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18 July 2007 : Column 338

Mr. Grieve: Having listened to the right hon. Gentleman, I have to admit that there is a certain irony to this debate. I wonder what would have happened if the Government had originally included deaths in custody as part of the body of the Bill—that is the form in which it now appears—and if the provisions on death in custody had come in with all the other orders. The usual assumption made in Parliament is that if the Government are legislating, they wish to implement something. My experience, from my five or six years’ involvement with criminal justice legislation, has led to the realisation that much of the legislation that the Government pass never gets implemented; indeed, at times in the past five years, I have participated in the repeal of legislation that, having been put on the statute book two or three years earlier, was never brought into force by order.

In a sense, the Government are hoist with their own petard. They displayed massive intransigence about the whole concept of deaths in custody, particularly in the persona of the previous Home Secretary, who came to the House on Report and expressed himself in vituperative terms on the mere suggestion that deaths in custody should be included in the body of the legislation. The Government now find themselves facing a serious crisis of confidence over their willingness ever to implement, or at least within a reasonable time frame, what many Members on both sides of the House regard as a very important part of the legislation.

So we find ourselves arguing over a single issue: how long it will take to implement what is now pretty much in proper form for deaths in custody. Although we have never laid a benchmark for the implementation of other parts of the Bill because we are confident that the Government will move swiftly to observe the terms of the Warwick agreement, quite apart from the consensus across the House that it is a beneficial piece of legislation, we are arguing over the fact that the Government have been dragged reluctantly into including deaths in custody and now wish to postpone the evil day for as long as possible. I am not surprised that the other place has become increasingly insistent that 18 months ought to be sufficient.

That raises a difficult issue for the right hon. Gentleman. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the last thing that I have wanted to do is to make party political capital, but a period of five to seven years is a long time.

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman asks about the date of implementation of the main part of the Bill, I am happy to announce that it is our intention that it be implemented on 6 April 2008. As he knows, it is for the convenience of business that Acts like this, which affect business, are implemented on one of two set dates in the year. I hope that is helpful.

Mr. Grieve: That is indeed helpful, and it is exactly the sort of time frame that I would have expected. It highlights, if I may say so, the difference between what will be done to everybody else, and what will affect the Prison Service, the custodial environment and the police. The right hon. Gentleman earlier prayed in aid the health and safety legislation. As I think he knows, that is the area in which I practised in the years before
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coming to this place— [Interruption.] I did not introduce the legislation. I prosecuted on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive or local authorities, or represented those who got had got themselves into trouble.

Defendants who had killed their own employees—that happens all the time—used to say, “It’s all so difficult. Bringing about the culture change in our organisation has proved so problematical. We do our best, but sometimes things go wrong. We accept that, and if we only had longer, we might have avoided this.” There are great lamentations, to which Parliament has responded serially with the word “Tough”—that is, “Tough maybe, but we want to bring about the culture change, and you are going to have to take the necessary steps to meet the requirements.”

What troubles me is that what we are hearing from the Government is, “The culture is going to be so difficult to change and we don’t want to press the services all that much.” This is not an issue that can be dictated by the current problems in the Prison Service. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman why. I am sure he would be the first to admit that the idea that over the next 100 years the Prison Service or the police will not have to cope again with periods when there are problems of overcrowding is a fantasy. That has been a perennial issue for a long time, yet I detect that he is waiting for a magical moment when suddenly the problems of the Prison Service are sufficiently assuaged that the measure can be implemented.

However, the issue is a managerial one, and it is precisely in periods of difficulty that the services will be put on their mettle. The idea that that will lead to some terrible problem is wrong. If they carry out their duties properly, even if there are deaths in custody, there will be no risk of prosecution. It is in cases where there has been gross negligence, which is what we are discussing, that the services will be called to account.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend constantly says that the problem is a managerial one and in a sense it is, but ultimately it is one that requires the exercise of political will, because the managers will never want to do what the measure requires of them. It is a ministerial, political problem, not primarily a managerial one. Managers will respond to what they are told to do.

Mr. Grieve: Yes, I entirely agree. It is necessary for the Government to show leadership in this matter. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that the provisions that we have put on to the statute book will not lead to individual prosecutions—the prosecutions will be of the corporate entities involved. That may lead, I suppose, to resignations and public shaming, but those are the very things that the Government say—I happen to agree with them—will be a good thing as regards the commercial sector, so why are these particular organisations being mollycoddled and protected in a wholly excessive way?

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to pray in aid the line that the Government took when he argued in Committee that there should be no named person and no imprisonment sanction. I am wholly in favour of considering this complex matter, but not at the expense of the Bill, which it is imperative
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that we get through. He understands that a trade-off was involved when the Lords tabled these amendments, which meant that other issues important to some of us, such as corporate probation, fell off the end of the table. This is a compromise situation, and I urge Members not to push it to the point where we lose the Bill.

Mr. Grieve: First, I wish to see the Bill on the statute book, and I hope that the way in which the Opposition have conducted themselves throughout its passage illustrates that hugely. Secondly, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point but do not think that it is a particularly good one. The Bill does indeed have compromises embodied in it. He was minded to include personal liability of directors and would have been happy for them to go to prison for their part in corporate manslaughter offences. Apart from the fact that I did not support that—I thought that it was wrong in principle and explained why—if we had it in the Bill now, that might colour my view of the extension to the custodial environment, but it is not there, and for very good reason. As a result, we are not talking about prison governors, or managers, going to prison but about the corporate responsibility of these bodies.

I want to bring my remarks to a close as we have little time left. Let me say this to the Secretary of State. The Government need to show leadership and to give an assurance to this House, or in the other place when the Bill returns there, on a reasonable time frame for implementation, as five to seven years is inordinately long. It may be a period that is much further away than next April but nevertheless clearly shows the Government’s will to implement immediately the steps that are required at a managerial level and ensure that these services come on board within a reasonable period. I urge the Secretary of State to do that, because if he does not there is a risk that this ping-pong will continue. Listening to his remarks, many in this House and in the other place will remain profoundly depressed— [ Interruptio n. ] I will happily give way to him if he wishes to intervene.

Mr. Straw: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but he is advancing a very weak argument. I did give a time frame, although he does not agree with all of it. I said that the maximum period was between five and seven years, and I very much hope to do it in less than that. I have said that we will have an annual report. I will deal with some of the other points that he raised in terms of getting that time down. However, it seems that he is now trying to find excuses for continuing to block the Bill, and I find his arguments unconvincing.

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry about the right hon. Gentleman’s tone, because that is the very thing that I do not seek to do. I am actually trying to show him the way home. I think that we are very close to resolving this issue, but I respectfully suggest to him that that requires the Government to be a little more proactive on the timetable than they have been.

I cannot support the measures this afternoon and I urge my colleagues to maintain their support for the Lords amendment. However, before the Bill goes back to the other place, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consult his colleagues and point out to them that the
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time frame is too long, so that even if an assurance that the time frame will be shorter cannot be given here, it can be given in the other place.

4.15 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Perhaps I can help the Government, through my hon. Friend. I have noticed during the past 18 months, in visiting about 25 prisons and young offender institutions, that the health service system there is overloaded by mental health patients and those affected by substance abuse, which may be causing the Government to want to pause. If we were to come to an agreement with the Government about what might be a reasonable time frame within which they could mend health services in the prison system, we might reach a proper agreement. However, I urge my hon. Friend not to allow anything anywhere near five to seven years to be part of such an arrangement.

Mr. Grieve: I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend that for us, five to seven years is far too long. However, and I want to emphasise this, the Secretary of State is going in the right direction; I just urge him to take an extra leap of leadership to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Ian Stewart: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s feelings about five to seven years being too long. Will he tell us what he thinks would be a reasonable length of time?

Mr. Grieve: I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice and he knows my views on this matter very well. I do not think that it will be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to find a formula, and he can speak to us at any stage if he wishes to, or come to the Dispatch Box. I heard some voices shouting out various suggestions. We are not involving ourselves in an auction here; it would not be difficult to find a solution that is reasonable for him, the services and the integrity of the Government. I say to him that otherwise, it would look as if leadership had vanished in this area.

Those are my concluding remarks. I thank the Secretary of State for what he has done because I am aware that it might have taken quite a lot even to get this far, but I ask him to go the extra mile, or perhaps the extra year or two.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): We are, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said, inching forward in the right direction. I have been present on half a dozen occasions when this issue has been visited and it is the first time I have heard any form of time frame escape from the lips of a Minister. That is progress, therefore, and we must acknowledge it. It is also a recognition of the fact that my right hon. Friend has got a grip on an issue that has been drifting for a long time. He is well known for his extremely sensitive political antennae, and he is also a leading exponent of the political principle that when one is in a hole, one should stop digging. I have a great deal of confidence that we are moving in the right direction.

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My right hon. Friend referred to cultural change. That is what is required; it was what was required in 1983 before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and it is required here. We are up against a mighty vested interest in the shape of the Prison Service and, as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, when we come up against a vested interest, we have to face it down. It is not a management issue, but one of political will.

The five-to-seven-year period mentioned is, as others have said, a disappointingly long period, progress though it is. On past form, I think that we shall have to run through three or four Secretaries of State before we reach five or seven years. If one looks at the record in certain Departments—not necessarily the ones that my right hon. Friend has occupied—there is a high turnover of Ministers. After three or four Secretaries of State, one can end up far removed from the original good and sincere intentions that my right hon. Friend doubtless has.

Mr. Straw: What I have said, for those who appreciate the way in which the courts view such matters, is significant. The Secretary of State’s functions continue, regardless of the person who occupies the position. As a matter of correction, I was Home Secretary for four years and Foreign Secretary for five years.

Mr. Mullin: I am well aware of that, and I regard my right hon. Friend’s career as one of the most successful of any member of the Government. However, if he considers other Departments, he will realise that we are on our seventh and eighth Minister for various responsibilities. Time is short and I therefore ask him not to provoke me into listing them, but I could do that.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will take up the sensible suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on phasing in.

Mr. Straw: I will.

Mr. Mullin: I am glad to hear that. If it is easier to deal with the police, perhaps that could be done first.

I shall support my right hon. Friend today, but in the hope that the extra time that he has won will be used to nail down a credible time scale and to include it in the Bill. I am confident that, with him in charge, we will get there in the end. I hope that I shall not be disappointed.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Grossly negligent management that leads to the death of somebody in custody is wrong now; it was wrong last month and it was wrong five years ago. Why is the Secretary of State not prepared to make it an offence for another five years? When the issue is presented so starkly, one realises that the Government’s position is not strong.

The Government appear to be prepared to make some sort of concession, but it has been dragged out of them and, even now, it is not clear where we will end up. The Government must do better than the Secretary of State’s offer today. He rightly said that we are considering a maximum—I am grateful for that—and that he wants to lessen the time. He also said that he wants annual reports.

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However, other Departments have been braver and more certain about what they can achieve. I have examined many public service agreement targets and I remember one from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to reduce the production of poppies for opium in Afghanistan by 60 per cent. in three years. The Foreign Office did not achieve that, but it was its main target. It intended to do that brave thing. Yet the Ministry of Justice claims that it cannot sort out in five to seven years the management failures to which it now admits in the Prison Service and the police service. I am sorry, but that it is not good enough. It is wrong and the Government need to push harder.

In previous debates here and in the other place, we asked why the Government are not prepared to move faster. Why were not they previously prepared to give even an indicative time scale? We have not received good answers. The only answer that we received before today was that they were worried about creating an incentive for risk aversion in the services that we are considering. When we debated the matter, convincing examples of risk aversion were not given. Risk aversion in the case of someone who may be vulnerable and prone to attempting suicide is a good idea. One must err on the side of caution to ensure that that person does not take their own life. The Government’s argument could therefore be reversed. The sooner the proposals are introduced, the more likely prison governors and senior police officers are to take action to ensure that such deaths do not occur.

I accept that the Secretary of State has to deal with senior managers who will tell him that they are under extreme pressure in trying to deliver other Government objectives and worried that they cannot deliver the new provision safely for him.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about risk aversion. Perhaps he would care to remind the House that the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is a necessary pre-condition of prosecution. That would take account of many anxieties that underpin the Secretary of State’s demand for five to seven years.

Mr. Davey: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. It is why the Secretary of State should say to senior managers, who, frankly, represent vested interests, “I am sorry, but we want leadership.” The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) stressed the need for that. The Secretary of State, as the politician in charge, should demand that senior managers get their act together. I do not think that that is an unreasonable request of a Secretary of State to make of senior managers.

The Secretary of State has a good reputation in all parts of the House for showing leadership. The fact that he has already been prepared to concede in a way that his predecessor was not is very welcome. However, his reputation will be even stronger and will deserve great praise if he moves further. I urge him to do that. When those in the other place reflect on this debate and all the voices that have been heard throughout the House, they will say that the Secretary of State has further to travel.

Mr. Dismore: May I say in response to earlier comments in the debate that everybody in the House wants to see the Bill passed? Indeed, I have been campaigning for it
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for 20 years, and I do not think that anybody is trying to frustrate it. Also, the amendments before us are a major change from the original position, which is very good. Personally, I would always like to see “shall” rather than “may”. My right hon. Friend referred to the criminal injuries compensation case. In fact, I was the solicitor in that case on behalf of the appeal of the applicants against the then Conservative Government, and I was pleased that we beat them in the House of Lords.

Putting that to one side, I have to say that the real issue that we are talking about is the timetable. Like others, I am concerned about the timetable, but giving a date is at least a starting point. I saw that Lord Hunt, speaking on behalf of the Opposition in the other place, agreed with me that

I therefore hope that the Opposition will not resile from that. In response to the debate, my right hon. Friend Baroness Ashton said:

as it then was—

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