Police: Joe Anderson

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Monday 15th April 2024

(1 month, 1 week ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Well, I hear what my noble friend has to say. He has heard what I have had to say on this subject on at least 20 occasions and, no doubt, I will be called back to the Dispatch Box to say it all again. As I said last time, I have gone back to the Home Office and we are looking into ways of perhaps answering the noble Lord’s question.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I speak as someone who is proud to have been brought up, and to have gone to school, in Toxteth, and who has a huge amount of respect for Joe Anderson and all that he achieved when he was mayor. Having listened to the various comments made on all sides of this House, I hope my noble friend the Minister will agree that we should ask: is there not a better way in which we can handle situations such as this? Citing the various examples that he has heard, could he perhaps give us the opportunity of coming back when he has reflected with his colleagues in the Home Office on the points that have been raised?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that and I will of course reflect on the points that have been made. However, as I said in my earlier answer, it would be inappropriate for government to interfere with the organisational matters of the police.

Operation Conifer

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Monday 11th March 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I cannot honestly say whether it would be economic or not, for obvious reasons—I do not know yet. But I shall certainly make the strength of feeling known once again to the Home Secretary.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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I recognise now that my noble friend the Minister is aware that the mood and will of this House is very much behind my noble friend Lord Lexden and his call for justice. Whatever his briefings may say, there really has been no independent investigation of the flawed processes of Operation Conifer. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has just said, perhaps there is at last an opportunity. Please would my noble friend the Minister take every advantage of this opportunity and put right the injustice that we all feel so deeply has been done?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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Well, once again I hear what my noble friend says, and I shall certainly do my best to represent the views that have been very firmly expressed in the House by taking them back to the Home Secretary and the Home Office.

Security of Elected Representatives

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Thursday 29th February 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for his comments; he makes some very interesting points. We have been very clear that anti-Muslim hatred has no place at all in our communities, and that it will be stamped out wherever it occurs. It is a growing concern, as I think the right reverend Prelate has highlighted, for all of our communities. To effectively respond to it, we must properly understand it in all its forms and manifestations. We have been seeking the views and perspectives of experts in this field, which I hope would include the right reverend Prelate, to explore how religious hatred is experienced across all British communities. But it seems self-evident that one of the ways to combat this sort of ill-advised and poorly informed hatred is to educate and improve general understanding of the issues under discussion.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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I commend my noble friend the Minister for his wise words today. Yesterday in this Chamber, we spent some time talking about the importance of the freedom of the press. Against a background which we all accept as pretty serious and worrying, it is vital to maintain freedom of speech. People should be able to express their thoughts clearly. I speak as somebody who started on life at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner in the 1960s, where I enjoyed tackling all sorts of issues and had feedback from all those who listened. Does the Minister not think that we ought to do everything possible, particularly in this year, to encourage people to come out and speak without fear of reprisal or of any effect they might or might not have?

If we look ahead to this year, there are two particular questions I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister. First, we are going to get a Dissolution of Parliament. If there is to be general election in May, it will come at the end of next month. What is going to happen so far as protecting candidates is concerned? As soon as there is a Dissolution, MPs are no longer Members of Parliament. What will be done to make sure that the protection will continue during what could potentially be a very testing period? Secondly, does this protection extend to the devolved nations? We must ensure that equal protection is given to all those who have elected office in whatever capacity in the devolved territories and that there are sufficient funds to make sure that they are adequately covered.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend raises some good points. I entirely agree that we should be encouraging debate around these subjects, that we should be tolerant of freedom and that we should encourage freedom. It seems to me self-evident that you can expose widely held fallacies only by, in effect, letting sunlight in as the perfect disinfectant. In terms of debate, the only sunlight you can let in comes via speeches, words and testing opinions and widely held fallacies. On that subject, we have to be careful around the taxonomy that we use when defining some of these hatreds because, again, we would not wish inadvertently to make certain discussions beyond the pale, shall we say.

As regards the devolved nations, defending democracy is a sovereign matter, but policing is devolved. We will work with the security services in those Administrations on the safety of their Governments. Any additional requirements on devolved policing will be funded in the appropriate way. I reassure my noble friend that the Government are looking at how to maintain security requirements during the Dissolution of Parliament when, as he rightly points out, MPs will no longer be MPs. However, Operation Bridger is very clear. A full-time, single point of contact in each police force will be introduced with responsibility for supporting all elected representatives where needed. Obviously, if an MP has stood down for that time, that does not mean that they are not still protected, where needed.

Sir Edward Heath: Operation Conifer

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Wednesday 17th January 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as a past chair of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. I join the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Lexden, not just on securing this debate but, as the noble Lord said, on his sheer doggedness in pursuing justice and on the eloquent and comprehensive nature of his opening speech. So grotesque, galling and manifestly unjust is this situation, however, that there is plenty of fertile ground remaining to be tilled by the rest of us.

I have considerable sympathy for the Minister, who has inherited this awkward and seemingly intractable problem from a series of predecessors. One of the most important responsibilities of any Minister is the necessity, on occasion, of questioning, or even rejecting, the cautionary advice of officials—the predictable advice to stonewall, to dead-bat, to kick the can down the road. Such advice will, no doubt, be supported by dark hints that any willingness to do anything, to take a decision, actively to address an injustice, would set a dangerous precedent or even worse. I respectfully remind my noble friend that this is precisely the point at which political judgment must come into play; the current leader of the Liberal Democrats is learning that to his cost. I ask the Minister to please spare himself and his successors the indignity of being called back here again and again to defend the indefensible.

The idea that Operation Conifer was anything other than an expensive, chaotic and misguided fishing expedition is, frankly, absurd. From the moment that investigating officer appeared outside Ted Heath’s former home in Salisbury, its true nature was plain to see. My noble friend Lord Lexden quoted the exact words and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, has just done so again: the policeman referred to every person being a victim, upending the historic presumption of innocence. Even the two Operation Hydrant reviews of Conifer—classic examples of police rather complacently marking their own homework—listed almost 50 shortcomings in the conduct of the investigation.

Like my noble friend Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, I was interviewed by someone who described themselves as one of the investigating officers. I had the same experience as others: namely, an interview that felt completely futile, because I was concerned only with truth—Ted Heath’s true nature—and was unwilling to fan the flames of the fantasies of others. I dare say there are others here who had a similar experience.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My wife was secretary to Ted Heath at this time and I was vice-chairman of the party, responsible for youth. If anything of this kind had happened in any way, it is quite inconceivable that we would not have known about it. She knew every step of his life during this period. She was interviewed in exactly the same incompetent way, which has been addressed. Frankly, if the Government cannot bring themselves to deal with this matter in an open way, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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I am very grateful to my noble friend.

Several obvious witnesses were not contacted at all, including our former colleague and friend in this House, Lord MacGregor, who ran Ted Heath’s private office in the 1960s, and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne, who held the same position a decade later. Diaries held in the Bodleian Library, which would have disproven several of the allegations, were seemingly not properly consulted, if at all. Another of the many extraordinary aspects of Conifer was the chief constable’s decision, seemingly taken unilaterally, that he would relieve the police and crime commissioner of his responsibility for overseeing the investigation. Instead, he appointed a so-called independent panel. Did he act within his powers when he did that? Surely not. This was a case not of marking his own homework but perhaps of hand-picking his own examinations board.

Ministers tell us that the question of an independent inquiry into Conifer is a matter for the local PCC, not for them. Successive PCCs for Swindon and Wiltshire have said that they would support such an inquiry but do not have the money to pay for it. Thus the buck is passed, passed again and passed back once more, seemingly without end.

The Government found the substantial amount required to fund this disgraceful and futile fishing expedition, run by a now discredited chief constable, yet seemingly they cannot find the money to right that injustice or to help prevent this kind of terrible farrago of costly nonsense ever happening again. Where is the accountability in all this?

Several noble Lords have raised before the question of what happened to the logs painstakingly kept by the officers in the police post at Arundells throughout the time Sir Edward Heath lived there. They would certainly not have suited the narrative of the witch hunt, but where are they? It is said that they were destroyed during the course of Operation Conifer.

I end by saying to the Minister that if he wishes to earn and retain the confidence of the House, on occasion he must sense its mood and respond positively to it. An injustice has been done, and it must now be rectified.

Family Migration (Justice and Home Affairs Committee Report)

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Wednesday 20th September 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a practising solicitor and those declared in the register. Although I am no longer a member of the Select Committee, I am none the less delighted and proud to follow the noble Baroness and to be associated with a notably unanimous report on so contentious a subject. It is now more than 50 years since I incurred the wrath of many in my own party and beyond by publicly opposing Enoch Powell at our party conference and welcoming the brave and controversial decision of the then Heath Government to offer a safe haven to those Ugandan Asians who had shown admirable foresight by retaining their UK passports at the time of independence.

Growing up in Toxteth, in Liverpool 8, I had early experience of a multiracial, multicultural society and have no hang-ups about it at all. Indeed, I welcome and celebrate it. We should be proud of our position as a global leader in diversity. That is not, however, to deny that any sovereign state, in particular an island nation such as ours, has both a right and a responsibility, principally but not exclusively to its own citizens, to police its borders and control immigration. Of course we do, but we have to exercise that right, power and responsibility with clarity, fairness and empathy.

In too much of our political discourse, any display of empathy is now considered to be a sign of weakness. In our response to the illegal occupation of Ukraine by the criminal regime in Russia, we have shown not just characteristic robustness but empathy for the many victims of the ghastly, unnecessary suffering taking place as a direct consequence of Putin’s aggression. Why, then, is so little empathy shown as we consider the plight of other migrants, so many of whom are also fleeing from the most appalling situations?

In this report, specifically in paragraph 40, the committee suggested that

“the Government should revisit existing ‘mainstream’ immigration pathways”

rather than continuing to create a plethora of “bespoke” pathways. Surely that would represent a practical recognition of the sad fact that geopolitical crises are no contemporary aberration. They are now a fact of life and, with the combined effects of political instability and climate change, they are not going to vanish from the scene any time soon.

In paragraph 59, the committee asked why

“the Government has not systematically integrated”

children

“into its policy and practice”.

That sentiment should not be controversial. In fact, Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 makes it clear that

“the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”.

If that is the case in family law, why not in immigration law? We can pride ourselves that we are a generous country, or we are nothing.

In response to the Home Office deciding that images of Mickey Mouse were too welcoming for migrant children, a band of cartoonists and writers, including Nick Newman and Tony Husband, are creating a welcome to Britain colouring book about life and culture in Britain to raise the spirits of those children. I congratulate them on their timely and heartwarming initiative.

I will conclude by quoting from the only surviving manuscript believed to be in William Shakespeare’s own hand. There is a speech delivered to a rampaging crowd by Thomas More, the sheriff of London. More asks the rioters to imagine themselves in the shoes of the immigrants they are attacking:

“Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation

… would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth”.

At the very least, should we too not occasionally imagine ourselves in the shoes—if they have any—of the desperate souls who want only to find a safe haven, contribute to our way of life and protect their children from danger?

Public Order Act 1986 (Serious Disruption to the Life of the Community) Regulations 2023

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Tuesday 13th June 2023

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

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In a few days, more than 55,000 people have signed a petition that I put out against this legislation. That is a huge number in a brief time, especially on something that appears to be so technical and small. But the regret amendment misses the seriousness of the issues before us and the consequences of allowing this law to pass. If Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, sympathetic Cross-Benchers and even principled, sympathetic Conservatives, support my amendment, we could beat this. We could defeat it. It is possible. Your Lordships have the power, the right and constitutional duty to stop this statutory instrument, which is an assault on democracy. And if not now, when?
Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I speak in my capacity as chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, already referred to the report that we have published on the regulations that we are debating. In our report, we raised a number of issues. First and foremost, we wanted to alert the House to the fact that this instrument did, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has referred to, bring back a measure that was rejected by the House during the passage of the Public Order Bill—a point that we felt was particularly important because, regrettably, it had not been mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum laid at the same time as the instrument itself.

It cannot be denied that primary legislation receives more thorough scrutiny than secondary legislation. Where a measure is rejected during the passage of a Bill, only for it to reappear in secondary legislation, we had no doubt that the House would want to be made aware of it. We concluded in our report that the House would probably wish to consider the possible constitutional issues that arise, and to decide whether it wished to retain its earlier view on the measures.

We are an advisory committee only. We cannot tell this House what to do. Our role is to highlight matters about which we believe the House may want to challenge Ministers and ask for explanations. This debate demonstrates how true it is that the House is concerned to debate these regulations thoroughly.

It is a testament to the sterling work of the team that supports the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that the committee has been able to contribute to this important debate, and that my officials spotted this and questioned the government department about it as thoroughly as they then did, with further developments today, to which I will refer in just one moment.

These regulations are not only significant in their own right but illustrate issues of greater concern to those who sit on our committee. In May, we published our interim report on the work of the committee, in which we made observations on the instruments laid during the previous 12 months. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who identified with me a range of matters to which our committee agreed. One was the inadequacy of consultation. We set out examples in that report where inadequate consultation had had the effect of undermining the operation of an instrument.

In our report on the regulations which we are now debating, we were also critical of the level of consultation, arguing that a considerably greater degree of consultation would have been more appropriate given the specific history, the range of interested parties and the strength of views. Above all, these regulations demonstrate the committee’s major and recurring concern that all too often the quality of the explanatory material accompanying secondary legislation is found wanting.

As I mentioned, our report on these regulations criticises the Explanatory Memorandum because it failed to mention that the measures had been defeated in the House on an earlier occasion, and, as a corollary of that omission, failed to explain the reasons why the Home Office takes the view that it should make a second attempt in this matter. This was important information that should have been included, and provides more than ample evidence of the finding in our interim report that poor-quality explanation was the most unwelcome feature of the secondary legislation that has been laid in the last 12 months.

Just today, in the early hours, the Home Office laid a revised Explanatory Memorandum for these regulations, responding to some of the points in the committee’s report. The House can form its own view on whether the revisions address our criticisms; it is not for us to publish any further commentary. However, departments should not have to revise explanatory material at our prompting. The original version should always provide sufficient information to scrutinise the instrument fully.

In that interim report, we urged all government departments to strengthen their quality assurance systems so that explanatory material, particularly that in support of secondary legislation, is clear, accessible and comprehensive. We will do our best to remain vigilant in identifying when departments fail to do this and are committed to drawing your Lordships’ attention, as on this occasion, to instruments where the quality of explanatory material has fallen significantly short of the standard that I believe this House has a right to expect.

Lord Rooker Portrait Lord Rooker (Lab)
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My Lords, I do not propose to address the public order issues. It is a fairly simple issue, really. It is not the role, and can never be the role, of the unelected House to seek to have the last word. The last word on every issue belongs in the elected House. Sometimes, it is true, it has to wait a year, if the Parliament Act is used, but at the end of the day it has to be in a position of owning what it has passed, so that the electorate can take a view of what it has done. That is where the Government are formed, not here. It is a simple issue, really.

Our conventions have been tested and have been found wanting. I agree very much with the speech that we have just heard—I am a member of the Delegated Powers Committee—but that is not the issue. We have had case after case of the Government taking away powers from Parliament to give executive authority to Ministers. The House has debated this two or three times, but we have not done much about it so far. The simple issue is this: the elected House must own the decision.

I will upset a few people at the end of the evening; I am happy to vote for my noble friend’s amendment but if the fatal amendment is put then I intend to vote with the Government. I will not be in a position after the next election of allowing the then Opposition to claim, when issues arise, “You never voted against it”. I will have at least one name in the Lobby. This is not the first time this has happened; the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, voted in opposition against fatal amendments. We know that it has been reviewed, but maybe it is time to look again at our conventions. I think the last time they were reviewed properly was in 2006, by a Joint Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Cunningham of Felling.

I will not get confused—I agreed with about two sentences of the speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on constitutional issues. She has spent all week on social media misleading the public about the powers in Parliament. The powers belong to the elected House. It must be in a position to have the last word on every issue.

Police: Restoring Public Confidence

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Wednesday 3rd May 2023

(1 year ago)

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Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this important debate. He is an indefatigable, dogged campaigner for justice and we all owe him a great debt. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton. Of course, he speaks from a legal background as well as a parliamentary one. If I recall, he started as an apprentice solicitor in 1974. I found that in his background because I started as an articled clerk to a solicitor 10 years earlier. It is good to know that he is sharing with us his reflections on this important subject.

I shall confine my remarks to Operation Conifer. My noble friend has already referred to it. In my former role as chair of the trustees of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, some years ago I had the thoroughly unpleasant experience of encountering policing at its most egregious. On the basis of what we now understand to have been completely unfounded allegations, made anonymously at the time but later discovered to have been almost entirely made by individuals who were themselves known offenders, the name of a formidable statesman was gleefully dragged through the dirt. I still have all the cuttings from that period to remind me of what a difficult time it was.

The conduct of the police was unforgivable. From the very outset, when it was announced by a subsequently disgraced officer in front of Sir Edward Heath’s home of Arundells and in front of all the news media, Operation Conifer was a travesty. Not only did Mike Veale—now also disgraced but then chief constable—openly and publicly make an assumption of guilt but he also encouraged his officers in a blatant fishing exercise, effectively replacing the presumption of innocence with one of guilt. A supine police and crime commissioner let the chief constable to evade normal accountability by allowing him to set up a so-called independent scrutiny panel—a novel and self-serving innovation—to which he himself appointed all four members anonymously, until he was forced to reveal who they were. One of them had previously been paid by Conifer for professional services and had been personally implicated in earlier stages of the spurious but lucrative witch hunt, which was now being further pursued by Wiltshire Police at considerable cost to the taxpayer.

Almost every aspect of this so-called investigation might be regarded as comically bad, were the matter not so grievously serious. Numerous vital witnesses were never interviewed, including Lord MacGregor, now retired from this House, who was running Ted Heath’s office at the time of some of the alleged offences, or my noble friend Lord Sherbourne. The log books from the police post of Ted Heath’s former home in Salisbury, which would have made an immediate nonsense of many of the spurious allegations, were mysteriously destroyed.

Those of us who were interviewed were almost without exception shocked by the shoddiness of preparation and the almost complete lack of knowledge on the part of the investigating police officers. No good outcome could ever have come from such a shoddy process. Operation Conifer profoundly undermined confidence in the police, and no one has ever been held to account. Until someone is held to account and until the extraordinary ineptitude and malign intent are independently and comprehensively exposed, how can confidence ever be restored?

Successive Ministers have of course successively claimed that Conifer has been reviewed, but it has been reviewed only by police officers marking their own homework. Even the two police-led reviews that did take place, in September 2016 and May 2017, made a total of 49 recommendations for improving the processes of Conifer—hardly a vote of confidence. Just imagine how many recommendations an independent review might have made.

Of course I recognise the need for operational independence for the police and the fact that they must be insulated from party-political influence as they go about their duties. However, they must also be ultimately accountable for how they discharge their duties, or they risk losing the support of the people. We are told that PCCs provide that vital accountability, but what happens when they fail in that task, perhaps after becoming too close to the chief constable, or even falling under their thrall? What recourse does the citizen have then?

The principle that the police should be operationally independent of government does not absolve Ministers from an obligation to commission a review into the way in which that operational independence has been exercised in a particular case, when serious concerns arise.

I therefore say to my noble friend the Minister that we need to close this chapter with a proper, independent review. Until there is genuine accountability, including an effective backstop at ministerial level, I fail to see how the police can ever regain the full trust and affection of the general public. The experience of Operation Conifer—in particular my own personal experience—suggests that, sadly, we still have a depressingly long way to go.

Police and Crime Commissioners

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Monday 20th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I am happy to reassure the House on that point. I am seeing my noble friend Lord Lexden this Wednesday. He chose not to mention it, but I will.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest having, together with the late Lord Newton of Braintree, presented the seven Nolan principles of conduct in public life to Parliament. Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that two of those principles, accountability and openness, are not evident in the responses he has been able to deliver so far? Can he please ensure that all holders of public office know that they have to be

“accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to scrutiny necessary to ensure this”?

On openness, they must

“act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I accept the question from my noble friend. Yes, they are expected to adhere to the Seven Principles of Public Life, as determined and published by the Nolan committee. The office of the PCC is also expected to ensure that the PCC is adhering to the Nolan principles. In each force area, the actions and decisions of PCCs are scrutinised by their police and crime panels. On the case of Leicestershire—which I suspect is at least partly informing my noble friend’s question—I am happy that the standards are now being met there. They should have been met before, but the Government—as we have said before from the Dispatch Box in the strongest possible terms—expect that PCCs appointing to senior positions in their offices follow the process clearly set out in legislation. I am very pleased to say that Leicestershire is now doing that.

Police Misconduct Cases

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Monday 6th February 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, I am unable to comment on ongoing cases.

Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, particularly as past chairman of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. None of this would have happened if the disgraced policeman, Mike Veale, had faced an independent inquiry into his witch hunt against the late Sir Edward Heath, as this House has repeatedly demanded. The Home Office keeps referring to all these inquiries, but they were all carried out by the police themselves, marking their own homework, and are no substitute for a judge-led review of how the good name of a distinguished former Prime Minister was deliberately besmirched—at great cost to the taxpayer.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I thank my noble friend. He makes some extremely good points, which I will take back.

Technology Rules: The Advent of New Technologies in the Justice System (Justice and Home Affairs Committee Report)

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Monday 28th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Lord Hunt of Wirral Portrait Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register, in particular to my role as a partner in the international commercial law firm, DAC Beachcroft. I am very much aware from that separate strand of my life how law firms are increasingly under pressure from their clients to make use of automation and AI. This can lead directly to efficiencies and cost savings. It also offers up the longer-term possibility of developing and licensing self-serve law tech solutions to replicate some of the services that law firms have traditionally provided, reducing the dependency on lawyers. In a highly competitive market, technology can make all the difference. So, both as a lawyer and a legislator, I warmly welcome this debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her impressive opening speech, her leadership of the select committee and her wise guidance in helping us to produce a very persuasive report.

I dare say that all reports suffer to some extent from in-built obsolescence, especially those dealing with technology. However, I hope that by going back to first principles, the committee has given this one sustainable life and relevance. As we read our way into these questions and raised them with witnesses, I think it is fair to say that we grew more, not less, concerned about the implications for the rule of law of the burgeoning technologies that are increasingly available.

The very good report we produced by consensus with the help of our excellent support team makes our sense of concern—even alarm—very overt and apparent. Our inquiry left me in no doubt about the scale of the challenge we all face to ensure that new technologies serve the best interests of justice and the public interest more widely.

Some noble Lords may have heard or read a highly stimulating lecture earlier this year by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos, in which he mused on the significance for us all of

“the inexorable rise in blockchain technologies”,

which will

“immutably record every event or transaction in our lives.”

He also predicted that a

“truly integrated online digital justice system to resolve civil family and tribunals disputes”

would be in place in England and Wales by the mid-2020s at the latest. It is quite a thought.

It is very easy to be seduced by the technologies themselves, but I would like to pull focus to questions of transparency, governance and accountability. We are told that much accountability within the system now rests with police and crime commissioners. My own dealings with such a commissioner give me no reassurance at all—quite the opposite, in fact. I do not believe that PCCs can provide adequate or even meaningful accountability, especially where fast-moving technology is concerned. They lack the necessary expertise and, looking at some of the turnouts in PCC elections, they lack the authority too.

With both the criminal and civil justice systems so overstretched and behindhand, it is all the more tempting to succumb to the allure of the glittering baubles of high tech, AI, algorithms and all the rest, with the promise they appear to offer of a faster, slicker set of outcomes. If we are also persuaded that those outcomes are also more just and fairer, with human fallibility stripped out, the Lorelei cry may prove irresistible. Yet, again and again during the course of our inquiry, we heard from experts how algorithms, however sophisticated, can be “gamed”. If this is true, I wonder whether algorithms can ever truly be fit for purpose within a justice system.

It all takes us inevitably back to the old, uneasy, irreconcilable tension between the supposedly sacrosanct principle of operational independence versus the ultimate need for accountability to prevent a police force or chief going rogue, which, as I have witnessed myself, does indeed happen from time to time, although fortunately rarely. I am becoming increasingly troubled by what we call “fairness metrics”. We hear much talk of using AI, not simply to deliver the status quo more effectively and efficiently, but actively to make society “fairer”—a subjective and loaded term, if ever I heard one—by rectifying perceived social, economic and other inequalities. If that initiative acquires significant momentum, we as parliamentarians must surely be profoundly concerned about what is being factored in.

I see a clear analogy here with the development of automation and AI in the automotive sector. We were told six or seven years ago that driverless cars would be on our roads by 2021. The reality is, they are still not here. Safe implementation is a vital consideration, as is the need for an appropriate legislative and regulatory framework both pre and post placement and, ideally, through testing in a sandbox environment to ensure the veracity and reliability of algorithms.

Rushing the implementation of automation and AI would be damaging enough in the context of automated vehicles, but getting it wrong risks pushing back mass-market adoption of technologies designed to improve productivity and mobility. A similar mistake is surely inconceivable and wholly unacceptable in the context of the criminal and civil justice systems. Who is keeping a close eye on all this? Is it Ministers?

I am sad that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is not here. To quote from the evidence that we received from the Minister, when I asked at question 107,

“Will you be keeping a careful eye on this?”


The Minister responded,

“That is a very good question which I will have to think about … We have some brakes and levers that we can pull”.


At that point, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said,

“There are ways and means, I promise you.”


At the end of the day, that is what this debate is all about. Who is keeping a careful eye? Is it officials? If it is, from which of the plethora of departments and public bodies that are active in this field will they emerge?

We come back to accountability. Who has practical, day-to-day responsibility for the legal, ethical and active use of advanced technologies of this kind? Who has day-to-day decision-making powers, and where is the practical transparency and ultimate accountability? The reality is always that ultimate responsibility must rest with Ministers and Parliament. The Executive takes the decisions and faces the scrutiny of the legislature in either or both of our Houses of Parliament. The question then is how to make that work quickly, effectively and reliably.

It is perhaps inevitable that a report of this kind raises more profound questions than it would ever be capable of answering, especially when addressing so complex and controversial a topic. I was worried at the time of publication that we would not succeed in our aim of moving Ministers to share our concerns. The trials and tribulations within the Government in recent months have not served to calm my fears. Now we appear—I stress, appear—to be in a period of much-needed stability again. I hope we catch the eyes and ears of Ministers and make a difference, for in the field of radical innovation, just as in the field of criminal and civil justice, prevention of an undesirable outcome is invariably preferable to cure.