received on the systematic killing of civilians; widespread sexual violence, including rape and including that of children; indiscriminate shelling; and ethnic discrimination, including the forcible displacement of communities. I cannot answer the noble Lord’s question on the APPG report, I am afraid, but I will ask my colleague, who would have received it, to confirm that that is the case. On sanctions, the UK will consider the full range of policy tools at our disposal to protect human rights and deter violations of international humanitarian law.
Dementia: Art and Music-based Interventions
Music can play an important part in supporting people who are living with dementia. Last year, NHS England and NHS Improvement facilitated three webinars resulting in the publication of guidance for social prescribing link workers to expand music prescriptions. We will be setting out a new dementia strategy in 2022. As part of that development, we are working in collaboration with stakeholders, including people affected by dementia, and will explore the role of arts and music-based interventions.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. What further steps will the Government take to support brain health through social prescribing? How will any measures taken be incorporated into the Health and Care Bill currently being debated in the other place?
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for all her work raising awareness of dementia, in this House and outside of it. The Government understand the importance of non-medical and lifestyle factors in supporting people’s health and well-being, including brain health. This is why we are continuing to roll out social prescribing across the NHS, in line with the NHS Long Term Plan commitment to have at least 900,000 people referred to social prescribing by 2023-24. The Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with NHS England and NHS Improvement to incorporate social prescribing into the guidance to integrated care systems. Some of this guidance has already been included in the document implementation guidance on partnerships with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector that was published in September 2021.
Around 25,000 people with dementia are from BAME communities and this is expected to double by 2026. The Alzheimer’s Society report, The Fog of Support, found that people from these communities, and those with English as an additional language, were more likely to use BAME-led groups. The report also found that there is generally a need for interventions to be much more culturally sensitive. What action are the Government taking to ensure that people with dementia can access culturally appropriate care, including art and music-based interventions, which reflect a wide range of cultures and languages?
The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities is looking at areas where there are clear disparities. As part of developing the dementia strategy, the Government are consulting with a wide range of stakeholders and ensuring that a diverse range of views from different communities is heard and that it is not targeted just at one particularly community.
My Lords, social prescribing is a key aspect of the NHS Long Term Plan. It has been described by the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners as an essential part of the toolkit for tomorrow’s doctors. Therefore, why is social prescribing absent from the core undergraduate curriculum in UK medical schools? Some schools offer optional modules, but there is no national consensus on what teaching should cover or how it is best delivered. Does the Minister agree that, unless social prescribing is integrated into the education of the future healthcare workforce, its benefits for patients and the NHS will never be realised?
The NICE quality standard on dementia, published in June 2019, includes guidelines for offering activities and social prescribing. They are also included in the NHS long-term plan. Obviously, different components are modelled that are social prescribe-enabled—not only music but other art-based activities. The education question will be for my noble friend in the Department for Education, but if the noble Baroness can write to me, I am sure that we can get the answer.
My Lords, music therapy is also increasingly helping Covid patients hit by inflammation and fibrosis that causes shortness of breath—a horrible condition. The Breathe programme from the ENO and Imperial College has classical-singing coaches providing psychological and physiological therapy to great effect. Can the Minister endorse this kind of social prescribing, and can he commit to meeting Dr Harry Brünjes and the Breathe team, which is seeking to take this programme nationally?
I thank my noble friend for that question. As an amateur musician—I stress “amateur”—I know that there is no better feeling than when you connect with your audience as a live musician. Music tugs at your heartstrings. Music touches your soul. But it can also unlock the mind. This shows the importance of music in social prescribing.
My Lords, I hope that patients get the benefit of what I am sure is the Minister’s excellent playing. He has been very positive in his responses, but he will know that the arts sector has been very stretched financially during the Covid years in particular. Will he open discussions with organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society, with an offer of some funding to develop some of the schemes that we have heard about today?
I thank the noble Lord for his invitation to perform live—I am not sure that he will feel the same way after hearing my blues band. Last year, NHS England and NHS Improvement, in collaboration with the National Academy for Social Prescribing, the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia, facilitated a series of webinars. We are working in consultation with them. In February 2021, Music for Dementia also published social prescribing guides for link workers to help expand music prescriptions. The important thing here is that we are consulting with stakeholders.
My Lords, for more dementia patients to gain access to music therapy through social prescribing, there must be more training on the value of music for carers and healthcare practitioners and greater support for musicians to train as music therapists, and music education must be a much more mainstream part of primary and secondary school education. What assurance can the Minister give that the necessary government cross-departmental action is being taken to deliver on this?
The department itself is working closely with Music for Dementia and other organisations. Across government, we are looking at music, beyond just performance, to see how it can impact our lives and the role that it can have in levelling up and community cohesion, for example. Across government, I am sure that a number of departments are looking at this.
My Lords, the former Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, deserves an enormous amount of credit for setting up the National Academy for Social Prescribing. Before he came into the department, the Department of Health could not have been less interested in the power of the arts and music to have an impact on people’s health. The second anniversary of the academy has just passed. Can the Minister commit to issuing a report on its third anniversary—since I know that he will still be in the post—to suggest how to take it forward? Also, we still do not know what instrument he plays, but perhaps he could take it with him on his first visit to the academy, as soon as possible.
I thank noble Lords. Can I stop there? I also am aware that my noble friend is himself a music fan. I remember once bumping into him on the Jubilee line on his way to the O2 arena to see Led Zeppelin. Noble Lords across the House recognise the power of music and how it affects our lives.
My Lords, someone very close to me has Alzheimer’s disease. Music-based interventions such as the Alzheimer’s Society’s “Singing for the Brain” groups have been proven to have multiple health and well-being benefits. What support are the Government offering to charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society to ensure that they can keep delivering this kind of intervention? Will the Minister, with his musical ability, commit to attending a “Singing for the Brain” session?
I should warn all noble Lords that they have not heard me yet—their requests may be quite different after hearing my band play. In terms of the ability of music and, if you like, the instructions, we are working with a number of stakeholders as well as ensuring that, when it comes to training social workers and others, they understand the ability of music to make a difference to people’s lives.
My Lords, I declare an interest: my wife is a music teacher and my son runs a recording studio, at which I am sure the Minister would be very welcome. Does the Minister agree that one initiative which could help both dementia sufferers and young musicians and artists would be to sponsor of an internship scheme whereby such students could be working part-time in the care sector, thereby benefiting themselves and those in care?
I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. We are looking, across the health sector, at how we can think outside the box and train students in other disciplines to help in healthcare. Clearly, music can potentially play a role. In terms of the music studio offer, can I just say “Wait until you’ve heard me”?
Emergency Services: Ministers of Religion
My Lords, today of all days, we remember Sir David Amess, who tragically died carrying out his duties as a public servant. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones, as well as with all those involved in scenes of traumatic injury. Decisions regarding the management of such situations remain an operational issue for the emergency services involved. There are no plans to establish a multi-professional strategy on this issue.
My Lords, the tragic death of Sir David Amess brought to national attention a problem that experts and academics in the field of disaster and emergency response have recognised for some time—namely, the lack of a considered approach to the role of ministers of religion and their access to victims at end-of-life in disasters and emergencies. While I welcome the fact that the Archbishop of Westminster and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have opened a dialogue on this topic, does my noble friend agree that a national standard is required? Will she undertake a study, preliminary to that, of other jurisdictions such as Israel, Italy and even Northern Ireland, where practice tends to be more nuanced and accommodating?
There are certainly lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions, as my noble friend said. I totally empathise with the situation that both David Amess’s family and the police found themselves in during that dreadful incident. Given the people who are involved, I hope and expect a sensible and pragmatic conclusion to be arrived at through the discussions.
My Lords, the noble Lord has spoken with compassion, but is there not a danger that the attendance of ministers of religion at the scene of an accident could hamper the work of the emergency services? If there are serious injuries, the victim will be taken to hospital, where they can, if desired, call on the excellent chaplaincy service, which works 24 hours a day.
The noble Lord is right that chaplains operate 24 hours a day in hospitals. My noble friend’s question, of course, was about Sir David Amess, who was at the point of death when his family wanted him to have the last rites from a Catholic priest. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is correct to point out that the criteria for the police to consider in such incidents are protection of life, the risks at the scene and the preservation of evidence at the scene.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the joint study group announced by the cardinal archbishop. Does the Minister agree that good outcomes from that study would include both further training and education to ensure that police officers understand the significance of spiritual comfort at the point of death, for the dying of whatever faith, and an increased role for police chaplaincy?
I am sure that what will come out of that group are considerations of whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to police officers faced with such situations. I know that hospital chaplains are available around the clock to cater for a range of different needs and provide comfort, both during a period of illness and at the point of death.
My Lords, the circumstances surrounding access for the local priest to be with Sir David in his final hours put everyone concerned in an exceptionally difficult position. Will my noble friend the Minister look at the US model, where emergency managers can identify and engage with faith-based groups in emergency preparedness activities, building partnerships with them to establish protocols for use at the scene of serious injuries and integrating faith leaders into emergency situations involving serious injury?
I will certainly take my noble friend’s point back. I know the College of Policing welcomes engagement with faith community leaders and others who have concerns about the current authorised professional practice to understand views and consider possible next steps for this issue.
My Lords, surely there is a difference between the perpetrator sitting at the scene of a stabbing waiting to be arrested and an explosion where forensic recovery is essential. Can the Minister not bring together faith and police leaders nationally to discuss the potential use of discretion, in appropriate cases?
The noble Lord is right, in the sense that it sounds like the perpetrator was standing there, waiting to be arrested, but there has to be a framework around these things. Of course, forensic preservation is crucial at such scenes, even where it is apparent what has gone on. I am sure that the group will consider the noble Lord’s proposals.
My Lords, I know this is incredibly difficult but, as we can carry donor cards and things, would it not be possible to consider compiling a register of those of us who would wish to receive the last rites at the point of death? I am sure that would bring great comfort to many families.
We are talking here about the point of death of someone who was killed in very unusual circumstances. My family know what I would want, and I am sure noble Lords in this House have let their families know what they would want. But there is a point there about pragmatism and considering someone’s last wishes at the scene of crime.
My Lords, in these difficult times, is it not possible that people’s spiritual needs, as well as their physical needs, could be supported, and if possible adhered to, during serious injury and illness? Could the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care work together to send out a directive advising on these matters?
The group led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, joined by the Catholic Church and the College of Policing, will determine what such a framework looks like. It was a surprise to me that this had not come up before, and therefore it needs some thinking about, including on whether changes are required to the guidance issued to police faced with such situations.
Our thoughts too are very much with the family and friends of Sir David Amess, particularly today. As has been said, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have agreed to create a group reviewing last rites access for priests at crime scenes. Presumably, there is a need to ensure that a crime scene remains protected and not disturbed, and that the person seeking access is who they say they are. First, has this matter of access or lack of it for ministers of religion been a concern before and, if so, with representatives of which faiths? Secondly, is the question of such access presently covered by College of Policing or other guidelines?
My Lords, one of the cruellest aspects of the lockdown was the denial of visits from priests to give last rites to those dying in care homes. For Catholics, at least, that was as awful as not seeing beloved family. The official advice was to say prayers by Zoom. Would the noble Baroness note that, while there is an Amess amendment as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, this is less a regulatory or legislative matter and more a deficit of cultural capital when it comes to Christian practices? Would she also note that the overtechnocratic approach illustrated by some of the replies today misses what really matters in society?
Not only do I empathise with what really matters to some people at the point of death—it made me think that, if I was in such a situation, I would want a priest there—but I am very glad that Cardinal Nichols is meeting with the NPCC. That group will consider a more nuanced approach that can be reflected in police guidance about facing such a situation.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
Committee (10th Day)
Relevant documents: 1st, 4th and 6th Reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 6th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 7th Report from the Constitution Committee
268: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Video recorded cross-examination or re-examination of complainants in respect of sexual offences and modern slavery offences
(1) Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 comes into force in relation to proceedings to which subsection (2) applies on the day on which this Act is passed.(2) This subsection applies where a witness is eligible for assistance by virtue of section 17(4) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 (complainants in respect of a sexual offence or modern slavery offence who are witnesses in proceedings relating to that offence, or that offence and any other offences).(3) This section has effect notwithstanding section 68(3) of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new clause would bring section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which provides for the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses to be recorded rather than undertaken in court, fully into force for victims of sexual offences and modern slavery offences.
My Lords, Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allows for the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses and victims of adult sexual assault to take place separately from the trial. The purpose of this provision—following Section 27, which allows evidence in chief to be given before the trial—is to allow a victim of adult sexual assault to give their evidence in chief and be cross-examined in a period quite shortly after the incident. It means that they do not have to wait a very long time for what will be a terrible ordeal. It means that they give evidence at a point when the events are only recent, rather than after a long period has gone by.
There is nobody, I think, who does not regard these provisions as beneficial. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that they are as available as possible throughout the Crown Court estate in England and Wales. My understanding of the position is that they are available in respect of the victims of adult sexual assault only in certain specified Crown Courts in England and Wales. This amendment seeks to ensure they are available everywhere and as soon as possible, by saying they would be, in effect, available on the day this Bill becomes law.
It has been said that one of the reasons for not making the provisions available is that they require judicial resource—you need a Crown Court judge in order to hear the evidence, even though it is separate from a trial. It strikes me as very odd that adult sexual violence is not a priority of the Crown Courts. If judicial resources are the problem, my suggestion would be that making resources available to hear the victims of serious adult sexual assault should come sufficiently high up the priorities so that there is a judge available to deal with it. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, I very much understand the impatience of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for the introduction of video recordings of cross-examination in cases involving sexual offences and modern slavery. It is important that evidence in such cases is given early and without pressure. However, I have some queries about the amendment.
The Government have introduced by stages these provisions under Section 16 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 for witnesses
“under the age of 18 at the time of the hearing”
and witnesses suffering “from mental disorder” or
“a significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning.”
The section also provides for witnesses with a physical disability. Various courts have been permitted to hear evidence in these circumstances, culminating in March of this year, when the provisions were extended to Preston Crown Court. But it was only on 30 September—six weeks ago—that the provisions were extended under Section 17(4) for complaints in respect of a sexual offence or a modern slavery offence. Only four courts were involved—Durham, Harrow, Isleworth and Wood Green. I have not seen any evaluation of the use of these procedures under Section 16, although they were piloted as early as December 2013 in Kingston, Leeds and Liverpool. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether such an evaluation exists and, if so, whether it could be made available.
As for the proposal in this amendment to extend the provisions wholesale under Section 17, it is obviously too soon to evaluate limited pilots from the end of September. There can surely not have been time yet for any direction to be made by any judge of the three courts for such special measures for sexual offences and modern slavery.
Since I have no personal experience of these measures, I would be grateful if the Minister could inform me how they take place. As I read the legislation, the witness gives evidence to the court in the presence of the judge and counsel on both sides but in the absence of the accused. The accused is, however, entitled to watch the proceedings and communicate with his legal representatives. How exactly would this be organised? Is the accused in another part of the building, watching from prison, or what? In what way is this less intimidating to the witness than, for example, giving evidence down the line at the time of trial—a proceeding with which we have been familiar for some years?
My concern is that the distancing of the witnesses from the jury is artificial enough when it takes place at the time of the trial. But in my view it is even greater when the jury know they are watching a recording of examination and cross-examination which happened months, possibly even a year, before. While I appreciate that the best evidence is that which is given shortly after the events, the answer, really, is not to delay trials to get rid of the backlog. I heard on Saturday at my chambers dinner that the problem of delay is not the Nightingale courts but the number of judges and counsel needed to cover the trials taking place there and in the ordinary Crown Courts.
Originally, this amendment was grouped with Amendments 286 to 291. Are the others to be spoken to later?
That introduces the question about the complainant’s sexual history; I do not think the noble and learned Lord addressed that when he opened the case. The basic position in relation to that issue is stated in Section 41(1) of the 1999 Act, which says that
“no evidence may be adduced, and … no question may be asked in cross-examination,”
“a person is charged with a sexual offence … except with the leave of the court”.
Amendments 286 to 291 are concerned with tightening up the circumstances in which leave may be given. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would not allow by these amendments such evidence whenever the issue of consent arises, whether at the same time or same event as the subject matter of the charge or where there is such similarity in the sexual behaviour of the complainant to the charge that the similarity cannot reasonably be explained as a coincidence.
The noble and learned Lord’s amendment sets out the criteria which the judge “must” take into account, none of which is objectionable, save that it amounts to teaching the judge how to do his job. Perhaps it is useful to inform the public of the factors which a judge considering an application must consider, but I am sure a judge would consider those factors anyway at the present time.
I am, however, dubious about the noble and learned Lord’s Amendment 288, which denies any further application being made during the course of the trial. Proposed new Section 43A states that
“no judge may allow such application or admit any such questions or evidence.”
Every case is different. All sorts of new evidence may come to light in the course of the trial when publicity is given; that is one reason why the name of the defendant is given in a sexual case, even though the name of the complainant is withheld.
I can understand that the noble and learned Lord is anxious to ensure that an accused cannot hold an application to his chest with a view to springing it upon the prosecution and the complainant at the time of trial, but I do not believe that removing the discretion of the judge entirely to allow such applications in the course of the trial is the right way to proceed. By contrast, I support the noble and learned Lord’s Amendment 289, which would give the complainant a right to be heard on an application to introduce sexual history and to appeal the decision.
As for Amendments 290 and 291, if the data suggested is not being collected already, then the Ministry of Justice is in dereliction of its duty. Equally, I would agree that the investigation of rape and rape complaints and the admissibility of cross-examination of complainants on their sexual history should be the subject of training, but I would be surprised to find that such training does not already take place.
My Lords, I support these improved safeguards because although I have not been in court very often, and when I have been there, it has been mostly as the complainant or a witness, I do think that we need better support for victims—or the plaintiff—who at the moment are treated very much as bit players in the whole theatre. It seems that they are almost forgettable because the two protagonists are the defence and the prosecution, and they take centre stage. It was obvious when we debated the Domestic Abuse Bill, when we discussed anonymity and other techniques for helping witnesses give evidence in court, so clearly that is needed.
The witness is often treated as a sort of emotionless void, with the legal test focusing on whether the proposed measures will improve their ability to give evidence, rather than, say, protect them from the trauma, embarrassment and hurt of facing up against the accused. This is no more apparent than in the way we treat victims of sexual violence and rape. The Section 41 rules were a major step forward but still fall far short of what is necessary, and so the amendments in this group would help recognise victims as humans and not just incidental characters in the whole story. Most importantly, they would allow the complainant to have their own independent legal representation in Section 41 applications, rather than relying on prosecution counsel, who, in their role as administrators of justice, have many competing obligations to juggle.
I hope that the Minister will agree that there are still many unsolved challenges in the treatment of complainants, and they are in desperate need of solutions.
If the noble and learned Lord decides to open them, which I would welcome, I would like to respond generally. So far, this debate has rushed along, and we were rather waiting for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to tell us why he strongly supported all these amendments, and then we will answer them.
The reason I did not tell noble Lords why I strongly supported all these amendments was because I made a mistake and did not realise that they were in the same group until the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, mentioned it. I apologise to the Committee for that error.
May I just go through them? I have done Amendment 268, which concerns Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act. The next is Amendment 286, which proposes to insert a new clause into the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and would exclude the admission in evidence, whether by the prosecution or the defence, of any sexual behaviour of the complainant with a third party, for the purpose of showing consent or lack of consent, while leaving evidence of sexual behaviour with a third party admissible if it is relevant to any other issue in the case.
In addition, it sets out a further requirement that, where such evidence is sought to be introduced in relation to an issue other than consent, that material must be more probative than prejudicial, and it sets out the considerations the judge must have regard to in considering that extra requirement. The purpose of this amendment is to give the clearest possible signal that evidence of any sexual behaviour of the complainant with a third party—that is, not the defendant—should be regarded as completely inadmissible on the issue of consent. This is important because it is intended to mark a change from the past, where all too often such evidence is admissible in circumstances where it is of very limited probative value, and the ability of that evidence to be admitted makes people—complainants—incredibly wary of coming forward and making complaints. This is the legislature giving a clear signal that it wants a change in relation to that. That is why it is there.
I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord, but would his amendment mean that if the complainant says, “I would never, ever consent to sexual behaviour” of a particular description, it would not be open to the defence to adduce evidence that that was precisely what the complainant had done with a third party?
It would exclude such evidence; there is no doubt about that, and rightly so, because what the noble Lord is referring to is evidence where the defence says, “Well, you say this in relation to this case, but what about this?” and then refers to another instance of sexual connection and says, “Look what you did there.” The purpose of the provision is to do exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, says.
I would like to test this proposition, because it strikes me as rather surprising. If a complainant says to the court, “Not in relation to this particular person, but I would never ever contemplate” doing something, and there is evidence, otherwise admissible, that she has done so in the past, that seems to be highly relevant to the jury’s assessment.
What I am saying in putting forward this provision is that you want to send a clear signal that a certain sort of evidence is not admissible. In order to make it easier for people to come forward, you need to have much clearer lines than we have had previously. There has been a whole variety of evidence that English law has said is not admissible, even though many people would think it was probative, because it is the safest way overall to deal with trials—it is the safest way to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between complainant and defendant.
Surely the noble Lord and the noble and learned Lord must be at cross purposes. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, put it on the basis that the witness is saying, “I wouldn’t do this, not only with this man but I wouldn’t do it with anybody, ever”, and the evidence is that she has. Is that perjury simply to go unresponded to in any shape or form?
I am afraid I did understand what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said. It is exactly as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has put it. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is right in the way that he analysed this amendment: it would exclude that evidence. I understand that that is the consequence, and I am saying it is a good thing.
As a woman, I say that the past might not be relevant but the truth might be, if you have just said, “I would never have done this” or “I have never done this”. I do not understand why the purpose of this amendment is to send a message; the point of the law is not just to send a message. Of course, we want women to get a fair shot at seeing people they are accusing of rape found guilty, but I do not want the state to be in a position where it can find people guilty based on the fact that you cannot probe the truth of what has been said. That is condescending to women, by the way. Women do not need to be so protected; they need people to do their jobs. But we do not need to alter the law to hide the truth in order to give women a fair shot.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is right. This is about sexual assault on anybody, whatever gender they are.
Does the right reverend Prelate want to intervene? Oh, I am sorry; they are leaving, for fear that it will never end.
Amendment 287 defines consent so that there is clarity about what is meant by consent in the new section of the Youth, Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.
Amendment 288 is a procedural requirement. This proposed new clause would have the effect that no Section 41 evidence or questions—that is, about sexual conduct with a third party—could be admitted by a judge at trial unless there had been an application before trial in accordance with practice directions, and would ban applications being made immediately before or during the trial. It is an important procedural safeguard to ensure that the complainant will know before the trial starts what he, she or they may face.
Amendment 289 would insert a new clause to give the complainant a right of representation with legal aid, if they are financially eligible, to oppose any application to admit Section 41 material about them—that is, material about sexual conduct with a third party. This new clause would also give complainants a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal if the application is allowed in whole or in part. The new clause provides that the complainant is not compellable as a witness at the application. The purpose of these provisions is to recognise that the complainant should be treated as a party, rather than as an outsider, to the proceedings on issues of the extent to which his, her or their past is to be gone through in the trial, and it is perfectly legitimate.
Amendment 290 requires the Secretary of State to collect and report to Parliament data and information on trial delays and in how many trials evidence about sexual conduct with a third party has been admitted. It is important for us to know that, so that people can have some picture, research can be done and policy can be properly informed in relation to issues relating to how trials of sexual violence are dealt with.
Amendment 291 would insert a new clause to ensure that all criminal justice agencies are trained and that no judge could hear a sexual offence trial of any kind unless they have attended the Judicial College and been given a serious sexual offence course. I have put that in only so that the Minister—I think it will be the noble and learned Minister who will answer—can say that that is, in effect, the position at the moment in relation to judges. It is probing, in effect, to ensure that there is a statement about the fact that the judiciary in England and Wales will hear serious sexual violence cases only if they have been given a ticket which means they have gone through a training course.
I apologise for not opening these issues before. They are very important and I hope I have assisted the Committee.
My Lords, I once tried a case where the most compelling evidence was given by a black woman who alleged that a white dentist had raped her. His case was that, as she sat in the dentist’s chair, she undid his fly and started sucking his penis. Her answer to the question put to her was, “I would never do that with a white man”, and it was compelling. If there had been evidence that in fact she had, that very compelling piece of evidence would have lost some of its compulsion. We have to be very careful not to send messages through legislation—messages we all share—because that is not the point of legislation.
I should add that there are plenty of times when evidence is inadmissible in law which may be probative, but there are, as far as I am aware—I cannot think of any; perhaps I will be corrected if I am wrong—few times where evidence which may assist the defendant is deemed inadmissible. That is an important step.
My other intervention is that, deep down in all this, there is a rather alarming—strange, really—new idea, which is that the Secretary of State should involve himself or herself in some of these important decisions. Let us look at the arrival of a friend, or an advocate’s friend—it does not matter what we call it; I personally wonder why that is necessary, when the prosecutor is supposed to be there as a minister of justice. I am looking at paragraph (e) of proposed new Clause 43A which would be inserted by Amendment 289. Why on earth should the Secretary of State be making regulations setting out procedure relating to hearings or appeals under this section? There is a perfectly good Criminal Procedure Rule Committee which produces Criminal Procedure Rules and is referred to in paragraph (b). With great respect, this has nothing whatever to do with the Executive. This is about the way cases are being conducted in court. Therefore, if there are going to be regulations, they should be produced either by primary legislation here or by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee addressing the issues.
On Amendment 291, I am even more alarmed. Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause gives the Secretary of State the power to decide which judges may hear which cases. We do not allow that. It is an essential division that there is an Executive and that cases are tried by judges; the Executive have no say whatever in which judge will try which case. It would be very strange: “I think I would like Mr Justice So-and-so, or Mrs Justice So-and-so, to try this case”. It is unheard of.
More importantly in relation to the judiciary and to the whole of Amendment 291, I can confirm as a matter of certainty—I suspect this has been true since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, was Lord Chief Justice—that judges are not allowed to try cases involving rape or serious sexual offences unless they have attended Judicial College training and continue to be refreshed in the various ways in which the law, the principles, the understandings and insights have been developing. As I say, though, my real concern is that if this is going to be statute, then for heaven’s sake, it should not be in the hands of the Secretary of State.
My Lords, I intervened earlier on Amendment 286 because of my concern about an absolute rule in this area. My concern is increased by the practical experience of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in this matter. I am also concerned about Amendment 289 regarding the complainant’s right of representation in relation to an application and whether there should be evidence concerning sexual conduct, not merely for the reason the noble and learned Lord gave, with which I agree: that the prosecution are ministers of justice and are there to deal with such matters. I am also concerned that this is a recipe for delay. If it is really to be said that the victim is to be separately represented and able to make an application, presumably after notice has been given, and there is to be a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal, that is inevitably going to delay further trials that are already far too long delayed.
On the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, about the criminal procedure rules, I agree with him. There is no need for the Secretary of State to intervene, and I accept that completely. Secondly, I also completely accept his point that the Secretary of State should not be making that determination; that is my drafting error.
I utterly repudiate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about delay and non-representation, a position which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, also adopted to some extent. It is really important that the complainant have, and feel that they have, a voice in the process of what is going to happen to them at the trial. The point about delay could be dealt with by ensuring that these applications are all dealt with before the trial. If there is to be an appeal and the complainant says, “It is unfair that my past is being raked over in this way, I want to appeal”, then there may be occasional cases where there are delays, but their rights should be recognised. The fact that they have a voice is really important.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that the prosecution is there to look after them. My experience is that the prosecution will try as much as possible to look after them but that they should have a separate voice. They will frequently feel—not because the prosecution is in any sense not doing his or her duty, but because they feel their voice is not adequately represented—that they should have a separate voice because they have separate concerns from those of the prosecution, which has to look at the situation not just from the point of view of the complainant but in a wider context. So I accept two out of the three points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, but none of those made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
On the first point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, regarding cases where it is vital to know what the position is—he gave the example of a trial he had heard—I am keen to draw a line so that people know where they stand, just as, in relation to the rules of evidence over many centuries, English law has said that some evidence is admissible and some is not, even though from time to time, it has been obvious that the inadmissible evidence might have been very compelling, but for reasons of bigger policy it was inadmissible.
My Lords, I am sorry to find myself intervening at this point but there is no bigger policy than the right to a fair trial. Of course that goes for complainants—and I agree with much of the thrust of what my noble and learned friend says—but there must also be justice for someone accused of any matter, but particularly such a serious one as a sexual offence. The example given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, warranted more of an answer, and one could conceive of others.
I say that while acknowledging that for decades, too much sexual history has been admitted; there is no doubt in my mind about that. That was why Section 41 had to be enacted in the first place. Scholars in this area will be able to look back at the Hansard of the passage of Section 41 and its various iterations at the time. The section was actually more tightly drafted to begin with but noble Lords in this place, including on the Benches behind me, came up with compelling exceptional circumstances where it would do a grave injustice to a defendant for startling similar fact-type evidence not to be admitted.
I understand that even since the passage and enactment of Section 41, a lot of complainants—and, with all respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, quite possibly women in particular—have felt that there has still not been enough sensitivity on the part of certain judges. However, it cannot be right that if I as a complainant, of whatever sex, assert that a particular type of sexual activity is something I would never and could never consent to and have never consented to, and yet I did the day before—how can it be anything but an injustice to the defendant for that not to be admitted? If I am a man and I say I have been raped by another man because I would never have consented to sex with a man, and yet there is ample evidence of a third party saying that there has been consensual sex —that cannot be fair to the man in the dock who says, “Yes, we had consensual sex” and then the complainant, because he is embarrassed due to his family, his faith or whatever reason, now says that it was non-consensual. That cannot be right.
I agree that we must do more so that juries, judges and indeed society do not assume that past sexual history is determinative of consent, but in my view to say that it is always absolutely irrelevant would not comply with Article 6 of the convention and therefore the Human Rights Act. I do not mean to be difficult but I could not possibly have potential injustices of that magnitude on my conscience, and I do not think this Committee could either.
My Lords, in replying, I preface my remarks by commenting on points made by noble Lords. The first was made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, at the outset, while the Benches opposite were still thrashing out the batting order. If I may summarise the noble Lord’s position, I think it emphasised the importance of judicial discretion. A judge seized fully of the law and of the particular facts and circumstances applying to any case will most often be best placed to decide what should be done. I know that the noble Lord will recognise that my remarks cut both ways, and that he will hold me to them in the course of today’s debate. However, I fully accept what he had to say about the importance of judicial discretion.
Secondly, in response to the point raised cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and eloquently supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox of Buckley and Lady Chakrabarti, we must not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate objective in any criminal trial is to do justice. For the reasons advanced by the noble Baronesses opposite, I am reluctant to do or say anything that might suggest that the scope of evidence relevant to the question of guilt, and of whether an acquittal should arise because the Crown has simply failed to put its case, should be curtailed artificially by measures such as those proposed in the amendment.
Following those prefatory remarks, I recognise that behind the amendments relating to the regimes in Sections 28 and 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, is a dedication to improving the way the criminal justice system handles sexual offence cases and supports victims and complainants. That is a dedication wholly shared by the Government. It is absolutely right that we look to do as much as we can to support all victims, including those of sexual offences, and help bring those guilty of crimes to justice by means of trials that are as fair as they can be made.
Today we remain just as committed to the wider expansion of Section 28 and to ensuring that victims receive the support that they need during the justice process. Too many victims of rape and sexual violence tell us that they feel let down by the system, and we need to do more to improve how the criminal justice system deals with rape and allied offences.
Section 28 of the 1999 Act lies within Part 2, Chapter 1 of that provision, under the heading, “Special measures directions in relation to vulnerable and intimidated witness”. It plays an important part in that process. The Government were proud to announce in the rape review the planned extension of the availability of Section 28 for complainants of sexual offences and modern slavery offences to four additional Crown Courts. This was a commitment that we have since fulfilled. We are now working with the police, the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service to understand the operational changes and resources required to proceed with full rollout for this cohort of cases. I say that in anticipation of criticism from your Lordships that not enough is being done quickly enough in this anxious matter. Our priority is to roll out Section 28 for this cohort to all the Crown Courts first, as that is where this measure is already in place for vulnerable witnesses and victims of the most serious crimes.
There are considerable differences in the types of cases dealt with in the court system as a whole—it is a broad range. At this stage, I submit that it would not be right to roll out to other courts these provisions without full and proper consideration of the different technological and operational requirements, as well as costs and implications for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, as that would risk undermining the existing provision of Section 28 for both intimidated and vulnerable complainants. An immediate rollout to other courts, without testing how the technology and process work in a very different set-up, would be premature and ill considered. It could risk undermining the success of other trials taking place in those jurisdictions.
I turn to Amendments 286 and 291. It is worth reminding ourselves of the provisions of Section 41 and what they do. Section 41 already prohibits the defence from adducing any evidence or asking questions relating to a complainant’s past sexual behaviour, except for in specific and very limited circumstances. They are circumstances that would not displease the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and would not fall within what he would rightly consider to amount to a denial of justice. For the defence to adduce any such evidence, they must apply to the judge. Here I return to my prefatory endorsement of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, at the outset. They must pass stringent tests of relevance and the need for this evidence to be adduced. It is a matter for the trial judge, who is fully seized of the competing considerations and the circumstances specific to the instant case.
May I address the Committee on how these matters work out in practice? With these safeguards in place, it is rare for the defence even to apply to adduce this evidence. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney-General’s office published a review of the operation of Section 41. An application under Section 41 was made in only 13% of rape cases examined in this review. Some of these applications were not granted, so in the overwhelming majority of cases analysed—92%—no evidence of the complainant’s sexual history was permitted to be introduced by the defence.
In any criminal case, a delicate balance must be struck between the victim, the complainant’s right to privacy and the defendant’s right to a fair trial. We believe that the current provisions in Sections 41 strike this balance carefully. The changes proposed by these amendments risk compromising the defendant’s right to a fair trial and hence would not be in the interests of justice. However, the Government share concerns about the use of a wider range of evidence in sexual offence cases, and action is already being taken. As part of the rape review action plan, we have commenced working with the Law Commission, which is examining the law, guidance and practice relating to the use of evidence in serious sexual offence cases. That review is considering the need for reform to increase the understanding of consent and sexual harm, and to improve the treatment of victims, while ensuring that defendants receive a fair trial.
We have also heard, through the rape review, concerns about the level of training of officials working in different roles across the criminal justice system. The Government agree that comprehensive, high-quality and up-to-date training on sexual violence and domestic abuse is critical for all those working in the criminal justice system. As to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in introducing this matter, I gratefully acknowledge his indication that this was a probing matter, intending to have it placed on record that training exists. I am able to tell the Committee that such training does exist, but also that it is the responsibility of the Lord Chief Justice, not the Government, to make provision for such. It is for the Lord Chief Justice to assess and, if necessary, rule on the suitability of a judge for viewing matters of this sort. The rape review action plan sets out actions across several key areas of training, including improved training for police and the CPS on communications with victims, and work by the National Police Chiefs’ Council to review and enhance training packages for officers and develop and implement joint training for police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The Government seek to do more than talk about their ambitions and actions. The Government recognise the need to collect and publish accurate data to monitor progress and hold ourselves, and those working in the criminal justice system, to account. To ensure clear accountability we will therefore publish updates every six months detailing our progress against our ambitions, with performance scorecards monitoring progress against key metrics, including timeliness, quality and victim engagement in each part of the system, and implementation of the rape review action plan. Given the absence of clear, persuasive evidence that Section 41 is not currently operating as it should, any additional tightening of these provisions—I go back to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Fox of Buckley and Lady Chakrabarti —risks harming the defendant’s right to a fair trial, without any improvement in process for the victim.
Perhaps I might address the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, about the experience of complainants and victims within the criminal justice system in relation to these sorts of offences. I am aware of a view, said to be supported by research and referred to by the committee of the other place, as to the experience of victims and complainants in cases of this sort. I think all of us with a background in the criminal justice system detect, as I do, a tension between assertions of that sort and our experience as practitioners. Certainly, looking back on my experience over the past 20 years in criminal prosecutions in Scotland and defence work, including six years as Crown Counsel prosecuting in the highest Scottish courts, I simply do not recognise the account of the experience of complainers and victims in that jurisdiction, to which reference was made. I am sure that colleagues who practise, and have practised, and who judge in this jurisdiction would echo that.
I do not for a second doubt the sincerity of those advancing this picture of the courts as a hostile place but this divergence between us seems to emphasise the need for work to bottom out just what the reality of the situation is, as well as the necessary work intended to make it easier for complainers and victims of sexual crimes to come forward. However, I ask the Committee to take this point: that where notions of the difficulty of giving evidence, or even making a complaint, are exaggerated they will tend to have the unfortunate effect that genuine victims and complainers are deterred from coming forward. I ask that the Committee bears in mind those observations, drawn, as I say, from extensive experience and consultation with colleagues when considering these matters.
As I have explained, we are already taking actions on several fronts which will improve how the criminal justice system delivers for victims of sexual offences and the wider public. In the circumstances which I have set out, I hope that my remarks will be accepted and that the noble and learned Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to everybody for taking part in the debate and very grateful for the care with which the Minister answered the issues. I am disappointed with his response on Section 28 and making sure that it is available in all courts in England and Wales. He said that he wanted to test the technology first, but there have been three pilots going for some time. I found that answer not altogether convincing so may come back to that matter on Report.
In relation to Amendment 286, which is the amendment excluding
“evidence of any sexual behaviour of the complainant with a third party”,
it might be fair to say that it did not meet with universal support across the Committee. If I want to send a message that you can be safer as a complainant, I will have to come back with something else. I take note of what everybody said in relation to that.
The only other amendment I would mention is Amendment 289, which
“would give the complainant a right of representation”.
Again, I remain pretty wedded to that provision. I may not have been listening hard enough but the Minister did not give a complete answer to it, so we may come back on that. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 268.
Amendment 268 withdrawn.
269: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Assistance for bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries
(1) With respect to inquests, and public inquiries relating to deaths or serious injuries, and where one or more public authority, or private entity whose relevant activity falls within subsection (2), are designated as “interested persons” (IPs) or “core participants” (CPs), bereaved IPs and CPs shall be entitled to publicly-funded legal assistance and representation at the same level or in proportion to the resources provided to the public authority or private entity, as set out in Schedule (Assistance for bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries: amendment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012).(2) Relevant activity of a private entity falls within this subsection where it—(a) is delegated or contracted from a public authority, or(b) is one where the private entity or individual owes a health and safety responsibility to the public or a section of it, including but not limited to sporting, leisure and entertainment events and premises, public transport systems and the provision of utilities and retail facilities.”Member’s explanatory statement
Combined with the proposed new schedule to follow Schedule 20, this amendment would ensure that bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries received legal aid proportionate to the legal expenditure by any public authorities involved in the inquest or inquiry (so-called “equality of arms”).
My Lords, this is a completely different topic. Amendment 269 would
“ensure that bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries received legal aid proportionate to the legal expenditure by any public authorities involved in the inquest or inquiry”.
It is, in effect, the equality of arms measure.
In the Hillsborough situation, people suffered an incredibly grievous wrong in respect of their loved ones, then found themselves ranged against lawyers and QCs. As a QC myself, I make it clear that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with QCs, but imagine finding yourself ranged against seven public authorities, all of which have an interest in trying to ensure that their public authority is exonerated, while the individual victims have no right to legal representation at all. They may get the benefit of discretionary funding from the Lord Chancellor, who can give that funding for inquests, but it is entirely at the discretion of a Government Minister. That is inappropriate. In relation to these sorts of cases, the right course is that where there is a big disaster, the people who are most affected should be able to appear at the inquest, which is going to affect what may happen in the future, while having equality of arms with the person or bodies against whom they will be ranged.
Amendments 270 to 274 intend to establish
“a public advocate to provide advice to representatives of the deceased after major incidents.”
So many families affected by a major incident have nowhere to go because there is no lawyer experienced in these sorts of matters. They have nobody to speak on their behalf and find, all too often, the public sector unwilling to give them help—for fear that individual members of the public sector may be making their own section of it liable to some sort of damages in court subsequently. The public advocate scheme is a means of providing support for the victims in those tragedies. I very much hope that the Government will listen, look at these amendments favourably and recognise the injustices that have occurred over the years as a result of there not being proper representation at inquests nor a public advocate to speak for the victims of these disasters. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to offer Green support for Amendment 269 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to which I have attached my name. I offer support for all the amendments here. The noble and learned Lord spoke about a big group case affecting many people. I shall to a single case.
In 2014, a seven-year-old boy, Zane Gbangbola, went to sleep in his bed. He never woke up, and his father, sleeping nearby, has been forced to use a wheelchair ever since. The Fire Brigades Union, the PCS Union and many other people—including his father Kye’s doctors—were convinced that Zane was poisoned by hydrogen cyanide gas that came from a landfill site nearby, carried by floodwaters. Before this tragic event, the Environment Agency had actually protected its own staff in a nearby building with a special membrane in the foundations to ensure there was no risk of an event like this.
There was, of course, an inquest. At that inquest no fewer than six public bodies, whose actions might have been called into question, were represented by the best legal counsel money can buy—with public money. The Gbangbola family was denied legal aid, so the grieving parents, sitting in a court room and hearing the most awful possible details about their son’s death, were forced to operate with only limited legal support, with funds raised by a public appeal. As the noble and learned Lord said, the European Convention on Human Rights calls for an equality of arms in trials. There was no such equality at Zane’s inquest.
We also need to stress the public interest concern here. As was the case, tragically, in Zane’s death, we know that the world is facing new dangers. The country is facing new dangers. We need honesty and transparency about what those are. The weather that led to that flooding was linked to the climate emergency. Several years after this, Kye Gbangbola said
“we need to unlock the doors for the truth to come out”.
This is about the death of one child, but it is also about the safety of everybody. The lack of legal aid at that inquest was a factor in the truth not coming out. The family is continuing to campaign. Indeed, I was in Glasgow with them at a side event to the COP 26 climate talks. They are calling for a Zane’s Law to address weaknesses in our law that were deliberately introduced a decade ago, putting profits before human lives. This is why the seven amendments about a public advocate are terribly important. We cannot rely on families—indeed, sometimes there will not be a family—in a case where someone has died, to ensure that the courts are helping us to uncover what actually happened in the case of tragedies.
Had there been equality of arms at Zane’s inquest, we might be much further down the road to getting a change in the law that we all need to keep us safe. I strongly urge the Government to act on all of these amendments, but particularly Amendment 269 and the related amendment, not just for Zane or the Hillsborough families but for everybody.
My Lords, I support this amendment. As a former Victims Commissioner, I have met too many victims who had asked for representation or legal aid and felt that their voice was not heard. They were, in their words, “bullied” by the heavies on the other side, who were rich and could pay for QCs or whatever. Again, they felt that their voice was not going to be heard.
I am talking about high-end cases here; I am talking about terrorism, bombers, women hearing their husband exploded at the other end of the phone, and still have no help from the Government. I support this amendment because now, with all the high-risk terrorism we are seeing—even with the Tunisian support that was very poor, I have to say, because there was a third party involved—we are going to lose the public coming with us and understanding what is going on. An inquest is not a courtroom as such: everybody is there, and all the families are trying to listen about their loved ones and their lives. I know from personal experience about when somebody is talking about our loved ones and yet nobody can stand up from our side to present the same quality, the same questioning.
In this day and age, I ask the Minister and the Government to have a round-table talk about how we can fix this. The inquest is such an irritant to the families, and it does not help them get past the trauma. If we cannot help them, they will not be confident to go through the system. These are high-end cases we are talking about. I know the families of Hillsborough as well, and they have gone through the mill over all these years. Did they get any justice? They have had to fight hard, tooth and nail.
I heard one woman—I will not name her—whose son heard that bomb go off on an oil rig, and the Government were still redacting and did not give the legal aid. The time has come to have an open and transparent discussion about giving the support that they quite rightly deserve.
My Lords, some time ago when the Hillsborough matter was before this House, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I think, and I put forward a suggestion that the coroner in an inquest should have power to allow a public authority, or an authority with resources, to put forward a defence using lawyers for that purpose, and that a condition of granting such permission should be that the authority is responsible for providing the necessary funding for the relatives of the deceased to be represented. The choice of who they would use, of course, would be for the relatives, but the provision of the necessary money would be a matter for the authority—at the level at which the authority wanted to do it—so that there would be obvious equality of arms.
I think it is a much better solution than legal aid. Needless to say, I have had, some time ago, some experience of dealing with legal aid. I had the authority as Lord Chancellor to grant legal aid in specific cases that I thought required it, but I think it is much better, fairer and less burdensome to the public, that this should be the rule. It seems to me this is quite easy to systematise when you have more than one of these authorities. Hillsborough is a good example of what happened when there was no proper representation for some of the relatives. This is a suggestion that goes along with the spirit of the first amendment the noble and learned Lord has put forward, and I venture to think that it is an effective point of view.
I am glad to see that the noble Lord, I referred to has returned because I think he will probably remember that he and I were pretty well agreed about what should be done. Needless to say, the Home Office said it would be reviewed when the details of Hillsborough, the prosecutions and so on, were finished. Of course, that happened some time ago, but I see no sign of any kind of innovation from the Home Office, until it agrees with this amendment in spirit.
We have always been able to rely on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for ingenuity when difficult problems have to be resolved. This one seems to have got lost in the Home Office somewhere. That is a pity because the problem that these amendments raise is long-running and serious. It is open to discussion, whether the amendments are the best way of dealing it, but I do not think we can go on ignoring it or failing to deal with it in any adequate way.
When the families of people who have died in a serious incident are confronted with the inquest process—something that of course does not happen in Scotland, unless a fatal accident inquiry is instituted—they are often confronted by lawyers representing public or large private bodies and with issues that are really difficult for them to deal with and cope with. There may be an issue around the direct failure or contribution of a public body, such as a transport undertaking, or a private company, such a chemical company, to the death of the person they have lost. The inequality of arms must seem so very severe in that situation. They may be confronted by public bodies defending themselves against a failure of regulation which, if it had been properly carried out, would have prevented the death. In one of the most difficult ones, they may be confronted by a situation in which the response of the emergency services—often so wonderful and good—failed. That is one of the issues being argued over in Manchester, for example.
All these are extremely challenging issues. To be confronted by someone who is trained in and knows how to explore all the ways in which the law might let the company or public body off its responsibility in that area is an extraordinary challenge to face. Therefore, I think there is widespread agreement in this Committee, and more generally, that help has to be provided, and that there needs to be more certainty of it than the limited ways it can be provided under the present system.
I am not yet persuaded that the super-structure of a public advocate is the necessary means of making this available. This is one of the reasons why, although I was attracted by the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I am not sure that it fully meets the case either. But it is clear that quality advice, support and advocacy, needs to be available and offered.
There is another kind of case I should mention, and which will stay in people’s minds, particularly if they remember Hillsborough, and that is the circumstance in which the process, or activity outside the process by the media, has cast a slur upon the victims—on those who have died. When confronted by that, people despair. In Liverpool, their answer was not to take the Sun newspaper anymore, but that is a pretty limited response to a slur being cast which suggests that the family which has suffered death has done so because of some non-existent failing on the part of the victim. These are very desperate situations in which people find themselves, and I am not sure that we are doing enough to help them.
My Lords, I too support the principle behind Amendment 269. We regularly see the disturbing prospect of bereaved families being unrepresented when public bodies have very competent representation. This undermines public confidence in justice, and it sometimes impedes the ability of the coroner or the public inquiry to get to the truth of matters of enormous public importance.
However, I am not persuaded that the mechanism contained in Amendment 269, in proposed new subsection (1), is the correct one. It provides that the representation for bereaved families must be
“at the same level or in proportion to the resources provided to the public authority or private entity”.
I would be content if competent representation were provided.
I draw to the attention of the Committee that there are cases in the Court of Appeal where it has been argued, under the Human Rights Act, that a defendant in a criminal case was entitled to representation under legal aid by Queen’s Counsel because the prosecution was represented by Queen’s Counsel. The Court of Appeal said no, and that what they are entitled to—and rightly so—is competent representation. So I think this is going too far.
The noble and Learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, suggested one way forward: that the public body should make provision. Another way of dealing with it would be for the chairman of the inquiry, or the coroner, to have a statutory discretion to order that specific persons be provided with public funding, whether by legal aid or otherwise. There are a variety of mechanisms, but I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that the principle now needs to be enacted.
My Lords, I shall speak shortly. I have always had a long interest in legal aid and its proper provision. My concern is that this amendment is aimed at the right target but goes too far. Look, for example, at the wording; as I understand it, it would apply every time there is an inquest involving someone who has died in a hospital. If that has been the result of possible negligence on the part of the hospital—I am talking about an NHS hospital here—then there is a potential claim against the hospital. If that potential claim has any reasonable merit, it is likely that solicitors experienced in medical and legal work will undertake the inquest because, in due course, if the claim is brought and damages are recovered and costs awarded, the cost of representation at the inquest will be recoverable in the personal injury action. That has been the case ever since the “Marchioness” disaster and the costs thereafter.
All I say is this: there should be representation in appropriate cases involving state institutions. We can all think of examples—not just Hillsborough; it could be a hospital or something else—where the state and a public authority are involved, and it is unfair to the family to have to scrabble around to get funds if they can. I would like to see careful consideration given by the Government to how this can be properly designed to find a balance. There is a strain on public resources; there are many other areas where legal aid is not provided, particularly in the family courts, and we know that funds are short. Equally, they should consider whether, in appropriate cases, it should be at the coroner’s discretion to direct the Legal Aid Agency to look at this. I argue that the Government should think very carefully about this and about what would be a fair balance, given the strain on public resources, to ensure that people who need and deserve it get resources provided to them.
My Lords, I support this whole group of amendments from my noble and learned friend and others. The reasons given by noble Lords are hugely compelling and, if anything, I think some noble Lords opposite are not enthusiastic enough. I hear the arguments about the public purse, but we would not be here if civil legal aid, in particular, had not been altogether obliterated and if there was not such a continuing injustice to bereaved families.
Frankly, I am not persuaded that there is something so awful about a greater equality of arms between hospital trusts and families who feel they have been sorely let down, or indeed between those families and a range of public authorities who can afford not competence but brilliance—they can afford the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, over there. I am not sure that “near competent” would be enough if you were faced with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. We need to have something like the intention behind this amendment; there should be some kind of equality of arms for these desperate people.
My heart broke when the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said that she has spoken to bereaved families who think of an inquest as an irritant. We should all be ashamed of that. Inquests, which are supposed to get to the bottom of things and be at least some kind of comfort to those families, should be the absolute opposite of an irritant.
I want to encourage my noble and learned friend not to let this go into the long grass, or to become an interesting probe that does not get anywhere because we are worried about the precise mechanism, because I am very concerned—we are still in the pandemic—about the coronavirus inquiry or inquiries that must come soon. There may not be another vehicle for amendments such as these, or legislation such as this, in time. It is incredibly important that, in a year or two, or whenever those inquiries happen, we have resolved this to some extent.
I fear we will not have resolved the general, dismal picture when it comes to civil legal aid, but at least we can come up with some kind of fix, however imperfect, to redress the balance of advice and representation for bereaved families. There will be a lot of very impoverished, vulnerable, bereaved families who will have nowhere near the access to private or public money. To be honest, whatever your ideological position, even the inequality between private corporations and bereaved families is bad enough, but surely, with public authorities and public money, there can be no excuse for such an imbalance in the use of that public money if we are really interested in the pursuit of justice.
My Lords, I also agree absolutely with the principles behind these amendments. It seems as though the Committee has been unanimously supportive up till now.
My question to the Minister is: why have we waited so long for something to happen in the area of inquests? I had hoped that there might be something in what has been rightly described as a Christmas tree Bill to help us along the way, but there is not. It has needed the amendments from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, to raise this issue. I was privileged enough to chair a Fabian commission on legal aid, which reported more than four years ago. We considered this urgent—as I think the world did—then and for many years before. At one stage, Hillsborough was a classic example which aroused public interest in this issue.
Is there work being done at the moment within the Minister’s department to look urgently at this issue to see whether some solution cannot be found? Never mind the rest of civil legal aid—though my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti knows I agree with her absolutely on that—is there not something that can be done in this area as a matter of some urgency?
My Lords, I hope that the Committee will accept my words when I say that the Government are sympathetic to the difficulties facing all bereaved families. At an earlier stage in the consideration of this Bill, my colleague, my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar who has ministerial responsibility for this matter, referred to the powerful feelings he had, as a resident of Liverpool, as the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded. For my part, I speak as one who has acted for a relative of someone killed in an accident which was sufficient to warrant the convening of a fatal accident inquiry in relation to the helicopter crash at the Clutha Vaults public house in Glasgow. I was funded by legal aid, and I hope that means I was at least competent, while at all times striving towards the excellence of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The Government believe that bereaved and otherwise affected families should be at the heart of any inquest and inquiry process that follows a disaster.
Amendments 269 to 274 seek to establish an independent public advocate. This is a call to which the Government have been sympathetic, but I echo the reservations expressed, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, as to whether the superstructure envisaged by the noble and learned Lord’s amendment is the appropriate way forward.
As to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, a moment ago, I can advise the Committee that there is an outstanding consultation dating from 2018. Work is being carried out; whether this is with sufficient urgency to satisfy the noble Lord opposite, I have to leave to him to decide. I hear the remark made about the time which has elapsed since the convening of this consultation, but I can tell the Committee that there have been prioritisation matters concerning resources within the relevant departments arising out of the pandemic.
We must ensure that any independent public advocate does not duplicate or undermine the formal and proper processes that take place following a major disaster such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. I submit that it will therefore require further detailed work to ensure that any new functions, such as those proposed, are within the wider public interest. They must properly meet a need that inquests and inquiry do not. Conversely, they must not adversely cut across established structures and processes. For these reasons, the Government cannot support these amendments.
In relation to support for bereaved persons, we remain committed to ensuring that those who are bereaved after a major disaster are fully supported. This is why the Government have recently introduced a range of measures: new training for coroners; revised and improved guidance for bereaved families at inquests; addressing the way lawyers conduct themselves at inquests; and increasing access to funding for legal help at inquests. Additionally, the Government have committed up to £4.6 million to the Homicide Service to provide a range of emotional, practical and specialist support for those affected.
The Government have also committed to responding to the report by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, into his review of the experiences of the Hillsborough families, including relating to the duty on public bodies to behave with candour. We are working closely across government and with key stakeholders to consider carefully these “points of learning”, as the Bishop put it. We will publish a response in due course.
As part of recent integrity reforms, the Government have also introduced a duty of co-operation for police officers. This provides clarity on the level of co-operation required of an officer who is a witness in an investigation, inquiry or other formal proceedings. There is a responsibility to participate openly and professionally in a variety of circumstances, including where the officer is a witness in an investigation into the actual, alleged or possible misconduct of other officers—be that an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct or by the police force itself. Failure to meet that duty of candour could ultimately result in disciplinary sanction.
Amendment 323 seeks to introduce publicly funded legal advice and representation for bereaved or injured “interested persons” at an inquest, or for “core participants” at a public inquiry into an “incident or failure” which led to “death or serious injury”. However, there is already an existing statutory process for funding legal representation for certain participants in public inquiries. The Inquiries Act 2005 already gives an inquiry chair the power to award reasonable costs, including the costs of legal representation, to a witness or any person whom the chair considers has an interest in the proceedings or the outcome of the inquiry so as to justify the award. I therefore submit that this element of the proposed amendment is unnecessary.
Moreover, the coroner’s investigation, including the inquest, is an inquisitorial, fact-finding process. It is a narrow-scope inquiry—in a sense, a form of summary justice procedure which sets out to give answers to four statutory questions: who the deceased was, and how, when and where they died. This means that for the vast majority of inquests legal representation and legal aid are not necessary. That is why it is available only in exceptional cases.
My Lords, I have given evidence at numerous criminal trials, in the magistrates’ court and the Crown Court, but the most vicious, adversarial cross-examination was at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian shot and killed by the police following the 7 July 2005 bombings. There is no way that process could have been described as inquisitorial. Indeed, part way through that proceeding, the coroner had to advise the barrister representing the police not to proceed in the way that he had up until that point. While in some cases it may be simply a neutral, inquisitorial search for the truth, that is not how a lot of inquests turn out.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving the Committee the benefit of his experience. Perhaps it is that experience which informed, or helped to inform, the remarks of the Chief Coroner, his honour Justice Thomas Teague, who has said publicly that one of his key objectives in his role is to ensure that the inquisitorial ethos of the inquest process is maintained. I hope that demonstrates a resolve within the system to address the failings or, at best, the over-eagerness, of counsel whose conduct the noble Lord described.
The amendment to increase the scope of legal aid at inquests would run counter to the approach of retaining their inquisitorial character. There is a risk that additional lawyers present at an inquest would not provide an overall improvement for the bereaved, that being something which ought to be a primary consideration, for the reasons expressed by my noble friend Lady Newlove. It is foreseeable—I think this is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst—that the presence of additional lawyers could have the unintended consequence of turning an inquisitorial process into a complex exercise—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I do not doubt the sincerity of his concerns about trying to maintain informality in inquisitorial process. However, can it ever be conscionable for an inquest to involve a totally unrepresented core participant or bereaved family in circumstances where those whom the bereaved family suspect of being responsible for their loved one’s death are represented by professional lawyers, counsel and QCs? Can that basic inequality ever be conscionable, not least when we are dealing with lay people, with public concern and with public money that is all going to some parties and not to the bereaved?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention.
I was going on to say that, for bereaved families who need legal help, advice and assistance are always available under the legal aid scheme, subject to the means and merits test. This can help preparation—
I take on board what my noble and learned friend says. I come from a victim’s perspective in all this. While it is all rule of law and whatever, victims’ families do not feel any of what my noble and learned friend is saying, because it feels like the professionals are dealing with all the processes. Victims’ families see all these high-end QCs and whether the other person is competent—I think that also gives a two-tier process for the victims’ families. Why should competency be at one end? I take on board what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said. The whole point is that they do not get that advice because there is nobody there to advise them.
I have worked with the Chief Coroner. He has no powers to control coroners across the country. Inquests are so poorly funded that there is no advice for victims in all this. We are missing all the pieces of the jigsaw. I say it with no disrespect, but it does not happen on the ground. Families want respect and dignity. All they see is the other side building all the towers, but not for them. They feel irritated, upset and disrespected. Most importantly, they feel that it is all political window-dressing. Once again, the law does not represent the families, who are the ones who are hurt and traumatised.
My Lords, my noble friend’s personal experience and her service as Victims’ Commissioner lend force to her eloquence.
I shall go on to address the funding available for attendance at inquests, but in answer to the points just raised and to reiterate, in the vast majority of inquests the simplicity of the four questions which the coroner is obliged to seek to answer is such that legal representation and legal aid will not be necessary. In circumstances such as those my noble friend described, where there is complexity or where the competing interests are such that lawyers are briefed on behalf of agencies perhaps seeking to lay down defensive positions in the face of future litigation, it is right that there is a mechanism whereby bereaved families or bereaved individuals might be represented.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He said that it is right that families should be represented, but surely he would acknowledge that that has not been the case, as in the case I cited, as well as in many others where families have not been able to be represented.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Newlove, focused on the families being represented and having a voice, but would not the inquisitorial process, which is supposed to arrive at the truth, be improved and more likely to get to the correct conclusion if there was a balance of arms—a balance of forces—as we have been talking about?
I apologise to the Committee: I probably should have declared my position as vice-chair on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid.
Ultimately, my Lords, arrival at the truth is the objective of all legal process in this area, but the inquest convened under the coroner is but a part of that overall inquiry. That the truth is the ultimate objective does not, with respect to the noble Baroness’s point, confirm that in every case there must be legal representation. I maintain that for the vast majority of inquests the questions posed—the circumstances—are not such as to oblige in the interests of justice that there be representation for all parties. The amendment to increase the scope of legal aid at inquests would run counter to that approach.
I have addressed the point of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others about the way in which proceedings of this sort can turn from being inquisitorial into adversarial. I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lady Newlove as to the extent to which the Chief Coroner can control proceedings in every inquest heard by a coroner. None the less, there has to be value in the views of the Chief Coroner, to which I referred—one of his key objectives is to ensure that the inquisitorial ethos of the inquest process is maintained.
For bereaved families who need legal help, advice and assistance is always available, as I said, under the legal aid scheme. That can help with preparation for an inquest, including help with deciding on questions to ask. For legal representation at an inquest, legal aid may be available under the exceptional case funding scheme where certain criteria are met. I have figures on this. The current exceptional case funding grant rate is 79% of applications received. That is the highest on record and demonstrates that the scheme is providing support for those who need it. We are already in the process of making improvements to the scheme, including improvements to guidance which will help bereaved families access this funding where it is needed. Again, I hope that the rehearsal of those figures will offer some comfort to my noble friend.
On the provision of non-means-tested legal aid for bereaved people at inquests, we have recently announced, via the Government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report of its inquiry into the coroner service, that we will be taking forward legislation to remove the means test for applications for exceptional case funding in relation to legal representation at inquests. This change is intended to make the exceptional case funding process as simple and easy as possible for the bereaved.
Given the ongoing work I have referred to, carried out by the Government with the intention of supporting families at inquests and inquiries, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, replies, I should say that I did not make reference specifically to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in relation to the proposal that he and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, advanced for the funding of representation in these areas. I will undertake to have the department of my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar look into the response that was made to the proposal which my noble and learned friend and the noble Lord put forward at that time and see if an answer can be given to the Committee at some appropriate stage as to how that was considered and what conclusions were reached.
I am very grateful to everybody who has spoken in the debate. Everybody apart from the Minister supported the principle. There were various specific suggestions as to how the proposal could be improved, which I certainly take on board. As ever, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, put forward an incredibly sensible proposal. Amendment 269 says that if a public authority is designated an “interested person” or a “core participant”, then legal aid should provide funding proportionate to that to the families. I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is saying, “Let the relevant interested party or core participant from the public sector pay for it”, and I would not have any objection to that.
I have to say that the Minister’s response was awful—and this is not in any way intended to be an attack on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, who delivered, as ever, a very careful answer. It was awful because it indicated that the Government are going backwards. It represented a degree of complacency about the problem that was entirely unwarranted. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, very effectively expressed what the problem was. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, indicated, quite rightly, that this problem has existed for a very long time.
The problem was exemplified by the Hillsborough case. The families, having had a very fair hearing from Lord Justice Taylor in the public inquiry, then attended an inquest, day after day, having to cross the Pennines to get there, where they saw the findings of Lord Justice Taylor, as he then was, eroded by representatives of public authorities able to take advantage of their total inequality of arms, aided and abetted by some elements in the press—not all the press, but some elements—which used the process to denigrate those who had died. It was absolutely appalling.
The issue is not just the suffering of the individuals but the disrepute into which it brings our legal system. If our legal system is unable to come to an appropriate answer because of the inequality of arms—all the public authorities are represented by all the lawyers in the world and the families, who have a cause and are right, cannot get their position across—then what good is our legal system? That is the point that everybody in the debate has been talking about, and the Minister’s answer showed absolutely no appreciation whatever that that is the problem.
We will not have another opportunity to come back with something. Amendment 269 and the schedule to be put in after Schedule 20 deals with it by ensuring that where there is a public authority in the firing line, the families should be represented. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, says, but all too often long-running problems with particular health bodies never get properly recognised because ultimately the health body is properly represented and the families are not. We will be back. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 269 withdrawn.
Amendments 270 to 276 not moved.
277: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Section 6 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956: removal of time limitation
Proceedings for the offence under section 6 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (intercourse with a girl between thirteen and sixteen) are not to be barred only by virtue of the passage of time since the date of the alleged offence.”
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 277 in my name and I fully support Amendment 292C in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and others.
In 2004, when this House also acted in its judicial capacity, it considered an appeal by a Mr J, who had been convicted of three counts of indecent assault and one count of gross indecency with a child. Mr J, 35 years, had seduced the 13 year-old daughter of a friend. The charges of indecent assault actually related to full sexual intercourse. There was no doubt that he did those acts, for which he was originally sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but this House quashed the convictions for indecent assault. The reasons why are still relevant today. Men who seduced girls between the ages of 13 and 16 before 1 May 2004 are now immune from prosecution on account of this case. It is still possible to do something about this, but legislation is needed, hence my amendment.
The problem is that sexual offences committed before 1 May 2004 must be prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 1956. Under that Act, the applicable offence is unlawful sexual intercourse, as outlined in Section 6. In the 1956 Act, there is a time limit of one year from the alleged commission of the offence under Section 6. Proceedings must therefore be instituted within a year from then. This time limit is clear and unambiguous and can be found in paragraph 10 of Schedule 2 to the Act.
The problem had been going on for some time, since before May 2004, but prosecutors were for a long time able to evade the time limit. Instead of charging for underage sexual intercourse, which could not be done if the offence was discovered or prosecuted too late, they would charge for indecent assault in relation to the same underage sexual intercourse.
That is where the J case comes in. Mr J argued that this was impermissible and the House accepted that argument. Since that time in 2004, men who procured sexual intercourse from vulnerable and impressionable girls before 1 May 2004, perhaps introducing them to like-minded friends, have been practically immune from prosecution. The only applicable offences in the 1956 Act were time-barred as a result of the time limit relating to underage sexual intercourse.
To avoid confusion, I should say that the time limit problem does not apply where the offence has been committed since 1 May 2004. If a man had sexual intercourse with a girl aged between 13 and 16 after 1 May 2004, he can be prosecuted for the new offence of sexual activity with a child. That was created by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and no equivalent time limit is applied to it.
Many cases, however, are historical in nature and precede 1 May 2004. The 1956 Act must then still be applied, with all its anomalies—including this time limit. In theory, if two women came forward today and woman 1 reported abuse that took place on 30 April 2004 while woman 2 reported abuse that took place the next day, on 1 May 2004, only woman 2’s case would proceed, because the modern law of the 2003 Act applies to only her case.
Some may read this speech and question why I am assuming female victims and not children of any gender. Here, the story gets worse still. This time limit applies only to offences committed against underage girls; if the victim were a boy, it would be different, as historical cases of sexual intercourse between men and boys under 16 can still be prosecuted. The time limit applies only to girls. How can the law deny justice and discriminate in this way and this House not seek to put it right?
In fact, we can find anomaly after anomaly in this area. In my research, I read the work of Dr Jonathan Rogers, assistant professor in criminal justice at Cambridge University, who gives a full account of them. For example, Mr J was in fact still punished for the act of gross indecency with a child which related to oral sex with the same consenting child. It is incomprehensible that oral sex with the abused girl could be prosecuted at any time while the sexual intercourse had to be prosecuted within one year.
Some may say this is a past problem, but it is a present one, because we are still uncovering abuses that happened before 1 May 2004. Historical sexual abuse is, sadly, coming to light too frequently in the news. We know that girls are regularly threatened into silence for long periods. Many girls are victimised in this way and recognise themselves as victims or have the confidence to go to the police only much more than one year later. That is well known.
Something else may come to light that encourages them to bravely break their silence. This was illustrated in May 2013 when the BBC highlighted the case of two women who were told they could not press charges against their former teacher because of the 12-month time limit. One of the women said:
“I didn’t understand how they could have gone the best part of the year and I would just be hearing about that. It was horrible. I just collapsed on the floor and just felt I had gone through this horrendous ordeal for nothing.”
There is no way of knowing if this is affecting 1,000 women or just a few. The CPS keeps tallies of cases it has prosecuted, but does not keep a record of cases discontinued at an early stage, such as when the time limit problem is noticed. There must be hundreds of thousands of cases where men seduced a girl aged between 13 and 16 before 1 May 2004 but those victims for various reasons never told the police during the next year. I do not believe that we should need much evidence of the extent of the problem to justify the removal of the time limit. Nor would we open the floodgates by allowing justice to be done now: the CPS would proceed only where the evidence is strong and it serves the public interest, as in the case of much older abusers such as Mr J.
Some may object that you cannot retrospectively make law in this way, but I believe that is wrong. It is true that you cannot retrospectively create new offences and punish people for them, but here the relevant offence always existed. Amendment 277 is just changing the rules relating to trials for those offences.
It has always been understood that rules of evidence and procedure can be amended and have immediate effect in subsequent trials, regardless of when the acts complained of actually happened. Is it not the case that courts would always try people according to contemporary law on procedure and evidence and would not normally think to ask whether such law applied at the time of the offence? The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, said in the case of J, when referring to the time limit:
“It is a procedural bar which brings a fortuitous advantage to a defendant”.
As I understand it, Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights applies to the definition of offences and defences, but not matters of procedure, which includes time limits.
Finally, some may argue that this amendment risks exposing those who were prosecuted for some other offence relating to the sexual intercourse to being prosecuted again, this time for the offence of underage sexual intercourse. That is not my intention with this amendment, but it is a point well made. To resolve this issue, on Report, an additional provision could be added to the Bill which states:
“Nothing in the above section shall permit the trial of a person who has already been convicted of an offence relating to the sexual intercourse in question.”
In conclusion, the CPS has been silent about this problem for many years, but it is quite right for us to use the legislation now before us to put this right. I have spoken to Dr Jonathan Rogers, whose work on the matter has been peer reviewed by other criminal lawyers, and I thank him for all his support on this issue.
I am not a lawyer—in this debate, that may become apparent—and am aware that noble Lords may quote sections of the law or results of judgments that I will not have the breadth of knowledge to reply to in great detail today. However, I will take all points made on board, read more and consult further with noble Lords who are willing to engage with me. I ask and hope that the legal minds in this Chamber and the Government will resolve this issue within the Bill, as I strongly believe this time limit is wrong. I therefore also ask the Minister to meet me and Dr Jonathan Rogers to discuss this further before Report.
Let us take the opportunity of this Bill to right a wrong. There are still women who are denied justice for what happened to them in their early teenage years and men who can be fairly tried. Let them now be tried if the CPS considers the evidence strong enough and that the case still merits prosecution. I beg to move.
My Lords, I wish to support both amendments, and echo the very strong points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, regarding Amendment 277, which relates to Section 6 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and removing the time limitation on proceedings for the offence of intercourse with a girl aged between 13 and 16.
This appears to be a loophole left over from the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as ably argued by Jonathan Rogers of Cambridge University in his chapter in a book analysing the law on historic offences. He referred to the case of J, outlined by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, earlier, affecting cases where the offence occurred before 2004. In that chapter he says that a workaround regarding the time limit on reporting offences was:
“In the years leading up to the SOA 2003, this unusual time limit proved to be tolerable only because it used to be evaded (!), namely by charging instead indecent assault under section 14 of the SOA 1956, for which the underage girl could also not give effective consent, but for which no time limit was provided in the statute. So ‘rough justice’ could still be done, and it frequently was.”
His chapter goes on to explain that much of the law, including subsequent judgments, is grounded in
“a toxic mixture of misogyny, prejudice and ignorance.”
Reading evidence from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and its various specific reports on child sexual abuse in certain areas of society, it is absolutely clear that victims—especially child victims—of sexual abuse often find it difficult to come forward at the time. It is worrying, therefore, that there has to be a workaround to deal with a law that reflects late Victorian society’s attitudes to girls aged 13 to 16 being abused.
Amendment 292C asks for an extension of time limits for prosecutions for common assault in domestic abuse cases. I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, speaking to her amendment, and propose to speak briefly only on one common theme that links these two amendments.
In 2017, the Ministry of Justice responded to a petition to Parliament that sought to remove time limits on the victims of domestic abuse getting legal aid, saying:
“Respondents to the survey in particular felt that the time limit is arbitrary—respondents felt that a victim does not stop being a victim after the passage of time. Similarly, they felt that the risk of experiencing violence does not necessarily dissipate over time.”
There is substantial evidence to show that many women—it usually is women—do not report the first, second or even 10th incident of domestic violence. The reasons for this are many, but fear of the behaviour of their partner is key. They may also still be in a relationship with the abuser, and there is the worry—too often well founded, sadly—that they will not be taken seriously when they report the behaviour. The current six-month time limit means that many common assault charges time out and the women cannot access justice, and the protection and support that the justice process can offer them is denied.
Both amendments seek to change the time limits. First, there is a loophole that needs to be sorted out in a 21st century world that understands child sex abuse better than seven decades ago, let alone in the late 19th century. Secondly, they seek to extend the time limit to up to two years for domestic abuse victims to be able to report their abuse to the police. I shall be glad to support both amendments. The courts and prosecutors should not have to rely on workarounds.
My Lords, as the former Victims’ Commissioner, I am amazed by these time limits. To find our domestic abuse victims were being constantly told they were timed out beggars belief in the 21st century, considering we can buy an item in our homes that has a 10-year guarantee, a two-year guarantee, or whatever, yet common assault has six months. What does that say about how we look at human lives?
Under current rules on common assault, any instances of common assault, regardless of context, must be reported within six months of the incident occurring. If a report is made outside this six-month period, there is no option, as has been said, for the police or the CPS to bring charges and, unless there are other charges to be brought, the alleged perpetrator faces no further action.
The CPS definition of common assault is
“any act by which a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer or apprehend immediate unlawful violence.”
It does not necessarily have to include literal physical violence; it can include raising a fist, spitting or using threatening words.
The reason for the rule is that we need cases to travel through the system quickly—especially considering recent court backlogs and long delays across the system. However, the rules on common assault are built on the assumption that crimes can be reported quickly and easily. This might be the case for a fight in the street with a stranger, but it cannot and should not be applied to domestic abuse contexts.
Regarding the impact on victims, most will not even know that this law exists until they come forward and find that it is too late. They will make the hugely brave decision to come forward and make a report to the police, only to be told that time has run out and there is nothing to be done. Victims are being left completely in the dark.
Perpetrators, however, will often have the support and guidance of a legal representative, especially if they have offended in the past. It is highly likely that perpetrators are much more aware of this time limit than the victims—some perpetrators may even use this loophole in the law to their advantage.
The time limit not only allows perpetrators to carry on abusing, it emboldens them to do so. There are sure to be cases where a victim has come forward with their report; it has failed due to the time limit, and they have faced further abuse and violence as punishment or retribution for telling the police. The time limit in its current form is putting victims in harm’s way.
The offences covered by common assault—threatening words, raising a fist and spitting—are the types of crime that can easily escalate if perpetrators are not stopped. The time limit is preventing any kind of intervention. The message being sent to victims by the current law is that common assault is not important enough to prosecute, and that victims will be listened to only if they have been more seriously hurt.
Common assault is often the only charge left to lay. Police officers have spoken to me about their frustration in trying to reach the higher evidence threshold for actual bodily harm or coercive control and being told by the CPS that it should be downgraded to common assault instead. However, because of this rule, it is often too late. A dangerous perpetrator is allowed to go free and will probably go on to offend again, against the same victim or someone new.
Police forces have also spoken about the complexity of investigating domestic abuse. It can often require extensive digital investigation and the need to gather medical and forensic evidence. All this takes time and often cannot be done in a six-month window, even if the victims report straightaway.
There are examples of victims coming forward with reports a month or two after an incident occurs—so within the time limit—but cases still failing because they cannot be adequately investigated in the time left. So, it is not just about victims coming forward, it is about the complex nature of domestic abuse, which is not currently reflected in the law.
BBC figures obtained through freedom of information requests show that nearly 13,000 cases of common assault in the domestic abuse context were closed due to the time limit between 2016-17 and 2020-21. Only 30 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales responded to the freedom of information request, so the real figure is likely to be much higher. In the same period, the number of common assaults flagged as domestic abuse increased by 71%. Meanwhile, the number of these common assaults that resulted in charges being brought fell by 23%.
What do the numbers tell us? They tell us that thousands of victims of domestic abuse are being failed by this time limit every year. Instances of common assault in a domestic violence context are increasing, but the number of perpetrators being charged is decreasing. The numbers are going in the wrong direction in every way and, again, the victims are paying the price.
All this is against the backdrop of a criminal justice system that is consistently failing to protect and support victims of domestic abuse. Prosecutions are going down, as they are for rape. A recent report from the criminal justice inspectorate—a fantastic report, but very sad reading—showed that an incredibly high number of victims of both domestic abuse and rape are dropping out of the system and cases are closing. Victims are losing faith in the system and deciding that it is far better to end the process completely.
The aim of my Amendment 292C is to increase the time limit from six months to two years for common assault cases flagged as domestic abuse. I recognise the need to have time limits in place to allow cases to move through the system as quickly as possible and to give police forces targets for investigations. However, a six-month limit simply does not work in the context of domestic abuse and the figures outlined above prove this. A two-year time limit gives far more time and space for victims to come forward, and gives the police the time they need to fully investigate cases and bring forward evidence that is more likely to lead to a successful prosecution.
The hope is that this change to the law would help boost prosecutions for domestic abuse and stop dangerous perpetrators before they go on to reoffend. The amendment is supported by the domestic abuse commissioner, as well as Refuge, Women’s Aid and the Centre for Women’s Justice, all of which have shared case studies from their work with victims and are certain that this change will make a real difference.
I ask my noble and learned friend the Minister to reply to these questions. On 22 October, the media was briefed that the Government would support the campaign to extend the time limit, but we have not had any further detail as yet. We have not been able to get any further confirmation from the Home Office about what form its support will take. Yvette Cooper wrote to the Home Secretary on 19 November. Key questions to the Government are whether they will support my amendment or table their own and, if they table their own amendment, what its exact wording will be. Will the Government’s version extend the time limit to the full two years?
It is important that changing the law is in the interest of victims, as much as possible. They have suffered under this time limit for far too long and, as the former Victims’ Commissioner, I am tired of listening to these women—mostly women—who have gone for support but have been left out on a limb yet again. Leaders from across the violence against women sector contributed to this amendment. They have worked with victims and understand their real-life experiences and what law changes are needed to protect them, so I urge the Government to accept this amendment in full to reflect their work.
My Lords, I support both noble Baronesses’ amendments and urge the Minister to accept them with alacrity or, if that is not possible, to work with the noble Baronesses and parliamentary counsel to achieve the compelling intentions behind both amendments.
The last thing my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley needs to do is apologise to the Committee for not being a lawyer because, if I may say so, her speech in support of her amendment combined every ounce of detailed legal reasoning with a humanity of which any lawyer would be proud. The anomaly to which she refers goes back to the 1956 Act, which sat around on the statute book before the 1997 Labour Government conducted a sex offences review. Clearly, this anomaly has not been corrected.
This particular offence is very grave, and it should never have had a time limit. In criminal law, we understand why certain lesser offences should be time-limited. We would not want every ordinary common assault or minor act of shoplifting not to be subject to a time limit, with this sword of Damocles potentially hanging over young people for the rest of their lives. We understand the public policy reasons to have time limits, but I suggest that to have them for such grave offences is contrary to the rule of law and fundamental human rights. The anomaly to which my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley spoke so well clearly puts this jurisdiction in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and probably Article 14, on account of the various types of discrimination that are also involved—between not just boys and girls at the time, but children and adults who did not consent. We rightly assume that young children do not have the capacity to consent.
My noble friend Lady Kennedy is so right that the rule against retrospectivity is a presumption against changing the substance of a criminal offence. She put the point well: it is not there to prevent us from dealing with procedural obstacles that are unconscionable, as she is attempting here. So I see no problem at all with retrospectivity, because it would be contrary to any notion of human rights or justice for a defendant charged today, tomorrow or as soon as this is enacted, to argue that he thought he was in the clear because enough years had passed since this terrible crime. Even with substantive changes to criminal law, there have been exceptions to the presumption against retroactivity, as we saw in the higher courts some years ago when the position on marital rape was changed. In one case, the defendant said, “This is not fair; I raped my wife when I thought I was allowed to.” In any event, this is a procedural matter that is standing in the way of dealing with a terrible anomaly and human rights violation that will be ongoing unless we deal with it.
As to Amendment 292C in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and her supporters, common assault can be a minor enough offence in certain contexts, such as the two young people who have a fight. It is fine to leave a short time limit for that, but domestic abuse is a very particular context in which the victim, whoever in the family they are, may well still be in the abusive situation within those two years. Rather than create a separate specific offence of common assault domestically, why not deal with it in the fairly neat way that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has?
If the Minister or his colleagues disagree with me, no doubt they, with the aid of parliamentary counsel, can come up with the right fix. However, I say to this Committee that both of these matters need to be dealt with not in future but with this vehicle. Frankly, there are lots of things in this very large Bill that I do not agree with, but the Bill would do something good if these two matters were tackled immediately.
My Lords, I was very happy to put my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, but first I will refer briefly to Amendment 277. The first thing I have to say is that, as any inhabitant of the West Midlands will know, the noble Baroness who moved the amendment is the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley. It is pronounced “Cradely”, not “Cradley”—it is a bit like “Chumley” instead of “Cholmondeley”.
My second point is this: the point made by the noble Baroness about the amount of time that sometimes elapses before individuals feel able to come forward is a moot one. Yesterday evening, I watched a new programme with my daughter. It was a documentary on a well-publicised streaming platform that begins with the letter “N”; I will not advertise it here. The programme is called “Procession” and deals with the way in which five men, all of whom were the victims of predatory Catholic clergy 30 to 40 years ago, have finally started being able to talk about what happened to them and come to terms with it. When something like that happens to one at that age—in this particular instance, these young men were even younger than the people we are talking about, aged between 13 and 16—it does not take a brilliant imagination to work out the sort of trauma that it must instil in people and how difficult it can be even to recognise it oneself, let alone bring oneself to talk to others about it. The noble Baroness’s point was well put; it will be hard to disagree with her.
On Amendment 292C, first, I put on record my thanks—indeed, our thanks—to Yvette Cooper, who has been pursuing this forensically in another place. Her latest attempt was made today when she asked the Home Secretary directly what her view on this is and whether anything will happen. I am not clear why we are debating this amendment at all because, on 5 July, Victoria Atkins, now in the Ministry of Justice but the then Home Office Minister, said this in the House of Commons when talking specifically about this same amendment:
“We take this issue very seriously, and I can assure the House that we will return with a proposal at a later stage. I certainly do not rule out an amendment, if appropriate, in the Lords. This must be looked into”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/21; col. 572.]
There it is on the record.
As the noble Baroness said, the Home Office seems to have developed a sort of hotline with certain reporters in the BBC, where certain potential developments are briefed to the BBC, which puts them out fairly prominently. There is then complete radio silence; there is no acknowledgement by the Government or Home Office in any way, shape or form that a briefing took place, so we are left in a slight quandary as to whether it did or not. Unlike some noble Lords, those of us on the Cross Benches have a high enough regard for the BBC that we tend to believe it when it comes out with something like this, so I find this practice of putting these things out into the public domain then saying nothing about them somewhat unhelpful. Frankly, it is a sort of legislator abuse since many of us are trying to do our best in talking on behalf of others and it is confusing when the Government apparently say one thing to the media and then stand at the Dispatch Box and say something similar to what they have been saying, sometimes for many years. My noble friend Lady Newlove put the case clearly.
It is moot to remember that only 70% of the police forces that were asked to respond to Freedom of Information requests by the BBC actually responded. If you do the maths, this means that the figures we have are about 30% underreported. The volume of types of assault that have been reported as being related to domestic abuse have soared, particularly during the pandemic. In the law of unforeseen consequences, one result of the welcome developments that the Government are making through the Domestic Abuse Bill and some of the ancillary legislation is the likely possibility that more of these instances will be reported because, one hopes, more women will have sufficient confidence to go the police and get a responsive response. More and more police officers are being trained to recognise domestic abuse and respond appropriately. Let us assume, first, that more women will, we hope, report. Secondly, we hope and expect that the police will respond more positively and quickly. However, if that is the case, we will have created another problem for ourselves because there will be a logjam in the system in trying to cope with the increased volume. That is a compelling reason for the two-year extension of the time limit for after these assaults are reported. If we do not do that, everything will come to a huge, legislative constipatory stop, which is in nobody’s interest. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove; I also support my noble friend in her powerful advocacy for her own amendment.
I want to emphasise a couple of points made by the noble Baroness. She referred to HMIC report, Police Response to Violence Against Women and Girls. I must say it makes for very sober reading about the inadequate response of many police forces to these issues. We know from the report and from the statistics referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that many cases do not proceed through the criminal justice system and, of the offences that do come to the attention of the police, many do not proceed any further. I would not argue that time limits are the sole reason, but they are a factor. I am indebted to Refuge, which does fantastic work in this area, for setting out some of the challenges that particularly women experiencing domestic abuse face and why they delay reporting incidents of common assault. They may feel understandably traumatised or physically unsafe immediately after the incident. They may still be in a relationship with the perpetrator. They may be dealing with the traumatic and logistical challenges of fleeing the scene.
Due to the six-month time limit on charging summary common assault offences, by the time many women are ready to speak to the police, they are told that the charging time limit has passed and there are no further opportunities for them to seek justice against their perpetrator or access protection through criminal restraining orders. There are so many reasons why, quite legitimately, women in particular are not able to come forward and meet the time limit. I appeal to the Minister not to respond with a typical ministerial response but to say that he will take this away and look at it. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell. I have noticed the practice of announcements being made in the media about what the Home Secretary is going to do but then often dying a death. We realise that sometimes they are flying a kite to see how it lands, but this is not the way to do business on such sensitive and important issues. I hope that the Minister will bring us comfort.
My Lords, I, too, support these amendments. I shall add two very brief points in relation to Amendment 277, which was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. First, the noble Baroness referred in her speech to the Appellate Committee decision in R v J. The Committee may be interested to know that in that decision Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior Law Lord, said at paragraph 15 that the history of the 1956 Act
“has been shown to result in much internal inconsistency and lack of coherence”.
His Lordship added that the fact that an unambiguous statutory provision—and it is unambiguous—is
“anachronistic, or discredited, or unconvincing”
does not enable a court to do anything about it. This Committee and Parliament are, of course, under no such inhibition, and for the reasons that have been given, I hope we will do something about it.
The only other point I want to make is that any defendant in any criminal case who believes that the passage of time results in unfairness to them is perfectly entitled to submit to the court that it would be an abuse of process for the trial to continue. They are perfectly entitled so to argue, but that is not a reason why we should not amend the law in the way suggested.
My Lords, I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, did not refer to the opinion of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, in the case of J. She dissented—notwithstanding Lord Bingham’s inability to change the law—in these words:
“In short, the 1956 Act was a mess when it was enacted and became an ever greater mess with later amendments. It is not possible to discern within it such a coherent Parliamentary intention as to require it to be construed so as to forbid prosecution for a “mere” act of sexual intercourse after 12 months where that act properly falls within the definition of an indecent assault. Although we do have to try to make sense of the words Parliament has used, we do not have to supply Parliament with the thinking that it never did and words that it never used.”
I think we can see which side the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, was on in that case.
The restriction has had an interesting history. Non-consensual sex was, and is, of course, rape, but consensual sex was a different matter. A girl was protected until the age of 10 under Queen Elizabeth I, to the age of 12 under George IV, 13 in 1875 and finally 16 in 1885. The time limit for bringing proceedings was at first within three months in 1885, which was increased to six months in 1904 and to nine months in 1922, and a provision of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1928 increased the time limit to 12 months. It was anomalous then, and it is anomalous now, and I fully support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley.
Amendment 292C in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, seeks to extend normal time limits imposed on summary proceedings in the magistrates’ court and suggests that an offence of common assault may be brought within a period of six months from the date of reporting, rather than the date of the incident, with an outside limit of two years where it comes within the ambit of domestic abuse. This is an issue that might well have been discussed in the recent passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. Summary proceedings are really intended to be summary. Assault and battery are attacks or threats of attack on the person. If significant injuries are caused, they should be tried on indictment in the Crown Court as ABH—assault occasioning actual bodily harm. So where is the dividing line between common assault and ABH?
The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, referred to the CPS guidance Offences Against the Person, Incorporating the Charging Standard, dated 6 January 2020, which states that common assault is charged
“where injuries amount to no more than … Grazes; Scratches; Abrasions; Minor bruising; Swellings; Reddening of the skin; Superficial cuts.”
By contrast, ABH includes
“damaged teeth or bones, extensive and severe bruising, cuts requiring suturing”
“that result in loss of consciousness.”
ABH is appropriate where
“the victim is vulnerable or intimidated”,
“a pattern of similar offending against the victim”,
and if a person suffers mental stress, that can also be seen as ABH. Your Lordships will appreciate that if the case is brought for ABH on indictment, this procedural limitation of the magistrates’ court does not apply.
Therefore, it is arguable that injuries of the nature that require interfering with the customary time limit applied in summary proceedings may not demand a change. I think the protections which are contained in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 should deal with the problems in the area referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. If a domestic abuse protection order is issued, breach of it is a criminal offence, which can be triable either way. A summary conviction may lead to a sentence of 12 months’ imprisonment, while conviction on indictment may lead to a term of imprisonment not exceeding five years.
This is the important point: a protection order can be made where the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities. The prosecution does not have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the victim has suffered. It is on the balance of probabilities for a protection order: simply that the person concerned has been abusive towards a person aged 16 or over to whom he or she is personally connected, where it is necessary and proportionate to protect that person from domestic abuse or the risk of domestic abuse. No time limits are set. I think we have moved on from common assault at common law in this field, and it may well be that this amendment is unnecessary.
My Lords, I support both these amendments. My noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley is seeking to get rid of time limits relating to having sex with girls aged between 13 and 16 before 1 May 2004. As she said in her comprehensive introduction to the amendment, it is not known whether this anomaly, which a number of noble Lords have described, affects thousands of girls or fewer. It is simply not known. Nevertheless, from my understanding of the way she presented the case and the other comments on the amendment, it clearly seems to be a loophole which could be closed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, explained why common assault is different in domestic abuse cases from general common assault. As I think I have said in other Committees, I fairly regularly sit in domestic abuse courts in magistrates’ courts, and I have to say that I disagree with the concluding comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that we seem to have moved on from common assault with domestic violence protection orders. Certainly, the way I view them, and I do those courts as well, they are very different because they are dealing with the civil standard. You can have cases where people have simply been abusive to each other and you are dealing with a very different type of case, in my experience, from common assault cases which you see in a more standard domestic abuse court.
I want to pick up the point made by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti. She put it very clearly that there is no offence of domestic common assault; there is no such thing, only common assault. However, one way of recognising that common assault in a domestic context is different—we are told repeatedly, and certainly this is my experience, that it happens repeatedly and maybe in an escalating way—is by extending the time limit up to two years. That seems to me like quite a neat fix, rather than coming up with a separate charge altogether. I thought that was a succinct way of expressing why the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, is a good one.
In the introduction of my noble friend Lady Kennedy, she asked for the intervention of a number of lawyers—and, my goodness, towards the end of this debate, she got it. We have heard from Lord Bingham and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, the history of how these types of offences against girls have been charged over the last 150 years or more. I hope that has given my noble friend Lady Kennedy—as it has certainly given me—something to ponder. We strongly support both amendments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, for her amendment.
For the victim of a crime to be told that the culprit cannot be prosecuted because a time limit has elapsed would doubtless be the cause of, at the very least, dissatisfaction and, at the very worst, anguish, and may very well lead to a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system. That is why, in respect of offences that are serious enough to be capable of being tried in the Crown Court, such time limits are virtually unknown in our system of criminal law in England and Wales. That differentiates England and Wales from many other jurisdictions, where time limits apply even to the most serious offences.
In England and Wales, the only exceptions are certain customs offences and offences of unlawful but consensual sexual intercourse, which I shall refer to as USI, with a girl aged 13 to 15 years committed before 1 May 2004, when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force. The statute which that Act replaced, the 1956 Act—I extend apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for yet further legal history here—included a requirement that a prosecution for USI with a girl aged between 13 and 15 must be commenced within 12 months of the offence. That requirement was highly unusual even when it was enacted, and it was duly removed by the 2003 Act. I am sure that members of the Committee will echo the words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, in relation to the 1956 Act.
That was an anomaly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and other noble Lords have described it in our discussion today. However, when it was removed in 2003 it was done so only prospectively, from the point when the Act came into force; in relation to offences that would fall to be charged under the 1956 Act, the time limit remained.
As your Lordships are aware and have heard again today, Parliament usually acts on the principle of non-retroactivity. Removing the time limit in circumstances where a prosecution was already time-barred, while it would not have amounted to substantive retroactivity in the sense of criminalising conduct that was not previously unlawful, would have exposed a person to criminal liability where there had been none before. Thus, Parliament’s aversion to retroactive legislation also applies to fundamental procedural preconditions for the bringing of charges against an individual. In relation to that—the point was canvassed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti—I make reference to the case before the European Court of Human Rights called Antia and Khupenia v Georgia. Oh, for a Lord Russell of Georgia, that I might be corrected for any mispronunciation of the names of any plaintiffs in that matter.
For that reason, we do not consider it would be right to disregard the time limit in the increasingly rare cases in which it would apply. Since the changes in the 2003 Act were not made retrospective at that time, I submit that it would be difficult to justify now extending them to cases in which prosecution has been time-barred for at least the intervening 17 years—even allowing for the development in our understanding of sexual crime, as referred to by Members of this Committee who contributed to the debate.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and others in acknowledging the skill and humanity with which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, presented her amendment to the Committee. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for expressing a willingness to meet. I would be delighted to meet her at any time, but I think it would be more convenient for her, for the purposes purely of this amendment, to meet with my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister in charge. I have taken steps by electronic means during the discussion in the Committee to arrange that my noble friend is made aware of her desire to meet, and an appointment will be fixed.
Obviously I will go and read the Georgian case—I will call it “the Georgian case” so as not to repeat my earlier offence in relation to my noble friend—but, before any meeting, I will just say one thing. The Georgian case is now being cited as the reason why the Government will not move in my noble friend’s direction. I repeat my concern that we are currently in breach of the convention on human rights, not in relation to an Article 7 point but in relation to an Article 3 violation in relation to any woman, of whatever age, who now says “My statutory rapist will not be dealt with”. The Georgian case is up against cases such as X in the Netherlands and all the other cases where people were barred from getting redress in the criminal courts. That needs to be considered by the Minister as a senior law officer in Her Majesty’s Government.
If our positions were reversed and I had to face these two potential challenges in the European Court of Human Rights—a man who says “I had the opportunity to run Lord Pannick’s arguments about delay but none the less I was convicted of a historic statutory rape and I say that is a violation of my Article 7 rights” versus a woman who says “My rapist was not dealt with because of this time limitation”—I know which of those challenges I would rather defend as Her Majesty’s Government.
My Lords, I acknowledge the long-standing interest and expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in this field. Her words will have been noted by the Bill team listening in on this, and I assure her and the Committee that that matter will be examined.
My intention was to turn now to the terms of Amendment 292C. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Newlove and the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, for raising this issue in the Committee and, in so doing, raising a matter that, as your Lordships have heard, the Government have acknowledged in the other place to be an important one. The amendment would have the same effect as one tabled during the passage of the Bill through the other place, both in Committee and on Report—that is, to alter the period of six months allowed for bringing
“summary proceedings for an offence of common assault or battery involving domestic abuse”,
as defined by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, so that it ran not from the commission of the alleged offence but from its being reported to the police within two years. I sense that the Committee will be as one in agreeing that it is essential that victims have confidence in the justice system—confidence that it is a fair, impartial system that will support them when they come forward.
A number of noble Lords who have given their views on this amendment have spoken of the context of domestic violence, in which these matters take place. We know it may take many attempts before victims of domestic abuse finally leave the abusive relationship, and that this may cause delay in reporting crimes to the police. When the Bill was in the other place, we acknowledged the concerns about the possible effect of the six-month time limit for prosecuting summary-only offences—common assault in particular—in domestic abuse cases. Again, there is no disagreement between us about the importance of domestic abuse victims being able, practically, to seek justice. They should not be frustrated in so doing by the standard time limits set by Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, should the evidence indicate that this time limit is too short in this context.
We were clear in the other place that this is an issue that must be looked into. The Home Office has been working to obtain data on cases that appear to have been brought to an end through the operation of the current time limit. I am also aware of the media coverage, to which the noble Lords, Lord Russell of Liverpool and Lord Hunt, referred. I note the concern expressed that, for whatever reason, it would appear that matters are being submitted to the press in advance of proper scrutiny by Parliament. Being aware of those concerns, I will relay them to the appropriate quarters.
I can confirm to the Committee today that we agree that there is a problem here and that domestic abuse-related crimes are disproportionately likely to be timed out. The Domestic Abuse Act demonstrated clearly this Government’s determination to address domestic abuse, and throughout its passage we showed our willingness to listen and take additional steps to address this abhorrent crime. It is important that we develop a proportionate response to this issue, so I ask for the patience of the Committee while we complete consideration of the matter and finalise our proposals. As the previous Minister for Safeguarding at the Home Office—now Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice—the Member of Parliament for Louth and Horncastle, Victoria Atkins, has stated, that might include an amendment. We will complete our consideration shortly, and I assure the Committee that we will return with a proposed course of action on Report.
I hope all Members of the House with an interest in this subject, including the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, who spoke on it on Second Reading, will be reassured by what I have been able to say. Therefore, on the clear understanding that we agree there is a problem to resolve and that we will be able to return to the issue with our conclusions on Report, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment at this stage.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in today’s debate and supported my Amendment 277 and Amendment 292C in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and others. I am heartened by the debate. I thank the Minister for his reply; however, I am disappointed that the retrospective argument is the main one being given for not moving ahead to change this legislation. But I am hopeful and grateful for the agreement to meet the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to discuss this issue further before Report. I thank my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti for potentially giving me another reason—Article 3—for this legislative change. I will go and read the case cited around the article and discuss this directly with her to add the argument to my armour.
I should like to put on record my thanks to the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Newlove, and all noble Lords who spoke about how the restrictive time limits prevent justice being given to abused girls and women. It takes so much time and confidence to come forward. It takes energy and everything the victims can muster to challenge and stand up and be counted in these cases. To then be told that you did not come forward soon enough and that is somehow your fault is heartbreaking and wrong. The law is failing these victims, and I hope that this Chamber can work together to put down amendments that will be agreed by the Government on Report. I repeat that I am hopeful that the meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, will come to a conclusion and that it will allow this Chamber to right this wrong, stand up for these women and girls, and give them the satisfaction and the justice they are currently being denied.
Amendment 277 withdrawn.
278: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Referendums on abolition of Police and Crime Commissioners
(1) A referendum is to be held for each police area listed in Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996. (2) Each referendum is to be held on the same day as the next Police and Crime Commissioner election.(3) The question that is to appear on the ballot papers is—“Do you think that your local police force should be overseen by an individual Police and Crime Commissioner, or by a Police Authority made up of a committee of local councillors.”(4) The alternative answers to that question that are to appear on the ballot papers are—“My police force should be overseen by an individual Police and Crime Commissioner”, and“My police force should be overseen by a Police Authority made up of a committee of local councillors”(5) Those entitled to vote in the referendum are the persons who, on the date of the referendum, are allowed to vote as electors in the Police and Crime Commissioner election.(6) Where the referendum results in a majority for a police area being overseen by a Police Authority made up of a committee of local councillors, the Secretary of State must by regulations made by statutory instrument make provision for the purposes of implementing the result within one year of the passing of this Act.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is intended to establish referendums to determine how each local police force should be governed.
The two amendments I have tabled in this group are not on such a weighty issue as the sexual crimes we have been discussing. But they are on an issue of democracy, and I thank the Government on this occasion for making the Bill so gigantic that these two amendments come within scope. There are two distinct issues in my amendments. Amendment 278 focuses on the abolition of police and crime commissioners, and Amendment 279 is about abolishing the £5,000 deposit needed to stand as a candidate in police and crime commissioner elections.
Under the referendum idea, each police area would have its own referendum held on the same day as the next police and crime commissioner election. The question would be whether to keep police and crime commissioners or return to police authorities made up of a committee of local councillors. Importantly, for a referendum, my amendment also includes provision that the Secretary of State must then implement the result by statutory instrument, because this is intended to be a binding referendum, not an advisory one with no legal consequence.
The Green Party does not believe that police and crime commissioners have been a success. They have replaced a democratic, committee-based system with a directly elected position subject to very little scrutiny. Most normal people do not pay much attention to politics, and that is true across the board, but when you get as far down the pecking order as police and crime commissioners, even many political boffins probably could not name their local PCC. It was an unnecessary political experiment, and local people should be given the option to return to the old system of committee governance.
We have one former Met commissioner here, and he might be able to agree with me that the Metropolitan Police Authority and the assembly committee charged with holding the police to account worked extremely well. I am not suggesting something that has not been proved to work in the past.
Amendment 279 is about deposits and is limited to PCC elections due to the scope of the Bill, but election deposits should be abolished completely for all elections. Supposedly, they exist to deter joke candidates, allowing only serious candidates to stand for election, but it is obvious that this does not work. There are plenty of joke candidates who are not deterred by the deposit. One only has to think back to the Prime Minister’s election battle against Lord Buckethead, Count Binface, and a person dressed as Elmo. All three lost their deposits and seemed thoroughly to enjoy doing so. The 2019 general election saw 1,273 parliamentary candidates each lose their £500 deposit, totalling £636,500. The figure included 465 Green Party candidates, 136 Liberal Democrats, 165 Brexit Party candidates and 190 independent candidates.
Therefore, joke candidates were not deterred, and neither were very committed candidates who wished to stand for election to help improve their local area. However, the outcome was that the established parties—the Conservative Party and the Labour Party—kept most of their deposits, with anything that they did lose a drop in the ocean of their overall party budgets, while the smaller parties and independent candidates suffered a huge financial disadvantage. Election deposits are nothing more than an election tax on people who want to participate in the democratic process, and they should be abolished. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to these amendments, which are indeed timely. Back in May 2011, during the passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, I tabled an amendment which effectively scuppered the then Government’s wish to bring in police and crime commissioners. It was a pyrrhic victory, of course, because when the Bill went back to the other place, almost everything that the Government wanted was reinstated. They got their police and crime commissioners. However, it was very much a cross-party effort to bring forward hundreds of amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, will recall.
Looking back on those amendments, it is quite clear that we were right in our condemnation of moving from police authorities, which had 17 or 19 members, to a stand-alone police and crime commissioner. I declare my interest as a former chair of a police authority and as a vice-chair of the former Association of Police Authorities. Much of what we warned has come to pass. Commissioners are political creatures. Hardly any have been independent, which was the wish of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron. We said that this would happen, and it did. We also said that there would be some good commissioners, which there have been, and others varying from not so good to downright terrible.
This has been borne out in my own area of North Yorkshire. Allegations of bullying brought against our first PCC, among other strange decisions that she made, lost her the support of her political allies, so they got rid of her. We had another expensive by-election, which was of course won by the Conservative candidate. Within a very short time, public opinion hounded him out of office because he made incredibly damaging and insensitive remarks following the murder of Sarah Everard. We are shortly to find out who will succeed him, as we have yet another election, the third in 10 years. Up and down the country, PCCs have been found wanting, which I simply do not recall happening in the days of the old police authorities, when checks and balances were shared by having local councillors—elected representatives from different parties—magistrates and lay people to help in the governance of their local police force.
Most Members of your Lordships’ House recognise the dangers inherent in politicising the police. Amendment 278, which proposes a referendum on the abolition of PCCs, or having local councillors to hold the police to account, as was the case for many years before the PRSR Bill came into being, will allow for the governance of policing to be brought back into greater local accountability, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has said. Amendment 279 would remove the need for an election deposit of £5,000 for PCCs, thus enabling a wider selection of people to apply to become commissioners. Amendment 292D is also timely, as we have at present at least one PCC who has been convicted of a crime.
This experiment has not been the success that it was promised to be. As we have heard, most people still have no idea who their police and crime commissioner is, or what the cost is of running a dedicated office. Certainly, I managed with an office of three personnel. Different PCCs run many more than this, although I am happy that the former Association of Police Authorities has come through the changes with relative ease and just a slight change of name. The work that it did for us was phenomenal and I am sure that its successor organisation is equally excellent, but it has its work cut out with some of its members. This is the first time in 10 years that we have had the opportunity to return to a better system of police governance. I hope that we will take it.
My Lords, Amendment 292D is in my name. I hope that noble Lords will indulge me if I respond with a few remarks on Amendments 278 and 279. I will do it all in one go and be as brief as I can. I do not intend to take up very much of the Committee’s time with these issues.
Amendment 292D perhaps should not be part of this group but it is, so I will move ahead with it. It is because of the scope of this Bill that I have been able to table this amendment. I will start with two case histories. The first is about a 19 year-old, who, a long time ago, during the Italia 90 World Cup—which noble Lords in the Committee will remember—was in a public house with a friend, watching the football. An incident in which the friend was involved meant that the police were called. The first individual tried to stop his friend from making an even greater idiot of himself by assaulting the police and, for his pains, he was charged, no doubt properly, with obstructing the police. He was not charged with assault, but he was fined £20. Since then, he has never been in trouble again. He has been a councillor for many years and, ironically, he chaired the community services team—that part of the council which works closely with the police to reduce crime. He also happens to be the regional secretary of a very important organisation covering the whole of the Midlands and, to add irony upon irony, he is just celebrating his 20th year as a magistrate. Public-spirited, he applied to be a candidate for the position of police and crime commissioner in his area some years ago, only to be told that his conviction banned him from doing so.
I will very briefly outline case history number two, concerning a person who was 16 in 1972. He had an old scooter and, with his friends, he visited a hospital, where one of his mates handed him an old scooter helmet which was apparently useless, and which he put in his family’s garage. He was charged with handling and was fined £5. Since then, he has never offended again. In 1972, he began working for a local newspaper. He had a highly successful career in journalism, became head of regional media, and worked for the NSPCC as a press and information officer. He has also been a TA soldier for many years, and indeed was the company sergeant major. He is a county councillor where he lives, currently serving his fourth term. Again, the irony is that he was a member of the local police authority—bodies which have just been praised so highly—and now he is a member of the local police and crime panel, which holds the police and crime commissioner to account. Noble Lords will be able to imagine his surprise, exactly 40 years later, in 2012, when the first PCC elections were due to be held and he wanted to stand as a candidate, when he was amazed to be told he could not because of the 1972 conviction. I remind the Committee that he was 16 at the time.
A week ago, I listened to an outstanding debate in this House on IPP prisoners. It was one of those occasions when the House—and the Committee here—shines and, with one voice, points out a serious wrong that needs to be put right immediately. My Amendment 292D is very minor in comparison, and yet it too asks Her Majesty’s Government to remedy what may be a small thing but is an obviously wrong and unfair position.
I too, in a small way, want to right a wrong. Section 66 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 is clear that, if a person has—I want to emphasise these words—at any stage in their life a conviction for any offence which, if they were over 18 at the time, could carry a sentence of imprisonment, that person would remain ineligible to be a candidate in a police and crime commissioner election for the rest of their life; not just until the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act kicks in, and not just for five, 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, but for all their life.
It is of course obvious that no police and crime commissioner should have a recent or serious previous conviction; no one is arguing anything different from that. Recent cases—cases that are being dealt with now—are not relevant to what I am talking about. Those people with recent or serious previous convictions— even if committed when they were young—should of course be excluded, in my view, from standing for election for that particular post. But I ask the Committee this: what can be the rationale for preventing a person who, when a child or young person, committed a minor offence and has since led a blameless life, perhaps even becoming a leader in their community, and has committed no other offence of any kind, standing for the position of police and crime commissioner?
The real point here is that no other position that I can find in our society carries this restriction. It does not apply to elected Members of Parliament or elected councillors, High Court judges, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister, or even, with the greatest respect, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why does it apply uniquely for police and crime commissioners?
Will the Government’s response be that the public would be appalled by the thought that either of the two individuals whose cases I have outlined could become police and crime commissioners? Of course not. Would the Government suffer a backlash from the people of this country at such an outrageous decision? Of course not. This is a chance for this very minor difficulty—this minor wrong—to be put right.
Many years ago, I was in the position where the Minister sits, and I have had to put forward ridiculous arguments in the past—I admit to that freely—to defend the Government’s position. I know that he is fairly new to his job, and expert at it, but I ask him to please consider really carefully the argument here, which seems, to me at least, to be absolutely overwhelming that this small change should be made and a very a small injustice put right.
I have to change my mood slightly now to deal with the amendment from the noble Baroness. I want to do this as quickly as I can. I very much welcome a discussion surrounding the role of police and crime commissioners, but I have to say at once that I could not possibly support an amendment of the sort that she has moved, and I dare say, with some confidence, that I do not think the Government could either. I promise the Committee—I hope noble Lords believe me—that it is not only because I have just completed five years as a police and crime commissioner; it is for other and better reasons, which I will outline very briefly.
First, the thought of yet another referendum fills me with absolute dread, and I suspect that might be true for a number of other Members of the Committee. Secondly, and more seriously, this would be no practical way of changing the system, leading to, I would have thought, an unworkable scheme that would make life absolutely impossible for police forces around the country, for elected metropolitan mayors—who, by the way, act as police and crime commissioners in their area—and indeed for any Government of any political persuasion. Thirdly, if you really want to abolish police and crime commissioners—I happen not to want to—there are better ways under our system to do so than to have a rough and ready referendum, as is proposed. I hope that those remarks are sensible.
I welcome the discussion, and it is right that we have not discussed police and crime commissioners enough over the last 10 years; we should do so more. I very much hope that one day—shortly, perhaps—there will be a full debate on their virtues and their faults, because both absolutely exist.
As someone who started out as a sceptic—indeed, I voted for the Motion in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and my noble friend Lord Hunt, which sent the matter back to the Commons in the first place, all those years ago—I now find myself as someone who believes that, given that the existence of police and crime commissioners is only nine years old, it would be extremely premature to disrupt the system so soon. In my view, on balance, and particularly in the last few years, there has been substantial progress in this difficult but vital area, in a free country, and in the really difficult debate about police accountability and the public. I am not saying that police and crime commissioners are the final answer, but I really think that, if you move away from that position, you have to do it in a responsible and sensible way.
To change it radically now, before it has had a proper opportunity to show its worth or otherwise—I do not think nine years is enough—would be irresponsible. Faults it certainly has; I put some of those down to the Government of the time. It is generally agreed that the Government failed completely to explain to the public what the new scheme was and even that it existed. The Government refused to provide information for the first election, held in the month of November, pretty absurdly, in 2012. It was therefore hardly a shock when the turnout was as pathetic as it turned out to be. PCC elections have suffered ever since, although at each successive one there has been an increase in turnout. Even now, I argue that the Home Office is strangely reluctant to publicise the role of police and crime commissioners enough.
An even greater mistake, I am afraid, was in the year-on-year cuts in police spending that the Government of that time committed, which obviously affected society in general. It also prevented new PCCs, who were starting their jobs, from making their mark and being able to do anything innovative, because there was not the money for the force that they worked in.
Among the most obvious misunderstandings—with the greatest respect, we have heard it again this afternoon —is a belief that the old police committee system somehow worked so well or better in holding chief constables to account. There is also the crucial work that police and crime commissioners do in partnership to reduce crime and keep people safe. I do not think the old police committees worked that well, even though there were clearly outstanding members and chairs among them who played an important role. I am not surprised that police chiefs at the time fought very hard to keep that system and prevent the new system coming in. One might ask why.
To reinvent that now would not be a progressive move of any kind. It would very much be a step backward in my view and, I hope, that of the Government. If there is a better scheme, let us go for it at some stage; but to move back to a scheme that is already nine years gone, and one that a lot of people would argue did not always work very well, would be a mistake. It may have worked well in the Met but it certainly did not work all that well everywhere else.
What is left out of this debate is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of a police and crime commissioner’s role. Of course an essential part of it is holding the chief constable and his or her force to account on behalf of the public, but this leaves out that commissioner’s responsibilities to fight crime and support the victims of it, protect the vulnerable and make people feel generally more secure. That more general part of the work—not the holding to account, important though it is—gave me the greatest buzz, as I have said to this Committee before. The responsibility for victims was given by the Government to police and crime commissioners. They fulfil a crucial role which never happened under the old system.
However, these duties require police and crime commissioners to work all the time with other partners—not just the police but a much wider number of public partners and charities. Police and crime commissioners are in an excellent position to co-ordinate, and sometimes to lead, these initiatives. If this duty existed before, it has expanded exponentially over the last nine years. This may be the work that takes a long time to show results. It is often slow, and sometimes depressing, but surely no one in the Committee today would doubt that this kind of work is valuable in itself. Police and crime commissioners are well placed to play a leading part in that.
I want to praise the Government here for taking that on board in the last few years. They have seen the value in setting up violence reduction networks and safer streets programmes, all done through police and crime commissioners. Since the appalling murder of Ms Everard, there is also the new money coming in for the position of women, particularly young women. There are, of course, outstanding police and crime commissioners and some who are not so outstanding. That is true of most elected places, whether it be a council or, if I dare say so, the other place. A good police and crime commissioner can make a huge difference, in the same way that a good elected mayor can. A bad one can place the whole system into disrepute; I accept that.
I have attempted to say just a few words—
I am sorry that it has taken so long. I have waited a long time for this opportunity in the Committee and I am sorry if I have abused it.
A good police and crime commissioner should be a combination of a diplomat and an innovator, with a sense of responsibility while doing the job. I am glad to say that the vast majority of them, if not all, see the position in that light. They deserve some support and not always denigration.
My Lords, I have added my name to these two amendments and I hope the Minister will agree to take them away. I did so, first, to support my noble friend Lord Bach, and, secondly, not so much to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on her actual amendment but to try to develop a debate on the role of police and crime commissioners. As my noble friend has said, unfortunately we have had little opportunity to do so since the Bill in 2011 and the Act that was subsequently passed came in.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, said, I led for the Opposition at that time. We were very glad to work with her and opposed the concept. It was defeated in the Lords and the Bill went back to the Commons without a reference to police commissioners, which was subsequently put back in. The fear at the time was always that it would risk undermining tolerant policing in this country by bringing political partisanship too close to police operational matters. I suggest that there is still that fear around the way in which PCCs have operated. There have of course been notable successes—I mention my noble friend Lord Bach, Dame Vera Baird and David Jamieson in the West Midlands as examples—but there have been failures too. A number of police and crime commissioners have had to resign prematurely under what one might call somewhat unfortunate circumstances.
During the passage of this Bill we have debated policing quite extensively, particularly in relation to lamentable performances on domestic violence. My noble friend Lord Bach, whom I rarely disagree with, thinks that nine years is too short a period on which to make a judgment. However, I think I am entitled to point out that on the cultural issues which are very much at the heart of police failures in relation to domestic violence, I cannot see much evidence that this new leadership has been able to tackle those effectively.
A two-part review of PCCs is going on at the moment. The first part reported in October last year and there is a second review. It is interesting that this review is not getting anywhere near the heart of the issues around PCCs. It is also interesting that, in the first review, a lot of reference was made to the dismissal process for chief constables, which reflects the fact that there has been a fallout in many areas between the PCC seeking to exert his or her power and the chief constable. There has been instability. Because of this, there is a shortage of candidates for chief constable roles—not surprisingly.
Of course, the tension between chief constables and police and crime commissioners was built into the legislation. PCCs were there to provide political leadership for policing in their area, but they were not responsible for leading their force. Police chiefs retained operational independence, making independent decisions supposedly free from political interference on operational matters. Of course, there is no definitive list of operational matters, nor an expectation that operational decisions should be free from political scrutiny altogether. Inevitably, a grey area was built in between policing matters that PCCs can influence and those that are at the operational discretion of chief constables.
Going back to our debate on the Bill, where policing culture and failures in domestic abuse have been so evident, it is interesting that Ministers and noble Lords who have debated this extensively have laid responsibility clearly at the hands of chief constables. PCCs have hardly had a mention. Why not? If PCCs cannot get a handle on crucial issues such as this, what on earth is the point of them in the first place?
Obviously, the model that the Government started with was a US model. The logic, when they first brought in the Bill, was for PCCs to be given much more power than they have been given because of their democratic accountability. However, the Government backed off, partly through fears of politicisation, but also because of the usual Whitehall paranoia about letting go. One of the stated aims of PCCs was for police forces to stop looking up to Whitehall and be more accountable locally. If anything, in the last 10 years, we have seen more and more interventions by Home Secretaries into the work of chief constables and pronouncements on strategic policing requirements. Home Secretary interventions have become the order of the day. The end result is utter confusion as to where accountability lies, ambiguities and tensions between the role of the PCC and the chief constable and a sense that policing lacks effective direction.
I look forward with interest to part two of the review that the Government are undertaking but, when one looks at the areas that they are inquiring into, it seems that none of them goes to the heart of the issue of what PCCs are really for and whether they are going to be given the powers to carry that out. That is a matter of regret.
My Lords, I briefly but strongly support Amendment 292D, but not the other two—I say that without needing much elaboration. I have two main reasons for supporting Amendment 292D. First, it is promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for whom I always have the greatest regard. He now has the expertise and experience of this job, so his judgment on it, as he knows what he is talking about, is surely worth listening to. We should take advantage of the expertise that he now has in this field and his appreciation of the crunch issues that are involved.
The second main reason is this: I am generally against these absolutist or purist positions such as those adopted uniquely—it appears—in this legislation. Once you have sinned, you are out for life. It is ridiculous. Some small measure of discretion or flexibility is generally an advantage. Of course, it is unlikely to happen that often, but we have surely heard two wholly compelling instances where it is a flagrant injustice to say to these people, now in maturity, having served the public, that because of one slight error in their youth and having strayed once they are never eligible again. This is a point of genuine principle: we ought not to pass this opportunity of putting it right.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in his amendment. He could have added police officers to his list of occupations that would not have been barred. He chose not to, but it seems rather odd that only police and crime commissioners can be excluded entirely by a previous conviction.
I do not agree with the amendments proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I do not know whether I have unique experience, but certainly I have experienced both police authorities and PCCs as a chief constable and then as a commissioner. Having been the person held to account, I am probably the person to whom you would least listen—I may have the most prejudice. I find both roles to be about equally effective and, frankly, equally ineffective.
Police authorities had the great benefit that they were a broadly based group of people, rather than one person. They were not directly elected, but they tended to create an awful lot of committees. The consequence of creating committees is that things take an awfully long time: that may not be understood here, but people take a lot of time to make decisions. That was my experience. Police and crime commissioners, where you could get a good relationship, tended to make quicker decisions, but, frankly, in somewhere like London, they struggled to be representative of the nearly 9 million people or to hold all the views—particularly of minorities —through one person. That was a challenge, but it could be overcome at times. Certainly in London, which was my latest experience, there has been a plethora of accountability regimes, whether it be a police and crime commissioner selected by the mayor, the Home Secretary, 32 local authorities, the police and crime scrutiny committee and a number of committees of Parliament. I am not sure that that made it better accountability; it just made more of it.
We ought to think carefully about how we govern the police. I am not sure that this is the best way to address that problem. It could be improved, but I am not sure that this is the best way. There are three reasons for this. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is the fact that you are only getting one applicant for the role of chief constable good evidence that this is because of PCCs? It may be, but I think that it is more to do with the fact that the officers who are applying believe that the solutions have already been determined. They believe that the police and crime commissioners, usually with the sitting deputy, are going to select that person, whereas in the past, with police authorities, at least there was a broad spectrum of people and it was far harder to arrange a conspiracy. I think that it is good evidence, but perhaps for the wrong reason. It is a problem that needs to be addressed and it is not helping the police leadership to develop in the future.
My objections to the amendment are around logistics. If we end up having a referendum at every PCC election, the danger is that we will end up around the country with a mixed tapestry of governance. In some places it would be PCCs and in some places it would be police authorities. We might even flip them at the succeeding election, although I guess that you would not get one if you had a police authority—there would not be another opportunity to have a referendum and then reselect a PCC.
In our current police tapestry, we have 46 forces, 43 of which have local accountability. This has to happen nationally, whether it be the police authorities or PCCs; we need to make national arrangements to govern these things. We already have a complicated arrangement: with 46 governance sets—with different governance sets as well—that is a tapestry too far.
If these things are to be changed, we should look at it properly, and in the round. We should see what has worked and what has not to make improvements. What we should not do is decide it locally. This is a role for government; the governance of the police should be set centrally. There may be local affiliations, but the Government have responsibility to set the governance of the police. As I have said before, I would have far fewer police forces, which might make this a little easier. Whether one agrees with that or not, I would not have a referendum every time a PCC is elected.
My Lords, I also rise to speak particularly about Amendment 292D. I support the noble Lord, Lord Bach, with all his experience of being an excellent police and crime commissioner.
There are many other examples. The noble Lord gave two. I shall just give one. A 59 year-old senior civil servant who worked for the Ministry of Justice in a responsible position connected with the criminal justice system, wished to retire and stand to be a police and crime commissioner. He was disqualified because, at the age of 13, he had been fined £5 for each of two minor juvenile offences. It is completely disproportionate and absurd that such people should be disqualified.
I seek to compare those disqualification rules with the rules applying to Members of another place. The last figures I saw produced by IPSA, the standards authority for Members of the other place, revealed that, in recent years, 43% of the Members of the other place had convictions of one kind or another. Maybe that tells you a lot about the other place. Nevertheless, this distinction makes its own point.
In passing on to the other issues, I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Hogan-Howe. Fundamental to this problem is the fact that we have 43 territorial police forces. This number ought to be at least quartered. If so, the structure—including police and crime commissioners—would be much more coherent. There would be far greater consistency and police forces which currently struggle to deal with very complex inquiries would be able to deal with them because they would have the critical mass of staff.
I turn next to police authorities. I hesitate to disagree with those noble Lords who tabled the first amendment in this group because I respect them all. Part of my experience as a Queen’s Counsel has been to advise police authorities when they have got into difficulties. I recall one case from the north of England in which the police authority concerned was institutionally corrupt and in the pockets of a small group of senior police officers. It had got itself into a hopeless mess and at least one criminal prosecution ensued. To describe it as an example of democratic effectiveness was an insult to both democracy and effectiveness.
I accept, of course, that some police commissioners are better than others. So are some Cabinet Ministers. So are some head teachers. So are some doctors. So are some Members of Parliament. This is inevitable. Some of the commissioners are very good, such as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and Dame Vera Baird, who was referred to earlier. Where police and crime commissioners are effective, they are very effective indeed.
Just think about it territorially. If one of these referendums took place and there was a police and crime commissioner in Cheshire but not in Lancashire, or one in north Wales but not in Dyfed-Powys, people in the areas that did not have a police and crime commissioner would be unlikely to say, “Oh, how wonderful; this is going to be run by our local council.” In the modern world, they will say, “Our democratic rights have been diluted.”
Other noble Lords remember, as I do, when the Welsh Assembly was created. In many parts of Wales, people said, “Nobody will know who their Assembly Members are. It’s all a waste of time. It will be completely ineffective.” It is true that, for a time, people tended not to know who their Welsh Assembly Members were. Today, however, if you look at the evolution of the Welsh Government during the last 20 years or so, it has become remarkably effective. It has brought people much closer to government.
I believe that police and crime commissioners are still evolving. They have a valuable role to play, particularly, as I said earlier, if the Government have the courage to reform the territorial policing services in this country.
As to the deposits, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. The £5,000 deposit is not reasonable. I would not oppose a much lower deposit of the kind that has to be put down by somebody standing to be elected as a Member of Parliament. The election process is expensive. Some kind of gatekeeping requirement of this kind is helpful.
My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, when he started talking about amalgamating police forces again and the Welsh Assembly, I wondered whether this was turning into a filibuster. However, we move on.
The issue raised by Amendment 292D that we all agree on is that it is ridiculous that somebody convicted of a very minor offence at a very young age should be disqualified. The other side of the coin is that there is no process for the recall of a police and crime commissioner who commits an offence in office or is guilty of misconduct. Because they are democratically elected, the only way to get rid of them is by another election. Compare this to MPs, for whom there is now a process by which a by-election can be triggered. I agree with Amendment 292D, but there is another side to the same coin which also needs to be addressed.
We on these Benches have always been opposed to police and crime commissioners, notwithstanding, as everybody has said, that there are some outstanding ones, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was. Not just because he used to be my boss—this is the House of Peers now—I agree with almost everything the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe has said.
Would the noble Lord forgive me for a moment? I know his view has always been consistent on this, but the truth of the matter is that the Bill got through only because of the support of both parties in the coalition; one of those parties was the Liberal Democrats. It is very easy to say now that you are not in favour of it as a party, but you clearly were in favour of it because you passed it into legislation. I am sorry if it is a crude point, but it happens to be true.
Yes, and, as the noble Lord will very well know, in a coalition there have to be compromises on both sides. You cannot get through the things you think are absolutely important unless you give way on others. However, the policy of this party now is to oppose police and crime commissioners. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to clarify the position of the party on that.
It is very difficult for one person to represent both rural and urban areas in policing, or perhaps an area where there is a large African or Caribbean community and another where there is a large south Asian or Chinese community, or even an LGBT community. These could and do exist within the same police area—as in London, for example. Therefore, with one police and crime commissioner for that whole area, it is difficult for that one person to represent all those communities. It is important to be represented when it comes to accountability around policing, particularly for minority communities, where trust and confidence in the police are not as strong as they are with others.
As others have said, the majority of police and crime commissioners are party political. Therefore, there is a danger that a small “p” political difference between a police and crime commissioner and a chief constable, or even a commissioner—without pointing at any particular examples of that—could result in a good chief constable or commissioner having to resign over that small “p” political difference, or even a personality difference with the police and crime commissioner
As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, has said, we are in a position where, because it is one person hiring and firing the chief constable, we are not getting a range of candidates applying for the chief constable post. The assumption is that the incumbent deputy will have a good relationship with that police and crime commissioner and have a natural advantage over any outside candidate, and therefore it is not worth applying. For all these reasons, we feel that having a range of people holding the police to account—particularly if they are democratically elected councillors —as opposed to one person, would be preferable. But I agree with other noble Lords that the suggested way to replace the system is probably not through a series of referenda that could result in different mechanisms in different parts of the country.
As far as the abolition of deposits in elections is concerned, that is perhaps slightly wider than this Bill should be considering. Of course, as Liberal Democrats, we would have to declare an interest as far as that is concerned. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, about potentially reducing the size of the deposit, rather than getting rid of it completely.
Were police authorities better? In some places, I think they were. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has said, the Metropolitan Police Authority was certainly very effective. The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, who experienced both, said there was not much to choose between the two on accountability.
For the reasons that I have explained, we agree that there should certainly be an examination of how effective police and crime commissioners are.
My Lords, I agree with the comments of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and other noble Lords, that we have had mixed experiences of police and crime commissioners—some have been very good, and some not so good. I will not go further than that, though, in relation to Amendment 278.
I wish to talk in particular about the amendment in the names of my noble friends Lord Bach and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. They have drawn attention to the consequences we have witnessed as result of potential candidates for police and crime commissioner being debarred if they have been convicted of any offence, however many years ago, for which they could have received a custodial sentence, irrespective of whether they did actually receive such a sentence. I do not wish to pursue any individual cases but rather the general point, as others have done, of whether there should be another look at the reasons, in respect of previous convictions, for which a potential candidate for the office of police and crime commissioner can be disqualified.
When the issue has been raised previously, the Government have argued that it should not be reviewed because there was cross-party support for this requirement to be included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011. If that argument was followed through to its logical conclusion, there could never be any change to any legislation that originally had cross-party support, which is a bit of a nonsense.
The other argument advanced was that people must have complete confidence in the probity and integrity of whoever it is they elect as a police and crime commissioner because of their responsibilities and powers in relation to their police force, including the chief constable. Clearly, that is true, but whether an offence committed decades ago that could have resulted in a custodial sentence but did not—because it was not considered of a sufficiently serious nature to justify such a sentence—should automatically still be regarded as calling into question the probity and integrity of a potential candidate for police and crime commissioner, and thus disqualify them from holding such an office, is questionable, to say the least. It is certainly questionable when one looks at other positions that have powers and responsibilities in relation to the police and the criminal justice system but have no such similar restrictions on being able to stand for office or be appointed to an office.
The Home Secretary has far more powers and influence in relation to the police and chief constables than a police and crime commissioner, who is not permitted to get involved in operational matters, which are the preserve of a chief constable. The present Home Secretary has made it clear on more than one occasion that she speaks regularly to chief constables—and I do not think it is to discuss the weather. At the time of the vigil in London following the murder of Sarah Everard, the Home Secretary made it clear that, on the day, she had been in regular touch with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. It is inconceivable that the Home Secretary was not asking what was happening, what the police were doing and why.
The Home Secretary also has a key role in the appointment and tenure in office of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Yet unlike the position of police and crime commissioner, there is nothing that disqualifies a person from being Home Secretary if they have been convicted of an offence, however many years ago, for which they could have received a custodial sentence. A Home Secretary has overall responsibility for the police and proposes legislative changes affecting the police, including police and crime commissioners. Indeed, it was the then Home Secretary who sponsored the legislation that applied the current restriction on potential candidates becoming police and crime commissioners, but did not think the same restriction should apply to the office of Home Secretary.
As far as I know, there is no national legislation that precludes a person who, at some time, has had a previous conviction for which they could have received a custodial sentence becoming a police officer. As a police officer, that person could rise through the ranks to become chief constable. There is no legislation that disqualifies a person who, at some time, has had a previous conviction for which they could have received a custodial sentence from becoming a magistrate, a Member of Parliament or, as far as I know, a judge. Why then does the existing restriction continue to apply to the post of police and crime commissioner, irrespective of whether a custodial sentence was handed out, how many years ago the offence was committed and the nature of the offence? Like my noble friend Lord Bach and others, I believe it is time to reconsider whether the current restriction on being able to be a police and crime commissioner should continue to apply in its present sweeping and absolute form.
We certainly do not want people with criminal tendencies, or with no respect for the law and policing, becoming police and crime commissioners. Equally, we do not want to preclude people of ability or who have much to offer from being able to be a police and crime commissioner on the basis of a minor offence, committed many years ago, and certainly not when that restriction does not apply to other equally or more influential positions that also have public involvement with policy and direction related to the running and functioning of our criminal justice system.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for giving us this opportunity to discuss police and crime commissioners and matters relating to their election. I also thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate.
PCCs, as directly elected individuals responsible for the totality of policing in their area, are a far more transparent and visible model of police governance than the predecessor model of police authorities. As the Home Affairs Select Committee found in its 2016 report, the introduction of PCCs has had a beneficial effect on public accountability and the clarity of leadership in policing. It concluded that the PCC model is here to stay.
The Government are committed to strengthening and expanding the role of PCCs—indeed, it was a manifesto commitment—and, earlier this year, the Home Secretary announced the recommendations from part 1 of a review into the role of PCCs to do just that. That announcement was repeated in your Lordships’ House by my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh on the same day, 16 March. These recommendations will further strengthen the transparency and accountability of PCCs, as well as make it easier for the public to make an informed decision at the ballot box about the record of their PCC. Part 2 is currently under way, and the Government will report on those recommendations in due course. I note in response to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that this review will also assess the benefits and demerits of a trigger mechanism for the recall of PCCs; it is being debated.
Amendment 278 would provide for force-wide referendums to abolish PCCs. As I have said, PCCs are here to stay. The PCC model provides a clearer form of democratic accountability for police forces. The Government see no benefit in returning to a system of invisible and unaccountable police authorities. Under the old system, the public had no direct powers to elect a police authority chair or its members. Moreover, this amendment would provide for costly local referendums, siphoning funding away from front-line policing, and potentially leading—as many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, have noted—to a confused patchwork of police governance arrangements across the country. Therefore, the effect of the amendment could well be to damage public confidence in police governance at a time when it is crucial that we do everything in our power to strengthen it.
While Amendment 278 seeks to abolish PCCs, Amendment 279 seeks to make it easier for anyone to stand as a candidate for election by removing the £5,000 election deposit for candidates. I shall stick to PCCs and not expand to cover other elections, for obvious reasons.
The requirement for candidates to pay a £5,000 deposit was introduced to ensure that a high calibre of candidates put themselves forward for the role of PCC. These should be people committed to being the voice of the public and to holding their police force to account. Candidates who poll more than 5% of the total number of valid first preference votes cast in that police area will have their deposit returned, ensuring that serious candidates are not out of pocket.
I am sure that noble Lords would agree that we must protect our electoral system from abuse. The £5,000 deposit is designed to ensure that individuals who have no intention of seriously contesting the seat do not use the election process as an opportunity for free publicity.
Amendment 292D, put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, concerns the disqualification criteria for PCCs, and I fear that my ice thins a little here. I understand the noble Lord’s motivation and respect his powerful and perfectly valid examples, but the Government do not agree that we should lower the bar on the standard we expect of elected PCCs. As a PCC previously himself, I am sure the noble Lord will recognise the need for the highest levels of integrity, given the nature of the role.
Under the current disqualification criteria, a person is unable to stand for or hold the office of PCC if they have previously been convicted of an imprisonable offence. There is no bar on people standing for election who may have a previous conviction for a low-level offence punishable by a fine only. Neither is a caution, whether for an imprisonable offence or otherwise, a bar to election. These rules governing who can stand as a PCC are, as the noble Lord noted, the strictest of all rules for elected roles in England and Wales and, we believe, are necessary to ensure the highest levels of integrity on the part of the person holding office and to protect the public’s trust in policing.
This high standard was set with cross-party agreement and with the support of senior police officers There is a serious risk of damage to public confidence and the integrity of the model if PCCs are able to take office with a history of serious criminal offence. I would also suggest that were a PCC to hold office with a previous conviction for an imprisonable offence, both the PCC and the chief constable might find it untenable to maintain a professional and respectful relationship, given the role the PCC plays in holding the chief constable to account. Having said all that, I have heard everything that has been said around the Chamber this evening, across party, and I will make sure that those arguments are reflected back to the Home Office.
In conclusion, this Government are firmly of the view that, far from seeking to abolish PCCs or weaken their standing, we should further strengthen their role. On that basis, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Is the Minister advising me to withdraw my amendment or asking me to withdraw it?
I made my opening remarks quite short, because I did not think that the amendment would be very contentious. I thought that people would not like it, but I had no idea that it would generate so much interest. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for her personal recollections of disastrous commissioners. I, too, have some personal recollections of disastrous commissioners, starting with Boris Johnson, who as Mayor of London was completely useless and had to pull in people to do it for him, some of whom did not know what they were doing either.
I more or less thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his partial support. I was interested in the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, because he has five years’ experience as a PCC. I have 16 years’ experience on police committees and of PCCs, so the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, should perhaps have accepted that I might have a valid point of view on PCCs as well.
I ask all noble Lords: can you actually name your PCC? There is a shake of the head beside me. If you live in London, it is easy: it is Sadiq Khan. If you live anywhere else, it is much harder. Could the Minister name his PCC? He says yes.
I thank noble Lords very much for this debate. I find this issue endlessly interesting. I will think about the offer made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. He said, for example, that there are better ways of getting rid of police commissioners. I would be happy to put forward an amendment with a quicker way to do that rather than having a referendum; I am not wedded to referendums. Having said all that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 278 withdrawn.
Amendment 279 not moved.
My Lords, we will do one more group before the dinner break. I remind noble Lords that we have to get through 14 groups today. That means that we have nine more. Can we try to be a little briefer so that we can get on? We have only one more day on this Bill, so we need to get as far as possible tonight.
280: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Spoken word interpreters: minimum standards
Spoken word interpreters appointed to a court or tribunal must—(a) be registered on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (“NRPSI”),(b) possess a Level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols, and(c) have completed the requisite number of hours’ experience of court interpreting commensurate with the category of case complexity, as agreed by the Secretary of State in conjunction with relevant professional bodies.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would establish minimum standards for qualifications and experience for interpreters in courts and tribunals, along the lines of the Police Approved Interpreters Scheme.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Pannick for adding their names to my amendment. I am sorry that my noble friend has had to leave for another commitment, but he wanted me to confirm that he planned to speak in support of this amendment. I declare my interests as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages and the vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
The purpose of this amendment is to establish in law
“minimum standards for qualifications and experience”
of those appointed to act as interpreters in Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service. For the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that, for the purposes of this amendment, I am referring only to spoken word interpreters, not sign language interpreters.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for meeting me earlier in the year to discuss this and related issues. I very much hope that the Minister replying tonight will be able to facilitate another meeting between me, other interested parties and the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, between now and Report to look at my proposals more precisely. Obviously, my best-case scenario is the Government accepting my amendment or coming back on Report with a better-worded version to achieve the same, or a closely similar, end.
I will not repeat the detailed case that I set out at Second Reading. I will simply summarise the way in which the appointment of court interpreters as it is currently organised, using the Ministry of Justice’s register and delivered via outsourced private companies, is inadequate—often seriously so, leading at best to mistakes and, at worst, to miscarriages of justice. It is an easy way for fake interpreters to present themselves. Too often, hearings need to be abandoned and expensively rescheduled, sometimes with defendants on remand for longer—all at public expense.
My objective is to strengthen the MoJ register for interpreters, thereby improving the quality and administration of justice. I will explain each of the three elements of my proposed minimum standards in a little more detail, starting with the second, which relates to the qualifications that a court interpreter should have. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that, if they were having heart surgery or even having their tonsils out, they would expect the surgeon to have more than a GCSE in biology. If they were passengers in an aeroplane, they would not expect the pilot just to have a geography degree and know roughly which way was south. They would not expect their car to be serviced by a mechanic whose only proven competence was in the use of a tin opener. Yet you can get on to the MoJ’s register of approved interpreters simply by having a GCSE pass or a low-level two-week foundation course, or just by being bilingual, even if you have never set foot in a court before.
I know it is sometimes argued that many of the cases requiring the services of an interpreter are very simple and straightforward, and so do not need an advanced level of linguistic skill. Cases are indeed categorised according to three levels: namely, standard, the lowest or simplest level; complex; or complex and written. However, I would argue that even if a defendant were in court facing a charge over an unpaid parking ticket, which I would assume would be classified as standard, they would still want an interpreter who knew the difference between, let us say, stationery with “ery” at the end and stationary with “ary” at the end. The potential for confusion can be imagined.
Of course, the landmark case which first drew significant attention to the problems with court interpreters illustrated the far more serious and potentially life-changing implications of using an unqualified or underqualified interpreter in the most serious and complex cases. This was where a woman accused of murder found herself in court with an interpreter who did not know the different between murder and manslaughter. A qualified interpreter is doing professional, specialist and highly skilled work just as much as the heart surgeon, airline pilot or car mechanic.
As I said at Second Reading, there is consensus among the specialist professional bodies that the diploma in public service interpreting at level 6 should be the minimum standard for any court interpreting work. This is supported by the National Register of PSIs, the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Association of Police and Court Interpreters and the recently launched Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, known as PAIT. The DPSI level 6 is pitched absolutely correctly for all types of court interpreting and is a qualification registered with Ofqual. It enables accurate, procedurally and culturally informed, wholly accurate interpreting, whatever the level of case complexity.
Noble Lords will notice, however, that my amendment, at paragraph (b), includes the words
“or comply with NRPSI Rare Language Status protocols”.
The reason for this is that there are some languages that are not yet covered by the DPSI level 6 but are, nevertheless, sometimes in demand in our courts. Examples include Basque, Moldovan, Sinhalese and Yoruba. In these and similar circumstances, the National Register of PSIs has a matrix of competences and experience which, if met, would still guarantee the level of interpreting skill required for those languages.
Qualifications are one thing, but without relevant experience they could amount to misleading or false assurance for the defendant, witness, victim, lawyer, judge or juror concerned, who must of course depend on the interpreter’s competence. That is why my proposed minimum standards consist not only of the level 6 diploma but also, in paragraph (c), a number of hours of court interpreting experience
“commensurate with the category of case complexity”,
which, as I have mentioned before, could range from the contested parking ticket to charges of murder, rape or terrorism. I have not specified the number of hours in the amendment, because I think this is a professional matter to be negotiated and resolved by detailed consultation between the MoJ and relevant professional bodies, some of which I have already referred to. As an example, the Police Approved Interpreters and Translators scheme, PAIT, requires 400 hours of experience alongside the level 6 diploma.
The importance of experience as a crucial component of a minimum standard, rather than a qualification alone, has been starkly illustrated by the results of spot checks conducted on behalf of the MoJ. Of 118 interpreters subject to a spot check by the Language Shop, all allocated from the MoJ’s register, an alarming 50% failed the check’s criteria, and 39 of those 59 failures were people with the level 6 diploma, which demonstrates that what is needed is qualification plus experience. No court, defendant, lawyer, witness or victim should be satisfied with the poor standard of competence revealed by those spot checks.
The good news is that, thanks to the helpful dialogue I have had with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, I am aware that there is already a stakeholders’ forum set up by the MoJ to discuss all these issues with the professional bodies and interested parties. This is just the right environment in which to thrash out an agreed position on the various levels of experience needed for different case complexities.
The third and last element of my proposed minimum standard, which appears in paragraph (a) is that interpreters should only be appointed from the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. This would not be a radical departure. Currently, the Metropolitan Police only uses interpreters from the national register, as do the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Crime Agency and the Northern Ireland courts. Again, such a requirement would be welcomed by the professional bodies in the field.
The national register represents the highest standards of appropriate qualification plus experience, as well as being an independent and not-for-profit body. It safeguards and regulates the quality and professionalism of public service interpreters who work across the criminal justice system as well as in the health service. There is a code of professional conduct, which has also been adopted by PAIT, the police interpreters scheme, and its disciplinary procedure is uninfluenced by any political or commercial interest. In other words, it is a framework which is far more reliable, professional and gaffe-proof than the MoJ register—what is not to like?
The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, indicated to me in a previous discussion that one obstacle to this part of my proposal is that to appoint court interpreters only from the national register would breach public contract protocols. I hope the Minister this evening will be kind enough to explain what is meant by this. So far, all the people whom I have asked about it—lawyers and lay people alike—have confessed to not knowing what it means. Perhaps I have consulted the wrong people and the Minister will enlighten me. If the Metropolitan Police and the CPS, to name but two organisations, are using the national register and have not yet come a cropper over public contract protocols, is this really a legitimate barrier or just a needless worry?
My amendment would be a desirable and welcome step forward in improving the quality of the service for all concerned. It would be a logical development and progression from the existing MoJ system to a more tried and tested format.
Before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask a question? Her amendment refers to every court or tribunal. Knowing how the courts are operating, for example, in family law, the urgent need for an interpreter happens every single day when urgent decisions have to be made about children. How long would it take to find an interpreter in such a case if her provisions, which I see as having great strength in criminal trials, were in force?
I can answer that only by saying I would have to consult the national register and chartered institute to find out how quickly they respond now and how that compares to the MoJ system. I agree it is an important element. Part of the problem will be the supply chain, but I think these issues can be overcome. I beg to move.
My Lords, I endorse every word of what the noble Baroness just said. In a previous incarnation—that is probably the wrong phrase to use; I am mixing my religions—I was a professional linguist in Russian, German and French, working in government service. One of the things you learn as a professional linguist is that language goes deep. This is not simply a matter of picking someone off the street who can order a pint in a Spanish bar; you are dealing with the stuff of people’s lives. Surely accuracy is vital, for the sake of not only clarity of understanding but justice itself.
I could give many examples of how this works. There is the difference between translation and interpreting. Interpreting goes deep, because you have to understand that some things cannot be translated. That is how language works.
I will not trespass on eternity here, but will simply say that justice, whatever the logistical problems highlighted a moment ago, demands that people have clarity of understanding and expression in courts of law. I endorse every word that was said in the last speech.
I too support this amendment. I was really surprised that there is not already a standard and that this is not consistent across the criminal justice system. When the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, explained that the Metropolitan Police had already taken the lead on this, I was hoping that that was during my time, but it was not. However, I think this is a good idea. This is about not only high and consistent standards but experience—experience within the criminal justice system will be relevant at various times—and integrity. These people will have access to private and confidential information. For all those reasons, it is important that there is a consistent, high standard.
Each part of the system, whether the police, prosecutors, defence, courts, judge or jury, requires this to happen consistently. It seems amazing that at the moment they are not able to rely on the same interpretation or translation of the same material. That seems odd. At least in the case of the police, you can go back and check some of the original evidence. Body-worn video, CCTV or audio recordings of the interview might be available, so someone can go back and check. However, as far as I am aware, that is not the case in court. There is a written record, but that in itself is open to interpretation and is not always entirely accurate.
There are things that feed into the criminal justice system which are also important and rely on the contribution of the individual and what they say, for example psychiatric assessments. These can be vital in determining whether someone is guilty or so psychiatrically ill that they should not be held guilty for their actions and in determining what actions will follow a sentence.
This is not a minority issue, particularly in London. The last time I saw the figures, around 27% of the 250,000 arrests carried out by the Metropolitan Police every year are of foreign nationals. There is then at least a risk that they are speaking a second language, not their first, which imposes certain challenges on the whole system. It is vital that they, as well as witnesses and all the other people who play a vital role in the criminal justice system, are able to be heard.
Finally, it seems to me that this is particularly pertinent in an adversarial system which relies an awful lot on cross-examination. Are mistakes made in court? Is consistency observed between the original account and those given by various witnesses? Language is very important. We would all say so, but I would say it is even more important in an adversarial system, which sometimes seeks to cause inconsistency in the account that is given. This creates an even bigger burden for the system to make sure that the account of the language is of the highest standard available. It is important that the Government create such a system, so I support this amendment.