Debates between Lord Stewart of Dirleton and Lord Coaker during the 2019 Parliament

Thu 10th Feb 2022
Thu 10th Feb 2022

Nationality and Borders Bill

Debate between Lord Stewart of Dirleton and Lord Coaker
Tuesday 8th March 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 64A in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Hamwee, my noble friend Lady Lister and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I will not repeat all the concerns, but clearly there are safeguarding issues that a number of noble Lords have raised. I give one quote from the British Association of Social Workers, which warns that

“any age assessment proposals must recognise that although there is a risk when adults are wrongly assessed and treated as a child, there is a much greater risk when a child has been wrongly assessed and treated as an adult. It is predominately children who are wrongly sent and dispersed as adults, sometimes to unsafe accommodation and detention”.

As a last comment on Amendment 64A, it does not seem to me that there is any dispute about the need for age assessment, but the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, has set out that, if we are to have age assessment, which is clearly needed at times, let us do it on the basis of science and not of subjective judgments, whoever is making them.

I quickly mention the amendment I put down, Amendment 84D, which has not been mentioned yet. It would provide that the age assessment provisions apply to England only, and is clearly a probing amendment. The Minister will know that, while we would rather these provisions did not apply anywhere, this amendment is to reflect the concerns raised by the Welsh and Scottish Governments that clauses in Part 4 require legislative consent.

Welsh Ministers and three separate cross-party Senedd committees have advised that the age assessment provisions are within the legislative competence of the Senedd. When put to a vote, the Senedd voted to withhold consent from the UK Government’s intention to legislate on these matters. Its concerns were that the Bill creates a method of assessing age that is in “direct opposition” to existing practice in Wales; that the Bill

“does not recognise the devolved context of Wales”

and provides the Secretary of State with powers to impose conditions on Welsh local authorities; and, finally, that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are recognised as looked-after children in Wales. This will leave local authorities trying to navigate two “statutory but conflicting” approaches.

This is an important probing amendment about what engagement the Government have had with the devolved Administrations and the grounds on which they are disputing that legislative consent is necessary. What are the Government saying to the Welsh and Scottish Governments about this?

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Stewart of Dirleton) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all contributors to this important debate. I acknowledge at the outset the feeling around the House as to the importance of these matters, so powerfully put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just a moment ago.

The first amendment that your Lordships have had to consider is Amendment 64, so I will start with that. It is important to note that immigration officials already conduct initial age assessment on individuals whose age is doubted. This amendment seeks to lower the current threshold so that a more straightforward assessment of whether someone is under or over 18 is made, based on appearance. I will return to the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, as to the different rates at which people age, depending on their ethnicity and the social factors to which they have been exposed. We must acknowledge the difficulty in assessing age through a visual assessment of physical appearance and demeanour. Clear safeguarding issues arise if a child is treated inadvertently as an adult, but equally if an adult is wrongly accepted as a child.

Our current threshold, specifically deeming an individual to be adult where their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18, strikes the right balance. It has been tested in the Supreme Court in the case of BF (Eritrea), to which the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, made reference, and has been found comprehensively to be lawful. Given that judgment, and the fact that immigration officials already execute this function under guidance, the value of legislating to bring this into primary legislation is unclear. That said, I acknowledge the value of the work that the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has carried out, to which my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe referred, into the ingathering of data in such a way as to provide a basis on which our deliberations can proceed. However, in the light of what I said, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to Amendment 64A. Again, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger, Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lady Hamwee, for their amendment. I make it clear to the House that there is no appetite to start conducting comprehensive age assessments of all, most or even many people who come before the system, because in most cases it will be possible to resolve doubts as to someone’s claimed age without any such investigation. Indeed, the courts have made it clear that they are against any judicialisation of the procedure, and have overturned judicial reviews based on the idea that age assessments were carried out wrongly in circumstances where two social workers conducting the Merton assessment—which these measures seek only to augment, not replace—considered persons patently above the age of 18 who claimed to have been younger. The courts have supported the social workers in those assessments. To provide that there should be wider use of scientific age assessments would serve no purpose and take away significant resource from the main task of seeking to establish the age of those individuals whose age is in doubt.

Subsections (2), (3) and (4) of Amendment 64A are unnecessary additions. Our intention is that the statutory national age assessment board will consist predominantly of qualified social workers, who will be expected to follow existing case law in carrying out these holistic age assessments. The matter of scientific age assessment has quite properly concerned your Lordships. Clause 51 already contains safeguards for those who are asked to undergo a scientific method of age assessment, and in answer to the specific point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, I say that where a good reason emerges for declining to participate in age assessment there will be no adverse impact on credibility.

I reiterate the point made at the earlier stage. It is not considered that any of these scientific methods should replace the tried and tested method of assessment by social workers, known as the Merton assessment. The intention is merely to broaden the availability of evidence that might assist to provide more data, on which these professionals can carry out these exceptionally important tasks.

Decisions on this issue also have broad implications for the exercise of immigration functions and the provision of children’s services to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Decision-making as to where and how such scientific methods should be used must, we say, remain within government, taking into account independent scientific advice. I reiterate that this measure does not provide that these scientific methods of age assessment will take place. It provides that the Government will be able to consult an expert board on what is suitable. The intention is not to undermine the role of social workers in carrying out these assessments, merely to provide additional data with which they might work.

We agree that the independent professionalism that such persons bring to bear is of the utmost importance. However, we question whether the amendment has value when it provides that scientific age assessments may take place only where their ethical approach and accuracy has been established beyond reasonable doubt: first, because that is to import the highest test of assessment of evidence from the criminal courts into an inappropriate category; and secondly, because we fully appreciate that these assessments are not of themselves accurate, as I sought to make clear at the earlier stage. They are intended not to replace but merely to augment, where thought desirable, the data available to social workers carrying out these assessments.

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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I will briefly say that, like the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, I agree with most of what many noble Lords have said. The need for accurate immigration data is absolutely fundamental to any discussion on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, made this point: one of the things that is important is to distinguish clearly between immigration, asylum and migration. All that gets conflated into one, which is not helpful to the debate or the discussion, and it simply confuses people. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister the Government’s position on data. Irrespective of the debate that we will have about policy, if we are going to build trust, that data basis is essential not only for the public but for us to understand the policy prescriptions that we will debate between ourselves.

This is in line with Amendment 81 of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe: on trust, whatever the rights and wrongs, the decision of the Government to abandon the daily figures for migrants crossing the channel was a disaster in public relations terms, because people knew that the Government were failing on it. It was going up and up, and the Government were making prescription after prescription, in terms of policy, to try to deal with it. In the end, they brought the MoD in, in a confused way where we are still not sure how that is meant to work, and they are going to quarterly figures. What people say to me, and what I think—to be perfectly blunt, although I am not a cynic—is that the Government would not have acted as quickly as that if the numbers were going in the right direction; that is what people think. If people think you hide figures when they are bad, and publish them only when they are good or meet your policy objectives, it is no wonder there is distrust among the public about official statistics.

The amendments before us are absolutely essential. They ensure that we have data which is accurate, objective, allows us to make decent policy decisions, and is a basis for our debates. Can the Minister say something about what the Government’s policy is on data? Also, what is happening with respect to the migrants crossing the channel? What is the figure today, compared to what it was a couple of weeks ago? When can we expect the next figure? When the Government are seeking to build trust in passing the Bill—controversial in its own right—why on earth have they taken the decision, which is hard to comprehend, to produce figures on a quarterly basis? It simply looks as though they are hiding bad news.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their amendments and their participation in this debate. I note that their interest lies in ensuring that the Secretary of State publishes regular data on a range of areas on immigration. I acknowledge the importance which my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe attaches to statistics, and I acknowledge the important work which the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has carried out over many years, which serves to inform debates not only in the public sphere but in this place.

I assure the House that the Home Office provides a wide range of immigration data on a regular basis and has done for many years. This includes information on many parts of the immigration system, including the asylum and resettlement systems, returns and detention, and other areas such as visas and citizenship. All this demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that the public have the information they need to understand migration trends, and that the approach to small boat arrivals is in line with these other statistics on the immigration system.

The Home Office reviews the statistics that it publishes as a department, in line with the Code of Practice for Statistics. Where it is clearly in the public interest to do so, it will publish new statistics and amend existing statistics to ensure they continue to provide transparency around key government policies. However, we must weigh up the need for more statistics against other considerations. This includes the practicalities and costs of producing resilient, assured data derived from operational systems, presenting that data in such a way as to enhance the public’s understanding of key issues, and putting the data into appropriate context, as well as recognising the need to prioritise the department’s resources.

Amendment 80 would require reviewing and updating the International Passenger Survey by the Office for National Statistics. I emphasise that the ONS is a statistical agency, which is independent of government, and whose work is overseen by the UK Statistics Authority. While the Home Office publishes statistics in relation to the operation of the immigration system, the ONS is responsible for the national migration and population estimates. It would be inappropriate, I submit, for politicians to interfere with or seek to direct the National Statistician in his statistical duties.

My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, referred to the International Passenger Survey, as did my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots. Prior to April 2020, the Office for National Statistics used this to measure migration but it is important to note that, as your Lordships have heard, it is no longer used for that. While the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, calls in effect for the reinstatement of the IPS, I have to advise the House that it was the ONS that concluded that the IPS had failed to meet changing user needs. It did not tell us what we needed to know about migrant patterns or give us enough detail to get a robust understanding of migration. I happily adopt the useful points made in this regard by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.

As acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, the IPS was paused during the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics is instead working on producing statistics that will tell us more about migrant patterns. This is a work in progress but it should better meet the needs of policymakers. It is experimental statistical work, and we do not yet know whether it will provide robust answers, but the Home Office is committed to supporting ONS statisticians in exploring every avenue. We need to ensure, as I think the House agrees, that we have a clear understanding of such issues and their implications for the data before we publish anything or we risk doing precisely what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, said we risked: misleading the public and undermining faith in statistics, rather than enhancing the public’s understanding of such important matters.

In relation to Amendment 81, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, from the Opposition Front Bench and others have pressed us on the alteration or the presentation of small boat statistics. Following advice from the independent UK Statistics Authority on making sure statistics on small boat crossings are published in an orderly way, the Home Office published a new statistics report on irregular migration to the United Kingdom. The report, which includes statistics on those arriving across the channel in small boats, was published for the first time on 24 February, covering data up to December 2021. We will update on a quarterly basis.

The decision to publish small boats figures in a quarterly report ensures regular statistics are released in an orderly, transparent way that is accessible to everyone, meeting the principles set out in the code of practice for statistics. The approach has been particularly important in allowing us to present small boats data in the wider context of longer-term trends, other methods of irregular entry and the immigration system more widely, and hence to provide statistics on a more sound basis. Where it is clearly in the public interest to have more frequent releases of information, we will consider this, as we have done with the EU settlement scheme, on which we publish statistics monthly.

In the case of small boats, publishing frequent updates will not provide sufficient time to collate the data collected in the field by operational staff and integrate that with the information from the asylum applications. Nor will it allow us to perform the robust assurance processes we undertake for our wider published statistics. This increases the risk of incomplete or incorrect data being put into the public domain.

The motivation for these changes is not to obfuscate or conceal. It is an attempt to provide more useful statistics —not to hide figures but to provide more assured data. Given that assurance, I ask the noble Lord and the noble Baronesses to withdraw their amendment.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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The justification is to ensure clarity across the legislation, and I appreciate the comment made by the right reverend Prelate, and rehearsed by my noble friend, about advantages flowing or not from the Brexit process, which so many of your Lordships will have discussed. However, our ability to act differently from our partners across the channel is a valuable one, but what we seek to obtain by this measure is legislative clarity and a consistency in decision-making which will, we hope, benefit victims and develop understanding among all the agencies in this important sector. My noble friend is resuming his mask, and he did say that he would not interrupt again, although I hope that he will not bar himself from further interventions later in the debate.

I turn to Amendment 157, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I thank him for his powerful and compelling opening contribution to this debate and to earlier debates on the topic, and for his work at Nottingham University. I offer the Committee reassurance that we are committed to providing victims with at least a 45-day recovery period, or until a conclusive grounds decision is made, whichever period is the longer. Our position is—I maintain that this does not need to be placed on the face of the Bill, and I return to the earlier discussions with my noble friend Lord Deben—that it would create a misalignment with our international obligations under ECAT.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for all of that, and the commitment to 45 days. Why does it say 30 days in the Bill? Have I got that wrong?

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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No, I think the noble Lord is correct. It is 30 days for the alignment with ECAT, but the 45 days appears in the guidance, and we commit to providing support over that period: a 45-day recovery period as expressed in the guidance, or until a conclusive grounds decision is made.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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So there is an absolute commitment to 45 days for the gap between reasonable grounds and conclusive grounds, even though legislation which we are going to pass says 30 days?

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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The noble Lord shrugged his shoulders, but I repeat that the justification for this is to align with our international obligations with our partners in ECAT.

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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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My Lords, in the interests of time, let me just say respectfully to the noble Lord, Lord McColl, whose amendments I have signed, that I very much support him and the arguments and points that he made so well. We look forward to the Minister’s response. I pay tribute to the doughty work the noble Lord has done over a number of years to try to move the Government in what many of us regard as a simple and sensible way forward. Let us hope.

I shall speak to my Amendment 171AA. Clause 64 provides for limited leave to remain

“if the Secretary of State considers it is necessary for the purpose of (a) assisting the person in their recovery from any physical or psychological harm … (b) enabling the person to seek compensation”—

unless this can be done outside the UK

“or (c) enabling the person to co-operate”

with law enforcement. The standard, however, does not meet the UK’s obligation to children under the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking. Article 14.2 of ECAT specifies that in the case of children, residence permits

“shall be issued in accordance with the best interests of the child.”

Paragraph 186 of the Explanatory Report to ECAT explains that

“the child’s best interests take precedence”.

Amendment 171AA, which is a probing amendment, simply asks why the Government cannot include leave to remain where children are protected and where it is in the best interest of the child.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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My Lords, in consideration of the flight of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, I start by addressing Amendment 171B. ECAT sets clear parameters around when a signatory state is obliged to grant a residence permit to confirmed victims, which is where it considers that the stay is necessary either due to the confirmed victim’s personal situation or for the purpose of their co-operation with the competent authorities in an investigation or criminal proceedings. The Government have gone further than this and provided for a grant of leave not only on both of these bases, but also where it is necessary to enable a confirmed victim to seek compensation in respect of their exploitation.

A temporary leave provision is deliberately designed to allow for leave to be provided for as long as needed, where appropriate. It will be considered on a case-by-case basis and does not set an arbitrary time period. To specify a length of leave does not follow our overall approach of having a truly needs-based approach to addressing victim support. If it is necessary for leave to be granted for longer than 12 months in order to pursue a thorough investigation, or where an individual’s personal circumstances require it, leave can and should be granted.

I turn next to Amendments 169A, 170 and 170A. In Clause 63 we have sought to define the support entitlement during the recovery period for potential victims following a positive reasonable-grounds decision. Amendment 169A, however, would remove clarity on what these terms mean for victims and decision-makers and reduce the effectiveness of the clause in supporting victims. Our approach to the wording of Clause 63 has been chosen specifically to provide more detail on the circumstances in which support is provided, while being in line with our international obligations. Our approach is not to go into detail on the types of support provided for in legislation, as Amendment 170A suggests, but to do this in guidance, the purpose being to ensure flexibility in our approach in future, so this can be tailored to victims’ needs as our understanding of trauma develops. I refer your Lordships to remarks made earlier in the debate that understanding the impact and the effect of trauma on individuals is an ongoing and developing thing.

Further to this, and in response to a matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, where necessary, all those who receive a positive conclusive-grounds decision and are in need of tailored support will receive appropriate individualised support for a minimum of 12 months. We committed to this in the other place and will consider where and how this commitment is delivered to ensure that it delivers best for victims. More details will be provided in guidance or in future modern slavery legislation, should parliamentary time allow. My noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich has been given that assurance by the Home Office Minister. The Home Office and, in particular, my noble friend Lady Williams are keen to continue working with the noble Lord on the implementation of this policy.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Williams here: the short answer is to look at the Modern Slavery Act. It can involve coercion, which can be occasioned by way of threats to others or by threat to the individual. It can come in many different forms; it can be emotional or psychological as well as physical. It is a pernicious practice that exists among nationals of this country as much as it does overseas. Perhaps, therefore, it gives an insight into the universal failings of the human character. The short answer—I have detained the Committee for too long—is the advice that I gave, for which I was the conduit for my noble friend Lady Williams.

I was about to expand on the fact that data concerning criminal gangs is operational and held by each police force. Adding reporting requirements for this data would, we submit, require a significant change in the way the Home Office collates and publishes data on crime. Changing this reporting approach would be unnecessary since we already publish data on county lines NRM referrals through the NRM statistics publication.

I hope that goes some way to answering the noble Lord’s important concern over how we identify, go to the defence of and offer protection to children—nationals of this country who are the victims of these gangs. Modern slavery offences committed against children are, as I say, recorded and published by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice. The Crown Prosecution Service maintains a central record of the number of offences in which a prosecution commenced, including offences charged by way of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. All modern slavery offences committed against children are identified through the child abuse monitoring flag. The Crown Prosecution Service definition of child abuse covers any case where the victim was under 18 years of age at the time of the offence.

I reassure the Committee and the noble Lord that a child’s welfare and best interests are the primary considerations in any decision-making—in this Bill and any other. Local authorities are responsible for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area, including child victims of modern slavery. In addition to this statutory support, the Government have rolled out independent child trafficking guardians, who are an additional source of advice and support for potentially trafficked children. These have been rolled out in two-thirds of local authorities across England and Wales. The Government remain committed to rolling them out on a national basis.

Given all this, I respectfully request that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment at this stage.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for his answer. It was a short debate but an important one. There are couple of things that the noble Lord said in his answer about the EU directive that I think are helpful. It is something I might suggest with respect to the other amendment on county lines.

I think the people who read our debates will be pleased to hear the Minister say that no entitlement will be removed on victim support, protection or identification. I think I have that quote right. That will be helpful because, in the sector certainly, that is what a lot of people have been worried about: that the disapplication of the directive will impact on those aspects. The Minister’s reassurance will be welcome, although, as with everything, we will see how it works out in practice.

It was also interesting that the Minister said that other legislation may be needed to clarify the disapplication of the EU directive in due course—a fabulous phrase. As we move forward, we will see how it goes. Like Clause 67, this is very important. Sometimes, Governments fail to spell out how the disapplication works and what the practical consequences are. So, short debates like this are important.

On county lines and the report, I think that, despite the information being available, the British public have no idea that 34% of the referrals to the national referral mechanism—the body set up to deal specifically with this—are British children. I do not think that people have any idea that it is that high—that is an astonishing figure. Given that 47% of referrals to the NRM are children, this means that a very high proportion of all the people who are referred are British children. So that is the purpose of this.

It is not that the Government are not doing anything. If I had been the Minister, I would have mentioned the co-ordination centre that the Government set up in 2018, which is actually about all of the things that I am talking about: the need for more data, greater co-ordination, greater prioritisation of this work and greater identification of this as a new crime that people have not taken as seriously as they should; the fact that children are moving across county boundaries without being tracked or followed; the lack of statistical sharing between police forces, social services and children’s services; and children ending up on the south coast and coming back to London. All of those sorts of things are what the co-ordination centre was set up to deal with.

All I would say is that the Government, through the Home Office, need to keep their foot on the pedal on this because it is a growing problem. What is happening in our country is an absolute disgrace. Some of the children involved are not even teenagers; they are not even 17 and a half—I was admonished earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, for mentioning 12 and 13 year-olds rather than 17 and a half year-olds, which is what he wanted me to say. Some of these children are seven, eight and nine years old. It is a disgrace, which is why I make no apology for bringing this forward in that context. British children are being enslaved and trafficked within our shores. I know that this is a priority for the Government and for all of us, and this has given me the opportunity to raise it, so that the people of this country can hear how bad the situation is and what we are seeking to do to try to address it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Stewart of Dirleton and Lord Coaker
Wednesday 24th November 2021

(7 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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Sorry, can I just ask a question? Does this change make any difference? The only reason I ask is because my noble friend Lord Kennedy and I—we are very good friends—looked at this and did not understand it properly, in particular, where it said

“in the heading of the second column, for ‘1 October 1992’ substitute ‘1 May 1984’”.

Given that that is eight years earlier, does that make any difference if you were fined during that period? Will you now get a fine in the post, or will something happen to you? Is it retrospective or does it not make a difference? I just worry that, because of the lateness of the hour, we pass something and then in a month or two—or even three or four months—we find that lots of people start moaning and complaining, quite rightly, that they have suddenly had a letter in the post. Can the noble and learned Lord just explain that to us?

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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I think that I can assist: the provision is not truly retrospective. The Sentencing Act 2020 makes it clear that the repeal of relevant provisions by the Act for the purpose of consolidating sentencing law into the Sentencing Code should not change how the law operates. I hear the noble Lord’s concerns, including that this matter is coming out so late. I will raise it with my noble friend in the Ministry of Justice and he will communicate with the noble Lord in order that these matters can hopefully be clarified to the noble Lord’s satisfaction.

Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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That is very helpful. I thank the noble and learned Lord.