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In many ways, the issue of whether or not the Minister will still be in his position in a few days time should not concern the House. If he is promoted, or moves sideways or whatever, I am sure that he will talk to his successor. I hope that he will also talk to the new Secretary of State for Justice, the new Home Secretary and indeed the Prime Minister, to convince them that this is a golden opportunity to show that there is change. Yesterday, we heard the Prime Minister talking about changechange of heart and a change of approachand about wanting to listen. Well, here is his first opportunity.
I want to make two more points on the substance behind the issue. To refer back to my first intervention on the Minister, he and his colleagues in the other place keep telling us that the Government accept the principle behind the measure. We want to believe that and take it at face value, but there are so many caveatsso many ifs and butsthat it is difficult to believe that the principle really has been accepted, and that the Government are not simply using parliamentary and legislative devices to avoid the pressure that is being put on them. If the Minister was prepared to say that it is no longer an issue of if or whether, but rather of when, that would be a shift. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested the last time we debated the amendments, the Minister could come before the House with a commencement order that named a date two or three years hence. If he did that, I am sure that reasonable people on both sides of the Chamber would give it serious consideration, even though many of us want the measure to be introduced very quickly.
Although the Minister has been courteous, generous and attentive to the remarks of hon. Members of all parties throughout the passage of the legislation, on this last point he really has not gone far enough. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is quite right: the other place will stand absolutely firm on the issue. One only has to read the Hansard report of the debate in the other place to realise that the other place feels very strongly about it, and it is being backed, and encouraged to stand firm, by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers in this place. The number of Cross Benchers and Labour Members of the other place who support the Conservative and Liberal Democrat position is very large. The Minister mentioned to me in passing, yesterday evening or the day before, that he thought that a number of Lords had peeled off, but I have to tell him that the numbers against him are still very large. There might have been an extra-nice dinner on the evening of the vote, but the resolve of the Lords is clear.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is worth mentioning on the record the persuasive powers of Lord Ramsbotham, who is key on the issue, and who speaks with far more experience of conditions in the Prison Service than almost any of us, or any Member of the other place.
Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and anyone who reads the speeches of the noble Lord Ramsbotham will learn of the cases that he has come across in which the offence that we propose might well have applied, or in which a death in custody might not have happened if the provision had been on the statute books, as it would have created an incentive for the management to put its house in order. This House must continue with its opposition, and must send a clear signal to the other place.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I certainly agree with the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). As far as I am aware, no one wants to put an end to the Bill. I started campaigning for the Bill some 20 years ago, in my former professional capacity, and after 20 years hard work I certainly do not want to see the Bill go down the tubes. I have some reservations about whether its health and safety aspects are strong enough, and I have expressed them previously. Those who criticise the Bill and raise questions about it would do better to focus on those health and safety points, rather than on some of the issues that have been raised today. However, I feel strongly about the issue of deaths in custody, particularly after the work that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, did on the issue.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was right to remind us of what the issue is really about: it is about vulnerable people who die when in the states custody, when the state has responsibility for their safety. He is also right to say that the overwhelming majority of those deaths, while tragic and unfortunate, are ultimately not the fault of anybody in authority. However, a very small numberperhaps a dozen or so over the past 10 yearsdo merit further detailed inquiry, perhaps under the provisions of the Bill. The Bill is meant to be a deterrent. It is not meant to be used to prosecute; it is meant to try to make people who come within the ambit of the Bill, from whatever walk of life, take their responsibilities seriously, whether we are talking about the transport network, accidents at work in factories, or death in custody.
I am pleased that the Government have made significant concessions since we first raised the issue on Report. On that occasion, we were met with what was virtually a no surrender statement from the Home Secretary. I am pleased that the Government have listened and made concessions on the need for statutory powers for the prisons and probation ombudsman. We do not yet have a date, but I hope that measures will appear in the forthcoming Queens Speech, following the review by the forum for preventing deaths in custodywe were told that that would take six months or soand the amendments conceding the principle in the Bill. That is an important concession, and my hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the way in which he has approached the issue and engaged with Members on both sides of the House who have raised it, and with the other place, to make progress. It is even more important than it was when we first started to debate the issue. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Government introduced a new order to amend the rules on restraint in secure training centres which, on the face of it, broadened the powers to use restraint. The inquest on the death of Gareth Myatt has only just taken place, highlighting the need for additional
protection in the Bill. I am not suggesting for one minute that those powers will be misused, but if they are to be broadened, the safeguards that accompany them must be broadened, too. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) prayed against the order, as I did myself, so that the issue can be discussed and fleshed out.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows full well from todays debate and all the ping-pong that it comes down a question of whether he will name the day. That is all that we are interested in. I have suggested a number of different ways in which that could be done, and ways around the problem. Last time we discussed the matter, I suggested replacing the words in the first line of the new clause,
The Secretary of State may by order,
with the words, The Secretary of State shall by order. As we know from case law, the Secretary of State is obliged to keep that duty under active review to make sure that it is not overlooked. It should be a mandatory rather than a permissive power, and it would be a major step forward in efforts to resolve the problem.
My hon. Friend is over-cautious in his proposed timetable. As has been said, we are asking for a target date. As I mentioned in our previous debate, a target is not mandatoryit suggests that we want to do something by a certain date. I am not even proposing that the target should appear in the Bill. If my hon. Friend commits to a date two or three years hence, and if it proves impossible to meet that date because of the improvements that we want to achieve, he or his successor would have to return to the House and explain why that was so. That is one way forward. As has been said today and previously, without a target date, there is no incentive to make the improvements necessary to make sure that prisons are safer and that the recommendations from the forum for preventing deaths in custody and from the ombudsman are put in place. We hope that the change will be made, and if my hon. Friend went down that route, it would be a major concession that could well be the way forward. He need not necessarily include a binding date in the Bill, but we would like a commitment to try to do those things by a certain date. That would go a long way towards resolving the issues that we face.
Last time we debated the Bill, and on previous occasions, I told my hon. Friend that without a date the measure will not be accepted by the other place. Indeed, the other place has made that clear on the two or even three occasions on which the Bill has gone backwards and forwards between the two Houses. Given the number of Members voting against the Government in the other place, the Bill will come back again. However, time is running out: as has been said, the Bill must complete its passage through the Commons by the middle of next month; otherwise the Government will have to return with a further continuation order. That would look silly, because we would have exactly the same debate, and the Bill will keep coming back. In the end, if the Government seriously wish to make progress on the BillI accept that there have been reservations in the Government about whether the Bill is important, but I put the matter to the former Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee, because it is a fundamental commitment by the Government in several manifestos and in the
Warwick agreement, so it cannot be droppedwhy can the Minister not make a little movement today and name the day? We will not take breach of promise action if, in the end, the date cannot be met, but it would be a good step forward. If we could not meet the date, we could examine the reasons for failing to do so on a future occasion.
Mr. Garnier: I agree with pretty well everything that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said as a matter both of practicality and of principle. I could say the same, too, of the speeches made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). As other hon. Members have suggested, I think that the Minister himself would rather like to have made the speeches that we have heard.
Under clause 1, the offence of corporate manslaughter would catch mismanagement at a senior level that led to the death of an individual to whom a duty of care was owed. That would bind a Department listed in schedule 1the Home Office is listed as one such Departmentand police forces. As a matter of principle, I cannot seeand I do not think that the Minister can, eitherwhy a death in custody that fits within the narrow compass of the offence should be excluded from the offence of corporate manslaughter. I have yet to hear a coherent or reasonable argument from the Minister for that exclusion. He said that the Government will simply repeat what they have said before, but there is a difference between repetition of a reasonable argument and stubborn refusal to see reason. Reason has been laid before the Government, both in the Commons and in the other place, on numerous occasions, by people who do not have a party political axe to grind. Lord Ramsbotham is an apolitical peer, and does not have any party political affiliations. He is interested in the proper, humane and efficient management of our prisons, and I invite the Government to take his advice in the spirit in which it was given.
I suspect that, although the Government suggest that they have accepted the principle, by using the affirmation systemthe delaying system on the Order Paperthey have converted their lack of principle into some form of acceptable principle for the purposes of debate. That will not do, I am afraid. The hon. Member for Hendon said that all we need is some form of target date. We will not nail the Government to the floor and say that if they miss the date we think they are malevolent. However, if they have genuinely accepted the principle, they should accept a date on which it should be implemented. An extended non-dated principle is no principle at all; it is a disguised way of the Government pretending that they accept the principle without wishing to accept the consequences of that acceptance.
My concern that the issue of deaths in custody should be brought within the ambit of the Bill derives from the Governments historic failure to manage
prisons over the past few years. The Minister knows very well that our prisons are woefully overcrowded, and that Operation Safeguard has been extended by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), to the end of the year, so police and court cells will have to be used until then to deal with overcrowding. Over the next 12 months or so, the early release system, which comes into effect tomorrow, will result in the early release of 25,500 or so offenders to reduce the prison population by a net figure of 1,200. Let us not worry about whether that is a good idea or not: let us put it in the context of the Governments concerns about the Bill. Surely they recognise that overcrowded prisons create all sorts of difficulties for prison management, which brings me back to clause 1. Lots of people in prison are drug addicts, and lots of them are mentally ill. If people in prison are both mentally ill and substance abusers, the chances of a death in custody are enhanced. It may well be the case that the Government are terrified that if prisons were included in the measure, there would be calls for prosecution on the grounds of corporate manslaughter. The Government, first, should be braver and, secondly, should be careful. This is the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, who skilfully parked my question on one side.
Tomorrow the Government will start throwing on to the streets drug addicts and mentally ill people who will be short of care. They cannot get the requisite care inside prison, but they get some. Class A drug usersheroin and crack cocaine usersare having their health maintained, even if they are not being brought off drugs by the use of methadone and Subutex within the health care system in prisons. If such people are pushed out the back door of prison in order to relieve the overcrowding of our prisons to some extent, the care that they should have got inside prison is unlikely to be given to them outside prison, and some of them may die outside on the street, even if they are not dying inside.
It is a difficult, a nice, a huge area of concern, and the Government must not try to escape their responsibilities. They must also not try to escape their responsibility to the House and to the proper development of legislation, which we all want to see, as a result of denying the Bill the prospect of having deaths in custody brought within the confines of the narrow offence of corporate responsibility. I urge the Government to be brave and to get on with it, for goodness sake, and to bring deaths in custody within the confines of corporate manslaughter responsibility.
The Government should use that as a spur better to manage the prisons, the overcrowding and the care of inmates who suffer from mental ill health and from substance abuse, so that the prospects of being prosecuted are hugely diminished and the improvements in our prison system are enhanced as a consequence of the spur that the offence would bring.
I know that the Minister will say, No, thanks. Weve heard it all before, but it is time for him to demonstrate a change. If the Government really do mean changeI am not in the least bit convinced that the present Prime Minister is any different from the Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over us for the past 10 yearsand if the Prime Minister meant
what he said on the steps of Downing street yesterday, he will produce a real change that goes beyond simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I congratulate and pay tribute to all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I am aware of the strength of feeling on the matter, but that narrow issue is affecting the Governments movement right across the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for their speeches, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon who, through his Select Committee, has pursued the matter and graciously accepted that the Government have made progress and have made concessions. He will know that the Bill published yesterday contained the proposals for changes to the prisons and probation ombudsman, as I had said, and that on the forum on deaths in custody, there is a time scale which I set the last time we discussed the matter.
Hon. Members seem to imply that the Government do not want to change, but it is this Government who are lifting Crown immunity. That raises complex issues about the Crown acting as an employer or occupier which need to be addressed. I want to make sure that we get the legislation in the best shape possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon was right to say that the Bill is intended as a deterrent. We all agree that we do not want the penalties in it to be enforcedwe want appropriate health and safety measures to be put in place. My hon. Friend mentioned secure training centres and the review of restraint methods. That is entirely appropriate.
I would not want anyone to think that the Government do not care about deaths in custody. We certainly do, and for all the reasons that have been set out, we must continue to investigate what happens and why. That is the function of the forum on deaths in custody. There are also the changes to the prisons and probation ombudsman, and we accept the principle of extending the Bill. We envisage that the Bill would be enacted as we set out, but the judgment on when its extension to custody should take place will be made at a future time, when all the outstanding issues have been considered.
Lifting Crown immunity is a significant step forward. I accept what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said. I do not accuse anyone in the House of trying to kill the Bill. However, people outside are worried because we do not seem to be making progress. The Government are making concessions, but we are not seeing any movement by others. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that Crown immunity has been lifted.
We face a problem with the timetable. It is true that an extension is possible, but only if there is a prospect of moving forward. At present there is no such prospect. Our position is clear. I do not want all the hard work and effort that have gone into the Bill, which has been around for a long time
I do not want to undermine the possibility of the Bill becoming law, so I shall not vote against it, as I fully support nine tenths of its content. I hope that if the Lords insist on their amendmentas I
said, I will not be disappointed if they domy hon. Friend will have frank discussions with the new Home Secretary to see whether a compromise can be reached that will satisfy both Houses.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall continue to try and resolve these issues, but I would be misleading the House if I said that there was a prospect of the Government changing their position dramatically. I hope the House will reiterate its view today. The second Chamber is supposed to be a reforming Chamber, as I hope will be acknowledged. It is important that we get movement, or the Bill will be lost, which I do not want.
I hope hon. Members will reflect on what has been said. I hope they will think again about the complexity of the issues involved. If, as I hope, we achieve majority support for the Governments position, Members in another place will reflect on that.
Question put, That this House insists on disagreements with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 10, but does not insist on its amendments 10C and 10D in lieu thereof, and proposes amendments (a), (b), (c) and (d) in lieu of the Lords amendments.
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