Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:53 pm on 27th June 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 9:53 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, the debate has been broad and fascinating, but it has been set against a background of tragedy and widespread national uncertainty. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, my noble friends Lord Paddick, Lady Hamwee and Lord Roberts spoke on home affairs and covered policing, security and migration; my noble friends Lord Steel, Lord McNally, Lord Tyler, Lady Humphreys and Lord Alderdice spoke on devolved and constitutional affairs; and my noble friends Lady Pinnock and Lord Shipley spoke on communities and local government issues. I will restrict what I say to justice issues.

In the Queen’s Speech debate last year, I welcomed the Government’s proposed legislation on prison reform and suggested that its implementation would act as a litmus test of the Government’s commitment to spreading life chances to everyone. One year and two changes of Secretary of State for Justice later, the prisons and courts Bill has been stripped of all prison reform and all we have now is an open letter from the new Secretary of State promising “continuing improvement”.

This debate, however, with powerful and moving speeches from noble Lords across the House, including the noble Lords, Lord Faulks, Lord Dholakia, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord McNally, Lord Beith, Lord German and Lord Patel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, has demonstrated not just a broad consensus but, I suggest, an overwhelming demand for urgent legislation on prison reform. Time and again, noble Lords have drawn attention to the appalling levels of violence, suicides and self-harm. Peter Clarke, in his first annual report as Chief Inspector of Prisons, graphically described the “upsurge in violence” and equally shocking prevalence of self-harm and suicide, the dangers faced by staff, and the tragic death of a court officer killed by a prisoner. He wrote of meeting,

“prisoners who have ‘self-segregated’ in order to escape the violence caused by”,

psychoactive substances, and members of staff who had described to him,

“the terrifying effects they can have”.

This is not a picture of continuing improvement but of a crisis that disgraces our national life and shames us with squalid conditions, chronic overcrowding, pitiful understaffing, inadequate education and training, too little opportunity to work and prisoners locked in cells for 22 hours a day. A new prisons Bill should introduce a new and purposeful approach to imprisonment directed at rehabilitation and reform, education and training, cutting reoffending and reducing prisoner numbers, together with a comprehensive set of statutory minimum standards for welfare applicable to all institutions across the prison estate. As a Liberal Home Secretary said as long ago as 1910:

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/1910; col. 1354.]

That Home Secretary was Winston Churchill. Will the Minister please explain why prison reform is off the legislative agenda? What kind of message does he think that sends to prisoners, staff and their families?

We are, however, to have a courts Bill and we welcome proposals for modernising the court system and the more effective use of technology. The Government propose straightforward and efficient access to justice for people and targeted support and care for those who need it. Central to that will be the LASPO Act review, scheduled for completion by April 2018. Will the Minister confirm that that timetable is still on track? Will the review address the damage caused by reductions in legal aid, particularly in housing and social welfare law? Will he support more exceptional case funding and simplified access to legal aid for domestic violence victims?

On domestic violence, I, along with my noble friend Lady Burt of Solihull and others, welcome the proposals to end direct cross-examination of victims by defendants and to keep victims and defendants apart in court. However, we all recognise that more than legislation is required to reduce the pain of domestic violence. My noble friends Lady Burt and Lord Scriven also emphasised the commitment of our party to further progress on equalities. In that regard, I was delighted to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, urge the Government to implement the Law Commission’s proposals on cohabitation rights, as my Private Member’s Bill, shortly to be introduced, would do. We are also hugely relieved on these Benches—and I think other noble Lords around the House are so relieved—that the Government no longer plan to scrap the Human Rights Act or undermine the European Convention on Human Rights.

I turn to the proposed Brexit legislation. In doing so, I propose to challenge the Government’s almost obsessive determination to end the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Government propose to convert EU law into UK law as we leave the EU, ensuring that the same rules apply after exit as applied before. That is supposed to provide a smooth and orderly transition while achieving the stated aim of ending the jurisdiction of the CJEU, yet the Government are committed by the White Paper to a withdrawal treaty that involves an agreement on EU citizens in the UK and our citizens in the rest of the EU, a new strategic partnership with the EU on trade and continued close collaboration on science and innovation, security and terrorism and justice, of which my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford spoke so persuasively. Just how are any of these things to be agreed without the CJEU? Our European partners point out that these relationships involve not just the UK and the EU but all 27 remaining member states, which are all signed up to dispute resolution by the CJEU, and they are right.

British companies exporting to the EU must meet EU standards and will continue to have to do so. Those standards are monitored by the CJEU, as are environmental standards and all the arrangements for collaboration in the fields in which we seek it. The Government’s curious proposition seems to be that the law will be preserved in aspic as at our leaving date. They propose neither policy nor principle nor mechanism for handling changes in EU law. How will we deal with new directives and regulations? How will we deal with differing decisions of the CJEU and the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom? If the answer is that we will adopt all new EU law for the sake of consistency and good sense, then why commit to ending the jurisdiction of the CJEU in the first place? If the answer is that we will diverge at will, there is no meaningful future for co-operation. To take one example, on data retention, the European court ruled last year, on the application originally brought by David Davis, that blanket retention of citizens’ data communications is unlawful. Where then do we go on security co-operation if the UK Government take a different view and legislate inconsistently with the ruling so that the Supreme Court is bound to implement that UK legislation?

These issues have simply not been properly addressed. Nor has the whole area of maintaining our arrangements for applicable law under Rome Regulations I and II or for jurisdiction recognition and enforcement of judgments under the Brussels regime and Brussels II, which are all administered under the jurisdiction of the CJEU. The Government appear not even to have begun to appreciate the complexity of dismantling the whole edifice of European co-operation on justice issues.

On these Benches, we believe that the decision to leave the EU was a dreadful mistake. We will seek to retain membership of the single market and the customs union. We will put international co-operation and prosperity first. We will not be cowed by claims that the referendum authorised the Government to undermine Britain’s prosperity and security and to damage the interests of the United Kingdom with a self-destructive mishmash of dogmatic but mutually inconsistent and intellectually incoherent ambitions. Democracy does not demand that, following the referendum, we simply get on with Brexit whatever the social and financial cost, and on these Benches we will not stand by and agree to the Government so doing.