Baroness Bertin debates involving the Leader of the House during the 2019-2024 Parliament

Wed 7th Feb 2024
Victims and Prisoners Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage part one
Mon 5th Feb 2024
Amendments 103 and 103A, to which my noble friend Lord Ponsonby has added his name, would make the Children’s Commissioner a statutory consultee for the codes of practice for victim information requests, to ensure that a child’s distinct needs and experiences are reflected, which is surely a necessary matter. I beg to move.
Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Morgan, who is sorry not to be here today, I shall speak to Amendments 101, 102 and 173, and I shall speak to my own Amendment 115. I give praise and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for outlining a lot of the issues in these amendments.

First, I shall talk about Amendments 101, 102 and 173, which, I might add, have the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, attached to them too. Amendment 102 and the associated necessary Amendments 101 and 173 seek to ensure that victims of crime—but particularly victims of sexual violence, for that is where the issue most frequently arises—are protected from excessive and unreasonable demands for their personal data. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has pointed out, that is the reason why attrition rates are as they are.

Third-party material is material about the victim held by third parties. It can include medical, educational and social services records, as well as records of therapy and counselling, which I will come to in more detail later. It has become commonplace for victims to be subjected to scrutiny of their personal lives, and thus their credibility, by way of a trawl through their personal data, and nowhere more so than in rape investigations. This issue has been well examined in both the media and at a policy level. These trawls act as a deterrent to reporting, and can cause a victim who has reported to then withdraw. There are fears about deeply personal information ending up in the hands of the defendant or being aired in court, where friends and family of the victim may hear it. In addition, requesting this information in such a non-discriminatory way can dramatically elongate already considerable investigation times.

I applaud the Government for introducing legislation in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which set out a regime to be used by police when requesting digital data, such as that held on mobile phones. Within this Bill, the Government have tabled clauses which purport to do the same for third-party material, but these clauses differ considerably from those in the PCSC Act. As it stands, there will be two quite different regimes for the police to apply when considering obtaining digital material and third-party material, which, in practice, they frequently do in tandem. This is potentially confusing for the police, but, more importantly, for the victims of crime.

Amendment 102 is quite simple, in that it seeks to apply exactly the same robust regime to third-party material as the Government, having listened thoroughly to campaigners, already laid down in legislation for digital material. I hope Ministers will see the need to follow suit in respect of third-party material. This amendment is backed by my noble friend Lady Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, so I will allow her to speak to it.

I will speak to my Amendment 115. I am very grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. Rape and sexual abuse, as we know in this Committee, are deeply traumatic crimes, the impact of which can be wide-ranging and life changing. Sexual violence and abuse are often a root cause of mental health problems, eating disorders and self-harm, and, tragically, suicide. It is common for the impact of sexual violence and abuse to affect family and personal relationships, a victim’s ability to work, and long-term educational attainment. For many victims and survivors, counselling and therapy are a vital means of working through trauma, supporting them to find routes to regain control of their life. It is therefore imperative that those who choose to do so can seek support without fear that their counselling records will be used to humiliate them in court or, more often, to stop their case progressing in the first place.

The reality is that counselling records contain feelings and not facts. Typically, rape survivors will have feelings of shame and self-blame, and often complex feelings towards the perpetrator. Counsellors and therapists will support survivors to work through these painful feelings and make notes of things that will support their recollection for the next session. They are not collecting evidence for criminal investigations.

Routine access to this material by criminal justice agencies has severe consequences for victims’ mental health and well-being. Some try to stay with the process, while receiving no or limited emotional support, while others drop out altogether because of the intrusion into their private lives. According to recent figures, the proportion of adult rape investigations which ended due to victim attrition was 62%. I think we can all agree that that is far too high. Despite widespread recognition of this problem and the good work carried out by the Government to limit the vast amounts of personal data taken from rape victims, this remains a very big problem.

The Home Office’s own research found that, in case file reviews of rape cases, almost one-third contained a police request for counselling and therapy notes. Where a reason was given for the request, 32% were simply related to establishing a perceived victim reliability or credibility, and did not pertain to the facts of the case.

Rape and sexual abuse are treated with exceptionalism in the criminal investigation process. In no other crime does the victim have their counselling and therapeutic records trawled through and scrutinised with a view to finding any content that may disregard their character. I acknowledge 100% the good work that the Government have taken forward and progressed through Operation Soteria. Stronger legal protections are needed to limit far-reaching requests for these notes which very often contain the most sensitive personal data.

Other jurisdictions have demonstrated that it is possible to do this, while allowing for vital fair trial rights to be duly safeguarded. The state of New South Wales in Australia is a good example. It has an adversarial legal system—very similar to ours—but its notes are afforded far greater protection. This is achieved by ensuring that counselling records are disclosed only when they contain material of substantial probative value and by transferring the decision as to whether this meets the test to a judge. In 20 years, no appeals have been overturned on the basis of counselling and therapy notes.

I propose a similar model because it would strengthen and support the important work led by this Government. It would reinforce the transformative effects undertaken by police and prosecutors through Operation Soteria. It would also save precious police and prosecutor time and resources. They would need to access this material only when they were able to ascertain that there was substantial probative value in it, and not waste time simply trawling through irrelevant records.

We should not miss this opportunity. If the situation does not change, tens of thousands of survivors will have their rights undermined, face further intrusion and be deterred from both therapy and from engaging with criminal investigations. I will leave my noble friend Lady Finn to speak to Amendment 106. I whole- heartedly support Amendment 78. I sincerely hope that the Government will take it on board.

Baroness Finn Portrait Baroness Finn (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 106 in the name of and on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Cotes. She is sorry not to be here today because of family commitments. This amendment was first debated in the other place. It was proposed by the honourable Stella Creasy based on her own experience as a victim of harassment. This experience is not unique to her. I am grateful—as I know she is too—for the support for this amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, as well as the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Brinton.

In short, if an individual makes a malicious complaint about someone to the police, the police can act to remove that record. Malicious reporting to other organisations—whether social services or an employer as part of a campaign of stalking and harassment—does not carry the same safeguard. As a result, data is retained on individuals who have been targeted maliciously, be it through workplace harassment, stalking or something else. Many victims find that, even if the person targeting them has been convicted, their harassment continues because such records remain. Current data protection rules mean that such records cannot always be deleted. The retention of this data has lasting consequences for all individuals involved.

This proposed new clause seeks to enable the deletion of data where a clear threshold is met to show that the report was the result of malice and that retaining it would continue the harassment. As the testimony of victims has shown, it is not necessary to be an MP to be subject to malicious reporting as part of a deliberate campaign of stalking and harassment. Such reporting, designed to have a serious long-term impact on victims and their families, can occur against anyone doing any kind of public work, in the context of domestic abuse or as anonymous, vexatious harassment.

Public bodies can refuse to delete the data on the grounds that they feel it necessary to retain that data for compliance with a separate legal obligation or for performing a task in the public interest. To overturn this, a person has to demonstrate that the public body’s retention of the malicious data is not necessary for either of these purposes, thereby putting the burden of proof on to the data subject and potentially requiring lengthy court action.

For most people, this is not possible or desirable, leaving them with no legal recourse. This amendment would update the UK general data protection regulation and address these inconsistencies, mirroring the concept of exceptional circumstances under which any deletion would take place. The proposed new clause would give all data controllers guidance on how to manage situations where there are competing obligations—for example, in safeguarding or identifying repeated attacks on an individual via third-party reporting. Unlike the current right to object, this would create an absolute right to request deletion and therefore overrule exemptions that currently apply. This would ensure that public bodies such as local authorities are able to comply with these requests for deletion without risking failing to meet their legal duties. At present, these authorities are very clear that due to existing data protection rules they cannot take this step.

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Baroness Newlove Portrait Baroness Newlove (Con)
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My Lords, it is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said. He put it so succinctly, more so than I did—I would go on, because I am so passionate about this.

I have admiration for the noble Earl. What worries me in all this legislation is that it is so simple to say, but when it is enacted on a traumatised rape victim, it is not as simple as joining the dots. I am up for having further conversations, but this is for the professionals. While we can stand here and say this, I am still going through the criminal justice system, and believe you me: I could write another book on how it does not do a service to victims—and I am in the position that I am in, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton; it does not follow.

For rape victims, it is really hard-hitting when they are going to a SARC centre to be forensically examined, and they are talking to individual people. While we want to have trust and faith in our police officers, the police are so not like what we will have in statutory guidance. Also, what do we class as reasonable? Everybody within our criminal justice system has a different definition. It should not be for the victim to think, “What is reasonable?”, when they just want to do what is best.

I really want this to work, but I wish we could be cautious and understand that the people we are talking about are traumatised. They may have been raped not once or twice: it could have been in their home. Everything is intrusive, and it is down to the victim to have a voice to go forward. I wish we could get that in the guidance and the legislation, because it is their lives that we are speaking about and it is their lives that we need to put back on a level playing field.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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My Lords, I will also come in on this. I have huge respect for the noble Earl, and I have huge respect for the police, but I am afraid I cannot accept the idea that all 43 police forces and all chief constables will look at, understand and know the code of conduct, and that this will somehow be better than a judge saying that something is right or wrong when it comes to releasing therapeutic records. I would certainly like to meet him and others about this, ahead of Report.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, I am the first to agree that a code of practice takes us only a certain distance. We also need to ensure that there is proper training for police and others. We had a short debate about this earlier in the week, and I hope I gave some useful information to noble Lords on that front. I am, of course, very happy to speak to my noble friends about this—as I am sure my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy will be, once he gets better. It is not a simple matter, and I did not intend to suggest that it is.

On the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Bertin, as I have already said, it is vital that victims of crime can access the justice system and get the support they need without fear that their privacy will be violated. I am aware of concerns that deeply private information about victims, including notes from counselling sessions, have sometimes been used inappropriately to discredit victims—in particular, victims of rape and serious sexual offences—seeking justice through the criminal justice system. This can, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, pointed out a minute ago, prevent victims from accessing the support they need in the first instance. That should not be the case, and I am grateful to my noble friend for raising the topic through the amendment.

My noble friend’s amendment seeks to put in place a judicial barrier for disclosure of counselling records and, with some exceptions, to create a requirement for the court not to grant access to this material where the disclosure was made in confidence by the victim to a person providing support services in a professional capacity.

Through the Bill, we are placing a new statutory duty on the police, as I have said, to request victims’ information from a third party only where necessary and proportionate in pursuit of a reasonable line of inquiry. Police must also provide information to the victim on what information has been requested, why, and how it will be used.

As I have outlined, the Government have asked the Law Commission to examine the trial process in sexual offence prosecutions and consider the law, guidance and practice relating to the use of evidence. This review will include consideration of whether a court direction should be required before accessing third-party material such as counselling records, and consideration of international examples where this system is in place.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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My Lords, having tasked the Law Commission, as we have, with preparing a full-scale set of recommendations in this area, it would be unthinkable for us to pre-empt its report. I am afraid I must disagree with the noble Baroness. I realise how emotive and stressful an area this is for anyone who is intimately involved in it day to day, but that is how we have to proceed.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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I want to make a technical point about the Law Commission review, which I have full respect for. As I understand it, the commission will not be looking into pre-charge situations, so the amendment would still stand as that subject is not being tackled by the Law Commission. I reiterate that I just do not buy the idea that police officers all around the country are necessarily going to have the right training to enact the responsibilities that we are putting on them. We really will be pursuing this, I am afraid.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I hear what my noble friend has said. I was able to give what I hoped was helpful information in our debate on Monday about police training, but it is by no means an overnight process, as I am the first to acknowledge. Still, work is under way, and it is surely an important ingredient in the mix.

We think that the Law Commission is best placed to conduct a holistic review of the existing system and to make recommendations for improvement where necessary, and the Government are most reluctant to make changes at this stage that could pre-empt the outcome of its review. However, we can all look forward to closely reviewing and responding to its findings and recommendations when they are published later in the year.

Before I turn to Amendment 173, I shall address the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about victims with limited mental capacity. There are general points in the code about enhanced rights if the victim’s quality of evidence is likely to be affected because of a mental disorder. They may be supported by a registered intermediary if a mental disorder affects their ability to communicate. Some communications under the code might be done with a nominated family spokesperson if the victim’s mental impairment means that they are unable to communicate or lack the capacity to do so.

The Law Commission is looking at the impact of rape myths on people with disabilities or mental health conditions and how the current legislation and practice of the use of intermediaries is working in respect of complainants in sexual offence cases with disabilities and disorders.

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Baroness Bertin Excerpts
Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
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My Lords, I will speak also to Amendments 77 and 107 in my name, and in support of Amendment 80, to which I have added my name. I very much support Amendment 75, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, but believe it could be strengthened: first by specific reference to domestic abuse—in particular, to controlling or coercive behaviour, including economic abuse—and secondly by ensuring that such training is delivered by specialist providers in the violence against women and girls sector. I tabled my Amendments 76 and 77 on behalf of Surviving Economic Abuse—SEA—with which I worked closely on the Domestic Abuse Act and for whose help on the amendments I am grateful.

As an officer of the APPG on Domestic Abuse and Violence, I have been struck by how often the domestic abuse sector has referred to the need for “training” or “improved training” on domestic abuse—particularly coercive control, including economic abuse—for those working in the criminal justice system. According to SEA, 5.5 million women experienced economic abuse from a current or former partner in the previous 12 months. As I argued earlier, it causes significant hardship, damages mental and physical health and makes it harder for a survivor to leave the abuser, putting them and their children at increased risk of further harm or even being killed. It also often continues long after separation, yet for those who build up the confidence to report it to the police, the criminal justice system is not using all its powers to tackle controlling or coercive behaviour, including economic abuse.

The latest criminal justice statistics from ONS showed that there were nearly 44,000 reports of coercive control recorded by the police in the year ending in March 2023, yet there were just 611 court proceedings and 566 convictions handed down in the year ending the previous December. Evidence shows that in many cases, the police rank economic issues as “low” when it comes to risk. They tend to focus on gathering evidence of physical abuse, even when victims disclose economic abuse. This is leading to perpetrators not being held to account for this crime, and victim-survivors left without true justice and at risk of further economic abuse. It is also particularly concerning given that economic issues were identified in just over a third of intimate-partner homicides analysed by the Home Office.

SEA has demonstrated that, when training is developed and delivered by specialist providers and is informed by the lived experience of survivors, it can positively change practice. Following training it developed and delivered to domestic abuse champions in 10 police forces, in partnership with SafeLives, nine in 10 police officers could recognise economic abuse and knew how to gather evidence to support a prosecution. There is a real danger that the positive steps that the Government have taken to tackle this form of abuse will be undermined by a lack of understanding on the part of the police and others in the criminal justice system. This can be straightforwardly addressed through access to necessary training, so that criminal justice professionals can identify controlling and coercive behaviour, including economic abuse, effectively build a case for prosecution and make sure that victims are referred to life-saving specialist support. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look sympathetically on these amendments.

I have tabled Amendment 107 as a probing amendment, designed to explore the issue of the use of a victim’s personal data for immigration purposes. Its substance has been promoted consistently and forcefully by the domestic abuse commissioner, and organisations supporting migrant victims of crime. In his letter of 12 January to Peers, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, acknowledged the importance of victims and witnesses being free to report crimes without fear, and that it is in the interests of the general public for all crimes to be fully investigated. But then he continued:

“We are, however, also duty bound to maintain an effective immigration system to protect our public services and to save the most vulnerable from exploitation because of their insecure immigration status”.

Can the Minister tell us how this is consistent with the repeated ministerial claim that domestic abuse victims/survivors must be treated as victims first and foremost, regardless of immigration status, given that the argument is, in effect, putting immigration status first—not “safety before status”, in the phrase used by the domestic abuse commissioner?

The reference to safeguarding those most vulnerable to experiencing serious crime because of their insecure immigration status simply does not make sense. As the DAC and all the organisations in the field, notably the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, point out, the absence of a firewall, in the DAC’s words,

“allows dangerous offenders to continue to abuse with impunity; safe in the knowledge that their victims … are too afraid of enforcement action to report to the police”.

The DAC has heard from many migrant victims and survivors that contact from immigration enforcement, particularly following a disclosure to the police or other statutory services, can instil fear and insecurity and prevent them coming forward for support in the future. In fact, recent data has shown that all police forces in England and Wales have referred victims or survivors of abuse to immigration enforcement in the last three years. Victim Support states that this is often the reason why victim-survivors do not seek support sooner.

The DAC’s concerns were echoed in the pre-legislative scrutiny report. This cited evidence from the organisation Imkaan that more than 90% of abused women with insecure immigration status had their abusers use the threat of their removal from the UK to dissuade them from reporting the abuse. It argued that the lack of a firewall denies safety to victims and witnesses and may allow perpetrators to commit further offences. No doubt the Minister will argue that these concerns will be addressed in the forthcoming immigration enforcement migrant victims protocol that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, mentioned in his letter. It is disappointing that the protocol has still not been published, despite it originally being promised at the end of last year. According to a recent Written Answer to me, it is now expected in “early 2024”. But, given that the Home Office can be rather vague in its temporal references, can the Minister say what is meant by “early”?

However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, said in his letter, we know it will put limits on immigration enforcement action against migrant victims. But that is not enough to satisfy the domestic abuse commissioner, who argued that victims would still be open to contact from immigration enforcement, meaning that the fear of any immigration enforcement is not removed, and nor is the risk of potential immigration action once criminal proceedings conclude—which, for the victims and survivors of domestic abuse, can be within days. In view of the DAC’s continued concern, I urge the Minister to look again at this.

Turning to Amendment 80, the domestic abuse commissioner told the Public Bill Committee that one of her main concerns when it comes to genuinely providing services for all is the continued exclusion of migrant survivors, which could, she argued, be

“fixed quite simply by allowing recourse to public funds for domestic abuse survivors”.

According to the briefing from Southall Black Sisters and four other on-the-ground organisations, these women continue to face a stark choice between domestic abuse or deportation and destitution. Many are unable even to enter a women’s refuge, as they cannot pay their rent or living costs, as they are not eligible for housing or other social security benefits. Women and their children are vulnerable to homelessness and exploitation and can be locked in new, dangerous situations or even driven back to abusive relationships.

We tried to address this issue with amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill, which were resisted by the Government. The current amendment is much more limited so as to remain within scope; the hope was that the Government would look more kindly on it—yet still they resist it, or they did so in the Commons. When it was proposed in Committee there, the Minister responded that victims without recourse to public funds are eligible for support under the terms of the code. However, he acknowledged that the “no recourse” rule affects the ability of victims of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status to access some accommodation-based support services. He went on to pray in aid the pilot established in 2020, as if that negated the need for the amendment, but did not otherwise offer any substantive arguments.

That year—2020—the Government said that they would consider the pilot’s findings once the evaluation was published and develop sustainable options for the future. The independent evaluation funded by the Home Office was published last year, as was an academic evaluation for SBS. The pilot demonstrated the need for support for this group, and the evaluation found that for the most part it performed well in meeting the immediate and emergency needs of victims and survivors. But it also identified problems with, for instance, the level of subsistence payments—a particular issue for those with children, according to the SBS evaluation—and the provision of suitable accommodation within the constraints of a pilot.

With regard to the latter, the report for the Home Office noted:

“Refuges could almost never be covered within the accommodation budget, meaning that some victims/survivors were housed in a patchwork of other provision which might be unclean, unsafe, or unreliable”.

The evaluators made it clear that it was outside their remit to provide policy recommendations but concluded with the

“hope that the insights contained within this report will help to provide the support needed to victims/survivors with NRPF”.

Well, they will be disappointed, because instead of the long-term solutions, together with a clear timetable for implementation, to which the Home Office committed itself in principle back in 2022 following a DAC report, the response to the evaluations was to extend the pilot yet again—this time to 2025.

I asked at Second Reading for an explanation of why the Government have failed to come forward with the long-term solutions originally promised in principle, now that they have the findings from two evaluations. I did not get an answer; nor was there one in the detailed letter from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bellamy, which simply set out the current position. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an explanation now.

More fundamentally, could we have a clear explanation as to why the Government are rejecting this very modest amendment? In the Commons, Sarah Champion suggested that it was due to the hostile environment towards people from overseas. I hope that the Minister can assure us that this is not the case. Surely, whatever one thinks of the hostile/compliant environment, it should be irrelevant if policy is to reflect the ministerial mantra cited by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, in a Written Answer that

“anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status”.

That point applies also to Amendment 107 on the firewall. I beg to move.

Baroness Bertin Portrait Baroness Bertin (Con)
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I rise to say very quickly, because I know that we are trying to get through this, how much I support Amendment 75. To be perfectly honest, I find it deeply depressing that we have had so many debates and so much legislation on this issue and it is still so patchy. We have 43 police forces around this country, and we are still the victims of, or are at the mercy of, the priorities of those forces. We have a strategic policing requirement that includes violence against women and girls and domestic abuse, yet I am not sure that we are seeing it put into action. I wholeheartedly support this proposal, in the hope that the Government take it on board.