Victims of Crime and Anti-social Behaviour, Etc (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters)

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 9th February 2021.

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

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:12 pm, 9th February 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the duties and responsibilities of the Victims’ Commissioner and about the Victims’ Code;
to make provision about the rights of victims of persistent anti-social behaviour;
to require local police forces to prepare victims’ services plans and take steps in connection with victim representative bodies;
to establish a duty to report suspected child exploitation by those working in regulated activities;
to establish a right of appeal by victims against a decision to cease a criminal investigation;
to make provision for reviews of open or reopened homicide cases;
to make provision about court procedures relating to vulnerable victims and witnesses; and for connected purposes.

There is agreement across the House that victims of crime should be more empowered and better supported. Indeed, I should recognise that the current Justice Secretary has promised to deliver a Bill of his own. So did his predecessor, and so too did his predecessor’s predecessor. They were promises to Parliament, but promises were also made to the public. The last three Tory manifestos pledged a law for victims. The challenge we face is not getting Government to admit that there is a problem; it is getting them to do something about it.

This is a deadly serious issue with deadly serious consequences for delay. In the time that has passed since the Tories first promised a victims Bill, there have been 1 million sexual offences and 350,000 rapes. Because of the broken promises of this Government, none of those victims of terrible crime benefited from the statutory rights that they have been promised. We know a Bill is on Government’s to-do list, but it is not on their priority list. It is for Labour, which is why we have produced the Bill before us.

The Bill’s origins lie in work undertaken by Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, and my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer. Their pioneering legislative work for victims is reflected in today’s Bill.

Confidence in our system of justice is at an all-time low for victims. Trial failures due to victim issues are at an all-time high, trebling since 2015. Victims are increasingly dropping out of criminal proceedings. When they look to the future, they see no justice in sight and no hope of closure, so they give up. To these victims, failed by Government, no justice is better than the agony of false hope. Just as bad is the fact that too many victims say that their experience of the criminal justice system was even more traumatising than the crime itself—surely the most damming indictment imaginable of current policy.

Victims have had codified rights since 2003, which have been reviewed, updated and extended several times, including during the current Session. Government have committed to putting those rights on to a statutory footing. The Labour party agrees that that is important, and clause 6 of part 3 of the Bill does that. But the Bill goes much further, because victims need more than rights: they need the tools to uphold them.

I have never met anybody working in any part of the criminal justice system who does not care about victims. From first responders to High Court judges, people have empathy for victims of crime—they care—but individual empathy all too often fails to translate into organisational recognition of victim needs. People are not the problem; the system is, and perverse incentives run through it like letters in a stick of rock.

By giving powers that matter to victims, modernising our justice system to reflect the value and needs of victims and inserting consequence for failure into the system, this Bill makes victims unignorable. Right now, under this Government, victims and their needs are routinely ignored. A code of rights exists, but what happens if it is ignored? Nothing. If we did what the Government aspire to do, which is to simply put the code into statute, what will happen if the code is ignored? Still, nothing. Laws only matter if there is a consequence for breaking them, and the same must be true for a victims law.

That is why clause 5 of part 3 of the Bill will create a register, held by the Victims’ Commissioner, on to which all individuals named as responsible for a breach of the victims code must be placed. Any part of the criminal justice system seeking to make an appointment in the top decile of salaries must consult the register to see whether any applicants have previously failed to uphold victims’ rights. We do not bar recruitment, but doubtless it will be taken into account. The message is clear: for the first time, there will be consequences for those who ignore victims. For the first time, failing victims will have a career-limiting impact.

For rights to have meaning, people need to know that they exist. Today, all too often, that simply is not the case. Some 80% of people who suffer crime make their way through the criminal justice system totally unaware that there is a code of rights. There is no fixed point in time when a victim is informed of their rights—there should be, but when? Alleged perpetrators are read their essential rights at the point of arrest, but the victim is not informed of their rights at the point of becoming a victim. That imbalance needs addressing. The Bill introduces a requirement that victims must be informed of their essential rights at the “earliest possible opportunity”. The clear expectation of the Bill is that the moment of first response is usually the appropriate time to inform victims that they have the right to information and support and a comprehensive set of legally enforceable rights to support them as victims. Those who think that this is too soon must answer the following question: if the moment of becoming a victim is not the right time for someone to discover that they have legally enforceable rights—that they have power—then when is? After a week, a month or, as it is now for most victims, never?

A powerful code of rights needs a powerful commissioner to hold the system to account. In Dame Vera Baird we have a fearless commissioner, and the Bill seeks to boost further the commissioner’s power and authority. The Labour party does not fear statutory bodies with independence; we believe that they strengthen our democracy. That is why the Bill shifts reporting from Ministers to Parliament, gives the Justice Committee the power of veto over future commissioner appointments and grants extended freedoms to investigate the criminal justice system to ensure code compliance.

The Bill also gives power directly to victims. For them, things will be different. No longer will they need an MP to authorise a victim’s complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman, an inexcusable barrier that partly explains why fewer than 20 victims have lodged complaints over the past three years. That is an insulting number, given the scale of code violations. Persistent victims of antisocial behaviour will for the first time be embraced by the code, which will empower people to stand up against those who play havoc with the civility everyone has the right to expect from their neighbours and from within their community.

Right now, only a minority of victims understand their rights and only a fraction will ever exert them. The system ignores infraction, so over time it has become normalised. With this Bill we modernise our system of justice to take into account the rights and the need of victims. Not only will the measures in this Bill lessen the impact of crime on victims, but they will help improve the quality of justice itself, by delivering victims in their role as witnesses into courtrooms empowered with knowledge, rights and support. It is not radical—we do not tear down old liberties—but it marks the only significant step forward for almost two decades. We insert career-limiting consequences into a system that currently ignores victims with impunity. We empower victims with the knowledge of their rights from the moment they become victims. We make it easier for those rights to be understood and asserted, and more straightforward to appeal should the need arise. We give victims an enforcer with teeth in the shape of a commissioner with the independence, power, and resources to hold our criminal justice system to account on a victim’s behalf. And we provide a criminal justice system that better reflects the aspirations of our society for a justice system that offers dignity and support to those who suffer at the hands of criminals and not one that, as is too often the case today, prolongs the agony.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Peter Kyle, Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Mr David Lammy, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Rachel Reeves, Valerie Vaz, Mr Nicholas Brown, Jess Phillips, Holly Lynch, Wes Streeting and Yvette Cooper present the Bill.

Peter Kyle accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 256).

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I will now briefly suspend the House in order that the Chamber can be prepared for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.