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Victims of Crime Etc (Rights, Entitlements and Related Matters)

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision about the duties and responsibilities of the Victims’ Commissioner and about the Victims’ Code; to require victims’ services plans for each police service area; to establish a duty to report suspected child abuse by those working in regulated activities, a code of practice on the recording of allegations, a right of appeal by victims against a decision to cease a criminal investigation, and standards for the review of open or reopened homicide cases; to make provision about court procedures relating to vulnerable victims and witnesses; and for connected purposes.

Leave to introduce a similar Bill, called the Victims (Bill of Rights) Bill, was given on 4 March, but that Bill fell because of the general election. As with that Bill, I am glad to inform the House that my proposed Bill has cross-party support, for which I am very grateful. I should also indicate that the Bill does not extend to Scotland.

Although significant improvements have been made to our criminal justice system in the past 20 years, there is growing consensus that it does not serve victims well. Some of the problems are obvious. Many victims, particularly victims of personal or sexual violence, lack the confidence to come forward and report crime, lack adequate support if they do so, and face an unacceptable ordeal in the court room if their case gets that far. The idea of telling many strangers, many times, about an experience of sexual degradation and abuse causes many such victims to feel intense and understandable distress. It takes real courage to come forward. The response of those charged with delivering criminal justice to those who do come forward dictates the likelihood that other victims will report. Yet when they do come forward, victims of crime regularly complain that communication and treatment are consistently poor across all criminal justice agencies.

There are many such examples. The case of Claire Waxman, who is sitting in the Gallery, involved long-term stalking and harassment. I am grateful to her and to Harry Fletcher, who is sitting alongside her, for their help in preparing this Bill.

All involved in delivering criminal justice, including the police, prosecutors and the judiciary, agree that the situation needs to improve, but the question is: how? There have been plenty of codes, charters and guidance, and they have moved things on, albeit painfully slowly, and without any real legal teeth the effectiveness of such changes will always be patchy.

Likewise, at a time of tight pressure on the criminal justice system, there is a danger that services to victims will come a poor second to operational priorities. Most services provided to a section of the public are regulated, quality assured and monitored, but that is not the case for victims’ services. There is simply no framework around the provision of those services. As a result of the lack of overall co-ordination, the services provided are fragmented and of varying quality. Existing discrete legal protections—such as restraining orders, special measures or witness anonymity—provide essential safeguards, but there is no legal regime promoting and protecting victims’ rights from the beginning to the end of their engagement with the criminal justice system.

The “Code of Practice for Victims of Crime”, more generally known as the victims code, was a significant and positive development when it was first published in 2005 and it should be supported, but although its provisions remain important, they are not directly enforceable and they require clarification and strengthening in places. Similarly, the role of the Victims’ Commissioner has great potential, but it has insufficient powers, has been unfilled for considerable periods in recent years and is under-resourced.

Against that background, the conclusion that victims’ rights will only be taken seriously if and when they are enshrined in law is now inescapable. If the Bill is brought in, it will offer a real opportunity for change, progress and improvement. As I have said, it has received cross-party support, as evidenced by the names of the supporters to whom I hope to refer shortly. I believe that this is an issue, like the stalking and domestic violence campaigns, on which this House is united, rather than divided. We want change because victims of crime deserve better, and because such improvement will enhance our criminal justice system. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Keir Starmer, Tim Loughton, Sarah Champion, Jenny Chapman, Sir Edward Garnier, Mr Barry Sheerman, Caroline Lucas and Liz Saville Roberts present the Bill.

Keir Starmer accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 December, and to be printed (Bill 80).