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Victims of Crime (Rights, Entitlements, and Notification of Child Sexual Abuse) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:51 pm on 19th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 12:51 pm, 19th July 2019

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chair of the APPG on Victims of Crime. There is no doubt that being a victim of a serious crime is devastating and can result in physical, mental, emotional or economic harm. This can be to the victim direct, the relative of someone whose death was caused by or as a result of a criminal offence, or a close relative of an incapacitated victim. That is the current definition of a victim in the victims’ code of practice.

I have personal interest in this matter, having been a victim of harassment and stalking along with my team when I was a parliamentary candidate in Watford. My Conservative opponent was convicted of 67 crimes targeting myself and, by association, my colleagues over a period of three years. No matter how calm or logical you can be, the scars of that sort of treatment, some of it very personal, run deep and long. How much more do the victims of rape, sexual assault, coercive control or attempted murder feel when the system set out in the victims’ code fails them on top of the assault that they have already faced? They are victimised a second time.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, the former Victims’ Commissioner, who cannot be in her place today, for her encouragement and support over the last few years. I am also delighted to welcome her successor, Dame Vera Baird QC, and to thank Dame Vera for her helpful and thoughtful briefing for Members. I thank the Library for its excellent briefing too. I have also worked with Claire Waxman and Harry Fletcher over the last eight or nine years. Claire is now the Victims’ Commissioner for London, and Harry still works tirelessly to support victims to ensure that they get the support they need.

The first version of this Bill was introduced by Elfyn Llwyd of Plaid Cymru in March 2015. He subsequently stood down from Parliament in 2015, and a revised version of the Bill was tabled by Sir Keir Starmer in 2016. Both 10-minute rule Bills in another place had all-party support.

The Bill puts the discretionary victims’ code on to a statutory footing. The code was originally introduced in England in Wales in 2006 and is a set of expectations for criminal justice agencies, but it is not mandatory. Victims do not have legal rights, and agencies “may” or “ought” to respond to victims’ needs. Despite the existence of the code, victims are repeatedly failed and often face re-victimisation by the criminal justice system. Complaints and appeal procedures are lengthy and almost impossible to use.

The code offers victims things such as: accurate and timely information; adequate notice of court proceedings; information about decisions; access to translation services; direct contact details of agencies and individuals involved; no unnecessary delay; being treated with dignity and respect; not to experience discriminatory behaviour; witnesses who are vulnerable to give their evidence at a distance or behind screens; police ensuring the safety of victims during proceedings; access to a liaison officer; access to transcripts of proceedings at no cost; the right to attend pre-court hearings; and access to financial compensation from public funds.

Over the past decades, there has been an understanding that, while the code appears sufficient on the surface, the experience of victims of serious crime is very different. Indeed, most seem unaware that the code exists, let alone know about its content or about any other complaints procedures. The Victims Rights Campaign and many others have received frustrated comments with depressing regularity. Victims are not told of parole decisions—I think we all remember the Worboys case. Victims’ impact statements go missing from the Crown prosecution bundle. Screens or separate waiting areas are requested but not provided. Translation services are not available or, worse, are available in the wrong language. Probation fails to give victims vital information. Victims are unaware, until sitting in court, of previous criminal convictions. Cases take months and victims are not given reasons for delays. Personal information about victims is read out in court with the alleged perpetrator present—and I can tell you that, if someone is stalking you and your home address is read out, that is a major problem. Victims are asked to control their emotions in the witness box. I could go on.

The commitment to the introduction of a victims’ law was contained in the Conservative election manifestos both in 2015 and in 2017. It was also, by the way, a firm manifesto promise from Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 2017. Despite the Government’s promises so far, though, neither a consultation nor a draft law has been forthcoming. In February 2016, the government Minister said that a Green Paper would be published “soon”, but unfortunately that seemed to go on hold. In May 2016, the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons concluded that:

“The criminal justice system is bedevilled by long standing poor performance including delays and inefficiencies, and costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another”.

At the same time, then Victims’ Commissioner reported that many,

“victims feel ignored, unimportant and confused when raising concerns about their treatment”.

In December 2016, during the passage of the Policing and Crime Bill, your Lordships’ House voted to support amendments, in my name and others’, to turn the victims’ code into law. Sadly, this was voted down during ping-pong in the Commons immediately after the new year. When the Bill came back for consideration by the Lords in January 2017, I withdrew my amendments on government legislation that would have put the victims’ law on a statutory footing after an undertaking by the Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, who made a Statement at the Dispatch Box. The amendment had support from Labour, the Cross Benches and indeed some Conservative Members. The Minister gave an undertaking, in exchange for the withdrawal of the amendments, of an immediate one-year consultation for victims’ groups, to be followed by the publication of legal proposals.

In October 2018, the then government Minister told the victims’ forum that there was a commitment to a new law, but he was unable to confirm when that would happen. In the same month, there was a three-hour debate in the House of Commons on victims, and over 50 suggestions for improvement were put forward by Members in behalf of their constituents. In July this year—just earlier this week—the Ministry of Justice finally announced that there would be a consultation on:

“Greater clarity through simplified and improved Victims’ Code”.

However, that does not include a commitment to a victims’ law. In response, the Victims Rights Campaign said:

“The code must be simplified and turned into a law so that victims have enforceable rights. They should have a right to accurate information, a right to be consulted about parole decisions and a right to challenge any decision not to prosecute and much more. The consultation is a step forward but unfortunately stops short of a Bill of Rights”.

That is why I introduced this Private Member’s Bill two years ago. As with the changes to the stalking law in 2012, it seems that the cogs of the Ministry of Justice grind exceeding slow. While nothing is happening, victims of crime are being let down daily because of the lack of support, sometimes deliberate, sometimes in ignorance. The last but one government consultation talked about holding the agencies to account, but once again gave them no duty to deliver the code. That is, quite simply, what this Bill aims to do. Those of us, in debate with Ministers over the years, who hear from victims about failings in the system understand what needs to be done. This House agreed with that in 2016.

The Bill has 11 principal clauses and the Long Title is long because it covers such a range. It includes statutory rights and entitlements for victims of crime, the assessment of victims’ services, extra duties for the Victims’ Commissioner, rights to review decisions not to prosecute, reviews of homicides where no criminal charge has been made and a duty on professions to notify the police of possible child sexual abuse. I will not read each of the clauses out, because they are in front of you, but I want to give two brief illustrations from case studies. The names I give are not the names of the victims.

Rachel was in a relationship for two years and then found that her partner was a convicted fraudster and conman. She realised he was interested in her only because she owned a mortgage-free property. He then began stalking and harassing her, through unwanted letters, presents, flowers, emails, texts and phone calls and turning up at her house. This escalated to him following her in his car, contriving chance meetings, making silent phone calls from phone boxes, sending “mistaken” emails and following her on foot. The victim believes he also arranged for other men to follow her when out walking the dogs, and this continues to this day.

Despite receiving three harassment warnings from the police, he persists with this ongoing harassment. The problem is that the police have yet to recognise the pattern of stalking in this case. They have done very little to support the victim and have issued three warnings instead of using protective legislation. As a result, the stalking continues. The victim said:

“I have suffered immense psychological suffering culminating in a suicide attempt in June 2014. The ongoing campaign of stalking, harassment and now financial concerns continues to have a deleterious effect on my recovery. I have been unable to work for 2.5 years, I am on anti-depressants and receiving ongoing counselling from the NHS. I feel constantly tormented, unable to forget everything that’s happened and so unable to move on with my life”.

A victims’ law would have changed her life, providing: a route to review police inaction in her case; access to a case companion to help her access justice and get real support; access to the Victims’ Commissioner to get redress on her case and recognise that civil action was part of her perpetrator’s abuse—I did not read out earlier that he tried to take her to court; and access to relevant local support services to help with the psychological trauma of the crime.

The second case is about a victim of domestic abuse who tried to end the relationship. Her partner called the police and she was then taken into custody for 18 hours, leaving her eight week-old baby, whom she was breastfeeding. She was offered no food, and the police would not listen to her explanation that her partner was the abuser. She was treated appallingly and was then charged. Two days later, the IDAS support worker interviewed her partner and confirmed her story. Seven months after her initial arrest, charges against her were eventually dropped and her ex-partner was finally arrested and charged with harassment. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

On the day of the trial, the police failed to give prosecution evidence in time, thus risking his acquittal and the use of any of that evidence at any subsequent trial. He was arrested again months later and charged with stalking. Her ex-partner has taken her to court a total of 15 times and this has cost her in the region of £25,000—and so it goes on. She said:

“The adjournments in the family courts were torture and I was fearful as I had no real protection, sometimes, alarming the counsel as to my safety given my perpetrator’s behaviour in court … He has been into my village, where I moved to get away from him, just a few weeks after the order was made … but police didn’t arrest him as he had a ‘genuine’ reason for being there! … He has breached his RO and Police have charged him again”.

How would a victims’ law have made a difference? It would create a statutory duty on PCCs to ensure adequate local victims’ services; ensure that she received timely information and a case companion to speak to agencies on her behalf; and provide easier access to make a complaint against the police handling of her case. Police training would have ensured that she was treated in a dignified manner, and recognition of her right to review the police handling of the case should have as much priority at any appeal hearing.

Finally, I will comment on the adding in of mandatory reporting of child sex abuse. My noble friend Lady Walmsley is unable to be in her place, but your Lordships’ House will recognise that she has been prosecuting this cause for a long time. I am delighted to have been able to support her. I am pleased that Mandate Now has provided a very detailed briefing updating us since the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been taking evidence on mandatory reporting. My noble friend welcomes the clause, but she is particularly delighted that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse last week that he now believes that we need mandatory reporting and that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York agrees. I hope the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester will be able to add some comments to that. This is extremely good news and shows that society is moving on and recognising that we need to ensure there is proper support for those of us who have responsibility for safeguarding in our communities.

The Bill would not undermine the rights of defendants or convicted offenders. It would, however, strengthen the rights of the victim, placing a duty on all the agencies to provide the support they need. The Government have long promised that they would consult on and strengthen support for victims, and, from their manifesto, I believe they genuinely mean it. But, more than that, they promised that they would deliver it. This new consultation is, once again, weak. It adds insult to injury and will not protect or help victims of serious crime until there is a duty on agencies working with victims to deliver the code.

I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope it will be more positive than just another refinement of the victims’ code. That is why a victims’ law must become law. To fail to take action is to fail to protect those for whom life is already hard enough. I beg to move.