Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, perhaps I can begin with two confessions. First, I frequently listen to and discuss issues with people with whom I firmly disagree including, on occasion, Members of your Lordships’ House. Secondly, I do not propose to change that approach.

This amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, relates to the management of prisoners who have changed their legal gender by obtaining a GRC—a gender recognition certificate. The effect of the amendment would be that a prisoner with a GRC who is convicted of or on remand for a violent or sexual offence would be, and would have to be, held in a prison matching their sex at birth.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that I and the MoJ take this issue very seriously but, and with no disrespect to any noble Lord whose speech has ranged more widely, we are in Committee on this Bill. I shall confine my remarks to the subject matter of the amendment rather than the broader questions, whether on Stonewall or related topics, interesting and thought-provoking though they were. The Committee will be aware that the MoJ left the Stonewall diversity scheme in June this year, but I reiterate the department’s commitment to diversity in all its diverse forms. Our policy is not driven by ideology; it is driven by compliance with the law of the land and to consider protection for all—I repeat all—the prisoners in our care.

Reference has been made to the 39-page policy. Let me just read what the section under “Outcomes” says:

“The high-level outcomes of the new Policy Framework are intended to strike an appropriate balance, ensuring”

first that:

“All transgender individuals are managed safely with their rights properly respected and in accordance with the law”

and, secondly:

“Decisions are informed by all available evidence and intelligence in order to achieve an outcome that balances risks and promotes the safety of all individuals in custodial settings and approved premises. This includes an assessment of risks presented to and by transgender individuals.”

The Committee will have noted the two references to balance in that section, as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out, two groups—perhaps at least two, I would say—need respect and understanding in prison. I suggest to the Committee that that policy is correct in law and, I believe, in principle too. With all due deference to my noble friend Lord Cormack, I suggest that it is morally correct as well.

This is about legality, safety and dignity, so in answer to the point put to the Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, no: the world has not gone mad and it is a gross mischaracterisation of government policy to suggest that I or the Government have “no qualms” about letting rapists share living quarters with women. I assume that point was put because the noble Baroness does not understand what the policy is, so let me explain the actual policy to her and to the Committee.

The policy is that transgender prisoners are allocated to a prison matching their legal gender but can be held in a prison opposite to their legal gender where they would otherwise present an unmanageable level of risk to other prisoners. The current policy therefore allows for prisoners with GRCs to be held in a prison matching their sex at birth, where that is appropriate. I can therefore confirm, because I have had this checked, that contrary to the position set out by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, there are trans women with GRCs who are now housed in the male estate following the risk assessment process.

The critical point, as pointed out first, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and then adopted by others, is that that policy differs from that suggested by the amendment because the current policy is not a blanket approach. The amendment is a one-size-fits-all approach, or a blunt instrument, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put it. We manage prisoners with GRCs on a case-by-case basis. That is absolutely right, because we want to make sure that there are no assaults in any prison by any prisoner on any other prisoner or, of course, on a member of staff.

The amendment would end the balanced approach. It would mean that a prisoner with a GRC would never be held in the part of the prison estate that matched their acquired gender, even though in some cases this would pose a manageable level of risk and would, on balance, be the safest and most appropriate course of action. It would lead to a prisoner with a GRC having to be kept in a prison that matched their sex at birth, even when that posed an unmanageable level of risk, which would be an utterly bizarre conclusion. It would mean, for example, that a prisoner who had transitioned from female to male and had obtained a GRC would be kept in a women’s prison, even if that posed an unmanageable level of risk to the women they were in prison with. We are very conscious, as my noble friend Lady Meyer pointed out, that women in prison are especially vulnerable. This amendment, I am sure unintentionally, might expose them to greater danger.

It is simply not possible to argue that holding transgender prisoners with GRCs in a prison matching their sex at birth is always necessary and proportionate in every instance. By far the better policy is the policy we adopt, which is to look at matters on a case-by-case basis. I also point out that the amendment applies only to prisoners with GRCs, which most transgender prisoners do not have.

Before I sit down, I will pick up two further points—first, the point from my noble friend Lady Meyer on Amendment 292G. I see that my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford has come into the Chamber. I think that she or another member of the Home Office team will have the delight of dealing with that amendment on a future occasion and I do not want to steal her thunder on that this evening.

My noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said “talk to us”. I started by saying that I am always happy to talk to everyone, and I mean that. However, on this issue, when the most important information to provide is how the policy is operated, I suggest with respect to noble Lords that perhaps the best way forward might be to replicate something we did on the Domestic Abuse Bill and have what I think I called a teach-in from officials, who will be able to provide noble Lords with information and explain how it works. I have been able to check and they would be very happy to do that. We will arrange that in the normal way.

With that explanation of government policy and the offer of the teach-in, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, my name is on this amendment as well. I have the same briefing as the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Newlove, so I do not have anything additional to say, other than that obsessional behaviour is a problem that one sees throughout the court system. While of course I support home detention curfews, it needs to be recognised that obsessional, fixated behaviour is a source of very serious risk—mainly to women, but not exclusively to women. I have seen, relatively recently, obsessional people in breach of a restraining order, a non-molestation order, bail conditions and licence conditions all at the same time. So I support the amendment in my name.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, twice over. First, I thank her for tabling this amendment, which has enabled us to have this short but interesting debate. Secondly, I have to say mea culpa, because I failed to thank her for her contribution in the last group. I should have done so and I apologise for that. I hope that she will be able to hear what I am saying now, via the screen.

The home detention curfew—HDC—scheme has operated since 1999. It provides a managed transition from custody to the community for lower-risk offenders who serve sentences of less than four years. They may be released a maximum of four and a half months earlier than the date on which they must be released in any event, but on average they are released on HDC within three months of their automatic release date.

Offenders who are released under the HDC scheme are released under strict licence conditions. An electronically monitored curfew of at least nine hours a day is mandatory. Location monitoring may be added in cases where practitioners advise that it is required. Importantly, research suggests that offenders released early on HDC are no more likely to commit further offences than if they were released at their automatic release date. Compliance with the curfew conditions is closely monitored and breaches are dealt with robustly, which can lead to a swift recall to prison where necessary.

As my noble friend Lady Newlove pointed out, certain offenders are excluded in law from HDC. They include registered sex offenders, terrorists and those imprisoned for specified violent offences. But, as I have said, most offenders serving sentences of less than four years are eligible for the scheme. I underline the word “eligible”. The fact that a particular offender is, in principle, eligible, does not mean that that offender is suitable for release under the scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, has just said, offenders can, for example, exhibit obsessional behaviour. No offender can be approved for release on HDC without a robust risk-management plan in place. Where necessary, the governor can set additional licence conditions that can include exclusion zones or location monitoring. If the result of the assessment is that the offender cannot be safely managed at the proposed curfew address, HDC will simply not be granted.

We recognise that the release of offenders with a history of stalking, harassment, coercive control or domestic abuse can cause additional distress. We do not believe that adding those offences to the list of offences excluded by law and putting a blanket ban in place would be proportionate, or an effective means of safeguarding victims while maximising the benefits of the scheme. But we are currently reviewing the HDC policy framework to ensure that all the appropriate safeguards are in place to protect victims and the public and that unsuitable offenders are not released on HDC. With these reassurances and for these reasons, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this brief debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, spoke powerfully of the practical impact on victims of these fixated offenders after HDC has happened. I echo her thanks to Claire Waxman and her staff at the London Victims’ Commissioner’s office for their briefing and their assistance.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, helpfully reiterated the fixated behaviour of these offenders and how it is in their nature to breach orders. All the examples that the three of us have given show that they are likely to do so—and to do so repeatedly.

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Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, the Labour Party has been at the forefront of calls to make misogyny a hate crime. Former Nottingham police and crime commissioner Paddy Tipping ensured that it was recorded as a hate crime there, and we have heard from my noble friend Lady Warwick about his work with Chief Constable Sue Fish in that regard. During the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act, we secured the piloting of the recording of misogyny as a hate crime among crimes of violence against the person, including stalking, harassment and sexual offences. Police forces recording misogyny as a hate crime is an important step forward, but we want to go further by including sex and gender in the list of protected characteristics in hate crime laws for the first time.

I shall speak only very briefly because of the hour, but I want to conclude by saying that I thought that my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti encapsulated the decision before us. We in the Labour Party support Amendment 219 and oppose Amendment 219A. As my noble friend said, first of all, this relates to where an offence has already taken place. Secondly, it is already the case that race and religion are aggravating factors, and they have been for many years. We believe that misogyny should be added as an aggravating factor when sentencing.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lady Newlove and Lady Noakes for tabling their amendments. Both have highlighted the importance of tackling violence against women and girls, as have other noble Lords. We rightly share this priority.

These amendments provide us with an opportunity to discuss the important issue of hate crime, and also to pay tribute to the work of the Law Commission. It performs an important service, considering complex matters of law and making recommendations for change and simplification. This very valuable function helps to bring coherence to complicated and technical areas of law.

The Government share the opinion that all hate crimes are a great injustice and should be dealt with by the full force of the law. I know that noble Lords are aware of the breadth of activity to combat the scourge of hate crime, but in the interests of the hour—I do not think I have ever started my first group of amendments at 10 past 12 at night, so this is a first—I shall consider the amendments before the Committee.

As I have stated in the House before, in 2018, as part of the updating of the Government’s hate crime action plan, we asked the Law Commission to undertake a review of current hate crime legislation. This specifically included concluding a review as to whether other protected characteristics, such as sex, gender and age, should be included. The review’s terms of reference were to review

“the existing range of protected characteristics, identifying gaps in the scope of the protection currently offered and making recommendations to promote a consistent approach.”

As noble Lords have said, the Law Commission’s final report is now imminent. It may be published as early as this month, and that of course is a matter for the Law Commission, which is fully independent of the Government. Noble Lords accepted this during the passage of the then Domestic Abuse Bill, and I think we should see it through in the way we agreed.

However, I do not think that we should commit to giving effect to all the Law Commission’s recommendations before anyone—including noble Lords—has even seen and studied them. It would be inappropriate for any Government to sign what is effectively a blank cheque.

In particular, I know many people hope that the Law Commission will recommend—if I can use the popular parlance—that misogyny should be made a hate crime. To those people, and indeed to any noble Lord, I would say, “Wait and see.” We do not know what it will recommend, and nor should we at this stage. As an independent body which considers and weighs up the evidence, the Law Commission will come to its own conclusions. We will only know what the commission’s advice is when the final report is published.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, pointed out, where the Law Commission suggested it was minded to consider adding sex and gender to hate crime legislation, it did so only in a consultation. But the purpose of a consultation is precisely to consult. The Law Commission will also want to consider what consultation responses have said and to shape its conclusions accordingly. Whatever the commission’s inclination might have been in 2020, we cannot assume the commission’s final position until it has been published.

It would be premature to accept Amendment 219 and negate the whole purpose of asking this distinguished, independent organisation to give full and proper consideration to the whole construct, purpose and design of hate crime legislation. What is the point of the Law Commission in the first place? I know that people have been critical of it, but I think it is a very useful tool to deal with certain complex issues.

It would also probably be premature at this stage to accept Amendment 219A. As I have said and my noble friend stated, we cannot pre-empt what the Law Commission will recommend. What I think we can say is that the law is complex and contentious, and that has been reflected in our debate tonight. It seems to me that there is every possibility that the Law Commission will make recommendations that will require primary legislation to implement and I do not think it would be appropriate to make what could be quite significant changes to our statute book through secondary legislation. I dare say that, were such a proposal ever to emanate from the Government, I would expect noble Lords to be critical.

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con)
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Yes, noble Lords can take that down and quote it against me.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, asked me about timelines and when the police were going to start recording the data. As one noble Lord said, we are currently in consultation with the NPCC and forces on how to take that forward. We will ask police forces on an experimental basis to record and identify any crimes of violence against the person, including stalking, harassment and sexual offences where the victim perceives it to be motivated by hostility based on their sex.

In conclusion, significant changes to the law require a full parliamentary process, with the proposals considered by both Houses in the normal way, with all the requisite parliamentary stages. I do appreciate the desire for urgency—I am sure that noble Lords looking at the clock do as well—but I do not think that should be the grounds for changing legislation without full and proper parliamentary scrutiny. Accordingly, I cannot advise your Lordships to pre-empt the Law Commission’s report or to act ahead of knowing what it will recommend. I therefore invite my noble friend Lady Newlove to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, considering the time, I will try to keep this short—I will not do a Second Reading speech to end.

This has been a really good debate, again; in fact, I think the whole session today has been interesting. I thank the Minister for her response. Obviously, the Law Commission does excellent work and, as she says, we will have to wait and see. What saddens me is that while we consult and have parliamentary Sessions and Governments and everything, the people on the ground need that support system and understanding, and they need the police service and the culture and everybody else to understand the hostility that they face. As a former Victims’ Commissioner, I have met many victims. Sadly, some went to report that they had been raped by their husband and were told, “You’re not the only one tonight, love”. That has really resonated about why it is so important.

Given that it is late, that this is a probing amendment and that, hopefully, we may have something from the Law Commission that we can come back to on Report, for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.