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Mr Peter Windass

Volume 294: debated on Wednesday 21 May 1997

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1.25 pm

I start by thanking Madam Speaker for permitting me to raise the subject of this Adjournment debate.

Over the past three years, I have corresponded with several Government Departments and executive agencies on behalf of my constituent, Mrs. Moira Windass, whose son, Peter Windass, was murdered in York in January 1994. That correspondence reveals serious shortcomings in the criminal justice system. It also reveals an inability on the part of Ministers to give accurate answers to clear, factual questions about the operation of the criminal justice system. I would have liked to put some questions to the Ministers concerned in an Adjournment debate, but I was prevented from doing so by the sub judice rule. I do not hold the present Minister responsible for the actions of the previous Government, but I was anxious to have this debate because I want the new Government to consider the administration of the criminal justice system and to improve it.

Peter Windass was a young man with his whole life ahead of him. He was an honest, upstanding and hard-working person; a qualified stonemason who worked on repairing and restoring York's city walls. When he died in January three years ago, it was as a result of an unprovoked attack. His attackers were arrested by the police within 24 hours. One has subsequently been convicted of murder and another of affray. From the point of view of the criminal justice system, it might appear that the case was dealt with satisfactorily. The crime has been solved, the criminals have been convicted and both have been sentenced to prison. However, from the point of view of the victim's family, the conduct of the case was far from satisfactory. The way that it has dragged on has prolonged and intensified their anguish.

It is impossible to describe the pain endured by the family of a murder victim. The family's feelings should be the primary concern of a criminal justice system. Instead, their feelings, questions and needs are treated as almost incidental to the judicial process. The family received good support from friends and voluntary bodies, including the Victim Support scheme in York, and from the police, but the courts appeared distant. The members of the family had to mingle in court with witnesses appearing for the defence, including people they knew from their neighbourhood who were threatening to them.

Various promises were made to the family by different parts of the justice system, but they were not kept. For example, the police promised them that they would be told of the date on which one of the accused would be sentenced, so that they could be in court to hear the sentence passed. That did not happen.

The justice process itself is painfully slow. My choice of the word "painfully" is careful. I do not use it as a figure of speech. I mean that the slowness causes pain for victims' families. It is almost three years since the murderer was convicted, yet still the tariff—the time that he will have to serve in prison—has not been confirmed, so the case has not ended. The family are still waiting to find out what penalty will be imposed on the man who murdered their son.

When justice is delayed, justice is denied. We need a justice system which, while allowing a defendant his rights in court, does not unnecessarily prolong proceedings.

When the family asked questions about the case, the answers they received from different parts of the justice system were sometimes contradictory and sometimes simply wrong. The police did not know what the Crown Prosecution Service was doing. The CPS and the Court Service were at sixes and sevens. The Court Service, the Prison Service and the probation service failed to work together, so the family received different answers to their questions from different parts of the system.

The criminal justice system has become fragmented. The problem is faced not by the Windass family alone, in one isolated case, but by many families of the victims of murder and manslaughter. Since the murder of her son, Mrs. Windass has played a prominent part in a voluntary body called SAMM—Support After Murder and Manslaughter. She knows that what happened to her family is, unfortunately, all too common.

We need a better co-ordinated criminal justice system, and I can give a few examples that illustrate that need. First, I wrote to Baroness Blatch, the former Minister at the Home Office, about the failure of the system to advise the family of the date of sentencing. The family were promised that they would be notified by a police officer, but that did not happen.

The Baroness replied:
"it has never been a Crown Prosecution Service function to inform the police of new hearing dates in the Crown Court."
Well, that should be a Crown Prosecution Service function, and the CPS should also have to tell the victim—or in the case of murder or manslaughter, the victim's family—the dates of new hearings.

Secondly, at the time of the murder, one of the two accused, a man called Eaves, was supposed to be under curfew in Blackburn as a result of bail conditions imposed for a string of other offences. In a letter to me dated April 1995, another former Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), said that Eaves's bail was subject to four conditions, one of which was that he had to report regularly to the police in Blackburn.

In January 1996 the former Minister retracted that statement, saying that Eaves was not on bail but subject to an arrest warrant, and that the bail conditions before he absconded and the arrest warrant was issued did not stipulate that he should report to Blackburn police.

I raised that matter with the chief constable of Lancashire, and it turned out that the bail conditions applied had required Eaves to report to the police. The chief constable wrote to me:
"The bail conditions were initially imposed by Blackburn Magistrates' Court on 1st October 1993"—
about three months before the murder.
"The Police are informed, routinely, by the Courts of any bail conditions. However, there are insufficient Police resources to individually monitor whether or not someone is residing at a particular address or complying with curfew conditions."
If a court imposes bail conditions to protect the public from a violent or potentially violent offender, we need to ensure that those conditions are met and enforced. Indeed, we must first ensure that the conditions are enforceable.

I have a third example. Eaves has a long record of repeatedly breaking bail conditions and absconding while on bail, yet when, part way through the criminal proceedings against him, the charge against him was reduced from one of murder to one of affray, the court offered him bail again, despite objections by both the police and the victim's family. Eaves was granted bail again, and he absconded again.

In a letter to me dated April 1995, the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border—whom I have told I would raise the matter in the House today—said:
"The Government is determined to see that the courts grant bail only in those circumstances where it is safe to do so".
That policy is right, but in Eaves's case it was not applied. He had absconded from bail on the night that the murder was committed.

In the same letter, the right hon. Gentleman said that Eaves
"will be appearing at Preston Crown Court in due course when he will be sentenced. Under amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 1991, when deciding what sentence to pass on Eaves, the court will have to take into consideration the fact that the offence was committed on bail as a factor aggravating the seriousness of the offence."
Quite right too—but when Eaves was sentenced, the judge was not informed that the offence was committed when he had absconded while on bail, so the penalty that he suffered, the prison sentence, did not take account of the aggravating factor that the Minister had said would be recognised.

It is hardly surprising that the family feel let down by the criminal justice system. Moreover, the former Government's mishandling of their changes to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board regulations meant that, on top of everything else, the family lost out on compensation payments. They received funeral expenses only. I shall write to my hon. Friend the new Minister separately about that matter, because it has undoubtedly compounded the family's feeling that the justice system was working against them.

I believe that the criminal justice system needs radical change, and I have four specific proposals for the Minister. First, the Crown Prosecution Service should have a duty to keep the victim—or, in the case of murder, the victim's family—informed about the progress of criminal proceedings.

Secondly, the CPS should co-ordinate its proceedings better with those of the police. I should like an assurance from my hon. Friend that the Labour party's election manifesto proposal, that the Crown Prosecution Service should appoint a dedicated senior prosecutor attached to each police force, will address those two problems—the duty to keep the victim informed, and co-ordination between the police and the prosecution service.

Thirdly, tighter bail rules need to be introduced. If imposed by a court, a residential restriction to a particular address or a curfew at a particular time of day need to be enforceable and enforced. If they are not, there is no point in making them.

Fourthly, the Government must do everything they can, within the constraints of ensuring due process, to speed up the justice system. I find it intolerable that a year after the judge recommended a tariff, that tariff has still not been confirmed. Of course the convicted man should have a right to make representations before the tariff is set, but the system should not allow the perpetrator of a crime to drag out the agony for the victim or the family for a further year. In this case, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can give an assurance that the tariff will be set as soon as possible.

In general, we need a new approach to the criminal justice system which puts the victim at its heart. I ask the House one very simple question—if the criminal justice system does not seek to provide justice for the victim of a crime, who then does it provide justice for?

1.41 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) on initiating an important debate on this general area of policy and, particularly, the family to whom he has referred. Only those who have lost a loved one at the hands of a murderer can begin to understand the pain and grief suffered by bereaved families. The impact can affect not only the immediate family, but friends, colleagues and neighbours. For all too many, the repercussions can last for the rest of their lives.

No one could fail to have enormous sympathy for families who are bereaved in such a sudden and violent way, and I wish to take this opportunity to express my sincerest sympathy to Mrs. Windass, who is following the debate today. My hon. Friend has illustrated the experience of many other families. Many families of murder victims—and many other victims of crime—feel neglected by the criminal justice system and a great deal more needs to be done to meet their needs.

I can assure the House that this Government will take action to redress the balance of the criminal justice system in favour of victims, while maintaining the interests of justice. We will ensure that all agencies give a high priority to treating victims with sensitivity and respect, and will listen to their views to improve the services they provide to victims and their families.

The Government want to ensure that victims are kept fully informed of progress in their case—one of the central issues raised by my hon. Friend—if they want to be. Victims of crime must be kept informed of significant developments in their case and should have the opportunity to explain the effect the crime has had on them.

Pilot studies are now under way in six police force areas; the police will keep victims informed of developments. This will be extended to two more areas shortly and will provide, in effect, a one-stop-shop pilot project. However, the idea that victims who want to know what is happening can look to the police to keep them informed is only one option. We will carefully examine the outcome of the pilot exercises, but we believe that this task should not be left to the police alone.

In respect of the reform of the Crown Prosecution Service, I am happy to confirm the steps we are taking. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary regard this as an important reform. Our plans to decentralise the CPS will enhance co-operation between local Crown prosecutors and the police. The new local CPS should be more involved in informing victims of its decisions. Specifically, local Crown prosecutors, who will be in post under our reorganisation, will be accountable for their decisions and should be prepared to explain to victims their reasons for discontinuing or downgrading charges against offenders—at least in the most serious cases.

My hon. Friend says that it should be the responsibility of the CPS to keep families informed. That is a fair point. In 1994, I tabled amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to place that requirement on the CPS, but they were not accepted by the then Government.

We also want local Crown prosecutors to be more proactive in meeting victims and witnesses—especially in cases where people have been killed as the result of a crime—to explain their decision on prosecution. The concern of families is shown by the fact that requests to meet the CPS are increasing in number; I am assured that no request is refused. Our plans to decentralise the CPS should achieve even greater responsiveness to the needs of victims of crime and their families.

The enforcement of bail conditions was another important matter that my hon. Friend referred to. It is not an easy one to deal with, as he will appreciate. In view of the serious series of events he described, I am happy to give him an undertaking to look into the circumstances surrounding the bail decisions to which he referred. There are cases where things go badly wrong, and that is why we want to improve the enforcement and oversight of bail conditions.

My hon. Friend referred also to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. I believe that this is one of a number of matters that fall between two stools. The House will recall that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)—the previous Home Secretary—introduced a new scheme, which was challenged and had to be withdrawn. He then had to replace it with a second new scheme, which was introduced and debated in the House. I assure my hon. Friend that I will look at the situation and take advice as to whether there are steps that can be taken to alleviate the problem. Again it is complicated, but I will look into it carefully to see what can be done.

It is clear that the families of homicide victims need assistance because of the deep distress caused by the tragic event. It is now common practice for police forces to appoint one officer on the investigation team as a family liaison officer. The victim's family will be given that officer's name and telephone number and the officer will be responsible for answering any questions the family may have about the case and for keeping them informed of developments throughout the police investigation and any subsequent court proceedings. This includes the progress and outcome of Court of Appeal cases—a point to which I shall return—where the police will tell the family quickly of the date of the appeal, if the offender is granted bail pending the appeal and, of course, the outcome, when it is known. Obviously that will not be a perfect system as, in some cases, the police do not have the information to pass on. We must tighten the procedures and we will build on best practice so that best practice becomes the norm. We will keep the matter under review.

An information pack is now available for the families of murder victims. The police will offer the families a copy of the pack, which was developed by the Home Office, to help anyone bereaved as the result of a crime. The information pack contains practical information to help the family and friends of the victim, both in the immediate aftermath of the crime and in the longer term. All police forces have copies of the pack, which will be monitored to ensure that no family is left out. Again, we will keep this under review.

As well as receiving information about case progress, it is right that the victims should have the opportunity to explain how the crime has affected them. It is easy to forget that all crime is about the victims and that that is what the process is about. Ways of doing so are being tested in the pilot project.

As hon. Members will appreciate, giving people the chance to make a formal statement about how the crime has affected them raises a number of sensitive issues, which we will need to consider carefully when we evaluate the pilot study. Furthermore, when the victim has been killed, the issue of who should be allowed to make a victim statement as a secondary victim needs further careful thought. In some cases, it will be obvious that the position is not clear cut. In the case of homicide, the majority of victims—54 per cent. of males and 73 per cent. of females—knew the suspect before they were killed and 40 per cent. of females were killed by current and former partners. In such cases, the relatives' views would form part of their case for leniency and it would be far from obvious who was the right person, if anyone, to offer the contrary view as a secondary victim.

The complication of these issues should not and will not stop us engaging in them, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept that there is no simple, straightforward way to deal with them immediately.

My hon. Friend made a number of serious points about the setting of the tariff and the period taken to reach that conclusion. He is right to point out that it is more than three years since the murder and more than two since conviction, yet the tariff has not been set for the life sentence. That is another common area of concern to the families of murder victims.

In every case in which a person is convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, the family of the victim have the right to know what tariff has been set—the minimum period to be served in prison for the purpose of retribution and deterrence. A decision on the tariff, however, has to await the outcome of any appeal to the Court of Appeal in case the conviction is quashed or the appeal sheds new light on the offence. Since the appeal process can be lengthy, it may indeed be many months after sentence before the tariff is set and the victim's family can be told. That is the general situation.

I understand that in Peter Windass's case, the Prison Service is awaiting representations from his killer's solicitors about the tariff. When those are received, Ministers will be able to set a tariff. I can assure my hon. Friend that Mrs. Windass will be informed of the outcome as soon as possible after that. I can go a little further, as officials are pressing solicitors for the representations to be make as quickly as possible and today I have discussed ways in which we can speed up the process of advising relatives about the progress of appeals and that of setting the tariff.

Clearly, improvements can be made. For instance, in this case it appeared that the dismissal of an appeal heard by a single judge was going to be followed by an appeal to a full court—leave was given for that second appeal. The fact that that was dropped after 14 days was not picked up until much later. Clearly that added to the delay in providing information to the family. That is the type of gap and difficulty in the process that we will tighten up.

I am grateful to hear my hon. Friend's commitment that he will speed up the process in this case. I would also be grateful if he would ask the solicitors how long the court has been waiting for representations from the murderer's solicitors and consider the more general point of whether that is longer than is necessary to ensure a fair opportunity.

Certainly I will be happy to consider that when I study the circumstances. I was pointing out that there has been a gap in our being kept informed. We have found out why it happened and will try to use that knowledge to learn lessons and ensure that it does not happen again.

On mentally disordered offenders, the arrangements for the probation service to keep victims and their families informed of post-sentence developments do not apply to victims of offenders who are sent to hospital. That does not apply in this case, so I will leave that matter to one side, but I have flagged it up as another area of concern.

Victims of crime and their families do not merely need timely information about their case and to have their views taken into account; they also deserve appropriate support to help meet their practical and emotional needs, whether or not their case goes to court. My hon. Friend tells me that Victim Support was helpful to the family in this case, although I must stress that it is no substitute for sensitive support and help from every part of the criminal justice system.

The Home Office provides substantial funding to Victim Support nationally, which provides practical help and emotional support to victims of all types of crime. Our grant this year is £11.7 million, which will support the work of about 365 local schemes and branches nationwide. The grant also supports the work of the Crown court witness service, which has been established at all 77 Crown court centres in England and Wales to help victims, witnesses and their families cope with the stress of a court appearance.

Victim Support is working closely with another organisation, Support After Murder and Manslaughter—known as SAMM—to which my hon. Friend referred, to improve and develop services to the families of murder victims. The network of self-help groups throughout the country puts bereaved families in touch with each other and allows them to share their anguish and their anger, to talk to someone who has been in the same situation and to gain strength from knowing that they are not alone in their grief. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Windass is a member of its executive committee and is using her experience to help others. That sort of mutual support and understanding is perhaps as helpful as anything else in enabling families to come to terms with what has happened and I pay tribute to those like her who turn their tragedy and misery into a springboard for helping others.

Through our grant to Victim Support, the Home Office has provided funds to help run the SAMM office located at Victim Support's national office in London. I am sure that the association between the two organisations will enable Victim Support and SAMM to develop and improve further the services that they offer to families bereaved by violence.

We are also committed to ensuring that the courts become much more sensitive to the needs and interests of victims and witnesses through better facilities, information, support services and separate prosecution and defence waiting facilities wherever possible. Some progress has already been made. The court users charter explains the standards of service that victims and witnesses can expect from the Court Service. The victims charter sets out clearly 27 standards of service that victims should be able to expect from all the criminal justice agencies, including the courts, and explains which agency provides each service and how victims can complain if they do not get the level of service promised. Shortly, we plan to issue a revised version of the Home Office "Witness in Court" leaflet, which explains to victims and witnesses what happens at court.

All those changes will help, but central to the needs of victims and families is their wish to see justice done. People such as Mrs. Windass know from their experiences the deep truth in the saying that justice delayed is justice denied. No one can have a monopoly on the feelings or needs of families of murder victims; every situation is different, each family will respond differently to the devastating tragedy, but all of us have the same goal—to try to meet the needs of those families in the best way possible, whatever they are.

The Government accept that the current situation is not perfect and that improvements can be made. We will work with the criminal justice agencies, Victim Support, SAMM and other support groups to improve the service that victims and their families get from the criminal justice system. We will speed up justice, as our manifesto commitments made clear. We will start with youth justice, halving the time that it takes to get young offenders to court and establishing a fast-track system for the persistent young offenders who cause so much chaos and devastation in communities throughout the land. We must tackle violence in our society, bearing in mind the fact that the number of violent crimes increased by more than 11 per cent. last year alone and is 166 per cent. higher than it was in 1979. We must nip things in the bud when things start to go wrong. We must improve consistency and progression in sentencing, to tackle the scandal exposed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when we were in opposition.

That is the background against which I can assure my hon. Friend that we will take action on the issues and concerns that he has raised in this short debate today. I am sure that he will be interested to know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when speaking to the Police Federation at its annual conference today, will also be setting out a vision of the future and ways in which we intend to tackle and improve the operation of the criminal justice system, in the interests of victims, the communities that have been damaged by crime and those who have felt the scourge of violent crime in recent years.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a series of extremely important issues and I look forward to dealing with them in practical terms in the coming months.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.