I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Victims Strategy.
It is a pleasure to open today’s debate on the victims strategy, which is of importance to Members on both sides of the House and to our constituents. Today’s debate follows on from the launch of the first ever cross-Government victims strategy by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and myself on
In that vein, I also want to thank the shadow Minister, Gloria De Piero, for her constructive engagement. While we may differ on some details, and rightly in her role she may—and, I sense, will—challenge me on particular aspects, her sincere commitment to improve support for the victims of crime is evident and consistent.
The strategy reflects this Government’s and this Prime Minister’s clear commitment to better support the victims of crime, building on progress so far. Someone who is a victim of crime should not become a victim of the process that follows. Our legal and justice system is quite rightly admired around the world, but we must ensure that it continues to evolve, to reflect the evolving nature of crime and the needs of victims. Our vision is of a justice system that supports more victims to speak up with the certainty that they will be understood, protected and, above all else, supported, regardless of their circumstances or background.
I make no apology for the lengthy list of those whom I thanked and paid tribute to a few moments ago for their work in this area, because that list—I could have included many others—reflects the fact that the key to delivering our vision and what victims want and need lies in working together.
The Minister is sensibly outlining the fact that this is a cross-departmental and, to a certain extent, cross-party issue. Will he also acknowledge the importance of rehabilitation of offenders and encourage his Department to ramp up its work in that regard? If there is greater rehabilitation, there will be fewer victims in the first place and fewer offenders reoffending.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has taken a consistent interest in that issue both as a Member and in his distinguished legal career prior to being elected to this place. He is right that this strategy is about providing support for the victims of crime, but ideally we must continue to focus on reducing the number of victims. This Government are very clear in the measures they are taking to reduce the number of victims of crime through tackling crime, but equally, as he says, rehabilitation is vital, because if we can prevent people from reoffending, we will see fewer victims of crime in the first place.
No single Department, agency, emergency service or other organisation alone can provide the services that victims rightly expect to receive, as shown by the response to major incidents and tragedies, such as the Grenfell fire and terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Since my appointment four months ago, I have spoken to many victims and survivors, victims’ groups and of course the excellent Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove. I pay tribute to Baroness Newlove, who has played a huge role in moving this agenda forward since her appointment. She has taken a new role, shaped it, made it her own and achieved a huge amount, and we should all be grateful to her.
I also highlight the role of Members. It is difficult to single out particular ones, but I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning, who held this role before me many years ago and started off a lot of this work. He is a tireless, vocal and fearless campaigner on these issues, and that should be recognised. I also recognise the work of those who work in the justice system.
Through visits I have undertaken to not just our custodial establishments but women’s centres in the north-west, the Hackney youth offending team and youth courts, I have heard directly exactly how important the victim’s experience is to ensure that justice is delivered and is seen and felt to be delivered. This strategy consolidates years of progress that have been made by Governments of both parties, from the introduction of the first code of practice for victims in 2006, to the appointment of the first Victims’ Commissioner in 2010 and the 2012 publication of “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”. There is a large amount of cross-party consensus on this agenda. That is to the good, and we might wish to see it more often in this House.
Crucially, we are seeking to ensure that we keep pace with the changing nature of crime and the crimes being reported and are better able to deal with the pressures placed on the system. Our criminal justice system must ensure that those who are innocent are acquitted and that those who are guilty are convicted, but it must also work to respect the interests of victims. Victims have told us that they want to be treated fairly, properly and with dignity. They want to have timely, accurate information and communication and to see a joined-up and effective system working for them and ensuring that their journey is as simple as possible. Members will see that the structure of the strategy is no coincidence. I was clear that its structure should reflect the journey of a victim through the criminal justice system, making it clear that we are seeking to place them at the heart of what we are trying to do with this strategy.
We have made significant progress, but recognise that more must and can be done. Through the strategy, we seek to make victims’ entitlements a practical reality, rather than simply well intentioned words on a page. To that end, we have committed to strengthening the code of practice for victims—the victims code—to make sure that it keeps pace with the changing needs of victims and the nature of crime in the 21st century, while making clear to agencies and victims the services they are expected to provide and receive. We will deliver on that commitment by updating and amending the victims code to address its complexity, accessibility and language, and updating the entitlements. We shall consult on the changes in early 2019.
We want to go further, so in our strategy we reaffirm our manifesto commitment to develop proposals and to consult on the detail of a victims law. We will consider strengthening the enforcement of the victims code to ensure that victims receive the services to which they are entitled and, if they do not, better to hold criminal justice agencies to account; strengthening the powers of the victims commissioner, so that that role has a stronger voice for victims and is better able to hold Government to account; and strengthening the role such legislation can play to underpin the consistency and enforceability of standards and the code. I pay tribute to Baroness Brinton, who is already engaged in that work, and to Keir Starmer for his work both in his previous role and in this House. We may not always agree on all the details of his proposals, but I look forward with pleasure to continuing to engage with him, as we develop the legislative proposals in the coming months.
In considering the changing nature of crime and victims’ needs, it is right that we address compensation. Although no amount of money can make up for the immense suffering endured by victims of violent crime, it is vital that they receive the help and support they need to rebuild their lives. In the victims strategy, we announced our intention to undertake a full review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme to ensure that it reflects fully the changing nature of crime and that every victim gets the compensation to which they are entitled.
Will my hon. Friend ensure not only that a compensation scheme reflects the pain and suffering victims have gone through, but that it is pacey and timely? Often, the issue is when the compensation comes through, not just how much it is.
My hon. Friend is right. In many aspects of the treatment of victims by the system, timeliness is hugely important. Although the operation of the scheme is a matter for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, his points about timeliness and pace are well made and noted.
It is important that the review looks not only at the concerns regarding the eligibility rules of the scheme, but at its sustainability, the affordability of any changes to be made and the rules on the timescales for applications. It will also enable the Government to take account of recommendations made by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which is investigating compensation and redress for victims of child sexual abuse. The review is expected to report in 2019 with recommendations for reform.
We have also announced our intention to remove the pre-1979 “same roof rule” from the scheme. We recognise that the rule has unfairly denied compensation for some victims of violence and abuse, who lived with their attacker as members of the same family, and we are committed to abolishing it as quickly as possible. I look forward to introducing proposals in the coming months. I take this opportunity to pay specific tribute to Sarah Champion. Not only is she an honourable and diligent Member, but she is a brave and dedicated campaigner and a very decent lady. She has cause to be very proud of her work on this issue, as do her constituents.
Alongside the victims strategy and reflecting commitments in it, we have also launched a consultation on establishing an independent public advocate to support those who have been bereaved in public disasters through subsequent inquests and inquiries. Losing a loved one in any circumstances is always deeply distressing, but those who have been bereaved in a public disaster have the additional challenge of navigating the complex and often lengthy investigations into what happened, alongside many other families all struggling to get access to information and to make their voices heard. During this time, as happened to the families bereaved in the Hillsborough stadium disaster, the voices of the bereaved can be lost to the very people responsible for uncovering the truth. We are committed to ensuring that the experiences of the Hillsborough families are not repeated and that the concerns and views of the bereaved are heard. It is the right thing to do.
The independent public advocate will help bereaved families to engage effectively with investigations. They will ensure that bereaved families understand what is happening and why; that they can participate in these investigations, when there is the opportunity to do so; and that those undertaking the investigations understand the views of the bereaved and are able to answer any questions they have. The independent public advocate will help to ensure that the voices of the bereaved are heard. Our consultation, which runs until
We recognise that support can be fragmented and difficult to navigate and that victims often do not know what is available or where to find help. For many, the experience of being a victim does not stop after a crime has been committed. We are committed to ensuring that victims receive quality support when and where they need it. We are working across Government to develop seamless support for all victims of crime through better agency co-operation and more devolution to police and crime commissioners. In that context, I am particularly pleased with the work being led by Assistant Chief Constable Emma Barnett, who is pulling together cross-agency working groups to make sure that that work is driven forward at pace across all agencies.
In the past, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield, has rightly raised questions about funding. The strategy is for all victims and outlines additional funding of approximately £37 million that is provided for those who report crime and those who, for whatever reason, do not or cannot. It also sets out our plans to bring Government and agency spending on supporting victims—roughly £200 million a year—together for the first time, to improve co-ordination. To do this, we will develop a new delivery model for support services, which will allow us better to co-ordinate and combine funding, in order to increase its impact. There are new services and additional funding, but we also plan to make existing money work better, with our focus less on inputs than on outputs for victims, so that we can improve support and ensure that the money goes to the right people, in the right place at the right time.
As part of the additional funding, we have committed to increasing spending from £31 million to £39 million on improving services for survivors of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault centres. We will bring in new funding for advocacy for those affected by domestic homicide, and we are improving the support for families bereaved by murder and manslaughter by replacing current funding arrangements, allowing them access to the widest range of support, based on their needs. We have further committed to improving support for victims of sexual violence. From April 2019, we will award grant funding to rape support services for two years, rather than for one as we do now, offering more stability and certainty to those essential support providers. We will also explore the benefits of full local commissioning of sexual violence support services with police and crime commissioners, who we believe have a key role in responding to the needs of victims in their local area.
We are spending £8 million on interventions to make sure that the right support is available for children who witness domestic abuse. For some children, that trauma can lead to internalisation and normalisation of abuse, and perhaps to repetition. We must do all we can to break the cycle and to end this abhorrent crime.
We will ensure a criminal justice system in which perpetrators are brought to justice, and that intervenes to protect victims before abuse escalates.
We are acutely aware of the importance of listening to and understanding victims’ experiences of domestic abuse, and that is why the Government recently held a consultation on transforming our response to such experiences. We will publish our response later this year, and introduce legislation through the domestic abuse Bill. I am pleased to see sitting beside me the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Victoria Atkins). She is my opposite number in the Home Office and is doing amazing work driving forward this agenda. I work closely with her on this issue, along with the Solicitor General.
Victims need support and information so that they remain confident and engaged, and so that they have the tools they need fully to understand and challenge decisions in the justice system. We will improve support after a crime has been reported by introducing better police training on conducting interviews and collecting evidence, and we will trial body-worn cameras to assist in taking victims’ personal statements. That will give greater choice in how victims are heard and reduce the need for statements to be repeated multiple times to multiple people, which involves the added trauma of having to relive the experience once again.
We are committed to increasing the number of intermediaries by a quarter, so that there are more experts to assist victims and witnesses in communicating evidence to the police and courts. Furthermore, we will improve communication with victims by clearly explaining decisions not to prosecute, and the right for them to review Crown Prosecution Service decisions. We reiterate our clear support for the unduly lenient sentence scheme, which is led by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General.
We fully recognise that for some, going to court can be daunting and criminal trials can be complex. We want to minimise the impact on victims of attending court by improving the support available, and responding to their practical needs. We will deliver that by launching new guidance and a toolkit for prosecutors and therapists, to encourage the take-up of pre-trial therapy. We will improve the court environment with new victim-friendly waiting areas, and continue to develop the use of video links that allow vulnerable victims to give evidence away from the defendant and courtroom.
We are developing the video link scheme, and one key factor of its development is to ensure that the technology is robust and does the job. That is why we are taking our time to ensure that we get this right and that prosecutors, defendants and judges have confidence in that technology. The scheme will be rolled out to more courts in fairly short order, but the real factor behind the time we are taking is to ensure that we get it right and that trials continue to be robust.
We will expand support for families who have been bereaved by gang violence. The recent spate of gang-related violence, especially in London, has shone a light on the devastation that knife and gun crime can reap on families and communities. Alongside the strong lead taken by the Home Secretary in bringing forward measures to tackle the issue at source, we will introduce new funding for those affected by homicide.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing on behalf of victims, but may I take him back to the court process? For many victims, the act of sentencing gives them justice, yet in far too many cases the feeling is that the defendant has the upper hand due to the menace that they can display during sentencing or their ability not to attend sentencing and stay in the cells. Has the Minister undertaken any work to find out how such things can be minimised so that defendants do not behave in such a manner?
My hon. Friend is right, and at all stages of the process it is important to minimise additional distress to victims. I understand that judges, quite rightly, control and manage their own court rooms, and they have the power—if they believe it appropriate—to proceed without the defendant being present. That is a matter of judicial discretion, and I have confidence that our world-class judiciary will exercise that discretion appropriately.
Finally, I turn to parole. Earlier this year the Worboys case brought into focus the need for improvements to be made to the way that victims are communicated with and their cases handled. We want to ensure that the system is as transparent as possible, and that victims have a voice in the process. That is why this strategy sets out our plans to reform and simplify the victim contact scheme, to make it easier for victims to opt-in, and to introduce more frequent and better quality communication. We will also improve victim liaison officer training, especially in supporting victims during parole hearings and with the presumption that a victim’s personal statement can be made to the Parole Board if the victim wishes it.
In April the Secretary of State published the “Review of the law, policy and procedure relating to Parole Board decisions.” We have further consulted on the detail for parole decisions to be reconsidered in certain circumstances, and are carefully considering all responses to that review before setting out our next steps later this year. Those steps can, and should, help to ensure that past failings cannot be repeated.
I believe that this strategy is a reflection of how we should seek to see ourselves: as a nation that offers dignity, empathy and compassion to people when they are at their most vulnerable. There is a broad consensus on that across the House, and alongside the vigorous action taken by this Government to reduce crime and the number of victims of crime, this strategy will help to ensure that when someone becomes a victim of crime, the support they need is there. We have already begun to implement that strategy, and I look forward to its delivering on this Government’s, and my personal, commitment to the victims of crime.
I thank the Minister for his kind words, his tone, and the commitment to victims that he demonstrated in his speech. There is, of course, much to welcome, and although I know he is relatively new to this role, I will raise once again the deep frustration that I feel, because it is years since the Government first promised that they would enshrine key entitlements for victims and witnesses in primary legislation. These measures are welcome, but it seems a little late to be still saying “consultation, consultation, consultation.” I suppose victims will have to wait a little longer for their rights to be taken seriously, and for some of the positive measures mentioned to be guaranteed by law.
Rights in the current victims code are not sufficiently enforceable, and without the power to enforce that code in law, it is left to the police, prosecutors, courts and the Parole Board to monitor how well they comply and to mark their own homework. Well-meaning but underfunded service providers are creaking under the weight of Government cuts, and unscrupulous practitioners are still able to leave victims without their rights or any come back.
As I have been saying for months, the only thing that will do is legislation. The Victims’ Commissioner, whom the Minister rightly praises, has called for a victims law, and for seismic change in the culture of the justice system. Victim Support has demanded legislation, along with a raft of other campaigners. The Government now say that they will consult on a revised victims code in 2019—nearly half a decade after they first promised to provide a victims law—and on the detail of victim-focused legislation. Can the Minister say what part of victims’ rights would not require legal status? Why not make the entire code law, along with any welcome and necessary additions?
I was dismayed, although not entirely surprised that, after I submitted various written questions—I think this was before the Minister’s tenure—I discovered that the Government do not collect data on the experiences of victims in the criminal justice system, or on how the code is being implemented. They could not tell me how many breaches of the victims code there have been in the past 12 years, how long it takes for victims to receive any compensation they have been awarded, or how many victims of domestic violence have been cross-examined in court by the perpetrator—the list goes on. The Government simply do not monitor whether the code, which they admit is known about by only a fraction of victims, is having any effect. Will the Government commit to act by looking at how this is or is not working, now and after any legislation is passed? Can the Minister tell me the answer to any of those questions today? Will his Department commit to annual reporting on the state of victims’ rights?
It is also disappointing that some fundamental issues that victims and campaigners have been shouting about from the rooftops are not addressed in the strategy. Why are there no measures to stop the barbaric process of allowing victims of rape to be cross-examined in a way that is designed to undermine their credibility? We have seen instances of rape survivors being grilled by their previous partners about their underwear and even about owning sex toys in an attempt to undermine their credibility and to show that their sexual history meant they were surely consenting to their rapist.
Meticulous research from the former Solicitor General, to whom the Minister referred in his remarks and Northumbria police and crime commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, found that rape complainants’ previous sexual history was used as evidence in 37% of the trials she studied. In the majority of those cases, the evidence used related to the women’s sexual activity with men other than the defendant. In almost two thirds of the cases where previous sexual history was used in evidence, the proper procedure to apply for the judge’s consent ahead of trial with notice to the prosecution was not followed. There was either no application or it was made at trial without notice. In one trial, the defence barrister said that his line of questioning was to show that “she is an adulterous”. Surely the Government can see that that is outrageous—we are living in 2018—especially after so much progress has been made by the Me Too movement.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is also aware and deeply shocked that in cases of child sexual exploitation, children are disproportionately asked about their past sexual behaviour, which then goes out in front of the court. Surely that must be stopped?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and let me take this opportunity to commend her for her rigorous and unstoppable campaigning work. That is a very good point, which, if we are having a consultation, should be included in it.
The Victims’ Commissioner for London rightly said that this process re-traumatises victims. It causes them irreparable harm and prevents other victims from coming forward, yet we see nothing about that in the strategy.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Half of all clinical commissioning groups have plans to reduce their spending on mental health. Does she agree that this will have a significant impact on survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, for whom mental health services are so important in helping them to recover from trauma?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. For anyone—there may be people in this House who have suffered the trauma we are discussing—to have to go through that trauma without the mental health support one would inevitably need is shocking.
A victims law presents a unique opportunity to protect rape victims from the ordeal of having their sexual history dragged through the courts. Does the Minister deny there is a problem, or will he, at the very least, commit to including this issue in the forthcoming consultation?
My hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock mentioned mental health. The strategy makes little mention of the mental health trauma most victims experience after their ordeal and the long-lasting effects it has on their lives. One third of forensic physicians who support victims after a sexual assault say accessibility to mental health provision is poor, so they cannot always refer victims to the help they desperately need. The Victims’ Commissioner for London talks about rape and sexual violence victims who have been left unsupported on waiting lists for six months or more after unimaginable trauma. The Government need to guarantee victims’ decent mental health provision by law and fund it adequately, not as a Cinderella service. Can the Minister give me some reassurance on that today?
The Conservative party claims that austerity is over. Can the Minister confirm that a number of spending pledges in the victims strategy, on which I have sought clarification through written questions, such as the £18.8 million for domestic abuse accommodation services and £8 million to support children who witness domestic abuse, are not in fact additional funding commitments but money shifted from elsewhere in existing budgets? Will he tell us which other areas and services will lose out as a result?
What about the personal finances of victims? I recently had a harrowing conversation with a woman whose husband was given a 16-year sentence for her attempted murder. She is now having to pay enormous legal fees to divorce him, knowing that he is likely to be entitled to some of her money, her pension and her home. Where is the justice in that? When two women a week are murdered by a partner, this is no small problem. This absurd situation cannot be allowed to continue. The presumption must be that there is a loss of financial entitlement, enforced by law, in all but the most exceptional cases of murder or attempted murder of a spouse. Will the Minister commit to legislation that strips attempted murderers of their spousal rights, which they surely forfeited when inflicting such brutal damage on their partner? I hope Government Ministers will work with us to amend the law and ensure that this obvious injustice is ended.
Other victims who feel that perpetrators have got off far too lightly include the families of people killed on our roads. In 2014, 25-year-old Joseph Brown-Lartey was tragically killed in Rochdale by a reckless motorist driving at 80 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour speed limit zone. The offender was sentenced to six years in jail and was released after just three. The family of this young person with so much to live for are rightly furious that this driver can walk free while they are left to grieve. It is almost a year to the day since the Government committed to increasing the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving, yet the families of those killed are still waiting for changes. Will the Government tell us when we can expect those increases to come forward?
There is no Government commitment to introducing an independent violence advocate to support victims as they recover and seek justice. Victims should not have to navigate an extremely complex system alone. Will the Minister agree with me and the Victims’ Commissioner for London, and commit to that in the new strategy?
As the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, has said, victims should not have to fight their own corner. This strategy, although it does contain positive measures, leaves far too much to be desired for victims, who will still feel on their own under this Government. It is time for real action by passing a proper victims law.
Crime is significantly lower than it was in the mid-1990s, but there has been a change in the pattern and the nature of it. The increases in crime have been in what many people would regard as the more serious types of crime, particularly violent crimes. Much of our criminal justice system is understandably and rightly focused on the perpetrators of crime: on how we can prevent people from being drawn into a life of crime by tackling some of the root causes that make them more susceptible to it, or, on the penal side of the criminal justice system, in dealing with sentencing, public protection and making sure that those people cannot cause serious damage. We need to make sure that that is not done at the expense of neglecting those who suffer most directly from such crimes: the direct victims of crime.
Many of the changes in the pattern and nature of crime in our communities have consequences for the experience of victims. We need to ensure that how the Government and society treat and support our victims through the process changes to reflect their own changing experiences. In my constituency, over the past year we have seen over 1,500 violent crimes recorded. Worryingly, that is a massive 30% increase on the previous year. Each of those violent crimes clearly has a direct victim, many of whom will need support. All will need consideration of how the criminal justice system proceeds in dealing with the compilation of evidence, prosecution, and, where appropriate, conviction and punishment of those responsible for those crimes.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, huge progress has been made in recent years. When I was studying law in the mid-1990s, victims were, if anything, an afterthought in the whole system. When I was training for the Bar, the way that barristers and legal representatives were to approach victims was not even covered in the vocational training. The whole system seemed to assume that victims were little more than onlookers, with no more stake in proceedings than any other member of society.
I certainly welcome the enormous progress that has been made, particularly over the past 12 years, starting with the introduction of the victims code. It is right that we pay tribute to the work done by previous Governments to introduce the Victims’ Commissioner, who has done some extremely important work to ensure that victims’ interests are considered within Government and more widely. More recently, police and crime commissioners up and down the country have put the rights and interests of victims at the heart of their work, ensuring that they are a priority in local policing. The best PCCs ensure that is a key part of their focus, beyond what most people probably associate with their core work.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, but I am also concerned that the number of victims applying to civil courts to try to get non-molestation orders against abusive partners or ex-partners seems to be on the increase. I hope that we will be taking action to try to stop that, because sometimes it costs people up to £10,000 to get an ex-partner off their back.
I am sure that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point, which I agree with. Of course, some of the legislation going through the House is relevant to that point, whether the legislation relating to the Government’s domestic violence strategy or private Members’ Bills, such as the Stalking Protection Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston. They will allow the criminal justice system to ensure that perpetrators are stopped before their crimes, which are directly largely at women but also at men, escalate to something more serious.
Although much progress has been made in recent years—and we all recognise that the £200 million being spent on supporting victims is a considerable amount of money—I am sure that we all have examples from our constituencies of victims being let down by the system. One of the most upsetting cases that I have dealt with recently involved a young woman in my constituency. The charges for the crimes that she was the victim of covered a range of serious offences, including sexual offences and false imprisonment. Her statement included evidence of very coercive behaviour, domestic violence and assault. Yet her experience of our criminal justice system was simply not good enough.
After an arrest was made, the communication from the police was certainly not good enough, but it got worse as the cases progressed. At the initial bail hearing there was little or no communication from the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. The family understand that the CPS did not contest the bail hearing, despite the very serious offences involved, but they still do not understand how or why that decision was made. The suspect was released on bail and continued to live in the local area. Although bail conditions were of course imposed, the police offered no reassurances on how the victim could be protected pending trial.
The accused was re-arrested after an incident and an application was made to vary the bail conditions, but that hearing was missed because, as far as we can ascertain, they were taken to the wrong court on the day of the hearing after a weekend in a police cell. Having missed the hearing, the accused was re-released on the existing bail conditions. We can only imagine how that affected the victim and her family. It is simply not good enough.
Perhaps more worryingly, the victim and her family have constantly been told that it would be better if she did not have any counselling, therapy or help to deal with these traumatic experiences until the trail concluded, in case it influenced the evidence. A victim may have to wait 15 or 18 months before the case comes to trial, and all that time without proper support is extremely damaging. Even with the best psychiatric support, therapy and counselling, and any other services that the state, the third sector or anyone else can offer, it is difficult to see how that damage could be repaired at a later stage.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point about the suggestion that victims should not have counselling before going to court. I have heard about that a lot recently, from both the police and the CPS. Is that something the Minister could look into, because there are appropriate types of counselling that would not disrupt people’s recollection, and they are being denied that support?
I hope that can be considered. Clearly nobody wants to endanger a fair trial, or to give another reason to cast doubt on credible evidence. The circumstances of a lot of domestic violence and serious sexual offences mean that the evidence available is often not as concrete as it might be for other types of crime. We really do need to ensure that victims receive both the service they deserve and the support they so desperately need. This strategy is an important first step in making sure that is the case. I have referred to only one example from my constituency, although it is a particularly distressing one, but I am sure that there are very few Members, if any, who have not encountered something similar in their own constituency casework.
I welcome the strategy that the Minister introduced today, and particularly the plans for a victims Bill. It is so important that we look to place on a statutory footing the strengthening of those rights already provided in the code and of the powers that the Victims’ Commissioner has to ensure that victims’ rights are protected within Government and outside, to ensure that victims and their families have access to information—the right to be informed—and the right to be properly involved. Clearly, this does need to be done on a cross-Government basis, as it does not all fall within a single Department.
The crime survey of England and Wales suggests that one fifth of adults will be the victims of crime this year in some form. The strategy is an important step in making sure that those victims who have already suffered from crime are not made to suffer again through the process that follows that crime.
It is a pleasure to follow Mike Wood, and I, too, am pleased that we are discussing this extremely important issue today. I welcome the degree of consensus forming around placing victims at the heart of justice, although it is to be regretted that it has taken so long for the Government to publish this strategy. I also welcome the Government’s approach in looking to that great beacon of good governance in Edinburgh, as confirmed last month by the Minister, who said that
“in drawing up this strategy we have taken great heed of what is done in Scotland and looked at what the Scottish Government do. There is no reason to be dogmatic about these things. Where there is good practice elsewhere that may be applicable, we are always happy to look at it, and my officials have been looking at what is done in Scotland.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 646, c. 482.]
He was right to do so—Scottish legislation has already created strong rights and protections for victims that cover many of the issues now in the Government’s victims strategy. For example, the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 has improved the support and information that is available to victims, and I point to the Scottish Government’s victims code for Scotland, published in 2016, which clearly sets out the rights of victims in one place. The code ensures that justice agencies, including the police, the Crown, the courts, and the Parole Board publish and report on shared standards regarding how victims are supported and how those standards are being met.
Gwent is a very good police force in south Wales. Nevertheless, every so often, I hear genuine concerns from victims about how their cases are being taken forward. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that better data on the experiences of victims in the justice system would be a real help?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Scottish justice system, and its treatment of victims in the process, is not a land of milk and honey. It has its problems, and we could also do with better information on how victims experience the process. As a member of the Justice Committee, it is something that I will bring up. In fact, I asked a similar question at yesterday’s Committee hearing.
As I have just suggested, I am not standing here today to tell the House that the Scottish justice system or support for victims is perfect. I recently had a case in which a victim’s family felt let down by the Scottish system. My constituent had to wait five months to bury a loved one because of the time it took to find and charge a suspect. In Scotland, police often hold bodies for extended periods as both concerned families and the accused are entitled to have their own post-mortems performed, so stressful delays occur when no arrest has been made. In England and Wales, if no arrest has been made in 28 days, an independent post-mortem is commissioned. This is an area of the Scottish justice system that we need to address, and perhaps look south of the border for a solution, to make what must be an already incredibly difficult and traumatic time for those affected a little easier.
As I have said, I serve on the Justice Committee under the wise leadership of Robert Neill, and we hear week in and week out of the problems right through the justice system in England and Wales, from a lack of resources to a lack of judges and courts, poor victim support, not enough lawyers in parts of the country, legal aid policy, prison overcrowding and conditions, not enough prison officers, a failing rehabilitation system—the list is seemingly endless. Week in and week out, many of the witnesses before us state that they would like the Ministry of Justice to replicate what happens in Scotland in many areas. Just yesterday, the Committee heard another extremely well qualified panel, including Professor Nick Hardwick, formerly the chair of the Parole Board and chief inspector of prisons, Dee Anand of the British Psychological Society and Mark Day of the Prison Reform Trust, all praise the approach Scotland has taken to a presumption against short sentences and on rehabilitation, which has resulted in the lowest recidivism rate in decades.
The team at the MOJ is relatively new—barring of course the Solicitor General, a welcome beacon of consistency in the Department. I welcome the fact the new team appears to be heading in a more progressive direction: whether through actually pursuing evidence-based policy or financial necessity, it is hard to say. In any case, I welcome that approach and the willingness to look at ideas from elsewhere.
As always, the SNP continually strives to build the fairest justice system possible. That is why the Scottish Government will build on our existing legislation and funding to ensure that victims are put at the centre of the justice process. Their voices will be heard and recognised. In 2018-19, the Scottish Government are providing £17.9 million to third sector organisations who work to support victims. In addition, they have announced a new three-year funding package for Victim Support Scotland, totalling £13.8 million, part of which will provide for a new homicide service giving families of murder victims access to a dedicated caseworker and continuous support. Often victims, and their families, can feel like they are being passed from one organisation to another, adding to their trauma when they are most vulnerable. This new funding is aimed at ensuring that Victim Support Scotland works in partnership with criminal justice and victim support bodies to develop a new approach. Along with the homicide service, it will ease the journey for victims and their families, whether or not they engage with the criminal justice process.
That approach has been welcomed by Victim Support Scotland, whose chief executive, Kate Wallace, said:
“We’re delighted with the shift to three-year funding which provides us with greater long-term stability to enhance the front-line support we provide for people affected by crime. The creation of the Homicide Service and the victim-centred approach are also very positive new developments and we will be working closely with all our partners to make these a reality.”
Crucially, it has the support of victims’ rights campaigners themselves, including Bea Jones, founder of the Moira Fund and the mother of Moira Jones who was murdered in Queens park, Glasgow in 2008. Bea has campaigned for greater support in Scotland for families bereaved through murder, and she said:
“This is an important step and one which will have a positive impact on many lives in Scotland. It will ensure more families will be helped than before, and that those families will get the right support, at the right time and from the right people. I’m pleased that in Moira’s name her charity has played a part in bringing about today’s news and that it enriches her legacy.”
I could not agree more.
The latest Scottish programme for government commits to helping victims in a number of other ways, too. It seeks to work with partners to reduce, and eliminate where possible, the need for victims to have to retell their story to different organisations as they look for help. It seeks to widen the range of serious crimes where the victim can make a statement to court about how the crime has affected them, and it will ensue that victims and their families have better information and greater support ahead of prison release arrangements. It will also seek to improve the experience in the justice system of victims of rape and sexual assault.
Further, just four days ago, Scotland’s relatively new Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, announced that he would chair a new victims taskforce that will be dedicated to improving victims’ experiences of the justice system. This will ensure that victims’ voices are heard and will streamline their journey through the criminal justice system. It will also provide wide-ranging support and will ensure access to support and information through the process. The task force will hear evidence directly from victims, and membership will include senior decision makers from justice agencies and voluntary partners, including those who represent victims. This is yet more evidence of the Scottish Government leading the way in their justice policy.
Earlier, I welcomed the fact that the UK had looked for inspiration from the excellent work of the SNP Scottish Government, but we, too, look elsewhere for best practice, whether to Iceland for the Barnahus concept—which involves immediate trauma-informed multi-agency support for child victims of serious crimes and the investigation of abuse, bringing together all relevant services under one roof—or to New Zealand, with its ground-breaking domestic abuse paid leave. Just a few days ago, at its conference, the SNP passed a motion calling on the UK Government to give victims of domestic abuse the right to paid leave from work to secure safe accommodation.
As we all know, domestic abuse can have a horrific and long-lasting impact on survivors and their children and a hugely detrimental impact on their jobs and career prospects. On both sides of the border, it is vital that we do everything we can to help the victims of abuse. Across the UK, more than 100,000 people are at high risk of being murdered or seriously injured as a result of domestic abuse. We must ensure that there is an awareness of what help is available to those at risk, as, on average, those at high risk often wait more than two and a half years before getting help.
As a constituency Member and as a White Ribbon Ambassador, I recently attended an extremely useful and enlightening training session with Renfrewshire’s multi-agency risk assessment conference—MARAC—to learn about the support that it provides for victims. It works with multiple agencies to provide effective one-to-one support, advice and advocacy throughout their experience. That is an extremely difficult task in a sensitive area, but Renfrewshire MARAC is leading the way supporting victims, 95% of whom are women. It has been particularly successful, having heard 315 cases to date. In its observation audit, SafeLives Scotland found it to be the most effective MARAC in Scotland.
Renfrewshire MARAC is currently engaging in sensitive training. It has conducted 250 sensitive routine enquiry training sessions, including high-risk identification, for health visitors, family nurses, community mental health nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists and partners in addiction services. That work is essential to making the process of identifying abuse as easy as possible for the victim. It will also deliver domestic abuse awareness training to 66 housing officers, including homeless services staff, which dovetails well with the commitment made by the Scottish Government to train all front-line police officers and the domestic abuse legislation that has recently been passed in Holyrood. I encourage those who wish to promote that kind of victim support to speak to Maxine and her MARAC team to learn about and apply as much as they can.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s speech, and I echo every point that he made about domestic abuse. I look forward to the new Bill, but I urge him and his colleagues to ensure that the proper resources are provided to support its aspirations and ensure that more support is given to those who suffer such abuse.
As I think I have made clear, Scotland is leading the way in putting victims at the heart of the justice system. It is of paramount importance that victims of any crime are supported on every step of the way through the system and that the number of occasions on which they must relive their trauma is minimised as much as possible. The Scottish Government will always seek to learn from best practice across the world, and I hope that the UK Government will commit themselves to doing the same, whether from Scotland or the other side of the world. They owe it to victims and their families and friends to do just that.
Let me begin by echoing what has been said by Members, including my hon. Friend the Minister, about Sarah Champion and the amazing work that she has done. She is championing her constituents, as her name suggests, and it is important that she does not become a victim in any sense. There should be no witch hunt surrounding any of us who do our jobs and champion our constituents.
I welcomed what the Minister said in introducing the victims strategy, which is an important piece of the jigsaw that includes the need to reduce crime overall, to secure justice for victims and to reassure people and make them feel safe. The serious violence strategy, the Offensive Weapons Bill, the forthcoming domestic abuse Bill and this victims strategy should be all of a piece rather than working in isolation.
If the Minister wants any advice on how to roll out the strategy and make it a really meaningful document, he could do worse than come down to the Churchill Room at 7 o’clock this evening. Coincidentally, a couple of my constituents, Ray and Vi Donovan, will be attending a dinner there. They run the Chris Donovan Trust. What happened to them was this. Chris was walking along the street with his brother one day. He was beaten up, left to die, run over and dragged by a car—murdered, 16 years ago.
Ray and Vi, who naturally experienced a lot of anger and horror at losing their child, have turned that horror, that anger and frustration, into an incredible charity. They actually met the perpetrators who served their sentence, and they now go out into prisons and schools and work on restorative justice. They realise that victims are not just the people who have lost loved ones, and that any serious crime such as murder creates any number of victims because people’s lives are written off.
Ray and Vi also work with other charities. Along with Tom Brake, who is in the Chamber, I attended an awards ceremony that they hosted recently. They present awards to other small charities, typically run by the families of other victims of serious crime who have been murdered. They have taken that negative energy and turned it into something really positive to prevent people from going down the same path and creating more victims. One of the people to whom they awarded a prize was the Victims’ Commissioner for London, Claire Waxman, who had suffered a horrendous amount of abuse from a long-term stalker.
I have often spoken about domestic abuse in this place, and I am glad that the subject has arisen now. We must go further in ensuring that we support domestic abuse victims fully. A family member has gone through some harrowing times over the last few years because of her controlling, coercive partner. Fortunately, she did not have to be cross-examined, but that is not always the case, despite the Government’s best efforts. I know that many courts are working to try to separate entrances—certainly in the criminal courts people cannot be cross-examined by the alleged perpetrator, but in the family courts they can. Organisations such as Women’s Aid have given many examples of that.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s constituent has been affected by the fact that universal credit payments are made to only one member of the household, but that can make the position even worse for families in which domestic abuse is an issue. He might like to have a word with the Secretary of State, who does not seem to want to introduce split payments to this flawed process.
I do not think that that applies in the case that I have mentioned, but the hon. Lady has made a very interesting point.
We need to do more to ensure that victims cannot be questioned by perpetrators, which, effectively, extends suffering for many years.
There have been more than 100 victims in London this year. We have seen victim after victim portrayed in photographs in the Evening Standard. That senseless loss of life is often, but not solely, a result of gang activities. It is important to remember these victims’ names, from Kyall Parnell, who was only 17 and who was stabbed in Tulse Hill on New Year’s Eve, to Sandra Zmijan, whose body was found in a back garden in west London only about three weeks ago, on
Just this week I was walking through Victoria station on my way to Westminster, as I usually do on my daily commute, and saw members of the Metropolitan police and some family members and activists handing out leaflets and posters. They wanted to find one of the most wanted people, Shane O’Brien. He murdered someone three years ago, and we must not forget his victim’s name: Josh Hanson, who was murdered in Eastcote in Hillingdon three years ago. They are trying to find Shane O’Brien and bring him to justice, so that Josh Hanson’s family, who are victims as well, can have some justice. If anybody can help, the incident room can be reached on 0208 785 8099, or people can report via Crimestoppers. We need to look at all these things as part of a holistic solution in London and across the country.
That wider solution includes ensuring we can protect our police on the street. I am working closely, as our party’s vice-chairman for London, with Shaun Bailey, who is talking about putting 1,000 more police on the street, using lessons from New York, which is utilising artificial intelligence and technology to release police from certain activities and on to the frontline. But this is not just about money, although that is important—I know every London MP of every political hue calls for extra resource for the Met police; it is also about how that money is spent. The Met police have £110 million from Government—from the precept, and therefore from the Mayor as well. So this has come from right across the board: the Mayor has the money, and he has given it to the Met police, and now we have to make sure that they can use it effectively to recruit the policemen that we need.
We must move on from that consideration, too, because by the time someone has a knife in their hand and a policemen has found them, it is too late. We need to reach these people far earlier—not at secondary school, but at primary school.
The victims strategy fits in well in the London knife crime context not just through the ability to give someone who has been a victim and is a member of a gang the emotional support they need, but by having a way of removing them from the situation that would allow them to enter into gang retribution, so that we can break the cycle. The victims strategy can be used as a method of breaking the cycle, too.
I thank my near constituency neighbour for giving way, and he is right: he and I have attended many events to commemorate the work done by Ray and Vi Donovan. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that restorative justice must be part of a holistic solution for victims? Even in very serious cases, for instance involving people who have been assaulted, some victims find that restorative justice can contribute and help them even if they have been badly affected by a crime.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. I have no idea how Ray and Vi Donovan had the chutzpah and courage to meet the people who murdered their son. They have such an inner strength, and they still exude that to this day; people can see that every time they meet them. The right hon. Gentleman is right that to understand can bring some sense of closure and sense that justice can be served in full, so that a victim’s family and friends can move on with their lives as well.
The victims code is already in place, but research for the strategy found that people do not know that the code is there; only 18% of victims understand that it exists, so they do not often know what support is available for them. The strategy talks about the fact that the utmost respect should be afforded to victims and so forth. These are basic requirements, frankly, that we would expect everybody to already appreciate. None the less it cannot be said loudly enough that there is a strategy. Too often in any area of government these considerations can be lost in bureaucracy and we can forget that these are real people—that they are individuals who need individual, tailor-made support.
I have talked about domestic violence refuges around the country and the £18.8 million of welcome funding that is already going into accommodation services. I urge the Minister and the Government to make sure that that money goes into supporting local authorities, as they are best placed to know the resource needed in their local area, but they might not always have the capacity and expertise to be able to roll that out, because we know that two thirds of women fleeing domestic violence are not going to want to stay in their local area. They will have to move from their local area, so just going to their local authority is not necessarily enough. Any move the Government can make to support local authorities in adding expertise will be gratefully received, rather than just letting them tackle that in isolation.
I welcome the Minister’s words about the greater use of video. That is fundamental, and will ensure that victims do not have to make testimony after testimony, repeating the experience they have had and bringing it back to them. Instead they can have a sense of finality and closure by reporting it once, getting through their testimony once, and then bringing the perpetrator to justice. That will speed up the system and allow victims to move on with their lives.
I thank those in the Chamber for their kind words. We all do the best that we possibly can for our constituents and the most vulnerable, and sometimes the consequences of doing so are a little startling, but colleagues have given me the confidence to keep on going, and I appreciate that.
Like many in this House, I regularly meet victims of crime before, during and after their involvement with the judicial process. Regrettably, very few have ever received the level of care, support and service that they should be able to expect. Sadly, what I hear most often is how traumatic the experience was. Survivors of child sexual exploitation will invariably tell me that their encounter with the judicial system was a second form of abuse.
The Minister’s commitment to victims is admirable, and I will do all I can to support him in making the long overdue changes both in practice and the law, but we must now see real changes in how we support victims of crime. The Government’s plan to address the current deficit is most welcome, but we now need to focus on the detail. There are statements about co-ordinating and about combining and reviewing the effectiveness of funding, but, with the exception of the £8 million increase in funding for sexual assault referral centres—SARCs—over the next three years, there appears to be little additional money entering the system. The Government’s plans to reform the current funding streams do not appear to be fully formed. Minister, what is actually needed is simply more cash in the system.
In the strategy, it is acknowledged that in the current system for some victims,
“support is not always available as and when victims need it.”
That is correct, but it is the solution to this problem that we look to the Minister to deliver.
There are two areas of consideration in terms of victim support: first, the provision of early intervention services at the point of disclosure, such as SARCs; and, secondly, the accessibility of universal long-term services, such as mental health support, housing and benefits to victims in need of ongoing support. SARCs are of course crucial. A Council of Europe study found that there needs to be one sexual assault centre for every 400,000 women. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are currently 28 million women in England, but there are only 47 SARCs, leaving us 14 short of the recommended minimum standard. Please will the Minister look at making sure that this gap in provision is addressed, and that there is a SARC for everyone, regardless of where they live?
Providing such services is not just good for the victim; it is also good for justice. Bristol university has just demonstrated the vital role of independent sexual violence advisers—ISVAs—in improving criminal justice outcomes. Analysis of 585 rape cases showed that 36% had the support of ISVAs. Where an ISVA was involved, 43.2% of suspects were charged, as against 21.5% without their involvement. Convictions followed a similar pattern: a 12.3% conviction rate if the victim had an ISVA, as against 5.4% if they did not.
Predominantly, victims services are commissioned by police and crime commissioners using grant funding, but they are hamstrung by the Ministry of Justice, which generally makes grants on an annual basis. This means that small charities receive only short-term funding, which contributes to precarious finances, job insecurity and an inability to plan, making it much harder for them to invest in local services for the long term. As part of the review, will the Minister please commit to additional funding for services that act as first responders to victims, and consider granting PCCs grants for victims services for a period of more than one year?
The need for long-term support for services becomes even more pressing as there is so little detail in the strategy on securing such support for victims. SARCs and other victims services are brilliant at providing an emergency care package and then referring on to other services, yet too many victims receiving an assessment of their needs at a SARC face delays in accessing the recommended therapeutic services. The situation is worse for child victims. A University College London study this year found that 80% of girls aged between 13 and 17 experiencing sexual assault had at least one mental health disorder after five months, and that 55% had at least two. Last year, the Children’s Commissioner said:
“We know that most adult mental health problems start in childhood and that without treatment, children’s problems are likely to get worse.”
It is therefore appalling that Public Health England found in 2016 that only 25% of children who needed mental health treatment received it.
Where statutory services are unable to support victims, third sector organisations desperately try to make up the shortfall. Organisations such as Rape Crisis provide vital lifelines for victims and survivors in their time of crisis, yet they are unable to meet the demand with their current levels of funding. More than 6,000 women and girls are currently on Rape Crisis’s waiting list, and in my constituency, the Rotherham abuse counselling service has 260 people on its current waiting list. The average waiting time is now seven months. Not to address this is not only morally but fiscally irresponsible. To support victims of crime in a professional and timely manner enables them to quickly rebuild their lives. If we do not do that, the cost to the state resulting from, for example, mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, self-harm and issues around maintaining a job or relationship as a result of the crime will cost the state much more in the long term, not to mention the damage to the individual. Because of this, I urge the Minister to consider providing good quality, statutory, immediate interventions followed by a seamless transition to statutory longer-term care for every victim and survivor of crime.
The victims strategy is an excellent first step, but for it to become more than words on a page, it must place a statutory duty on PCCs to publish a local victims’ offer that sets out the minimum standards for supporting victims. It is my view, given their responsibility for commissioning victims’ services, that PCCs are the best placed to co-ordinate this offer. It should include details of the services they are commissioning and the contributions of other key partners, including local authorities, health services and the third sector. Such an approach would force co-operation and encourage transparency, requiring local partners to use their funding and expertise to plug the gaps in the existing provision. The Victims’ Commissioner could then be mandated to hold the PCCs and partner agencies to account for the quality of their victims’ offer against an agreed gold standard.
Does the hon. Lady think that PCCs might have a role to play in ensuring that all those who need to be trained to identify victims are properly trained to do so? I am talking about not only specialist staff but everyone in the voluntary sector, the police and elsewhere. In order to ensure that those services, which are often in great demand, can be accessed by victims, we need to ensure that those people have the right training to identify the victims in the first place.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point. I know that a number of businesses are now training staff and colleagues to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and to support the victim by signposting the issue to the right agency.
I am now going to turn to my pet project. It involves a Government agency that is wilfully traumatising victims and operating a subjective system that often runs in the face of the law. Accompanying the announcement of the new victims strategy, it is most welcome that the Minister has announced a broad review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme and of the agency that administers it, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority—CICA. The scheme exists to provide compensation to victims of crime. Money can of course never heal the wounds, physical or mental, suffered by the victims of crime, but victims should at least be able expect to receive the compensation to which they are entitled without those mental wounds being reopened by the administration body set up to support them. In short, CICA needs a radical overhaul to make it a victim-centred agency.
Victims’ needs, their rights and their wellbeing should be at the core of everything CICA does, but the reality is very different. My constituents’ experiences of CICA have been that it exists not to support them, to honestly assess their claims or to award redress for their suffering, but rather to pursue every possible option to deny their claims. This can include questioning their injury, questioning the rulings of courts, or more appallingly, accusing them of complicity in their abuse. At every turn, CICA ignores the needs of victims in order to maintain its balance sheet. The Minister’s review of the scheme cannot come soon enough for victims. Having supported a number of constituents through the process of making a claim, and through my extensive work with victims charities and organisations, it is abundantly clear to me that what is needed is a complete change in the culture of CICA and in how it treats the victims of crime. To be blunt, CICA’s attitude to victims stinks.
I first became aware of the failings of CICA as I was supporting victims and survivors of the appalling child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham. As the victims came forward and the investigations and prosecutions progressed, a number of my constituents pursued compensation through the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Those young women had been through the most horrendous abuse. Their childhoods were stolen from them by criminal gangs who groomed them, trafficked them and repeatedly raped them. For many, the psychological damage they suffered as children continues to haunt them years later, yet many of their claims for compensation were denied by CICA. Problematically, the rules of the scheme state that victims and survivors who have convictions, even for completely unrelated issues, must have their compensation awards reduced or withheld. This rule is particularly pertinent in cases of child sexual exploitation.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene on her. She is a friend. In her experience, how long after the crime does it take for someone to get compensation, on average?
I would love to be able to give an answer to my hon. Friend, but the problem with CICA is that it does not publish—or, indeed, seem to work to—an agreed timetable. So the answer is that it is as long as a piece of string for some victims, and interminably long for others.
I want to return to what happens between CICA and children who have suffered sexual exploitation and abuse. As a result of their abuse, they are very likely to carry out some form of crime. Manipulating children to commit offences is a widely documented part of grooming and coercive control. I find it outrageous that what effectively amounts to a symptom of abuse—carrying out a crime—should be held against victims in order to deny them compensation. More outrageous still is the denial of such claims by CICA on the ground that a victim somehow consented to their abuse.
The scheme compensates only those survivors who did not “in fact” consent to a crime. CICA has chosen to interpret this to mean that even the very youngest of children who have been the victims of sexual abuse can be denied compensation if there is any evidence that they complied with their abuser. Minister, maybe they complied because they were terrified of what would happen if they did not, or because they were so controlled and mentally manipulated that not to comply would never have been a consideration. The law is abundantly clear when it comes to consent: where a person is under the age of 16, sexual activity is automatically criminal unless the victim is older than 13 and the defendant reasonably believes that he or she is over 16. That CICA should effectively ignore this and, through a process that is wholly opaque, find that a child provided consent is shocking. In response to concerns raised by me and others, new guidelines on consent have been issued to CICA, but flaws in the scheme itself remain, as does CICA’s attitude towards victims.
I want to pay tribute to a Rotherham survivor of CSE, Sammy Woodhouse, who has used her experience of CICA to campaign on this issue. I will read a section of the letter she received from CICA about her compensation claim:
“I am not satisfied that your consent was falsely given as a result of being groomed by the offender. The evidence does not indicate that you were manipulated or progressively lured into a false relationship.”
Based on that, Sammy’s application was rejected. Imagine the impact that receiving that letter had on her. In her opinion, the state was saying that she was complicit in her own abuse. I am glad to say that Sammy had the strength to appeal and had the decision overturned, but many other victims do not have that strength. For the record, Sammy’s abuser is currently serving 35 years. The judge believed Sammy; CICA did not. A freedom of information request showed that 700 child victims of sexual abuse were similarly refused payments in the past five years. Will the Minister please review those cases to check whether similar injustices have happened?
CICA’s apparent determination to deny claims at all costs is exemplified by the experience of another of my constituents—not a survivor of abuse, but a former police officer injured in the line of duty. My constituent suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. They first made a claim in 2013, and it was finally settled earlier this year following numerous court rulings in the applicant’s favour and only after two interventions from me.
Throughout the claim, CICA presented various arguments as to why it should not be accepted, culminating in a court ruling that settled all outstanding disputes in my constituent’s favour and directed CICA to conclude the case. Yet CICA’s response was to question whether my constituent even suffered from PTSD, something for which extensive medical evidence was provided and had even previously been ruled upon by a court. Having been asked to again prove that they suffered from the condition, my constituent understandably determined that CICA would simply present argument after argument, each of which they would be forced to counter, only to start the whole process again. My constituent concluded, not unreasonably, that CICA sought to draw out the process in the hope that they would simply give up. That kind of seemingly endless process, with no clear timescales nor explanation of what is happening with a claim, is as unprofessional as it is unfair. Yet that seems to be standard practice for CICA.
Of course, it is important that CICA assesses the eligibility of claims under the scheme and that claims are subjected to appropriate checks, but if CICA fails to support victims of crime, fails to include them in the process, fails to explain that process to them and fails to make decisions in a reasonable timeframe, it is not helping victims; it is harming them. The scheme itself often fails to make any accommodation for circumstance, something which CICA proceeds to exacerbate by failing, or being unable, to take account of context in its decision making. By way of example, paragraph 23 of the scheme states:
“An award will be withheld unless the applicant has cooperated as far as reasonably practicable in bringing the assailant to justice.”
The paragraph’s intent is clear, but the real world is rarely so straightforward.
I am aware of several cases in which individuals providing care to vulnerable adults with challenging behaviour have been assaulted in the course of their work. Many such victims understandably choose not to pursue criminal charges against their assailant—although some do. As a consequence, the victims are ineligible for compensation under the scheme and CICA denies their claims. Yet these crimes are no less severe and the harm they suffer is no less acute. The scheme must, so far as is practical, allow for such context to be taken into account. I am delighted that the Minister has already committed to abolish the so-called same-roof rule. That much-needed change overturns a profound injustice that has lingered for far too long. However, I ask the Minister not to take his foot off the pedal, but survivors are already coming to me with concerns about the timescale.
Fundamentally, if the Government are serious about reform, they cannot allow the criminal injuries compensation scheme and CICA to continue as they are. Revised guidelines on consent are a welcome step, but CICA can only interpret the scheme, which is fundamentally flawed when it comes to child abuse. In particular, the scheme fails to acknowledge grooming as a crime of violence. That arguably excludes victims of CSE if their abuse does not include sexual contact. Consequently, serious crimes, such as exploiting children to perform sexual acts online, are not compensated, even for extremely young children. On unspent convictions, a recent High Court ruling found that three women forced into prostitution as teenagers will no longer have to disclose related convictions to potential employers. It is high time that the criminal injuries compensation scheme took a similar sensible approach to the award of compensation to victims of crime who have unrelated criminal convictions
The review must carefully assess how CICA currently operates in order to deliver a victim-focused agency. Small changes, such as the provision of concrete timeframes to claimants and clear explanations of the claims process, would go a long way to improving the journey for victims of crime. It is also important to promote the scheme, because most of the claimants with whom I have dealt discovered the scheme by accident, rather than through a formal process of victim support. Most important, however, is a change of attitude. It must be made clear to CICA that its job is to administer the scheme fairly and transparently. It should be made clear that it is not CICA’s role to deploy every possible delaying tactic and every conceivable legal argument to seek to deny victims of crime the compensation to which they should be entitled. The victims strategy and the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme present a timely opportunity to deliver fundamental cultural change to how we treat victims of crime. I hope that the Government will reflect on the concerns raised in this debate and ensure that this opportunity is not squandered.
This is just my luck. I come to the Chamber to make two brief but personal points only to be preceded by a subject matter expert. Sarah Champion is clearly a black belt in all details relating to this topic, so before I even begin my speech I feel somewhat inadequate—
Not funny. However, I will proceed with my speech anyway.
Michelle Mansell set up a crowdfunding page through JustGiving. She intended to try to raise £500, stating on the page that she wanted to show the boy that there are more good people out there than bad. That £500 target was quickly reached and surpassed, so she then set the bar at £1,500. Just before I got up to speak, I noticed that the current amount is £5,778, which just goes to show that while the victims strategy is valid and while it is incredibly important that we as a Government provide support for victims, the support provided by close family, friends and the community is perhaps more important. The intention is not that that responsibility should be abdicated to the Government.
Like many other people, I would obviously like to see more police on our streets. I have lobbied the Chancellor and the Policing Minister to achieve that, but a conversation that I had with a chief constable some time ago encapsulated part of the problem and the reason for this victims strategy. He said that the police can do anything, but they cannot do everything. If there is a problem with crime in a particular area, the police could flood in and massively reduce or eradicate the crime, but that would only create crime in areas from where resources had been redeployed. Regardless of how many police we have, we must accept that there will always be victims of crime, which is why the strategy is so valid.
Before I became an MP, I worked for YMCA in Birmingham, a homeless charity for young people providing 300 units of accommodation. We set up our business to ensure that senior members of staff were based in areas where we offered residential accommodation, so the opportunity to see young people who were having the benefit of our services on a daily basis was a natural part of the job and there I heard stories of young people who had lived in families where domestic violence was prevalent.
The Children’s Commissioner published a report earlier this year and the figures stated suggested that 825,000 children in the UK were in a family where domestic violence is prevalent. This is not just a UK problem. I briefly read a report from UNICEF that suggests that at any one time there might be as many as 275 million children facing the problem around the world. The problem is huge and complex, because the exposure to that domestic violence might take many forms. The children might witness it first hand, they might be in another room listening, or they might be upstairs lying on their bed frightened about what is occurring.
The treatment of this problem and the support given to those young people will take many different forms, so I was delighted to read the prospectus that the Government produced in July setting out how people could apply for a chunk of that £8 million of funding. My understanding is that the minimum grant people would apply for is £500,000, and one of the most important things in considering those applications for funding is that the project being proposed should be scalable and should demonstrate interaction with other parties. Many stakeholders should be involved. Why? Because the experience those children will have will manifest itself in many different ways. With some resilient children, it might be hardly noticeable, but with others it might have some serious psychological effects. The terrible thing would be that the change in their behaviour would be interpreted by those who interact with them, perhaps by social workers or school teachers, as having a different source, so it is incredibly important that we provide funds to ensure absolutely that we provide all the support we can for the 825,000 children who might be experiencing domestic violence in their home. That is why I so strongly welcome the report presented by the Minister.
I will try to keep my remarks brief, as I do not want to repeat the comments made by many colleagues this afternoon. I do want to echo some of the points that have been made, however, particularly by those who have pointed out that we have been waiting for this strategy for far too long. The Government promised in 2015 to enshrine rights for victims in law. Three years later, the Government are still not announcing primary legislation but, instead, another consultation, which we are told to expect some time next year.
For it to take more than three years to achieve this is, quite frankly, not good enough. I know from people in my constituency about their issues as victims struggling to navigate the criminal justice system. They have suffered delays in responses, a lack of communication and have even found out that offenders have been released without their knowledge.
A survivor of sexual assault from my constituency told me she felt “punished” by the system. After being raped, she had to wait months before her case was sent to the CPS. There were delays in the case and, during that time, the rapist had been accused of sexually assaulting someone else. More delays took place while the CPS decided if the cases would be tried separately, together or at all. She then found out that some of her evidence was lost by the police, creating yet more delays. Following all this pressure, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder and had to take a lot of time off work, hugely impacting her career. Until the case is closed, it is impossible for her to move on with her recovery. Every time she has to deal with the police, it triggers her PTSD.
The experience many victims have of the criminal justice system is frankly disgraceful. We need a victims law with teeth and I am concerned that without huge changes across Government, victims’ experience of the criminal justice system will not get better. How can the Government seriously improve the experiences of victims while slashing funding for legal aid and cutting police budgets?
In the past eight years, 21,000 police officers have been axed across the country. Police forces are stretched, and the number of cases that are closed without being resolved keeps increasing. This year, the number of rape cases resulting in a conviction was the lowest in a decade, and the CPS was criticised for dropping cases despite strong evidence. It is no surprise that many victims are left wondering whether they should have even bothered reporting something to begin with.
In my constituency, I know that members of my community have been reluctant to speak to the police in the wake of violent crimes. Witnesses worry about their safety when speaking out, especially in areas where trust in the police is low. I am thinking of one family in particular. My constituent Sharon’s son was murdered three years ago. Sharon never felt supported by the judicial system. There was no emotional or practical support. When her son’s case went to a retrial, Sharon had to go through the pain of reliving her ordeal all over again, but if justice had been served, it would have been worthwhile. At the end of the retrial, the case was closed without any convictions.
The lack of a conviction has been devastating for Sharon and her family, but it has also had an impact on the wider community. When such cases are left unresolved, it can damage a community’s faith in the criminal justice system and make it less likely that witnesses will come forward in future.
Then there are the cuts to legal aid. The number of people standing up in court with no legal advice or representation has risen unacceptably under this Government. Last year, two out of three people appearing in court had no legal representation whatsoever. That is shameful. One family in my constituency resorted to crowdfunding for legal fees after their daughter died in the care of a private mental health clinic. Her family want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, but they had no automatic right to legal aid for an inquest. They met obstacles at every stage. Reviews were cancelled at the last moment; the coroner was dismissive and aggressive to them on the phone, and they had to fight for a judicial review to replace the coroner, which would not have been possible without crowdfunding yet again from the public. I agree with Eddie Hughes, who said that although it is great that people give to crowdfunding appeals, we should not always rely on that.
Access to justice must be a fundamental, democratic right. Instead, we have reached a point where justice is for those lucky enough to afford it. For all the families who have been impacted, in Lewisham Deptford and across the country, we must seek a victims law as soon as possible. They should not have to wait any longer.
I welcome this debate on victims’ rights and look forward to the Minister’s response. I also welcome the fact that the Government have committed to overhauling their victims of crime strategy. There is widespread recognition that the system needs to change. We have seen some welcome improvements in the way in which victims of crime are treated, but they have been piecemeal and unco-ordinated. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know from talking to constituents who have been victims of crime or from their conversations with the police, probation officers or victim support groups, our current system is just not working.
For many victims of crime, especially children, victims of sexual assault and rape, and victims of racially aggravated crimes, the system is simply not fit for purpose. As my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft eloquently explained, the cuts to legal aid have had even more damaging effects on access to justice. At Reading Crown court last month, an offender was sentenced to five years for assault and robbery in a car park in my constituency. The victim, a 39-year-old man, was forced to strip naked and was left utterly humiliated. The criminal will be free in a couple of years, but his victim will carry the trauma like a yoke on his shoulders for the rest of his days. How confident are we that the victim will get the lifelong support he will need?
The system remains complex, confusing and alienating for victims. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is creaking, cumbersome and slow. As has been highlighted earlier, the system fails to recognise the impact of crime on mental health—that is particularly pertinent, as we marked Mental Health Awareness Day yesterday—and the lasting damage beyond the mere material to a victim’s wellbeing. It may be a cliché, but it is true: a victim of crime suffers twice, once at the hands of the criminal and again at the hands of the criminal justice system.
Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that a crime was committed just outside Parliament in February when my guest Ravneet Singh, a committed internationalist and environmentalist, was assaulted. The assailant grabbed and tried to remove his turban. Sikhs consider the turban to be a crown on the head and, therefore, sacrosanct. This left Mr Singh humiliated and hurt, and potentially with a terrible impression of our country and our Parliament. Many Sikhs who choose to wear a turban are victims of this type of assault—I have been myself—and I am sorry to say that often the authorities have failed to take it seriously, despite the deep offence and dismay it causes.
Other crimes, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and stalking, have not been taken seriously enough by our system. Most victims of those crimes do not even come forward, with some estimates suggesting that 85% of serious sexual assaults are not even reported. So we need a new approach: a massive cultural shift that turns our criminal justice system into a criminal justice service, with victims at the heart, not the edges. Citizens must believe that the system is on their side and will work for them.
I am proud to say that in 2015 the Labour party published the comprehensive report of its victims taskforce. That was led by Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Peter Neyroud, the former Thames Valley chief constable, and my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer. It is a great shame that the 14 recommendations were not implemented, as that would have given us the joined-up, victim-centred system we so desperately need. The centrepiece of the report is the call for a single, clear victims law enshrining the rights of victims across the entire criminal justice system. I restate my support today for a single, transparent victims law. It would give victims access to justice from their very first dealings with the police and beyond, into dealings with the courts and prison service. The role of the Victims’ Commissioner would be enhanced. Every police area should have an area victims plan, evaluated and approved by the Victims’ Commissioner. Victims should have the right to a review if the police or prosecutors drop a case, as so often happens. Victims should have the right to information and updates, and not be left for months in the dark. In particular, when a victim of a crime comes forward, their allegation must be recorded and allocated a crime number. That is supported by the code of conduct and by the EU directive on victims’ rights, yet the evidence shows there has been slippage, especially in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
We must ensure that the system does not judge victims of crime based on lazy stereotypes of how a victim is supposed to behave, especially when it comes to sexual assault and rape. We need only to look at recent events in the United States and the shameful treatment of Dr Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I hope that the whole House will commend the courage of Dr Christine Blasey Ford and condemn utterly the way that President Trump mocked her testimony in public. We may hope and pray that nothing like that could ever happen here, but for thousands of women in the British criminal justice system, their treatment is no less humiliating, as explained by previous speakers.
Lastly, there is the crucial question of funding. The truth is that eight years of austerity have left our criminal justice system less robust, less able to mete out justice fairly and efficiently and less able to support victims crime. I raised these issues during a recent Westminster Hall debate on continued Government court closures that I had the honour of opening. The Minister is in charge of a system in meltdown. The Crown Prosecution Service has seen its budget cut by a quarter since 2010 and staff numbers have fallen by 2,400; the head of the CPS and the head of the probation service have resigned amid chaos; and prison violence and suicide rates are rising.
There are fewer police on the streets. Earlier this year, in my own area, the Thames Valley police reported a shortfall of 98 officers and further cuts of £14.3 million until 2020-21. Of course, that has a negative impact on the victims of crime. Were the criminal justice system a school, it would now be in special measures; were it a council, it would have been taken over by commissioners by now. That leaves us with a big question: without the resources, how can we have confidence that the Government’s victims strategy will work? This was ably pointed out by my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, whose determined and dedicated work in this field I wholeheartedly commend. Unless Ministers can tell us today that there will be adequate funding for victims, how can we believe that this year’s initiative is not just yet another piecemeal fix?
The price paid for cuts to justice is not paid by criminals; it is paid by the victims of crime. I am proud to support the Labour party in its endeavours on this issue, because only Labour will end austerity, only Labour will put the police back on to the streets of Slough and every community in our country, and only Labour is truly on the side of the victim.
There has been some consensus in the Chamber about the direction of the victims strategy. I certainly agree with the Minister’s statement that how we treat victims is an indication of the kind of country we are. Sadly, though, as we have heard—Members from all parties have talked about some heart-rending cases—that support is not there as often as it should be.
Although we have seen improvements over the past 20 years, many victims, particularly victims of personal or sexual crimes, lack the confidence to come forward, lack proper support if they do, and face an unacceptable ordeal if their case gets to the courtroom. When they do come forward, victims of crime regularly complain that communication and treatment are consistently poor across all criminal justice agencies. That really has to change, and I know that the Minister recognises that.
I genuinely welcome the Government’s victims strategy and have considerable regard for the Minister, who was formerly my co-chair of the all-party group on dementia. However, like many of many of my colleagues, I am concerned that, more than three years since the promise was made to legislate for a victims law, we are still waiting for one.
The Minister will be aware of the plethora of codes, charters and guidance that have moved support for victims on, albeit too slowly, but without it being enshrined in law the effectiveness of the changes is inconsistent. As has already been mentioned, we need to consider the financial and operational pressures on the criminal justice system. That was highlighted in this week’s “Dispatches” on screening out crimes. There is a danger that services to victims will come a poor second priority to operational demands.
Recently, I met my excellent chief superintendent who operates not just in Oldham, but in Rochdale and Tameside—when I was first elected, he was just based in Oldham, but now he has to cover three areas. I know that the force struggles to deal with the full range of policing duties. It is at crisis point, as the police have to cover many issues that, previously, social services, particularly children’s social services, would have dealt with. What will happen to those forces in the future? We do need greater support for victims in the policing system, so what will happen to that support given the difficulties that the force currently faces?
This week, the Victims’ Commissioner for London and founder of Voice4Victims, Claire Waxman, stated:
“The Government’s victims’ strategy aims to improve victims’ experiences, but unless they address the cuts to police funding, victims will continue to feel ‘ignored’. This impacts communities who will feel vulnerable and at risk.”
In addition, the closure of more than 230 courts since 2010 leads to victims facing longer travelling times, and that is hardly offset by the improvement in waiting facilities, which was also promised in the strategy.
The victims code was a significant and positive development when it was first introduced in 2005 and it should be supported, but although its provisions remain important, they are not directly enforceable, which is why a victims’ law is so urgently needed. I gently repeat my disappointment that, in addition to the concerns about cuts to the criminal justice system and more widely to public services as a whole, we have not had that commitment to the victims law.
I welcome many measures in the strategy, including the reform of the criminal injuries compensation fund. However, the description given by my hon. Friend Sarah Champion of the organisation that manages that fund was absolutely shocking. I congratulate her once again on everything that she does for victims of child sexual exploitation. It is important that we fund that system so that we address the significant financial pressures that victims face. Also welcome is the promise of new guidance on pre-trial therapy and the recognition of the need for dedicated support for victims, but we need to go further.
PC Nicola Hughes was one of my constituents. Members will remember that she, along with her colleague PC Fiona Bone, was cruelly murdered six years ago in the line of duty. Nicola’s father, Bryn Hughes, has suggested that more needs to be done to provide immediate financial help for practical things such as funeral costs and travelling costs to and from courts. As a divorced parent, he has said that more needs to be done to ensure that both parents are supported and kept informed during and after the investigation and trial. Again, that does not always happen.
I have to say that I was horrified to hear about the family of our former colleague, PC Keith Palmer. They were not able to get legal aid and had to rely on pro bono support when it came to the inquest. Surely that shames us all. Given the dedication and support that our police officers give, that really does show how much they have been let down.
Many campaigners have also expressed disappointment that there is no commitment to appointing the independent advocates for victims as a single point of contact to help navigate the criminal justice system. I recognise the role of the public advocate, but, as described, it is not broad enough as those advocates will not be able to represent bereaved families at inquiries or at inquests. Again, I would welcome hearing something from Minister on that.
Last month, when the Minister presented his statement on the strategy, I raised the very distressing case of Liane Singleton, who was brutally murdered in 1998 by Paul Stowers. What the family went through was really absolutely atrocious. Liane was mutilated and her body parts were put in bin bags. It was horrendous. How any parent can recover from that, I have no idea.
Liane’s parents, Gordon and Jacky Singleton, are my constituents. They have been trying to prevent the release of Stowers, including by petitioning Parliament back in July. Last month, they found out that they had failed and he is due to be released next month. They felt dreadfully let down by the criminal justice system and totally powerless to influence the Parole Board. I know that the Parole Board will be taking steps to ensure that there is a presumption that a victim’s personal statement can be read in hearings.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening to give me a moment. It has been quite traumatic just listening to Jacky and Gordon, but it puts into context the importance of what we are doing here, including all of us who have stayed to represent our constituents.
The Parole Board will listen to the personal statement, but I welcome anything the Minister can say about how this will be taken forward. He mentioned that this will be reviewed in January, but I would welcome a bit more detail about that and the new rules that will be required.
I share the view of the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, that any challenge mechanism should not require members of the public to have to crowdfund to pay for legal representation, and that a reconsideration process should be judge-led. Recognising that it is likely that the majority of reconsideration applicants will be offenders, will the Minister commit to a speedy and properly funded process to ensure that the benefits to victims of having the right to challenge a decision is not outweighed by the distress caused to other victims of waiting months for a final parole outcome?
I have met with the group Justice After Acquittal, founded by another constituent, Ann Roberts, and Carole Longe, to whom I pay tribute for their many years of hard work and campaigning for murder victims’ families. As the Minister will know, bereaved families are very concerned that when a family member has been killed and no one has been brought to justice, or when there has been an acquittal, there has been very little by way of a framework governing whether and when the case will be reviewed by police and prosecutors.
Last year, the national standards of support were launched by the CPS and the Metropolitan police—I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, who did a lot in his previous role to bring this about—and their work with Justice After Acquittal has been very much welcomed. However, I would be grateful if the Minister let me know how these standards are being monitored. How many families have been offered and have taken up the offer of a post-acquittal meeting since its introduction?
The Government should be on notice that we are not prepared to wait much longer for the victims law. Victims need to be informed, supported and listened to. They need to be able to challenge decisions on their cases now. They need their rights to be placed into law so they are central to our criminal justice system. The victims code should be put into primary legislation and independent advocates should be fully funded to draw up a support package to meet the victims’ needs, represent them in dealing with agencies and support them at every step of a trial.
I will continue to press the Minister to look again at a mechanism for providing independent advocates to help victims to navigate the complex and intimidating criminal justice system, in addition to registered intermediaries following the Victims’ Commissioner’s statement that the number of registered intermediaries must rise to meet demand. I do not believe that an increase of 25% is anywhere near enough.
Finally, from a victims’ point of view our justice system is not fit for purpose. The family of Liane Singleton, facing the imminent release of her killer, feel let down. Others such as Carole Longe, Ann Roberts, Bryn Hughes and Claire Waxman, to name but a few, have had to campaign for years following failures in the criminal justice system to protect victims’ rights. For too long, victims have felt like an afterthought in the process. The Government continue to produce strategy documents, but victims need action now. I will not let the Minister rest until he has finally introduced a victims law.
I commend Debbie Abrahams for her compassion and care for her constituents. We are all aware of that, but today was a supreme example of how she feels, and I congratulate her on that. I thank Mr Speaker and the House for hearing this issue. I thank the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government for the hard work that they have done on the victims strategy and what they have brought forward.
I was just looking at the Front Bench and thinking that some of the Ministers entered Parliament in the same year as me and some a year or two after. It is always good to see Members of my intake who have done well, and I congratulate the Ministers on their elevation to important places. It is clear when we ask them questions that they have a deep interest in the subject matter, and that is refreshing. I also congratulate other Ministers who were present earlier.
In Northern Ireland we are attempting to clarify exactly what constitutes a victim. There would appear to be a difficulty in distinguishing between someone who is blown up by a bomb and the person who sets the bomb and then runs away from it. There is a difficulty in establishing that being shot by the armed forces in the midst of firing at them in the first instance in a terrorist attack does not make you a victim; indeed, it makes you a perpetrator. That is the Northern Ireland context. These things were simple in my youth, which was not yesterday. If I cut myself breaking someone’s window, which I knew I should not have done, I was more concerned about the punishment from my mother’s wooden spoon or maybe a leather strap. It never did me any harm. Probably it could be said that she did not hit me hard enough or long enough, but there you are. These things have been made so complex in Northern Ireland, but that is a debate for a different day. This debate is about the victims strategy here on the mainland.
I commend all the Members who have spoken, especially Sarah Champion. Others have said it, but I want to put it on record in Hansard that she has shown great courage, strength and determination in forwarding the case for her constituents. We have followed that in the press, and some of the press has not been very nice to her. That makes me angry and makes us all annoyed in this House. The hon. Lady needs to know that every one of us stands with her in taking her stance for justice and right. Well done.
I have been interested in victims for some 34 years in public service. I was first a councillor, then a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and then was privileged to be elected Member of Parliament for Strangford. This is my 34th year in public service. I have met broken men and women, the victims of crime whose lives have been irrevocably altered. Families have seen their loved one destroyed, and then retraumatised by the court case. Every Member who has spoken has referred to individual cases, and we can all do that. I shall refer to one later, without mentioning any names. Families are torn apart through no fault of their own.
It is my desire and the desire of the House that the victims strategy will seek to make changes to help those individuals and their families. I was eager to read the strategy and did so to see just how we could and would do better. I believe that, should the strategy be implemented and the heart of the strategy become a reality, it will give victims more support. The intentions of Her Majesty’s Government are clear, and we welcome that.
As my mother often said, money does not grow on trees. Like most of us, I come from a home where I had love and affection, but not much else money-wise. That did not do us any harm, because it moulded us into who we are today when it comes to speaking on social issues in the Chamber.
I have concerns as to how I can see these changes brought about in Northern Ireland, as I know that the victims strategy is for England and Wales, but the concerns about implementation do not take away from the positive things in this document that I sincerely want to see implemented as a matter of urgency.
The first three key entitlements of the code are things that I have been pushing for and have been keen to see happen, and they can be summed up as better support after the crime and right through to the trial, and an acknowledgment that a statement and trial date are simply not enough. The fact is that many victims do not understand what has happened to them, and there is uncertainty about a legal process that looks convoluted and extremely detailed to them, which sows an environment of fear. I was pleased therefore to see that the code will include entitlement to a written acknowledgment that someone has reported a crime, including the basic details of the offence; an enhanced service for a victim of serious crime, a persistently targeted victim or a vulnerable or intimidated victim—that is another clear commitment by Her Majesty’s Government and the Minister; and a needs assessment to help work out what support someone needs. All those things are good, and they set in train a strategy that we should all welcome and look forward to seeing implemented.
I have sat with constituents in the period between them giving their statement and hearing about the trial, and the uncertainty in between adds to the anxiety. While my staff and I may give general, generic advice, we are often unable to speak to the victim as, rightly, the halls of justice are not open for us to inquire. The standard response that they cannot comment on an ongoing case, while understandable, is not helpful for the victim and their family, who do not know how to carry on with their life while the wheels of justice indeterminately but slowly turn, on an often lengthy journey.
The code will ensure that for serious crimes there is a detailed, enhanced service and an assessment of support needed. The indication to me is that a support worker will be available to get information and support to the victim in the interim. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case?
I welcome the commitment to a more transparent and easier-to-access compensation system. We need that. The very real and personal cases that Members have outlined show how the system has fallen down. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, for instance, referred to our police officer who was murdered here last year and whose family could not even access legal aid. That is an example of the injustice we see in the system. I know that the Minister is committed to seeing better compensation programmes and strategies, and I will be glad to see that.
I am pleased that there are now options to be informed if the suspect is to be prosecuted or not or given an out-of-court disposal—it is important that victims know that—and to seek a review of the police and the CPS’s decision not to prosecute, in accordance with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and CPS victims’ right to review schemes. Those are all good suggestions in the victims strategy.
I would like to ensure that when victims are given information about seeking a review, there is support in the process, as many victims do not have legal knowledge or background and find it overwhelming trying to come to terms with the foreign language of justice and protocol. We are all simple people—I am, anyway. I like to have things explained to me in nice, simple terms, and I think my constituents would like the same, because that makes it easier to follow. It is all right for those with a legal mind, and there are many Members in the Chamber who are much brighter than I am, but we must make it simple for the ordinary person, because if they can follow it, they know what they want.
I have asked the Minister to confirm that a support worker will be available, to ensure that the process is understood, and I think, from his indication, that that certainly will happen. That is what I envisage, and I hope it is what the Department envisages. I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that in his response or at a later date, if that is suitable.
A previous speaker referred to suicide, and just in the last few days the Government have committed to appoint a suicide prevention Minister. In the legal process, people feel such trauma, pressure and anxiety that sometimes things happen. Will the Solicitor General have an opportunity during the appointment process to discuss with the person given the responsibility for tackling suicide what can be done about the traumatic and emotional pressures that can be experienced during legal processes?
As usual in a debate of this magnitude, which has so many essential elements, time has beaten me, but in the minutes remaining, I want to highlight the provisions on opting into the victim contact scheme if the offender is sentenced to 12 months or more for a specified violent or sexual offence, and subsequently making a victim personal statement for consideration by the Parole Board if the offender is considered for release or transfer; the victim may apply to the Parole Board to read out the statement at the hearing. I want to draw a case to the House’s attention, although I will not mention any names.
I have been reading lately in my local papers about one woman’s fight to ensure that a serial rapist is not released back into the community. He is a totally abhorrent, violent person, with a clear record of serial offences. The media have highlighted the fact that this serial predator—that is what he is—was released in 2013 and raped again in a different region. There is little doubt that, five years later, the danger is still there, yet this individual is up for parole. How on earth can that be the case? I have not given details or names, so I do not expect the Solicitor General to be familiar with the case. To me, there is something totally abhorrent about this case—it really makes me quite angry and upset. This absolutely inspirational woman has waived anonymity and told her horrific story in an attempt to raise awareness and stop what happened to her happening to another woman. I salute her spirit, bravery and courage, and I am sure everyone here feels the same way. The fact remains, however, that she went public because she does not have faith in the Parole Board and the justice system. She is a victim the system has let down, and her words must carry more weight.
I want to ensure that the Department takes such cases into account. I honestly believe that the Solicitor General is the person who can do that. All the stories, singular and collective, that we have recounted here show our heartfelt need for such an assurance. Any proposed strategy must make it certain that victims do not feel that their only recourse to protect others is to make their private pain a public issue.
I am also keen on videolinks for children and women who have been abused. The hon. Member for Rotherham will know about the cases in her area, but cases I have observed from a distance as a Member of Parliament, in my own area and further afield, have shown me the necessity of the protection that videolinks afford for children and women who have been abused. We have some good things in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Last week, with other parliamentarians I visited Pakistan, where the level of sexual violence is horrendous—atrocious. We encouraged the authorities there to do some of the things we have asked Ministers here to do, such as ensuring the availability of videolinks, giving protection from perpetrators and helping to minimise the impact on victims.
I thank all those Members who have taken part in the debate. I look to the Solicitor General for a careful response. I hope he will take up some of our suggestions and answer our questions. I thank him for the steps taken thus far, which I hope will provide a solid foundation for real change in the way we treat victims of crime.
Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank Madam Deputy Speaker for letting me make a brief contribution this afternoon, and may I apologise to the Minister for not being present for his opening remarks? I particularly regret that because he provided a one-to-one briefing for my friend, Baroness Brinton, on the victims code, and he was very engaging in that process—I might refer to some of the points that she raised during that discussion.
I wish to restate the commendation made by Paul Scully for Ray and Vi Donovan and their work on restorative justice, because he and I find them truly inspirational. Every now and again we come across people who really have an impact, and what they have been through, and how they used it to further an invaluable cause—that of restorative justice—is inspirational and they deserve to be described in that way.
I wish to make two points. In an earlier intervention I mentioned the importance of training and of ensuring that all those who need to be able to identify victims are suitably trained. That is not just about specialist staff, because if the first point of contact is a helpline where perhaps training has not been given and a person is not identified as a victim, that person then has no chance whatsoever of accessing services. I hope that the Minister will respond briefly on training and how he sees that being taken beyond just specialist staff.
Unless the Minister did so in his opening remarks, I do not think anyone has referred to the importance of providing support to victims and their families after a homicide abroad. A number of Members may have been involved in cases—as have I—that involved serious assaults or murders that took place abroad. One case I was involved with related to a murder that allegedly took place in a Brazilian police station. Although everyone appreciates how difficult it is for victims’ families in this country to get the support they need when a homicide takes place in the UK, people will understand how much more difficult it is for families whose loved ones have been murdered abroad, given the challenges of different legal systems, languages, and criminal systems that are often far inferior to ours.
The Minister has given an undertaking that the victims strategy will consider enhancing support for victims’ families after there has been a homicide in the United Kingdom, but I hope that when he responds to the debate he will also say whether the Government will ensure parity in the support given to victims’ families when a homicide takes place abroad.
We have heard today some eloquent and passionate speeches about victims, the criminal system, the civil justice system, and about witnesses—especially those who see horrendous crimes. It is a pleasure for me to wind up this debate, because as somebody who was a prosecutor for 14 years and still practised criminal law thereafter, one of my roles in the Crown Prosecution Service was as a child abuse and rape specialist. I dealt with victims and witnesses who had seen some of the most horrific crimes, and exposure to such cases and to witnesses and victims makes me feel passionately about this area of public space.
Although we welcome the strategy that has been outlined, many things are missing from it, such as a timescale for when things will be rolled out, and information on what funding will be provided or how the scheme will be rolled out across the country. The strategy seems to contain ideas, but nothing about whether there will be legislation for those ideas. Some measures will clearly require legislation, and I will go into the details of that.
Apart from a fair trial, the foundation of any justice system, particularly the criminal justice system, is to ensure that the witnesses and victims of appalling crimes are treated properly during the collation of evidence, the trial process and thereafter. We have discussed violence and direct victims, but we also have to look at victims in the wider context. The experience of victims and witnesses in the criminal and civil justice system has been found wanting in several ways and many hon. Members have today touched on those issues.
My hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft talked about cases where evidence has been lost. We know of cases where disclosure has not been done in time and the cases have been dismissed for want of prosecution. We know that the Crown Prosecution Service, the prosecuting authority, has had at least one quarter of its budget slashed. These things make a big difference to the ability of the prosecution to perform their jobs properly, in time and in due manner.
We also know that across the country, with cuts to policing and funding for specialist services, victims can often be left unsupported and exposed to further risk. Hon. Members have spoken about the fact that the victim of a crime suffers twice: once during the actual offence and once through the process in the courts. There are supposed to be systems in place in the court system, but regrettably far too often they are not followed. Many victims and witnesses to appalling crimes have a really appalling experience. That needs to be addressed properly. I am afraid that the strategy document does not really deal with those issues.
I am trying not to be party political, because much of the debate has been about recognising the need for things to be done, but we cannot get away from the fact that if you cut police numbers by 20,000, if you cut the youth budget by over 50%, and if you cut the budget relating to mental health, drug rehabilitation, detoxification centres and dealing with alcohol addiction, you are going to have problems. There has been a rise in violent crimes, especially among youngsters. It is not a surprise that at the same time support to young people, diverting them away from the criminal justice system, has been cut. I say that in the spirit of the fact that these are issues that we all need to address. I know the Minister understands the criminal justice system well—we served on the Justice Committee together—as a barrister and a recorder. He is very aware of what happens in our courts. He probably knows about the problems I am talking about, too.
We have heard hon. Members talk about their constituents. My hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about the impact the cuts have had on their police forces and the criminal justice system. We must not forget the court closures that have been taking place across the country. One direct result of that has been that many victims and witnesses have to travel for hours on end to get to a court that is often on the other side of their county. Sometimes one journey takes five or six hours. That cannot be good for them. I know that for many people the thought of having to spend hours travelling will and does put them off. Those responsible for committing crimes can get away with them because witnesses do not turn up. I am sure nobody wants that situation to continue.
Many Members have asked for real changes in the law, which again the strategy document does not really talk about. For example, we have called for the immediate enactment of a law to prevent defendants having the right to cross-examine directly the victims of sexual and domestic abuse in civil cases. We know that the situation has changed in criminal cases, but the right still exists in civil cases. The Government have been promising this since 2015, but nothing has happened. A judge in the family court recently had to intervene to ask the questions because he would not allow a male respondent to cross-examine a victim regarding sexual allegations against him. Our judges should not be forced into that position; their job is to adjudicate and judge, not to get involved in the actual process. That was not a one-off case, because we know that these things are happening in reality. We need to deal with that urgently.
Another change that we need in the law—this was mentioned during the recent passage of the Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill through this House—is the introduction of anonymity for victims of revenge porn. It is strange that victim anonymity is maintained for all other sexual offences but not for revenge porn. I do not think that the humiliation of that crime is any less distressing than it is for some of the sexual acts committed against people. I ask the Government to bring forward legislation to deal with that quickly. They will have our support 100%, so it should not take too long to get the provision in place.
We have talked about the experience of victims. I think that most people accept that introducing independent violence advocates is a must. We need to have them in place as soon as possible so that victims have a better journey through the criminal justice system and at least feel, irrespective of the result, that they have been respected, heard properly and listened to. The Victims’ Commissioner for London recently said that, given the cuts to policing and to special support services, victims can be left feeling unsupported and exposed to further risks. That applies not just to victims but to witnesses. I know that the strategy contains specific provision relating to children who might have witnessed domestic abuse. That is laudable and we welcome it, but perhaps it should be extended to other witnesses who see such horrific offences.
I try to group victims and witnesses together, because in some respects they are integral and linked, and in many cases we are talking not just about the victims who have been directly assaulted. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the body that deals with miscarriages of justice, which are just as important, has had its budget slashed by up to 70%, which means that it is now unable to review cases properly or in a timely manner. Families facing inquests into the deaths of relatives are currently not entitled to legal aid. Indeed, the family of PC Keith Palmer, who was tragically murdered in last year’s Westminster attacks, had to seek representation pro bono in the recent inquest. It cannot be right that the state can be fully funded but ordinary individuals are not. There has to be equality of arms. Victims’ families should, as a matter of right, be entitled to legal aid in inquests without having to go through all the hurdles. It should be an automatic entitlement. Councils, hospitals and Government bodies can afford the best legal brains in the country, but the poor victims’ families have to go through all the hurdles to get legal aid. I think that they should be put on an equal footing.
I thought that I would leave the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority to the end of my speech, because my hon. Friend Sarah Champion certainly explained it in detail. She is absolutely right because, as everybody knows, money will not heal or remove the suffering but it can be of assistance. The way in which the CICA operates really needs to change. That is not its fault—it follows the scheme, so the scheme has to be changed. I hope that the Minister will take on board the comments on that by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham.
While we welcome any improvement to the current system, I would ask the Minister to address the issue of an independent domestic violence advocate, the provision for victims and witnesses in court and the need to properly fund our prosecuting authority and increase police numbers. Nothing is worse than having a case dismissed because the prosecution has not been able to get the evidence together. We know that the number of prosecutors has fallen, as has the number of caseworkers who put the cases together. The police are under the same pressures. They collate the original evidence, but many of their civilian staff, who put the case paperwork together, have also been cut. That issue needs to be addressed and those organisations properly funded. We must be able to have faith in our criminal justice system. As I have also said, the ability of defendants and respondents to cross-examine their victims directly must be sorted out immediately.
Before I address all the wide-ranging and important points made in this debate, which is the start of the process that the strategy seeks to inform, may I pay personal tribute to the late Denzil Davies, whose death was reported this morning? He was the first Member of Parliament I ever met. He was my MP, and although I opposed him politically, he was a huge source of advice and encouragement to me. I probably would not be here without people like him, and I want to put on record my condolences to his family and his many friends. He was a Member of this House for 35 years and served on both Front Benches with distinction.
If the victims of crime are not heard, the interests of justice are not served. If they are not served, what meaning can the rule of law continue to have? If the rule of law is undermined, what hope do we have to continue to claim to be a civilised country? It is as fundamental as that and always has been to me. I spent 20 years or so in the criminal courts, meeting the victims of crime every day of my professional life. I have met thousands of people of all ages, from all backgrounds. I have admired their courage and I have tried to empathise with them when things have gone wrong. I have watched human experience unfold before my eyes, and I have done my best to support people who end up, through no choice of their own, in the criminal justice system.
I long ago came to the conclusion that no amount of individual good will or professionalism on the part of dedicated individuals in the system could replace a more systematic approach to the care of victims and witnesses. My former colleague on the Justice Committee, Yasmin Qureshi, is right to bring the two subjects together. They are indistinguishable in my mind, because there are many people who, while they have not been a direct victim, will have witnessed some appalling events and have to live with the consequences, as well as go through the ordeal of having to give evidence.
What does it mean for a victim to seek and obtain justice? Obviously, the outcome of a criminal case is important. Rightly, we have independent judges and juries who make those decisions every day of the working week. Putting that to one side, however, I think that what it means for victims is not having to reinvent the wheel every time they come into contact with the various agencies that are responsible for the criminal justice service: not having to repeat their stories, their needs and the specific support to which they are entitled. As Members have rightly pointed out today, it also means that the authorities do not talk in jargon, but, in the words of a member of the victim liaison unit at the Crown Prosecution Service office in Yorkshire and Humberside, “speak in human being”.
I could not have put it better than that member of the team in Leeds whose job is to write letters, day in day out, to victims of crime. I pay tribute to the team’s work: they provide a particularly good example of how to do that. We in the House, who deal with thousands of letters every week, perhaps find letter-writing run of the mill, but to a victim of crime, receiving a letter from someone in authority in the CPS or the police is a significant moment. We really must do better, and get it right. I am glad to note that the CPS is redoubling its efforts, working across England and Wales to improve that vital process.
At the beginning of the debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Edward Argar, spoke about the seamless support that victims and witnesses deserve. That, in two words, encompasses the approach set out in the Government’s strategy. In an intervention, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman talked about the sentencing process. Again, I think that the need for the authorities to make their position clear and understandable at the right time has never been more important.
As part of my role as Solicitor General, I often conduct “unduly lenient” sentence reviews, appearing as an advocate for the Government in the Court of Appeal, so I continue to meet the victims of what are often very serious crimes, and I can tell from their faces that the process continues to be overwhelming for them. It is sometimes very difficult to explain a situation that may seem straightforward to me, but for them is still difficult to process. If we are to get this right, we need to understand that time and space are often needed for it to be done properly. That ties in with the importance of the written letter and the explanation that is given to victims in the aftermath of a conviction, a sentence or, indeed, an acquittal. I pay tribute to the groups in the third sector that do so much advocacy for victims and their families in such circumstances.
I will never forget meeting the mother of a murdered child, whose then partner—not the child’s father—had perpetrated the most appalling injuries on that defenceless boy. I will never forget the—I will not say “gratitude”, but the relief that I could see she felt that a higher degree of justice had been done when the sentence was successfully varied by the Court of Appeal. It will never leave me, and I am sure that many other Members on both sides of the House will have had the same experience. I think that such experiences are particularly powerful when one is in the court environment, at the coalface, seeing them for oneself. That is why I think it so important for the Law Officers to continue to conduct cases in person so that they can really get a sense of what is going on and can understand and hold on to that vital of experience with the victims of crime.
Gloria De Piero understandably pressed us to proceed more speedily with the introduction of a victims law. She rightly said that we need to get the statutory duties right; we need to get them embedded, and we need to provide that systematic approach. We have committed in our strategy to consult upon the introduction of such a law, but it is not just about rights, important though they are; it is also about getting the statutory duties that have to underpin this absolutely right. Far too often, our experience here in this House—I think Sarah Champion might agree with me on this—is that we have gone ahead and passed legislation with the best of intentions, and then found that there has been a more than embarrassing, indeed a worrying, gap between the commencement of that legislation and its proper implementation. If we were to go down that road, we would fail victims badly, because we would raise expectations and then let them down. That is why we need to get this legislation absolutely right, but in the meantime we are not just sitting on our hands: we have published a strategy that commits to action here and now. Taking on board the constructive points the hon. Lady made, I think this is the best approach for victims and the interests of justice.
The hon. Lady asked a number of questions, and I will do my best to deal with as many of them as possible. The existing code has a statutory underpinning anyway, and the parliamentary ombudsman has a role in looking at and reporting on any maladministration, and we will of course, importantly, be looking at how to monitor future performance. The information that we can glean from the work of PCCs across the country about compliance with that code will help us to understand better where things are going wrong, and we expect that information to increase as the strategy is rolled out. That will help inform the important process leading up to the introduction of legislation.
The hon. Lady made a point about the cross-examination of victims of sexual offences—what we might call the section 41 point, in reference to the measure in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 that introduced the restriction in question—and she mentioned the work of the former Solicitor General, now PCC for Northumbria, Dame Vera Baird, and the points made by other Members about this. We looked closely at the use of section 41 about a year ago, because we were very concerned about Dame Vera’s observations. We keep the matter under review, but we looked at about 300 cases and we found that, happily, evidence of the misuse or non-use of section 41 was sparing. In 92% of cases analysed by the CPS, we found no evidence of the improper use of sexual history in a way that would totally defeat the purposes of the legislation.
It is important, however, that we stamp out bad practice and that we train advocates and judges as fully as possible to put up the red light immediately when inappropriate cross-examination is embarked upon, and I am glad to say that all criminal advocates and barristers are now getting training in dealing with sexual offences, in terms not just of cross-examination but of understanding fully the important procedures that have existed now for the better part of 20 years. Without being too anecdotal, I have had professional experience of prosecuting and defending in sexual cases both before and after section 41, and I remember the sea change that took place as a result of its introduction and how alert I certainly was, and other professionals were, to making sure that if applications were to be made that was done in writing before the trial, so that, importantly, complainants and victims were not taken by surprise, which is probably one of the worst things we can imagine: there someone is in court giving evidence about their statement when suddenly they find that wholly extraneous matters irrelevant to the issues in the case are being brought up. It must not happen.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I would be very interested in that. Section 41 is widely framed; it involves not only adult complainants, and it embraces all types of sexual offence, not just rape, important though that is. I would be very interested to hear more about that evidence. She and I have worked together on many Bill Committees as Back Benchers, and I look forward to hearing more information from her.
Spousal rights were raised, as were the terrible circumstances in which someone might have murdered or tried unlawfully to kill their spouse. I understand that the hon. Member for Ashfield raised this point in Justice questions this week, and that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, has undertaken to meet her to discuss it. I reiterate my hon. and learned Friend’s words, because the hon. Lady has raised this matter quite properly in the context of this debate. She also raised the issue of sentence changes to the maximum term for perpetrators of the offence of causing death by dangerous driving. We have committed to doing that as soon as parliamentary time allows. I can tell her that I am anxiously looking at a number of unduly lenient cases involving that type of offence and that I get frustrated by the 14-year maximum. I know that it causes judges real sentencing issues when it comes to reflecting the full gravity of the offence, particularly when more than one death has occurred as a result of appalling driving. That point is well made, and we hear it loud and clear.
The debate moved on in a helpful and important way when we heard the input from constituency Members. They referred to their own experiences in their constituencies, and echoed some of the analysis that we can see in the strategy. My hon. Friend Mike Wood made those points very well in his speech. He reminded us of how far we have come in terms of changing the law to respond to the needs of modern crime—in particular, stalking and harassment. The hon. Member for Rotherham and I have worked on those issues in the past. I had the honour as a Minister of bringing into law the offence of coercive control, having campaigned for it as a Back Bencher. In the past year, we saw about 4,000 such cases, which equates to 4,000 victims of criminality who would not have had a voice two or three years ago. I constantly ask my local senior police officers about their experience of rolling out and using that new offence, and I am glad to say that there is an increasing understanding of its complexities.
Clare’s law was also mentioned. It is among the many key changes that the Government have introduced to safeguard and protect those who have either been the victims of crime or are at risk. I was particularly proud of our decision to place domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing, bringing into force legislation that had been passed under the previous Government.
I have omitted to mention pre-trial counselling, to which the hon. Member for Rotherham and others have referred. There is a legitimate question about ensuring that the evidence of victims and witnesses is preserved and protected in a way that minimises the risk of its being undermined in cross-examination, but plenty of professionals out there have the training and understanding to know that. Where we have suitably qualified psychiatrists or other mental health professionals, there should in my view be no bar to the sort of general counselling help that would be of real value to people who are experiencing some form of trauma as a result of what has happened to them. With those safeguards, I am sure that more can be done to support victims, who often have to wait too long between the offence and the trial or the sentencing process.
Gavin Newlands drew our attention at length to the Scottish experience, as he is wont to do, and I make no criticism of him for that. He knows from previous answers that I have given to him and his colleagues that I am always alive to and interested in the Scottish experience. Indeed, history teaches us that many of the innovations brought in via the Scottish criminal justice system have been adapted here in England and Wales, and I see no reason for that to stop. That is why his contribution was particularly valuable today.
My hon. Friend Paul Scully spoke with some force about his local experiences and the work being done by people such as the Donovans, who are an inspiration to many. His speech saw the welcome introduction of the theme of restorative justice, another issue in which I have taken a long and deep interest. Restorative justice must be victim led, and there are various scenarios where it works most powerfully.
Having spoken to victims who have availed themselves of face-to-face meetings with perpetrators, often in a prison setting, I know that the sense not just of closure, but of regaining control that victims can get is a powerful factor. I was glad that the coalition Government placed restorative justice on a firmer statutory footing in previous legislation, because we see it at all levels, particularly in youth offending, where it can be extremely powerful to bring a young offender face to face with their victim. As long as restorative justice is led by the victim—it is not a substitute for more appropriate action where necessary—then it is a valuable tool.
The hon. Member for Rotherham made an important speech that dealt in particular with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. She knows that the Government have committed to a review of the scheme; we have already committed to an important change to the “under the same roof” rule, which will be brought into force as soon as is practicable. She made other points about the position that people, particularly young people, will often be put into when it comes to consent.
The hon. Lady and I worked on the Serious Crime Act 2015 when it was in Committee, where we removed any suggestion that children were somehow impliedly consenting to sexual conduct when they were under the age of 16. If she remembers, we removed phrases such as “child prostitute” from the law. We tried in a constructive way to reset the clock when it comes to the protection of children, and let me be absolutely clear that victims who have been groomed should never be treated as if they consented. Let that message go out loud and clear to whoever needs to hear it. I am glad to say that the CICA has revised its staff guidance. That was done with engagement with the third sector, so I am interested to know of any instances where that concept of implied consent is somehow being reintroduced into the process when Parliament made it clear that it has no place in criminal law.
The hon. Lady also made other important points about unspent criminal convictions. Again, that issue must never be the subject of generalisation, and CICA claims officers should take into account the reasons for criminal behaviour when considering unspent convictions that do not result in a custodial sentence or community order. In other words, look at the person, not just the lines on a page. While it would be wrong of me to seek to intervene in individual cases—the CICA is independent—this is a useful opportunity for us to make such important points.
I get the point about time limits, and I have seen for myself the delay that understandably means that many victims of sexual offences will not come forward at the first opportunity. We are now light years away from the time when witnesses were asked such questions in court. People understand how difficult it is to come forward. We know that many victims often blame themselves for what happened, quite unfairly, and that this is about people doing things in their own time. Again, there is discretion when it comes to applications, but I have heard the point loud and clear today, and I am sure that that will help to inform the review.
My hon. Friend Eddie Hughes rightly talked about the impact of domestic violence on children, who often witness it or even hear it in the home. We must not forget the effect of the sheer force of noise on young people. I am glad to note that courts up and down the country will treat that as a significant aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing perpetrators of domestic abuse. The scars might not be physical, but they remain for a long time, if not forever, in many cases.
Vicky Foxcroft made some important points about cases of which she has had experience and, again, made the point that the need to improve practice now was imperative. Understandably, the debate has expanded somewhat from just the criminal justice process, but it is right to say that any victims legislation will apply to the victims of crime. That criminality can extend to major disasters, whether it is Grenfell or Hillsborough, and I am not going to prejudge the outcome of any proceedings, as they might well arguably be crimes themselves, although we will have to wait to see the outcome of any procedures. I take her point about the need for urgency, which is why the strategy does more than fill the gap. It brings together years of work and, importantly, looks to the future in a way that we can get to grips with now.
Mr Dhesi rightly reminded us of an aspect of the debate that we have not touched on today, which is to do with what I call hate crime. He quite properly reminded us of the appalling incident outside Parliament. He knows that I and others have supported the respect the turban campaign, and I have supported it in this place and in my local gurdwara in Swindon as well. He is right that we need to take these things seriously lest they take hold in a way that will reflect poorly on our society. Again, he mentioned stalking, harassment and sexual offences in that context. He was absolutely right to do that. He also mentioned the victim’s right of review and I can assure him that it already exists so when the CPS has a decision with which a particular complainant is not happy, they can ask for that to be reviewed. That is happening now, and in a number of important cases it is already there. Can I reassure him that although he then got on his soapbox a bit—and I am sure that he will forgive me for saying that—a lot of the recommendations made by Keir Starmer and others are things that we have already done or that we are doing via the strategy? As DPP, the right hon. and learned Gentleman took through massive changes to the CPS that I believe resulted in a more efficient service that still delivers a very high degree of justice for thousands of people year in, year out.
Debbie Abrahams brought her knowledge and experience to the debate. In particular, she talked about the victim personal statement, and in a moving way. I know that she did not intend to be moved in that way, but it moved us. More importantly, it informed us. The victim personal statement is a vital opportunity not just for the victim to have their voice but for the court to be able fully to understand the impact on them. That is why I am particularly enthused by the proposals to use bodyworn videos to capture not just what is said but the way in which it is said and the sense that the victim statement should be a living document.
At the moment, there are sometimes one, two or three versions of the VPS designed to update the court. Asking victim to make a statement again and again is not necessarily the best way to support them, so the concept of a living VPS would really help. Again, I am pleased with the work done by the CPS to co-ordinate and synthesise the increased use of VPSs across the service—it has to increase. In particular, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood, has dealt with his commitment and our commitment to review the Parole Board process, and the hon. Lady’s comments have considerably informed that debate. We are recruiting intermediaries, and Members have seen our commitment to that. We need to make sure that when we use intermediaries, they are genuinely for the purpose of assisting the victim to give their evidence. I have used them myself in cases and achieved results that I would not have dreamt of without them, so I understand and get it. A major recruitment process is ongoing.
Jim Shannon brought the experience of Northern Ireland as a welcome intervention into this debate. He talked about the wooden spoon, which, in rugby parlance, Ireland have won more than Wales. I do not think I had better dwell any further on his experience of corporal punishment. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned Scotland, who are the doyenne of the wooden spoon, although they are getting better. I am talking about rugby union, Mr Deputy Speaker, which I know is a discipline you do not care for that much.
That is an entirely different debate. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have discussed it at length and heatedly in the past.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for having carefully read the strategy and for helping to outline some of the important detail it contains. It is not just about warm words; it contains a lot of substance and, in particular, it outlines the use of best practice by a number of PCCs and other local services that we want to roll out further. The document is well written, accessible and can be read by a member of the public; it is written in “human being”, to coin my own phrase. That is why it is particularly valuable and important at this time.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new Minister for suicide prevention. I know she will want to work with both me and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to make sure that we understand the position of victims. There have been some cases where, as a result of their experiences, we have lost them. A very important point was made.
Tom Brake raised the point about training. Frontline staff, whoever they are, need training, because they will often be involved in the victim’s only encounter with the criminal justice system. Every member of the team, be they a barrister, a legal executive or someone at the end of a phone, needs to understand the importance of our strategy, and how properly to support victims and witnesses. I have seen some really good practice in my experience both as a Member of Parliament and as a practitioner, and again this is echoed in the strategy.
In particular, the right hon. Gentleman asked about support for families bereaved by the tragedy of a homicide abroad. When a British person dies overseas, Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff are able to provide advice on how to repatriate their loved one and to support Her Majesty’s coroner if an inquest is heard in England or Wales. All consular officers receive mandatory training on how to support families bereaved overseas. We are currently completing a new homicide service, which will commence in April next year, so that families bereaved by homicides abroad will be entitled to the same support as those who are bereaved by homicide here in England and Wales. That is a vital commitment, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome it.
My civil servants worked overtime to prepare a draft speech for me, but because there has been so much substance in this debate, I have not needed it. I realise that all good things must come to an end, but, in all seriousness, this debate has been a very important part in the process of developing our strategy. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part, and I commend the victims strategy to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Victims Strategy.