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Public Confidence in Victim Support

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2024

2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process. (902786)

8. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process. (902794)

With the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we are putting the victims code on a statutory footing. It includes a right for any victim of crime to be signposted by the police to correct and appropriate support services. We have quadrupled victims funding since we took office in 2010 to over £150 million a year, and have recruited almost 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers into the criminal justice system. In addition, we provide a range of freephone support lines, including a 24/7 hotline for rape.

Rapists, domestic abusers and stalkers cannot be convicted if trials are not going ahead, and victims are dropping out after being made to wait years for justice. Where is the Government’s plan to tackle the record court backlog, which is making victims wait years for justice?

We are doing a huge amount to drive down the backlog, which was principally a result of the pandemic. We have increased the fees for both solicitors and barristers by 15%; we have kept open more than 20 Nightingale courts; and we are doing everything within our power to drive down waiting times.

Bearing in mind that Harrow Crown court is not set to reopen for another year because of Ministers’ failure to invest in its repairs early enough, what confidence can victims of crime in Harrow have that Ministers are going to get those who are accused of those crimes to justice much more quickly than is currently the case?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the issue with Harrow Crown court is that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete was discovered in that building. We are investing more than £220 million in the court estate, because we know how much it matters, not just so that the courts are functioning, but so that the buildings convey the right sense of dignity so that people respect the process. Harrow is just one of 350 courts in England and Wales.

The Minister is right to recognise the work that is being done on the victims code, and I appreciate the Government’s taking on board a number of the recommendations made by the Justice Committee when we engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill.

The Minister will know, however, that there is a particular issue with delays in cases of rape and serious sexual offences, where cases are taken out of the list because prosecuting counsel are not available—they simply cannot be found. She rightly referred to the increase in fees for solicitors and defence counsel. Does she agree that there is now just one piece of the jigsaw that needs to be put in place: to bring the fees for prosecuting counsel in those cases up to the same level as those for defence counsel? That would take about £1.5 million. Will she sit down with the Attorney General and talk with her about how we can do that swiftly?

I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, that I spoke to the chair of the Bar Council about exactly that issue last week, but I want to provide him with further reassurance. First, there has been correspondence between the Lord Chancellor and the senior presiding judge about any case of rape that is more than two years old. That correspondence is a couple of months old, and he said that all cases would be listed by July this year—that applies to 181 cases in England and Wales. I also want to draw my hon. and learned Friend’s attention to something I know he will be aware of: that we have increased the fees for section 28 hearings, which take place in an irregular sequence in the court listing, from £670 to over £1,000.

On Monday, The Daily Telegraph reported that civil servants are trying to block an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would legislate for the publication of an annual report on crime stats by nationality. Does the Minister support the release of such a report, and what does she think civil servants are worried we will find out? It is time to publish a report and restore trust among the general public.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I was not aware of that, but I knew that an amendment had been suggested that was not within the scope of the Bill. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is a sensible one; we already publish the number of foreign national offenders in prison, but I understand the force of her question, and I am happy to meet her to discuss it further.

More than 60 lawyers, campaigners, politicians and academics have written a letter in support of the anti-violence against women and girls campaigner and barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman, who is facing disciplinary action after challenging a judge for taking a “boys’ club attitude” in a ruling on a domestic abuse case. Does the Minister agree that the racial, gender and class-based bias of the justice system must be addressed and that it is right to speak up against injustice? Will she join me in paying tribute to those who are campaigning for a legal sector that genuinely represents, empowers, and is accountable to the wider public?

I count myself as one of the people who campaigns on violence against women, and there are many other right hon. and hon. Members across this House who do the same thing. The hon. Lady will understand, I hope, why I will not get involved in a disciplinary matter concerning a particular barrister. I know what it is said has been said, and it will be for the relevant standards committee to decide whether or not the barrister is at fault.

The Minister may be aware that I used to be the victims Minister, and when I was in that role, I tried to stand up for victims whose loved ones had been killed by road traffic incidents. It is fundamentally unfair that if someone is charged with death by careless driving, as compared with death by dangerous driving, the case is not appealable by the victim for leniency. Is that something we are still looking at, as was the case when I was in the Ministry?

I share my right hon. Friend’s profound concern about death caused by either dangerous or careless driving. As he knows, it was the Conservative Government who created a criminal offence of death by careless driving.

I will just make two points. First, on 28 June 2022, the maximum penalty for the offence of death by dangerous driving was increased to life—previously, it was 14 years. Secondly, we have just agreed to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme so that the complainant will have 28 days to put in their appeal to the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, who will have a further 14 days to contact the court. We hope that that will encourage more applications, and of course, we keep the category of offences under careful review.

Victims should have the right to know who this Government are letting out of jail early. With today’s news that, despite Ministers’ protestations to the contrary from the Dispatch Box, high-risk offenders have been released early, why should the public have any confidence that this is a Government who put victims first?

I want to provide some reassurance to the shadow Minister. Under our scheme, no sexual offender, no terrorist offender and nobody who has been convicted of a serious violent crime or been convicted for four years or more will be eligible for early release. I would just remind him that the slight distinction between our scheme and that conducted under the last Labour Government between 2007 and 2010 is that we have a governor lock. That means that the governor of any prison can prevent an individual prisoner from being released early if they do not think that it is suitable to do so, and that was not the case under the last Labour Government.[Official Report, 20 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 8WC.] (Correction)