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Victim and Witness Support

Volume 458: debated on Monday 19 March 2007

5. What steps he is taking to improve support for victims and witnesses; and if he will make a statement. (127793)

The Government are firmly committed to rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of victims and witnesses. We have introduced extensive reforms, including a victims’ surcharge to divert money from offenders to victims, a significant increase in resources for Victim Support from £11.7 million in 1997 to £30 million now, 165 new witness care units to provide tailored support during trial, and a code of practice to give victims statutory rights for the first time.

My hon. Friend will be aware that according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office there are some 250 victims of forced marriage a year. In addition, more than 12 million women and 2 million men suffer from domestic violence of one form or another. I know that the Minister will agree with me that one victim of forced marriage or domestic violence is one too many, but what steps are the Government taking to ensure a better co-ordinated response from social services to maximise support for victims and help eradicate those grotesque practices?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and for the work that he does in his constituency and throughout the country raising those issues. He will know that the Government’s national plan for domestic violence covers forced marriages. We have screening in health and social care settings and training for professionals in those sectors and the criminal justice system, so that people are dealt with in a supportive fashion and their cases understood. Since 2005, we have set up 64 specialist domestic violence courts and on 5 March 2007 we announced £2 million for the multi-agency risk assessment conferences.

The Minister will be aware that the victims of human trafficking need a lot of care after they are found. They often need support in safe houses. With the exception of the POPPY project in London, which deals only with adults, we do not have enough of those houses. What is the Government’s position on expanding programmes such as the POPPY project?

It is important that we try to use the full resources available to resettle victims. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is difficult to find accommodation when resettling prisoners, and the situation is similar for the victims of trafficking. It is important that we provide support in a range of areas, including sometimes medical support, and we are working with various Departments and the Local Government Association to see what further support can be offered.

The Minister will know that there is still a long way to go, for example in cases of child abuse. The sad thing that one discovers, in Cheshire at any rate, is that it is only the commitment of one particular female police officer that provides support for very badly damaged families in nightmare situations. Will he look closely at the issue of co-ordinating support services, because families are still being very badly served?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her work in her constituency and beyond on these issues and for raising those important points. What is important is the education of the public and the agencies about those issues to ensure that people fully understand the implications and the impact on people’s lives of what takes place. We are seeing a better level of training and the involvement of the police and those in criminal justice agencies, who are working with social services and health. We cannot be complacent, because we have to do more, and we are trying to do more.

Have we sent guidance to local departments of public prosecution advising them how to keep up to date and inform the victims of crime and witnesses, so that they can be sure that they do not meet the perpetrators walking down the street? Is the guidance robust and is it being applied consistently throughout the UK?

There is national guidance on witness support. The Government have introduced witness support units, and victim care units are being piloted. We recognise the problems with supporting and keeping victims and witnesses informed. What tends to happen is that the act of crime takes place, the criminal justice system takes over and witnesses and victims are left behind in the process. We are working hard on that and I am especially pleased with the work that has been carried out with the Victim Support voluntary organisation, which is trying to bring together its organisation on a national basis to offer support for victims.