Clause 15 - Guidance about independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisors

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:54 am on 24 May 2024.

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Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 10:54, 24 May 2024

I entirely note, and the House and country will have heard, the points made by the right hon. Lady. She participated in the statement by the Prime Minister and the subsequent statement by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, which set out the work that he has undertaken at pace to make things move forward. What we see in this Bill is a hugely important step forward, and I look forward to Robert Francis working at pace to ensure that the views of those affected are genuinely reflected in the detailed answers to the questions that the right hon. Lady has posed.

The Government amendments demonstrate our absolute commitment to delivering long-overdue justice to the victims. Too many people, whether they are infected or affected, have seen their life chances taken away, watched loved ones die needlessly, and endured the most terrible stigma, none of which should ever have happened. I can only hope that, with the inquiry’s report published and with our firm commitment to compensate those touched by the scandal, the infected blood community know that their cries for justice have finally been heard. As I have said, a lot of that is a tribute to the right hon. Lady’s work.

The Government have also tabled amendments to make reforms to provisions on those serving imprisonment and detention sentences for public protection. We will be further reducing the qualifying period to two years for those who were convicted when aged under 18. We will also allow the Secretary of State to have discretion to decide that recall should have no effect on the two-year automatic licence determination period, as well as requiring that an annual report be laid before Parliament on the support for those serving these sentences. I am grateful to Members of both Houses for the constructive way in which they have engaged with the Bill, and I am delighted that we will be able to complete its passage ahead of Prorogation.

I will set out the detail of the motions that we are bringing forward today in response to those outstanding issues. In respect of Lords amendment 35, we are seeking to amend the measure on the issuing of guidance about victim support roles in clause 18. Victim support roles operate across different settings, some of which are devolved. The Senedd did not grant legislative consent for this measure as previously drafted. I am therefore tabling an amendment so that the duty to issue guidance applies to England and reserved matters in Wales only. I have consequently removed the requirement to consult Welsh Ministers on any guidance issues. I am grateful for the constructive discussions that have taken place in relation to the important principles that sit behind this clause, which aim to improve the consistency of support services provided to victims. I am confident that we can continue to work together so that victims have that consistency across both countries.

Lords amendment 46 is a technical amendment to move the clause on child victims of domestic abuse to the right part of the Bill.

We have accepted the principle of Lords amendment 32, which will place a duty on relevant authorities to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner when requested. We heard the strength of feeling that a response to the Victims’ Commissioner, as they do their important work, should not be seen as a favour. Instead, there should be clear and open co-operation as an integral part of enabling the independent scrutiny that victims deserve.

The Government’s amendment makes a few minor changes. First, it extends required co-operation further than to simply assist the commissioner in monitoring compliance with the victims code. Instead, it requires co-operation in relation to any of the Victims’ Commissioner functions, which include promoting the interests of victims and witnesses. Secondly, it adds important safeguards to make clear that any co-operation must be not only practical but appropriate. This protects against potential interference with activities that are rightly independent, such as the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Thirdly, it future-proofs the clause by putting this duty on the agencies that deliver services under the victims code, rather than including a specific list of bodies, which may become out of date.

Lords amendment 33 seeks to require training to be provided to those with obligations under the victims code. Of course, agencies should and do have training in place to deliver the legislative duty to act in accordance with the code, but that training must be tailored to the specific function that each person is discharging, and agencies are best placed to do that. We consider that in placing an additional burden on the Secretary of State to implement a strategy for training, this amendment would be costly and inefficient. It would not be proper for an amendment from the Lords to place financial burdens on public authorities. We also consider that the more effective approach, as has been committed by the Government in the other place, is to include a requirement for agencies to report on the adequacy of their co-training as part of evidence in delivery of code entitlements. This gives us a route to identify and address ineffective training if it has led to non-compliance with the code.

Lords amendment 47 seeks to establish an immigration firewall and prevent the police from sharing with immigration enforcement data relating to immigration status. We disagree with this amendment because it would be inappropriate to impose a blanket restriction on the use of personal data in the circumstances to which the amendment relates. It would not prevent the perpetrator from informing immigration enforcement about the victim’s immigration status and would impact on the ability to investigate crimes and support victims.

Lords amendment 54 seeks to place a statutory duty of candour on all public authorities, public servants and officials after a major incident has been declared in writing by the Secretary of State. The Government share the desire to see an end to unacceptable institutional defensiveness, but we cannot accept the amendment in the current form, because it would not sit neatly on top of the existing frameworks; it is not well suited to replace what already exists for major incidents and beyond; it does not take into account the nuances of different professions in the spheres of the public sector; and it could entail significant legal uncertainty.

This is a complex area, so we believe that it would be unwise to rush forward with an amendment, but we have tabled an amendment in lieu to require a statutory review to determine whether additional duties of transparency and candour should be imposed on public authorities and public servants in relation to major incidents. The review will need to be completed by the end of the calendar year, and following its completion, a report will be laid before the Government. It will be for whichever Government are elected in six weeks’ time to determine what to do with that.

We are also bringing forward an amendment in lieu of Lords amendments 98 and 99. The Government amendment will ensure that those convicted of controlling or coercive behaviour who are sentenced to at least 12 months’ imprisonment will be automatically subject to management under multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA. That will ensure that we effectively manage and target the most dangerous domestic abuse offenders.

A previous amendment was tabled in the other place to add domestic abuse and stalking perpetrators to those who qualify for automatic MAPPA management. Although there is a legal definition of domestic abuse, a specific domestic abuse crime does not exist, with the exception of controlling or coercive behaviour. Therefore, although well intentioned, the amendment would still have required criminal justice agencies to decide case by case whether a defendant was eligible for MAPPA management. Consequently, the amendment would have not achieved the intention of reducing or eliminating any scope for local discretion.

There are already provisions in place requiring offenders on licence to live only at an address approved by probation. Further, all offenders released on licence are subject to standard conditions for the duration of their sentence. There are numerous additional licence conditions that can be imposed to address specific risk factors. Licence conditions allow for information on perpetrators to be collected and used to manage risk. The amendment would therefore have little impact on public safety but would result in significant resourcing pressure for police forces.

Offenders who perpetrate other forms of domestic abuse, such as threats to kill, actual and grievous bodily harm, attempted strangulation, putting people in fear of violence, and stalking, including stalking that involves fear of violence, serious alarm or distress, are already automatically managed under MAPPA if sentenced to 12 months’ custody or more. Adding the additional offence of controlling and coercive behaviour will ensure that the most harmful domestic abuse offenders will be automatically covered by the arrangements. The changes will mean that those offenders will automatically be managed in the same way as those convicted of sexual, violent and terrorist offences. That is crucial, as controlling or coercive behaviour is a known risk factor for domestic homicide. Treating those offenders in the same way as the most violent offenders is critical to improve the safety of domestic abuse victims.

Lords amendment 106 would permit the Secretary of State to re-release recalled IPP—imprisonment for public protection—prisoners, and mirrors the power of the Secretary of State to re-release recalled offenders serving determinate sentences. That is now referred to as risk-assessed recall review, or RARR. That is an executive power and it will be for the Secretary of State to decide if or when to use it. The amendment also enables the Secretary of State to impose licence conditions on a recalled IPP offender’s licence if the Secretary of State uses the power to release them on licence. We agree that that is the right approach, but we have tabled Government amendment (a) in lieu to make that change, together with further measures relating to release that come under the scope of the clause.

Government amendment (b) in lieu extends the eligibility of the home detention curfew scheme to offenders serving sentences of four years or over. The original aim of the scheme was to help suitable lower-risk offenders who have been in custody to reintegrate in society in a controlled manner. As sentences have become longer, it is important to revisit whether eligibility for HDC continues to allow all those who may be suitable, and whose rehabilitation may benefit from the scheme, to be considered as originally intended. That means looking again at whether offenders who were excluded solely due to sentence length or old curfew breaches, rather than due to any assessment of risk, should be considered in the usual way for HDC. Since HDC was introduced, sentences have grown longer, and they should no longer be the sole determinant of whether someone is eligible to be considered for HDC. A four-year sentence length or an old curfew breach are very blunt measures of whether an offender is lower risk or suitable for HDC.

The amendment increases the number of offenders eligible for HDC, but does not extend the range of offences that make an offender eligible for it. All sexual offenders and serious violent offenders are excluded from the scheme, as are those subject to Parole Board release. Those convicted of offences that are often associated with domestic abuse, such as stalking and harassment, are also excluded, as are many other people, including category A prisoners. There is also a robust risk assessment to ensure that offenders are released only if there is a plan in place to manage them safely in the community. In every case, that includes a curfew backed up by electronic monitoring. Finally, Lords amendment 46 is a technical amendment to move the location of the clause headed “Child victims of domestic abuse” to the right part of the Bill.

I would like to take this opportunity to put on record my gratitude to the Clerks, the shadow Minister and all my officials who have worked on this important piece of legislation: Nikki Jones, Katie Morris, Donna Bromyard, Elizabeth Bates, Isla Scott, Emily Halliday, Claire Anderson, Tomos MacDonald, Anna Webb—there are a few more, Madam Deputy Speaker—Alex Brown, Gaby Perrot, Liam Walsh, Aodhbha Bassani, Jess Cowan, Michael Rimer, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel drafters, Joel and Camilla, and my amazing private secretaries, Ben Street and Amelia Prusinski. They have done an amazing job on this legislation.

As I have said to the House, this Bill has the central objective of ensuring that victims are treated as participants in the justice process, rather than bystanders. The Bill delivers significant, positive changes by strengthening victims’ rights and the role of the Victims’ Commissioner, providing protections for victims, and creating an independent public advocate—I pay tribute to Maria Eagle and my right hon. Friend Mrs May for their work on that. The Bill creates an arm’s length body to finally move things forward in respect of compensation for infected blood scandal victims, has measures for reforming the parole system, and brings forward reforms relating to IPP prisoners. The Bill has been a long time in the making; getting it into law will be a major step forward in strengthening the voice in our criminal justice system of victims of crime and of major incidents.

This is my last time at this Dispatch Box in this Parliament, and my last time speaking in this Chamber as the Member of Parliament for Charnwood, because the seat that I have been proud to represent for nine years is being abolished in the boundary changes, although I hope to be returned as the Member for the new Melton and Syston constituency in the general election. May I take the opportunity to thank all colleagues? I particularly thank my constituents in Charnwood and my fantastic staff, Steph Bradshaw and Fred Seaman, who do so much for my constituents, day in, day out. With that, I commend these measures to the House.