All 1 Lord Watts contributions to the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024

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Thu 23rd May 2024

Victims and Prisoners Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Lord Watts Excerpts
Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, I have two matters to address. The first matter is the position on devolution. The majority of the measures in Part 1 of the Bill apply to England and Wales. Clause 18, which relates to the issuing of guidance about victim support services, engages the legislative consent process. The Senedd did not grant legislative consent for this measure. Accordingly, the Government will table in the other place an amendment so that this clause applies to England and reserved matters in Wales only, and consequently removes the requirement to consult Welsh Ministers before issuing guidance.

Part 3 of the Bill applies UK-wide, and I can confirm consent has been granted by the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament. However, the process has not yet concluded in Northern Ireland. In the interest of ensuring the legislation is passed and these vital measures come into force across the UK, we will need to proceed to legislate for all, including Northern Ireland.

Part 2 of the Bill applies to England and Wales, and engages the legislative consent process for the appointment of the independent public advocate. The Bill contains a measure which requires the Secretary of State to consult Welsh Ministers before declaring a major incident in Wales and appointing an advocate. The Senedd did not grant consent for this part of the Bill. We continue to believe that this is an appropriate level of involvement for the Welsh Government and that it respects the legislative competence of the Senedd. Having considered the Senedd’s position, the United Kingdom Government have decided that, in this instance and given the context of major incidents, we will proceed without the Senedd’s consent. It would not be acceptable for the independent advocate provisions not to apply in Wales. It is vital that these measures apply to—

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Can the Minister explain why the Senedd is refusing to sign up to this agreement? It might be of interest to the House to know why.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I am afraid I am not in a position to say why the Senedd has refused consent; only the Senedd can say. The original issue was whether it should have some kind of veto over the appointment of the independent public advocate, or whether it should simply be consulted. One could infer that it was not satisfied with the requirement to be consulted and wanted a stronger role. That is an inference I draw as I have no inside information on the point. In any event, it is vital, in the Government’s view, that these measures apply to England and Wales to bring the benefit to all victims within England and Wales. So that is the devolution position.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB)
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I do not know whether, in this procedure, it is permissible for me to answer the question which the Minister was not in a position to. If I might explain, it was hoped that in the spirit of the United Kingdom you might be able to agree on a lawyer. There are an awful lot of lawyers and normally parties can agree, but, as the Welsh Assembly sees it, for some extraordinary reason the Government refused to do what normal litigants do, which is to agree on a lawyer. It stuck on that point because it thought it showed how unworkable the union is becoming if you cannot even agree on a lawyer.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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Quite frankly, there are lots of lawyers in here. I do not know whether, if we put forward everyone’s name, perhaps the Senedd could agree to someone who is already in the House of Lords.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I think this is not a very useful debate to pursue at this stage of the proceedings. Without going any further, I am under the impression that it is not only the question of agreeing on a lawyer, but whether a standing public advocate should be appointed in the first place. I suggest that is something we should leave aside for today’s purposes.

My second duty is to speak to Amendment 1 in my name on the Marshalled List. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes, and Stella Creasy, a Member of Parliament in the other place, for the amendments they have tabled on this issue, and their engagement with myself and officials in this area. The amendment concerns what to do when there is a malicious complaint to social services and the procedure for removing that complaint, following the conviction of the complainant and the finding that the complaint was malicious.

Amendment 1 will insert into Article 17(1) of the GDPR—in fact, it inserts it into the relevant European directive so we have an unusual example of the UK Government directly amending European legislation—a new Part 2 ground which creates the right for certain victims who are data subjects to request deletion of personal data when the following two circumstances occur: first, when an allegation has been made by a person who has been convicted of relevant criminal offence against the data subject, or the person is subject to a stalking protection order made to protect the data subject from a risk associated with stalking; secondly, following an investigation by the data controller, it has been decided that no further action has to be taken in relation to the allegation.

The relevant criminal offences listed in the amendment are the offences of stalking and harassment against a victim. A power is also taken to update this list by regulations made using the affirmative procedure, should further offences be required to be included in the future. This amendment will provide a specific new ground for victims of stalking and harassment for the deletion of false allegations made about them, and support them to prevent the further distress that retaining this information may cause.

To ensure that the data controller has an important reason to retain the data, the exemptions under Article 17(3) of the UK GDPR will apply. This allows the data controller to refuse the re quest for a limited list of reasons, including whether processing is necessary for compliance with a legal obligation or the performance of a task carried out in the public interest, which could capture refusal for safeguarding reasons. However, data controllers must provide reasons for any refusal and inform data subjects of their right to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office. We will ensure that guidance, including on child safeguarding, is updated so data controllers understand how the new ground is intended to work. We will also update the victims’ code so that victims are aware of their rights around data erasure.

I therefore commend this amendment to the House, and I hope that what I have said will permit the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, not to press her Amendment 2 on the marshalled list.

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Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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It is my privilege to follow both the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan. I signed this amendment and continue to offer my support. I echo and agree with everything they said.

I have slight concerns that this is not just an issue about the data controller; it is also about social work practice. That really worries me, because there is a mindset that says that if anyone makes a complaint, we have to have it on the record just in case for the future. I hope that the government amendments are sufficient to provide an answer, but should we discover either that Stella Creasy’s case is not dealt with or that there are others, I put all future Governments on notice that there is a team in this House that will return to the subject.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
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I will make just one point to the Minister: will the direction and guidance given to the data controller say that the information being found to be vexatious will be an automatic reason to delete it? As soon as something is found not to be true, it should be deleted and the data controller should have the obligation to remove it straightaway.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome this amendment. Congratulations all round are due to the noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan, Lady Finn and Lady Brinton, and the Ministers. I take issue with what the noble Lord, Lord Russell, said: negotiating with your own party is every bit as challenging as negotiating from outside—I speak from experience—but this is a very good example of the point of the House of Lords. When we do this sort of work, we can take an issue that is clearly an injustice, as my honourable friend Stella Creasy has experienced, along with others—mostly women—and persuade the Government to take action. That is the right thing to have done.