My Lords, I want to use the short time available to speak on two issues that have been touched upon in the gracious Speech and to highlight one issue that, sadly, has not been.
As Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, I very much welcome the Government’s intention to introduce an independent public advocate who will act for bereaved families following a public disaster and support them at public inquests. Bereaved families and victims need to be kept informed and assisted in their understanding of the often complex processes leading up to and during an inquest. In certain cases, they also deserve to have their voices heard at the inquest. I believe an independent public advocate provides the appropriate means to do so.
However, I want to see that proposal extended beyond victims of a public disaster. I am only too aware from my role as Victims Commissioner that there are many families suffering bereavement following homicide who face these complex proceedings and inquest hearings without any support. In particular, I am thinking of those who face what are termed Article 2 inquests: those who have lost loved ones and it is alleged that the state or a statutory agency has some culpability. This might include cases where domestic homicide reviews identify failings from agencies or where alleged perpetrators were, for example, subject to probation or medical supervision. Many such cases will attract very little political or media interest. However, bereaved families are not legally represented at inquest hearings unless they are able to fund representation themselves. The statutory agencies, on the other hand, may well have publicly-funded representation or may be able to afford the best representation to fight their corner. How can this be fair and described as a level playing field? As much as the proposal is to be welcomed, I respectfully suggest to the Minister that the Government consider extending their proposal to ensure that the offer of a public advocate is made to all bereaved victims who may need it.
I was pleased to see the Government include a commitment to tackling domestic violence as one of their legislative priorities. I know the Prime Minister has taken a close personal interest in this issue, and I welcome that commitment. In principle, I broadly welcome the proposal to appoint a domestic violence and abuse commissioner, but I am afraid that I must add a caveat to that welcome. Appointing a commissioner must not be simply ticking the box. She or he needs to be given the tools to make a real difference. By that, I mean that they must be given appropriate statutory powers, including ensuring that key agencies have a duty to co-operate with the commissioner, who in turn should have the power to make recommendations that require a formal response. The new commissioner will also need to be properly resourced, with a multidisciplinary team and the ability to recruit from outside government to ensure that they have people with the skills needed as well as the practical experience of supporting victims of domestic violence. Without such powers and resources, little could be achieved and victims would simply feel that it was window dressing.
As Victims Commissioner, I look forward to working with the Home Office on the new role, and I hope that this discussion will happen soon. In the meantime, I would like to clarify my understanding of the remit of the role. Domestic violence can cover certain types of child abuse, sexual violence and honour-based violence, but only if those crimes are committed within the Government’s definition of domestic abuse. So are we saying that if a domestic violence commissioner identifies good practice in any of these areas, their recommendations may apply only to domestic scenarios? To some, that distinction may seem artificial. I therefore ask the Minister whether further consideration might be given to whether the role should be expanded to cover all forms of sexual violence.
Finally, for the second year running, I put on record my huge disappointment that the gracious Speech makes no reference to a victims’ law. The Government’s manifesto made an encouraging reference to victims:
“We will enshrine victims’ entitlements in law, making clear what level of service they should expect from the police, courts and criminal justice system”.
This commitment echoed the commitment given in 2015 to a victims’ law. Victims have waited patiently for Governments to place their entitlements in statute. Whereas offenders have rights within the criminal justice system, currently victims have a code, which lawyers tactfully describe as persuasive guidance. Introducing a victims’ law is a real opportunity for the Government to ensure that victims receive the entitlements they deserve and that they are treated with dignity and respect. It is an opportunity to ensure that these entitlements are enforceable and that victims have a clear means of redress when they failed to receive the support that they are entitled to expect.
Sadly, victims do not feel that their voice has been heard, so I ask the Government to take steps to show that they are truly listening to victims and are prepared to act. After all, justice cannot be for one side alone. It must be for both.