The government has been branded a “disgrace” after a move to grant more powers to the Sarah Everard inquiry was blocked by peers in a vote that took place after midnight.
Despite pleas from a Conservative peer that a statutory inquiry was needed “for the soul of Sarah Everard and for the sake of humanity”, members in the Lords voted at nearly 12.30am not to give the inquiry those powers.
Peers say the inquiry’s current powers mean it will “drag on for years and not answer the fundamental questions” about systemic police violence.
Lib Dem peer Baron Brian Paddick, who served in the Metropolitan Police for 30 years, said the government had acted cynically by refusing to move the vote to a later date.
“I think the government and the Met want this to go away,” Paddick told The Big Issue.
“This isn’t just about holding the police to account for failings that have happened. This is about making this country safer for women and girls, in particular, and for everyone.”
Former Green Party leader Baroness Natalie Bennett told The Big Issue she was confident the vote would have passed if it was held at a ‘normal time’.
However, Priti Patel is still facing a High Court case which could force the government to strengthen the inquiry.
The votes of 90 Conservative peers – whipped by the government to stay long after other peers had gone home – ensured the amendment was defeated.
The inquiry into Sarah Everard’s death is currently non-statutory – meaning it cannot compel witnesses to testify or force organisations to hand over documents.
In a debate which began after 11pm last night, Chakrabarti said her amendment was a necessary response to police secrecy.
“It follows resistance and hubris, I am sorry to say, from senior police leaders who, as we obviously know by this time, do not want an inquiry of this kind,” she said.
Conservative Baroness Helen Newlove, the former Victims’ Commissioner, said she had taken painkillers to be able to speak at the debate.
“We must have a statutory inquiry for the soul of Sarah Everard and, indeed, for the sake of humanity. If we do not, this will be a shameful decision that we will always regret having made,” Newlove said.
The Home Office says the inquiry is non-statutory so it can be established and provide answers as soon as possible.
The last non-statutory inquiry into the police – the Daniel Morgan inquiry – took over eight years to report.
Chakrabarti described how that report’s chair, Baroness O’Loan “faced obstruction, and said specifically in her findings that she knew that she had been hampered by not having the statutory powers that would have been available under the 2005 Act.”
Hours before the debate, the Home Office announced that the first part of the inquiry will report later this year, and set out its terms of reference.
The first part of the inquiry will look into Sarah Everard’s murder, Wayne Couzens’ conduct, and how allegations against him were handled by the police.
The second part will examine any systemic issues raised by the first part.
Paddick claimed the timing of this announcement was designed to ensure the amendment failed.
“It’s a typical government ploy to ensure that as few members of the House of Lords voted for the amendment as possible,” he said.
“Any member of the House of Lords who might have been hesitating about whether to support the amendment would have been put off by the fact that ‘well, the government is making progress on this so we don’t need to to vote’.”
The late timing of the vote meant only 129 peers voted on the amendment – a third of the 361 who voted on the first division of the day – because many had simply gone home.
A motion to hold the vote at a later date, during the day, put forward by Baroness Natalie Bennett of the Green Party, was voted down by the Conservative peers who remained in the house.
“I’m confident that conducted at a ‘normal’ working time – say before 8.30pm – this amendment would have passed in the House, backed as it was by a highly distinguished, cross-party group of peers, particularly Baronesses Newlove and O’Loan,” Bennett told The Big Issue.
“Because it was nearly midnight, however, many people had gone home, although the government had kept the Whip on to keep Tories there.
“Still, the numbers voting were about one-third of normal – not in any way representative of the House. That was why I sought to adjourn the debate.”
Paddick added that the late timing of the vote excluded older peers with experience on the subject. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he said.
Peers argued the government’s insistence that the inquiry could be converted to a statutory inquiry was “wholly unacceptable” in its vagueness.
Crossbench peer Lord Carlile said: “My understanding of the situation at the moment is that the Home Secretary is saying that it would be possible to convert it to a statutory inquiry in certain circumstances. That is one of the most meaningless statements in this context that I have ever heard.
“Of course it is possible to convert it to a public inquiry; we could have a public inquiry on the knowledge of ministers about the price of milk, or almost anything for that matter, if the government chose to do it.”
Despite the failure of Chakrabarti’s amendment, the Sarah Everard inquiry could still become statutory. Lawyers from the Centre for Women’s Justice, along with 21 other women’s groups, have started judicial review proceedings against Priti Patel.
“We firmly believe that the Inquiry must involve a strand dedicated to what happened to Sarah Everard. But to proceed on a non-statutory footing is to do a disservice to Ms Everard and her family,” CWJ solicitor Debaleena Dasgupta said.
“To prevent something like this happening again, which is the stated aim of the Home Secretary, this incident cannot be viewed in a vacuum.”
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