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I know that the Minister did not like it when I intervened on the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) to explain why I thought that the Government were proceeding in this way, but I have to say that my
explanation is true. I have known people who have worked for the Government in the press office of the Prison Service. I am well aware of how much they come under attack and how Home Secretaries have, quite understandably, sought to close down stories because it is difficult for the Government when certain stories arise. There is the famous example of a former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) who, when pressed on these matters by a certain Jeremy Paxman, refused to answer on many occasions. He was put in a difficult position, but that is what should happen. Ministers should be put in difficult positions so that they can come up with the policies required to bring about improvement.
The Government argument seems to be that there are plenty of accountability mechanismsthe inspectorate and so onso we do not need the type of accountability for which we are calling. If that were the case and if inspectorates, ombudsmen and other forms of accountability were the answer to improving public services, our public services would be the best in the worldbut we know they are not. When Ministers go to their beds at night, they will admit that, in some cases, there is massive room for real improvement. One of the advantages of getting rid of Crown exemption is that it creates the sort of dynamic in the system that will spur people on to much greater efforts. When it comes to death through gross negligence, those efforts really should be stimulated further.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield put the rest of the arguments well and I look forward to hearing what the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has to say. I am pleased to see the Home Secretary in his place; Ministers must listen to the weight and force of the arguments on both sides of the House. If Ministers and the Government try to resist us and do not give way tonight, the other place will take our remarks very seriously and this matter will be brought back before the House.
Mr. Denham: I hope that Ministers will take account of feelings on this issue. Amendments have been proposed this evening by two Select Committee Chairmen who are occasionally troublesome priests, but not generally so, for the Government. The amendments reflect the considered positions of entire Committees taken unanimously across party rather than any individual point of view. I hope that the Government will listen and respond.
I was a Minister with responsibility for policing for nearly two years, so I was responsible for the accountability side of deaths in police custody. Since then, I am pleased to say that deaths in police custody have continued their downward trend. As a former Minister, I see no great difficulty of principle for Ministers in conceding the charge for which many have argued this evening. Real improvements were made in dealing with deaths in custody through good management in the police service. It came about through management pressure and political pressure above that and it was about training, supervision and so forth.
None the less, it was still possible to meet custody sergeants who had been in the job for two years and had never been trained in the responsibilities of that role. Thus, if someone died in custody, should those officers really be held accountable for that death when
no one had taught them how to do their job? One of the advantages of enacting legislation to cover deaths in custody is that it provides a focus for people who are unwilling or too slow to change in that crucial area of responsibility. I think that that would be to the good.
When the Joint Committee considered the Bill, it was no coincidence that the Police Federation was in favour of including deaths in custody within the legislation. It was seen as a strength in the Police Federations trade union and representational role, helping it to secure the support that it wanted from senior management.
I do not wish to repeat the points that have been well made by other hon. Members, but I shall stress a couple of them. In the police service and in the Prison Service custody is increasingly provided by private sector companies. The political, with a small p, difficulties of explaining why a private company operating in that sector is not subject to the legislation when all other private sector companies are subject to it will prove impossible to Ministers in the future.
I want to acknowledge the work that has been done in the Prison Service. Last autumn, Baroness Scotland appeared before our Select Committee to talk about prison suicide work, and she gave a very impressive performance. None the less, everyone recognises that the culture needs to change further and faster than it has done so far in the Prison Service, and changing the law on this issue will help. None of the alternative routes of accountability supplies what the public need.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, the organisation, Inquest, has pointed out that, since 1981, no inquest that involved a verdict of unlawful killing has resulted in anyone being convicted of manslaughter or worse crimes. We must remember that, although our prisons undoubtedly contain some of the most unpleasant, dangerous and straightforwardly evil people, they also contain some of the most frail, vulnerable, weak and sick people, and we owe them the duty of care that such a change would bring.
I believe that a number of things will follow if changes to these clauses are not accepted tonight. First, it is inconceivable that the coalition of interests in another place that persuaded the Government to change their mind about the independent prisons inspectorate will not send the issue back for us to look at again. However, I do not intend to press my amendments to a vote; the debate is a way of telling the Government that they need to get into discussions about how to handle the issue.
Secondly, our experience is that, if the House does not put in place a proper legislative framework, the courts will make one for us. I have shared with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary some interesting discussions about the role of activist judges in the broader political environment, but we cannot criticise judges for stepping in if we leave a vacuum. The reality is that, if there is no proper procedure to investigate and prosecute in cases of corporate manslaughter when people are in custodybit by bit, case by casea range of human rights law will emerge without criminal convictions, but with demands for compensation payments, changes to procedure and all the rest of it, and the Home Office will find that equally embarrassing and equally uncomfortable.
There is a strong feeling in the House that the Government have not got this issue right, and I hope that, between now and discussions in another place and perhaps when the Bill returns to the House, there can be further discussions about a satisfactory way to ensure that deaths in custody are properly investigated and that those who are responsible to the high level of test in the Bill are held accountable.
Mr. Dismore: So far tonight, my hon. Friend the Minister has shown a degree of flexibility, good humour and a willingness to listen and take away issues for consideration, but there has been no flexibility or willingness to listen whatsoever on this group of amendments. I am afraid that that leaves me rather worried, particularly as we have heard no logical argument from him about why the offence should not apply in these circumstances, other than that prisons are different. As has been mentioned in the debate, there are many reasons why the offence should apply to other things that are equally difficult and dangerous.
I mentioned in an intervention that 15 cases had been identified over the past 15 yearsone a yearwhere such an offence might have been committed; but it does not necessarily follow, of course, that each of them would have been prosecuted or a conviction secured. So, we are talking about a small number of cases, but an important principle: that of trying to avoid unnecessary deaths. That is not to belie the efforts that the Home Office and the Prison Service have made in reducing deaths in custodyfar from itbut a problem still remains.
I suggest that one way forward would be to table amendments of this nature with a hiatus in relation to when they come into effect, to allow those improvements to continue until we can be absolutely certain that there is not a problem. I asked my hon. Friend the Ministerif that was going to be the Governments attitudewhy the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the offence of corporate manslaughter should apply to deaths in custody. The reply was that the Bill would be brought forward and that it would reflect the problems of management failure. If that is the case, what has changed between then and now? That recommendation was made only two years ago and prisons are still pretty much the same as they were thenin fact, there has probably been some improvement.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has said that if we do not deal with things in Parliament, the courts will. I mentioned two casesthe Mubarek case and the Edwards casewhere the courts took that particular view. We will see more of those sorts of cases. It must be far better for Parliament to legislate than to leave it to the judges to do it for us.
As has been said repeatedly in the debate, even if we do not push the matter to a voteI see little point in doing so, because I hope that the Government will reflect on what has been saidinevitably an amendment will be introduced in another place, it will come back to us for a decision and we will have to have a vote at that stage. I hope that in the interim my hon. Friend the Minister will consider whether a reasonable compromise can be reached as a way forward. There is space to move. If he does not, an amendment will be tabled in another place.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Given the strength of the arguments tonight, it would be a bit of a cop-out to say, But we dont feel strongly enough to put this to a vote in this Chamber and let this Chamber make its mind up on the matter. This is truly a matter of judgment. It is the Governments judgment that for two reasonsthe circumstances of custody and the level of scrutiny already existingthis matter should not be included. Of course, it is possible to argue that everything, including the armed forces, which Members on the Opposition Front Bench are pointing towards, should be included. We take a different view. That view has been laid before the House and the House should express an opinion on it.
Mr. Dismore: I have listened to what my right hon. Friend says and if he wants to call a vote, I shall accede to his request. I had hoped that, in the spirit of compromise and discussion that has existed throughout the consideration of the Bill, we would be able to look at this issue to see whether there is another way forward as the Bill goes to another place. However, if he says that we should have a vote, so be it.
( ) A reference in subsection (1) to a duty owed under the law of negligence includes a reference to a duty that would be owed under the law of negligence but for any statutory provision under which liability is imposed in place of liability under that law..
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