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Police Treatment of Alleged Perpetrators and Victims

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2013

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am delighted to have secured this opportunity to explore the relative rights, in effect, of alleged perpetrators and perpetrators of crime, in contrast to the rights and treatment of victims and victims’ families. I particularly want to draw attention to a case that I have been pursuing for some time as a Member of Parliament. Not only am I raising this matter because it raises specific points relating to a specific case, but because of wider concerns and the ramifications and consequences for the treatment of other cases and for the rights and treatment of victims in those cases.

Developing this case has been a challenge, because I have, of course, taken my points to the Ministry of Justice, as I should, because parts of the case, and cases relating to how victims are treated in the criminal justice process, are within the curtilage and responsibility of that Department, and to the Home Office, because they also fall within its curtilage and responsibility. Over the years, I have, on behalf my constituents who have raised these questions—I will refer to them in a moment—had to pursue these matters through two Departments. I am delighted that the Policing Minister is here.

The questions are primarily concentrated on competence and on the discretion of the police in their response to capital offences, such as the ones that I will mention. Where are the rights of victims and families, where they potentially conflict with those of killers and alleged killers, or where a killer has already admitted guilt and admitted that they killed a person before their conviction? We are looking at the period in which decisions are taken that have consequences for the victims and the victims’ estate and record, before conviction.

Of course, we assume that killers’ rights are effectively surrendered, or at least subordinate to those of the victims. We believe, and the public would normally expect, that concern for, and consequences for, victims would be uppermost in our minds, and that we would go out of our way to support and protect the interests of victims.

I have two primary purposes in raising this case today. First, I seek to ensure that the rights of victims are not subordinated by the rights of perpetrators, particularly in cases where alleged perpetrators admit guilt or responsibility before conviction. This is especially the case in circumstances that involve the killing or murder of a family member. If a killer is next of kin, in my view they surrender their rights to have a superior claim over the victim’s other immediate blood relatives. Secondly, I wish to ensure that lessons arising from incompetence or failure—in respect of both the handling of the investigation and the lack of support for the victim’s family in the case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, under Operation Ramsgate—have been learned, apologies given and systems improved.

I will refer specifically to the case of the killing of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, which I have mentioned in two previous parliamentary debates. First, I need to place this matter in context. The context, most recently, is the Home Secretary’s correct response to recent allegations about the investigation into the Stephen Lawrence case. That response is most welcome and I think that those who are concerned about the treatment of victims and their families will gain a great deal of succour and encouragement from it. After all, Stephen Lawrence was just 18 when he was murdered on 22 April 1993. We are talking about a case that goes back more than 20 years. It is right that, when further evidence has emerged and further allegations have been made, the Home Secretary has raised the prospect of ensuring that those matters are subject to further investigation and review. The killing of Claire Oldfield-Hampson took place in September 1996, but if some matters are still not resolved, I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at that case and, if necessary, instigate further reviews.

Just last month, the Home Secretary announced that the latest allegations of misconduct in the Stephen Lawrence investigation will be investigated by the chief constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, as part of Operation Herne. She also announced the circulation of a new code of integrity for the police. My constituents and I are pleased for and supportive of the Lawrence family and hope that the principle of re-opening cases is not constrained by them achieving a certain level of televisual or media interest.

I repeat myself to an extent today and for that I offer no apology. I still need, and my constituents need, evidence that lessons are being learned and that improvements are being made, following clear failings on the part of the Cambridgeshire constabulary, which was responsible for investigating the killing of Claire Oldfield-Hampson. Even now, some issues of responsibility for her estate remain to be resolved. I believe that the law needs to be reviewed, to rebalance the respective rights of victims and alleged perpetrators, as does how the Home Office and, more specifically, the police conduct themselves in handling cases such as these.

We assume that killers surrender their rights and are given lesser rights than their victims. A victim and their grieving family should be given greater consideration and protection than a killer. That is what most people would assume. They would assume not that killers lose all their rights—they certainly have a right to a fair trial—but that consideration for victims would be superior to consideration for the killer’s sensitivities, particularly if the killer has already admitted that they perpetrated a crime. However, when a husband kills his wife, he continues to enjoy next of kin rights, and vice versa.

Should a child be placed with the killer’s family or with the victim’s blood relatives? Should the victim’s personal effects, diaries, estate and family heirlooms from before marriage go to the killer’s family or to the victim’s blood relatives? Who should have the greatest right of appeal against court rulings and sentences? In the interests of natural justice, people would expect the victim’s family to have the greatest rights and consideration, but they will be shocked to learn—as I was—that if a killer is next of kin, he enjoys greater rights than the victim’s family. The victim’s family even have to ask the killer for permission to give the victim a funeral.

I will provide a bit of background, although I know the Minister has already been given a great deal of material on this case. I have been raising issues on behalf of my constituent from St Ives, Joanne Bryce, for several years. Joanne’s sister, Claire Oldfield-Hampson, was killed by her husband, David Hampson, on 25 September 1996 at their home in the town of March, Cambridgeshire. He buried her body in the garden, and it was exhumed on 16 December 1998.

In what I have previously described as an “horrific injustice,” Hampson was convicted of the diminished charge of manslaughter, a charge that was mentioned to the family only a few days before the hearing. The plea was accepted because the Crown Prosecution Service and the judge, on the basis of the evidence that the police were able to gather and provide, ultimately accepted that Hampson had suffered the psychological effects of his wife’s nagging. My constituent, Joanne Bryce, points out that Claire’s character was completely vilified. Nine out of 11 national newspapers ran with the headline, “Nagging wife killed by husband.” It seemed that nagging was the capital crime and the killing was just a minor incident.

All that went unchallenged. Claire’s personal diaries must have included evidence of the family relationship. There were 15 diaries, but they were not used at all in the investigation. Much of the material in Claire’s diaries was not made available at the time or shown to the court. There was also video evidence of Felicity’s relationship with her mother, and Joanne has told me that 66 exhibits would have been placed in the public domain and subject to investigation, had there been a trial.

I know the Minister is not here to address the court case, but I raised the broader issues in a debate on Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s case on 8 January 2001 and in an Adjournment debate on 8 June 2011, in which the then Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), described the case as “mishandled,” which lets off Cambridgeshire constabulary and the CPS rather lightly.

There have been many questions and complaints about the competence of Cambridgeshire constabulary, and it would be easy just to brush the case aside and say, “Well, it’s a question of the competence of one particular constabulary, and those issues need to be looked at. They need to hold their hands up and acknowledge that they have failed, and they need to apologise for their failings.” It would be easy to draw a line there and to make that the end of the matter. Following the debate and the complaints raised by my constituent, Cambridgeshire constabulary asked Bedfordshire police to undertake an investigation into the case, and Bedfordshire police found that Cambridgeshire constabulary had seriously failed on a number of counts.

Cambridgeshire constabulary failed to provide a Home Office information pack to the victims of the crime. In fact, the constabulary provided the Home Office information pack to the family of the killer, arguing that they were victims, too, but it failed to give the information pack to the blood relatives of the person who was killed. The constabulary failed to let the family know that they were entitled to a family liaison officer. Apparently one was appointed, but the family were never told. The constabulary failed to identify to the family that there was a senior investigating officer.

We all know that we are not used to dealing with such processes, and we do not know what support the police are expected to provide. People cannot ask the question, “Where is our family liaison officer?” if they do not know that one is supposed to be provided. The last thing that people who are grieving, bereaved, angry, confused and sad about such a tragic event would know is their right to the kind of support that on this occasion the family clearly failed to receive.

There was a failure to provide information about the criminal injuries compensation scheme, particularly in relation to the funeral expenses. There was a failure to obtain evidence of Claire’s character, and, ultimately, the Director of Public Prosecutions wrote a letter to me a few years later, in 2003, apologising for allowing her character to be assassinated in court by the case in mitigation as a result of the police investigation’s failure to achieve a balanced inquiry.

There was a failure to investigate fraud and theft by the killer, too, because the police felt that, as they were going for the murder charge, fraud and theft were less important, and therefore they were swept away and ignored. The family were also denied access to their niece and granddaughter. Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s mother, Mary Oldfield, who was living in the area at the time that Claire’s body was exhumed, was unable to go back to live in the area and came to live with Joanne Bryce in my constituency.

The police also gave out to the media the address and phone number of Joanne Bryce without her permission. In reply to the Bryce family’s complaints about abusive phone calls from the killer’s sister, the family were told, “Well, she is a victim, too.” The family received one phone call at 10.45 pm on 16 December 1998 informing them that Claire’s body had been found and that she had been murdered, but no one offered any help. The family saw Cambridgeshire constabulary for the first time three weeks later.

Other matters of complaint and concern arise from the case. Joanne Bryce was told to get Claire’s bones moved from a hospital in Peterborough or the family would get a big bill. Of course, the family needed to get the killer’s permission before they could make contact with an undertaker or make arrangements for a funeral. How would anyone feel if they were told in those terms that they are responsible for resolving the matter but that they do not have the power themselves to ensure that the funeral takes place?

Cambridgeshire constabulary says that it investigated Claire’s bank accounts and that the documents were returned as not used by the CPS. When Joanne Bryce was advised by the bank manager that she must get copies of statements after the trial, she was told that those bank statements had never been asked for.

Victims’ families should not have to beg the killer’s family for family effects. All that my constituents have to remember Claire by is her wedding dress and an out-of-date passport. The war medals of her uncle, who died before Claire met and married her husband, her grandmother’s crockery, photographs and certificates were all denied Claire’s blood family, who were not allowed to enter her home. Meanwhile, the killer’s family, or indeed his girlfriend, could go in at any time and take things away.

If possessions of the victim are found years later in the hands of the police force, under the Senior Courts Act 1981, the family and victims should be advised and allowed to claim them. That was mentioned to me during the debate in 2011, the first time that my constituents were aware of that right. Those possessions should not have been sent to the perpetrator’s family, and the victim’s family should not have been told that the only way to recover them was by raising their own case in court through civil action, but that is effectively what the Bryce family were told about diaries dating back to 1983, long before the couple married.

I have spoken to many agencies about the issue, including Victim Support, which is considering it. Victim Support told me that when the next of kin is the perpetrator of the crime, it causes many issues, including, for example, for children’s carers, who must seek permission from the legal parent for even the simplest tasks, such as taking the children on holiday. However, the issue relates to family law, which is civil, not criminal. Unfortunately, neither the police nor other criminal justice agencies have control over the matter; it must proceed through family courts with the assistance of social services.

I am aware that the issue of next of kin falls into the rather murky territory of what next of kin means, because it is not specifically defined for all purposes. The forfeiture rule, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate during our last debate, is an instance of the wider principle that a person should not be allowed to profit from his or her crime. I do not think anyone is saying that in cases of domestic violence, profit is necessarily in the mind of the killer at the time, but taking advantage of the situation and disallowing the victim’s family access to the effects, estate and memory of their blood relative who has been killed is a matter that needs to be resolved. It is not a question of killing or murder in order to obtain the benefit of the estate for profit.

I have also heard from Refuge, which I am sure the Minister is aware is running a strong campaign at the moment to open a public inquiry into domestic violence in relation to the domestic homicide victim Maria Stubbings and many other cases. Refuge has a public petition that it is urging people to sign, and it is also supported by 38 Degrees.

The Government still need to address more issues than that of competence in this case. In my judgment, almost everything that could go wrong in the handling of an investigation and the relative rights of victims and perpetrators did go wrong in this case; everything that could be mishandled was mishandled. Cambridge constabulary make the calamitous Keystone Cops look like a highly professional and effective law enforcement agency.

Also—this is critical—I urge the Government to review the issue seriously and undertake a great deal of purposeful, although not lengthy, reflective work on considering how the interests of victims and their immediate blood relatives, particularly in cases of the kinds of killing and murder that I am referring to, can be balanced. They clearly have not been in this case. It is not just about mistakes; within the law, police do not have discretion to give victims and their blood relatives the consideration that they deserve. Between the point of arrest and the point of conviction, many serious mistakes are often made that can never be put right. They certainly were made in this case.

That is why I strongly urge the Minister and the Government, across both the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, to consider the issue seriously and ensure, without denying alleged perpetrators the right to a fair trial, that victims’ interests are properly protected in such cases. I argue that we as a country should be taking a far more precautionary approach to protecting the interest of victims and their estate, and of blood relatives in killings and murders in cases such as the one that I have referred to. We can learn lessons from this case going forward. I fear that the same thing will happen again and again, that victims and their families will not have the right to redress and that when they do, it will be too late.

Although my constituent Joanne Bryce has not raised the matter with me, I happen to know that she has spent the past 15 years seeking expensive legal advice—on one occasion, she sought the advice of a private investigator—and travelling around the country pursuing these issues. She has had to remortgage her house and seek other assistance in order to continue seeking justice. She has not asked for compensation, but I must say on her behalf that I think she deserves some.

The issues raised by the case are extreme and serious. Although I know that I have raised some of them before, I have raised them again because I do not think that we can move on. I certainly know that Joanne Bryce and her family cannot move on. They fear that the lessons have not been learned. Such injustice in the imbalance of rights between alleged perpetrators and victims needs to be re-examined and put right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I pay heartfelt tribute to the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for the diligence with which he has brought this distressing history to the House.

The death of Claire Oldfield-Hampson occurred in 1996. As the hon. Gentleman said, he instigated debates on the issue 12 years ago and in the past couple of years, and he has sought this debate to raise it again. That shows that he has the interests of his constituents at heart and wants to resolve some of the injustices that have occurred, so that other families do not have to experience what Joanne Bryce has experienced on behalf of her sister. That is a positive development for him. I hope that the Minister can give the family some comfort about the circumstances that they have faced.

The justice system self-evidently exists for witnesses and victims. Ultimately, victims are what the justice system is trying to prevent, and we are delivering justice to victims through the whole police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts process. For justice to be effective, it needs to have the confidence of those who use or are brought into the system. I was particularly struck by the hon. Gentleman’s comment that many of the people who enter the system do so for the first time in their lives; they are not law-breakers, but have suffered an injustice. Their experience of the justice system, how their case is treated—how the police, the CPS and the courts deal with them—and the outcome of the process are extremely important as to whether they feel that they have received justice.

I am not familiar with the case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson or the details of the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but from what he said about the investigation, the Cambridgeshire constabulary appears to be guilty of serious failings of process. Such issues can be corrected by good governance on the part of all police forces and of the Home Office. The policy we make in the House of Commons and in government could at least provide some standards, to which we hope everyone would aspire. When victims are treated with such indifference, justice and their confidence in justice are damaged; as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it also leads to a long period without a feeling of closure, given the concerns expressed. He has done justice by bringing such matters forward, and we need to look at them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the standards of service we can expect from police forces, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. We should also, however, expect police standards for the service given to victims in the case of serious incidents. Those standards should be codified, presented, monitored and observed. If there are complaints, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, while examining serious incidents, should be able to monitor and give guidance on such matters. I hope that the new College of Policing, which the Minister and I are discussing in detail in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, will give some opportunity for proper guidance to police forces on serious crimes, be they manslaughter or murder, and on the types of service provided as part of the CPS, charging and courts process.

The Minister will probably mention the Victims’ Commissioner, which was established by the previous Government. Louise Casey was the post holder until she moved on, when Baroness Newlove was appointed to the position. I hope that we will be able to use that post to set some of the standards on the rights of victims to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in proceedings in court and in other aspects of the justice system.

My hon. Friends who deal with Justice matters—I am the shadow police Minister—are looking hard at how to strengthen the rights of victims and witnesses in the courts and the criminal justice system. We want to place in statute a victims’ code that would cover the service that victims might expect to receive from the moment that they become a victim through to the closure of the court case, whenever that might be.

In particular, we are looking at how to give legally enforceable duties, enshrined in an Act of Parliament, to criminal justice agencies in a number of key areas. In some cases, that will help and support the objectives mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. One example might be a right to be kept informed by the police as an investigation proceeds, and as the prosecution develops and then proceeds. He made a point about a last-minute change of charge, and that would have been resolved in part by the involvement of the victims in any discussion. The family should have been consulted or at least informed about the CPS involvement, rather than finding out about the charge at a late stage, in a distressing way. Another example for our victims’ code might be the right to have the body of a loved one released within 28 days, except in exceptional circumstances. In particular, there should be a post-conviction right to be informed 28 days in advance of any perpetrator of serious crimes being released from custody, so that victims are aware.

We are also looking at how to give legal entitlements to victims, including the production of a victim impact statement and the right to be treated decently in court, including an explanation of court proceedings in advance. The first time that a victim, witness or supporting family member appears in the proceedings could be their first time in a court, because the situation is the first one serious enough to drive them to court. Ultimately, they are victims and witnesses, not perpetrators. There should also be a right to have sentencing remarks put in writing and to have access to the Victims’ Commissioner who can look at what happens when things go wrong. The commissioner should be a full-time, resourced post able to deal with such matters.

My party are also considering nominating a Minister in the Ministry of Justice or the Home Office to have responsibility for overseeing victims’ issues and to develop victims’ policy. I had such a role in Northern Ireland, when there were many victims. As a Minister, I dealt with cases on all sides of the community, looking at victims’ services and their development. The fact that a Minister had ultimate oversight of such matters meant that they arrived at my door and reached the Victims’ Commissioner.

The next-of-kin issues to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn the attention of the House today are particularly important. The Opposition cannot give him any comfort on them, but they are nevertheless worthy of investigation and discussion. The need to have the killer’s permission as next of kin to release the body, or the permission of the killer’s family to look at the property and its contents, and who should have care of a child, are important issues. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I assure the hon. Member for St Ives that the Opposition will examine such matters, and I will draw them to the attention of my colleagues in the shadow Justice team.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the family of Stephen Lawrence. That case, too, is not typical. There will always be failures in every aspect of our public life—in a small proportion—no matter what happens, but that case holds real lessons, which I hope that we have learned and that will help the chief constable of Derbyshire, Mick Creedon, in examining the Metropolitan police and its historical cases of spying on victims. Doreen Lawrence most certainly was a victim.

My experience, as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a former holder of the Minister’s office, is that police are trying to do a good job in all circumstances. They want to bring people to justice, to ensure that victims are fully involved in the process and to secure justice for victims across the board. There will, sadly, always be areas where those standards are not met, which is why we need a close examination of what the standards should be. We need strong guidance from the Home Office to forces about how we deal with such incidents, and we need to ensure that there is a method of redress if families or even hon. Members feel that they cannot deal with the issues, which is why I strongly support the Victims’ Commissioner and the strong Independent Police Complaints Commission that the Committee on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently considering.

I appreciate the hon. Member for St Ives bringing these issues before the House today. I hope that the family—Joanne Bryce and others who miss Claire to this day—will get some satisfaction from the fact that a Member of Parliament is still arguing for us to improve services for those who follow, and I wish him well in that. We will reflect on what he has said, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under you, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) not only on securing the debate, but on the fact that, as the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, he has mounted a campaign of such length and depth on behalf of his constituents. The case he has outlined is tragic and shocking, and we can only have sympathy for the family in those circumstances. My hon. Friend is right to continue to raise the case and to ask questions about the criminal justice system. He said many of his complaints were about the police, while others were about other parts of the criminal justice system. I am not just the Policing Minister at the Home Office, but the Criminal Justice Minister at the Ministry of Justice, so I hope I can deal with a large number of the important issues he raised across the board.

I think it is fair to say that the support for victims and their families has improved dramatically since this terrible case, but there is, absolutely, always more that can and should be done, and more will be done in the coming years. As my hon. Friend mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt)—the previous prisons Minister—apologised for the way in which the case was handled in the first place, and Cambridgeshire police have also apologised. I apologise now on behalf of all the public agencies involved. Clearly, mistakes were made, and it is the Government’s job to ensure that such mistakes, which cause so much heartache and misery, cannot happen again.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives talked about the proceedings of the IPCC, which deals with serious and sensitive complaints against the police. One problem my hon. Friend and the family have had is that Ms Bryce made a complaint in 2004 to the Police Complaints Authority—the IPCC’s predecessor body—so the IPCC was unable, under the Police Reform Act 2002, to reopen the case. There are now instances where matters brought to the PCA’s attention can be reconsidered by the IPCC. We now allow for some cases that were previously investigated to be the subject of further investigation. The circumstances have to be exceptional, and the IPCC must be satisfied that the matters that have been complained about are unusually grave and that there is an overwhelming public interest in the matters being reinvestigated.

I was interested to hear the Home Secretary’s statement to the House a couple of weeks ago, when she acknowledged that she had spoken to Dame Anne Owers about the Stephen Lawrence case. Dame Anne had indicated that if issues arose from the investigation of the allegations in that case, she saw a role for the IPCC, even though the police had investigated these matters 20 years ago.

The legal block put in place in the 2002 Act referred specifically to complaints that had been referred to the PCA. I can see why it was introduced: to prevent every case the PCA had looked at from being investigated by the new body. However, there are, as I say, very large caveats, and there needs to be exceptional public interest. The matters that have been complained about must be unusually grave, and there must be overwhelming public interest in their being reinvestigated. That is the hurdle, but that possibility is there.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the Criminal Cases Review Commission reviews cases for perpetrators of crime, but not for victims or their families. The CCRC reviews the safety of convictions and sentences on application by, or on behalf of, defendants. Generally, it may do so only when all available avenues of appeal have been exhausted, but, in carrying out its functions, it takes care to ensure that it complies with the spirit of the code of practice for victims, as well as with its obligations under it.

A number of points have been made about how appeal proceedings can, in circumstances such as those we are discussing, appear to favour the perpetrator rather than the families or the victims. Although victims and their families cannot appeal, they can make a personal statement to explain the impact of the crime on them. Any personal statement from a victim or their family that was produced for Crown Court proceedings should have been sent to the Court of Appeal with the other trial papers when the appeal was started. However, a victim or a member of their family can lodge or update a personal statement with the Criminal Appeal Office at any time during appeal proceedings. Obviously, it is better to do such things in good time before the hearing so that judges have time to read the statement, but it is possible to send in the statement at any time up to the day before the hearing. In addition, we intend to include information about victims’ entitlements at the appeal stage of the process in the revised victims’ code.

That is extremely helpful; in fact, in the original debate in January 2001, a request was made for victims to have a statement and to have a role in the proceedings—even in the kind of lower-order hearing that was used in this instance to advance the case in mitigation. In Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s case, no one answered the case in mitigation, which resulted in the castigation of her and the appalling way in which her memory was recorded. Is there, therefore, an opportunity to find a means by which the family can, even at this stage, put on the historic record something to counteract the slanderous comments that are now there as a result of the hearing?

If I may, I will take that thought away and think about it, because no criminal justice proceedings are continuing, and it is difficult to legislate for something that has already happened. As I say, one thing I hope will come out of these tragic circumstances is that we learn to improve conditions for future victims and their families. I hope I am going some way towards assuring my hon. Friend that lessons have already been learned and continue to be learned. However, I will take his point on board and give it some thought.

My hon. Friend made a powerful point about what can happen to family effects. I can perfectly well appreciate how those are so valuable in such circumstances. It is already the case that the person convicted of murder forfeits his or her right to inherit from the victim. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it should remain a fundamental principle of law that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so there are no plans to amend the law to restrict a person’s right to apply for probate before trial or to prevent relatives of a person convicted of murder from inheriting from the victim’s estate.

The current law provides some flexibility, however, so that on application the court can amend or revoke a grant without the consent of the appointed personal representative, in exceptional circumstances; for example, if the personal representative has been convicted of the deceased’s murder. In addition, it is now open to anyone to enter a caveat on the probate register to prevent probate from being granted. For example, a relative of a murder victim could enter a caveat to prevent probate from being granted until the circumstances of the death had been clarified. I hope that is helpful.

I am grateful for that advice. Clearly, if it had been available to Joanne Bryce and her family at the time of the events in question, circumstances would be entirely different now. I am sure that had my constituents been aware of such powers they would have sought a caveat on the probate immediately—had they not been grieving and distraught, and unable to act in such a way for themselves.

Can anything be done retrospectively in such cases, and, secondly, can it be made clear that in the twilight world, so to speak, between arrest and conviction, the blood relatives of the victim should be given the best legal advice, to ensure proper protection of their interests and the memory of the person who was killed?

The key to the point is the victims’ code. We are about to publish a new version of it, and have been consulting on it for the past few months. It is very important that victims’ rights should be better understood, not least by victims themselves and their families. Members of the public, as well as those who are habitually involved in criminal justice proceedings, need to be more knowledgeable about the code. Victims of crime are entitled to receive information, support and services under the victims’ code. That includes, for example, information about the criminal injuries compensation scheme and the appointment of a family liaison officer. As I have said, awareness of the code is not high enough—not only among victims but among criminal justice practitioners. That is why, as well as revising the code to make it more accessible, we shall use a range of methods, including short leaflet guides, to communicate it more effectively. Awareness will be raised through work with organisations such as Victim Support, whose extensive networks operate locally in every part of the country.

Structural changes made since the late 1990s and early 2000s will serve generally to raise awareness of means of redress, particularly among victims and their families. The most obvious and dramatic have been mentioned: each area will have a police and crime commissioner, whose basic task is to hold the chief constable to account. When there are serious complaints, such as there clearly were in the case that my hon. Friend has raised, the PCC will be the first point to go to; that is where there would be someone whose local responsibility was, in the case in question, to hold to account the Cambridgeshire force. That will be a significant step forward.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way once more. One hopes that people will not need to reach the point of making complaints. As I think I have shown, it is often too late when the point of contacting the police and crime commissioner is reached. Given that the case I have raised highlights an appalling contortion of justice, in which permission must be given by a killer for the blood relatives to get access to the death certificate, so a funeral can proceed, can my right hon. Friend at least tell me that we have learned that lesson? Can anything be done to avoid that absurdity in future? Surely families of the victim of a killing should not have to ask the killer for permission to proceed with a funeral.

I quite understand the point. I hope that, partly through the victims’ code, and by other means, we will be able to consider some of the specific serious issues that arise in the terrible case in question. Two more reforms are being brought in to help to prevent repetitions of some of the problems that arose, one of which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson).

Firstly, to take up my hon. Friend’s point, we want to prevent recurrences: redress is important, but prevention is always the priority. The College of Policing has the precise task of raising professional standards throughout the many vital activities of the police. I hope that in relation to the case that my hon. Friend has raised the college could provide extremely useful guidance on sensitivity in interface with families, in addition to working on spreading best practice, making it easier and quicker for that to be spread between forces.

Secondly, we have also embarked on a wider reform of the criminal justice system. Much of the reform is about improving efficiency, but some of it is about making things more transparent. For everyone who becomes involved with the criminal justice system—and I take the point that often it will happen to a person once in their lifetime, perhaps because they are a victim or a victim’s relative, and so they do not want the involvement—things should happen in a clear, timely and efficient way, and be clearly explained. People should not be left waiting around for months or years waiting for a decision. That is another significant reform.

I have already mentioned police and crime commissioners, and they are perfectly placed to represent victims’ voices locally. We are legislating in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is in Committee at the moment, so that from October next year PCCs will have clear powers to provide or commission the widest possible range of services for victims of crime. As has been mentioned, we have appointed a new Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Helen Newlove, who began work in March. She is already meeting many victims and their families, to hear their views on the criminal justice system. Indeed, she sits on the criminal justice board that I have set up, which brings together the judiciary, the police, PCCs and various bodies that represent different parts of the system, precisely to drive through such reforms.

To address a particular point that my hon. Friend raised, in April 2011 we introduced domestic homicide reviews on a statutory basis, so that local areas and agencies will identify lessons learned, to help to prevent future homicides and violence, and make improvements. The reviews specifically encourage agencies to work more closely with friends and family members of victims, to see how they can share information at an earlier stage. I assure my hon. Friend and the family of Claire Oldfield-Hampson that we are considering how to improve means of redress for victims—we have discussed that briefly already—so they can hold the criminal justice agencies to account.

We have made a commitment to look at the case for an independent complaints ombudsman for the criminal justice system in the strategy and action plan I referred to. We have consulted on an improved complaints procedure in the new victims’ code, and we are keen to explore whether police and crime commissioners can play a role in ensuring that the high standards of service that we want and expect to see are maintained in every locality.

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Delyn that the Government are already taking forward many of the improvements that need to happen, and the victims’ code is already statutory. It is in secondary legislation, but any non-compliance may result in judicial review. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints under the code, and there is a high level of compliance. The victim’s personal statement is key. We have consulted on putting victim personal statements in the code for the first time, which would give it a statutory footing. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), already has specific responsibility for victims and this area of policy. I am glad that that change has been welcomed on both sides of the House.

Nothing anyone can say can undo the past, but I hope that it is at least clear that our reforms put the Government and the law on the side of the victim and their family. We want to ensure that throughout the criminal justice process there is support for victims of crime and their families, that consideration of their needs and welfare is embedded in the way in which police and criminal justice agencies work, and that those needs are an absolute priority in their work and everything they do.

Sitting suspended.