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Crime: Victims

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of responses to their consultation, Getting it right for victims and witnesses, what assessment they have made of the contribution of the central office of Victim Support to supporting victims of crime.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, although many of us support the general thrust of the consultation document, especially the point that local services should be shaped to meet the needs of the communities they serve, does the Minister agree that these local services would be more efficient and more effective if they were supported by a strong organisation at the centre that could provide them with advice, help and support? In particular, will Victim Support continue to maintain its services for witnesses and the relatives of victims of homicide?

Part of the purpose of the consultation is to work out where it is best to keep responsibilities centrally—the noble Lord referred to one such responsibility in the case of homicide—and where they could be devolved locally. I assure him that the Government fully appreciate that Victim Support provides a valuable service. We would be surprised if it did not continue to have an important role, as we have proposed moving to a mixed model of national and local commissioning.

My Lords, I recently chaired a commission from the Magistrates’ Association on the future of summary justice. One of the outcomes of this consultation was the view that victims of crime felt that the system of justice was opaque and seldom provided them with information about the process and the outcome. In light of the consultation process which the Minister has undertaken will he undertake to establish a pilot scheme to see how the local commissioning of victim support schemes might operate and whether it would not be a better option than the current system?

I am not sure that I can assure my noble friend that we will move to pilot schemes. The plan, after the consultation, is to see which parts of Victim Support should go to local commissioning and which parts should be retained centrally. My noble friend makes the point that many victims complain that they are not kept well enough informed. The Ministry of Justice information site is trying to give a much better ability to follow through on crimes. However, we feel that the current code is very process-oriented and out of date. In the victims and witnesses consultation we are proposing to review and rewrite the code to clarify what victims should expect. I will certainly take on board what my noble friend says about the opinions of the Magistrates’ Association, which I value very highly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this point is particularly true of children and young people who appear in court as witnesses when they are the victim of crime? Will he look into whether progress is being made on the work done previously? Although that work moved the position forward a long way it seems to have stalled, and children are still being revictimised in court.

I will most certainly follow it up. It is very important that children who are caught up in court processes, whether as the accused or as the witness of a crime, are dealt with in a non-damaging way. I am certain that the thrust of policy development seeks to do just that.

Can the Minister assure me that, whatever follows at the end of the consultation, the needs of victims of stalking will be properly taken into account? I met three victims of stalking earlier this week and it was absolutely clear that their needs as victims were never taken into account. I hope that this situation can be improved.

Again, I certainly take that on board. We are beginning to appreciate more fully just how traumatic it is for an individual to be stalked. I am hopeful that we will be able to treat this as the serious crime that it is, not only in dealing with the perpetrators but in how we support the victims.

May I invite the Minister to consider a very significant omission in the otherwise excellent consultation document? Is he aware that under Section 130 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 a court is obliged in appropriate cases to grant compensation to the victim of the crime, and that if it does not take that view, it is obliged to certify why that is not being done? Is he satisfied that the fullest use is made of this most significant statutory provision?

As often with questions from the noble Lord, I am not sure that I am aware of the provision to which he referred. If I understood him correctly, he is saying that courts should sometimes use their discretion not to grant compensation. I think that there have been press reports of compensation paid to people who have been involved in criminal activity—

I am sorry; perhaps I may explain. I was referring to a situation in which a court feels that a fine is appropriate, all other things being equal, but that the defendant can hardly afford to pay a fine and compensation. The court might decide that, in the circumstances, the public interest is better served by using a compensation order.

I think that I had better take advice and write to the noble Lord. I can feel the thin ice under me so I will write to him.

My Lords, I know that the Minister recognises that victims often feel overlooked in the criminal justice system. Can he please tell the House whether victims themselves have begun to ask for the decentralisation of this service?

Yes. A large number of organisations are involved in victim support, and Victim Support—as the title says—is one of the leading ones. At the moment it is in effect a monopoly provider of services, receiving some £38 million of public funds. In this consultation exercise we are looking at whether it would be better to commission some of those victim support activities locally, and then we can decide where the dividing line between local and central delivery should be. It is a perfectly legitimate exercise. We have, as I say, completed the consultation, and our response and specific proposals are imminent. I hope that that will inform further debate in this House and elsewhere.

My Lords, do not some of the awards available under the criminal injuries compensation scheme tend to inflate the incidence of false allegations? Would it not be wiser to invest less money in compensation and more in victim support?

That is exactly what we are doing. We intend to put more into victim support and to focus compensation much more effectively.

My Lords, in this new construct that the noble Lord is putting forward, how can we be assured of the quality of the support that is given to victims if it is disaggregated in the way that the Government are contemplating?

Quality will come partly from local accountability and the fact that support will be devolved to the new police commissioners, who will have responsibility for victims. That is a very healthy development. I do not want the new police and crime commissioners to see their role as second-guessing chief constables. They should have a wider role in their responsibility for police and crime. If victims are high on their list of priorities, the democratic process will ensure service and accountability.