Previous Section Index Home Page

The second issue is one of public confidence in the way that data are managed and shared. In that regard, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary that the comments of the Justice Committee offer particular help. Parliamentary accountability is the answer. There is public suspicion of government, which is fed by the headlines of the press and media—it is a fact of life; we cannot get away from it—but Parliament can be a constructive and critical friend to government. I rather felt that in his early remarks, my right hon. Friend was looking for an answer along those lines. Giving a role to
26 Jan 2009 : Column 56
the Justice Committee and other instruments of the House is a way of ensuring that the Government are able to achieve the objective of protecting the public, while subjecting the management of data to transparency and scrutiny—both by the Information Commissioner and a Select Committee of the House.

I say to my right hon. Friend that I know we have seen, on occasion, Select Committees acting as a Rottweiler, but that more benign canine friend, the sheepdog, is the one that I would suggest if there were a properly understood role to be played between Parliament and the Government.

Jenny Willott: Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about not only what data are shared, but their integrity and accuracy? Research published last week shows how many errors there are in the data held by different Departments and the complete lack in any Department of a policy of checking those data for errors to ensure that they are up to date and accurate. Is there a role for Parliament in trying to ensure that the data, before they are even considered for sharing, are made accurate?

Alun Michael: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The problem has been not the aspirations of Ministers, but the fact that sometimes the machinery of government and of agencies of government has been poor in two respects: ensuring absolute accuracy of the data, because there is no point having them unless we can depend on their accuracy, and ensuring that there is a culture that, as I have suggested, balances protection of those data where it is not appropriate for them to be released—that is partly to do with methodology, but partly to do with the culture that needs to be put in place—with the need to share data where appropriate. That goes right the way across from situations where anonymised data are not being shared when they should be to inform public policy to the very local level, where specific information could assist in preventing crime. She is absolutely right: the accuracy of data must be part of that overall picture.

On the issue of the sentencing council, it is clear from the evidence that the Justice Committee has taken and published that careful work is needed to ensure that the outcome of having a sentencing council is the intention on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State places such emphasis in his proposal. It is a rather sad fact of life that judges seem to be influenced by media debate, despite the importance of the judiciary being objective and independent. That is not a politician’s criticism: it is significant the number of cases in which the senior judiciary effectively make that criticism by accepting the view of the Attorney-General that sentences have been too lenient. On the other hand, we see cases in which sentences are reduced by the Court of Appeal, so let us not pretend that the judiciary are perfect in the judgments they make or the decisions they reach in sentencing.

It is absolutely clear that more needs to be done properly to inform sentences, but I am keen that we should increase the confidence of sentencers in community sentencing. Community sentences can be extremely tough and very challenging, and they can change people, but we heard from the Lord Chief Justice in evidence that many sentencers do not have confidence in the effectiveness of community sentences or in the systems in place to apply them.

26 Jan 2009 : Column 57

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in reassuring tones that the majority of those on the sentencing council will be sentencers, but I am not sure that I am wholly reassured by that because we want people who are challenging and objective in looking for evidence. Before I entered Parliament, I had the experience of seeing people on community service and seeing lives change. For example, one young man on community service was sent to work with a disabled swimming club. The experience of working with youngsters with severe disability totally changed his attitude to life because he realised that while he was a bit morose about some circumstances in his life, many people had a far worse time. Building relationships with those youngsters changed his attitude to offending. Many similar examples could be cited.

The problem with many offenders is that they have not created good relationships with other people. They do not see the victim as a person, and they do not see the victim’s possessions as being owned by someone. They do not realise that stealing stuff or burning a house will damage people. That is why the concept of relational justice is so important. Bringing people up short by causing them to recognise that they are damaging other human beings, and turning that into a personal issue, can make a great difference.

Community sentences achieve that far better than custodial sentences, although I am not arguing for or against either. What I am saying is that if our system is to achieve the necessary balance, we need to understand the effectiveness of community sentences, and make sentencers understand how they can be used to the benefit of the public by reducing crime and reoffending. That is why I asked my right hon. Friend in an intervention whether he would make it a responsibility of the sentencing council to look at what works in terms of preventing reoffending. I do not just want to see judicial statistics relating to disposals, important though they are; I want “what works” to drive the way in which the council produces frameworks and encourages sentencers to adopt them.

Mr. Straw: We endeavoured to reflect exactly what my right hon. Friend is seeking in clause 102(11), which states:

and includes, in paragraph (d),

that is the point that my right hon. Friend wanted to take up—

That provision is aimed at meeting exactly my right hon. Friend’s concerns.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for underlining that point. What I want to do is raise it in the order of priorities, so that preventing offending and reducing reoffending are at the heart of the system. When my right hon. Friend and I were in the Home Office, we placed a similar responsibility on the youth justice system to prevent offending and reoffending.

John Bercow: I think that what we need to do in the debate is get away from the slightly abstract, arcane and, dare I say, Manichean divide between custodial
26 Jan 2009 : Column 58
sentences on the one hand and community sentences on the other. What is absolutely critical to the success of either is that, as part of the package, we provide the often serial offender with the equipment for future citizenship.

Dare I say to the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State that when more than 60 per cent. of people on the young offender estate have speech, language and communication difficulties of a scale and intensity that prevent them from accessing conventional education and training courses, that is a problem and we have to tackle it?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I look forward to discussing these issues with him in the Public Bill Committee, if his Whips do not keep him off it because of the independence of his views. The need to address issues such as literacy is something that, in many instances, neither prison sentences nor community sentences have been very good at. I know that my right hon. Friend gives high priority to the need to ensure that it is built more effectively into both prison and community sentences in future.

I am well aware that my right hon. Friend also ascribes importance to making the benefit of community sentences visible. References have been made to luminous jackets enabling the public to see that people are undertaking such sentences, and I understand that wish, but I should like those undertaking community sentences to think of what they wear as a uniform in which they can take pride, and to start to show some consistency by turning up on time and so forth. The aim should be to help their rehabilitation rather than merely to shame them.

Mr. Goodwill: I recently visited a very good example of community sentencing at the Oriel cricket ground in Scarborough. I was told that the scheme was making relatively good progress in preventing reoffending. However, one of the magistrates present drew me up and said, “But, of course, the reoffending rates relate to the number of people who actually turn up to do the community service, not those who have been sentenced to it. We still have a large number of offenders who are given community sentences but do not turn up to do the time.”

Alun Michael: I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point, and that is why there must be swift and effective action if there are breaches. However, that action should not be too swift or else the early stages will not be passed, but it should be understood that failure to undertake a community sentence will be acted on very quickly. As with antisocial behaviour orders, the point is to say to people, “If you accept that you ought to stop that sort of behaviour and that you should do what the court has asked of you in passing sentence, then the consequence will be rehabilitation and support for re-engagement in the community, but if you don’t, the deal is off.” That has to be a part of the deal, and it has to be seen by the public as being so.

My main point is that our focus must be on what works. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has seen what happened in Cardiff when a clinical approach was taken and it was asked, “Where does violence happen? Are there facts about the incidence of violence that mean that we can intervene to reduce that offending
26 Jan 2009 : Column 59
and therefore reduce the likelihood of becoming victims?” That approach has been a great success, and has been taken up elsewhere.

The media will always go for the frightening and the specific. We will always see on the front pages of newspapers the faces of people who have been beaten up, and there will always be incidents of that. That is a fact of life and I do not blame the media for reporting that; horrific incidents are horrific. However, what we can do is seek to reduce crime rates by adopting a clinical approach and reducing the opportunity for crime, rehabilitating people and challenging their behaviour in the community, so that it is not a question of their going away and coming back into the same environment, but a question of changing their behaviour over time.

The sentencing council must be not a comfortable lawyers’ club, but an evidence-based body that helps sentencers do the right thing in preventing reoffending. I bear in mind the evidence we heard from Victim Support. The question was asked, “In a sentence, what do victims want?” The answer that was given was, “Short of being able to turn the clock back and not be a victim of an offence in the first place, what victims would like to know is that it is not going to happen again.” Therefore, the prevention of reoffending is not an alternative to supporting victims; it is, in fact, at the heart of supporting them.

Witness anonymity is an issue that requires great care. I appreciate the risks involved in that process, but intimidation and fear are very real factors that undermine justice. Many Members have had the experience of people coming to them and describing a series of events in their street or neighbourhood where a small number of individuals are able to get away with incidents of intimidation and cannot be brought to justice. Therefore, there is a need for the provisions on witness anonymity to be strengthened, albeit with care.

There is also a great need to address internet-related crime and nuisance, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred at the end of his remarks. It is, I think, easy to agree on the actions that are needed to prevent child abuse, although it was not easy in the early stages to get agreement between the police and the internet industry on ways of preventing the display of what were incidences of child abuse—not just pornography, but much more serious than that. There is a great need for a joined-up approach across Government Departments, where there is a great deal of duplication, in order to create a partnership right down to the local level to prevent internet-related crime and make the UK the safest place to do business online. A lot of work is going on, to which Parliament is contributing a great deal, such as through all-party groups in particular, and I commend those examples to my right hon. Friend.

I wish to highlight two points on coroners. One is the issue of resources. There is a need for adequate resources, but also for the capacity to move them to the right place at the right time. In the proposals before us, my right hon. Friend is grappling with the eternal dilemma of how to strike the balance between the national and local. It was suggested at one stage that if Nye Bevan had become Secretary of State for Education and Ellen Wilkinson had been Secretary of State for Health, we would have ended up with a local health service and
26 Jan 2009 : Column 60
a national education service. In both those services, the tension between the national and the local always exists.

That tension is inevitable in relation to coroners. There are not just the headline examples, which have been referred to in interventions, but very often there have been ordinary cases of people just wanting to know what happened and hoping that a coroner’s inquiry will give them the answer. Our experience suggests that there is a need to amend the system in this regard.

The second issue that I wish to discuss relates to health: the need to ensure the independence of medical evidence coming before the coroner’s court. Again, all Members of Parliament will have had experience not only of NHS trusts that are good and open when things have gone wrong, but of NHS trusts that are defensive and that seek to avoid getting down to the facts in difficult cases. We need certainty that medical evidence will be objective and based only on medical professionalism. I hope that as this Bill goes through its processes my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will find ways to increase the assurance about that independence of medical evidence, because I am sure he is as concerned as I am, and as the Committee has been, on that point. There is perhaps a need to re-examine that part of the Bill to ensure that objectivity can be built in.

The Bill addresses some important issues. It deals not, as I first thought, with a series of small issues, but with some of the big issues in relation to improving our justice system. It does so not in terms of great symbolic gestures that change the earth, but by dealing with things such as the sharing of information and way in which sentencing is undertaken, where we do need progressively to find more objective, more evidence-based means of finding the right way forward.

5.42 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:

I have waited a long time to move an amendment on Second Reading.

This is a hotch-potch of a Bill. A Second Reading debate is supposed to be about the principle of the Bill, but it is not clear how a Bill such as this, which at a conservative estimate deals with 28 different topics and amends 56 different Acts of Parliament can have any single principle at all, apart from being a sort of Christmas tree Bill, on to which the Government can hang any
26 Jan 2009 : Column 61
topic they think useful to debate from the point of view of the all-important media grid, the device by which future announcements are planned out for the year in advance and by which this country has been governed for the past 12 years . [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says if only life were like that, but to a great extent it has been like that; it has just been a matter of people getting their slot in the grid at the right time.

The other principle of legislative drafting that the Bill seems to follow is that of the red rag and the smuggle. A red rag is a provision in a Bill that is designed to attract the attention of hot-headed Members of this House, and about which the Government do not, in reality, care very much either way, while they smuggle in, largely unnoticed and unchallenged, a lot of significant stuff that otherwise might attract severe criticism. The problem with this Bill is that it is not entirely clear which provisions are the red rags and which are the contraband. Working on the general principle that to avoid scrutiny in Committee, the usual tactic is to put the contraband at the end and the red rag at the start, my guess is that the provisions on data sharing are the contraband and those on secret inquests are the red rag.

That is why I am going to start by discussing the provisions on data sharing, especially in the light of this morning’s news that yet more personal information has been lost—this time with regard to the British Council. It is right to say that data sharing can be a good thing—I would not deny many of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael)—but there is a massive downside and we need to bear in mind that it massively increases the risks if data are lost.

Clause 152 would create amazingly broad exemptions to the principles of the data protection legislation. If the issue were specific exemptions from specific powers, it would be a different matter, but it is not. The Bill would allow Ministers to authorise data sharing between any person and any other person, regardless of what any other legislation—apart from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—says. So that would be despite what the data protection and the human rights legislation say about privacy. Under clause 152 in proposed new section 50B(h), a data-sharing order would be allowed to “modify any enactment”.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the seriousness of this part of the Bill. In his view, is it possible that information could be shared between Departments about people’s opinions, activities and knowledge, rather than any criminal actions or convictions?

David Howarth: That would appear to be possible, because of the power to allow any person to share any data despite what any enactment says. The Government say that the intention is to allow Departments, public bodies and other similar organisations to share data for good purposes, but that is not what the Bill says. The Bill is not confined to public bodies and would also allow the sharing of data with private organisations in any country.

The Bill would also allow a data-sharing order to confer a power on any person to share the information further, leading to a cascade of sharing. All that can be done in furtherance of any relevant Government policy.
26 Jan 2009 : Column 62
I want to know where we can find a list of those relevant Government policies that we will be able to compare with the purposes of any particular order.

The possibilities are absurdly broad. For example, the Government would be able to share our personal data with a foreign power. Some people might think that because Barack Obama has been elected President of the US, there is nothing to fear from having our personal data shared with the US Government. I do not think that. Presidents come and presidents go. A great American political thinker once wrote:

Next Section Index Home Page