King’s Speech

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Wednesday 8th November 2023

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Portrait Lord McInnes of Kilwinning
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Moved on Tuesday 7 November by

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty as follows:

“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament”.

Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, it is a privilege to open this adjourned debate on His Majesty’s most gracious Speech. Today’s debate will focus on home affairs, justice and devolution. It will give us an opportunity to consider some of the central themes of the gracious Speech; in particular, the actions that we are proposing to reflect modern needs and public opinion and to use evolving technology to best effect. I suggest that the overarching theme of the different aspects that I will cover is keeping us safe and secure; in particular, with sensible, practical, long-term measures. Respectfully, I will take our subject matter today in three parts: first, sentencing and offender management; secondly, measures for safety and security; and, thirdly, devolution.

I say at the outset how much the Government value the contribution, experience and wisdom of this House. The Government will be listening most carefully to the contributions today and on subsequent days of the debate on the King’s Speech.

I come first to sentencing and offender management. I couple those words together deliberately, because they are two sides of the same coin; they go together. In general terms, as your Lordships know, the Government’s policy is to make tougher penalties available to the courts for the worst offenders, while at the same time aiming to reduce prison sentences for lower-level reoffending to make the British public safer.

To take the tougher side, as it were, first, we will introduce statutory aggravating factors at sentencing that will capture grooming a child for the purposes of sexual abuse, including those involved in grooming gangs, and those who murder their former partner at the end of a relationship. We will also create an expectation for judges to use whole life orders where they can be applied, unless there are exceptional circumstances, as well as adding the murder of a single victim that involves sexual or sadistic conduct to the list of instances where a whole life order must be given. We recently changed the law so that rapists could no longer be released at the halfway point of their sentence and instead had to wait until they had served at least two-thirds. We will now legislate so that those convicted of rape and associated serious sexual offences will serve their custodial term in full.

Thus, through these measures, we will ensure that the courts have available to them the ability to impose the most severe sanctions for those who commit the worst possible crimes, just as, I suggest, the public want and expect.

However, protecting the public and reducing reoffending is not simply about custody. The fact is that over 55% of adults who leave prison after serving under 12 months go on to commit further crime. At the same time, those on suspended sentence orders with conditions reoffend at a rate of around 24%.

Many of these lesser offenders have problems with addiction, homelessness, poor mental health, or a combination of all three. Short custodial sentences may entrench them in criminality, cutting them off from community connections or employment that could support them or turn their lives around.

We will therefore introduce a presumption in favour of suspending short custodial sentences. The offender would then serve their sentence in the community, where sentencers can impose strict requirements, such as electronic tags, curfews, exclusion zones, and bans on drink or drugs. If an offender breaches the terms of their suspended sentence, they could be recalled to prison to serve the rest of their sentence behind bars. As the Lord Chancellor recently announced, we will double the number of GPS tags available to the courts to ensure that relevant community sentence requirements can be electronically monitored to support compliance and help to deter further offending.

We will also expand the use of the successful home detention curfew scheme to allow more lower-risk prisoners on standard determinate sentences to be safely managed on electronic tags in the community, rather than in prison. Eligible offenders will be subject to strict curfews. When not at home, they will be expected to be at work or undertaking other core resettlement tasks, such as meeting their probation officer or attending addiction courses. This will enable them to reintegrate into law-abiding lives and even take up employment so that they can become contributing members of society once again.

These measures will also assist us in using our prison capacity effectively, ensuring that we can lock up dangerous criminals for longer without further criminalising redeemable offenders by trapping them in a cycle of reoffending. We also continue to make progress with our programme to build 20,000 new prison places—the most expansive prison build since the Victorian era. All these go together with other policies we have discussed previously in this House to provide more employment, training and education opportunities and accommodation for prisoners being released, which are contributing significantly to a reduction in reoffending rates.

However, we have been clear that safeguarding prison capacity in the longer term will require further changes to our approach. We will therefore establish powers to transfer prisoners detained in England and Wales to rented prison space overseas, subject to future agreement with a partner country. This has been done successfully in other countries, such as Belgium and Norway.

The Government will, of course, carefully use the experiences of our colleagues on the continent to understand how best the policy can be enacted, paying particular attention to calibrating it properly for those prisoners with close family ties in the United Kingdom. This will include ensuring due consideration of a prisoner’s rights in international and domestic law, and ensuring sufficient opportunities for family contact. No decisions have yet been made about the cohort in scope of any agreement. However, the Prisons Minister is working with His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and stakeholders to take account of this issue and others arising from this change.

Finally on this aspect, the Government are also determined to ensure that victims of crime see justice done. The appalling Lucy Letby case shocked the nation this year, and she compounded the pain she had inflicted by refusing to face up to her crimes and attend her sentencing hearing. We will therefore create a new power for judges to order offenders to attend their sentencing, with up to two years added to their sentence if they refuse. We will also make it clear in law that reasonable force can be used to make convicts appear in the dock to receive their sentence, as victims, their families and the general public would expect.

I move on to my second subheading: measures for safety and security. There are five different aspects to this. The first is knife crime. It is the case, perhaps contrary to public belief, that violent crime generally is trending down and has been for some years. In his 2023 report, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Andy Cooke, said:

“England and Wales are arguably safer than they have ever been”.

However, knife crime continues to plague too many communities. This is often the case in larger cities, London in particular. Indeed, just last month a 16 year- old boy was stabbed to death in north London. The entire nation was shocked when Elianne Andam, a 15 year-old girl, was brutally murdered with a knife in Croydon in September. Only yesterday, Alfie Lewis, aged 15, was stabbed to death in Leeds. The Government extend deep condolences to all those families affected.

We already have some of the strictest knife legislation in the world, but we could go further. We will therefore introduce measures to enable the police to seize, retain and destroy bladed articles found on private property; increase the maximum penalty for selling weapons to those under 18; and put into law a new offence of possessing a blade with the intent to do harm. This is a zero-tolerance approach which the public expect.

I move now, under this subgroup, to protecting victims. We will introduce new measures to protect more victims of crime and tackle crimes which disproportionately affect women and girls. We will update the criminal offences tackling the taking of intimate images without consent, expand the offence of encouraging or assisting serious self-harm to cover non-communication activity, and strengthen multiagency management of those convicted of offences of controlling or coercive behaviour. I have already mentioned the steps we are taking in relation to those convicted of rape and the other most serious sexual offences.

I next move to homelessness and begging. We are absolutely clear that no one should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live. We are committed to repealing the outdated Vagrancy Act, passed only 199 years ago—possibly the last Act still in general use passed in the old Palace of Westminster before it unfortunately burned down. We are determined to update the framework and to end rough sleeping and prevent people ending up on the streets in the first place. Last year, we published our strategy to end rough sleeping for good and have already made available a £2 billion commitment over three years to accelerate those efforts.

As we set out in the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan published in March, we want to go as far as possible to ensure that vulnerable individuals on the streets can be directed to the support they need, while cracking down on conduct that is anti-social, intimidating or criminal. This includes giving police and local authorities tools to tackle activity that is causing a public nuisance, such as obstructing doors and pavements.

At the same time, the Government are aware of increasing instances where begging is being organised by criminal gangs, with potentially trafficked people transported across major cities to beg and funds then used to support further criminal activity. We are determined to put a stop to this and will therefore introduce a specific offence of organising or facilitating begging for gain.

I move to the next group: tackling evolving criminal methods. The Government’s first duty is to keep the public safe, and we must be alive to constant advances in technology. We will therefore introduce new powers to tackle serious and organised crime, to render criminals’ toolkits ineffective, for example by prohibiting the templates used for the 3D printing of firearms and pill presses, and banning devices such as signal jammers used in vehicle thefts.

We will also limit the use of tools to carry out fraud and economic crime, such as SIM farms, which can hold multiple mobile phone SIM cards and are often used for scam texts or calls or to send phishing messages. We will prevent their supply, except where suppliers can show significant due diligence and a legitimate business rationale. We will also extend the powers to suspend internet domain names and IP addresses used for fraudulent purposes and create a scheme whereby government will work with the financial sector to use moneys held in accounts suspended on suspicion of wrongdoing to fund projects to tackle economic crime.

Another aspect of safety and security is bolstering investigatory powers. We must ensure that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have the capabilities and data insights to respond to threats to the public from terrorists, hostile state actors, child abusers and criminal gangs, so we are bringing forward a targeted and limited package of reforms that will recalibrate the existing legislation on investigatory powers. This includes making certain changes to the bulk personal dataset regime to expand the oversight regime to support the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and to reform the existing notices regime so that the UK can anticipate the risk to public safety posed by the rollout of new technology, as well as updating the conditions for use of internet connections records. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich—I am not sure whether he is in his place—for his valuable work in reviewing these aspects of the Investigatory Powers Act. We are closely following his recommendations.

Finally, I turn to the union. The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen. Together, we are much more than the sum of our parts, with each nation making an immense contribution which ultimately makes us all safer, stronger and more prosperous. It puts us in the best possible position to respond to the challenges we all share, such as the cost of living, public security, the international response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the ultimate defence of all corners of the realm.

The Government are working to deliver on the issues that matter most to people in every part of the United Kingdom. We are providing the devolved Administrations with a record block grant settlement over this spending review: £41 billion for the Scottish Government, £18 billion for the Welsh Government and £14 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive. On top of those funds, additional funds have been made available in the Autumn Statement, in the spring Budget and in levelling-up funding.

The devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already have significant powers to make important decisions closer to their communities and we are rolling out devolution deals in every part of England that wants one so that there is more local decision- making through local mayors and local organisations.

Devolution is, however, not a single moment in time. It must be nurtured if it is to carry on working effectively at all levels of government in the interests of people, businesses and communities, and that work of nurturing continues. In particular, for far too long, power sharing at Stormont has been suspended, and we are determined to see its return so that devolution can carry on developing and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, the measures in the gracious Speech build on the Government’s record so that we can reflect modern needs and the opinions of the British public—so sensible as they are—and bend and use evolving technology in the national interest. The changes are designed to ensure that our law and regulatory frameworks are up to date in this changing world, so that the United Kingdom remains a safe, modern and forward-looking country. My colleagues and I on the Front Bench representing departments greatly look forward to the debates over the coming days. I commend the measures that I have outlined to the House.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I too express my sorrow at hearing of the death of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. He was a great lawyer, a wonderful judge, a brilliant parliamentarian and defender of liberty, and, quite simply, the kindest of men.

I will address the Government’s justice proposals in the King’s Speech and the lack of other proposals for which we see a crying need, and which are unaddressed in the Government’s programme. Others among my noble friends will address the Government’s home affairs and devolution proposals later in this debate.

I will start positively by welcoming the arbitration Bill. I declare an interest as a barrister who often appears as an advocate in arbitrations; although not sitting as an arbitrator, I am qualified to do so. England, particularly London, holds a pre-eminent position as an arbitration seat for heavy international commercial arbitrations, and it is a tribute to our arbitrators that our arbitration services are so widely respected.

London is a top choice for arbitrations, and English law is the governing law for many international contracts. Substantial foreign earnings and the enhancement of our commercial reputation follow. But our arbitration law must be kept up to date, and these targeted reforms follow extensive consultation and careful consideration by the Law Commission over the last two years. We will support that Bill’s speedy passage. However, it is a shame that other proposals from the Law Commission are not implemented as quickly. The Government often quail at the slightest prospect of controversy. I mention my Cohabitation Rights Bill, which would implement the Law Commission’s reports from 2007 and 2011, on which the Government have long deferred any action. However, now that the Labour Party is committed to such reforms, I hope for its support and have resubmitted the Bill.

The Victims and Prisoners Bill, expected from the Commons soon, could have been so much better. Giving the victims’ code the force of law would be excellent if the proposal had teeth. My noble friend Lady Brinton has been at the forefront of a long campaign for such a measure. But the Bill is insufficiently robust. There are, for example, no protections for victims of stalkers. The victims’ code is liable to be revised by the Secretary of State, and there is no redress for victims in the event of non-compliance with the code.

On Part 2, it is right that we should have independent public advocates for victims of major incidents but, again, this proposal is not tough enough. Truly independent advocates must be able to hold the Government to account. That may be uncomfortable for government, but it is all the more misguided then that the appointment of advocates by the Secretary of State is purely voluntary—and how can it be right that the Secretary of State can dismiss independent advocates at will?

Part 3 of the Bill weakens the role of the Parole Board in releasing offenders serving life and longer-term sentences and gives powers to the Secretary of State to overrule Parole Board decisions. Strangely, it also permits the board itself to refer decisions to the Secretary of State. Then there is a right of appeal from the Secretary of State to the Upper Tribunal, which is hardly a body suitably equipped to take this kind of decision. Indeed, that right of appeal appears to have been inserted to avoid the decision-making power of the Secretary of State being found in breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to liberty and security, and in particular the right to have the lawfulness of detention determined by a court and not by a Minister. Then, disgracefully, it is proposed to disapply Section 3 of the Human Rights Act in respect of release on licence, so that there would no requirement to construe the legislation compatibly with the convention where possible. That would undermine one of the fundamental protections of the convention in our domestic law.

I turn to the centrepieces of the proposed legislation—the criminal justice Bill and the sentencing Bill, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, called sentencing and offender management. In both Bills, we have what Christopher Grayling, when Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor, used to call “throwing red meat” to the Conservative Party conference. The Prime Minister’s introduction to the briefing for the King’s Speech said:

“We are keeping people safe by making sure the police and security services have the powers they need and that criminals receive proper punishment”.

Frankly, that is just the Grayling formula in slightly more restrained language.

The briefing on the sentencing Bill puts it more starkly:

“This Government will make sure that the prison estate is used to lock up dangerous criminals for longer”.

But there is no evidence that longer sentences keep people safe, beyond the limited point that keeping offenders in prison keeps them out of the community while they are still in custody.

There are some redeeming features of the proposals. We have long called for a presumption against short immediate sentences, so we welcome the proposal for such a presumption. All the evidence demonstrates that short sentences are useless at preventing reoffending, proved by appallingly high reconviction rates, as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy. Such sentences disrupt family and community ties, wreck chances of re-employment, leave no time for rehabilitation, education and training, or for addressing mental health issues or addiction, while they create damaging opportunities for low-level offenders to make criminal contacts to support a future life of crime.

Also welcome is the commitment to increase the use of home detention curfews, and technology makes that an achievable ambition, but the overwhelming direction of travel is to lock people up for longer, in many cases without hope of release, blind to the facts that hopelessness, by definition, leads to despair and that redemption then ceases altogether to be a purpose of punishment. The proposals for imprisonment without remission completely ignore the needs for recognition and reward for good behaviour in prison and for sanction for bad behaviour. Remission and the threat of its loss fill those needs.

The criminal justice Bill continues the theme. True, there are some welcome proposals. These include: compulsory reporting of sexual abuse concerns; multi-agency management of offenders convicted of coercive control; criminalising the sharing of intimate images—cruel and humiliating behaviour. But the general trend is just for tougher punishment, fortified by measures that are, frankly, purely symbolic, such as forced attendance of offenders at sentencing hearings.

This programme fails lamentably to address the crisis in our penal system. Our prisons are overflowing, even into police cells. The building programme, as the Minister acknowledged, is stalled. The Government rely on sticking-plaster pre-fab extra cells, without additional services, so that these are no more than prisoner containers. They double up cells, increasing overcrowding and violence. They bring back into service squalid cells that were supposed to have been taken out of service for the maintenance required to relieve dire conditions. The pitifully small number of available spaces are scattered around the prison estate, so prisoners are sent to where they fit and not to where they need to be, disrupting training and education, continuity of care and links with families and communities, particularly approaching release. We have desperate staff shortages, low retention rates and insufficient recruitment, all caused by low morale. The continuing plight of IPP prisoners is a stain on our penal system.

What we needed was a new approach: lower prisoner numbers; statutory minimum prison standards; a fully resourced Probation Service for prisoners, pre and post release, and to make community sentences work; a comprehensive, multi-agency approach, co-ordinating efforts to promote rehabilitation, involving prison and probation services, local authorities’ housing and social services, training providers, health and addiction services and potential employers. We must replace the mantra, “Lock them up for longer”, with a new and constructive emphasis on supporting rehabilitation and reform. I fear we will not see that change while this Government survive.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, if the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, will permit me a brief moment, I was completely unaware when I made the opening speech of the sad death of Lord Judge. He was a personal friend, a colleague and a mentor over many years, and I associate the Government entirely with the tributes already made and say what a wonderful leader of our legal community he was while Lord Chief Justice and what an amazing job he did as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. I am sure that there will be suitable tributes in due course and on behalf of the Government, we express our deep regret at his very sad passing.

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I start by joining the House in saying how sorry I was to hear the news about the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I always found him very patient with me, very erudite, very helpful and welcoming, and, most importantly, very witty; I will miss him. I compliment the maiden speeches of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, and my noble friends Lord Houchen of High Leven and Lord Bailey of Paddington. My noble friend Lord Houchen is a walking embodiment of devolution, and my noble friend Lord Bailey’s speech was inspirational and a reminder of the virtues of community. Many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, on his 50 years in Parliament. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, for his generous personal remarks about me and my Front-Bench colleague; and I agree with every word that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said.

It is a very great honour to represent the Government in closing this debate on His Majesty’s most gracious Speech. I will endeavour to respond to all the various contributions, while noting that it has, as ever, been a fulsome and insightful discussion spanning various policies, Bills and departments. First, I will make the general point that the legislative agenda we are debating is at its core about delivering a safe, strong and prosperous United Kingdom. This is not shadow boxing, as alleged by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. Much has already been achieved, but we have to build on that and progress.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in his opening remarks, berated the Government for the things he claims we are not doing. I would argue that we are doing them all, and I will go into some detail on that. Obviously, the criminal justice Bill delivers on a number of measures, and it is perhaps worth starting with shoplifting, which came up several times. It was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby, Lord Blunkett and Lord Hogan-Howe, and my noble friends Lord Borwick and Lady Bray, and it is a very important subject that deserves a mention. I wonder if noble Lords perhaps missed that on 23 October, the National Police Chiefs’ Council published the Retail Crime Action Plan. That sets out a much greater police focus on retail crime, which includes shoplifting and violence towards retail workers. The action plan makes a police commitment to prioritise attendance at the scene where violence has been used or an offender has been detained by store security, and where evidence needs to be secured promptly and can only be done by police personnel.

On the same day, we also launched Pegasus, a unique partnership between police and retailers to tackle serious organised retail crime. It has been set up by the Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne, with funding from 13 national retailers, National Business Crime Solution and the Home Office. The retailers will provide data, intelligence and evidence to Opal, the national police intelligence unit on organised and acquisitive crime. That is intended to develop a better strategic picture and help forces to crack down on serious offenders.

The Government are very clear that violent and abusive behaviour towards any worker, particularly those who provide a valuable service to the public, is never acceptable. We took a significant step by introducing a statutory aggravating factor for assault against those who are serving the public, via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, so at this point the Government do not intend to introduce further legislation such as the specific offence of assaulting a retail worker. We are clear that reducing violence and abuse cannot be achieved through legislation alone, so we intend to continue to work with members of the National Retail Crime Steering Group to reduce violence and abuse through our wider work.

Obviously, none of this works unless, as the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, pointed out, we also concentrate on reasonable lines of inquiry, which have been much in the news of late. The principle of pursuing all reasonable lines of inquiry is enshrined in the code of practice to the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. In reality, it has not happened as much as it should. On crime and investigation, 42 of 43 forces received at least one area for improvement. On responding to the public, no force is rated “outstanding” and only 19% are assessed as “good”. The College of Policing has published new investigations guidelines and authorised professional practice to underpin a commitment to sorting this out. His Majesty’s Inspectorate will use its existing inspections framework to assess whether forces are following the college’s updated guidance. We should acknowledge that there are already forces that are making significant commitments and delivering improvements, for example in Greater Manchester. They have made significant changes to the service they provide to the public, including an impressive 44% year-on-year increase in the number of charges recorded by the force, from nearly 19,000 to nearly 27,000.

Another subject that aroused a great deal of commentary, including from the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby, Lord Dubs and Lord Dholakia, the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti, Lady Miller and Lady Jones, my noble friends Lord Patten, Lord Hunt and Lord Bourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—I did listen carefully to the points that she was making—was to do with rough sleeping and begging. I will be clear: the Government want to ensure that vulnerable individuals on the street are directed to the appropriate support, while ensuring that police and local authorities can respond effectively to begging and rough sleeping and keeping communities safe. That is why we have introduced new tools to help direct individuals to engage with positive pathways, including accommodation, mental health support and substance misuse support, so that individuals who may have turned away help before can access the appropriate support they need.

That is backed by over £2 billion over three years, because the Government have also made the unprecedented commitment to end rough sleeping within this Parliament, and to fully enforce the Homelessness Reduction Act. We have already embarked on a strategy to shift the focus to prevention and move vulnerable individuals into multiagency support. Any further details on future legislation will be set out in due course and, if a person is genuinely destitute and not causing any harm, we should be very clear: they will not be committing any offence.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, raised the subject of fraud, and he was quite right to do so, but he neglected of course to mention that we published a fraud strategy earlier this year. There is considerable work going into the tackling of fraud, and it needs considerable work. The criminal justice Bill, for example, contains a ban on SIM farms, which, as noble Lords will be aware, are one of the facilitating factors in much of the fraud that is perpetrated in this country. The fraud strategy goes a long way and sets out an ambitious and radical plan for how government, law enforcement, regulators, industry and charities have to work together to tackle fraud. It just does not work unless it is a multiagency approach. I could go on, but we have talked about fraud a great deal from this Dispatch Box and I appreciate that time is limited, so I shall move on.

The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, asked me about a firearms review. It was a very good question, because it is vital that the public and officers have clarity and confidence in the investigatory systems in relation to police use of force, police driving and so on. That obviously includes the efficacy of investigations. That is why we announced the review, to which he referred, of the current framework and processes that are in place. The review, announced by the Home Secretary, will ensure that the legal and operational frameworks within which officers operate when using force and driving in the line of duty are robust and command the confidence of both officers and the public. That is due to report to Ministers by the end of this year.

The noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and my noble friend Lord Borwick both raised the subject of facial recognition. We believe that facial recognition technology is an increasingly important capability for law enforcement and it is already being used in a number of ways within UK policing and security settings to prevent and detect crime, enhance security, find wanted criminals, safeguard the vulnerable and protect people from harm. The use of facial recognition technologies is at varying stages across UK policing and it is a priority for the Home Office to ensure that technology is being used in an ethical and effective way. That is all I will say about that subject at the moment, but I have absolutely no doubt that is a subject to which we will return in very short order.

A number of speakers, including the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Beith, mentioned small boat arrivals and the effectiveness of the Illegal Migration Act. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will appreciate that I cannot speculate on the ongoing court case, but I can note—which I think no one else noted—that there have been a number of newspaper stories recently about how many of our European friends and allies are looking at similar schemes. It will be interesting to see how they turn out.

What I can give are some interesting statistics. In terms of arrivals, there were just over 26,500 in 2023, up to 31 October; that compares to 45,755 in total in 2022. In terms of crossing attempts, 22,000 were prevented in 2023. In terms of the mix of the sorts of people who were attempting to make a crossing, I note that, interestingly enough, because of the returns agreement with Albania, the Albanians have dropped off the list entirely. In terms of our partnership with the French, the joint intel centre activity since July 2020 has dismantled 82 organised crime groups linked to small boats; in 2022 alone, they arrested approximately 400 people smugglers. So the fact is that there is a good deal going on, and it is proving effective, but, obviously, there is a lot still to resolve, particularly after the courts have given their decision. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, that of course we need legal and controlled migration, but I remind noble Lords that these people have arrived illegally and, in doing so, are being facilitated in arriving here by serious and organised criminal gangs.

I would like to thank those people who want to come and contribute to our great country, but, obviously, only if they do so legally. This is a generous, open and welcoming country, and I can give the statistics on why I think that. Over the last year—the year ending June 2023—of the 538,887 visas granted for work, 69,421 were for skilled work and 121,290 were for health and care. In addition, there were 498,626 study visas. As of 24 October 2023, 243,700 Ukrainian visas had been granted. I am particularly delighted that 123,800 people have arrived in the UK since the Hong Kong BN(O) visa scheme route was initiated. If I may take a personal moment, I commend the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, whom we have talked about before, who were in the Gallery earlier watching some of this debate. As noble Lords will know, they will also be able to arrive.

However, we should also acknowledge, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that this is not simply a debate about numbers; there are a large number of other factors that go into migration, and it behoves us all to be extraordinarily careful about how we use language. My noble friend Lord Bourne made some very good points about the international dimension and the changing nature of the drivers of illegal immigration, and I am quite sure that he is right that it needs to be raised in multinational organisations.

On the asylum backlog, provisional data now shows that we have doubled the number of backlog decision-makers in post, so we are on track to clear the legacy asylum backlog by the end of this year. Of course, the history of this has been unfortunate, and it has perhaps not been done as quickly as we would all have liked, but the fact is that we are getting to grips with it and it will be dealt with very soon.

I turn now to the sentencing Bill, which seemed to attract a vast number of very differing opinions, including from the noble Lords, Lord Hastings, Lord Dholakia, Lord Hogan-Howe, Lord German, Lord Beith, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, Lord German, Lord Blunkett and Lord Marks, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Jones—I am sorry if I have missed anybody. The Government are planning to make sure that the prison estate is used to lock up dangerous criminals for longer, without further criminalising redeemable offenders by trapping them in a merry-go-round of reoffending. The most dangerous prisoners are guaranteed to be behind bars for longer, but we need to go further to keep the public safe. For the worst murderers, the only proper penalty is life imprisonment without the possibility of release by the Parole Board. We will ensure that, in these most serious cases, life will really mean life. Further, we will ensure that those who commit rape and other serious sexual offences will spend every day of their sentence behind bars and face the consequences of their actions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, that it is the crimes that are nasty, not the sentences.

However, delivering public protection and cutting crime is not just about custody, as has been noted by most of the speakers. There is persuasive evidence that suspended and community sentences are, in certain circumstances, much more effective than short custodial sentences in reducing reoffending and aiding rehabilitation. In these cases, short prison sentences may even trap an offender in a revolving door of reoffending, cutting them off from work, housing and family and further criminalising them with each spell inside. So, the Government have decided to grasp the nettle and make a long-term decision that previous Governments have ducked by legislating for a presumption that sentences of less than 12 months in prison should be suspended. Home detention curfew enables eligible suitable offenders to be released early from prison on strict licence conditions, so that they can begin reintegrating into the community sooner. We will also therefore seek to extend eligibility to suitable risk-assessed offenders, so they can get a head start on reintegrating with the community and breaking free from the cycle of reoffending. I certainly hope that the House would back all those proposals.

A number of noble Lords have raised the subject of violence against women and girls, including the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. I have talked from the Dispatch Box before about the drive to operate consistently across the nation. Operation Soteria, which I have also mentioned, has developed new nationally operating models for the investigation and prosecution of rape, which all forces in CPS areas in England and Wales are implementing to ensure that the investigations of rape are suspect-focused and considerate to the needs of victims. We know that women and girls are more likely to be victims of crimes that fall under the umbrella of VAWG. The most recent statistics show that 26.5% of women have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault since the age of 16, compared to 6.1% of men. Domestic abuse alone is high volume: it affects 2.4 million adults every year. It is high harm—one in five homicides is a domestic homicide, and we have referred to the sentencing measures we will be taking there—and very high cost. The social and economic cost of domestic abuse is estimated to be some £81 billion, at 2023-24 prices, over a three-year average period for abuse. We need to do more about prosecuting rape and to do more in this space; the numbers underline the importance of that. To try to make a political point that we have not been doing anything would be very wide of the mark.

I welcome the broad support for the victims Bill and thank noble Lords for it. In particular, I welcome back my noble friend Lady Newlove and thank her very much for her support. I hope my noble friend Lady Bray is right that this will help victims with closure. We believe that supporting victims by restoring trust, punishing offenders who commit very heinous crimes and ensuring that the public always have confidence in the criminal justice system are essential. The Victims and Prisoners Bill will improve victims’ experience of the criminal justice system and restore confidence. As noble Lords are aware, there are a large number of items associated with this, the principle of course being that this is to support victims of crime to address the long-term challenge of victim confidence in the criminal justice system by transforming their experience from the moment a crime happens.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about stalking, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, made a similar point. It is important to mention that stalking is a criminal offence. The definition of a victim in the Victims and Prisoners Bill is

“a victim of criminal conduct”,

so victims of stalking are included in the definition. I appreciate that that is a bit convoluted, but it is taken care of to some extent.

The noble Lord, Lord Marks, asked about the Bill placing a duty on both criminal justice bodies and the police and crime commissioners. They have to keep compliance with the code under review. At the local level, police and crime commissioners will be under a duty to review criminal justice bodies’ compliance with the code. At the national level, new oversight will bring together senior voices across the criminal justice system to consider how to drive improvement on the delivery of the code.

The subject of parole was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and my noble friend Lord Bourne. Public confidence has fallen following a number of high-profile parole board decisions to release serious offenders, but the Bill will enshrine public protection as the only factor in release decisions and introduce greater ministerial scrutiny to the release of the most serious offenders. These reforms will help to restore public confidence in the system and ensure that dangerous offenders are not released on to our streets.

My noble friend Lady Bray and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, asked what discussions and engagement His Majesty’s Government have had with the judiciary on the measure to compel offenders to attend their sentence hearings. This was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Meston; I welcome his reappearance in the House. We engaged with the judiciary on the proposal to compel offenders to attend their sentencing hearing ahead of the announcements in August, but obviously we will continue to engage with the judiciary where appropriate, including on the implementation of the measures. I appreciate the points that noble Lords have made about the potential difficulties of that in certain circumstances.

I turn to the subject of Martyn’s law, which was referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, and my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Bourne. Martyn’s law seeks to enhance public safety by ensuring better preparedness for and protection from terrorist attacks. The Government carefully considered the scope of the requirements, including the impact on premises captured. It is reasonable that many locations should take appropriate, reasonably practicable measures to protect their staff from the horrific impacts of terrorism. Collaboration has been the cornerstone of the process. Pre-legislative scrutiny raised some important considerations regarding the standard tier requirements, which is why we will launch a consultation on the standard tier to ensure that the Bill’s measures strike the right balance between public protection and avoiding an undue burden on smaller premises; that consultation will be launched in due course. There is no intention to kick this into the long grass. We have heard from all of the various stakeholders in this. It is clearly a Bill that we need to see, but we have to do it in the right way. It is not negligence; it is about making sure that the law will work appropriately.

A variety of other matters were raised. I will start with the thorny subject of conversion therapy, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. We are considering this issue carefully. I am afraid that I must disagree with the noble Baroness; I think it is a very complex issue. We will set out further details on it in due course. The priority is to tackle this issue in ways that are effective and avoid unintended consequences, particularly those that might affect young or vulnerable people. It is about taking time to fully consider the consultation responses and how best to reflect parents’ roles and interests in the importance of legitimate clinical work.

Moving on to the criminal justice system, the Government will always make sure that the prison estate is used to lock up dangerous criminals, of course. More offenders are in custody now than ever before, as has been mentioned. However, delivering public protection and cutting crime are not just about custody; as I have said, there is persuasive evidence that suspended and community sentences are more effective in certain circumstances. We remain committed to reducing the case load and speeding up justice, including by extending the use of 24 Nightingale courts. We are also opening two permanent super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough.

My noble friend Lord Bourne asked about the new additions to the prison estate. I can give him the number: 8,000 are due to be delivered by 2025. A number of prisons are opening over the next two or three years, and that will add up to that particular number. I will not go into the details of precisely where.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about racism in the police and legal system. I thank her for raising these important issues. On the specific issue of racism in prisons, the Prisons Strategy White Paper sets out our vision for prisons of the future, which includes ambitious plans to make prisons safer for staff and prisoners. As regards a meeting, I cannot commit my noble friends to meeting the noble Baroness but I can pass on her request to the MoJ, DHSC and the Department for Education and encourage them to meet; I will happily do so.

A number of noble Lords raised the subject of devolution. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and my noble friends Lord Wharton and Lord Houchen gave good examples of the subject in action, if you will. It covers a number of different departments in Whitehall and various policy areas. I cannot possibly respond to all the specific questions that were asked but I will defer to the relevant colleagues in other government departments to respond in writing on unaddressed points.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Norton, the Prime Minister is, as he has noted, the Minister for the Union, and the Secretary of State for DLUHC is the Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, leading the work with territorial offices and territorial office Secretaries of State, who represent the distinctive voices and interests of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland across Whitehall and in Cabinet, representing the Government in each of their nations and co-ordinating the Government’s work with the devolved Administrations to support all citizens of the UK. Specifically, in delivering our security, criminal justice and border responsibilities, the Home Office plays an important part in navigating a combination of reserved and devolved matters on a UK-wide footprint. That is why, on devolved matters such as policing in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is right and proper that the UK Government are an active influencer to ensure a coherent and UK-wide approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York both raised the subject of transport and HS2. I thank them for their comments but will pass those comments on to the Department for Transport, which will be speaking in this Chamber on that matter on Monday.

My noble friend Lord Caine supplied very detailed answers to the noble Lords, Lord Bew and Lord Browne of Belmont, regarding the Northern Ireland devolution settlement. They are rather too long to go into at this precise moment, but I will ask him to commit this to paper and send it to the noble Lords. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, that we are confident that the Illegal Migration Act does not impact the devolution settlement and is consistent with our international legal obligations.

I will digress briefly into the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which was raised by the most reverend Primate and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. I want to refer to one piece of data that was published by the Climate Change Committee. It shows that the UK will continue to rely on oil and gas to help meet its energy needs, even after the UK reaches net zero in 2050. This will include the use of gas for power generation with carbon usage and storage. I am not a net-zero or climate change sceptic; I would much prefer that we did not burn carbon. But I would also prefer that people did not suffer when it is cold. I would also prefer that we do not lose power or run out of power, and I would have hoped that both noble Lords would have reflected on their comments and also thought a little about our security when it comes to supply, and the sorts of people that we would be handing our money over to in order to keep our oil flowing.

Moving on to more topical matters such as the Israel and Hamas conflict, I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick—whom I congratulate on his new role with the Metropolitan Police—for their acute perspective on the difficulties of policing marches of this type. I restate that the police in this country are operationally independent and obviously should remain so. However, a number of very unfortunate issues have arisen, in particular around anti-Semitism and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent but no less importantly, Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism has absolutely no place in our society. That is why we are committed to tackling it in all its forms. The police should take the toughest possible action against any form of anti-Semitism. It is important that the police and the Jewish community continue to work together to ensure security and promote community cohesion. Saying that does not infringe their operational independence. They must also, as I have said, police Islamophobia as and where they find it.

I have said on a number of occasions from this Dispatch Box that any arrests are very much an operational matter for the police. There have been about 30 arrests in London at protests related to the Israel-Hamas conflict, including racially aggravated public order offences. The Metropolitan Police Service has also made arrests not directly linked to protest activity and there have been arrests elsewhere in the country. It would be unwise to say too much more than that, but once again I thank both noble Lords with a policing background for their acute perspective on this.

While we respect the police’s operational independence, as a number of noble Lords pointed out we must also have trust and confidence in the police. The noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor and Lady Henig, made this point: the police have a lot of power. By the way, there are more of them; there are more police on our streets than ever before. The fact is that a number of changes have been made, and again we have discussed those from this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions. They include those around the police dismissals review, which I will not go into again, and those to do with vetting. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, made some very good points about this, and I agree that the Government must be determined to resolve the situation around vetting or re-vetting procedures.

The duty of candour to which the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, referred has not been introduced, but the duty to co-operate already provides clarity on the responsibilities for individual officers. This was introduced in 2020, since the issue was highlighted in Bishop James Jones’s 2017 report into the experiences of the Hillsborough families. We are keen that this duty becomes rooted within the police workforce before considering any further changes to legislation, but an organisational duty of candour aimed at chief officers, requiring them to ensure an ethical culture in the forces they lead, will complement the existing requirements on individual officers.

I will just tie up a few loose ends, if I may. My noble friend Lord Farmer made some extraordinarily good points about the family. I will not respond to them now but will make sure that they are reflected on by the Government.

We have covered a large amount of ground and I have done my best to respond accordingly. I have no doubt that there will be further debates to come and I look forward to those discussions, but I finish by emphasising that the decent, hard-working and law-abiding majority are our chief concern. We have devised a legislative agenda which puts their interests first and will make our country safer and stronger. That is why we will be advancing our programme with confidence and energy in the weeks and months ahead.

Finally, I offer my thanks to all who have contributed to this debate. These are vital issues and the considerable expertise—

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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I fully understand that my noble friend was not able to answer the specific and niche issues I raised on the Crown Prosecution Service’s legal guidance, but will he endeavour to write to me to address them?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I absolutely will, and that goes for any other noble Lords whose points I have inadvertently missed; I apologise if I have.

These are important issues. The considerable expertise and insight on display in the House today will no doubt be of great benefit going forward.

Debate adjourned until tomorrow.