Amendment 123A

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords am 5:00 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Wills:

Moved by Lord Wills

123A: Clause 29, page 30, line 8, at beginning insert “Within one month of the passing of this Act,”

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur

My Lords, this group of amendments addresses the appointments, functions and processes for the independent public advocate in different ways. They are all designed to secure the greater independence and effectiveness of the advocate.

Given that it has been almost seven years since the creation of an independent public advocate featured in the 2017 Queen’s Speech, Amendment 123A simply removes any further possibility for the Government to unnecessarily delay the implementation of this post. Amendment 123B ensures that Parliament fulfils its function of scrutiny in respect of the appointment of the independent public advocate. Sadly, as many of your Lordships will be well aware, Ministers cannot always be relied upon to act benignly when scrutiny of their Government’s actions is involved. It is therefore crucial that they be held to account by Parliament in these matters and that Parliament retains a role in the appointment of the independent public advocate.

As the Minister will be aware, the Treasury Select Committee, the Public Accounts Select Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee already fulfil this function of approval for some key public appointments, and for good reason. That good reason must surely apply in the case of the independent public advocate. It must be essential that the public and those who need the services of the independent public advocate can have complete faith in the integrity and independence of the advocate, and a parliamentary confirmatory hearing will help to secure that.

Amendment 123C provides an alternative route for the appointment of the independent public advocate and a trigger mechanism for the retrospective appointment of the advocate. Clearly, this would become applicable only in the event that the Secretary of State decided not to appoint an independent public advocate. I am aware of the Government’s concerns about fettering the freedom of the Secretary of State’s action over the appointment of an advocate and the scope of their powers. In that context, I stress that this amendment creates no statutory fetter on the Secretary of State’s freedom of action. However, it does entrench a parliamentary role for the operation of this position and provides an additional safeguard for the interests of victims.

I spoke on the previous day in Committee about the need for retrospection. As I said then, it seems perverse to exclude from the support of the advocate those to whom the original damage was caused before the passage of the Bill but who have still to secure justice for it and who still suffer the consequence of it, such as those postmasters whose lives were wrecked by the Horizon scandal, and those whose lives were devastated by the transfusion of contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s or by nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. This amendment provides a trigger mechanism for such an appointment of the independent public advocate, as it were in retrospection. I envisage that it might come into effect, for example, when the relevant Select Committee had investigated a particular “major incident”, in the language of the Bill, and concluded that victims still suffering the consequences would benefit from the assistance of the independent public advocate. Again, I stress that this would not impose a statutory fetter on the Secretary of State, but it might spur them on to action if they had not already taken it. However, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to justify their decision to Parliament and render them subject to scrutiny of their decision to reject such a recommendation. I hope that the Government might recognise that it is in the interests of victims that any decisions by the Secretary of State in this area should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. After all, we remain a parliamentary democracy—despite some recent attempts to subvert it.

Amendment 124A is perhaps the most important of this group of amendments that I have tabled, because it entrenches the timely achievement of transparency as a key task of the independent public advocate. The amendment avoids being overly prescriptive about what powers the independent public advocate might require to establish an effective fact-finding inquiry to secure timely transparency for the victims, the bereaved and the wider public, because obviously the circumstances of every major incident will be different. However, this might well include placing the advocate in the position of data controllers, so they would be enabled to see all the relevant documentation and report on it without necessarily being able, under data protection regulations, to publish all the data.

In his letter to Peers, the Minister—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy—set out the reasons for the Government resisting such powers, and they are worth quoting, because to me they exemplify many of the problems with the Government’s approach. He said that

“a new and competing investigative body would be disruptive, duplicative and risk undermining or prejudicing other investigations which are seeking to establish the truth or assign liability”.

I am afraid these assertions are not borne out by evidence. The role need not compete with other investigations under the terms of this amendment. If the Secretary of State believes that such power would not be in the public interest, nothing in this amendment would force them to grant it. It remains at the Secretary of State’s discretion. However, this amendment forces the Secretary of State to justify such a decision, in respect of the fact that they made it with regard to timeliness, cost, transparency, and the emotional and financial interests of the victims.

It is unclear to me why the Government should resist the obligation to justify their actions with respect to these crucial concerns. The experience of the Hillsborough Independent Panel demonstrates all the advantages of such a process, acting in effect as a triage for other forms of inquiry. It does not mean it is acting in competition with them; it is acting as part of an overall process.

Turning to the detail of the problems of the Government’s approach, I start with the interest of the taxpayer, which I hope is never far from any Government’s mind. I hope I do not need to remind the noble Earl the Minister of the cost of the public inquiries that the Government seem to favour. The Grenfell inquiry has so far cost £170 million. The infected blood inquiry has so far cost £130 million. The Post Office Horizon inquiry has so far cost £22 million. In contrast, the Hillsborough Independent Panel—the replication of which the Government seem determined to resist and which has nevertheless been universally recognised as an exemplarily thorough piece of work—cost a fraction of these sums. The House of Lords Library has struggled to find a precise figure, but it seems clear that it was under £5 million. A cost-effective triage, such as the Hillsborough Independent Panel, could save many millions of pounds down the line.

Even more importantly, there are the interests of victims, those who have been let down and betrayed by the state. I remind the Minister of how long these public inquiries can take. The Grenfell inquiry has so far taken nearly seven years. The infected blood inquiry has so far taken over six years. The Post Office Horizon inquiry has so far taken nearly three years. There is no obvious end in sight for any of these inquiries. In contrast, the Hillsborough Independent Panel took two and a half years from starting work to the publication of its report. That was about events that had taken place over two decades previously, with all the consequent difficulties of research and assessment.

The Minister will be familiar with the adage that justice delayed is justice denied, yet the Government seem determined to resist an obvious way to comply with it in the circumstances. I ask the Minister to consider the plight of those victims, on whose behalf the position of the independent public advocate is being set up. They have suffered directly or indirectly from the loss of loved ones because, in some way, the state that was meant to serve and protect them failed them. They could never have expected that to happen, yet that same state makes them wait not weeks, not months, but years, and sometimes decades, to find out what has happened. This lack of timeliness—with interminable delays—compounds their grief and suffering and makes any kind of closure even harder than it already is.

I also remind the Minister that, for all their costs to the taxpayer, the length of time they take and the damage that that time does to victims, these public inquiries do not always succeed in their purpose. There was a public inquiry and a scrutiny—in effect, much the same thing—of the Hillsborough disaster, and the Minister will be aware that both failed to get to the truth and win the trust of those most affected by that tragedy. That is why they campaigned for decades to get the justice that they are finally beginning to receive. It took the Hillsborough Independent Panel to do that, yet the Government seem to resist its replication. The amendment would address those issues. Resisting it would be not only wrong but cruel to all those who might benefit from it in the future.

Finally, the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, went on to write:

“It is also true that giving the Independent Public Advocate powers to compel information from public authorities would not then necessarily allow them to disclose this information to victims”.

That weasel adverb “necessarily” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that claim. Again, the Hillsborough Independent Panel provided a model of how all the relevant information that the state owes to victims can be provided to them—that is the model and process envisioned in the amendment.

I now turn to Amendment 128A. As it stands, the Bill appears to permit the Secretary of State to appoint the independent public advocate but deprive them of the means to exercise their function. I cannot believe that that is what the Government intended, but in any event the amendment will prevent the Government travestying the position of the independent public advocate and give them all the secretarial and other support necessary for them to exercise their functions effectively.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 133ZA. Despite everything I have said in Committee, I have to recognise that the Government are still resistant to these amendments that would improve the agency of victims and produce transparency in a timely manner. This amendment calls for a review of the operation of the independent public advocate after a year,

“with regard to timeliness, cost, transparency and the emotional and financial interests and views of the victims”.

It recognises, as I said, that the Government have not been minded to accept most—or indeed any—of my amendments so far. It is baffling to me why the Government seem so resistant to improvements in timeliness, cost and transparency and, above all, in support for victims and the bereaved that victims themselves are asking for. The Government say that they have their reasons; they are not compelling to me or to many others, but here we are. Recognising that fact, the amendment simply asks the Government to have the courage of their convictions. If they believe that the Bill, as it stands, really is the best way forward for victims and the bereaved, the amendment requires them to put it to the test after a year. Resistance to the amendment will only indicate that the Government do not, in fact, have confidence that their measures are the best that can be done for victims and the bereaved.

Your Lordships will have noted that the amendment is predicated on the Government accepting some degree of retrospection in the independent public advocate’s activities, as there may not have been a new major incident within the timeframe. But I hope that the Government will have recognised the imperative not to deprive all those who are victims, and who continue to suffer from previous major incidents, of the support that could be offered by the independent public advocate. I refer again, for example, to the postmasters, the victims of contaminated blood transfusions and the victims of nuclear tests. In those circumstances, I was encouraged—I hope not mistakenly—by the Minister, who, on the previous day in Committee, seemed to indicate that he might be open to looking again at that provision. I hope very much that the Government might accept at least this amendment—although I obviously hope that they will accept all my amendments —because it will put their position to the test. I hope they will not resist that.

Photo of Baroness Sanderson of Welton Baroness Sanderson of Welton Ceidwadwyr 5:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 124A and first to 133ZA, which recommends the review that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, just talked about—a review of the way in which the IPA is working once the office is up and running. I am not always a fan of reviews in legislation, but in this instance it does seem to make sense, given that this is such a ground-breaking role.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has already made clear, it is a position that has taken a long time to get off the ground. It is fair to say that officials have grappled with the role and what it will look like in practice. Having originally proposed a panel that would be activated in the event of a disaster, the Government have now agreed on a single standing advocate. This is welcome news. As my noble friend the Minister knows, I think the IPA may need the power to compel evidence, so I firmly agree with Amendment 124A, which would allow the Secretary of State to grant the IPA the ability to establish a fact-finding inquiry, with the right to see all relevant documentation.

The noble Lord, Lord Wills, has done this brilliantly, so I will just quickly add that this is central to the role of the IPA given the dissembling that lies at the heart of pretty much every disaster, as institutions still seek to protect themselves over and above those who have been wronged. I completely agree with the noble Lord’s point that such a power would not put the IPA in competition with others but would be a cost-effective triage. He makes an interesting point about the difference and the fact that perhaps we have not had a repeat of the Hillsborough Independent Panel inquiry. One reason for that comes from victims themselves, which we saw with Lucy Letby: we must have a statutory public inquiry, because that is the only way we can compel witnesses and evidence. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has said, we go down the road of these very expensive public inquiries when perhaps, with the powers that he suggests only being switched on by the Secretary of State in the right instance, we could avoid some of that.

To mention them again, although the sub-postmasters are not a group of people I have worked with personally, I watched the programme along with everybody else. I cannot help thinking about that moment when they all said, “Oh, I thought I was the only one. I wrote and they all said that I was the only one”. At that point, there were 200 or 300 of them. If the IPA had existed, could they have gone to the IPA and said, “We’ve formed this group of 300 of us and this has happened to us”? If the IPA had the power to write to the Post Office and say, “Can you please tell me how many complaints you have had about the Horizon system?”, could so much pain and damage have been stopped? The IPA would have had the power to get that answer in a way that they did not because, as usual, the dissembling meant that they could not get to the information.

Along with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I realise that the Government think otherwise about the power to compel evidence, despite the views of victims, survivors and families—who are all in favour of such a power. For now, I accept that we shall have to agree to disagree, but I will come back to Amendment 133ZA. I hope we might agree that what we have just been talking about all shows just how complex this new role is. It will take some time to work out exactly how the IPA can do its work. Therefore, in this instance a review is a very good idea because we should not underestimate what an important role this is. If you had relatives at Hillsborough, lived in Grenfell Tower, were infected with HIV or hepatitis, or were a sub-postmaster, and had the IPA existed at that point, the IPA was your one chance, the only person in the system entirely there for you.

More widely and more profoundly, perhaps, it is a role that is about building trust between individuals and the state—individuals who have been wronged, and the state. I cannot put it better than the Secretary of State when he announced the IPA just under a year ago. He said that

“although the IPA is first and foremost about doing better by the victims and survivors, it will also be in the wider interests of the public. It will ensure that we achieve a better relationship between public bodies, the Government and the bereaved; that we get better, quicker answers; and that we can learn and act on the lessons from such tragedies more decisively.”—[

The Government are rightly proud of producing the role we have just discussed, but they should be proud only if it is found in practice to be doing the absolute best by victims and fulfilling everything the Secretary of State said on 2 March. To that end, I very much hope that they will support this amendment and consider a review in this instance.

Finally, I have one question for the Minister. When the IPA was announced, I asked the Government to confirm that the families, survivors and victims would be involved in shaping the role, because the previous consultation had been way back in 2018. I was told from the Dispatch Box that families would be involved in the discussion and creation of this new office—I think that was the phrase used. What consultation has taken place since that announcement in March? If he does not have the answer right now—I do not expect him to—will he write to me with the details?

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 5:30, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I support the amendments that call for proper support for this new role. It should not need to be spelled out that the IPA will need a budget. I happen to think that he or she should have a budget and discretion as to how best to spend it. I am a little alarmed by Clause 31, which provides that the Secretary of State “may pay” reasonable costs and, quite separately, “may make provision” for secretarial or other support. Should the latter be distinguished from reasonable costs incurred in connection with the exercise of their functions? I think not.

I am particularly prompted to mention this because I learned the other day that the newly appointed—after a period of 22 months—independent anti-slavery commissioner is having her budget reduced on a yearly basis throughout the term of her appointment, by 5% a year over the three years. I know that the two jobs are different positions, but that indicates strongly—and it is very much accepted by people in the sector, including the new commissioner—that the Government are downgrading that role. Do the Government agree on the importance of creating champions, if I may call them that, just to give them a collective noun? They have to make the job possible.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has explained, of the amendments in this group, Amendments 123A to 123D, 124B, 126A and 126B would perform a number of functions. They would inject urgency into the appointment of the standing advocate; they would give a Select Committee of the House of Commons a prominent role in the selection and appointment of the standing advocate; they would clarify the standing advocate’s role if other advocates were appointed as well; and they would provide that the appointment of additional advocates was to cover for unavailability or to provide additional assistance to the standing advocate. All those amendments would strengthen the statutory requirements and give the standing advocate role more significance and the standing advocate more personal responsibility for the performance of that role.

On Amendment 124A, I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on the need for urgency in establishing inquiries, and agree with all the observations he—and, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson—made about the delays inherent in the present system. The difficulty I see with the amendment as drafted—I would appreciate some clarity on this from the Minister—is the following:

“The standing advocate may request from the Secretary of State all the relevant powers to establish a fact-finding inquiry, including those to see and report on all relevant documentation.”

That would give the standing advocate the power to establish a fact-finding inquiry. My concern is that I am not convinced that establishing a fact-finding inquiry is the role of the standing advocate as envisaged by the Bill. I invite the Minister to explain how he sees the role of the advocate in inquiries and to consider, certainly between now and Report, how the role of arbiter or inquiry establisher is compatible with the role of representing and supporting victims. Is there another route—the noble Lord, Lord Wills, might also be keen to be involved in this discussion—to establishing an independent, quicker, more effective way of producing inquiries that does not involve the standing advocate, but that also does not involve the length and delay of a full-blown public inquiry in every case?

I also invite clarity from the Minister on how he sees the standing advocate’s role of providing support at inquiries. That is plainly envisaged by Clause 33, but Clause 33(5) permits advocates to support victims’ representatives; it does not deal with acting as victims’ representatives. Clause 33(7) would prevent a person representing victims if the person concerned was under 18—that is perhaps uncontroversial—or if, in so doing, they would be carrying out a legal activity. A legal activity is as defined in Section 12(3) of the Legal Services Act 2007.

It is unclear that representing a victim at an inquiry is a legal activity. Paraphrasing, or at least truncating, the meaning of Section 12(3) of the Legal Services Act 2007, a legal activity is exercising the right of audience, which is not a phrase normally used in representation at an inquiry; the conduct of litigation, which plainly an inquiry is not; offering advice, assistance or representation in connection with the application of the law; or legal dispute resolution. I do not regard any of those activities as equivalent to representing a victim or more than one victim at a public inquiry. I would be interested to know, therefore, how the Government see that role.

I turn now to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, about the right to see all relevant documents. It seems to me that, whatever the role of the standing advocate, the right to see all relevant documents is central, as is the right to insist on calling for particular witnesses to be cross-examined.

It follows that, with the amendments as phrased, there is a right to make a request to the Secretary of State and the right to a reasoned and timely response to that request, when it concerns seeing documents and calling witnesses. This is a modest, probably overmodest, approach. It seems to me that the standing advocate ought to have an absolutely clear right to call witnesses or to have them called by the inquiry if it is independent, as I suggest it probably should be, so that they can be cross-examined by or on behalf of all parties.

Amendment 133ZA would require a review of the operation of the standing advocate scheme and the appointment of additional advocates six months after passing the Act. I quite agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, that such a review is important because this is a complex and new mechanism. I suggest that six months after passing the Act may be too soon, because it is unclear how many major incidents would be declared in the first six months, and it is certainly unclear how long it would take to see how the system was working in practice. I think we would be looking at a period of at least two years or thereabouts before we have an effective review. However, I agree that a review of what is, in essence, a new system should be incorporated into the statutory scheme.

Finally, Amendment 128A, to which I have added my name, is the amendment on which my noble friend Lady Hamwee spoke. It seeks proper secretarial support and other resourcing for the standing advocate. The first point is that appropriate support is essential to enable the advocate’s role to be performed effectively. An advocate without a proper budget quite simply cannot do the job, but there is a further, very important point about independence. It is crucial that this advocate scheme acts independently. Without statutorily guaranteed resourcing, an appointed advocate would be dependent on the Secretary of State for the resources needed to carry out the job which they are charged to perform. That is entirely unsuitable.

There are amendments about the termination of advocates’ appointments, and the spirit of independence being threatened by the present drafting of the Bill, which we will come to in a later group, whereby the Secretary of State can remove an advocate for reasons that seem appropriate to him or her. We are all for the independence of advocates, but their role needs clarification and a review would be helpful.

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

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on pursuing this matter over many years. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Sanderson, has been at his side for most, if not all, of those years. My noble friend introduced this group comprehensively, so I will not go through the amendments in detail.

In essence, the first part of this group of amendments injects a greater urgency into the whole process, specifies roles and contexts of roles, and strengthens and increases the significance of those roles. As was self-evident, my noble friend is frustrated by the failure to actually implement this new role.

My noble friend went on to speak at some length about Amendment 124A, which would give the standing advocate powers to establish a fact-finding hearing. In talking about the necessity of that, he said that this was one of the most important amendments in the group. The figures he gave for the costs and delays in the various inquiries that we have had over the last couple of decades were very stark. I was not aware of the contrast between the way that the Hillsborough inquiry was conducted and the others that he mentioned.

I think all noble Lords who spoke on this group mentioned Amendment 133ZA, which was added to this group later and asks for a review. My noble friend said that this is really his fallback position, given that the Government object to various elements of the first amendments in this group. From the tone of my noble friend, the noble Baronesses, Lady Sanderson and Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I think this is really the minimum the Government could do. My noble friend acknowledged that this suggests an element of retrospectivity, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said that six months may be too short a period. Accepting those two points—the review may need to be later and retrospectivity should be introduced—the underlying principle of the review is the very least that should be put in place to see whether this new role is working as effectively as we all want.

Given those comments, I will listen to the Minister with interest.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 5:45, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, so ably explained, this group of amendments covers a number of issues: the appointment of the standing advocate, the function of the standing advocate, the appointment of additional advocates, and a review of the scheme’s effectiveness.

I will deal first with the noble Lord’s Amendment 123A, which would set a duty on the Secretary of State to appoint a standing advocate within one month of Royal Assent. The Government entirely share the noble Lord’s desire for the standing advocate to be in place as soon as possible once the Bill becomes law. However, we have a few concerns about the proposed amendment.

First, Part 2 of the Bill will be commenced by regulations made by the Secretary of State. That is the appropriate commencement mechanism for this type of provision. Secondly, it has always been our intention to run a fair and open competition for the office. Obviously, there is due process involved in that, which necessarily occupies a certain amount of time. Thirdly, as I hope the noble Lord will appreciate, the Government will want to carry out all relevant due diligence prior to making the appointment, and this process will also take a little time.

If the Government were to proceed as the noble Lord suggested, it would necessitate a direct appointment by Ministers. Of course, that is theoretically possible, but such appointments are normally used to address a short-term need and are typically for posts that last 12 to 18 months or something of that sort. This point also relates to the noble Lord’s other amendments on the appointment process, which would require the Secretary of State to obtain the approval of a relevant Select Committee and to hold a Motion for resolution before making the appointment, or to give an Oral Statement if it is refused.

It may help if I outline the Government’s current intentions for the recruitment process. Given the nature of the role and the tireless efforts and campaigning of so many people—not least the noble Lord, but also other parliamentarians, Bishop James Jones and, in particular, the Hillsborough victims and their families—for the establishment of the IPA, it is of the utmost importance that we get this right. On that basis, the Government intend to recruit the standing advocate through the public appointments process.

To remind noble Lords, theprocess is operated under the Governance Code on Public Appointments and is regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The scheme will ensure that the competition for the role is fair, open and transparent. It will provide the opportunity for anyone with the appropriate skills and experience to apply and help to ensure that we will have as a diverse a range of candidates as possible to choose from.

I would also like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that the public appointments process already provides the opportunity for the appropriate Select Committee to interview a proposed candidate. If it would be helpful, I am open to discussing this point further with the noble Lord. Indeed, it is within the discretion of Select Committees to encourage potential candidates to apply. They can also hold a statutory officeholder to account once in post, as the noble Lord well knows. Additionally, we have also taken the step of ensuring, within this legislation, that the IPA will be subject to the scrutiny of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which adds a further layer of accountability. Taken together with the pre-appointment scrutiny that the public appointments process already affords Select Committees, it is the Government’s belief that no changes to the process are required at this time.

I now turn to Amendments 123D and 124B. These add a specific mention so that the clauses apply only when additional advocates are appointed. I do not think these amendments are necessary; the legislation as drafted already covers the point the noble Lord is trying to make. Ultimately, the clauses in question are intended to allow the standing advocate to provide a leadership function to any additional advocates appointed alongside them. Where no additional advocates are appointed, the leadership function would not be needed or executed. These amendments are therefore not necessary.

Amendment 124A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, seeks to grant the standing advocate the right to request all the relevant powers to establish an inquiry; to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to answer any requests from the standing advocate within two weeks; to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to make an Oral Statement to the other place should they refuse any request; and to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to demonstrate that they have had regard to various factors while considering the public interest. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, asked me to clarify the Government’s policy intention in this area. The Government have always been clear that the purpose of the IPA scheme is to support victims of major incidents, rather than undertaking their own independent investigations. Our position remains unchanged. This amendment would run counter to the policy intention.

The noble Lord, Lord Wills, quoted the words of my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy in explaining the rationale for the Government’s approach. Briefly, the Government are of this view because they believe that giving the IPA investigatory powers could conflict with the work of other investigative authorities and risks duplicating or undermining them. I acknowledge all that the noble Lord said about the intended effect of his amendment. I am sure that he will know that, in recognition of the desire here and in the other place to see the IPA having a greater role in reviews, the Government announced additional functions for the standing advocate. The standing advocate’s functions, as set out in Clause 29, give it the ability to advise the Government on the most appropriate form of review mechanism in relation to a major incident and what the scope of that review should be. It will also have a vital role in relaying the views of victims in relation to this decision. The Government believe that this is the most appropriate form of involvement for an advocate to add value, without duplicating or undermining other processes.

While I obviously regret that the noble Lord and the Government are not at one on this issue, I hope he will welcome the shift that the Government have made. I did not close my ears to what he said; I also listened carefully to my noble friend Lady Sanderson. I would of course be happy to discuss this further with him and my noble friend in the coming weeks, as I know would my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy. For now, I hope that the noble Lord will not feel the need to move the amendment.

My noble friend Lady Sanderson asked me what engagement has taken place with victims in shaping the role of the advocate. I can tell her that, since March, we have written to victims and given them an inbox, and we are happy to keep those conversations going while operationalisation continues. We have also met the representatives of the Grenfell and Hillsborough families. Further to that, we wrote to the victims of Hillsborough, Grenfell and Manchester at each stage of the Bill where amendments were being made, and very much welcomed their engagement.

On the question of whether, if Horizon occurred today, the victims could write to the IPA and ask it to look into the matter, the advocate would be able to ask questions of public authorities, such as the Post Office, and could advise the Government if it became aware of a developing situation. However, it could not currently represent Horizon victims, because this would be retrospective. If an IPA had been in place at the time that that scandal emerged, then they could have spoken to it.

On the question of whether the advocate could support victims at inquiries, at statutory inquiries the chair is able to make provision for legal representation for core participants. The advocate would not represent victims in a legal capacity at either inquests or inquiries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about—

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

I am sorry to intervene on the noble Earl. I may be an amendment or two later than the point in the speech which I address, but is he sure that Horizon would count as a major incident, bearing in mind the definition of major incident in Clause 28(2), where a major incident

“means an incident that … occurs in England or Wales after this section comes into force, … causes the death of, or serious harm to, a significant number of individuals, and … is declared … by the Secretary of State to be a major incident for the purposes of this Part”?

I can see that Horizon caused serious financial harm, but is that the harm envisaged? I am not sure that it is. Would the Secretary of State be entitled to declare a major incident in the Horizon circumstances?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I think we have already debated the latitude that the Secretary of State enjoys in interpreting the word “significant” when we debated the previous group of amendments. The noble Lord has asked a very fair question; I perhaps should not have rushed into an answer to the question I was given on Horizon in particular. It might be wise if, rather than go further at the Dispatch Box, I wrote to the noble Lord about the Horizon case specifically.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the IPA’s secretarial and admin support; that was also touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. We will be coming to that in the fourth group of amendments, so if they will allow, we can defer the point to that debate, which my noble friend Lord Roborough will be responding to.

Moving on, the noble Lord’s Amendments 126A and 126B seek to ensure additional advocates are deployed only if the standing advocate is unavailable or requires support. It is already the Government’s intention that the standing advocate is deployed by default. We acknowledge that the standing advocate will be the most recognisable, and will have developed and accumulated knowledge, experience and relationships with stakeholders over time. However, there are circumstances, such as where a major incident has occurred, that more specialised knowledge or skills may be required, or, as the noble Lord has outlined, where the standing advocate is not available. The Government believe that the Bill as drafted allows the necessary flexibility to ensure that appointments are made in a timely manner following a major incident and that the most appropriate person is appointed. All advocates are subject to the same scrutiny once appointed. Therefore, while I understand and am sympathetic to the aims of the noble Lord’s amendments, the Government believe that the process they will follow in appointing advocates is fair and robust.

Lastly, I turn to the noble Lord’s Amendment 133ZA, which would place an obligation on the Secretary of State to commission a review of the operation and effectiveness of an advocate appointed in respect of a major incident, to lay the outcome of this review before Parliament within six months of this Act passing, and to implement any recommendations made for improving their effectiveness within six months of the review’s publication. Perhaps at this point I could express my thanks to the noble Lord for his engagement on these issues with my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy and me the week before last. The Government understand and appreciate the intention behind this amendment. This new statutory office that we are creating is novel and the first of its kind. It is completely right that we monitor and evaluate new initiatives to ensure that they achieve their purpose and deliver for the end-user—in this case, victims of major incidents. The noble Lord spoke very powerfully. I believe my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy was clear that the way that we do this is something that the Government are willing to consider further. I know that my noble and learned friend would be happy to work with the noble Lord on the matter, ahead of the next stage in this Bill’s passage, if he would find that helpful.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur 6:00, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has spoken to this group of amendments. I think everyone, with the exception of the Minister, has spoken broadly in support of them. As always, I am particularly grateful to the Minister for his extremely courteous and open response to quite a weighty volume of amendments which covered quite a lot of ground.

On the basic question of further engagement with Ministers and officials, I would be delighted. I am extremely grateful for the offer, and I hope we can arrange something in the very near future, in good time before Report, to deal with some of these questions. Quite a lot of them are details of drafting, and I may well have misunderstood the intent of the drafting. It may be that some further clarification is needed. These are details in the drafting of the amendments, and I am very grateful to move forward on them. The review question, dealt with in Amendment 133ZA, is similarly complex, and I am glad that, when we spoke a few days ago, the Minister and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, seemed to welcome the principle. It would be good if we could clarify that and bolt it down to something practical that will work.

Amendment 124A is on the crucial question of fact-finding and transparency. I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks, referred to it as a modest amendment. If I had any hope of the Government accepting something more radical, I would have been far less modest, but I do not, I am afraid. The Minister’s response confirmed my worries about this. He repeated what has always been the Government’s position: that the role of the advocate is essentially a pastoral one—that advising the Secretary of State, as the Minister just described, is really only a baby step away from what is essentially a pastoral role. That really is not sufficient. Merely reiterating the Government’s purpose does not justify the purpose; it only shows that, for some reason I really do not understand—I really do not understand it, because I can see no practical benefit of it at all, to anybody—the Government are resistant to giving the public advocate further powers.

It is not a question of defensiveness over a particular issue. As the Minister said, the Bill is not retrospective at the moment, although I welcome his indication that he may be able to introduce that element of retrospection. I am frankly baffled. Timeliness is so important for victims who are suffering unimaginable trauma and grief, and all of whom, in their different ways, are seeking closure, because they fail to understand what has happened to their loved ones, out of a clear blue sky, and are given no explanation for why what happened has happened. As the magisterial report on Hillsborough by Bishop James, the former Bishop of Liverpool, shows, these delays allow those in power to construct false narratives about what happened. We saw that graphically at Hillsborough, when the Sun newspaper and the former Prime Minister told lies about football fans who lost their lives because of the negligence of the police.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I meant to respond to the very pertinent points the noble Lord made on the cost and duration of public inquiries. He is, of course, quite right. This is a matter of concern. It is not for a trivial reason that your Lordships’ House is looking at this very issue in one of its special committees at the moment. However, one of the advantages, as we see it, of the IPA will be that he will be able to recommend to the Secretary of State a non-statutory route to inquiring or looking into incidents. I am sure that his or her voice in making such a recommendation will, for entirely the reasons that the noble Lord cites, be a very powerful lever in the process.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur

I am grateful to the Minister; he pre-empted me, as he could see where I was going to go next with this. He is quite right that the Inquiries Act 2005 is increasingly widely recognised as clunky and in need of revision, but that is not for now. That is inevitably going to be a lengthy process, and certainly for another Parliament, but we have this Bill in front of us.

Giving the public advocate power to advise the Secretary of State has no teeth at all. We know how Ministers take advice: sometimes they do and sometimes they do not. In the meantime, the victims, for whom this Bill is intended, go on suffering. While the Secretary of State decides and deliberates and moves on, is sacked, reshuffled and all the rest of it, the victims go on suffering the agony of not knowing what has happened to their loved ones, while over and again those in power use taxpayers’ money to construct false narratives. There is no end in sight to that in this Bill.

We have the opportunity to give real power to the independent public advocate, speaking on behalf of victims who have been left abandoned, over and again, for years and decades. The person who is meant to represent them “may” be given the power to advise the Secretary of State, who can then do what he or she likes, with no accountability—nothing. I urge the Government to look again at this.

Notwithstanding the obvious problems with public inquiries, here is a chance to do something. We have the model. The Hillsborough Independent Panel, which was set up by a Labour Government and championed by a Conservative Home Secretary and Prime Minister in the right honourable Theresa May MP, with cross-party support, is universally accepted as a model of how these things can operate. Yet the Government persist in rejecting the possibility for the independent public advocate to set up something like that in future.

Why? We know that it can save money. We know that it can produce a timely explanation of what happened, which is of incalculable benefit to victims. Yet the Government go on resisting it. Timeliness, cost benefits and transparency; what is not to love about those virtues? Yet the Government resist it. As I say, I am baffled. We will return to these issues on Report. I am grateful to everyone, and particularly to the Minister, for his approach to all this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 123A withdrawn.

Amendments 123B to 123D not moved.