Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Bishop of Manchester speaks in favour of amendments on Serious Violence Reduction Orders

On 10th January 2022, the House of Lords debated the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the fourth day of the report stage. The Bishop of Manchester spoke in support of a group of amendments relating to the implementation of Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs):

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, I support Amendments 90H, 90J, 95A, 95B and 95C, to which I have added my name. I also signal my support for other amendments in this group which also seek to control more tightly how serious violence reduction orders will operate. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my work on policing ethics, both for Greater Manchester Police and for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, as set out in the register of interests.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has indicated, Amendment 90H seeks to ensure that an SVRO can be applied only when a bladed article or offensive weapon is used to commit an offence, not simply when such an item happens to be present and in the possession of the defendant. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has indicated, as presently drafted, the Bill requires no substantive link between the weapon and the offence. An individual could, for example, commit a road traffic offence while driving home from a church picnic, with their used cutlery on the passenger seat next to them, and the prosecution could ask for an SVRO.

I can see that subsection (5) of the proposed new chapter is intended to mitigate that by requiring the court to consider that imposition of the order is necessary to protect the public or the defendant from possible future offences involving such weapons. However, I do not believe it adequately achieves that objective. Asking a court to conject what might happen in the future can all too easily invite decisions taken on discriminatory or flimsy grounds, especially as no court would wish to face public criticism for having failed to apply an SVRO should later violence occur. To legislate for future conjecture requires a robust link to what has already happened. Subsection (3)(a) gives that; it requires that the weapon was used by the defendant in committing the offence in question. Deleting subsection (3)(b), as this amendment seeks to do, would ensure that any order is based on genuine and evidenced risk. To put it bluntly, it would pass my church picnic test.

Amendment 90J, if I may turn to that, seeks to more closely tie the order to the offence by limiting it to the actual person who used or had possession of the weapon, not some putative third party who

“knew or ought to have known”

that they had it. The de facto joint enterprise element in the current drafting of this clause widens the net substantially for who can be affected, and includes people not convicted of knife crime. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just said, this is likely to disproportionately affect women and girls, who may well know or suspect that a partner or family member may be carrying a weapon but are far too vulnerable to be able to extricate themselves from a situation where violence involving such weapons may be committed by others.

I understand that the intention may be to provide such vulnerable adults with an excuse to stay away from both people and situations with which violence may be associated, but when I try to put myself in the position of such a person, I cannot really imagine saying to my partner or brother: “Oh, I must not be near you when you have a knife because I might get an SVRO against me.” I think these people are far too vulnerable. I hope I have persuaded your Lordships that Amendment 90J will address this deficit.

Finally, on Amendment 90J, apart from it being grossly unfair by ignoring the impact on vulnerable people, subsection (4) appears to be unworkable. How will the court determine if someone “ought to have known” that some other person had a knife? The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, tease out this point specifically. I will leave others to speak to them at greater length, but if our own Amendment 90J does not win your Lordships’ support, I would hope that her amendments are more persuasive.

I now turn to Amendments 95A, 95B and 95C on the pilot scheme. In order to understand how SVROs operate in practice, these are entirely welcome. SVROs present a major innovation. There are significant risks of dangers from unexpected consequences—dangers that may outweigh any good that SVROs achieve. If we are to roll them out across the country, we need to have confidence that they are doing the job intended and making things better and not worse. For all the eloquence of our arguments in this House, there is nothing quite like having real, practical experience on the ground to draw on if we are going to get things right. These three amendments, taken together, simply seek to strengthen the pilot; to make it a genuine gathering of all the most relevant evidence, and one that will feed into a proper decision-making process here in Parliament, ahead of SVROs being rolled out across the nation.

In my early days as Bishop of Manchester, we had an idea of how we might make better and more locally informed decisions on where we deployed our vicars. We set up a two-year pilot across about a fifth of our dioceses. Towards the end of that period, we commissioned an independent evaluation by outside experts. We learned a huge amount from the exercise, and, in consequence, we never rolled out the substantive project. We did something different; we did something better. A pilot has to have the capacity to substantially implement the eventual shape of whatever is the final product, otherwise it is simply window dressing.

It is clear from speeches already made here today that there is considerable uncertainty about SVROs. In particular, noble Lords have drawn attention to the danger that they become associated with disproportionality and hence diminish confidence in policing and the courts. None of us wants that. We noted the risk that, rather than prevent criminalisation, they may draw more vulnerable people—especially young women—into the criminal justice system. We have remarked that extensive use of stop and search powers, especially in the absence of specific evidence of intention to offend, has over and again proved counterproductive. These last three amendments cover both the process and the content of the pilot evaluation. They will make for much better decisions on how and when, and perhaps most crucially if, SVROs are rolled out across the nation. I hope the Minister will be minded to accept them or to meet us to find an agreed way forward.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Coaker (Lab): Therefore, because of the importance of the pilot, we strongly support the amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick: Amendments 95A, 95B and 95C. Amendment 95B in particular brings all of these debates together in ensuring that Parliament not only gets a report on the pilot but a detailed answer from the Government on any issues that the pilot raises. Not many amendments could be quite as reasonable as that. It would provide simple parliamentary scrutiny and allow Parliament then to make a decision on whether these orders work and should be rolled out and on whether the issues that many noble Lords have raised are right.

Amendment 95C ensures the pilot is a genuine evidence-gathering exercise and considers, as I say, all the important issues raised. I raised the issue of parliamentary scrutiny in Committee, as did others, and I am grateful to the Minister for writing to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in response to the points raised and copying it to other noble Lords. At the moment, the Bill would provide that certain details of the orders are provided in regulations that would be subject to the affirmative procedure, which is welcome. The amendment would take this one step further—quite rightly, which is why we support it. It would ensure that the decision over whether to introduce the orders, once we have genuine evidence on how they have worked following the pilot, is taken by Parliament and not just by the Home Office. I respectfully suggest that that would not be too big an ask. The Government have already accepted that these orders need to be piloted, so if the principle of piloting has been accepted, surely Parliament should be able to scrutinise whether the pilot has been a success and whether the issues raised by noble Lords and indeed others in the other place are right.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Con): Amendments 90H, 90J, 90K and 90L all seek to limit the circumstances in which an SVRO may be made. As regards Amendment 90H, it is the Government’s view that an SVRO should be available when an adult has been convicted of an offence where a knife or offensive weapon was present, whether it was used in the commission of the offence or not. But this does not mean that an SVRO will be applied for, or made, in all such cases. The prosecution would first need to consider whether it was appropriate to make an application to the court for an SVRO. The court must consider it necessary to make the SVRO in order to protect the public or prevent reoffending, and it would be very difficult to see how a court might consider an SVRO to be necessary if there was no evidence of risk of harm involving a knife or offensive weapon or risk of knife or offensive weapons offending; the bladed article was not relevant to the offence; or the individual was in possession of a bladed article with a reasonable excuse such as for use at work or for religious purposes—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester gave an example of the church picnic.

Amendments 90J, 90K and 90L would remove provisions in the Bill that would allow an order to be made if another person who committed the offence used or had with them a bladed article or offensive weapon in the commission of the offence and the offender knew or ought to have known that this would be the case. I reiterate that, for an SVRO to be made in any circumstances, the individual must have been convicted of an offence where a bladed article or offensive weapon was used in the commission of the offence or was with either the offender or another individual who was also convicted of an offence arising from the same set of facts. This provision would capture a situation where more than one person was convicted of an offence arising from the same set of facts, but not all the individuals used a bladed article or offensive weapon in the commission of the offence, or had such an item with them when the offence was committed.

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