Clause 31

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 8:00 pm ar 20 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Eligible complaints: specific requirements applicable to all complaints

Amendment made: No. 289, in clause 31, page 22, line 17, after ‘ineligible’ insert ‘by virtue of this section’.—[Maria Eagle.]

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 147, in clause 31, page 22, line 21, leave out ‘one year’ and insert ‘3 years’.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Llafur, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 148, in clause 31, page 22, line 29, leave out ‘three’ and insert ‘12’.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

Clause 31 sets a limitation period for the bringing of complaints. Subsection (2)(a) provides a limitation period of no more than one year. After that year, the complaint is barred. I will read the relevant subsection so that the Committee understands what I am talking about:

“Those requirements are...that a period of no more than one year”— my amendment would make it three years—

“has passed since the relevant person first became aware of the matters giving rise to the substance of the complaint”.

Amendment no. 148 deals with subsection (2)(c), which states that the requirements are that

“where the responsible authority has responded to the substance of the complaint following such a communication (whether by rejecting it or by addressing it in some other way), that a period of no more than three months has passed since it did so.”

I would substitute a period of 12 months.

First, I want to know why the Government have chosen a limitation period of one year for making an initial complaint, and a three-month limitation period for bringing a further complaint based on the adjudication. In civil law, a limitation period of three years is not unheard of. I appreciate that some torts have a limitation period of one year, but there is a procedure by which, if the complaint or the cause of action became known to the complainant only after that period has elapsed, the court has discretion to extend the period.

When we are dealing with prisoners, many of whom may be intellectually impaired, mentally ill or badly affected by substance abuse of one sort or another, one year will not necessarily for them to get their heads around the issues confronting them. Equally, three months is quite a short period of time for the typical prisoner—the typical person affected—to take advice or, off his own bat, to do something about the response from the responsible authority.

The amendments are not earth-shattering, but they are humane and sensible, and do not undermine the  power of the commissioner to act properly in any given case, prevent him from rejecting complaints, or make him do things which he would not think proper in the ordinary course of. They would provide a little more justice.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I have listened very carefully to the hon. and learned Gentleman; I think that there is a proviso in subsection (3) to give the commissioner the discretion to waive the time limits where it seems appropriate to do so. My concern is slightly different. I agree with him about the three-month period; I am not so sure about the 12 months’ initial complaint limitation, but three months following the response is a relatively short time, particularly in the context of many of the people who find themselves on the prison estate.

My question to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice is different. Perhaps she will be able to help me by pointing out where else in the statute or in other regulations is the time limit for the responsible authority to respond to the initial complaint. Because, in the provision it would be perfectly possible for a not very responsible authority to delay its response to the person to the point where the complaint became time barred under subsection (2)(a). I can find no requirement in this part for the delivery of the responsible authority’s response to the substance of the complaint. As I say, that may be elsewhere in the complaints procedure or the Bill, but I am not sure where and I hope that the Minister may be able to help.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We believe that the time limit reflects the fact that investigation by the commissioner, which is an administrative process rather than a judicial one, is most useful when engaged with matters that are reasonably fresh and still capable of worthwhile resolution. We consider that, in the vast majority of cases, the deadlines set out in clause 31 will give complainants sufficient time to raise grievances with the commissioner.

In setting a time limit, we have followed two main principles: first, that the commissioner will not act on complaints beyond a year; and, secondly, that the person must have given the prison or the body complained against a reasonable opportunity to deal with the substance of the complaint, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made. I do not think that we define in part 4 or elsewhere in the Bill what that period should be; it would depend on the facts of each individual case. There will be some minor complaints to which it would be reasonable for the controlling authority to respond quickly and there will more complex complaints that take longer to deal with. “Reasonable” is one of those words that ought to be clear, one hopes, from the context of the complaint—its seriousness, when it was made and so on. That is subject to common sense.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I accept that, but at the moment the provision gives comfort to the authority that it will have reasonable time to respond. I agree that common sense suggests that a complex complaint will take longer to investigate. However, the clause does not give  any comfort to the complainant in cases where the responsible authority simply delays responding. For example, the responding authority may not respond for 12 months. It could respond on 31 December to a complaint made on 1 January. I assume that the commission would apply its discretion in those circumstances, but that complaint would then be time barred, however unreasonable the response of the authority. Reasonableness works both ways and there should be not only a reasonable period for investigation, but a reasonable expectation that the authority will respond in a timely way to a complaint that is made to it.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman has answered his own question in the sense that the person who has made the complaint is not getting a response. He still has three months from when he gets the response to refer the matter to the commissioner. If the controlling authority sits for 12 months without responding, that is a case in which the commissioner might well exercise the discretion that we have given him in clause 31 to act on complaints made outside the deadlines, if he has good reason to do so. If a delay was the fault of the body concerned, that might be a very good reason to deal with the complaint and I am sure that that is what would happen in practice.

This is not a formal judicial court procedure in which the limitation has to go into years. We think that the commissioner is dealing with situations in which the speedy resolution of complaints is best. We believe that the time limits set out in the clause are appropriate, but as a back-stop, the commissioner has the discretion to act outside those time limits if he feels that, in the circumstances, justice would not be served if the deadlines were adhered to strictly. On that basis, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I did not propose the amendment thinking that it would make the Government change their mind, and I take into account the wording of subsection (3). However, at the moment the default setting would be governed by the periods of one year and three months. Therefore, the complainant would have to persuade the commissioner to do something to extend those periods in the right circumstances. I would prefer there to be a longer period for consideration in subsection (2)(a) and (c). The commissioner would therefore not have to use his discretion in subsection (3). Bearing in mind the sort of people who are likely to be making the complaints, there will be a need for the commissioner to exercise his power under subsection (3) rather more often than he might like. That is the simple reason why I want to change the periods set out in subsection (2).

I shall not press the amendment to a Division, but I urge the Government, if a lot of complaints are coming in out of time once the commissioner is up and running and he is spending far too much time dealing with out-of-time applications, to consider reconsidering the limitation periods. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 290, in clause 31, page 22, line 21, leave out ‘relevant person’ and insert ‘complainant’.

No. 291, in clause 31, page 22, line 38, at end insert—

‘(5) For the purpose of determining whether a part of a complaint is ineligible by virtue of this section, any reference in this section to a complaint may be read as including a reference to a part of a complaint.’.—[Maria Eagle.]

Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.