Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

That leads to the question of when. I am grateful to the Constitution Committee for its very interesting comments on that. Sometimes, for reasons of urgency or national security, it would not be possible for Parliament to give prior approval. The Constitution Committee does not favour a requirement put forward in the consultation paper that it would be the duty of the Government merely to inform Parliament rather than to seek retrospective approval for deployment. The committee’s preferred option is that in regard to such an application, if it were not possible to seek prior approval, the Government should provide retrospective information within seven days or as soon as was feasible, at which point parliamentary approval should be sought. I should say on this that there are a number of issues on which to reflect. If Parliament did not then provide retrospective approval, there would be an expectation that forces would be withdrawn or remain in theatre as part of a coalition but under different terms. That might involve a breach of international obligations or damage international relations, and to take action quickly might put the Armed Forces at risk. The Government consider that the preferable alternative would be to introduce a procedure under which the Prime Minister would be obliged to inform Parliament when Armed Forces had been committed under exceptional circumstances with no further proceedings. Indeed, I think that that was the approach favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in his Private Member’s Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked a series of interesting questions about the impact of delays and constraints in making decisions by international organisations. He asked how one could ensure that parliamentary exchanges do not cut across or undermine the procedures leading to agreement among international organisations. That is a very important question that we will need to consider. Again, the question of what has been described as mission creep is also something that will need very careful consideration. The Constitution Committee made clear its concern at the Government’s proposal that Parliament’s involvement should be limited to approving the initial engagement. The committee would prefer that in addition to keeping Parliament informed of the progress of deployments, the Government should be required to seek a renewal of parliamentary approval if a deployment’s nature or objectives were to alter significantly. It went on to say that such a requirement is vital to ensure that mission creep does not become a problem. As several noble Lords have pointed out, recent experience has shown us that military operations often change in size, scope and nature as situations develop, so it is important that the mechanism is

31 Jan 2008 : Column 795

triggered at an appropriate point during a routine deployment or out of scope operation if a developing situation requires it. I noted the caution of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, on this and here operational flexibility is of vital importance. It is important that any processes or procedures do not hold up an operation or compromise operational effectiveness, so we have to ensure that we get the balance right.

As to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, about what he described as a “light option procedure”, I understand that the German model requires parliamentary approval for all deployments but also provides for a simplified procedure in cases of deployments of low intensity and importance. The terminology “low intensity and importance” applies if the number of soldiers is small and the deployment does not involve participation in a conflict. That might include reconnaissance, armed missions for the purpose of self-defence, and where individual soldiers are deployed in the framework of personnel exchanges in a UN, NATO or EU mission. The Government will give further consideration to those matters.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked whether the mechanism will cover the Navy and Air Force. Our intention is that any deployment of the Armed Forces—which of course would include the Army, Navy and Air Force—into armed conflict overseas would be covered by the mechanism.

What should be role of the House of Lords in this? The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, was supportive of the proposal that the House of Lords should have to pass a resolution, save where there are reasons of urgency. The general consensus of your Lordships’ House is that the House of Commons has to have primacy in that matter, but that the House of Lords could have an important role in providing advice to the House of Commons. There is a great deal of support for that.

My understanding is that it is true that the last time the UK declared war was in 1942, and my advice is that it was Siam. No doubt we will discuss that further when we come to eventual legislation.

I should say to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that the draft clauses proposed by the Government in all of the options contained in the paper already set out an exemption for special forces. The Government would not want in any way to compromise the nature of the use of special forces in the field.

I have a little time to talk about treaties. Generally, the proposals in the paper have been welcomed by noble Lords. Like my noble friend Lord Anderson and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I have no doubt that parliamentary involvement in the scrutiny of treaties will take us further forward.

A number of important points were made about which treaties should be scrutinised. We shall shortly be debating a European treaty in the House and the unique nature of the constitutional relationship between this country and the European Union means that the effect of such a treaty is of great significance. In such circumstances it is right that special provisions are

31 Jan 2008 : Column 796

made that would not be appropriate for a wide variety of the treaties that the UK enters into each year.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, the proposals in the consultation document do not preclude special arrangements being made for other specific treaties. It remains open to the Government to use a more stringent scrutiny for any given treaty where they consider that that would be the right course of action. I note the preference of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, for a binding vote, with the Government able to come back to Parliament for a further view at some stage if the vote should turn down a treaty.

As to the suggestion that a parliamentary committee should scrutinise treaties, that would be a matter for Parliament to decide. It is a decision best taken in the light of the eventual conclusion of the Government in this matter. I should have thought that a committee of this House or both Houses could have a very important role to play.

On pre-scrutiny, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and other noble Lords that it is already common practice for Ministers to communicate with the relevant Select Committee prior to signature of a treaty. However, it is important to remember that there is often a long time between treaty negotiations commencing and treaty ratification and it would not be practical to involve Parliament in the negotiation process without risking excessive delay. That is why we have gone for the balanced approach suggested in the consultation paper.

If the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, is to have any time at all, I should now sit down. This has been a marvellous debate and the speeches have been of high quality. I can assure noble Lords that the Government will take very careful account of all the contributions that have been made.

3.05 pm

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the Minister have said that it was a significant and important occasion. It is very good that we have had significant and important contributions from all parts of the House, which I hope will be helpful. I thank the Minister for his response. The Government deserve great credit for continuing to bring this important subject to the fore. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Women's Justice Board

3.06 pm

Lord Ramsbotham rose to call attention to the case for the setting up of a Women’s Justice Board; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am conscious that the Minister has already been in action for three and a half hours on war powers. As a former military man, I am not going to deny that I am also interested

31 Jan 2008 : Column 797

in war powers—but war powers in a completely different circumstance. I am interested in war powers for the war against the unacceptable and inappropriate treatment of and conditions for women in prison. I am particularly concerned with one of the principles of war—the maintenance of momentum—and, as I detect that a window of opportunity has opened with the announcement by the Secretary of State for Justice of reforms to the National Offender Management Service and the announcement of an action plan on the treatment of women within six months, it is appropriate that we should address ourselves to how the momentum that is needed is to be changed.

The background to the debate is the report published by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, in March 2007, which was a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. I pay particular tribute to Chris Clarke in the Library, who has produced an excellent Library note on the debate. I am sure that your Lordships would like to join me in congratulating him on that and thanking him for it.

I had planned a debate on that report in May 2007, but I was persuaded by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to delay it because she had not yet completed her response. She said that there would be a debate on it later, and that was endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, who could not have been here on that day. In the event, however, in June neither the Home Office nor the noble and learned Baroness had any further interest in the report. It then became the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, and it was not until December, long after the statutory three months’ response, that the response to the Corston report was published. The Minister, Mr David Hanson, in effect accepted 39 and a half of the 43 recommendations and recommended in particular the importance of improved governance. Central to that, he said, was the appointment of a ministerial champion for women and criminal justice who would ensure that the actions to address issues for women were given the necessary priority and that commitments were delivered, as well as the appointment of a cross-departmental unit responsible for women and criminal justice, headed by a senior civil servant, to co-ordinate, drive forward and monitor the work on behalf of the Minister. It is on that proposal—a Minister as champion—that I am declaring war, without doubting in any way the commitment of the nominated Minister, Maria Eagle, whom I know to be totally dedicated to the task, as indeed are her ministerial colleagues.

My interest in this subject began two minutes after I entered the Home Office on 1 December 1995 as the new Chief Inspector of Prisons. I was met by my then deputy, who had been a governor of Holloway, the largest women’s prison in the country at the time. There he had defeated a strike by the POA, as a result of which he was removed from being governor and made an inspector, which struck me as being very silly. He told me I had to make an immediate decision because conditions in Holloway were so bad that the board of visitors had been making reports for six months to Ministers and the Prison Service and nothing had happened. He endorsed the idea of us going in and asked me when we would go. I said that

31 Jan 2008 : Column 798

I needed a week to find out what my job was about, so we would go the following week.

That week is seared into my memory, and I shall never forget it. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I shall repeat three aspects of it. The first was a conversation in the mother and baby unit with a young mother who said, “Do you think it was right that I was in chains?”. I said, “Chains when?” and she said, “When I was having him”, pointing to her six week-old son. I said, “Are you telling me that you were in chains when you were in labour?”, and she said, “Yes”. I turned to the governor and said, “Am I hearing correctly?”, and she said, “It’s regulations”.

Then I was shown diagrams of women’s injuries on diagrams of a man’s body. The reason for that was that no diagrams of women’s bodies were printed by the Prison Service, which told me that something was wrong in the direction. When I went to see the director-general of the Prison Service and asked to see the director of women who was responsible for treatment and conditions everywhere, he said that there was not one. I said, “Who is responsible for telling people what to do?” and he said, “A civil servant in the policy department”. I asked who was responsible for going out and seeing that treatment was consistent everywhere, so that women in Kent were treated in the same way as those in Lancashire. He said, “No one”.

It struck me that, if that was England in 1995, it cast doubts on the word “civilisation”. I decided that something had to be done and that the inspectorate could play a part. In 1997, I published a paper entitled Women in Prison, recommending that a director should be appointed, responsible and accountable for what happened to all women anywhere, with budgetary and other responsibilities. I also recommended that instead of these monster places like Holloway, to which women were brought from all over England, there should be smaller units all over the country. I described one in Minneapolis that seemed to be the sort of model that we could follow. Recommendations accepted; nothing happened.

In 2000, the Prison Reform Trust published a report, Justice for Women and the Need for Reform, recommending the establishment of a women’s justice board on the lines of the recently established Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, charged with developing and implementing policy for all women offenders. Recommendation accepted; nothing happened.

In 2001, I published a follow-up to Women in Prison, repeating my earlier recommendations, particularly for the director, and supporting the idea of a women’s justice board. Accepted; nothing happened.

In 2004, on the Floor of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who had previously been a Home Office Minister, admitted that, while he supported strongly the idea of the women’s justice board for precisely the reasons given by the Prison Reform Trust, the Home Office had still not got around to implementing it. Also in 2004, the Fawcett Society published the report of a commission on women in the criminal justice system, calling again for someone

31 Jan 2008 : Column 799

to be responsible and accountable for implementing policy. Again, there was no action.

We then come to 2007, when the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, called for a commission,

It must be cross-departmental, she said, reporting to an interdepartmental ministerial group,

She admitted that she called it a commission for largely semantic reasons, because the word “board” did not seem to be acceptable in government parlance. Yet what she was describing in what she called her commission is precisely what the Prison Reform Trust was calling for earlier, which others had endorsed.

We then have the Government supporting the appointment of a commission—in principle only—but wanting to appoint a champion Minister. Why do I object to that? First, you only have to go onto the Ministry of Justice website to see all the other responsibilities that Maria Eagle has. Therefore, with all the best intentions that she might have, how much time will she be able to give to being the champion? Secondly, we all know how frightfully busy Ministers are anyway with all the other demands on them. We also know that Ministers seem to change with bewildering rapidity, so for how long is she likely to be in post? The record shows that Ministers come with their own ideas; there is no reason why they should not, but that is no way to achieve consistent development of anything like an action plan.

As I have indicated, we have so far had countless recommendations and reports that have been accepted. There have been publications by the Home Office and the Howard League; there have been initiatives and intentions. Yet so far, while there have been individual improvements in certain places, all that has been inconsistent because what is lacking is someone with direct responsibility for maintaining consistent improvement. In any week, if one intercepts this situation one finds inconsistent delivery all over England between all of the prisons, because nobody is responsible. Yesterday, in her annual report, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons drew attention to that yet again. She pointed to the inconsistencies that existed, the lack of appropriate treatment for women and the failure of people to listen to the reports made by the inspectorate, year after year, saying exactly the same thing and for exactly the same reasons.

Today, the Children’s Commissioner has published a report on mother and baby units, a most important aspect, drawing attention to the fact that there are too few of them and that they are very thinly spread around the country. That means that far too many women who are going to have a baby in prison are miles away from where they come from. There is only one unit—at Rugby in Warwickshire—for girls under 18. It is in the Rainsbrook secure training centre, and it only has three beds. That is another aspect that has been ignored, but again the Prison Service was directed to—and promised to—carry out a review of

31 Jan 2008 : Column 800

mother and baby units as long ago as 1999. Nothing has happened, and nobody appears to have chased it, because there is of course nobody there to do the chasing.

I now come to the present, since the past is the past. I have said that there is a window of opportunity, and my purpose in putting down this Motion is to suggest ways in which that window can be used. The Ministry of Justice has announced, really, a reversion to the situation in 2001, when there was the equivalent of a commissioner of corrections’ responsibility for the prison and probation services—I do not argue with that. However, where I do argue with the Ministry of Justice is in its making probation subordinate to prisons. That is a most regrettable step. One of the keystones of the Corston report is that, to reduce the appalling number of women in prison who should not be there and whose situation so dismayed the noble Baroness when she started her report, one needs proper community sentences and programmes to provide a satisfactory alternative to the sentencer. Therefore, the Probation Service must be right up in the hunt: not subordinate to but equal with the Prison Service, because it has an equal responsibility for what is going on. Today, another report has been published by the National Audit Office, drawing attention to the poor quality of community supervision and stating that there are all kinds of reasons for it, not least the lack of direction and resources in the Probation Service. It is all very well saying that we accept the recommendation for greater use of probation and community sentencing, but, if the resources do not exist, one will not get it.

The Minister should realise that the reason that nothing has happened for so long is that nobody has been responsible for doing it. Until one makes somebody responsible and accountable to the Minister for implementing the plan, it will not happen. The tragedy of that is that all the wonderful stuff in Corston, which is her regurgitation of what many of us and others have been saying for years, will join those reports as paving stones on a road to the future that is littered with good intentions. None of us wants that. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 pm

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for securing this debate. The usual suspects are on the speakers list, which gives the message to the Minister that, unless changes are made and the issue goes away, we will be back again.

A number of public debates have identified the need for a women’s justice board. I am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, for her support for the establishment of such a board. The Corston review was commissioned by the Home Office and was published in 2007. In March 2008, we will again celebrate International Women’s Day. It is sad that hardly any movement has been made by the Government despite their admission that too many women are in custody.

We must accept that factors which affect women offenders are complex. In many cases, the use of more non-custodial options seems to bypass women offenders. How on earth have we produced this

31 Jan 2008 : Column 801

anomaly? Unless positive action is taken to remedy the situation, we will be back here again, reflecting the same concerns, in future years.

The Government’s response, as spelt out by the former Minister in your Lordships’ House, is wholly inadequate—and to an extent misguided. We are told that we do not have a separate framework in law for women because we have a different structure for them. We are further told that to go down the route of a women’s justice board could risk marginalising women further, when what is needed is to mainstream provision for women and ensure that, under the national offender management structure, sufficient priority is given to service provision for, and management of, women offenders.

This is absurd. The Government’s approach, taken at face value, is at variance with other policy areas. For example, if women do not have special and specific issues to face, why do we need a Women’s Minister? Why did we put on statute the Sex Discrimination Act 1975? Why do we have a Commission for Equality and Human Rights which tackles women’s issues as part of its overall brief? We do so because the fact remains that there are shared issues, special issues and specific issues that affect women. If the mainstream provision cannot meet these—and the evidence is that it cannot—there is no reason why we should not look at alternatives, and a women’s justice board is a viable option open to us.

The national offender management structure deals with service provision for women only when they have been sentenced. It cannot deal with the increase in the severity of offending, or why are our courts using custody for women more frequently and for less serious offences than before?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page