There have been 14 exchanges between Nick Thomas-Symonds and Robert Buckland
|1||Tue 28th April 2020||
Domestic Abuse Bill
Ministry of Justice
|2 interactions (4,246 words)|
|2||Wed 12th February 2020||
Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill
Ministry of Justice
|2 interactions (645 words)|
|3||Wed 12th February 2020||
Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill
Ministry of Justice
|8 interactions (1,734 words)|
|4||Tue 22nd October 2019||
European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
|2 interactions (834 words)|
|5||Tue 19th February 2019||
Northern Ireland Backstop
|6 interactions (619 words)|
|6||Thu 31st January 2019||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (396 words)|
|7||Tue 13th November 2018||
EU Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice
|2 interactions (2,973 words)|
|8||Thu 1st November 2018||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (408 words)|
|9||Thu 21st June 2018||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (320 words)|
|10||Tue 15th May 2018||
Public Legal Education
|3 interactions (1,093 words)|
|11||Thu 22nd March 2018||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (330 words)|
|12||Thu 8th February 2018||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (370 words)|
|13||Thu 21st December 2017||
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
|5 interactions (327 words)|
|14||Thu 29th June 2017||
Oral Answers to Questions
|5 interactions (326 words)|
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to open this Second Reading debate, albeit with a sense of déjà vu. Those of us who had the privilege of being in the House on 2 October last year will not have failed to be moved by the many powerful contributions we heard, including from the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), who recounted her own very personal and heart-wrenching experience of domestic abuse. She was not alone in showing great courage by bringing home to this House the devastating impact of domestic abuse on the lives of survivors, as this Bill has also brought forth very personal accounts from, among others, the hon. Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). On that occasion, I was able to share my own personal experiences, as a young barrister, of domestic abuse. I will not repeat them today, because I have no doubt that we will hear some memorable speeches in this debate—more testimony, adding power to what has already been said.
After the last debate, some Members approached me privately to share with me their own domestic abuse experiences—stories that are still raw and still cannot be told. For many of us, the sounds and sights witnessed in our homes, often as children, still haunt us many years on. The experiences we have heard recounted by Members are, sadly, all too frequently repeated across the country. I have heard no more harrowing account recently than that of Claire Throssell, whom I had the privilege to meet last October. Claire’s young sons, Jack and Paul, were killed at the hands of her abusive partner. No one can imagine the pain and suffering that she has had to endure, but we owe her a debt of gratitude for giving such a powerful voice to the survivors of domestic abuse.
Gratitude is also due to Tracy Graham, a victim of controlling and violent domestic abuse who this year chose to speak out, go public and share her experiences with my local community in Swindon via the new Swindon domestic abuse support service, which I helped to launch just before lockdown, seven weeks ago. Tracy is not only a domestic abuse ambassador for the service, but is volunteering with the local police as well, to help to support domestic abuse victims who are going through what she went through. She truly is an inspirational young woman—one of many who are standing up, stepping forward and sharing their harrowing experiences, to the benefit of current and future survivors and victims.
It is right, in this time of covid-19, to dwell a little on the impact that this pandemic is having on victims of domestic abuse and their families. We are seeing evidence of it in the increased calls to domestic abuse helplines. My local refuge had an increase in referrals of 80% in one week, and the helpline in my local area had an increase in the number of calls of nearly 30%. People are speaking up and speaking out about domestic abuse, but it is happening even at this time of great crisis.
The phrase “Stay at home”, which we so associate with the directions to deal with covid-19, should be words of reassurance and comfort. The home should be a place of safety, both physical and mental. The concept of the home as a refuge is such a strong one, yet for too many people it is not a refuge. At this time of lockdown, that fear, distress and suffering is multiplied. I assure all victims that help is available. The police continue to respond to incidents of domestic abuse, and anyone in immediate danger should not hesitate to call 999 and the emergency services. Where necessary, the existing civil order framework can be used to remove a perpetrator from the family home in order to protect victims of abuse.
We are working with and listening carefully to domestic abuse and victims organisations to make sure that we understand what their most pressing needs and priorities are, and we are committed to ensuring that victims have a comprehensive package of support available. We have launched a new campaign to signpost victims to the support services available and provided an additional £2.6 million to ensure that the national helplines have the capacity to respond to increased demand.
In addition, we are working with the domestic abuse commissioner to ensure that refuges and other organisations that provide frontline support to victims will be able to access the £750 million fund set aside by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to bolster charities that are responding directly to the pandemic. I am happy to say to the House that allocations under the charities package will be made very shortly indeed. The Home Secretary and I have together been very much engaged in tailoring the requests to ensure that help is targeted where it will make the most difference. Having spoken to police and crime commissioners, I know that many are making available extra resources for safe accommodation.
I am grateful to the Home Affairs Committee for the report that it published yesterday on the pandemic’s impact on victims of domestic abuse. I welcome the Committee’s support for our public information campaign and the additional funding. We will of course respond promptly to the Committee’s recommendations.
In short, this is a concerted period of direct action being taken by the Government. Measures are being taken to address directly the concerns that I know the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), whom I welcome to his post, will raise in due course.
Let me turn to the Bill, which is necessarily about strengthening protection and support for victims in the longer term. I share the frustration of Members from all parties that we are having to repeat a number of stages of this Bill, which was initially championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). All parties want to see this Bill on the statute book, but we have to put to good use the time available to us since the election to make it an even stronger Bill than the one that came before the House last October.
The aims of the Bill are fourfold: first, to raise awareness of this insidious crime; secondly, to better protect and support victims and their children; thirdly, to transform the response to the criminal, civil and family justice systems; and, fourthly, to improve performance across all national and local agencies. I shall take those objectives in turn.
If we are to tackle domestic abuse effectively, it is vital that the nature of that abuse is properly understood and recognised. Part 1 of the Bill sets out a statutory definition of domestic abuse. It will apply for the purposes of the whole Bill, but we also expect it to be adopted across all agencies that have a shared responsibility for combating this crime and for helping survivors to rebuild their lives. The definition makes it clear that domestic abuse is not confined to violent or sexual abuse, but includes controlling or coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and economic abuse, too. Identifying and calling out domestic abuse in all its manifestations is just a first step. We then need to protect and support victims. In terms of protection, a number of civil orders are already available to help to safeguard survivors, but the existing landscape of occupation orders, non-molestation orders and domestic violence protection orders is complex, and none are, arguably, wholly adequate to the task.
The new domestic abuse protection order—DAPO—will bring together the best elements of the existing civil order regimes. It will be available in the civil, criminal and family courts. It will be flexible, in that the court will determine the length of an order and decide what prohibitions, and positive requirements too, are appropriate to attach to it, including conditions that may compel the respondent to attend perpetrator programmes or require them to wear an electronic tag. The new DAPO will also have teeth, with a breach of conditions being a criminal offence punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both.
We want to get these new orders right so that they work for victims and their children, the police, the courts and others who will have to operate them. We will therefore be piloting these new orders in a small number of areas before rolling them out nationally.
But protecting victims from abuse is never enough on its own. We also need to ensure that they are effectively supported as they reset their lives. The Bill, as reintroduced, includes a significant new measure to that end. When a victim of abuse has to flee their home and seek sanctuary in a refuge or other safe accommodation, it is not enough simply to provide that person with a safe place to sleep. In such circumstances, victims and their children need access to counselling and mental health support, advice about follow-on housing, help in enrolling children in a new school, or specialist support, such as translation services or access to immigration advice. We know that refuges and other providers of safe accommodation struggle to provide such support so, to plug that gap, the Bill will place new duties on tier 1 local authorities in England. Under part 4 of the Bill, such local authorities will be required to assess the need for accommodation-based support for all victims of domestic abuse and their children in the area. Having identified that need, the relevant local authorities will then be required to develop, publish and give effect to a strategy for the provision of such support in their locality.
Of course, these new duties will come at a cost—some £90 million a year, we estimate. I assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary is committed to ensuring that local authorities are appropriately resourced as part of the spending review.
I know from my own experience of the legal system that appearing as a witness in criminal, civil or family proceedings can be—shall we say—a daunting experience, so we need to make sure that the victims of domestic abuse can give their best evidence in court. In the criminal courts, that often means being able to give evidence hidden from view of the alleged perpetrator or via a video link. The Bill provides that these and other so-called special measures will be automatically available to victims. In the family courts, for a long time, there have been calls for a bar on the practice of perpetrators being able to cross-examine in person the victims of domestic abuse. Such an experience is bound to be traumatising for victims—it must stop. We have listened to the views of the Joint Committee that examined the draft Bill. Indeed, the Bill as reintroduced now extends the circumstances in which the automatic prohibition on cross-examination in person applies, which is a welcome further step to safeguard and prevent the perpetuation of abuse through the courts.
I know that there are wider concerns about the experiences of victims of domestic abuse in the family courts, which was why we established last year a specialist panel to examine how effectively the family courts respond to allegations of domestic abuse and other harms in private law proceedings, including around the provision of special measures. I aim to publish very shortly the panel’s recommendations, together with the Government’s response. One way we can improve the experiences of victims is by better integrating domestic abuse-related proceedings right across the various jurisdictions in our courts.
With that in mind, we committed in our manifesto to pilot integrated family and crime domestic abuse courts. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set aside £5 million in his March Budget to allow that important pilot to progress. Again, I expect to be able to inform the House soon as to how the trial of these new integrated domestic abuse courts will be taken forward. I will take a close personal interest, to make sure that there is a genuine bringing together of the jurisdictions around the victim, around the family—around those people who need the support and benefit of any orders and sanctions that the court might impose.
It is not only the courts where there is room for improvement. The new independent domestic abuse commissioner will help drive consistency and better performance in the response to domestic abuse right across the relevant local and national agencies. The relevant agencies will be under a statutory duty to co-operate with the commissioner, and will be required to respond within 56 days to any recommendations that the commissioner makes. We are lucky to have Nicole Jacobs, who brings a wealth of experience to the role, and I fully expect her to perform her functions without fear or favour.
I know that, on the previous Second Reading, a number of hon. Members argued for the post to be full time. We reviewed—with Nicole Jacobs—the appropriate time commitment for this role and have now extended it from three to four days per week. The Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), will keep this matter under review as we transition to the statutory arrangements provided for in part 2 of the Bill.
We did not want to wait until the Bill became law to make that appointment, and I am very glad we did not, because Nicole Jacobs is already making a huge difference. One area where we want to draw on her experience is in the provision of community-based support. As I described, the provisions in part 4 of the Bill will make sure that victims of domestic abuse in safe accommodation receive the support they need, but of course most victims of abuse remain in their own home, and they need to be able to access appropriate support while doing so.
Victim support services are provided in the community by police and crime commissioners, local authorities and other agencies, but the landscape is, frankly, complex, and there are undoubtedly gaps in the current provision. In order to determine what action needs to be taken, we must better understand the existing routes by which these services are commissioned and funded. To that end, the domestic abuse commissioner has agreed to undertake an in-depth exploration of the current community-based landscape of support. Once we have her findings and recommendations, we will work with her to understand the needs identified and to develop the right options for how best to address them.
Finally, I will say a few words about the amendments put forward in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). It is absolutely right that we reinforce current case law that a person cannot consent to violence that leads to serious injury or death. To be clear, there is no such thing as the rough sex defence. I had a productive meeting with both Members to discuss the issue, and, as I made clear to them, we are looking at how best to address it. It is a complex area of criminal law, and we need to ensure that any statutory provisions have the desired effect and do not have any unintended consequences; we do not want to inadvertently create loopholes or uncertainties in the law that can then be exploited by those who perpetrate crimes. I am confident that we will be able to set out our approach in time for Report, and I am grateful for the continuing constructive engagement on this important and sensitive issue.
Domestic abuse is one of the most prevalent crimes in our society—let us be honest and frank about that. It is staggering that some 2.4 million people experience domestic abuse each year, and unforgivable that, on average, more than two individuals, the majority of whom are women, are killed each and every week in a domestic homicide.
Tackling domestic abuse needs to be everyone’s business, from prevention to protection to prosecution to support. Legislation alone can never have all the answers, but I believe that this landmark Bill will make a significant contribution and I commend it to the House.
(7 months, 2 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
May I thank all Members for taking part in this important debate, on a Bill that, as Members on both sides of the House have demonstrated comprehensively, was timely and necessary? We have a proud history of coming together in times of adversity against people who seek to divide us. Together, we can make sure that the terrorists who seek to threaten our way of life will never win.
I readily acknowledge that we are passing this Bill to a very tight timescale, but the appalling attacks we witnessed at Streatham and at Fishmongers’ Hall made it plain that the time for action was now, which is why I welcome the sense of urgency that has been shared in all parts of the House. That has necessarily shortened the time available to debate these issues, but I will of course continue to engage with Members across the House on these matters. There will be further opportunities to legislate on these issues, both in our forthcoming counter-terrorism, sentencing and release Bill and, more broadly, in the sentencing Bill that we will introduce following our sentencing White Paper later this year.
We will also review the current maximum penalties and sentencing framework for terrorist offences to ensure that they are sufficient and comprehensive. Our underlying principle is this: terrorist offenders should no longer be released before the end of their custodial sentence unless the Parole Board is satisfied that they are no longer a risk to the public.
I take this opportunity to thank all the officials, not only those who have assisted us in the Box today, but all the team at the Ministry of Justice, who have worked at pace and in great detail on complex issues of national importance, to a timescale that is perhaps unusual and almost unprecedented. We do owe them a deep debt of gratitude, and I am honoured to place that formally on the record.
For now, passing this Bill will take a significant step to ensuring that the British public, whom we serve, are being given the protection they need, by ensuring that terrorist offenders spend longer in prison in all cases and are not automatically released without being fully and properly assessed.
(7 months, 2 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
My right hon. and learned Friend the former Attorney General speaks with great experience and knowledge of these matters. He is absolutely right to focus on the specialist intervention of our imams. I think I referred to the fact that we are going to increase resources and increase the number available within our prisons. Both the Home Secretary and I have seen at first hand the partnership working that goes on within the high-security estate when it comes to dealing with these particular challenges. It is precisely that type of specialist intervention that he and others can be confident we will be supporting in the years ahead.
I was going on to explain the extension of parole release to those who serve standard determinate sentences and other transitional cases currently subject to automatic release. In line with the normal arrangements for prisoners released by the Parole Board, the board will set the conditions of an offender’s licence for this cohort when they are released before the end of their sentence. The Parole Board, as I outlined earlier, has the necessary powers and indeed the expertise to make risk-based release decisions for terrorist offenders. The board currently deals with terrorists who serve indeterminate sentences, extended sentences and sentences for offenders of particular concern—the “SPOCs”, as they are colloquially referred to.
There is a cohort of specialist Parole Board members who are trained specifically to deal with terrorist and extremist offenders. They are, in effect, the specialised branch of the board that will be used to handle these additional cases. They include retired High Court judges, retired police officers and other experts in the field, all of whom have extensive experience of dealing with the most sensitive and difficult terrorist cases. Due to the nature of the emergency legislation, I have proposed that the provisions cover England, Wales and Scotland.
The justification for this emergency, retrospective legislation—out of the ordinary though I accept it is—is to prevent the automatic release of terrorist offenders in the coming weeks and months. Given the risk that this cohort has already shown they pose to the public, it is vital that we pass this legislation rapidly before any more terrorists are automatically released from custody at the halfway point. Therefore, we are aiming for this legislation to receive Royal Assent before the end of the month. With the support of this House, I am confident that we can do that. I commend the Bill to the House.
Break in Debate
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have not met Mr Acheson since last Thursday, but I have met him. Indeed, I took part in a documentary that he produced for Radio 4 a few weeks ago, before the latest attack. His engagement has been valued. I will not go into the precise circumstances in which the report was consolidated, because in essence it contained some sensitive matters that we all understood could not be published.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about 2016. We accepted what Mr Acheson said, but things have moved on a long way since then, and the problems that were identified are being tackled directly. We accept that there is still more to be done, but the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that we have moved on in the four years since that report.
I should have added that I have offered Mr Acheson a full briefing from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service on those issues, and it has been accepted.
There comes a time in politics when all of us have to look at ourselves in the mirror—me included—and ask the following question: are we up to the level of events? Are we truly going to serve the people who put us here?
I have the honour of speaking last in what I think we would all agree is the most pivotal of parliamentary debates. I suppose that, for me, there is a sort of symmetry in this, because of the long association that I have had in supporting our membership of the European Union. I was a proud remainer, someone who campaigned assiduously for membership, and for whom the result of the referendum in June 2016 came as a bitter blow.
I have just heard the word “traitor” uttered sotto voce across the Chamber. That concerns me, and it should concern all of us. I do not believe that anybody in this place is a traitor. I do not believe that anybody, whatever view they might have, is somehow disloyal or dishonourable or dishonest or below the standards that we would expect in this place, because I believe that not only do we call ourselves honourable Members, we are honourable men and women. And we come here with the best of intentions: we come here in all sincerity to try and find a way through for the people we represent—to make a decision; a hard, a fast, and a specific decision at that. It is not easy, but we are here to do difficult; that is our job. We are sent here by each of our constituents to get on with it, and over the last few months the voices I hear in my constituency, as right across the country, come out loud and clear whether we were leave or remain: “For the love of God, get on with it,” is what I am being told.
I want to deal for a moment with the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who I thought put it extremely well. He in many respects has found himself in the sort of moral dilemma that a lot of us in this Chamber have been placed in in the last three years. He resigned from Government because of his convictions, and that is an act that speaks volumes. He put it well when he said that the best way in the circumstances—the only way—to avoid what he would regard as the problem of a no-deal Brexit is to vote for both these motions this evening. I say both these motions because the one will not work without the other.
We are left with a fixed date, a date that was not chosen by us. It was never the subject of an application that we made to extend article 50, but it was a date that was chosen by our friends in the European Union: 31 October. And 31 October was not a mere caprice plucked out of the air; it was something real and meaningful for the 27. It was in their interests; it was administratively important for them, but backed by proper reason, and therefore it is something that we should respect. For a moment let us put ourselves in the shoes of our negotiating partners. They want certainty, they want to be able to move on, and they want to know that in their negotiating partner they have somebody who they can trust and rely upon.
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman, my constituents would expect me briefly to express their dismay and deep concern about Honda’s announcement this morning, which will deeply affect the community. I anticipate the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—
Break in Debate
I am very sorry, Mr Speaker, but I said what I said.
The Government recognise the legitimate desire of Members on both sides of the House to understand the legal effect of the proposed withdrawal agreement. On 12 February, the Prime Minister set out ways in which legally binding changes to the backstop could be achieved. She explained that the UK and the EU would hold further talks to find a way forward. Those discussions are ongoing, and it would not be appropriate to provide a running commentary.
What would be reckless and irresponsible is for the Government to provide a running commentary on sensitive negotiations. I would have thought it is as plain as a pikestaff to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way negotiations should be conducted. Let the Government get on with this work at pace, which is what we are doing.
Rather than criticising from the sidelines, it now behoves the hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members to work for a constructive solution and end the uncertainty. It is in his hands as much as it is in the hands of the Government.
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. Several months ago, the Attorney General and I issued a new paper on disclosure, and that will be followed by revised guidelines this year. We are acutely conscious of the need to balance the interests of justice not just in favour of defendants but in favour of victims. A blanket approach to disclosure is not something we encourage; it will depend on the facts of the case. I am glad that the number of cases that are being dropped because of issues with victims continues to fall, and I think that is a sign of progress.
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that only last week I met Baroness Newlove and discussed these very issues. It is vitally important that colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and across Government understand that the journey for victims in cases like this can be an extremely tough one. That is well understood. That is why the agencies are now working together to ease that journey. I do not pretend that the task is easy or that the job is anywhere near finished, but the commitment is there, and we will continue to work to support victims of rape.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he must not forget that independent prosecutors have to apply evidential tests and it will not always be the case that complaints will merit a prosecution. I wholly reject his suggestion that expenditure cuts have resulted in a decrease in prosecutions. Expenditure is not an issue when it comes to the prosecution of offences, and never will be.
It is more than a pleasure—it is a privilege—to speak at the end of this well-informed, wide-ranging and important debate. May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for, in the right spirit, reaching across and making a proper and considered offer with regard to the Government’s position? His contribution reflected very much the careful and deliberate argument of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who rightly, and perhaps almost inevitably—he will forgive me for saying that—moved away from the wide-ranging terms of the motion and very clearly set out his and his party’s position with regard to the subject matter that he and other Opposition Members wish to deal with.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) rightly explained the context of the debate. This is an extraordinary time in our nation’s history, with grave decisions to be made by this place that will affect the lives of all of us. I readily accept all that, but I do hope that hon. and right hon. Members will forgive me if, as Law Officers have done in times gone by, and I hope will do so in the future, I dwell a little on the particularly important and unusual role that is filled by both the Attorney General and me within this wonderful unwritten constitution that we all have and celebrate. I will not repeat the proper references made by the hon. Gentleman and others to “Erskine May”, the ministerial code and indeed the Cabinet Office code—they all stand on the record and do not bear repetition.
It comes to this: the quality of collective decision making in government is dealt a fatal blow when, bit by bit, that decision making is subdivided, unpicked and, frankly, made almost impossible even in circumstances as important and exceptional as this. The argument that we are now having boils down to whether Labour Members and others in this House can accept the Government’s clear statement that we wish to provide a comprehensive position statement that deals with not just the economic and political consequences of any withdrawal agreement and future relationship, but the legal consequences of that decision.
We have inevitably and properly focused on the question of Northern Ireland, which the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) quite properly raised, together with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who is no longer in the Chamber. We accept all that, but say that, consistent with previous incidences when the Government’s legal position has been set out in a way that has helped debate in this House, that would be the appropriate course of action here, rather than publishing Law Officers’ advice.
Much has been made about the previous occasion when that was done in relation to the Iraq war—in fact it was the only occasion when the full text of Law Officers’ advice has ever been disclosed. It was two years after the event in particular circumstances when, as has already been referred to, the question of the lawfulness of an action by the Government lay at the heart of the debate. We are in a different position now.
Right hon. and hon. Members know that it would be wrong if I were to try to speculate about the content of any advice on this issue that may or may not have been given by Law Officers. I have to remain true to the convention that we have referred to, but doing the best that I can, it would seem to me that using the Iraq precedent, bearing in mind the particular context and the particular circumstances, is not a helpful guide for where we are today.
Instead, I have looked back to the time of a previous Solicitor General, the late Lord Howe of Aberavon— Sir Geoffrey Howe as he was then—who is sadly no longer with us. He was the Solicitor General who took through the accession of this country to the treaties and the European Communities Act 1972. Although he spoke a lot about the legal basis and effects of entry to the then European Economic Community and the other communities, there was no suggestion at that time that any advice that he may or may not have given should be published. That is probably the best parallel that we can draw between the important events of 2018 and the very important events of 1972. If the House can accept that parallel, perhaps it can go on to accept the Government’s position.
The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras sought to make four key points. First, he spoke about the unprecedented context of the negotiations—I agree with that point—and, secondly, he referred to the nature of the advice as general, rather than something specific with regard to an action. Thirdly, he talked about the operation of the convention with regard to Law Officers’ advice and its position regarding privilege. His fourth point was that the advice or parts of it could not be shown to some but not others. These are all fairly reasonable and clear points.
I have already mentioned why I say that although these circumstances are exceptional, there is no reason at all for Law Officers’ advice to be published in the way in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman seeks. However, I want to deal with the point that he makes about—I hope he will forgive me if I use this phrase—a carve-out from the convention on the basis that the Government’s approach should allow for the disclosure of advice when that advice is in general terms. I would resist any suggestion that we should look at the disclosure of Law Officers’ legal advice on anything other than a strict case-by-case basis. In other words, the particular facts of each disclosure will very much depend on whether Law Officers’ advice should be published.
I agreed to some extent with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about legal professional privilege, although I would say that the context of litigation is really the source of any disclosure, rather than a particularly special status whereby Law Officers’ advice is in a different category of legal professional privilege. If anything, there is a particular premium on the care that Government Departments take about the disclosure of Law Officers’ advice for all the consent reasons mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry). With respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, one must look at the context. It is the litigation context that would allow disclosure, as opposed to anything intrinsically to do with the status of Law Officers’ advice.
I have dealt with the past as best I may, but I want to reiterate—I hope for the benefit of the House—why the Law Officers’ convention still remains important. It is important not just when it comes to legal professional privilege, but because it protects the public interest in reflecting collective Cabinet responsibility. That is a vital constitutional principle. Why? Because it would be wrong and damaging to start distinguishing the specifically legal components of collective decision making. This places the rule of law at the centre of Government decision-making processes and at the centre of the minds of all Ministers, not just the Law Officers, and it does not permit a delegation of those important responsibilities by Ministers to me and to the Attorney General.
As one of my illustrious predecessor Law Officers and fellow “sosbanite”, the late Sir Elwyn Jones, wrote:
“the Minister who is advised by the law officers that he cannot do something…is not allowed to say, ‘I cannot do it because the Attorney-General tells me that I cannot.’”
I could not have put it better myself. We are talking about the indivisibility of Government decision making, and I am sure that the House will agree that it is a pretty fundamental point.
It is the role of the Law Officers to guard this principle, however tempting—however convenient—it might be to publish legal advice. We are the stewards; we are here to jealously guard the gate. A decision to disclose Law Officers’ advice requires a very powerful countervailing public interest to override that position. The authority of the Law Officers to disclose the fact that they have or have not advised, and then the actual content of that advice, is rarely sought and rarely given. Contrary to what some people have suggested about the right of the client—in this case, the Government—the content of the advice must not be disclosed outside the Government without the authority of the Law Officers.
In the few short minutes I have left, as I am mindful of the need to move on to other important debates—the Opposition Chief Whip is in his place—I think it would be right for me to refer very briefly to some of the important contributions made by hon. Members. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), the former Attorney General, spoke fundamentally about the need to speak truth to power—if Law Officers cannot do that, where are we? I entirely agree with him.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made a really important point about the difference between legal advice and the legal position of the Government. I think he accepted the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield made in an intervention. I do not wish to repeat that, but I simply reiterate the point for, I hope, the benefit of him and everybody in the Chamber.
I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who spoke with authority as a former Government lawyer. She rightly reminded us in detail about the litigation position of the Government and the realities of disclosure, and the particular status of the Law Officers’ advice with regard to the deliberations of Government lawyers. Many other eminent lawyers spoke today—and many eminent non-lawyers as well, Mr Speaker, as I know that you regard the non-lawyer with particular affection, so I do not want to miss them out.
Today’s debate has been about not just dusty conventions, but pretty important constitutional positions. We know that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras fully understands that. Admirable advocate though he is, I could not help but detect perhaps a little sense of sheepishness in his approach to the conventions. I readily forgive that, and I know that it will make him pause for thought in the days ahead. I hope that it can lead him and his colleagues to accept the clear view, and the clear offer, set out by my right hon. Friend the Minister. I readily adopt and repeat that offer. I hope that it will allow the right hon. Gentleman to draw back and, in the spirit of consensus and constructive dialogue, to accept the Government’s position and not press his motion to a vote today.
Question put and agreed to.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before Parliament: any legal advice in full, including that provided by the Attorney General, on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union including the Northern Ireland backstop and framework for a future relationship between the UK and the European Union.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the victims. I have mentioned the decision to be made about the vulnerable victims of human trafficking. We have a particular mechanism that we use to protect the position of people who might otherwise be in the country unlawfully and to give them support so an informed decision to be made about their involvement in the process. I am confident that the CPS is working very hard always to improve its approach to victims.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. Since those figures have been obtained, I and others have been working very hard to establish what the often complex reasons for them are. Sadly, I think that a lot of them are long-standing ones. What is sometimes unattractively described as the rate of attrition, as well as the experience of victims in this service, is still something that needs to be dealt with fully. That involves not just the CPS end of it, but the very early stages of the investigation. I assure him that every effort is being made to try to close that gap in a meaningful sense.
I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that any suggestion that there should be an artificial target that trumps the tried and tested code for prosecutors would be wholly wrong. I will absolutely make sure myself, as will others within the CPS, that such observations—if, indeed, they have been made—are ones that carry no weight whatsoever.
Once again, I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for raising an interesting dimension. I have not had those conversations, but I certainly want to. The curriculum in England and Wales—England in particular—already includes citizenship, of which PLE can be a part, but I will take on board her observations. I am grateful.
With respect, work has already exposed several deficiencies, but it would be an idle claim for me to suggest that that would be the sum total of it, because we are looking at a particular type of offence. My Department and the Attorney General’s Office have been ahead of the curve on this, and it has been our priority for some time to tackle what I and the Attorney General understand from our days at the criminal Bar as a long-term issue.
We do appreciate the urgency, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to that important inspectorate report. I remind him that the Attorney General and I asked the inspectorates to undertake that work, which has allowed a clear evidential basis for action to be taken now. It is urgent and we are getting on with it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. For those of us who were in the full throes of private practice, very often the delivery of PLE was a better use of our time than our having to immerse ourselves in often very unfamiliar areas of law, with all the concomitant risks. My message to the big firms is: where there is an issue about availability, allow members of the team to go into schools first thing in the morning. I have seen that in several state schools in London. I have joined employed barristers and solicitors helping to deliver citizenship foundation courses, for example in social media law. To see the engagement and sense of ownership that young people have when talking about issues so close to their everyday lives—when they suddenly understand that law is not some remote, dusty concept, but reaches into their existence and everyday experience—is quite a sight to behold.
I want to outline and underline the work that we are doing with the public legal education panel, which has been formed from leading organisations in the field to promote the importance of that work. It was convened by me last year. It involves the professions and organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation and Law for Life. We are bringing together organisations in a joined-up way to help work out where the need is and what the provision is currently. I have two sub-groups working on those issues.
There are two types of PLE. “Just in case” PLE is all about ensuring that people have skills, information and knowledge about their rights. “Just in time” PLE is all about giving people knowledge and support when a legal issue happens to arise. Both types of provision are equally important, and we are working our way towards getting a better understanding.
Through organisations and such events as National Pro Bono Week, I can champion the importance of PLE through the community, whether it is delivered in schools, to people who are homeless or those in prison, who really need to understand their rights and, most importantly, their responsibilities. Last year during Pro Bono Week, I took part in a session on social media and the law being delivered by university students to local secondary school pupils in Chester. It gave young people a chance to learn about their rights and the surrounding law. One issue that arose was the increasing problem in schools of young people taking videos of fights and other incidents in the playground. The session was about understanding what the sharing of those videos meant for privacy, the rights of the individuals involved and the problems that we are all familiar with here, but which all too often young people sadly only learn about to their expense after the event. I was proud of and impressed by the commitment of the university students delivering the sessions. That has been backed up in recent months by my experience at the Kent law clinic at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Law students there are not only delivering support and advice to members of the public; they are also helping to spread public legal education more widely.
We have some shining examples of the work that is going on, and I pray in aid the work of His Honour Judge Wildblood, QC at the Bristol family court. He is allowing his court to be used for public debates about the law. He is even using local drama groups to help to educate young people. He is bringing together the legal community in Bristol and the surrounding area in a most effective way. With that sort of leadership, many great things can be achieved but here, Mr Streeter, is where you and other colleagues come into play. As has been said by many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), there are opportunities for colleagues to take a lead in their local communities and work with local firms of solicitors or legal practitioners to help to deliver public legal education in our schools.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Only last Friday I was doing that at a school in my constituency, the Ridgeway. I was talking to young people in the sixth form who did not have a background in the law about what opportunity there was for them. Like me, he no doubt has taken on youngsters in chambers deliberately with the knowledge that they did not have a background in law. In fact, I would not take people who had any connection with the law because I wanted to empower young people and give them a chance.
I want to deal with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about the curriculum. The position has yet to be clarified because more work is being done, particularly on sex education in schools and the issue of consent and withdrawal. That is not yet a statutory part of the curriculum. Citizenship remains compulsory at key stage 3. We are talking about youngsters in years 7, 8 and 9 who can access that education in school, and it must include PLE. It is a matter for schools to determine how to deliver it, but by working collaboratively with professionals, a lot can be achieved.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made some important points about access in the workplace, particularly for women who have no knowledge—I say that with respect; it is not their fault—about their rights. That is why the regulatory objective in the 2007 Act is important. More has to be done to deal with the question of empowerment of our citizens via the regulatory bodies. That would not just include lawyers, even though the 2007 Act has that remit. I will go away and think about her point very carefully. Perhaps we can use it as the start of an important discussion. I thank all hon. and right hon. Friends and Members for taking part today. The law is not some mystical holy of holies and lawyers are not the high priests. We should demystify it, and that is where public legal education is so important.
I will certainly be interested to consider the contents, although of course this is primarily a matter for my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice. I will say, however, that any programme of engagement with perpetrators needs to be very carefully calibrated. Such programmes can work, but more research needs to be done to make sure that we get it right.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of victim withdrawal. The consultation launched by the Government only a couple of weeks ago is looking at further ways to increase support, such as through a presumption that victims in domestic abuse cases will get special measures as opposed to having to demonstrate a particular vulnerability. All the measures that we take, such as preventing complainants from having to go to court by allowing them to give evidence via live link, need to be part of a continuing package. The message needs to go out that victims will not suffer in silence—they will be supported.
The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point about the importance of data collection. The issue has been the need to disaggregate particular batches of data so that we understand them better. The CPS has certainly improved on that, and we have started to disaggregate in a number of areas. I will follow up on the specific matter of revenge pornography.
The hon. Lady is right to press me on this issue. With the appointment of lead FGM prosecutors in each CPS area and agreed protocols with local police forces, I am glad to say that there should be a greater and deeper understanding among officers, police officers in particular, of the tell-tale signs of female genital mutilation and of what to do about them. Getting early investigative advice from the CPS is vital in such cases.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I was directly involved in the prosecuting and defending of serious criminal cases for over 20 years, and I am well familiar with the long-standing challenge of disclosure. Prior to recent revelations, I am glad to say that the Attorney General and I instituted a thoroughgoing review not only of our guidelines, but of the entire culture. The police and prosecutors—everybody involved at all stages—have to realise that disclosure must be achieved early and efficiently to protect not just defendants, but victims.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the main issues in this area has not been that these items have not been obtained but the timeliness in which they are eventually disclosed. That is the issue, and bearing down on that factor will encourage and increase both police awareness and the priority that the police need to place on making sure that all this material is gathered at the earliest opportunity.
I can see a role for local practitioners. Lawyers could work with FE colleges as they currently do with many schools. What the hon. Gentleman has described is what I call “just in time” public legal education, which helps people with immediate crises. I am also interested in what I call “just in case” PLE, which is all about early intervention and prevention, but he is absolutely right to identify those issues.
May I add my compliments of the season to those of the hon. Gentleman?
The training is available now, and is ongoing. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the current structure of the law has been in existence for the best part of 20 years, and in my own professional experience it is used rigorously. It must be used rigorously, so that future complainants and victims of this appalling crime can be confident, first, that inappropriate questions will not be asked, and secondly, that they will not be ambushed in court in an inappropriate way.
I can confirm that that data will be collected. This issue came to my attention when both the Attorney General and I wanted a widespread number of cases to be examined. It will be done in a more thorough way so that we have up to date and accurate data on this important issue.
It is vital at solemn and serious times like this that we all exercise our right to free speech responsibly, and that we are mindful that criminal investigations are ongoing, as well as concurrent inquests and, of course, the public inquiry. All of us have to make sure that we pass that very high test, and I am afraid that the shadow Chancellor failed that in his remarks this week.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very germane point, and we all need to bear the Hillsborough precedent very much in mind. I am keen, and the Government are keen, to ensure that the independent advocate has as powerful and as meaningful a role as possible. Each case will depend on its merits, but I am certainly prepared to look at all details, including the one he raises.
Like many other appointments of this kind, I can envisage the sort of accountability that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The publication of annual reports is a regular and common occurrence. Again, it is a particular point that we will consider very carefully indeed.