Clause 7 - Establishment and conduct of reviews

Part of Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 24th June 2004.

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Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office) 2:45 pm, 24th June 2004

The clause stand part debate gives me an opportunity to address other subjects. I welcome the clause and the establishment of the reviews, but I want to ask some simple questions that will help us get a clearer picture of things.

First, when does the Minister expect to be able to let us have sight of the guidance? I appreciate that it will draw on both the serious case reviews and the guidance used by the Met police, but during the Bill's passage in another place the Minister, Baroness Scotland, gave the distinct impression that the document was already in existence when she said:

''The guidance takes the line that case reviews should not be delayed as a matter of course because of outstanding criminal proceedings or an outstanding decision on whether or not to prosecute.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 February 2004; Vol. 657, c. GC227.]

She thereby gave the impression that the guidance was alive and well and living in the Home Office. If that is the case, some idea of when the guidance will be produced would help everyone in the Committee, because we are of one mind. We are hungry to look at the guidance because we want the measure to come into play with all the force that we have intended. Will the Solicitor-General give us some idea when we can see it? Will the guidance be produced in sufficient time

for consultation so that there can be some input from the many organisations concerned?

That brings me to my second point concerning the conclusion of the review, which is why I chose that particular extract from proceedings in another place. Notwithstanding the fact that the review is not dependent on the commencement of criminal proceedings, will the Solicitor-General assure me that no review will be deemed concluded while there are outstanding criminal proceedings? Otherwise there could again be missing pieces of the puzzle that could yield valuable information.

I appreciate that the intention is to be able to start the homicide reviews without having to wait for the start of criminal proceedings. I believe that they are dependent on the Home Secretary pressing the button—will the Minister confirm that? I do not want the reviews to conclude before we have the whole picture. We may not want to wait until a case goes to appeal, but I would like to know what the Solicitor-General expects.

As for the totality of information, although devolution may bring benefits, in this instance it may be the reverse. The position of Northern Ireland and Wales with regard to legislation would certainly allow the Government to include both those countries in the provisions, but no such power exists to include Scotland. There may be some useful lessons to be drawn from including evidence from Scotland, and I would like the Minister to comment on whether similar provisions are either in existence or planned for Scotland, and when the information could be pooled.

It is important to recognise that we require a critical mass of information to help to prevent further tragedies, and that we need to gather that information as rapidly as possible. It would greatly shorten the odds on providing useful lessons for everyone involved if we could have access to similar information for Scotland. Are there any plans to consult the Scottish Parliament? Do similar provisions exist in Scotland, and does the Minister think it would be sensible to hold cross-border talks, because of the obvious value of collecting as broad a pool of information as possible?

Another point that was raised indirectly concerns the culture surrounding a domestic homicide review. We have talked about so-called honour killings and the problems within some of our ethnic minority communities. I want reassurance that it is envisaged that the cultural aspects of the domestic violence will be considered and reported upon in the domestic homicide reviews. That is a taboo area; many people do not talk about it, and not all the facts emerge. We seem to hold back when we are discussing it in case we offend people. I do not want to be worried about that. I want to learn the lessons, and I want the facts hung out so that people know about them. It is important that in the transcript of these proceedings there is some undertaking that those reviews could, and should, involve an investigation of the cultural circumstances in which the homicide took place.

What will happen to that information? I mentioned that issue earlier, and I am grateful that the Committee is debating clause stand part, because I was not sure where else the subject would fit, or whether I could frame an amendment that would serve my intended purpose. The phrase used is that we will have those reviews to identify

''the lessons to be learnt from the death.''

Once those conclusions have been drawn, where will they be deposited? Who will be the repository for all that information? How will it be analysed and how will it be disseminated? A plethora of organisations are involved, or have an influence, or could be in a position to gain from the lessons learnt—but unless they are disseminated to them, how are they to do so?

We have only to examine the tremendous work put in by Women's Aid, and the organisations from which they collected support for their amendments, to see that a wide range of organisations are involved and have an impact. It would be pointless and impotent to put the clause into an Act and start the process without knowing clearly how the information will be collected, and how it will be disseminated around the country.

I appreciate that that might be a difficult question to answer at this stage, and I am sure that the Solicitor-General will rely on the fact that the details will be in the guidance. However, we need reassurance that it will be—although I am not quite convinced that that will be the answer. I hope that there will be an answer, because otherwise this is a fruitless and pointless exercise. We will examine each individual case, we will arrive at some results and, as we said, the measure will act as a form of restorative justice for other family members, but in the final analysis it may not be very useful, unless there is a good system for handling the information.

It will be interesting to note how the information is handled. We have heard about marvellous new IT systems that are being introduced to the criminal justice system and to other areas, but will the information be handled by the section of the Department with responsibility, or will it simply be stored on computers? How will it be accessed? How will we get over the problem of data protection? Some of the information will be very sensitive, and if we cannot clear the data protection hurdle, which seems to be raised from time to time, we have a problem.

I am not a skilled lawyer; I am half a lawyer—an unqualified lawyer—which is the most dangerous thing of all. However, I know that the Data Protection Act 1998 often stands, or appears to stand, in my way as an MP. I do not want that legislation to stand in the way of the dissemination of valuable information from the domestic homicide reviews set up under the clause.

I have mentioned statistics, and I was pleased with the Solicitor-General's response on that subject. However, I also want reassurance that the statistics from the domestic homicide reviews that are kept will feed into the system, and will not sit in isolation somewhere in the Department gathering dust. For the

reviews, it is important to have joined-up thinking across the board.

Finally, turning to the costs, the regulatory impact assessment states that figures from part 8 reviews

''of suspicious child deaths suggest that each review is likely to cost in the region of £50,000 in terms of time and effort.

There are currently some 150 domestic murders every year, which suggests a total cost of £7.5m.''

The reviews anticipated under clause 7 will cover people over 16. In all likelihood, costs will vary—there may be complications in investigating multiple deaths in complex circumstances. If I correctly understood what the Solicitor-General said earlier, the Home Secretary will have sole discretion to initiate reviews. Can the Solicitor-General indicate whether £7.5 million is the maximum amount for annual expenditure on reviews? If not, what will the budget be and who will be responsible for picking up the costs? I refer specifically to the phrase

''£50,000 in terms of time and effort.''

Direct costs may be involved in conducting the reviews, and it would be helpful to know who will bear them. For example, will the Secretary of State direct that chief officers of police in the police authorities areas of England and Wales be responsible for costs in connection with the reviews? Likewise, will local authorities, probation boards, health authorities and so on be responsible for such costs? As the reviews are new and more extensive, it is not outwith the realms of possibility that none of those organisations will have budgeted for them.

I am trying to clarify whether there will be any financial barriers to having the cases investigated thoroughly and properly, or whether the regulatory impact assessment lists maximum figures and the Secretary of State will not order any more reviews after a ceiling has been reached. It is important to put that on the record, because, according to the regulatory impact assessment, the benefit is that each life saved through lessons learned will save £1,100,000 in public funds, lost earnings and costs of emotional trauma. That is an enormous figure to put on a life. If several people lose their lives in the course of domestic violence incidents, one can use the multiplier to determine the cost. However, the cost is not only to the public purse; for me, it is expressed in human lives, which transcend all financial provisions.

I want to ensure that the Government are not setting up an Aunt Sally and that when we finally bring reviews into being there will always be excuses not to pursue them fully, or financial barriers in whatever organisations are directed by the Secretary of State to take part in them. I am sorry to have given the Solicitor-General a list of questions, but I am sure that she is capable of dealing with them. I look forward to hearing her responses.