All 5 Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede contributions to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020

Tue 28th Apr 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Wed 20th May 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Wed 1st Jul 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Tue 8th Sep 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading
Tue 3rd Nov 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Tuesday 28th April 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a short Bill, with just three clauses, but it should not be underestimated because of its length. Unsurprisingly, today’s debate has been much more wide-ranging than the scope of the Bill itself. The Bill is the result of a campaign led on behalf of Helen McCourt; I was pleased and touched to hear about the engagement of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, with Mrs McCourt. It is a variant of the Bill originally introduced in 2016 as a 10-minute rule Bill by my honourable friend Conor McGinn.

As we all know, Helen was murdered. She disappeared in 1988. The location of her body has never been disclosed by her murderer, who has now been released from custody. The purpose of this Bill is to put into statute the already-established Parole Board guidance when making release decisions about serious offenders. I believe that it is right to take into account the refusal of a serious offender to disclose the whereabouts of the victim’s body. Offenders who refuse to disclose this information pose an ongoing risk to the public. Indeed, it is a form of ongoing control and abuse by the perpetrator of the victim’s family and friends.

Supported by a number of noble Lords from across the House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, suggested a way to go further in addressing this method of control, if I can put it that way. His idea was interesting. My question for the Minister concerns the level of monitoring that there will be on the impact of this Bill to see whether it will be possible to take further steps along the lines of what the noble and learned Lord outlined.

The Bill also puts into statute two requirements on the Parole Board when making release decisions. The first, as we have heard, is for offenders who are convicted of murder or manslaughter, where the Parole Board must take into account whether the offender has refused to reveal details of the location of the victim’s body. As we have heard, this is a subjective decision for the Parole Board because it must take into account whether this non-disclosure is the result of a psychiatric disorder or a deliberate decision to withhold information; a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made this point. An interesting point was also made about perverse incentives if one were to go too far down the road of requiring identities to be revealed or requiring a no body, no release-type measure. There is an interesting balance to be struck, which has been addressed in both this House and the other place. Ultimately, it will be for the Parole Board to make that judgment.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley asked a number of questions about transparency and keeping victims up to date with decisions on prisoner release. She made a good point about video conferencing in our courts, which we are seeing evolve as we speak. That is developing on a number of fronts. Can the Minister say whether the Parole Board is investigating its use, either for parole hearings or for incorporating victims into the process of the parole hearing? This is a fast-moving area and people should be open-minded about the new technologies which are being used so much at present.

Other questions were on the status of any future victims Bill and how that might lead to greater transparency, properly taking into account people with psychiatric problems, and on reviewing the operation of the Parole Board. On the latter, I understand that various papers have been written, but can the Minister tell us more about the Government’s ambitions for properly reviewing the work of the Parole Board?

We have all lost people who are dear to us and many of us will know victims of crime, but the circumstances of Helen McCourt’s death put the suffering of her family at a different level. Other families have experienced similar tragedies. I hope that this Bill will at least show that people have listened to Marie McCourt. Local MPs have taken up these matters; hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition to support this Bill; all political parties have supported its objectives, and the Government and now Parliament have listened. I hope that the outcome of the Bill will be to strengthen the role of the Parole Board and to give better explanations and outcomes for victims’ families.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Wednesday 20th May 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome the debate, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has tabled the amendment, because it is right that we should subject the Government to scrutiny. In drafting it, the noble Lord has gone some way down the road towards matters that were discussed in another place, such as whether we should have a rule of no disclosure and no release at all. He has not gone quite that far; he is just seeking to stop early release. Members of your Lordships’ House should go back and read the debates in another place on that matter. If anything, the Commons was inclined to go down a more severe road than that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, but in the end it decided not to. We should pay attention to its reasons for that—particularly in the light of the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who, as ever, dispensed wisdom to those of us who are non-lawyers, which I greatly appreciated.

May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, what difference his amendment would make in practice? My understanding is that its main thrust would be to require two medical opinions, which the Parole Board would have to follow; it would take away the board’s discretion. Does he have evidence of the Parole Board making decisions, particularly in cases involving such high-profile serious offenders, either without taking account of medical opinion or disregarding it completely? That seems to be what his amendments suggest may happen, and I am not sure whether there is evidence for that.

The Parole Board has the most difficult of tasks. It is always likely to disappoint one person, or one side of an argument, or another. It frequently finds itself having to depend publicly the judgments it has made, so I would be surprised if it was routinely dismissing or not paying attention to medical assessments. Indeed, it would have to have a medical assessment made by a medical practitioner to determine somebody’s mental capacity. I simply wish to know from the noble Lord what deficiency in the proceedings of the Parole Board he seeks to address and on what basis.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I am winding up for the Opposition on this short but very interesting debate. I want to open by addressing the point made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. He concluded in his support for this amendment that we are asking the impossible of the Parole Board. Although I recognise his immense experience, I question whether that basic assumption is true, and I take up the point just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we entrust the Parole Board with these extremely difficult decisions. All the members of the board who I have ever met are extremely responsible people. My understanding of this amendment is that it would require two medical opinions, after which the Parole Board would make its decision, and it is right that the Parole Board should have that responsibility.

My main objection to the amendment is that by making it inevitable in some way that people will find it impossible to get out of prison, they could be tempted to knowingly give wrong information and to do so as a form of torture, if you like, because they know that it will cause more distress to the parents involved. We should not give them that power. We should retain the responsibility and the subjective judgment of the Parole Board in making these difficult decisions.

I also listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the response to his points by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. They are both extremely experienced lawyers. I must admit that I was initially attracted to the solution proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, but I listened with interest to the objections of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and his method of solving the conundrum before us.

This amendment is not appropriate for the Bill, and I think we should pass the Bill as amended. While I acknowledge the point made by my noble friend Lord Adonis questioning whether the Bill is necessary, I think it is right that the practice of the Parole Board is put into statute, otherwise there may be other legal mechanisms of challenging the Parole Board’s decisions if it is adopting this practice but is not supported by proper legislation being in place. On that basis I would reject this amendment. We will consider the other amendments in due course, but largely speaking the Bill should pass unamended.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con)
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I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contributions to the debate in Committee —[Inaudible.]

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord German, has just said, there are essentially two groups within this single group of amendments. The first was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on mental capacity and making sure that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is properly taken into account in the Parole Board proceedings. I was persuaded by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that while we should not do piecemeal reforms of the Parole Board system—I anticipate that the Minister will say there will be a larger-scale review of the Parole Board system—this aspect of the mental capacity of the offenders who come before the board should nevertheless be taken into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, was very persuasive in her speech. She alluded to my noble friend Lord Bradley’s report, in which he pointed out that it is unknown how many people in our prisons have mental disorders. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, it should be no surprise that quite a lot of prisoners’ mental capacity deteriorates because of their time in prison, for the reasons she gave in her speech. The other point she made was about dementia. We are often dealing with people on very long prison sentences, and dementia is becoming an ever more real issue. For those reasons, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.

The amendments in the second part of this group were introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who spoke about Newton hearings as a possible way of resolving this conundrum. I have some experience of Newton hearings in a much lower capacity in magistrates’ courts. I regularly have Newton hearings, trying to resolve whatever the issue of the day is. My experience is that, in practice, it is quite difficult to narrow the issues and look just at the issue in dispute in a Newton hearing. It is very often the case that the wider events surrounding the events as a whole are brought into the case, even when one is trying to narrow the issue.

While I understand the suggestion and think it interesting, I am also mindful of the points made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Thomas, that the sentencing judge will have heard the whole case in any event and can explain their view on the reason the offender has not disclosed the location of the body and make it quite explicit whether there is an uplift to the tariff because of the way the offender has behaved. I am open-minded on that point; I have just raised some questions that arise from my own experience in the lower courts.

Nevertheless, these amendments are interesting and constructive. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will treat them in that way.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to the debate prompted by these amendments. I begin with a number of general remarks which may well be familiar to noble and learned Lords, but perhaps not to everyone.

I believe there was a reference at one stage of the proceedings to early release, and I emphasise that we are not dealing here with any issue of early release. As I mentioned in response to observations from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we are generally dealing with a life sentence or extended sentence, and when we come to look at that, we can identify two elements—in what I shall refer to as a life sentence. There is the punitive element, which is the tariff fixed by the court, and a preventive element, which is the issue addressed by the Parole Board in the context of public protection. The Parole Board’s role comes into play only at the end of the tariff—the punitive element of the sentence—at which point the Parole Board has to determine whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release under licence, having regard to the public protection test.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, was quite right in observing that in most, if not all, of these cases, the judge will have made findings in fact that will address, among other things, whether there has been disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts. If that becomes an issue, there is scope for what is termed a Newton hearing. But generally, the trial judge—whether after plea or after trial—will be in a position to make findings in fact on that issue, and to then reflect those findings in fact in the tariff he imposes upon the individual in question when applying the punitive element of the sentence. I emphasise that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made the point that there should not be punishment again. That is quite right: it is not the role of the Parole Board to punish. The role of the Parole Board is to determine, by reference to the public protection test, whether at the expiry of the tariff it is appropriate for an individual to be released from custody, albeit under licence.

That takes me to an observation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who asked whether the object of this legislation is to delay release as a punishment. The answer is clearly no. The issue being addressed is in the context of public protection, and whether the failure to disclose indicates to the Parole Board that there is a very real and material question about public protection, and whether someone should be retained in custody. Indeed, if the object of this legislation was to punish, it would potentially be in breach of both Article 5 and Article 7 of the European convention. I stress that this is not the object of this legislation at all.

I turn specifically to the amendments tabled—first, to those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, which really have two limbs. The first is covered by Amendments 2, 7, 10, 13 and 16, and the second by Amendment 4 and subsequent amendments. The first limb would ensure that the Bill’s provisions apply only to prisoners who are “able” to disclose relevant information about the location of a victim’s remains but had not done so. The second limb would particularise a prisoner’s mental capacity as one of the possible reasons for non-disclosure.

The Bill in its current form affords the Parole Board a wide scope to subjectively consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, an independent judicial body with experience of assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all circumstances into account when making a determination about non-disclosure, including the ability, whether mental or physical, of an offender to disclose.

The amendments as drafted would confine the operation of the provisions to prisoners deemed able to make such a disclosure but who had not done so. However, there may be cases where an offender has had ample opportunity to co-operate with the police or the authorities over many years to reveal a victim’s whereabouts but has refused to do so. If such an offender later became unable to disclose—by reason of age or mental illness, for example—the provision of these amendments would not apply to that offender and the board would be unable to consider a previous refusal to co-operate in its assessment of that prisoner’s risk, yet these previous persistent refusals may well be considered as reflecting quite materially on the risk that the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence.

The current Bill avoids such difficulties by allowing the Parole Board to consider all possible reasons in its view to explain non-disclosure, including considering historical refusals. That flexible approach is underlined by Clause 1(3), which makes clear that the imposition of the statutory duty does not in any way limit other matters that the board must or may take into account when conducting such an assessment.

The existence of mental health difficulties or a lack of mental health capacity would doubtless be a relevant circumstance to be taken into account, but there would also be other relevant circumstances. By not specifically referring to particulars in the Bill, we are not giving some more significance than others; we are instead allowing the Parole Board to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. It is therefore for the board itself to take a subjective view of what the reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing that information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release, which is the relevant test that the Parole Board has to address.

We have deliberately avoided any delineation in the Bill of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be, to preserve this flexible and subjective approach. Noble Lords have correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure but there may also be other reasons, such as, as I mentioned, geographical change, mental impairment or issues of mental capacity that may not have occurred at an earlier point but will still be relevant to a current assessment. In these circumstances, I will be inviting the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.

I move on to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which specify that where a Newton hearing has been carried out to ascertain certain disputed facts—generally where there has been a guilty plea, but it may take place after a trial—that should be considered by the Parole Board. The short point that I would make is that these are matters that it will be within the competence of the Parole Board to consider, and the board can call for all material pertaining to sentencing, including the terms of any Newton hearing that may have taken place. I apprehend that what the noble Lord may have in mind is perhaps to encourage judicial activity when sentencing in these cases to ensure that they address the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, observed, that is something that will invariably be taken into account by a trial judge in fixing a tariff for the sentence that he is going to impose.

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
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My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment have supported it with some passion. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who moved it, spoke forcefully about relatives’ right to hear about release hearings and about putting the onus on the Parole Board to inform victims’ families, rather than victims’ families having to use their own initiative to remain in contact with the Parole Board. As she rightly said, this is very important for families. There should be automatic membership of the victims contact scheme. People should not have to opt in, although they should, of course, have the option of opting out.

My noble friend Lady Healy had it absolutely right when she said that of course we understand that there is to be a wholesale review of all aspects of the Parole Board, but that here we have an opportunity right now to do something about this, something that has received cross-party support and is very much in the spirit of supporting victims through this often very protracted process. It is a difficult process, but we can do something about it right now.

In his summing up, the noble Lord, Lord German, made the same points about putting victims at the centre of the Parole Board’s functions. He alluded to the benefits of modern technology. I have to say, again with my magistrate’s hat on—although I do not speak for the magistracy in any way—that even with the best modern technology, it is sometimes quite difficult to locate people, particularly if they do not want to be located. However, that is not a reason for not putting the onus on the Parole Board, and I very much support the amendments.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Wednesday 1st July 2020

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for the clear way in which they introduced the Bill and for signalling their intention not to push this amendment to a vote.

When we discussed this matter at an earlier stage of the proceedings, I explained that I am one of a number of Peers who has taken part every time we have discussed mental capacity legislation since its pre-legislative state in 2004. I remain concerned that mental capacity legislation is not widely understood or implemented in a variety of professions—even in the medical profession, where one might think that it would be. Given the incidence of mental illness in the prison population, one would think that such legislation is widely understood by practitioners. When we carried out the review of the Mental Capacity Act, that turned out not to be so.

I do not doubt that the Parole Board should be as free as possible to exercise judgment. It is not for those of us outside who do not have access to all the facts of a particular case to second-guess it. My questions during earlier stages of the Bill were about the training of professionals in the criminal justice system, particularly the Parole Board, and the reliance on Mental Capacity Act advisers, Mental Health Act advisers and so on. I have not had answers to those questions; therefore, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I remain concerned that there is a gap in the legislation.

Like others who have spoken to Mrs McCourt, I really want this legislation to work and I do not wish to see gaps through which people who have the capacity and have information but are withholding it can slip. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made a valid point. I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, will resist putting these words in the Bill, but can he tell us what regulations and guidance will arise as a result of our discussion?

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, very much for moving her amendment. In Committee, I supported the amendments. I also echo the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who contacted me personally to say that he very much wishes he could have been here to support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

It must be said that a number of extremely eminent lawyers have, in essence, spoken against the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. My response to those eminent contributions was best articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. My experience is that many different parts of the criminal justice system do not understand mental capacity legislation properly and that, even if they do, it is often not used to its full extent. That is because such a large proportion of the people we deal with in the criminal justice system as a whole have mental capacity issues.

I support in principle what the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has said; I understand that she will not press her amendments to a vote. I hope that the Minister will say something more constructive about addressing the perceived gap in the legislation regarding further review by the Parole Board and the practicality of a possible remedy through judicial review. These are all active issues which have been explored in our debate. The Minister should acknowledge that the concerns raised are real and explain to the House why it would not be necessary to meet them in the Bill.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and other noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Perhaps I may reiterate the position of the Government, which is that we consider that the amendments would unnecessarily fetter the discretion of the Parole Board. I do not accept that there is a gap in the legislation, as suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.

I shall initially address Amendment 1 and related Amendments 5, 8, 11 and 14, which would ensure that the Bill’s provisions applied only to prisoners who are, or have previously been, “able” to disclose relevant information but have not chosen not to do so.

The Bill affords the Parole Board wide scope subjectively to consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, which is after all an independent judicial body with experience in assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all relevant circumstances into account when making a release assessment.

The board must be satisfied that the offender no longer poses a risk to the public, and this high bar can be met only after it considers all elements of an offender’s case. This already includes an offender’s current and past “ability”, whether mental or physical, to disclose such information. The Parole Board may already consider all possible reasons, in its own view, for any non-disclosure, including historic refusals.

There is some uncertainty as to the meaning of the term “able” in these circumstances, and it would be unclear what criteria the board would use to make their determination. In many cases, there are varying degrees of ability, or varying degrees of information, that the prisoner can disclose, and the interpretations of ability in each case will differ—a point made by a number of noble Lords. The Parole Board in its current practice uses a flexible approach to take into account all elements of a non-disclosure. To use “able” in a determinative and inflexible way would cause unnecessary confusion and potential inconsistencies in its application. That has the potential unfairly to prevent the board when applying the Bill’s provisions from considering a non-disclosure by an offender in many circumstances; for example, the case of an offender who had rendered themselves “unable” to disclose due to illicit drug use in prison. There are clearly other examples of how that difficulty could arise.

By specifically avoiding reference to particulars in the Bill, we are deliberately not limiting the board’s ability to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. I say in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that the Parole Board is possessed of considerable expertise in these areas, including that of mental health.

That leads me on to Amendments 2, 6, 9, 12 and 15, which would explicitly direct the Parole Board to take into account one possible reason for non-disclosure; namely, whether the prisoner has or had the mental capacity to disclose information. The Bill places a broad statutory duty on the Parole Board to take into account non-disclosure on the part of a prisoner and, in doing so, it must consider all the reasons for such non-disclosure. It is therefore for the board itself, as now, to take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing this information may have on its subsequent assessment of suitability for release. I remind noble Lords of what is provided for in Clause 1(2)(b), which states:

“When making the public protection decision about the life prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account … the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s nondisclosure.”


That wide remit clearly would embrace all the issues that have been touched on in the debate.

The noble Baroness correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure. However, we do not believe that there is any material benefit in referring to this as a possible reason for non-disclosure in the Bill, as the Parole Board will take all relevant factors into account when assessing a prisoner’s suitability for release. If one factor were to be explicitly stated, it could be asked why other reasons for non-disclosure are not also placed on a statutory footing, such as a geographical change that prevents the location of a victim’s remains being identified or circumstances where mental impairment does not amount to “mental capacity”. As one noble Lord observed, there may be cases where people have simply forgotten or decided to blank matters out of their mind over a period of many years. Clearly, the noble Baroness does not wish to preclude any other relevant factors, but any delineation of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be in order to preserve a flexible approach takes away from the subjective approach that we invite the Parole Board to take. This approach is expressed in Clause 1(3), which states:

“This section does not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account when making a public protection decision.”


It is for the board to take these matters into account when conducting its assessment.

There are significant practical difficulties in attempting to give examples on the face of the statute, which could lead to unnecessary confusion. That is why a decision as to mental capacity is one of many that would have to be considered. However, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in respect of all decisions it makes. A decision where a relevant mental capacity issue was not taken into account would clearly be amenable to challenge by judicial review. That is why we believe that the more sensible approach is to leave these matters to the considerable expertise and experience of the Parole Board and not to attempt to take one or two factors out of context and place them in the Bill.

I say in response to one or two points raised in debate that the Parole Board already has expertise available to it in dealing with matters of mental capacity. We are not moving away from the current guidelines; we are essentially expressing in statutory form that which can be found there already. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked whether the matter would go to Strasbourg. I simply draw his attention to the certificate given by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice pursuant to Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights.

I acknowledge the concern expressed about mental capacity. I reiterate our view that that is well embraced by the broad terms of the Bill. I therefore invite the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.

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Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD) [V]
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My Lords, the intention behind this group of amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford is to provide the Parole Board with an increased level of relevant information on disclosure by including the issues raised by so-called Newton hearings.

As many noble and learned Lords have said, a Newton hearing may be held when a defendant has been found guilty at trial or entered a guilty plea but the issues in dispute that could affect sentencing were not fully resolved in the trial and therefore not resolved by the jury’s verdict. In the course of a Newton hearing, the prosecution will call evidence and test defence evidence in the usual manner, including calling witnesses to give evidence if required, and the defence will also present its evidence. When the issue is within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant, as is the case in the two situations defined in this Bill, the offender should be prepared to give evidence. When they fail to do so without good reason, the judge may draw such inferences as they think fit.

It is this increased level of information that would become available to the Parole Board when taking into account the issue of disclosure when considering parole. I do not see that increasing the level of information made available in any way fetters the discretion of the Parole Board. It just gives it more information on which it can judge the issue.

In addressing the principle of Newton hearings in Committee, the Minister made two points. He said, first, that invariably the judge would take into account the matter of non-disclosure when sentencing and, secondly, that Newton hearings “are not that common.” Putting these two points together, it is clear that the matter is considered but not guaranteed. Very few Newton hearings probe deeply into the reasons for non-disclosure. I venture that this is particularly so after a guilty plea at trial.

In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that Newton hearings provide a route to

“achieving the best possible result”—[Official Report, 20/5/20; col. 1158]

when non-disclosure has to be considered, and I agree with his analysis. Judges will have heard the facts as laid out in the trial and will have to make a judgment when non-disclosure is an issue. These amendments seek fundamentally to encourage trial judges to use the Newton procedure when the question of disclosure is under consideration. At this stage the maximum influence of the trial judge can be brought to bear on the disclosure question.

This would provide some comfort to victims. The offender’s refusal to provide the information will be public. The “I can’t remember” or “I can’t deal with the situation” answers will have been examined. Victims will see the questioning and cross-examining of the prisoner, hear the answers given and be able to see any signs of remorse. They will see the judge’s skills in tackling the defensive screen that offenders may build around themselves. This public record will be of immense use to the Parole Board in its consideration of the disclosure issue for many years into the future. It will be able to examine and probe the answers given at the time of sentencing with a much greater armoury of knowledge than the original court case might provide, especially if the Newton hearing were to take place following a guilty plea.

The trial judge will have presided over the original trial, and for the same judge to carry out the Newton trial before sentencing is a real help for victims. They know that the judge will have heard all the arguments and is in the best place to discover reasons for non-disclosure. Most importantly, it would provide reassurance to victims that this matter had been dealt with fully and properly and that the justice system was aware of their concerns.

Newton hearings are a fairly recent legal procedure and, as we have heard, only in England and Wales, but in the matters relating to the purposes of this Bill, such a hearing could have profound effects on the outcome for victims. Justice is not just a point in time for them; it can last a long time, and a lifetime for some. For victims coming to terms with their grief, anguish and hurt, it can last for ever. That is why the justice system has to do everything in its power to fully investigate non-disclosure at the earliest possible stage in the process.

These amendments, in this tightly drawn Bill, do not determine that there shall be a Newton hearing but simply that, if one has taken place, the Parole Board shall take note of its proceedings, particularly if the hearing had determined whether there was remorse and whether the perpetrator had knowledge of the victims that he or she had chosen not to disclose.

However, although the amendments do not place a requirement on the judicial system that there be Newton hearings, their passing would send a powerful message to prosecutors of the significance of such a hearing, particularly for its impact on victims. I commend these amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede [V]
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My Lords, this is an interesting group of amendments, and my party will abstain if a vote is called. I listened carefully to the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, summarised the situation clearly from my perspective: Newton hearings are, in any event, the least common form of determining facts. The determining of facts is most often done by judges when summing up the case and, if there is a basis of plea, that would be the basis on which the sentence is made. If it is not accepted, there could be room for moving to a Newton hearing.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, Newton hearings occur throughout the whole of the English and Welsh system. As noble Lords may know, I sit as a magistrate in London and we occasionally do Newton hearings. They are used as a method of resolving the seriousness of the offence in some cases, but it seems we are talking about a very narrow set of circumstances here. In particular, the judge will have sat through the whole trial in the first place, and it will be for the lawyers on both sides to go through all the aggravating and mitigating factors, including the non-disclosure of a body. Of course, if the judge is not satisfied that that has been gone into sufficiently, they themselves can ask questions of clarification, if I can put it like that, of any witnesses giving evidence. It seems unlikely that this procedure would ever be used, and as such it should not be in the Bill.

A number of noble Lords spoke about calling witnesses again. It could be an extremely traumatic event for some people to have to be called twice to establish the facts of the case. Surely, it would be far better if all the facts—including the reason for the non-disclosure of the body or of the identity of children who have had sexual images made of them—were established in the trial itself, rather than elements of the trial being repeated in a Newton hearing. I will abstain on this amendment for the reasons I have given.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government remain of the view that these amendments would place too much emphasis on findings of mental capacity at a Newton hearing, particularly the findings made for the purposes of sentence.

In sentencing an offender, it is for the court to consider the punitive element of an offender’s sentence and, in doing so, to take into account the failure to disclose information in setting the tariff. By reflecting this in the sentencing remarks, victims can be assured that due consideration has been given to the non-disclosure. Tariffs must be served in their entirety and irrespective of any disclosure of information after a trial, so the tariff cannot be reduced because of subsequent disclosures. This is an entirely sensible approach, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, acknowledged when we discussed this matter in Committee. The trial judge is more able to determine the appropriate weighting with regard to non-disclosure when setting the tariff.

On the other hand, the Parole Board’s role is in relation to the preventive element of the sentence. The consideration that the Parole Board must make is whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release on licence if the offender’s risk can be safely managed in the community. The Bill places a statutory duty on the board, when making that wider assessment, to consider the non-disclosure of information by an offender and the possible reasons for it. The board will take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and what bearing this information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release. When it comes to consider these matters, it must of course take account of the judge’s sentencing remarks. Those, in turn, will be informed by such issues as non-disclosure. I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for his detailed analysis of how the court approaches these matters in practice and why, in the context of the Bill, it would not be appropriate to simply import the notion of the Newton hearing for the purposes of the Parole Board’s determination.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state may be a significant reason for non-disclosure—a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, when she spoke to her own amendments. But to limit this to the specific context of a Newton hearing, and to place that in the Bill, appears to us to be too narrow an approach. The Parole Board should be free to consider all reasons, including those that may arise as a result of a Newton hearing—unusual though they may be—and we should therefore avoid any specific delineation in the Bill.

As new subsection (3) in Clause 1 makes clear, the breadth of matters which the board may take into account is, essentially, as wide as possible. In addition, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in all decisions, so a decision where a relevant Newton hearing or an issue of mental capacity was not taken into account could be subject to judicial review. I venture that this is not the Bill in which to approach the whole issue of sentencing guidelines or findings of fact for the purposes of those guidelines. That is already accommodated, and it is in these circumstances that I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

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Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Newlove, not just for their contributions today but for the discussions that my noble friend Lord German and I have had with them about this amendment since the previous stage of the Bill and for their valuable assistance in refining the proposals today, which are somewhat different from those that I put before the House in Committee. In particular, I thank them for enabling us to come up with an opt-out, rather than an opt-in system, in which we have set down a clear definition of victims and relevant persons.

I want to deal with the question raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, which was alluded by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, concerning why we have the proposal in the Bill and do not leave it to the more general workings of the Victim Contact Scheme. In one sense, they are right. We should have a Victim Contact Scheme which works for all victims in every case, but we do not. We should have a special measure in the Bill because these are victims of a particularly horrible situation. It is not just that they have been victims of a crime; they continue to be victims of the failure of a convicted prisoner to make a disclosure about a particular matter. That is of a sufficiently different order from other crimes for the Government to have brought forward this Bill, which applies solely in those circumstances.

As other noble Lords have said—the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said it perhaps more clearly than anybody else—parole hearings in these cases carry a weight even greater than those of other crimes, so it is even more important that the administrative processes, which our criminal justice system quite frequently gets wrong, should not revictimise these people. We are not asking for very much, we are just asking that there be a database, that they be on it and that they have an automatic right to information at all times.

I do not want to repeat the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, about the position in which victims’ families find themselves, as I think she said it all. However, having talked to Marie McCourt, I think that we are talking about 100 cases at most. For these cases, which the Government have decided are sufficiently special for us to have a separate law, we should have this system as outlined, and if it works well, there is no reason why it should not be applied more widely either under other legislation or in the often-mentioned general review of the Parole Board.

I hope that the Minister will appreciate that we listened to what he said at earlier stages of the Bill and that we have brought forward an amended proposal which is modest but of immense importance to a very small number of people.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede [V]
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My Lords, I support the amendment and I support my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley. She set out very clearly the reasons for the amendment, and the majority of speakers have supported her. I found the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, particularly moving. She spoke from the heart, as always, and, sadly, she spoke from bitter experience. It was particularly interesting that she talked about the practicalities of getting information from the Parole Board, even when you are very well known to the board as a victim.

My noble friend’s amendment would put in place an opt-out rather than an opt-in system, and the various elements of that are specified in the amendment. The arguments against the amendment made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was: that is all very well, but why are these victims different from the other victims within the whole of the criminal justice system? The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made the point very clearly: the reason they are different is that they continue to be victims because of the non-disclosure of the information.

There are roughly only 100 such victims in the country. I hope that any review of the work of the Parole Board will look at making a much wider opt-out system available in the future, but, now, we have the chance to legislate to address the concerns of this very particular group. The Parole Board has a heavy weight of responsibility but this is an opportunity for the House to make a tangible difference to these victims’ lives, and it should seek to do so. I support my noble friend.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I quite understand the concern that has been expressed about the victims of crime and the victims of these particular crimes.

Perhaps, first, I may make a number of rather technical points in relation to the scope of the amendment. Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause does not apply to those receiving a determinate sentence for the offences contained in the Bill. However, I am confident that the amendment was meant to apply to all sentence types, and I will proceed with my remarks on that basis. Additionally, “relevant persons”, as defined in proposed new subsection (5), would include offenders beyond the scope of the Bill—namely, all those convicted of murder or manslaughter—rather than being restricted to the circumstances set out in the Bill. Again, I will proceed with my remarks on the basis that this was intended to be confined to offenders to whom the Bill applies.

I turn to the substance of the amendment. First, it would require the Parole Board—I emphasise: the Parole Board—to create and maintain a database of victims’ family members in cases captured by the Bill. The board would have to remove a family member from the database if they did not wish to be included. Secondly, it would create an obligation on the Parole Board to provide information to certain groups of victims and, indeed, suspected victims and their families.

This amendment effectively replicates some elements of the victim contact scheme for a limited group of people, and places the duty on the Parole Board to administer it rather than the National Probation Service. With respect, the Parole Board is not equipped for such a function. There is already a well-established process delivered through the victim contact scheme to provide victims with information about the date and outcome of parole hearings, and they can request a summary of the Parole Board decision. This process also facilitates victims requesting the imposition of specific licence conditions for the offender’s release, such as exclusion zones, and assists them in submitting a victim personal statement which will be considered by the Parole Board panel. The Government see no justification for replicating the excellent service provided by the victim contact scheme for a particular group of victims’ families in a limited way.

Proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment proposes an unfettered right to

“information pertaining to the application”,

which may include confidential information relating to the offender, such as police intelligence, which may breach the offender’s confidentiality rights and put their safety at risk. The Parole Board must balance the rights of victims with the rights of the offender.

If there is any suggestion that the parole decision is legally or procedurally flawed, victims may ask the Lord Chancellor to consider making a reconsideration application on their behalf, and the Lord Chancellor can ask the Parole Board to look at the decision again. Victims will receive a detailed letter setting out the reasons why the request for reconsideration was successful or unsuccessful. The victim liaison officer will provide information regarding judicial review if requested.

There are significant practical difficulties in operating such a scheme on the opt-out basis suggested by this amendment. The Parole Board would need to ensure that the correct contact details for each victim are recorded; if a victim does not respond to the offer of contact, it would not be appropriate simply to send updates to a last known address, for example. This amendment would duplicate much of the work delivered under the victim contact scheme but could not replace it entirely. That means that victims would have to receive contacts from and share information with both the Parole Board and the victim contact scheme, which would in turn add to their distress at a potentially very difficult time.

We are currently trialling a new process whereby all eligible victims are referred directly to the National Probation Service, to ensure that they are all offered access to the victim contact scheme directly by it, thus ensuring that we reduce the risk of victims opting out before they are clear about the benefits of the scheme. The new process also incorporates a standard referral form that provides the service with the address, telephone number and email address of victims to allow for multiple methods of contact.

We recognise that receiving information about parole hearings is of great importance to many victims, and we endeavour to support them through the existing victim contact scheme. We consider that this support is far better delivered by the National Probation Service than by being placed on the shoulders of the independent Parole Board, which, as I indicated, is not equipped to carry out such a service.

The amendment also contains a requirement to review the database’s use within one year of its creation. However, as some noble Lords observed, cases such as those detailed in this Bill are extremely rare and it is unlikely that a review after one year could result in any significant, reliable findings.

I emphasise that we are concerned with the position of victims. They are provided with information under the victim contact scheme, which is administered by the National Probation Service. The victim liaison officer will provide information to those who wish to receive it. Where the Parole Board considers or reconsiders a case, victims will receive a detailed letter setting out the reasons why, for example, a request for reconsideration was successful or unsuccessful. We are ensuring that the victim’s personal statement comes before the Parole Board when it has a hearing. We plan to enshrine support for victims in a victims’ law, as we have indicated, but before we do this we will revise the victims’ code to give them more clarity on their rights around access to support and greater flexibility over when and how a victim personal statement can be made.

The noble Lord, Lord German, referred to engagement on this matter. I can indicate that my honourable friend Alex Chalk, the Minister with responsibility in this area, has been endeavouring to arrange a meeting with the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Barker, to discuss this matter. I do not know whether they are aware of that, but I am advised that this is in train, if I may put it in those terms. In these circumstances and, in particular, having regard to the distinctive role of the Parole Board on the one hand and the National Probation Service on the other, with respect to the victim code, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

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Tuesday 8th September 2020

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I know that she spoke to Marie McCourt and informed the earlier stages of the debate. We are dealing with families in the most unimaginably tragic situation and Marie McCourt has shown tremendous endurance over decades to get this legislation on the statute book and for recognition of the turmoil that families in that position go through.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy has been very active in this matter, and I would like to put on record my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, who has been very receptive to the amendment that will be considered in another place and who has had a follow-up meeting to consider other matters that may be taken further. We are grateful to him and for the cross-party approach that this Bill has seen in this House.

As was mentioned by the Minister, other aspects of mental capacity were investigated further, if I can put it like that, at earlier stages of the Bill by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and others. The Parole Board will have to take a very difficult decision when looking at the reason why this information has been withheld, whether it is because of mental capacity, vindictiveness or as a power play. These are very difficult decisions for the Parole Board to make but it is right that victims’ families are fully informed about the process that the Parole Board is going through and that there are active and statutorily based steps for the Parole Board to make sure that those families are properly informed. I thank the Minister for supporting this legislation.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I thank the noble Lords who have spoken. I too express my great sympathy for Marie McCourt, who has fought a tireless campaign over a number of years to see justice done for her daughter Helen.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 3rd November 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I too thank the Minister for what she has said today and for the way the Government have encouraged cross-party support for the various elements of the Bill. The Minister spoke further about the testing opt-out system which will be trialled.

I also pay tribute to the campaigning of Marie McCourt and the other families who have been victims of serious offences. The campaigns, which will be partially successful today, will make a significant difference to the lives of victims’ families for generations to come; these campaigns, like Marie McCourt’s, did so in the knowledge that their own situation would not be materially affected or improved by this Bill. They did it to save others from the torment they have endured. I am very grateful to them.

The first part of this Bill forces the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information during release decisions for people convicted of murder or manslaughter and the failure to give the names of victims of sexual assault or the distribution of indecent images. This Bill puts into law what has been the current operating practice of the Parole Board. We are very clear that the withholding of this information is an ongoing form of control and abuse by the perpetrators, of which the family and friends are victims.

To paraphrase the Minister, this Bill is one step, but a significant one, on the road to properly addressing the systemic challenges faced by victims in our criminal justice system. We in the Opposition look forward to a more comprehensive approach to ensuring victims are at the heart of the processes which convict and punish the guilty and release offenders when they have served their time.

I thank my noble friend Lady Kennedy. She won her amendments in this House at an earlier stage of the Bill, which were then reversed in the Commons. The intent of her amendments was to put victims on a more even footing with offenders. In that sense, she was successful. We heard that the Minister thinks that some of the intentions can be met in other ways; we accept that, although we look forward to a wider context in which victims’ rights will be addressed.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy told me on several occasions that she was very inexperienced in the ways in which the House of Lords worked, but I was never deceived by her. I knew she was a very experienced political operator, and she has played a blinder in this Bill. She has worked across parties and across the Houses, and has been an advocate for the victims’ families. I thank her for the work she has done on this Bill.

Today’s legislation, plus the undertakings we have heard from the Minister, show that sometimes it is best to co-operate with the Government. All those who participated on this Bill, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, have done so in a spirit of co-operation from which we have all benefited. I am glad this Bill is soon to receive Royal Assent. It is one step along the road, but a significant one. It has shown Parliament working at its best.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I reiterate my thanks to the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Barker, and others who brought this amendment for supporting what the Government are doing. I know that they will continue to make sure it works in future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, brought up the trials that some police forces are doing. I do not think their results will be released, but we know that really positive reports are coming out of them, with, as I said before, increased numbers of referrals but also higher numbers of victims enrolling in the scheme, which is good news. If there are any results, I will make sure that the noble Baroness receives a copy of them. She also asked about the tracing of the opt-ins. I have not heard about any tracing; I will go back to the department and ask, but it is not something we have traced. It is quite difficult when somebody says “No” to keep asking, “Why not?” or “Do you want to?”. However, I will make sure she gets that information as well.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, very much for bringing up Marie McCourt and the families, as other noble Lords have done. She has worked tirelessly for this Bill, and we thank her. I also put on record my thanks to one or two other noble Lords who raised really important issues under the Bill, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for their positive engagements on mental capacity. Once again, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the signatories to her amendment for raising these important concerns about the victim contact. Finally, the House should recognise—and I recognise—Marie McCourt, Helen McCourt’s mother, for her tireless campaign.