Baroness Meacher debates involving the Ministry of Justice during the 2019 Parliament

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I speak to my Amendment 96. I thank those noble Lords who added their names to this amendment: the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Brinton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester.

The Government’s aim in this Bill is to improve victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system and their access to support, yet the Bill provides no protection for victims with insecure immigration status who have been the subject of serious crime. If these victims provide information for the police, the Bill as its stands allows their personal details to be passed to the immigration authorities. Amendment 96 tackles this problem. This is important because migrant victims are more vulnerable to experiencing serious crime and less likely to receive redress. In particular, we need Amendment 96 so that migrant victims are protected under the Bill from crimes such as violence against women and girls and modern slavery. The amendment is explicit that the personal data of a victim of a crime of domestic abuse, harassment, modern slavery, a sexual offence or other offences specified in regulations by the Secretary of State must not be used for any immigration control purpose without the consent of the individual.

The amendment also ensures that, before issuing any guidance under this amendment, the Secretary of State must consult the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner or other such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate. The amendment is thus well protected in statute.

Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to serious crime, including violence against women and girls and modern slavery. Abusers use their control over the victim’s immigration status and their right to live and work in the UK to threaten and trap these victims in abuse or exploitative working conditions.

We have a wealth of evidence that, for victims with insecure immigration status, the fear of data sharing between the police and immigration services constitutes one of the most severe barriers to accessing the criminal justice system. Research by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and the Step Up Migrant Women campaign found that fully 62% of migrant women had specifically been threatened about their immigration status if they reported abuse. These are not empty threats. For example, the Police Service of Northern Ireland was reporting 29 victims and witnesses of crime to the Home Office every day; that amounts to nearly 10,000 people in a year.

To date, the Government have rejected the firewall proposal. They prefer to try to combine enforcement of immigration control and the protection of victims. I, along with the organisations working in this field, do not accept the Government’s proposal as workable. The Justice Committee recommended the introduction of a complete firewall, as proposed here, and, along with the EHRC, called for the immediate end of data sharing between the police and the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.

This is urgent. We know from the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s office that all police forces in England and Wales share victims’ data with immigration enforcement staff. The absence of a firewall significantly harms not only victims of crime but the public interest, as crimes of course are not reported and therefore remain unpunished. Other countries have recognised the importance of building trust with migrants in order to solve more crimes and prevent and address serious crimes.

I did not fully understand the introductory remarks by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, but I hope that on reflection he will feel that a firewall in this field is justified and could support this amendment or introduce a similar government one in its stead.

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Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I shall answer a couple of questions and make one clarification. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who said, “Come on now, when are the code and the protocol going to be available?” I am afraid that, at this point, I cannot advance matters further other than to say, according to my instructions, that the code will be available for parliamentary scrutiny this spring—I know that is not as precise as anyone would like—and that the protocol will be launched later this year. These matters are under the control of the Home Office, and we had a discussion earlier about the relationship between 102 Petty France and Marsham Street. That is as far as I can go at the moment, and I apologise to the noble Baroness that I cannot be more precise.

I am prepared, as always, to have a further exchange of views on Amendment 96. I am not sure we can take it much further but we are always ready to listen, since throughout the Bill we are dealing with the problem of striking a balance between effective immigration control and victim support, and unfortunately there are always trade-offs to be made.

To respond to my noble friend Lady Morgan about requests for relevant information, new Section 44A(6) requires that the request is proportionate. The authorised person must be satisfied that there is no other means of obtaining the information or, if there are such means, that they are not practicable. The decision to release the information ultimately lies with the third party, and that third party has their own obligation under the Data Protection Act and their own duties of confidentiality owed to the person concerned. Again, I respectfully suggest that, bearing in mind my noble friend Lady Bertin’s amendments, the balance between fair-trial rights and victim protection is effectively drawn in the result that we have arrived at. It is not perfect, I know, but it seems to be a practical solution to a very difficult problem.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I hope the Minister will forgive me for interrupting him, but I want to thank him for suggesting that we might meet to discuss Amendment 96 before we come back next week. Obviously, I would be delighted to have a discussion about that.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I am always happy to meet, but we might not get much further.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I just wanted to put on record that we have agreed that we will meet, and I welcome that.

Amendment 76 agreed.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, this Bill covers a great deal of ground, and I will restrict my comments to a limited number of issues.

I welcome the intention of the Bill to improve the experience of victims in the criminal justice system, but I agree with other noble Lords that it will need strengthening if it is to achieve that objective. Further, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, the biggest problem for survivors of crime and domestic abuse who need support is the appalling underfunding of support services. I hope that at later stages, we can consider addressing in the Bill the need for adequate funding for such services.

On a very different issue, as president of the Haemophilia Society I turn to Part 3 of the Bill. Our Minister, understandably and rightly, deferred any comments on this part of the Bill until Committee. However, as a Back-Bencher I welcome the requirement for the Secretary of State to create a body to administer the compensation scheme for victims of the infected blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, this should have been done decades ago. Of about 1,400 people infected with HIV and other problems as a result of being injected with infected imported blood products, only about 350 are alive today. Most of those infected with HIV have died from the infections directly caused by the contaminated blood products.

Nevertheless, even at this late stage, I welcome this important initiative. However, in Committee we will need to consider filling the gaps in the compensation plan. An interim compensation payment was made to direct victims and some partners in October 2022. However, no payment was made to parents who lost children as a result of the scandal, or to children who lost parents. We need to clarify in the Bill the total numbers eligible for compensation, to ensure that all those directly or indirectly affected by the contaminated blood products imported for NHS patients in the 1970s and 1980s receive compensation, even at this very late stage.

I welcome Clause 48, which deals with the treatment of those on indeterminate sentences that have been imposed for public protection. Other noble Lords have mentioned this incredibly important issue, and I agree with those who have applauded the more proportionate and effective means in this Bill to review and terminate an IPP licence. The existing 10-year post-release wait before the sentence can even be reviewed is inhumane. The clause introduces a three-year qualifying period, which creates the realistic prospect of an end to the sentence. Also, very importantly, the clause provides that if the licence is not terminated by the Parole Board at the three-year point, it will be automatically terminated two years later. I hope we will consider in Committee the vital role of the state in this area in rehabilitating and providing mental health treatment for people serving an IPP on licence in the community, in order to make a success of their resettlement and to ensure that they cease to be a risk to their community. These people inevitably will be suffering as a result of the state’s imposition of such a cruel sentence.

A deeply concerning proposal in the Bill is that in Clauses 49 to 52, which disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to prisoners as a group. This provision contradicts one of the fundamental principles of the Human Rights Act: universality. Clause 52(4) goes some way to mitigating the consequences of these curbs, but only in relation to prisoner release cases; and it fails to retain the right under Article 3 of prisoners not to be treated in an inhuman or degrading way. The House will surely want to look at those clauses in Committee.

Even after the Commons amendments, the Bill includes limitations on the Parole Board’s independence, which, again, this House may want to consider. For example, the Parole Board is given powers to release very serious offenders. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned, the Secretary of State can refer a Parole Board decision on such cases to the Upper Tribunal—or, in particularly sensitive cases, to the High Court—if the relevant court may reach a different decision if it believes that the release test has not been met. Also, Clause 54 prohibits the chair from being involved in individual Parole Board cases or from trying to influence the outcome of the board’s decision in such cases. These seem to be extraordinary curbs on the powers and responsibilities of the chair. If we want the Parole Board to attract the best possible people, we should not undermine the independence of the members or the chair.

In conclusion, this Bill includes some valuable reforms but needs strengthening in some areas and very careful consideration by this House in others.

King’s Speech

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Wednesday 8th November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, the first of three issues I will raise briefly is the importance of sentencers addressing the underlying causes of crime, especially when sentencing offenders with addictions. I am a member of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who is in her place, but my remarks are purely personal and may not reflect the views of other members of the committee.

Typically, addicted repeat offenders of acquisitive crimes have been given short prison sentences. These sentences have no impact on the reoffending of this cohort of offenders. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment, on page 63 of the document accompanying the King’s Speech, to legislate for the presumption that sentences of less than 12 months in prison should be served in the community, with requirements imposed by the court. However, if this policy is to succeed in reducing reoffending, and thus reducing crime, it is crucial that these sentences address the underlying causes of an offender’s crime, as I have said. Sentences served in the community by addicted offenders must include an intensive addiction treatment requirement, with strong incentives for the offender to complete the treatment.

My second concern, supported today by the noble Earl, Lord Arran, as it happens, is the absence of any indication in the King’s Speech that parliamentary time should be allowed for the passing of an assisted dying legalisation law. I declare my interest as honorary president of Dignity in Dying. That organisation has abundant evidence of the significant harm to dying people and their families—of course, we are all going to die, so this will affect us directly—caused by the lack of a right for terminally ill people who are suffering unbearably to have assistance to achieve a dignified death. Every year, about 650 dying people take their own lives, generally alone and often violently. Their families suffer trauma for years afterwards. A further 10,000 terminally ill people who are suffering unbearably attempt to take their lives but fail, and the consequences are generally shocking. In addition to these tragedies, too many of us will suffer unbearably as we die, even with the best palliative care that our world-beating hospices can provide. More and more countries are legalising assisted dying, as the noble Earl, Lord Arran, mentioned. I hope that our Government will provide parliamentary time within the busy schedule laid out in the King’s Speech to enable the passing of a law legalising assisted dying.

My third point concerns medical cannabis. This morning, I met two mothers of boys with intractable and very severe epilepsy. They have parallel stories, so I will mention only one. This mother has a boy of nine, who is currently receiving medical cannabis; he has no seizures, and is going to school and doing just fine. This mother was not aware of medical cannabis until relatively recently. Previously, she had tried six recommended treatments for her severely epileptic son. None of them worked, and her son had seizures every day, was not at school and could barely function. The other mother had a similar experience. I appeal to Ministers to accept that making medical cannabis available on the NHS is urgent, not only for these families —my goodness, it is urgent for them—but for us, the taxpayers, because, in the long run, we will pay billions for these children as they grow up and grow old. They will have completely damaged brains and will need social and health care indefinitely. The Home Office has an important role to play in freeing up this current impasse. The King’s Speech includes nothing to address this issue, but I appeal to the Government to put this right.

That is exactly what the Government have put in Schedule 1 and Clause 6. At least I am not the only one who believes that the Bill, nor this schedule, nor these two clauses, are desirable. The Minister responsible agrees also, and I hope that he will take them out.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I support the intention expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, to oppose the question that Clause 5 stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5(1) seeks to put into effect the removal of any person who arrives in the UK other than through a safe route even though, as we have already debated at length, safe routes are virtually non-existent for the vast majority of people coming to this country from Afghanistan, Sudan or Eritrea, for example.

Amendments 27 and 30, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, dealt with two of my major concerns about Clause 5, but there are other concerns. Amendments already tabled and some of those debated seek to protect victims of modern slavery and trafficking, as well as children. If this House approves those amendments, which I expect we shall, Clause 5 would contradict them. I will speak as briefly as I can. For example, Clause 5(1)(a) requires that the Secretary of State must ensure the person is removed, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, has said,

“as soon as is reasonably practicable after the person’s entry”

to the UK. Subsection (4) restricts that requirement if the person has made a protection or human rights claim, but only if the Secretary of State considers that there are exceptional circumstances which prevent the person’s removal. Newly arrived people with no knowledge of the language or systems of the UK would need assistance for any such claim, and the Bill restricts access to assistance. Under Clause 5, therefore, a person is likely to be removed before they have had a chance to make a protection or human rights claim. Also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has argued, it should not be possible for the Secretary of State to counter a protection or human rights claim, if one has been made, with a subjective power to determine that there are not “exceptional circumstances”. The inclusion of Clause 5 in the Bill would undoubtedly enhance the risks to victims of modern slavery or trafficking and to children, along with all others seeking asylum in the UK. I hope the Minister will agree that Clause 5 should not stand part of the Bill.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB)
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My Lords, I would like to ask some questions of the Minister, in relation to Schedule 1 and Clause 6. I have four concerns about these provisions.

First, I do not understand the rationale for the list in Schedule 1 and I would be very grateful if the Minister could explain it. It seems to me that, of the 57 countries listed, with only two do we have any form of removal agreement: Rwanda and Albania. Does it concern the Government, as it concerns me, that we are setting out a list of destinations without having any international agreement underpinning it in relation to particular countries?

Secondly, some countries among the 57 listed in Schedule 1 are not party to the refugee convention, so they are in no way bound by the same commitments on the treatment of asylum seekers that bind us. Are the Government concerned about that? I am concerned about it, and I am inclined to think that they should be.

Thirdly, it is not clear to me that all the countries of the 57 in Schedule 1 have any kind of asylum system or procedure. I am not sure that all these countries recognise the concept of asylum in law. Can the Government assure me that I am wrong, and that although some of these countries are not party to the refugee convention—that is a fact—they all have working asylum systems? If not, are the Government not concerned about that? I think we should be concerned about it.

Fourthly, we must ask the Minister to construe the language “in general”, which occurs twice in Clause 6(1). The Secretary of State may add to the list in Schedule 1 if he is satisfied that

“there is in general in”

the country in question

“no serious risk of persecution”.

How are we meant to construe “in general”? I do not think it is the kind of language that should be on the statute book.

The second occurrence in the clause is that the removal of persons to a country to be added to the list is possible only if it would not “in general” contravene the human rights convention and our obligations under it. Hold on: pacta sunt servanda. It is not a question of whether “in general” there is a contravention of the human rights convention—there is or there is not. If sending somebody to one of these 57 countries would be a breach of our obligations under the human rights convention in any way, it does not matter if the Government think that “in general” it is all right. The language “in general” should not be here, both on constitutional and legal grounds and on grounds of pacta sunt servanda. If it would breach in any way our commitments under the convention—I believe it would —we should not add the territory in question to the list in Schedule 1.

My last point is also a question about how we should construe the language. Clause 6 talks not just about countries or territories that could be added but about parts of a country or territory. The noble and learned Lord on the Front Bench spoke eloquently about India when we last discussed this, and I have been thinking about what he said. If I were a serving diplomat, I do not know how I would persuade any country—particularly India, but any country—to accept an international agreement with the United Kingdom in which it accepted that parts of its country were unsafe for an asylum seeker. I do not see how any self-respecting country such as India could possibly accept an agreement including a restriction to a part of its territory where an asylum seeker might be sent. We need the Minister to explain to us how we are meant to construe, in Clause 6(1), “in general” and

“part of a country or territory”.

Parole Board Recommendations: Open Conditions

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Thursday 25th May 2023

(12 months ago)

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Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, I am entirely happy to give the House whatever information it requires at any time, and I fully accept that a move to an open prison is potentially one aspect of a prisoner’s progression towards release, but in modern thinking, it is not the only route. A number of closed prisons operate prisoner progression programmes towards release direct from closed prisons, and those relatively new programmes are enjoying results. Several hundred prisoners are released every year from those closed conditions without, as far as I know, any evidence that that poses a risk to the community.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, does the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences tend to lead to very high reoffending rates and that prisoners often come out more criminal than they went in. If we can ensure that community sentences really address the underlying causes of criminality—and the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee is looking at that—will the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences really should be abandoned in favour of community sentences?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, I cannot as of today accept that proposition. I entirely see the arguments, it is a very big question and I am sure we will discuss it on a future occasion.

Prisons: Education

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Thursday 23rd March 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

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Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The Government entirely agree that prison education is vital for rehabilitation. In the Government’s view, it does not follow that education, particularly in relation to reading, should be brought back into what the noble Baroness describes as the public sector. Specifically on reading, I can report the Chief of Inspector of Prisons’ remarks of yesterday. Following his report last year, he considers that we are seeing some improvement in reading and that there are encouraging signs of good developing practice in relation to reading education in prisons.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, as a member of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee, I know that the Minister has recognised the huge importance of prison education. Have His Majesty’s Government assessed the potential benefits of doubling the prison education budget, and, in particular, have they assessed the impact of such a policy shift on reoffending rates?

Humanist Marriages

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Tuesday 29th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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The Law Commission, in a very detailed and well-argued report, took the view that we should proceed as a country to solve the whole problem across all faiths at the same time and not favour a particular group. That is the Government’s position, and we will publish our position shortly.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, it will be 10 years next year since I tabled an amendment to the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill about humanist marriages. In response to it, the Government tabled their own amendment enabling Ministers to make this tiny change—we are talking about two words—adding “and humanists” to Quakers and Jews. It seems highly unlikely that any legislation will pass following the Law Commission’s report before the next election. Therefore, will the Minister meet me to discuss how, 10 years on, this tiny adjustment can be made to the law through a ministerial order to end this discrimination once and for all?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, I am happy to meet the noble Baroness, but I doubt whether I shall be able to give her the assurance that she asks for. This is a quite difficult problem. We have to solve it across the board without discrimination either in favour of or against any faith group or non-faith group. We have to deal with the civil preliminaries for marriage, who is to be authorised, what is the regime for authorisation and, in particular, the problems raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group itself in relation to the Law Commission’s report.

Nationality and Borders Bill

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak extremely briefly in support of Amendment 116, which for more than 300 refugee organisations is apparently one of their two top priorities in terms of amendments to the Bill. I think it is really important, actually. We have heard powerful arguments for a whole lot of important amendments, but I think the Minister and the Government need to take seriously the views of more than 300 refugee organisations.

The Government have argued that people in need of protection should come to the UK via safe routes, but these organisations tell me that only 1,000 people came through these schemes last year. Does the Minister agree that that figure is unacceptably low and needs to grow substantially, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has just said, if we are to reduce the number of desperate people risking their lives to cross the channel in small boats? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is absolutely right: this is the way to achieve that objective.

One of the strongest arguments for a resettlement target, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate, is that only five families per local authority would achieve that target. With a little funding from the centre, at least, that seems incredibly straightforward. Does the Minister agree that this is a realistic target and that the certainty that this would provide for local authorities is absolutely crucial?

Taking Control of Goods (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2021

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Thursday 13th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

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Moved by
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher
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That this House regrets that the Taking Control of Goods (Fees) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/1288), laid before the House on 18 November 2021, fail to deal with the injustice to debtors from 2014 to the date guidance on the new Regulations took effect.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to move my Motion to Regret Statutory Instrument 1288—enforced in England and Wales—on taking control of goods. Today’s debate provides an opportunity to highlight the fact that since 2014, debtors have been wrongly charged VAT on the enforcement of debt repayments, when the tax should have been charged, of course, to the creditors involved. Enforcement officers are providing a service to creditors and—believe me—not to debtors.

The VAT chargeable is upon the service to creditors, and it is those creditors who should have paid. This issue and the inaction over seven years by both government and industry to clarify the situation was drawn to my attention by the organisation Just and the debt advice services. They focused on the impact of the incorrect charges on the most vulnerable in society and the injustice involved.

I emphasise at the start that the failure to sort out this injustice over the years was principally the responsibility of previous Ministers and industry. We are grateful that the Government are finally issuing this SI, which will ensure that the injustice does not continue into the future. The reason for this Motion to Regret is the failure of this SI to deal with seven years of injustice from 2014 to 2021, which has resulted in millions of pounds of incorrect charging. This debate provides an opportunity for the Minister to clarify steps that will be taken to resolve the VAT payment injustice once and for all and to ensure that debtors are repaid where they were incorrectly charged.

Before setting out why we believe the Government must take action on these misdirected demands, I want to explain why this injustice is so serious. Of course, the link between debt problems and mental health is well established. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute estimates that people with money problems are three times more likely to commit suicide than those without debts. The stress associated with debt is a major contributor to depression and other mental health symptoms. Additionally, money issues often affect entire households, so parents, children, family members and friends are impacted by the damaging effects of debt, not just one individual.

Given that this Government have made protecting the vulnerable one of their primary objectives and so much work has been done by our society over the past few years to make mental health a more mainstream issue that people should take seriously, helping those with money issues should be an absolute priority. Given the cost-of-living crisis in the UK at the moment, it has arguably never been a more important time to discuss these issues.

Let me outline what has been going on. In the High Court enforcement sector, judgment debts for things such as unpaid utility bills are charged to debtors: the person in debt. The creditor—the company owed money —will employ a High Court enforcement officer to recover this money. This officer will ensure that the debtor pays the money owed and will charge the debtor fees for the enforcement action taken. That is not unreasonable, you would think. On top of these fees, High Court enforcement officers will charge VAT. This in itself is not an issue, as in 90% to 95% of cases the officers act on behalf of VAT-registered debt enforcement companies. But, as I have said, this VAT should be charged to the creditor, who can recover the VAT incurred from HMRC if the company is VAT registered.

However, since 2014, the regulations have been misinterpreted by industry and, if I may say so, have been unclear. Instead of charging the VAT or a VAT-equivalent fee to the creditors, this money has been charged to the debtors, as I have said. This means that the debtors, who are already financially vulnerable and face hefty fees—often unreasonably hefty fees, I should say—on top of their debts have also wrongly been charged hundreds of additional pounds. Industry estimates that about £120 million may have been taken incorrectly from vulnerable debtors. That is over £1 million a month—a lot of money from very vulnerable people.

This practice is clearly absolutely unacceptable; how has it been going on for seven years? It is clear from documents publicly available online that the High Court Enforcement Officers Association—the membership body that represents these officers and is authorised by the Ministry of Justice—raised this issue with the ministry as early as 2015, yet no action was taken either by industry or by government. Of course, that is the fault not of current Ministers but certainly of previous ones. I want to make clear that the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, wrote to me and indicated that somehow the ministry had only just heard about this in 2019. In responding, the Minister might accept that 2015 is actually the date when the ministry knew about it.

The High Court Enforcement Officers Association, authorised by the MoJ, sought legal advice from Christopher Wilson QC to clarify the issue. Wilson, in his advice, said, “HMRC recognised in 2000 that debt enforcement was a service to creditors and they should issue VAT invoices only to creditors.” Nevertheless, Wilson’s findings were inconclusive, but his most important recommendation was that the High Court Enforcement Officers Association should take the advice of leading counsel on tax matters on the issue. Again, no further action was taken after this.

Four years went by without anything changing. The issue was never addressed and was kept quiet by both government and industry. For the Government, this was a problem they themselves had created by not providing clear guidance in the regulations. Perhaps Ministers at the time felt that any action was an admission of guilt and to do nothing was probably the safest option. The industry had a strong incentive to let sleeping dogs lie: debt enforcement companies appeared cheaper to creditors because they were not charging VAT on their fees. This made them comparable to a creditor using the Government’s own bailiff services, whereby VAT is not charged. They were benefiting from collecting the extra cash from debtors.

In 2019, a new entrant to the industry, an organisation called Just, sought advice from Melanie Hall QC, a tax specialist. It did this after reviewing the previous advice issued to the High Court Enforcement Officers Association by Christopher Wilson QC—something the association and the MoJ should have done four years earlier. This kick-started the process to resolve the issue. Hall’s guidance was clear that debtors should not be charged VAT or a fee equivalent to it. This guidance provided the opportunity for Just to engage the MoJ and for the Government to provide clarity and thereby correct the situation. After six months of campaigning from Just, parliamentarians and the debt advice sector, the MoJ published draft guidance privately—I emphasise “privately”—to key stakeholders in March 2020, clarifying that debtors should not be charged VAT or an equivalent fee where creditors are not VAT-registered. Although this guidance was not perfect, it resolved 90% to 95% of debt enforcement cases going forward where debtors would otherwise have been charged VAT incorrectly.

This was a momentous step in the right direction, though the guidance was issued only privately. Sadly, this was not the end of the story. It took the MoJ a further 19 months to publish this guidance. Covid-19 undoubtedly had an impact on MoJ resources, but the delay in publishing the guidance meant that more debtors overpaid on their debts, reducing their already depleted and no doubt minimal disposable income and potentially costing them an additional £19 million over those months.

After months of silence from the MoJ, Just decided that action needed to be taken and sought an application for direction from the Royal Courts of Justice. This meant taking the Government to court and allowing the court to clarify whether this practice should continue. The prospect of losing in court galvanised the Government. I want to emphasise this point: just four minutes before the judgment hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, the MoJ published its guidance and promised to lay a statutory instrument to clarify the existing regulations. I will leave it to noble Lords to consider whether we would be having this SI had there not been the court case.

That brings us to today. Statutory Instrument 1288 makes clear in Regulation 18(1) that

“where a creditor is VAT registered the enforcement agent may not recover from the debtor VAT or the sum equivalent to VAT on the fees or disbursements.”

I want to clarify that I warmly welcome the clarity provided by this statutory instrument. As I said, my reason for tabling a Motion to Regret to this SI concerns the failure of this crucial document to address the injustices of the past seven years. It is silent on the need for those who have been wrongly charged VAT on the activities of enforcement officers to be repaid. Surely, they should be.

This is especially important because the statute of limitations outlines that there is only a six-year window in which debtors could rightfully claim for this money to be returned to them. This inaction means that, sadly, for some debtors, it is already too late to get their money back. I want these vulnerable people to know that parliamentarians are aware of the injustice they have suffered. Even more importantly, I want to make sure that Ministers have considered what action they should take to ensure repayment of the money wrongly paid by debtors over the past seven years. I have already emphasised the importance of this money to the most vulnerable indebted families. A few hundred pounds could make the difference for someone’s children to eat three meals a day for the rest of the month or for a family to heat their home over the winter months. The sort of sums we are talking about can be really crucial for them. It may not be crucial to any of us, but for these families it really is.

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I apologise for rattling through that. This area is not without its complexity. We have sought to make the position absolutely clear going forward, and as regards past cases, I hope that I have set out the Government’s position with clarity, even if, as I suspect, it may not meet entirely with the noble Baroness’s approval. None the less, I hope that I have set out the Government’s position.
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, even before I thank the Minister, I owe the noble Lord, Lord Low, an apology. The Minister shot up rather quickly after the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Low, was planning to speak. I should have stood up and said something, and I apologise that I failed to do that.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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I thank the noble Lord.

I thank the Minister for his response. I will make just a few tiny points. The Minister made quite a play on how not all debtors have overpaid the VAT sum or equivalent. In fact, 95% of debtors have been in this position and have been improperly overcharged, so we have to bear in mind that the vast majority of debtors are in this position.

The Minister indicated that of course creditors can be in great poverty. I point out to the Minister and your Lordships that we know that the vast majority of these cases involve utility companies and local authorities, not your little man with thruppence ha’penny in his pocket. So I do not think we can buy that one.

I am glad that the Minister accepted—I think—that the ministry should have acted earlier. Most importantly, I thank him for saying that the Government will be keeping an eye on the legislative process. That is our one bit of assurance. I, like others, thank Just very much indeed for pursuing this issue on behalf of these very vulnerable people. We have to rely on the courts to make a sensible decision; let us see how they go.

I thank the Minister but also very much thank noble Lords who have stayed around for an inordinately long time, waiting for this debate. I beg leave to withdraw my regret Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Baroness Meacher Excerpts
Moved by
103: After Clause 172, insert the following new Clause—
“Restorative justice
The Secretary of State must, every five years— (a) prepare an action plan on restorative justice for the purpose of improving access, awareness and capacity of restorative justice within the criminal justice system,(b) publish a copy of the action plan, and(c) publish a report on progress in implementing the previous action plan.”
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, Amendment 103 seeks to ensure that the regular action plans on restorative justice provided by the Ministry of Justice until 2008 be restored and also that they should be published and a report produced on progress on the previous action plan as well. It is a more modest amendment than the one I moved in Committee. At that point, we wanted the Government to produce action plans every three years; we are now talking about every five years, which at least reduces the pressure on the department. The amendment would be an enormous improvement on the complete absence of national leadership on this issue since 2018.

But, first, what is restorative justice? It is an interpersonal approach that enables people who have been a victim of criminal or other harmful behaviour to meet the perpetrator, generally face to face, and others closely involved in the case to ask questions of that perpetrator and express how the incident affected them personally. It also enables perpetrators to express what was going on for them when they committed their crime or whatever they did and also to listen and understand the personal impact of that action, so that something that was a very impersonal action turns into something very personal. That is in fact a very important point.

Restorative justice is very much a voluntary process. No one is forced into it—both the victim and the perpetrator have to want to go through it. It can also go alongside other criminal justice activities or procedures. It is highly cost effective; for every pound spent on it, £8 are saved for the criminal justice system. That seems a very good reason for the Minister to take this amendment very seriously, as I hope he will, albeit I will not press it to a vote.

Why do we need the amendment included in this legislation? Every PCC area in England and Wales has a local restorative justice provider which takes referrals for restorative justice. Youth offending teams have a member of staff who leads on it. The victims’ code of practice from 2020 entitles every victim of crime to be informed about restorative justice and have access to it. However, this is simply not happening. The Office for National Statistics data showed, I think in 2020, that only 5% of victims are aware of being told anything about restorative justice at all. I hope the Minister will agree that that really is not satisfactory when these victims have a right to that information.

This problem seems to be driven by a lack of strategic direction from the centre. That is the whole point of this amendment. Also, the Ministry of Justice ceased to provide any funding to PCCs to support these important services. Before introducing the PCSC Bill, the Government published a White Paper highlighting the importance of restorative justice:

“We believe restorative justice is an important part of the justice system and has significant benefits both for the victim and for the rehabilitation of offenders.”


That is absolutely right. We know that reoffending drops by 14% if people have been involved in restorative justice. That is where the £8 saving for every £1 spent comes from. The White Paper went on to refer to opportunities to increase the use of restorative justice by using deferred sentencing and setting restorative conditions as part of out-of-court disposals.

Despite all this, restorative justice has been absent from the Bill. Can the Minister explain why it was promoted in the White Paper but does not feature in the Bill? I hope he will want to put this right. The amendment is relatively minor in its impact on the Ministry of Justice, yet it could have really far-reaching impacts, both for victims and for perpetrators. I hope the Minister will look favourably on Amendment 103.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, I made a very brief reference to restorative justice in one of our debates on Monday. I am glad to have an opportunity to comment briefly on the amendment just moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I agree with her wholeheartedly. We should always do everything we can to keep people out of prison; to repeat myself from Monday, although sending people to prison is the punishment and the aim is rehabilitation, it does not always work like that. I know that from experience in my former constituency, which had a very large prison—Featherstone—and a young offender institution at Brinsford just a mile or so away. I believe a lot of the young people in Brinsford would have benefited enormously by not going to prison and would have benefited from restorative justice.

I became totally convinced in this view when I had the privilege to be the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for the last of my Parliaments in the other place, 2005 to 2010. I saw at first hand the effect of restorative justice in Northern Ireland, and a lot of young people who would perhaps have gone on to a long life of crime were rehabilitated and came to terms with their victims. As the noble Baroness said, there has to be agreement from both sides, as it were, but it was wholly beneficial in a vast number of cases.

Following the White Paper to which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, referred, it seems very strange indeed that there is no provision or recognition in the fairly massive Bill before us. One of my criticisms of the Bill is that it is too long. It should be three Bills rather than one—but that is another story and we have touched on that in the past. But although the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said that she will not press this to a Division—I do not dissent from her on that—I hope nevertheless that my noble friend the Minister will be able to make some favourable and encouraging comments about the importance of restorative justice and its place in the criminal justice system.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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I was saying absolutely the opposite and, if it came out wrong, it came out wrong. The whole point of restorative justice is that the offender and the victim have to consent. That is the point which I was making about crimes of sexual violence. The victim there should not feel under any compulsion or pressure to engage in restorative justice if they do not want to. Victim choice and free-will participation is at the heart of restorative justice. I hope that I have made that very clear.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for the warm and encouraging words that we were asking for. Unfortunately, they do not give us any reassurance that there will be a restoration of some sort of national leadership on this issue. As I explained in my brief comments, this is what is missing and why restorative justice is languishing. He said that victims should have access to restorative justice, which is very difficult when only 5% of them are aware of being told about it. There is a major issue of lack of information, lack of understanding and lack of national leadership. This was a small suggestion to put these things right and I very much regret that the Government will not take it on. Having said that, of course I will withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 103 withdrawn.