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Victims Strategy

Volume 646: debated on Monday 10 September 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement. Today, the Secretary of State for Justice and I are launching the Government’s victims strategy, which sets out our vision for victims of crime in England and Wales. That vision is of a justice system that supports even more victims to speak up with the certainty that they will be understood, protected and supported, whether or not they report a crime and regardless of their circumstances or background.

However, no single Department, agency or emergency service alone can provide the services that victims rightly expect to receive, as shown by recent major incidents and tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. To truly deliver on our vision, we must all work together. That is why we have today published, for the first time, a cross-Government victims strategy, further delivering on this Government’s commitment to ensure that victims of crime get the support they need.

This strategy is the latest milestone in improving that support for victims and builds on important progress over the past few years under Governments of both parties, such as the establishment of the first code of practice for victims in 2006; the appointment of the first Victims’ Commissioner to champion the interests of victims and witnesses in 2010; and the publication of “Getting it right for victims and witnesses” in 2012, which set out the Government’s approach to ensuring that victims and witnesses get the support they need.

The victims strategy consolidates and builds on that progress but recognises that more still needs to be done. I thank and pay tribute to all the victims, victims’ groups and experts who have willingly shared their experiences and sat on the victims panel, and to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who initiated this work. I also pay tribute to my officials and to my opposite number in the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for their work on the strategy. To achieve what we wish to, we must work together.

The nature of crime is changing and we must adapt our response to meet that challenge. Although overall crime has fallen, incidents of some of the most serious crimes have risen. Serious violent crime has increased and the reporting of sexual offending has also risen. In the year ending March 2018, there was a 24% increase in reported sexual offences, compared with the previous year.

The message from victims is clear: they want to be treated with dignity, humanity and compassion; they want clear, timely and accurate information about what is happening with their cases from day one; and they want the opportunity and support to make their voices heard as justice is done. To help to achieve that, the strategy sets out a system-wide response to improving the support offered to all victims of crime, throughout the criminal justice process, and incorporates actions from all criminal justice agencies, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. We must ensure that those who are victims of crime do not become victims of the process.

First, we want to strengthen the victims code and make it fit for the future. Our data tells us that fewer than 20% of victims are even aware of the code. Those who are often find it too lengthy and too confusing, with too many agencies involved. We will therefore revise the code, make it more user-friendly and reduce the number of contact points. We will also strengthen entitlements in key areas such as the victim personal statement and support for victims of mentally disordered offenders. We will test the proposed changes to the code in a public consultation in early 2019, and aim to have a revised code in place by the end of 2019.

We have reaffirmed our manifesto commitment to a victims law. The consultation will consider how best to enshrine victims’ entitlements in law and the detail of the necessary legislation, and it will include boosting the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, who already plays a vital role in holding agencies to account. In that context, I pay particular tribute to Baroness Newlove for all her work over the past six years to promote and protect the interests of victims and witnesses.

The criminal injuries compensation scheme must reflect the changing nature of crime. We will therefore review the entire scheme, with a particular focus on how we treat the victims of child sexual abuse and terrorism. That will include examining eligibility criteria and abolishing the arbitrary and unfair same-roof rule, so that victims can get the compensation that they are rightly due.

From Hillsborough to Grenfell, there have been too many failures properly to support those affected by disasters, so today, in this strategy, we have set out our plans for an independent public advocate, and in tandem we have published a consultation on the detail of that role—supporting bereaved families so that those failures cannot be repeated and so that we can properly support victims from the beginning of a disaster right through to the application of justice and beyond.

Building on the work we commenced earlier this year to improve the parole process, the strategy sets out how we will improve communication and support for victims during what can be for many a difficult time, when memories of crimes committed years ago are relived. We will simplify the victim contact scheme and improve the quality of communication. We will make it easier for victims to make victim personal statements at parole hearings, and we will roll out revised training for victim liaison officers so that they are better equipped and prepared to support victims through parole hearings. That can and should help to ensure that past failings can never be repeated.

The strategy highlights the extra funding that we are providing for victims, including by increasing spending to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse. That spending includes £8 million on interventions to ensure that support is available to children who witness domestic abuse. Other measures include improved training for the police, including guidance on supporting victims through the interview process and collecting evidence; the trialling of body-worn cameras for taking victim personal statements, so that victims have a choice in how their story is heard; and expanding support for families bereaved by gang violence. The recent spate of gang-related violence, particularly in London, has shone a spotlight on the devastation that gun and knife crime can cause to families. We will also bring in new funding for advocacy support for those affected by domestic homicide. New guidance on pre-trial therapy to reduce the perception that it will damage the prosecution case will also be brought forward.

In developing the strategy, we have engaged extensively with victims, victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner. That has ensured that the strategy is informed by those who have had direct experience of being a victim, as well as by those with frontline expertise who have supported them.

This strategy is not a quick fix. It is about building on the work to date so that we can better support victims in the future. It is also about giving them the confidence that, no matter their background, their individual circumstances, or the crime that has been committed against them, the support they need will be there.

This is the first time that we have looked in such detail and in such a joined-up way at how we treat victims in the wake of crime. This strategy is a marker for the way we should see ourselves as a nation—one that offers dignity, empathy and compassion to people when they are at their most vulnerable. It is something on which there is broad consensus across this House. On this agenda, the Opposition have, in my experience, always been constructive and positive in their engagement with the Government and I hope that that constructive approach will continue as we deliver the strategy.

Delivery of the strategy will now commence in earnest, as we continue to progress towards a system that supports even more victims to speak up by giving them the certainty that they will be understood, supported and protected throughout their journey. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

Any progress to help victims is welcome, but the only thing that will cut the mustard when it comes to strengthening victims’ rights is primary legislation and for that we are still waiting. We are still waiting for the delivery of the promise made by the Tories in 2015 that they would enshrine key entitlements for victims and witnesses in primary legislation. They mysteriously stopped making specific references to passing primary legislation just a year later. When Labour repeatedly pressed them on whether they still planned to do so, we received a series of fudges, talking about strategies and non-legislative options.

It has taken three years for the Government to produce the strategy that has finally been unveiled today. Why so many mentions of consultation—“consult” on a revised victims’ code, “consult” on a victims’ law, and “consult” on the establishment of an independent public advocate? We have consulted all this to death over the past three years, and have heard loud and clear from all quarters that these things are vital and urgently needed. Labour has campaigned on this for years. Have we not had long enough to talk about this? I would like to hear from the Minister just how much longer we will have to wait and why we have to wait.

We welcome the potential for improving court environments with victim-friendly waiting areas and an emphasis on accessibility for the most vulnerable, but with more than 230 court closures since 2010 many vulnerable people cannot get to the court anyway. Victims having to travel for hours on several different buses will hardly have the calmest start to their court visit, even if they have a more suitable waiting area when they do arrive.

There are measures that aim to provide more support for victims of major disasters such as Grenfell; the Minister alluded to that and we know it is currently lacking. Judicial review is a key tool for victims of tragedies to be able to challenge unjust or unlawful decisions by the state or other public bodies. Labour has committed to restoring legal aid for judicial review. Will the Government now do likewise?

The Government say that an independent public advocate would help to guide bereaved families through any investigative process after a disaster

“so their voices can be heard at inquest.”

However, that is misleading. Although the title includes the term “advocate”, the official will not represent bereaved families at inquiries or inquests. When will the Minister provide advocates to help victims to navigate a complex and intimidating system and lawyers for bereaved families at inquests? The document released today concedes that there is “some potential for confusion”. That is not good enough for victims who are seeking clarity.

Let us be very clear: from a victim’s point of view, our justice system is not fit for purpose. For too long, victims have felt like an afterthought in the criminal justice process. The Government can produce all the strategy documents in the world but victims need action now.

There is no indication of how the Government intend to fund some of the positive measures in the strategy, measures that Labour has been calling for—raising the amount for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse from £31million to £39 million; £8 million for children who witness domestic abuse; and £18.8 million on domestic abuse accommodation services in England. That is all crucial, but will the Minister tell us where the money will come from? Victims may well not have confidence that anything in these measures is being properly funded, given the Tories’ failure to fund the female offenders strategy, which their own advisers say was underfunded by at least £15 million.

Just today, we heard the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association say that policing will be in a “perpetual state of crisis” if the Government do not lay out a long-term vision for the stretched service. The entire justice system is crippled. It is time for the Tories to do as they promised and speed up the urgent work of creating a robust victims’ law. Victims cannot wait for another year.

I welcome much of the content and tone of the hon. Lady’s comments. I am sure she will be extremely pleased to see the reaffirmed commitment to the consultation on the legislation to underpin this. She said that it has taken three years for the Government to produce a strategy. Well, I have been the Minister for three months and I hope that she is encouraged that I have published the strategy, in which that is clearly set out.

The hon. Lady is right that the victims code is very important but we do need the ability for victims to enforce and monitor that and the legislation underpinning it. We are consulting on that, which is the right thing to do. She asked about timescales. I pay tribute to her colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), for his work in this area. He and I have discussed this on many occasions.

The hon. Lady asked when this would happen. As I set out, we will be consulting on the independent public advocate from today. So there is action, which will be followed by consideration of that and steps forward. Consultation will follow on the criminal injuries compensation scheme and the consultation on the revised victims code and the necessary legislation underpinning it will come in 2019. Although I understand that the hon. Lady may be a little frustrated by consultations, I am very clear that what we are doing is hugely important and it is right that we consult widely, particularly with the victims of crime and others, who know best what will work for them in this context. Therefore, although I take her point, I make no apologies for the consultation; it is important that we get this absolutely right. It is also right that we ensure that people have access to justice, and this Government have a strong track record of ensuring continued access to justice.

The hon. Lady highlighted the money and the financing. As she will know, already, taken together, around £200 million is spent across Government and different agencies on supporting victims of crime. We seek with this strategy to ensure that that money is better spent, and better joined up in the way it is spent, to deliver the outcomes that victims of crime want and that this strategy is designed to deliver. This document is a very clear statement of intent by this Government, delivering on a clear commitment from this Government to support victims of crime.

Although I have the hugest respect for my right hon. Friend, I believe that this Government and previous Governments have a strong track record of supporting the victims of crime and that this strategy builds on that strong track record. As he will be aware, sentencing is a matter for our independent judiciary, and the Government always ensure that it has at its disposal a range of options to consider when sentencing an individual.

I also thank the Minister for taking the time to provide a copy of the statement in advance.

This matter is devolved, and I want to talk a bit about what the Scottish Government are doing in this regard. The Scottish Parliament’s Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 ensures that victims and witnesses have legal protection in primary legislation. Our own victims code was published in 2016, ensuring that justice agencies, including the police, the Crown, the courts and the Parole Board publish and report on shared standards regarding how victims are supported and on how those standards are being met. It is important to note that legislative context.

In Scotland, we are looking at improving the availability of information to victims by reviewing the victim notification scheme and consulting on how victims can best input into parole hearings. This is part of our programme for Government for this year. In relation specifically to homicide, Scotland is looking at developing a new model of victim-centred support, beginning with the Homicide Service but looking at other services after that. What work is being done, with regard to things that are being done in Scotland and the way that they are working, to ensure that lessons are learned about whether they would be applicable down here and could be broadened out to happen here as well?

Thinking about what happened in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that victims’ voices are heard before a tragedy occurs, rather than afterwards, so that things like the horrendous tragedy at Grenfell can be stopped before they happen?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she said and for her tone. She is absolutely right—this is a devolved matter. Although it is devolved, and while I may not agree with everything that the Scottish Government do or all the policies they put forward, I assure her that in drawing up this strategy we have taken great heed of what is done in Scotland and looked at what the Scottish Government do. There is no reason to be dogmatic about these things. Where there is good practice elsewhere that may be applicable, we are always happy to look at it, and my officials have been looking at what is done in Scotland. Indeed, as the Minister in the Department who has responsibility for devolved Administrations, I take a particularly close interest.

In respect of reporting and shared standards, the hon. Lady will see in the strategy that we believe that transparency is extremely important. We set out our plans to consult not only on an expanded role and expanded powers for the Victims Commissioner, in holding people and criminal justice system bodies to account, but on an increased role for police and crime commissioners to monitor compliance in their local areas with the code and what is being done, and to send those reports upwards to the Criminal Justice Board and ultimately to me as a Minister.

In respect of Grenfell and what happened before the tragedy, I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I am a little cautious in going into that while the inquiry is still going on. However, I believe that the IPA will play an extremely important role in ensuring that victims’ voices are heard.

I thank the Minister for his statement. This really is a great day for victims. There is much to be very pleased with in the statement and the document that joins it. Let me focus on the same-roof rule—an issue on which I have been campaigning for many years. I was particularly pleased with the change to that rule in a world in which most sex offenders are known to their victims. This is very important. Will he give us greater detail as to when it is likely that the change will come into effect?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is quite right to highlight the importance of this change. She has campaigned very strongly on this issue, as has the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). Only recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) highlighted the very important campaigning of his constituent, Alissa Moore, on this issue and the huge impact that that has had on bringing about change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) asks about timescales. We will be responding to IICSA, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which plays into this agenda, but at this stage we anticipate that we will be looking to consult early in 2019.

I thank the Minister for his statement and say how much there is in it that is really warmly to be welcomed. I think it will get strong support from the agencies outside, from the voluntary organisations, and across this House. I commend his approach in dealing with it cross-departmentally. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the shadow Minister: we look forward to this proceeding to legislation.

May I put to the Minister an issue that has been omitted—victims in rape cases who, when they are in the witness box, are, in effect, put on trial by being cross-examined about their previous sexual history? Everyone in the House agrees that that should not happen. A defendant dragging out the victim’s previous sexual activity in order to besmirch her reputation to the jury or to intimidate her out of giving evidence in the first place should not happen, but unfortunately, the law to protect victims from that is not working.

I know that the Minister will be able to get wise counsel from the Solicitor General and the Attorney General, and I know of enthusiastic commitment of the Minister for Women to justice for rape victims. If the Minister does not add this to the strategy, it will be a glaring omission, so will he include in his very commendable approach tackling this injustice?

The right hon. and learned Lady has long been a doughty campaigner on this and many other important issues, and I pay tribute to her work. She is right that this is not explicitly in the victims strategy. I and my fellow Ministers, including the Solicitor General, have heard her make her point eloquently and forcefully, and we will reflect carefully on what she said.

We have found that most victims want to play a strong role in parole. How will the Minister make victims’ statements more comprehensive for that purpose and give them a role in the parole system?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He has raised that issue previously, particularly in his work as a member of the Justice Committee. He will be encouraged to hear that there are a number of references to the operation of the Parole Board in the strategy, and we will see later this year the Government’s response to the consultation about the operation of the Parole Board. On his specific point, the strategy sets out how the Parole Board will move towards a presumption that victims can, if they wish, read out a victim personal statement in that process.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement. Many of the promises the Government are making today have cross-party support. I am sure the Minister will recognise that without adequate funding to put them into practice, many of those promises will be empty. In the 50 pages of the victims strategy, I counted what looked like a commitment to £60 million of new funding. Is that it, or is there any extra funding, to make sure that we are not just legislating but doing?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words and the tone with which he approaches this important issue. As I set out in response to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), around £200 million of funding has already been spent on supporting victims of crime throughout the system. We believe that that can be better spent by joining it up more effectively and spending it in ways that reflect what victims say they need. The right hon. Gentleman will also see in the strategy a commitment, for example, to an additional £8 million to support children who have witnessed domestic abuse and domestic violence. That funding is already secured.

I welcome the Minister to what I believe is his first statement at the Dispatch Box. He has certainly set the bar high for his many future statements.

The Minister probably noted yesterday that the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, spoke out about her own experience of being a victim in an abusive relationship over two years. Would he give us a bit more detail about what role he sees police and crime commissioners playing in supporting victims, particularly when some, such as my own, have personal experiences of abusive relationships?

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend’s police and crime commissioner. She was incredibly brave to speak out, and by doing so, she has helped to make it a little bit easier for others to feel confident to speak out. I pay huge tribute to her for that.

As I highlighted earlier, we see an increased role for police and crime commissioners in this process, particularly in monitoring and ensuring compliance with the victims code in their local areas and improving transparency around that. Police and crime commissioners are probably the part of the criminal justice system who know their areas and localities best. I pay tribute to them for their work and believe that they have a huge amount more to contribute in this area.

I really welcome today’s announcement of a system-wide approach to supporting victims. I particularly welcome the review into the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which seems to be focused on re-traumatising victims rather than supporting them. A recent study from University College London showed that 80% of 13 to 17-year-old girls who were sexually assaulted went on to exhibit mental health issues within five months. Rape Crisis has a waiting list of 6,000, and Rotherham Abuse Counselling Service has a waiting list of 260. To address this, will the Minister consider committing, as part of the victims strategy, to placing early support for victims of crime on a statutory footing?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. As I said earlier, I pay particular tribute to her for the work she has done both in her constituency and in this House as a strong champion of the need to ensure that the support we offer, particularly through the criminal injuries compensation scheme, adapts to reflect the changing nature of the crimes the victims of which it is seeking to support. I know she will welcome the commitment to review the whole operation of the criminal injuries compensation scheme—eligibility, timescales for claims and of course the issues about the same-roof rule. She asked a specific question, and I am very happy to meet her to discuss it in more detail, whether in the context of this piece of work—this strategy—or, more broadly, about the consultation next year. I am happy, as ever, to meet her to talk about it.

May I commend the strategy, and indeed the way in which my hon. Friend has delivered it? The strategy calls on everyone to work together, and it rightly puts the victim first. Will my hon. Friend offer further details about the trials of body cameras for victims, which he mentioned, because I can think of nothing worse than having to relive the crime in giving evidence? How will body cameras help victims in delivering evidence?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. There will be a trial of body cameras for giving a personal statement, which we believe has the potential to make a real difference. It means that victims will be able to give such testimony in a way that is as comfortable for them as possible in the circumstances, and it will minimise the need for them to have to do exactly what she says, which is having to relive the crime a number of times.

One of the most depressing elements of a violent crime is that, quite often, the victim has to live with the damage for a long time afterwards. In particular, many young men who have been hit on the head have traumatic brain injuries from which they have never managed to recover because there has not been proper rehabilitation support. Will the Minister work very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that we have neurorehabilitation prescriptions, so that justice is brought to those victims because they can properly recuperate?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and I want to reassure him. As I look around the Chamber, I see my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. I paid tribute to him earlier, and I pay particular tribute to him for initiating this work and for working with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we have a strong relationship. I regularly meet my opposite number, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). We have met to discuss this strategy, and I am very happy to discuss with her the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Given that the Minister said that £200 million a year is spent on support for victims, it is simply staggering, 12 years after it was first introduced, that only one in five victims are actually aware that the victims code exists. May I ask the Minister what demonstrable difference and what demonstrable improvements have been made to the judicial experience of victims and witnesses since the Victims’ Commissioner was first appointed in 2010?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and highlights the issue of awareness of the victims code. The fact that 20% of victims say they know about it and that 80% do not cite it does not, in and of itself, mean that the code is a bad thing. I believe that it means that we need to do more to promote awareness of it. We need to make it simpler, which is exactly what we are planning to do. We are actually planning—dare I use these words? —to simplify it almost to the point of being a pledge card that, up front and in very simple terms, will show victims what their entitlements are. We continue to develop and strengthen the victims code, just as we continue to make both the court experience and the support available to victims, pre and post-trial, better.

Liane Singleton was brutally murdered in 1998 by Paul Stowers. Her parents—my constituents Jacky and Gordon Singleton—have been trying to prevent the release of Stowers, including by petitioning this House two months ago. Today they found out that they have failed. They felt dreadfully let down by the criminal justice system, and totally powerless to influence the Parole Board. What difference will today’s announcement make to Jacky and Gordon? Can the Minister give them any reassurance?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who I know has highlighted this issue before. Her constituents are lucky to have her championing their cause as their Member of Parliament. It would be wrong of me to go into the details of that specific case on the Floor of the House, but I can say that the Parole Board will be taking steps to ensure that there is a presumption that a victim’s personal statement can be read in hearings. We will have made changes to the victim contact scheme by the end of 2019, and we will have rolled out new training for victim liaison officers by the end of 2018.

On the hon. Lady’s broader point, we have consulted on the detail of a mechanism for the reconsideration of parole decisions in certain circumstances. The consultation ran until the end of July, as she will be aware. We are carefully considering all the responses and will set out our next steps later this year. We are also carrying out a full review of all the Parole Board’s rules, which will be completed by the end of this year. I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady once those reviews are completed, if that would be helpful.

The £8 million to support interventions for children who have witnessed domestic abuse is to be welcomed. Can the Minister assure me that conversations are being held with the charities, which are often best placed to provide that support?

I can give my hon. Friend exactly that assurance. I am grateful for the work that many charities have done to help us to prepare the strategy, and I look forward to them continuing to play a central role as we deliver it.

The independent advocate for major tragedies is an important and welcome development. Given the Minister’s announcement today, could he indicate the proposed budget for that position?

The right hon. Gentleman, a former holder of the office I now hold—if rather more senior and distinguished—is absolutely right to highlight that important role. We have launched the consultation on the independent public advocate today, in parallel with the publication of the strategy. We will await the results of the consultation to see exactly how the scope and nature of that role is determined, which will of course then inform the funding required.

One of my constituents who was abused as a child was told not to make a claim from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority because it might prejudice the trial, but the trial took so long that by the end of the process, she was out of time. Will the Minister’s changes to the criteria for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority be retrospective?

With regard to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, we have announced a review that covers eligibility and timescales. The hon. Lady highlights something that is an issue in some cases, particularly those involving child sexual abuse, because often the individual is not ready or able to bring forward a claim, either because of their age or because of the trauma they are still suffering. All those factors will be considered in the review.

Victims expect us to make the best possible use of risk assessment and management schemes. Obviously there is much in this strategy announcement to commend, but I wish to be a bit picky and ask the Minister whether he will meet me—this was part of my previous job—and/or other experts in the field who know far more than me, to discuss how to make the best possible use of the latest and best-tested risk assessment and management schemes.

It is always a pleasure to meet the hon. Lady, and I will be happy to do so again on this occasion.

We know that the people who are most vulnerable to crime are those furthest from mainstream services. It is the woman suffering at the hands of her partner, the trafficked person who does not speak English or the child groomed in their community who the consultations detailed today must reach. Who do the Government intend to engage with to ensure that the voice of those who are heard the least is properly involved in this process?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The aim of the strategy is to ensure that all those who are victims of crime, irrespective of background or any other factor, can access the support they need. We have worked extremely closely with not only individual victims of crime and experts in the field, but a wide variety of groups, covering individuals from all backgrounds and all ethnicities, on what they want to see in the strategy. I will continue to work extremely closely with them as we implement it. I am, of course, always happy receive suggestions from the hon. Gentleman.