Amendment 292E

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 22 November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department 10:45, 22 November 2021

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker; this has been one of the loveliest debates that I have ever been privy to in this Chamber. As his family prepares to say goodbye and his body lies in the Crypt just yards away, may we all spare a moment to think about David Amess, and the tragic way in which he died. It was absolutely senseless; it has shocked us all.

As noble Lords have said, we must extend our thanks to Essex Police and the Metropolitan Police for their quick and comprehensive response, and apprehending and charging the alleged culprit. I also bring out for special mention my thanks to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston for moving this amendment, to my noble friend Lady Newlove, whose testimony with her first-hand experience was deeply moving, and to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, who has shared such experience in this area, particularly in Northern Ireland, and how it has been dealt with day in and day out for decades.

As a Catholic, I understand the importance of extreme unction, absolution and viaticum for those close to death. However, this is not just about Catholics, of course, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said. To answer my noble friend Lord Moylan’s point about who owns a death, we have to strike a sensitive balance. Humanity and sensitivity need to be shown to families and the person who is dying. That is the balance that we need to strike here.

On the first aspect of this, the duties of the police, one of the primary duties of a police constable is the protection of life, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said. Where a person is injured, the first responsibility of any police officer is to preserve life, whether by directly administering emergency first aid or supporting paramedics to do the same.

As well as the protection of life, the police need to consider the preservation of evidence at a crime scene. Forensic evidence is the crucial piece of the puzzle in many investigations, so it is vital that anything that might be relevant is properly retained and free from contamination. The College of Policing’s guidance outlines the importance of securing and preserving a crime scene and avoiding cross-contamination. It states:

“Anyone who enters the scene both takes something of the scene with them and leaves something of themselves behind … If scenes are not properly managed, this can distort initial findings and prolong subsequent efforts to identify offenders.”

These are not easy decisions, especially in situations where a victim is critically injured and likely to die. However, the presumption that any religious official be allowed to enter a crime scene has the potential to prevent the police being able to do their job effectively in catching criminals and bringing them to justice. That said, I will take back the things noble Lords have said tonight, particularly the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.

By the same token, no noble Lord would want to see the guilty walk free as a consequence of such unintended contamination of forensic evidence. Given those considerations, the decision to allow a priest or other minister of religion access to a crime scene must be an operational one for the officer in charge of the scene and taken on a case-by-case basis.

As I said earlier, I am pleased that, on 9 November, Cardinal Vincent Nichols announced that he and the Met Police Commissioner had agreed to work together to establish a joint group to study the access given or refused to Catholic priests to crime scenes related to traumatic violence. I understand that, in particular, the group will consider whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to officers faced with such situations. I am sure noble Lords would agree that that is an encouraging development.

I know that my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, understands that this is not a matter for legislation and that the police are in a really difficult situation in these circumstances. The priority for the police must be securing the crime scene in pursuit of the investigation and bringing the guilty to justice. With such sensible heads on this, I am confident that a sensible decision and suitable guidance will be arrived at.

Covid has put aside many norms, including, as my noble friend said, chaplains in care homes and maybe in hospitals, although I understand that chaplains are available 24 hours a day in hospitals. I am more than happy to meet my noble friend and the Catholic Union ahead of the next stage and to request a Health Minister. However, I hope that, in light of the discussions between the archbishop and the Metropolitan Police, and having had this opportunity to debate this difficult issue, my noble friend would be happy to withdraw her amendment.