Rights of Victims and Families

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West 1:30 pm, 12th October 2010

I start by welcoming everybody to what I hope will be a constructive and informative debate. As the title suggests, its main purpose is to discuss the rights of victims and their families in the judicial system. I want to look at that especially, although not exclusively, in the context of violent and serious crimes such as murder and manslaughter.

Let me begin by familiarising everyone with the current support for victims, before presenting some facts and case studies to highlight the problems in the judicial system. In a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, explained that, under the current system,

"The Government ensure practical and emotional support to victims through Victim Support and other voluntary sector providers. Through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, it also provides financial compensation to blameless victims of violent and sexual crime. Bereaved relatives of homicide victims are also able to access free legal advice using a specialised helpline established in 2009. Any victim or witness can access free legal advice through the Legal Services Commission's Community Legal Advice website and helpline."

He continued, noting that the Ministry of Justice

"currently funds Victim Support on an annual basis and they received £38.2 million in the last financial year...This year Victim Support are testing a model of working that has seen the development of enhanced support services for the most vulnerable victims of crime and in particular families bereaved by homicide. Other specialist providers of services to victims are funded by the victims' fund, comprised of money collected through the Victims' Surcharge which is levied on all fines and ring-fenced for spending on services to victims. In 2010-11 £2.25 million has been made available to fund third-sector services for victims of sexual violence, £270,000 to fund third-sector services for families bereaved through homicide and £250,000 has been made available to third-sector services for hate crime."-[Hansard, 21 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 323W.]

The National Victims Service would support the details that I have just read out. It highlights the fact that support for victims has dramatically improved in recent years and that crime levels are at their lowest since the war. The British crime survey has reported that all crime rates are falling and have been in steady decline since 2002. It also tells us that there has been an overall reduction in violent crime, and the number of violent incidents has fallen by half since 1995. Those statistics are certainly encouraging, and I welcome the recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice that it intends to get prisoners to work, with some of their earnings being set aside for victims of crime.

There are, however, two sides to every story. Jean Taylor, whose name I have mentioned before in the House of Commons in reference to victims of crime, is a courageous lady. She established the Merseyside charity Families Fighting For Justice, which is now spreading across the country at a rapid pace and becoming a national charity because her words ring true and resonate with people countrywide. This is what she has said:

"What I learnt after the murders of my sister and my son and daughter was there is nothing out there for us victims and their families. But there is plenty out there regarding support and funding for the murderers and their families, while we are left in the dark to cope with the loss of our loved ones."

Unfortunately, those feelings are echoed elsewhere. Discussing its 2009 report "Order in the Courts: Restoring trust through local justice", the Centre for Social Justice states:

"The courts are supposed to pursue justice, and discipline and rehabilitate law-breakers. But there is a widespread loss of faith in the sentencing process. Citizens do not believe that the courts punish appropriately. Sentences often fail to reflect the crime and appear opaque...Criminal activity and punishment are too distantly linked in the minds of many criminals because of a cumbersome and bureaucratic trials and sentencing process."

What the facts do not illustrate are the failings of the current judicial system. The criminal justice system needs better to take into account some of the impacts that current procedures have on victims and their families. Such procedures include lenient sentencing for a guilty plea, lesser sentences for manslaughter, life not meaning life and the right to appeal, when some appeals are malicious. We should also consider some of the very real situations that I am about to explain, which demonstrate why victims' families find themselves in a lesser position than perpetrators.

Perhaps hon. Members can imagine for a moment being a member of a victim's family. There is a knock on the door, usually in the middle to the night, to say that their child has been murdered. The family are left dealing with the shock and grieving the sudden and tragic death of a loved one. They then have to arrange the burial while attending court.

There are stark differences between the treatment of the perpetrators and the victims and their families. The victims I have met, and who I know all too well, have to travel to court by bus, whereas the murderers are driven to and from court and are protected. Once in court, the perpetrator's family is given a room in the court away from the media and the victim's family. However, the victim's family is frequently left to sit in corridors.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that she feels particularly strongly about this issue, and she has raised some important issues. Far too often, particularly in youth courts, which are closed courts, victims and their families are wrongly excluded from attending the public gallery to watch the proceedings. There are also issues about access to the new virtual courts. I hope that we can ensure that access to courts is improved for those victims and families who wish to watch the proceedings, as in the cases that my hon. Friend outlined.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

My hon. Friend raises some pertinent points, and he is very experienced in this area, having spent 20 years working in the justice system.

To continue the list of differences, the perpetrator is provided with medical and professional psychiatric help, whereas victims and their families must go on a lengthy national health service waiting list just to see a counsellor. If a murderer dies in prison, his family will get up to £3,000 to bury the body, while victims get a tiny percentage of that and have to wait many months to be paid.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on such an important and emotive topic. Judges currently have access to victim impact statements before passing sentences. Does that adequately reflect the impact on victims and their families in the judicial system?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

It goes some way, but many of the thousands of victims who have linked up across the country tell me that it does not go all the way. Again, more needs to be done.

All the differences that I have outlined are plain wrong. The inequality in the system is wrong and so, too, is the message that it sends to society and the local community where many of the victims and perpetrators live side by side in adjacent streets.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

May I add to that on behalf of a constituent whose daughter was murdered? The family were forced to wait to bury their daughter while the defence team went through two post mortems over a very long period, with all the delays involved in finding legal aid. Surely it would be better in the case of murder to have two post mortems in the first place so that there could be no doubt about the cause of death.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

My hon. Friend raises a point that is made time and again: the pain and suffering caused to people when there must be a further autopsy on a body-once, twice or three times. In those instances it is felt that the perpetrators of the crime get a better deal, and the victims' families are often left without adequate help and support. Such help and support are vital to enable them to come to terms with the horrific crimes, the loss of loved ones and the complicated, drawn-out and distressing process that follows.

The impact can be felt in many areas. It can be financial, as family members may need breaks from employment so that they can recover. Some need extensive medical treatment, and some have to repair damage to homes and property as well. For others the cost is emotional. Many victims suffer from anxiety, the threat of victimisation, and deteriorating mental health. For some the cost is physical. Many people in society, including me, question the leniency shown towards the perpetrators of crime, which is juxtaposed to the psychological and financial cost that the victims and families must deal with. Jean Taylor will tell you that Governments have failed to do their job of supporting victims of crime and their families.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Order. May I gently remind the hon. Lady that when she says "you" she is referring to the occupant of the Chair.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I apologise, Mrs Main.

It is often charities and voluntary organisations that provide help and support to victims-often with no funding.

So far I have discussed procedural inequalities that need to be addressed, but I want to move now to consider policy areas. As times change, so must laws, to reflect the society and times we live in. I fully appreciate the delicate balance of laws, and the process of cause and effect involved in every situation when changes are made to them, but I do not believe that fear of upsetting the balance is reason not to change them. To the contrary, I believe that our society, with the increase in gang culture and antisocial behaviour, needs law that reflects our times and the changes that have come about. I have three examples.

First, when the body of a murder victim is not discovered, despite a guilty plea, and the perpetrator never reveals its location, the family are deprived of a proper funeral, which leaves them unable to grieve properly; or they are left with the prospect of being confronted with the finding of the body in the future. I know that very few suspects have been convicted of murder in the absence of a body, but some have, and have never revealed where the body is. Would it be possible to charge someone with an extra offence of non-disclosure of the whereabouts of the body? Otherwise the coroner is deprived of the opportunity to do his job properly, and the family are deprived of the opportunity to mourn the loss of a loved one.

Secondly, a person who has been found guilty of a crime can be given the option to appeal against conviction or against the length of sentence, although the grounds for appeal may be arguable. I recognise that the appeal process is an important part of the judicial system, but I do not believe that victims' rights in that situation are given enough consideration. Not only do they go through a distressing, lengthy process; they may go through a second. I wonder whether we could have a law of malicious appeal, to extend the sentence for people who have been found undeniably guilty and who raise an appeal that will fail, to focus the mind of anyone who brings such an appeal. Thus real appeals would go forward, but appeals that would not be deemed so would not.

Thirdly, there are cases when a gang has killed a person-and I want to refer to Andrew Jones, the young boy murdered by a group of teenagers, none of whom has ever been sentenced. I want law makers to think seriously about increasing the use of joint enterprise sentences, by which a group could be sentenced, rather than all walking free. The law exists, and could be extended. At the same time, there is a need for education in schools on joint enterprise, and a clear understanding that, should anyone participate in crime in a gang, with the intention to act as a gang, those involved would be sentenced as a gang and held responsible for their joint actions. I appreciate that we do not want miscarriages of justice, but the law needs to be modernised to accommodate the culture and climate in which we live.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She talked briefly about the role of education. Does she agree that there is a broader issue about how young people interact with the criminal justice system? In my previous profession I saw many young people come into contact with the system at a young age, but they ended up on a kind of rollercoaster or in a revolving door, as nothing was ever done, so their behaviour got progressively worse.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman keep his remarks brief, as this is a half-hour debate and I am sure that the Minister wants to respond.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

Of course; thank you, Mrs Main.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need closer working between schools and the judicial process, to get the messages out to young people properly?

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I thank my hon. Friend and entirely believe that that is the case. There is a need for education about responsibilities and the consequences of actions. Something that is frequently highlighted is the fact that the kids of the street know their rights but do not take care of their responsibilities to themselves or their community. We need to tell them that brutal, marauding gangs will not go unpunished. A clear message needs to go out that silence and non-co-operation, so that an ultimate perpetrator cannot be found, will not preclude a conviction.

So why are we here today? I acknowledge the current support systems, but the Government can and should do more to help the victims of crime, and their families. The effect of a loved one dying can be devastating for a family. It can be worse if the person's life is taken suddenly, by a member of the public, who might be known to the family and live close by. It can be made much worse when the convicted prisoner is released from prison early, or when they can appeal against the court's decision, or plead guilty for a lenient sentence. Not only do victims' families go through an ordeal in coming to terms with their bereavement; they are often let down by the judicial system, which adds further to their pain and suffering. A life has still been taken, and a sentence should reflect that, guilty plea or no guilty plea.

The British crime survey reports that provisional data show that police recorded 615 incidents of homicide in 2009-10, and 588 attempted murders, which is a 2% increase on the previous year's figures. According to the figures I read out earlier, provided by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, the amount allocated to fund third sector services for families bereaved by homicide is £270,000. If that sum is divided by the number of homicides for 2009-10 it gives £439.02 for each family. If that is divided between an average family of four, it means each member would get just £109 for the loss of a loved one. That is without the extended family. That seems a very small sum of money, especially as many family members need time to come to terms with the loss. It is no wonder that the British crime survey found that only 59.4% of people thought that the criminal justice system was, as a whole, fair. Even more worrying is the fact that only 40.7% believed that the criminal justice system as a whole was effective.

The perpetrators of crime should not be allowed to get away with those procedural differences and to capitalise on policy differences. We need a law that reflects the society we live in today.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation) 1:49 pm, 12th October 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Esther McVey on securing this debate. I am well aware of the valuable work that she has done on the rights of the families of victims of crime. The matter is complex and difficult to cover in debate, and my hon. Friend was extremely generous in giving way. Some interesting points were raised during those interventions, and I shall pick up on those before coming to the substance of my reply.

My hon. Friend Gareth Johnson made an interesting point about the families of victims in youth courts. We are looking for a much more restorative system, and it would seem rather peculiar if we were to exclude victims from the resulting court process. We shall certainly want to consider that idea. My hon. Friend Rehman Chishti spoke about victim impact statements and I shall return to that point in the main part of my remarks. I note the sensible suggestion by my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom about a requirement for two post-mortems immediately. It is certainly one that we will ask to be examined.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice made considerable time available to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West and Families Fighting for Justice, the support group from her constituency to which she referred. Mrs Jean Taylor followed up that meeting in a letter to my right hon. Friend, which covered personal suggestions from members of that group. I do not have time to refer to all those letters, but I shall read an extract from a letter from A. Williams, who said:

"What would the government think of prisoners of murder or manslaughter paying compensation to the victims families from the wages that they earn in prison...The victims human rights were taken away the day that they were killed and the families certainly do not get justice, we live a life sentence until we go to our graves, (not just for the term of a prison sentence), it breaks up families, it makes us ill and won't let us out of the dark place that we live in. Instead of us working and paying taxes to feed the prisoners and giving them privileges would it not be better if they worked to give us, the victims families something back. It works in other countries, why not here?"

In that suggestion, there are some important principles about restoration from offenders to victims-ones that my hon. Friend will have heard in the Justice Secretary's speech at the Conservative party conference. We are actively exploring them, which I hope will bring some comfort to the members of Families Fighting for Justice.

Crime can have a devastating impact, not only on the victim but on the victim's family and loved ones. Support is given to the families when the crime has been extremely serious-when a victim has died, or when the victim is young or vulnerable. I give my deepest sympathies to those who have suffered such a bereavement, or who have been through the trauma of caring for a vulnerable victim of crime. It is in such terrible cases that the families play their largest role in the criminal justice system, and it is in precisely those cases that guidance, participation, and practical and emotional support are most vital.

The Government are committed to placing victims and their families at the front and at the centre of the criminal justice system. We are committed to ensuring that criminal justice agencies work to help families through the process; we are committed to providing families with a voice in the criminal justice system; and we are committed to providing them with the support and help that they need to deal with the consequences of crime.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

I shall not give way, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, as I am short of time.

To those who have never had dealings with it, the criminal justice system can seem daunting. That is especially true for victims and their families, as they are already suffering the emotional distress of crime. Dealing with the various agencies-the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and probation-can seem confusing, but we have been working hard to ensure that the system provides the families of victims with the support that they need. A number of schemes have been designed to help guide victims and their families through the process, from the pre-charge and police investigation stage, through sentencing to the parole and release of the offender. Considerable support is available from witness care units, family liaison officers and the victim liaison scheme.

Witness care units are the result of collaboration between the police and the CPS. They provide dedicated teams in each area, and their function is to keep victims and witnesses-and in serious cases, their families-updated on the criminal proceedings. They are staffed by police and CPS officials, and work closely with both agencies. Witness care units serve as a single point of contact from the charging of the suspect to the conclusion of the trial. They are responsible for ensuring that victims know whether they must attend court; they inform victims if there are any changes in proceedings; and they are the first port of call for victims and their families if they have specific questions. Witness care units deal with the vast majority of cases that progress past the decision to charge.

In more serious cases, such as homicide or sexual violence, or if the victim is under 18, the police will often assign a specialist family liaison officer. That person is a specially trained police officer, who acts as a single point of contact for bereaved families. That officer will be on call to answer questions, to explain the process and to support the family until the trial, providing dedicated, one-to-one support.

We are well aware, however, that the needs of victims and their families do not disappear the moment that a judge hands down a sentence. Families of homicide victims or vulnerable victims often want to be kept updated with the progress of the offender's sentence. They want to know whether the person who has caused such distress is awaiting parole, or being released on licence. The victim liaison service provides victims with a means of being kept informed as the offender's sentence progresses, and of opportunities to make representations on issues relating to their safety in the event of the prisoner being released.

The victim liaison service is the responsibility of local probation trusts, which have a statutory duty to identify and contact the victims of offenders convicted of violent or sexual offences who are sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months or more, and the victims of certain mentally disordered offenders. Victims who want to be part of the scheme are allocated a dedicated, specially trained victim liaison officer. That officer listens to victims' concerns, and may be able to provide information on other local services. If victims take up the service, they will be told about the offender's sentence and what it means, and updated on key developments in the sentence such as if an offender is moved to an open prison or released. When an offender is coming to the end of the sentence, the victim or the victim's family can raise any concerns about the release; they can also request licence conditions, such as those forbidding the offender to contact them or enter the area where they live.

On giving the families a voice, it is important not only to help families through the process and keep them informed but to give them the opportunity to become involved if they wish. This country has a system of common law that pits the accused against the state. Unlike in some civil law systems, in ours victims and their families are not automatically a party to a criminal trial. Here, the state brings the charges, the state prosecutes the accused and the state ensures that the sentence is carried out. However, it does not mean a victim or the family should be excluded from the process. We should operate a system under which we do things with victims, not to them.

When courts are considering sentencing, victims and their families should be heard, and the often terrible consequences of the crime upon families should be considered. To that end, families are able to make a victim personal statement. That statement was first piloted in 1996, and has since been implemented nationally. It works like a witness statement, and is usually collected by the police. It provides the victims or, in the case of homicide, the victim's family, with an opportunity to describe to the court the impact of the crime upon their lives. Seriousness has two components-harm and culpability-and if the personal statement shows that significant harm was caused to the victim, the sentencer can decide on a higher level of seriousness.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Conservative, Wirral West

I know that we are in the closing minutes of this debate, but may I ask that the procedural and policy changes mentioned today are considered in your review of the justice system?

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that it is not my review of the criminal justice system but the Minister's.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice) (Prisons and Probation)

I am grateful, Mrs Main, for that clarification. My hon. Friend is aware that because of her generosity in taking interventions I shall not be able to finish my prepared remarks. However, I shall consider carefully what she has said. Indeed, she has repeated here the points that she made directly to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, so they are already included in the process and are being considered.

I was going to speak about Victim Support's homicide service, an important development that began in April this year. We hope that it will provide a high-quality service that reflects the wishes and needs of the bereaved. We are reviewing the services currently available to witnesses, victims and their families in the criminal justice system. As part of our commitment to restorative justice, and to the big society, we want to ensure that victims are a focus not an afterthought.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10 (11)).