Amendment 127

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords am 6:30 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge 6:30, 13 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, a good deal has been said about this amendment already in one way or another before I have got to my feet to introduce it.

Perhas I might begin with a bit of a preamble. I think I can take it as common ground across the Committee that the advocate appointed in respect of major incidents must be independent—that is, independent of the Secretary of State. The phrase “independent public advocate” has been used several times today from the Benches opposite, and I think the Minister used the expression “IPA”. Although he did not actually express the word “independent” as such, IPA means “independent public advocate”, so I take that as an indication that “independent” is agreed as a proper and necessary qualification of the advocate that we are talking about.

I think I am right in saying that it is a curious feature that “independent” does not actually appear in any of the clauses in this part, but it does appear in the contents. When the list of contents comes to Clause 33, it refers to “an independent public advocate”, so there is some basis in the text of the Bill for using that expression. That is why I think I can take it as secure common ground for what I am about to say that independence is a necessary qualification for the advocate.

My amendment seeks to address the phrase

“on such grounds as the Secretary of State considers appropriate” in Clause 31(2) referring to the termination of the appointment of the advocate. As I read the clause, it seems to open the ability of the Secretary of State to terminate the appointment very widely indeed. With my amendment I am seeking to limit the grounds, in the interests of clarity, to situations where the advocate is either unfit or unable to fulfil the functions of the advocate.

I cannot claim much originality for the amendment because it derives from a report on the Bill that was published on 18 January this year by the Constitution Committee, of which I was then a member. The committee suggested that the independence of the advocate might be better protected if the words in my amendment were to be substituted. The committee refers by way of an example to their use with regard to similar appointments, particularly the appointment of a Victims’ Commissioner, under the now repealed Section 48 of the Domestic Violence, Crimes and Victims Act 2004, where that phrase was used. That particular provision has been repealed. I am not quite sure where it is now, although I am sure it exists somewhere, but the fact it was there gives some precedent for the phraseology that I am putting forward in my amendment.

To come back to the principle itself, the principle that the advocate must be independent if he or she is to perform the functions set out in Clauses 33 and 35 lies at the heart of what my amendment is all about. It is also true of Amendment 129 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I refer the Committee to the phrase that he includes in that amendment, which is

“must be independent with respect to its functioning and decision-making processes, and discharge of its statutory duties”.

Although I did not add my name to the noble Lord’s amendment, I offer it my full support because it strikes at the very point that I am seeking to make and it has the great merit of introducing the word “independent” into this part of the Bill for the first time, which takes the matter a significant step forward.

The point is that the role of the advocates that the Bill is referring to in Part 2 is to represent the interests of the people who need them, not those of the Secretary of State. Clause 33(3), for example, states that an advocate appointed in respect of a major incident may provide such support to victims of the incident in relation to an investigation by a public authority

“as the advocate considers appropriate”.

Clause 33(4) provides that such support may include

“helping victims understand the actions of public authorities … communicating with public authorities” on their behalf, and

“assisting victims to access documents or other information in relation to an investigation, inquest or inquiry”.

The point was made earlier that, if the advocate is to engage in encouraging and assisting victims to access documents, independence is rather important to be able to carry out that function to its proper degree.

Then there is the reporting function in Clause 35. Reference is made here to the advocate’s opinions as to the treatment of victims in the course of an investigation, inquest or inquiry, and

“such matters as the advocate considers relevant” to the major incident. I submit it is essential, if the advocate is to fulfil the functions set out in these clauses, that he or she should be free to exercise his or her own judgment without looking over his or her shoulder to see whether the Secretary of State likes or approves of what they are doing. There is a risk of a conflict of interest if the appointment is terminable on whatever grounds the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

I listened with some care to what the noble Earl said at the end of the last group for a hint as to what the objection to my amendment might be. He suggested that the Secretary of State may wish to limit the number of advocates or, for some other reason, move the appointments around, and so on. There is nothing sinister in this, it is simply a matter of proper organisation of the resources. I take that point, but it seems to me that the phrase in the clause is so wide that it opens the door to the accusation that it is actually at risk of undermining the independence of the advocate. It is an invitation, or it leaves it open to the Secretary of State, to terminate the appointment simply because the Secretary of State is dissatisfied or objects in some way to what the advocate is doing. That is the very last thing one would want if the advocate is to be truly independent.

Of course, I do not suggest that the formula I have put forward is the last word on this matter. It may be that the phraseology to which I draw attention could be limited in some way to remove the objection to which my amendment is primarily addressed. But I think I have said enough to enable the Minister to understand the point I am making. I hope he will give careful consideration to amending Clause 31(2), if not in the way I have suggested, at least in some other way to limit the breadth of the phraseology. I beg to move.