Amendment 124

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords am 6:00 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Thornton:

Moved by Baroness Thornton

124: Clause 29, page 30, line 16, at end insert—“(2A) When carrying out its functions under subsection (2)(a) in relation to a specific major incident, the standing advocate must seek, and relay to the Secretary of State, the views of victims of that incident concerning—(a) the type of review or inquiry held into the incident, and(b) their treatment by public authorities in response to the major incident.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would require the standing advocate to communicate the views of the victims of a major incident to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 124 I will speak to Amendments 125 and 128 in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. We are now, of course, continuing our discussion about major incidents and the role of the advocate.

The reason for Amendment 124 is that the press release introducing the standing advocate position states that the role will

“give victims a voice when decisions are made about the type of review or inquiry to be held into a disaster”.

However, there is no requirement in the Bill for the standing advocate to directly consider the views of victims of a major incident when advising the Secretary of State. The Bill provides for an individual other than the standing advocate to be appointed as the advocate in respect of a major incident. In these circumstances in particular, it is not clear from the Bill how and whether the views of victims will be communicated to either the standing advocate or the Secretary of State. That is the situation that Amendment 124 seeks to rectify. It would require the standing advocate to communicate directly to the Secretary of State the views of victims in relation to the type of review or inquiry to be held into the incident and their treatment by public authorities.

I turn now to Amendment 125. The Government have said that the appointment of advocates for individual major incidents will allow for expert insight from, for instance, community leaders who hold the confidence of victims. There is no requirement to consider the views of the community affected by the incident when deciding whether and who to appoint as a specialist advocate in relation to a specific incident. We appreciate that the need for rapid deployment of an advocate following a major incident—which noble Lords have been talking about already—may make it difficult to seek the views of victims before appointing an advocate in respect of that incident. However, once an advocate has been appointed, the Secretary of State should seek the views of victims as to whether to appoint an additional specialist advocate and who to appoint. This is what Amendment 125 in the name of my noble friend seeks to do.

Amendment 128 would require the Secretary of State to consider the views of the victims of an incident before making a decision to terminate the appointment of an advocate appointed in respect of that incident.

This suite of amendments strengthens the role of victims, which is what we are seeking to do in this Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for laying these amendments and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for introducing them. After the last group, we continue to delve into the role of standing advocates. Once again, the lack of a victims’ code for those major incidents not deemed to be criminal, or not obviously criminal, means that the voice of the victim may not be heard.

One would hope that any standing advocate would seek and relay to the Secretary of State the views of the victims, but it is not evident from the Bill as published exactly how that would happen. These amendments create the golden thread that ensures that a standing advocate must do that, and that the Secretary of State, before they terminate the appointment of an advocate, must consider the views of the victims of a major incident. For example, there might be a conflict of interest with a future Government who are unhappy about the direction in which a standing advocate is going. The standing advocate might think that what the victims are saying goes beyond what the Government had hoped, and there might be a push to remove the standing advocate. Under this amendment, the standing advocate would be able to produce the evidence brought to him or her from the victims to say why the matter should be taken seriously. At the moment, there is no such structure to do that.

We know from other appointments made perhaps a bit hastily, without thought or understanding of the views of victims, that this can cause a high level of distrust in the proceedings. I am citing these examples not to raise the detail of them, and I will not name the people involved, but to make the point about what can happen when a Government appoints somebody to chair an inquiry and then this goes wrong. In the past, IICSA hit problems not just over the appointment of the chair—with two chairs being appointed and standing down due to their apparent closeness to the individuals or establishments being investigated—but over victims’ concerns about the scope of the inquiry. Much more recently—indeed, just last week the Minister and I had a conversation privately about this—the Government announced the new chair of the contaminated blood compensation technical panel. Within two days, victims and their families had raised concerns about them and whether they would be truly independent. Let me be very clear that I am not arguing the detail of any of these appointments. My issue is about process and making sure that the views of victims are fed up and down through the system, so that it is well evidenced. This would, I hope, reduce problems with some appointments in the future.

Can the Minister say exactly why the Bill does not currently propose that the advocate would formally take the views of the victims on board and pass them up to the Secretary of State? That would help us to understand, in the context of the debates on the previous two groups, the whole role of the standing advocate, where the victims stand and how their voices are heard.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I have been happy to sit and listen as we went through the rest of the Bill, but I totally support these amendments. To not have to listen to the victim’s voice beggars belief. The whole point of having an advocate for a major incident is so that the views can be heard. I agree that, by not asking the victim’s point of view, this feels very much like lip service and an insult to the victims who are going through a horrific trauma. Are we not going to learn anything from Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester Arena? This will even add fuel to the fire. I totally agree with everything that has been said. It is very important that the voices of victims are heard, right through this, when reporting to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur

My Lords, I rise briefly—the Minister will be relieved to hear—to support these amendments. What is important about them is that they would put on a statutory basis that the views of the victims will be communicated to the Secretary of State. As I have already said at some length, we need to do more and give more teeth to the powers of the independent public advocate, but this is a good step forward. I hope that the Government can accept these amendments, which really are not contentious.

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

My Lords, this group concerns the obtaining of the views of victims by the standing advocate and their being taken into account, or relayed to the Secretary of State so that they can be taken into account. The central point was that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. If victims of major incidents are to be given a voice and that voice is to be heard, they need, under this scheme, the standing advocate to be that voice—a voice that co-ordinates and articulates the victims’ response. It will often be a joint or combined voice and the stronger for that.

Under Amendment 124, the type of review or inquiry held would be the subject of the views that must be obtained and relayed. It is a matter on which the views of victims are strongly held. They are often views that are in conflict with the views of the Government. That is a central point about independence.

The next point under this amendment is their views on

“their treatment by public authorities in response to the major incident”.

Again, this is an area of not invariable but regular conflict between victims and government. The questions that arise are, “Was enough done to avoid the incident?”, “Was what was done done in time?”, and “Were sufficient resources devoted to relief and recovery after the incident?”. All those are crucial issues on which the voice of victims needs to be independently heard and taken into account.

Amendment 125 concerns the appointment of additional advocates and says the Secretary of State must seek victims’ views on whether to appoint additional advocates and whom to appoint. Again, that is a requirement that is plainly right, because the identity of the advocate and the appointment of additional advocates matter to victims, who are extremely concerned to know that the investigation and any inquiries are going to be properly carried out.

Finally, the views of the victims to be taken into account include the views that they express before the termination of an appointment of an advocate. Again, that is self-evidently right. We have in a later group an amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, removing the right of the Secretary of State to remove the standing advocate on such grounds as he thinks appropriate. I put my name to that. That is an important amendment that we will address when it comes, but it goes hand in hand with this amendment because the purpose of both reflects the reality that inquiries into major incidents may cast light on failings of government or organs of government that may cause the Government embarrassment.

One of the chief virtues of the independent public advocate system proposed in this Bill is precisely its independence of government. It is therefore essential that an advocate appointed to represent victims’ interests should be clear and free to carry out those functions fearlessly. If that involves criticism of government or individual Ministers, those criticisms should be made and investigated. The views of victims on the termination of an advocate’s appointment will therefore be central to that process. They should be central to any consideration of the termination of an advocate’s employment. That should not be left to the Secretary of State without regard to the views of victims.

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

My Lords, I express my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for these amendments, which bring us to an important dimension of any major disaster or incident: the need to give families a voice in decisions about the support they receive. I have a great deal of sympathy with the aims of these amendments. I will take them in turn.

Amendment 124 would require the standing advocate to obtain the views of victims of major incidents regarding any review or inquiry held into the incident and their treatment by public authorities, and then communicate those views to the Secretary of State. Let me say immediately that there is no disagreement here between the noble Baroness and the Government as regards the desired outcome. We agree that an important function of the standing advocate will be to champion victims’ voices to the Government and facilitate better engagement between them and government in the aftermath of a major incident. We agree that part of this involves the standing advocate understanding the views of victims and relaying them to the Secretary of State.

It is the Government’s intention that through Clause 29(2)(a) the advocate will communicate the views of victims of a major incident to the Secretary of State. This could include their views regarding any government-initiated review or inquiry into the major incident and their treatment by public authorities. This will provide victims with agency in the process, which is vital. It is therefore a matter of the best way to deliver this policy. The Government’s position is that it is best achieved without the Bill being overly prescriptive, and with Clause 29(2)(a) providing the foundation. A particular advantage of this approach is that the standing advocate would be able to advise on the full range of review mechanisms, including non-statutory inquiries—as I said a while ago to the noble Lord, Lord Wills—which by their nature cannot be specified in legislation. These are valuable options and can be very successful. The Hillsborough Independent Panel has already been mentioned as a good example.

The noble Lord’s Amendment 125 would require the Secretary of State to consider the views of victims before making the appointment of additional advocates. The intention behind the appointment of additional advocates has always been to prevent a single advocate being overwhelmed, or to ensure where necessary the specialist knowledge needed to provide swift and tailored support to victims. One of the key functions of the standing advocate, as outlined in Clause 29, will be to advise the Secretary of State as to the interests of victims, and the Government would consider this to include advice on whether additional advocates are needed and who may be suitable to appoint. This advice could include the views of victims which they had gathered.

Furthermore, as the Secretary of State has already committed, we will publish a policy statement that will give additional detail about the factors the Secretary of State will consider when appointing additional advocates, including the needs of victims. We believe this to be a better and more flexible approach to ensure that additional advocates can be deployed swiftly when needed. I am concerned that if we were to proceed as the noble Lord suggests with this amendment, a consultation process with the victims would be required prior to any further advocates being appointed. A consultation has the potential to unduly delay the appointment of further advocates and reduce the agility of this scheme to react to the developing situation. Furthermore, the last thing that we would wish to impose on victims during their grief is an additional bureaucratic consultation process.

I come lastly to the noble Lord’s similar Amendment 128, which says that the Secretary of State must consider the views of victims before an advocate’s appointment is terminated. There are a few scenarios in which we imagine that the Secretary of State will use his or her discretion to determine the appointment of an advocate using this power. I will speak to this in more detail in response to the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, in a later grouping. However, I believe it would be helpful to briefly summarise those scenarios.

First, should additional advocates be appointed, it is right that the Secretary of State has the ability to scale down the number of advocates should the need no longer exist when the peak of activity is over. Secondly, the Government have always been clear that we will prioritise rapid appointment of an advocate following a major incident to ensure that victims are supported from an early stage. However, it may be necessary, following a greater understanding of the developing needs of the victims, or conversely the capacity of an advocate, to substitute one advocate for another. Thirdly, this power may be used to replace an advocate who does not command the confidence of the victims. I hope that those explanations are helpful to reassure the noble Baroness as to the intent behind this provision.

Lastly, as with the noble Baroness’s Amendment 125, I am concerned that, should the Secretary of State be required to carry out a consultation process with the victims, that would severely cut across the ability of the scheme to be flexible and adapt quickly to changing demands.

I believe that victim agency—if I may use that word again—is important, and that has come through strongly during the passage of the Bill, not least in another place. While the amendments serve as a reminder of that principle, I do not believe they are necessary.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 6:30, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Newlove, the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and my noble friend Lord Wills for their support for this small group of amendments. The Minister is right that we have no disagreement about the outcomes we wish to see at the end of this. Our concern is that giving a voice to victims in major incidents is so important that it needs to be explicitly mentioned in the Bill.

I accept that Clause 29(2)(a) does go some way, but it does not actually say that the job of the special advocate is that they have to talk to the victims. I listened to hear whether the Minister would say something about guidance or statutory instruments that might say that, because obviously that would help us with this issue. Certainly, a policy statement would be very welcome.

The question of the confidence that victims or the Secretary of State would or would not have in the special advocate is one of great sensitivity. It could be that the special advocate was giving the Government a very hard time and they may not be enjoying that, and we need to make sure that that person is protected by the statute under those circumstances. However, we have made some progress in opening up this discussion, which I know we are going to follow through in the next group of amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 124 withdrawn.

Amendments 124A to 125 not moved.

Clause 29 agreed.

Clause 30: Appointment of advocates in respect of major incidents

Amendments 126 to 126B not moved.

Clause 30 agreed.

Clause 31: Terms of appointment