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 1:53 pm on 19th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:53 pm, 19th July 2019

My Lords, I echo other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for her continued support to bring about improvements in the lives of victims of crime. Of course, the Government support the intention behind this Bill. I also thank her for sharing her personal experience of stalking and harassment and for the powerful case she made for change, including the other examples she gave. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that while it may be technically true that a victim is only a witness, on a human level, it does not feel like being only a witness.

I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove for all her work, and I welcome the new Victims’ Commissioner to her place and pay tribute to the many victims and their families who have campaigned so hard for the rights of victims, not least the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, who I think I met at the meeting with Keir Starmer a few years ago which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

While we support the intention of the Bill, it is right to recognise that much has happened since the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, introduced it into your Lordships’ House, so I will update the House on developments on our victims strategy and give our analysis of the main provisions of the Bill, including where they do and do not align to the Government’s approach to supporting victims.

We made a clear statement of our intention by publishing the Victims Strategy in September 2018. It aims to improve support at every stage of the justice process and consolidates the progress we have already made. Our commitments in the strategy include consulting on a revised victims’ code as well as on the detail of victim-focused legislation—a victims’ law. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, noted, earlier this week we launched a consultation on our initial proposals for revising the code aimed at addressing its complexity and accessibility and updating victims’ rights so that they reflect the changing nature of crime, which was very powerfully explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the changing needs of victims.

We believe that the themes within the consultation share many points in common with those raised by both the outgoing and the new Victims’ Commissioner. The new Victims’ Commissioner has been consistent over many years in her work and campaigning for victims. Those themes were also raised by many noble Lords in the debate today and include the need to strengthen information and communication, raise awareness of victims’ rights and ensure that victims have a voice through the victim personal statement process, as well as to ensure greater accountability. We intend to hold a second consultation later this year, which will include a revised version of the code and detail specific rights. We believe it is right to focus on updating rights first and then to take forward our commitment to consult on a victims’ law which will include strengthening the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner and considering how government and other agencies can be better held to account, which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, eloquently highlighted as being vital.

While recognising the motivation for this Bill and what it seeks to achieve, we believe that some clauses are not needed in light of our updated plans. For instance, we believe that Clause 2 would unnecessarily narrow the definition of a victim as prescribed within the code by constraining agencies’ discretion to include guardians, carers, aunts and uncles as victims for the purpose of receiving services. Clause 5 is unnecessary because police and crime commissioners are already under a statutory duty to produce police and crime plans for their areas. While there is not a statutory duty to include victims of crime, we know that PCCs make a real difference by taking forward innovative work, as highlighted in the recent publication by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, Putting Victims First in Focus, to ensure that crime is tackled and victims are properly supported. The work that we are undertaking will deliver significant improvements for victims and, we believe, covers much of what is included in the following clauses in the Bill.

Clause 3 seeks to make changes to the code. As mentioned, we are currently consulting on revising the code and strengthening rights. I encourage all your Lordships to contact the victims with whom they work, victims’ groups and other stakeholders to ask them to share their views with us as part of this consultation. We welcome the widest possible input.

Clause 4 raises the issue of victims having redress where they do not receive their rights under the code. We fully recognise the importance of service providers complying with their duties. That is why, as part of the strategy, we have introduced a framework which seeks to hold agencies to account for compliance at a local level through PCCs and criminal justice partnerships. As part of our ongoing work and taking into account the views of stakeholders, we will also consider strengthening the complaints process for victims—a matter raised by a number of noble Lords.

In respect of Clause 6, we do not believe that the role of the Victims’ Commissioner should be expanded as prescribed in the Bill at this time. That is because we do not want to pre-empt our victims’ law consultation, nor miss the opportunity to involve the current Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, in the process.

We are also unclear about how a number of clauses in the Bill would work in practice and about the potential wider implications that they might have for the independence of the police, CPS and the judiciary—in particular, Clause 7 on the right to review a decision not to prosecute. Victims are already entitled to ask for a review of a qualifying decision not to prosecute by the police or the CPS. Both already have schemes in place that are consistent with domestic case law and, as such, we do not believe that the changes suggested are warranted.

Clause 8 covers homicide reviews. Since 2017, the national standards of support, agreed between Justice After Acquittal, the police and the CPS—the tireless work of Ann Roberts and Carole Longe of Justice After Acquittal helped establish the standards—have given bereaved families in murder cases the opportunity to discuss issues arising from the trial process and any future investigation and/or prosecution of the case. Given the existence of these standards, we do not believe that legislation in this area is necessary.

Clause 9 covers training for those who work with or otherwise have contact with victims within the criminal justice system. This is a matter that we take very seriously, but effective training is only part of the issue, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, noted in relation to the importance of trauma-informed work and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, noted in his argument that legal rights lead culture change. Continued culture change in attitudes and behaviours towards victims is essential. We would rather strengthen the current framework of local accountability for the provision of training than provide for it in statute, which has potential implications for the organisations involved.

Ground rules hearings are already used routinely across courts to make directions for the fair treatment and participation of vulnerable defendants and vulnerable witnesses. Clause 10, as drafted, would require these hearings to be held in criminal cases where they might not be necessary and might therefore potentially have unwarranted resource implications for the organisations involved.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, focused on Clause 11, which deals with the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. She gave some deeply troubling examples and shared her difficult expertise, if I can phrase it like that, about issues of online sexual abuse. Obviously, online abuse goes a lot wider than children and, as she is aware, the Government aim to address some of these issues through the online harms White Paper.

In respect of Clause 11, the Government are fully committed to protecting children. While there is no specific statutory duty in England, statutory guidance is clear that those who work with children and families should immediately report instances where they think a child may have been, or is likely to be, abused or neglected. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, raised, the Government consulted on mandatory reporting during the passage of the Serious Crime Act 2015. A quarter of respondents favoured a duty to act, 12% favoured the introduction of mandatory reporting, and 63% felt that the Government should continue to implement the child protection reforms set out in Putting Children First in 2016 before considering further legislative change. I am happy to write to the noble Lord about the more detailed reasons—he talked about logic and intellect—behind that important decision. However, I stress that the decision not to introduce mandatory reporting in no way diminishes the Government’s commitment to address perhaps one of the most terrible of crimes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, raised the criminal injuries compensation scheme; she may be aware that the Government are planning to consult on reforms to the scheme this year. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, mentioned compliance with the EU victims directive. The Government’s position is that we have completely complied with the requirements of the directive, but his question perhaps highlights something fundamental to all legislation, including the Bill: there can be a gap between policy and practice on the ground. I am sure all noble Lords will share my desire to close that gap.

In closing, I have outlined the consultation we are currently undertaking on revising the code and our plans to hold a consultation on a victims’ law. I hope I have made clear that we are taking forward a range of initiatives to make sure that victims of crime receive the support they need to speak up with the certainty that they will be understood and protected and, above all, that this will happen regardless of their circumstances or background. They should be treated with the dignity and respect to which several noble Lords referred. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will accept that the measures being progressed, albeit slightly different in approach and possibly not at the pace she would desire, will achieve the important wider aims that she seeks through her Bill.