As the Chair said, I will speak to amendments 43 and 44, which relate to clauses 7 and 8. Right hon. and hon. Members will notice that both amendments achieve the same effect: to leave out the word “direct” and insert the word “request”. I do not think the intention of these amendments will come as any surprise. This strikes at the heart of the relationship between the commissioner and Government, and it is about ensuring that the much-vaunted independence of the commissioner, which everybody here accepts is incredibly important, translates into the document before us and into the legislation.
The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine is welcome to pass me notes at any point in my speech, should he have any comments on it, but I warn him that the Home Office knows where he lives, and we will be looking out for him in his place tomorrow. If he has any other insightful observations, he is very welcome to intervene at any point.
It is incredibly important that this role is functional; it has at its heart a functional relationship between the commissioner and Government, the commissioner and Parliament, and all three involved in overseeing, scrutinising and ensuring that, at the end of the day, policy for domestic abuse is got right. We need to ensure that we get the best out of all three constituent parts of this set of relationships, Parliament, Government and the commissioner.
The most important relationship here is clearly between Government and the commissioner. Time after time, we see words from Government that all of us in this room, and everybody involved on the frontline of supporting victims and survivors of domestic abuse would agree with: the commissioner must be independent. We need to ensure that that aspiration is reflected in the legislation, because ultimately it is the legislation that counts.
It is noticeable throughout clauses 7 and 8, and indeed throughout this part of the Bill, just how much power the Home Office grants itself over the commissioner. That is important, because we cannot have a situation where the commissioner is said to be independent but, when push comes to shove and people have to resort to the law, the law says something different.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as recently as this week, doubt about whether a review or report that comes before the public has been entirely independent has damaged its impact? I refer to the Public Health England review of coronavirus, public faith in which was undermined by the fact that sections of it had been left out. The word “direct”, rather than “request”, would inevitably lead people to suspect that reports were not entirely independent.
I agree with what the hon. Lady says about that incident, because it is the one that is most recent, striking and relevant to the times in which we live. In order to ease the pressure on Ministers in the room, however, I am willing to concede that successive Governments of different persuasions have been guilty of that at various times. We can all think of reports that have become politicised, thereby diminishing the truth they seek to illuminate, their impact, their credibility and the work of the many people who were involved in producing them. It is incredibly important that the public who read such reports have faith in the independence of those who produce them, and know that the reports are free of political interference.
I do not seek to blame anyone, or to say that this is the first Government to have sought to retain power over quasi-independent bodies and institutions. I understand the desire of the Home Office and all Departments to retain power. I simply make the point that, sometimes, relinquishing some power strengthens relationships and leads to better outcomes. That certainly delivers better results to the frontline. Those who are at the receiving end—those who have recourse to the law and to the commissioner—will have more faith in the system and view it as more credible, and will therefore be more likely to use those services.
The Home Office sets the budget, and the Home Office sets the framework. Earlier, the Minister referred to the framework document and pointed to its consultative nature, which I accept. I have in front of me the draft framework document, which states in section 4.11:
“Although not prescribed by the Act, if the Commissioner does not agree with the Home Secretary’s request to omit material, the process will be as follows”— this comes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley when she talked about what happens if a dispute arises. I accept the Minister’s response, but the draft framework to which she refers states that the commissioner can make representations to the Director of Public Prosecutions—I beg your pardon; I mean public protection. Perhaps that comes further down the line. I will start again. The draft framework states:
“The Commissioner can make representations to the Director for Public Protection as the Senior Policy Sponsor. A response must be provided within 28 working days.”
That is what is available to the commissioner should there be a disagreement and if the Home Secretary makes a direction with which the commissioner disagrees. The draft framework states:
“If agreement is not reached with the Director for Public Protection, the Commissioner may make representations to the Home Secretary. A response must be provided within 28 working days.
If agreement is not reached with the Home Secretary, the Commissioner may include a note in their report (or advice under section 8(2)) stating that certain information was omitted at the direction of the Home Secretary, but which the Commissioner did not agree was necessary to protect an individual’s safety or to support the investigation or prosecution of an offence.”
What the framework document actually refers to is that bit of the Bill that enables the Home Office and the Home Secretary to direct the commissioner.
The commissioner also needs to submit all sorts of other material to the Home Secretary. For example, draft advice has to be submitted before publication, and other types of announcements need to be checked with the Home Secretary beforehand, but that does not seem to be covered by the draft framework. To be clear, although I understand that the draft document has been through consultation, the Bill says of it—I am looking at clause 10(1)—
“The Secretary of State must issue a document…that deals with matters relating to the Commissioner.”
At the end of the day, the power to direct what to include in the framework still rests with the Home Secretary, who also has the right to view guidance and reports before publication.
The draft framework document does not state, in those circumstances, what happens when there is disagreement between the two. When there is a disagreement that is covered by the draft framework, a period of 28 working days for a response is provided for, followed by another 28-day period in which to get a second opinion. In the meantime, victims and survivors of domestic abuse are out there in our society, in every single one of our constituencies, and they are affected by the advice given by the commissioner. We cannot have three or four months’ wait for a response while the to-ing and fro-ing between the Home Secretary, the Home Office and the commissioner is resolved. Often we would be talking just about a couple of words.
The process seems to be overly bureaucratic and disproportionate for the needs and desires expressed by the Home Office and Ministers—what they want to deliver, the intent of this legislation. In the strongest possible terms, I must state that there should not be a wait of almost 60 working days to resolve quite simple disputes.
The solution, to most reasonable people, if we have an independent commissioner who disagrees with the Home Secretary on something that is published in the independent commissioner’s name, is that the independent commissioner should have the final say on what goes—or we stop using the word “independent”. If the Home Secretary can direct the independent commissioner on what she can or cannot say, that cannot be classified as independent.
In several other areas, the Home Secretary and the Home Office have power to instruct the commissioner. Any disputes or disagreements then enter a very bureaucratic and time-inefficient process. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that I am seeking to change one word. This is not an amendment that is three pages long, impenetrable and difficult to interpret; this is one word—leave out “direct” and insert “request”. It inverts what is possible.
If it is okay in the eyes of the Home Office for the independent commissioner to put a bullet point at the bottom of a report to say, “I disagree with the Home Secretary on this, but I have been forced to say it,” why is the opposite not possible? Why is it not possible, given the might of the Home Office and the platform of the Home Secretary, for the commissioner to say, “I agree with 95% of this report, but I disagree with one paragraph”? Why does the Home Secretary always have to get the last word?
In this case, the Home Office just needs to be adult enough to accept that it would generate a lot more respect within the sector if it could just let go from time to time and allow the dissent that it says it encourages.
I can think of very few areas in which that will come up as a matter of dissent, so it appears that it can be only a fear of something that might make the Home Office look bad once we remove the option of protecting the identity of the victim and of what might be before the courts, understandably. It seems that it is only there to direct where the victim may have said something bad about the Home Office.
The Minister disagrees and her dissent to my hon. Friend’s comment is on the record. Whether one agrees or disagrees with my hon. Friend, her point is that it is open to interpretation. People in that situation who are observing from the outside could quite reasonably be left with that interpretation. The amendment actually seeks to protect the Home Office from precisely the circumstances to which she refers, because if the independent commissioner publishes advice that is hard for the Home Office to see, that will spark a public debate between the two that would benefit the sector and show that the independent sector has an independent commissioner, and that the Home Office takes a different view. The buck will always stop with the Home Office, and rightly so.
Clause 8(5) states:
“Before publishing any advice given under this section, the Commissioner must send a draft of what is proposed to be published to the Secretary of State.”
We all understand why that would be the case and why the Home Office would be very keen to engage in that, but if there is a functional relationship at the heart of this, we do not need the power of legislation to engage constructively with each other. From the testimony and the evidence that we heard just last week from the designate commissioner for domestic abuse, it is very clear that she is straining at the bit to be open and constructive, and to engage not just with the Home Office, but with Parliament and all other stakeholders. The Home Office does not need the power of legislation to instruct somebody to do the very thing that is at the heart of a functional relationship between two organisations of this nature.
I accept that the Home Office is cautious and that Home Office Ministers are right to be cautious. The Home Office deals with law enforcement and the denial of people’s liberty. That is why the Home Office always has to be very careful with such pieces of legislation, and I know that the two Ministers take incredibly seriously the responsibility and the burden of the decisions that are made in the name of the legislation that they pass and uphold in their work. The inclination to retain as much overall power as possible defeats some of the objectives that the Home Office seeks to achieve. Although it must be an overwhelming temptation—even for understandable reasons—I urge the Home Office to have faith in the people whom it appoints.
Because of the previous conversations and exchanges that we have had, I think that we have had some fascinating exchanges already in the proceedings on the Bill today, and I believe that the Minister has been very sincere in her determination as to the way the commissioner is appointed in future. But this is really important: if we are to take the Minister at her word, why does she need the power in legislation to have the final word all the time? If the person appointed has been through an inscrutable process within the Home Office and if their background is absolutely first rate, why does the Minister need the power always to instruct them, to direct them?
I believe that the person described in the appointment process is the sort of person who does not need to be kept on a tight leash and who would benefit from more freedom in the role. That is the sort of thing we could test in this legislation, and it would then have an impact on future appointments and the creation of other roles. I think that this role would be more fruitful, productive and effective if it were approached in a less paternalistic way.
When Nicole Jacobs’s appointment was announced last September, the Home Office statement heralded the role as one that
“will lead on driving improvements”.
Quite rightly, the designate commissioner’s qualifications to do just that were highlighted, and that speaks for itself. But time and again, the legislation that puts her role on a statutory footing limits the freedom that she has to do just that. Reading it, one would be forgiven for thinking that it is less a statutory footing and more a meddlers’ charter. The Home Secretary has the right to meddle in almost every aspect of the commissioner’s role, from the advice that is given publicly to the reports that are produced. For every aspect of the key work that is done by the “independent” commissioner, the Home Secretary, the Home Office and a plethora of officials at different levels have the right to involve themselves in the way the work is done. I do not think that is in line with what Ministers, in their hearts, really want to happen. I think they are saying that they want to have a certain relationship, but when it comes to defining it in law, they cannot quite bring themselves to put in writing what is in their heads and hearts.
Aspects of part 2 of the Bill give more power to the Home Secretary than to the commissioner herself, and part 2 is designed to create the commissioner. This is really serious: the moment a Home Secretary “directs” the commissioner, the commissioner ceases to be—in the words of the Home Secretary herself, in the statement released on the appointment—
“a voice for those who need it most.”
I say that because if the Home Secretary has changed the words that the independent commissioner uses, they are the words not of the independent commissioner but of the Home Secretary. That is the very moment at which the sector itself will start to lose faith. We will have a sector and victims and survivors losing faith in their voice, their advocate, the person who has the best access to Parliament, to Government and to every Department of Government, not just the Home Office—she has the right, under the Bill, to engage with Departments right across Government. Once faith in that role is gone, it will be very hard to get it back and the ability of the commissioner to advocate, to give voice and to bring about change will be diminished.
I do not believe that is what Ministers want, and I do not believe that is the intent of the legislation. I truly believe that what they want is a commissioner who has the right to act, in the words of the Home Secretary, as
“a voice for those who need it most.”
What we cannot do, as any parent knows—I am not a parent—is tell a child, “You have the right to a voice, but I’ll tell you what to say.” That just does not work. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley would not even attempt to do such a thing in her household—I have met her children and know that they would see straight through it.
Success or failure for the commissioner depends on the confidence she can generate and maintain in the complex stakeholder network among the domestic abuse community, from campaign groups to frontline support agencies, enforcement bodies and the judiciary. Most importantly, she needs the confidence of victims and survivors. I know that Ministers want this role to be a success, and for all the right reasons. I hope that they will see that a little less control-freakery and a little more trust is likely to deliver that success.
Amendments 43 and 44 would simply substitute the word “direct” with “request”—nothing more. They would change neither the nature and outcome of the Bill, nor the role and function of the commissioner. They seek to level the relationship between the Home Office and the commissioner and foster a more functional partnership between all parties. Victims and campaigners would know that the commissioner speaks for them and them alone, and for their interests and their interests alone. I believe that is what the legislation should deliver.
I am going to tackle head-on the criticism about reports, but first I want to make it plain why the reports are so important and to explain how they come about. It is for the commissioner to decide what her reports concern. It is for the commissioner to publish every report that is made under clause 7. It is the commissioner who decides what she will report on. In practice, the reports will flow from the strategic plan set out in clause 12, but it is the commissioner who has that power.
These thematic reports will be an absolutely central part of the commissioner’s work. They will be the key mechanism for discharging the commissioner’s functions under clause 6, and they will identify and publicise good practice but also highlight areas for improvement. I emphasise again that the reports must be published. There is no facility in the Bill for reports to the swept under the carpet or delayed. The commissioner publishes them, not the Home Secretary. A great deal of the commissioner’s power comes from clause 7.
The hon. Gentleman quite rightly raises subsection 4, which states:
(a) might jeopardise the safety of any person, or
(b) might prejudice the investigation or prosecution of an offence.”
There is nothing in subsection 4 that says, “Oh well, if the report makes the Government look bad, the Home Secretary can omit that.” There is nothing that says, “It’s not terribly helpful, and the timing is bad.” There are two very narrow grounds: jeopardising the safety of any person; and prejudicing the investigation or prosecution of an offence. Because we are so careful about the commissioner’s independence, we have taken the trouble in the draft framework document—the draft document drawn up in consultation with and approved by the commissioner—to try to set out a framework. Therefore, in the—I accept—diminishingly small possibility that the subsection will be used, there is a clear process as to how such disagreements can be resolved.
The ultimate sanction is not, I think, the Home Secretary redacting a name, a location or whatever is needed to protect the person named in the report; it is the last paragraph of the framework document, which says:
“If agreement is not reached with the Home Secretary, the Commissioner may include a note in their report…stating that certain information was omitted at the direction of the Home Secretary, but which the Commissioner did not agree was necessary to protect an individual’s safety or to support the investigation or prosecution of an offence.”
I do not want to speculate about how such circumstances may arise, but I am clear that if a report had a note like that in it, I would expect to be answering an urgent question on it the very next day.
The Minister comes right to the heart of the matter, as she characteristically does. However, when she was having debates and discussions with officials and colleagues about how to approach this part of the Bill, why was it decided that the final say should stay with the Home Secretary, with the commissioner needing to publish a note saying that she disagrees, rather than the other way round, with the independent commissioner able to publish what she likes while the Home Secretary publishes a little paragraph pointing out the bit that she did not agree with?
It comes down to accountability at the Dispatch Box. As I say, there is a diminishingly small likelihood of that happening, but that does not mean that we can ignore it. I speak as someone who used to prosecute serious organised crime and spent a great deal of my career as disclosure counsel redacting documents and asking for protection from courts for documents that may, or have the potential to, undermine and jeopardise the safety of people for a variety of reasons, so this is something close to my heart. The power to omit this very narrowly constructed category of information is there to protect a person or to protect the prosecution or investigation of an offence. Accountability for that must fall ultimately on the Home Secretary or the Minister at the Dispatch Box.
I will give an example. I have tried not to speculate, because we all know, particularly in this field, that the ability of human beings to commit harm and to hurt other human beings seems almost infinite at times. Apologies that I cannot give details; I am treading very carefully for reasons that will become clear. A little while ago I was alerted to a mother and her family who had had to flee a house where there was a violently abusive relationship—she was fleeing in fear of her life. The circumstances of her fleeing were, shall we say, notorious in the local community, because the wider family have a reputation and presence in the local community that reaches far beyond the Bill. A person in public life inadvertently, for completely innocent reasons, made a comment about the manner in which that family fled. The concern—it was a very real concern—was that that public official, who had not really understood the ramifications of their commentary, had inadvertently put that victim and her family at significant risk.
Forgive me; I cannot go into more detail because I do not want to alert, but I put that forward because there are occasions where we have to look at not just the immediate circumstances but the possible ever-flowing ramifications that may result from a seemingly innocent assertion. I have complete faith in the designate domestic abuse commissioner that we will not get to a place where we are having to put notes in reports. I have to maintain this very narrowly constructed caveat to this otherwise wide-ranging and free power to safeguard any people or to safeguard investigations or prosecutions for offences that may not be immediately apparent when looking at the very specific circumstances of a case.
To give reassurance as well, I have asked whether this provision is in other pieces of legislation. It is in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and indeed, it is wider there because the Home Secretary can also omit material for the purposes of national security. If one thinks about modern slavery, that makes sense because of international criminal gangs. I reassure the Committee that this provision exists in other legislation, it is very narrowly defined there and it is not about making the Government look bad or look good. It is about safeguarding people’s safety.
The Minister is incredibly reassuring on the point. With regard to the case she is talking about, I do not wish to gather any details. I have handled cases about misdemeanours of people in this place or of their friends, as we all know, and I seek similar reassurances that this power will never be used in a case that might be used to protect a friend of somebody in power or somebody in this place.
The hon. Lady does not just need my reassurance. We have this framework—I appreciate it is a slightly tortuous process—where a very senior civil servant makes the first decision. It then goes to the Home Secretary and we then have the commissioner with the ability to put that note in the report. We have the reassurance of a very senior civil servant, with all the responsibilities the civil service bear in relation to ensuring they act within the Nolan principles and so on. We have that safeguard. We then have the Home Secretary, who has their own responsibilities under the ministerial code and being at the Dispatch Box, and then we have the commissioner being able to put that in her report. I hope that reassures hon. Members about this aspect of the report and clause 8. I invite the hon. Member for Hove to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister will note from the theme of the comments I have been making during the two sittings today that my Front-Bench colleagues and I are concerned not only by the specific parts of the Bill that give power to interfere with the commissioner’s work. Added up, there is the opportunity to make the commissioner’s work overly bureaucratic, slow and sometimes focused too much towards pleasing the paymaster and not enough towards serving the victims and survivors, for whom the commissioner exists to give voice. This was a good possibility to ventilate those in a focused way, but I hope the Minister realises that we feel strongly about the independence of the commissioner. We will talk about this more later, on other amendments on aspects of the commissioner’s independence.
I hope the Minister recognises the strength of feeling towards a hands-off approach. There was a period in Parliament when there was a very rapid turnaround in Ministers on the Front Bench. Time after time we heard, “I don’t want this to happen; my intention isn’t this.” Then three weeks later another Minister with another direction would say, “No, I am really focused on this.” That is why getting the letter of the law right is necessary, and why we need the Bill absolutely nailed down.
We talk about the relationship between the Home Secretary and the commissioner as if the relationship is between two people. The commissioner is likely to have two, three or four members of staff and the Home Office employs tens of thousands, so the relationship will be between one or two people and potentially dozens of others. What we want is a real grip at the centre and a real drive as the relationship goes forward to empowering and making sure they enable the independence rather than just putting it in writing. That said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.