With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 96, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 134, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendment 136 to 142, and Government motions to disagree.
Lords amendment 159, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 302, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 305, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendment 307, and Government motion to disagree.
This first group of amendments includes 10 new clauses added to the Bill in the House of Lords against the advice of the Government. It covers four separate issues: part 2 of the Leveson inquiry; the funding of legal representation for bereaved families at inquests where the police are an interested person; the maximum sentence for the offence of stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress; and the rights and entitlements of victims of crime.
The Government have reflected carefully on the debates on all the amendments in the House of Lords. Lords amendment 134 seeks to increase, from five to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the more serious stalking offence where the offender’s behaviour puts a person in fear of violence. The Government are determined to do everything they can to protect victims of what can be a terrifying crime. The House will recall that, only last month, we announced plans to introduce a new stalking protection order, which will provide the police with a new pre-charge option to help them to protect victims of stranger stalking in a similar way to orders that protect victims of domestic violence and abuse.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) have been assiduous in pursuing this issue for some time and are to be much commended for their campaign, including the pursuit of a private Member’s Bill, on behalf of Dr Eleanor Aston, a Cheltenham general practitioner practising in Gloucester who was stalked by a former patient for seven years.
Each case must, of course, be considered by the courts on its facts, but given the harm that can be caused by the most serious stalking cases we are persuaded that, in such cases, sentencing judges should have greater latitude to pass a higher sentence that fits the crime and affords greater protection for victims. The Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 134 will therefore do three things.
First, the Government amendment will increase, from five to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the offence of stalking involving fear of violence or causing serious alarm or distress. Secondly, it will similarly increase the maximum sentence for the equivalent harassment offence of putting a person in fear of violence, which will help to retain consistency of approach to the most serious harassment offences. Thirdly, it will increase, from seven to 14 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the racially or religiously aggravated version of the section 4 and 4A offences. In the normal way, those increased maximum penalties will apply only to offences committed on or after the date of commencement, but I trust that the amendment will have the support of my hon. Friends and, indeed, of the whole House.
The Government remain firmly of the view that, however well intentioned the motives behind them, the other Lords amendments in this group pre-empt the proper and detailed consideration of what are complex issues and that, accordingly, this House should disagree with them. I will take each of the three issues in turn.
Lords amendment 24 would require my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to proceed with what is commonly known as the “Leveson 2” inquiry into the relationships between the police and the media. Of course, it is vital that the police at all times uphold the very highest standards of integrity, whether in their dealings with the media or, for that matter, in their dealings with anyone else. However, given the extent of the criminal investigations into phone hacking and other illegal practices by the press that have taken place since the Leveson inquiry was established, and given the implementation of the recommendations following part 1, including reforms within the police and the press, the Government must consider whether proceeding with part 2 of the inquiry is appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Government have sought the views of the public and interested parties, including the victims of press abuse, through a public consultation that, as it happens, closes today.
The consultation closed 17 minutes ago. The truth of the matter is that the Government promised that there would be one inquiry with two parts. As far as I can see, the Minister is effectively saying—nudge, nudge; wink, wink—“We are not going to proceed with part 2.” If that is the case, he should be straightforward and tell us so now.
With great respect, the hon. Gentleman should look at Hansard when it is published. That is not what I said at all. I made it very clear that we have been seeking the views of the public and interested parties and that we have to look at what is appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest.
The consultation sought views on whether proceeding with part 2 of the Leveson inquiry is still appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest. As the last of the relevant criminal cases has only recently concluded, the Government believe that this is an appropriate time to take stock and seek views on the various options, as the then Home Secretary outlined 18 months ago. Submissions to the consultation will be important in helping to inform the Government’s thinking.
As hon. Members may also be aware, an application has been made to judicially review the consultation. Although I cannot comment on the current legal proceedings, the Government have committed not to take any final decisions relating to the consultation until the legal proceedings have concluded. Given the consultation and the ongoing related legal proceedings, I respectfully suggest to the House that this is not an appropriate matter for further legislation at this moment.
I hope the Government will not be intimidated by a campaign the press are waging at the moment to try to deter them from implementing the Leveson recommendations. May I just tell the Minister that yesterday I submitted my monthly article for the Aldershot News & Mail, as I had been invited to do—[Interruption.] May I say to hon. Members on both sides that it is normally very good reading? The article was about press freedom. I received an e-mail yesterday evening saying that the paper was sorry that it would not be publishing it because it was “contradictory” to its stance on “a free press”. It is extraordinary that the Aldershot News & Mail, owned by the Daily Mirror group, feels it is so vulnerable that it cannot accept an article by myself—my hon. Friend Mr Jayawardena is the other contributor. Leaving aside my criticism of the Aldershot News & Mail, with which I was pretty robust this morning, may I say to the Minister that this illustrates a real paranoia in the media about this issue and it is our responsibility, as parliamentarians, to be straightforward and recognise that what we are seeking to do is to protect not ourselves but ordinary people?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an important point. However, let me make it clear again that the Government will make a decision on this once we have had a chance to review the outcome of the consultation and in the light of the legal proceedings, and not before the legal proceedings have concluded.
But will it not be awkward for the Government if they completely ignore the Press Recognition Panel’s submission? After all, independently overseeing press regulation was what it was set up to do, and it is unequivocally calling for section 40 to be implemented.
As I say, the Government will review the consultation, and I know the Secretary of State will look carefully at that. We are committed to not making decisions until the completion of the judicial proceedings. Hon. Members will also be aware that the Speaker has certified this amendment as engaging financial privilege. Our view is that amendment 24 is, at this time, unnecessary, inappropriate and ill-timed.
The Government fully understand the reasoning behind Lords amendment 96, which seeks to provide public funding for legal representation for bereaved families at inquests. It may be almost seven months since this House lasted debated this issue on Report, but the Government’s position has not changed. Our view remains that we should await the report, expected this spring, from Bishop James Jones on the experiences of the Hillsborough families. The Opposition have argued that this issue goes beyond Hillsborough. I do not dispute that, but the experiences of the Hillsborough families will have significant relevance for other families facing different tragic circumstances, and the issue of legal representation at inquests will undoubtedly be one aspect of those experiences. Bishop James’s report will provide learning that could be of general application, so it is entirely right that we do not now seek to pre-empt his review, but instead consider this issue in the light of his conclusions. For that reason, I put it to the House that this amendment is premature. As with the other Lords amendments we are debating, we must take into account the potential significant financial implications of amendment 96. Of course, the resource implications of the amendment are just one consideration, but it cannot be ignored, and, again, the Speaker has also certified the amendment as engaging financial privilege.
Finally, Lords amendments 136 to 142 seek to make further provision in respect of victims’ rights and entitlements. These amendments ignore the extensive reforms and modernisation we are undertaking to transform our justice system, and to protect vulnerable victims and witnesses, and, where appropriate, spare them the ordeal of appearing in court, through an increased use of video link systems and by rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination. The amendments would result in an unstructured framework of rights and entitlements that is not founded on evidence of gaps or deficiencies in what already exists, or even of what victims of crime want and need. Some amendments are unnecessary because they duplicate existing provisions and practices, or are being acted on by the Government already.
When will the Green Paper considering the need for a victims’ law, which was first mooted in February last year, actually be published?
We are committed to introducing measures to strengthen further the rights of victims, and it is important that we have taken the time to get this right. We will announce our plans in due course. It is important to be clear that Lords amendments 138 and 139 are, therefore, similarly unnecessary, as the training of all staff in the criminal justice system is taken very seriously.
On Lords amendment 141, on quality standards, the Victims’ Commissioner’s role already encompasses encouraging good practice in the treatment of victims and witnesses, and the operation of the victims code, which is a detailed set of victims’ entitlements. In addition, police and crime commissioners, who commission local victims’ services, enter into grant funding agreements with the Secretary of State for Justice to receive the funds to do so. Those agreements set out a range of minimum standards for the services provided. We are currently reviewing existing standards relevant to victims’ services to make sure that we have the best possible framework in place.
The amendments, individually and taken together, are un-costed, vague and duplicative. They could impose significant obligations and financial burdens on the criminal justice system.
On Lords amendment 142, it is not clear what the purpose of directing a homicide review would be. In any case, it is unnecessary. There is already a statutory requirement for a review to identify the lessons to be learned from the death in domestic homicide cases.
Putting aside the many difficulties we have with the detail of the amendments, the Government are already looking at what is required to strengthen further the rights of victims of crime. We are looking at the available information about compliance with the victims code and considering how it might be improved and monitored. We are focused on making sure that we get this work right. We will ensure that any future reform proposals are evidence-based, fully costed, effective and proportionate.
As I have indicated, the intention behind many of the Lords amendments is laudable. On Lords amendment 134, we are persuaded that the case has been well made for increasing the maximum sentence for the more serious stalking and harassment offences involving fear of violence. I congratulate my hon. Friends on the work they have done on that.
As for the other Lords amendments, as a responsible Government we do not want to adopt a scattergun approach to legislation. Nor can we afford to be free and easy with taxpayers’ money by incurring substantial new spending commitments without offering any indication as to where the additional resources are to come from.
What are the Government going to do about strengthening protection for victims, particularly when they have to give evidence in court? Very often elderly people are frightened to go and confront the person they have accused.
I noticed that the hon. Gentleman was trying to intervene before I made that comment. Hopefully he will be satisfied that we are looking to strengthen victims’ rights, but we want to do so in a proper, proportionate and appropriate way.
Taking at face value the criticisms that the Minister levels with regard to the provisions for victims of crime, can he tell the House why the Government have not introduced amendments in lieu, instead of just asking us to disagree with the Lords amendments? After all, strengthening victims’ rights was in the Conservative manifesto at the most recent election; how much longer do we have to wait?
As I said just a few moments ago, we do want to look at strengthening victims’ rights, but we want to make sure that we do so in a correct, appropriate and proportionate way. I want to do that work, and in due course we will come forward with those proposals and ensure that we are doing it properly. Taking into account the work we are doing, Lords amendments 24, 96 and 136 to 142 are at best premature and at worst confused, unfocused and unnecessary. As such, we argue that they should be rejected by this House.
We support Lords amendments 24, 96 and 136 to 142, along with consequential amendments 159, 302 and 307, and we will vote to retain them in the Bill. We also supported the original amendment 134, with consequential amendment 305. We are glad to see that the Government have changed their position, so we will not oppose their amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 134.
I thank those in the other place who have worked to bring these issues to our attention, particularly Baroness O’Neill and Baroness Brinton. I congratulate my noble Friends Lord Rosser and Baroness Royall, whose determination and outstanding advocacy for the most vulnerable in our society has led to the Government accepting our amendments to the stalking code. Each of the substantive issues before us is deserving of a full debate in its own right, but we have only a short amount of time. I will deal with each in turn.
Lords amendment 24—Lords amendment 159 is consequential to it—is a new clause that requires the Government to commission an independent inquiry into the way in which the police handle complaints relating to allegations of corruption between the police and newspaper organisations. It is commonly known as the Leveson 2 amendment, because it is similar in scope to the proposed second part of the Leveson inquiry. As was announced by Judge Leveson on
“whether the police received corrupt payments or were otherwise complicit in misconduct” and into any failure of the police and others properly to investigate allegations relating to News International and other news organisations. In 2012, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. David Cameron, said:
“When I set up this inquiry, I also said that there would be a second part to investigate wrongdoing in the press and the police, including the conduct of the first police investigation.—[Official Report,
Vol. 554, c. 446.]
Yet the Government’s consultation, which ends today, as we have heard, could be seen as a weakening of that commitment. That underlines the need for the clarity that this amendment would provide.
Part 1 of the Leveson inquiry found unhealthy links between senior Metropolitan police officers and newspaper executives. Those links led to high-level resignations. There are also issues around the relationship between the police and the press more locally, as prior information appears to have been provided about particular people who will be arrested or a particular search that will be carried out. All those serious breaches speak to a fundamental need for us, as a nation, to assess the proper relationship between the police, the press, the public and the system of complaints. The proposed second stage of the Leveson inquiry would ask exactly those sorts of questions. Labour has consistently supported it but, sadly, real doubts are emerging about the Government’s commitment to the second stage of the inquiry. No timetable has been announced for it, and the Government have stated that it will not take place until all criminal investigations and trials related to part 1 are concluded.
Is not the Government’s position extremely sensible? A succession of criminal trials have looked into this matter. They have proceeded in a proper judicial way, and most of the information that we need is already available. To go on inquiring, inquiring and inquiring is merely adding to the already £50 million cost that there has been to the taxpayer.
I have heard some specious arguments in this place.
I hope that the Lords amendment is acceptable to Government Members and the Minister. It is explicit that the inquiry should not begin until the Attorney General determines that it would not be prejudicial to any ongoing relevant criminal investigations or court cases. To oppose the amendment is therefore tantamount to admitting that the Government are no longer committed to an investigation into corruption between news organisations and the police, and that they are not prepared to investigate how allegations of corruption are dealt with. If the Government block Lords amendment 24 today, the public really can have no option but to draw the conclusion that this Government have no commitment to asking the important and hard questions of our national institutions.
I now turn to Lords amendment 96, with consequential amendment 302, which was proposed in the other place by Lord Rosser. The purpose of the amendment is to establish the principle of parity of legal funding for bereaved families at inquests involving the police. Many hon. Members have championed this cause, including during the passage of the Bill. I pay particular tribute to the tireless campaigning and personal commitment of my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham. Unequal funding at inquests and the injustice associated with that was highlighted by the sorry saga of the Hillsborough hearings. The scales of justice were weighted against the families of those who had lost their lives. Public money was used not to discover the truth, but instead to defend an untenable narrative perpetuated by South Yorkshire police. The coroner dealing with the first pre-inquest hearings into the 21 victims of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings backed and commended applications for their bereaved families to get legal funding for proper representation, but did not have the power to authorise the funds.
Fees in major cases have attracted considerable public interest, but inquests at which the police are legally represented are not confined to major tragedies such as Hillsborough; far more common are inquests into the deaths of individuals who are little known. Many bereaved families can find themselves in an adversarial and aggressive environment when they go to an inquest. Many are not in a position to match the spending of the police or other parts of the public sector for their own legal representation. In fact, bereaved families have to try, if at all possible, to find their own money to have any sort of legal representation. Opposition Members believe that the overwhelming public interest lies in these inquiries discovering the truth. It follows that public money should be there to establish the truth, not just to protect public institutions, and that must mean equal funding.
In the other place, the Government accepted that many would sympathise with the intention of the amendment. When she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister commissioned the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, to compile a report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families. We are encouraged to wait for his report before considering the issues further, yet we already know that a system of unequal funding at inquests is wrong. Public funds are used to deny justice and hide the truth. The Government need to act now to change a process that appears to be geared more towards trying to grind down bereaved families than enabling them to get at the truth. The Government really should accept the amendment.
I urge Ministers to listen closely to the hon. Lady’s strong point. When someone dies while in the care of the state in a detained environment, people too often go up against the might of the state. That is simply not fair and it should not be tolerated.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.
We also support Lords amendments 136 to 142, which were tabled by Baroness Brinton, along with consequential amendment 307. Those amendments are designed to improve the way in which the criminal justice system interacts with victims of crime, and they are based on the work of my hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer. I presume that the amendments will be acceptable to the Government because, as we have heard, they would enact the 2015 Conservative manifesto commitment to introduce a victims’ bill of rights. Let me remind the Minister of what that manifesto says:
“we will strengthen victims’
rights further, with a new Victims’
Law that will enshrine key rights for victims”.
I understand that the former Minister, Mike Penning, already committed to a Green Paper on this issue in a private meeting with the campaign group Voice 4 Victims in February last year, but we are yet to have sight of that. This Bill is the ideal opportunity to take the matter forward, so I encourage the Government, even at this late stage, to think again and not oppose the amendments.
The House will know that victims’ rights are protected in the victims code, which was introduced in 2005 by a Labour Government. We still support that code, but the rights included in it are not legally binding, and in the past few years it has become clear that a firmer legal basis is required to give distressed and vulnerable victims the protection that they need.
Does the hon. Lady agree that if the 2012 European directive on victims’ rights were put on a statutory footing in England and Wales, we would be following the lead of that which happens in Scotland already?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but I think that talking about Europe might be too much of a red flag in this Chamber.
If the amendments are agreed to, they will create a statutory duty on elected police leadership to produce an area victims plan depending on local needs, and they will require the commissioner for victims and witnesses to assess the adequacy of such plans. Finally, the amendments will empower the Secretary of State to order a homicide review—basically, a cold case review—when nobody has been charged with a crime. Taken together, the measures would allow the victims code to be better enforced and ensure that our criminal justice system works better for the victims of crime. The Government will, I hope, offer their wholehearted support to these amendments.
Finally, I turn to Lords amendment 134, with consequential amendment 305, which was proposed by my noble Friend Baroness Royall. The amendment would increase the maximum penalty for those found guilty of stalking from five to 10 years. In cases where the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum penalty would be increased from seven to 14 years. We are delighted that the Government have chosen to accept our case, and I congratulate my noble Friend and all who have pursued the campaign.
Home Office data suggest that as many as one in five women and one in 10 men will be stalked at some point in their lives. Just because stalking is common, it does not mean that it is not a serious matter. Stalking destroys lives. It violates an individual’s right to privacy, and therefore destroys their personal freedoms. It causes fear, and rightly so, since too often it is a precursor to violent confrontation.
I know that sentencing guidelines and specific sentences are the responsibility of the Sentencing Council and judges respectively. However, extending the maximum penalty will allow for greater flexibility in the most serious cases and make it clear that stalking is a serious offence. The Labour party has provided the Government with the opportunity to give judges the necessary flexibility to hand out appropriate sentences to serious criminals. I am delighted that the Government have seen the need for that and responded appropriately.
I rise to support the Government’s amendment on stalking in lieu of Lords amendment 134. This is a momentous day, because the proposed measures, which would have the effect of significantly strengthening protections for victims of stalking, represent the culmination of a 16-month campaign. I truly hope that what began with a meeting with my GP constituent Dr Eleanor Aston in 2015 will end here today.
In doubling the maximum sentences for stalking, the Government’s proposals emphatically and decisively do two things. First, they recognise that stalking is not a minor offence. Instead, it is a horrible, violating, destructive crime that rips relationships apart, ruins careers and can cause lasting mental harm. All too often, it is the gateway to serious violence. Secondly, the Government’s amendments will ensure that courts have the tools that they need to deal with the most serious cases accordingly. Most crucially of all, it will give the courts powers truly to protect victims and to put their needs front and centre in the criminal justice system.
Let me be clear: when we talk about victims of stalking, we are not simply referring to the rich and famous: this campaign has made it crystal clear that ordinary men and women can fall victim to stalking just as readily and just as severely as those in the public eye.
Before the hon. Gentleman continues, may I say that it was remiss of me not to mention the work that he has done on the matter and congratulate him on it?
That is very gracious of the hon. Lady, and I am grateful. The context for the proposals was the horrific seven-year ordeal suffered by my constituent at the hands of her former patient. I will not go through all the detail now, but I will set out some of it. He turned up at her surgery over 100 times. He posted foul items through the letterbox. He followed her on patient visits, slashed her tyres and sent threatening mail. He appeared at a children’s birthday party her daughter was attending. That caused her exceptional anxiety and fear. After serving a short prison sentence, he—in a pattern that is not uncommon with this type of offence—restarted his campaign. Dr Aston received packages at her surgery in Gloucester and at her home in Cheltenham. One was threatening and abusive, and made it clear that he knew where her children went to school. The second package simply said, “Guess who’s back”. When he was arrested again, the search on his computer revealed that the inquiry, “How long after a person disappears are they assumed dead?” The judge who sentenced Dr Aston’s stalker made it clear that he did not think he had the tools he needed, stating in open court that he had no doubt that the stalker was dangerous in the sense of posing a significant risk, but he went on:
“I am frustrated that the maximum sentence...is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”
These proposals mean that instead of the maximum sentence being lower than that for shoplifting, it would be put on a par with that for another violating and upsetting crime—burglary. They mean that we no longer have the completely unsatisfactory situation in which the maximum a stalker can serve in prison on entering a guilty plea, even for the worst imaginable repeat offence against the same victim, is just 20 months.
I should also make it clear what this is not about. It is not about saying that all stalking cases should suddenly lead to longer sentences—that is plainly a matter for the discretion of the courts—but about ensuring that in the most serious cases, where victims are truly at risk of serious harm, whether physical or mental, the courts have the tools they need to protect the innocent. It is not about throwing away the key and giving up on offenders. Ultimately, I and others want prison sentences that reform the offender and address the underlying obsession in an effective way. The reality, in fact, is that longer sentences, in appropriate cases, can provide the prison system with a greater opportunity to rehabilitate and to treat.
I want to thank parliamentarians from both sides of both Houses—including Baroness Royall, for the role she has played—who have backed these measures, both in relation to my private Member’s Bill in this place and in their support for the detailed report that I co-authored with my hon. Friend Richard Graham, who has shown extraordinary dynamism in this campaign.
I want to pay tribute to this Government. I am enormously proud that more has been done by this Government, both since 2015 and in coalition, than by any other in history to recognise the seriousness of this type of offending. In just a decade, stalking has gone from being treated almost as a joke to being recognised for the serious offence it is. This step builds on vital work that has gone before—from creating the offence in 2012 to enacting stalking protection orders that can offer protection to victims at the first sign of trouble—and should properly be seen in the context of other vital measures that are relevant to this topic, not least the introduction of Clare’s law to protect women from potentially abusive and dangerous partners.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the reality is that the Conservative-led coalition Government ensured that the measure was put on the statute book. However, in the spirit of being entirely conciliatory, I recognise that a lot of people have made efforts.
I close by saying that I am grateful to the many victims—typically, but not exclusively women—to whom I have spoken and who have shared their stories, as well as to the stalking charities, such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the Network for Surviving Stalking, Protection Against Stalking, Paladin, the Hollie Gazzard Trust, the police and the University of Gloucestershire, which, incidentally, is a leader in research on stalking.
Finally, I want, above all, to pay tribute to my constituent Dr Aston. It was her ordeal that triggered this campaign. She has shown astonishing bravery, reliving her suffering again and again. I know that her greatest wish is that future victims can receive the full measure of justice. If these proposals are carried, that will be precisely the result. I commend the Government amendments to the House.
I had not intended to come along today, but it is a real pleasure to follow Alex Chalk, who rightly spoke about the real progress that is being made with the Stalking (Sentencing) Bill. There is no need to have a sort of ping-pong about who has done more about domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking because, frankly, we should all be trying to do everything we can, and I do not care who does it as long as it gets done.
The legislation and the amendments before us —particularly on stalking—represent real legislative progress, but that will mean absolutely nothing if, in practice, the legislation is not realised. As somebody who has worked on the frontline, I am afraid to say that so often we make brilliant rules in this place—beautiful, fancy written rules, still on all the fancy goatskins—and it means absolutely naff all to victims because of issues to do with resources and how things are properly realised by the different agencies. That is why I wanted to talk about the victims code and the amendments to the victims’ Bill that was introduced by my hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer. I urge the Government to consider the amendments and to consider making a more robust framework for the victims code, which is a brilliant piece of regulation. I have no doubt that every single person in here is totally committed to making things better for victims. I do not sign up to the idea that you are baddies and we are goodies. We all come to this place because we want to make something better.
I was the victims’ champion for Birmingham and did a huge piece of work on the victims code and victims’ legislation alongside the Government’s Victims’ Commissioner, and I have to say that if Members can find me a victim who knows what the victims is, I will give them some cash now. People do not realise that they have this many days to ask for something, and they do not realise that they can have a victim statement. Only 30% of people remembered even being asked for one. I ask hon. Members to think back to the day that the murderer of our friend and colleague Jo Cox was sentenced. The thing that we do not remember from that day is that man. The thing we remember is Brendan Cox standing and making the victim statement outside the court that he had made inside the court because he knew that he had the rights to do it. That is rare but it was so powerful in that case.
It is imperative that we look at the amendments that relate to the victims’ law and see how we can strengthen them, because I am telling you now—not you, Mr Speaker, of course, but everyone—that at the moment the victims code is a hope as far as victims of crime are concerned, and the Opposition amendments would definitely make it stronger, especially for victims of stalking and sexual violence. I ask the Government to think again.
I want to make a quick point about the amendments regarding the equality of arms in cases where the state is an actor. I speak for the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings, who are not just my constituents but my friends. We have a matter of weeks to answer their plight. Currently, the Chief Coroner agrees with them that they have not been provided with an equality of arms, so an adjournment has taken place before their inquest can be reopened. We have until February to right that wrong. At the moment, I see nothing that tells me that that will change. I ask Government Members to look at the amendments and think about how they would feel if it concerned the families in their constituency.
With regard to the Birmingham situation, I am very happy to have a conversation with the hon. Lady outside the Chamber. I think that she may have slightly misunderstood what is happening, and I am happy to give a bit more detail about what is happening with the legal aid process.
I am only too aware that the Minister will almost certainly tell me that the legal aid, through the Legal Aid Agency, has been granted to two of the seven families of complainants. Although I am more than happy to meet the Minister outside of here, I am going to wager that I know a bit more about it than perhaps he does. I would be delighted to be proven wrong—in fact, the Home Office has heard our requests for Hillsborough-style funding—and, if I am, I will stand on every single platform I can to say that I was wrong and the Minister knew more than me. So I look forward to that!
I will conclude by saying that we all want something better and we all want victims to be treated better, and the hon. Member for Cheltenham has shown with passion how that can be realised. But unless we make sure our regulations are enacted, what we do in this place is slightly for nothing, so I ask the Government to look again at the amendments around victims’ rights.
In the last Parliament, I was totally politically incontinent—in and out of all sorts of Lobbies, voting with the Government, voting against the Government and voting with Labour. I have really tried to make sure that, in this Parliament, I was only in one Lobby—the Government Lobby. I have managed that loyally for the past 18 months, and I am just so disappointed that the Government are not willing to accept Lords amendment 96, because equality of representation is absolutely critical.
I spoke in this place in a previous Parliament about the terrible tragedy of deaths in custody—deaths in detained environments. Let us look specifically at deaths in police custody. If a person dies in police custody, there is obviously a coroner’s inquiry, but there is total inequality of representation at that inquiry. The family of the deceased are up against the state, the police and their legal representation. That legal representation is given to the police without question, and it is funded without question, whereas the families of the deceased, at a time of huge emotional turmoil, have their finances pored over with a fine-toothed comb—it is not just the finances of the parents, but the finances of siblings, aunts and uncles, and even cousins—to see whether the family can bear the cost of their legal representation. That is entirely unfair; it is not just.
The Lords amendment is very sensible in its scope, and I would hope, even at this late stage, that the Government—if for no other reason than to keep me out of a Lobby that I do not really want to be in—might consider accepting it, so that we can all finish the evening on a very happy and unified note.
I do not think that it is going to be a very unified note by the end of the day, and I think there was an element of irony in the contribution by Mr Walker.
I pay tribute to Alex Chalk and my hon. Friend Jess Phillips for their campaign on stalking. The legislation has changed over the years, particularly since 1997, and it is good that this issue is now recognised for the terrible harm that is done to many victims.
I want to talk primarily—this is a bit of a smorgasbord debate—about the Leveson issues and amendment 24, which I wish was not necessary. However, it is necessary, and it has been put on the amendment paper only because their lordships and a large number of us in this House are distrustful of the Government’s intention in relation to what happened over Leveson.
I believe that it is necessary to have the full Leveson—that is not two Leveson inquiries, but one Leveson inquiry, some of which could be done before the criminal investigations were completed, and some of which could not be done until the criminal investigations were completed. That was always the promise. It was never, “We will think about having Leveson 2 once we have come to the end of the criminal investigations; it was always said from the very beginning that there would be one inquiry with two parts and that the second part would happen. In fact, the Prime Minister, in the quote given by my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, said those words the day after Leveson 1 had been produced. So Ministers have absolutely no excuse for turning round now and saying, “Oh no, no, we never really intended to proceed with Leveson 2.”
Why does that matter? Why is it important? The truth is that we are talking about corruption in one of the organisations of the state that matters most to our constituents and to the rule of law in this country: the police. I am sure the vast majority of us agree, given the little bits and pieces that we have managed to glean from Leveson 1, that there was a time when the Metropolitan police, to all intents and purposes, were a partially owned subsidiary of News International. Metropolitan police staff went to work for News International. When they had finished working for News International, they went back to work for the Metropolitan police. There was a revolving door. On the very day that the police decided not to continue with the investigation into what had happened at the News of the World, the leading investigator was having dinner with Rebekah Brooks.
We do not know all the facts because Lord Justice Leveson rightly said, “I cannot investigate all these elements of corruption in the Metropolitan police and what went on at the News of the World until such time as the criminal investigations have been completed.” They are now complete. I reiterate that not only Prime Minister David Cameron made those promises; the then Home Secretary repeatedly, time after time, said in this House that there would be Leveson 2. She did not say that we would have Leveson 2 if it proved necessary, or that we would perhaps have Leveson 2. She said that we would have Leveson 2 and that it would be proceeded with as is necessary according to the law, as the inquiry was originally set up, the moment the criminal investigations were completed.
From the way in which the new Government have conducted themselves, they need to listen to Conservative Members such as Sir Gerald Howarth and Bill Wiggin, who have rightly made the point that the Government are walking themselves into a cul de sac. The truth of the matter is that this House and the other place agreed legislation—section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013—that is yet to be implemented. This House and the other House agreed nearly but not quite unanimously that we would set up a royal charter to put a body in place to decide on the independent regulation of the press. If the royal charter is to be withdrawn, there must be a two thirds majority in this House and a two thirds majority in the House of Lords. That ain’t gonna happen. The Government are walking into a cul de sac unless they choose to act and act swiftly.
I believe that the Government should already have implemented section 40. The hon. Member for Aldershot is absolutely right when he comments on the wholly exaggerated campaign being run by the press. The victims of press intrusion were promised something very simple. The hon. Member for North Herefordshire was right to say that this is not about MPs or celebrities. To be honest, I do not give much of a fig about what happens with them. We put ourselves in the public domain—some of us have done it more than others—and to some degree we have it coming. However, what really upset me was when victims of crime had their phones hacked. Why did the Culture, Media and Sport Committee originally do our investigation back in 2003? We did it because the people of Soham felt that their privacy was being invaded by the press and they had no means of saying, “Go away. Leave us alone.” They were the victims and not the perpetrators of crime.
We want something that is very simple: a genuinely independent system of self-regulation. Frankly, IPSO is no better than IPSA. IPSO is exactly the same as the Press Complaints Commission. It has no more teeth than the previous organisation; it has some of the same staff, virtually the same code of conduct and the same structure. It is not independent at all. We want a code of conduct that can be relied on so that the intrusion into the victims of crime stops. We want a right of apology, and for the correction in the newspaper to be given the same prominence as the original offending article. I would have thought that it was in the interests of all the press, at a really difficult time for them, to have a cheap system of rectification.
The only reason why the amendment is on the amendment paper is that we want the Government to stand by the promises they made. I see the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the Front Bench. I hope she will not walk us any further down this cul de sac, because it will do the victims of crime no favours. It will do politics no favours because it will look as though we have simply caved in to a nasty, tawdry little campaign by the press.
Section 40 should not be introduced. To say to 90% of the local, regional and national press that they have to be forced into a group they do not want to join is bullying of the worst kind. If it were to happen in other countries, the Council of Europe would probably say it was interference in the free media.
William Hone, whose life is described in the book “The Laughter of Triumph”, defied criminal libel law. We should remember that our press basically got its freedom from that moment, when ordinary people on juries refused to convict because they said that the media ought to have the right to lampoon, to be rude and to investigate. I think that people ought to ask the question: what would be the effect of section 40? Would it increase investigative journalism? No, it would not. It would be a good idea if those backing IMPRESS and section 40 gave a list of successful and wrong defamation cases, including of leading politicians who denied they were drunk overseas and various other criminals who later turned out to be guilty of the things they were accused of by the media.
We rely on the media to find out the things few people know about and make them available to all. The whole effect of section 40 will be to chill the opportunity for the media to investigate and report. That is why I believe this House would be wrong to force the Government to bring in section 40. I hope that we do not and I hope that those in favour of it will find other ways to pursue their own aims.
I rise to support, as strongly as I possibly can, the Government’s amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 134. It recognises the force of the arguments laid out in the report by my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and I last year, “Stalking: the Case for Extending the Maximum Sentence”. The report summarised the work of our researchers. Through them, we met victims, stalking charities, academics and police specialists. Everything we learned confirmed our initial instinct that there are a small number of very dangerous stalkers, such as my constituent Raymond Knight who pursued Cheltenham resident and Gloucester GP, Dr Eleanor Aston, to the point of nervous breakdown.
I pay tribute to the Government for accepting our report and its single recommendation of doubling the maximum sentence for stalking from five to 10 years, for amending the appropriate sections of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 on racial and religious aggravated harassment in line with the change to the maximum sentence for stalking, and for outlining in correspondence additional training that will be part of the measures to deal with the mental health issues of serious stalkers. I know the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have worked closely on this together. I am grateful to both Ministers here today for their action.
I also want to thank Gloucestershire-based Baroness Royall in the Lords for her commitment and contribution, and all those who informed us and shared harrowing experiences, including a constituent and her family. I would like to quote from her 16-year-old daughter, who was so egregiously stalked. She told us that the stalker
“broke into my house one night…all the knives in the knife stand were gone…I was sure I was going to die.”
In this particular case, my constituent and her family prefer to remain anonymous, not least because my constituent has been moved by the police to a safe house far from her home and her own children.
I am extremely grateful to all those who informed us, educated us and motivated us. I suspect the work I have done with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham means that the neighbouring constituencies of Cheltenham and Gloucester have not worked so closely since the creation of the Cheltenham & Gloucester building society —now, alas, long since gone. It is for a good cause that we come together in support of the Government’s change of law.
The Government’s amendment in lieu will give judges the flexibility they need. As Dr Aston has said, victims will be able to sleep more easily when the worst stalkers are sentenced and the stalkers themselves will better understand the seriousness of their crime and receive more help in resolving what is a severe obsession and mental health issue. Of course, as Jess Phillips pointed out, that will not in itself stop stalking, but it shows that victims and judges are being heard, that MPs and ultimately the Government listen and that laws can be changed so that sentences better reflect the harm that a crime can inflict on innocent victims, most of whom, as in the instance that inspired my neighbour and me, are women. Ultimately, justice is only as good as the laws we adapt and the way in which they are implemented. In that context, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, who made stalking a crime on the statute book when she was Home Secretary, and to the current Home Secretary, who has introduced protection orders against stalkers.
I will finish by returning to where this campaign started: the judge and the victim in Gloucester Crown court. I would like to thank Dr Ellie Aston for inspiring us, for being strong and for having faith; other victims for opening their hearts and sharing their stories; stalking charities, such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the Network for Surviving Stalking, Protection Against Stalking and Paladin; and the Hollie Gazzard Trust, the police and the University of Gloucestershire, which happens to be a leader in research in this sad area. This part of the journey for justice for victims of stalking is now close to over. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has reminded us that there will always be other issues to be raised and resolved, but today’s amendment in lieu deserves everyone’s support.
The whole House listened with great respect and interest to my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who have brought to the attention of the House and the country the appalling consequences of stalking. I join others in saluting their efforts to persuade the Government to recognise the gravity of the crime and in reaching this result tonight, which we can all applaud.
I thank Chris Bryant for mentioning my intervention on the Minister about section 40 and Lords amendment 24. I will not vote for the amendment tonight, because the Government have agreed to a consultation, and I think it right that that process run, but as I said to the Minister earlier, I hope that the Government will not be intimidated by the campaign by the newspapers that the hon. Gentleman referred to. The newspapers seem struck by an extraordinary sense of paranoia and a feeling of vulnerability, when we all know, from the many cases that have appeared, that they are in the driving seat and have power without a lot of responsibility.
Insufficient attention has been paid to the Leveson inquiry and the subsequent report, which was a detailed and considered piece of work. We should do what the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that Parliament should do. Since the Aldershot News & Mail was unwilling to publish my article today, perhaps I can give the House the benefit of it.
My hon. and learned Friend suggests that I put the article in the Library, but when he hears what I have to say, I think he might be better informed, if not wiser, for I cannot account for his wisdom—he is a great man.
He seriously is a very great man.
I wrote this:
“I believe in a free press but I also believe in a responsible press. Sadly, the newspapers are becoming increasingly paranoid about what they see as an attack on them and are refusing to accept the recommendation of the latest inquiry under Lord Justice Leveson that an independent regulator be established. Leveson was set up after an appalling series of intrusions into the private lives of people, which included phone hacking on an industrial scale.”
I have huge respect for my hon. and gallant Friend, but the fact is that the inquiry would not have taken place if phone hacking had not been discovered on what I have described as an industrial scale. People’s engagement with it was utterly immoral, and some went to prison, following legal action, which I think is fine.
My article continues:
“It is hard for those who have not experienced an assault by the media to appreciate the level of distress it causes. I know because some 30 years ago, together with my then colleague Neil Hamilton, I had to sue the BBC Panorama programme for libel—which we won”— and had the director-general of the BBC fired—
“but at the risk of bankruptcy (and loss of our seats in Parliament) if we lost.”
For the record, our costs—Peter Carter and partners were our lawyers—were something in the region £273,000. So I say to my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley that it is all very well for those who have got money. They are able to access justice, but this is all about providing a remedy for those who do not have money and cannot afford to undertake that sort of action. I continue:
“Since 1945, there have been no less than 5 Royal Commissions and enquiries to secure a better and cheaper form of justice for those maligned by powerful media barons.”
It is worth bearing in mind that when it came to suing the Metropolitan police to try to ensure that it gave the media information about what had happened to me, my costs were £380,000. My costs for suing Rupert Murdoch were £480,000. In both cases, because it was an no-win, no-fee arrangement, I did not have to pay anything. However, those no-win, no-fee arrangements are no longer available in these cases.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I was mentioning the five royal commissions and inquiries since 1945. The article continues:
“Time and again, reports threatened new laws if the industry failed to sort itself out, time and again the industry failed. In his 1993 report, Sir David Calcutt, QC said of the then regulator, the Press Complaints Commission: ‘It is not...an effective regulator of the press...It is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry’.
In 2012, Leveson recommended that newspapers should continue to be self-regulated and that the Government should have no power over what they publish. However, he also proposed a new press standards body created by the industry with a new code of conduct. The new self-regulatory body should be underpinned by a law to provide for a process to recognise the new body and ensure it meets certain requirements. It should also enshrine in law a legal duty to protect the freedom of the press and to ‘provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil complaints about its members’
publications’. Ofcom should act in a verification role to ensure independence and effectiveness.”
There we have it. There is a proposal on the table that IPSO is perfectly at liberty to take up in respect of a cheap arbitration service. The other point is that it should not be dominated by former press people, but that is exactly what IPSO is all about. I am not specifically advocating IMPRESS, but I see no reason why IPSO should not be able to organise itself in such a way that it is compliant. Instead, it has set up a body dominated by former editors, which does not meet the Leveson conditions. The Government are right to consult, but I really do not believe that the newspapers have anything to fear from these proposals. I believe that they will be in the interests of the press but, above all, they will provide a remedy for those who cannot afford to seek a remedy. Surely our responsibility is to remedy injustice.
My hon. Friend knows how much I return his respect, and he knows that I would normally regard him as an infallible guide to almost everything in the planet, but in this instance I think that suggesting that IPSO is dominated by press editors when its presiding spirit is Sir Alan Moses—Lord Justice Moses, a very fine judge who is vigorously and fiercely independent—is over-emphasising the point.
I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend’s belief in my infallibility, and I assure him that he should not be misguided, because I am infallible in this instance as well. Let me respond to his point by saying that although there may be an eminent judge in the driving seat, the fact is that the membership is dominated by press and former press people. They are in the majority.
It is true. Seven of the 12 are former press people, and that does not meet the Leveson conditions. Let us just meet the Leveson conditions: then we shall all be happy.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and, in particular, to follow some of the passionate speeches we have heard. I intended to focus on Lords amendments 136 to 142, but my thoughts have been drawn to comments that have been made about the press in the context of other amendments.
We have heard about the Aldershot News & Mail, but each week thousands of homes in Torbay receive a publication that reports on local news and local issues and gives the odd opinion on them. It is called “my weekly e-mail update”, and is subject only to libel laws, and to what I am happy to talk about and defend as the local Member of Parliament.
I think we should bear it in mind that we are living in a completely different era, when more and more of the media is moving online. There can be no such thing as a press regulator when there is no press—when websites can be based anywhere in the world and it is difficult to track them down even under our own libel laws, let alone regulate them. The era when people walked down to the newsagent each morning and again each evening to buy a local newspaper has pretty much come to an end. The fake news stories about which people talk—especially in connection with recent elections in the United States—were not put out by newspapers. They were not published by print media; they were published by various people online. There are websites that are effectively “clickbait”, featuring misleading headlines that people will merrily share or stories that do not really get to the nub. A story involving an hon. Member was recently circulated online. Anyone who knew the facts would know that it was flagrantly misleading, but that would not be clear to people who just read the headline online. Will that story be affected by press regulation? No. It is nothing to do with press regulation, because it is not printed material.
When we debate these matters, we must be aware that the era when only a press publication could circulate a story has disappeared. We should think about what we are doing when it comes to a special system that puts them at a disadvantage, given that, increasingly, they are no longer as dominant as they were. It is more likely that local newspapers will close than that they will find themselves being the arbiters of all opinion. Most constituents are more than able to use their own common sense and take many of the claims that they see both online and in the print media with a pinch of salt, but we have libel laws, and we need to remember that.
I have heard many times the argument that the libel laws are there, and that it is all very fine and dandy. The truth is, however, that the people of Hillsborough had no legal remedy whatsoever. They had no opportunity to respond to the lies—not libels, because the people concerned were dead—that were told about them for many, many years. That is why we need a proper press regulator that is independent of Government, independent of politics, and independent of the proprietors.
The fact is that someone who wanted to spread mistruths today would do it on the internet, and that would not be covered by either of the proposed systems of press regulation. We would probably now see a story of that type circulating on the internet, whereas in the 1980s the internet was something that a few universities used, and the worldwide web was something that United States military had developed for the purpose of its own communications in the event of world war three. It was not as we see it today. That shows why we need to be conscious of today’s position on the media and legislation. The industry, in many cases, particularly the local media, is struggling to survive and in decline and we do not want to end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater because of the horrendous practices of one or two newspapers, in particular The Sun in that instance.
I wanted to talk mainly about amendments 136 to 142. I listened with interest to Jess Phillips. She has a valid point when she says it is easy to put things that sound marvellous and fantastic on to goat skins, but what difference it actually makes on the ground is another matter. That is why I will agree with the Government’s motion to disagree with the Lords amendments.
Some of the provisions of Lords amendment 137, for example, are relatively vague. “Adequate notice” is not defined. There is also the provision potentially making the police and other authorities liable for any “unnecessary delay”; how can the police be held liable if it is the defence that engages in delay? The judiciary have the role of preventing court cases from being unnecessarily delayed.
The whole point of these amendments is that all the actors in the criminal justice system—the courts, the CPS, the defence, or the police—have a responsibility. These provisions would make the monitoring of how well they are doing more robust. It does not matter who is to blame; what we want is the victim to be given the information.
The amendment talks about ensuring that victims of crime are “not subjected to unnecessary delay”; it does not talk about monitoring. I accept that if we were looking at having a system of guidance, for instance, proposing “must ensure” would be putting something on to the statute book. For me, ensuring victims of crime are supported through the court process would be more beneficial than these amendments. In addition, people now have police and crime commissioners whom they can hold to account for the work they do.
This is a large group of amendments and we could spend quite some time talking about it. I do not believe that adding these amendments to the Bill is the right way forward. We should look at having a properly consulted-on system that does not have unintended consequences. That is why I agree with the Government motion to disagree with the Lords amendments.
I will not delay the House for long. I want to heap praise on the Secretary of State for not giving in to the pressure of the media moguls, and, although we are putting a consultation out, we are determined that no grass shall grow. I want her to be very clear that we truly appreciate what she has done.
Colleagues who are unhappy about amendment 24 ought to pay more attention to the brilliance of my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin, who has put together a fantastic plan for dealing with this thorny issue. If they gave it their full attention, they would, like me, want to see section 40 implemented.
The Press Recognition Panel is completely independent, and given amendment 24 and the concerns being shown by their lordships—
It is still independent because it does not choose who and what is the regulator; it determines only that the regulator is independent. It is perfectly acceptable. I know my hon. Friend is very keen to defend the press, but this whole instrument does exactly that.
My hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth emphasised the point that the local press in particular would be very vulnerable if it was not regulated—[Interruption.] Yes, it would. The regulator will protect it from having to pay the costs. This is why colleagues should really study what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has put together. It is much, much better than they might originally have thought.
The claims from the Hillsborough victims for Lords amendment 24 are deeply touching, and I wish the wording of the amendment was easier to support. This was touched on by Chris Bryant. My instinct is to support the victims of Hillsborough, but the wording of the amendment is not adequate. It proposes giving the Government a month to commission an inquiry, for example. My hon. Friend the Minister did a superb job in answering some of these points. The amendment is not good enough, but that does not mean that this matter ends here. I implore the Government to keep on with the good work that they are doing to ensure that we protect the freedoms of the press—the local press in particular—and, most of all, that we have a low-cost arbitration system, which will ultimately benefit everybody.
I had not intended to take part in the debate, but I want to say a few words about Lords amendment 24. A lot of the debate so far seems to have been about whether section 40 should be implemented, but that does not actually have anything to do with Lords amendment 24, which is specifically about whether there should be a further inquiry into the behaviour and performance of the police in relation to their dealings with news organisations.
Leveson 2, as it is now colloquially known, has been put on hold until the conclusion of all the criminal cases, and the amendment rightly recognises that it would be wholly wrong to have any kind of inquiry that could jeopardise criminal prosecutions. However, most of those prosecutions have now been concluded and it is worth looking at the outcomes of those prosecutions when deciding whether there is a case for proceeding. Operation Elveden, which was the police investigation into corrupt payments from newspaper organisations, overwhelmingly resulted in the acquittal of the journalists who had been charged with those offences. I think only two journalists were convicted; the vast majority were acquitted. We need to bear that in mind, because the suggestion that there was a massive corrupt relationship has not proven to be the case.
Chris Bryant talks about the importance of weeding out police corruption and of having confidence in an institution of the state. I completely agree with him on that. I want to refer briefly to the case made by the relatives of Daniel Morgan when considering whether there should be a further inquiry. I have every sympathy with the family of Daniel Morgan, who was murdered, because there was considerable evidence of police corruption. I can entirely understand their wish to have his killers brought to justice. A Home Office panel is examining that case at the moment, and we await its conclusion. It may well be that further action needs to be taken to deal with police corruption, and I shall wait to see what the panel concludes. Let us bear in mind that the Leveson inquiry was an inquiry into the culture, ethics and conduct of the press. It was not an inquiry into police corruption.
The main issue that has dominated the debate has been the implementation of section 40, which is not covered by this amendment. I share the views that have been extremely well expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster). However, the Secretary of State has set up a consultation. It concluded today, but it will take some considerable time before the results are made public. I believe that there has been a very substantial response to the consultation, so I do not expect the Government to be in a position to announce any conclusions about the implementation of section 40 or about whether there should be a further inquiry until that work has been done. I suspect that it will take several weeks, if not months. It seems entirely premature to table an amendment requiring the Government to commit now to a further inquiry when we have not even begun to assess the results of the consultation. For that reason, I strongly oppose Lords amendment 24.
I support Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 134. Having heard the hard-hitting accounts of my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) in their report on stalking, no one can be left in any doubt that the Government amendment should be carried.
Turning to Lords amendment 137, having represented the police and the prosecutorial authorities as a barrister, and having represented victims both as a barrister and as a Member of Parliament, I hope I can see the situation from both angles. I am entirely supportive of the victims code. Victims have generally been empowered since the code came into force as a result of steps taken by the previous Labour Government, and the beefing up carried out by the coalition Government and the Government of today.
My concern about Lords amendment 137 is that it would make the police and prosecutorial authorities responsible, and in some cases financially liable, for breaches of the victims code, even if they are not directly responsible. Under new subsection (3)(a), for instance, the police or the CPS could become responsible to a victim for delays caused not by them but by a third party, such as the defendant. Under new subsection (3)(b), the CPS could be held responsible if a defendant, or indeed another party over whom it has no control, treats a victim with a lack of “dignity and respect”. That often happens in the courtroom when a defendant gives evidence, or even through how a defendant instructs their lawyer to present their case, but that is a matter for the judge, not the prosecutor, to control.
New subsection (10) is even more concerning because it would require the Home Secretary to
“take steps to ensure that victims of crime…have access to financial compensation from public funds for any detriment arising from the criminal case concerned”.
That is not necessarily a detriment caused by the prosecuting authority, and there is no requirement of bad faith, recklessness or negligence on behalf of that authority. That is a big step both in principle and in practice. It is a big step in principle because it appears to impose a liability on one body for the actions of a third party over whom it may have no control, and it is a big step in practice because it exposes the police and prosecuting authorities to a significant financial burden at a time when we regularly have debates in this House on the need for greater funding for the police and the CPS. Paragraph 128 of the explanatory notes on the amendments explains that “potentially significant” financial burdens are attached.
Although I am an enthusiastic supporter of the victims code and the need to give victims the very best support, imposing a broadly defined liability—indeed, a financial liability—on the police and the CPS is not the right way to proceed without more thought about furthering the aims of the code. More thought is needed, and I am pleased that the Government will be introducing their own proposals to give effect to our manifesto commitment for a victims’ bill of rights. I am sure that that work will take account of the excellent work of Keir Starmer and his commission. I pay tribute to his work and to all the people involved, including a number of my constituents.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 24.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Division number 119
The House having divided: Ayes 299, Noes 196.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 24 disagreed to.
More than 90 minutes having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
After Clause 110