Amendment 150

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 21 May 2024.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

150: Leave out Clause 49

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

My Lords, the amendments in this group, Amendments 150 to 153, objecting to Clauses 49 to 52 standing part of the Bill, fall into two slightly different categories. The first three amendments, in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, who I am grateful to for her support, would remove the proposals in the Bill that Section 3 of the Human Rights Act be disapplied in relation to three pieces of legislation.

First, by Clause 49, the disapplication would apply to Part 2, Chapter 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which concerns life sentences and sentences of detention at His Majesty’s pleasure, release on licence for prisoners serving such sentences, and their release on licence, recall and removal from the UK, and will include all those amendments to be introduced by Clause 41 of this Bill. Secondly, Clause 50 would disapply Section 3 to Part 12, Chapter 6 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which concerns the release on licence, supervision and recall of certain fixed-term prisoners, and will include all those amendments to that Act to be introduced by Clause 42 of this Bill. Thirdly, Clause 51 would disapply Section 3 to Section 128 of the LASPO Act, or any order made under that section. That is the section which, as we have heard in debate at some length in Committee and earlier today, permits the Secretary of State to change the release test for certain prisoners, importantly including IPP prisoners, to shift the balance so that if conditions are met, an IPP prisoner must be released.

As will be familiar to the House, Section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires that:

“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”.

The ECHR is fundamental to the protection of human rights in this country. That is and has long been an article of faith for my party and the Labour Party, which was responsible for enacting the convention as part of domestic law by the means of the Human Rights Act. Indeed, it is important for many but not all in the Conservative Party; we have all seen the fault-lines on this issue over the tenure of this Government. However, the present Secretary of State for Justice is a keen advocate for the convention.

The architecture of the Human Rights Act has been widely and, I suggest, rightly praised for striking the balance between the sovereignty of Parliament and the convention. That architecture has at its heart the combination of Section 3—the section I just read—which requires convention-compatible interpretation and application of legislation where possible, and Section 4, which provides for a court to make a “declaration of incompatibility” where a legislative provision is found to be irrevocably incompatible with the convention right. The making of such a declaration leaves it to Parliament to legislate so as to comply with the convention and remove the incompatibility.

It follows that the proposed disapplication of Section 3 represents an invitation, almost an instruction, to courts to disregard convention rights when interpreting or applying the legislation. This is not a purely academic point; in relation to IPPs, for example, the European Court of Human Rights found in the case of James, Wells and Lee v UK in 2012 that the applicants’ IPP sentences were a violation of their Article 5 rights to liberty and security because the unavailability of rehabilitative courses meant that their detention after the expiry of their tariff terms was “arbitrary”.

As the Prison Reform Trust put it, in its helpful briefing for this debate:

“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”.

These carve-outs represent an insidious threat to the effectiveness of the convention in this country and, I suggest, a stalking horse for future legislation, undermining the balance between parliamentary sovereignty and the convention that I spoke of. They should be resisted.

I am bound to say that I find it very disappointing that the Labour Party is not whipping Labour Peers to support these amendments. The Human Rights Act was one of the Labour Party’s finest achievements. For Labour Peers to be instructed to condone by abstention the disapplication of Section 3 to these provisions is a sad portent for the future.

Before closing, I turn to Amendment 153, which seeks to remove Clause 52 from the Bill. Clause 52 does not seek to disapply any part of the convention, but it seeks to skew the court’s decision-making process on the application of convention rights in a way that is underhand and unacceptable. It would provide that, in making a decision as to whether a person’s convention rights have been breached in relation to a release decision:

“The court must give the greatest possible weight to the importance of reducing the risk to the public from offenders who have” been given prison sentences. In other words, risk reduction is to outweigh all other factors. But what does the instruction to give “the greatest possible weight” say to a judge? The answer is effectively that no other factor is to count. There is to be no careful judicial balancing exercise, because if the risk reduction factor can be outweighed in the balance, a judge cannot, by definition, give that factor “the greatest possible weight”. Judicial discretion is to be removed; judges are to be compelled to reach decisions that they would not otherwise make, because they may not judge for themselves what weight to give to competing factors. That is not acceptable.

I fully intended to divide the House on these amendments, but given the Labour Party’s decision not to support them but to abstain and the fact that it is now late, I have decided not to. Nevertheless these amendments raise an important point of principle for all those who believe in the convention.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I was very disappointed by the Minister’s response in Committee, so I felt that I ought to have another go in support of the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, aided by the British Institute of Human Rights and Amnesty International, which were also very disappointed.

First, the Minister said that this clause is not about disapplying the Human Rights Act. Well, of course it is not about disapplying the whole Act—but not just Amnesty, the BIHR and the Howard League, but also the EHRC, the chair of the JCHR and the Law Society take the view that it is disapplying Section 3. It feels like one of those occasions when the Government is the only marcher in step.

The BIHR challenges a number of the Minister’s arguments—first, his reassurance that it is still possible to plead any breach of human rights in the usual way and to seek a declaration of incompatibility. It points out that the point of the Human Rights Act was to bring rights home and provide an accessible, practical and immediate remedy. The excision of Section 3 makes access to human rights harder. He said it was a “difficult section to apply”. The BIHR argues the opposite, pointing out that it is used by lay front-line workers who see it as having given them a clear legal framework for arguing for the protection of people’s rights.

Likewise, the BIHR contests the view that it is necessary to provide public protection. The Human Rights Act already requires that the public interest is considered on a case-by-case basis, so this clause is not necessary to achieve that. The Minister’s reading of the independent Human Rights Act review was, shall we say, creative. The review recommended not the weakening or removal of Section 3 but simply greater clarification to improve understanding of it.

Finally, as the Minister will know, the UN Human Rights Committee in its report on the UK’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while welcoming the abandonment of the wholesale abolition of the Human Rights Act, expressed concern that its diminution has been pursued through other legislation and recommended that any future amendment to the Act be restricted to the strengthening of human rights. This clause does the opposite and it is difficult not to conclude that, like the earlier asylum legislation, it is a backdoor way of weakening the Human Rights Act by undermining the fundamental principle enunciated by so many, including the noble Lord—that human rights are universal and indivisible. Weakening the Act’s application to a marginalised and unpopular group such as prisoners is contrary to that principle, whatever the Minister might say.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 8:45, 21 May 2024

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I am unclear whether the Government accept, as I think they must, that the reason why they wish to disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act is because they recognise that, without such disapplication, the substantive provisions of this Bill would plainly contradict Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

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

My Lords, Section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires courts to interpret legislation compatibly with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights as far as is possible. Clauses 49 to 52 would disapply Section 3 to prisoners as a group when it comes to legislation about their release. It is disappointing to see this Government wasting parliamentary time and public money to remove human rights from prisoners.

There is no evidence of the Human Rights Act 1998 limiting the Parole Board from making decisions about prisoners. These clauses appear to be trying to solve a problem that does not exist, while the Government ignore the many critical problems across our criminal justice system. We in the Labour Party are proud that it was a Labour Government who brought about the Human Rights Act in 1998, and a future Labour Government will continue to be a bastion of justice and hope, unlike this current Government, who cannot bring themselves to focus on the real issues affecting the public.

The noble Lord, Lord Marks, and my noble friend Lady Lister spoke about the lack of support from the Labour Party if he were to press this matter to a vote. He said—I wrote it down—that he thought this was “a sad portent for the future”. That is a harsh interpretation of our stance. I have just reiterated our commitment to the Human Rights Act. We would not have chosen to support him if he had pressed the matter, but the statement I have read out reaffirms the Labour Party’s commitment to the Human Rights Act. Having said that, I think the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has put his finger on the central question. If the Government see no diminution of the Human Rights Act, why are they disapplying Section 3 within this Bill? Do they believe that it would breach the Human Rights Act if they failed to disapply the Act in this case?

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, for his amendments, which seek to remove Clauses 49 to 52. I am extremely sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and others, but the Government laid out their position in Committee and nothing the Government have heard since or this evening alters that position.

As I think I have said previously, Section 3 of the Human Rights Act is a procedural, not a substantive, provision. Clauses 49 to 51 effectively disapply Section 3 in relation to prisoner release legislation. Let me start by reiterating that nothing in these clauses removes or limits any convention rights enjoyed by prisoners. If I was asked, as I think I was, to confirm that the full range of substantive rights under the ECHR remain: yes, of course they do. Nothing in these clauses removes or limits any convention rights enjoyed by prisoners. A breach of human rights may still be pleaded before any domestic court or in Strasbourg in the usual way, and we would not want to prevent such action by prisoners where it is warranted.

I respectfully respond to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, by saying that this provision does not represent either an invitation or still less an instruction to the courts to disapply the Human Rights Act; nor does it imply, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and perhaps by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that the Government believe there is any breach of the European convention in relation to this legislation. That is not the case. The Government do not accept that there is any breach whatever in this legislation. It is the Government’s position that a matter as important as the public protection test should be for Parliament and that it should not be open to the so-called writing-in or reading-down provisions of Section 3, which is an interpretive position which means that the courts may be required to go further than usual in interpreting legislation that would otherwise be compatible with convention rights. Although this has happened less often in recent years, it can require courts to stray from Parliament’s original intention, and the Government do not think that that is appropriate in this context. The real issue is the balance between the courts and Parliament from a procedural point of view.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I am puzzled by this because it is an unusual thing in legislation to say that Section 3 is disapplied. Is it not the inevitable inference from the inclusion of that provision disapplying Section 3 in this legislation that the Government are seriously concerned, at the very least, that the substantive provisions would breach the substantive provisions of the Human Rights Act?

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

My Lords, that is not by any means the Government’s position; nor can that inference be drawn. The Government’s position on this clause is, as I understand it, in effect, that which the noble Lord himself is reported as expressing to the independent review on human rights because Section 3 requires the judge to perform a remedial function which legislation does not on its proper construction conform to convention rights. Such a role is inappropriate under our constitution and unnecessary because Section 4 provides an effective means by which Ministers and Parliament can amend the legislation. That is the Government’s position on this provision.

So, totally hypothetically, if anything in the legislation from which Section 3 has been disapplied was found to be incompatible, it would be for the court to make a declaration of incompatibility under Section 4. It would then be up to Parliament to decide how to rectify it, rather than the intermediate rewriting process of the courts. It does not remove or limit convention rights. It is simply saying that in this case that is the right balance between Parliament and the courts. That is the Government’s position on that.

This group of amendments also seeks to remove Clause 52, which sets out that, when considering a challenge, the court must give the greatest possible weight to the importance of reducing risk to the public from the offender. Of course, the courts already consider risk to the public. This clause does not mean that public protection will be the exclusive or only factor to be considered. The matter will be up to the judges, who are very capable of doing their independent part in construing the legislation. What the clause does is to ensure that due weight is given to the important consideration of public protection.

So, on behalf of the Government, I beg to move that Clauses 49 to 52 stand part of the Bill.

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

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 150.

Amendment 150 withdrawn.

Clause 50: Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998: fixed-term prisoners

Amendment 151 not moved.

Clause 51: Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998: power to change release test

Amendment 152 not moved.

Clause 52: Application of certain Convention rights in prisoner release cases

Amendment 153 not moved.

Clause 53: Parole Board rules