Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 5:17 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the gracious Speech. I thank the noble Lords who have spoken thus far in what has been an interesting debate today.

I would like to draw attention to two or three things. The first is the fairly well hidden-away commitment in the gracious Speech to reform mental health legislation in order that mental health services might be prioritised in the NHS. Like much in the speech, the detail is particularly lacking at this point but I hope that noble Lords will join me in saying that that is an important and welcome development.

I think we all realise that mental health has been the Cinderella of the National Health Service, and this has been brought into sharp focus by the terrible statistics that we are learning about on young people’s mental health and, in particular, how mental health services applied to young people are peculiarly stretched at this time. Obviously I am speaking from memory but I seem to recall that my teenage years were the best of my life and were not dogged by depression, anxiety and many of the things that trouble our young people today. I want to hear more from the Government about this and I hope that the Minister will comment on that aspect of the gracious Speech.

Secondly, I want to mention the domestic abuse Bill. I hardly need remind your Lordships’ House of the shocking statistics that accompany this phenomenon in our culture: two women per week are killed by a former or existing partner, and over 2 million cases of domestic abuse are reported every year, most involving men attacking women but not exclusively so. Then there is the very shocking news that 750,000 of our children live in households where they have to witness this kind of abuse. I am told that of those children on the at-risk register, 75% come from homes where domestic abuse exists.

We should be encouraging of these developments in the gracious Speech, not least the direction of the Bill that may come before us. First, it will seek to establish a domestic violence and abuse commissioner. That can be only a good thing, but we will wait and see quite what power and authority such a person will have. Secondly, there is an attempt to do something that has not been done before: to define domestic abuse in the law. While there are some risks with that, it might create cohesion, which will help in drafting a whole raft of aspects of the Bill. It might also help some victims who are not sure whether the behaviour aimed at them is unlawful.

There is a need across the country to create more consistency in the way that police services deal with aspects of domestic abuse. Consolidating domestic abuse offences into one Act may be helpful in that.

It has been mentioned, and I will do so again, that sentencing policy needs to further reflect the damage done to children who live in homes where domestic abuse exists. I look forward to seeing the detail of the Bill.

Finally, the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Dholakia, noted that the dropping of the prisons aspect of what was the prisons and courts Bill was a rather worrying development in the gracious Speech. Are we to assume, just for starters, that there will be carryover from the former Bill to the projected courts Bill? In particular on domestic violence, I hope the provision to protect victims of domestic abuse from cross-examination by their ex-partner might be retained. It is a sad thing that the prison and courts Bill has been dropped.

I am not quite as negative as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was about the open letter written by the new Justice Secretary because I felt it nailed some important things. The big question is—I think this is what the noble Lord was chasing after—whether an open letter will make any difference. It is a good thing that his predecessor secured £100 million of funding to secure more prison officers, but then there is the problem of the profile and experience among prison officers, given that a lot of experienced officers have moved on. Just to replace them with newly trained people seems to leave something of a deficit. We want to see a crackdown on drugs, drones sorted out and mobile phones curtailed.

I close by reminding noble Lords what the Justice Secretary said in his letter—that,

“prisons don’t work in isolation. They work within their local communities and with other services—with Probation, Jobcentres, housing, health and drug services, local businesses and charities to provide innovative schemes and initiatives to prepare prisoners for a life after release … Only by building on this work to reform offenders and support ex-offenders will we stop the vicious and costly cycle of reoffending”.

He says that, “This is my priority”. I hope that it is. I hope, no doubt with noble Lords, that what is expressed in his letter may at some point come before us in the form of a Bill that we can get behind to sort out the disgraceful situation in many of our prisons.

These are difficult times. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, reminded us at the beginning of the debate, Her Majesty’s Opposition and all of us want to apply careful scrutiny to what comes before us and, where we can, work together to eradicate the anxiety in our culture, the inequality that dogs our inner culture, and so forth. These are huge challenges and we can only face them together.