Amendment 156ZB

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords am 9:30 pm ar 21 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Bellamy:

Moved by Lord Bellamy

156ZB: Clause 55, page 56, line 34, leave out “written”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on new subsection (3A) of section 27A of the Marriage Act 1949, inserted by my amendment of Clause 55, page 57, line 19.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

For the convenience of the House, as we have just agreed to de-group the amendments, it would be helpful if the Minister could introduce this group.

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

We are now on what was group 6. In any event, the Government are bringing forward Amendments 156ZB to 156ZD and 156ZE to 156ZH. These are technical amendments and do not change the policy, which remains as set out on previous stages of the Bill. The amendments make minor revisions to the drafting of Clauses 55 and 56. Importantly, they ensure that registrars have all the information they need at the point they consider an application to marry or to enter into a civil partnership. The information needed is whether an applicant or their intended spouse or civil partner is a whole-life prisoner and, if so, whether they have been granted an exemption from the Secretary of State. They also make some minor changes to clarify the procedure and to update related legislation in line with the reforms. For the reasons that I have just given, I ask that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill and invite noble Lords to support these government amendments.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, I have tabled my opposition to Clauses 55 and 56, which noble Lords know will prohibit a prisoner serving a whole-life tariff from entering into a marriage or a civil partnership with another person without the written permission of the Secretary of State, with that permission to be granted only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. I am very pleased to be joined in my opposition to these clauses by the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord German—the latter of whom unfortunately cannot be in his place tonight—both of whom spoke very powerfully on this topic in Committee.

I am also very pleased to be joined by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Haslemere, whom I first met when he was a legal adviser at the Home Office from 1989 to 2006. We used to travel together to Strasbourg to defend the United Kingdom against allegations that it had breached the European Convention on Human Rights. Our record in court was mediocre at best, but the lunches were excellent, and I have great admiration for his expertise and judgment. I very much look forward to what he has to say on this subject.

Why have we brought this matter back on Report? It is not because I have any expectation of changing the Government’s mind, and it is not because I intend to divide the House, particularly at this late hour. My motive is simply to ensure that we record why this is an objectionable measure which has no conceivable justification. There are three reasons why I express such a critical view of these clauses. First, the Government’s reason for conferring this power on the Secretary of State and imposing this disability is so weak. In Committee, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Roborough, suggested that these measures will

“drive up public confidence in the justice system

I can think of many reasons why confidence in the criminal justice system has been undermined: the unacceptable delays in hearing trials in which defendants are accused of serious offences; the fact that so many courtrooms cannot be used because of their poor state of repair; the low rates of pay for prosecutors; and the low rates of legal aid renumeration for criminal barristers and solicitors, which has substantially reduced the number of lawyers available in criminal cases. What I have never heard anyone say is, “My confidence in the criminal justice system has been undermined because whole life prisoners are able to marry”. It is preposterous.

My second reason for objecting to these provisions is that they are wrong in principle. We all know, and the Minister emphasised in Committee, that whole life orders are reserved for those who have committed the most serious crimes—awful crimes of serial or child murders involving premeditation or sexual or sadistic violence. However, this does not mean that we deny such prisoners basic rights. However repellent their crimes, whole life prisoners are allowed to eat more than a crust of bread; they are allowed to exercise; they are allowed to read books, to watch television and to send and receive letters. The right to marry another consenting adult is also a basic right. National law may limit the exercise of that right—you cannot marry your brother, a 12 year-old or your dog—but 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 repeatedly stated in the consistent case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Minister in Committee suggested that the Government consider that Article 12 of the European convention allows for a restriction on the right to marry to be in the public interest. However, that does not assist the Government because there is a judgment of the Strasbourg court in a case concerned with prisoners. It is Frasik v Poland in 2010. The court recognised at paragraph 91:

“Imprisonment deprives a person of his liberty and… some civil rights and privileges. This does not, however, mean that persons in detention cannot, or can only very exceptionally, exercise their right to marry”.

The court added, at paragraph 93, that the state cannot prevent a prisoner exercising the right to marry because of the view of the authorities as to what

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

That is precisely the basis on which this Government purport to justify Clauses 55 and 56 of the Bill—public opinion, public confidence. I ask the Minister, how can the Government maintain the statement, made by the Secretary of State for Justice on the front of the Bill, that Clauses 55 and 56, like the rest of the Bill, are compatible with Convention rights?

My third reason for opposing these clauses is that they may do real damage in prisons. If we are to lock people up for the whole of their lives, subject only to release on compassionate grounds, we must surely not remove encouragement for them to maintain relationships with the outside world, however difficult that may be. It is not just for their own self-respect; it is not just because of their mental health; it is because it will help those who manage the prison estate by reducing the risk that the inevitable frustrations of long-term prisoners erupt in violence against prison officers or other prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on the Opposition Front Bench, made this point powerfully on Second Reading and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, did so again in Committee. The Minister had no answer on either occasion. So for these reasons, Clauses 55 and 56 should be removed from the Bill. They have no coherent justification, they are objectionable in principle and they will impede good management of the prison regime.

I am very sorry indeed that a Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Alex Chalk, who I greatly admire, should think it appropriate to bring forward such proposals. I do not normally quote the Bible, but I will. The Book of Mark, Chapter 10, verse nine:

“Those whom God has joined together let no-one separate”— not even the Secretary of State.

Photo of Lord Carter of Haslemere Lord Carter of Haslemere Crossbench 9:45, 21 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is a real privilege to support my noble friend Lord Pannick in this debate on whether these clauses should stand part of the Bill. As he has said, back in the 1990s, in another life, he and I used to travel to Strasbourg together to fight prisoners’ cases on prisons law. It is no exaggeration at all to say that I acquired most of my public law knowledge from working with and learning from my noble friend on these and other issues.

Prisons issues back in the 1990s were at the very cutting edge of the development of human rights law. Here we are again, about 30 years later, discussing basic human rights for prisoners such as the right to marry and to form a civil partnership. But it is about much more than that. It is about how as a society we treat those we lock up. Someone said, it may have been Gandhi, that the way we treat those we imprison is a measure of how civilised we are—

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

It was Winston Churchill.

Photo of Lord Carter of Haslemere Lord Carter of Haslemere Crossbench

It was Winston Churchill; I am corrected—both great names.

If we have progressed at all from the way prisoners were treated in the past, we should be enabling whole-life prisoners to find some meaning and purpose in a life that is certain to end in prison. This includes providing opportunities for them to have some social interaction and build relationships, even though they can never expect to be released—in fact, especially because they can never expect to be released. This reflects the long-standing legal position. It is trite law now that prisoners enjoy basic human rights, such as respect for their private and family life, their religion, freedom of expression and access to a lawyer etc. Under Article 12, prisoners have the right to marry and form a civil partnership.

My noble friend Lord Pannick has already referred to the case of Frasik. I will quote again that passage from the court’s judgement, because it is so powerful. Imprisonment, the court said, does not mean that those detained

“cannot, or can only very exceptionally, exercise their right to marry”.

Yet is that not exactly what Clauses 55 and 56 say? The ECHR memorandum conveniently sidesteps that by saying that marriage by whole-lifers

“undermines public confidence in the Criminal Justice System”.

We have just heard from my noble friend Lord Pannick on that one; it is, in effect, code for “offends public opinion”. But the Frasik judgment, as my noble friend said, says that the Bill cannot do that—it cannot automatically prevent prisoners forming marital relationships.

It is not all about the law either. Compelling legal points, such as those we have mentioned, often arise from a rotten policy, which is what we have here. The Government’s justification seems to be the case of Levi Bellfield. Awful as that is as an example of the right to marry being abused, it is one case of about 70 whole-lifers in the system. They have all committed terrible crimes, but their whole-life tariffs are the punishment for that. Even Ministers have recognised that we send people to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Automatically denying prisoners, even whole-life prisoners, the right to marry or enter a civil partnership amounts to nothing more than the state imposing additional, entirely gratuitous punishment on this cohort of prisoners for no reason other than to show the public that it is tough on crime.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, expressing his personal views at Second Reading, put it well when he described it as a “petty measure”. The noble Lord, Lord German, who unfortunately cannot be with us tonight, rightly called it cruel. It also punishes prisoners’ partners, who are entirely innocent in all this. It punishes them emotionally, of course, but it may also affect their entitlement to, for example, a widow’s pension on the death of a whole-life prisoner or a spouse’s exemption from inheritance tax. Has any consideration been given to the effects of this policy on partners? I would be most grateful to know the answer to that.

There is a simple solution to the Government’s wholly justified concern about the Levi Bellfield case, which would deal with all the legal and policy objections that have been mentioned. The existing law entitles a prison governor to refuse an application to marry or form a civil partnership only if it would create a security risk to the prison. Why not ditch Clauses 55 and 56 and legislate to widen the basis for refusing such applications to include cases where there are reasonable grounds for believing that the application is not made in good faith but from some improper motive? This could easily be made legally watertight to minimise the possibility of unfounded legal challenges.

In conclusion, and at this late hour, in the dying breaths of the Bill, I urge the Minister to ignore the word “reject”, which is in his briefing notes in capital letters, underlined, in bold type. Why not surprise everybody, not least his officials, by agreeing now to remove Clauses 55 and 56 and adopt the more proportionate, but no less effective, solution that I have just proposed?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Llafur

My Lords, I do not intend to say much, for the very good reason that I do not have to. The arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Haslemere, and particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, are overwhelming. I do not want to put the Minister, for whom I have huge respect, on the spot, but I have a suspicion that he has more than a bit of sympathy for the arguments that have been put.

The only point I want to make is this: commentators have said that, when the Minister and the Secretary of State came to their positions, there was likely to be a different attitude towards issues of this kind than there was under some predecessors. The evidence is that that is true, and we have seen examples tonight and this afternoon of the Minister no doubt using his influence in persuading the Secretary of State to have sensible views and change the Bill where it needed to be changed.

This is exactly a case of a clause that is both against the European legislation we have adopted and against all common sense; it should be removed. It would be a real shame if this Bill, which contains some really excellent stuff on both prisoners and victims, has at the tail end of it, as the noble Lord said, this rather ridiculous and very anti-British way of dealing with this issue—so I do ask the Minister to please think again.

Photo of Lord Meston Lord Meston Crossbench

My Lords, I raised questions about Clause 55 and how it might operate in practice at Second Reading that were really not answered. I make no criticism; the Minister had a lot to deal with. I regret not being able to participate in Committee. But I have devoted quite a lot of my professional life to the formation and validity of marriage, and therefore in the context of this Bill I would like to point out that the question of whether and to what extent certain marriages should be restricted or governed by statute faces two underlying problems.

First, it is generally not necessary for anybody otherwise qualified to marry to have any good or creditable reason to do so. I mention that in the context of my noble friend Lord Carter’s suggestion that possibly in these circumstances prison governors should question the motives and have the ability to do so, and that that may be the way through this problem. I have to say that research suggests that the decision to marry is rarely reached on rational grounds—and indeed the same research revealed that 3% of those surveyed did not know why they were getting married at all.

Secondly, and altogether more seriously, there is the fundamental right to marry, stated in Article 12 of the ECHR. That is a right that long predated that convention in this country. However, it was Article 12 that underpinned the Marriage Act 1983, which allowed for marriages of those detained in prison, for essentially pragmatic reasons. It was legislation that did not attract criticism—indeed, only newspaper headlines such as “Get Me to the Jail on Time”. Article 12 also led to the extension of the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees of Relationship) Act 1986, which I had a part in, believe it or not, and which set mankind free to marry their mothers-in-law.

The restrictions proposed in this Bill on specific marriages were understandably prompted by the attention-seeking attempts by particular convicted prisoners to marry—something that many people, no doubt including their victims and their victims’ families, will have found grossly offensive. Nevertheless, the underlying points emphasised by all noble Lords who have spoken so far simply cannot be ignored.

If Article 12 rights are to be curtailed and qualified simply by reference to the nature of the sentence being served or by vague concepts of public interest, the Government really should spell out more clearly the justification for the proposed restrictions and should clearly indicate the circumstances likely to satisfy the Secretary of State that they are “exceptional circumstances”. At Second Reading, I suggested that they might include terminal illness, but I can see that it ought probably to go wider than that. Otherwise, we are simply going to be storing up problems and litigation for the future.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 10:00, 21 Mai 2024

My Lords, from these Benches, and in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord German, I want to say that we have had a fascinating, amusing, witty, but actually very important debate. We on these Benches completely support everyone who has spoken so far. I know that there is no question of moving to a vote, but it is something that we fundamentally believe in.

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

My Lords, from these Benches I express irritation that we have these in the Bill at all. We have spent the last two or three months working across the House, improving and building a new framework for victims. It is, let us just say, very puzzling that these are in the Bill.

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

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for tabling his amendments, and of course I thank the noble Lords, Lord Carter, Lord Meston, Lord Bach and others for their eloquence. I can well understand the feelings expressed. I of course recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, together with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has spent many hours in Strasbourg defending the United Kingdom, and in that context, although the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was modest enough—probably inaccurately—to say that his results had been mediocre, in fact the United Kingdom has, if not the best, at least one of the best records in Strasbourg of respecting human rights.

The question of the compatibility of this particular provision with Article 12 of the ECHR has been very carefully considered—otherwise the Secretary of State would never have given the certificate in the first place.

The Government’s arguments were set out in Committee and I am not sure it is particularly useful at this late hour—especially as it is 10.01 pm—to repeat them. In the Government’s view, the measures are proportionate and apply to a very small cohort of the most serious offenders who have committed the most serious crimes. As of last December, there were 67 whole-life prisoners in England. Because they will never be released, their ability to enjoy anything resembling normal married life is already lawfully and legitimately restricted in a very significant way.

In the Government’s view, the measures are justified on the basis of public interest, as already set out in Committee. The public’s confidence in, and respect for, the justice system is a matter for which any elected Government must have regard—and that of course includes the feelings of victims. The one cause célèbre that has been mentioned did have an important impact in that regard.

I would add only that the measures do not prevent whole-life prisoners benefiting from supportive relationships while in custody, in the same way as other prisoners. We are simply talking about being married or in a civil partnership, and not being able to do that does not have any practical impact on an individual’s ability to maintain a relationship with a prisoner, and does not provide any additional rights or detriments in terms of visits or communications.

I am very sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in particular. I do not have any authority to simply drop these clauses, nor am I able to indicate in any way what my personal views may or may not be. I hope I have provided at least some reassurance and I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I thank the Minister. I also ask him to give a very modest undertaking this evening that, before Third Reading, he will ask the Secretary of State to consider the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, as a way of solving the perceived problem, without including in the Bill a clause that so many of us regard as objectionable. I ask him to kindly give that undertaking—with of course no commitment whatever.

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

I can and will and do give that undertaking.

Amendment 156ZB agreed.