Amendment 130

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords am 7:00 pm ar 13 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

130: Clause 33, page 32, line 36, leave out subsection (6) and insert—“(6) Where the advocate provides support to victims under the age of 18, the advocate must conduct or refer to a needs assessment of such persons to determine whether they have capacity to consent to provision of direct support from the advocate, or whether it would be more appropriate to provide indirect support via other persons assessed to represent their best interests.(6A) Before providing indirect support detailed in subsection (3), an advocate must —(a) ascertain the views of the victim under 18 on who is best placed to represent their interests, and(b) have regard to any views so ascertained.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would ensure that a child’s capacity to make decisions for themselves is taken into account when determining whether the Independent Public Advocate engages directly with them or not. Where it is more appropriate to engage with a representative on a child’s behalf, a child’s views and preferences on who is best place must be taken into account.

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

My Lords, I put my name to this amendment. It was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, who is unable to be with us.

Amendment 130 seeks to ensure that a child’s capacity to make decisions for themselves is taken into account when determining whether or not the independent public advocate engages directly with them. Where it is more appropriate to engage with a representative on a child’s behalf, a child’s views and preferences on who is best placed for that should be taken into account.

The amendment follows the Children’s Commissioner’s advice for children’s eligibility for direct communication with their IPA, and from criminal justice agencies when making a victim information request. It should follow legal precedent, which means taking into account a child’s capacity and competence to take decisions. The commissioner suggests that the Bill should also establish processes for when it may not be appropriate for a parent to receive communication on behalf of their child.

Children must have agency when engaging with the criminal justice system, including around victim information requests and when engaging with the independent public advocate. This includes giving competent children the ability to indicate who they would like to receive communications from, including opting for direct communication, where this is judged to be safe and appropriate. This process should be consistently embedded as part of a thorough multiagency needs assessment of the child at the earliest opportunity.

I would like to add a different perspective to my amendment regarding my role as a family magistrate. We have, in recent years, moved further towards hearing directly from children when they are involved in particular family cases. We hear children’s views on which parent they should reside with, or whether they should be taken away from their parents. During my time in the family court system, which has been about 10 years, there has been greater trust in hearing directly from the children themselves. We should be very cautious about underestimating what they want to say to the court.

I have had direct and extremely moving experience of children wanting to have their say. They have had their say and they are absolutely clear that their views will be taken into account. However, their views will not necessarily be determinative; that is a decision for the court itself. I add that as an extra perspective on this amendment. The underlying purpose of the amendment is to make sure that the child victims’ views are properly taken into account. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his introduction to this important amendment. I have to say that I was somewhat shocked when I first read the Bill. In Clause 33(6), it says:

“Where the advocate provides support to victims under the age of 18, the advocate may do so only by providing support to such persons as the advocate considers represent those victims”.

As a teacher, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, who submitted this amendment, understands the vital issue of whether a child or young person—as a victim of a major incident—can have capacity to consent to the provision of direct support. To expect an advocate to make a decision, by passing it on to someone else to represent them, even if it is a parent—it may not always a parent, for reasons I will come to—without checking the child’s capacity or their interests and understanding is just plain wrong.

The example I want to highlight—I have chosen another non-criminal one, deliberately—is the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Many children and young people were separated by the tsunami from their families, with no knowledge of who lived, died or who had been injured, and that included a number of British children. We know, from accounts at the time, that older siblings had to take on the care of and responsibility for the younger ones and for making contact and communicating with the British consul.

I cite this example because the issue of capacity and consent in those early days was vital, but in the longer term it would have been really helpful for those children and young people in their recovery to have been party to sensitive discussions about what had happened. There was mention in an earlier grouping about how one registers the death, and in this example there might have been important differential cultural practices in handling deaths and children might be the ones who can talk about what they want and what their family practice is without, for example, a British consul having to make that decision. I think one of the worst things an advocate or a Government could do would be just to impose someone to represent their interests without gaging their capacity first.

However, this does not just happen in criminal courts, and I am really grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for citing the family court approach at the moment. We know that family courts often have to consider Gillick competency when hearing from children and young people about their own future. It is also commonplace in children’s social care and education and, above all, in health and about treatment. The CQC has a very helpful guide on the internet called Brief Guide: Capacity and Competence to Consent in Under 18s that sets out exactly what professionals need to consider. I am not suggesting that the CQC briefing or the rules that it uses should be adopted in whole, because issues about treatment are very different where somebody is acting as an advocate or having some parental responsibility. But large sectors of our public system—whether it is health, education or the courts—already use, and are trained to use, competency and consent. They understand when it needs to move to the area that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, mentioned, where a voice is heard but a decision is not necessarily made on the child’s view. Clause 33(6) cuts that out completely, which seems to be totally extraordinary.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister on why it was there and whether there would be some possibility of negotiating something that reflects the actual practice in our courts and education and health systems for children at the moment.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for introducing this amendment, which relates to an advocate’s support of the victims of major incidents who are under the age of 18. The noble Lord’s amendment would require the advocate to conduct, or refer to, a needs assessment of a victim under the age of 18, to establish whether they have the capacity to consent to receiving support directly from the advocate. Where it was deemed that a child did not have capacity, it would require the advocate to ascertain and have regard to the views of the child as to who best represents their interests before providing indirect support through a representative.

I understand and sympathise with the spirit of this amendment and emphasise that the Government recognise the inherent vulnerability of children in the aftermath of a major incident. Children should not have to bear the burden of navigating complex post-incident processes alone. In the aftermath of a major incident, victims and families will be dealing with grief and injuries and navigating post-disaster processes. This can be a difficult time, and we reasonably expect that child victims will have a parent or guardian who can facilitate their access to independent public advocate support and communicate their views on their behalf. If, in rare circumstances such as those cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, a parent or guardian is not suitable for this, the Bill gives the ability for an advocate to provide support to someone they consider represents the victims. The advocate will ensure that they listen attentively to the views of child victims through their representative and offer the support they need.

It is well established that child protection agencies within the local authorities have designated post-incident procedures and are well experienced in providing specialist and tailored support services for children. Therefore, it would be duplicative and inappropriate for the advocate to conduct needs assessments as they will not be specialised to carry out such functions, which could cause safeguarding concerns.

The noble Lord’s suggestion of a needs assessment is interesting and has merit in its attempts to give children greater agency. However, the Government do not believe that the advocate would be best placed to undertake this assessment. Furthermore, the Government do not believe that the answer to the issue at hand would be for the advocate directly to support children. The Bill sets out measures to allow children to be supported by a person that the advocate considers represents a child. In most circumstances, this will be a parent or guardian. However, we have not been prescriptive on who that person must be to allow additional flexibility. In rarer cases, it is already open to the advocate to better understand the needs of child victims in considering who represents them.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 7:15, 13 Chwefror 2024

I am very grateful to the noble Lord. He said two things that concern me. First, the amendment says:

“the advocate must conduct or refer to a needs assessment”,

which is what would happen through the CQC system I mentioned earlier, so it is not entirely dependent, as he implied in his response at the Dispatch Box, on the advocate themselves having to conduct that process and decision. The Minister may be coming on to this —in which case I apologise for raising it—but my main concern is Clause 33(6). I hope he is going to explain why it does not even talk about making decisions of capacity; it just says that the special advocate has the right to provide support as they decide. There is no reference to checking capacity or consent at all.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness obviously makes a good point, and this is a complex and sensitive area. We are to some extent relying on the competence that we clearly expect to see from independent public advocates to make the right decisions in what will be varied situations. We think it would be more appropriate and flexible to address this in guidance.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. As she persuasively said, there are many other areas where public bodies take children’s views into account. She went through them—health, education, social services and the rest—and I gave my own particular example. The gist of the noble Lord’s argument was that it is not for the IPAs to undertake this role, that there are other ways of making these assessments and that how that happens in practice would be addressed in guidance. I will consider that answer and see whether we want to take this further, because we are trying to make victims—in this case child victims—as explicitly supported in the Bill as possible. I will consider whether a further amendment is appropriate.

My central point is that, in my experience, agencies over the last 40 years, let us say—the time of my adulthood—have consistently underestimated the capacity of children to engage in difficult issues. This needs to be handled sensitively, it needs to be managed and it needs to be clear that it is the adults who are making the decisions, but listening to children in a direct way is a good thing to do, both for the children and for the adults making the decisions, and that is what these amendments seek to achieve. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 130 withdrawn.

Amendment 131 not moved.

Clause 33 agreed.

Clauses 34 to 37 agreed.

Clause 38: Guidance for advocates

Amendment 132 not moved.

Clause 38 agreed.

House resumed.

Sitting suspended.