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Delivering Justice for Victims

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 9 December.

“Today we are publishing a consultation on a new victims’ law to raise the voice of victims in our criminal justice system, expand their role in it and strengthen the accountability of all the agencies charged with supporting victims across the system.

We have a moral duty to protect the victims of crime, improve the level of service that they can expect from the criminal justice system and raise the quality of support that they receive. It is the right thing to do, but it is also essential on a practical level to ensure that in operational terms we have the most effective justice system possible. After all, we can secure convictions and bring down rates of crime only if victims have the confidence to report crimes to the police and engage with prosecutors to make sure that their testimony is heard in court. For both those reasons and at every level, we must do better.

As things stand, too many victims feel that the criminal justice system does not deliver justice for them. Too many feel let down by the system, which compounds the pain and suffering from the original crime. In fact, it is worrying that as many as three in five victims do not even report a crime that they have suffered. A survey by the Victims’ Commissioner shows that, based on their experience of the criminal justice system, a third of victims would not report a crime again. The evidence demonstrates that a third of victims who do go to police will later disengage from the process.

In those cases, justice is not delivered for victims, and the public are left exposed to criminals left to carry on offending. That must change. The Government are determined to improve the service and support that victims receive from the point at which a crime is reported right through to their experience in the courtroom.

We have already taken a range of actions to support victims. We have strengthened the victims’ code, which sets out the minimum standards that victims can expect. We have invested £300 million this year in victim support services, of which the Ministry of Justice has provided more than £150 million; we announced in the Budget that that will increase to £185 million per year by the end of this Parliament, ensuring that more victims can access what can be life-saving help. We have passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to protect victims and strengthen measures against perpetrators. We have published the end-to-end rape review report, setting out a plan of action to drive improvements for victims across the criminal justice system. We have begun to improve the trial experience for victims by rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination—known as Section 28 —for vulnerable victims, so that those who want to can give evidence earlier and outside the courtroom, making the process less harrowing so that victims can present their best evidence and helping to secure more convictions.

But we must go much further. I want to guarantee that victims are at the very heart of the criminal justice system. Rather than feeling peripheral to the process, victims should feel supported so that they can properly engage at every step. Our plan for delivering a world-class service to victims has five crucial elements that we will deliver through the victims Bill.

First, we want to amplify the voice of victims and ensure that they are properly engaged at every stage of the criminal justice system. We want to ensure that agencies communicate with victims better. For example, we are consulting on the requirement for the prosecutor in certain types of case to communicate directly with victims before they decide whether to charge a suspect. We believe that such direct exposure to the victim is essential to giving them the confidence to go to trial and to see their cases through, and will help to reduce what are known as the victim attrition rates. As well as amplifying the voice of individual victims, these measures will strengthen the voice of whole communities. We intend to put explicit provision for community impact statements in the victims’ law and the victims’ code, mainstreaming their use in appropriate cases to ensure that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts understand the wider scale and extent to which crime can blight whole neighbourhoods.

Secondly, we will increase transparency in respect of the performance of our criminal justice agencies. Today we are publishing the first national criminal justice and adult rape scorecards. They will bring together data to give a cross-system view of performance, including aspects that matter to victims such as how long it takes for cases to be investigated and charges to be made, how long cases wait in the courts before they go to trial, the number of guilty pleas, and what happens to cases when they reach court. One thing that is immediately clear from the data is that we must do better. Some cases are taking too long to get through the system. Covid-19 may be a factor in that, and we are working to bring down backlogs, but rape cases in particular are taking far too much time to get to court. That is not good enough and we are determined to put it right.

A further set of localised scorecards, giving the more granular local detail, will be published early next year. The scorecards will monitor victim engagement so we can see where in the system victims are being failed and take steps to fix that, and the local scorecards will show us where in the country the system is delivering for victims and where it is not. That data and that transparency will equip victims, and our criminal justice agencies more generally, to better monitor performance, and to better understand the problems in the system and address them more effectively, while spreading the very best practice more widely.

Thirdly, we want to ensure that there are clearer and sharper lines of accountability when victims do not receive the right level of service. We will enshrine the victims’ code in law to send a clear signal about what victims can and should reasonably expect from the criminal justice system. It follows that we must also hold the respective criminal justice agencies to account when it comes to delivering for victims. We will strengthen the oversight mechanisms and their focus on victims across the board, from complaints procedures to reinforced inspection regimes nationally and police and crime commissioners locally. That will give victims more effective redress when something goes wrong and it will improve accountability.

Members will recall the Government’s rape review action plan, which was published in June. Today I can announce that we are publishing a report detailing progress against its aims, so that we can hold criminal justice agencies to account for how much they have improved outcomes in tackling this horrendous crime.

Fourthly, we want to help victims to rebuild their lives through accessible and professional services, and ensure that criminals pay more to support those services. We propose to increase the victim surcharge, which helps to fund victim services; that will mean criminals paying more to right their own wrongs, and in the process help victims to recover from what they have suffered.

Our consultation will also meet the commitment made to the House, during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, to consult on the provision of support services for victims of domestic abuse. We want to improve the commissioning and co-ordination of services, particularly for victims of traumatic crimes—domestic abuse, sexual violence and other serious violence—so that they can be given the right support at the right time to help them recover. As part of that, we plan to strengthen the support available from independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, which we know makes victims almost 50% more likely to remain engaged with the criminal justice process.

Lastly, we want to ensure there are better tools to protect victims and prosecute culprits. We are already making significant progress, and I can announce today that we are planning a national rollout to expand provision of Section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination for sexual and modern slavery victims to all Crown courts, with the specific priority of ensuring that victims of rape across the country pre-record their evidence and avoid the ordeal of facing the full glare of the courtroom.

I shall explain how this will work. The CPS will decide, in consultation with the victim, whether to apply under Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. The judiciary will retain oversight and discretion to ensure that the interests of justice are properly served. This has the potential to increase the number of successful prosecutions and earlier guilty pleas. The justice scorecards will help us to evaluate progress in this regard and will highlight any challenges in practice. We will be guided by ongoing evaluation of data from courts already trialling the Section 28 arrangements. I am committed to working carefully with the judiciary and criminal justice agencies on this expansion, as are my ministerial colleagues.

This Government will deliver credible change for victims. We will give them a more powerful voice at every stage of the criminal justice system. We will increase transparency and redress in respect of the support that they receive in practice. We will ensure that every criminal justice agency is properly held to account for its role in the wider system. We will better protect victims, especially victims of rape and sexual violence, to give them greater confidence about giving the testimony that can help to secure a conviction. We will make the perpetrators of crime pay more to help victims to recover. That is our plan to give victims the justice they deserve and to build back a better, stronger, fairer country. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, we welcome the Statement. We hope that the proposed consultation exercise is dealt with rapidly, that people are listened to and that we see legislation as soon as possible. Can the Minister tell us when that is likely to happen? I confirm that we will work constructively with the Government to ensure that the new victims’ law is fit for purpose and is a law of which we can be proud.

The Statement reminds us just how urgently we need a new law. The number of victims who have dropped out of the system has doubled in the last five years. It is concerning that confidence in the justice system is so poor. Three in every five victims do not even report a crime, one-third of victims would not report a crime again and one-third of victims who do go to the police drop out of the process before any case can come to court.

There are steps that the Government could take now that would help the situation. In October 2021 the National Audit Office released a report on the Government’s handling of the court backlog. It found that the Crown Court backlog had already increased by 23% in the year leading up to the pandemic and had increased by a further 48% since. The NAO said that both the Ministry of Justice and its courts agency were not working together properly to solve problems that had their roots in pre-pandemic decisions.

One in 67 rape complainants sees a case come to court, and it can take four years for that process to be completed. The latest data from the CPS shows that the number of rape convictions fell by 6.7% in the last quarter. At the current rate it would take the Government 18 years to return to pre-2016 levels of prosecution. There are 3,357 victims of violent and sexual crime who have already been waiting for over a year for their day in court, and a further 654 victims of these horrific crimes have been waiting for over two years. Can the Minister assure us that the Government are taking all measures necessary to put this right?

We have now had five Secretaries of State for Justice promising a victims’ Bill, and all five have failed to deliver. I have heard victims say that their experience of the justice system is worse than the crime itself. Just 19% of victims believe that a judge takes into account the impact of the crimes on them, and only 18% believe that they are given enough support. Victims do not want consultation; they want action, and the Labour Party has a ready-made Bill to clear the backlog through an increase in Nightingale courts and to fast-track rape and sexual violence cases. Our victims’ Bill would also improve rights, strengthen protections and accountability, improve communications and ensure that victims were no longer treated as an afterthought.

The Statement from the Government is welcome, but they must now match their warm words with deeds and ensure that they put victims at the very heart of our criminal justice system.

My Lords, as a victim of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, I have to say that dealing with this Statement at this time on this day is not delivering justice to victims.

Seriously, though, I should declare an interest as a victim of two crimes in recent years. One was a homophobic hate crime that my Norwegian husband was a witness to. He said to me afterwards that he would never again be involved in the British criminal justice system as a result of his experience in court, where he felt that he was on trial. The other was a burglary where the perpetrator was caught on closed-circuit television but the police refused to investigate further. In a subsequent meeting with a police super- intendent, he admitted that many cases that were solvable were not being pursued because of a lack of police resources. Is it any wonder, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, said, that three in five victims do not report crimes, and that one-third would not report them again having experienced the criminal justice system? It seems that my husband and I are not alone.

The Government say that they have strengthened the victims’ code. What improvements have there been as a result? More money has been invested, according to the Statement, but what impact has this had on victim satisfaction? We should be looking for outcomes, not outputs.

The Statement says that it wants victims to

“properly engage at every step.”

Research shows that restorative justice significantly increases victim engagement and satisfaction. What plans do the Government have to fund more restorative justice programmes?

The Statement says that the victim will be consulted before charging decisions are made

“in certain types of case”.

Can the Minister explain what types of case are being referred to?

The Statement says that the Government

“will increase transparency in respect of the performance of our criminal justice agencies.”

What will the Government do when they discover that the reason for poor performance throughout the whole criminal justice system—from the police to the CPS, legal aid and the courts—is that it is underfunded? It is all very well to

“enshrine the victims’ code in law”,—[Official Report, Commons, 9/12/21; cols. 595-6.]

but if the criminal justice system does not have the resources to fulfil its obligations under the victims’ code, how will making it a statutory responsibility help?

The Statement says that the Government will publish a report on progress against the rape review action plan. Research clearly shows that victim satisfaction is the most important outcome measure in rape cases; being believed and cared for are the most important elements of rape survivor satisfaction. Does the report detail changes in victim satisfaction? If not, why not?

The Government are long on words and short on delivery. Trust and confidence in the criminal justice system have declined in the decade or more that the Conservatives have been in power. I can understand that the Government welcome the fact that the police cannot investigate some crimes, despite overwhelming evidence, when it is the Government who stand accused, but for the rest of us, if we cannot trust the police, the CPS and the courts to protect us when we are victims of crime, we are in serious trouble. You cannot get a quart out of a pint pot, which is what the Government appear to be trying to do with these measures.

Finally, I am reminded of colleagues who, when the Government do something we agree with, then go on to question the Government’s motives. I do not know whether the Minister celebrates Christmas, but I hope he enjoys the break, whatever the motivation for having one.

To pick up on that last point first, I take this opportunity to wish everybody—both those who celebrate Christmas and those who do not—a very happy time and a very successful 2022. I think we are all entitled to celebrate the fact that we have achieved at least three days on the police Bill on Report, and we have more to look forward to next year.

I come back to the matter of victims. Despite the fact that it is the last piece of business for this year, it is a very important topic. I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, broadly welcomed the legislation. I think it is fair to say that this is a matter where there is broad agreement across the House on the aims—although, of course, there will be political differences, perhaps as to the way we go about it. We will have an eight-week consultation on the matter, and we will prioritise work on that and introduce the Bill, as the Deputy Prime Minister said in the other place, as soon as possible. We want to ensure that there is wide engagement both across this House and in the other place as we develop the Bill next year.

So far as victim attrition is concerned—I must say, I do not like using that phrase, although it is the phrase that is used; we all use it but there is a real person, so to speak, behind all these statistics—the quicker we get cases to court, the less attrition there will be. That must be balanced with making sure that cases are investigated properly and that the defendant has a fair trial. In the area of rape, for example, we have introduced measures to speed up the extraction of data from mobile phones and make sure that the phone gets back to the victim. In particular, we have found that support from ISVAs—independent sexual violence advisers, whom we also have in domestic violence cases—really makes a difference. We are providing more than £150 million in this financial year for victim and witness support services, which we will increase to £185 million by 2024-25. The figures show that there is a significant benefit in reducing victim attrition for those victims who have contact with ISVAs.

The backlog in criminal trials is obviously a matter that we have debated on a number of occasions. It is fair to say that the pandemic has had a real impact in this jurisdiction. Although we were one of the first jurisdictions to restore jury trials, there were times when we could not hold them, and then we could not hold jury trials with multiple defendants because of space issues. In the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which the House will consider next year, Clause 11, I think, provides that more work will be put into magistrates’ courts so that Crown Courts are freed up for more jury trials. However, we want to be transparent about this. As the Deputy Prime Minister has explained, we are publishing our rape scorecards, which will provide a tracking basis so that we can see how the system is doing, particularly in rape cases. I know that that is a particular focus of the Deputy Prime Minister.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that the victim must be at the heart of the criminal justice system. Too often, there has been seen to be a dissonance, or an inconsistency, with putting the victim at the heart of the system while ensuring that the defendant has a fair trial. In fact, there is no contradiction. You can do both; indeed, we must do both. That is something we are very focused on.

Turning to some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick—as he said, he has personal experience in this area, if I can put it that way—giving evidence is always traumatic. We recognise that it is particularly traumatic in cases that deal with sexual or other violence or coercive control. As the noble Lord will know, we have introduced Section 28 and are rolling it out so that it is more widely available. At the end of the day, judges, not Ministers, run trials so it is a matter for judges to decide whether and how Section 28 is deployed in a particular case, but our aim is to make it available across the criminal justice system for those cases where it is suitable.

I agree with the noble Lord that we must focus on outcomes. I have already mentioned rape scorecards. He also mentioned restorative justice. I am pleased that he did because, as I am sure he knows, there is very good evidence to show that there can be benefits for victims and a reduction in reoffending where restorative justice is used properly. It really is a win-win. The victim wins, society wins and, of course, the offender wins because they do not reoffend. The code makes it clear that victims can ask to take part in restorative justice at a time that is right for them. Both the victim and the offender have to agree, of course. The welfare of the victim is paramount so there will be cases where it is unsuitable, but there are lots of cases where it is very suitable. We are providing grant funding to police and crime commissioners to provide victim support services; that includes restorative justice. In the last financial year, 2020-21, they spent around £3.7 million of the funding on restorative justice services; around 5,500 victims engaged with those services in that year. We will bolster support by increasing funding for support services, as I said earlier.

The noble Lord asked in what types of cases it would be appropriate to consult a victim. That is one of the things we are going to consult on because, as he will recognise, it will not be all cases, but there will be many where it will be appropriate. Finally, on resources put into the criminal justice system, I do not want to have a statistics battle across the Dispatch Box, especially since this is the last business of the year. However, I will say that we are putting in £477 million as part of the spending review into the criminal justice system over the next three years, to help reduce the backlog and to provide swifter access to justice, which victims deserve. I think it is generally recognised that the most recent spending review has significantly increased the budget of the Ministry of Justice, and that this will be to the benefit of the criminal justice system.

I also say, finally, that we have published the CLAR report on criminal legal aid, authored by Sir Christopher Bellamy. We are very much looking forward to engaging with the profession, and indeed all stakeholders, about criminal legal aid, which is itself such an important part of the criminal justice system.

My Lords, like the two Front-Bench questioners, I want to look at the issue of delays in courts and its impact on victims. There are two angles to that. First, some figures I have seen indicate that about a quarter of victims are withdrawing from investigations and prosecutions, a figure that rises to 42% for rape allegations. Does the Minister recognise those figures? Are the Government doing anything specifically to ensure that support is provided for people in that situation? If they have stepped away from the legal process, what support is available to them? As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, indicated, it is clear that the impact is likely to continue for very many years after the court process has been dropped.

Secondly, picking up the Minister’s point about the money from the spending review, I mention the article published this afternoon on the east of England BBC website that quoted Stephen Halloran of Lawtons Solicitors referring specifically to that extra funding. Mr Halloran estimates that, on current figures, the Crown Court backlog will reduce by only about 7,000 cases over the next three years. He indicated that his firm is already seeing cases listed in the Crown Courts well into 2023, and that he expects to see cases listed for 2024 very soon. Does the Minister agree that it is clear that the money and the resources are just not enough to give victims justice? I am sure he does not.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. This is an area, again, where we share the same aims. I do not recognise the precise statistics she mentioned, although I am not sure I was able to note them down quickly enough. I can say that the percentage of investigations closed because the victim does not support further police action is now at roughly 60%. That is a continuation of a longer-term trend.

The effect of the pandemic, which I am afraid has increased the delay in cases coming to trial, is probably part of the reason why more victims may have been withdrawing from the process. One brighter point in the statistics is that it seems there are more victims coming forward. There has been an increase in the number of recorded adult rape offences since 2019 and, indeed, since the first quarter of this year. The noble Baroness will understand what I am saying: I am not saying it is good that there has been an increase in rapes—of course I am not. The point is that it is good that victims feel able to come forward when there has been a crime. What we are very concerned about is victims suffering a crime who then do not feel able to come forward. So, somewhat counterintuitively, that is actually a brighter spot in the statistics—but there is plainly work to be done, and I hope I have been very candid about that.

On the backlog, in addition to what I said earlier, we have to be a little careful with statistics. For example, there are cases when a trial date will be given some time in the future, maybe even in 2023, because trial B may be a follow-on trial from trial A, and it cannot be listed until trial A has concluded. I am not suggesting that all cases fall into that category—I am saying only that we have to be a little careful with looking at the mere listing of a trial as necessarily an indication that the system could not accommodate that trial earlier. Sometimes that might be the case, but sometimes it will not. There are also issues of counsel availability, and some courts have a practice of giving two dates for a trial: an earlier date, which may not take place, and then a hard later date.

I accept that we certainly want to bring on rape trials, and indeed all trials, more quickly than happens at the moment. However, it is not just the time from first court appearance to trial that is important—we must also look at the time from reporting the offence to charge and then from charge to first appearance in court. The time when a victim feels most vulnerable and lost in the system is when the victim does not even know when there is going to be a charge. Focusing on that initial period from when the victim goes into the police station to when a charge is brought is also a very important element of the system.

House adjourned at 7.16 pm.