All 33 contributions to the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Victims and Prisoners Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading
Monday 15th May 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Some years ago, shortly before I entered Parliament, I was stood in the Crown court at Birmingham, having been instructed by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute five men accused of rape. It was alleged that they had groomed two young girls from Telford aged 15 and 16 and abducted them to Birmingham, where they subjected them to a weekend of degrading and humiliating sexual attacks, offering them up to their friends to do with as they pleased. What made the case even more chilling was that it was clear that the victims had been targeted because of their troubled backgrounds and sometimes challenging behaviour when interacting with authority figures such as the police. The defendants had made a cynical calculation that, if the girls ever did complain, they were unlikely to be believed. Well, they were believed. The jury got the measure of what had really gone on. After a fair trial, presided over by an independent judge, the defendants were all convicted of rape, robust sentences were passed and justice was done.

I mention that at the beginning of this Second Reading debate because it provided me, and I hope now the House, with a powerful example of how supporting victims can make a decisive impact on outcomes. In that case, it was only because all the moving parts of the system came together to support those vulnerable girls to give their best evidence that a just outcome was delivered: conscientious police officers liaised sensitively with the young women to help them record their accounts; compassionate CPS lawyers and caseworkers applied for special measures to assist the victims to give evidence in court; and victim support staff worked hard during the tense days of the trial to assist victims with information and updates.

Here is the central point: all those agencies recognised that, in order to deliver justice, victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants in it. That is the mission of this Government and of this Bill. It will boost victims’ entitlements; make victims’ voices heard, including following a major incident like the tragedy of Grenfell or Hillsborough; and deliver further safeguards to protect the public.

As the House will know, my predecessor met brave victims such as: little Tony Hudgell, who was so badly abused by his birth parents that he almost died; Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, whose two-year-old son James’s murder shocked the nation; and Farah Naz, the aunt of Zara Aleena, who was tragically sexually assaulted and murdered last year. I want to pay tribute to them. Through their personal grief they have, none the less, found the strength to strengthen the system for others. We owe them a profound debt of gratitude. Their pain and their anguish spurs us on to strengthen public protection and to make sure every victim of crime is properly supported.

Bob Stewart Portrait Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)
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I thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill. As an MP, I have heard so many complaints from victims that no one is listening to them. Can he assure me that victims really will come first in the Bill?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is exactly the point. If victims are to be not spectators but participants, from the moment of complaint they must be listened to by the officer on the case, the CPS prosecutor and the prosecutor at court. Being listened to is a critical part of victims’ confidence in the criminal justice system.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)
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On that point, will the Secretary of State give way?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Can I just make a bit of progress?

Before I return to the key elements I mentioned a few moments ago, I want to set out a little context. Hugely important work has taken place over recent years—this may perhaps answer some of the hon. Lady’s questions—to ensure that many of the standards achieved for those victims in Birmingham are now demanded as a matter of course. What it means in simple terms is this: no longer is it considered perfectly normal for a victim of a violent robbery to report their statement to the police, only to hear nothing until a curt instruction out of the blue to attend trial in a week’s time. The 2020 victims code requires that they be kept updated. Gone are the days when it was thought completely reasonable for a victim to arrive at court, give evidence and then have to rely on the media to find out whether the defendant had been convicted. The 2020 code requires that they are told the outcome of the case and given an explanation of the sentence if the defendant is convicted.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I will come to the hon. Lady in one moment.

The revised victims code, published in 2020, contains many additional entitlements. For example, right 7 is a victim’s entitlement to make a personal statement to tell the court how the crime has affected them, so that it can be considered when sentencing the offender; right 8 is the entitlement to be offered appropriate help before the trial and, where possible, to meet the prosecutor before giving evidence; and right 9 is the entitlement to be given information about the outcome of the case and any appeals.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock
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I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. My constituent Johnny Wood feels he has been let down by every part of the justice system after his sister was killed by four men with 100 convictions between them who were driving an HGV lorry. The legislation does not address non-compliance with the victims code, so can the right hon. Gentleman tell Johnny and the House how it will make a meaningful change for victims?

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important case on behalf of her constituent. I will develop those points in due course, but let me make a core point first. We have gone from creating the important victims’ entitlements in the code to wanting to ensure that they have a profile, a prominence and an accountability, so that if things go wrong—and from time to time things will go wrong; that happens in any system—people can be truly held to account, and where agencies are failing that is made plain for all to see.

We have also strengthened the system of special measures, completing a national roll-out of pre-recorded examination and cross-examination for victims of rape and sexual offences. That spares them the ordeal of giving evidence in a live trial and having to stand in the same room as their alleged attacker. Really importantly, there has been the introduction of more independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers. These are specialists trained to support vulnerable victims through the justice process. From just the odd pilot scheme pre-2010, there are now over 700 working up and down the country to support victims, and we are rolling out 300 more. It is all part of an unprecedented investment in victim and witness support services, quadrupling 2010 levels.

That is the context. The difference between a decade ago and now is stark. Following those crucial advances, we are now taking steps to secure the entitlements and raise yet further the standards we expect the criminal justice system to deliver for victims. First, the Bill will enshrine the key principles of the victims code in law and provide a framework for the code in regulations, centred around the 12 key entitlements that victims can expect. That will ensure that the good practice I mentioned earlier, which has taken root in many courts and CPS offices around the country, becomes standard practice. The Bill will give these entitlements the profile, the prominence and the weight they deserve and ensure that they cannot be watered down by future Governments. It will place agencies within the criminal justice system, including chief constables, the CPS, British Transport police and others, under a new duty to make victims aware of the code so that every victim knows what they are entitled to.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
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The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about what was enshrined in the code, which he said happened in 2020. In 2021—I have just checked the date on my phone—I found out that somebody had been convicted of harassing and threatening me. I found out about it in The Guardian, so the code was certainly not enshrined in that particular courtroom in Birmingham, which I mention as he is leaning on Birmingham courtrooms. What right would I have in this Bill to any recourse and what would happen to the people who failed to inform me?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady should not have found out in a newspaper. She should have been kept updated and informed. If she would like to come to speak to me about that, I will find out what went wrong in that case. On her specific point, what I think is exciting and heartening about the Bill is that it contains a duty on the Secretary of State and police and crime commissioners not just to promote awareness of the code—important though that is—but to promote compliance. If there is not compliance, there is also a duty, effectively, to publish that, so that it is plain for everyone to see. The local PCC will be publishing that, which means that the hon. Lady can get some accountability. I reiterate that if she wants to come to speak to me, she must not hesitate to do so. In fact, knowing her, I know that she would not hesitate to speak.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Let me make a little progress.

As I indicated, the Bill will make sure that everyone knows what they are entitled to and it sends a clear signal to the system about the service that victims should be receiving. Secondly, as I suggested, the Bill will ensure stronger oversight by placing a new duty on police and crime commissioners and criminal justice bodies to monitor compliance with the code, to provide the public and this Parliament with a clear picture of how victims across the country are being treated. Ministers will have the power to direct the inspection of justice agencies that are failing victims to help drive improvements using best practice from those agencies that are succeeding.

Thirdly, the Bill will place a duty on specific authorities to respond publicly to the recommendations of the Victims’ Commissioner and introduce a requirement for an annual report to be laid before Parliament. That will shine a spotlight on how the system is working and ensure that we have the transparency needed to drive change.

Fourthly, the Bill will provide better support for victims. It will help to ensure that critical support services are targeted where they are most needed by introducing a new joint statutory duty on police and crime commissioners, integrated care boards and local authorities to co-operate and work together when commissioning support services for victims of domestic and sexual abuse and other serious violent crimes.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. The family of Declan Curran, who tragically took his life, pre-trial, aged just 13, wanted me to stress in this debate the importance of child victims of sexual abuse and their inclusion in clause 2, the victims code, and how they should be able to access comprehensive psychological services without any delay. This must not be seen as interference in the evidence of the trial, with victims’ evidence being recorded at the time of the crime. Will that be fully included in the Bill without delay?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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It is incredibly important that child victims receive the support that they need, and that should not be a bar to their giving a video-recorded piece of evidence, for example, so that they can participate in that trial as well. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the particulars. The general principle is this: if child victims, who are victims within the ambit of the Bill, need that support, they should get it.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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Can the Lord Chancellor provide the House with slightly more detail on the commissioning functions? He has rightly touched on police and crime commissioners, ICBs, the duty of care and the duty of co-operation. In many walks of life, that co-operation completely fails and, basically, victims are on the receiving end of institutional state failure. It would give the House some confidence if he were able to explain how this will work.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend for her stalwart commitment to the rights of victims. I venture to suggest that no one in this House has done more to stand up for victims. She is absolutely right; there are plenty of organisations who have a duty in that regard—police and crime commissioners are one, but there are plenty of other providers. We want to ensure that the duty of co-operation means that there will not be duplication in some areas and deserts, as it were, in others. The aim is to ensure that across the piece, if someone needs to make sure that there is sufficient support for rape victims, for example, that that support is provided and there is no potential duplication between what the hospital might be doing and what the PCC might be doing. That is a statutory requirement to co-operate—not a “nice to have”, but a direct requirement. That is the difference.

I have already spoken about the importance of ISVAs and IDVAs. They do exceptional work, and we want to strengthen their role further by introducing national guidance to increase awareness of what they do and to promote consistency.

I can also tell the House that we will bring forward an amendment in Committee to block unnecessary and intrusive third party material requests in rape and sexual assault investigations. I know that routine police requests for therapy notes or other personal records can be incredibly distressing for victims, who can feel as though they are the ones under scrutiny. Some may even be deterred from seeking support for fear of their personal records being shared. Our Bill will make sure that those requests are made only when strictly necessary for the purposes of a fair trial.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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Many of us welcomed this Bill and hoped it would transform and revolutionise the response, but it fails in several areas. We have heard about the duty of co-operation and collaboration, but there is to be no new funding to allow that to happen and to allow duty holders to commission new services to make the collaboration effective. How would the Government overcome that, and will they consider doing that in future?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I welcome the hon. Lady’s overall enthusiasm for the Bill. On that specific point, one of the things I am proud of is that funding for victim services has quadrupled over the past 13 years or so. It is a very significant increase. The money that goes to PCCs, for example, has significantly increased—I think it is more than £60 million or so—but there is additional money that goes directly to charities, such as the Gloucestershire Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre in my own constituency, which is directly funded. That funding has increased.

By the way, I should also note that during covid, when people were genuinely worried that those victim support services might fall over and collapse, the funding went in to sustain them during those very dark times. There is more money, and that is precisely why we want the duty of collaboration to ensure that those taxpayer pounds go as far as they can.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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I thank the Secretary of State for the measures he has brought through on third party disclosures. Could he, though, give a message to the survivors in my constituency and across the country who have been deterred from coming forward by that knowledge, and to those whose cases have collapsed because of their fear of that information getting into the public domain? What message does he have for them?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady does an important public service in raising that point and I thank her for doing so. Let the message go out from this Chamber: “Do not be put off coming forward, giving your evidence and reporting allegations of serious sexual harm because of concerns about therapy notes. Get the therapy support that you need.” I want that message to go out loud and clear.

We are going to change the law to make it crystal clear that there will be no routine access to therapy notes; there will be access only when it is absolutely necessary and proportionate, and not by the defence, but principally in the very rare circumstances where a prosecutor needs to look at it. The message goes out that victims should come forward and co-operate with the criminal justice system, if they can.

Part 2 of the Bill provides better support for victims and the bereaved after major disasters such as terror attacks. The House will recall the awful events at Hillsborough and the most recent fire at Grenfell Tower, as well as the Manchester Arena bombing. The impact of those terrible tragedies is still felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims. I know there is consensus on both sides of the House that survivors and families of victims caught up in such disasters must be given every support. No one should be left to feel their way in the dark as they grieve.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), the noble Lord Wills and many others for their tireless campaigning on the issue. Indeed, one of the most moving debates that I have ever had the privilege of listening to was one to which the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood contributed on this topic.

The Bill will introduce the UK’s first ever independent public advocate—an advocate to give a voice to those who have too often felt voiceless. The IPA will be a strong advocate for victims, the bereaved and whole communities affected. It will allow us to hear everyone, including those who, in the darkest moments of their grief, may understandably find it impossible to speak up for themselves and their legitimate concerns.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
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Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I will just develop the point and then of course I will let the right hon. Lady come in.

From the earliest days after a disaster, the IPA will work on behalf of victims. It will be a crucial conduit between them and key public authorities, and it will focus resolutely on what survivors and the bereaved actually need, not just what others in authority might assume they need. The IPA will also help victims and the bereaved to navigate complex processes that most people would find deeply stressful and upsetting, such as investigations, inquests and public inquiries. On a practical level, it will give victims, the bereaved and the affected community a robust way of engaging the public authorities and Government—for example, by asking the coroner or the police for more information about inquests and investigations, or by pressing local government and central Government on their policies for victims.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
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I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new role. I wonder whether he will be open to the idea—from those of us who have been working on this for some time—of strengthening the provisions in the Bill to improve them?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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In preparation for today’s debate, I read the right hon. Lady’s Bill and have considered it with care. Of course, I am open to further discussions with her; she has lived and breathed this issue for a long time, and it is absolutely right that I consider those points. I think that there are—well, let us leave it at that and discuss those matters in due course.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
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Yes, fine.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Thank you.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to his role as Lord Chancellor. I have been listening very carefully to what he has said in relation to suggestions made in all quarters of this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) recently proposed an excellent ten-minute rule Bill calling for tougher rules on the ability of sex offenders to change their names. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Victims and Prisoners Bill is a perfect opportunity to bring in tougher rules, and that they should apply not only to changes of name but to changes of legal sex?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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There is real and clear merit in what my right hon. Friend says. Plainly, we cannot have a situation in which people can, at the stroke of a pen, evade liability for their abhorrent crimes. I look forward to discussing that important matter with him and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) in due course.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Secretary of State is making a powerful case on the role of a public advocate, which many of us support. We recognise that there may be more than one victim when traumatic events happen, so does he accept that it is right that the Bill also deals with strengthening support? In my community, a 16-year-old boy was murdered 10 days ago. The entire school community is traumatised. Getting them support, and recognising that his friends, as well as his family, are victims in this instance, is critical. Will he meet me and other campaigners to discuss that issue?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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How could I not? I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady on that important issue.

Let me turn now to the measures on prisoners and parole—part 3 of the Bill. The first duty of any Government is to protect the public, including from those who have betrayed trust, robbed innocence and shattered lives. Victims want to know that the person who has harmed them, their families and friends will not inflict that pain on anyone else. Indeed, I heard that strong message from Denise Fergus when I spoke with her recently. One thing that I found profoundly moving is that, notwithstanding her own private grief, one of her principal motivations is to ensure that others do not suffer in the same way.

Overwhelmingly, the Parole Board does its difficult job well, taking care to scrutinise the cases coming before it for release decisions. Over 99% of prisoners authorised for release by the Parole Board do not go on to commit a so-called serious further offence, but occasionally things go wrong, and when they do, the implications for public confidence can be very grave. John Worboys, the black cab rapist, and Colin Pitchfork, who raped two schoolgirls, were both assessed as being safe to leave prison, only for Colin Pitchfork to have to be recalled shortly afterwards and the Worboys decision to be overturned on appeal. Such cases are rare, but they are unacceptable. The public must have confidence that murderers, rapists and terrorists will be kept behind bars for as long as necessary to keep the public safe.

We have already made changes to improve safety and increase transparency. The most serious offenders now face robust tests to prove they are safe to move into open prisons, and some parole hearings can now take place in public so that victims and the public can see with their own eyes how decisions are made and why.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his well-deserved appointment. My constituents Matt and Carole Gould have campaigned long and hard on the tragic murder of their daughter some years ago. They are concerned that, when the murderer is released from prison after an all too short 12 and a half years, he will be allowed to return to the village he came from and that they will bump into him in the street. Will my right hon. and learned Friend advise me what normal practice would be in keeping murderers away from the victim’s relatives? Is there not an argument that, in rural areas such as mine, the distance should be further than it would perhaps be in an urban area?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that deeply upsetting and troubling case and for liaising with his constituents. Although I do not know the specifics of any licence conditions, it is overwhelmingly likely that those conditions would take into account precisely the point he raises. If family are living nearby, it is usual for licence conditions to indicate an exclusion zone, and that could be expanded to meet issues of justice and safety. Those are matters that the relevant authorities will be taking close cognisance of.

Greg Knight Portrait Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)
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On parole reform, will the factor determining whether someone is in the top-tier cohort always be the offence or offences committed, or will other factors sometimes be taken into consideration? With regard to top-tier offences, will Ministers have the power to add to or change the list of offences that put someone in the top tier?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I will come to those points in a moment, but it is broadly to do with the offences.

Liz Saville Roberts Portrait Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
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Applications can now be made for Parole Board hearings to be held in public, but as Gwynedd resident Rhiannon Bragg learned, they can be refused. She feels strongly that if the hearing for the perpetrator who stalked her and held her at gunpoint overnight was heard in public, it would help her as a victim—she would not face him in a private context, face to face, and the hearing would be covered in the public domain through the press. Will the Minister consider this issue?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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There is now a power for hearings to be held in public, but it depends on the facts of the individual case. It will be important to weigh up what is in the interests of justice, but that of course also includes what is in the interests of the victim—indeed, that is a pre-eminent consideration. These decisions are necessarily fact-specific, and the Parole Board has to consider them on the facts before it. However, the hon. Lady makes a powerful point, which I am sure the Parole Board will want to take into account in relation to the facts of that particular case.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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Will the Secretary of State give way?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I will make a bit of progress and then I will of course come to the right hon. Gentleman.

As I indicated, the Bill takes steps to strengthen the system further. First, it will make public protection the pre-eminent factor in deciding which prisoners are safe for release, by introducing a codified release test in law. Secondly, it will impose a new safeguard— a new check and balance—in respect of the top tier of the most serious offenders, drawn from murderers, rapists, child killers and terrorists. In those cases where there is a Parole Board recommendation to release a prisoner, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to intervene on behalf of the public to stay that release and enable Ministers to take a second look. That oversight will act as a further safeguard in the most serious cases that particularly affect public confidence. Plainly, of course, to preserve fairness in the system that ministerial intervention must be amenable to independent review, and the Bill properly safeguards that right.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his well-deserved promotion. I have recently been contacted by a constituent who discovered the murdered bodies of her sister and baby niece. She is a volunteer with a national charity called Support after Murder and Manslaughter. It has given me a list of concerns, which I would like to give to the Minister separately. However, the charity states that the Secretary of State will be able to make this parole decision, which will then be subject to appeal, but the victims will not have a voice at either stage—they will not be able to do impact presentations. Will the Minister look at this point again, because the victims feel that they are being excluded?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important matter on behalf of his constituents. The interests and rights of victims are absolutely at the heart of this proposal, because—this shone out from a conversation I had only today— some victims who are concerned about whether a prisoner gets released are of course concerned about what has happened to their family, but they are also worried about what might happen to others. That is why having public confidence in the safety consideration is so important. I will be happy to discuss my right hon. Friend’s points with him, but I emphasise that the rights of victims and the protection of the public are at the heart of this important measure.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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The volume and nature of the interventions on the Secretary of State show the difficulty of this area of law. While the changes to parole are welcome, is there not a danger that they will increase further the treatment of those who are currently in the system and those who are still in the prison system—somewhere in the region of 3,000 people—more than 10 years after we abolished sentences of imprisonment for public protection? The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who I see in his place, has called for a review. Sir John Major did the same recently. Would this Bill not be an opportunity to deal with that?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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It is important to consider these things separately, but the right hon. Gentleman identifies something that is a stain on our justice system. The IPP system should never have happened. Trying to take the politics out of it, I sort of understand why it was proposed, but it was a bad idea. It was a big mistake, and it has left us with a difficult issue. I am considering carefully what the Justice Committee has to say about it, and I will be saying more about it in due course. It is important to treat that separately from the position I am talking about here, which is that in those most serious cases where the Parole Board has directed release, it is right that on behalf of the public the Secretary of State should have a second look, even if that is then susceptible to an independent review thereafter. It is a slightly separate issue, but I take the points that he makes.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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I am pleased to see my right hon. and learned Friend in his place. On the issue of the powers taken in this Bill for a referral to the Secretary of State, in the Justice Committee we heard evidence of other routes for the Secretary of State to intervene: through reconsideration, which has been in place for four years, and through set aside, which is a power that the Secretary of State has taken more recently. That has the added benefit of including victims within the process. Can he just set out what it is that the Bill is trying to achieve that those routes cannot in ensuring that ministerial oversight?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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There is a very important distinction. When the Secretary of State considers those most serious cases, he will look at this issue of safety for the public. That is not whether, for example, the Parole Board has acted in such a way as to not be susceptible to judicial review; it is a much wider consideration so that the public can be satisfied not just that the Parole Board considered safety, but that the Secretary of State did, too, and that is an important second check. That matters, because in these most serious cases, public confidence is hanging on the single thread of the Parole Board. We want to make sure that an additional thread goes into that structure, so that the public recognise that there has been that second pair of eyes. Plainly, Ministers cannot over-politicise this process, which is why there must be an opportunity to have an independent review of the Secretary of State’s decision. That will allow us overall to have a much more vigorous and robust process that stands up for victims, but is also mindful of the rule of law.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Oh, here we go. Yes, of course I will.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, whom I warmly welcome to his place, for giving way. Can I just follow up the point made by my fellow Justice Committee member, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson)? There are passages in the Bill where, in carrying out that legitimate policy objective—I do not disagree with the Secretary of State on that legitimacy—in certain circumstances, as it is currently drafted, he may be asked to put his finding of fact and his opinion in the place of that of the parole board that actually heard the evidence. Could I therefore ask him to look very carefully at the evidence the Committee received—it is tagged to the Bill on the Order Paper—and find a more effective way to achieve his objective that is legally robust but fair, but does not place him and his successors in the very difficult position of trying to rehear facts at second hand, as opposed to taking the role of those who heard the initial evidence?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I thank my hon. Friend, and say that I have read every word of that important evidence to the Committee? I thank him for the time he took to provide that additional scrutiny, which I found extremely helpful. He is absolutely right that the check and balance is a sensible one, but plainly it has to be operational. We have to be able to deliver it, and we have to be able to do so in a sufficiently timely fashion, ensuring that a decision is not offending against article 5 and so on, but also that all parties have certainty about what is actually going to happen. I hope he will be reassured by my saying that I am looking very closely at the operational aspects of this provision to ensure that it does what is intended, and provides that check and balance, while being deliverable and of course being consistent with the rule of law. If I may, I will now press on, because I know others want to speak.

Thirdly, we are already recruiting more ex-police officers to the Parole Board. Now we will ensure that individuals with law enforcement backgrounds can be included on panels considering the release of the most serious criminals. Their first-hand experience of assessing risk will bring additional expertise to parole hearings.

This Bill will also prohibit prisoners subject to a whole-life order from being able to marry or form a civil partnership in custody, subject to an exemption in truly exceptional circumstances. The rationale for this is simple. Those most dangerous and cruel criminals—the ones who have shattered lives and robbed others of their chance of happiness and a family life—should not be able to taunt victims and their families by enjoying that for themselves. It is simply unconscionable, yet as the law stands, prison governors cannot reject a prisoner’s application to marry unless it creates a security risk for the prison, however horrific their crime. Our changes will prevent whole-life prisoners from marrying or forming a civil partnership in prison or other places of detention. That is nothing less than basic fairness.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I could not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman more. What I would also ask is that people in that situation, especially those who murder their wife and the mother of their children, should also have their parental rights taken away. Why is that not in the Bill?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the hon. Lady knows, we have discussed these issues at some length in a different context, and she should know that I am ready to continue that conversation.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a really excellent piece of legislation, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on everything they are doing, but I could not miss this opportunity of raising the issue of the intergenerational impact of female imprisonment. As the Lord Chancellor knows, women make up just 4% of the prison population, yet two thirds of them have dependent children. Because they are so few, they are generally placed much further away from home and have much less access to some rehabilitative facilities than their male counterparts. That imprisonment can have a devastating impact on the children, so in many cases the children of women in prisons are victims themselves. There has been some fantastic work across the country by organisations such as Hope Street, run by One Small Thing, which I know the Prisons Minister—the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds)—has recently visited. Does the Secretary of State not feel that this Bill would have been an ideal opportunity to try to address that?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. She mentions Hope Street, and the Nelson Trust, which I have visited, does excellent work in this regard. I think we do always have to remember that the job of Government is to ensure that the decision of the court can be upheld.

In other words, a court will of course consider the evidence from the prosecution at a sentencing hearing about what has taken place, will hear a plea in mitigation about the impact on the defendant of incarceration—including the impact on friends and children, their future and so on—and will then reach a decision based on all those matters about the correct sentence. So while I do not seek to downplay any of the really important points my hon. Friend mentioned, we need to do our bit within the criminal justice system to give effect to the order of the court, but to ensure it is done in a way that is humane and understands that there are family considerations.

We want prisoners to serve their time, but to be rehabilitated, and one of the critical ways of being rehabilitated is to ensure that family relationships endure. That is why there has been so much investment in courts in areas such technology to ensure prisoners can keep in contact with the outside, so that when they leave having repaid their debt to society they are in a position to pick up those important relationships.

In closing, I want to put on record my thanks to all who have helped to shape this Bill, in particular the victims who shared their stories and contributed to our consultation. I also pay tribute to my predecessors my right hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) for the parts they have played in advancing this Bill.

These measures will help ensure that every victim, from the Telford teenagers I mentioned to the elderly victim of confidence fraud, secures the service from our justice system that they deserve. From the moment of report to the moment of conviction, and indeed beyond if required, victims’ interests must be paramount. That is how justice is done, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the shadow Secretary of State.

--- Later in debate ---
Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to deliver the closing speech in this Second Reading of the Victims and Prisoners Bill. I give my genuine and sincere thanks to right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House for their thoughtful contributions. The tone, by and large—with the exception of Opposition Front Benchers—has been measured, thoughtful and considered. Actually, given the nature of the issues, the debate has been remarkably non-party political.

Let me start by paying tribute to previous Lord Chancellors who have worked on the Bill—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—and, indeed, paying tribute to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), for the work that he did on the Bill in his previous incarnation in the Ministry of Justice. I will turn in due course to the speeches made by Members today, but first I want to pay a particular tribute to all the victims, and victims’ families, who have talked to us, worked with us, told us their stories and helped to shape the Bill. Despite their own personal tragedies, they have worked tirelessly to improve the system for others, and we are incredibly grateful to them.

As we heard earlier from my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, this is a crucial Bill, and as one who was victims Minister between 2018 and 2019 and is now in that post once again, I must say that it is a particular privilege for me—as it is for my right hon. and learned Friend and others—to hear from victims who have come to see us to tell us about their experiences so that we can understand them just a little bit better. They come with bravery and relive very traumatic events in their lives to share them with us, and it is extremely humbling when we have those conversations. I see that the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), is now sitting on the Front Bench; I know that he took a close interest in this issue when he was in the Ministry of Justice.

The Bill makes good on three long-standing manifesto commitments—three promises that the Government made to the British people. First, we promised to introduce a victims’ law, and we are fulfilling that commitment. For instance, we are enshrining the principles of the victims code in law so that victims, as well as every agency in the criminal justice system, are in no doubt about the service that victims should receive. Secondly, we promised to introduce an independent public advocate to support survivors and the bereaved after major disasters. We seek never again to see victims suffer as the Hillsborough families have, as the Grenfell families have, and as families have following the Manchester arena bombings. Thirdly, we promised to strengthen the parole system so that public protection would be the pre-eminent factor in every decision about whom it is safe to release.

As my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of the debate, if justice is to be delivered, victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants in it. That is the mission of this Government and the mission of this Bill. Huge progress has been made over the last decade for victims: that progress includes boosting the ranks of our police officers to tackle crime and bring criminals to justice, locking up the most dangerous criminals for longer as a result of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, improving the response to rape and domestic abuse victims through the End-to-End Rape review and our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, unparalleled investment in victim and witness support—we are more than quadrupling the 2009 levels of funding to support victims—and introducing a clearer, strengthened victims code. However, we rightly committed ourselves to doing more, and today we are doing more. The Bill will boost victims’ entitlements, bring greater oversight, amplify victims’ voices, and deliver further safeguards to protect the public.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will, very briefly. There are a number of colleagues to whom I want to respond.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I recognise and truly respect the work that the Minister did in his last role as victims Minister. Will he tell us whether he will fight to secure the necessary funding for all the measures that he is proposing and those that are already in legislation, because it is not there right now?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady and I have worked together in the past, and I thank her for her intervention. I will come to the subject of funding in a moment, because it was mentioned by a number of other Members in this context.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Select Committee, for his work in respect of the Bill and for his typically thoughtful and forthright expression of his views on behalf of his Committee. Those who worked with me on both sides of the House on the Health and Care Act 2022 will know that I am always willing to engage with and genuinely listen to colleagues during the Committee and Report stages of legislation, as, indeed, is my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. That does not mean we will always be able to agree with everything, but we will engage, and we hope to make it a genuine engagement.

We have heard some sincerely held views expressed today. In respect of the independent public advocate, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and indeed to Lord Wills, whom I have met, as well as the other colleagues across this Chamber who have engaged with these issues. I had the privilege of meeting the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood along with the shadow Lord Chancellor and other Members recently to discuss the independent public advocate. What has emerged from the debate today, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), is a general desire to make part 2 of the Bill work for the victims and their families and to ensure that, while disasters may sadly occur again, no one has to go through what those victims and families went through.

The right hon. Lady was very clear with me about the importance of agency and empowerment. She was also clear about the context and about how those victims and those families who had lost loved ones had come to this point and what they had experienced, as well as the need for them to trust in the process and the concerns they had about when the state or powerful organisations seek to use their power to conceal or to make their lives much harder in getting to the truth. I understand where she is coming from, and my commitment and that of the Lord Chancellor is to work with her and other colleagues to see whether we can reach a point where everyone is content with part 2 of this legislation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) spoke powerfully, and I am grateful for her kind words. She has played a huge role on behalf of victims and those who want to see crime tackled and criminals brought to justice. I look forward to working closely with her as this legislation progresses. She rightly highlighted the importance of police and crime commissioners, a number of whom I have met recently, including Matthew Barber, Lisa Townsend and Donna Jones, and Sophie Linden, the Deputy Mayor of London. They do a fantastic job.

One of the issues that hon. and right hon. Members have raised is whether a victim chooses to report a crime and the impact that can have. I am happy to reassure the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) that whether or not someone chooses to report a crime, they will still be able to benefit from the victims code, and the clauses in this legislation that link to it will read across. I hope that gives her some reassurance. That point was raised by other Members as well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) raised the issue of NDAs. Without prejudice to the scope of this legislation and where we might land, I am always happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the hon. Lady.

Hon. and right hon. Members have highlighted a number of areas today where they would like to see the legislation go further in some cases and perhaps go less far in others. The only caveat I would gently add relates to scope. Some of the things they wish to push for may well be in scope, and I suspect that those who end up on the Bill Committee—I am looking at the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who I suspect I might see sitting across the Committee room—will wish to explore them, but I just caution that there might be some areas that, just through the nature of scope, will not be able to be debated. It is important for those watching our proceedings to understand that the nature of scope is determined by what is already in the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke touched on ISVAs and IDVAs, as did a number of other hon. and right hon. Members including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. Last Thursday I had the privilege of speaking at the national ISVA conference and of meeting a number of them. There was strong support for guidance around their role, although I appreciate that the sector has mixed views on this. We are explicitly not seeking to create a hierarchy of support services but rather to recognise the professional role that ISVAs and ISDAs undertake and to help to bring greater consistency to it and greater awareness of their work across the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) comes to this debate with a huge amount of experience of the criminal justice system. He spoke thoughtfully and he knows of what he speaks. He also served as a Minister in the Department. His comments on part 3 were measured, and I will always carefully consider what he says. He touched on the requirements on the judiciary, and I gently caution that we are limited—quite rightly, given the separation of powers—in what we can and cannot tell the judiciary to do, but I suspect the Judicial Office will be following these proceedings carefully.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make a little progress, as I want to speak for roughly the same amount of time as the shadow Minister, to be fair to her.

The hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), for Rotherham, for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Kniveton), all spoke movingly, powerfully and personally about their interactions with the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton spoke movingly about her experience of domestic abuse, and the whole House will admire the courage shown by all Members who spoke in such very personal terms. The hon. Member for Canterbury, in particular, demonstrated a huge amount of courage in giving a powerful and emotional speech, and she spoke for many who perhaps do not have the ability to speak for themselves in conveying what she did. She touched on third-party material, as did a number of hon. and right hon. Members, and that is one reason why I welcome the additional step we have announced today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), who was my ward colleague on Westminster City Council for a while, invited me to meet Charlie Webster. I know Charlie from my previous incarnation in the Department, when we visited a number of services together. I am always happy to meet Charlie, and my office may already be trying to arrange a meeting. My hon. Friend also touched on her support for the IPA, which I very much welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and the hon. Member for Rotherham touched on the recent debate, and my hon. Friend’s ten-minute rule Bill, on prisoners changing their name. I hope to be able to meet my hon. Friend very soon to discuss the matter, and if the hon. Lady wishes to attend that meeting, I am always happy to see her, as I was when last we worked together.

Like the hon. Member for Rotherham, I pay tribute to Claire Waxman, with whom I have worked very closely in both my previous and my current role in the Department. The hon. Lady also mentioned Sammy Woodhouse, and I believe I engaged with her on the issues raised by Sammy last time I was in the Department and, like her, I am pleased to see the progress we have made in this space.

The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) was typically thoughtful, but I gently say to her that we have engaged throughout with the Welsh Government on the victim provisions. Indeed, back in early December, I believe my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton received a letter from Mark Drakeford thanking him for the close engagement with the Welsh Government on this Bill, and we will continue to engage on the newer provisions, such as the IPA. As with the Health and Care Act 2022, I am happy to engage with Welsh Government Ministers.

Finally, the hon. Member for Walthamstow asked for clarification on the definition of a victim. I hope I have given her some reassurance that, whether or not a crime is reported, an individual can still come into the orbit of the victims code. One thing she uniquely mentioned, which I will look at with her if she wishes, is the overseas angle. I am always happy to engage with her, and this time it is not about the private finance initiative in hospitals.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Among the long list of points the Minister addressed, I did not hear the one about murderers who refuse to appear in person in court to face their accusers and their sentencing. Does he think that that would be within the scope of this Bill?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. My understanding is that that would probably not be within the scope of this legislation, but he will have seen that the previous and current Lord Chancellors have been clear in their determination to explore legislative options to address exactly that issue.

I very much look forward to engaging across the Committee Room with the shadow Minister and indeed with all those on the Committee, because genuinely important views have been expressed today, from particularly personal perspectives and with particular angles on elements of this legislation. That has been underpinned by a determination on both sides of this Chamber to make this work and a commitment to making the Bill an effective piece of legislation. I approach it in that spirit, as I hope the Opposition will.

As I bring the debate to a close, I say again that victims are not bystanders. Their views and experience matter greatly. They deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and dignity at every turn in the criminal justice system. It is only with their engagement and immense bravery in coming forward that we can bring criminals to justice and make our streets safer. That is why we have acted. That is why the Bill will put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, where they belong, so that every victim’s voice is heard, every victim gets the support they need and every victim is empowered to seek the justice they deserve. This is about giving victims, and the British public, confidence that the parole system will keep them safe. We will ensure that they are listened to. We will ensure that justice is done. We will work to ensure that more criminals are caught and brought to justice, which is why we are delivering today on our manifesto promises to bring this legislation before the House. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

VICTIMS AND PRISONERS BILL: PROGRAMME

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Victims and Prisoners Bill:

Committal

1, The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.

Proceedings in Public Bill Committee

2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 13 July 2023.

3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.

Consideration and Third Reading

4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.

6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.

Other proceedings

7. Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Jacob Young.)

Question agreed to.

Victims and Prisoners Bill: Money

King’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Victims and Prisoners Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—

(a) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by the Secretary of State, and

(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided.—(Jacob Young.)

Question agreed to.

Victims and Prisoners Bill: Carry Over

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 80A(1)(a)),

That if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Victims and Prisoners Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session.—(Jacob Young.)

Question agreed to.

Victims and Prisoners Bill (First sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Tuesday 20th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Public Bill Committees
Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 20 June 2023 - (20 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q The Domestic Abuse Commissioner spoke very highly about specialist services and their outcomes. We are also talking about a proper geographical spread of services. Are there enough specialist services to fill the geographical need, and what would happen once we have identified gaps? Who would fill those gaps?

Dr Siddiqui: No, I think there is a postcode lottery. “By and for” services, in particular, are very thin on the ground. Even in areas where there is a high black and minority population, “by and for” services are not necessarily commissioned locally. That is why I am saying that the duty to collaborate is not enough. You have got to have a duty to fund and you have got to have ringfenced funding, particularly for “by and for” services and specialist services, for that to work. At the moment, the system does not work and I do not think that this will necessarily improve it enough.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have a very brief question. I return to the point about funding, which you have both alluded to in different ways. Notwithstanding the very large funding increase—a quadrupling since 2010—you have both highlighted a gap between demand and supply, essentially, in this space. Although, funding and spending commitments should clearly not be made in individual Bills—that should be done in a public spending process in the round, because funding is finite and has to be set against other demands on the public purse—and without prejudice to your position on that, given that context do you see a potential value in the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s point about a joint strategic needs assessment improving the efficacy of the existing funding spend and it being used in a less duplicative way, to plug gaps? Notwithstanding your position that you would like to see more funding, do you see a value in what the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is advocating—to better spend the money that is already allocated?

Dr Siddiqui: A joint SNA is important if you are going to have collaboration at a local level and it will help to highlight which gaps could be filled by which agency, but at the moment some of that work is being done locally and some of the gaps are still not being filled. For those with no recourse to public funds, there are hardly any services on the ground. For those from black and minority communities, or “by and for” services, there is hardly any funding in the local area—so even where a gap may have been identified, there is not the funding to fill it.

Jayne Butler: There has been a little bit of work done on this, in terms of the recommissioning of the rape support fund and thinking about how to share that geographically. The result, when you have the same pot overall, is that you end up reducing services in some areas. If we start to look at where the gaps are, but we do not put any more funding in, and we are just revisiting what is already there, the result will be that some services that are funded now, which have high demands, will be reduced. There is nobody sitting there who is seeing people within a week, or sometimes even a month or six months.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q To that point, since 2010 we have seen a quadrupling of funding for victim support services. Do you have any sense of what has happened to demand during that same 13-year period? If you do not, that is absolutely fine, because it is a detailed question; feel free to write subsequently if you want to. We are seeing a quadrupling across that period. What are we seeing with demand?

Dr Siddiqui: Our demand has really rocketed, particularly after the covid pandemic, and it has not really gone down. It has doubled in size. We deal with 20,000 cases and inquiries every year. Before, we had half that.

We must remember that the mapping report by the DA Commissioner has shown that only 6% of Government funding was being made available to the “by and for” sector. Even though the demand has gone up, the funding has not gone up. In fact, a lot of “by and for” services are in crisis and are having to close down or reduce their services.

The cost of living crisis is adding to the problem. Services are not able to pay their staff enough. They have to find more resources for service users. We are having to find money to supplement the rent and subsistence of victims with no recourse to public funds. Although we have money from the support for migrant victims pilot project at the moment, that is temporary and it does not give us enough money. It does not give a universal credit rate. It does not give us enough money to pay rent for a refuge. It does not give enough to cover living expenses. We are having to find that extra money in the cost of living crisis situation. That is really not sustainable.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for this panel. I thank our witnesses, Dr Hannana Siddiqui and Jayne Butler, for answering questions in the room. I also place on record our thanks to Ellen Miller, who was on Zoom, intermittently without sound, and gave up her time this morning to try to give evidence.

Examination of Witness

Dame Rachel de Souza gave evidence.

--- Later in debate ---
Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have one tiny question on the proposed Jade’s law. Let us say that a man kills a woman and there are children involved. What is your opinion, Claire, of the man, if he has children, having parental responsibility?

Claire Waxman: I very much support Jade’s law. I worked with a family many years ago whose daughter was murdered, and they tried to adopt the grandchild. The prisoner—the murderer—had the right from prison to stop that adoption, and to cross-examine the bereaved family as well. He got legal aid. They did not get anything. At that point there is a presumption of no contact—of course he did not get contact—but they were still pulled into the most inhumane proceedings after their daughter had been killed. We need to stop that and to ensure that those convicted of murder do not have parental rights to access those children for the duration of the prison sentence. That needs to be reviewed very carefully to ensure that the family are well protected from engaging with the prisoner.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is always nice to see you, Claire—we spoke previously—and Vera, it is lovely to see you again. It has been a little while since we last spoke. You are right: I think it was during your time, and during my last stint, that we started to look at some of these things with respect to the victims code, and even this.

I will ask a couple of questions if I may. One might be specifically for you, Vera, and I think the other will be broader. Adding to what you have already said, are there any other aspects of the role of Victims’ Commissioner, in the context of the legislation, that you would wish to see elevated? I know we used to talk about, for example, your report being put before Parliament and similar. There is a lot more here than that, but what other aspects would you wish to see elevated in terms of the role?

Dame Vera Baird: It is nice to see that the Victims’ Commissioner must lay their report before Parliament; we have done that for the past two years. We had to crusade our way in, but it seemed important to me that victims’ rights were elevated to a parliamentary responsibility, and that the report did not just go to the Secretary of State. That is already being done, and it is good that it is in the legislation.

The most critical thing is to get data in the way I have already explained, but a big gap—make no mistake, you do need to put this right—is that there is no means to enforce any of the rights under the victims code: not one. It is not even expressed in terms of rights.

Let me give one quick example; I am a nerd on this, even though I have tried to forget in the last couple of months. Right 8.5 allows you as a victim to have a separate entrance and a separate place to wait from the defendant at court. That could not be more important. If my child had been run down by some driver, the last person I would want to meet when I walked through the door of the Crown court would be him—still less with his posse round him, which often does happen.

That is a very good right, and the right continues, but most courts do not have separate entrances and waiting areas. If you let the court know you are worried, it will do its best, but this is supposed to be a right. Many, many times—I am sure Claire will confirm this from an up-to-date perspective—people do come face to face with the defendant as they walk into court, and it is quite terrifying. You have to put the victims code in terms of rights in the first place, but you also have to be able to enforce it. If in default that ultimately must come to the Victims’ Commissioner, so be it.

I have a completely different plan for how we should enforce the code, but there is a statutory rule stopping the Victims’ Commissioner from being involved in individual cases. We still have 70 or 80 cases a month individually sent to us, so there would be a lot if that were done centrally. My notion is that we should have a local victims’ commissioner in the PCC’s office. That need not be a draconian imposition on a PCC; it could be someone who was there for two days. Truly, in Durham, where there are about 1,000 police officers, you do not need a Claire. You need a much smaller status of person.

That person could be the recipient of the complaint, but their working practice ought to be that they have a duty to promote, which needs to be put into the legislation, with respect to victim support services and the use of the code, which is not there properly either. Obviously, you have to have a duty to promote the code internally, so the CPS, the police and the court know they have to deliver it. Then, the victims’ services commissioned by the PCC could argue that a certain person needed an interpreter, or ask whether they had been guaranteed a separate entrance to court. If that was not happening, you could go to the PCC’s office with a working practice of trying to put the problem right in the case. I would not want to meet the person and be able to complain afterwards that I had met him by accident. I would never want to see him.

If you have that local resolution, ultimately for complaints but in the first place to try and intervene through local tentacles—PCCs are quite powerful people now—then you could stop a lot of this damaging material. If you do not, the recipient of the complaint in the first place could be that Victims’ Commissioner champion, who would then take on dealing with that on a local basis.

In the end, I think there have to be penalties. I think police officers should be docked pay; I think the CPS should have something done to them. The first code was in 2006. Now it is 2023 and 80% of people have never heard of it, even though they have gone right through. It is not just that there is nothing to impel it; there is a culture of disregard built on there. You need to change that. If you started there, then somebody has got to take a complaint that is not reconcilable locally up higher and that could go to the Victims’ Commissioner, if that were an appropriate route.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. A very quick subsequent question to you both. I do not want to prejudge what, in due course, the Clerk may deem to be in scope or not of this Bill—whether Jane’s law or whatever—but on the basis that we have not had any such rulings yet, I am going to test my luck a little here.

One of the things you have both talked about is the need for people to be able to understand their rights, access them and know what they are, particularly in the context of the legal advice point for victims and complainants. I would be interested to hear both your perspectives. I know, Vera, that you ran a pilot programme on this up in Northumbria when you were PCC, which was done through you as the PCC. Were that to happen, what would be the right model for it? Would it be PCCs doing that, a national service or a regional service? To both of you: how do you think that might look were such a provision to be made, whether on a pilot basis and then extended or otherwise?

Dame Vera Baird: Two sentences. We could only do it the way we did it by recruiting solicitors from solicitors’ firms because we could not offer people contracts beyond the time of the pilot. So that is how we did it. However, the best way, in my view, is to have a lawyer in a place where independent sexual violence advisers—ISVAs—are also working so that the lawyer is steeped in the ethics and culture of what is going on and has that to draw on for cases coming through. Claire, you probably have more to say.

Claire Waxman: Looking at how this role has worked in London gives us a really good example and evidence of what should be changing. Some of the key issues that we see with victims is that, while the Bill is putting a duty on partners to promote the code to victims, we are still leaving the onus on victims to try and claim their rights. Victims who are just recovering or trying to get over a crime and go through the criminal justice system are not going to be in any state to claim those rights. We need someone to help them navigate that system.

On Vera’s points, first, there is no enforceability; the code is not even really defined as legally enforceable in the Bill and that is an issue. Secondly, there is no enforcement mechanism either. Most victims want to see some redress on their cases. They do not want to go through a lengthy complaints process. What is missing is having that separate entity or agency that works alongside the police and the CPS, so that the moment the victim reports to the police, there is someone supporting all the agencies to ensure that those rights and entitlements are being delivered to victims at the right time. We take the onus off victims to try and battle their way through the criminal justice system and claim those rights.

We also pick up problems if rights are not being delivered, as to how we tackle it there and then in order to keep the case moving all the way through the justice system. That is missing and those are really important mechanisms if we want victims to access their rights and we want to see better justice and recovery outcomes for victims. It is critical that we look at the Bill and how we can use this legislative opportunity to really transform the way victims are treated through the criminal justice system.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. We have 15 seconds left, so that brings us to the end of this morning’s allotted time for asking questions. I thank the witnesses on behalf of the Committee for their evidence.

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Fourth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Thursday 22nd June 2023

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Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 22 June 2023 - (22 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Do you have a view on the Bill’s definition of a major incident?

Sophie Cartwright: It envisages significant numbers by reference to death or serious injury. It seems that the function of the IPA is around those incidents where there is death, but as drafted the Bill also covers a major incident where there is not death—where you would envisage an inquest or inquiry process—but serious injury. If it is intended just to cover major incidents, there is no definition of “significant”, but I know the guidance gives a comparable definition by reference to the Manchester Arena incident, Grenfell and Hillsborough. I think there is vagueness around significant numbers of deaths or serious injuries, but as drafted it would also capture major incidents where there is just injury.

The other thing I want to flag is that at the moment it is intended to cover only major incidents that occur in England and Wales. Again, there might potentially be a disconnect if you are excluding the IPA from having a role. One can well imagine the Tunisia inquest that occurred, which was to assist victims of a daunting, confusing and overwhelming process. As it is currently drafted, it seems almost to exclude major incident types where large numbers of British nationals get caught up in incidents overseas. I cannot see, on the face of it, why it would exclude major incidents where a large number of British nationals are caught up overseas. I wanted to flag that as a potential area where there may be a real role for the IPA: if there are large numbers of victims caught up in major incidents overseas.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good afternoon, Ms Cartwright. Thank you very much for joining us. I have just one question, but I am more asking for your reflections than asking a specific question.

You alluded earlier to the interaction between an IPA, as envisaged in the Bill, and other judicial or investigatory processes, whether they were inquests or other public bodies performing their work in the aftermath of a major incident. There have been a number of calls for the IPA to be a data controller, so that it can access data. We heard this morning from another lawyer, Tim Suter, who argued that that would not be the best approach and that individual public bodies should remain the data controllers, but with the IPA being able to view or access the data in that way. Do you have any reflections on that point? Once a statutory public inquiry is set up, how would the interaction between the IPA and the inquiry work best? On the data controller point, I can see arguments from various perspectives, and I am interested in your reflections.

Sophie Cartwright: Clause 30 deals with some data aspects. It goes back to having clarity as to the intended purpose of the IPA. If it is to discharge the role as per the evidence you heard this morning from the original proponent of the IPA role, it is for the IPA to have a data controller-type role in terms of seeking material and records. That could, though, be fraught with complete complexities that will then bog down the IPA role.

If it is envisaged at the moment that it will just be that supportive role, and interacting, it can become quite complicated, particularly if the IPA is not intended to have a role that involves legal activity. To that extent, anything around data controlling and making requests for records and properly retaining and looking after them is definitely more in the water of legal activity.

As the Bill is currently drafted, I think it would become an absolute nightmare if you were requesting the IPA to have the data controller function and require documents and records. Anything that involves requests for documents and controlling, retaining and storing them definitely has to have a legal activity-type oversight, so I can well understand why Mr Suter gave evidence today to the effect that the public authorities should remain the data controller.

It goes back to having a clear clarity of purpose as to what the IPA is. If it is intended that the IPA will have a candour role and make requests for documentation, it is inevitable that data protection and GDPR issues will have to be properly looked at and considered, because that is a very complex landscape. At the moment, that would not in any way come near what is intended in clause 30 on the data-control aspect of the IPA’s role.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is really useful. Thank you very much.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

If there are no further questions, I thank you very much for your testimony. We are very grateful.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.(Fay Jones.)

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Fifth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Tuesday 27th June 2023

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Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 27 June 2023 - (27 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to speak to these important amendments, which have been brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. Amendment 1 gets to the heart of what the Bill is all about. It would ensure that there is no impediment to providing evidence of behaviour that may be criminal misconduct after signing a non-disclosure agreement.

We have all seen examples of these agreements. Some simply attempt to buy off the victim and halt any prospect of them using knowledge of a person or an organisation which may have been the perpetrator of any kind of criminal misconduct, ranging from financial impropriety to sexual assault. The agreements work by effectively threatening people that if they decide to share their experience or knowledge, they will be subject to costly sanctions.

I hope the Committee will agree that individuals or organisations trying to hide their criminality using non-disclosure agreements is not only wrong, but that it is also a licence to get away with all manner of activity that could lead to large fines and even imprisonment. Why should someone responsible for sexual assault be able to hide away? They should not be. Amendment 3, importantly, would ensure that that protection is enshrined in the victims code, which we will get to later. We want to ensure that there is no wriggle room to allow potential criminals to escape the law because of, in effect, an agreement that is designed to do just that.

Amendment 2 could also be said to sit at the heart of the Bill; we absolutely support the essence of the amendments. Amendment 2 would add to the clause the specific definition of a person who

“has experienced, or made allegations that they have experienced…sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or…bullying or harassment”.

We want to work constructively with the Government, and I hope that we can start now, with the Minister addressing the serious concerns that Committee members have raised, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham who moved the amendment. We need amendments to significantly strengthen the Bill—which we finally have, eight years after it was first proposed.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for raising this important topic and enabling the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—and, by extension, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller)—to be debated in Committee.

The amendments recognise that non-disclosure agreements are misused if they prevent someone from speaking about an experience of crime, for example, to relevant professionals. Amendment 1, though not selected for debate, is intended to include those who have signed NDAs that prevent them from speaking about criminal conduct in the definition of a victim. Amendment 2 and 3, which I will turn to shortly, are intended to go a little further—potentially beyond criminal conduct. I will address that point in a second.

Although confidentiality clauses can serve valid purposes—for example, to protect commercially sensitive information—the Government have been clear, as I think is the Opposition’s position, that they should not be used to prevent disclosures to the police, regulated health and care professionals, legal professionals and others. It is illegal for an NDA to be used to conceal a criminal offence, pervert the course of justice or stop someone co-operating with the police. As the hon. Member for Rotherham alluded to, we have already made reforms around the use of NDAs in higher education.

I know that the hon. Members who tabled, signed and spoke to the amendments are particularly interested in ensuring that individuals are aware of their ability to access support, regardless of having signed an NDA. Anybody who has suffered harm as a direct result of criminal conduct, regardless of whether that crime has been reported or is covered by an NDA, is already covered as a victim under part 1 of the Bill and the victims code. That means that they are entitled to access relevant support services, and, as the Law Society guidance on the matter makes clear, it would not normally be appropriate for non-disclosure agreements to prohibit disclosure to professionals for legal, medical or therapeutic reasons. In most circumstances, those qualified professionals would be bound by a duty of confidentiality to their client.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister makes an excellent point, but how does he get across to those who have signed non-disclosure agreements that they are not restricted in the way in which the law requires that they be unrestricted if nobody has told them that? Could he do something to ensure that those who sign such agreements get proper information about what they really mean?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I do not want to test the Committee’s patience too much with the amount of notes that I have, but I will come to her point. I hope that I can give her a little succour in terms of her asks of me in her speech.

I reassure Members that if anybody suffers harm as a result of sexual abuse, bullying or harassment, where that behaviour amounts to criminal conduct it is already covered by the definition of a victim in part 1 of the Bill. Therefore amendment 1, which would include those individuals explicitly in the definition, could be deemed unnecessary, as they are already covered. However, I will turn to amendment 1 in my final remarks.

Amendments 2 and 3 seek to go further to include those who have experienced behaviour that may be covered by a non-disclosure agreement but which is not criminal. As the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood alluded to, that would expand the definition. We are clear that we have to strike the appropriate balance in drawing the definition in a way that is practical and functional but that does not exclude those who we feel should be included. Part 1 of the Bill seeks to restrict the definition to victims of crime, and we believe that that is the right approach. However, I suspect we will debate on the coming amendments and over the course of today whether that balance has been struck and whether that line has been drawn in the right place. We may disagree on some elements; I expect we will explore that further today.

The relevant definition of a victim is focused on improving support services for victims of crime and increasing oversight to drive up standards of criminal justice agencies working with victims of crime. That does not mean that individuals who have suffered as a result of behaviour that is not criminal, albeit harmful, are prevented from seeking support. Outside the provisions in the Bill, they can still access support services where those are available to them.

Amendment 3 would require the victims code to include provisions for those who have experienced or made allegations that they have experienced sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, or other bullying or harassment. It would also require the code to include provisions for those who have signed NDAs for those incidents.

It is vital that the victims code works for different types of victims. The code covers a wide range of entitlements for victims of different crimes and with different needs. To give us the broadest flexibility to serve the changing needs of victims without having to amend primary legislation, we have not explicitly listed entitlements or specific provisions for particular types of victims in the Bill, as the amendment would do. Instead, we have placed the overarching principles of the victims code in primary legislation and specified that the code can provide different entitlements for different types of victims.

We believe that is the right approach to allow the flexibility to amend the code and to reduce the risk of inadvertently excluding some groups of victims or the relevant provision that the code should make for them. The Bill as presently drafted means that the code could include provision about the matters referenced in the amendment, where they relate to victims of behaviour that amounts to criminal conduct. We have committed to consult on an updated victims code after the passage of the Bill. As mentioned on Second Reading, I am open to working with Members on whether we can go further in that respect.

I appreciate the points made by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, by the shadow Minister the hon. Member for Cardiff North, and by the hon. Member for Rotherham and the sponsors of the amendments. Therefore, although I encourage the hon. Member for Rotherham not to press the amendments to a Division at the moment, I am happy to work with her and other hon. and right hon. Members, including those who support the amendments, to explore further before we reach Report stage whether there might be something we can do to help address their concerns.

As I say, I do not believe that amendments 2 and 3 as drafted are the right approach. I am looking carefully at the issues addressed by amendment 1. I am not in a position to make any firm commitments at this point, other than to work with the hon. Member for Rotherham and others to further explore this important issue. With that, I hope that she will consider not pressing this amendment to a Division.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister very much for his welcome words. I echo the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood about the chilling effect of NDAs, and the lack of awareness of victims. That is at the nub of what we are trying to address.

I know there is a lot of interest in this issue across the House, so I will withdraw the amendment so that we can debate it on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are off to a bad start now, aren’t we?

Some levels of antisocial behaviour are a crime, so they would immediately fall within the proposals, but many victims of antisocial behaviour are not covered by the victims code, which means that they do not have access to the support and information found in it. In particular, that means that they do not have the right to be referred to support services and that PCCs face spending restrictions on victims funding for antisocial behaviour support services as a consequence. The cumulative nature of what would be seen as low-level annoyances literally drive people insane, get them to move house and have them in a constant state of anxiety. In amendment 10, it is clear where that threshold is. On the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood made, that needs to be recognised in black and white so that the services, particularly the police, recognise the significance to people’s lives of antisocial behaviour and view it as something that ought to be covered under the victims code.

I also say to the Minister that this issue was raised a lot on Second Reading and was highlighted by witnesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North said, the former Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, called for this specific thing in an evidence session. To be specific, she emphasised the fact that

“this Government legislated well to introduce something called the community trigger”,

so that

“when it escalates to a particular level, you have a series of remedies to get all the agencies together to put it right.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 27, Q62.]

If the antisocial behaviour gets to that level—amendment 10 seeks to address this—those affected must be classed as victims under the legislation. I really think that the amendment would ensure that victims of persistent antisocial behaviour would be entitled to the rights as they are set out in the victims code and, hopefully, the victims Act, so I support the amendment.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff North for her amendment and for providing us with the opportunity to debate this issue. I suspect that we will return to it again, but this is a useful opportunity that allows us to get into more detail than is perhaps possible on Second Reading.

The amendment would include victims of antisocial behaviour in the definition of “victim” if they have suffered harm as a direct result of the conduct. As the hon. Lady sets out in the amendment, it would use the definitions in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and would therefore cover

“conduct that has caused, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to any person…conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to a person in relation to that person’s occupation of residential premises, or… conduct capable of causing housing-related nuisance or annoyance to any person.”

Therefore, that would also include non-criminal antisocial behaviour.

The Government agree with the hon. Lady that antisocial behaviour is a blight on our communities, and the impact on individuals cannot be overestimated. It is a national issue and it has a huge impact. Every Member of the House and of the Committee has probably dealt with casework on behalf of constituents relating to antisocial behaviour. As Dame Vera kindly acknowledged, that is why the Government took action on the community trigger, which helped to address the line between what is criminal conduct and what falls short of it.

--- Later in debate ---
Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I might have cut the Minister off too soon—he might be about to answer my question—but this is about the persistent level of low-grade behaviour, which would not reach the criminal threshold. It is like a dripping tap or a mosquito buzzing in the room; that is what really drives people into frustration.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was about to come to that point, so the hon. Lady’s intervention is prescient.

All of the speeches that we have heard have acknowledged that the behaviour that is being referred to is often criminal, even the low-level behaviour. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North said that if something is thrown in the direction of an individual or if plants are trampled, that would be criminal behaviour. It may not be charged as such, but it would still entitle people to those rights under the code.

Dame Vera’s key point was about who decides what criminal behaviour is, how we ensure that people know that those rights are available to them and that the service providers acknowledge that those individuals are entitled to those rights. The behaviour we have heard about is included, but we do not believe that including it in the Bill in this way is the right approach to address the issue, to raise that awareness and to ensure that people can access the rights that are already there. However, I will turn to that in just a second. The right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood again managed to pre-empt an element of what she thought I would say in my speech, and she is not inaccurate in her presumption.

A point was raised about the previous Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. My only reflection on that is that, first of all, in my recollection—the right hon. Lady is right that this is going back a while—the articles cited an unnamed source and Government sources. We on both sides of the House have experience of how that can work. That is not official policy, but I will mention, on official policy, that that Lord Chancellor confirmed the content of the draft Bill and the full Bill, so it is not accurate to suggest a U-turn. It was the same Lord Chancellor who confirmed what we are debating today as what he wished to see in legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised a number of points. We do not believe that a lack of legislation is the challenge here. We believe that there are key aspects, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North rightly highlighted, about raising awareness and the different public authorities and bodies engaging in a concerted manner to tackle the problem—treating it seriously and suchlike—but we do not believe that putting something in the Bill is the right way to raise awareness and to change those behaviours.

My hon. Friend raised some particularly distressing cases that have recently been on social media. I tread warily because I am not a lawyer—I am looking at one or two of the lawyers across the room—but she is right to say that trespass is a civil offence. I want to be careful, because I do not know the details of each of those incidents, but it is quite possible that a number of those incidents reported on social media may well have encompassed elements that were criminal in what was done. However, as a non-lawyer, I am cautious about saying that with any certainty, without knowing the details of the cases. Again, in those cases where there was an element of criminality, those individuals would be encompassed under the provisions for support under the victims code and in the legislation.

As Dame Vera alluded to, a significant number of individuals who have been harmed by antisocial behaviour are already defined as victims under the Bill. The definition as drafted covers a huge range of antisocial behaviour: where the behaviour itself is a criminal offence, such as criminal damage; where the behaviours, when taken together, constitute a criminal offence, such as harassment; or where a civil order has been breached, thereby incurring criminal penalties. In essence, where the antisocial behaviour amounts to criminal conduct, victims harmed by that behaviour can already benefit from measures in the Bill.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was going to intervene on the Minister earlier, when he kept saying that we should not put this in the Bill, to ask, “Why?” If it is already included, why not write the words down?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

First, we do not need to do this in the Bill—the points that the hon. Lady makes are essentially two sides of the same coin. I will turn to this in more detail, but we are seeking to be permissive in the breadth of the definition, rather than prescriptive by naming individual groups. Again, that risks causing the effect that she does not want: if we name A, B and C, does that create a hierarchy, and if we miss out D—as this place occasionally does—are we suddenly excluding something unintentionally? We have sought, by criminal conduct and victims of crime, to include as broad a definition as possible. A vast majority of individuals who are sadly victims of antisocial behaviour will be effectively victims of a crime.

The challenge, which I am happy to work with Members on both sides of the House on, is how we can ensure that we address Dame Vera’s key point—in my view, we would not do this on the face of the Bill—which is who decides and how we empower individuals to say, “Police may not have proceeded with it, but I know this is a criminal offence, so I wish to access these services and have a right to do so.” We need to address that key point. I am not sure if that is best done through legislation, but I am happy to work across the House to address that issue.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The amendment seeks to include a clear community trigger that will set off victim support. That is very clear in the amendment, and it will allow those agencies, organisations and authorities to work together in support of people who are victims of repeated, consistent and persistent antisocial behaviour.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I will address that point in my remaining remarks—I will give way again if she feels that I have not done so. In terms of those who suffer from persistent antisocial behaviour that does not amount to criminal conduct, we disagree that putting this in the Bill, rather than seeking other means to achieve an outcome for them, is the best approach. As I set out in my remarks on the previous group of amendments, we have deliberately defined victims in part 1 of the Bill to cover victims of crime. The measures have been designed to ensure that all the criminal justice agencies work together to engage and support those who are victims of crime. We also seek to strengthen the victims code.

A whole range of behaviours are included, and every speech has mentioned behaviours that contained elements of a crime that would therefore enable those individuals to get support. There are different agencies and procedures, as the hon. Member for Cardiff North said, for cases of antisocial behaviour that do not meet the criminal threshold or where there is no specific criminal offence involved. That means, for example, that victims of persistent antisocial behaviour can make a request for an antisocial behaviour review to any of the main agencies responsible, such as the council, police and housing providers.

That does not mean that individuals who have suffered as a result of harmful but not criminal antisocial behaviour are prevented from seeking support. Outside the Bill and the victims code, they can still access support services in their local area. Police and crime commissioners, as well as local authorities, can and do commission support for victims of all types of antisocial behaviour, and can help victims of all kinds of ASB, both criminal and non-criminal, to resolve their issues. Some of the funding they receive is rightly ringfenced for particular criteria and causes, but they do have a degree of overall discretion in their budget as to whether they wish to fund such services.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I set out in my speech, the police and crime commissioners decide in each area. If someone is a victim of antisocial behaviour, they are not guaranteed any support. Victims of persistent antisocial behaviour have no idea where to turn to access support because the authorities pass them from pillar to post. What the Minister is setting out does not happen; the amendment would ensure that it did.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am afraid I disagree with the shadow Minister’s last point. I do not think the amendment would address the operational or on-the-ground implementation issues that she highlights.

On the initial point the shadow Minister made, we have often debated in the House how to strike an appropriate balance in support services for victims of all crimes and of particular types of crime—how to ensure a tailored local support service that reflects the local community, while also ensuring a baseline of services, and a national response when a local community may not commission a particular service because the police and crime commissioner may have to make prioritisation decisions and the number of people likely to use that service in their locality may not be sufficient that they can afford to fund it. We always have this debate about the appropriate line between a national, consistent service, and local tailoring and local empowerment to police and crime commissioners, who are of course directly elected and accountable to their communities for the services they provide—notwithstanding turnout, as I think the shadow Minister indicated.

Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Dame Vera was making the point that these matters are not being taken seriously enough, but there is an offence of harassment. That is repeated behaviour, and it can be antisocial behaviour or bullying. That was treated as a serious matter by Parliament—it is a summary offence—and there is also the more serious offence if fear of violence is involved, which has a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. Is it perhaps time for the Minister to discuss with the Attorney General and the Home Office whether there is a need for more impetus to be put behind that provision, whether through guidelines or the prosecution college hub?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. We are discussing these issues more broadly not only with the Attorney General but with the Home Secretary, given the cut-across and the importance that is rightly attached to these issues by those who send us to this place and by Members on both sides of the House. I reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that we are looking cross-Government at how we can make such responses more effective.

More broadly, the Government are taking clear action to crack down on antisocial behaviour and to build confidence that it will be taken seriously and, where appropriate, punished. Backed by £160 million of funding, our antisocial behaviour action plan, published in March this year, will give police and crime commissioners, local authorities and other agencies more tools to tackle the blight of antisocial behaviour across communities in England and Wales. That includes increasing policing in hotspot areas and a new immediate justice programme to make sure that offenders are made to undertake practical, reparative activity to make good the loss or damage sustained by victims, or to visibly support the local community in other ways, such as by litter picking. If things go wrong, the antisocial behaviour case review is there to ensure that those affected can seek a solution from the appropriate agency.

The Government will continue to take action for those who suffer as a result of persistent antisocial behaviour. The vast majority of examples given in evidence sessions and in today’s debates have, however, contained elements that would constitute criminal behaviour, which would therefore mean that the individuals were included in the rights under the victims code and the details that we are discussing in the context of the Bill.

We have sought to be less prescriptive and more permissive to make sure that we do not inadvertently tighten the definition too much. We do not share the view of the shadow Minister that adopting the amendment is the right way to address the point, but we do accept the points that Dame Vera and others made. There are two questions or challenges, which are not, in my view, best dealt with by legislation, but which do need to be addressed. First, who decides what is criminal? Secondly, how do we raise the awareness of authorities and individuals, so that people know their rights and that what has happened constitutes criminal behaviour, even if it is not prosecuted and even if there is no conviction? Therefore, those entitlements and rights are there.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is one of the most important points. The victims are told that the police cannot do anything about it because it does not reach certain thresholds. When people understand that they may have rights that relate to being victims of crime, first, they will not have thought that they do—unless someone tells them—and secondly, they will ask the question, “If that is the case, how come the police aren’t doing something about the crime?” That is the conundrum. The Minister’s solution to the issue—not accepting the amendment—does not deal with it.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Lady makes two points. I suspect that in a number of cases the police will look at an offence and say, “We don’t think it meets the threshold for prosecution,” but that dextrous lawyers—we have some in Committee—could probably find a way to have it constitute a criminal offence and be prosecuted. Decisions on prosecutions, however, are made by the independent Crown Prosecution Service, based on the evidential threshold, the public interest and whether there is likely to be a conviction. I will not intervene or interfere in the CPS’s prosecution decisions.

Nevertheless, I am happy to work across the House to find a way to increase awareness. I do not believe that legislation and the amendment are the right approach, but there must be ways to increase awareness among victims that they are victims and among criminal justice agencies and others, so that they understand that, where a criminal offence has taken place, even if it is not prosecuted, individuals should be entitled to support.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his response and everyone who has contributed to this important debate. I know that the number of people across the country who suffer from persistent antisocial behaviour—whether that is extreme or slight but persistent incidents which, as I illustrated in my speech, cause people to be locked in their homes and afraid to venture out to the shops, scared even to walk outside their front door—is hugely underestimated. This is a serious issue that must be addressed in the Bill. The amendment would do just that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood made excellent points about how the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour jump the gun. Many of them know the system and will make a report to the police in extreme circumstances and where the incidents are criminal, so the police are left not knowing whose side to be on, thinking it is a neighbourhood dispute or something that can be resolved. I, too, have tried to support such victims of antisocial behaviour in my constituency, and it is very difficult to get the agencies and authorities to understand that those people are victims. Including the amendment in the Bill will ensure that they are seen as victims and will have access to services that support them.

The hon. Member for Stroud made an important point about trespassing and storming into houses, which has seen a worrying rise among young people on social media such as TikTok. I know the Minister responded to that in his speech, but it would be good if he could look at the issue again. He said he was not able to address it here and now, but perhaps he could look into it and come back to the Committee—or write to us—on what the Department, the Government and he will be doing to address it.

All that goes back to the main point, the community trigger. With it, we need to ensure that services, the authorities and the criminal justice agencies work together to support the victim. That is what the amendment is intended to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham made the good point that the authorities need to know where they can step in, which they do not currently know. It should not be in every case for the victim to have to go to their MP, and for the MP to step in to bring the authorities together, as my hon. Friend stated. That is an impossibility for everybody out there. The Minister made the point that people can access lawyers; who in our communities has that knowledge and awareness, especially when they face that trauma? They may be vulnerable and may not have access to the finances to get legal advice.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I fear the shadow Minister misunderstood what I was saying; I was referring to police and CPS lawyers, who will be able to find ways to prosecute some of these cases, I would hope—not to individuals.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister, but the police and the criminal justice agencies just do not do that. They are stripped of resources. They do not have the ability to look into each case. If the community trigger is reached, support can kick in. Then at least those victims of antisocial behaviour know that they have something to lean on and some way of accessing support. That is why the amendment has been tabled, why I moved it today and why I spoke to it on Second Reading. It is particularly poignant that it will be Anti-Social Behaviour Awareness Week in just a couple of weeks. This is a really good opportunity for the Government to support the amendment, which is why I will press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 1

Ayes: 7


Labour: 7

Noes: 8


Conservative: 8

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced child criminal exploitation;”.

This amendment would include victims of child criminal exploitation in the definition of a victim.

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Sixth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Tuesday 27th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Public Bill Committees
Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 27 June 2023 - (27 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 51, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person has experienced adult sexual exploitation.”

Amendment 18, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘child criminal exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls a person under 18 to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence;”

This amendment provides a definition for the term “child criminal exploitation”.

Amendment 52, in clause 1, page 2, line 6, at end insert—

“(c) ‘adult sexual exploitation’ means conduct by which a person manipulates, deceives, coerces or controls another person to undertake sexual activity.”

This amendment would provide for a statutory definition of adult sexual exploitation.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 17 seeks to include in the definition of a victim those who have experienced child criminal exploitation and have suffered harm as a direct result. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for raising this issue, which the Government agree has a devastating impact. This morning, right hon. and hon. Members did what this House does well: they gave a voice to the voiceless.

I want to reassure hon. Members that large elements of the amendment are encapsulated in the Bill, and I hope I am able to offer something that goes at least some way to satisfy the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Cardiff North. The Government are committed to tackling county lines and associated child criminal exploitation, and outside the Bill we have invested up to £145 million over three years to crack down on criminal gangs exploiting children and young people.

In addition, as part of the county lines programme, the Government continue to support victims of child criminal exploitation. We have, for example, invested up to £5 million over three financial years—2022 to 2025—to provide support to victims of county lines exploitation and their families. That includes a specialist support and rescue service provided by Catch22 for under-25s in priority areas who are criminally exploited through county lines to help them to safely reduce and exit their involvement. It also includes a confidential national helpline and support delivered by Missing People’s SafeCall service for young people and their families.

As the shadow Minister said, it is important to remember that although county lines is often the first issue to catch the attention of the media or this House, child exploitation goes way beyond that crime. We are therefore also targeting exploitation through the Home Office-funded prevention programme, delivered by the Children’s Society. That programme works with a range of partners to tackle and prevent child exploitation regionally and nationally.

I assure hon. Members that children who have been exploited for criminal purposes are indeed victims in the context of the Bill if the conduct they have been subjected to meets the criminal standard. Regardless of whether the crime has been reported, charged or prosecuted, those victims are already covered under part 1 of the Bill and the victims code.

Child criminal exploitation is already captured by a number of criminal offences under the Serious Crime Act 2007, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. However, as the hon. Member for Rotherham highlighted, in some cases the exploitative conduct may not itself be criminal. The measures in part 1 of the Bill have specifically and fundamentally been designed for victims of crime and seek to improve their treatment, experiences of and engagement with the criminal justice system. Therefore, where the criminal exploitation is exactly that—criminal—the victims are already covered by the Bill’s definition of a victim of crime.

The definition of a victim, as I said previously, is deliberately broad. Within reason, we are seeking to be permissive, rather than prescriptive, to avoid the risk that specifying particular subgroups could inadvertently exclude those who do not fall into specific descriptions and definitions.

Amendment 18 seeks to provide a definition for child criminal exploitation. The Government recognise that the targeting, grooming and exploitation of children for criminal purposes is deplorable, and we share the hon. Member for Rotherham’s determination to tackle it. The Government have already gone some way to defining child criminal exploitation in statutory guidance for frontline practitioners working with children, including in the “Keeping children safe in education” and “Working together to safeguard children” statutory guidance. We have also defined child criminal exploitation in other documents, such as the serious violence strategy, the Home Office child exploitation disruption toolkit for frontline practitioners, which was updated in July last year, and the county lines guidance for prosecutors and youth offending teams.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 states that when children who are under 18 commit certain offences, they are not guilty if they were committed as a direct result of exploitation. Prosecutors must consider the best interests and welfare of the child or young person, among other public interest factors, starting with a presumption of diverting them away from the courts where possible.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister highlights the problem: there are lots of different documents with lots of different Departments and support teams where the Government have felt comfortable defining child criminal exploitation, and there is fragmentation across Government. The Bill offers the opportunity to define child criminal exploitation so that it is seen clearly that such children are victims of that exploitation. I will be frank with the Minister: the victims ought to be recognised in the Bill, but they are not. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North and I are trying to use this as an opportunity to force the Government’s hand to make that definition, so that any person in the public or private sector who sees those children can understand that they are victims.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When I conclude in a moment, I hope that I might have given the hon. Lady a little more reassurance. In respect of her specific point, the Government have previously explored the introduction of a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation with a range of operational and system partners. They and the Government concluded that the existing arrangements allow sufficient flexibility to respond to a range of circumstances while still ensuring actions when that consideration was undertaken.

I reassure the hon. Members for Rotherham and for Cardiff North that we continue to keep under review the issue and the legislation. The previous consultation with partners suggested that the right tools, powers and offences were already in place to tackle the issue.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wonder who the Minister is talking to, because this amendment is supported by the children’s sector, including the Children’s Society, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. The children’s sector wants this, so I do not understand who he is talking to who does not.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I mentioned operational partners, and in this context, that refers to partners in the criminal justice system, such as the prosecution authorities, the police and others. I take the hon. Lady’s point about the wider stakeholder and sector support. If she allows me to make a little progress, we will see if it reassures her sufficiently.

Turning to amendments 51 and 52, amendment 51 seeks to ensure that persons who have experienced adult sexual exploitation are explicitly referenced in the definition of a victim. Adult sexual exploitation could be considered to consist of numerous criminal acts, some of which include human trafficking, controlling and coercive behaviour, causing or inciting prostitution for gain, controlling prostitution for gain, and rape and other serious sexual offences. I reassure hon. Members that adults who have been subjected to such criminal conduct are victims under part 1 of the legislation and under the victims code. My concern is therefore that the amendments would duplicate the existing coverage of the definition of a victim of crime. Again, the definition is deliberately broad to avoid inadvertently excluding a particular group or victim through being overly prescriptive.

Amendment 52 is intended to create a definition of adult sexual exploitation. Acts that can constitute adult sexual exploitation are, again, already covered by a number of existing offences.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

While they are covered by a number of different offences, much like domestic abuse, there is no charge or crime of domestic abuse, yet the Government felt it important to define domestic abuse in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 for all the same reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham tried to point out: it is currently written nowhere in any Government guidance, or any strategy to tackle adult sexual exploitation. That is what the amendment is intended to address.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She may well push me in a slightly different direction, but I am always a little cautious of seeking to read across a precedent in one piece of legislation to a range of other areas. There may be occasions when it is universally applicable, but in other cases I would urge a degree of caution.

We have yet to see unequivocal evidence that a single definition or approach would better achieve delivery of our commitment than the current approach. However, I am happy to discuss it further and work with the hon. Member for Rotherham, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North, and others between Committee stage and Report. As is the nature of the Committee stage, the amendments were tabled a few days ago—last week—and inevitably, when something significant is suggested, it is important to reflect on that carefully. I intend to reflect carefully on the points that have been made. I will not pre-empt the conclusions of my reflections, but I will engage with the hon. Member for Rotherham, and the shadow Minister if she so wishes, to see what may be possible between Committee stage and Report. On the basis of that commitment to engage, I hope that the hon. Member for Rotherham and the shadow Minister might, at this point, consider not pressing the amendments to a Division.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his response and the Committee for this debate on child criminal exploitation. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham for tabling the two critical amendments that look at adult exploitation as well as child criminal exploitation. She made excellent, and really quite emotive, points about a victim of child sexual exploitation, of course due to coercion and control, reaching the age of 18, when it is suddenly questioned as “unwise choices”. I appreciate the points that the Minister made. He appreciates that there is a real issue. As I set out earlier, there is widespread concern among all the agencies and charities working on this that child criminal exploitation takes a variety of forms. Ultimately, the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity needs to be addressed.

To take up the Minister’s point about using one statutory definition, at the moment safeguarding partners are working to so many different understandings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, of what constitutes criminal exploitation that there is no meaningful or consistent response across criminal justice agencies and safeguarding partners, which is critical when dealing with such matters.

I appreciate that the Minister is prepared to work together, and I hope that he has listened to our arguments. It sounds as though he is coming to the agreement that we will work together to address this matter in the Bill. Therefore, on reflection and having heard those points today, I will seek to bring this proposal back at a later stage of the Bill but will not press it today.

--- Later in debate ---
Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 46, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at end insert—

“(e) where the person is the child of a person posing sexual risk to children.”

This amendment would include children of a person posing a sexual risk to children (that is, paedophiles (including perpetrators of offences online), suspects or offenders) as victims.

I don’t get out much, Sir Edward—and neither do you, because of that! I ask the Committee to listen to my speech on this issue with an open mind, because when I first came across it, it took me a little time to get my head round it, but to me now, it seems the most obvious thing. I am talking about recognising the children of paedophiles as victims. That is what my amendment seeks to make happen. Just as we have now—I thank the Minister and the Ministry of Justice—made a huge step forward in defining children born of rape as victims in this legislation, so we need to ensure that other secondary victims will also be entitled to rights under the victims code. The children of any paedophile are disproportionately impacted when their parent is investigated, charged and jailed, and I make a plea for them to be considered within the definition of victims.

Just like domestic abuse, the illegal activity is committed, most often, within the family home—the child’s “safe space”. Social services view the parent as potentially posing a sexual risk to any child from day one of an investigation, not from a guilty verdict. I will give the Committee an example from my constituency. About five years ago, a lot of single mothers were coming to me with real concerns about the heavy-handedness of social services around child protection—their child’s protection. They were really confused as to why social services were doing this. When I intervened on their behalf, I realised that it was because the other parent of the child was being investigated for—in this case—organised child sexual exploitation. Social services could not tell the mother what was going on, for fear of tipping off the other parent, but they had serious safeguarding concerns in respect of that parent in that house because of the father’s activities. This is a very real thing that happens; it has a very real basis.

Amendment 46 is crucial, because it specifically identifies children of a person posing sexual risk to children. These people are known as PPRC—persons posing a risk to children—by the police when they are under investigation and not just once they have been charged. The family unit structure, including the household economics, is generally impacted in a dramatic way—irrespective of the outcome of the investigation—because of the immediate protective measures put in place by agencies. For the family’s safety, the nature of the investigation is almost always kept confidential, thus increasing the vulnerability of these children within the whole secrecy around CSA. Investigations and convictions shape the child’s childhood, as interactions with the parent are controlled by restrictions imposed by the judicial system. The child loses all autonomy within the relationship with the suspect or offending parent, for safeguarding purposes—which we can completely understand—until they are over the age of 18.

Negative community judgment for close associates of CSA suspects is highly prevalent and can be magnified by media coverage at the court. If we think about our local papers, once someone is charged with such crimes, their name, address and photos all get into the public domain, whether by media, once the conviction has happened, or most likely by Facebook and well-meaning neighbours trying to protect their own children. The stigma that causes for the child is untold.

I have worked with the survivor Chris Tuck for many years. She is an active campaigner on child protection. She has asked me to read her case study about what happened to her:

“I grew up in 3 domestic violence households where witnessing and experiencing abuse every day was the norm.

My dad and step mum were not good for each other or to us children. The abuse intensified via domestic violence and child abuse.

This chaotic dysfunctional abusive home life led to us being vulnerable to abuse outside the family home. I was sexually abused by a school bus driver in 1979…In 1980/81 my dad George Frances Oliver was convicted of child sexual abuse against some of the children in the household (not me).

I remember very clearly when my dad was arrested for his crimes.

It was an odd day; 3 of us children came home from school and dad was lying on the sofa reading. It was eerily quiet, my step mum, my sister and stepsisters were not there.

We were just speaking to dad about this fact when there was a loud crashing noise and lots of shouts of ‘Police! Police!’.

The police stormed into the room and arrested my dad, it was very frightening to witness and caused us a lot of distress. We did not know what was happening.

I remember the police taking us 3 children to our eldest stepsisters’ house where my step mum, other stepsisters and sisters were waiting.

That is where I was told what my dad had done. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.

In my head I was trying to reconcile what the school bus man had done to me and now my dad had done those things and worse to other children in the house.

I felt sick, I felt dirty, I felt shame. I felt betrayed and let down by my dad. The man I loved at the time.

Dad was put on remand and eventually convicted of his crimes. I find out about this at school, in the playground. One day a boy shouted out ‘your dad is a paedo....dirty paedo’.

I didn’t know what that word meant. But I knew it was bad by the way it was said and I knew what my dad had done. I had experienced a little of what my dad had done via my own experience of sexual abuse and the internal examination I had at the Police station.

Dad’s sentencing had been written up in the local paper. Again, it felt like everyone knew. Everyone was judging me, us, for the crimes committed by my dad.

Again, I felt sick, I felt dirty, I felt shame. I felt bad to the very core of my being. This I carried with me well into my adulthood.

Again, no support was given to any of us as children and young people.

The legacy of my dad being a convicted paedophile lived with me into my mid 40s when I paid for specialist professional help and support to deal with the trauma from deep unexpressed feelings and emotions.

When I left home at nearly 16, I wrote my childhood off, I never told anyone about anything. I put on a mask for over a decade and I tried to build a new life for myself. I battled with bulimia and anger management throughout my teens and twenties.

If I had been classed as a victim, as a child and young person and given the help and specialist support at the time of each incident throughout my life I would not have had the hardship of dealing with the trauma and ill-health (mentally and physically) I have experienced as a result during my adulthood.

Recognising children and young people as victims of crime perpetrated through association needs to be recognised because there is a trauma impact as I have described.

Just knowing what is happening when it comes to the perpetrator and their movements—where they are imprisoned, when they are going to be released and where—is a must for the peace of mind of all involved.”

That experience has become even more common with online child sexual offences, which have increased dramatically. The trauma for the child usually begins once police execute a search warrant of the family home, often referred to as “the knock”, after the police have received the information regarding the online suspect. That, I would say to the Minister, would be the ideal point to intervene to prevent further trauma, but currently that is not happening. Records for 2021 show that there were 850 knocks a month. Children were present for 35% of those knocks. That compares with 417 knocks per year in 2009-10, and I fully expect those numbers to keep on going up, with all the police are telling us about the exponential rise of online child abuse.

Children are unseen victims of this crime, but are not recognised as such or given the support they need. Often, families do not receive information about the offence, court proceedings or sentencing until they are told by the offender, if they are told by the offender. If the children were defined as victims, they and their parents would be entitled to receive such information. Having the victims code apply here would address some of the key issues for children and for non-offending parents, including information from police and access to support services.

Let us be honest: the knock disproportionately affects women, who are often forced to give up their job as a consequence, take time off sick, move home, supervise access, manage childcare, manage supervision and take on the burden of minimising the suspect’s risk of suicide or reoffending. Women are effectively treated as a protective factor, but they have no protection themselves.

I have worked on the amendment with Talking Forward, a charity that funds peer support for anyone whose adult family member has been investigated for online sexual offences. It is much more common than Members realise. Currently, three police forces refer families automatically to Talking Forward, but that could be broadened out nationally, if the amendment is accepted. Lincolnshire police now have a dedicated independent domestic violence adviser-type role for such families. Again, if the amendment is accepted, that could be rolled out more broadly to provide specialist support.

The first step must be to recognise children of child sexual abusers, whether physical or online, as victims. That will reduce costs in the long term, whether that is by ensuring children have immediate support or reducing costs to the family courts. I ask the Minister to accept this amendment.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the hon. Lady set out, amendment 46 would include persons who have suffered harm as a direct result of being a child of a person who poses a sexual risk to children, for example a paedophile, in the definition of a victim. I am grateful to her for raising this important issue and I reassure her that the Government absolutely sympathise with the challenges faced by the unsuspecting families of sex offenders and those who pose a sexual risk to children.

If family members in these circumstances have witnessed criminal conduct, they are of course already covered by the Bill’s definition of a victim—that is, if they have been harmed by seeing, hearing or otherwise directly experiencing the effect of the crime at the time the crime happened. I think the hon. Lady would like to go somewhat more broadly, to those who may not have been there at the time or have directly witnessed the crime, but who may still suffer the impacts of that criminal behaviour. I know that she is interested in support more broadly for the families of offenders and those impacted.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, that cohort would not come within our definition of a victim, which is deliberately crafted in both the Bill and the victims code to be designed for those who have been harmed directly by the crime in question and therefore need the broader entitlements in the code to navigate the criminal justice system, as well as to receive support. On this occasion, therefore, I must resist the broadening of the scope of clause 1 that the amendment would bring.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Justice Committee, in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the clause, did ask the Government to extend the coverage of these provisions to include children born of rape as secondary victims, and they responded positively. Is there a difference between the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham made for the children of paedophiles and the concession—that is the wrong word for it; it is technically correct, but I am not trying to suggest that the Government have given in—made in accepting the Justice Committee’s suggestion that children born of rape should be included? Is there a technical difference, because I am failing to see it at the moment?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The technical difference, or the difference as we see it, is that in the case of the Justice Committee’s PLS recommendation the individual was born as a direct consequence of a criminal act. In the case to which the hon. Member for Rotherham referred, the individual is not experiencing something as a direct consequence of a criminal act, but there are of course impacts on them. That is the difference that we draw, but it does not mean that this cohort is not deserving of support on their own terms, and I will touch briefly on what is available.

His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service funds the national prisoners’ families helpline, which provides free and confidential support for those with a family member at any stage of their contact with the criminal justice system. There are also several charities—I suspect that the hon. Lady works with them on these issues—that provide specific support for families affected by the actions of a family member, including support for prisoners, people with convictions, and crucially their children and families, and support for families that have been affected by sexual abuse.

We will continue to consider how best to support and protect those impacted by crime as well as victims of crime, who are directly covered by the Bill. I therefore gently encourage the hon. Lady not to press her amendment to a vote at this stage. She may wish to return to it, but I will continue to reflect carefully on what she has said. We sit and listen, but we may miss some nuances, so I will read the report of what has been said carefully.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for keeping an open mind. What is needed most is information on the criminal justice process for those family members, which would automatically be afforded under the victims code. I am grateful for his offer to read the report and see whether there is something that we can do. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
We must start seeing these “suicides” as what they are: horrific criminal actions that have led to a death, commonly of a woman. We must demand professional curiosity in these cases so that they are investigated competently. We must have court processes that reveal the truth and deliver justice. We must support the families going through hell, who just want answers. Recognising these families as victims is a step in the right direction, but we must go much further.
Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley for raising this important issue and for referring, as the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood did, to pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope to have given Committee members some encouragement that on occasion I agree to changes, and perhaps to a different approach from that in the original draft of the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley set out, her amendment 54 would extend the definition of a victim in the Bill explicitly to include families impacted by the death by suicide of a loved one as a result of domestic abuse. In her remarks, the hon. Lady quite rightly went wider than that, highlighting investigatory issues and broader prosecutorial issues. I have—as, I suspect, does every member of the Committee—huge sympathy for the families in the position that she set out. Before I turn specifically to the impact of her amendment, and I wish to touch on some of the support available for them,.

The Ministry of Justice provides police and crime commissioners with grant funding to commission local, practical, emotional and therapeutic support services for victims of all crime types, based on their assessment of needs. The Department for Health and Social Care has committed to publishing a new national suicide prevention strategy later this year and is engaging widely across the sector to understand what further action can be taken to reduce cases of suicide. The strategy will reflect new evidence and national priorities for suicide prevention across England, including actions to tackle known risk factors and targeted actions for groups at particular risk or groups of concern. An additional £57 million is being invested in suicide prevention by March 2024, through the NHS long-term plan.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the issue. With regard to her amendment, we are not convinced that explicitly extending the definition of a victim of crime in the Bill and the code is the right approach to appropriately support the families. Part 1 of the Bill specifically sets out how victims who have suffered harm as a direct result of criminal conduct are treated by and supported to engage with the criminal justice system. Our view is that that group is largely covered by the Bill’s definition of the bereaved family of a person who has died, including by suicide as a direct result of domestic abuse, which is captured by clause 1(2)(c):

“where the death of a close family member of the person was the direct result of criminal conduct”.

In the context, domestic violence is criminal conduct. I appreciate—this is potentially where the nuance lies, and why the hon. Lady might be pushing for greater clarity—that that will be fact-specific for each case in the circumstances. It is a complicated area and each case will be complicated but, as I say, we believe that clause 1(2)(c) captures this.

I know that we have discussed the need for clarity and awareness about entitlements among victims and agencies. As I am sure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is aware from her shadow ministerial role, the Government are consulting on and clarifying the position in the domestic homicide review to formally recognise this cohort of victims. With her permission, I will gently encourage her not to press her amendment at this point, but in the context of the broader work being done I hope she will allow me, in the short term, to write to her with greater clarity on our interpretation of clause 1(2)(c)—she may wish to challenge that in the future, of course; she is entitled to—and to see if we are able to factor in the broader work being done before we reach Report.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister. I would absolutely welcome it if he wrote to me and the Committee about exactly how clause 1(2)(c) encompasses what I seek, so that those families have an opportunity. It is good when Ministers say things in Committee that we can use to ensure that families get support. I will withdraw the amendment at this stage. I am not always especially keen on the Government, but the level of progress in the area of hidden homicides, certainly under the previous Home Secretary, is to be admired. I do not think that the Government are without concern on the issue of suicide in cases of domestic abuse. Thanks to what the Minister says, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 63 seeks to add wording to the definition of a victim to explicitly state that it includes children. I reassure the hon. Lady that children who are

“a victim of, or a witness to, criminal conduct”

are already covered by the definition of a victim under part 1 of the Bill, and included in the current victims code. The relevant provision of the Bill—clause 1(2)(a)—says

“where the person has seen, heard, or otherwise directly experienced the effects of, criminal conduct at the time the conduct occurred”,

and that is not an age-specific or age-exclusive point; it is universally applicable.

The definition of a victim covers individuals, including children, who have suffered harm as a direct result of being subjected to a crime. It also covers persons, including children, who have suffered harm as a direct result of certain circumstances, including the death of a close family member as a direct result of criminal conduct, and being born from rape. The hon. Lady quite understandably made a number of broader points about the operation of the criminal justice system and the courts. I will confine my remarks to the amendments, but I note those points.

The Bill’s definition of a victim has been amended, as the hon. Lady touched on, to align with the full definition of domestic abuse in part 1 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which will also be set out under the new victims code. The purpose is to have clarity and proper read-across between different pieces of legislation. The Bill therefore defines child victims who witness or experience the effects of domestic abuse as victims in their own right.

Individuals—again, including children—who witness a crime are covered by the Bill. We have described that as seeing, hearing or otherwise directly experiencing the effect of a crime at the “time the conduct occurred”, which ensures that we do not exclude individuals who have been harmed by witnessing a crime even if they were not physically present when it occurred. For example, they may have seen it occur online as it was happening if it was being streamed or similar.

We recognise that individuals will be affected differently after witnessing a crime. That is why we have specified that an individual will be defined as a victim only if they have suffered harm as a direct result of witnessing criminal conduct. In that context, amendment 63 is unnecessary as children are already covered by the definition in the Bill, which, as I said, also aligns with the DA Act 2021.

Amendment 42 would require the victims code to contain specific provision for children who are victims or witnesses. Again, I reassure the hon. Lady that the definitions in both the Bill and the victims code include adults and children alike. Children are also explicitly recognised in the current victims code as vulnerable victims. Some of her points—for example, on how a court case is run and the length of time given for evidence—will, to a degree, be down to the way a judge runs that particular case with judicial independence and discretion. However, that explicit recognition in the victims code means that children have entitlements and “enhanced rights”, such as getting information about key decisions more quickly.

That recognition is set out in the enhanced rights section of the code, which specifies that victims are “eligible for enhanced rights” if they are

“under 18 years of age at the time of the offence”.

Young people are automatically eligible for the special measures included in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which the hon. Lady mentioned, when they are giving evidence. Such measures can include communication assistance through a registered intermediary, giving evidence by live link or having their evidence pre-recorded, subject to the agreement of the court or the judge.

I fully support the aim of making the victims code as clear as possible about the different and distinct needs of children. The hon. Lady is aware that we will be consulting on a new victims code after this Bill gains Royal Assent, and we have published a draft to inform the debate prior to that formal consultation. This is one of the areas that we will be focusing on in reviewing and updating that code.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is right to say that the special measures are subject to a judge’s discretion. I wonder whether, when he is looking at updating the guidance and the code, he could look quite closely into that, because of the example in Rotherham, where we have the ongoing past cases of grooming gangs. We are finding that the National Crime Agency tries to go for one judge, who is very aware of the need for special measures and very supportive of that. The concern is that, across the country, other judges are more subjective with regard to whether they think special measures are an automatic right and what the threshold is. Therefore, when the Minister is doing his review, will he look specifically at the guidance to judges about whether to allow special measures?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I resist the temptation to stray into areas that are properly judicial—related to judicial independence and, indeed, training and the Judicial College. I am very cautious about trespassing on judicial independence. She has made her point on the record, but as a Minister I have to be a little cautious in that respect.

The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, when she gave evidence to the Committee last week, welcomed the fact that work with her office had already begun. We are looking forward to working with her and others—including, indeed, in this House—as we prepare a further draft code for consultation. Given that the current code already includes provision for child victims and witnesses and that we have made a commitment to make that clearer in the new code, and given the definition in clause 1(2)(a), I hope that I will persuade the hon. Lady not to press her amendment to a Division at this point.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for everything that he has said. I have comfort at this point, so I will not press the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as is the Domestic Abuse Commissioner. That is why it is imperative that all victims and witnesses, particularly children, can access support through this legislation without needing to engage with the criminal justice process.

I have worked with the NSPCC on this amendment, as it raised concerns due to the fact that the majority of crimes against children and young people are not reported to the police. It can be extremely difficult for victims and survivors to speak about their experiences of child sexual abuse, as revisiting traumatic childhood experiences often causes significant distress. Prior experiences of being silenced, blamed or not taken seriously by the justice system can discourage victims and survivors from disclosing child sexual abuse again.

The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse found that child sexual abuse is dramatically under-reported. The 2018-19 crime survey for England and Wales estimated that 76% of adults who had experienced rape or assault by penetration did not tell anyone about their experience at the time. A large number of the inquiry’s investigation reports noted that the true scale of offending was likely to be far higher than the available data appears to suggest. The Government’s own “Tackling Child Sexual Abuse Strategy 2021” noted that:

“People were even less likely to tell the police—only an estimated 7% of victims and survivors informed the police at the time of the offence and only 18% told the police at any point.”

Can the Minister guarantee, on the record, that the definition of victim includes those who choose not to report to the criminal justice system? The majority of victims, who choose not to report an offence, must still be able to access support under the Bill.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the amendment, which she has clarified is a probing amendment; she is seeking clarity from the Box, as it were, that someone can come within the definition of a victim in the Bill without needing to report the relevant crime. Let me reassure her at the outset that that is already the case in the Bill’s existing definition.

Victims of crime are considered victims under part 1 of the Bill, whether or not the offence has been reported to the police or any other criminal justice body. This is a fundamental part of the Bill, because we want to make it clear that victims of crime are able to access support services, regardless of whether they have reported a crime.

The point is covered by clause 1(4)(b), which sets out that,

“criminal conduct” means conduct which constitutes an offence (but in determining whether a person is a victim by virtue of any conduct, it is immaterial that no person has been charged with or convicted of an offence in respect of the conduct).”

I am happy to clarify and build on that for the hon. Lady: reporting or conviction is not required to meet the threshold. That echoes the current victims code and approach, which is clear that relevant entitlements are available,

“regardless of whether anyone has been charged, convicted of a criminal offence and regardless of whether you decide to report the crime to the police or you do not wish to cooperate with the investigation.”

In the new draft code that we have published, that point is further highlighted in the opening section on who is a victim under the code, which explicitly sets out:

“The term ‘criminal conduct’ reflects the fact that you do not need to have reported the crime to the police to be considered a victim of crime. Some of the Rights under this Code apply to you regardless of your engagement with the criminal justice system.”

The reason it is worded that way is because some of the rights are clearly worded as only to be directly relevant if someone is in the criminal justice process. It is explicit there that the code would apply to the individuals that the hon. Lady seeks to ensure are encompassed in this context.

I appreciate that the amendment seeks to make the fact that reporting is not required as clear as possible. Our view is that the amendment is not necessary because of the current drafting of the Bill and the wording of the revised victims code.

Noting the hon. Lady’s words that this is a probing amendment, I hope she will not feel the need to press it further.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for that clarity. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, that is what I am looking at right now. I wanted to make a couple of general points, because we are beginning the line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill, if you will just allow me to do so, Sir Edward; you are being very generous—thank you.

We can only do this by working together. I turn to the amendments that we have discussed today—the critical ones tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham, who is a steadfast champion for the rights of those who have been abused and for the rights of children. I commend her for that work. The amendments we have discussed seek to strengthen clause 1 on the definition of a victim, and they particularly consider antisocial behaviour and child criminal exploitation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, when speaking to her amendment 54, made some emotive points on death by suicide and the impact on family members.

I hope that we can work together as we move forward in our consideration of the Bill, so that amendments, including those to clause 1, are discussed and debated, and so that we can amend the Bill later down the line, and so that victims’ rights, particularly the rights of child victims, are clearly defined in the Bill and that we strengthen the Bill as a result.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their points. It is important and right that we have taken a considerable amount of time to consider this clause on the definition of a victim, which of course is central—quite understandably—to what this Bill is about. It is a piece of legislation that I am pleased to be taking through Committee. If it does not harm my prospects with the Whips to say so, I will say that when I first entered this House in 2015 I took a close interest in working on this issue, alongside the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), having both been elected at the same time.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North mentioned the role of Victims’ Commissioner, which, as she will appreciate, is an extremely important post. We have seen a number of changes of Lord Chancellor in recent years. As she would expect, the new Lord Chancellor takes a very close interest in the position and is determined to make sure that he gets things right, gets the right person and that the process is properly followed. I know that he is as keen as she is to see the post filled, but filled properly.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the Minister’s answer. Could he come back to the Committee with a timetable for the appointment?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is probably premature to offer a prescriptive timetable, but I know that it is very much on the Lord Chancellor’s mind and that he recognises the importance of the role.

I am grateful for the debate on clause 1 and the various amendments. It is clear that we all agree on the importance of the clause. As I have alluded to, I am happy to work across the House where possible to see whether there are ways that we can address the points that have been raised.

Our intention in clause 1 is to define “victim” for the purposes of the relevant clauses in part 1 of the Bill, so that it is clear who is covered and entitled to benefit from the measures. If I may put it this way, we have sought to be more permissive and less prescriptive to avoid inadvertently excluding particular groups. In resisting some of the amendments, we have tried to avoid an approach that is duplicative. We do not need to put something in the Bill if there are other ways that we can achieve the same objective.

The clause focuses on victims of crime, which is relevant to the Bill’s measures designed to improve support services for victims, regardless of whether they report the crime, and to improve compliance with the victims code. I am grateful for the constructive engagement on the clause. I believe that the definition as drafted is a good definition, but there are certain points that I will take away and reflect on further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Sir Edward. Amendments 44 and 49 have been grouped together, but they have little to nothing to do with each other. Is there any way to separate them, or am I stuck with that group?

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I hope that the Minister can find a way of considering this issue and perhaps of making sure that there is some prompt for NHS organisations, which, given their clinical view, do not think as broadly as they ought to about the victims of the people they are seeking to get back into society, although one completely understands that. I think this would be a useful amendment for the Minister to accept.
Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for tabling the amendment and airing this issue. The amendment seeks to ensure that victims are given

“information from all state agencies with responsibilities under the victims’ code, including the NHS, to help them understand the criminal justice process and beyond, including grant of leave or discharge.”

I recognise the importance of ensuring that victims receive the information they need to help them understand the process, including when the release—temporary or otherwise—of offenders detained outside the prison system is being considered.

The hon. Member for Rotherham drew attention to cases where an offender was subject to a hospital order. As the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood highlighted, such offenders are subject to a different process from offenders in the prison estate. They are viewed through the prism of health as opposed to criminal justice, and decisions about their detention under the Mental Health Act are taken by the mental health tribunal or the Secretary of State for Justice, rather than by the Parole Board. However, I want to reassure hon. and right hon. Members that communication with victims about those processes is handled in the same way, through the HMPPS victim contact scheme.

Under the scheme, the victim liaison officer will share information about the process for considering release and will notify victims when the patient is having their detention reviewed. The victim liaison officer will also support victims and make representations to decision makers on conditions of discharge in appropriate cases. The victim liaison officer is best placed to communicate with and support victims in such circumstances, as they will be expert in the process and have victims’ interests at the centre of their work.

The victims code includes some information about the process and what victims can expect from those involved, under right 11, the right

“to be given information about the offender following a conviction.”

I think it is right to keep the detail of who will deliver services, and how, in the code rather than in the Bill, in order to build in flexibility so that it can continue to be updated and to enable the inclusion of more operational details, such as those I have outlined. However, I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and the hon. Member for Rotherham about how we get an organisation such as the NHS—I had the privilege being the Minister of State for Health for two and a half years—to engage with that in what is understandably a different context, because there is often a medical mindset rather than a criminal justice one. My plea to Members is that this is better considered in the context of the revised code, and that perhaps we can use that to better draw out victims’ rights.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Could I push the Minister to say that he will consider this in the revision of the code? I hear everything that he says, but it relies on all the different parts working together, which simply is not the case.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Notwithstanding any legislative reason or primary legislation that might limit our scope, I am quite happy to look at it in the context of the code. We have published a pre-draft to give colleagues and organisations the opportunity to engage with it and make suggestions before it goes to the formal consultation process, and so that it is available to members of the Committee during our deliberations. I encourage the hon. Lady to engage with that.

With that, I hope that I may encourage the hon. Lady to treat this as a probing amendment, rather than one she wishes to press to a Division.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will indeed treat it as a probing amendment. I am given confidence by the Minister’s words. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. That is at the core of why I would like the Government to agree to the amendment. The principles are at the core of the Bill and agencies must comply with them. If they do not, that will call into question the essence of this entire piece of legislation.

I understand from the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report that they believe the wording cannot be “must”—I am probably predicting what the Minister will say—because agencies require flexibility. However, having spoken to various stakeholders, I have seen no example where such flexibility would be required or reason why we could not reflect it in the code, rather than by watering down victims’ rights in the Bill.

As the Government’s reasoning remains unclear, I hope the Minister might clear that up for us today. If the intention is to prevent civil litigation from victims, the Bill already achieves that. Victims deserve some form of accountability from criminal justice agencies, and weakening victims’ rights by using the word “should” will result only in a Bill that fails to make a difference on the ground.

The victims code has been in place since 2006. Compliance with the code has always been low; even though the Government have reformed it four or five times, that has not driven better compliance. The Bill is an opportunity to improve that, but by stating that agencies only “should” comply, it absolutely fails to do so. I will repeat what London Victims’ Commissioner Claire Waxman said during the evidence session. She said that

“delivering the code is a minimum level of service to victims. Even if agencies are complying and delivering it, it is still a minimum level.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 29, Q67.]

As shadow victims Minister, I speak to survivors every day. Their harrowing truths and inspiring bravery helps shape what we do in this place, and I thank every single one of them for sharing their truth with me. I want to pay tribute to one of them, Sophie, who spoke to me. She was raped when she was just 19 years old. After Sophie reported the rape to the police, she was brought in to be interviewed, after which months went by with little contact or communication about her case and what was going to happen. She was not told of her entitlement to an independent sexual violence adviser for eight months after speaking to the police and had to wait two years for her day in court after it was pushed back several times. Sophie was told by the detective on her case that it would help her to give evidence in person in court, which she did, even though she was absolutely petrified and the thought of it retraumatised her. She desperately did not want to.

Her Crown Prosecution Service barrister looked at Sophie’s case for only 30 minutes before the trial. He had no communication with her before that—not even a conversation before the trial began. Sophie told me that she felt like a tick-box exercise for the CPS to just get its stats up and get the case into court.

During the trial, Sophie was put behind a screen to protect her from seeing the perpetrator—a little screen that goes up, knowing that the perpetrator is there—but the defence barrister persisted and used a horrific scare tactic to throw Sophie off. He asked her to open a booklet that was in front of her. She opened it to page 1 and in front of her was the image of the man who was the perpetrator. Her own barrister did absolutely nothing to stop that. That not only had a very real mental health impact there and then—she suffered a panic attack and anxiety and had to leave the courtroom—but she could not gather herself afterwards because it had retraumatised her. She said to me that she thought she was going to vomit there and then in the court, and nobody did anything to stop her. The witness assistant, who was of course trying her best, said, “Pull yourself together, Sophie. You need to go back in there and do this.”

Sophie told me that because of the technique used she was unable to remember any of the important details of the incident, and we know what trauma does: people cannot recall really important incidents and detail. The intense stress and anxiety she was experiencing meant that she just could not remember. She believes that that led to the not guilty verdict.

After waiting a torturous two years for justice, Sophie was retraumatised and her attacker walked free. Although I agree with the four overarching principles, I do not agree that they are a step in the right direction for victims. We must make sure that the Bill is fit for purpose and that agencies have a duty on them. That is why the amendments and changing “should” to “must” are essential.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for the amendments and the opportunity to debate them, and for her articulating her rationale for them so clearly. I hope you will allow me to address all four together, Sir Edward, as they each seek to ensure that the victims code is required to make provision for services for victims that reflect the overarching code of principles in the Bill—as the hon. Lady has said, replacing “should” with “must”.

I want to explain the reasons behind the approach we have taken. The principles provide a legislative framework for the code, which ensures that the code captures the core issues that we know victims are most concerned about—the right information, the right support, the opportunity to have their views heard and the ability to challenge decisions that affect them.

I reassure the Committee that the detailed entitlements for victims are set out in the victims code. As it is a statutory code of practice, there is already a clear expectation that agencies will deliver the entitlements that it sets out, and agencies are required to justify any departure from it if challenged by victims or the courts. The hon. Lady gave the example of particular cases. There will be many others. Without straying into decisions made by judges in those cases, she illustrated through that example why the principles matter.

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Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister agree that if this was written into primary legislation and it did not happen, a victim who sought to challenge that would have a case in law to do so, and would not otherwise?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will turn to non-compliance and why we believe that the approach that we have set out in the clause is the right one. I suspect that Opposition Members may take a different view, but after making a little progress, I will hopefully address some of their points—whether or not to their satisfaction.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way again, before he goes on? I am not seeking to try his patience.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I cannot say no to the right hon. Lady.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Dame Vera Baird, the former Victims’ Commissioner, said in evidence:

“There is a statistic—from 2020, I think—that 70% of people who have been through the criminal justice system as victims have never heard of the victims code. We used Office for National Statistics data in 2021 and showed that 80% of victims who had gone through the entire criminal justice system had never heard of the victims code. The first code was in 2006, so it has been completely ignored for 18 years.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 29, Q66.]

How will the Minister’s wording tackle that better than beefing up the language in the Bill would?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, but there is a slight difference between her two points. That survey refers to the number of victims who were not aware of the code; that does not necessarily mean that their rights were not available to them, or even that they were not given to them. They may not have seen it through the prism of the victims code, but they may have been kept informed. She is right to highlight that under Governments of all political complexions there is more to do in driving this, but the key point that that evidence points to is the importance of raising awareness of the code, ensuring that people know it exists and understand what it can do for them. As we progress through the other clauses, I suspect that we will touch on how we can do more on that. Raising awareness of the code’s existence and what is in it is the crucial first step to empowering people to request, push for and demand their rights under it.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In terms of raising awareness, does my right hon. Friend agree that the language used in any explanatory materials needs to be crystal clear, and tested for comprehension by people of all levels of ability and understanding? We know that many people in prison who come up against the criminal justice system from that side have very low reading ages. It is really important, because some offenders are also the victims of crime, that what we put into legislation with every good intention is clearly understood.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the reasons, but not the only reason—I suspect we may touch on this when we come to amendment 49—why our approach is to place a greater reliance on the victims code, because the nature of legislation is that there is often a requirement for it to be phrased in a certain way with particular language for good legal and drafting reasons. With a statutory code such as the victims code, there is greater flexibility to ensure that it can do what it aims to do, which is to make it accessible. As I said, I suspect we may touch on this when we discuss amendment 49 from the hon. Member for Rotherham.

On addressing non-compliance, the Bill places a new duty on criminal justice bodies to collect and share code compliance information with police and crime commissioners, who in turn are under a new duty to share information with the Secretary of State. We also intend for information to be shared within national oversight structures, and there is a duty on the Secretary of State to publish information, which will allow the public to assess, through greater transparency, the compliance of public bodies with the code. Where issues are identified by police and crime commissioners or others, operational agencies can take action to address them and enforce standards. Should local solutions fail, senior figures in the criminal justice system will provide national oversight to drive improvements at a system level. Ministers already have powers to intervene where systemic failures occur, such as the ability to direct inspections or direct measures to remedy failures.

When things go wrong, victims can make a complaint. The Bill will simplify the process for victims of crime to escalate complaints. It does that by removing the need to raise a compliant through an MP before it can be made to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Instead, it allows victims to make a complaint directly or through a nominated representative. I know that Members of this House are always diligent in considering PHSO requests and forms from members of the public and their constituents—we look at them, we review them and we sign and submit them where appropriate—but we believe that this simplifies the process in these circumstances and provides for direct access. The PHSO will investigate complaints and can recommend that an organisation issues an apology, provides a financial remedy or takes action to resolve the complaint to prevent the same thing from happening again. Crucially, it can follow up on whether action has been taken and report to Parliament where an organisation has failed, not only providing a remedy for individuals but being a driving force for improvements for victims.

In summary, our view is that the Bill provides an appropriate legal framework for the victims code that sends a clear message on the principles that are important for victims, alongside new monitoring and oversight measures to drive up compliance with the code. I hope that the shadow Minister will not press her amendments to a Division, but I will wait and see.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his response. As I predicted in my outline—I must admit, I am not psychic, but I do read the Minister’s responses to the Justice Committee and in pre-legislative scrutiny—I am disappointed that the view has not changed, because when speaking to agencies and victims, that is what they all tell me is needed to provide the support that victims so desperately need. I outlined that in the emotive response from Sophie, who spoke to me about her awful experience, but we know that that is just one experience. These experiences happen time and again across the country, and I am sure that because all of us here have an interest in victims and the justice system, we will all have heard similar cases.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not understood that and is not seeking to change “should” to “must”. As we heard clearly in the evidence sessions, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood mentioned in regard to the former Victims’ Commissioner, who talked about the need for this to be outlined, criminal justice agencies do not know that the code even exists. Changing “should” to “must” would be a vital way of ensuring that this is on the face of the Bill. Victims deserve some sort of accountability from these agencies, and the weakening of their rights through using only the word “should” will not make a difference on the ground. I hope that we are trying to work together today to make that difference for victims on the ground. The victims code has been in place since 2006, but as has been outlined today and in statements from our witnesses, it is not being used. It is therefore not making a tangible difference to victims’ experiences and the criminal justice agencies are not using it to its full potential.

I will not press the amendment to a vote now, but may bring it back at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Absolutely: prelingually deaf people in particular do not have English as a first language. British Sign Language is their first language and we cannot just assume that they will be able to read written English in the same way in which they could understand proper sign language interpretation. That is a misunderstanding and a lack of awareness on the part of those who provide services. If we do not make it clear that access has to be provided, with reasonable adjustments to ensure that deaf people can understand what is being said and can exercise their rights, we will not be doing a proper job.

It is all too easy to think about this as an added extra—that it would be good if we had enough money in the budget to translate the victims code into different languages—but translating the code is an essential part of ensuring that it is implemented and usable by many victims. If we do not do this, we will not have the success that we all hope for from putting the principles underlying the code into legislation. We can have as much flexibility as we like by not putting the draft code into primary legislation, but we need to make sure it is accessible to those who need it. The amendment is important. It is not a nice added extra: it is an essential part of ensuring proper awareness and that the victims code is usable and benefits those who need it to access their rights and to be able to deal with the criminal justice system as victims.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 49 would amend the first principle of the victims code, which says that victims should be provided with information to help them to understand the criminal justice process, to state that the code should be provided in a format or language required for a victim to understand.

The victims code includes an entitlement—indeed, it is the very first entitlement—for victims to be able to understand and to be understood. The right states:

“You have the Right to be given information in a way that is easy to understand and to be provided with help to be understood, including, where necessary, access to interpretation and translation services.”

Not only is it implicit in that that the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and the hon. Member for Rotherham are addressed, but in the revised draft of the victims code that we have published, footnote 28 on page 15, which sets out right 1 in more detail, explicitly says that the right

“includes both spoken and non-spoken interpreting, for example if a victim is deaf or hard of hearing.”

It is there in the code not only implicitly, but explicitly, particularly in respect of the circumstances alluded to by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood.

We appreciate that the criminal justice process is complex and on occasion can appear impenetrable. The code is absolutely clear in right 1, which is “To be able to understand and to be understood”—

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will finish my sentence, then of course I will. The code is absolutely clear in right 1 that all providers are expected to consider any relevant personal characteristics that may affect a victim’s ability to understand and be understood, and to communicate with victims in simple and accessible language—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury in his intervention —to help them to understand what is happening.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I began my speech on the amendment by welcoming the new changes, but the fact of having it enforceable is the nub of the amendment. Is the Minister able to speak about that? I have the right to be treated with respect in this place, but it does not always happen.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. I will just round off my point, then address her point specifically. Right 1 of the code is clear that victims who, for example, have difficulty understanding or speaking English—the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood alluded to the fact that some people’s first language will be not English but British Sign Language, so they would be encompassed in the wording—are entitled to use an interpreter when being interviewed by the police or giving evidence as a witness, and so on. It also sets out the circumstances in which victims are able to receive translations of documents or information and makes it clear that all translation or interpretation services must be offered to the victim free of charge. The approach we have adopted throughout, and continue to support, is that we set out in the Bill the overarching principles that are important to victims and underpin the victims code, but the operational detail of how they are delivered sits in the code itself.

To address the hon. Member for Rotherham’s point, it is of course a statutory code, and we are strengthening that in the way we are approaching it in this legislation, but I appreciate her point. When she reviews the code, if she has suggestions about how right 1 on page 15 might be made more explicit—it is there, but she might argue that the footnote 28 at the bottom of page 15 could be made rather more prominent—I am happy to reflect on them and, equally and more broadly, any suggestions that she or other right hon. and hon. Members have on how the code might be made more accessible, including in its language, which goes to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury’s point in the debate on a previous group of amendments.

We are clear that given that the focus in the code is on the need to provide information in a way that is understood by those who need it, the amendment is unnecessary. We believe that the code is the right place for the right to be articulated, and on that basis I hope that the hon. Member for Rotherham will consider not pressing the amendment to a Division.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 45, in clause 2, page 2, line 23, at end insert

“and with all state agencies with responsibilities under the victims’ code, including HMCTS and the NHS when considering leave or discharge;”.

Amendment 45 follows on from my amendment 44, which was about access to information for victims of mentally disordered offenders. Amendment 45 focuses more on release decisions. Victims need information beyond the arrest, prosecution and conviction of the offender: they also have a right to receive information about the offender’s leave and discharge. In all other situations that right is a given, but we need to ensure that it also works in practice for victims of mentally disordered offenders.

Mentally disordered offenders who have committed serious crimes are typically granted leave or discharged by mental health tribunals, also known as first tier tribunals. Hundred Families, with which I worked on the amendment, says that there is no evidence of mental health tribunals taking victims’ rights seriously—a bold statement. Victims are not considered to be interested parties when the release of dangerous offenders is being considered. Mentally disordered offenders who have committed very serious crimes can apply for leave or discharge within six months of conviction and every year thereafter. Victims of such mentally ill offenders are granted only very limited rights to comment in the tribunal hearings, particularly in comparison with when parole boards consider the discharge of offenders who have committed serious violence.

At the parole board, victims can make a personal statement, attend the hearing, receive copies of any decisions and appeal the decision. At mental health tribunals, victims cannot make any personal statements. They are not allowed to attend the hearing, do not receive decisions and have no means of challenging any decision, because they are made in secret and not publicly disclosed. I draw the Minister’s attention to his remarks about my amendment 44: what I have said brings them into dispute. I am interested to hear his thoughts about that.

Other jurisdictions—notably Scotland, but also Queensland, Australia—allow victims’ participation at mental health tribunals without any known problems. Amendment 45 simply aims to bring these victims’ rights in line with those of any victims participating in the parole process.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her speech setting out the rationale for amendment 45. She seeks to give victims the opportunity to make their voices heard during particular types of proceedings. The amendment seeks explicitly to include the NHS and HMCTS within the victims code principle that victims should have the opportunity to have their views heard in the criminal justice process. It seeks to cover cases in which the full or temporary release of offenders detained outside the prison system under the Mental Health Act 2007 is being considered.

Eligible victims are able to provide their views on release conditions for offenders, but they are not able to explain to the decision makers in the mental health tribunal the impact that the crime had on them. We agree with the hon. Lady: we do not think that is right. Victims are able to give such explanations in the courts and the parole systems through a victim personal statement, and we believe that that should be the case regardless of where the offender is detained. That is why the Government have committed to making provision in the new victims code for victim personal statements to be submitted to mental health tribunals considering the release of an offender.

That commitment is reflected in the draft code that we have published. Right 7, the right to make a victim personal statement, includes draft text to show how that would apply to victims eligible for the victim contact scheme. We are working through the details with our partners, including the judiciary, to consider how we can appropriately achieve our aim in a way that recognises the particular sensitivities relating to the offender’s health records and conditions in these settings.

We have committed to consult on an updated victims code after the passage of the Bill. As always, I am open to working with the hon. Lady on ensuring that the new provisions relating to mental health tribunals meet the needs of victims. We will keep her updated on the work we are doing. For reasons of flexibility, it is right to keep the detail of who will deliver the provision, and how, in the code itself rather than in the Bill, but I hope that I have reassured the hon. Lady that we share her view and that we are working to deliver on that, both through the code and with the judiciary.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed, and I thank the Minister. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I tabled the amendments and new clause because I have had to deal in a short period of time with two constituency cases of pretty horrendous child sexual exploitation in which victims of extremely serious crimes were not notified when an offender was considered for transfer to open conditions until after a decision had been made and, in one case, after the decision had been implemented, which goes completely against the existing practice that is detailed in the code and should be enforced across all our justice systems. That happened despite the statutory duty on His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to notify victims. Neither constituent had the opportunity to express a view on the transfer, to outline their concerns or to contribute in respect of the conditions of the release. Instead, in a bolt out of a blue, they were told, seemingly by accident, that their offender was out on the streets. It is hard to imagine the shock and terror that caused them.

When I raised the cases with the then Secretary of State for Justice, I was told that both incidents were the result of human error. The two incidents were markedly similar and affected people in a relatively small geographical area in an extremely short period of time, so I find it very hard to believe that they were isolated and not, instead, a system failure. It is difficult to understand how such errors can be made if well-understood processes are in place, as we are expected to believe, and those processes are underpinned by statute. The changes in the amendments and new clause would strengthen the statutory underpinning, hopefully to thereby avoid similar incidents happening in future and ensure that such devastating mistakes could not happen again.

Amendment 48 would add “including on parole decisions” to clause 2(3)(c), which says that victims

“should have the opportunity to make their views heard in the criminal justice process”.

That should already be happening but sadly is not, and victims are being left vulnerable, uninformed and without their rights being met.

New clause 7 would place a core responsibility on the Parole Board, as the statutory body, to ensure that the right of victims to make their views heard is fulfilled, by monitoring and reporting on how it supports victims to ensure that their views are heard.

Amendment 50 would, similarly to amendment 49, ensure that victims have the opportunity to make their views heard in the criminal justice process and that they should be provided with the appropriate support to communicate their views. The amendment is supported by, among others, the Bell Foundation, to which I am grateful for its support. The amendment is vital for the victims the foundation works with to ensure that they can be involved in parole decisions.

As I stated in my remarks about amendment 49, Google Translate is used too frequently and is not an effective tool for ensuring that victims can understand and be understood. An example from Rape Crisis refers to a victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence whose first language is not English. When she attended a meeting with the police, no support or interpreting service was provided. She was handed a “no further action” letter that provided no rationale and gave no understanding of what it was. She had to struggle to use Google Translate to understand the decisions that had been made. How is she supposed to communicate her views about a parole decision if she is unable even to understand the process?

All victims deserve the right to be involved in parole decisions, but we must first ensure that they can be understood when they give their views and that they also understand the process.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before I turn to amendment 48, let me address amendment 50, which would add to the victims code the principle that victims should be provided with appropriate support to make their views heard in the criminal justice process. It is right that victims are able to make their views heard, and I agree that they may need support to help to navigate the process effectively. That is why there is already support in place for them to do so, including support provided by organisations and services, such as independent sexual violence and independent domestic violence advisers, and other victim support services that can help explain and help victims navigate the justice system. A victim personal statement is key to the victim being heard in the criminal justice process. That allows victims to explain in their own words how a crime has affected them.

Under code right 7, “To make a Victim Personal Statement”, the police are expected to provide victims with information about the victim personal statement process, so they can decide whether to make one. The College of Policing provides guidance for the police on what victims need to know about the process of making a victim personal statement. To help victims, the Ministry of Justice has published guidance called, “Making a Victim Personal Statement”, which explains what it is, how it works and what the victim needs to do.

Support at court if the victim is due to read out their victim personal statement may include special measures, such as the use of a screen or live link, and support from the witness service can include accompanying the victim when they give evidence or read their victim personal statement. If giving a victim personal statement during the parole process, victims who are part of the victim contact scheme will have a victim liaison officer, who can help them write their statement and let them know how it will be used during a parole hearing. I hope that I have gone some way to satisfy the hon. Lady that support is already in place.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be quick because I know we have a vote coming. I agree that the instruments are in place, but the problem is that it relies on humans to actually let the victim know or the Parole Board to let the victim support know, and that is where it is breaking down.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope I might address that to some extent as I turn now to amendment 48 and new clause 7, which relate to the role of victims in the parole system. Amendment 48 would add parole decisions to the principle in the victims’ code that victims’ views should be heard in the criminal justice process, and new clause 7 would place a duty on the Parole Board to monitor how it supports and enables victims to give their views to the Parole Board. It would be required to report that to the Secretary of State, who in turn would be required to publish it. It is vital that victims are informed of the parole process and are given every opportunity to engage with it so their voices are heard. The parole process can be distressing for victims, so it is crucial that they understand how the system works and receive support to effectively engage in the process.

We have made improvements to the way victims can receive information and participate in parole proceedings, including the introduction of decision summaries and public hearings. Parole hearings are part of the criminal justice process, which extends beyond the trial. That means the principle that victims should have the opportunity to make their views heard in the criminal justice process already includes relevant parole decisions, so the amendment is not necessary.

Right 11 in the victims code already sets out victims’ entitlements to submit a victim personal statement as part of the parole process. Where the victim chooses to make a victim personal statement, the Parole Board Rules 2019 require that it is included in the dossier of written evidence submitted to the Parole Board by the Secretary of State. Right 11 of the code then requires the Parole Board to read the victim personal statement, if one has been made. We have committed to developing a process to allow victims the opportunity to make written submissions to the Parole Board in addition to their victim personal statement. Information in the submissions could include their views on the offender’s potential release and questions to the Parole Board. Provision for victim submissions will be included in the new victims’ code.

It is vital that victims are supported during the process, that there is oversight to ensure they are being given the opportunity to have their voices heard and that they feel supported to do so. However, the proposed new clause seeks to put duties on the Parole Board in relation to support for victims. The reality is that the Parole Board does not liaise directly with victims. In practice, the responsibility for supporting victims through the parole process lies with probation service victim liaison officers, who sit within His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. They are specially trained to work with and support victims through the parole system, including ensuring that they can submit a victim personal statement and be informed of the outcome of the review.

Under the current code, victims are entitled to be given information about the offender following a conviction and to be told about how to make a victim personal statement. That is delivered through the referral of eligible victims to the victim contact service, and they are then assigned a victim liaison officer. That means that compliance with those entitlements can be monitored and reported on via clauses 6 and 7. The clauses place a duty on HMPPS to collect and share information on the delivery of victims code entitlements and to jointly review this with police and crime commissioners, and on police and crime commissioners to report to the Secretary of State, who will publish relevant information.

On the basis that we can monitor this important information by different means, and that an updated victims code will include the information regarding representations to the Parole Board, I encourage the hon. Lady not to press her amendment to a Division at this time.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for what he says, but it does not given me the reassurances that I want, because things are not working in practice. I will not press my amendment to a vote now, but I am minded that the new clauses will come at the end of our consideration. I may well press the matter then if he is unable to give those reassurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The APPG that I chair produced a report into the state of restorative justice in the UK, and looking at resourcing RJ was one of our nine recommendations. I ask the Minister to take a look at those recommendations again to see how we can better allow victims to access RJ when they feel that they want to and when it is appropriate.

I do not deny that excellent work is being done. I commend the practitioners and prisons engaging with the issue, but far too often I hear from victims who want to go through this process that they find it a struggle—or else victims have no idea that restorative justice exists. That is why enshrining it as a right in the victims code would help to raise awareness and ensure that victims can access it if they want to. I will bring my remarks to a close, but would be grateful to hear any reassuring remarks from the Minister.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he and the all-party parliamentary group that he chairs do on this important issue. I am grateful to him for giving us an opportunity to debate restorative justice. He and I have spoken about it in the past; as I have highlighted, we are committed to the effective use of restorative justice in appropriate cases.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting Ray and Vi Donovan’s case and situation as an example of how restorative justice can work well. I know that when it is delivered in the right circumstances it can result in improved victim satisfaction and reduced reoffending, bringing benefits to victims, offenders and their communities.

We support local agencies providing restorative justice in the devolved model that came in a few years ago. We looked to police and crime commissioners to fund services locally, as they are best placed to assess local need. We are encouraging greater co-commissioning between police and crime commissioners and regional probation directors.

The second code principle in the Bill is already clear that victims

“should be able to access services which support them (including, where appropriate, specialist services)”.

That covers all types of support services. We would consider it to include restorative justice services where appropriate.

The code also goes further. Right 4—to be provided with information when reporting a crime—is clear that victims are entitled to information from the police about restorative justice and how to access such services in their local area, and that all service providers will consider whether victims would benefit from this information at any stage of the criminal justice process. We are also using the Bill to create a duty for agencies to raise awareness of the code, including information about restorative justice, so that victims know what services they can, and should, receive.

I hope my hon. Friend will not press his amendment; he said that it is essentially a probing amendment. Specifying different types of support services in primary legislation might, we fear, inadvertently narrow the current broad coverage, but he raises some very important points.

First, we must be cautious of a general entitlement to access to restorative justice. That would not always be appropriate because offenders must voluntarily agree to participate, as my hon. Friend highlighted. To give him some hopefully positive news, I am open to considering alternative approaches that the Government can assist with to promote the effective use of restorative justice in appropriate cases. I read his report carefully and, as luck would have it, I have written to him—I think I signed it today—responding over four pages to his nine recommendations. In that letter to him, I offered to meet with him outwith this Committee to engage on these issues and see what more we can do to work together. Given that, I hope my hon. Friend will not press his amendment to a vote. I look forward to exploring the issue with him in more detail in that meeting, should he wish to take me up on it.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister. That is incredibly reassuring and I look forward to reading his response when it lands. On the basis of those reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
It is only right that victims born of rape are given tangible, practical support to overcome the pain they have felt. We must support them and their extraordinary courage in building a life in the aftermath of violence. I urge the Government to adopt amendment 55.
Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I turn first to amendment 38, which seeks to include victim compensation as an additional victims code principle, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for her explanation of it. I should put on the record at this point that I am aware of the hon. Lady’s tireless work to support victims of crime, particularly victims of child sexual exploitation. She and I have worked on this issue in my previous incarnation in this role and I know that during my interlude in the Department for Health and Social Care—and, very briefly, in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury—she has continued relentlessly to pursue this cause. Now that I am back in the Ministry of Justice, it is nice that we can pick up some of the issues that we were discussing back in 2018 and 2019.

I agree with the sentiment behind the amendment. It is quite right that, in appropriate circumstances, victims should receive compensation for the harm that they have suffered as a result of a criminal offence. She made one point that was particularly interesting. When I have previously talked to staff at the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, I have found that their preference is for less discretion and more prescription, from the perspective that it makes their job easier because that is black and white—that is the decision—rather than there being any potential grey area that causes uncertainty for claimants and applicants.

Responding to the hon. Lady’s key point, however, I will say that this issue is already reflected in the victims code. Right 5 for the victim is:

“ To be provided with information about compensation”.

That includes an entitlement for victims to be told about how to seek compensation, and is covered by the existing code principle in the Bill that victims should be provided with information to help them to understand the criminal justice process.

Compensation can come from several sources: court-ordered compensation; the taxpayer-funded criminal injuries compensation scheme; and civil compensation claims. The code provides for victims to be made aware of routes through which they might obtain compensation for the harm or loss that they have suffered, but the code is not in itself a mechanism for providing compensation and the eligibility of individuals for compensation is determined by the courts or other bodies, such as the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, that operate independently of Government. For that reason, it is our view that the existing entitlement to information about compensation is the right one for the code.

I turn to amendment 39, which seeks to provide that victims of child sexual abuse are entitled to and can access compensation under the statutory criminal injuries compensation scheme by including it as a requirement in the victims code and changing the scope, time limits and unspent convictions eligibility rules of the scheme.

As I have already alluded to, I am aware of the hon. Lady’s long-standing interest and work in ensuring support for victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation. I recall that she raised concerns about time limits and other aspects of the scheme in a debate, which I think I answered, on the Government’s victims strategy in 2018. I welcome her contributions to the review of the scheme that we announced in that strategy. However, our view is that the victims code is not a mechanism through which changes to the scheme can be made. Changes such as those that the amendment seeks to bring about need to be made in accordance with the primary legislation under which the scheme is made and to follow the appropriate procedures for any changes. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995 requires that before a new or amended scheme can be made, a draft must be laid in Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.

We are actively considering the issues that the hon. Lady raises in relation to the scheme itself, which of course reflect recommendations made by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. We have committed to consult on whether to change the scope and time limits of the scheme, and we hope to do so in the coming months. I caveat that by saying that, of course, the scheme must be financially sustainable; that will be one of the elements that we will need to consider.

As the hon. Lady will know, this will be the third consultation of our review, as we have already consulted on reforms to the scheme as a whole in 2020, which was the process that she worked with me to kick off when I was last in the Ministry of Justice, and then again in 2022 on whether to amend the unspent convictions eligibility rule, following—I believe—a court judgment requiring that review.

My intention is to publish a single response to all three consultations as soon as they are all completed and as soon as is practically possible. I am seeking, as the hon. Lady will see, to get through some of the unfinished business that I had in the Department when I left it and went to the Department of Health and Social Care. We have brought this proposal forward. There are a number of other issues that still remain in my in-tray that I recall from when I worked with her pre-pandemic.

For those reasons, I encourage the hon. Member for Rotherham not to press this amendment to a vote, having put on the record her clear views.

I turn to amendment 55, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and seeks to provide that children born of rape are entitled to and can access compensation under the statutory criminal injuries compensation scheme by including it as a requirement in the victims code. As the hon. Lady has already alluded to, the Bill explicitly recognises, for the first time in legislation, people born of rape as victims in their own right. This will help them to access vital support services. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and to other campaigners who have relentlessly pursued this cause and successfully campaigned for this change.

In relation to criminal injuries compensation, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley may know, the statutory scheme has eligibility criteria that are approved by Parliament. The core purpose of the scheme is to provide compensation to victims who suffer a serious physical or mental injury attributable to their being a direct victim of a crime of violence. The scheme defines a crime of violence and specifies when a person will be eligible for a compensation payment for injury directly resulting from that crime. Under the current scheme, the birth mother of a child born of rape would be entitled to apply for compensation as the direct victim of a sexual assault and a crime of sexual violence. An additional payment can be made where a pregnancy directly results from the sexual assault.

The scheme also provides for compensation to be available to a person who sustains injury while taking an exceptional and justified risk in the course of limiting or preventing a crime, or if they have been present at or witnessed an incident or its immediate aftermath in which a loved one sustains a criminal injury. Provisions in the Bill do not affect eligibility for the scheme and, as I have already said, the victims code is not a mechanism through which changes can be made. A change such as that which the amendment proposes would need to be made in accordance with the primary legislation under which the scheme is made.

I hope that I can give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley a little bit of reassurance, as I did for the hon. Member for Rotherham. We are in the process of finalising the third and final part of the consultation. When we have done that, we will come forward to Parliament with our response, and of course that will have to be laid before Parliament as a new scheme. I hope that might give both hon. Members the opportunity to raise these issues in the correct way, when the scheme is being considered by the House.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome all that the Minister is doing. If I can help or support him in any way, obviously I will. The victims code is a fantastic tool, but it is only useful if victims know about it. Unfortunately, therein lies the nub of most of our arguments. However, I have heard what he said, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Seventh sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Thursday 29th June 2023

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Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 29 June 2023 - (29 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

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Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham—not only for her powerful speech today, but for the huge amount of work that she has done on this very, very important issue. All of us here today can hear how absolutely important it is that the Government act on this issue. We fully support her in her endeavours and urge the Minister to respond positively and to find a way through. Registered sex offenders cannot be allowed to change their names without informing the police, and without the police then being able to take action. Leaving that loophole open calls into question the integrity of all the schemes that the public rely on. We all think that the public are safe through such mechanisms, as my hon. Friend set out.

I am stumped for words by what my hon. Friend has called out, some of which is deeply shocking. The child sex offender disclosure scheme, the domestic violence disclosure scheme, and the Disclosure and Barring Service all rely on having the correct name. If they do not have that, how do they go about safeguarding the many survivors and victims out there? My hon. Friend pointed out that an offender can easily change their name from anywhere, even prison, and there is no joined-up approach between the statutory and other agencies. I understand from the data that she collected that the Home Office has confirmed that more than 16,000 offenders were charged with a breach of their notification requirements just in the five years between 2015 and 2020.

The BBC discovered that 700 registered sex offenders have gone missing in the last three years alone, so it is highly likely that they breached their notification requirements without getting caught. Families and survivors deserve to know if a perpetrator has changed their name. Relying on a system that depends on registered offenders self-reporting changes in their information is dangerous, and an enormous risk to public safety. I hope that the Minister will respond with the positive message that he will go back to his Department and work with colleagues to change that.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for her amendment and the debate that it has provoked, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) for his campaigning on this issue and his ten-minute rule Bill. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her dexterity in bringing the matter into the scope of the Bill, but above all I recognise the serious concern that certain categories of offender, such as sex offenders, might change their name to evade monitoring, which would clearly not be right. I pay tribute to Della and the Safeguarding Alliance for their work; I hope to meet them in the coming weeks to discuss the matter.

The UK already has some of the toughest powers in the world to deal with sex offenders and, more broadly, other offenders who pose a risk, but we are committed to ensuring that the system is as robust as it can be. The majority of offenders released from prison are subject to strict licence conditions to manage the risk of harm that they pose. In July 2022, a new standard licence condition was introduced that requires offenders to notify their probation practitioner if they change their name. Failure to disclose it is a breach of licence and could result in recall to custody.

However, as the hon. Lady ably illustrated in her remarks, that relies on those individuals doing the right thing. Given the nature of the offences and of the individuals concerned, I suggest that that poses a significant level of challenge. I will ask my officials to take away the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised about gov.uk, which sits with the Cabinet Office, and ask that it be looked into.

As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, there are multi-agency public protection arrangements designed to protect the public, including victims of crime, from serious harm by sexual offenders, violent offenders, terrorists and other dangerous offenders. They require the local criminal justice agencies and other bodies dealing with offenders to work in partnership. Measures are also in place that legally require registered sex offenders to inform the police of any name change; where a registered sex offender poses a specific risk in relation to name changes, the courts can restrict their ability to change their name, although again the same challenge exists.

Disclosure of any name change to victims is currently decided on a case-by-case basis. There will be a careful risk assessment process to consider whether disclosure of a name change is necessary for the protection of a victim, or whether it could provoke threats to the family of the offender or others, which could put them at risk. The process does need to be managed on a case-by-case basis. I do, however, fully understand the intention behind the ten-minute rule Bill, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Rotherham, and indeed the strength of feeling in the Committee today—and which I think we saw through attendance in the House when the ten-minute rule Bill was debated—to ensure that there are no loopholes that allow sex offenders to change their names unregistered.

--- Later in debate ---
Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I know that the Minister takes his brief incredibly seriously and recognises the severity of the consequences as things currently stand. I think he has also heard the degree of support within this room—and, I am quite sure, within the House—to do something quite dramatic to close this loophole. I will therefore gladly accept his offer, but I really need to see something different on the face of the Bill at a later stage, because we have to do something.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Because of the nature of the parliamentary Session and the carry-over, we will have a period between this Bill’s leaving Committee and its returning to the Floor of the House on Report, which I suspect will happen around Christmas time, given uncertainty over the timing of the King’s Speech. I am happy to use that period to work with the hon. Lady to see whether we can find a way forward ahead of Report stage.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister can address sentences and conditions, but we absolutely need the Home Office on board.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated assent.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With the Minister’s nodded confirmation that that will happen, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I, too, endorse the proposals brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham. In 2021, the former Victims’ Commissioner stated that 43% of rape victims pulled out of cases. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that trials can be especially difficult for victims, and that therapy guidance for victims pre-trial must be of a high standard and advertised to victims if the Government are to tackle worrying attrition rates in rape cases. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 53 would place in the victims code a requirement to inform victims of their right to access pre-trial therapy, and require the CPS to annually review the implementation of its pre-trial therapy guidance. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for provoking this debate by tabling the amendment.

It is vital that victims get the support they need to cope and recover from the impact of crime, and pre-trial therapy is a hugely important part of that. The hon. Member for Lewisham East commented on the number of complainants and victims who withdraw from a case—the technical phrase is victim attrition; it is not the best phrase in the world—or do not see it through. A variety of reasons and a range of factors sit behind that. Lack of therapeutic support may not be the only one, but it is undoubtedly one of them. I am aware of instances where victims have mistakenly been advised not to seek the therapeutic support they need and to which they are entitled while they are involved in a criminal justice process. That should not happen, and I am again grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham for raising that.

The first part of the amendment would require the victims code to include a specific requirement on all criminal justice agencies to inform victims of a right to pre-trial therapy. I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady to a degree that there are already many provisions in the Bill and, indeed, beyond it to make victims aware of how they can access pre-trial therapy. What came through in her remarks is that the challenge is not the obligations in the Bill or other legislation, but how they are operationalised and pull through into the experiences people have when interacting with the system.

The Bill already includes the code principle that victims should be able to access services that support them, including specialist services. The code itself includes the detail that those services can include pre-trial therapy and counselling, and we are introducing a new duty in the Bill on certain criminal justice agencies, including the police and the CPS, to raise awareness of the code and the rights within it. None the less, I am open to considering how we can make information relating to pre-trial therapy clearer in the new victims code, as it is critical that practitioners do not, even inadvertently, deter victims from seeking the support they need.

As hon. Members will be aware, we have committed to consult on an updated victims code after the passage of the Bill, and as I have said on previous occasions, I am happy to work with the hon. Member for Rotherham and others on the Committee on the new code. We have put out an indicative draft, which is almost a pre-consultation consultation, but that allows the flexibility for hon. Members and others to reflect back their thoughts on it.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As a point that may be interesting as we try to get this right established is that when I ran a rape crisis counselling service, this was not particularly an issue. Something has happened—something chilling—in the last eight years that means it is now a pressing issue. It was never the case, and rape crisis counsellors would always just make very sparing notes. Something has gone wrong, and in trying to move forward we should do a piece of work on where it started to go wrong.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady brings to the House and this Committee a huge amount of experience from having worked in this sector and seen changes to it, and an interest that she has maintained since being elected to the House—at the same time as I was—and through her shadow ministerial roles. She is right; it is important that, if things have changed, we seek to understand the genesis of and the reasons for that change, and how to address it.

Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The point being made about delay is important. The pandemic was of course a very difficult period for the courts. Is the Minister able to give us any reassurance that the courts will be able to hear these cases more quickly? I suspect one of the reasons for this situation is that, if there is a very long period between the incident and the time of trial and there are counselling notes over an extended period, there is a temptation to see if there is an element of coaching—the hon. Member for Rotherham made that point—or even inconsistent statements, as a period of time has lapsed.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight the importance of this point. On the big picture of court backlogs, it is important to remember that 90% of cases are dealt with in magistrates courts swiftly. It is the serious cases, such as those we are discussing, that are sent to the Crown court, and that is where we do see delays. There has been investment in Nightingale courtrooms—a new sort of super-court, if I can put it that way—just up the road from my constituency, in Loughborough. We are implementing a range of measures to tackle the backlog. He is absolutely right that the timeliness of a case being heard is a key factor in a victim sticking with the process and being able to give their best evidence. He is also right that the longer the delay, the greater the temptation to seek more “evidence”, more documents, over that period. Timeliness is hugely important.

We will also continue to take action to ensure that victims are not put off from seeking support due to fear that their therapy notes may be unnecessarily accessed as part of a criminal investigation, including through the proposed Government amendment that was alluded to, which will place a duty on police to request third-party materials that may include pre-trial therapy notes only when necessary and proportionate to the investigation.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to explore the Minister’s phrase about victims giving their “best evidence” in court. I have tried to get to the bottom of what is going on in the minds of the police. I think they see victims of crime as witnesses, rather than victims in their own right. They are trying to protect the evidence, effectively, to get the conviction that they want. The police need to understand that a well-supported victim is able to give the best evidence, because they have confidence and clarity of mind, and the support of knowing that there is someone there who has got their back. The reason I am arguing for a provision in the Bill—perhaps under an expansion of what specialist services means; I am happy if it is in the guidance—is to make the police aware that there is no chilling effect from a victim having pre-trial therapy.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I think progress is being made. In saying that, I point to, for example, the work being done through Operation Soteria. I pay tribute to the work of Chief Constable Sarah Crew and her officers in Avon and Somerset, and there are others working on these issues around the country, trying to change that understanding. There is of course more to do, which is why the hon. Lady has brought forward the amendment, but I see some encouraging signs, particularly in the work that Sarah has been leading.

The second part of the amendment would place a requirement on the Crown Prosecution Service to annually review the implementation of pre-trial therapy guidance. I reassure the hon. Lady that the Crown Prosecution Service already has a robust compliance and assurance regime across all its areas, which includes specific questions on consideration of the privacy rights of victims. The CPS is also a key part of Operation Soteria. Next month, the CPS will relaunch its individual quality assessment guidance, which is its assurance tool to make sure it is delivering high-quality casework. That will include additional information on consideration of a victim’s privacy rights during an investigation, which I hope will help bring consistency across the CPS.

I urge the hon. Lady not to press the amendment to a Division, as I do not believe that including this measure in the Bill is necessarily the best approach. As I have said a number of times, I am happy to work with her in respect of the code, the consultation and how we might draw this out a bit more clearly, but also on an operational basis more broadly. I suspect that we may be spending a lot of time together over the summer and coming months, given the number of commitments I have made to work with her. There may be ways that we can also work with colleagues at the Home Office, the police and others to make sure that what is already there is fully understood and operationalised.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Given those assurances, I will withdraw the amendment. I agree with the Minister that it is about the first or second community officer someone speaks to—that seems to be where the misunderstanding is, so we have to find a way to filter the message down down. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

--- Later in debate ---
Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 64 would require the victims code to state that victims must be informed of their rights to access special measures in the family court. We agree that all participants in court proceedings, including in the family court, should be able to give evidence to the best of their ability, and I appreciate that the shadow Minister cited a number of harrowing cases and highlighted some broader issues. If I may, I will confine myself rather more narrowly to the scope of the amendment. I will also highlight that I would be very wary of trespassing into territory that would see me commenting on what is rightly subject to judicial discretion and the decisions of individual judges.

We already have a number of measures in place to support participants in the family court whose ability to give evidence is impacted, as the shadow Minister set out, by the trauma and retraumatisation of having experienced domestic abuse and then having to give evidence. Examples of those special measures in family proceedings include giving evidence behind a protective screen or via video link.

In section 63 of our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, on which there was a large amount of cross-party co-operation—I am looking at the shadow Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley—we have strengthened eligibility for special measures for victims of domestic abuse in the family courts. I gently disagree with the hon. Member for Cardiff North when she says that it has made no difference. As a result, the existing Family Procedure Rules automatically deem victims of domestic abuse as vulnerable for the purposes of considering whether a participation direction for special measures should be made. That provision came into effect on 1 October 2021. However, the decision is quite rightly a matter for the presiding judge in the case.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff North highlighted, what the amendment addresses is raising awareness of rights—not the decision made by the judge, but awareness that the rights exist and that an application is possible. I agree that it is important not only that this provision exists, but that participants in the family court are made aware of it. However, I stress that the victims code and the provisions in part 1 of the Bill are intended to set out the minimum expectations for victims navigating criminal justice processes, rather than other proceedings or settings such as the family court. It is important to highlight that distinction.

We are, however, committed to ensuring that participants in family proceedings are aware of the role of special measures and of their entitlement to be considered for them. Following the implementation of the provision in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service have been monitoring the data on special measures requests using the online application service. We have been assessing what more could be done to make parties aware of their rights with regard to the provision of special measures.

As a result of the changes that have been made, guidance has been developed in collaboration with the Family Justice Council, which provides information on the support and special measures available at local courts. This information is now set out with notices of hearing in all family cases.

I hope that what I have said goes some way towards reassuring the Committee that we are taking steps to make sure that victims of domestic abuse are aware of the special measures that they can access in the family courts. We are consulting on the victims code; I say to the Committee that that, rather than the Bill, would be the right place for consideration of such measures. Placing such measures in primary legislation would add rigidity to what should be a flexible process to update the code and ensure that the rights enshrined within it keep pace. On that basis, I encourage the shadow Minister not to press amendment 64 to a Division.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I understand what the Minister says, and I appreciate his reflections, but I have to point out the number and the intensity of issues that I have raised and the amount of concerning evidence from the women I have spoken to. The amendment would have an impact on real cases. It would go some way towards helping victims to understand that they can get access to special measures in court. I have given illustrations from cases in which rape victims were not able to have a screen and were forced to speak to the perpetrator. They need to feel that they are empowered, that they are survivors and that they have the ability to ask for those special measures.

Amendment 64 would go a long way towards ensuring that things start to change—that the culture starts to change—in the family courts. That is why I would like to press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 2

Ayes: 6

Noes: 9

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Fay Jones.)

Victims and Prisoners Bill (Eighth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Thursday 29th June 2023

(1 year ago)

Public Bill Committees
Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 29 June 2023 - (29 Jun 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 27, in clause 2, page 3, line 15, leave out

“function of a relevant prosecutor”

and insert “prosecution function”.

This amendment and Amendment 28 substitute a reference to persons exercising a prosecution function for the defined term “relevant prosecutor”. The victims’ code may not make provision requiring anything to be done by such persons.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 28.

Clause stand part.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendments 27 and 28 are minor technical amendments that have been tabled to better meet our intention to prevent the victims code from interfering with independent prosecutorial decision making. Clause 2 sets out that the victims code cannot place requirements on relevant prosecutors in relation to their prosecutorial discretion. This is an important safeguard, which reflects our constitutional arrangements, and allows the code to set expectations in relation to service provider procedures and how they should treat victims, but not to interfere with prosecutorial discretion to make decisions in particular cases.

The Bill currently refers to a relevant prosecutor, which is defined under section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and includes service providers such as the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. However, some other service providers under the current code also have a prosecutorial function and are not covered by the existing list, including bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive and the Competition and Markets Authority. These service providers have functions in relation to the investigation or prosecution of specific types of offences or offences committed in certain circumstances. To ensure all service providers are covered now and in the future, the amendment sets out that the code cannot interfere with prosecutorial discretion, regardless of which prosecutor is involved.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister will be aware that there have been controversies surrounding private prosecutions—the Horizon scandal springs to mind—but that there are also other private prosecutors who in individual cases might decide to take prosecutions. Will these amendments do enough to cover all of them?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My understanding is that they will, but will the right hon. Lady allow me to confirm that? If at any point I have inadvertently misled the Committee, I will make a correction in the usual way.

Clause 2 provides the legal framework for the victims code and places an obligation on the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice setting out the services to be provided to victims by different parts of the criminal justice system. It also sets out the overarching principles that the victims code must reflect. These are the principles that victims should: be provided with information to help them understand the criminal justice process; be able to access services which support them, including specialist services; have the opportunity to make their views heard; and be able to challenge decisions that directly affect them. We know that those principles are important for victims, and our consultation showed us that most respondents believe them to be the right ones to focus on.

Placing those overarching principles in legislation will send a clear signal about what victims can and should expect from agencies within the criminal justice system. This will help to future-proof the code and ensure that it continues to capture the key services that victims can expect, while still allowing a degree of flexibility in the code itself. We have retained the more detailed victims’ entitlements in the code, as this offers a more flexible way to ensure that they can be kept up to date, rather than by placing them in primary legislation on the face of the Bill. Agencies are already expected to deliver the entitlements in the code and they will be required to justify any departure from it if challenged by victims or by the courts.

To safeguard the topics that the code should cover, the clause allows for regulations to be made about the code. We will use the 12 key entitlements contained in the current code to create a framework for the new code and regulations. This will enhance parliamentary oversight of the code by setting the structure out in secondary legislation, and will allow more flexibility than primary legislation to make any necessary changes in the future if the needs of victims require changes in policies or operational practices. The power to make regulations has appropriate safeguards set out in the clause, in that regulations can only be made using this power if the Secretary of State is satisfied that they will not result in significant weakening of the code in terms of the quality, extent or reach of services provided.

Rather than specifying the details of particular entitlements for particular victims, the clause allows the code flexibility to make different provision for different groups of victims or for different service providers. That means they can be tailored appropriately, such as to provide for the police to give certain information more quickly to vulnerable or intimidated victims. We have published a draft of the updated victims code as a starting point for engagement, and will consult on an updated victims code after the passage of the Bill, so that it can reflect issues raised during parliamentary consideration.

Finally, the clause makes it clear that the code relates to services for victims and cannot be used to interfere with judicial or prosecutorial decision making. That will protect the independence of the judiciary, Crown Prosecution Service and other prosecutors in relation to the decisions they make in individual cases. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Amendment 27 agreed to.

Amendment made: 28, in clause 2, page 3, leave out lines 18 and 19.—(Edward Argar.)

See the explanatory statement to Amendment 27.

Clause 2, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Preparing and issuing the victims’ code

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 3, page 3, line 29, at end insert

“and the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses.”.

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses when preparing a draft of the victims’ code.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendments 11 and 12 address the same issue. Amendment 11 falls under clause 3 concerning the drafting of the victims code, and amendment 12 falls under clause 4, which concerns its revision. Clause 3 outlines that it is the responsibility of the Secretary of State to prepare the draft code and, in doing so, must consult the Attorney General. Amendment 11 would place a duty on the Justice Secretary also to consult the Victims’ Commissioner. Amendment 12 would place a duty on the Justice Secretary to consult the Victims’ Commissioner on any future revision of the code. These are the first of several amendments I have tabled to strengthen the powers and authority of the Victims’ Commissioner.

The Victims’ Commissioner is a public office established by Parliament in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 to encourage good practice in the treatment of victims and witnesses in England and Wales. It is independent of Government and works to raise awareness of issues faced by victims, conduct research, promote good practice and hold agencies to account on the treatment of victims. I pay tribute to Dame Vera Baird, the former Victims’ Commissioner, who resigned in September last year after three years in post. Dame Vera was integral to shining a spotlight on the harmfully low number of prosecutions, and she secured safeguards against excessive requests for victims’ mobile phone data in rape investigations. If the Government accept both my amendments, they would go a long way towards demonstrating that they understand the value and authority of the Victims’ Commissioner’s office by ensuring it is integral when looking at the revised victims code.

During the evidence session last week, when asked if the Victims’ Commissioner should be consulted in the drafting and revision of the victims code, Dame Vera said,

“Yes, it is imperative... To be fair, the Government did consult us. It took about two years to get the victims code together. In fact, I am not sure if Mr Argar was not the Victims Minister when it started the first time around. It took a very long time... although I have to say we brought no change. There must be meaningful consultation, but the Victims’ Commissioner has to be in there.”

She went on to say,

“in all the provisions about drafting codes and making changes, where it says you should consult the Attorney General, you have to consult the Victims’ Commissioner as well. This is about victims.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 20 June 2023; c. 28, Q63.]

The Victims’ Commissioner has a statutory duty to keep the code under review, but the Secretary of State for Justice is not obliged to consult the Victims’ Commissioner on revisions of the code. I am not sure how they are not mutually exclusive. The Victims’ Commissioner is established to be

“a promoter, an encourager, and a reviewer of operational practice, and is the only statutory public body with these overarching duties in relation to victims”.

The Victims’ Commissioner has the singular responsibility to introduce a degree of accountability to how agencies, including central Government, treat victims and witnesses. If victims are given their rightful recognition as participants in the system, their rights must be fully respected and delivered at each stage of the process. Currently, the Victims’ Commissioner has the widest remit of any commissioner but the most limited powers. The powers relating to the victims code should be strengthened, so that the Victims’ Commissioner is consulted alongside the Attorney General.

Amendments 11 and 12 would make it obligatory for the Secretary of State to consult the Victims’ Commissioner on the preparation and revision of the victims code, rather than having the commissioner make proposals. This would also form part of the functions of the Victims’ Commissioner under section 49 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004—promoting the interests of victims and witnesses and keeping the code under review. It would also ensure that there is accountability and compliance with the victims code, and that standards are maintained at all levels. I hope the Minister will consider agreeing to the amendments.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the shadow Minister for tabling amendments 11 and 12, which would place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the Victims’ Commissioner when preparing and revising the new victims code. The Victims’ Commissioner and their office are a vital and powerful voice for victims, and part of the commissioner’s statutory duty is to keep the operation of the code under review. In highlighting that, I will go a little further than the hon. Lady by paying tribute not only to Dame Vera Baird, but to Helen Newlove and Louise Casey. I think Louis Casey was the original Victims’ Commissioner, and Helen followed her in that role. In their different ways, all three have brought a huge focus and passion to the role, and I want to put on the record my gratitude to them all.

We have routinely engaged with the Victims’ Commissioner’s office on matters concerning the code since last September, and we will continue to do so when a new Victims’ Commissioner is appointed. As I highlighted in the previous sitting—I think it was after being prompted by a question from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North—a recruitment process is under way, with the new Lord Chancellor taking a very close interest so that we get the right person into this vital post. I am keen to see it filled as swiftly as possible with someone of the calibre of the three individuals who have already held the post.

We recognise that it is essential that we consult experts, including the Victims’ Commissioner, when preparing or revising the code to ensure that it continues to reflect the needs of victims. The Bill already requires public consultation on the draft code under clause 3(4) and, naturally, the Department engages thoroughly with the Victims’ Commissioner and their office as part of that process, as we always have done in the past. Public consultation provides an opportunity for a wide range of relevant stakeholders, practitioners and victims to make representations to the Government. For that reason, we do not consider it necessary to formally list each relevant stakeholder in legislation, including the Victims’ Commissioner, as the amendments would do.

I do recognise—the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North, may have alluded to it—that one role is listed for consultation: the Attorney General. That consultation is required ahead of the public con