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Victims of Crime (Code of Practice)

Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 14th December 2011.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 1:21 pm, 14th December 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a code of practice to be observed by all those working in the criminal justice system setting out the rights of victims of crime and their families;
and for connected purposes.

It is a privilege to address the House on a matter of profound importance to the functioning of our criminal justice system, and I am delighted that so many Members have expressed their support for this endeavour.

The Bill sets out to provide more rights and support to the victims of crime and to their families. We all know, from meeting victims of crime in our constituencies, the horrific, appalling and devastating effect that criminals have on their lives, but all too often victims and their families feel let down, unrepresented and abandoned as they are processed through the criminal justice system.

Two sets of figures highlight how scandalous and inconsistent the treatment of victims can be. The 2010-11 British crime survey shows that only 39% of victims were confident that the criminal justice system is effective, compared with 44% among non-victims, and that 56% of victims are confident that the criminal justice system is fair, compared with 63% of non-victims. In other words, once a victim goes through the criminal justice system and has experienced its workings, they believe it to be less effective and less fair, compared with the expectations of non-victims.

The treatment of victims is of even more concern when compared with the treatment of defendants and offenders. Surveys show that only about one third of people believe that the criminal justice system

“meets the needs of victims”.

By contrast, twice as many—80%—believe that the system

“respects the rights of and treats fairly people accused of committing a crime.”

That is no doubt why the former victims commissioner, Louise Casey, whose work I pay tribute to, has said that

“there is a need, if not to take away rights from offenders, to at least give consideration to ‘balancing up’ the system towards some basic needs of victims. Convicted or accused people are afforded a strong position in terms of definite ‘rights’ from the criminal justice system, whereas victims are afforded vague codes and unenforceable charters with no real route of complaint.”

The existing procedures for victims have failed and proved to be inadequate, and the victims commissioner called for a new victims law, which would include the rights for victims and their families to make statements to influence sentencing, to receive information about their case and to be given suitable support. Before Louise Casey left her post, she also called for more support and rights for the families of murder victims. It is deeply worrying that 51% of families bereaved in such circumstances have found the criminal justice system to be the most difficult issue to deal with, but that is why she called for them to receive greater rights to information, greater practical and emotional support and better treatment in the courtroom. She rightly called also for delays in releasing bodies to be overcome, so that loved ones might be buried within 28 days. Measures to introduce those recommendations and others are included in my Bill, as it strengthens the rights of victims and enshrines those rights in law.

In the time I have left, I should like to draw the House’s attention to some other issues that need addressing and are dealt with in my Bill. First, victims’ rights must be enforceable with an efficient and effective mechanism in place for them to seek and secure redress when their rights have not been respected. Offenders and defendants have a range of legal avenues available to them when they feel mistreated in the criminal justice system, including going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, but the striking absence of a corresponding system for victims is unjust, and my Bill reverses that.

Secondly, as part of making victims the central focus of the criminal justice system, my Bill ensures that they have a genuine say over whether an offender is charged, and when a sentence is passed down once a guilty verdict is secured. Too often, victims are excluded from that process, an appalling example of which was when the police and courts let off an offender responsible for committing some 600 crimes in Essex. Instead of being put in a prison cell, he went into the community to reoffend. Needless to say, victims throughout the county were angered by the judgment and by the fact that they were excluded from the decision-making process and did not get their day in court to press for a more relevant and appropriate sentence. Under my Bill, that would not happen again.

Thirdly, as part of giving more rights to the families of homicide victims, my Bill compels authorities to offer more support to the families of British nationals murdered abroad. In recent months, two horrendous cases have come to my attention, in which constituents have suffered because of the murder overseas of those nearest and dearest to them. Not only have they had a terrible time dealing with the tragic loss, but they have had to encounter a range of practical obstacles, such as translation costs, travel arrangements and an unfamiliarity with foreign legal systems. Currently, only 13% of those families feel as though the British authorities treat them as victims, and there is a wide disparity in the support services available to them. I pay tribute to the outstanding work undertaken by the organisation Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad in assisting relatives faced with that tragic set of circumstances, and to its efforts to develop a memorandum of understanding with the authorities in this country. But a firm set of commitments, which my Bill provides for, is needed so that full assistance can be afforded and provided to them.

Finally, my Bill gives victims greater protection from criminals not only when the criminal is out in the community, but when they are in prison. In one shocking case in my constituency, a convicted murderer has been able from jail to torment the family of the deceased, through media articles both authorised by the Ministry of Justice and unauthorised. That cannot be right, and my Bill empowers victims in such circumstances to prevent hurtful statements by their convicted tormentors.

Those are important issues for victims in all our constituencies, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House will show their support by granting me leave to bring in this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Priti Patel, Mr Philip Hollobone, Charlie Elphicke, Mr David Amess, Mr Graham Brady, Mr Andrew Turner, Mark Pritchard, Mr Graham Allen, Bob Russell, Nick de Bois, Stuart Andrew, Mark Durkan and Elizabeth Truss present the Bill.

Priti Patel accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 January 2012 and to be printed (Bill 263).