“appears to the Secretary of State to have”.
This amendment would alter the definition of a major incident so that an incident that has caused the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals is automatically defined as a major incident.
I thank the organisations Inquest, Hillsborough Law Now and Justice for working with me on these amendments. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, who has shown such steadfast commitment in the fight for justice for the families of Hillsborough through so many years. I am sure that it brings a lot comfort to those families to know that they have a fierce advocate in this place.
My right hon. Friend first introduced her Public Advocate Bill to Parliament in 2016. It has subsequently been blocked 15 times in the past two Sessions—
Twenty-two times—I thank my right hon. Friend for the correction. Furthermore, I put on the record my tribute to Lord Wills, who has twice attempted to legislate for an independent advocate, in 2014 and 2015. I hope that the Minister today has come with a different approach, will heed the words of my colleagues and will co-operate with regard to the issues raised by my right hon. Friend.
I also put on the record that Labour stands unequivocally with the Hillsborough families. We have called repeatedly for the Hillsborough law; making it a reality will be a priority of a Labour Government.
I state my bitter disappointment that we have reached the debate on part 2 of the Bill, yet the Government have still not responded to the report of the Right Rev. James Jones, “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”, published six years ago in 2017. That is truly intolerable.
Part 2 of the Bill must ensure that lessons are learned and that never again will families bereaved by public disaster have to endure smear campaigns against their loved ones. Families must never again have to spend three decades campaigning to get truth and justice. Unamended, however—this is where my amendments come in—part 2 falls woefully short of that. There will be more public disasters—since Hillsborough, to name but a few, there has been the Westminster terror attack, the Manchester Arena terror attack and the Grenfell Tower fire.
Lord Wills, Minister of State for Justice from 2007 to 2010, stated in evidence that the Bill was fundamentally flawed. The proposals for the independent public advocate fail in the Justice Secretary’s aim. The Justice Secretary said that
“to deliver justice, victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants in it.”—[Official Report,
However, the proposals do not give the bereaved families effective agency. Instead, as Lord Wills said:
“the Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered powers to appoint an independent public advocate or not to do so, and unfettered powers to dismiss an independent public advocate.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Lord Wills went even further, stating that the Secretary of State will have “too much unfettered discretion”.
Amendments 20 and 21 are aimed at correcting that issue, ultimately limiting the Secretary of State’s discretion over the appointment of an independent public advocate. It is deeply concerning that the clause does not require the Secretary of State to appoint an advocate; rather, the Secretary of State “may” do so. Without a duty on the Secretary of State always to appoint an advocate, some bereaved families may receive additional support to which other families are not entitled, worsening the inconsistencies that already exist in the post-death investigation system. That was rightly identified in 2021 by the Select Committee on Justice. For the advocate post to be effective, it should be a mandatory appointment with the duties and functions of the advocate arising in the event of a major disaster, rather than at the discretion of the Secretary of State.
It is equally concerning that the responsibility for declaring a major incident again lies with the Secretary of State. That cannot remain in the Bill. Amendment 21 would change the definition of “major incident” to ensure that a major incident is one where it causes the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals, rather than where it simply “appears to the Secretary of State” to have caused the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals. The discretion of the Secretary of State in both those matters is something that Opposition Members and stakeholders are deeply troubled by.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hosie. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for her kind words about my long-standing efforts in respect of a public advocate, which arose out of my experience as a constituency MP seeking to represent some of the bereaved families of those who were killed at Hillsborough, and also survivors of Hillsborough—we often forget survivors. Many thousands of people in the ground on that day saw what happened and were subsequently pretty traumatised. Some have been in a terrible state for many years. I still meet people who tell me what happened to them on that day and say that they have never told anybody in the intervening 34 years.
One can imagine the state that some of the people are in in terms of their mental health, particularly when there has been a cover-up that has lasted for so many years seeking to blame fans for what happened, rather than an acceptance of responsibility. We must remember that within four months of the disaster, the first interim report of the first public inquiry placed responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the police, which they never accepted and then chose to campaign to overturn.
When I first met my constituents as an MP in 1997—I had known some of them before as a lawyer—the first thing they said to me was that the police had used the inquest to overturn the Taylor inquiry. Of course, I had the lawyer’s response and said, “No, inquests have a different purpose”, but I quickly understood what they meant when I saw what had happened.
In reality, the cover-up at Hillsborough began on the day and was then pursued at great cost and expense using taxpayers’ money over decades. In fact, at the second inquest, the same points were put by the police lawyers. Even now one hears similar arguments being put: “It was the Liverpool fans; they were ticketless; they were drunk. They pushed their way into the ground and killed their own.” One even hears it in the chants, which, mercifully, the Football Association is now trying to deal with. “Tragedy chanting”, as it is known, is done to Liverpool fans at grounds all over the country. That kind of issue resonates for decades for many thousands of people. That is why I am convinced we as a society must seek to get the aftermath of disasters right.
If we can stop things going wrong—as wrong as they have with Hillsborough—we can save a lot of money and a lot of heartache. We can certainly make sure that the families of those killed in disasters, who suddenly face the worst moments of their lives in the full glare of publicity, do not also have to deal with public authorities’ intent on not getting at the truth and finding out what happened to the families’ loved ones, or not supporting them in every way possible, and in some cases trying to blame them for what happened. In all the cases that I have come across, the authorities try to make sure that they do not get the blame. That defensiveness often drives the behaviour of public authorities in the aftermath of disasters.
That is why I rise to support amendments 20 and 21, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North. Clause 24 gives total discretion to the Secretary of State, and there is no requirement about what he should consider in making the appointment and no requirement that he should consult those affected.
My experience of having to deal with disasters as a constituency MP does not just include the Hillsborough disaster. There have been others: the MV Derbyshire disaster happened long before I became an MP, the Alder Hey organ scandal was another that I had to deal with, and I have constituents affected by the Manchester Arena bombing. A number of other disasters have happened during my time in this House. One issue is always the same: the Secretary of State gaining the trust of those affected is an incredibly important part of ensuring that things do not go wrong.
The Secretary of State should be required to appoint an advocate, thus removing his discretion. We will have an argument—a discussion—later about whether the advocate should be a standing appointment. On balance, I think it should be, but if it is to be an ad hoc appointment, the Secretary of State should not have discretion about whether to appoint when there has been a major incident. There should always be an appointment. I therefore support amendment 20.
There is also an issue about how we define “major incident”. I always think of these things as public disasters in which a number of people have died—that is my definition—but the Government have chosen to define it slightly differently. No doubt the Minister can enlighten us about precisely how the Government see the interpretation of that phrase.
Anything that can give families some comfort that the Secretary of State is acting in their interests, not with unfettered powers and not without having to discuss things with them, would be an advance on the current drafting. For those reasons, I support the amendments.
At the outset, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for her campaigning on this issue over many years on behalf of not only her constituents, but others whom she has probably never met but who look to her for the leadership that she has shown. They will be grateful for everything that she has done. I also pay tribute to her for the tone that she consistently adopts, which is measured and reasonable.
The right hon. Lady and I had the opportunity to meet, and she introduced me to one of her constituents, whom we subsequently saw before the Committee. The right hon. Lady highlighted the issues of agency and transparency and why the families, having been through all that they have been through, approach these matters in a particular way and have the perspective that they do. We have talked about Hillsborough. Of course, this applies, in recent times, to Grenfell and Manchester Arena, and the survivors and the families of the victims of those horrific events. I also pay tribute to Lord Wills and to my right hon. Friend Mrs May for her work on this issue.
I hope that there is agreement across this Committee Room today on a determination to get it right. There may be discussion about what getting it right looks like, and there may be differences of opinion on that. However, this is a genuine opportunity for this House, for this Parliament, to do something of huge import, notwithstanding the fact that there may be areas where we disagree or approach the issue from slightly different perspectives. There should be a fair degree of consensus and a determination to get the right outcome.
I preface my remarks on all these amendments and clauses with this: I look forward to our discussions today, but I also look forward to the opportunity, where there are areas where we do not coalesce around a single approach, to use the summer recess and beyond, before the Bill comes back on Report, to work with the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, and others to see whether we can move closer together during those months. I hope that the right hon. Lady will take me up on that offer to engage throughout the coming months.
Amendments 20 and 21 focus, as the right hon. Lady said, on the appointment of an independent public advocate, and would remove the discretion of the Secretary of State to decide whether an event meets the definition of a major incident, and whether to appoint an IPA following a major incident that meets the definition. To the right hon. Lady’s point, it may be helpful if I explain why we took the decision to have a broad definition of a major incident in that context. While we may not reach a common position today, I hope that setting out why we have approached it in this way will at least inform further discussions with her and others.
The intended purpose of the IPA is to support victims following a major incident, such as the Hillsborough disaster, the Grenfell Tower fire and the Manchester Arena bombing. Such major incidents are mercifully rare in this country, but when they happen, I think that Members on both sides of the Committee would agree that they would meet the definition in the Bill, and victims would benefit from the appointment of an IPA. There may, however, be incidents that are less clear cut, or which develop over time. It is in that context that we created a broad definition that will allow the necessary flexibility to future-proof the IPA. The consequences of a major incident may not become apparent at the time it occurs, but may manifest themselves over time, with people who have suffered coming forward, and we therefore want to build in a degree of flexibility.
We were also deliberate, to the right hon. Lady’s point, in our use of “may” rather than “must” for appointing an IPA following a major incident, because we believe that the IPA should not duplicate or hinder existing mechanisms. It may be that in some cases an IPA is not needed. For example, following an incident with a high number of injuries but no fatalities, a different approach may be more appropriate. We therefore believe that it is right that the Secretary of State can exercise his or her judgment on the necessity and proportionality of appointing an IPA. Furthermore, other agencies, such as the police, ambulance and fire services, will use the term “major incident” to describe events that may be on a much smaller scale than Hillsborough or Grenfell, or where the appointment of an IPA would not be necessary.
We believe that making it the responsibility of the Secretary of State to determine whether an incident meets the definition, and if so, whether an IPA is necessary, provides a degree of clarity and direct accountability for the decision. Amendment 21, as I read it, does not take issue with our broad definition of a major incident, but removes the ability of the Secretary of State to interpret that definition. Our concern is that, unless that is more clearly and definitively set out, it introduces a degree of ambiguity and a lack of clarity on how the Secretary of State would know when they were or were not under an obligation to appoint an advocate, if they do not interpret the definition of a major incident. Achieving that would likely necessitate defining what is meant by a significant number of individuals, possibly by setting out an arbitrary number of casualties for the threshold for a major incident to be reached.
I have listened to concerns in discussions prior to this Committee that clause 24 provides the Secretary of State with unfettered discretion. If the concern behind the amendments is that the Secretary of State may arbitrarily decide not to appoint an advocate following a major incident, I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government do not intend to limit the support in that way. Any decision not to appoint an IPA would be subject to the usual public law principles, and could be challenged in the courts. We will also publish a detailed policy statement that will set out the considerations that the Secretary of State will have regard to in deciding whether an incident meets the definition of a major incident, and whether to appoint an IPA. Notwithstanding where we get to in terms of what is in the Bill, I am happy to work with the right hon. Lady on that. I am not prejudicing her right to say that she would prefer the provisions to be in the Bill, but the offer is there, if that is the point at which we land.
I believe that, overall, the Government are taking the right approach, which delivers flexibility, accountability and speed. I hope that I have gone some way to reassuring the right hon. Lady and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cardiff North. As I have set out, and I will repeat this for each group of amendments, I am very happy to continue discussions with the Opposition once we have gone through Committee, before we reach Report.
I thank the Minister for his tone in setting out how he is prepared to work with us through the summer to improve the Bill, and specifically on the amendments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood made heartfelt points about her conversations with constituents and the families impacted. We know that so many families have not had answers for so long, and it has touched many deeply. It goes far and wide across the country.
We tabled the two amendments because, as I set out in my argument, the Secretary of State has far too much discretion at the moment, which is deeply troubling. I therefore want to ensure that we work together to improve the clause and make it more robust, and to ensure that the Secretary of State does not have unfettered discretion. I will not push amendment 20 to a vote, but I appreciate that the Minister will work with us to make improvements. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“(1A) In doing so, the Secretary of State must have regard to—
(a) the views of bereaved families,
(b) the relative benefits of an Independent Public Advocate, a public inquiry, or an Independent Panel in relation to cost, timeliness, and transparency of the major incident in question,
(c) any wider public interest”
This amendment would ensure that in exercising the Secretary of State’s discretion as to whether an Independent Public Advocate should be appointed, the Secretary of State must consider the views of the bereaved families and the relatives of how best to get the truth of what happened in the major incident concerned in a timely fashion.
“(4A) An individual may be appointed as an advocate in respect of a major incident only if the Secretary of State has consulted the victims of that incident.”
This amendment ensures that the families are consulted by the Secretary of State about who is an advocate.
I very much welcome the fact that clause 24 enables the Secretary of State to appoint an independent public advocate, no matter how much we might disagree about how we should do it—whether it should be a standing appointment or done on an ad hoc basis, precisely what functions the independent public advocate will have, how he ought to go about his role and, indeed, what that role ought to be. I think there are some differences in all those areas, but there are no differences between us about the fact that there ought to be an independent public advocate.
Across the Committee and the House, we have recognised that something about the aftermath of public disasters—the Minister calls them major incidents; I call them public disasters—is remiss. The way in which we as a society respond to them does not work at present. Although we can hope to minimise the number of disasters, we can never stop them entirely. There have been more since Hillsborough, and there have been more since I introduced my Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill to the Commons and Lord Wills introduced the Public Advocate Bill to the Lords. It would be best if we could get a better arrangement. We all agree on that; the issue is just about how.
The amendment has arisen from my 26 years’ experience of campaigning with the Hillsborough families and survivors to get to the truth of what happened on the day. Usually, families want to know what happened to their loved ones, especially if they have lost them. They want to know that it will not happen to anybody ever again, because they feel the deep distress and pain of having to deal with these issues in the public glare and on all the newspaper front pages. Going suddenly from nowhere to that is pretty hard for people, so they want to know that it will not happen again.
Families want to know that their loved ones have not been lost in vain and that lessons will be learned, and they want to be able to have faith that the investigations over the subsequent period will get to the truth and will not be some way of covering up what happened in order to excuse the feelings—and usually the pockets—of the public authorities that might have some responsibility for it.
The role and functions of the public advocate, as set out in the clause, do not quite accord with what I think is necessary, but I hope that we can agree in due course to improve the Bill so that it becomes a turning point, which it can be, in how we as a society deal with the aftermath of public disasters and the terrible burdens they place on those who become victims, rather than it being a missed opportunity. Clause 24(1) gives the Secretary of State discretion to
“appoint an individual to act as an independent public advocate for victims of a major incident”.
A “major incident” is defined in subsection (2). As we have already mentioned, the clause as currently drafted gives the Secretary of State total discretion about whether to appoint an advocate. Under subsection (4), the person may be appointed only if the Secretary of State considers the person “qualified” and “appropriate”. Subsection (5) details that the person may be qualified by virtue of qualifications, their relationship with a “geographical or other community” or “any other matter” the Secretary of State considers relevant. He has total discretion to consider whether and who to appoint.
Nothing in clause 24 gives any kind of say or agency to the victims of the disaster, whether they be families of the deceased or survivors. That is an omission, and a missed opportunity. At this early stage, the Secretary of State could give the families immediate reassurance—that what they think matters, that their feelings matter and that they have some kind of role in how the state is going to deal with what has happened. Families and survivors of major incidents and disasters often feel powerless in the aftermath as the processes of the state begin to grind forward. Inquiries, inquests—they grind into gear and it makes families feel done to, rather than a part of: they feel that they have no power or role in these matters.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making such a meaningful speech about putting victims first, at the heart of the process. For the independent advocate to really play their role, the victims need to have a say on whether an independent advocate needs to be appointed. The role is there primarily for the victims, not for the Secretary of State.
I agree with that. It is easy to lose trust, and it is hard to gain it; it is very hard to regain it once it is lost—that is my experience of these things.
I will give one example. When Jack Straw became Home Secretary in 1997, he was convinced that something needed to be done, in the aftermath of the drama-documentary “Hillsborough”, which raised some of the issues about what had gone wrong. We should remember that that was some eight years after the disaster—a long time ago, but only eight years after the disaster. A lot of things had already gone wrong in that time. He did not want to set up another public inquiry. What he came to was the Stuart-Smith scrutiny, which looked again at some evidence and reported back a year later.
When Lord Justice Stuart-Smith went to Liverpool to meet the families, the families had been misinformed about precisely which floor of the building he was on, so they were a few minutes late. He immediately made a joke about how they were late like the Liverpool fans on the day. That was not funny; it was crass in the extreme. It showed that he had taken on board utterly the police account of events. People may not know—some will—that a key part of the police smears about Hillsborough, to try to deflect the blame, was that Liverpool fans had turned up late. It immediately destroyed any credibility for that inquiry. The families thought very carefully about walking out and not co-operating with it. I am absolutely certain that there were ructions in the Home Office at the time about what should be done.
I use the example to illustrate the point that the families must have trust in the person and in how the state is to proceed if such an inquiry is to work. The failure of that inquiry wasted a year, upset the families very deeply and destroyed some of the credibility that the new Government of the time had with the families about what could be done to put matters in respect of Hillsborough right. The inquiry revealed one thing that was of use in the end, which was that statements had been altered by the police. That was the first inquiry that reported on that point, but Lord Justice Stuart-Smith did not think it important because it had not fooled Lord Justice Taylor. He was right in that respect; he was wrong in others. With one comment, the trust of the families were gone. They were obviously not consulted about who should head the inquiry. A judge was asked for, a judge was put forward, and that was the unfortunate consequence.
I use that example to illustrate that, once gone, the trust of families in that situation is almost never regained, so it is best to avoid losing it in the first place. One way of doing that is to involve the families in the appointment and ask them whether they think a public advocate is needed, which is why I am strongly in favour of giving them some part to play—some agency—in all this.
Lord Michael Wills said:
“When the Justice Secretary introduced the Bill on Second Reading, he said that ‘in order to deliver justice, victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants’…Exactly right—but that is not what the proposals for the independent public advocate do. They do not give the families effective agency.
As I understand it, the Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered powers to appoint an independent public advocate or not to do so, and unfettered powers to dismiss an independent public advocate. It also gives the Secretary of State sole right to require the independent public advocate to produce a report. As I understand the Government’s proposals, the independent public advocate will not have the right enjoyed by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, for example, to be an independent office that has the right to produce reports on its own initiative. In that way, the Bill does not fulfil the original intention of my Bill, which was to give bereaved families and surviving victims of public disasters effective agency.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
That is the core problem with the Bill as drafted.
Amendments 65 and 66 are designed to ensure that affected families have to be consulted by the Secretary of State in the exercise of his powers. After all, one thing we all agree on is that a public advocate has to be appointed to help families and victims in the aftermath of a disaster, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East reminded us. That will not happen if the families feel disempowered and even alienated by things that are meant to help them.
In appointing an advocate, the Secretary of State must gain the confidence of the families, and I believe that only by consulting them can he hope to do that. In my view, the public advocate’s role will be effective only if the families do not see it as another part of the state seeking to keep them from the truth of what has happened to their loved ones. When families are in a suspicious state of mind about what is being done for them, it is very easy to slip into feeling like that. The danger is that, without consultation and without the families being brought on board, they will not feel as if they have had any real choice about whether there should be an advocate and who it should be.
The Hillsborough Independent Panel worked as well as it did only because the families had confidence in it. They were not bound to have confidence in it; that confidence was gained and kept. At the time the panel was appointed, more than two decades after the incident, the families felt repeatedly let down by the legal system, inquiries and the organs of the state, and were in a pretty suspicious state of mind. Trevor Hicks—the president of the Hillsborough Family Support Group for many years, who lost both his daughters at Hillsborough—frequently said to me over the years, “That’s another kick in the teeth,” after yet another effort to get the truth acknowledged had failed or after another initiative had been thwarted. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, and the families felt that very strongly, so when the state set something up to help them, they were innately suspicious about what was really going to happen.
Amendment 65 states that in exercising his discretion about whether to appoint an advocate,
“the Secretary of State must have regard to…the views of bereaved families…any wider public interest” and
“the relative benefits of an Independent Public Advocate, a public inquiry, or an Independent Panel in relation to cost, timeliness, and transparency” in the search for truth. Families want to get to the truth as soon as possible. They want to learn the lessons from the mistakes and what went wrong, and they want to ensure that nothing like what happened to them happens to anybody else. That is what affected families repeatedly tell me they want.
My own Public Advocate Bill, which was introduced in the Lords by Lord Michael Wills, envisaged a standing appointment. Discretion about whether any particular incident reached the threshold for his involvement would rest with the advocate, but the families would have the power to ask him to get involved or not after he decided that an incident qualified. That is one way of doing it. It gives the families the agency in the aftermath of disasters that they so clearly lack at present. It deals with the delay between an incident occurring and the appointment of an advocate, which the ad hoc appointments envisaged in clause 24 might create. I acknowledge that the Government’s scheme does not allow for that kind of arrangement, but at least with the amendment the families would have to be consulted about whether someone should be appointed and who it should be so they are not completely bypassed, as they currently are in the Bill.
Under amendment 66, an individual may be appointed as an advocate only if the Secretary of State has consulted the victims of the incident. Again, it is about gaining the trust of families—an overt recognition that they matter and are an essential part of the process. There is a debate to be had at a later stage about a standing appointment but, with an ad hoc appointment, gaining the confidence of the families has to be paramount; in my view, the Secretary of State can gain that confidence only by consulting the families about the appointment.
I rise to support my right hon. Friend on these two amendments. The pain of these bereaved families runs deep and the resonance of what happened, particularly at Hillsborough, runs incredibly wide, as we have heard described so brilliantly by my right hon. Friend. But of course the point is widely known and acknowledged across many of the debates and discussions that go on.
These are two core issues, right at the heart of the matter: inclusion of the bereaved families, who are going through that pain, in these decisions, and inclusion of those families when consulting. We need to ensure that they are consulted. They have felt disenfranchised. They have felt left behind. This change would make up for it.
First, I should have said in response to the previous set of amendments that I am grateful to the shadow Minister for her tone on this part of the Bill and the way Opposition Front Benchers are approaching it. We may find that there remain, after Committee stage, some areas where we have differences, but I think it is incumbent on both sides of the House to work together, to the best of our ability, to try to find a way forward that delivers on our shared objectives.
The right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood mentioned Jack Straw in 1997. I can remember the Labour party coming to power in 1997—I had just finished my A-levels and left school at the time. I believe that that was when the right hon. Lady entered this House.
Therefore I am always sensitive to the depth of experience and knowledge that the right hon. Lady brings as a parliamentarian to these proceedings. I am very grateful to her for these amendments, which seek to give agency to the families bereaved by a major incident—or public disaster, to use her terminology—provide them with influence over who is appointed as an advocate, and specifically define criteria to which the Secretary of State must have due regard when appointing an advocate.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of trust and agency. First, on trust, we all know as politicians that it is very easy to very swiftly lose trust. It takes an awfully long time to rebuild it afterwards. That is why—this is my second point—she is absolutely right to highlight the importance of tone and language. In the aftermath of a major public disaster like the one that we have been discussing, particularly when it is many years down the line of—for want of a better way of putting it—having to fight the system to get the truth, people are, understandably, very sensitive to the language and tone, so I am sympathetic to the aims of these amendments. I want to say again that the Government do recognise the need to give families a voice and some sort of agency in decisions about the support that is provided.
My concern is that the practicalities of consulting families in the immediate aftermath of a disaster could be difficult, especially at a time when they are dealing with their immediate grief. At that point, they may not necessarily have coalesced into a support group—a single group or a number of groups—and may still be disparate individuals, with different views, who may not be in a position to compute what they might like to see in the future, because of the immediate consequences.
Perhaps a standing appointment is the answer, because such a person, who was there anyway, would be able immediately to spring into action and consult the families.
This goes to my slight concern about the amendments. I am concerned that identifying and consulting bereaved families and victims, and trying to avoid missing anyone or people feeling that they did not have agency because they were not identified or engaged at the time, could risk delaying the IPA being appointed and support reaching victims. I take the right hon. Lady’s point, and I suspect that we will return to this when we talk about the nature of the appointment, but there are questions of timing and speed versus engagement, and how we would practically go about this. I know it is not the intention of the right hon. Lady, who wishes to ensure agency for families, and I am happy to continue our conversation to see if there is a way we can strike that balance between agency and engagement, but also avoid delay in practical terms. At present, victims would be able to make their representations to the Secretary of State, use their MPs and, ultimately, challenge a decision in court.
The Government intend to ensure that advocates are on the ground to provide support as swiftly as possible after a major incident. To ensure that support is tailored to a particular incident, our approach, which I suspect we will also debate later today, is to set up a register of advocates from a range of different professions, backgrounds and geographical areas. That will help to ensure that, as far as possible, those appointed have the necessary skills and expertise directly relevant to the incident in question or to the community or geography where it occurred. The views of the victims may well become apparent in the weeks following the appointment of an advocate and may have an important bearing on the appointment of a second or third advocate, or a team. One such advocate could, under the provisions as drafted, be put forward for appointment from the community affected by the major incident.
I recognise and understand the intent behind the amendments. In our conversations, the right hon. Lady has impressed on me just how important the sense of having agency and influence is for victims, survivors and families of victims in the aftermath of an incident. My concern is that there is a risk that the amendments could cause unnecessary delays in support reaching victims, which would run counter to the purpose of the IPA. None the less, given the right hon. Lady’s points about agency and the sense of powerlessness, I am happy to engage with her to see if there is a way that we can square the circle of timeliness, agency and engagement.
I do not intend to press the amendments to a vote. The Minister is being his usual constructive self, and I am sure that over the summer between all of us we will be able to rewrite the Bill so it looks a lot more like mine. [Laughter.] Sorry, I let that slip. We will be able to improve the Bill significantly so that it will do an appropriate and, hopefully, good job for those caught up in public disasters. On the basis of the Minister’s assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“(4A) If the circumstances in subsection (2) are not met, the Secretary of State may still declare a major incident where there is a significant public interest in doing so.
(4B) Where the Secretary of State declares a major incident under subsection (4A), they must appoint an individual to act as an independent public advocate for victims of that incident.”
This amendment would enable the Secretary of State to designate incidents other than those that meet the definition of major incidents as such where there is a significant public interest in doing so.
Amendment 22 aims to alleviate the restrictive nature of granting a major incident only in the circumstances outlined in clause 24. It recognises that there may be incidents that do not have a direct impact on a significant number of people in the way that the definition of a major incident in the Bill requires, but that should none the less be considered major incidents for the purpose of appointing a public advocate. Such incidents include those where a relatively small number of people have died or suffered serious harm in circumstances that suggest serious systemic failings on the part of a public body, and those where there appears to be a serious risk that such circumstances may recur or that a significant number of people may be harmed in the future. In such instances, effective investigations into the deaths, so that lessons can be learned and further harm avoided, would be in the public interest. The appointment of an independent advocate in such cases would ensure that by promoting transparency, enabling victims to get to the truth and ensuring accountability, just as the former Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, outlined in the Chamber during the debate on independent public advocates on
As I have said, I disagree with the amount of discretion that the Bill outlines for the Secretary of State, but if clause 24 is not amended the Secretary of State should at least have the discretion to declare instances, such as those described in the Bill, that would not fall under the definition of major incidents currently provided, and therefore appoint an advocate in respect of them.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff North for tabling the amendment, which would expand the scope of the IPA by giving the Secretary of State the power to appoint an IPA to support victims of an incident that does not meet the definition of a major incident in the Bill, but where the Secretary of State believes there is a significant public interest in doing so.
I understand the intention behind the amendment, particularly when taken alongside amendments 20 and 21, which we just debated. Amendment 22 would give back the Secretary of State some discretion to appoint an IPA following an event if they wanted to. However, it is important to remember that the IPA is intended to respond to exceptional events that present unique challenges. We use the term “major incidents”, but I acknowledge the term “public disaster” and I can understand why the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood uses it. I fear that the amendment may set a potentially unhelpful expectation and precedent that the IPA might be appointed to support victims who have not been caught up in a major incident, thereby increasing the scope and diluting the focus of the IPA. It would, for example, allow the appointment of an IPA where there are no injuries or fatalities. That is not the policy intention in part 2 of the Bill.
We are seeking to keep the focus narrowly on the intention to have the IPA in place for major incidents. We will debate some of the nuances and sub-elements of that, I suspect, but we want to keep that focus. In fact, not all events that involve fatalities or injuries will require the support of the IPA. Any event that results in harm and/or loss of life is a serious, but the intention and focus of the IPA is that it will become involved in only those circumstances where ensuring the effective engagement of the bereaved families and victims is likely to be a particular challenge and the IPA can add value in helping to give them agency.
Clause 24 already provides the Secretary of State with the necessary discretion when declaring a major incident to take account of a broad range of factors, which will probably include the public interest. As I have stated, we will publish a policy statement that sets out the factors to be considered. I note the intention behind the amendment, but I hope the hon. Member for Cardiff North will not press it to a Division.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I accept his assurance that where it is in the public interest, declaring major incidents will be within the scope of the Secretary of State’s discretion. If I am wrong in that, perhaps he will intervene. I am grateful to him for putting that on record.
I would us to find a way to keep the focus on where there is a significant public interest—for example, when a relatively small number of people have died or suffered harm but the circumstances suggest serious systemic failings on the part of a public body. In those circumstances it would be in the public interest and lessons can be learned for the future. I hope we can move forward, as the Minister has given the assurance that an incident would be included, if that was in the public interest. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
“(8) For the purposes of clause 24 (7), close family members means—
(a) a husband, wife or civil partner from a marriage or partnership that was in existence at the time of the event;
(b) a child;
(c) a grandchild;
(d) a parent;
(e) a sibling;
(f) a half-sibling;
(g) a grandparent;
(h) a niece or nephew;
(i) a half-aunt or half-uncle;
(j) a cohabitant with the deceased;
(k) the executor of the deceased’s last will and testament;”.
This amendment defines the meaning of close family member in clause 24.
Amendment 67 and 68 are probing amendments, which are intended to explore who the Government intend to be the recipient of help from the public advocate that they are establishing under the Bill.
Clause 24(7)(a) defines the victims who are to benefit from the service of the public advocate, once appointed, as
“individuals who have been harmed by the incident (whether or not that harm is serious harm)”.
That seems to mean survivors, who are certainly one group that the public advocate should aim to help, but subsection (7)(b) says that victims also include
“close family members or close friends of individuals who have died or suffered serious harm as a result of the incident.”
The paragraph does not define “close family members”; nor does it define “close friends”, which is a much more uncertain and ambiguous term than “close family members”, although there is uncertainty in both.
Suppose that I am a second cousin. Is that “close family”? What about an aunt who is particularly close to a niece who has unfortunately died. Is that close enough? Or does it depend on the specific relationship in each case? If so, is the close family member supposed to prove that a family relationship that looks, on the face of it, to be a little distant is in fact close? What about a close friend? That could be anyone.
I well remember being in Manchester on the day of the Arena bombing. I was not at the Arena, but the sense of shock in the city was palpable. One of the news items that day was about the sad loss of Nell Jones, a 14-year-old girl from Cheshire. Her teacher said of the class:
“They’ve lost a sister not a classmate”, and explained that they had been together since reception class. I think there is a bit of scope for a close friend to be included.
I do not disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about trying to cope with all situations, but it is quite hard—as a lawyer, he knows this—to get the definitions right. Through the probing amendments I am seeking to get the Government to be clear. Like most lawyers, I work on the assumption that uncertainty is undesirable—although it can be lucrative. In this context, wrangles over who might be allowed to get support are certainly not desirable.
The amendments are about trying to get the Government to set out a little more clearly than they do in the Bill precisely what they mean by these unusual phrases. I cannot think of another piece of legislation that refers to “close friends”. Perhaps the Minister will have an example that will show that I have not looked far enough—no doubt he will. That is the point of the probing amendments: simply to get to the bottom of precisely what the Minister is seeking to achieve.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for her amendments. I appreciate that she is, both as a parliamentarian and with her legal background, exploring what greater clarity can be provided. I sympathise with her. I take her point about ambiguity occasionally being beneficial to the legal profession but not necessarily to others, and about the desire to be as clear as possible about whom the IPA will support.
Our concern is about placing a definition of “close family members” in the Bill. We are all conscious, from our constituency work and more broadly, that there is no set family structure. A person’s second cousin, aunt or whoever may be much closer to that person than a very close relative is. We have sought create a degree of flexibility, so that the Bill can capture those who need support. Our approach is to use guidance to more clearly define how that would work, while still allowing the IPA a degree of discretion and flexibility. I am happy to work with the right hon. Lady on that guidance. With her legal mind as well as her parliamentary one, we might square that circle.
I would not support removing the ability of the IPA to support a close friend of a victim, because I fear that doing so could have the unintended consequence of excluding some victims from support. There may be some circumstances where someone injured in a major incident cannot receive the support of the IPA directly and does not have any close family ties, but has a close friend, a companion or another person who is deeply affected by what has happened, and who may be the only person they have left. We would wish such people to have the agency to engage with the IPA and receive their support directly. We therefore think that it is appropriate to allow the IPA to provide support to a close friend. I do not imagine that necessarily being the norm, but the provision is a safeguard to avoid being unduly restrictive and inadvertently excluding people.
I am reminded of the bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub, when a number of people who were actually partners of victims, but who were not confident enough to be out, therefore described themselves as close friends. I would hope, as I think would all Members, that the world has moved on since then, but there is a risk that if we tighten the definition too much, people like that might not get the support they need. I hope that the world and society have moved on, but I just want to ensure that we have that safeguard in place.
I do understand the right hon. Lady’s intention in tabling the amendments, but I believe that they would narrow the definition of a victim in a such a way as inadvertently to exclude people who needed support. However, I am open to working with her—with her legal brain, as well as her parliamentary one—on the guidance to see whether we could, without being unduly prescriptive and while still being permissive, tighten it up a little more from a legal perspective. I am happy to work with her on that.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 15—Appointment of a standing independent public advocate—
“(1) The Secretary of State must appoint an individual to act as an independent public advocate for victims of major incidents.
(2) The Secretary of State must pay to or in respect of an advocate—
(a) such remuneration as the Secretary of State considers appropriate;
(b) reasonable costs incurred by the advocate in connection with the exercise of their functions, including those incurred in connection with proceedings relating to the exercise (or purported exercise) of those functions;
(c) such other sums by way of allowances or gratuities as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(3) The Secretary of State must make provision for the advocate to have an efficient and effective system of support, including secretarial support, in connection with the exercise of their functions.
(4) The independent public advocate may undertake the functions set out in section [functions and powers of the independent public advocate] for a particular event when—
(a) invited to do so by the Secretary of State, or
(b) for that event both requirements one and two have been met.
(5) Requirement one is that, in the advocate’s opinion, a major incident has occurred.
(6) A major incident is an incident that has caused the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals and involved—
(a) serious health and safety issues,
(b) a failure in regulation, or
(c) other events of serious concern.
(7) For these purposes, ‘harm’ includes physical, mental or emotional harm.
(8) In reaching an opinion under subsection (5), the advocate must have regard to previous decisions of the advocate.
(9) Requirement two is that the advocate has been asked to undertake their functions by fifty per cent plus one or more of the total of—
(a) representatives of those deceased due to the event, and
(b) any injured survivors of the event.”
I will speak to clause 24 now, and to new clause 15 in my concluding remarks, once I have heard what the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood wishes to say about it.
Clause 24 enables the Secretary of State to appoint independent public advocates for victims of a major incident. Thankfully, major incidents—or public disasters—involving significant loss of life and serious injury are relatively rare in this country. However, they do happen, and when they do the processes that follow can be complex and daunting for victims and the bereaved. Despite the progress made in recent years, it is clear, as the right hon. Lady eloquently set out, that significant concerns remain about the extent to which the voices of the victims are heard, the agency that they have, and how fully they are supported in participating in the processes that aim to establish what happened and why. Clause 24 marks an important step forward.
As well as giving the Secretary of State the power to appoint an advocate, the clause defines “major incident” and “harm” for part 2 of the Bill. It is not possible to predict the exact nature of future incidents or disasters where an IPA may be required. The definition of a major incident is therefore intentionally broad to ensure that the Secretary of State has maximum flexibility to appoint an IPA to respond to a wide range of incidents.
The Government’s intention is to appoint an advocate as soon as possible after a major incident. Clause 24 sets out the sorts of things that the Secretary of State may consider when deciding whether an individual is appropriate to be appointed as an advocate. Those include previous qualifications, the individual’s geographical location and the impacted community and its needs. That ensures that decisions are made with a victim-centric approach. In taking a decision to appoint an advocate, the Secretary of State may have regard to the geographical area of the incident and, as previously set out, any particular community directly affected.
The Secretary of State will be able to appoint more than one advocate in respect of the same major incident where that is deemed necessary. Each major incident will be different and likely to require a specific set of skills and experience from the advocate. The clause seeks to ensure that there is enough flexibility to appoint the right people, and we believe that having the ability to appoint multiple advocates will help to provide the necessary resilience and diversity.
The Government believes it is right that the decision to stand up the IPA rests with the Secretary of State, who is accountable to Parliament for their decisions and for public expenditure. We do not think that a permanent body is necessary, given the rarity of the events in question. Nor do we believe that it is right to require victims to make such a decision when they are dealing with the immediate impact of their injuries and grief. However, we do recognise the importance of giving victims agency, which is why we are continuing to think about the role that victims can play in the appointment of more than one advocate following the immediate aftermath. I offer to work with the right. hon Lady to see if there is a way we can square that circle.
The clause also enables the Secretary of State to appoint a community leader if representations are made by the community. If an incident occurs and the IPA is not stood up, victims will be able to make representations to the IPA secretariat or their local elected MP to ask for one to be appointed. Those representations will be carefully considered, and a decision on whether to appoint an advocate can always be revisited.
Finally, clause 24 defines a victim of a major incident for part 2 of the Bill. Victims include individuals who have been harmed as a result of being present at the incident, and close family members or close friends of those who have died or suffered serious harm as a result of being present. We recognise that being present at a major incident can affect a person emotionally and mentally as well as physically, which is why the definition of harm for this part of the Bill includes physical, mental or emotional harm. There will be no test for harm as we do not wish to place an additional burden on victims or delay their receiving the support they urgently need.
Most of my comments about my amendments still stand. It is incredibly important that we bear in mind the words of Lord Wills, who said that a different approach is needed. He quoted the Justice Secretary’s comment that
“victims must be treated not as mere spectators of the criminal justice system, but as core participants in it.”—[Official Report,
At present, as Lord Wills says,
“the Bill gives the Secretary of State unfettered powers”.––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Before I say a few things about clause 24 stand part, I would like to speak to my new clause 15.
At the beginning of our consideration of part 2 of the Bill, I said that my own Public Advocate Bill and the Government’s Bill envisage the role of a public advocate somewhat differently, although there are points of similarity. New clause 15 sets out roles and functions that are closer to what I would like to see in the Bill. It would require the Secretary to State to appoint an individual to act as a public advocate for victims of major incidents, and to ensure an efficient and effective means of support, with appropriate remuneration and reasonable costs, to carry out the functions assigned to the post. It would be a standing appointment, rather than an ad-hoc appointment on a case-by-case basis.
I have been closely following the right hon. Lady’s points about consulting victims, but a standing appointment may not be suitable for each set of circumstances or each set of victims. How does she square that circle?
My own view is that these kinds of public disaster occur infrequently. My main worry is whether a single standing appointment would be able to cope if more than one disaster occurred at the same time. As I envisage it, the independence of the role and the fact that it is a standing appointment would enable that person to act swiftly. It would have to be somebody who is a people person and is able to relate to individuals in trauma. The appointment itself would have to take into account the kind of qualities that the person would need, but I believe a proper person could be found who would be suitable in most circumstances.
Under the Bill’s approach, the Minister appointing a public advocate would be looking at the geography, the communities and the skills necessary for a particular major incident. With a standing appointment, we might end up with somebody who would be good for one incident but not another.
I acknowledge that there are pros and cons to both approaches. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is pointing out what he sees as the downside of a standing appointment. One could envisage circumstances in which a standing appointment may have downsides, but there are also upsides. In the end, to get their legislation through, the Government must judge which approach they prefer. I simply seek to persuade the Minister and the Government that a standing appointment may have more pros than cons—and more pros than an ad hoc appointment, which has downsides too. My approach has always been that there should be a standing appointment rather than an ad hoc one.
There was extensive support for that approach in this Committee’s evidence sessions. Bishop James Jones said:
“I do not think that that independence is sufficiently guaranteed by the Bill as it stands; I think it can be guaranteed only if it is a standing appointment.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
He made the point that independence is tremendously important, and that that requires a standing appointment. He also said:
“Contrary to the Government’s proposal, I believe that there should be a standing independent public advocate. Why? Because in the immediate aftermath of a public tragedy, people are grief-stricken and traumatised. They are unprepared and disorientated, and they no longer feel in control of their life. It is in that immediate moment that they need an advocate—somebody who will represent them to Government and signpost them to the agencies that are available to support them in that moment of trauma.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Lord Wills, too, believes that there should be a standing appointment. That is perhaps not surprising, because the Bill he introduced in the Lords, which has just had its Second Reading, includes a standing appointment. He said:
“I believe it should be a standing appointment, for the reasons that the bishop set out extremely well. In the turmoil of the aftermath of a big public disaster, it is important that someone is on the ground immediately to support the families. I do believe that, and I think it is a perfectly achievable position to have. A secretariat could be drawn together at short notice—a standing secretariat, as it were. It would be doing work within the civil service, but when a public disaster happened it could be brought to bear to act as a secretariat for the independent public advocate.
I hate to think of what might happen. If you imagine a big terrorist incident, for example, the Government would be in turmoil anyway, and then they would have to find the time and space to go through all the selection processes, find out people’s availability and negotiate terms of reference. In the meantime, the poor families are left without anyone to support them, as they always have been up until now. It rather defeats the object of this whole exercise. So I am in favour of having a standing appointment.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
We can see that there are pros and cons, whichever way one decides to do that. I just happen to have come down on the side of a standing appointment being preferable on balance. That is the approach that Michael Wills and I took when drafting our own version, which has the advantage of the postholder being able to go into action immediately with no delay required.
My new clause envisages two scenarios in which the advocate is called into action. The first is where the Secretary of State invites him to get involved; I hope the Minister will be pleased to see that I am not entirely excluding action by the Secretary of State. The second is if the advocate thinks a major incident has occurred that meets the requirement under new clause 15(6) and the advocate has been asked to undertake the function by a majority of representatives of the deceased and injured survivors of the incident.
That part of the clause puts into legislation my idea, and Lord Wills’s idea, that there should be agency for the families, that they must have a role in deciding whether the advocate gets involved and that the advocate himself should decide whether the definition of major incident or public disaster is met. Subsection (6) defines a major incident as one
“that has caused the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals and involved—
(a) serious health and safety issues,
(b) a failure in regulation, or
(c) other events of serious concern.”
The key difference from the Bill as drafted by the Government is that the affected families and survivors can get the advocate—who will already be in post—involved, should a majority of them wish to do so, even if the Secretary of State has not asked the advocate to get involved. The advocate can make it clear that he thinks that an incident meets the threshold for his involvement—if, indeed, he thinks that—on the basis of precedent. Obviously there will have to be a few involvements before precedent can come into it.
That would deliver one of the key requirements for a public advocate to succeed, in my view, which is to ensure that the affected families have some agency about whether his services should be called upon in respect of a particular incident. Those families must feel that they can call the advocate in to help them navigate the aftermath and get to the truth.
The trust and confidence of the families of the deceased and survivors is a crucial requirement for the post of public advocate to be introduced successfully. Enabling them to have a meaningful say in whether the advocate should be involved is an important way to establish that trust from an early stage. It also emphasises the independence of the advocate at a very early stage of his involvement: if the families ask him to get involved, and if he can decide that a particular incident falls within the definition of “serious incident” and triggers his possible involvement, it is quite clear that he is independent and is not being told what to do by the Government of the day, about whom there may be some suspicion among those who have been caught up in the incident.
The independence of the advocate from the Government is another vital way in which families and survivors can have trust and confidence, which can be gained at an early stage and reinforced thereafter during the processes that follow a public disaster. That was emphasised in our evidence session, particularly by Jenni Hicks, who is one of the Hillsborough mums. She said that
“as it stands at the moment, the Government’s suggestions for an independent public advocate just would not work. It would just not be independent, because it is too dependent on the Minister. It seems that the supposedly independent public advocate will be answerable to the Secretary of State, which does not sound like independence to me.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Jenni said that she thought it was
“vitally important that we have this facility, but that we have it correctly”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
She said that independence is a key part. She also said:
“When you are caught up in disasters, particularly if there is propaganda surrounding it, you need to be able to trust—you would need trust in a public advocate in a team. By having to report to a Minister, you are thinking, ‘Well, who is in charge of this? Is it the public advocate or is it the Minister?’ I do not think that would go down very well.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Jenni speaks with decades of cynicism about what has happened to her in her quest to get to the truth, so one might take the view that she is jaded, but there is nobody more experienced than a Hillsborough mum in understanding what the state does to people after a public disaster. We would do well to listen to her experience and what she has to say.
Lord Wills said:
“In some way, families have to be given effective agency, and that must mean some fettering of the powers on the Secretary of State. I am agnostic about the way to do that, and I have always accepted that my private Member’s Bill was not perfect.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
He, too, is willing to change arrangements, and ensuring that the Secretary of State has regard to the wishes of the bereaved and surviving victims would be a good start at making a way forward.
When we come to later amendments, especially those related to the functions of the public advocate, I will talk a bit more about how the Bill is different from what I envisaged. However, I turn now to clause 24. I share one very large perspective with the Minister—that having a public advocate available to help victims in the aftermath of a disaster is entirely desirable—so I welcome the Government’s intention for this part of the Bill, even if I keep saying that I would do things differently. I hope he will not be too offended. My support for the clause arises from my long-standing experience.
For the families of the 97 who died at Hillsborough and the thousands of traumatised survivors who had to fight for a lifetime to be properly acknowledged by our society and to get the correct inquest verdicts of unlawful killing, it was 23 years until they got the truth fully acknowledged and had an apology from the Prime Minister of the day, David Cameron, for what they had to go through. That is despite the fact that the original public inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor laid the blame for the disaster squarely at the door of the South Yorkshire police and admonished them for their lies, within four months of the disaster occurring. They just carried on seeking to deflect the blame elsewhere. This part of the Bill should seek to remedy the problem of public authorities such as the South Yorkshire police using their entire budget, resources and effort over decades to try to avoid being blamed for what they have done wrong.
Decades of litigation resulted in deep trauma for the Hillsborough families and survivors. The lies, slurs and abuse that have been directed at families, victims and survivors over 34 years mean that no one has been held accountable for the unlawful killing—that is what it was—of 97 innocent children, women and men. It was only the Hillsborough Independent Panel, a non-legal process of getting to the truth through transparency and publishing documentation, that led to the full truth being reiterated to a shocked public 23 years after the event. That led to David Cameron’s apology to the families as Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box, not only for what had happened to them, but for the lies and slurs that had followed, all perpetrated by public authorities using taxpayers’ money to pay for it. That is how they did it—they did not raise the money themselves, as the families defending the reputations of their loved ones had to.
It struck me then that if the Hillsborough Independent Panel could obtain and publish the truth on such a hugely documented and controversial matter in two years, which is what it did—it looked at hundreds of thousands of documents and published almost all of them—we should not lose the learning from that process. There will continue to be disasters, and many will have similar features.
As Michael Wills said in evidence:
“The prevention of a cover-up is essential in the wider interests of our democracy. People are losing faith in our democratic institutions. When they feel that Governments are covering up things that are crucial to them, they lose faith. In my view, that is worrying and dangerous.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
Jenni Hicks said:
“I am hoping that an independent public advocate and their team would be able to have sight of the documentation that is needed to get to the truth. There has got to be transparency. We did not have that transparency until 2012—it took 23 years for us to have transparency about how our loved ones died.”––[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee,
That is the learning from the Hillsborough Independent Panel that we should be seeking to harness to make sure that this kind of problem never occurs again in the aftermath of disasters, even though we know that unfortunately disasters will occur. That is why I began to argue for the creation of a public advocate to help and guide families in the aftermath of public disasters: to help them to get to the truth much sooner than usually happens.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I am the Member of Parliament who represents the majority of the families affected by the Birmingham pub bombings. When things do not go right, untold damage is done to families’ mental and physical health, and—as she has said—to their trust in any institution. That has to be stopped. We have an opportunity to stop our constituents, many of whom have still not got their truth, from having to go through years of ill health again, at a cost to the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. She will know from her own constituency experience of representing those caught up in the Birmingham pub bombings how dangerous and awful it is, not only for the families involved. We are talking intergenerational, here. Many of those still active in trying to get more accountability in respect of Hillsborough were barely born—sometimes not even born—at the time it happened. They are daughters, sons and other relatives who were not even alive. And the effect is not just on families intergenerationally; it is felt across communities.
The damage that Hillsborough has done to faith in the police in Liverpool since that time has been enormous, and it is intergenerational. It was not the Merseyside police—it was South Yorkshire police and the West Midlands police. That does not just go away. Some 30,000 people turned up at Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the disaster. That is why the Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up; that is why we were able to get it set up. The rest of the country was amazed that, 20 years on, 30,000 people would turn up to the service. It would have been more, if they had let more in. I was there on that day. I was not surprised to see what we saw on that day.
In two years, the Hillsborough Independent Panel unravelled the lies of ages. By publishing the documents and its account of what had really happened, it was able, incontrovertibly, to lay to rest all those lies and slurs and to elicit a heartfelt apology from the then Prime Minister David Cameron—who I think was a bit shocked when he read the report and saw what had happened.
We must not let this happen again. The issue is about torpedoing cover-ups as well as helping families. It is about stopping things from going wrong. As a lawyer, I know that the only way Hillsborough could have been stopped from getting as bad as it has got would be to have stopped it from going wrong in the first place. I believe that creating a mechanism through which transparency and truth can be focused on at an earlier stage and be told at the beginning is the way to stop things from going wrong. The legal system does not always appear to be able to do it, and I believe that the Hillsborough Independent Panel-type process is the way in which we can do it.
I unequivocally welcome the Government’s commitment, but I urge the Minister and the Government to have more ambition for what can be achieved through the process. It should not just be signposting to get immediate help in the aftermath of a disaster for those caught up in it; it should be about nothing less than us preventing things from going wrong in the aftermath, as a society looking after and supporting those caught up through no fault of their own in such disasters. It should be about ensuring that the organs of the state do not use taxpayers’ money and their capacity to be defensive—that appears to be infinite—to prevent themselves from facing up to the truth of what has happened.
I am grateful, as ever, to the right hon. Lady not only for her campaigning on behalf of her constituents and others, but for her ministerial career—the roles she held as Minister for Children, Minister for Northern Ireland and at the Ministry of Justice. What runs through that is her commitment to ensuring that those who are vulnerable, or who do not always have agency or a voice, are heard, and that their interests are respected and reflected in the actions of Government. I pay tribute to her. I also pay tribute to Lord Wills for not only his work but his evidence, as well as the meeting that the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and I had with him previously.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her new clause 15. It would fundamentally alter the structure and operation of the IPA by establishing a permanent independent public advocate. She and I probably fall on opposite sides of the debate about a standing or an ad hoc IPA. She rightly highlighted the pros and cons on both sides of that debate. She falls on one side, and I fall slightly more on the other. I suspect that we may yet return to that debate.
There are many possible models for an IPA. The clauses in part 2 of the Bill introduce an IPA that reflects the model we consulted on in 2018, with the responses we received to it. We have heard from victims that a swift deployment of the IPA to provide support in the immediate aftermath is vital. Our view is that the IPA as proposed in the Bill achieves that, while balancing the need to be mindful of public funds and the right process to be followed after a major incident.
New clause 15 would establish a permanent IPA that could determine independently of Government that an event is a major incident. As has been previously set out, we do not think that a permanent body is necessary, given the rarity of the events in question for which the IPA would be deployed. Furthermore, we believe it is right and proportionate that the Secretary of State, who is accountable to Parliament, decides what a major incident is and when to appoint an IPA.
Should individuals disagree with the Secretary of State’s decision in respect of a particular incident, I would expect my fellow right hon. and hon. Members to make full use of their positions to hold the Government to account through urgent questions and similar means of bringing Ministers to the Dispatch Box.
I appreciate what the Minister is saying. I cannot foresee any incident involving even one death, certainly not one involving multiple deaths, after which pressure would not be brought to bear on the Secretary of State to do that. In essence, we are asking victims to do the work in the aftermath—they have to get in touch with their Members of Parliament and immediately start pushing. Their family has just been blown up or their kid has been shot, and we are saying that, first and foremost, they have to become political activists to get their Member of Parliament to represent them to the Secretary of State, rather than providing a place for them to go in that circumstance—which feels kinder.
I do not think that is in any way what is being suggested; the hon. Lady misunderstands. Our view is that the accountability for making that decision should rightly sit with the Secretary of State, not with another party.
The right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood takes a different view. I respect her perspective and understand where she is coming from. She rightly acknowledged that there were pros and cons to both approaches. She believes that the pros of a standing advocate outweigh the cons. I find myself on the other side of that argument and I suspect we might return to it. A decision by the Secretary of State could in extremis be challenged through the court system, but we do not envisage that being necessary.
The IPA will be supported by a permanent secretariat; the Ministry of Justice has already allocated funding for that. Clause 25, which we will turn to, provides for an effective system of support for the IPA by making provisions for a secretariat and remuneration. We therefore consider that that aspect is duplicative in the amendment tabled by the right hon. Lady.
I turn to the definition of a major incident and the specific points that the right hon. Lady has included. Again, we do not believe it is necessary to include additional considerations in the Bill. Given the unpredictable nature of the incidents in question, the definition of a major incident is purposefully broad—one might say “permissive” in this context—and further detail can be set out in a policy statement, as I mentioned earlier, while providing a degree of flexibility given what might be a subjective decision and the nature of the circumstances. That will ensure that the Secretary of State has maximum flexibility to appoint an IPA to respond to a wide range of incidents.
Defining a major incident as proposed in the new clause could arguably require a finding of fact or a pre-judgment of cause before the IPA could be deployed, especially regarding proving a failure in health and safety or regulation. Again, there is a risk that that could cause delays in the support of the IPA reaching the victims as well as presenting wider legal issues for the IPA. We believe that the definition in clause 24 as it stands is the right one for primary legislation, but, as I have said, I will provide additional detail through a policy statement and will work with the right hon. Lady on that if she so desires.
I turn finally to requirement two, which the IPA, as the right hon. Lady envisions, would need to meet before supporting victims. That would necessitate the IPA gaining the support of 50% plus one of the bereaved and injured. I sympathise with the intention to involve victims in the process—I take the point about agency and trust. However, I cannot see how that might work in practice without potentially, in the immediate aftermath of an incident, delaying the deployment of the IPA. That would cause concern.
In the immediate aftermath, it is unlikely that all eligible victims could be easily identified and surveyed to ascertain whether they would want an IPA to be deployed. They might not even be in the right place mentally or emotionally to be able to engage with such a question. Furthermore, the number of victims might change over time, and people might withdraw their consent, so the quorum approach is not the best way to address the issue.
Victim engagement, agency and a sense of empowerment are, as the right hon. Lady says, vital. Those are good things, but they will not achieve what we seek: in the aftermath of a major incident, to carry the trust of people that the IPA is on their side. Although I understand its intent, our concern is that the new clause is not the best way to achieve that.