All 1 Baroness Watkins of Tavistock contributions to the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024

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Wed 24th Jan 2024
Victims and Prisoners Bill
Lords Chamber

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Victims and Prisoners Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Excerpts
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, Amendment 3 acknowledges that the definition of victim in the Bill is quite broad, and that will mean, I hope, that as many victims as possible are supported by the victims’ code and related services. However, I want to probe the Government as to whether they intended the definition of victim to be so broad as to include the close family of a person who died as a direct result of their own criminal conduct; for example, by dangerous driving or possessing and consuming illegal drugs.

Clause 1(2) defines a victim as including

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

This appears to include where the deceased caused their own death by their own criminal conduct. This broadness is underlined by Clause 1(5), which makes it “immaterial” whether anyone has reported the criminal conduct, or if anyone has been charged with, or convicted of, an offence.

The family of someone who dies as a result of consuming illegal drugs are victims of the Government’s ideological war on drugs. The Government refuse to treat drug use as a health issue and to implement a safe, regulated market of drugs that would take the multi-billion pound drugs trade out of the hands of criminal gangs.

Can the Minister please clarify whether it is the Government’s intention that family members of people who die as a result of their own criminal conduct will be supported by the victims’ code and the associated support services provided to victims?

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my relevant interests as outlined in the register. I support Amendments 8, 12 and 19, which seek to ensure that people who have suffered as a result of a crime committed by a patient with a mental health disorder who is detained in hospital under a restriction order are afforded the same rights under the victims’ code as victims of offenders who are held in the prison estate. This is not the case presently.

The amendments seek to extend the principle that all victims have a right to be heard in the justice process and to include the NHS and His Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service in the list of responsible agencies. This would bring mental health tribunal processes in line with the rest of the criminal justice system and remove a long-standing and unfair disparity in treatment for people who have experienced these crimes. The principle that everyone who experiences a crime should have the opportunity to make their voice heard in the criminal justice process is at the heart of why these amendments are necessary. Those who have experienced crimes committed by patients with a diagnosed mental health illness deserve parity of treatment with all other people who have experienced crimes.

Under the victims’ code, people have the right to make a victim personal statement before the Parole Board when the person who has offended is being considered for release. Anyone who is directly affected by violent crime should have the right to be heard, but, as the victims’ code does not extend to mental health tribunals, victims of an offence caused by somebody held under a mental health restriction order cannot make any personal statement in writing, or in person, to the mental health tribunal panel.

The VPS is the single key entitlement which allows people to explain the impact of the crime committed against them, and there is a widespread consensus that the opportunity to submit a VPS is beneficial for all victims. It can offer some catharsis, which is essential in assisting the recovery from the trauma of a crime. In addition to this being beneficial to people who have experienced crime, this process may offer the opportunity for patients with a mental health disorder to gain further understanding of the impact of their actions on other people. This is particularly important when these people return to the community and sometimes feel that it would be better not to take their medication. Understanding the risk of not doing so might be beneficial for the proportion who are able to leave hospital.

The anticipated number of victims wishing to speak directly to the mental health tribunal is likely to be small. I understand that in cases of people wishing to address the Parole Board in person, it is currently fewer than one in 10. The majority are likely to submit a written statement to the panel that explains the impact that the actions of the patient has made on their lives.

The practice of allowing statements to be made to the tribunal is established in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland and Australia. In research undertaken by the Victims’ Commissioner in 2019, a family in Scotland discussed their experience addressing a mental health panel. They attended a separate hearing where the patient was not present but a legal representative attended on their behalf instead. The family did not get the outcome from the hearing they had hoped for but, crucially, they felt acknowledged and a party to the process despite that. They said:

“We … did feel given a voice, and one of the few occasions in the whole process we felt we had a voice and able to articulate our position”.

Clearly, it should be possible to balance the rights of patients.

Of course, as a nurse, I cannot overemphasise the need to maintain the confidentiality of medical records in tribunals. None of this needs to be shared with the victim making the representation and those impacted by crimes, so why is there such a different process in England and Wales, even just north of the border? As victims of crime are not currently able to address mental health panels in writing, by video link or in person, we are left with a two-tier system in which a distinction is made based on whether somebody is detained in a prison or in a mental health hospital. It is those who have suffered from the crime who lose out in terms of being heard.

I have worked closely with the Victims’ Commissioner, who has long called for this change. I hope that the Government will look favourably on these amendments and identify any changes to mental health tribunals that may be necessary.

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Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords very sincerely for their most moving and constructive speeches. I will first respond to the invitation of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, to conduct these proceedings in as open and consensual way as possible. In the other place, my right honourable friend Minister Argar did precisely that, and I propose to follow exactly the same approach, and to discuss as widely as we can the various difficult issues that are in front of us. That is an essential function of this Chamber.

To a great extent—I think my noble friend Lady Newlove accepted this, up to a point—we have made very considerable progress in support of victims generally over the last few years. But the problems that remain are, in particular, that victims are still often unaware of their rights, that the required services are not provided, or that the relevant authorities are not accountable. So the questions in front of us are not so much points of principle as questions as to how we change the culture of a system to make sure that victims are properly supported, as they should be.

I suggest, in shorthand, that essentially we should seek four things. First, victims should be aware of their rights and entitlements under the code. Secondly, those services should be accessible. Thirdly, those responsible for providing them should be accountable. Finally, the system should be affordable; speaking on behalf of the Government, I am bound to make that point. Essentially, we have four As: awareness, accessibility, accountability and affordability. It is within that framework that I will respond to the various points that have been made, with great conviction and sincerity, about the definition of “victim” in the current draft of the Bill.

We are dealing with five questions all together. One is about carers and those who suffer vicarious harm, which is raised in Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. The second is about people who have been victims of a defendant who has subsequently been made the subject of a hospital order as distinct from another criminal sanction. Thirdly, there is the question of anti-social behaviour. Fourthly, there is the question of homicide abroad. Finally, where the criminal conduct has been caused by another family member, there is the question of whether they are still a victim; that is raised in the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I will take those points, and probably in that order.

As regards Amendment 1, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, as I read it, the definition of “victim” is not confined in its present form to victims of serious sexual or violent behaviour; it is very broad, extending to all crimes. It refers first to persons who have been subject to witnessing a crime. The Government’s position is that those who have witnessed a crime are already covered fairly explicitly in the definition in Clause 1.

That takes us on to the difficult question of how far you go on the carers of victims and others who have suffered indirectly rather than directly. On that point, the Government’s present thinking is that we should have a system that serves the direct victims primarily, and that we cannot, at this stage at least, extend the definition of a victim too far. If I may say so, there is force in the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox: if one makes the concept of a victim too wide, one may well finish up with a system that is not as workable as it otherwise would be. There are all kinds of people who are, in one sense, victims but who are not necessarily the direct victims to whom we must give priority. The job of a Government is to make decisions as to how to prioritise services. We are very pressed on resources on all fronts, so I urge your Lordships to take that point into account and to consider that the definition of victim in Clause 1 is already very wide. I will come to certain points made in that connection in a moment. It would not be the right approach, by statute, to extend that already broad definition any further than it is. Broadly speaking, that is the Government’s position on Amendment 1.

On the point about hospital orders in relation to Amendments 8, 12 and 19, the question is whether the victim is a person who has been subject to criminal conduct. A person may well be the perpetrator of criminal conduct but still finish up being ordered by the court to be detained in a secure hospital, rather than serve a criminal sentence. The Government’s position is that many of the victims whose perpetrator has finished up in front of a mental health tribunal are already victims under the Bill. They are covered so long as the conduct is criminal. Your Lordships may have seen the tragic case in Nottingham this week, where the defendant, who was clearly schizophrenic and should never have been on the streets, was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of dismissed responsibility. It was criminal conduct, so those unfortunate families are victims. The point that is rightly made—

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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If the Minister would not mind giving way, I will clarify—I am sure that this is what he meant—that there are many people who are successfully treated for schizophrenia who live in the community. I think that he is referring to an individual who was very ill and who sought the charge of manslaughter yesterday because of diminished responsibility. I would not want the impression to be given in Hansard that people cannot live their lives—quite challenging lives—with schizophrenia in the community.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I entirely accept that point. I have in my own family direct experience of a similar situation. That particular individual had already committed a number of crimes and there was a warrant out for his arrest. That is a very specific case and that is the context in which I made my comment.

On the assumption that, in many of these cases, we have someone who is already a victim under the meaning in the Bill, the problem rightly identified is that the procedures of the mental health tribunal do not, at the moment, quite correspond to the procedures in the main courts, particularly on the right to give a victim statement. The Government’s position is that that is not a satisfactory state of affairs; they are working with the authorities in the mental health tribunal and others to operationalise how we have the same system for mental health tribunals as for the main courts system. I hope to be able to give your Lordships further information that will enable your Lordships to say that this point—which is rightly being made—is being addressed by the Government. As soon as I am in a position to give further information about that, I will. The point of principle that a number of noble Lords have made is accepted; there is no dispute about that.

We then come to the equally difficult question of anti-social behaviour. Again, the first question is whether the victim has been subject to criminal conduct. Strictly speaking, whether or not the police have taken any action is not decisive of the question of whether the conduct is criminal. It may well have crossed the criminal threshold and, if it has, the victim should be entitled to relevant circumstances.

If the conduct has not crossed the criminal threshold, that is a more difficult situation because the scope of the Bill is victims of criminal conduct, and it is quite difficult for the Government, at least at this stage, to contemplate bringing within the scope of this Bill conduct that is not criminal. But a lot of anti-social behaviour is criminal, so how are we going to tackle this? Again, I am not in a position to give your Lordships as much detail as I would wish, but there will shortly be before your Lordships the Criminal Justice Bill currently making its passage through the other place, which will tackle and address a number of legitimate concerns about anti-social behaviour by enhancing the powers available to the police and other local agencies under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.