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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 1:06 pm on 19th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration) 1:06 pm, 19th July 2019

My Lords, I welcome the Bill very much and the opportunity to argue for improved support and treatment of victims of serious crime. I put it that way since anyone who has promoted a Private Member’s Bill knows that these things often advance by micro-steps. I say that, as I said in the previous debate, as someone whose current Private Member’s Bill left this House after a trouble-free passage over a year ago. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, talked about the limited life expectancy of Private Members’ Bills introduced at this stage of a Parliament—whatever stage that is, of course—but we know that they can be an important stage in a campaign, and that after a lot of micro-steps the landscape shifts and, to mix metaphors, suddenly the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place.

We have heard about the Bill’s detail. I will make some broad-brush observations. It seems to go with the grain of current thinking. It reflects the developing understanding of the often unlooked-for impact of the operation of the criminal justice system. That is also very much the case with society moving on, as my noble friend put it, regarding the reporting by professionals of suspected child sexual abuse. To be effective, that needs to go hand-in-hand with an understanding of how to recognise the signs that a child might have been abused. Hard-pressed professionals need time as well as tools. No doubt that means money. The term “safeguarding” has entered the lexicon, but it must not be accompanied by transferring the blame or responsibility from the perpetrator.

Another change that I hope I observe is the importance of seeing the situation through the subject’s eyes. It must be all too easy, in pursuit of a conviction, to regard the victim as a mechanism to achieve that conviction—to be used, if you like, towards that end. Investigations and trials are far more complex than that two-dimensional view.

Another recent entry into the lexicon is “trauma-informed”, almost to the point where “trauma” is in danger of overuse and being devalued. However, the trauma-informed approach is relevant to the whole of the Bill, including the provision for training on how to work with victims. In the case of this Bill those are victims of sexual and domestic violence, but the requirement is wider. Training is described in the Bill as “specialist” and it needs to be. I am not sure why the list does not include the police. Perhaps that is covered through another route. I must be clear that I am speaking as a lay person, but one cannot begin to get evidence from a victim without understanding the psychology of trauma. Not every victim responds in the same way. I am glad to see the judiciary on the list. I have a lot of admiration for the amount of training that the judiciary now takes on board. I have heard about the training of judges in post-conflict areas in eastern Europe and how important it was for them to understand why a victim might not be able to express herself—or less often himself—and might give inconsistent accounts of events.

This is only one aspect of the Bill that has financial implications. Parts of the code of practice clearly do too. I am all too aware of the grim descriptions of physical conditions in the Courts & Tribunal Service’s estate which, inter alia, make achieving some of the code particularly difficult. Some of the points that underlie the provisions of the Bill are about stopping and thinking what it must be like to be the victim, who is not just a necessary component in the prosecution. I was particularly pleased to see that family members are included in the definition of victim, even though the approach here is that the family stands in for a person who has been harmed directly. Family members are often affected in their own right.

I am also pleased to see it proposed that members of the public should deal directly with the parliamentary ombudsman. It seems paternalistic, in this century, to require an MP to act as an intermediary. I see that the Victims’ Commissioner is observing this debate rather carefully; her suggestion of a direct reference by her to the ombudsman is strikingly obvious. As I have said before, I retain an unease about the creation of the roles of commissioner in various contexts, not just in this one. That is not, of course, in any way a comment about the individual postholders. I have not quite made up my mind whether commissioners are important indicators of progress in their respective fields, or an acknowledgment that what often seems to be the responsibility of government is not carried out by government and that we therefore need commissioners to make sure that government does its job. I am going to stop worrying about this because it is clearly the direction of travel and the commissioner needs the powers to do the job.

I share the response of the current commissioner to the provisions for area victim plans and for their assessment and quality standards. I agree with her when she refers to other actors in the criminal justice sector: police and crime commissioners, who produce police and crime plans; and the MoJ, which funds local victims’ services. The commissioner’s role needs to be clear and separate. We will all be aiming for attention to victims to be mainstreamed in the work of all agencies, not imposed or regarded as an add-on with a separate provenance.

Much of this agenda is part of the development of good practice, not least on disclosure of personal data. Dame Vera told us in her helpful briefing of the Home Office-funded pilot of legal advice for complainants in Northumbria. It is welcome that there is such a pilot, because it is clear that there is much to be bottomed out in this area. How data are handled is relevant to trust in every part of the process—in the police, the prosecution and the judiciary—on the part of the victim and, by extension, the public as a whole. I congratulate my noble friend on introducing this Bill.