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An update on The Victims and Prisoners Bill

A blog written by Lorenzo Izzi, RJ4All’s intern to celebrate International Restorative Justice Week 2023 #RJWEEK

The Victims and Prisoners Bill was proposed by the House of Commons in the UK Parliament and remained outstanding for years. The law proposal aims to make provisions for victims of criminal conduct and others affected. As such, the bill aims to integrate and amend parts of the Criminal Justice Act (2003). 

An explanation of the bill 

The bill aims to introduce public advocates for victims of a major incident, at the discretion of the Secretary of State. According to the current draft of the bill (as of the 25th of August 2023), “The Secretary of State may appoint an individual to act as an independent public advocate for victims of a major incident.” (25.1). A ‘major incident’ here refers to an incident that occurred in England or Wales and that “appears to the Secretary of State to have caused the death of, or serious harm to a significant number of individuals” (25.2b). The bill also sets the terms and characteristics of these public advocates. 

The current draft of the bill also suggests amends to parts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, changing the guidelines for releasing prisoners; as well as amends to sections of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, particularly section 239. This latter section is the one regulating the Parole Board making risk assessments for releasing prisoners. Finally, it also proposes amends to the Marriage Act 1949, aiming to make it illegal for life-sentenced prisoners to form civil partnerships or form marriages. 

Nonetheless, this bill is still a draft, currently at the report stage in the House of Commons. This means that it is in the mid-stage of its parliamentary life. In the United Kingdom, a bill can be proposed by both houses and will also need approval from both. In this particular case, the bill has been drafted by a small committee of MPs in the House of Commons during the committee stage and has seen each of its clauses debated. As currently in the report stage, there is the opportunity for the Commons to debate any aspect. The date for that parliamentary session is still unknown, but it is believed that it will take place before the end of this calendar year. 

Reactions 

The bill has generated a number of negative reactions, both from news agencies and organisations operating or specialising in the justice system. The Independent wrote in its columns that the bill is “not worth the paper is written on” (1) as a watchdog investigation revealed that Mr Raab (former Justice secretary and sponsor of the bill), added controversial clauses giving the Justice Secretary power to veto prisoners release and alter Parole Boards assessment. The Independent therefore claimed that the bill was moving away from its original goal to strengthen victims’ rights. A similar comment  was made by London’s commissioner for victims’ rights Claire Waxman (2). 

RJ4All network responses 

Back in 2020, RJ4All replied to an open consultation on a draft of the victim’s code by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), given the long history of advocating for changes in the UK criminal justice system. RJ4All consultation response highlighted a lack of restorative justice approaches and how the draft version was not enhancing or safeguarding victims’ position, but rather doing the opposite. RJ4All also regretted an absence of coverage for the victim’s most important needs, and indicated that the rights outlined within the draft did not cover all the key stages of a victim’s journey in the criminal justice system. 

In 2019, Professor Theo Gavrielides, Ben Lyon and Gabrielle Browne had already made a proposal to amend the 2013 “Code of Practice for Victims of Crimes” responding to another open consultation from the MOJ. Ben Lyon is a Restorative Justice practitioner with whom RJ4All worked on various projects in the past, including campaigning side-by-side for this bill to be pushed when it was outstanding in parliament. He is also an honorary vice president of the organisation. As of today, he has dedicated considerable time and effort to modify the bill. He actively campaigned reporting that this bill would be worsening victims’ rights. In fact, Ben reported being “extremely concerned about certain elements of the victim and prisoners bill” as the current draft would limit victims’ access to a relief and will make prosecution agencies unaccountable and exempt to any failing, Ben says. 

Ben reached out to the House of Lords asking for amendments but declared that his requests were ignored: “The government seems keen to push the bill through in this form, as no concrete proposal for change has been made”. According to Ben, while Sir Bob Neill’s MP (chair of the justice committee in the House of Commons), has listened and responded to all the agencies who commented on the bill or proposed amendments, this has remained largely ignored by the Ministry of Justice. 

Considering the above developments, Ben recently announced withdrawing his participation and purposefully referring to the bill as “Not My Bill”. He outlines here his straightforward suggestions for two amendments to the bill which he asserts would address the most harmful sections of the Bill. These amendments can now only be put forward by members of the House of Lords.   

Next steps 

The next steps for parliament are the report stage in the Commons where further changes may be made, followed by a third reading where further debate and small changes may be added. The bill then goes to the House of Lords, repeating the same procedure of the Commons and making any relevant amendments. If amendments in the House of Lords are made, the bill would then go back to the Commons, which would further discuss the Lords’ amendments and make new ones if relevant. The procedure sometimes referred to as “Ping Pong” will continue until both Houses reach an agreement on all aspects of the bill. It would then finally be sent to the King for royal assent, which makes it a Parliament Act (enforceable law). 

What can we do?  

The amendments to the Bill proposed by Ben can now only be put forward by members of the House of Lords. Organisation sharing our concerns are encouraged to share these proposed amendments and raise awareness around the likely harm of the bill. 

Sources 

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