Amendment 30

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 31 January 2024.

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Lord Russell of Liverpool:

Moved by Lord Russell of Liverpool

30: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Compliance with the code: minimum thresholds(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations issue minimum threshold levels of compliance with each right of the victims’ code.(2) If a minimum threshold is breached by an organisation for two consecutive years, the Secretary of State must commission an inspection of that body with regard to that breach.(3) The Secretary of State must, as soon as is reasonably practicable, lay before Parliament the report of any such inspection.” Member’s explanatory statementThis clause requires the Secretary of State to establish for agencies listed in the victims’ code minimum levels of compliance with code entitlements, which, if breached, will prompt independent inspections.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, we are starting this group, but I suspect that we will stop it in about 29 minutes, so we will make what progress we can.

In moving Amendment 30, I will speak also to a large number of amendments in this group: Amendments 37 to 46, 50 and 83. They come in three groups. Amendment 30 is to do with requiring the Secretary of State to set minimum threshold levels of compliance for each right of the victims’ code, carrying on from the discussion that we had on the previous group. The group of amendments consecutive from Amendment 44 seek to place a statutory duty on the Victims’ Commissioner to compile and publish an independent annual report on justice agencies’ compliance with the victims’ code. Amendment 83 is an old chestnut for the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and me, to do with training for the police to better understand and deal with stalkers.

Starting with Amendment 30, which is about the minimum threshold levels of compliance for each right in the code, during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the Justice Committee stated:

“As drafted, the Bill fails to adequately address the issue of agencies’ noncompliance with the Code—we are concerned by this given that it is one of the principal reasons for the Bill”.

Therefore, this amendment has been designed, working very closely with the Victims’ Commissioner and her office, precisely to fill the gap that was identified by the Justice Committee.

For many people, experiencing crime is a life-changing event, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has testified on more than one occasion. It is the effect of not just the crime but the justice process that may follow it which victims have to endure. While we know that some victims receive an exemplary service, this is not everyone’s experience. Victims can end up in a very bad place, feeling lost, voiceless, in a complex and seemingly unfeeling system, feeling like a bystander, being told about rights which in theory they have but which are probably not properly explained to them and certainly do not feel as if they are being received.

Clearly, this should not be the case and I do not think that it ever was the intent of His Majesty’s Government when they were drafting the original Bill, the code and now this Bill. However, we are where we are. While the victims’ code sets out the minimum level of service that victims should receive, that they should be treated with respect, dignity, sensitivity, compassion and courtesy, be provided with information and updates about their case and be referred to the right support services, we know that this is not always the case, and a systematic lack of compliance with the code means that many victims are being let down.

The most recent survey by the Victims’ Commissioner found that only 29% of victims had been offered the opportunity to make a victim personal statement, despite that being one of the key rights under the code. That is under one-third, on a part of the code which the Minister said a few minutes ago is a statutory requirement to deliver. That is not a very impressive scorecard. The Bill as it stands does go some way to address this: it places the key principles of the code in law and introduces a duty on criminal justice agencies to collect and share data. However, while these are welcome steps, they do not go far enough. They go some way towards monitoring victims’ rights, but they do not ensure that victims receive them. Introducing minimum compliance thresholds will strengthen accountability and provide a means of putting the victims’ code into force.

Organisations which persistently—by which one means over a period of two consecutive years—and systematically fail to meet the thresholds will be subject to an inspectorate inspection to investigate problems and drive improvements. The thresholds that will be put in place by this amendment will make absolutely clear the levels of service that victims must receive. They will provide a systemic and consistent way of holding justice agencies to account for how they treat victims. If victims are consistently not being referred to support services, not being provided with updates and not been given the chance to make a victim personal statement, this amendment provides a clear way of identifying this, of escalating it and, perhaps most important of all, putting it right.

The Government made it a laudable aim of the Bill to

“put victims’ interests firmly at the heart of the justice system”, but we contend that the Bill falls somewhat short of that.

The next series of amendments, from Amendment 44 onwards, seeks to place a statutory duty on the Victims’ Commissioner to compile and publish an independent annual report on the compliance of justice agencies with the victims’ code. The Government are committing in the Bill to collect the sort of data that will identify what is happening out there, but data alone will not deliver the culture change that is required to ensure that victims are treated better within our justice system. We must go further to ensure that victims have guaranteed rights, not apparently guaranteed favours.

Clause 10 requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual national report on code compliance. The Government are proposing that they collect, analyse and publish a report on code compliance themselves. Sceptics could possibly perceive that the Ministry of Justice is, in effect, marking its own homework. I suppose the question we are asking is: do we feel that is right? I think we feel that there should be—this is absolutely crucial—robust and independent scrutiny of code compliance. The proposed system of police and crime commissioners collecting compliance data locally, and the Ministry of Justice preparing a national report, provides neither independent rigour nor effective challenge.

One of the core remits of the Victims’ Commissioner is to monitor how criminal justice agencies comply with the victims’ code. Surely, as this is a core function of this office, it only follows that it is right and proper that the Victims’ Commissioner should be the person to collect, analyse and publish this report on code compliance. It is only by having a truly independent appraisal of code compliance, issued by the Government’s own appointed Victims’ Commissioner, that we can start to deliver true accountability, with criminal justice agencies fully held to account on their delivery of victims’ code rights.

Lastly, there is the matter of training for dealing with stalking. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking virtually to Richard Spinks, the father of Gracie Spinks; your Lordships may remember this particularly horrendous case where Gracie was attacked and killed by a man, a rejected partner, who had been stalking her continuously for an extended period. She had made more than 40 complaints to Derbyshire police; but they did, in effect, nothing. The coroner’s report was absolutely devastating. The Derbyshire police were not trained; they did no proper assessment of the level of risk; and they were found to be guilty of gross negligence. One of the results of this was that South Yorkshire Police, which was brought in to investigate the lamentable performance of the Derbyshire Constabulary, was so affected by what it found in this investigation that it resolved to go back and transform the way it prepares for, deals with and understands cases of stalking. The effect was such that it saw how bad bad could be.

The good news is that there is some good practice out there. I thank the Suzy Lamplugh Trust for giving those of us who have tried to advocate for better policing and understanding of stalking for many years such enormous support. It has embarked on a scheme in Cheshire, working with the Cheshire Constabulary, which is, undoubtedly, the best in class. The police are properly trained; they can assess risk quickly and effectively; they are organised in such a way that they are properly resourced and can act very quickly. They have excellent internal communication channels, which is not the case in every force, and are able to make it work.

Perhaps I can just remind noble Lords of the sheer complexity of stalking, because there are many different kinds of stalker. The most common is the rejected stalker; I think that was the individual who was in the BBC news today—the gentleman who was confronting police officers with a crossbow two days ago, and who was shot dead. He had not only a crossbow but body armour, several knives and machetes et cetera, and he was determined to break into the bedroom of a woman who lived in that area, no doubt to try to kill her. This is a man who had a record of harassment and bad behaviour, and was supposedly under monitoring by the police. None the less, he managed to accumulate this variety of weapons and personal armour, and we must be very thankful that the police managed to intervene and at least put the perpetrator out of his self-inflicted misery, although I am sure that the trauma felt by the intended victim will live with her for a great many years.

There are several other types of stalker; each has different characteristics and drivers. We know enough from the work over the years to be able to anticipate the type of behaviours they will exhibit and the type of threats they are likely to bring to bear. If you understand it and identify it quickly when a victim complains of stalking harassment, you are in a much better position to do something about it with knowledge and purpose, and in a way that is actually helpful to the victim.

I do not need to reiterate the sheer scale of stalking, but it is by far the largest single cause of harassment to victims in this country. It is approaching 1.9 million cases per year, which is a staggering statistic. I think I have said enough, and I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour 9:45, 31 January 2024

My Lords, this group is about giving teeth to the toothless tiger that is the victims’ code. To be clear, currently in law, and as proposed by the Government’s scheme in this Bill, the only indirect enforceability would be that if anybody has any other kind of proceedings against a relevant public authority, the victims’ code can be taken into account. That is it. That is not an enforceable right in any usual sense of the concept, because enforceable rights require duties that must be enforced.

Various options have been proffered by noble Lords in the Committee in the various amendments in this group. Mine is Amendment 31, on which I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and, once more, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I propose here that the teeth, to some extent, go to the Victims’ Commissioner. As I said in the debate on the previous group, the Government appoint the Victims’ Commissioner; this is not some dangerous person who will be litigating everywhere. This is an appropriate person who has been appointed by the Government of the day.

I am not suggesting that victims should be able to sue directly in the courts on the victims’ code. Frankly, there is no legal aid for them to do so anyway, and I do not want them to be traumatised by more litigation when they have been so traumatised by the principal proceedings in which they have had such a bad experience. But I do want them to have real rather than illusory rights, which can be enforced.

The thing about enforceable rights is that they become more real just because they exist, because the public authorities concerned will take note. I believe they will take greater note when they know that down the road, in extremis, there is a potential reckoning if they continue to ignore victims in the way that they have, to deprioritise them or to do whatever it is that has led to some of the stories we have heard in Committee this evening.

My proposed scheme is to replace the current Clause 5, the toothless tiger, with the following enforcement procedure. Incidentally, this is not about specific cases. It is not about the Victims’ Commissioner doing something that she does not do at the moment and getting involved in this criminal case or that; there would be obvious problems with that. This is about general practice. When, for example, it comes to the notice of the Victims’ Commissioner that women are being treated appallingly when they report rape and have their mobile phones taken or are not allowed to speak to counsellors—clearly things that would never happen in real life; I am just hypothesising for a moment—the Victims’ Commissioner in the first instance would do what she does already, which is to try to engage with the public authorities at length and persuade them that there is a problem in general that needs to be dealt with.

However, there are measures in the proposed new Clause 5(4) for when that is not being complied with. In the first instance, in Clause 5(4)(a), the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to issue a notice of general guidance. It would not be about a specific case but would be general guidance to the relevant public authority about its practice that, in her view, was not complying with the code. Whether it is about separate rooms in the Crown Court or the information being required, the victim is not being treated according to the code, so the commissioner issues the notice, initially in private.

If that is not complied with within a reasonable period of time, under Clause 5(4)(b), the next tool in the armoury—which is still pretty modest—is that the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to publish that notice. In my view, that public notice is another tool for accountability in relation to the intransigence of public authorities that are simply not complying with the code.

There is then a further step. One would hope that it would very rarely happen, but maybe sometimes it would need to. This is not about specific cases and would not involve individual victims having to go through legal proceedings, but in extremis the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to start proceedings in an appropriate court or tribunal, defined in rules by the Government, to seek enforcement of the code. That would be only the Victims’ Commissioner, not any litigant in the land who was being mischievous with their money, or lefty human rights lawyers and all that stuff. It would be the Victims’ Commissioner, who is trusted and was appointed by the Secretary of State in the first place.

I think that is a pretty modest and balanced scheme for giving the toothless tiger not great big scary teeth but just some milk teeth so they can nudge these public authorities, which have had all this time and all these years with the current code and the current scheme, which is going to be replicated in the Bill proposed by the Government. It would get the Victims’ Commissioner a little bit more by way of a power to deliver for the victims that she serves.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, I hope I can do this in the time allotted, as they say.

I shall speak to Amendment 51 on training in relation to support for victims. Very simply, Clause 6 directs that criminal justice bodies must take reasonable steps to promote awareness of the victims’ code to victims and other members of the public, but the Bill does not mandate that professionals within these bodies receive any training in the code. There is no point in this provision in Clause 6 if those who are to carry it out—those who are acting on the ground within the agencies, under the chief constable or within the prosecution service—are not aware of their duties or trained properly to deliver them. This part of the Bill risks being a fig leaf. To make it effective, those responsible for it must be trained in delivery. Is this not just common sense?

The evidence base is that there is a need to provide training and that it is clear that there is a widespread lack of awareness of victims’ rights. I take you back to two surveys. In 2019, the London victims’ commissioner conducted a review into compliance with the victims’ code of practice. She heard from over 2,000 victims of crime. The review revealed examples of unacceptable service. It showed that a proportion of those who work in the criminal justice service lack the skills or training to understand and respond to victims’ needs effectively. Victims suffer the consequences of those problems time and again; they simply were not informed of their rights. In short, the code was not delivering.

Let me give some examples. Fewer than a third of the victims reported being told about the code of practice. Of course, some of them may have forgotten, but certainly a large proportion were not told. As a result, they did not know what their rights were—they did not know they had any rights. It is no use giving the victims rights if they do not know about them. Largely, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are not trained to do this. It is not because they are wicked people; they just do not know about it. There are many other deficiencies. Read the review if you want to know more.

More recently, in June 2022 the office of the Victims’ Commissioner launched the Victim Survey, an online survey of victims of crime in England and Wales that asked them about their experiences as a victim of crime. I will give a few examples. Fewer than a third, only 29% of respondents, were aware of the victims’ code. The same percentage said that they were offered the opportunity to make a victim personal statement. In other words, if that is right, 71% were not offered that opportunity. Again, allowing for some people not being very capable or bright, it shows a large proportion, on any basis, were not informed of really basic information.

Data from the user satisfaction survey in London shows that only 25% of victims were made aware of the victims’ code. In the same period, the answers showed that 50% were offered victim support services—in other words, half were not; and 59% were given the opportunity to make a victim personal statement, so around 40% were not. It is the “nots” we are interested in here. Only 12% were offered information on compensation. Again, making allowances for the fact that it may not have been appropriate or necessary and that some people are forgetful, a large proportion were not told about possible compensation and how to claim it, and that is important. Even a small amount of compensation can make an individual who has been the victim of crime feel a bit less disgruntled. I speak as someone who sat as a recorder in the Crown Court for 20 years.

Those are all rights in the victims’ code. They are all failures; just read the survey for more. It is plain that there is no training. We need it and it should made part of the statute. So, I commend this amendment to the Committee.

Debate on Amendment 30 adjourned.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.58pm.