Amendment 167A (to Amendment 167)

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (7th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 12 March 2024.

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Earl Attlee:

Moved by Earl Attlee

167A: In subsection (1), at end insert “subject to subsections (9) to (12)”.Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, along with others in the name of Earl Attlee to this amendment, would delay the resentencing exercise until the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Chief Inspector of Probation, is satisfied that probation services have the capacity and resources to manage additional supervision as a result of resentencing.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I rise to move my Amendment 167A and speak to my Amendments 167B and 167C, all amendments to Amendment 167, which was so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. On a procedural point, technically we are debating my amendment, but of course all noble Lords can speak to all amendments within the group.

I agree with nearly everything the noble Baroness said about the desirability of her amendment, which I strongly support. She mentioned that this approach was the one taken by the cross-party Justice Committee in another place. I am bound to say that this is quite a good pedigree. The noble Baroness has dealt with all the most obvious points. However, there is a real concern that some agencies might not be able to cope with a large and sudden increase in demand arising from numerous IPP releases from custody—although the noble Baroness did talk about a phased process so that you would not get a huge number of resentencings at the same time. Nevertheless, we must make sure that we do not overrun the Probation Service, because that is the most obvious example.

My amendments seek to improve the original amendment by ensuring that the requisite Probation Service capacity is available before any resentencing exercise starts. It may be that, when he comes to respond to this amendment, my noble and learned friend the Minister will identify other areas where there is a similar capacity shortfall. If that is the case, a similar approach can be taken.

My Amendment 167C is a substantive one, and proposed new subsection (9) prevents the new section coming into force unless the Secretary of State is satisfied

“that the Probation Service has the capacity and resources” to meet any additional demand resulting from the resentencing exercise. Proposed new subsection (10) requires the Secretary of State to

“commission a thematic review by the Chief Inspector of Probation that considers” the capacity and resources of the Probation Service in order to make an informed decision. Finally, proposed new subsection (12) requires the Secretary of State to annually review his decision if he is not satisfied that the capacity is in place. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, and my noble friend Lord Attlee on a very elegant double act. While the amendment that was moved by the noble Baroness is at the more ambitious end of change in this Bill, the amendments moved by my noble friend give the House a suite of options for how we might choose to implement it. Those who are concerned that there might be practical problems with implementing it can pick one of the options put forward by my noble friend or, before we reach Report, some other combination that would allow it to be delivered in a way that was acceptable and could be managed by the Probation Service, the ministry and the courts.

It was not for that purpose that I have principally risen to speak, but rather to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness about the family and prisoner reaction to our debate today, and in particular the issue of self-harm. The noble Lord, Lord Carter of Haslemere, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, earlier this evening spoke about the case of Matthew Price. It is true that I got an email from Matthew Price: a perfectly literate and coherent email in which he said that he was only a few months away from his 10-year limit, but that the mental stress on him was such that he could not guarantee he was not going to take his own life.

I know that other noble Lords probably received the same email; certainly, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, did. I do not know how many replied. I did, and I tried to encourage him to cling on. I told him that, not that long ago, we had passed an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, as it then was, which meant that at the end of the 10-year period, the Ministry of Justice would automatically submit an application for the discharge of his sentence to the Parole Board. He himself did not have to take any action; it would happen automatically under the new regime. What I had to say to him, in honesty, was that that did not mean that the sentence would then be discharged. He could still be refused even at the end of the 10-year period. The ministry would then submit an annual application for his sentence to be discharged, but there was no guarantee as to when it would end. I did not put it as fully as that, but I did feel that I had to make that point.

I do not know what effect it had, but a few weeks later I had a short email from a friend of his simply saying that he had taken his life. The effect of that stays with me, and I know, from discussion with her, that it has stayed with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull. It seemed such a terrible waste.

It is not a debating point, but this comes back to what was said by my noble and learned friend the Minister at an earlier stage when he was discussing the difference: “Well, it is one year or two years? Does it really matter if the offender has to wait two years as opposed to having an opportunity to make an application at the end of one year?” That was in relation to an amendment put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Months can matter in cases like this. It also illustrates that, while we talk confidently about 10 years as the licence period, because that is what is set in statute, in fact it was never 10 years. It was 10 years as a minimum; it could be 11 or 12 years —nobody actually knows until they apply and get that decision.

In relation to self-harm, I have also had an email today—again, it is possible that other Members have—explicitly supporting my Amendment 161, which we debated earlier. That email comes from the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody; this is a non-departmental public body, which writes from the Ministry of Justice—that is its address. It says:

IPP prisoners are a particularly vulnerable group due to the close link between hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide. IPP prisoners’ vulnerability is further exacerbated as the period for which they are held beyond their tariff increases. Last year there were nine self-inflicted deaths among IPP prisoners – the highest number since the sentence was introduced … – with a similar number of deaths in the previous year”.

In that context, I want to make a practical and immediate point—not a sensationalist point. Many prisoners and their families are listening to this debate and are looking to us for what outcome they might expect from the consideration we are giving to this Bill, both now and no doubt on Report. Specifically, they have put their hope, in many cases, in resentencing, because it was so strongly backed by the Justice Select Committee in another place.

On the assumption that my noble and learned friend the Minister will reject this—he has made clear in the past that he is likely to—I think that it is incumbent on the Ministry of Justice and His Majesty’s Prison Service to be particularly vigilant in the coming period in supervising and supporting IPP prisoners as they react to what they might hear.

Finally, I second what the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, said about the many NGOs that have backed reform. Obviously, one wants to refer particularly to the Prison Reform Trust for what it has done, as well as the Campaign for Social Justice. As she says, the video it produced has reportedly achieved 14 million views. I suggest that the public is more sympathetic to IPP prisoners than Ministers might imagine. I hope that they will reflect on that and find it in their hearts to move somewhat further on the amendments that we have been debating this afternoon than my noble and learned friend has felt able to do so far.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee, Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

My Lords, I add a few sentences to support what has been said so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. The case for resentencing is compellingly set out in the Justice Select Committee report. I cannot improve on that, certainly not at this late hour, but there are two points I wish to make.

First, there is no doubt that the sentence was imposed for a huge variety of cases. Some people were sentenced to IPP who would have received a discretionary life sentence, and we do not seem to recognise that. The second thing we do not recognise is what Parliament and the Government have done to contribute to this. I recall looking at a number of cases where people were sentenced when the regime was at its most severe. They had characteristics that were alien to British justice. First, there was an assumption of dangerousness unless the judge disapplied it. Secondly, the judge had no discretion if the person was dangerous to send him to prison. Thirdly, it applied to offences that would be characterised, for offences in the Crown Court, as at a low level—two years. The particular cohort that was most unjustly dealt with were those sentenced between 2005 and 2008, when the law was slightly ameliorated.

Secondly, I recall going to Leeds prison in 2005 where I saw that the state had made no proper provision for what was about to overwhelm the state: that is, a large number of people who, by the terms of the sentence, were given the sentence. Over the ensuing years, there were a vast number of cases where people complained that there were not sufficient resources. Again, this was a failure of the state.

Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, has made very clear, there was another failure: a failure to deal with this problem by changing the law shortly after 2012. It is very important in looking at this matter to bear in mind our responsibility. It is all Parliament’s responsibility—and the Government’s responsibility for carrying it out. As I said earlier today, it is an enormous tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, that he has accepted his responsibility for the failure. We ought to do the same.

I understand why, at this particular time, with an election pending, there is no realistic prospect of people being bold. I hope very much that the steps that the Lord Chancellor has taken may work—it has taken him a great deal of courage to go that far in reducing the tariff period. I hope that we can persuade the Minister that he will make further changes to ameliorate the injustice, but I am not very optimistic. If none of this works, we have at least laid the groundwork for the incoming Government to face up to this problem and remove what everyone accepts is a stain on the character of British justice.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:15, 12 March 2024

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, rightly said, the Opposition do not support resentencing. I reflected on the reason for that during this debate and the debates that we had earlier. I think the reason is actually simple: the IPP prisoners will have been assessed, many of them on multiple occasions, by the Parole Board, which is made up of lawyers, lay people, experts, psychologists and psychiatrists. They will have made this assessment and they will have decided that, on that occasion, that particular prisoner would not be released. If one went down the resentencing route, it would put any judge who made that resentencing assessment in an invidious and difficult situation where they would have effectively, or potentially, to go against these multiple assessments made by the Parole Board. So it is for quite a simple reason that the Opposition do not support this approach.

We have had a number of calls to be bold. I support being bold. I think the boldness is in group 2, to which we spoke earlier. There are a number of ideas that we have backed and which we may well want to pursue at a later stage of this Bill. So we support boldness, but the single solution of resentencing that has been put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is not appropriate for the reason that I just set out.

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

My Lords, I compliment the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, for the force and sincerity with which she put forward her views, as indeed have other noble Lords who have supported Amendment 167, which would go down the road of the resentencing exercise that we have been discussing.

In setting out the Government’s position, I find it hard to improve on the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, just made. This is a situation where we are dealing with the potential release of IPP offenders, who have committed mostly very serious sexual or violent offences. One would be overriding the decisions that the Parole Board has already taken, in most cases on multiple occasions, and would be putting the judge in the most difficult position.

Indeed, it is not a resentencing exercise in any normal sense of the word because, in most cases, the tariff has already expired. It is essentially a question of trying to do something different, dressed up as a resentencing exercise, to release persons who have already been held, on many occasions, to be unsafe to release. It is very difficult for the Government to go down that road. Again, there is a real risk, if one does go on that road, of wrongly raising the hopes of those who have put their faith in what is, in the Government’s view, not an appropriate way forward.

I want to add just one or two points. First, as the Committee is aware, I have on previous occasions—and I will do so on future occasions—emphasised the pressures we have at the moment on the prison population. The Government would be only too pleased to create further space in the prison population, or to relieve those pressures by releasing certain prisoners, but we have to consider the interests of public protection. It is not a question of being frightened of the media or of cowering in fear of the Daily Mail; it is a question of the protection of the public.

Any responsible Government would have to think very hard before a process that would allow the release, or that was envisaged to achieve the release—perhaps even unlicensed, without supervision—of large numbers of people in this position. I fully accept that the situation is regrettable. I accept the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that it is very regrettable that the whole thing arose in the first place. Terrible things may well have been happening back in 2005, but we are where we are. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord wants to intervene.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee, Chair, Arbitration Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

I have made my point; I will not reprise it again. The fallacy in both the Minister’s arguments is that he says they are dangerous, but actually the state has helped make them dangerous, if they are dangerous, by acting in the way in which it has. Normally, someone who has made a mistake accepts it and bears the consequences. I am not going to say any more because I will not persuade the Minister otherwise.

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

My Lords, from the point of view of the Government, I am not in a position to accept the premise advanced by the noble and learned Lord. I hear what he says. I do not accept, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, implied at one stage, that there is anything wrong with the Parole Board processes. I think I heard the word “dodgy” at one point, but I may have misheard. The Parole Board is a body that the Government have complete confidence in in this respect. This exercise should remain with the Parole Board.

I will say again: can we please distinguish between the problem of the released cohort and the problem of the never released cohort? We seem to drift from one to the other a lot of the time. Cases such as those of Matthew Price and, I think, the case of David Parker, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, are cases where people have been recalled after having been in the community for many years. That will no longer happen. The question of the recall is very largely dealt with, or very substantially improved, by the Government’s amendments in this Bill. What we are dealing with primarily is the never—not yet—released cohort.

I say again, in the light of my noble friend Lord Moylan’s remarks about the expected possible reaction of those who are still in prison and how to be particularly vigilant in supporting IPP prisoners in the light of these debates and related points, that the action plan is intended to give people hope. It is focused on their future to prepare them progressively with a sentence plan, the psychology services support, and a multidisciplinary progression panel towards eventual release. I think he would accept, even now, that the action plan has made a difference already; I see him nodding. We will take that forward and, as I say, it may well be the case the Government will be in a position to propose to your Lordships that the idea of an action plan should have a statutory basis, that the broad terms of its content should be set out and that the Secretary of State should report to Parliament so that—whatever Government comes into power—we can continue on the process that we have already started. The resentencing exercise is not, in the Government’s view, the way to go.

On that basis, the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Attlee would not arise because we are not going down that road. I do not think I need to say anything further about them, save to remark that what is being proposed would impose a very significant burden on our existing probation services. For that reason as well, one would have to reflect very seriously before going down that route. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment on this point.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, my amendment was a very fine amendment, but my noble and learned friend the Minister has addressed it. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment, and we will hear what the noble Baroness has to say.

Amendment 167A withdrawn.

Amendments 167B and 167C not moved.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

I want to make some clarifications. I will deal with them all together, using my right of reply. I was not suggesting that the parole boards were dodgy, although I was suggesting that the evidence that they were using could be. In that instance, I was referring to some of the requirements where people had done courses that were not evaluated and there is some dispute as to their effectiveness. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the Minister are assuming that the Parole Board’s assessment of dangerousness is some sort of objective assessment of dangerousness that we would recognise, whereas we have just spent a number of hours talking about, for example, the fact that you might well be assessed as dangerous because of deteriorating mental health. The difficulty there is that, as a rule, we remove and section people only when they have serious mental health problems. We think very long and hard about putting someone away, but this is keeping people in prison on an indefinite sentence because they have a mental health problem that could make them unsafe to be released.

I do not understand why the Minister does not understand that we are not just talking about the people who have never been released. I argue that there are all sorts of reasons why they might never have been released that go beyond dangerousness. They have gone well beyond the tariff that they originally received, and we at least have to take some responsibility for that. However, those people who are recalled into prison then become prisoners. The Minister keeps saying, “It’s all right because we’re going to sort that lot out”, but they are in prison now. They have gone back into that system and they therefore need to be sorted out through a resentencing regime.

The point that I want to stress is that the resentencing amendment was not written on the back of an envelope by people who do not understand the system, as the noble and learnt Lord, Lord Thomas of—sorry, I am from Wales but not from the bit that can pronounce Welsh. The point is that this is the most comprehensive and well-researched amendment with all sorts of strategies, options and flexibility built into it. If only the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, or the Minister would say, “We’ve looked at one section of it. We like that bit, and we could adapt it”. It is the principle of resentencing that we would like to see, but I am worried that it is just being dismissed as though it is too damaging to do.

I am not cynical about the Government’s motivation. I feel as if I cannot bring myself to believe that this is just because we have an election around the corner, because I do not believe that is the case. However, you can be overly risk-averse about letting prisoners out. If we adopted the precautionary principle and risk aversion then we would never let anyone leave prison, but we do so all the time. We have sentenced an awful lot of people for exactly the same “dangerous behaviour” since IPPs were abolished. What is happening to them? They have determinate sentences and are then let out. So I am not convinced that we are not creating the worst kind of bogey-man in our minds. Anyway, the amendment would allow for complex cases to be dealt with, and it considers all those aspects.

A story that had me amused, because this is the Victims and Prisoners Bill, was that of one IPP prisoner—the Minister says they have never been released—who was one of the “never been released” until, after 18 years, he was; he might have been in for 10 years originally but eventually he got through the Parole Board, and then had a reconciliation with the victim of the original crime for which he was put in prison. The victim could not believe that he had been in prison for 18 years. She said, “I thought you were out years ago!” We talk about protecting the public and victims and so on, but that victim was horrified that a crime that had been committed against her had led to someone being incarcerated for such a long period.

We do not want to caricature any side in this. As I have pointed out, public protection should not mean great injustice at the expense of people’s rights, and I do not think the public would thank us for that either. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 167 withdrawn.

Amendment 168 not moved.

Clause 49: Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998: life prisoners

Debate on whether Clause 49 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat 9:30, 12 March 2024

My Lords, I rise with the leave of the House and at the request of my noble friend Lord Marks to oppose the Question that Clause 49 stand part and speak to the stand part notices for Clauses 50, 51 and 52.

Clause 49 would disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act in respect of any decision made under Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. That chapter of the 1997 Act sets out a range of provisions concerning life sentences and sentences of detention during His Majesty’s pleasure, including minimum-term review for under-18s. For life prisoners, the provisions concern release on licence, termination of licences for public protection, recall for breach of licence conditions, the duration of licences, release at the direction of the Parole Board and removal of life prisoners from the United Kingdom.

The chapter is specifically extended by this Bill, in particular by Clause 41, to provide, in respect of public protection decisions, those considerations that the decision-maker is to be bound to take into account relating to such things as the risk of reoffending and the risk of breach of licence conditions. The clause includes, ominously, the provision under Clause 41(9):

“This section does not limit the matters which the decision-maker must or may take into account when making a public protection decision”.

Clause 44 provides for the Secretary of State to have the power to direct the referral of a prisoner’s case to a court—currently the High Court or the Upper Tribunal —as discussed on 26 February. Clause 48 makes further provision about the termination of the licences for life prisoners for public protection. For all these provisions, Clause 49 would disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Section 3 lies at the heart of the human rights protection afforded by the Human Rights Act. It governs the interpretation of legislation by courts and also, importantly, by public authorities, and so effectively by all relevant public decision-makers. It provides:

“So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights”.

Section 3 gives legislative teeth to the convention, requiring legislation to be compatible where possible. Clause 49 would disapply that crucial protection in relation to this chapter of the 1997 Act and any subordinate legislation made under it.

The Explanatory Notes, in paragraph 353, claim that this disapplication

“will apply the section as it is intended to be applied, and not use section 3 to alter the interpretation”.

In other words, the clause is intended to operate in a way that enables convention rights to be ignored or overridden; otherwise there would be no point in the disapplication. This represents a real and important threat to human rights and should be removed from the Bill.

Clause 50 would operate in exactly the same way in respect of the provisions of Chapter 6 of Part 12 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 relating to the licences, release, supervision and recall of fixed-term prisoners. These provisions are to be amended by Clauses 42, 45 and 47 of the Bill. At present, this chapter of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is subject to the protection of the interpretive requirement of Section 3 of the Human Rights Act. Clause 50 would remove that provision, and not just in relation to the new provisions in the chapter introduced in this Bill. As with the 1997 Act dealt with in Clause 49, it would remove it in respect of the whole chapter of the 2003 Act dealing with fixed-term prisoners.

Similarly, Clause 51 would disapply Section 3 in respect of the amended Section 128 of the LASPO Act. This amends the power to change the release test for release on licence in cases involving public protection.

Clause 52 deals with a similar issue. It is not approaching the interpretation of legislation in the light of the convention, but the different question of whether a person’s convention rights have been breached in connection with a prisoner release decision under the two chapters I have previously mentioned in the 1997 and 2003 Acts.

Paragraph 354 of the Explanatory Notes sets out how to govern any challenge on human rights challenge under the convention to a prisoner release decision. Where Clause 52 is offensive is in subsection (3), which requires:

“The court must give the greatest possible weight to the importance of reducing the risk to the public from persons who have committed offences in respect of which custodial sentences have been imposed”.

That provision would apply regardless of the length of the custodial sentence imposed, regardless of what harm was being risked to the public and regardless of the injustice to the offender or the offender’s circumstances or the risk to the offender’s health, family or prospects of rehabilitation. What is the “greatest possible weight”? That, effectively, means exclusive weight—the only factor the judge is to consider.

When the Explanatory Notes say:

“Requiring the courts to give the greatest possible weight to this factor reinforces the precautionary approach and means that public protection will be given appropriate consideration in any balancing exercise”, they are disingenuous. The provision does not call for a balancing exercise. It requires courts not to consider questions of balance or appropriate considerations, but instead to prefer one factor over all others. That is pernicious and ought to go. Judges are perfectly capable of performing balancing exercises. They can and do give appropriate weight to public protection when they do so. They should not have their judicial function curtailed in this way. The clause should go.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, here we go again. First, they came for the asylum seekers and then for the prisoners. Which unpopular and demonised group—to quote my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti—will be next to be deprived of some of the rights contained in the Human Rights Act?

As some of us have been arguing during the passage of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, to deprive marginalised groups of their human rights in this way undermines the principle of universality at the heart of human rights. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, quoted back at us that it is

“a fundamental tenet of modern human rights that they are universal and indivisible”.—[Official Report, 14/2/24; col. 342.]

He then went on to try to justify the very opposite.

In answer to some general Oral Questions on our human rights legislation in June, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice emphasised the Government’s commitment to

“a human rights framework that … works for the British people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/23; col. 145.]

He later talked about our legislation delivering on the interests of the British people. Leaving aside whether universal human rights can be confined to the British people, it raises the question of whether prisoners no longer count as British people.

As it is, some of the briefings we have received, including from the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust, make the point that in the words of the latter,

“it is precisely in custodial institutions like prison … that human rights protections are most vital, because individuals are under the control of the state”.

The NAYJ, a member organisation which campaigns for the rights of and justice for children in trouble with the law, is particularly anxious about the implications for children in prison. The Law Society, the EHRC and the then chair of the JCHR have all expressed their deep concern about the diminution of human rights protection represented by these clauses. The EHRC, in particular, warns that there may be an impact on the UK’s international legal obligations.

The Constitution Committee sets out the government justification for these clauses in the human rights memorandum on the Bill, but invites us to seek further explanation from the Government as to what effect they intend to achieve with the disapplication of Section 3 of the Human Rights Act. According to the memorandum, the intention is to ensure that the HRA does not get in the way of the policy intentions of the release regime. In other words, it seems to be saying that human rights should not trump government policy. No evidence is provided to justify the need for this diminution of human rights, and of course the clauses were not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.

In his response to the Second Reading debate, the Minister seemed to say that all the organisations expressing concern are making a mountain out of a molehill because Section 3 of the HRA is “a procedural provision only”. He argued that it gives the courts an

“unusual power to reinterpret what Parliament has said in a manner that may not have been and probably was not Parliament’s original intention so as to render a particular provision compatible with the convention”.—[Official Report,23/12/23; col. 2135.]

This, he suggested, was a “neutral” description of the function of Section 3.

I am grateful to Amnesty for its help in making sense of what the Minister said, although it would be the first to emphasise that its analysis is in line with that of the independent Human Rights Act review, established by the Government. It questioned whether this was a “neutral” interpretation of the role of Section 3. The reference to reinterpreting legislation seemed to suggest that there is one legitimate act of interpretation, which is then challenged by a second questionable one under Section 3. But this interpretation is itself highly questionable. I am advised that Parliament intended for Section 3 to be used in the way that it is. There is no reason to think that Section 3 interpretations lead to interpretations that are “probably not” in line with Parliament’s original intention, as confirmed by the Human Rights Act review, even if that was not the view of one member of the commission cited by the Minister.

More practically, and I think for the first time in this context, the Minister suggested that it has been a difficult section to apply, with the case law having “gone all over the place” and the introduction of uncertainty where the Government want certainty. I am advised that while this may have been true of when Section 3 was first brought into force—although “all over the place” is a misleading description—that period has long passed and the legal issues around it have not substantively changed for the past decade or so. As the Minister acknowledged, it has “settled down more recently”. So having been in effect for 20 years, it is not at all clear why its continued function would create the kind of complexity and uncertainty the Minister fears.

If the Minister cannot come up with a more convincing case for the disapplication of Section 3 from a group of citizens for whom the protection of the Human Rights Act is especially important, given their relationship to the state, I certainly think that these clauses should not stand part of the Bill. I have yet to hear any argument that justifies this further breach of the principle of the universality of human rights.

Photo of The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich The Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Bishop

My Lords, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Manchester regrets that he cannot be here today to speak to the amendments to which he has put his name.

The basis of our opposition to Clauses 49 to 51, to echo points made by the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, is that human rights need to be applied universally, even when disapplication might seem expedient. We know that, when people are marginalised, it is then that human rights protections are most necessary and, as such, the disapplication of rights to prisoners, who rely on independent courts and the justice system to guarantee basic minimum standards of fairness and respect, is particularly egregious. The Law Society has warned that these clauses

“significantly weaken the system of human rights protections in the UK”.

My right reverend friend and I add our voices to these concerns.

On Clause 52, again echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord German, this clause says:

“The court must give the greatest possible weight to the importance of reducing the risk to the public from persons who have committed offences”.

However, it is not clear what “greatest possible weight” means—of course, it can be interpreted as the only consideration to be made. That leaves the clause open to a range of interpretations, even if one believes that this is the area which should be given most weight rather than weighing up all the competing factors that are to go into a parole decision, should the language not be clarified.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:45, 12 March 2024

My Lords, I agree with all the speakers so far. My concern is that Clauses 49 to 51 may be another way for the former Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, to dilute the human rights framework through the back door.

Section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires courts to interpret legislation compatibly with rights under the convention on human rights as far as is possible. The clauses would disapply Section 3 to prisoners as a group when it comes to legislation about their release. Several groups have rightly raised concerns about that.

I, too, cite the Prison Reform Trust, which said:

“The introduction of specific carve-outs from human rights for people given custodial sentences contradicts one of the fundamental principles underlying human rights—their universality and application to each and every person on the simple basis of their being human. Moreover, it is precisely in custodial institutions like prisons that human rights protections are most vital, because individuals are under the control of the state”.

In written evidence to the JSC, the Bar Council stated:

“There is no evidence of any systemic impairment due to the HRA of the Parole Board’s ability to make high-quality, safe, decisions about prisoners—no statistical analysis of recidivism/public safety concerns from prisoners released due to interpretation of legislation in line with Convention principles”.

In his speech at Second Reading in the other place, the chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, said:

“Whatever one’s view of the Human Rights Act, there is no evidence that this is a problem in such cases. In fact, the evidence we heard from practitioners, from both sides, is that it can be helpful to have to have regard to section 3 in these hearings. These clauses seem to be trying to solve a problem that does not exist, and I wonder whether we really need them. It is perfectly possible to have a robust system that still complies with section 3. This is a needless distraction that sends the wrong signal about a certain desire to pick unnecessary fights, which I know is not the current Secretary of State’s approach”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/23; col. 604.]

I really could not have put it any better, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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

My Lords, as your Lordships know, this group is a stand part challenge to Clauses 49 to 52 of the Bill, which, in essence, disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to prisoner release legislation. The issue before us is, as much as anything, to do with the constitutional balance between Parliament and the courts. It is not about disapplying the Human Rights Act; it is about who does what. What do the courts do and what does Parliament do? That is the issue.

The provisions with which we are concerned include the new release test for releasing prisoners on licence—namely, the public protection test set out in Clauses 41 and 42, which make it abundantly clear that the protection of the public is the overriding factor. The Human Rights Act is also disapplied in relation to the referral mechanism, referring the most serious release decisions by the Parole Board to a court—currently the Upper Tribunal—and to other prison release decisions. As far as I am aware, no amendment has been tabled in this House objecting to the principle of the new public protection test, nor to the proposed referral mechanism—though there is an argument about which court it should go to—nor to the principle of our IPP reforms, except that it is argued that we should go further. Parliament has plainly indicated what it is trying to achieve.

Against this background, where exactly does Section 3 of the Human Rights Act fit in? Lest any misunderstanding persist—which it seems to do—my first point is that nothing in these clauses removes or limits any convention rights enjoyed by any prisoners, or anyone else for that matter, by virtue of Section 1 of the Human Rights Act or under the convention. A breach of human rights may still be pleaded before any domestic court or in Strasbourg in the usual way, whether it be the right to liberty, family life or any other right protected by the convention. Clauses 49 to 51 do not alter or detract from those rights in any way.

Even if—which I do not for one moment believe—anything in the legislation from which Section 3 has been disapplied were held by a higher court to be incompatible with the convention rights, in such a hypothetical case it would be for the court to make a declaration of incompatibility. Then, in accordance with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it would be for Parliament to decide what to do—whether to amend the legislation and, if so, in what way. In other words, it is the job of Parliament to make challenged legislation compatible with the convention. It is Parliament’s legislation; it is for Parliament to fix it, and it is the constitutional responsibility of everyone in either House to find a legislative solution.

The problem with Section 3 is that it gives finding the legislative solution to somebody else altogether—namely the court. This is Parliament’s legislation and not the courts’. That was why I said at Second Reading that Section 3 of the HRA is, in essence, a procedural and interpretive provision that requires legislation to be given effect to in a way which is compatible with convention rights. Those words “given effect” have led, in certain circumstances, to the court reading in or reading down words into the legislation that Parliament has passed. In other words, the court is empowered under Section 3 to add to or subtract from what Parliament originally intended. This has been a difficult section to apply. It has required courts to depart from Parliament’s intention and, if I may say so, to stray into the legislative realm.

These amendments directly raise the proper balance between the courts and Parliament when it comes to legislative matters. That issue was highlighted in the 2021 Independent Human Rights Act Review. It was discussed over 80 pages, toing and froing on all sorts of points and suggesting numerous recommendations and amendments, with the majority of the panel finally recommending a series of reforms to Sections 2 and 3.

On the Government’s position that Section 3 is a most unusual power in this respect, I can do no better than refer your Lordships to the trenchant criticism of Section 3 of the Human Rights Act on constitutional grounds by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, King’s Counsel, present in this Chamber, in his evidence to that 2021 review. His basic point was that it is not the function of the courts to legislate; it is the function of Parliament. Against that background, in the present context, the Government’s position is that, on an issue of importance, such as public protection and prisoner release, it is for Parliament to determine what the test should be.

In the unlikely event of any of those provisions being disapplied, and a declaration being made under Section 4, again, it is for this House and the other place to put it right and not to delegate, abdicate or push away that responsibility on to the courts. That is the Government’s position and it is essentially a question of the constitutional balance between what we do and what somebody else does—in other words, the courts. That is essentially the background to these amendments.

Clause 52 sets out the approach a court should take if there is a challenge on human rights grounds regarding the release of a prisoner. I do not accept the characterisation by the noble Lord, Lord German, that the wording of Clause 52 is effectively saying that public protection is an exclusive requirement; it simply says that that is a requirement to which weight should be given. No doubt, the courts are perfectly capable of arriving at a sensible interpretation of the provision, but the Government’s view is that the importance of public protection is a matter that Parliament can rightly draw to the court’s attention as something to which weight should be given. I will just add that that requirement does not apply to the so-called non-derogable rights under the convention, which are: Article 2, the right to life; Article 3, the prohibition of torture; Article 4, the prohibition of slavery, and Article 7, no punishment without law.

The courts already consider risk to the public. The Bill simply ensures that weight is properly given to that consideration. The essential point is that on these matters, in this context, it is not for someone else to be reading in or reading down what your Lordships decide; it is for your Lordships and for Members of the other House to put matters right.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, having heard that explanation, on the first part I suspect that this will have to come back when we have an array of former judges of all sorts in this House to test the position the Government have placed on this matter. To a lay person, it seems to be on a trail of chipping away Section 3 of the Human Rights Act, in particular. Therefore, I think this can wait for another day to have that legal learning that I think we will all need to take it on board.

In respect of the Minister’s second point, about weight, it would not be so bad if it were simply “weight”; it would not be quite so bad if it were “great weight”; but it is “the greatest possible weight” and the greatest possible weight to me means virtually everything you can possibly put into it. I will take a simple Welsh analogy. You have a scrum. You put the weight of everybody into it with the objective of pushing the other side off the ball so that you can take it yourselves. That is where you would apply “the greatest possible weight”. There might be a bit of pulling of hair and ears, and whatever else goes on inside a scrum—but I am not going to talk about that any more.

If you think about it, though, the words “the greatest possible weight” are pretty conclusive that what you must do is virtually everything that is in sight. So, I take on board the Minister’s view that the word “weight” is important, but I do not take on board the words “the greatest possible weight”. However, on the basis of the future legal discussion we are likely to have in this House, I beg leave to withdraw my objection to Clause 49 standing part.

Clause 49 agreed.

Clauses 50 to 52 agreed.

Clause 53: Parole Board rules