Committee (8th Day)
Welsh Legislative Consent sought.
Clause 53: Parole Board rules
Debate on whether Clause 53 should stand part of the Bill.
Lord Bach Portrait Lord Bach (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak having taken some advice from the Clerks—I am grateful to them. The first two items in this group are notices of my intention to oppose Clauses 53 and 54. We debated the amendments in both clauses in our previous Committee sitting on 12 March and the Minister, whom I have spoken to this afternoon before coming to Committee, gave certain undertakings following that debate about discussing further the issues raised with his fellow Minister, who sits by his side, and with the Ministry of Justice. In all the circumstances, I will not press the stand part notices in my name on either Clause 53 or Clause 54. That is why I have got to my feet at this stage.

Clause 53 agreed.
Clause 54: Parole Board membership
Amendments 170 and 171 not moved.
Clause 54 agreed.
Amendment 171A
Moved by
171A: After Clause 54, insert the following new Clause—
“Parole Board proceedings: enabling public scrutiny(1) The Secretary of State has a statutory duty to improve the openness and transparency of the work of the Parole Board and to facilitate a greater public understanding of its statutory framework, procedures and proceedings.(2) The Secretary of State must exercise their powers under section 239(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to require that Parole Board hearings should normally be open to the public unless there are exceptional circumstances for not doing so, as outlined in subsection (5).(3) The Secretary of State has the power to formally direct the Chair of the Parole Board to make arrangements for all Parole Board hearings to be heard in public, as set out in Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 (SI 2022/717).(4) The Chair of the Parole Board may exercise their right to decline this request and direction from the Secretary of State and must outline their reasons for so doing in writing to the Secretary of State, within 28 days of a written direction being lodged with the Parole Board.(5) Such reasons in respect of subsection (4) must be evidence-based and include—(a) where the Chair of the Parole Board believes that such a request and direction would, on the balance of probability and based on evidential information, indicate that the integrity of evidence presented to the Parole Board may be compromised and prevent a true and accurate assessment of the prisoner’s risk being provided by witnesses;(b) that the presence of strong and valid objections from participants, including victims, their families or legal representatives, could jeopardise the cooperation of witnesses, should the hearing be in public; or(c) that to hold a meeting in public might create an unacceptable risk of mental or physical harm to any of the participants.(6) The Secretary of State must formally consider any representations from the Chair of the Parole Board in a timely manner and if they choose to disregard the advice of the Chair of the Parole Board, they must outline their reasons within 28 days of receipt of such advice, taking into account all available evidence, including that provided by law enforcement, victims, their families or legal and other representatives.(7) The Secretary of State must, in exercising their powers, balance the need for openness, transparency and maintaining public faith in the efficacy of the criminal justice system with a commitment to the operational independence of the Parole Board and its members’ deliberations, and with an obligation to reduce recidivism and support rehabilitation and the prisoner’s ability to resettle in the community upon release from a custodial sentence.(8) This section applies only to offences as relevant to public protection decisions and outlined in Schedule 18B Parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.(9) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the passing of this Act, and annually thereafter, publish an assessment of the efficacy of the policy of open Parole Board hearings and its impact upon openness, accountability, transparency and public support and whether it meets the interests of the justice test.”Member's explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to consolidate the statutory instrument laid before Parliament on 30 June 2022 (SI 2022/717) to improve openness, accountability and transparency and public trust in the Parole Board by giving the Secretary of State powers to direct the Board to work to a presumption that such meetings should be routinely open to the public, with exceptions; whilst also safeguarding the Board’s independence and the requirement to ensure rehabilitation and resettlement of those prisoners likely to be released from a custodial sentence.
Baroness Lawlor Portrait Baroness Lawlor (Con)
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My Lords, I support and move this amendment for my noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough, who is absent attending the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s 148th assembly in Geneva. He had hoped to move his amendment on 12 March, but Committee proceedings were concluded before he was able to do so.

Amendment 171A seeks to establish the presumption that Parole Board hearings would be open to the public—with exceptions, of course. It seeks, more generally, to improve public faith and trust in the criminal justice system. This is both a probing and permissive amendment, and a natural progression to and consolidation of the reforms undertaken by Ministers over the last six years arising from the public disquiet over the proposed release of serial rapist John Worboys in 2018. That resulted in a review of the parole system and a public consultation published in 2022, and a finding in the High Court in March 2018 that the Parole Board’s Rule 25—a blanket ban on transparency and details of the board’s deliberations—was unlawful.

The Government have moved to address the very serious failings identified by the Worboys case, by allowing summaries of Parole Board decisions to be provided to victims and other interested parties, and to provide for a reconsideration mechanism, introduced in 2019, which allows a prisoner and/or the Secretary of State for Justice to seek reconsideration of a number of decisions taken by the board within 21 days. Victims may now also seek a judicial review on the grounds that decisions are procedurally unfair or irrational.

Significantly, the Parole Board’s 2019 Rule 15 was amended by secondary legislation in 2022 to enable public hearings to be facilitated on request to the chair of the Parole Board, in the “interests of justice”. This test is already used by the Mental Health Tribunal. This amendment is cautious, circumspect, and with caveats in its proposed new subsections (5) and (7). It presumes no absolute right to open the Parole Board hearings to the most serious cases, but presents a balance between the interests of the victim, prisoners and the wider criminal justice system, and imposes a statutory duty on Ministers to take note of the importance of rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, fairness and due process.

Finally, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will articulate the Government’s current thinking on, and rationale for, limited reform envisaged in this matter. I urge that they allow for public hearings to become the default position, and I look forward to his reply.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, at the request of my noble friend Lord Marks, I will speak to his amendment in this group, which is Amendment 171B about the hearing timeframes for the Parole Board to have some flexibility in this matter. I apologise; I would have said, in relation to the two stand part notices, that there were a number of questions that I asked of the noble Earl. I know it has been only a short period of time—I am sure they are on their way—but I just wanted to remind him. I am sure that his smile tells me that there are going to be satisfactory replies shortly.

I come back to Amendment 171B. The current rules are that the release of prisoners serving a life sentence is determined by the Parole Board on or after they have served their minimum tariff. The first parole review to consider a prisoner for release will usually begin six months prior to their tariff expiry and, if a prisoner is not released at their on-tariff review, they will have a further post-tariff review at least every two years. The Parole Board process is lengthy and can take upwards of six months for the whole process to be dealt with. Their victims are asked whether they wish to submit a personal statement; although the Parole Board does not have direct contact with victims, the victim liaison officer will contact them about submitting a personal statement. We know that there has recently been an opportunity for victims to appear and observe some Parole Board hearings as part of the latest pilot.

For victims and family members, going through the Parole Board process can be a highly traumatic experience, forcing them to relive the original offence and the impact it has on them. While victims and families welcome having a voice in the process through being able to submit an impact statement, many feel trapped and unable to move on when their offender is repeatedly coming up for parole, even when it is clear that the circumstances have not changed.

The current system is a drain not only on victims and family members but on the Parole Board itself. The time and financial cost of parole hearings are significant. John Worboys, for example, received more than £166,000 in legal aid following his arrest, paying for legal representation at Parole Board hearings. The average cost of an oral Parole Board hearing, according to the Parole Board’s annual report, is £1,876.
The requirement for the Parole Board to hear cases at least every two years, even when aware that there are no material changes to a prisoner’s circumstances—crucially, of course, to the risk faced by the public if they were to be released—means that prisoners are arbitrarily brought before the Parole Board at great expense. This amendment aims to give the Parole Board the discretion to set the period until a prisoner can reapply for parole, meaning that families will be spared being repeatedly dragged into the process when it is clear that nothing has changed. This approach is adopted in other jurisdictions internationally, such as California, where the parole board is able to direct that a subsequent parole hearing be deferred—in its case, it can defer for up to 15 years; I am not suggesting that that is part of this amendment.
The amendment does not seek to take away an offender’s rights. It would introduce a mechanism through which the offender could request that a Parole Board’s decision to defer a hearing by more than two years be reviewed and, crucially, any reconsideration by the Parole Board of its decision would not involve the victim or family, who would be spared from being trapped in the process. With that, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Marks. I hope that the Committee will consider it well.
Baroness Prashar Portrait Baroness Prashar (CB)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendment so admirably spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German, to which I have put my name. I do not wish to add anything—as he has made all the points that I would have made—other than to emphasise that it would give the Parole Board discretion to decide when to have a review. It would minimise the revictimization of the victims and would also be cost-effective.

I am aware that Article 5.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that reviews must be at reasonable intervals. I think a limit of two years was set, but, in domestic cases, the courts have declined to be prescriptive about what a reasonable interval is. It is important to recognise that these are fact-specific cases and therefore it is important to reinforce the discretion given to the Parole Board. I support this amendment.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, it has been a short and interesting debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, introduced the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Jackson. On this side of the House, we will listen to the Minister’s response very carefully. I agreed with the sentiments that she expressed to the extent that the Parole Board should be cautious and fair, and that there needs to be a balance between victims, the process and the prisoners.

The point where I depart from her—which is really the substance of her amendment—is that it should be by default that parole hearings are conducted in public. I am not sure that I would go as far as that but, nevertheless, I agreed with a lot the points that she made. As I said, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I move on to Amendment 171B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, summed up the points succinctly: that giving the Parole Board discretion is desirable. Each case is different and, if the Parole Board has more discretion, it can reduce the potential impact on victims—I understood that point. It can also reduce the number of repeated applications, which have a cost to the public purse, where there may be no real change in circumstances. If one were to give the Parole Board more discretion, it might reduce that impact on victims. Again, this is an interesting amendment, and I look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, in their respective absences, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and my noble friend Lord Jackson for their amendments, which have been so ably spoken to by my noble friend Lady Lawlor and the noble Lord, Lord German.

I will turn first to Amendment 174A, tabled by my noble friend Lord Jackson. This would create a presumption for parole hearings to be conducted in public and a power for the Secretary of State, in effect, to direct a public hearing, contrary to any opposing view from the chair of the Parole Board.

The provision for public parole hearings was introduced by the Government in 2022 in amendments to the Parole Board Rules statutory instrument. This allows any hearing to be conducted in public if the chair of the Parole Board decides that it is in the interests of justice to do so. Prior to this, the rules required that all hearings be held in private.

Hearings are private by default, but applications for public hearings can be made by anyone directly to the Parole Board. The criteria used by the chair to decide applications have been published by the Parole Board on its website. The individual decisions are also published. Since the provisions were introduced in 2022, three public hearings have been held and a further five have been agreed by the Parole Board, which will be heard in the coming months.

The provisions are operating as intended, because the rule changes were made with the understanding that most hearings would continue to be held in private and only a small number of public hearings would be held. This amendment would, in effect, reverse that position, so that all hearings were public by default and a private hearing would take place only with the agreement of the Secretary of State in response to any representations made by the chair of the board.

The amendment also proposes that the Secretary of State should be the person to decide whether a hearing takes place in public. I am afraid I must push back on that idea. Noble Lords will be aware that the board is a quasi-judicial body which makes court-like judicial decisions. As part of its consideration of case, the board will decide whether an oral hearing is necessary or whether a case can be completed on the papers alone. If, having decided that a hearing is necessary, the board is then responsible for the arrangements, conduct and management of that hearing.

It would be out of step with the rest of the process if we gave the Secretary of State a power, in effect, to force the board to hold a public hearing against its wishes. As the body responsible for the hearing, the Government believe that it is right that the board has the final decision on whether the hearing should be public or private.

I hope the Committee will accept that not all cases will be suitable to be heard in public; for example, because of particularly sensitive evidence or the concerns of the victims. It is vital that the risk assessment is not compromised, and witnesses are able to provide full and frank evidence to the board.

The current provisions in the Parole Board Rules mean that the board and the Secretary of State have to consider these issues only in response to an application. The amendment would require them to consider the merits and contact the victims in every single hearing—more than 8,000 cases a year. It would be an enormous administrative burden with very little obvious benefit to the parole system or to the individuals affected by it.

In conclusion, I recognise the disappointment and frustration that may be caused when a public hearing application is rejected, especially where the victim is the applicant. Public hearings are a comparatively new element of the parole system. The Government are committed to improving further the openness and transparency of parole. However, we submit that a complete reversal of the current approach is not merited at this time. On this basis, I hope that Amendment 171A can be withdrawn.

I turn to Amendment 171B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord German. This seeks to allow the Parole Board to direct the period of time which should elapse before a subsequent application to be considered for release can be made. As things stand, under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, the Secretary of State has ultimate responsibility for referring a prisoner’s case to the Parole Board within two years of the previous review.

This amendment would transfer this responsibility to the board and allow them to set the interval between reviews of anywhere between 12 months and five years. The current system already provides for flexibility in the time set for the prisoner’s next parole review. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—HMPPS—considers a range of factors in deciding when to refer the prisoner to the Parole Board on behalf of the Secretary of State. Reasons must be given for the length of the interval between reviews. These include the Parole Board’s reasons for declining to direct the prisoner’s release at the conclusion of the last review and the interventions required to allow them to progress.

Giving responsibility for setting the period between parole reviews to the Parole Board could potentially result in hearings being set too soon, before interventions have been able to take effect, increasing the number of adjournments and causing further distress for victims. This is not to say that the board does not play an important role. Its insights provide valuable information for HMPPS staff, but HMPPS is best placed to make these decisions.

There is then the question of what the period between hearings ought to be. This amendment aims to increase the maximum interval from two to five years. I fully understand why this is being proposed, but it might be helpful if I outline why it would not be lawful; the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, has already referred to this. Where indeterminate sentence prisoners have served their tariff—that is the minimum term set by the judge at sentencing—they are then eligible for a parole hearing. Unless the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined, they will remain in prison. If they are not released, my advice is that subsequent reviews must be conducted speedily and at reasonable intervals to satisfy the requirement of Article 5(4) of the convention. I note and take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in this connection.

I appreciate the motivations at play here. Parole reviews can be difficult for victims. I sympathise with the desire for a longer interval between reviews. I stress to the Committee that the Government always consider victims where the parole system is concerned. I hope we have demonstrated this principle in other measures we have taken. We understand the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord German, that, in essence, greater transparency of the parole system is inextricably linked to the involvement of victims.

Since October 2022, victims have been able to observe Parole Board hearings, as part of a testing phase currently running in the south-west. The testing has now progressed to include the Greater Manchester probation region. During the hearings, victims are supported by a Probation Service victim representative, who discusses the parole process with them. Their VLO will ensure that, if appropriate, they are signposted to relevant support following the hearing.

We completely recognise that it can be traumatising for a victim to hear evidence that is explored during a parole hearing. That is one reason why we are conducting a small-scale testing phase, to make sure that we get the processes and support arrangements right. Our priority is to ensure that victims can observe the hearing in a way that is safe and comfortable for them, while not compromising the Parole Board’s ability to conduct a fair and rigorous assessment of risk.
I hope that those comments are of help. For the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that my noble friend, on reflection, will not feel compelled to press the amendment.
Baroness Lawlor Portrait Baroness Lawlor (Con)
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I thank my noble friend the Minister for his very thoughtful reply. I should like to reflect, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, on the very important points that he makes about the sensitivity and the costs, as well as the practicality and the question of time, along with the fact that the Government are working towards greater openness of the Parole Board proceedings. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Jackson, I shall withdraw the amendment, and give further reflection to what my noble friend says.

Amendment 171A withdrawn.
Amendment 171B not moved.
Clause 55: Whole life prisoners prohibited from forming a marriage
Debate on whether Clause 55 should stand part of the Bill.
Lord Bach Portrait Lord Bach (Lab)
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My Lords, I put my name to this clause stand part notice, which was originally in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He, alas, cannot be here this afternoon as he is on parliamentary business abroad, and he has asked me to open this short debate. I do not think that the Committee will be that surprised to hear me say that what I am about to say owes much to the noble Lord.

Clauses 55 and 56 prohibit a prisoner serving a whole-life tariff from entering into a marriage or civil partnership with another person, without the written permission of the Secretary of State, to be granted only if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances. At Second Reading, on 18 December, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, referred to

“a recent case in which surviving families of the victim of a most serious murder were openly mocked by the convicted offender, who trumpeted his right to marry, causing distress to many”.—[Official Report, 18/12/23; col. 2056.]

It is my view, and I suspect the view of many on the Committee, that it is deeply unsatisfactory to legislate on the basis of one such incident, however upsetting it was for the victim’s family, as it undoubtedly must have been. That point was made at Second Reading by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. Is this one incident, serious though it was, the only basis for seeking to legislate in this context?

Beyond that, there is a question of principle. However repellent their crimes, whole-life prisoners are allowed to eat, exercise, read books, watch television and send and receive letters, so why are they to be denied the basic right to marry a consenting adult? I say “basic right” because Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:

“Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry”.

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 stated in the consistent case law of the European Court of Human Rights, which considered how this applies to prisoners, in particular in the case of Frasik v Poland in 2010. The court stated in its judgment that an effective bar on any exercise of a prisoner’s right to marry is a breach of Article 12. The court added:

“Imprisonment deprives a person of his liberty and … of some civil rights and privileges”.

The authorities are, of course, permitted to impose restrictions on civil rights to protect the security of the prison regime, but:

“This does not, however, mean that persons in detention cannot, or can only very exceptionally, exercise their right to marry”.

The court added that the state cannot prevent a prisoner enjoying the right to marry because of the authorities’ views as to what

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

That is the basis, it seems, of Clauses 55 and 56. It is very doubtful whether these clauses are wise in any event. My noble friend Lord Ponsonby made the important point at Second Reading that if we are to lock people up for very lengthy periods, perhaps the whole of their lives, we must surely give them some positive purpose in life: some hope, some encouragement to maintain relationships with the outside world, not just for their own self-respect or mental health but because it will help those who have to manage the prison regime and prevent the inevitable frustrations of long-term prisoners erupting in violence against prison officers or other prisoners.

Clauses 55 and 56 have, in my view, no sensible justification. They are objectionable in principle and they will impede good management of the prison system. They seem to have more to do with populism than with any sensible policy. I submit that if these clauses become law, this is an example of bad legislation that an experienced Parliament such as this should not pass. I invite the Minister, when he replies to this debate, to say that the Government will think again about this issue and, I hope, come to the conclusion that it is not worthy of this important Bill.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, I have added my name to both stand part notices. The first question I asked myself way back before Second Reading, and I still need to ask myself, is why on earth the Government put these two clauses in the Bill. They do not seem to do anything to make the prison regime any better or to make the work that goes on in supporting people in prison any easier. In fact, they appear to be cruel in a variety of ways.

The Secretary of State being able to approve a marriage or civil partnership only based on exceptional circumstances, even if you felt there was a rationale or a reason, is surely the wrong way around. Surely, the Secretary of State should be able to deny them only if there are exceptional circumstances. This measure will apply regardless of the way in which anybody in future seeks a partnership or marriage.

It worries me, as I am sure it does many others in this Committee, how much placing people in prison for their lives will add to—or detract from—what happens inside the prison. It is going beyond punishment. Whatever anybody feels about what happens in a prison establishment, providing some hope for the future of their lives, understanding how their lives work and making sure they feel a sense of purpose in remaining alive is part of the job of the state, which must retain that ability.

These clauses, once again, chip away at those fundamental human rights, disapplying human rights to a specific cohort of people. The universality of human rights in this circumstance is doubly important because, of course, the state is totally responsible for whatever rights and purposes prisoners have. It has to manage them. It is precisely in custodial institutions such as prisons that human rights protections are most vital, because the individuals are under the control of the state.

It would appear, as in the Illegal Migration Act and the safety of Rwanda Bill, that we are beginning to see a testing period for making controversial changes to our human rights framework. It seems to me and those on these Benches that this particular measure is offensive to that spirit of how the state should manage the lives of people in this circumstance. If there were to be a case for saying that somebody cannot get married or have a civil partnership, that is surely by exception rather than by practice.

It appears to me that these clauses do not really fit into this Bill, because of that sense of things being done in the wrong direction. More than anything else, I seek to understand from the Government why they have put this in place. If it is because of a single case, as we have just heard, to write law on the basis of a single case is surely not the correct way to go about it.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I wondered why this was in the Bill; it is because this is a victims Bill. My honourable friend Jess Phillips MP is familiar with victims of the crimes of Bellfield, so I looked at what she had to say about this issue. She is a great champion for victims of crime. What she said was quite interesting. She was reflecting on what had been said by Sarah Champion MP, who had put a point reflecting what my noble friend Lord Bach has just said.

Jess Phillips said:

“I truly appreciate my hon. Friend’s fundamental point: everybody hopes for rehabilitation. With this, the only case we have to debate is that of Levi Bellfield, as mentioned. Having worked with some of his direct victims and the families of those victims, while I do not disagree that we sometimes chase headlines and make bad legislation in doing so, with his case I am not sure, from previous behaviour, that I would categorise it as rehabilitation. I would categorise it as behaviour to get headlines. The desire in Levi Bellfield’s case, as has been put to me by many of his victims, is that these schemes keep him constantly in the media, and that is incredibly painful for them. There is a bit from both sides of the argument in this debate: trying to stop the headlines and allowing rehabilitation”.—[Official Report, Commons, Victims and Prisoners Bill Committee, 11/7/23; col. 480.]

My noble friend Lord Bach raises some very important questions about the legality of this proposal. It is important that the Government explain why only one case has led to this being in the Bill.

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments in this short debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for setting out his intention to oppose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his comments in support of that.

It is important that the Committee examines the rationale behind these clauses. Clauses 55 and 56 will prohibit prisoners in England and Wales who are subject to a whole-life order from marrying or forming a civil partnership while in prison or another place of detention. The Secretary of State may grant an exemption in truly exceptional circumstances. A whole-life order is the most severe punishment in the criminal law of England and Wales. It is reserved for exceptionally serious offences, such as serial or child murders which involve a substantial degree of premeditation or sexual or sadistic conduct. Unlike other life sentences, offenders subject to a whole-life order can expect never to be released. Their tariff will never expire and they will not be considered for parole at any point.

As the law stands, a prison governor cannot reject a prisoner’s application to marry or form a civil partnership unless the ceremony creates a security risk for the prison. This includes whole-life prisoners. Those subject to whole-life orders can expect never to be released. As they are not working towards life on the outside and the prospect of being able to enjoy married life, any rehabilitative effect of a potential marriage is likely to be significantly reduced. Being married or in a civil partnership does not have any practical impact on an individual’s ability to maintain a relationship with a prisoner. Prisoners are not entitled to conjugal visits and rights to access fertility treatment do not require the prisoner to be married to or in a civil partnership with their partner. Neither do spouses, civil partners or their children have any additional right to visits, telephone calls or video calls. Whole-life prisoners can therefore benefit from supportive relationships while in custody in the same way as other prisoners. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord German, this is not cruel—they can maintain relationships.

While the right is protected under Article 12 of the ECHR, the convention allows states to impose restrictions in a proportionate way for a legitimate purpose. In line with the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights in Draper v the United Kingdom, we consider that a restriction on whole-life prisoners’ right to marry can be justified on the basis of public interest. The public set great store by our response to the most heinous crimes. The current position undermines confidence in our criminal justice system and its ability to deliver justice and protect the public. These clauses allow the Secretary of State to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis in exceptional circumstances. Any discretion available to a Secretary of State would itself be exercised compatibly with ECHR obligations.

We have taken a proportionate approach in applying these measures to only a small cohort of offenders who are already singled out in our domestic framework due to the exceptionally serious nature of their offences. As of December 2023, there were only 67 whole-life prisoners in England and Wales, representing less than 0.1% of the total prison population—less than one in 1,000.

To answer the question from all noble Lords, this is not about a single case. While it was a particular case that brought this issue to the Government’s attention, this is not about any individual; it is a broader point of principle. The justice system must be able to deal appropriately with the worst offenders, to drive up public confidence in the justice system. We consider that these measures are justified on the basis of that public interest. This is not just due to the distress that such an event may cause to the families of victims, whose lives these prisoners have cut short in heinous ways, but, more fundamentally, because of the real risk of damage to public confidence in the criminal justice system if it cannot deal appropriately with the most serious offenders. The Government are resolved that this is an appropriate measure. I therefore propose that Clauses 55 and 56 stand part of the Bill.

Lord Bach Portrait Lord Bach (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for his response, and the noble Lord, Lord German, for his support in this matter.

I have two points for the Minister, if I may. Is it really considered proportionate as an answer to Article 12 to say that these measures would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances? That seems not very proportionate at all. Secondly, I personally do not see the relevance, when we are talking about a matter of principle such as this, of what percentage of prisoners are in this category. It does not matter what percentage are. If it is right, it is right, and if it is wrong, it is wrong. In my view, it is a matter of some principle that this should not be imposed upon people who have done absolutely terrible things and are paying the price for it. This is a step too far and, as I say, not worthy of Parliament. Having said that, I am not going to take this matter any further today.

Clause 55 agreed.
Clause 56 agreed.
Amendment 172
Moved by
172: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—
“Data collection in relation to children of prisonersThe Secretary of State must collect and publish annual data identifying—(a) how many prisoners are the primary carers of a child,(b) how many children have a primary carer who is a prisoner, and(c) the ages of those children.”
Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, tabled this amendment, to which I am very pleased to add my name in support and to move it today in this final stage of Committee on the Bill. In his absence, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Lord for his commitment to the families of prisoners. This is also an issue which I know my right reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury cares deeply about, as well.

This amendment was selected for Report stage in the other place but not discussed. Introduced by Harriet Harman, it is an important progress chaser to the Government’s response to the 2019 report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which she then chaired. This proposed new clause would require the Secretary of State to collect and publish annual data, identifying how many prisoners are primary carers of a child or children, how many children have a primary carer in prison, and the ages of those children. Its inclusion would be highly appropriate for this Bill, which focuses on both victims and prisoners.

When a parent is committed to custody, their child should not also receive a sentence; they should not be punished or overlooked as a result of their parent’s crime. When a primary carer, or indeed any parent, is removed from the home, children and other family members are deprived of a provider of care and income. Often a shadow world of shame and stigma begins, which can haunt them throughout life and put them at risk of getting caught up in the criminal justice system themselves. If we are to prevent offending and anti-social behaviour then we need to be serious about looking upstream to support those at risk. This includes children with a parent in prison.

Charities working with prisoners’ families, such as Children Heard and Seen and the Prison Advice and Care Trust, have repeatedly highlighted the gap in our understanding of the scale of parental imprisonment. I commend to noble Lords two short films released by both those charities that show the heartbreaking realities of this issue and the impact on a child when their parent is sent to prison. It also shows the remarkable work done by both charities alongside families.

The 2019 Joint Committee report highlighted the

“complete lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of mothers in prison”


“the number of children whose mothers are in prison”.

It argued that

“without improved data collection, collation and publication”

it is both

“impossible to fully understand the scale and nature of this issue and to properly address it”.

It continued:

“Mandatory data collection and publication must be urgently prioritised by the Ministry of Justice”.

A few months before that was published, Crest Advisory’s report on the children of prisoners found that

“during a parent’s journey through the criminal justice system there are numerous points which children of prisoners could be identified—on arrest, at sentencing, on entry to prison, and under probation supervision. But at the moment, at no point does the system ask: ‘If this is a parent in custody, where is their child?’”

The point of doing this would be to ensure the welfare of the children and to establish whether help is needed for the family or friends now caring for them. As that report said:

“Instead it is left up to the offender or the parent left behind to seek help—something which we know is problematic because of stigma and fear about children being taken into care”.

That is echoed again and again by the charity Children Heard and Seen, which does such fantastic work with children with a parent in prison, including a ground-breaking initiative across the Thames Valley region.

Rightly, the Government broadened their response to the Joint Committee to all primary carers, not just mothers. Many men are also in this position—albeit with a very different proportion of the male prison population compared with the female estate. Again, we are hampered by the lack of reliable data. However, the Farmer review on women in the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and many others highlight that relatively more women than men report being parents and, likely, primary carers.

The Government’s position in 2019 was that their aim was to establish more accurate metrics to measure the number of prisoners with primary carer responsibilities. However, they also acknowledged that gathering information about dependent children is a sensitive matter and committed to exploring the most accurate way to collect and then collate and publish that data,

“provided an accurate method can be found to estimate it, and provided it can be done in a way that protects the rights of vulnerable individuals”.

Given the significant body of evidence showing that the children of prisoners are at risk of markedly worse outcomes in areas such as mental health, underachievement at school and becoming offenders themselves, we should, at the very least, know how many children there are and their age and stage of childhood. The amendment is limited to quantitative data collection, given the inherent problems of collecting identifiers in such a delicate and sensitive area and given that a key aim at this stage is to progress-chase the Government on behalf of these particularly neglected children. I beg to move.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for her introduction and Harriet Harman for her amendment in another place; even though it did not progress, it was very important. I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, cannot be in his place today, because his report, which pre-dates the Select Committee report in the Commons—it was published in 2017 and was called The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime—sparked a lot of this work.

That report emphasised throughout that data was needed on prisoners, their families and their children, particularly the age of the children, because that then enables the right sorts of services to be available inside a prison to support those family links that are so important. The noble Lord is so right that data is critical for ensuring that we—that is, the court system, prison, probation and other services, including Parliament and civil society—understand the impact on both prisoners and their children.

If engaging with families can reduce reoffending by 39%—the premise on which the report by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, was commissioned—that is an important lesson, but so is the quality of that engagement. I hope that that would be enabled by this amendment.
I hope there is another benefit too: that this data can strengthen specifically the support for children of prisoners. Both Spurgeons and Clink are clear that their lives are turned upside-down by their parents’ imprisonment. We know that the experience of vulnerable groups of children has improved significantly since data was properly collected and shared with multi-disciplinary teams. The examples that I am going to give are not in the Ministry of Justice system.
The first example is that of looked-after children. I know that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester mentioned it and families are rightly very concerned about it because they do not want their children to go into care. Prior to better collection of data and the disseminating of that data, however, the service offered to looked-after children was haphazard at best and shameful to our country at worst. Things have improved and continue to improve.
The second group is under the Armed Forces covenant, where that data is now provided to schools and local health services, not just for service men and women or veterans but for their children, because their lives, too, are often turned upside-down.
The third group is young carers. Their rights were significantly strengthened in the Children and Families Act 2014. Through those rights, data needed to be collected and shared in order for them to receive the support that they needed, whether from their council, school, doctor or any other agency. I say that because, when you work with young carers, you understand that before data collection, quite often a child’s doctor was the only person who knew anything about them being a young carer. Schools did not understand and, very sadly, that went on right through society. Again, as with the other two examples that I have cited, it is not perfect but it is much better than it used to be.
I hope that the Government will accept that this data must be collected and published, but I also hope that they will ensure that the benefits of disseminating that information will not just help to reduce reoffending, nor just improve the quality of life between prisoners and their families while they are in prison, but will actually make a substantial difference to these children in their broader lives.
Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, because I could not possibly better her introduction to this amendment. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and I were very pleased to put our names to it. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that you cannot create robust policy if you do not have the data. She has helpfully illustrated to the House that it can be done and that, therefore, it should be done.

When I first saw these amendments—I have said this several times in the course of this Bill—I could not quite believe that it was not already happening, but it is not happening. I ask the Minister to seriously consider that this needs to be done for those children.

Baroness Sanderson of Welton Portrait Baroness Sanderson of Welton (Con)
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My Lords, I do not pretend to be an expert on prisons, as some noble Lords are who have put forward this amendment. However, I also wanted to speak briefly to it, and for the very same reason, which is that I just could not believe that we did not collect the numbers on children who have a parent or a primary carer in custody. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, put down a Written Question and that the Government said that they do use a figure, which is 200,000. But that is from a survey from 2009—a pretty long time ago—and that is very different from the 312,000 figure that Crest Advisory has claimed.

We should say that the Government recognise that this is a problem. In that same Written Answer, the Government said they had made changes to the basic custody screening tool. In other words, this means that, when people go into prison, they are asked how many children they have back home. We know that they will not always say, not least because they will be worried about children being taken into care, and again, the Government recognise this. So in that Written Answer they talked about using a linked data programme called BOLD. They said the results should be published this spring and that that should be able to give us a better estimate. So can my noble friend the Minister explain, not necessarily today but perhaps in writing, how this programme works in practice and whether it will provide a permanent solution to the problem, as this amendment would do? If it will not, I ask the Government to consider making this change. Otherwise, as others have said, we will be letting down a group of very vulnerable children.

Finally, the Government’s own statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, says that children and young people will be impacted by having a parent or relative in prison. I am a little confused as to how, on the one hand, in guidance we can state that we know this is a problem and that children will be affected, but on the other we can say that we do not know how many children are affected because we do not gather the numbers. How can we provide the support if we do not know how many children there are or where they are?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer for tabling this amendment and to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester for moving it. It would require the Secretary of State to collect data centrally about prisoners who are primary carers of children and the numbers of dependent children who have a primary carer in prison, and to publish the data annually, including the ages of the children. My noble friend, who is not in his place today, knows that the Government fully support the intention behind this amendment. The Government echo the right reverend Prelate in paying tribute to his work and ongoing contribution towards this issue.

Understanding the personal circumstances of those in custody, including responsibilities for dependent children, is essential if we are to provide effective support for those prisoners to help them maintain contact with those children. Strengthening family ties is an integral aspect of the work of HM Prison and Probation Service. We recognise the importance of maintaining a prisoner’s relationship with family, friends and their wider community, particularly where the best interest of the child is served through maintaining a strong relationship with their parent. Prisons across England and Wales offer a range of services to maintain family relationships, including social visits, family days, secure video calling and Storybook Mums and Dads, an award-winning, charity-led initiative that enables parents in prison to record bedtime stories for their children.

In answer to the right reverend Prelate’s comments on supporting children impacted by parental imprisonment, ministerial responsibility for supporting children who might be vulnerable due to parental incarceration sits with the Department for Education in England and the Welsh Government, and the Ministry of Justice is actively committed to joined-up working across government to better understand the nature of this issue. The Female Offender Strategy, published in 2018, encouraged a partnership-focused approach to addressing the needs of both imprisoned mothers and children affected by maternal imprisonment. We published the female offender strategy delivery plan in January 2023, with a progress report, the Farmer Review for Women, in 2019. Outstanding commitments from the Farmer review are being taken forward under the delivery plan.

Understanding how many children are impacted by parental imprisonment is just as important, because having a parent in prison is a recognised adverse childhood experience that can impact a child’s mental health and lead some to feel they are being judged for the actions of their parents. From the perspective of the criminal justice system and echoing the number that has been mentioned a couple of times in this debate, evidence has shown that over 60% of boys who had a father in prison went on to offend themselves. Therefore, identifying and supporting those individuals at an early stage has the potential to divert them away from the criminal justice system, preventing future victims of crime.

While we are fully supportive of the amendment’s intention, we do not believe that legislation as proposed here is necessary. Our prison strategy White Paper. published in 2021, outlined our intention to address this issue through engagement with other government departments, and to commission updated research to improve our collective understanding of the overall number of children affected by parental imprisonment.

As my noble friend mentioned, we are delivering this commitment through our Better Outcomes through Linked Data project, known as BOLD. It is an almost £20 million cross-government shared outcomes fund that will link data to enable better evidence and more joined-up cross-government services. Through BOLD, we will be publishing a report that will estimate the number of children with parents in prison. We expect findings from the project to be published by spring 2024. This should provide some of the critical data that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, called for. We are working to collect and improve data. We have previously made changes to the internal management—

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
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Why are the Government aiming to have an estimate? We need to know the actual number of these children.

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention and appreciate that this debate has focused very much on the wish of many noble Lords to have very accurate data. I am very aware that BOLD will be an estimate. We expect it to be a reasonably accurate estimate, which will be very good information for forming policy. The extent to which more detailed data could be required in future we will keep under review. If it is helpful, I can offer a further meeting on that outside this Committee.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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The issue that I raised about young carers was in the legislation—not just in the Children and Families Act 2014 but the Care Act 2014 —because Edward Timpson, the Education Minister at the time, felt that it was so important that there was some mechanism to join up all the different departments. Why are the Government now saying that it is no longer necessary for this to be in legislation and absolutely clear?

Lord Roborough Portrait Lord Roborough (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. I am afraid I do not have a detailed answer and propose to write to her, if that is acceptable.

The basic custody screening tool ensures that we identify prisoners with primary care responsibilities on entry into prison. That means that we can access this information centrally. While we recognise that the self-declared nature of the information collected through the basic custody screening tool means that it is—as many noble Lords have mentioned—fraught with concerns of prisoners about how much information they are willing to give and so brings with it certain levels of inaccuracy. Our intention is that this data will be reflected in the BOLD publication. I hope that, in the circumstances, the right reverend Prelate will agree that this amendment is not necessary and will withdraw it.

Lord Bishop of Gloucester Portrait The Lord Bishop of Gloucester
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I thank the Minister and all other noble Lords who have spoken. I am interested in his answer, because in one way he is saying, “Yes, we need this and recognise this”, but in another is saying “But we do not actually need this amendment”. I look forward to hearing more on that. As has been pointed out, the basic custody screening tool is very basic, and many parents do not want to declare on entry to prison that they have children. I will be watching with interest the BOLD programme and what comes out of that.

It is really important that the progress the Government are making in this area is now put on public record. It is nearly five years since the Joint Committee published its report. Also, I stress that it has been important to touch on family relationships and prisoners having those family relationships, but I do not want to lose sight of the fact that this is about the child. Not all children want to have contact with the parent who is in prison. So we need to be looking through the eyes of the child here.

As has been said, when children are given support, through charities such as Children Heard and Seen, we know that the results are remarkable. If, as the noble Lord says, education and other people are going to have this data, we need the data in the first place. That is where we need to start.

Many remain very concerned about these children who are invisible and that we are not able to support them, but I will not delay the Committee any longer now. I will take the comments back to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer; we will discuss it together and look at how to proceed on Report. Given all that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 172 withdrawn.
Clauses 57 to 59 agreed.
Clause 60: Extent
Amendment 173 not moved.
Clause 60 agreed.
Clause 61: Commencement
Amendments 174 and 175 not moved.
Clause 61 agreed.
Clause 62 agreed.
House resumed.
Bill reported with an amendment.