Amendment 35

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 5:11 pm ar 23 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Bach:

Moved by Lord Bach

35: Clause 6, page 5, line 25, at end insert—“(4A) Regulations under subsection (2) must require information about compliance with the victims’ code to be linked to a consistent victim identifier that is used across the agencies of the criminal justice system.”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would allow for the creation of a unique identifier for victims in the criminal justice system which would be linked to information on compliance to the victims’ code.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

My Lords, Amendment 35 would require information on compliance with the victims’ code to be linked to a consistent victim identifier. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby for supporting this amendment. Members may recall the helpful discussion on this issue in Committee. I am grateful to colleagues and to the Minister for their engagement on this topic.

I have been moved to reintroduce this amendment because I remain convinced that, without this change, the Government’s ambition to harness the Bill to put victims at the heart of the justice system and increase accountability may well fail; it is that serious. I thank Natalie Byrom, whose article in the Financial Times in January 2024 kicked off this important debate.

I begin by being extremely clear about what is being proposed. Put simply, this amendment contemplates the creation of a unique identifier allocated to victims at the point at which they first report a crime to the police, to which all subsequent crime numbers and case updates can be linked. Compliance with the measures in the victims’ code must also be recorded against this identifier. Information about the victim’s demographic and protected characteristics can also be added to the victim identifier, provided that the victim consents to provide this. In the absence of the introduction of this identifier, it will continue to be impossible to routinely link information on victims’ code compliance to the demographic characteristics of victims or criminal justice outcomes. This makes it impossible to tell what measures are working and for whom. Information will remain partial, piecemeal and costly to collect.

We are not talking here about a vast undertaking, linking information from the justice system to other records, but about simply ensuring that information about victims is joined up and shared across the agencies of the criminal justice system. The existing system makes as much sense as your GP starting a new record for you each time you attend their surgery, forcing you to relate your entire medical history each time you contact them, and ending their records for you at the point at which you are referred to hospital.

I cannot state the problem better than the Victims’ Commissioner herself, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who I am delighted to see is in her place. In the context of our previous debate, she stated:

“Victims are given different messages, different police officers and different everything. It does not mount up. How many recordings and crime reference numbers do we need? … A victim should have one record and be able to put the narrative together so that they feel safe in our communities”.—[Official Report, 5/2/24; col. 1474.]

We would not and do not tolerate this in other public services, such as health or education, and we should not continue to tolerate it in the context of our justice system.

What is more, the technical infrastructure needed to introduce victim identifiers already exists—Ministers have confirmed as much in response to Written Parliamentary Questions. All this amendment asks of the Government is that they harness the opportunity provided by this important victims Bill to ensure that this emerging good practice is shared, scaled and rolled out. If the Government were minded to accept this amendment, the impact might well be transformative. It could even save lives. Engagement with victims’ groups has demonstrated that the status quo impacts disproportionately victims of crime characterised by repeated patterns of behaviour: stalking, which we have talked about this afternoon, as well as domestic abuse and anti-social behaviour.

Anyone who has been involved in policing in Leicestershire—as I have had the honour to be, as the police and crime commissioner—will remember well the case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled 18 year-old daughter after being subjected to a campaign of anti-social behaviour and abuse. Fiona reported incidents of harassment and abuse to the police 27 times over a three-year period prior to her death. There had been missed opportunities to protect her and her daughter as a direct result of the failure to link the reports she had made. Victims need and deserve better, and the Bill could be the opportunity to ensure that, from this point on, they receive the protection that they are entitled to expect.

I close by clarifying one of the points raised by the Minister in our previous discussion in Committee. He suggested that the BOLD programme—Better Outcomes through Linked Data—and specifically the victims pathway pilot, might provide the solution to the challenges that I have tried to highlight. Although the victims pathway pilot has certainly been important in helping government to understand the challenges experienced by agencies in collecting and sharing data about victims of crime, it is not a solution to existing issues or a replacement for victim identifiers. It is a small-scale, time-limited research project, and it is not intended to link data and make it available for operational use. On the other hand, the introduction of victim identifiers would support research programmes and initiatives such as BOLD, not duplicate or replace them.

Implementing victim identifiers would also address concerns raised by victims’ groups about the progress that has been made following the publication of the rape review in 2021. In short, the introduction of victim identifiers would both help secure the success of the Bill before us and enable the Government to deliver on several other policy commitments. Put simply, the police count crimes, the CPS counts defendants and the courts count cases, but no one is counting the people who rely on the justice system to protect them. I hope the Minister will give a sympathetic hearing to what I have said, and I look forward very much to hearing what he has to say. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:15, 23 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I rise very briefly to support this, with a slightly heavy heart. It has the virtue of common sense, which I feel might not necessarily chime terribly well with the Front Bench; it seems eminently sensible. I realise that the Minister often talks about the need to join the dots, and I think this is a textbook example of a challenge of trying to join up a great many dots that are all over the place at the moment.

I recognise that the Front Bench is not going to stand up and say, “What a wonderful idea; we will do it immediately”. At the very least, if there is an acknowledgement of the fact that we have a problem—and I think we all agree that the status quo at the moment, as far as victims are concerned, is a long way from where we would wish it to be—it behoves the Government to think about putting together a properly resourced project to look at this systematically, across all the different agencies, and at least analyse the scale and complexity of the problem and perhaps come up with a range of two or three possible solutions, with the pros and cons of each, the costs and the time they would take to implement. We would then, at least, have a better handle on how we might deal with this problem, which we all acknowledge is a problem.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, it is important to acknowledge that we need to improve the kind of data collection that we have. This is a really good idea, and I would like it to be pursued. I have an amendment later on consistency of data. One of the things I felt when I was looking at the issues was that, too often, victims are not counted properly. We know that there is a range of ways to produce crime statistics: discussions about victims can be very emotive and subjective. The more accurate information we have and the more rationally collected it is—a point was made about common sense—the better it is for society, so that it cannot be turned into a political football. We would know exactly what was going on, so that the right kind of research and resources could be allocated. I would like to hear from the Minister some ideas about at least being open to this and experimenting with it. It is eminently worth exploring further, and I would like to hear a positive response.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I spoke in Committee on this issue, and I continue to offer our support from these Benches. I will not repeat the detail of what I said, but through the passage of the Children and Families Act we had to make sure that there was specific identifying data to link up children who were having to access services in more than one department. That picks up very much on a point made by the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Russell, about the complexity of data.

There has been a really good period between Committee and Report in which the Minister and other Ministers have made themselves available for discussing lots of these amendments, but the main problem is that we do not have a lot of data about victims. We have plenty of data about crime, but we just do not understand victims’ experience through data. One of the side benefits of the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is that having that unique identifying number will create automatic access to make assessments, while protecting GDPR. I have spoken about that on other Bills, but it is important. I hope that this Government and any future Government will assess this as a key part of better services for victims, because we will better know and understand who they are.

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

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this amendment. As he said, we had a helpful discussion on this proposal in Committee. The unique identifier for victims is a good idea and may well solve a lot of problems. As he said, why not harness this Bill to do it?

I will briefly repeat a point I made in Committee. I strongly suspect that this is a more difficult problem than it might seem on the surface, given that there are different computing systems in different parts of the system and different ways of collating data. It is a problem. I am well aware of the shortcomings of data retention within the wider criminal justice system. When I sit in a magistrates’ court, I see the PNC for offenders; very often, they will have multiple dates of birth and names. One only hopes that one is dealing with the same individual as recorded on the police national computer. There is a single identifier for the offender, but there may be a fair number of errors in there as well.

Nevertheless, it is a good idea. The noble Lord, Lord Russell, said that it has the virtue of common sense; I almost thought he was going to say that it has the vice of common sense. It needs to be considered carefully. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, we want to hear that the Government are taking this seriously and that there is a programme in place to look at this seriously and try to help victims through this mechanism.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his amendment, which seeks to introduce a consistent victim identifier for the collection and sharing of code compliance information.

The Government agree that data is a vital tool to help better understand victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system and whether and how they are receiving the relevant entitlements under the victims’ code. That is precisely why the Bill also introduces duties on criminal justice agencies to collect, share and jointly review code compliance information.

In addition, to respond to the questions and comments of many noble Lords, our existing Better Outcomes through Linked Data, or BOLD, programme is already exploring linking system data about victims’ interactions to improve our understanding of victims’ experiences. The BOLD programme is funded by HM Treasury’s shared outcomes fund from 2021 to 2024; it is a long-term project conducted by the Ministry of Justice to improve our understanding of victims’ experiences. BOLD has just received an extra year’s funding to continue exploring data and data linking until March 2025. It has been created to demonstrate how people with complex needs can be better supported by linking and improving the government data held on them in a safe and secure way.

The Ministry of Justice is leading on a victims’ pilot that seeks to share and link data to help improve outcomes for victims. We hope that it will unlock insights into supporting victims of crime, such as understanding their end-to-end journeys and experiences, the effectiveness of victim services and the factors behind victim attrition rates at different stages of the criminal justice system. This is a proof-of-concept research project, and findings on the BOLD victims’ pilot will be published in 2024 and 2025. The pilot has initially focused on exploring what data is available in both criminal justice system agencies and victim services, particularly at a local level through partnership with Synergy Essex, a partnership of rape and sexual abuse centres in Essex.

The pilot work is a necessary precursor to data linking, and this essential precursor work should be completed first. As BOLD shares findings and as the duties in the Bill begin to be operationalised by bodies, the emergent picture will inform future innovation on how data can be used to improve the victim experience. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, I say that this demonstrates the Government acknowledging and addressing the issue.

Two areas would need significant thought before we move beyond the current work in train and commit to an approach in primary legislation. This is a very material undertaking and I agree with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on exactly that. First, a victim identifier has the potential to be linked to a great deal of personal and inherently sensitive data. Careful thought would be needed to ensure that such innovation would appropriately consider data protection rules and not inadvertently deter victims from engaging with the criminal justice system due to nervousness over privacy concerns or other issues. Secondly, this could require at least 42 police forces and a number of national agencies to be equipped with the necessary and consistent technology to facilitate such a system. One cannot shy away from the potentially significant resourcing implications and cost impacts of implementing such a cross-agency system. There are, no doubt, many more considerations aside that should be properly worked through before a solution is arrived at.

On the tragic case cited by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, I say that there is considerable work on information sharing and what we can and hope to do better, which we will discuss in future groups not concerned with victim identifiers. While future approaches to understanding and improving the victim experience may include a new system of unique victim identifiers, I do not agree that primary legislation would be the appropriate way to establish it at this point. I therefore respectfully ask that the noble Lord withdraws this amendment.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur 5:30, 23 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his response. I also thank noble Lords around the House who have been sympathetic to the amendment that I moved.

Because it is such common sense, this will happen in time. The sooner it happens, the better for victims and the justice system. I am realistic, so I understand that there are complications, as my noble friend Lord Ponsonby said, that will have to be worked through before we get to the stage—which I hope will happen sooner rather than later—where something like this comes into being.

For the moment, I am delighted to hear that the Government understand the problem and are working hard to solve it. There is a real issue as to whether the BOLD development is the answer to the issue that I have tried to raise today. I ask the Government to look very carefully at whether that is a better alternative to the proposal I made today. It seems to me that it would not be sensible to divide the House on the issue, however much I might be tempted to do so, because there is more work to be done. However, I go away with the feeling that the Government are sympathetic to the idea that this whole system should be very much simplified. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 35 withdrawn.