Skip to main content

Victims Strategy

Volume 792: debated on Monday 10 September 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement. Today, the Secretary of State 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 one of a justice system that supports even more victims to speak up, with the certainty that they will be understood, that they will be protected, and that they will be 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 victims rightly expect to receive, as shown by recent major incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire and terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.

To truly deliver on our vision we must all work together, and 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 the support for victims and builds on important progress over the last few years, such as the establishment of the first Code of Practice for Victims of Crime 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: The Government Response in 2012, setting out the Government’s approach for making sure that victims and witnesses get the support they need. The victims strategy consolidates and builds on that progress but recognises that more needs to be done. I want to thank and pay tribute to all those victims, groups and experts who have willingly shared their experiences and sat on the victims’ panel and their work, and to my predecessor, who initiated this work.

The nature of crime is changing and we must adapt our response to meet that challenge. While overall crime has fallen, some of the most serious crimes have risen. Serious violent crime has increased and reporting of sexual offending has also risen. In the year ending March 2018, there was a 24% increase in reported sexual offences compared to 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 achieve this, 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, CPS and the courts. We must ensure that those who are a victim of crime do not become a victim of the process.

First, we want to strengthen the victims’ code and make it fit for the future. Our data tell us that fewer than 20% of victims are even aware of the code. Those who are often find it too lengthy, too confusing, with too many agencies involved. We will therefore revise the code, making it more user-friendly, reducing contact points, and strengthening 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 also reaffirmed our manifesto commitment to a victims’ law. The consultation will also consider how best to enshrine victims’ entitlements in law and the detail of the necessary legislation, and will include boosting the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, who plays a vital role in holding those agencies to account already. I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove for all her work over almost 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 be reviewing 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 they are rightly due.

From Hillsborough to Grenfell, there have been too many failures to properly support those affected by disasters. So, we have today in this strategy set out our purpose for an independent public advocate and have in tandem published a consultation on the detail of the role, supporting bereaved families so that those failures cannot be repeated and 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 roll-out revised training for victim liaison officers, so that they are better equipped and prepared to support victims through parole hearings. This can and should ensure that past failings can never be repeated.

The strategy highlights the extra funding that we are providing for victims, including increasing spending to improve services and pathways for survivors and victims of sexual violence and abuse, including spending £8 million on interventions to ensure that support is available to children who witness domestic abuse. Some of the other measures are: improved training for the police, including guidance on supporting victims through the interview process and collecting evidence; trialling body-worn cameras for taking victim personal statements so that victims have a choice in how their story is heard; 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, and we will be bringing in new funding for advocacy support for those affected by domestic homicide—and new guidance on pre-trial therapy to reduce the perception that it will damage the prosecution case.

In developing the strategy we have engaged extensively with victims, victims’ groups and the Victims’ Commissioner. This has ensured that the strategy is informed by those who have had direct experience of being a victim as well as those with front-line expertise. The 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, and it is about giving them the confidence that, no matter their background, their individual circumstances or the crime that has been committed against them, the support that they need will be available.

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 that we 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. 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”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I join him in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who is not in her place today, on her role in representing victims. I am sure all noble Lords will recognise the great contribution that she has made over the last few years.

Welcome though the publication of a victims strategy is, as my honourable friend Gloria De Piero pointed out in the House of Commons, it comes three years after being promised and in the shape of secondary legislation rather than the primary legislation envisaged. Even now, as we have heard, further consultation is to take place—for example, in relation to the victims’ code and the creation of the post of independent public advocate. Could the Minister indicate the nature of such consultation and its potential timescale?

Will the Government review the position in relation to judicial review where the cuts to legal aid over the last few years have in some cases prevented the pursuit of justice? The Statement is made on the same day that the Metropolitan Police have revealed a drop in the investigation of serious crimes, including sexual offences and violence. How is this supposed to help the victims of such brutality?

We are all aware of the enormous strain on police forces up and down the country, not least in London. There is no indication of additional funding to meet the challenges in the rise of serious crime, including violent crime and sexual offences. Indeed, the Police Superintendents’ Association is warning of a “perpetual state of crisis”. Surely this is unacceptable.

We welcome the promise to revise the victims’ code. How will that exercise be carried out, and what is the timescale envisaged? We also welcome the proposed changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. Again, could the Minister indicate the process and timescale for that exercise? We also support the idea of an independent public advocate in major disaster cases. The experience of these over the years has been, to put it mildly, very unsatisfactory for the many people involved in some of those disasters.

What is the estimated cost of the changes, and where will it be paid from? Will the Minister confirm that it will not be financed by cuts in other areas of the justice system? I remind the Minister that the female offender strategy, for example, was underfunded by £15 million. Will the Government look again at their funding of that important initiative?

The Minister described for the first time a cross-government victim strategy. To what extent will other departments be involved? I presume that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and, of course, the Home Office will all have a role. Will the custodial and probation services be involved in the approach to the new environment being created for the victims of crime? In dealing with offenders they will, I hope, be promoting the need for offenders to avoid such conduct in future, particularly where they have been involved in offences of this kind.

The proposals in the Statement are welcome as far as they go but will come to little without adequate funding and adequate engagement with all interested parties. I look forward to seeing how the proposals develop in practice, particularly in terms of adequate funding across the piece envisaged by the Statement. We look forward to that and I hope that the department succeeds in persuading the Treasury that investing in the ideas in the Statement and presumably to be debated across the justice system will be adequately met. Without that, any hope of change will be lost in practice.

My Lords, we too welcome the publication of the victims strategy and I join the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, in thanking the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement. The strategy certainly builds on the work done by government, by agencies across the criminal justice system over a number of years and by campaigners. I join in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for her work and also mention the work of my noble friend Lady Brinton in this area.

The measures to strengthen the victims’ code are extremely necessary. It needs revision. We accept that there should be consultation before revision, but it needs to be made easier to understand, easier to access and there needs to be a great deal more awareness of the existence of the code and its provisions among members of the public. The aim should be to ensure support and co-ordination of that support across the criminal justice system. It is also right that the Government propose boosting the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner to hold the agencies to account. However, the main commitment of the victims strategy is to enshrine victims entitlements into a victims law. We look forward to the consultation as to how that will be framed.

I mention in passing two further points that I have picked up. The involvement of victims in the parole process plainly needs to be increased. We need to put behind us the failures of the system of the type that led to the decision in the Worboys case and to the feeling among the public that they had been let down by an inadequate and secretive process.

I also mention the proposed improvements to the criminal injuries compensation scheme which are extremely necessary. I welcome the proposed abolition of the absurd “same roof” rule, whereby victims were debarred from compensation if they lived under the same roof as the person who perpetrated violence against them; very often they lived under the same roof only because they were forced to do so by financial deprivation.

We are left with one very serious area of concern: the legal enforceability of the victims strategy. It does not commit to imposing legally enforceable duties on the agencies involved, justiciable at the instance of victims. It pledges to hold agencies to account through improved reporting, monitoring and transparency on whether victims are in fact receiving their entitlements, and to make the responsibilities of the agencies clearer. However, it is more likely that the victims strategy will succeed in ensuring that agencies meet their obligations, and victims receive their entitlements, if those agencies can be held legally accountable to victims. Will the Minister assure us that the consultation on the victims law will explore ways in which legal enforceability might be achieved? The victims strategy is a good one, but to make victims’ rights a reality needs resources, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, pointed out. It also needs the victims law to have real teeth.

My Lords, I am most obliged for the contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Marks. I understand their expressions of concern about various areas of the strategy which are going to be the subject of consultation. I sense a perception, across the House, that we need to move forward on this matter and that we may be moving in the right direction, without looking at the detail that we are immediately concerned with.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised a point about the conduct of the Metropolitan Police regarding certain matters of prosecution and the pursuit of certain investigations. That is clearly an operational matter on which I cannot comment. Ultimately, the conduct of the Metropolitan Police in that regard is a matter for the commissioner and the Mayor of London. I turn to the other matters raised. First, we intend to amend the victims’ code to address the questions of complexity and accessibility that were referred to. We hope to consult on that in early 2019 and intend that an amended code is in place by the end of that year.

Both noble Lords touched on the victims law. There is already key legislation in place to support victims but we want to go further. It is clearly important that new legislation should be pursued as rapidly as is reasonably possible. We are committed to consulting on the detail of the victims law and that consultation will take place in 2019. We will work closely with the parliamentary authorities to identify legislative slots once we are clearer on what proposals there will be for legislation. We must make sure not to put the cart in front of the horse. We want to complete the consultation process, determine what legislative measures are going to be taken and then decide how best to take that forward.

On the point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I stress that we do not want to pre-empt the consultation but we wish to carefully consider, among other things, strengthening enforcement of the victims’ code, to make sure that victims receive the services that they are entitled to and that it is more than just black letters on a piece of paper. That is at the forefront of our minds. We also wish to look at strengthening the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, and the consultation will explore increasing those powers so that she can better hold government to account in these matters.

I will touch on one or two of the other issues raised. First, again we wish to consult on the criminal injuries compensation scheme; that is likely to be in early 2019. We understand the need to look at the “same roof” issue, and I touched on that in the Statement. Clearly, we will have to consider how this scheme can better serve victims of child sexual abuse and explore, among other things, the concerns raised and recommendations made by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which recently made its interim report.

Regarding the independent public advocate, as noble Lords will be aware, we have launched that consultation today and that will close at the beginning of December this year. We would hope then to publish a government response to the consultation process in March 2019. Clearly, it is important to take this forward to ensure that after tragic events such as Grenfell or the Manchester bombing, there is a party in place who can take an overview of where and when parties who are bereaved, who are victims, have been given—or should have been given—the opportunity to be heard and considered.

Finally, on parole, which was touched upon, steps clearly have to be taken to address what occurred following the Worboys case, and the concerns expressed about, in particular, the victim contact scheme and the way in which victim liaison officers may deal with victims in that context. We hope to have a training programme rolled out by the end of 2018 and are looking at changes to the code by the end of 2019 concerning that. We are particularly concerned to ensure that victims will be properly consulted in the context of the parole process. Again, I would not wish to pre-empt the consultation process. We are alive, however, to the need to ensure that change and improvement is made. With that, I hope I have responded to the points made by noble Lords. I welcome their contributions to the debate and to the consultations that will follow.

My Lords, I also thank the Minister and the Government for finally announcing this victims strategy and consultation document. Nearly two years ago, in December 2016, your Lordships’ House voted on strengthening the victims’ code and encoding it in law, and we supported making sure that the agencies had to deliver that code. Noble Lords will remember that the matter went back to the Commons and the Minister returned to your Lordships’ House in January 2017 saying that a victims strategy and proposals would be published within six months and implemented by the end of 2017. We are running a bit behind that schedule but in the interim I compliment the previous Victims Minister for coming to consult with a large number of victims’ groups. Over the past 18 months, I met him and some of them and the time has not been wasted.

I will not repeat the comments made by other noble Lords on the strengths of the strategy. For those groups I have been working with, it is not simply a matter of fewer than 20% of victims being aware of the victims’ code, as I am afraid that there are a significant number of people working in the criminal justice system itself who are not aware of the details and who do not assist victims. I am reminded of one victim saying that when she reported her case of rape, the alleged perpetrator was given breaks from questioning, tea breaks and meal breaks, but there was absolutely nothing—not even a glass of water—provided for her as a victim when giving her statement. That is the sort of fundamental misunderstanding happening at the front line of the criminal justice system at the moment for victims, and we absolutely must make sure that it is changed.

I also echo the congratulations to the Victims’ Commissioner, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. I welcome the new support and strengthening proposed for her role, but it will all be utterly worthless unless there is a duty on the agencies to deliver the victims’ code and the new proposed victims law. I note with some concern that on page 18 of the strategy the words used are,

“improved reporting, monitoring and transparency on whether victims are receiving entitlements”.

We will not make progress until all parts of the criminal justice system have to deliver the victims’ code and a proposed victims law for all victims.

I will raise one other point, on a final omission. At every meeting of the victims’ forum that has met in Parliament over the two years, we have heard the organisation Murdered Abroad speak eloquently. There is a hole in the current system for victims whose family members have been murdered abroad, and the British system back here, even through the coroners’ court system, completely fails them. The Foreign Office does what it can, but at the moment there is no link at all back into our criminal justice system, and I hope that as part of the consultation the Government will seriously look at mending this hole.

Again, I am obliged for the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on this matter. While we may appear to be slightly behind schedule, I am relieved by her suggestion that time time has not been wasted. There is a concern to ensure that we take this forward as rapidly as possible but that we do it in the best-informed way possible. We will of course look at the scope of legislation that we will take forward to ensure that powers are available—whether they are direct legal powers or powers for the Victims’ Commissioner—which can be employed to ensure that all relevant parties are in a position where they are not only capable of enforcing the victims’ code but understand their obligation to do so as well.

My Lords, reference has been made to an increase in the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner, about which I am delighted, but I am not clear what they will be. Could my noble and learned friend flesh it out for us?

My Lords, the intention is that the consultation should do that, and I will not pre-empt the consultation process.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to welcome this Statement, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove. I will spare her blushes—we were all speaking about her just before she took her place in the Chamber, but I am sure that she will read Hansard and realise that the whole House pays tribute to the work she has been doing over a number of years. Can my noble and learned friend say something at the Dispatch Box which will send out a message to victims of sexual violence, and specifically to young girls who were children at the time they were subjected to sexual exploitation? We have seen the cases across the country. What will these new measures do for them, how will they be taken seriously, and how will the experience—which, sadly, is sometimes quite horrific—of people subjected to these crimes be different?

I thank my noble friend Lady Warsi for her observations. With regard to that question, the whole idea is that the victims’ code should first be made more accessible, that victims should be aware of its existence, and that those who engage with the victims should be properly aware, not only of its existence but of the way in which it ought to be implemented. Victims should be able to pause, consider and then come forward, in many instances seeking guidance on how they should go about making their complaints, and those complaints should be received sensibly, reasonably and openly. It is a difficult area, particularly where one is dealing with matters of historic sexual abuse. Nevertheless, we hope to achieve a situation in which people will not feel that any barrier or inhibition prevents them coming forward with those concerns.

My Lords, I wholeheartedly endorse and support what has been said about this strategy. I know from my pastoral work how the effects of crime can resonate throughout people’s lives, not least when it comes to sexual abuse that happened a long time ago. Nevertheless, can the noble and learned Lord comment on the term “victim” and when its use is appropriate and when it is not? Occasionally in the report the term “victim/survivor” is used, and of course we have the report from Lord Justice Henriques into the Operation Midland case, which contained some warnings about the premature use of the word “victim”; in that case it is clear that those who were accused were the victims, and I understand that the person who was widely described as the victim is himself now facing criminal charges. The same was said by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in his report on the Bishop Bell case. Is there a way of defining the term? At the end of the report there is a glossary of about 29 or 30 terms, but the term “victim” itself is not defined in it. Perhaps the strategy might be strengthened if there was at least some recognition that people who are falsely accused can equally be victims.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his observation. It is of course difficult in this situation, because if we simply proceed with the term “complainer”, people have certain perceptions about that, and that in itself appears to inhibit them from coming forward. They are perceived to be merely complainers rather than, as they are in reality, victims. Terminology is therefore important here, but it is also difficult. However, I entirely endorse the right reverend Prelate’s observation that those who are falsely accused of crime are also victims. Of that there can be no doubt whatever, and we should always remember that.

My Lords, I also welcome this strategy from the Government. I will ask the Minister about major incidents and their victims: places such as Grenfell, of which I have some knowledge, but also Manchester and even Salisbury. I hope that in the strategy the Government acknowledge the role of local government in supporting the victims but I also hope that they challenge local government and look to support it in its role as supporting victims of these major incidents.

I thank my noble friend for that. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised this very same point about the need to ensure that all agencies which may be involved in these matters should be properly engaged and consulted. I certainly acknowledge the role of local government in dealing with disasters such as Grenfell, the Manchester bombing or Salisbury. There have to be clear lines of engagement between central government and local government to ensure that that can be achieved, and I anticipate that that matter will be addressed in the course of the consultation process.