Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

– in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 31 January 2024.

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Relevant documents: 7th Report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, 1st Report from the Constitution Committee. Welsh Legislative Consent sought.

Clause 2: The victims’ code

Debate on Amendment 13 resumed.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful for the chance to participate—I thought I was going to be cut off at the knees at the end of the last session when the Committee was adjourned promptly. I also apologise to the Committee because I did not participate in the Second Reading debate. I intervene this afternoon to support Amendment 14 tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and supported by my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the other amendments concerned with restorative justice or RJ.

I have quite a personal reason for this because when I came into your Lordships’ House some years ago, my best friend rang me to say that his best friend from school had just been made a chief constable and was very interested in this thing called restorative justice, and would I be prepared to go and meet him? I said I would, of course. I knew virtually nothing about RJ at that time. I went to meet the chief constable and he explained to me how he thought we were missing a trick in not using RJ more widely to deal with what he described as our lamentable record in reoffending.

He arranged for me to go and get involved in some cases, hear the facts and even, with the permission of the participants, sit in as a facilitator on one or two cases. I got a great deal of first-hand experience of how RJ might or might not work. All he said when I finished was, “Will you just repay me by raising RJ and speaking about it in the House of Lords in the future?”. So here I am this afternoon, keeping faith with my friend, the chief constable. From my great experience, then, the key issue—this important point was made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries—was that it works only if each participant, on the two sides of the argument or the case, is prepared to get inside the head of the other. That was an important part of what I learned while I was there.

I will not talk at length about what I learned specifically, but it is worth briefly recounting one case. A confirmed drug user with a charge-sheet as long as your arm saw an empty house and thought he would break in, find a piece of electrical equipment, take it, flog it and use the proceeds to feed his habit. Unfortunately for him, the house was not empty. The owner of the house, a designer, had a small studio upstairs on the second floor. He came downstairs to find this man in the hall and asked, “What are you doing?”. The man said, “I’ve come to read the gas meter”. The owner said, “Bad idea, because there’s no gas in this house. We don’t have gas”. A struggle ensued, during which the owner of the house hit the man over the head with a flowerpot. There are pictures of the person with blood streaming down his face when the police arrived and arrested him.

From this unprepossessing, unlikely beginning, a case of RJ was introduced. The men met a few times then, as was inevitably right, the burglar got a custodial sentence. The men corresponded while he was in prison and a degree of agreement and understanding—the ability of both sides to put the past behind them and do better in future, from the point of view of the perpetrator —was arrived at. When I talked to the perpetrator, I asked, “What was it?”. He said, “You can see my charge-sheet. All I saw on it were names but, this time, when I met the owner of the house, he said, ‘Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve terrified my family. My two teenage daughters will no longer sleep in separate bedrooms upstairs; they share a room next door to me and my wife. My wife has every single door and window locked—everything locked. You have completely wrecked our security as a family. What do you think about that?’”. Although he did not put it this way, it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for him.

On the other side, when I talked to the owner of the house, he said, “When we began to talk to the chap, he had had a hopeless start. He had a single mum—not much of a single mum, really—and was in and out of care, with little to no educational achievement. Inevitably, his life was largely devoted to crime”. From these two understandings came an ability to work together; it put them, in particular the perpetrator, to an important and life-affirming task to live better and have a worthwhile lifetime.

That is a great, moving story but I said to the chief constable, “There must be a but”. He said, “Of course there’s a but”. He was anxious then, as I think I would be anxious today, not to put too much weight on restorative justice. He said, “There are two things you can do to make sure that RJ does better”. The first is that you need—these are the words from the briefing, not the chief constable—“voluntary and honest participation” by both sides. That is straightforward.

Not in the briefing is the second point that he made: you need expert, trained facilitators. Being expert and trained means, first, that you move the conversation forward but not so that you avoid tackling the awful, painful issues that lie at the heart of the problem; and, secondly, that you are tough enough to blow the whistle when you believe that somebody is not trying. This is not always easy to do because, sometimes, a bit of effort has been invested and people are reluctant to let the case go, but someone has to realise that there are cases in which people will, in the famous phrase, swing the lead in the hope of a reduced sentence. The facilitator needs to be well trained. As the chief constable would say, “A facilitator cannot take on too many cases because they’re quite emotionally exhausting if you get really stuck into these people’s lives”.

The chief constable, if he were standing here, would say, “I certainly would not want RJ to be presented as a silver bullet”—the point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier. “Above all,” he would say, “I don’t want it to be presented as a cheap silver bullet because it isn’t—at least, not in the short run. However, if you can turn a number of cases round, the long-term savings and benefits to society are incalculable.

Our re-offending rates remain too high—the same situation as when I met the chief constable. We surely have an opportunity now to be imaginative in our thinking about how to reduce offending rates. We need new tools in our toolbox, and restorative justice would be an important one. I hope my noble and learned friend the Minister will react sympathetically to Amendment 14. That would give me great pleasure, because it would mean that I have kept faith with my friend the chief constable.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that his faith will be even better kept if he keeps on advocating RJ? Does he also agree that it has its limitations, one of which is that there is a need, in the case he has described, for drug addiction treatment to go alongside it in some way? One must look at the underlying causes, as he has well indicated.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

I could not disagree with that. I suspect that there are a whole host of issues behind habitual offending which we need to think about, of which drug addiction is one. People involved in this policy area are clearly more experienced than I am.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is the first group of amendments which really gets into victims’ rights—not just what is expressed in the victims’ code, but ensuring that they can access it. The noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, started the group with the important issue of a victim’s right to challenge decisions, including but not only relating to multiple perpetrators. I thank her for that, because that and some of the cultural issues she raised are important in ensuring that victims’ services are tailored to victims’ needs and are not a tick-box exercise.

I thank Restorative Justice for All for its briefing, and all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I will not repeat it all, but we know that restorative justice is a well-established and evidence-based alternative that certainly does not let offenders off the hook; it is as difficult for offenders as it often is for the victims. Restorative Justice for All wrote to us because it is concerned about how long it has been since issues about the right to restorative justice were addressed. It goes back to an EU directive of 2012, yet there is still no absolute right available. That needs to be remedied.

Unfortunately, under this Bill there is no obligation for criminal justice agencies to inform harmed parties about restorative justice systems. When we come to later amendments, we will be fighting hard to ensure that that does become a requirement, because victims deserve no less. The other part of this group also talks about signposting of services. I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harris of Pentregarth, who believes that the perpetrators need restorative justice as much. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said that being told there is a code is a start, but much more is needed. I suspect that the Minister will try to say that having such a system would be expensive. However, we know that not having the alternative is even more expensive not just in terms of the consequences for victims’ lives, but for the criminal justice system, parole and stopping recidivism. Without restorative justice, all those costs will continue to pile on.

I do hope that the Minister will bring us some good news. I gently remind him that in the costings for this Bill we were reminded that Part 4, on prisoners, will cost around £0.5 billion, but only a very token amount is allocated for victims’ services. Perhaps that balance is not yet quite right.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, as I often do, that we are now digging into how this legislation can be improved for victims. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, on raising the issue of the gap in proceedings whereby, if there are multiple perpetrators, some of whom are not charged and some of whom are, the victim does not have the right to challenge why people are not being charged. That clearly needs to be remedied, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s suggestion.

Amendment 15, to which I added my name, aims to ensure that victims are aware of and signposted to a full range of specialist services, including specialist advocacy support. I read that and thought we were having a “duh” moment: it is completely obvious that that is what should happen—why do we even have to say it? The reason why is that it currently looks like the onus is on the victim to search out the remedies and support they need. This amendment is about reversing that situation, and I would like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester for tabling it, even though it is obvious that this needs to happen. We need to say that, and we need the Government to look at how this legislation will ensure that it does.

We had a good exchange last week about the importance of restorative justice, which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, mentioned just now. I think we all agree that of most importance are the use of the word “appropriate”, and making sure that those services are properly resourced and supported to ensure that this happens. We are keen to support these amendments, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:15, 31 January 2024

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments. The Government appreciate the considerable work that goes into preparing amendments and arguments and bringing issues before this House.

By way of a brief reminder, in general terms the Government have a threefold approach to the Bill. The first is to set out general principles of the victims’ code included in Clause 2(3), supplemented by regulations in subsection (4). The second approach is to put the detail and the operational information that victims need in the code, rather than in the Bill. I commend to your Lordships the latest draft version of the code, published in June 2023, which sets out the 12 rights in a particularly user-friendly way. The third approach is to create a system whereby victims are aware of the code, and the relevant criminal justice bodies comply with their obligations under the code. The mechanism for this is set out in Clauses 6 to 10, supplemented by guidance under Clause 11.

I have reiterated that framework because, in the Government’s view, a lot of the debate we have had today is about what should be in the Bill and what should be in the code, in guidance or elsewhere in the framework. There may be no disagreement in principle about the importance of many of the things we are discussing, be it restorative justice or the right to object to a charging decision, but the question we are on now concerns the way the Bill should be drafted. The broad view of the Government on most of the amendments in this group and subsequent groups is that the matter is either already covered in the code or should be covered in the code, rather than being expressly on the face of the Bill. That is the Government’s broad position.

Turning to the amendments, I take first the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, relating to multiple perpetrators and the fact that in some cases if only one perpetrator is charged, the victim may be aggrieved because other perpetrators were not charged. First of all, this is a good example of how it should work; the principle of a right to challenge, from the victim’s point of view, is set out in Clause 2(9). The implementation of that principle in this context is in code right 6, which refers to the victim’s right of review scheme in respect of various police and CPS decisions. The noble Baroness rightly draws attention to an apparent lacuna in the CPS part of the scheme, which currently does not cater for the situation where only one of several perpetrators is charged. The Government are very happy to look again at that issue and to discuss with the relevant agencies how that lacuna should be addressed.

As the Government see it, this is a very good example, rightly drawn to public attention, of a possible gap in the code that should be addressed by making improvements to the code rather than putting the issue directly in the statute. The draft code itself, in its present form, will be subject to further consultation anyway under Clause 3 if and when the Bill is passed. That is essentially the Government’s position on Amendment 13.

I take next the important issue of restorative justice, of which the Government are wholly supportive. Amendment 14, in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and Amendments 16, 17, 22, 32 and 52, in the name of, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, aim to ensure that on the face of the Bill victims should have access to restorative justice—that is the broad thrust of it—and that the Secretary of State should issue guidance about that.

The Government entirely accept that restorative justice is extremely important; again, I salute, if I may, the words of my noble friend Lord Hodgson in raising this issue so eloquently. However, important though it is, the Government do not feel that restorative justice should be elevated above all the other victim services by being specifically included in the Bill. Once you start including specific services in the Bill, either you have a very long list or you have to prioritise certain things. The Government’s view is that the structure should be that the Bill contains short principles, and almost everything else is in the code or guidance. To do otherwise is to introduce rigidity and might have the somewhat perverse effect of concentrating what are admittedly limited resources on some specified kind of support at the expense of other, equally valuable, kinds of support.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench

I think we are all very sympathetic to the idea that a huge amount could go in the code and the guidance, certainly as far as restorative justice is concerned. But the third part of what the Minister said the purpose of this Bill was is to ensure that the criminal justice system knows what its responsibilities are. Surely some things could go in there, including restorative justice. Will the Minister look particularly carefully at the evidence produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, about how at least 27% of people would have taken up restorative justice if they had been asked? Would he not come to the conclusion, perhaps, that it is only if it is on the face of the Bill that that situation will be remedied?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, as the noble and right reverend Lord invites me, I will look again at that evidence and the whole argument. However, in relation to this aspect, noble Lords should be aware that access to all the supporting services and processes in the criminal justice system are already part of the principles under Clause 2(3). In the implementation of those rights, access to justice is already specifically provided for under right 3 in the present draft code, which, among other things, requires the police to provide all the information you need to exercise that right.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the problem with Clause 2(2) is that it is followed by Clause 2(3), which starts by saying, “The victims’ code must” but then in all its sub-paragraphs says simply that things “should” be provided, so it is watered down. I apologise for being pedantic on this point but it goes to the heart of what the Minister is trying to do. I believe he is saying to us that there is enough in the Bill that will support victims in regulation, but the problem is that there is no watertight “must” in the Bill as it stands.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I think we will come to the “must”/“should” point a bit later when we discuss the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. If I may, I will deal with that issue in general, in an umbrella way, in that context.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I want to pick up the point made by the Minister about victim services going into the code rather than into the Bill. I feel I should apologise that although I have three degrees, none of them is in law—I often regret that these days—so perhaps I am wrestling with some technical questions here.

It seems to me that we are not just talking about restorative justice as a victim service. If you have been a victim of a crime, it goes to court, the police investigate and the criminal is punished; all those might be regarded as victim services but they are all in other Acts—they already exist as an absolute legal right that is laid down. What we do not currently have in any Bill is a right to restorative justice that is balanced. We are saying that restorative justice needs to be in there with an equal or at least appropriate level of weight, and it will not have that unless it is in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, if I may say so, what one should put in the Bill and in the code are matters of judgment and balance. In relation to restorative justice, which we are on, there have already been extensive discussions in the other place. The Government have said, first, that the code should include the right of victims to receive more information about restorative justice, particularly at the point of sentence, and that the importance of restorative justice services should be included in guidance to police and crime commissioners under Clause 11. I think that partly meets, and maybe substantially meets, the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that you need to have in writing somewhere an emphasis on supplying restorative justice. The Government’s position on restorative justice is that that is a proper recognition of the importance of restorative justice.

One should also bear in mind in this context that restorative justice does not just happen; it also needs the consent of the offender, and is quite a delicate operation. You need a facilitator, and so forth. It is one of many services, mechanisms and procedures that are available. The Government’s position is that we should not spell out in the Bill all the mechanisms and procedures that are available but we should work hard to ensure that the code itself, the guidance thereunder and the arrangements for awareness that we will be discussing in due course together raise the profile of restorative justice so that it has its proper place in the system among other things. That is the Government’s position. No one is denying the importance of restorative justice. No one is saying it is a waste of time or should not be there; on the contrary, we are saying that its profile should be raised. The only argument is about how we do that, and Government’s position is that we do not do it by an amendment to the Bill itself.

On restorative justice, there was one particular point that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made that I could perhaps quickly deal with, if she would like me to. The right presently set out as right 3 in the code depends on the offence having been reported to the police. As the noble Baroness pointed out, you can be a victim without anything having been reported to the police. I venture to say that the sharp eye of the noble Baroness has identified a small anomaly in the wording there. It may, in the Government’s view, be more of a distinction without a difference, if I may put it that way, because it is most unlikely in practical terms that restorative justice could work without something being reported to the police. I thank the noble Baroness for the point and hope I have responded to it.

Broadly the same arguments apply to Amendment 15, proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, in relation to signposting. It is perfectly clear, as a matter of principle, that victims should be given the information they need, be able to access services, and have the opportunity to have their views heard and so forth under Clause 2(3). The rest of the detailed signposting is, in the Government’s view, a matter for the code rather than the Bill. It is expressed at the moment in some detail under right 4 of the code. We will further have the obligation to promote awareness under Clause 6, and the guidance in that respect to be expected under Clause 11. The Government’s position is that this should result in a robust system for signposting of the kind the right reverend Prelate is quite understandably seeking.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 17, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, regarding a victims’ hub. The Government’s understanding is that several police and crime commissioners are already trialling this model. However, the victim services we are talking about may be provided in many ways, depending on the needs and resources of the area in question. Again, the Government do not feel we should elevate one particular way of doing it—however good, and despite its undoubted attraction—but leave it to local police and crime commissioners to organise their services in a way that is best for their local area. This is potentially a matter for guidance later on.

Given the remarks I have made in reply to the amendments, your Lordships may think it is a strength of the structure of the Bill that is has built into it inherent flexibility and opportunity for criminal justice bodies, wherever they are in the country, to learn from each other and adapt to their own particular circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee 4:30, 31 January 2024

My Lords, I am quite a localist normally, but is this not the very point? A single point of contact that is not prescribing what is available locally but is “signposting”—to use the right reverend Prelate’s word—should be provided, so that any victim, anywhere, will know where to go. They might not necessarily take the step of taking advantage of it, but it seems to me pretty central to the way services are made known that something such as this should go into the Bill.

I should also say that my noble friend Lady Brinton was trying to email me something, but it has not come through, so she may have another point.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I shall not be attempting to answer the email that has not yet come through until it does, but my general answer to the noble Baroness is that the whole thrust of the Bill is that each criminal justice body must take reasonable steps to promote awareness of the victims’ code among users of those services and other members of the public, et cetera. I cannot conceive how you could discharge that duty of raising awareness without informing people how to access or go to whatever services they need, so it is implicit in the operation that that sort of information will have to be provided. The way in which it is provided and the detail of it is not for the Bill but for the code and the guidance.

Photo of Lord Hogan-Howe Lord Hogan-Howe Crossbench

My Lords, I am sorry to delay things, but there is one thing I am not clear about. Restorative justice at the moment is available for the suspect as an alternate to going to court, with the agreement of the victim. If the right is to be given to the victim to insist on restorative justice, is that an addition to a potential court appearance or an alternate? If the Crown Prosecution Service has decided that there will be a prosecution but the victim insists on their right to restorative justice, does that change that decision? I am not quite clear from the amendments, nor the Minister’s response, how that dilemma is resolved. It may be that I have just misunderstood, in which case I apologise, but I do not quite understand how that gets resolved.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I may be as underinformed as anyone but my understanding is that the classic case of restorative justice is that once there has been a prosecution and a conviction, there is a process for some kind of reconciliatory interaction between the victim and the offender—for example, of the kind that my noble friend Lord Hodgson so eloquently described—in a way which enables both parties to process and come to terms with what has happened. It is not typically an alternative to having a prosecution in the first place, as I understand it, although that might arise.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, I know there is an unwritten convention that noble Lords should not intervene when they were not able to be here at the beginning of a group, which in this case was last week, but I do not think that convention prevents me asking a question. Is it not really important that people in the prison system are able to understand what they can do for themselves, and for the victim, by engaging with restorative justice? That is one of the reasons I put my name to Amendment 14. The right honourable Stephen Timms in the other place is an excellent example: he has corresponded with, and is arranging to meet, the perpetrator of the attack on him many years ago. That will, I hope, assist them both—the perpetrator in her release and her future—and give some consolation through her coming together with the victim, who in this case was Stephen Timms.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for his question. I would obviously not dream of making any procedural point, as it is a very fair question. I do not think it is clearly envisaged in the Bill or the code, as it stands at the moment, that it should be the perpetrator who is seeking some sort of restorative justice, rather than it being something that the victim is entitled to. The noble Lord’s point is well made and we should think further about it.

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench

I thank noble Lords who have spoken on this group and those who supported Amendment 13. I thank the Minister for his response on the concerns raised in the group, particularly on ways to address the gaps in victims’ right to review. Although I am encouraged, I remain concerned, so I hope that the Minister will be able to share a draft code and continue the discussions. For now, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 13.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendments 14 to 17 not moved.