Amendment 124

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 13 February 2024.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 6:15, 13 February 2024

My Lords, I express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for these amendments, which bring us to an important dimension of any major disaster or incident: the need to give families a voice in decisions about the support they receive. I have a great deal of sympathy with the aims of these amendments. I will take them in turn.

Amendment 124 would require the standing advocate to obtain the views of victims of major incidents regarding any review or inquiry held into the incident and their treatment by public authorities, and then communicate those views to the Secretary of State. Let me say immediately that there is no disagreement here between the noble Baroness and the Government as regards the desired outcome. We agree that an important function of the standing advocate will be to champion victims’ voices to the Government and facilitate better engagement between them and government in the aftermath of a major incident. We agree that part of this involves the standing advocate understanding the views of victims and relaying them to the Secretary of State.

It is the Government’s intention that through Clause 29(2)(a) the advocate will communicate the views of victims of a major incident to the Secretary of State. This could include their views regarding any government-initiated review or inquiry into the major incident and their treatment by public authorities. This will provide victims with agency in the process, which is vital. It is therefore a matter of the best way to deliver this policy. The Government’s position is that it is best achieved without the Bill being overly prescriptive, and with Clause 29(2)(a) providing the foundation. A particular advantage of this approach is that the standing advocate would be able to advise on the full range of review mechanisms, including non-statutory inquiries—as I said a while ago to the noble Lord, Lord Wills—which by their nature cannot be specified in legislation. These are valuable options and can be very successful. The Hillsborough Independent Panel has already been mentioned as a good example.

The noble Lord’s Amendment 125 would require the Secretary of State to consider the views of victims before making the appointment of additional advocates. The intention behind the appointment of additional advocates has always been to prevent a single advocate being overwhelmed, or to ensure where necessary the specialist knowledge needed to provide swift and tailored support to victims. One of the key functions of the standing advocate, as outlined in Clause 29, will be to advise the Secretary of State as to the interests of victims, and the Government would consider this to include advice on whether additional advocates are needed and who may be suitable to appoint. This advice could include the views of victims which they had gathered.

Furthermore, as the Secretary of State has already committed, we will publish a policy statement that will give additional detail about the factors the Secretary of State will consider when appointing additional advocates, including the needs of victims. We believe this to be a better and more flexible approach to ensure that additional advocates can be deployed swiftly when needed. I am concerned that if we were to proceed as the noble Lord suggests with this amendment, a consultation process with the victims would be required prior to any further advocates being appointed. A consultation has the potential to unduly delay the appointment of further advocates and reduce the agility of this scheme to react to the developing situation. Furthermore, the last thing that we would wish to impose on victims during their grief is an additional bureaucratic consultation process.

I come lastly to the noble Lord’s similar Amendment 128, which says that the Secretary of State must consider the views of victims before an advocate’s appointment is terminated. There are a few scenarios in which we imagine that the Secretary of State will use his or her discretion to determine the appointment of an advocate using this power. I will speak to this in more detail in response to the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in a later grouping. However, I believe it would be helpful to briefly summarise those scenarios.

First, should additional advocates be appointed, it is right that the Secretary of State has the ability to scale down the number of advocates should the need no longer exist when the peak of activity is over. Secondly, the Government have always been clear that we will prioritise rapid appointment of an advocate following a major incident to ensure that victims are supported from an early stage. However, it may be necessary, following a greater understanding of the developing needs of the victims, or conversely the capacity of an advocate, to substitute one advocate for another. Thirdly, this power may be used to replace an advocate who does not command the confidence of the victims. I hope that those explanations are helpful to reassure the noble Baroness as to the intent behind this provision.

Lastly, as with the noble Baroness’s Amendment 125, I am concerned that, should the Secretary of State be required to carry out a consultation process with the victims, that would severely cut across the ability of the scheme to be flexible and adapt quickly to changing demands.

I believe that victim agency—if I may use that word again—is important, and that has come through strongly during the passage of the Bill, not least in another place. While the amendments serve as a reminder of that principle, I do not believe they are necessary.