Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Public Bodies (Abolition of Victims’ Advisory Panel) Order 2013.
Relevant documents: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, that is enough radicalism for one afternoon.
This order abolishes the Victims’ Advisory Panel, which I will refer to as the VAP, using powers in the Public Bodies Act 2011. This Act followed the 2010 review of all arm’s-length bodies, which was conducted to increase transparency and accountability, to cut out duplication of activity and to discontinue activities that were no longer required.
As part of this review, we proposed to abolish the VAP, since its functions are no longer required and duplicate activity elsewhere. There is a clear overlap between the work of the panel and that of the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, also known as the victims’ commissioner, who has a statutory responsibility for promoting the interests of victims and witnesses and encouraging good practice in their treatment. That is why the VAP is one of the bodies specified in Schedule 1 to the Public Bodies Act 2011. The Secretary of State has the power to abolish those bodies by order, and it is such an order that we are debating today.
I will now cover briefly the background to the establishment of the VAP and the panel’s membership between 2006 and 2009, before explaining why the Government consider that this order to abolish the VAP is necessary and meets the criteria set out in Section 8(1) of the Public Bodies Act to improve the exercise of public functions.
The VAP was originally established in 2003 as a non-statutory panel to enable victims of crime to have their say, both in the reform of the criminal justice system and in related developments in services and support for victims of crime. The functions of the VAP were subsequently set out in Section 55 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. The VAP was expected to advise Ministers and officials of the views of victims of crime, with particular reference to their interaction with the criminal justice system and its agencies. The panel was also to offer views on the prevention of crime from a victim’s perspective. The Secretary of State was required to consult the panel on appropriate matters concerning victims and witnesses of criminal offences or anti-social behaviour. Where the Secretary of State consulted the VAP in any particular year, the panel was expected to prepare a report to be published and laid before Parliament.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 made it a requirement for the victims’ commissioner to be appointed to, and act as, chair of the panel. The Act made no changes to the core functions of the VAP. Between 2006 and 2009, the VAP consisted of around 10 volunteer members, all of whom had either experienced crime first-hand or had provided support to victims. Of those original members, four agreed to extend their tenure beyond July 2009 to support the work of the Government and of Sara Payne as the victims’ champion, until the first victims’ commissioner, Louise Casey, was appointed in May 2010.
I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its report on this order. I welcome its conclusion that this order does serve the purpose of improving the exercise of public functions and is in compliance with the test set out in the 2011 Act, which I will set out in detail shortly.
I reassure the Committee that the Government did not prejudge the process by winding down the panel before the 2011 Act came into effect. As Louise Casey announced her decision to resign as Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses in October 2011, during the consultation on our public body reforms, the Government considered that the future of the commissioner’s role should be decided before taking a decision on the future of the VAP. Accordingly, no final decision was made on the abolition of the VAP until it was clear that a new commissioner would be appointed. While the Government decided not to undertake any further recruitment to the panel during the uncertainty around the panel’s future, this did not prevent potential future recruitment if necessary.
With the appointment of a new victims’ commissioner, who has a statutory duty to promote the interests of victims and witnesses, we consider that a statutory obligation to appoint and consult a small advisory panel on victims’ issues is no longer the right approach. The commissioner provides an effective and flexible approach to ensure that a broad and diverse range of victims’ views is independently represented to government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, the current victims’ commissioner, took up her post on 4 March of this year following her appointment on 21 December 2012. She has already met many victims and their families across England and Wales, as well as the criminal justice agencies, to seek their views. This follows the work of Louise Casey, the previous commissioner, who undertook a wide remit of consultation and provided advice and challenge to government concerning the treatment of victims and their families and the services they received.
Given the role now played by the victims’ commissioner, we consider that the abolition of the VAP improves the exercise of public functions for the purpose of Section 8(1) of the Public Bodies Act 2011, such that making this order is justified. I say this for the following reasons.
First, on efficiency, abolishing the VAP will reduce the duplication of resources and activity in respect of convening panels and their administration. The victims’ commissioner will undertake a wide range of activities designed to engage the views of victims. This allows for a much greater breadth and depth of views to be obtained, which the commissioner will feed back to government and its agencies on a regular basis to inform and shape policy development and service delivery for the benefit of victims.
Secondly, on effectiveness, the abolition of the VAP will not limit the opportunity for victims to articulate their opinions about the criminal justice system and their position within it. The post of victims’ commissioner is an effective way of ensuring that the views of victims are sought and can influence the development of justice policy. During her tenure, the previous commissioner, Louise Casey, met and received correspondence from hundreds of victims who shared their views and experiences. She used this feedback to inform her advice to government, including reports and a review of the needs of families bereaved by homicide.
Thirdly, on economy, the abolition of the VAP will mean that the Government will not need to recruit and run a new panel, which has in the past cost about £50,000 a year. We believe that this additional spend is unnecessary, given that the work which the panel previously undertook clearly falls into the remit of the victims’ commissioner.
Fourthly, on securing appropriate accountability to Ministers on issues relating to victims and witnesses, this still remains through the role of the victims’ commissioner. The victims’ commissioner promotes the interests of victims and witnesses, as is her statutory duty, and is accountable to the Secretary of State for Justice. The commissioner is required to produce an annual report for the Secretary of State for Justice in her role and the work that she has undertaken, to be shared with the Attorney-General and Home Secretary, which is published and laid before Parliament.
Further, we are satisfied that the abolition of the VAP, for the reasons already stated, does not remove any necessary protections. Abolition of the panel does not affect the exercise of any legal rights or freedoms either directly and indirectly. Victims of crime will be able to have their voice heard through the channels operated and promoted by the commissioner and the Government.
The victims’ commissioner regularly meets the Minister for Victims and the Courts and the Secretary of State for Justice. She has publicly stated that she sees her role as providing challenge to government where the criminal justice system or proposed reforms to it fail to meet the needs of victims and their families, as well as working with the Government to improve the criminal justice system.
The appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, as the new victims’ commissioner last December was a key part of this Government’s wider commitment to strengthen the voice of victims and to improve the experience of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system. For example, we have consulted on a revised victims’ code, which includes reference to the victim personal statement for the first time giving victims a louder voice in criminal proceedings. The victims’ commissioner plays a leading role in ensuring that as we deliver these reforms the voice of victims and witnesses is represented to government. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has confirmed in a letter to noble Lords circulated ahead of this debate that she considers the victims’ commission to be best placed to promote victims’ and witnesses’ needs and to represent their views to government. I hope noble Lords will agree with the current victims’ commissioner that the victims’ commissioner is able to fulfil this role fully and effectively without the VAP, a body that duplicates her activities. I beg to move.
My Lords, public outrage about the abolition of the Victims’ Advisory Panel has been conspicuous by its absence, and the Opposition and I have no qualms about the Government’s decision to abolish it in the light of the appointment of successive commissioners. For that matter, all of us who heard it were deeply moved by the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on these issues; I think it was her maiden speech. We have every confidence in her interest, palpably stemming from those tragic personal circumstances to which she referred, and her ability to be an effective voice for victims and a conduit to government.
However, I note that in the Explanatory Notes to the order the Government cite three criteria which they purport to apply to all bodies that are being considered for abolition and find that none of the criteria were met in this case, including a requirement for political impartiality. Having said that, and I repeat that this is no reflection on the noble Baroness, I find that a slightly surprising conclusion in respect of this position because there are potentially significant issues in this area, such as restorative justice, community sentencing, which is now very much part of the political debate under the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, and criminal injuries compensation, which is a sensitive political issue where changes were recently made. No doubt the commission will comment on all these in due course. However, despite the unique qualifications of the noble Baroness, it might be thought to be better in future appointments to have somebody who is less engaged with the political process.
That view is somewhat reinforced by a recent article in the Law Society Gazette, which records that it thought that the views of the commission should be sought about some of the matters that are currently being debated, including the impact of the Transforming Legal Aid proposals on victims and witnesses and concerns about defence work or prosecution work being carried out by, as it put it, inadequate prosecutors. It approached the commissioner—it e-mailed her—and got a telephone call back saying that she had not commented. That was fair enough. The caller repeated that the issue had not been commented on, and matters were left there. However, it turns out that the person at the other end of the phone was a press officer at the Ministry of Justice. This gives rise to the question whether the staffing and support for the commissioner—any commissioner, not just the present incumbent—should be a little further removed than the Ministry of Justice, which of course is responsible for many of the issues with which the commissioner will have to deal.
I do not raise this in a way that is critical of the noble Baroness, but it raises the issue that future appointments need to be considered. The way in which resources are made available to the present commissioner might be looked at again, given that she may feel called upon from time to time to be critical of the policy of the Government of the day, and to have someone working on that line from within the department might be a little difficult. I put it no higher than that. Perhaps the Minister might care to consider that issue in due course with this commissioner, and perhaps it should be borne in mind with future appointments. We are content that the order should be passed.
My Lords, I am slightly surprised that the noble Lord raised the question of political appointments, even in the terms in which he couched his remarks. I find it extraordinary that somehow we back away from making appointments from the rich vein of political talent that is in the House. The idea that someone has to be politically neutral to be a victims’ commissioner is, I think, absurd. I can think of some likely Members on Labour Benches, including the noble Lord, who would make an excellent victims’ commissioner. The noble Lord is tempting me to express my views on the Cross-Benchers. I have always said that I find it extraordinary that people can reach 60 or 70 years of age without deciding about their political opinions, but that goes way beyond this brief.
I do not accept the idea. As the noble Lord conceded, in the choice of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, we have somebody who has tragic personal experience but beyond that has revealed a capacity to campaign on this issue and link with the victims of crime, which makes her an excellent choice.
I have more sympathy with the noble Lord’s idea that if you ring up the victims’ commissioner and get an MoJ press officer, that probably needs to be looked at. We are, for very good reasons, bringing within the MoJ family various bodies that carry out independent and arm’s-length functions. How we handle that is important. We must make sure that to the public dealing with them, the arm’s-length nature of their independence is underlined, while we get the benefit of the kind of back-office co-ordination that makes sense of these things.
The basic point is that we have already brought forward a range of measures that are designed to ensure that the voice of the victim is strengthened. These include consulting on a new victims’ code, which includes an entitlement for victims to give a victim personal statement when they give evidential witness statements for the first time, ensuring that the victim can describe how the crime has affected them; and announcing the piloting of a recorded pre-trial cross-examination of vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses to help them give their best evidence in court. As I have said, the appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, as the victims’ commissioner gives victims a national voice and has, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, cross-party approval.
I understand that the noble Baroness has press office support as victims’ commissioner and has a dedicated press officer who works part-time. However, that press officer is based in the MoJ. Whether that has caused the confusion or the call was from part of the MoJ press team, I do not know; I have only just heard the point made. The press support which the noble Baroness will receive is fully independent of the MoJ, although it is within our building. I appreciate the noble Lord’s point—it will be duly recorded and pondered upon—and I am grateful for his more general support for this action. I commend the order to the Committee.