Amendment 119A

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 7 February 2024.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 9:15, 7 February 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for bringing forward the amendments in this group. All but one relate to the important issue of the definition of a major incident and its scope. I will address them in turn.

First, I will respond to Amendments 119A, 119B and 119C from the noble Lord, Lord Wills. These amendments seek to expand the scope of the independent public advocate scheme to include an event or series of linked events which have occurred prior to this section coming into force. In practical terms, as he has made clear, they would introduce a retrospective element to the scheme, allowing the Secretary of State to declare historic events as major incidents and to appoint an advocate accordingly. The noble Lord has brought this important issue to the Government’s attention. It is right that we should debate it.

At the outset, I need to state the Government’s position. Incidents which occur wholly—I emphasise “wholly”—before this part is commenced are not in the scope of this scheme. I recognise that the tragic events of the past and the experiences of those impacted by them have clearly highlighted the need for the independent public advocate. I do not mean to suggest otherwise. However, the IPA is designed as a forward-looking initiative to assist victims in the immediate aftermath of a major incident when there are investigations, inquests and inquiries into what happened. The scheme is intended as a way of providing support at an early stage. Given this, the Government believe that there would be limited additional benefit in appointing an advocate to support victims of incidents where the official processes are at an advanced stage or may have already concluded.

As the Bill stands, I can confirm that the definition of a major incident already covers either a single-time incident, or a series of linked incidents. It does not allow for the advocate to support the families of those who died or individuals who were seriously harmed by any linked incidents which occurred prior to the Bill’s commencement. Having said that, I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that recent events have shown that it can take time for events and their circumstances to become clear. There may be instances where these events do not occur during the same time period. I was grateful for the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on that theme.

I understand the importance of getting right the definition of a major incident. I have therefore asked my officials to consider it further. If it would be helpful, I would be happy to continue engaging with the noble Lord about this so that we can return to it on Report.

I turn to Amendment 120 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which seeks to expand the definition of a major incident and therefore the IPA scheme. The amendment would allow the Secretary of State to declare a major incident in circumstances that do not meet the threshold of a significant number of deaths or those suffering serious harm but attract a significant public interest.

It is important for me to make it clear that the impetus for establishing a public advocate has been the experience of victims following past disasters that were exceptional, presented unique challenges and involved multiple organs of the state, which victims found difficult to navigate or have their voices heard by. The Government believe that it is important that the scope of this scheme is controlled and is clearly focused on assisting victims of major incidents which are, by their nature, rare. This amendment would set a possible expectation that the IPA might be appointed to support victims who have been involved in smaller-scale incidents, especially those where there are very few injuries or fatalities, which is not the policy intention.

There is a further and possibly helpful point that I can make. Arguably, the Secretary of State already has a broad discretion in the Bill to declare a major incident and to interpret the term “significant”. For those reasons, the Government, at this time, do not believe that this change is necessary. The public interest will also be one of the considerations that the Secretary of State will have in mind when making their decision, and more detail on this will be included in the policy statement.

Lastly, proposed new subsection (2B)(a) of this amendment seems to imply that blame or liability must have been found prior to this power being exercised. If the Secretary of State were to act quickly, they may risk prejudicing any subsequent investigation, which would not serve the interests of victims.

I am afraid that the amendment runs counter to the Government’s policy intention, but I hope that it is helpful that I have pointed out that potential element of discretion that is built into the wording in the Bill, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will understand why we cannot support the amendment.

Lastly, I turn to Amendment 126 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, which would require the Secretary of State to obtain the concurrence, or in other words the agreement, of Welsh Ministers before appointing an advocate in respect of a major incident occurring in Wales. The purpose of the independent public advocate scheme is to support victims of major incidents. This Government agree that these functions fall within the devolved competence of the Welsh Senedd, with the exception of the amendments to the Coroners and Justice Act, which Clause 34 provides for.

The Ministry of Justice has engaged with officials in the Welsh Government during the development of this policy. It is clear that there is great benefit to having a single scheme that covers England and Wales to provide consistency of service. Our discussions with the Welsh Government are ongoing, as we seek a legislative consent Motion for these measures. Ministers in the UK Government will write to Welsh Ministers shortly, setting out a proposal for their role with regard to declaring a major incident which occurs wholly in Wales, and the subsequent appointment of an advocate in respect of that major incident.

I hope that that reassures the noble and learned Lord that this is a live issue that is very much on the radar of my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy. He is very much aware of the devolution implications, and we are actively working to find a solution. The Government will bring forward any necessary amendments on Report, and I am happy to return to this topic at that time.