Amendment 137

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 26 February 2024.

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Lord Burnett of Maldon:

Moved by Lord Burnett of Maldon

137: Clause 41, page 39, line 26, leave out from second “the” to end of line 27 and insert “Divisional Court of the King’s Bench Division

Photo of Lord Burnett of Maldon Lord Burnett of Maldon Non-affiliated

My Lords, in the absence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who is abroad at the moment, I move this amendment and will speak to the others in this group, save for Amendments 146A, 174 and 175 which stand in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

Clause 44 enables the Secretary of State to refer a decision of the Parole Board to release what is known as a top-tier prisoner for a judicial decision either to affirm or to quash a decision of the Parole Board. Top-tier prisoners are those who have committed the most serious offences. The Bill identifies the Upper Tribunal as the court to which referrals will be made, save in cases where there is sensitive material, in which case the court is the High Court.

The principal amendment in this group, which would amend Clause 44, is to propose that all referrals go to the High Court; in particular, a

Divisional Court of the King’s Bench Division”.

The other amendments that we propose make necessary changes elsewhere. The reason for proposing these amendments is to ensure that the judicial decision is made by a court whose members are well equipped by experience to make the necessary assessment of risk.

The background is that the cases will necessarily involve serious offending and be referred by the Secretary of State because of at least an unease about the decision of the Parole Board. That Parole Board will be made up of individuals with considerable experience in evaluating risk in the context of criminal offending. Any review or reconsideration should be conducted by a court that comprises judges with similar such experience. None of the chambers of the Upper Tribunal currently has members with that necessary experience, but the High Court does.

A Divisional Court of the King’s Bench Division deals with criminal cases in the High Court. It is almost always composed of judges who sit in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal; that is, a Lord or Lady Justice and a High Court judge. Those judges have extensive criminal experience; in particular, when dealing with sentencing, either at first instance as trial judges or on appeal. They are used to making decisions which require them to evaluate risk and, in particular, whether an offender is a dangerous offender, which leads to a suite of different sentencing options. In those circumstances, they are well suited to the task which the Bill will empower the Secretary of State to require a court to undertake.

The Bill itself envisages that the High Court will perform this role in some cases. This amendment suggests that it would be more effective, and deliver the outcome that the Bill seeks, were the High Court always to be the destination for these referrals. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I agree with every word uttered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon. I am sure that the same words, or words to similar effect, would have fallen from the lips of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. They echo the sentiments of a number of those who have briefed noble Lords on these issues relating to the Parole Board.

I will be brief. There is one overriding principle, which is that the Parole Board should be, in effect, an independent, quasi-judicial body. A number of concerns have been expressed about the prospect of the Secretary of State having the power to refer decisions of the Parole Board to another body. One reason for the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, to which I will turn shortly, is that concern.

The idea that this jurisdiction to consider referrals by the Secretary of State should be a matter for the Upper Tribunal, which is not a body involved with the prison system at all—it has, as the noble and learned Lord pointed out, no relevant chamber—and is not concerned with the sentencing, treatment or release of offenders, is an odd one. That decision should plainly be, we would suggest, the decision of a court used to dealing with criminal justice and with the sentencing and imprisonment of offenders. Loosely stipulating that it should be the High Court, without the division named, or the Upper Tribunal is wrong.

The Divisional Court is plainly, as the noble and learned Lord has said, the appropriate body for the task. I invite the Minister to explain why the Bill, as drafted, allocated these cases to another body with no relevant experience or expertise when there is an obvious court to decide these cases—a view powerfully endorsed in these amendments by two former Lord Chief Justices with a great deal of experience and expertise in precisely this area.

In addition to my support for the noble and learned Lords’ amendments, I note that my noble friend Lady Hamwee has tabled amendments to Clauses 44 and 45, in relation to the whole question of the referral of release decisions by the Secretary of State to a court or the Upper Tribunal for life prisoners and fixed-term prisoners respectively. My noble friend is now here but both those amendments and the consequential amendments in her name would provide that the clauses should not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid a report before Parliament regarding their implementation.

Our suggestion is that this is a new process or procedure, which has not been adequately researched. It breaches the fundamental point: that the Parole Board is, in effect, a quasi-judicial body exercising an independent jurisdiction, whereas if the Secretary of State is going to have the power to refer it should be to a Divisional Court, as we have suggested. Before these clauses are brought into effect, there should also be a report laid before Parliament which it can consider. This departure would be delayed until that report had been laid and considered.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Labour 5:45, 26 February 2024

My Lords, briefly, I support the amendments moved and spoken to in this group by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks. I spoke on this matter at Second Reading and agreed with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said in his speech then.

The Committee may know that, along with others, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, I have put my name to later amendments that question the changes proposed by the Government to the Parole Board. In my view, those changes attack pretty fundamentally the independence of that board and allow the Secretary of State to interfere in these matters to an extent that affects the separation of powers. As a rule, I argue that it is never a good idea, however tempting for Governments, for the Executive to interfere with matters that should be the role of the judiciary. Taken as a whole, these changes are unnecessary and overcomplex, and will prove to be extremely costly.

Today, we are discussing the amendments so well put by the noble and learned Lord, who speaks with such huge authority; I am pleased to support them. They argue that the Upper Tribunal is entirely the wrong body to hear these cases. The Government would be well advised, with respect, to listen to him, and to remind themselves of the powerful speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, at Second Reading. It is not often that this House is privileged to have the support of the last two Lord Chief Justices on a matter that they are profoundly expert in. I ask the Minister, who is always very reasonable, to think very carefully about how powerful the case that has been made this afternoon is.

Of course, I strongly agree with the amendment spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, on the necessity of a report from the Secretary of State on the implementation of these proposals, which I consider to be pretty disturbing on the whole. I ask the Minister, when he replies, to consider carefully where these amendments are coming from.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will speak with the leave of the Committee and with many apologies; I was delayed in a committee. Amendment 143A is a probing amendment to seek to understand whether the Secretary of State will issue guidance on these matters, and if so, what that guidance will include. The Prison Reform Trust is particularly concerned about this, being aware that an overturned release decision would be likely to undermine public confidence in the parole system and so on. I am sure that the Minister will want all the actors in the sector to understand how these arrangements are intended to work and how they can be scrutinised.

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

My Lords, we also support this group of amendments. I want to reiterate the points made by my noble friend Lord Bach. You could not have had two more eminent Members of this Committee to table these amendments. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Thomas, are familiar with these types of decisions. I do not think I can add to the weight of the arguments put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett.

The only point I will make is about process. If the Minister says that he wants to think about this—I do not know what he is going to say—then it would be very helpful to know his thoughts before Report. From what I have heard of the argument, it seems that the Government have an uphill battle trying to defend the current position. If the Government are minded to think about this again, we really need to know what that is before Report.

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

My Lords, the amendments proposed by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, would mean that parole referrals under the new power in the Bill would be sent to the Divisional Court of the King’s Bench Division, which is part of the High Court, instead of the Upper Tribunal, which is currently used for most cases—although not for national security cases.

Noble Lords know that the Bill introduces a new power to allow the Secretary of State to refer a top-tier case—that is a case where the index offence was murder, rape, causing or allowing the death of a child, or serious terrorism—for a second check by an independent court if the Parole Board has directed release. The question is which court that should be. Noble Lords may recall that at one stage it was suggested—I think by a Select Committee—that it should be the Court of Appeal Criminal Division. The Government consulted the Judicial Office in June 2023. The result of that consultation was that a preference was expressed for the Upper Tribunal to hear those cases. The Upper Tribunal has wide-ranging powers under Section 25 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, facilitated by the Upper Tribunal rules, which essentially gives it the same powers as the High Court. It has experience of hearing oral evidence. The Government’s view, in the light of the consultation with the Judicial Office, was that the Upper Tribunal was the appropriate court.

None the less, the Government feel that it is obviously desirable to sort this issue out in a sensible way and I am very happy to consider it further. I am even happier to say that the Government’s reflections will be shared before Report, so that everybody can consider their position. There should not be any particular controversy on this kind of point; it is a rather specialised point, if I may put it like that.

I turn to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and spoken to on her behalf by noble Lord, Lord Marks. The Government entirely agree with her that the processes ahead of us and how we are going to manage it should be very fully understood by all actors. I will briefly explain how the Government see things at the moment. First, the procedural elements of the new process may require amendments to the Parole Board rules and the tribunal rules—or the rules of whatever court we determine. That must be scrutinised by Parliament and go through a period of consultation. There will have to be a period of training of judges. We know that the referral process will need to be transparent and speedy. Work is currently in train as to how far this will be operationalised from the point of view, first, of maintaining public confidence and, secondly, on what basis the Secretary of State refers things to the relevant court—to use a neutral phrase for the time being.

Currently, the Government are working through exactly how the relevant tests would be applied. The Government propose to publish their policy on how the legislation will be applied, outlining how cases will be selected for referral and ensuring that prisoners, and importantly victims, are fully informed of who will be in scope. I envisage a transparent and open process by which the details of the new regime are sorted out.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

Could I follow that up before the Minister goes on to the next point? Does he anticipate that there will be consultation with the sector—it is a very big sector of course—on the various points that he has quite rightly referred to? That would go down rather better and be much more useful than producing a policy in its final form and saying, “Here we are”. A draft policy or ideas for consultation would be welcomed.

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

My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says, and it sounds entirely reasonable. I cannot, at the Dispatch Box, go any further than I have already gone, but the point is well made.

On that basis, I hope the Committee will be satisfied that the Government intend to be fully transparent and work co-operatively with the development of this new process.

Photo of Lord Burnett of Maldon Lord Burnett of Maldon Non-affiliated 6:00, 26 February 2024

I thank the Minister for his response. It is a delight to see him back in his place. I also thank those who spoke in support of the amendment put down by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, with my support.

I was intrigued by the Minister’s reference to consultation with the Judicial Office last June. I was, of course, in post as Lord Chief Justice then. For administrative purposes, the Judicial Office is the alter ego, as it were, of the Lord Chief Justice. It may well be—I put it no more pointedly than this—that Homer may have nodded in June, because I had thought that the proposal of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, which is supported by me and elsewhere, was not controversial. If there has been a mix-up in communication historically on that, I apologise, wearing my previous hat. I am grateful to the Minister for indicating that the Government will be prepared to consider this matter further. I am of course entirely at the Minister’s disposal to discuss any proposals that may commend themselves to the Government to be brought forward on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 137 withdrawn.

Clause 41 agreed.

Clause 42: Public protection decisions: fixed-term prisoners

Amendment 138 not moved.

Clause 42 agreed.

Amendment 139 not moved.

Schedule: Offences relevant to public protection decisions

Amendment 140 not moved.

Schedule agreed.

Clause 43 agreed.

Clause 44: Referral of release decisions: life prisoners

Amendments 141 to 143A not moved.

Clause 44 agreed.

Clause 45: Referral of release decisions: fixed-term prisoners

Amendments 144 to 146A not moved.

Clause 45 agreed.

Clause 46: Licence conditions of life prisoners released following referral

Amendment 147 not moved.

Clause 46 agreed.

Clause 47: Licence conditions of fixed-term prisoners released following referral

Amendment 148 not moved.

Clause 47 agreed.