Amendment 34A

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:15 pm ar 5 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Bach:

Moved by Lord Bach

34A: Clause 6 page 5 line 25, at end insert—“(4A) Regulations under subsection (2) must require information about compliance with the victims’ code to be linked to a consistent victim identifier that is used across the agencies of the criminal justice system.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment comes from the perspective that achieving the Bill's aims of putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system requires addressing the issue that the information systems used by criminal justice agencies do not at present collect or share information satisfactorily.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

My Lords, although this amendment has been put down rather late, I hope that once the Committee has heard about it, it will realise that it has some potential importance in this debate. I want to thank publicly the Public Bill Office of this House, which is superb in the way in which it deals with each of us in turn so ably. For it to be able, on Friday afternoon with an hour to go before closing, to deal so satisfactorily with the issue that I now raise is a real compliment to it, and I do not think you would see that in every part of the public or private services.

The Bill was introduced with the express aim to

“put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/5/23; col. 666.]

That this legislation is necessary is an acknowledgement of the fact that, for far too long, the processes and systems adopted by our criminal justice agencies have failed to prioritise victims and have, inadvertently perhaps, rendered their existence and experience sometimes invisible.

To give just one example to the Committee, during Covid, at a time when the case backlogs were skyrocketing, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime here in London convened partners to try to understand what might be done to better support victims. Despite the very best efforts, the mayor’s office found that the information collected across agencies rendered it unable to assess the true extent of the problem, let alone devise measures to resolve it. It was unable to tell how many victims were in the backlog, how many were vulnerable, how many were eligible for special measures, what stage their case was at or how long they had waited, because all the information held was structured around the case, not the victim, and none of it was joined up.

Putting the point simply, the police count crimes, the Crown Prosecution Service counts defendants and the courts count cases, but no one is counting the people who rely on the justice system to protect them. We cannot understand victims’ journeys through the system, their experiences, the outcomes they secure or how to improve them. Clause 6 has been drafted to guarantee that information in compliance with the victims’ code, but no one is counting the people who rely on the justice system to protect them. We cannot understand their journeys through the system and how to improve them. Therefore, Clause 6 shows the need for that, and that the present system is inadequate to ensure that the Bill delivers on its aim of placing victims at the very heart of the system.

My Amendment 34A would require information on compliance with the victims’ code to be linked to a “consistent victim identifier”, like an NHS number. This would enable code compliance information to be linked to a person, not a case, and would support criminal justice bodies to perhaps understand victims’ journeys within and across services. Without this amendment, it is argued, criminal justice leaders will be unable to routinely assess what proportion of all victims receive their rights, whether there are disparities in the experience of victims from different backgrounds, or to measure the impact of code compliance on vital outcomes, such as—as happens too often—victim withdrawal from prosecutions.

In some sections of government, such as education and social care, IDs are increasingly seen as a crucial way to better services. In the justice system, however, the idea of unique IDs for victims is still just an idea. The Government have confirmed—I believe in this House—that the new digital systems they have invested in make the introduction of personal level identifiers possible. This is, therefore, a problem of vision and of ambition, not of technical feasibility.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to that in due course, but I would like to end as follows. Natalie Byrom, a distinguished expert in this area, wrote an article in the Financial Times on 14 January, which I know a number of noble Lords have read. She sits on the Civil Justice Council and the Ministry of Justice senior data governance panel. At the end of that article she says:

“Creating robust data governance is vital to maintaining public trust, and making changes will require investment. But in a context where the criminal justice system is at breaking point, and victim trust and confidence is low, politicians must weigh the cost of allowing the status quo to persist, against that of taking action.”

I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees 4:30, 5 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, as it happens, I did read the article in the Financial Times, and pressed the little button to save it, because I thought what an interesting idea it expressed, particularly as this Bill was sailing on its way into Committee.

Victims in our system, depending on where they are in the system, are often invisible. I spoke earlier about the case of Gracie Spinks, and the number of times she complained to the police, yet none of it was joined up. Eleven years ago, there was a lady called Helen Pearson, who was repeatedly stabbed in a churchyard after she had been given a new and different reference number for each of the 125 previous reports she had made against her stalker. The failure to link these reports meant that the police had missed vital opportunities to understand the pattern that was building up and the degree of danger that she was potentially under. That is a graphic example: there were 125 different reference numbers for the same person, in each case complaining about the same person. That is not good practice, and it is not acceptable.

We do not have an answer today, but I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for raising the issue at this stage, to give us a chance to look at it carefully. I know that His Majesty’s Government, and many other institutions, do not have a brilliant track record in implementing new data and information systems, and many careers have suffered as a result. But that is not a good reason for not looking into this and seeing whether we can use modern technology to try to make victims’ experience better, and above all to help the bodies that are charged with trying to identify what those victims are suffering to do something about it. Having a tool such as that suggested by the noble Lord seems a bit of a no-brainer, and it would be an excellent topic for further discussion between now and Report.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I too support the amendment. I am grateful that we have put people into the Bill, because that is what this legislation is about: it is about people. I do not think that victims want to be at the centre of the criminal justice system, but they do want a level playing field; that narrative has been overused, although I mean no disrespect to the noble Lord, whom I met as police and crime commissioner—I loved travelling round the country on trains for two and a half years, meeting everyone, when I was previously Victims’ Commissioner. I agree that the Bill is about people. We hear many times that the police servers do not talk to one another, and all these servers do not seem to interact with all the other agencies or all feed into the Ministry of Justice.

I am delighted that this issue is being raised. This morning we talked about it in the context of the National Health Service. A Times Health Commission report out today looks at a similar thing. Even GPs cannot talk to hospitals, and even consultants within the same hospital cannot talk and get the information out. Again, that is about patients. It is important that we are talking about it at this stage. I would welcome further discussions. Victims are given different messages, different police officers and different everything. It does not mount up. How many recordings and crime reference numbers do we need? It should be one. There is one portal for every police force that a victim can feed into. Therefore, it should be the other way around. A victim should have one record and be able to put the narrative together so that they feel safe in our communities. I welcome the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I too welcome this amendment. Although I am speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches, first, I will speak personally, as I have had a number of amendments in other Bills relating to the use of very personal data, whether it is medical data or data with other identifiers.

There is a very strong argument for this. I noted that the briefing which we were sent earlier today talked about the independent review of children’s social care, recommending the re-use of the NHS number for the consistent child identifier. One of my concerns is that a lot of different departments of government or agencies are trying to create their own individual number, which suddenly means that you must remember or have access to your NI number, your DVLA number, your NHS number, your school number or whatever it is. For things such as this, provided that there are the appropriate data safeguards, it is sensible to use a number that is already there. My personal view is that it would be interesting to hear the arguments about whether it should be a separate number or the NHS number, because, after all, everybody has an NHS number.

The briefing also talked about the savings to the criminal justice system from having such an approach. One of the big scandals that we have at the moment is that, because the system is failing, victims often withdraw from any criminal justice system. They do not want to appear as witnesses or they find it very difficult to do so. If we really believe that this number is going to help support victims and to help them to stay through the course and get the justice that they deserve, it will also provide many millions of pounds of cost saving over the years to offset any very minor costs and administrative irritations from adding the NHS number or the victim’s journey number to every form.

From these Benches, we welcome anything that we can debate with the Government between Committee and Report to strengthen the role of a victim and ensure that they get the right support.

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

My Lords, I too read Dr Natalie Byrom’s compelling piece. I very much took to heart the points made by my noble friend Lord Bach. He said that the police count crimes, the CPS counts defendants, the courts count cases, but nobody counts the victims.

I was interested in the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to using NHS numbers so that you are not constantly duplicating numbers. I was reflecting on this because in another life I have dealt with large amounts of data as an engineer. I am very conscious that putting in more identifying numbers does not necessarily make situations more straightforward. Nevertheless, it is a good idea and worth exploring further.

A couple of questions occurred to me during my noble friend’s speech and other contributions. How would you record out-of-court disposals? How would you record withdrawals from cases where there may have been a crime committed but not necessarily a victim identified? Also, what would happen when you got cases of a relatively low nature which were across different police forces and were not necessarily picked up? That is often a source of problems.

The context of this debate is stalkers and domestic abuse, but of course it goes wider, because we were talking in earlier groups about anti-social behaviour and where repeated examples of it were not picked up and acted on. It is a good idea and one that is worth looking at further, but I do not underestimate the complexities of putting it in place.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:45, 5 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I do not think I could have put it better than the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. It is a good idea, but there are lots of complexities. I am sure that noble Lords agree that, in many ways, joining the dots and handling data is one of the most critical challenges any Government face—whether it is between departments or within the NHS, within the justice system, within or across police forces, et cetera. We still have 43 different police forces with computers that do not even necessarily talk to each other.

I thank the noble Lord for his amendment, which would introduce a consistent victim identifier for the collecting and sharing of code compliance information. This is extremely important so that we can better understand and meet victims’ needs. As I understand it, there is a Ministry of Justice pilot called the Better Outcomes through Linked Data—or BOLD—programme, which is already exploring how to link victims’ data to improve our understanding of their experiences. It is right that we should have a much better knowledge of the victim’s journey through the system and, in particular—to pick up a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made—better understand why people drop out of the system at a certain stage. Although I do not have a more precise date, I gather that the results of that pilot will be available in 2024.

Whether it is something that is either sufficiently developed or should be in the Bill as a matter of principle is perhaps another question. At this stage at least, the Government are not persuaded that it that should be in the Bill, but they are persuaded that it is something we should continue to work on to understand the complexities and arrive at practical solutions.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this fairly short yet important debate. I thank the Minister for answering the question so positively. Whether or not it is for this Bill is a matter for discussion between now and Report, but it seems that while there are, of course, considerable issues around this in practice, the idea that the victim should be treated in the same way, being known about and followed, as it were, in this area seems an important principle, and would raise the position of the victim—as the Bill says it intends to do. I hope we will come back to this issue. It is worthy of discussion and has had a good outing today in Committee. I do not think it will go away—if we do not take advantage of digital advances in this area, as in every other, we are not doing our duty. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 34A withdrawn.

Amendments 35 and 36 not moved.

Clause 6 agreed.

Clause 7: Reviewing code compliance: elected local policing bodies

Amendments 37 to 43 not moved.

Clause 7 agreed.

Clauses 8 and 9 agreed.

Clause 10: Publication of code compliance information

Amendments 44 to 46 not moved.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11: Guidance on code awareness and reviewing compliance

Amendments 47 and 48 not moved.

Clause 11 agreed.

Amendments 49 to 52 not moved.

Clause 12: Duty to collaborate in exercise of victim support functions