Amendment 171A

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords am 3:20 pm ar 25 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Lawlor:

Moved by Baroness Lawlor

171A: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—“Parole Board proceedings: enabling public scrutiny(1) The Secretary of State has a statutory duty to improve the openness and transparency of the work of the Parole Board and to facilitate a greater public understanding of its statutory framework, procedures and proceedings.(2) The Secretary of State must exercise their powers under section 239(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to require that Parole Board hearings should normally be open to the public unless there are exceptional circumstances for not doing so, as outlined in subsection (5).(3) The Secretary of State has the power to formally direct the Chair of the Parole Board to make arrangements for all Parole Board hearings to be heard in public, as set out in Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 (SI 2022/717).(4) The Chair of the Parole Board may exercise their right to decline this request and direction from the Secretary of State and must outline their reasons for so doing in writing to the Secretary of State, within 28 days of a written direction being lodged with the Parole Board.(5) Such reasons in respect of subsection (4) must be evidence-based and include—(a) where the Chair of the Parole Board believes that such a request and direction would, on the balance of probability and based on evidential information, indicate that the integrity of evidence presented to the Parole Board may be compromised and prevent a true and accurate assessment of the prisoner’s risk being provided by witnesses;(b) that the presence of strong and valid objections from participants, including victims, their families or legal representatives, could jeopardise the cooperation of witnesses, should the hearing be in public; or(c) that to hold a meeting in public might create an unacceptable risk of mental or physical harm to any of the participants.(6) The Secretary of State must formally consider any representations from the Chair of the Parole Board in a timely manner and if they choose to disregard the advice of the Chair of the Parole Board, they must outline their reasons within 28 days of receipt of such advice, taking into account all available evidence, including that provided by law enforcement, victims, their families or legal and other representatives.(7) The Secretary of State must, in exercising their powers, balance the need for openness, transparency and maintaining public faith in the efficacy of the criminal justice system with a commitment to the operational independence of the Parole Board and its members’ deliberations, and with an obligation to reduce recidivism and support rehabilitation and the prisoner’s ability to resettle in the community upon release from a custodial sentence.(8) This section applies only to offences as relevant to public protection decisions and outlined in Schedule 18B Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.(9) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the passing of this Act, and annually thereafter, publish an assessment of the efficacy of the policy of open Parole Board hearings and its impact upon openness, accountability, transparency and public support and whether it meets the interests of the justice test.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to consolidate the statutory instrument laid before Parliament on 30 June 2022 (SI 2022/717) to improve openness, accountability and transparency and public trust in the Parole Board by giving the Secretary of State powers to direct the Board to work to a presumption that such meetings should be routinely open to the public, with exceptions; whilst also safeguarding the Board’s independence and the requirement to ensure rehabilitation and resettlement of those prisoners likely to be released from a custodial sentence.

Photo of Baroness Lawlor Baroness Lawlor Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I support and move this amendment for my noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough, who is absent attending the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 148th assembly in Geneva. He had hoped to move his amendment on 12 March, but Committee proceedings were concluded before he was able to do so.

Amendment 171A seeks to establish the presumption that Parole Board hearings would be open to the public—with exceptions, of course. It seeks, more generally, to improve public faith and trust in the criminal justice system. This is both a probing and permissive amendment, and a natural progression to and consolidation of the reforms undertaken by Ministers over the last six years arising from the public disquiet over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys in 2018. That resulted in a review of the parole system and a public consultation published in 2022, and a finding in the High Court in March 2018 that the Parole Board’s Rule 25—a blanket ban on transparency and details of the board’s deliberations—was unlawful.

The Government have moved to address the very serious failings identified by the Worboys case, by allowing summaries of Parole Board decisions to be provided to victims and other interested parties, and to provide for a reconsideration mechanism, introduced in 2019, which allows a prisoner and/or the Secretary of State for Justice to seek reconsideration of a number of decisions taken by the board within 21 days. Victims may now also seek a judicial review on the grounds that decisions are procedurally unfair or irrational.

Significantly, the Parole Board’s 2019 Rule 15 was amended by secondary legislation in 2022 to enable public hearings to be facilitated on request to the chair of the Parole Board, in the “interests of justice”. This test is already used by the Mental Health Tribunal. This amendment is cautious, circumspect, and with caveats in its proposed new subsections (5) and (7). It presumes no absolute right to open the Parole Board hearings to the most serious cases, but presents a balance between the interests of the victim, prisoners and the wider criminal justice system, and imposes a statutory duty on Ministers to take note of the importance of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, fairness and due process.

Finally, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will articulate the Government’s current thinking on, and rationale for, limited reform envisaged in this matter. I urge that they allow for public hearings to become the default position, and I look forward to his reply.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, at the request of my noble friend Lord Marks, I will speak to his amendment in this group, which is Amendment 171B about the hearing timeframes for the Parole Board to have some flexibility in this matter. I apologise; I would have said, in relation to the two stand part notices, that there were a number of questions that I asked of the noble Earl. I know it has been only a short period of time—I am sure they are on their way—but I just wanted to remind him. I am sure that his smile tells me that there are going to be satisfactory replies shortly.

I come back to Amendment 171B. The current rules are that the release of prisoners serving a life sentence is determined by the Parole Board on or after they have served their minimum tariff. The first parole review to consider a prisoner for release will usually begin six months prior to their tariff expiry and, if a prisoner is not released at their on-tariff review, they will have a further post-tariff review at least every two years. The Parole Board process is lengthy and can take upwards of six months for the whole process to be dealt with. Their victims are asked whether they wish to submit a personal statement; although the Parole Board does not have direct contact with victims, the victim liaison officer will contact them about submitting a personal statement. We know that there has recently been an opportunity for victims to appear and observe some Parole Board hearings as part of the latest pilot.

For victims and family members, going through the Parole Board process can be a highly traumatic experience, forcing them to relive the original offence and the impact it has on them. While victims and families welcome having a voice in the process through being able to submit an impact statement, many feel trapped and unable to move on when their offender is repeatedly coming up for parole, even when it is clear that the circumstances have not changed.

The current system is a drain not only on victims and family members but on the Parole Board itself. The time and financial cost of parole hearings are significant. John Worboys, for example, received more than £166,000 in legal aid following his arrest, paying for legal representation at Parole Board hearings. The average cost of an oral Parole Board hearing, according to the Parole Board’s annual report, is £1,876.

The requirement for the Parole Board to hear cases at least every two years, even when aware that there are no material changes to a prisoner’s circumstances—crucially, of course, to the risk faced by the public if they were to be released—means that prisoners are arbitrarily brought before the Parole Board at great expense. This amendment aims to give the Parole Board the discretion to set the period until a prisoner can reapply for parole, meaning that families will be spared being repeatedly dragged into the process when it is clear that nothing has changed. This approach is adopted in other jurisdictions internationally, such as California, where the parole board is able to direct that a subsequent parole hearing be deferred—in its case, it can defer for up to 15 years; I am not suggesting that that is part of this amendment.

The amendment does not seek to take away an offender’s rights. It would introduce a mechanism through which the offender could request that a Parole Board’s decision to defer a hearing by more than two years be reviewed and, crucially, any reconsideration by the Parole Board of its decision would not involve the victim or family, who would be spared from being trapped in the process. With that, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Marks. I hope that the Committee will consider it well.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench 3:30, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment so admirably spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German, to which I have put my name. I do not wish to add anything—as he has made all the points that I would have made—other than to emphasise that it would give the Parole Board discretion to decide when to have a review. It would minimise the revictimization of the victims and would also be cost-effective.

I am aware that Article 5.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that reviews must be at reasonable intervals. I think a limit of two years was set, but, in domestic cases, the courts have declined to be prescriptive about what a reasonable interval is. It is important to recognise that these are fact-specific cases and therefore it is important to reinforce the discretion given to the Parole Board. I support this amendment.

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

My Lords, it has been a short and interesting debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, introduced the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Jackson. On this side of the House, we will listen to the Minister’s response very carefully. I agreed with the sentiments that she expressed to the extent that the Parole Board should be cautious and fair, and that there needs to be a balance between victims, the process and the prisoners.

The point where I depart from her—which is really the substance of her amendment—is that it should be by default that parole hearings are conducted in public. I am not sure that I would go as far as that but, nevertheless, I agreed with a lot the points that she made. As I said, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I move on to Amendment 171B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, summed up the points succinctly: that giving the Parole Board discretion is desirable. Each case is different and, if the Parole Board has more discretion, it can reduce the potential impact on victims—I understood that point. It can also reduce the number of repeated applications, which have a cost to the public purse, where there may be no real change in circumstances. If one were to give the Parole Board more discretion, it might reduce that impact on victims. Again, this is an interesting amendment, and I look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

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

My Lords, in their respective absences, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Jackson for their amendments, which have been so ably spoken to by my noble friend Lady Lawlor and the noble Lord, Lord German.

I will turn first to Amendment 174A, tabled by my noble friend Lord Jackson. This would create a presumption for parole hearings to be conducted in public and a power for the Secretary of State, in effect, to direct a public hearing, contrary to any opposing view from the chair of the Parole Board.

The provision for public parole hearings was introduced by the Government in 2022 in amendments to the Parole Board Rules statutory instrument. This allows any hearing to be conducted in public if the chair of the Parole Board decides that it is in the interests of justice to do so. Prior to this, the rules required that all hearings be held in private.

Hearings are private by default, but applications for public hearings can be made by anyone directly to the Parole Board. The criteria used by the chair to decide applications have been published by the Parole Board on its website. The individual decisions are also published. Since the provisions were introduced in 2022, three public hearings have been held and a further five have been agreed by the Parole Board, which will be heard in the coming months.

The provisions are operating as intended, because the rule changes were made with the understanding that most hearings would continue to be held in private and only a small number of public hearings would be held. This amendment would, in effect, reverse that position, so that all hearings were public by default and a private hearing would take place only with the agreement of the Secretary of State in response to any representations made by the chair of the board.

The amendment also proposes that the Secretary of State should be the person to decide whether a hearing takes place in public. I am afraid I must push back on that idea. Noble Lords will be aware that the board is a quasi-judicial body which makes court-like judicial decisions. As part of its consideration of case, the board will decide whether an oral hearing is necessary or whether a case can be completed on the papers alone. If, having decided that a hearing is necessary, the board is then responsible for the arrangements, conduct and management of that hearing.

It would be out of step with the rest of the process if we gave the Secretary of State a power, in effect, to force the board to hold a public hearing against its wishes. As the body responsible for the hearing, the Government believe that it is right that the board has the final decision on whether the hearing should be public or private.

I hope the Committee will accept that not all cases will be suitable to be heard in public; for example, because of particularly sensitive evidence or the concerns of the victims. It is vital that the risk assessment is not compromised, and witnesses are able to provide full and frank evidence to the board.

The current provisions in the Parole Board Rules mean that the board and the Secretary of State have to consider these issues only in response to an application. The amendment would require them to consider the merits and contact the victims in every single hearing—more than 8,000 cases a year. It would be an enormous administrative burden with very little obvious benefit to the parole system or to the individuals affected by it.

In conclusion, I recognise the disappointment and frustration that may be caused when a public hearing application is rejected, especially where the victim is the applicant. Public hearings are a comparatively new element of the parole system. The Government are committed to improving further the openness and transparency of parole. However, we submit that a complete reversal of the current approach is not merited at this time. On this basis, I hope that Amendment 171A can be withdrawn.

I turn to Amendment 171B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. This seeks to allow the Parole Board to direct the period of time which should elapse before a subsequent application to be considered for release can be made. As things stand, under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, the Secretary of State has ultimate responsibility for referring a prisoner’s case to the Parole Board within two years of the previous review.

This amendment would transfer this responsibility to the board and allow them to set the interval between reviews of anywhere between 12 months and five years. The current system already provides for flexibility in the time set for the prisoner’s next parole review. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—HMPPS—considers a range of factors in deciding when to refer the prisoner to the Parole Board on behalf of the Secretary of State. Reasons must be given for the length of the interval between reviews. These include the Parole Board’s reasons for declining to direct the prisoner’s release at the conclusion of the last review and the interventions required to allow them to progress.

Giving responsibility for setting the period between parole reviews to the Parole Board could potentially result in hearings being set too soon, before interventions have been able to take effect, increasing the number of adjournments and causing further distress for victims. This is not to say that the board does not play an important role. Its insights provide valuable information for HMPPS staff, but HMPPS is best placed to make these decisions.

There is then the question of what the period between hearings ought to be. This amendment aims to increase the maximum interval from two to five years. I fully understand why this is being proposed, but it might be helpful if I outline why it would not be lawful; the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has already referred to this. Where indeterminate sentence prisoners have served their tariff—that is the minimum term set by the judge at sentencing—they are then eligible for a parole hearing. Unless the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined, they will remain in prison. If they are not released, my advice is that subsequent reviews must be conducted speedily and at reasonable intervals to satisfy the requirement of Article 5(4) of the convention. I note and take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in this connection.

I appreciate the motivations at play here. Parole reviews can be difficult for victims. I sympathise with the desire for a longer interval between reviews. I stress to the Committee that the Government always consider victims where the parole system is concerned. I hope we have demonstrated this principle in other measures we have taken. We understand the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, that, in essence, greater transparency of the parole system is inextricably linked to the involvement of victims.

Since October 2022, victims have been able to observe Parole Board hearings, as part of a testing phase currently running in the south-west. The testing has now progressed to include the Greater Manchester probation region. During the hearings, victims are supported by a Probation Service victim representative, who discusses the parole process with them. Their VLO will ensure that, if appropriate, they are signposted to relevant support following the hearing.

We completely recognise that it can be traumatising for a victim to hear evidence that is explored during a parole hearing. That is one reason why we are conducting a small-scale testing phase, to make sure that we get the processes and support arrangements right. Our priority is to ensure that victims can observe the hearing in a way that is safe and comfortable for them, while not compromising the Parole Board’s ability to conduct a fair and rigorous assessment of risk.

I hope that those comments are of help. For the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that my noble friend, on reflection, will not feel compelled to press the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Lawlor Baroness Lawlor Ceidwadwyr 3:45, 25 Mawrth 2024

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his very thoughtful reply. I should like to reflect, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, on the very important points that he makes about the sensitivity and the costs, as well as the practicality and the question of time, along with the fact that the Government are working towards greater openness of the Parole Board proceedings. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, I shall withdraw the amendment, and give further reflection to what my noble friend says.

Amendment 171A withdrawn.

Amendment 171B not moved.

Clause 55: Whole life prisoners prohibited from forming a marriage

Debate on whether Clause 55 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

My Lords, I put my name to this clause stand part notice, which was originally in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He, alas, cannot be here this afternoon as he is on parliamentary business abroad, and he has asked me to open this short debate. I do not think that the Committee will be that surprised to hear me say that what I am about to say owes much to the noble Lord.

Clauses 55 and 56 prohibit a prisoner serving a whole-life tariff from entering into a marriage or civil partnership with another person, without the written permission of the Secretary of State, to be granted only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. At Second Reading, on 18 December, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, referred to

“a recent case in which surviving families of the victim of a most serious murder were openly mocked by the convicted offender, who trumpeted his right to marry, causing distress to many”.—[Official Report, 18/12/23; col. 2056.]

It is my view, and I suspect the view of many on the Committee, that it is deeply unsatisfactory to legislate on the basis of one such incident, however upsetting it was for the victim’s family, as it undoubtedly must have been. That point was made at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Is this one incident, serious though it was, the only basis for seeking to legislate in this context?

Beyond that, there is a question of principle. However repellent their crimes, whole-life prisoners are allowed to eat, exercise, read books, watch television and send and receive letters, so why are they to be denied the basic right to marry a consenting adult? I say “basic right” because Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:

“Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry”.

What the state cannot do, consistent with human rights, is impose restrictions so extreme that they impair the very essence of the right to marry. That is the test stated in the consistent case law of the European Court of Human Rights, which considered how this applies to prisoners, in particular in the case of Frasik v Poland in 2010. The court stated in its judgment that an effective bar on any exercise of a prisoner’s right to marry is a breach of Article 12. The court added:

“Imprisonment deprives a person of his liberty and … of some civil rights and privileges”.

The authorities are, of course, permitted to impose restrictions on civil rights to protect the security of the prison regime, but:

“This does not, however, mean that persons in detention cannot, or can only very exceptionally, exercise their right to marry”.

The court added that the state cannot prevent a prisoner enjoying the right to marry because of the authorities’ views as to what

“might be acceptable to or what might offend public opinion”.

That is the basis, it seems, of Clauses 55 and 56. It is very doubtful whether these clauses are wise in any event. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby made the important point at Second Reading that if we are to lock people up for very lengthy periods, perhaps the whole of their lives, we must surely give them some positive purpose in life: some hope, some encouragement to maintain relationships with the outside world, not just for their own self-respect or mental health but because it will help those who have to manage the prison regime and prevent the inevitable frustrations of long-term prisoners erupting in violence against prison officers or other prisoners.

Clauses 55 and 56 have, in my view, no sensible justification. They are objectionable in principle and they will impede good management of the prison system. They seem to have more to do with populism than with any sensible policy. I submit that if these clauses become law, this is an example of bad legislation that an experienced Parliament such as this should not pass. I invite the Minister, when he replies to this debate, to say that the Government will think again about this issue and, I hope, come to the conclusion that it is not worthy of this important Bill.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I have added my name to both stand part notices. The first question I asked myself way back before Second Reading, and I still need to ask myself, is why on earth the Government put these two clauses in the Bill. They do not seem to do anything to make the prison regime any better or to make the work that goes on in supporting people in prison any easier. In fact, they appear to be cruel in a variety of ways.

The Secretary of State being able to approve a marriage or civil partnership only based on exceptional circumstances, even if you felt there was a rationale or a reason, is surely the wrong way around. Surely, the Secretary of State should be able to deny them only if there are exceptional circumstances. This measure will apply regardless of the way in which anybody in future seeks a partnership or marriage.

It worries me, as I am sure it does many others in this Committee, how much placing people in prison for their lives will add to—or detract from—what happens inside the prison. It is going beyond punishment. Whatever anybody feels about what happens in a prison establishment, providing some hope for the future of their lives, understanding how their lives work and making sure they feel a sense of purpose in remaining alive is part of the job of the state, which must retain that ability.

These clauses, once again, chip away at those fundamental human rights, disapplying human rights to a specific cohort of people. The universality of human rights in this circumstance is doubly important because, of course, the state is totally responsible for whatever rights and purposes prisoners have. It has to manage them. It is precisely in custodial institutions such as prisons that human rights protections are most vital, because the individuals are under the control of the state.

It would appear, as in the Illegal Migration Act and the safety of Rwanda Bill, that we are beginning to see a testing period for making controversial changes to our human rights framework. It seems to me and those on these Benches that this particular measure is offensive to that spirit of how the state should manage the lives of people in this circumstance. If there were to be a case for saying that somebody cannot get married or have a civil partnership, that is surely by exception rather than by practice.

It appears to me that these clauses do not really fit into this Bill, because of that sense of things being done in the wrong direction. More than anything else, I seek to understand from the Government why they have put this in place. If it is because of a single case, as we have just heard, to write law on the basis of a single case is surely not the correct way to go about it.

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

My Lords, I wondered why this was in the Bill; it is because this is a victims Bill. My honourable friend Jess Phillips MP is familiar with victims of the crimes of Bellfield, so I looked at what she had to say about this issue. She is a great champion for victims of crime. What she said was quite interesting. She was reflecting on what had been said by Sarah Champion MP, who had put a point reflecting what my noble friend Lord Bach has just said.

Jess Phillips said:

“I truly appreciate my hon. Friend’s fundamental point: everybody hopes for rehabilitation. With this, the only case we have to debate is that of Levi Bellfield, as mentioned. Having worked with some of his direct victims and the families of those victims, while I do not disagree that we sometimes chase headlines and make bad legislation in doing so, with his case I am not sure, from previous behaviour, that I would categorise it as rehabilitation. I would categorise it as behaviour to get headlines. The desire in Levi Bellfield’s case, as has been put to me by many of his victims, is that these schemes keep him constantly in the media, and that is incredibly painful for them. There is a bit from both sides of the argument in this debate: trying to stop the headlines and allowing rehabilitation”.—[Official Report, Commons, Victims and Prisoners Bill Committee, 11/7/23; col. 480.]

My noble friend Lord Bach raises some very important questions about the legality of this proposal. It is important that the Government explain why only one case has led to this being in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 4:00, 25 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments in this short debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for setting out his intention to oppose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his comments in support of that.

It is important that the Committee examines the rationale behind these clauses. Clauses 55 and 56 will prohibit prisoners in England and Wales who are subject to a whole-life order from marrying or forming a civil partnership while in prison or another place of detention. The Secretary of State may grant an exemption in truly exceptional circumstances. A whole-life order is the most severe punishment in the criminal law of England and Wales. It is reserved for exceptionally serious offences, such as serial or child murders which involve a substantial degree of premeditation or sexual or sadistic conduct. Unlike other life sentences, offenders subject to a whole-life order can expect never to be released. Their tariff will never expire and they will not be considered for parole at any point.

As the law stands, a prison governor cannot reject a prisoner’s application to marry or form a civil partnership unless the ceremony creates a security risk for the prison. This includes whole-life prisoners. Those subject to whole-life orders can expect never to be released. As they are not working towards life on the outside and the prospect of being able to enjoy married life, any rehabilitative effect of a potential marriage is likely to be significantly reduced. Being married or in a civil partnership does not have any practical impact on an individual’s ability to maintain a relationship with a prisoner. Prisoners are not entitled to conjugal visits and rights to access fertility treatment do not require the prisoner to be married to or in a civil partnership with their partner. Neither do spouses, civil partners or their children have any additional right to visits, telephone calls or video calls. Whole-life prisoners can therefore benefit from supportive relationships while in custody in the same way as other prisoners. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord German, this is not cruel—they can maintain relationships.

While the right is protected under Article 12 of the ECHR, the convention allows states to impose restrictions in a proportionate way for a legitimate purpose. In line with the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights in Draper v the United Kingdom, we consider that a restriction on whole-life prisoners’ right to marry can be justified on the basis of public interest. The public set great store by our response to the most heinous crimes. The current position undermines confidence in our criminal justice system and its ability to deliver justice and protect the public. These clauses allow the Secretary of State to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis in exceptional circumstances. Any discretion available to a Secretary of State would itself be exercised compatibly with ECHR obligations.

We have taken a proportionate approach in applying these measures to only a small cohort of offenders who are already singled out in our domestic framework due to the exceptionally serious nature of their offences. As of December 2023, there were only 67 whole-life prisoners in England and Wales, representing less than 0.1% of the total prison population—less than one in 1,000.

To answer the question from all noble Lords, this is not about a single case. While it was a particular case that brought this issue to the Government’s attention, this is not about any individual; it is a broader point of principle. The justice system must be able to deal appropriately with the worst offenders, to drive up public confidence in the justice system. We consider that these measures are justified on the basis of that public interest. This is not just due to the distress that such an event may cause to the families of victims, whose lives these prisoners have cut short in heinous ways, but, more fundamentally, because of the real risk of damage to public confidence in the criminal justice system if it cannot deal appropriately with the most serious offenders. The Government are resolved that this is an appropriate measure. I therefore propose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

I thank the Minister for his response, and the noble Lord, Lord German, for his support in this matter.

I have two points for the Minister, if I may. Is it really considered proportionate as an answer to Article 12 to say that these measures would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances? That seems not very proportionate at all. Secondly, I personally do not see the relevance, when we are talking about a matter of principle such as this, of what percentage of prisoners are in this category. It does not matter what percentage are. If it is right, it is right, and if it is wrong, it is wrong. In my view, it is a matter of some principle that this should not be imposed upon people who have done absolutely terrible things and are paying the price for it. This is a step too far and, as I say, not worthy of Parliament. Having said that, I am not going to take this matter any further today.

Clause 55 agreed.

Clause 56 agreed.