Amendment 167A (to Amendment 167)

Part of Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (7th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords am 9:45 pm ar 12 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 9:45, 12 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, as your Lordships know, this group is a stand part challenge to Clauses 49 to 52 of the Bill, which, in essence, disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act to prisoner release legislation. The issue before us is, as much as anything, to do with the constitutional balance between Parliament and the courts. It is not about disapplying the Human Rights Act; it is about who does what. What do the courts do and what does Parliament do? That is the issue.

The provisions with which we are concerned include the new release test for releasing prisoners on licence—namely, the public protection test set out in Clauses 41 and 42, which make it abundantly clear that the protection of the public is the overriding factor. The Human Rights Act is also disapplied in relation to the referral mechanism, referring the most serious release decisions by the Parole Board to a court—currently the Upper Tribunal—and to other prison release decisions. As far as I am aware, no amendment has been tabled in this House objecting to the principle of the new public protection test, nor to the proposed referral mechanism—though there is an argument about which court it should go to—nor to the principle of our IPP reforms, except that it is argued that we should go further. Parliament has plainly indicated what it is trying to achieve.

Against this background, where exactly does Section 3 of the Human Rights Act fit in? Lest any misunderstanding persist—which it seems to do—my first point is that nothing in these clauses removes or limits any convention rights enjoyed by any prisoners, or anyone else for that matter, by virtue of Section 1 of the Human Rights Act or under the convention. A breach of human rights may still be pleaded before any domestic court or in Strasbourg in the usual way, whether it be the right to liberty, family life or any other right protected by the convention. Clauses 49 to 51 do not alter or detract from those rights in any way.

Even if—which I do not for one moment believe—anything in the legislation from which Section 3 has been disapplied were held by a higher court to be incompatible with the convention rights, in such a hypothetical case it would be for the court to make a declaration of incompatibility. Then, in accordance with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it would be for Parliament to decide what to do—whether to amend the legislation and, if so, in what way. In other words, it is the job of Parliament to make challenged legislation compatible with the convention. It is Parliament’s legislation; it is for Parliament to fix it, and it is the constitutional responsibility of everyone in either House to find a legislative solution.

The problem with Section 3 is that it gives finding the legislative solution to somebody else altogether—namely the court. This is Parliament’s legislation and not the courts’. That was why I said at Second Reading that Section 3 of the HRA is, in essence, a procedural and interpretive provision that requires legislation to be given effect to in a way which is compatible with convention rights. Those words “given effect” have led, in certain circumstances, to the court reading in or reading down words into the legislation that Parliament has passed. In other words, the court is empowered under Section 3 to add to or subtract from what Parliament originally intended. This has been a difficult section to apply. It has required courts to depart from Parliament’s intention and, if I may say so, to stray into the legislative realm.

These amendments directly raise the proper balance between the courts and Parliament when it comes to legislative matters. That issue was highlighted in the 2021 Independent Human Rights Act Review. It was discussed over 80 pages, toing and froing on all sorts of points and suggesting numerous recommendations and amendments, with the majority of the panel finally recommending a series of reforms to Sections 2 and 3.

On the Government’s position that Section 3 is a most unusual power in this respect, I can do no better than refer your Lordships to the trenchant criticism of Section 3 of the Human Rights Act on constitutional grounds by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, King’s Counsel, present in this Chamber, in his evidence to that 2021 review. His basic point was that it is not the function of the courts to legislate; it is the function of Parliament. Against that background, in the present context, the Government’s position is that, on an issue of importance, such as public protection and prisoner release, it is for Parliament to determine what the test should be.

In the unlikely event of any of those provisions being disapplied, and a declaration being made under Section 4, again, it is for this House and the other place to put it right and not to delegate, abdicate or push away that responsibility on to the courts. That is the Government’s position and it is essentially a question of the constitutional balance between what we do and what somebody else does—in other words, the courts. That is essentially the background to these amendments.

Clause 52 sets out the approach a court should take if there is a challenge on human rights grounds regarding the release of a prisoner. I do not accept the characterisation by the noble Lord, Lord German, that the wording of Clause 52 is effectively saying that public protection is an exclusive requirement; it simply says that that is a requirement to which weight should be given. No doubt, the courts are perfectly capable of arriving at a sensible interpretation of the provision, but the Government’s view is that the importance of public protection is a matter that Parliament can rightly draw to the court’s attention as something to which weight should be given. I will just add that that requirement does not apply to the so-called non-derogable rights under the convention, which are: Article 2, the right to life; Article 3, the prohibition of torture; Article 4, the prohibition of slavery, and Article 7, no punishment without law.

The courts already consider risk to the public. The Bill simply ensures that weight is properly given to that consideration. The essential point is that on these matters, in this context, it is not for someone else to be reading in or reading down what your Lordships decide; it is for your Lordships and for Members of the other House to put matters right.