Amendment 102

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords am 4:15 pm ar 30 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Wills:

Moved by Lord Wills

102: Clause 28, page 29, line 10, at end insert “or has occurred before that date, provided that serious harm to the victims is ongoing after this section comes into force,”

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur

My Lords, I shall combine my remarks on Amendment 102 with those on Amendments 103, 105 and 106.

Amendments 102, 103 and 105 seek to remove an unfair and irrational restriction on the role of the independent public advocate. I spoke in Committee at some length about how my original conception of this position in my Private Member’s Bill was driven by the pressing need for greater support and agency for those have been failed by the state and by public authorities in major incidents. Those who can avail themselves of the services of the advocate must include those for whom harm continues after a major incident, even though the major incident occurred before the passage of the Act.

Can there really be any serious justification for excluding, for example, the victims of contaminated blood transfusions and the postmasters whose lives were wrecked and continue to be wrecked by the Horizon scandal—people still struggling with the consequences of those failures by the state and by public authorities, even though the failures occurred before now?

I would be grateful if, in his response, the Minister would address this question directly: what justification is there to restrict the role of the advocate to exclude those such as the victims of contaminated blood transfusions? These amendments would rectify this specific problem in the current draft of the Bill.

In asking the Minister to respond to that question, I should perhaps have preceded my remarks by thanking him for the great generosity of time that he has given me, with his officials—to whom I am also extremely grateful—in discussing all the elements of this part of the Bill. He has gone over and above the call of duty. That I am one of many speakers thanking him for that shows the extent of this House’s debt to him and his officials in the progress of the Bill.

Amendment 106 is a relatively minor amendment but, after two Private Member’s Bills, it occurred to me that we perhaps should be more careful about how we define those who might benefit from the services of the of an independent public advocate. What constitutes a “close family member” in the modern world? Fifty or 100 years ago, the answer would have been common sense, but it is not any more. Living arrangements and relationships are much more various than they ever used to be. “Close” and “family” are, in effects, often disputable terms, and the current draft of the Bill is perhaps purposefully vague. For example, who will decide whether a parent estranged from their partner and who is no longer responsible for the upbringing of a child victim counts as a close family member? What happens if the person in question disputes any exclusion from the services of the advocate? If we at all can, we should try to head off such arguments beforehand, because they would only compound the grief and trauma suffered by many in the aftermath of a major incident.

This amendment seeks to avoid that, although it is, in essence, probing. If the Government have a better formulation, I would be happy to consider it, but it seeks to do so by introducing the specific definitions that have been derived from the intestacy provisions.

Amendment 106A tries to ensure that the post is implemented with proper timeliness. In Committee, I pointed out that it has been nearly seven years since the creation of an independent public advocate featured in the 2017 Queen’s Speech. The amendment seeks to remove any further possibility that the Government will unnecessarily delay the implementation of this post. In his response in Committee, the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, rightly pointed out the need to observe due process in public appointments, so the amendment has been tweaked to take better account of that than my previous one.

In doing so, I had regard to the Governance Code on Public Appointments. Among other things, the code says that appointments should be completed

“within three months of a competition closing”.

In 2019, the Commissioner for Public Appointments found that the Ministry of Justice, where ministerial responsibility for the independent public advocate will reside, completed only 18% of appointments within that three-month target. Only the Home Office and BEIS had worse figures. To show that these figures are achievable, that compares to 100% of appointments by His Majesty’s Treasury and 76.7% by NHSI. Of course, the Ministry of Justice’s performance might have been transformed in the last five years but, in any event, the six-month period stipulated in this amendment should be ample time for the department to appoint the first independent public advocate, if it fulfils its duties in the way that the Commissioner for Public Appointments expects. If the Minister disagrees, I would be grateful if he could explain in detail why. This amendment is simply a lever to ensure compliance with the code of governance.

I now turn briefly to Amendment 110ZA. I spoke to this in Committee; I have tabled it again because, as it stands, the Bill still appears to permit the Secretary of State to appoint the independent public advocate but deprive them of the means to exercise their functions. I cannot believe that that is what the Government intend, but in any event this amendment will prevent any such travestying of the position.

Finally in this group, I come to Amendment 119AA; this amendment is intended to replace Amendment 108 in the Marshalled List. I spoke at some length in Committee, again, about the need to provide for some version of the Hillsborough Independent Panel to be accommodated in this Bill. This amendment attempts to do just that. I do not intend to rehearse again all of the arguments I made in Committee, but I remind the Minister of the advantages of such a provision, in terms of saving the taxpayer potentially hundreds of millions of pounds over the lifetime of a Parliament, and helping victims and the bereaved towards a more timely closure of their grief and trauma. The prolonged processes embedded, for example, in public inquiries only increase their suffering. I should be grateful if the Minister could indicate in his response whether the Government truly understand the crucial imperative of timeliness in fact-finding after a major incident, and how important that is for victims and the bereaved. How can it be acceptable to make them wait year after year, sometimes decade after decade, to find out what happened to their loved ones, and to understand why they have suffered such loss? Such delays only compound grief and trauma. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Consolidation, &c., Bills (Joint Committee)

My Lords, I return to speak very briefly to Amendment 109B, to deal with the position of Wales. In Committee, I introduced an amendment to require the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor, when appointing an independent advocate, to secure the consent of the Welsh Ministers. This is an area where it is common ground that there is devolution. I am grateful to say that the Government have agreed that there should be consultation, but they refuse to agree consent.

I put this down initially because one of the ways to make a union strong is to have a proper dialogue. Now, there are some areas where consultation has to be required by statute. Normally, one would expect that in areas where there is an overlap in competence, there would be consultation, but it is right we put a statutory duty in to that effect. However, it seems to me wholly extraordinary—and I am pretty certain it has nothing to do with the Ministry of Justice— that they refuse to agree to the consent of the Welsh Ministers.

Now, noble Lords will all know that, when looking for a lawyer, there is normally quite a good choice. In my experience, having been involved on a number of occasions, you can normally have a discussion about A or B, and you agree on C. It seems to me totally extraordinary, if we are to live in a union that works, that the Government in Westminster have to say, “No, those people in Cardiff just have to be consulted; we don’t have to get their consent”. Is this any way to run a union? The answer is obviously not, and I am sure that this does not come from the Ministry of Justice—in this Bill, the Lord Chancellor and the Minister have been most sensible in what they have put forward. But I deplore that bit of the Government that simply cannot understand that going through the courtesy of discussing things and obtaining consent is the better way to run a union.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:30, 30 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I declare my interest as someone who lives in Wales. I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd for the way he introduced this amendment, which, as I understand it, actually reflects the proper constitutional provision. This is, by common ground, a devolved area. The Senedd has competence to legislate for the creation and appointment of an independent advocate for victims of major incidents in Wales. The UK and Welsh Governments agree that is the case, so the Senedd could make provision for Wales. I note the Welsh Government also believe that their Ministers would be able to appoint a non-statutory advocate following an incident in Wales under general executive powers.

As it stands, therefore, we are legislating for a situation in which rival advocates could possibly be appointed at the same time. This may not seem a likely eventuality, but it would be easily prevented by this amendment. The only element of this part of the Bill in which the Senedd could not make provision with regard to Wales is that an advocate for victims appointed under the Bill would automatically secure interested person status in a relevant inquest under Clause 34, but an advocate for victims appointed by Welsh Ministers could still be given interested person status by a senior coroner if they consider them to have sufficient interest.

Clearly, it seems sensible for this legislation to cover both England and Wales, and so for the Welsh Government to be part of the scheme, but it is similarly sensible that the legislation reflects devolution, and enables Welsh Ministers to ensure that the advocate has knowledge in Wales and the necessary ability to do everything in Welsh. I remind the House that there is equal status between the two languages—in Wales, both English and Welsh are spoken—and the systems in Wales sometimes operate quite differently from systems in England.

The Secretary of State acting unilaterally in an area of devolved competence would not seem appropriate, and we need to avoid friction to strengthen the union. This is an opinion only and I am not speaking on behalf of Welsh Government at all, but the Counsel General expressed in the Senedd on 13 December that

“there needs to be specific account in terms of the role of Welsh Government and what would happen within Welsh situations were there to be a tragic event”.

I therefore hope that the amendment will be accepted and will require the consent of Welsh Ministers to be agreed, not simply a consultation. The problem with the consultation is that there is a real risk it could be tokenistic.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge

My Lords, Clause 28 does not apply to Scotland, which can have its own legislation to deal with this matter, but I am very much in favour of the amendment. I have gone over the ground of seeking consent many times in different situations, but in this one, where we are dealing with the choice of advocates, the choice matters very much indeed. I would have thought that there is great sense in the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, that this is an area where the consent of Welsh Ministers is not only appropriate but required.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I have not taken part in earlier discussions on this Bill for reasons outside my control, but it would be strange for me not to get on my feet to reinforce the points that have been so well made by noble Lords. This is an important matter as far as Wales is concerned. There needs to be clarity and co-operation, and that has to be on a proper basis. I suggest that these amendments would help facilitate that.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, while we support the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in view of the explanations he gave for them in Committee and today I shall not add to what he said on them, except for Amendment 119AA, to which I will turn. I should also add that we thoroughly support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. We should all be mindful of his question, “Is this any way to run a union?” No, it is not, because there is a certain tactlessness, which is offensive and should be reversed, about the way the London Government sometimes regard devolution.

I will say a word or two about Amendment 104, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, although he has not yet spoken to it. I intervened on the principle of that amendment in Committee because it seemed to me then, as it does now, that the number of people killed or seriously injured in an incident is not and should not be the determining factor in whether it is a major incident. In Committee there was discussion about whether the Horizon scandal could be classified as a major incident because of the number of deaths and the serious harm that was caused, even though that harm may be psychological or emotional, and we questioned that. We also considered the Fishmongers’ Hall attack in which the significant number threshold was plainly not met, but the effect on the wider public of that event was traumatic, deep and widespread, I suggest, certainly enough to enable it to be properly classified as a major incident.

Since Committee, the noble Lord has narrowed his amendment significantly. It now seeks to permit the Secretary of State to classify as a major incident any incident where the circumstances indicate systemic failings of a public body and that such circumstances might recur, even where the significant number threshold is not met. I should have thought that the Government could have accepted and should accept that amendment. I will be very interested to hear whether the Minister considers that it is acceptable or whether he has some alternative; and, if not, why he considers that the number of dead and injured is a necessary condition for the appointment of public advocates.

Amendments 109 and 110 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, concern considering the views of the victims before appointing an additional advocate and before terminating the appointment of advocates. Those amendments go some way, although a limited way, to ensuring the independence of advocates. That independence is an essential cornerstone of the scheme: independent advocates having the ability, the willingness and, indeed, the obligation to tell the truth as they see it, to argue for the truth as they see it and to criticise where they see the need. Otherwise, there is a danger that this scheme could prove a route to whitewashing the blunders of public bodies, which is something we all wish to avoid.

As to Amendment 119AA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on which we expect he may wish to divide the House, the decision on whether to hold an inquiry into a major incident lies at the heart of the scheme. I suggest that he has made a powerful case that the power to establish an alternative fact-finding inquiry is important, for all the reasons he has given. It is also self-evident that any fact-finding inquiry can be effective only with access to all the relevant evidence, which is set out in his amendment. The very fact that the Government are resisting this amendment suggests a lack of self-confidence to ensure a thorough and independent scrutiny of major incidents, and that is why we shall support the noble Lord, Lord Wills, if he divides the House.

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

My Lords, this group of amendments is concerned with the scope and role of the independent advocate. I open by paying tribute to the work that my noble friend Lord Wills has done on this role for many years now through a number of Private Members’ Bills. If he chooses to test the opinion of the House on his Amendment 119AA, we will support it.

I shall speak briefly to the amendments in my name in this group. Amendment 104 would enable the Secretary of State to designate incidents causing serious harm or death to a small number of individuals as major incidents where there was a significant public interest in doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, gave the example of Fishmongers’ Hall, where there were few fatalities but nevertheless it was a serious incident that had a national impact. The noble Lord and I will listen with interest to the Government’s response to Amendment 104.

Amendment 107 would require the standing advocate to communicate the views of the victims of a major incident to the Secretary of State. Amendment 109 would require the Secretary of State to consider the views of victims of a major incident on whether to appoint an additional advocate and who to appoint. Amendment 110 would place a requirement on the Secretary of State to consider the views of the victims of a major incident before terminating the appointment of an advocate appointed in relation to that major incident.

Amendment 111 would require the Secretary of State to make guidance under Clause 38 publicly available. Amendment 112 would require the Secretary of State to consult the standing advocate before issuing, revising or withdrawing guidance in relation to matters to which advocates appointed in respect of major incidents must have regard. I look forward to the Minister’s response to all those amendments, none of which I intend to press—they are essentially probing amendments.

I shall comment briefly on the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, about the situation in Wales. I listened with interest to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said on the matter. I am not a lawyer, as I have said many times in this House, but the word used in the amendment is “concurrence”, not “consent”. I do not know whether that is a substantial difference but the whole of that mini-debate referred to the word “consent”, not the word used in the amendment. Nevertheless, the noble and learned Lord made an interesting and substantial point, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

In conclusion, if my noble friend chooses to press Amendment 119AA, we will support him.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, first I shall speak to the amendments tabled in my name, on behalf of the Government, which address the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the relationship between the Secretary of State and the Welsh Government. Government Amendments 103A and 109A will require the Secretary of State to consult Welsh Ministers before declaring a major incident that occurs in Wales and before appointing an advocate in respect of that incident. I am aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has tabled Amendment 109B, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and other noble Lords have supported it.

The scheme here is being administered and funded by the UK Government. The Government’s position is therefore that the right level of involvement for Welsh Ministers is to be consulted by the Secretary of State before decisions are made, rather than requiring consent or concurrence, as Amendment 109B suggests. The Government believe it would not be proportionate for the UK Government to require the consent of Welsh Ministers, thereby in effect giving them a veto over those decisions. The Government must be able to act quickly following a disaster. I believe these amendments prioritise both speed and operability while respecting aspects of this policy that cover devolved areas.

For the avoidance of doubt, I add that, as far as the Ministry of Justice is concerned, we have perfectly good relations with the Counsel General for Wales, and we are in regular touch with Welsh Ministers on matters of mutual interest. For myself, I do not anticipate any difficulties arising from the sensible amendments proposed by the Government. Given that the Government have tabled these amendments, and having regard to the points I have just outlined, I hope the noble Baroness will not press her amendment. I shall be moving the amendments in my name in this regard.

Government Amendment 110A is a technical amendment, clarifying the grounds on which the Secretary of State may omit from reports material that, in the Secretary of State’s view, would prejudice an investigation, inquest or inquiry. This is an important amendment to ensure that materials relating to national security or those that might prejudice a subsequent investigation or criminal trial, for example, are protected. In the Government’s view, the amendments preserve the necessary balance between protecting that integrity and giving reassurance that the independent public advocate’s reports will not be unduly affected. It is a sensible precaution to take.

Finally in this regard is an important point in relation to Amendment 119A in my name, which places an obligation on the Secretary of State to review the operation of the IPA scheme and to publish and lay before Parliament a report. The review period will be 18 months and will start when the first advocate is appointed in respect of a major incident. This was very much in response to discussions we have had with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on this and other topics. The Government believe that the review will be most effective once a major incident has been declared, but we recognise that this should be done as quickly as possible to ensure that it is working as intended.

That will require the Secretary of State to publish his review and lay it before Parliament. The scope of the review has been kept very broad and involves the operation of the whole part of the Bill. If I may make this point generally, in the Government’s view it addresses a broad range of points that have been made about the independent public advocate. The Government’s position is that we should not try to run before we can walk; let us set up this perfectly sensible scheme. At this point, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and others, especially the Hillsborough families who have campaigned for a public advocate of this kind. We now have a scheme and a structure. Let us try it out and see how it goes. If it needs to be extended later to other sorts of incidents, smaller incidents, linked events or whatever, let us see how it goes first and then cross that bridge. Let us not be overeager to make this as extensive as possible from the outset. It is sensibly put together and, in the Government’s view, it is a good balance at the moment.

Those were the Government’s amendments. I turn now to the various amendments proposed by noble Lords, for which I thank them. Amendment 104 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, seeks to allow the Secretary of State to declare a major incident in circumstances that fall short of the definition of a major incident. The Fishmongers’ Hall example was given in the debate. The Government’s view is that at this stage the scheme should be controlled so that it can focus on exceptional, single-time events. That is the essential drift of the amendment on major disasters. The Government do not believe it would be helpful to create an expectation that the IPA might be created to support victims involved in small-scale incidents. If we take Fishmongers’ Hall as an example, sadly there were victims but mercifully a small number of them. The purpose of the independent public advocate is to support victims on a wider scale in major incidents. We are thinking of the Grenfell-type situation, essentially. I use that as an example. The Government do not believe at this stage that where there are very few injuries or fatalities, or isolated incidents, it would be right at this point to extend the schemes to those kinds of events.

The Secretary of State has a discretion under the Bill to declare a major incident. There may be a certain room for manoeuvre in terms of “significant”. What exactly is “significant”? I do not know. The Shoreham air disaster might be a bit on the edge—it could be significant, or perhaps not—but let us leave those sorts of decisions for the future. The Government intend to publish a policy statement that will provide more detail. It will include the public interest, but the Government are not yet in a position to accept the wider vision, if I may call it that, that lies behind Amendment 104 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

I come to Amendments 102 and 105, which are very dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. I say again that we have had long discussions about these matters. If I may put it briefly, they essentially relate to two points. One is looking back to the past and making all these provisions retrospective. The other is extending the scope of the public advocate’s role to so-called linked events, when there is no single major incident but a series of small events that happen and have similarities or links between them. Amendments 102 and 105, and one or two related amendments, seek to extend the scope of the Bill to those kinds of situations.

We have looked very hard at this, and I thank the noble Lord for his care in trying to meet the Government’s points, but I have to say that we are still not in a position to agree the amendments. If we take retro- spectivity first, that is difficult in parliamentary terms. On the whole, there is a general presumption against retrospectivity in legislation. It raises the major point: how far back do we go and what do we cover? Do we go back to Aberfan or Piper Alpha? Do we go back to the Paddington train crash? You could go back for many years on all these sorts of things.

The Government do not feel that is the right approach, especially when the most major incidents that come to mind are already the subject of major public inquiries. Are we inventing a fifth wheel for the coach if we go back too far? Is it right to spread public resources backwards rather than forwards, which is what the Bill is supposed to do? The Government are not persuaded that it is right to look back, nor to go down the road of linked events because you would thereby bring an enormous range of cases within scope. It risks diluting the scheme, because it would then cover a lot of small cases, and detracting from dealing with major disasters, which is what we are driving at. That is the Government’s position on those two amendments.

Personally, I regret that the Government cannot go any further than I have just explained. But it is important to bear in mind, as I have just said, that the Government will review the situation, and if it turns out that it is feasible, correct and proportionate to extend this office—if it turns out to be a great success—the review, once it is up and running, is an opportunity to re-debate this whole issue. At the moment, the Government’s view is: let us not run before we can walk.

Photo of Baroness Sanderson of Welton Baroness Sanderson of Welton Ceidwadwyr 4:45, 30 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the Government for the review. My own view is that while I would also like there to be some of the powers mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, it is a position that will evolve over time. It is really important to have that review and right to recognise where the Government have moved, and I thank them for it.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. That is the Government’s position on Amendments 102 and 105.

Amendment 103, which is in the same group, would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the emotional and financial interests of victims when deciding whether to declare a major incident. The Government’s view is that the definition of harm in the Bill already includes emotional harm, as in Clause 28(3). It is unlikely that financial harm would occur in isolation, without the other kinds of harms mentioned in the Bill. Certainly, harm is a major factor when the Secretary of State considers whether to declare a major incident, so the Government’s position is that Amendment 103 is not necessary.

Amendment 106 touches on the close family member point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wills. The question is how these days you define a close family member. The Government do not believe that the face of the Bill is the appropriate place to address that concern. In modern society, there is effectively no set structure for a family and the Government need flexibility to capture those who need support. In the Government’s view, the approach is best left to guidance and the discretion of the IPA concerned to provide that flexibility. Of course, the input of the noble Lord and others when we draft the guidance on what kind of indications should be given in it will be very valuable, rather than having it set out in advance in the technical structure of the Bill.

We then come to Amendments 107, 109 and 110, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and Amendments 106A and 110ZA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wills. These require the appointment of a standing advocate within six months of Royal Assent, the Secretary of State to consider the views of victims and the provision of support so that the independent advocate will have all the support necessary.

As far as the period of six months to appoint is concerned, of course the Government share the noble Lord’s desire for the standing advocate to be in place as soon as possible once the Bill becomes law. But there has to be a fair and open competition for the office. As I hope the noble Lord will appreciate, the Government will want to carry out all relevant due diligence prior to the appointment. That process will take some time. In addition, I can confirm that the standing advocate will be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee to ensure that the most appropriate candidate is appointed to the post. For those reasons, the Government do not feel that any change to the process is required at this time. In particular, the six-month period would be unduly restricting considering the importance of the decision and the processes that have to be gone through, including parliamentary scrutiny. It would be far too tight.

As far as taking into account the views of victims as part of the appointment-making process is concerned, the Government certainly share this goal. When the functions of the standing advocate come to be undertaken, as outlined in Clause 29, the advocate will advise the Secretary of State on the interests of victims, whether additional advocates are needed and whether to terminate et cetera. The Government are quite satisfied that the views of victims will, in the normal course, be gathered and fully considered on this topic.

It does not seem right to the Government that a formal consultation with the victims would be correct before these steps are taken, because that would have the potential to unduly delay matters. The general scheme of this part of the Bill is that the ground is already covered. There is no reason to suppose that victims will not be fully included in the various decisions that come to be made. The Secretary of State has committed to publishing a policy statement and I will ensure that this covers the factors the Secretary of State will consider when making these decisions. This includes the participation of victims.

As far as secretarial and other support is concerned, the advocates will be supported by a permanent secretariat. The Ministry of Justice has already allocated funding for this. Clause 31 provides an effective system of support for the IPA by making provision for a secretariat and remuneration. Work is already under way to provide for this secretariat and provide for the appropriate separation between the day-to-day functions of the ministry and this independent operation.

That essentially leaves Amendment 119AA, on which it has been indicated that the House’s opinion may be tested. It requires that, “within six months” of a major incident, the Secretary of State must announce whether he intends to establish an inquiry or similar fact-finding review and provide the reasons for his decision to Parliament. If he decides to establish a non-statutory inquiry, the person appointed must be given data-compelling powers.

I entirely take the noble Lord’s point that timeliness is important—it is extremely important and the Government recognise that—but the Government do not feel in a position to support the amendment in its present state because effectively it requires the Secretary of State to announce his intentions within six months. This can be an extremely difficult matter in practice. Take Lockerbie, for example. It may well take more than six months for the Air Accidents Investigation Branch to work out what has happened.

In the case of a terrorist attack, a security incident or an action by a hostile state, there may be all sorts of reasons why a Secretary of State should not be in the position of being required to announce anything publicly. Typically, criminal proceedings may well need to be completed before anything can be announced. If you want to ask what the Secretary of State’s intentions are, all you have to do, effectively, is ask a question in Parliament. There are two Houses of Parliament and there is no reason why he should not be asked that question—so you do not really need this amendment.

On proposed new subsection (2), in the Government’s view it is something of a contradiction in terms to require a non-statutory inquiry to have statutory powers. This is potentially a major change in the structure of public inquiries and, in the Government’s view, it should not slip through by a sidewind. I hope I have covered most things.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur 5:00, 30 Ebrill 2024

I am extremely grateful, as always, to the Minister for that thorough response to all my points. We made a little progress in Committee, for which I am grateful, as I am for the little progress we have made today. I am grateful to the Minister for the open way he has engaged with all these serious points. He will not be surprised that I am disappointed that we have not made further progress on some of the key points.

On the question of what the Minister regards as retrospectivity and the linked incidents, I had hoped I had made it clear that this is not a retrospective look at incidents that have finished—historic incidents that have no relevance to the present. The amendment refers specifically to continuing harm, which is what matters. It is not the incident itself that is significant but the consequences of the incident and the examination of the failures of the state and public authorities, which should have protected the victims but, for whatever reason, did not and let down the bereaved, who suffered grievous losses—that is the point. It is not retrospective. I of course understand the points about the sensitivity of retrospective legislation and all the rest of it—but this is not that.

It is really important—and I hope the Government will reflect on this—that we bear in mind that what this whole part addresses is an attempt to redress the deep imbalance of power between victims and the bereaved, on the one hand, and on the other the state and public authorities that failed them so grievously. That is the whole point of this, and we have seen it over and over again.

On the question of timeliness—and that is the point of the fact-finding inquiry—this is absolutely crucial, for so many different reasons. I remind your Lordships’ House of the points made in the very potent report from Bishop James on the lessons from Hillsborough. He made the point that, unless you get to the truth quickly, it creates a period of time in which the authorities that are in the frame can establish a false narrative, which is precisely what the police did at Hillsborough—and that is precisely what the Hillsborough Independent Panel was designed to try to get to the bottom of, as it did. It started the process by which those Hillsborough families finally got some form of justice for their decades- long struggle.

I am really baffled as to why the Government, when they have such a good example of a new process that actually worked for the bereaved, and worked in a way that one public inquiry, a de facto public inquiry, with all the scrutiny and the coroners’ inquests, did not. They all failed, for different reasons, and it was only the fact-finding inquiry that got somewhere towards the truth and got something like justice for those families.

I do not know why the Government want to put to one side a successful example, which was actually delivered under a Conservative Government. This is not a party issue: this was set up by a Labour Government and delivered under a Conservative Government. I am baffled—but I take comfort from the fact that the Minister has accepted the need for a review and left the door open, I hope intentionally, to addressing some of these points in future. I am still worried about the problem of the fact-finding inquiry, and for that reason I am minded to test the opinion of the House, when we reach that amendment. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 102.

Amendment 102 withdrawn.

Amendment 103 not moved.