Amendment 150

Part of 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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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 8:34, 21 May 2024

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.