Coroners and Justice Bill

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Q 1The Chairman: We shall now hear oral evidence from the Ministry of Justice. For the record, would you like to introduce yourselves to the Committee, please?
Geoff Bradshaw: I am Geoff Bradshaw, and I am responsible for the coroners part of the Bill.
Ruth Allan: I am Ruth Allan, and I am responsible for the sentencing council part of the Bill.
Deborah Grice: I am Deborah Grice, from the criminal law policy unit. I am responsible for the substantive criminal law parts of the Bill.
Belinda Lewis: I am Belinda Lewis, and I am responsible for the data protection provisions.
Bridget Prentice: Thank you, Mr. Cook. The Bill is before us today because we want to try to deliver a more transparent, responsive and effective justice and coroner service for victims, witnesses, bereaved families and the wider public. The Bill is intended to ensure that victims and witnesses are at the heart of the justice system. The coroners part of the Bill aims to improve significantly the service that bereaved families receive from a reformed coroner system—it has not been reformed for a very long time—and will introduce a related new death certification system, which I hope will provide people with the necessary reassurance that there is independent checking of the causes of death. The Bill will also give vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, particularly in respect of gun and knife-related violence, the best possible protection from the earliest stages of the criminal justice process. The Bill will introduce a more consistent and transparent sentencing framework, as well as providing stronger inspection powers to improve public confidence in how data is held and used, removing barriers to effective data sharing, which will improve public services and the fight against crime and terrorism. In a nutshell, that is what we are trying to achieve through the Bill.
The Chairman: Thank you. Before calling the first question, I remind all hon. Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill. We must stick strictly to the timings in the programme motion, which the Committee has agreed. I hope that those questions are within the framework of what we agreed in private. I hope that I do not have to interrupt mid-sentence, but I shall do so if I need to.
Q 2Mr. Garnier: I direct this question at either of the Ministers, and would be happy for either to answer. Why have you thought it appropriate to design such a lengthy and diverse Bill? It is 162 clauses long, has 21 schedules, which are divided up into several parts, and covers a huge number of discrete public policy areas. Why do you design Bills like this? [Interruption.] If you do not know, please say so.
Bridget Prentice: There is a bit of me that does not know. Parliamentary time plays a big part in putting together different groups of issues, but as I explained in my opening remarks about providing victims and witnesses with transparency and protection within the justice system, there is a logic to putting those things together.
Q 3Mr. Garnier: Could you explain a bit more about the logic?
Bridget Prentice: For example, bereaved families will be given a much better service in the coroner section as a result of the Bill, and they will receive a better service through the death certification process. Equally, victims and witnesses in the justice system might require better protection when they give evidence or when they are approached for evidence in any investigation. This is about protecting people and giving them confidence in the system. There is a logic and thread that goes through that.
Q 4Mr. Garnier: It is not a logic that I quite understand, at least not as currently presented. For example, how do provisions to do with child pornography or indecent pseudo-photographs tie in with the thread that you say runs through the Bill? How does the thread connect to the reform of the coroners system?
Bridget Prentice: The most obvious response is that it is another form of protection for children. My hon. Friend will go into the details of that part of the Bill if you wish.
Maria Eagle: There is an important but small provision in respect of this, which has arisen as a result of trends and concerns raised by the police and child protection agencies. There is a lacuna in the criminal law about those kinds of images, which are not based on real photographs but are increasingly being found. The Bill presents us with an opportunity to close that loophole with the aim of improving child protection as a result. It is a small part of the Bill, and I hope that members of the Committee will understand that we should not wait for a piece of legislation that is solely about the protection of children. The provision fits with the general theme of the Bill, which is to provide extra protection for victims in the criminal justice system. That is why it is there.
Q 5Mr. Garnier: When looking at the index of the Bill, a reasonable person could, quite legitimately, comment that Ministers have been running around the Department pulling things off shelves and sticking them into the shopping trolley to create a long Bill. Why has the legislative process not been managed in such a way that we have a discrete coroners Bill? We were promised one a while ago. Would it not be more sensible to run the reform of the coroner system through a discrete Bill, rather than tagging matters relating to legal aid, vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, and other substantive criminal justice issues on to this Bill?
Maria Eagle: There is always a question about balancing the legislative priorities arising out of urgent issues requiring the attention of Parliament. These matters are in the Bill because we believe that they will make a difference. They will assist victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system, and all those who come into contact with it, whether on the coronial or criminal law side of the Bill. As a Minister, one has to balance the priorities of each discrete provision that has an urgency and the appropriate legislative vehicle.
I understand that many hon. Members who get this thrown at them, and have to scrutinise the Bill in Committee, might have a slightly different perspective from Ministers who seek to make what we believe are important, useful and essential changes to the law. Making those changes is different from fulfilling the requirements and needs of scrutiny, and there is always a balance to be struck. As to where that balance should be, Ministers might feel slightly differently from members of the Committee who have to scrutinise the Bill. None the less, I hope that we all accept that the issues dealt with in the Bill are important. When criminal justice Bills involve law reform, they often have a Christmas tree-look about them because much is done in primary legislation that, in other fields, might be done in secondary legislation. There is always a danger of that. All I can say is that we will do our utmost to make sure that the Committee has every opportunity to scrutinise as much as possible all aspects of the Bill.
Q 6Mr. Garnier: Why did you not accept the recommendations of the Law Commission on the reform of the law of homicide? You picked out some bits, but left out others. That seems to have created a rather difficult picture for you, does it not, when attempting to reform an important part of the criminal law relating to the killing of other people? You picked some plums out of the commission’s report, but left a lot of stuff behind, which could—if you two Ministers are right in your description of the shape and design of the Bill—perfectly properly have come into the Bill. It might have made it longer, but we are used to that.
We think that there is enough of an issue about the partial defences to justify reforming them before going on to a second stage to see whether or not the entire restructuring that the Law Commission suggested is the right way forward.
Q 7Mr. Garnier: May I ask one further question? Clause 58 repeals a provision that was introduced under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 on Report. That provision has not even come into force, yet you are repealing it already. Your Government have a history of passing lots of Bills that repeal other enactments that were recently passed. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 is a classic example of that. Huge chunks of it were repealed before they were due to come into force, and parts that have come into force have also been repealed. Can you guarantee that no parts of the Bill under discussion, as currently drafted, will be repealed before your next Criminal Justice Bill comes into effect, and that we can work forward at least on a moderately planned basis in line with this particular Bill, or will new stuff be brought in on Report?
Maria Eagle: It is a complicated question. We certainly do not put things into legislation that we intend to repeal before bringing them into force. I do not believe that any Minister has done that—from any party. The clause to which the hon. and learned Member for Harborough referred was inserted into the previous legislation by the House of Lords. It was not accepted by the Commons. In fact, when it was returned to the Commons, it was rejected decisively by 338 to 136. The so-called freedom of speech provision relating to incitement of homophobic hatred was not something that the Government ever accepted was necessary. Indeed, we believe that it makes the substantive offence extremely confusing and, as well as being insulting, it would make it—
Q 8Mr. Garnier: Forgive me, I do not want to discuss the merits or demerits of clause 58.
Maria Eagle: I am trying to explain why the Government want to remove a section that was passed under the previous legislation. It was an amendment that the Government did not want. I said clearly on the Floor of the House that we would return to it. We might therefore see the matter as fulfilling the promise to return to it. We said that we would do that, and we are doing it at the first opportunity.
Q 9Mr. Garnier: Do you not understand that that leads to cynicism about the construction of legislation?
Maria Eagle: I do not accept that. There are strongly held arguments on both sides of this issue by those who believe strongly in their views. It is an argument that will be raised again in Committee, when we get to that clause. It may come back to the Floor of the House on Report. However, the Government’s position has been clear on this. Clarity and pursuing a policy that one believes in engenders exactly the opposite of cynicism.
Q 10David Howarth: On that point, as the person who called the final vote on the last bit of ping-pong because I wanted to protest against the Government giving in on that last round, I confirm what the Minister has just said. The Government were plainly coerced by a timetabling issue—of their own making—and I am not surprised that they have returned to the matter.
To return to the law of murder, I am disturbed about this piecemeal approach.
The Chairman: While you are doing that, David, could you speak up a little?
Q 11David Howarth: Sorry, I will sit nearer the microphone. The piecemeal approach to the law of murder is unsatisfactory. The impact assessment on the Bill says that the proposed changes in the partial defences will increase the number of people convicted of murder as opposed to manslaughter by between 100 and 200. I raised that on Second Reading, but it was not the correct setting to do so, so I am asking again: who are those people? What kind of defendant will, as a result of the proposals, now be found guilty of murder rather than manslaughter?
Maria Eagle: We are seeking to make changes to the partial defences. The concerns that the Law Commission reported on are accepted more widely than the solutions that have been adopted. But there is a widespread acceptance about the nature of the problems of the partial defences—particularly provocation. That particular defence may be too easily accessible to those who kill in anger. The crime is often characterised as jealous partners who kill in anger and the defence is not sufficiently accessible to those who kill in fear of serious violence.
There have been developments in the case law through the courts to try to accommodate this, but there is no obvious place in the defence, as it currently stands, for fear of serious violence. There are also concerns that all evidence of provocation has to be put to a jury, even where it is unmeritorious and not raised by anyone—even the defence—which can cause concerns. What we therefore sought to do in respect of the change to a provocation defence is to raise the threshold generally, so that those who kill in anger can succeed in having their conviction reduced to manslaughter only in exceptional circumstances. So, we are raising the bar of the availability of that defence and extending it to cover those who kill in fear of serious violence as well as those who kill in anger. On that basis, I hope that he can see the kind of person who might now be caught and convicted of murder rather than manslaughter, if these provisions go through. In respect of provocation, there is an increasing threshold and a slight change in the way the remaining partial defence works. We do not believe that the changes we are proposing to diminished responsibility will change the numbers enormously; it is really just a clarification of the way in which that defence works.
Q 12David Howarth: I am worried about the changes to diminished responsibility. By making that defence more precise, and with reference to recognised medical conditions, there is a danger of people who perhaps come under the category of those with learning disabilities who might not be said to have a recognised medical condition, being caught by the law of murder rather than manslaughter. I am worried about that.
On the provocation defence—the replacement of provocation—what is the evidence for the figure of 100 to 200? If you look at the standard legal databases to see what is going on in the provocation defence, you will see that convictions for manslaughter on the grounds of provocation where there has been sexual infidelity are rare in recent years. Normally what happens these days is that such cases either succeed or fail on diminished responsibility, so provocation does not come into it. I do not see the 100 cases. On the serious violence side, the numbers go the other way. For the most part these days, in the battered wives cases, the law goes in their favour. I do not see that moving in the way that the Minister says either.
The problem is that, if you look at the words in the Bill, they seem to suggest a rather different sort of person being found guilty of murder. For example, there are such people as those raised in the Doughty decision of the 1980s. A stressed-out parent who loses his or her temper and strikes a child, could be guilty of homicide, yes, but the decision in that case was manslaughter not murder. Those defendants would not qualify any more, because they do not have any justifiable sense of being seriously wrong.
Maria Eagle: If I can reassure the hon. Gentleman in this respect, I can see where he is coming from. I want to make it clear that the calculation that he refers to is about the impact on prison places, which is calculated on the basis of length of sentence as well as number of convictions. What we expect is perhaps an additional 10 to 20 convictions a year, but when planning for prison places, we always have to take into account the likely length of sentence resulting from such convictions. In the various magical ways in which National Offender Management Service does that, the estimated result, in a build-up over about eight years or so, is that we might have to account for 100 to 200 extra prison places. We are not saying that we expect 100 to 200 extra convictions for murder as opposed to manslaughter, but that we expect a small number of 10 to 20 or so. I hope that that reassures him.
In respect of the Doughty case, as far as we are concerned, it is not intended that that kind of case—unless it can fit into diminished responsibility—ought to count as provocation. We are trying to put the bar higher and not to bring it down.
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