HL Deb 02 November 2004 vol 666 cc245-50

(1) This section applies if—

  1. (a) a court convicts a person ("the offender") of a sexual or violent offence, and
  2. (b) a relevant sentence is imposed on him in respect of the offence.

(2) But section (Victims of persons subject to hospital direction and limitation direction) applies (instead of this section) if a hospital direction and a limitation direction are given in relation to the offender.

(3) The local probation board for the area in which the sentence is imposed must take all reasonable steps to ascertain whether a person who appears to the board to be the victim of the offence or to act for the victim of the offence wishes—

  1. (a) to make representations about the matters specified in subsection (4);
  2. (b) to receive the information specified in subsection (5).

(4) The matters are—

  1. (a) whether the offender should be subject to any licence conditions or supervision requirements in the event of his release;
  2. (b) if so, what licence conditions or supervision requirements.

(5) The information is information about any licence conditions or supervision requirements to which the offender is to be subject in the event of his release.

(6) If a person whose wishes have been ascertained under subsection (3) makes representations to the local probation board mentioned in that subsection or the relevant local probation board about a matter specified in subsection (4), the relevant local probation board must forward those representations to the persons responsible for determining the matter.

(7) If a local probation board has ascertained under subsection (3) that a person wishes to receive the information specified in subsection (5), the relevant local probation board must take all reasonable steps—

  1. (a) to inform the person whether or not the offender is to be subject to any licence conditions or supervision requirements in the event of his release,
  2. (b) if he is, to provide the person with details of any licence conditions or supervision requirements which relate to contact with the victim or his family, and
  3. (c) to provide the person with such other information as the relevant local probation board considers appropriate in all the circumstances of the case.

(8) The relevant local probation board is—

  1. (a) in a case where the offender is to be supervised on release by an officer of a local probation board, that local probation board;
  2. (b) in any other case, the local probation board for the area in which the prison or other place in which the offender is detained is situated."

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 21. These amendments seek to achieve a simple aim: that victims of serious sexual or violent offending should have rights to information about the release of the offender, whether the offender has received a prison sentence or has been dealt with under mental health legislation. Noble Lords will know that that is an issue that Jayne Zito and the Zito Trust have spent a considerable amount of time on. I pay tribute to the work that she and the trust have done and the way in which they have campaigned so hard and so long for this change.

The combined effect of the amendments will be that when the court sentences for a serious sexual or violent offence, the local probation board acquires a duty to identify the victim of the offence. If the victim wishes, they are to be kept informed about decisions regarding the offender's release. They have the right to make representations about measures to be taken for their protection and to be informed about those measures.

The duty already exists under Section 69 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 where the offender receives a prison sentence. But these provisions will extend it to cases where the offender is dealt with under mental health legislation; whether under a prison sentence or not. The provisions consolidate Section 69 of the 2000 Act with the new provision covering the three Mental Health Act 1983 powers under which such offenders may be detained.

9 p.m.

I turn now to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns. I should say with respect that these amendments would have little or no practical effect on the provisions as drafted. The amendments to lines 11 and 31 to remove the reference to "all" reasonable steps would have the effect of weakening only slightly the requirement on probation boards to identify a victim who wished to be informed or to make representations. We wish to retain the existing wording which conveys a high level of responsibility and is indicative of our commitment to keeping victims informed wherever they wish it and when it is practicable. I should point out that in the victims' panel which I chair, victims have constantly pointed out that they want the opportunity to be consulted and kept informed, if they indicate that that is really what they want. That is a strong desire that was expressed by all members of the advisory panel.

For the purposes of the line 12 amendment, a person need only appear to the board to act for the victims. So a person "appointed to act for the victim" would be included. I have taken a number of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, to be probing in nature to make sure that we are including those people whom she would wish us to include.

In relation to the line 25 amendment, under the existing arrangements, which are to be maintained, victim liaison officers contact the victim about two months before the relevant decision. If the victim has not made representations in time for the decision process, it is a reasonable inference that they do not wish to do so. In any event, if a time period on making representations were to be provided for in legislation, it would need to be more precisely specified than just being within a "reasonable time limit". We consider that the current arrangements provide the appropriate degree of flexibility.

On the proposal to require the information to be conveyed "in writing", victims contacted by victim liaison officers do not always want information in writing, but prefer simply to have a meeting or sometimes a telephone call. We think that it is better to preserve flexibility to act in accordance with victims' wishes.

However, I understand the reason for these amendments. It is right that we ensure that these provisions are correct and that we have approached this with the appropriate level of sensitivity to meet the needs of victims in this rather delicate and difficult area.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 21.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns rose to move, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 21, Amendment No. 21A,

21A Line 11, leave out "all"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 21A, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 21 B to 21G. The noble Baroness is absolutely right. These amendments are probing in nature in order to try to flesh out some of the issues raised by the Government's new clauses. In that spirit, I have purposely tabled amendments only to the first relevant clause and certainly did not replicate them for the later clauses. I did not want to trouble the Printed Paper Office with the need to print that lot.

I recognise that the provisions before us have the support of mental health organisations. However, I have questions about the kind of consultation that is to take place with victims on these matters. What is the practicality surrounding the process, not only for the victim but also for the Probation Service which has to carry out these consultations? What happens when an offender is released but then moves from one area to another? Will the victim be advised of that change of residence?

What estimate have the Government made of the resource implications for the Probation Service, especially as it has now been subsumed within NOMS? The Minister will be aware from what has been said in this House—particularly at Question Time—about the concern of noble Lords with regard to the funding of the Probation Service and the financial challenges that it faces, especially in London where there is a shortage of professionals in post.

The noble Baroness referred to the fact that Amendment No. 21A would remove the word "all" from the phrase "take all reasonable steps". She said that it would not make much difference. I accept that. I am merely intrigued by the drafting simply because I have not seen it used before by the Government. It may be that it was in statutes passed before I began my twoand-a-half years in this job, but it seems to tie down the Probation Service to a particularly rigorous procedure. That is to be welcomed in that one wants to give the victim every opportunity to be consulted and to give his views but it also imposes a particular rigour on the Probation Service. What happens if someone challenges the Probation Service and says, "You did not take all reasonable steps. These are the reasonable steps that you did not take"? One does not want the system to be undermined by a lack of faith in it, either from the Probation Service side or the victim's side.

The noble Baroness referred to Amendment No. 21B. I have simply redrafted the subsection so that the duty is to consult the person who appears to be the victim of the offence or to consult a person who appears to have been appointed to act for the victim. The amendment seeks to elicit whether it is right that someone should pop up and say, "I am acting on behalf of Mr or Mrs A and therefore you should consult me because I am the one who is acting in his or her best interests". Should there not be some kind of proof that that person has been appointed either by Mr or Mrs A, or by someone legally acting on his or her behalf, to be involved in the consultation process?

I know many pressure groups and individuals act very responsibly in taking up cases, but very sensitive information is involved in this particular process and one must be wary that one does not go too wide in opening out the availability of consultation.

The noble Baroness also referred to Amendment No. 21E, which requires the information to be given in writing. There again, the amendment seeks merely to raise the question of what reasonable steps the Probation Service has to take to get the information to someone and how long the response period should be. There could be victims who feel so scarred by the experience of what they have been through that they simply will not reply. It is not because they are being obstructive to the system or difficult intentionally but because they cannot face the thought of having any contact with an organisation which is trying to act on behalf of the person being released, even though the Probation Service has contacted the victim in his or her own best interests. It is a question of how long should be the time lag before the Probation Service says, "We have done everything we can; we have tried to contact the victim; now we are going to get on with it even though we have not heard back from him or her".

As was the case when I started the day a very long while ago, I shall move this amendment in the expectation that it will shortly be withdrawn and that those grouped with it will not be pressed.

Moved, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 21, Amendment No. 21A.—(Baroness Anelay of St Johns.)

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, while we do not oppose the intent of the Commons amendment we have one concern upon which the Minister may be able to shed some light. When this issue was debated in another place, my honourable friend the Member for Somerton and Frome asked the Minister whether there would be any restrictions on the victim's use of the information, but the Minister, Paul Goggins, was unable to give him a definite answer on that occasion. I wonder whether the Minister can do so tonight.

The problem is that in some circumstances, the victim may wish to go to the local media with the information that a person who has caused him or his family a great deal of grief is about to be released into the community and may go back to live in the same vicinity. This could pose difficulties for the rehabilitation of that ex-offender and therefore be highly undesirable to all of us who wish all ex-offenders to be resettled in the community and living a positive life. It may even cause unnecessary anxiety to residents in the neighbourhood and/or lead to victimisation of the ex-offender. All those are highly undesirable consequences.

There are also questions of how the information can or should be shared with Victim Support, GPs or anybody who might want to give counselling to the victim. Since Mr Goggins was unable to give my honourable friend a definite answer in another place, I invite the Minister to clarify the situation for your Lordships this evening.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I very much understand why the noble Baroness raises this issue. The whole point of the amendments is to give victims of those who are mentally disordered similar rights with regard to information to those who are subject to the ordinary defendant.

What has really changed—and it is important that this is recognised—is that we have now set up witness and victims care units in the way in which the whole process of prosecutions will go. We hope that very soon there will be such a unit it all the 42 areas of local criminal justice boards with which we deal.

We hope that from the moment someone becomes a victim, there will he a proper assessment of what their needs are to get them through the process of the trial and an assessment of their long-term needs for help and assistance thereafter. During that time, we hope, an identified person will assist the victim right the way through. That is going to be available, and was available before these provisions for all those who were not subject to a disordered offender's offences. We are trying to bring all victims within the same category so that they all have similar rights.

It is absolutely fundamental that we listen to victims. The Probation Service will be responsible for finding out the way in which the victim may best want to receive information, who their contact points are or may be, and get some sort of confirmation on how that will be managed. We are producing good practice guides; the victims and witnesses unit in the Home Office is producing a tool kit which will go live and will, we hope, help local criminal justice boards to put in place the sorts of provisions that they will need to make sure that these things are implemented appropriately.

The provisions will mean that for the first time, victims of serious sexual or violent offenders will have the right to be kept informed. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about what happens to the information, because some of it is indeed confidential. Sharing information with victims must balance the legitimate needs of the victim to know what is in place, to address their legitimate fears, and the equally legitimate need to respect the medical confidentiality of the patient and avoid harming their chances of successful rehabilitation.

The decision must be case-specific. The decision one makes in one case may not be the sort of case one wants to make in another. That is why, where the victim has expressed a wish to make representations, we have restricted the information which the probation board must convey to what is needed to enable representations. In addition, where the victim has expressed a wish to receive information about conditions of discharge, we have restricted the information which the probation board must convey to the victim only to details of any conditions which relate to contact with the victim or his or her family. We have left to the board's discretion what additional information it may be able to give to the victim, taking into account the circumstances of the individual case. We would not expect victims to be given details of the offender's address because offenders also have rights to confidentiality.

9.15 p.m.

There is also the possibility of seeking an injunction against disclosure by the media if appropriate and necessary in the circumstances, in particular for the purposes of protecting the patient. However, the board will have the responsibility for deciding, to take up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, about who is deemed appropriate to act on behalf of the patient. This measure has been so longed for—and Jayne Zito and others have spoken very passionately about the matter; there has been a real sense of injustice—because we have had two tiers of victims. One gets one sort of help, support and information if the perpetrator is compos mentis and has all their mental faculties and a totally different set if he does not. We listened to that and to the pain that has caused many families. We hope that these provisions will help to redress that balance.

We understand the concern that has been expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in relation to that balance. Similarly, we understand the practicality of the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, with her usual acuity saying, "What does this mean, how does it work and what will people do?". I will always commend the noble Baroness for that approach because it is absolutely the right one. It is what delivers on the ground for the people that we all care about.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I am not sure whether that means that I am such a boring old so and so that I talk about the same thing on every single Bill, but never mind, I will keep plugging along. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.