Amendment 136

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 26 February 2024.

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

136: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—“Review: National Oversight Mechanism(1) The Secretary of State must launch a review into the merits of introducing an independent National Oversight Mechanism responsible for collating, analysing and addressing recommendations arising from the post death processes of investigations, inquests, public inquiries and official reviews following a major incident.(2) The review under subsection (1) must be launched within six months of the day on which this Act is passed.(3) The Secretary of State must publish and lay before Parliament a report summarising the findings of the review under subsection (1) within 18 months of the day on which this Act is passed.”

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, this is a probing amendment to enable debate on the concept of a new national oversight mechanism. The amendment proposes:

“The Secretary of State must launch a review into the merits of introducing an independent National Oversight Mechanism responsible for collating, analysing and addressing recommendations arising from the post death processes of investigations, inquests, public inquiries and official reviews following a major incident”.

With regard to public inquiries, there is no legal mechanism to require consideration, action or reasoned rejection of a recommendation made in the course of a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. In other words, recommendations made by a statutory public inquiry or a non-statutory inquiry have no legal force on the Government, public authorities, corporations or anyone else.

With regard to coroners’ prevention of future death reports, a large proportion of public bodies that receive recommendations fail to respond, and analysis using the Preventable Deaths Tracker developed by researchers at the University of Oxford found that only 33% of all PFDs issued by coroners had expected responses published, with 29% of responses overdue. Further, the researchers found that response rates to PFDs examined in 25 of their studies ranged only from approximately 10% to 60%, with no study resulting in a 100% response rate.

The Grenfell fire is a shocking example of this accountability gap. In 2009, the Lakanal House fire killed six people in a 14-storey tower block in Camberwell. Following the inquest into their deaths, the coroner, Frances Kirkham, made recommendations to the Secretary of State, the Mayor of London, the London Borough of Southwark and London Fire Brigade. These included making crucial improvements to building regulations, control room and incident command system training, awareness of the risk posed by cladding fire, and guidance on high-rise residential evacuation. In 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people in a 24-storey tower block in North Kensington. The Grenfell Tower inquiry exposed the fact that many of the Lakanal House recommendations were not implemented before the fire. Implementation was not considered to be urgent and was instead included in a medium to long-term programme of work.

During the inquiry, Dame Melanie Dawes, the former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, told the inquiry that

“there was no tracking recommendation put in place, something that I think was really important and there should have been”.

The lack of a mechanism was described as a gap in the Civil Service that

“could have happened in any department”.

The department itself stated that it missed the opportunity to look beyond recommendations and consider the widespread use of non-compliant materials on high-rise buildings and the associated risk of fire. That is just one example.

To address this accountability gap, the lobbying group Inquest, through me, is calling for the Government to establish a national oversight mechanism, which would be an independent public body responsible for collating, analysing and following up on recommendations arising from four post-death processes: investigations, such as those carried out by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, the Independent Office for Police Conduct or serious incident reviews; inquests; public inquiries; and official reviews into deaths, such as the Angiolini review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody. Inquest has put forward a mechanism by which this could be achieved, through the collation, analysis and follow-up of the data.

This amendment calls for a review into the processes and merits of creating such a mechanism. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and hope that he will commit to undertaking such a review. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 5:30, 26 February 2024

My Lords, I am really grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for raising this issue and laying this amendment. I declare my interest as the vice-chair of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group so his comments about the Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower fires really chime with me. From these Benches, my noble friends Lady Pinnock and Lord Stunell have both raised these issues repeatedly.

It is really important to remember that one of the big lessons that I hope we will now begin to learn from Grenfell Tower and the many other fires before it rests in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report on the construction industry and Grenfell Tower. She talked about the importance of the “golden thread” through every part of the construction. The same is true when things go wrong and it seems to me that a national oversight mechanism is exactly the golden thread that we need to ensure that we do not have to time and again relearn the lessons of disasters after they have happened. From these Benches, we support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for this amendment and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for speaking in support. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to conduct a review into whether to establish an independent national oversight mechanism to collate, analyse and address recommendations from investigations, inquests, public inquiries and official reviews following deaths after a major incident.

In 2014, the House of Lords Select Committee published a post legislative scrutiny report on the Inquiries Act 2005. In their response, the Government agreed with the principle that bodies should set out their plans for implementing recommendations directed at them. When an inquiry’s recommendations are directed at the Government, it is the responsibility of the lead department to determine how best to progress and implement the recommendations. An official review would follow the same principles.

Parliament has a crucial role in scrutinising the activities of government departments. Select Committees, in particular, hold individual departments to account, including in their response to recommendations made by statutory and non-statutory inquiries and reviews. The Government remain of the view that Parliament already has the ability to hold government departments to account on their response to and implementation of recommendations and that Parliament is best placed to carry out this function.

Noble Lords will also be aware of the Statutory Inquiries Committee that was set up by the Lords Select Committee very recently. It has been appointed to consider the efficacy of the law and practice relating to statutory inquiries under the Inquiries Act 2005. It may be well placed to consider the merits of an independent national oversight mechanism for statutory inquiries.

Turning to inquests, a coroner has a statutory duty to make a report to prevent future deaths if action should be taken to prevent or reduce the risk of future deaths. Recipients of PFD reports must respond to the coroner within 56 days of receipt, setting out what actions will be taken, or explaining any not taken. The Government in their response to the Justice Committee’s 2021 report committed to consider the merits of a recommendation to establish a national mechanism to ensure that actions highlighted in PFD reports which could contribute to public safety and prevent future deaths are implemented. The Justice Committee is currently undertaking a follow-up inquiry into the coroners service and will revisit this issue; the Government are due to give evidence shortly.

In response to some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and backed up by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, recipients of PFD reports, as I say, must respond to the coroner within 56 days. However, it is not the coroner’s role to review whether—and if so what—actions should be taken in response to a report. This would be inconsistent with their status as independent judicial officers.

The Government in their response to the Justice Committee’s 2021 report committed to consider the recommendation to establish a mechanism to ensure that actions in PFD reports which could contribute to public safety and prevent future deaths are implemented. The Justice Committee’s follow-up inquiry into the coroners service will revisit issues around PFD reports on preventing death and improving public safety.

While I understand the intent to ensure that the merits of setting a national oversight mechanism are considered, it is likely this would duplicate ongoing parliamentary inquiries into these matters. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this very brief debate. I want to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about the golden thread of establishing a mechanism to ensure that any findings which come out of either public inquiries or coroners’ reports are tracked through and implemented.

I quoted a civil servant as saying that the established mechanisms have not worked, and the example I gave was of the cladding on Grenfell Tower. The Minister spoke about considering whether to establish a mechanism for reviewing PFD reports and coroners’ reports. When will that review be complete and does the noble Lord believe that that review will adequately establish some sort of overall mechanism for dealing with coroners’ recommendations?

To circle back a bit to the public inquiries point, the Minister said that Parliament is best placed to carry out the functions of public inquiries and look at recommendations. I have to say that I really cannot think of Parliament looking at cladding issues. There needs to be a more systematic way of dealing with these matters to ensure that there is that golden thread that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, talked about, so we have some comfort that these processes are being properly reviewed and implemented. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 136 withdrawn.

Clause 41: Public protection decisions: life prisoners