HL Deb 13 December 1999 vol 608 cc17-20GC

The Committee met at half past four of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard.

The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report 'stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. This Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and will then resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Functions]:

Lord Dholakia moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 25, at end insert ("within one month of its receipt")

The noble Lord said: This is a matter that I brought to the attention of the Minister when I was responding to the Second Reading debate. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that, by inserting the wording, within one month of its receipt", the reports that are being produced and presented to the Minister will be published as soon as possible or within a period of four weeks.

Let me say straight away that, when the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General was the Minister for Prisons, I saw a distinct change in the way with which HMI reports at that time were dealt. They were published much more quickly and people working in the criminal justice field were absolutely delighted that they were able to find out what was contained in such reports.

Against that, in the past, particularly when reports were fairly sensitive or were difficult in terms of criticism of government policy, the tendency was to push them to the bottom of the pile and one did not see them for six or eight months. By that time, matters had moved so fast that the original situation that existed when the inspection was carried out was no longer relevant. That was an unacceptable practice.

I shall be delighted—and it would be right—for HMI to present reports. However, it is perfectly feasible for such reports to be published within a period of four weeks. I understand that, from time to time, delay may occur, but the standard must be that the report is made available for public consumption in the shortest possible time. That is very much a part of the policy that the Government pursue in terms of open access to information. More importantly, however, is that it is very much in line with the Narcy Committee's report in terms of avoiding delay within the criminal justice process. If it applies to magistrates courts and other courts, why should it not apply to the Crown Prosecution Service?

There is a maxim which says, "justice delayed is justice denied". I hope that the same applies in relation to reports. If reports are not published, they are likely to become less relevant over a period of time. I suggest therefore that it would be appropriate to insert an amendment for publication to be, within one month of receipt". I beg to move.

Lord Kingsland

I rise to support this amendment. I can see the technical difficulties arising from the report arriving on the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General's doorstep at the end of July, but I am sure that that is a matter that could be accommodated by agreement.

There may be circumstances in which the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will be faced with a debate on the report in your Lordships' House and, in those circumstances, the noble and learned Lord, or his successors, may wish to have time to reflect on what they are going to say. However, I am sure that time will be given by the normal procedures that flow from tabling any Motion for debate in your Lordships' House. Therefore, I can see no circumstances in which the amendment by the noble Lord should inconvenience the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General.

4.30 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

I am very grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said about the Prison Service. This is a completely new statutory regime. Therefore those will be statutory reports. I believe them inevitably to be regarded rightly as the property of the public. I am happy to assure noble Lords that I would expect, as I am sure my successors would expect also, to lay the annual reports as soon as I receive them and. in any event, well within the one month period that is suggested by both noble Lords. There may be the occasional rare circumstance where that is not possible, as in the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland; namely, were I to receive a report at the end of July shortly before the Summer Recess. But as far as I can give any assurance—and I give it—I shall be laying these reports before Parliament substantially before the one month period. I shall not need a month to read, digest or otherwise seek to find an excuse for what is in the reports. In fact, it was a benefit to everyone, including the Prison Service, that the prison chief inspector's reports were promptly published. Therefore, I give that assurance and hope that it meets the purposes of Members of the Committee.

Lord Dholakia

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for his support. I am very pleased with the assurance I have received from the Minister, that not only will he ensure, as far as possible, that he will publish the report but that he will ensure also that his successor will take that issue into account. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

That concludes the Committee's proceedings on the Bill.

The Committee adjourned at twenty minutes before five o'clock.