Amendment 13

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 24 January 2024.

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Baroness Gohir:

Moved by Baroness Gohir

13: Clause 2, page 2, line 27, at end insert “, including where there are or were multiple perpetrators”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure that all victims can request a review of a police or Crown Prosecution Service decision not to charge a suspect including when there are multiple perpetrators.

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, particularly as CEO of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, which operates a national helpline. I will speak to Amendment 13 in my name; I also support the other amendments in this group, which I will address at the end.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that all victims have an equal right to have the police or CPS decision reviewed when suspects are not charged. Not all victims will exercise this right, but it must be available to all victims if their voices are truly to be heard in the criminal justice system. At present, some victims do not have the same right to review a decision. For example, when there is one suspect and they are not charged, there is a right to review the decision. When there are multiple suspects and none of them is charged, there is a right to review the decision. However, if there is more than one suspect and some of them are not charged while others are, the victim cannot ask for a review into why the other suspects were not charged. This creates a hierarchy of victims.

I will explain how I stumbled on this gap in the law. The Muslim Women’s Network helpline supported a south Asian Muslim teenager who had been groomed and sexually exploited. She was raped by a gang of men. With the support of the helpline and her family, she reported the crime to the police, which was very difficult for her as she came from a south Asian background. The culture of shame and honour could have been a huge barrier to reporting, but she did it. The police then arrested several men, but ended up charging only one of the suspects. This was a huge shock to the victim, her family and the helpline. She then decided to try to get the decision reviewed but was told that she could not, for the reasons I have stated. She lost trust and confidence in the process, which led to her eventually dropping the case against the one perpetrator, so she got no justice at all.

I do not believe that this is an isolated case. We already know that rape convictions are extremely low, even in simpler cases where there is just one suspect, so one can imagine the conviction rates in more complex cases where there are multiple perpetrators. It is very plausible that this current loophole is contributing to victims dropping cases. Although I am using rape cases as an example to highlight the gap for reviewing decisions, this can also apply to many other scenarios in which more than one perpetrator is involved in the crime, such as anti-social behaviour.

I thank the Minister for listening to my concerns. We have exchanged letters and he has committed to explore this issue further with the CPS and the police. However, I believe they will continue to follow the current legislation, which has been adopted from the EU. Unless this is changed, it is in their interests to continue with the status quo rather than to follow non-binding policies.

Bringing multiple perpetrators requires more work because there needs to be more evidence gathering. It can be easier for the police and the CPS to say, “Well, we are only charging one person and not the others”, knowing that the victim cannot appeal this decision. That will mean less work for the police.

Police forces have already been heavily criticised for the way that they treat and investigate sex abuse crimes. The loophole therefore works in favour of the police and against the victim. One explanation that has been provided for not reviewing decisions is that if some suspects are not charged, and this is then reviewed, it could delay prosecution, which, in turn, can result in witnesses and victims withdrawing from the case. However, this theory has not and cannot be tested, because victims cannot review the decisions. In fact, this very mechanism has resulted in the withdrawal of cases, such as the case study that I provided today.

Earlier, on the first group of amendments, the Minister talked about thresholds being crossed and victims having a right to certain processes. This speaks to one of the As, of accountability. Therefore, how will the victim know? That is why the victim’s right to review exists. Some victims have had their decision reviewed, the decision has then been overturned and suspects have been charged, which means perhaps that the police have not charged suspects despite thresholds being crossed.

I understand that the Minister is exploring other potential routes outside the Bill; for example, challenging decisions by going through some kind of complaints process where a senior manager can review cases, thereby allowing reviews in certain exceptional circumstances. While I appreciate that the Minister is actively considering other options, I believe that this measure would not work for the following reasons. It would be a subjective process which would vary widely across the regions. It would add another separate process and yet another barrier for the victims. The message then being sent to the victims would be, “Well, the decision would only be reviewed in exceptional circumstances, so don’t bother”. Also, we would then have to have a definition of what we mean by “exceptional circumstances”. Alternatively, we could just simplify the process with this amendment, so that all victims followed the same process. I therefore urge the Minister to reconsider his options.

I end by stating my support for the other amendments in this group. I support them because from my experience of operating a national helpline I have found that victims need more support—to be referred and signposted to specialist services that meet their needs and to restorative justice services. There is also a particular information gap when it comes to minority-ethnic victims, because service users have informed the Muslim Women’s Network helpline—when they have eventually found us—that they were not informed about the service. They were not informed or made aware of the victims’ code, nor of the restorative justice service.

I therefore look forward to the comments and response from the Minister. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 14. This amendment would ensure that all victims knew of and had access to restorative justice services. I am glad that it has the support of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who unfortunately has a long-standing speaking engagement this evening and sends his apologies, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I also add my support to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, whose effect is the same as mine, to ensure that restorative justice services are clearly in the Bill.

I will not repeat what I said at Second Reading in favour of restorative justice; instead, I will make two very brief points. First, research has shown that restorative justice is effective. It has been a benefit in two ways: one is the impact it has on the offender, reducing the likelihood that they will reoffend; the other is the impact on the victim. For example, restorative justice has been shown to bring satisfaction to victims in reducing stress and trauma. Interestingly, victims found that apologies were more important than restoration.

RJ has proven effectiveness; however, awareness of it and its availability are not as they should be. Research commissioned by the APPG on Restorative Justice showed that there is a postcode lottery and a number of factors resulting in RJ not being taken up in the way that it might be. For that reason, there needs to be a statutory duty on authorities in the criminal justice system to ensure that it is available for those who wish to make use of it.

When this amendment was introduced in the other place by the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, the Minister responded by saying:

“First, we must be cautious of a general entitlement to access to restorative justice. That would not always be appropriate because offenders must voluntarily agree to participate”.

There is a fault in logic there. A general entitlement to make use of RJ in no way takes away from the sine qua non of the victim’s agreement. It is entirely up to the victim as to whether they think it might be helpful to them. That said, what matters is that RJ is available, and known to be available, right across the criminal justice system.

The Minister in the other place was sympathetic to RJ and said something about what could be done in the code to make it better known. That is welcome so far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. RJ has proven benefits, especially for victims, and to ensure its availability is known, I believe that it should be part of the Bill. The Minister in the other place also said:

“Specifying different types of support services in primary legislation might, we fear, inadvertently narrow the current broad coverage”.—[Official Report, Commons, Victims and Prisoners Bill Committee, 27/6/23; col. 206.]

I do not see why that follows at all. Different kinds of support service, including RJ, could be mentioned without in the least suggesting that this is a closed list of what is available.

I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment. They know of the value of RJ; what we need to ensure is that victims know of its availability and accessibility right across the system. The way to ensure that is to make it part of the Bill. Earlier in the debate, the Minister set out his four As: awareness, accessibility, accountability and affordability. I suggest that, if RJ were part of the Bill, people would be more aware it, it would be more accessible and those responsible for administering the system would feel more accountable for it. While it might cost more if more people took it up, it would surely be a good thing if that made victims feel more satisfied, and it would reduce reoffending.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop 9:30, 24 January 2024

My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendment 15 in my name. I also offer my support to the other amendments, not least that in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, which seems to be an uncontroversial proposal that simply corrects a lacuna in the Bill.

One of my abiding mantras is that there is no such thing in our society as a hard-to-reach group. What we have—and have all too often—are services that fail to make sufficient effort to ensure they reach all those they are intended to assist. It is not good enough for a service to exist; the people it is meant to support have to know it is there and be able to access it. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, spoke powerfully earlier this evening. I gather that she spoke at a Women and Equalities Committee oral evidence session where she emphasised that many victims are unaware of the support services available to them. I will not go any further, because I think she may want to speak in a moment; I will not steal her thunder.

The intention of the amendment in my name is to make it clear that responsibility for ensuring that victims can access services does not lie with the potential service user. We need it in the Bill because too many victims are simply not aware of what they ought to be able to look for for help—or they cannot access that help in a format that meets their needs.

I gather that in the other place the Minister claimed that the duty on criminal justice agencies to use reasonable steps to make victims aware of the code would suffice. Yet signposting is much more than enabling someone to know that a service exists. It means putting them in a place from where they can access the service. Sometimes that cannot be done by a leaflet, however good, or a few words spoken to a traumatised victim in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. It requires enduring engagement by service providers until the message can be heard, and that may be some considerable time later.

The Women’s Aid Survivor’s Handbook provides a clear example of what practical support should be included. Such support can be a lifeline to victims of abuse who, for example, may be planning to leave their perpetrator. The ability to access thorough information on a full range of issues, with easy-to-follow guidance, is crucial. It is also imperative that black and minoritised women, deaf and disabled women and LGBT+ victims are able to access support that meets their very specific needs and is sensitive to their experiences of additional inequalities and intersecting forms of discrimination. Victims should also be made aware of the range of helplines and online support, including the Women’s Aid live chat helpline and other appropriate domestic abuse and violence against women and girls support. Simply saying that there is a code will not bridge the gap between the victim and the service they need. I hope the Minister will feel able to offer proposals to strengthen the signposting requirements in the Bill ahead of Report.

I finish by recollecting that exactly one week ago in your Lordships’ House we debated, for a good hour and a half, what makes for good signage and who is responsible for it. Specifically, we discussed changes to the requirements placed on warning signs for level crossings between private or heritage railways and farm tracks—it was more interesting than you might imagine. Surely if we can improve signage to help a farmer get his sheep across a railway track, we can properly sign victims to the services they need.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, I will not follow the right reverend Prelate down the byways of Manchester, or the sheep farmers and their signposts, but I support him and indeed the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, in the thrust of the amendments that they have introduced. I am part of a catholic gathering which supports the amendments tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord. I do it because I think it is a sensible, practical thing to do, but also because I have seen it work.

Many years ago, when I was the shadow Minister for Prisons in the other place and my noble friend Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton was the leader of the Opposition, I visited a huge number of prisons. I think I visited about 75 of the 145-odd prisons, secure training units and young offender institutions in England and Wales, and in a number of prisons, certainly adult prisons in London, in Wales and in other parts of England, I saw restorative justice in action.

It is a delicate process and one needs to be very careful that it is, as the amendment tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, makes clear, carried out where appropriate and that it is available where appropriate. Not every victim is ready to enter into a conversation with the person who committed a crime against them. I have been in the room when RJ took place between prisoners and the victims of murder, the victims of serious violence and the victims of domestic burglary. It takes a very strong person to go into a room and listen to the explanation, the apology, the regret of a prisoner who has killed your husband or your son or your daughter. You need to be very strong and very brave. Equally—I suppose to some extent it is easier because there is, if you like, an advantage to the prisoner to be seen to be behaving in a humane way—I think it is fair to say that for many of the prisoners, some of whom were not very articulate, who had not been educated and who had many social, economic and other disadvantages, it was quite brave of them to come to terms with the horrific things that they had done. So I think “appropriate” is the most important word in the amendment tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries.

Also, tailoring the scheme, or the particular episode of restorative justice, to the needs of that particular victim is so important. It is not just a blanket answer: putting two people in a room with a presider, if you like, to make sure that it goes well. You need to think about it extremely carefully and treat the individuals concerned extremely carefully; it cannot be forced and it cannot be rushed.

But I believe that restorative justice is a hugely important factor in the reduction of crime and recidivism. It brings together people who have been perpetrators and those who have been victims in what can only be a traumatic experience—namely, the experience of the crime but also the experience of meeting the person who committed the crime against you or a loved one.

I am delighted that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, has tabled his amendment, as I am that the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, have tabled theirs. This is a subject which has been discussed many times but has never been properly resolved. It has to some extent been seen as a luxury add-on to the criminal justice system; it is not—it is vital and fundamental in the appropriate cases. I say this as someone who has looked at the practical effects of it not only as a shadow Minister but also as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust, which has been well-invested in this aspect of the criminal justice system.

Finally, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling her Amendment 13. I thought I knew quite a lot about the criminal justice system, but I had absolutely no idea that the oddity she highlighted this evening existed. It needs correcting.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is perhaps particularly appropriate that I follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, as a way of highlighting the fact that the amendments in this group addressing restorative justice, a number of which are in my name but have already been introduced by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, are not party-political. This is a conviction, understanding and belief that goes right across the political spectrum and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, has arisen from practical experience. Speaking to other noble Lords in the Corridor who have seen my amendments, I have had many people who said, “I wasn’t really convinced and then I saw restorative justice in action, and now I am totally a convert to this idea”. The Government are getting a clear message from right across your Lordships’ Committee that, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, what was said in the other place—the idea that “Oh, we can put something in the code”—really is not going to do it; we need this in the Bill as a step forward.

I went through this at Second Reading, so I will not repeat it all, but if we look at what the Government are offering now, in their wording is a suggestion that restorative justice is nice when we can find the resources, so you might be lucky enough that there might be the resources available in your area or you might not. That is simply not good enough.

Briefly, I agree very much with all the amendments in this group and echo the comments about Amendment 13. The noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, has found something that the Government can surely pick up, because it so obviously needs to be sorted out.

Going through my Amendments 16, 22, 32 and 52, I acknowledge that in preparing for this I had considerable support from the Restorative Justice for All international institute. There are some minor differences between Amendments 14 and 16. I do not necessarily agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, that the words “and, where appropriate” need to be in there. My amendment says that victims

“should be able to access”— but this is a fine legal point, and I am not particularly attached to one wording or the other in Amendment 14 or 16. What we are saying here may not be entirely fashionable. We are focusing on giving victims the choice and the opportunity to access restorative justice.

This is covered by two international agreements—as I said, possibly not a very fashionable thing to say to the Government, but I will anyway—the EU victims’ directive 2012/29 and the Council of Europe recommendation CM/Rec (2018)8. These two substantial international agreements establish the right to restorative justice as a complement to traditional criminal justice proceedings or as an alternative to them.

My Amendment 22 would introduce something to the Bill and into UK law. I stress that I am not a lawyer, but my understanding is that we do not have a substantive definition of restorative justice. I am not going to say that this is the substantive definition, but I put to the Government and your Lordships that we should set out exactly what this means. This is a process that enables those harmed by crime and those responsible for their harm, if they both freely consent, to participate actively in the resolution of matters arising from the offence. Picking up the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, this is something that requires real skill, understanding and wisdom to facilitate, and so should be done through the help of a trained and impartial third party.

Amendment 32, also in my name, picks up a point reflecting what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester was saying. It is no use having something there unless people know that it is available to them. That does not mean someone just being handed a leaflet, as the right reverend Prelate said; it means people being genuinely signposted and having this explained to them. Restorative justice may be a term that people are entirely unfamiliar with. The right to be signposted towards it needs to be in the Bill.

Finally, Amendment 52 makes this complete package in terms of restorative justice, and states:

“The Secretary of State must issue guidance about restorative justice service providers”, their roles, services and standards, and ensure that it is offered. This is creating a responsibility for the Government in the Bill which I think is very clear. Picking up the point from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, we have an enormous problem with our massively overcrowded prisons. We have a problem with crime and recidivism. In the context that we are talking about in this Bill, this is a service for victims that can be of great help and support to them. It can also help all of our society and address some of the pressing issues that we all now face.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:45, 24 January 2024

My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. I want to say a few words about restorative justice but, before I do, I give my support to the noble Baroness, Lady Gohir, on what she has just said. I am happy to help and assist in whatever way I can.

I acknowledge that this does not apply to all victims, but for some victims, restorative justice can be a transformative tool that can empower victims to move forward. Over the years, I have met many victims who have given me their true thoughts on restorative justice. In my last term as Victims’ Commissioner, I published two reports on restorative justice and was satisfied from my findings that the majority of victims that I spoke to who had participated in it had found it to be a positive experience. However, the ONS crime survey for England and Wales in 2019-20 found that just 5.5% of victims were given the opportunity to meet the offender. Between 2010 and 2020, this percentage has not increased above 8.7%, while 26% said that they would have accepted an offer to meet the offender if it had been made.

Funding for RJ is no longer ring-fenced by the MoJ. Police and crime commissioners make the decisions on how much they spend on RJ from their victims budgets. This has led to a wide variation across England and Wales in the provision of services, as we have heard. In 2023, the Why me? charity published a report showing that the lowest reported spending by a PCC on such services was £6,250, while the highest was £397,412. The type of crime where RJ is available varies, as do the conditions of service provision.

Data collection on the provision of RJ is poor, preventing effective monitoring of what is happening on the ground if national criminal justice agencies are unsure as to what they are required to do. For example, the HMPPS guidance issued last year states:

“When a victim … requests information about restorative justice services, the VLO must provide it within ten working days”.

This is not in line with the victims’ code of practice, which includes the right to receive information about RJ and how to access RJ services. It does not depend on whether the victim has requested it. In short, access to restorative justice has become a postcode lottery.

I hope, therefore, that these amendments and the debates that we have heard across the Chamber will prompt the Minister to give this House reassurance that such concerns about the provision of RJ are, and must be, seriously addressed. Lots of money has been spent, and it would be so sad not to carry on when victims would like to have that option.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, I also support the importance of providing for restorative justice. I had a look at the current code of practice to see what it has to say. I was a bit surprised that a paragraph referring to RJ, which is obviously deliberately separated from the right to access support services generally, starts:

“If you report a crime to the police, you have the Right to be referred to a service that supports victims, including Restorative Justice services”.

I do not know whether this is a real point or a non-point, since the offender has to be involved by definition and, by definition, the offender would have been reported to the police, but it seems to me to be inconsistent with Clause 1(5) and the whole ethos of the Bill. I was not clear either whether paragraph 4.5 in the code is dependent on being entitled to receive enhanced rights—ER—for victims who are considered vulnerable or intimidated, the victims of most serious crime or persistently targeted.

The debate is, to an extent, that crime has been defined at different levels: it has been for serious crime, but I argue that it is not only the most serious crimes for which RJ is appropriate. I was glad that the noble and right reverend Lord mentioned reducing reoffending because, looking at the whole picture, that is a very serious and important aspect. My name is to his amendment, and the noble Baroness’s amendments appeared without giving me time to do that.

In this group, I have Amendment 17, to provide for a single point of contact—a “victim care hub” was the term used by the London victims’ commissioner, who was particularly keen that we should address this, as you would expect from her own experience.

On the usual issue of timely and effective communication, there are other amendments dealing with another aspect of this, which is that justice agencies are struggling to deliver victim care with awareness and in compliance with the victims’ code, which the London victims’ commissioner said was at seriously low levels.

In the 2019 review into the code, the Victims’ Commissioner for London recommended a victim hub model. We have had reference this evening to the Lighthouse in Camden, and she also refers to the lighthouse model in Avon and Somerset—a single point of contact to help a victim throughout the process. Such a model would secure more effective compliance with the code, which was discussed by many noble Lords at Second Reading.

In June 2022, the office of the Victims’ Commissioner launched a victims’ survey. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, is nodding. This dealt with experiences as a victim of crime, ran for eight weeks and gathered 489 responses from self-selecting individuals. All this bears out what we have been referring to: a lot of dissatisfaction, and a lack of confidence in the system. I understand that less than a third of respondents were aware of the victims’ code. In London, a user satisfaction survey for one quarter in 2022-23 showed only 25% of victims being made aware of the code.

What would a hub do? Such a service would provide a single point of contact, key updates on case progression, information and advice; answer questions; refer on to specialist support—signposting by another name, although perhaps referring is more than just signposting—and ensure and monitor that entitlements under the code are being delivered. This would not replace existing support services but would be a navigator; perhaps that is close to signposting. It would also provide information on what to expect and clarity, and simplify the whole thing.

I am conscious of the time, so I will not go through all the case studies in the briefing, other than to make a few quick references. The commissioner refers to good practice in Quebec, where I understand there is a similar model: the support worker—I do not know if that is the right term—is embedded in police stations and courts, which gives them access to computer systems and, hence, to victim records. I found the case studies quite shocking. I should not have, because from what noble Lords have said, we should all be expecting to hear shocking stories, but that is why we have the Bill. To me, to have a victim care hub seems blindingly obvious.

Debate on Amendment 13 adjourned.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.59 pm.