I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Windrush generation. These men and woman came to the UK, built their lives here and enriched our communities. To put it simply, members of the Windrush generation made the United Kingdom a more successful place and are rightly a central part of our great national story.
However, over several decades the members of the Windrush generation were not treated with the respect they deserved. I fully accept that some members of the Windrush generation suffered great injustices over many decades at the hands of successive Governments. This was wrong. Recent demonstrations bring into sharper focus the injustices of the past and work which remains to be done today.
The Government has rightly stated that nothing can reverse the pain inflicted on the Windrush Generation. However, I do welcome the firm commitment by ministers to do everything possible to right these wrongs and ensure this can never happen again.
I understand your concerns regarding the need for those who deserve compensation to receive it as soon as possible. The Home Secretary has reassured me that the Home Office is processing claims as quickly as possible. It is extremely welcome that following feedback the Home Office has made a number of improvements to the scheme, which includes raising the minimum award from £250 to £10,000 for anyone who can show an impact on their life under the terms of the scheme. In addition, raising the maximum award an individual can receive for an impact on their life from £10,000 to £100,000 and options for higher awards in exceptional circumstances.
I was, and I am sure constituents will be, reassured to hear that all changes will be applied retrospectively. I sincerely hope this process can mark the beginning of a new chapter at the Home Office where no one is made to feel unwelcome in their own country.
First and foremost, I want to reassure constituents that I take the issue of illegal dog and puppy imports very seriously. This abhorrent trade causes suffering to the smuggled dogs and puts their health at risk.
I am pleased that the UK has long history of leading the way on animal welfare and now that we have left the EU, the Government is committed to improving our already world-leading standards by delivering a series of ambitious reforms, outlined in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare. This includes introducing new powers in line with the manifesto commitment to crack down on puppy smuggling through the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
To tackle the unethical trade of puppy smuggling, the Bill will reduce the number of pets that can travel under pet travel rules. It will also include powers for the Government to bring in further restrictions on the movement of pets on welfare grounds, for example by increasing the minimum age of imported puppies and restricting the import of pregnant dogs and dogs with mutilations such as cropped ears and tails.
I am assured that all pet animals entering Great Britain on approved routes undergo documentary and identity checks. The checks are performed by ferry, train or airline carriers or agents acting on their behalf. The Animal and Plant Health Agency also undertakes random checks of the pet animals travelling to ensure the carriers are performing their duties to the required standard. Further, the Animal and Plant Health Agency works with Border Force and other operational partners at ports, airports and inland, sharing intelligence to enforce the Pet Travel Scheme, disrupt illegal imports and seize non-compliant animals.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
I understand that some constituents have concerns regarding my support for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bill contains a large number of measures with the central aim of cutting crime and building safe communities.
At the last election, I was elected on a manifesto to restore confidence in the criminal justice system and this Bill delivers that pledge made to my constituents.
This Bill seeks to equip the police with the powers and tools they need to protect themselves and the public, while overhauling sentencing laws to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer, and placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation to better help offenders to turn their lives around and prevent further crimes.
I welcome the fact that this legislation builds on the work already underway across this Government to deliver a smarter, fairer justice system as the UK builds back safer from the Covid-19 pandemic. I am particularly encouraged by the hundreds of millions being invested in our court system to deliver quicker justice and reduce delays. It is also vital that victims receive the support they need and deserve, and ministers are investing unprecedented funding for victim's support services. The funding package for the police and the recruitment of 20,000 police officers alongside the £4 billion investment in extra prison places will ensure these reforms are successful.
I am confident that the measures in this Bill are necessary and proportionate. It is important to remember that the Bill is about tougher sentences for the most serious offenders, better protection for the police and a greater focus on ensuring offenders can turn their lives around and rehabilitate back into society.
I appreciate that some constituents may not agree with my views on this, however I hope this response has outlined why I believe this is a fair and balanced approach to the criminal justice system. Below are my responses to specific aspects of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which have been brought to my attention directly.
I spoke in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill debate on 5 July 2021 in Parliament on pet theft and protection for retail workers, which you can find here: www.selainesaxby.org.uk/news/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-debate-5-july-2021
Right to Protest
The Government has said that protestors' rights will be protected. When using these, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law and be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate. They must act compatibly with human rights, principally in relation to protests, Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
I recognise the clear and terrible effects of Domestic Abuse and I welcome the fact that the Government has committed unprecedented amounts of funding to supporting victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence during the pandemic and beyond. Ministers have been very clear that all allegations must be investigated fully and pursued through the courts whenever possible.
Regarding time limits for prosecution, in England and Wales there is no time limit for starting a prosecution for indictable offences, these are offences that can be tried in the Crown Court. However, a prosecution for a summary offence, those which can only be tried in a magistrates’ court, must begin within six months of the day when the offence was committed, unless there is specific statutory provision for a different time limit.
I understand there are two opposing considerations to balance, on the one hand the need for justice to be done and on the other hand, the right of suspects to finality and certainty.
As you may be aware, in 2020 the Ministry of Justice considered whether the six month time limit should be extended as regards summary offences related to domestic abuse. At the time, Ministers concluded that extending the limit, or removing it completely, would be limited in its benefit, as common assault, the least serious of a range of offences against the person, covering acts such as a push or shove that does not lead to injury, is the only offence likely to be relevant in this context that is affected by the limit.
It is worth noting that the other assault offences are not summary offences and there is no time limit for prosecuting them. It is also the case that there is not a time limit for prosecuting the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, which the Domestic Abuse Act extends to post-separation abuse.
However, in recognition of the seriousness of the issue and the commitment of the Government in tackling domestic abuse, ministers have agreed to look at this matter again. The Government has not ruled out an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and has emphasised the importance of looking into this issue.
I hope this response reassures constituents that the Government is taking action to ensure justice is done in cases of Domestic Abuse.
Gypsy and Traveller Community
The Government has made it clear that the vast majority of the travelling community are decent law-abiding people, and are committed to ensuring that there are legal sites available for travellers. As of January 2020, the number of lawful traveller sites increased by 41 per cent from January 2010.
There is wider Government support for the provision of traveller sites via the New Homes Bonus which provides incentive for local authorities to encourage housing growth in their areas and rewards net increases in effective housing stock, including the provision of authorised traveller pitches.
Protect Retail Staff
The Home Office led work with the retail sector has identified that victims and employers not reporting offences and concerns about the police response to such are the key issues to address rather than creating a specific new offence, particularly given offences already exist that cover the behaviour that the new clauses seek to address.
The Government has argued that a wide range of offences already exists and cover assaults and other abusive behaviour against any worker (including retail workers), and sentencing guidelines make clear that any offence committed against someone serving the public should be treated as an aggravating factor when sentencing.
Ministers therefore believe that creating any further new offences for certain categories of workers creates anomalies with other public serving workers and is not the most effective way to improve the safety and protection of these vital public service workers.
This Government has been clear that it is concerned by reports in the media of the rise in pet theft and I am pleased that ministers are keen to take action. The Ministry of Justice has joined forces with Defra and Home Office to create a joint Taskforce to look at pet theft end-to-end and to consider every aspect from prevention, reporting, enforcement and prosecution and ministers will make clear recommendations on tackling this problem. The Government have stated there is a need to gather, research and commission work to build a clear evidence base of the scale of this issue, so that the actions taken will have a lasting effect.
The Taskforce is taking evidence from stakeholders and experts in the relevant fields including researchers, campaign groups and animal welfare organisations. They will report in the summer, and by the autumn Ministers will begin working on the implementation of the approved policy recommendations.
This Government believes action in this area should be evidence based and there are no official statistics available to support the claim that pet theft is on the rise. Therefore, legislating in the PCSC Bill would be premature as, ministers are not yet aware of the data regarding all the issues and options available.
I appreciate that vehicles parked on pavements can be dangerous for all pedestrians, as it can force them onto the carriageway and into the flow of traffic. In particular, I understand that pavement parking can cause real problems for people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments.
A recent review of pavement parking carried out by the Department for Transport found that pavement parking was problematic for 95% of respondents who were visually impaired, and 98% of wheelchair users. While there is a historic ban on pavement parking throughout London, elsewhere any local authority that has taken up civil enforcement powers may introduce a ban on pavement parking where it sees fit through the use of Traffic Regulation Orders.
As part of making this easier to implement, in 2011 ministers gave all councils authorisation to use a sign indicating where a pavement parking restriction is in place, removing the need to ask Whitehall first for permission to use the sign. However, while successive Governments have recognised that there is no perfect solution to this complex problem, I believe it is time to look again at this issue in detail.
I welcome that ministers now want to go further and recently ran a consultation on proposals that would allow local authorities with civil parking enforcement powers to crack down on pavements being unnecessarily obstructed. Outside London, only the police currently have the power to enforce this. A nationwide ban would need careful consideration and would have to allow, for example, for necessary exceptions or designated spots for pavement parking where required. The approach taken would also have to be tailored to the very different challenges faced in rural and suburban areas.
I understand that the Department is currently still analysing the high volume of responses to ensure that all views are captured, and that ministers will carefully consider the consultation findings before deciding the way forward, which is why the response is still yet to be published. Please be assured that the Government response will be published in due course, and will be available to view at the following link: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/managing-pavement-parking
I look forward to the Government review and outcome and will continue to monitor this issue closely.
Buffer Zones outside Abortion Clinics
This country has a proud history of allowing free speech but the right to peaceful protest does not extend to harassment or threatening behaviour. The law already provides protection against harassment and intimidation, and the police have a range of powers to manage protests. Like all members of the public, protesters are subject to the law and suspected criminal offences must be robustly investigated and dealt with by the police.
Following concerns about the tactics of protestors outside some abortion clinics, a review was instigated by Government in 2018. This review revealed that anti-abortion demonstrations take place outside a small number of facilities. In 2017 for example, 363 hospitals and clinics in England and Wales carried out abortions. Of those, 36 hospitals and clinics experienced anti-abortion demonstrations. With this in mind, I support the Government’s assessment that introducing national buffer zones would not be an appropriate response given the experiences of the majority of hospitals and clinics.
That said, while I do not want to see peaceful protest curbed, it is completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated simply for exercising their legal right to healthcare advice and treatment. The decision to have an abortion is already an incredibly personal one, without women being further pressured by aggressive protesters. I am glad that the Government keeps this area under review and I know Ministers ensure they keep up to date with any new evidence that comes to light.
I consider the conduct of Armed Forces personnel serving overseas to be of the utmost importance. I am proud of the fact the UK has some of the most committed and professional service personnel anywhere in the world, who not only adhere to the rule of law but who promote it through the conduct of their operations.
I have full confidence that this Bill ensures allegations of torture will continue to be investigated and prosecuted wherever and whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.
As you are aware, for relevant offences, the Bill stipulates that once five years have elapsed from the date of an incident, there must be new and compelling evidence for a prosecutor to seek prosecution of a service person or veteran for that offence, if committed during an overseas operation.
I appreciate that some individuals wish to see offences related to torture exempted from the Bill. However, I would like to reassure constituents that it provides no impunity for torture and makes provisions for the prosecution of any service personnel found to have been involved in such acts. Under the Bill, serious offences, including of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, will still be prosecuted on the basis of the sufficiency of new evidence and whether a prosecution would be in the public interest. Furthermore, service personnel are subject to the criminal law of England and Wales, and a disciplinary framework through Service Law, and have a duty to uphold both, wherever they are serving in the world.
I have had a number of constituents bring this issue to my attention. Freedom of speech, the rule of law, and equal rights define us as a society, and I am determined to promote those values actively. While I am not able to comment specifically and in detail on the case of Alex Belfield, as a general principle it is important that the law protects freedom of speech.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Unauthorised Traveller Sites
The setting up of illegal traveller sites can be a nuisance for local communities and an inappropriate development of open space. I know that many local residents across the country, and here in North Devon, are concerned about anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, and noise related to unauthorised sites.
After two consultations on this issue, I welcome the fact that as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, new laws will be introduced to increase the powers available to the police in England and Wales. The Bill will introduce a new criminal offence where a person resides or intends to reside on any public or private land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause, significant harm, obstruction, or harassment or distress. In addition, the Bill amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to broaden the list of harms that can be considered by the police when directing people away from land and increase the period in which persons directed away from land must not return from 3 months to 12 months. Amendments to the 1994 Act will, in addition, allow police to direct trespassers away from land that forms part of a highway.
I believe these new measures are a proportionate and necessary increase in powers for the police. The Government has made it clear that only a minority of travellers are causing problems, such as through abusive behaviour and extensive litter and waste at illegal sites. The vast majority of the travelling community are law-abiding people, and we must ensure that there are legal sites available for travellers.
I welcome the fact that as of January 2020, the number of lawful traveller sites increased by 41% from January 2010. The Government has also given £200,000 to support projects working with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to tackle discrimination, improve integration, healthcare and education.
The Government has taken steps to ensure that those exercising their rights to enjoy the countryside are not inadvertently impacted by these measures, and I am confident that Government action will help to reduce the number of illegal caravan sites across the country, while respecting people’s right to a nomadic way of life.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Protests
I understand that a number of my constituents have concerns about the proposed new powers to deal better with protests.
As I have made very clear, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that I wholeheartedly support, and I can reassure you that the Government is clear that the right of an individual to express their opinion and protest is a cornerstone to our democratic society.
The issue in question relates to the balance between the rights of a protestor and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business. There have, unfortunately, been examples where protests have caused unjustifiable disruption and distress of other citizens, as seen in our city centres. For example, some of the scenes we saw from the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, where ambulances were stopped from reaching hospitals, were deeply troubling and concerning.
Therefore, the measures in the Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on our right to protest, but instead ensuring the police can better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance I have outlined.
It is right to ask how protesters’ rights will be protected, and it is the case that when using these powers, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law. Importantly, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate. The police must act compatibly with human rights, in particular Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association).
I am aware that much has been said regarding the proposed public nuisance offence. As you may be aware, Clause 59 gives effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission in their July 2015 Report on 'Simplification of the Criminal Law: Public Nuisance and Outraging Public Decency'. The report stated that the common law offence of public nuisance should be replaced by a statutory offence covering any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public or obstructs them in the exercise of their rights. Importantly, the new statutory offence of public nuisance will cover the same conduct as the existing common law offence of public nuisance. You can find the Law Commission report on this issue at the following link:
I fully understand my constituents’ strong feelings on this issue, and they are right to ensure I was am aware of these feelings. While we may not agree, I hope this response has outlined clearly why I am in favour of the changes in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill relating to the management of protests.
Crime Not Compliment Campaign
The sexual harassment of women and girls, including in public places, is totally unacceptable. No one should be forced to change the way they live to avoid harassment and abuse, and I am relieved that action is already being taken. Work on the wide-ranging Law Commission review into hate crime is well underway and the review will identify any gaps within the current legislation and determine if there should be additional protected characteristics such as misogyny and age. The Law Commission's consultation closed on 24 December 2020 and I am glad that those with an interest had the opportunity to share their views. The Government will of course consider the review's recommendations when they are complete.
The new Voyeurism (Offences) Act, which criminalises the reprehensible behaviour of upskirting, will also go to prevent this behaviour from being committed. There is no doubt that this activity is criminal and will not be tolerated, and for the most serious offences, this law will ensure that the offender is also placed on the sex offenders register.
There is more work to do, and it is therefore welcome news that the Home Secretary has appointed Nimco Ali as an Independent Adviser on Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls. Nimco Ali will advise the Home Secretary and other ministers on the government’s new Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, and I am pleased that Ministers will be bringing forward the new strategy this year.
The Government reopened a call for evidence to further collect views from those with lived experience of, or views on, crimes considered as violence against women and girls. The consultation previously ran for 10 weeks from December to February, and it will now remain open until 26 March 2021. I would encourage my constituents to take part, if they feel able to do so.
Additionally, relationships education is now compulsory for all primary pupils and relationships and sex education compulsory for all secondary school pupils. This ensures that concepts such as healthy relationships, consent and boundaries are taught to children to ensure that future generations grow up to respect others, and to expect respect.
I am proud that this country is built on the historic values of unity, inclusivity, tolerance and mutual respect. Hate crime, in all its forms, goes directly against these values and it is completely unacceptable that anyone in our society should live in fear of intimidation or violence. As such, we must stand up for diversity and face down discrimination wherever we see it.
Since the publication of the Hate Crime Action Plan in 2016, I have been encouraged by the progress that has been made, which has seen an increase in reporting and improvements in identification and recording of crime by the police. However, rates of attrition within the criminal justice system remain worryingly high and targeted online abuse continues to present a significant problem. While in contrast to overall trends, under-reporting still exists within specific groups.
There is a wide-ranging Law Commission review into hate crime in place. Work on this is well underway and the review will identify any gaps within the current legislation, determining if there should be additional protected characteristics such as misogyny and age.
I am committed to upholding free speech, and legislation is in place to protect this fundamental right. The Law Commission's consultation closed on 24 December 2020 and I am glad that those with an interest had the opportunity to share their views. The Government will of course consider the recommendations of the review when they are complete.
The Ministry of Justice continues to make provision of £1.7 billion a year in legal aid and that a new Legal Support Action Plan has been announced which will ensure resources are available for those who need it most. Measures in the action plan include a new focus on the individual and early intervention, as well as greater support for those who need solutions to problems before they become entangled in the legal system. The action plan will allow for an additional £3 million to support those representing themselves through the court system.
I fully understand your concerns regarding the Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 and I welcome the opportunity to provide some clarity. After passing on these concerns to the Justice team, Ministers have confirmed that there will be a full consultation on these fee changes before anything is finalised next year. This is very welcome and will ensure views and opinions are heard.
It is also the case that the new, increased fee structure has been under consideration for a while and reflects the digitalisation of the tribunal system. It is important to remember that this has allowed justice to continue during the current pandemic.
It is vital to consider that these are temporary changes. Immigration and asylum practitioners have been contacted regularly and Ministers will continue to engage through the full consultation on what should replace them by June 2021.
You may be pleased to know that new fee structure will result in practitioners being paid substantially more for their work per hearing than they are currently. Fees have increased from £227 for no hearing and £567 for a hearing to £627 for both.
Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill
The end of a marriage is an extremely painful time for any couple. When a relationship ends, it cannot be right for the law to introduce or exacerbate conflict between divorcing couples. Currently, couples have an incentive to blame each other for the end of marriage based on ‘unreasonable behaviour’, adultery or desertion unless they can wait to divorce on the basis of separation for a minimum of two years, even if the separation is mutual. If one spouse objects to the divorce then the other spouse must wait five years before seeking a divorce.
As you may be aware, the Government has announced proposals which would mean that the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage will remain the sole ground for divorce. At the same time, the new proposals would remove the need to show evidence of the other spouse’s conduct, or a period of living apart. A new notification process would be introduced to allow one, or possibly both parties, to notify the court of the intention to divorce. Finally, the proposals would remove the opportunity for the other spouse to contest the divorce, which serves no practical purpose.
Removing the requirements to allege fault or show evidence of separation would promote a less acrimonious process, helping families look to the future.