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Victims and Prisoners Bill

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024

Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)

Debate on Amendment 23 resumed.

My Lords, now we are once again resolved into a Committee, I can say that it is particularly humbling to follow the last group. Once more, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and to all the other survivors and survivor advocates we have heard from this evening and will hear from again, no doubt, before this Bill is done.

In speaking to Amendment 23 I shall also speak to its consequentials, Amendments 139 and 140, with support, for which I am grateful, from my noble Fred—my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede—and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I hope the Minister will forgive me because this may be caricatured as legalism, angels dancing on the head of a pin, et cetera, or legal weeds, but I believe that putting the victims’ code on a firm statutory footing is incredibly important and something all parties and all Members of your Lordships’ House ought to support.

My reasoning is twofold. In a later suite of amendments, I will suggest that the victims’ code needs more teeth—not the sharpest teeth, but just some teeth. We will debate that later. If we are going to create some statutory powers to enforce the victims’ code, which I think is a pretty good code, we should all think about the fact that we have it. I thank the Public Bill Office and all those who were involved in putting the code on the many pages the Committee will see. It is a code full of very positive rights for victims but, sadly, too many of them are not real in practice at the moment. So, I am grateful for that.

One of the reasons I want to put the code on a statutory footing, as I have said, is that I am dovetailing these amendments with later amendments to give the Victims’ Commissioner some modest powers to enforce this noble code when it is not put into practice by the public authorities that have that duty. But even before we get to the amendments that will come later in the Committee’s consideration, there is value in putting this code on a statutory footing in the Bill, which is supposed to be a Bill for victims.

I have been a human rights lawyer for 30 years this year. That is an admission one does not want to make for all sorts of reasons—some personal and some political, I guess—and I have so much respect for English and Welsh common law. I believe it has done so much for fair trial rights and defendants’ rights: the golden thread and so on. Ironically, it is international human rights norms that taught me most about victims’ rights. The presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and all of that is pre-ECHR in our system, and I defend it. If anyone googles me, they will find all sorts of associations—“I am a terrible person who supports terrorists and murderers” and so on. I do not, but I do really believe in fair trials. I do not believe that any victim benefits from a miscarriage of justice. When there is a miscarriage of justice, there are two victims—and many more.

It is slightly ironic that, in our contemporary politics, politicians get brownie points for saying, “Let’s lock up more people. Let’s lock them up for longer. Let’s create more criminal offences” and “Let’s put more statutory provision on the books”—not to get stuck in the legal weeds or dance on the head of a pin, but as performative politics. Yet we do not create the facilities the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has been campaigning for: simple things such as a separate room for the victim at a murder trial, translations, and transcripts. All the things we were debating earlier this evening just cannot happen, but what can happen is longer sentences, more crimes et cetera. We can do that legislation —the legal weeds stuff—but we cannot do the basics.

I respect fair trials, and I respect a great piece of human rights legislation that goes back to 1984. The Thatcher years’ Police and Criminal Evidence Act did so much for suspects’ rights and defendants’ rights, including in the police station—and not just in its codes, but in the Act itself. It is framework legislation that creates all sorts of precious and important rights for suspects and defendants.

I believe that victims need at least the equivalent of that. It is a modest ask. For someone who completely believes in the presumption of innocence, fair trials and suspects’ and defendants’ rights, it is time for victims to have their equivalent. Putting the victims’ code on a statutory footing to make the Bill the equivalent of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 for suspects and defendants would be the least that we can do for victims of crime.

Even without my later suite of amendments, which would give the Victims’ Commissioner some enforcement powers—modest ones, which we will discuss later—putting this on the face of the Bill would pay respect to victims. In this age once more of connectivity, it would make the code more widely known, talked about and accessible. I also propose that, because this would now be in primary legislation, it would be amendable only by affirmative resolution in both Houses. I also argue that the Victims’ Commissioner should at least be consulted alongside the Attorney-General and so on, because otherwise this is all talk.

We have been doing this talk for many years in a performative, posturing arms race. Noble Lords know what I am talking about—and there is no monopoly of vice or virtue in any part of your Lordships’ House. This is the least we can do. Do we believe in victims’ rights? Let us put them into the Bill, and then debate later what we do about them and the enforcement powers which I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and those who follow her should have. I beg to move Amendment 23 and hope I will have the unanimous support of the Committee.

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 23. In my previous term as Victims’ Commissioner, a government lawyer once described the victims’ code to me as “persuasive guidance”. Those two words spoke volumes to me, because they go to the very heart of what is going wrong with the treatment of victims in our criminal justice system. If the Bill is to have a substantial impact on the victim experience, the first thing we need to change is the culture of the criminal justice system. I fear that victims’ entitlements are all often viewed as “Nice to do”, “If we can”, or “How can we tick the victim box with minimum effort?” This clearly came across in the findings of the joint inspection report on the delivery of victims’ entitlements, published on 23 December.

Victims need to be seen as participants in the justice process and not as observers. For this to happen, they need more than “persuasive guidance”; they need statutory rights. We do not talk about the defendant having “persuasive guidance”. They have statutory rights, and rightly so—we would not expect anything less. Rights are to be respected and adhered to. As we have seen over the past 20 years, entitlements in the victims’ code have been viewed by many practitioners as no more than this persuasive guidance. For this reason, I support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which seeks to place the victims’ code into a Schedule to the Bill.

If this amendment is successful, for the first time we will be able to say that victims have statutory rights. This would be a significant step forward for the victims and place a much greater responsibility on key agencies to deliver compliance. The amendment cannot by itself change the landscape but, if coupled with greater accountability, effective scrutiny and better public awareness, it is one of the many steps we need to take if we are to deliver transformative change for victims.

My Lords, very briefly, I can only entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. If something like this does not happen, what we are all asking ourselves is: will anything really change? The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, contrasted the last part of the Bill, which has more substantive legislative power that will go on to its face, with the part of the Bill we are talking about at the moment, which is largely advisory and selective. It tells people what they should do. However, it does not tell people what they must do.

Most importantly, it does not even give the Victims’ Commissioner, himself or herself, the authority to insist. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness’s predecessor did not have her tenure extended because, I gather, she was felt by certain members of the current Government to be somewhat unhelpful in her attitude and demeanour; thus her tenure was not renewed. Until the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, was put in on an interim basis, the role of Victims’ Commissioner was vacant for a significant period. That is not good or acceptable. It speaks volumes to some people about the level of real intent of His Majesty’s Government to put their legislative money where their mouth is.

I do not think I need to say any more than that. The onus is on the Government to demonstrate that this law will have real teeth and that the code, wherever it is, needs to be complied with and understood. The track record of the past few years has resulted in these amendments being put forward. There is a loss of faith in His Majesty’s Government’s true intent to put muscle and weight behind the provisions in the code, so the onus is on them to explain, on Report if the House so chooses, why we should not insist on amendments such as these.

My Lords, to answer the noble Lord’s rhetorical question, or perhaps pre-empting it, the Justice Committee in the House of Commons said that this was

“not … strong enough to drive the necessary cultural change”.

At the heart of the Second Reading debate was the importance of compliance with the code. If the code is not statutory, compliance is that much harder to achieve. We heard from the Minister at Second Reading, and in his letter following it—for which I was grateful—about guidance proposed by the Government for where non-compliance is severe and persistent, and how the ministerial taskforce may issue a public non-compliance notification. That is much too convoluted. One can see that it would take very serious non-compliance—something very dramatic—for such a non-compliance notification to be issued. I am sure it would be regarded as a very extreme step. We should not have to get to that point. It should be the norm and understood by the affected stakeholders—I hate that word—that they must comply.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the justice committee, and I endorse everything that has been said by speakers in this debate. I do not need to repeat their reasons; I shall be expanding on them in the same vein when we debate Amendment 51.

We have to give teeth to this. There has to be cultural change and it has to be a change that affects those in the Crown Prosecution Service and police at ground level because those above them will know that, if they default, something not so nice—a failure to get promotion or something practical—may happen because they will have a black mark against them by having failed to implement the victims’ code. We need teeth.

My Lords, I agree with everyone who has spoken so far. I say to the Minister that, given the mentions earlier today about putting the victims’ code on a statutory footing, the brevity of this debate is in inverse proportion to the importance of the amendments. We appreciate that the Government have not come as far as us. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who helpfully set out the concerns of the committee that she quoted about this not being strong enough to get compliance.

I want to go back over a little bit of history. When I joined your Lordships’ House in 2011, a number of inquiries were going on relating to victims of crime. I became vice-chair of the all-party group on victims of crime. That group introduced the stalking inquiry report, which led to stalking law reform. Between 2011 and 2019, this House debated the role of a victim’s code and the victims of crime on many occasions. I had a Private Member’s Bill on the issue which had its Second Reading in July 2019. Not only did the Conservative manifesto of 2019 mention it but there was more detail about it in an addendum to it. I have no doubt that that was due to the work of the then Victims’ Commissioner, who is the Victims’ Commissioner again, sitting on the opposite Benches.

All that was because the current system does not work; it is quite simple. Until the services that have to provide the victims’ code are made to do so, there will be no incentive for them to deliver it if they have other pressures. It is the old thing: if you have to do something, then you will. You will have targets and you will be judged by your performance. Without that—if this is just a “thing too much—it will not happen.

As we come to the end of this Parliament, I want to say that it was a key tenet of the Conservative manifesto to make sure that a victims’ code was enshrined in law, but what we have seen is not what was spoken about during that general election campaign.

I find myself in a difficult situation, because in the previous group I had said that we should not have a sterile debate about whether we should have all the victims’ code on a statutory basis, and I challenged the Minister to look at individual provisions that should be on a statutory basis. I understand that that is not the tenor of the debate that we have been having in this group. However, Amendment 108, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Polak, in the previous debate, looked at a specific element—namely, to do with the relevant local commissioning of bodies for specialist support for children who are victims, and whether that should be on a statutory basis, so as to put it on a similar basis to that for domestic abuse victims. I do not think that the Minister answered that amendment. While on the one hand I acknowledge the point that having an all-or-nothing approach may not be the best use of our time, on the other, it would be helpful if the Minister addressed the specific proposals in the amendments in the previous group.

Having said that, we are at a relatively early point in Committee, and there will be opportunities to bring these matters back. As my noble friend said, she has a further group of amendments looking at the powers of the Victims’ Commissioner. Having explained my position to the Minister, I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and others, who have spoken in this part of the debate. To take up at once the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the Government’s position is that there are no specific amendments, including Amendment 108, which could or should be promoted into the Bill—they should all be dealt with in the code, in the right place. The difficulty of putting specific matters in the Bill, among other difficulties, is that you make a policy choice, irrespective of the available resources and the available situation in different areas, and so forth, as to which—

I am sorry for being premature. I totally see the Minister’s point about the challenge of taking particular parts of the victims’ code and putting them in the Bill. That is why some of us are offering the suggestion that the whole victims’ code should be in statute. I hope that that would assist the Minister, because he would then not be picking and choosing particular aspects of the code, as the whole code of victims’ rights in this country would be in primary legislation, subject to amendment and so on. That would make victims’ rights a little bit closer to the appropriate rights of suspects, defendants and convicted criminals.

My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention and clarification. Perhaps I could explain why the Government do not think that this is a positive way to go.

The first point is that the present code is still a statutory code. It is grounded in statute, authorised by statute, has been subject to negative resolution in Parliament and therefore has a legal status. The Government’s position is that putting the code in a schedule to the Bill does not materially increase its legal enforceability, or indeed its legal status. Therefore, there does not seem to the Government to be a compelling reason to do it in either case. The Government would consider the present code to be subject to judicial review. There could be a legal challenge; in fact, the legislation on the face of it accepts that the code is admissible in legal proceedings, and so forth. So we already have a statutory code, and we are dealing with quite a fine point—whether putting in a schedule really has any material effect. The Government’s position is that, certainly legally, it has no effect—but in practice there is a very significant downside.

The downside is that what you have on the statute is no longer user-friendly and no longer contains the information that victims want when they reach for the code and want to know what to do, where to go, what the telephone number is and what the website is that they need to consult. You cannot put that in the statute, and I invite noble Lords to compare the code as currently reproduced in the amendment we are discussing with the code as published. The latter sets out 12 rights very clearly, has boxes that explain various things, tells you where to go, elaborates on the rights, et cetera, all in very user-friendly language. Either you abandon that—in which case, you abandon the signposting and everything we were discussing in the previous group—or you have two documents. And that, in the Government’s view, is not very satisfactory. Although we all have touching faith in the interest of the general public to read long schedules in the statutes that we pass, that is not actually the way to raise awareness. You raise awareness through other means.

I am sorry to intervene. I have been listening and have found the arguments very persuasive. If the Government are saying it does not make any difference to put it into the statute itself—and yet I know from briefings I have received that there is a very strong push from bodies on the ground saying we do need the code in the statute—why can we not have the statute and then a user-friendly version of it? That does not seem to me such a terrible thing.

The Government’s view is, first, that there is no need to go down this route at all, because the present structure of the code under the existing legislation creates statutory duties, obligations and rights that can be enforced by one route or another. If you burden the statute with this, the Government’s position is that it has no real effect, either in law or in any other way, but does have the complication that you must have—as I think the noble Baroness is conceding —at least two documents. That, again, overburdens the system, and the document that is trying to be user-friendly and communicative may turn out to be more difficult to draft, if you are always stuck with the framework of what is in the statute. So it gets us nowhere and simply complicates life.

I am sorry, I am not a legal person, so I am just trying to join the dots, if you will bear with me. I think what is really insulting to victims is that it is like a two-tier level—one is a code and one is a law. What we want is to make sure that that persuasive guidance is in law, because it is about accountability and while it is in the code—with the words “should” or “must” or “do”—there is no accountability. So I am confused by the Minister saying it makes no difference if it is put in law and that it is easy language. It is nothing to do with that. It is important for victims to know that they have legal rights—not to take away from the offenders’ rights, but to start a level playing field—so I am a bit confused about my noble and learned friend’s response, as it does not make sense to me, and I am not a lawyer.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her intervention. Let me have another go at explaining it. The code is not in itself a statute. Once you go down the route of having a code and not a statute, you effectively have a framework that is still a legal framework—it is still legal guidance that gives people rights. The code says that you have 12 rights and lists them: this is what the authorities have to do and this is what you do if those rights are not observed. It is a legal framework; we are talking about degrees of legal right, but these are legal rights. If you wanted to, you could go to court and say that you have not had them.

I am sorry, but I think there is a miscommunication here. The courts may be saying that these are your rights, but they are not legal rights. My inbox is full of victims not getting their rights under the code. I have been doing this since 2012 and have been at every code launch—you name it—but it just does not happen because the profession does not see this as law. It sees it as a code, so there is no legal route to accountability. It is all down to agencies which, if we are to line all the ducks up, have no funding and are short of staff—and again, the victim has not had that communication. My noble and learned friend talked about raising awareness of the code because nobody knows about it, so I am at a loss to understand this impression that “They have a right and they should do this”. As we saw recently in the Nottingham case, there is a miscommunication of rights and what they do: it is not being delivered.

Before the noble and learned Lord gets up—I know that is the inverse of the usual statement—perhaps it might be helpful if I cited something from the code and then asked a question. The second right states:

“You have the right to have the details of the crime recorded by the police without unjustified delay after the incident”.

We know that there are a lot of delays, but let us put that to one side. Where does it say in legislation that governs the actions of the police—whether that is primary legislation, secondary legislation, codes of practice or statutory guidance—that they have to do this? The problem is that we cannot find any of the rights in the victims’ code reflected in the statutory duties of the agencies listed in it. Please tell me I am wrong; I would be delighted to be wrong.

If I may say so, sometimes one is in the middle of the flow of one’s argument and people jump up and down when one has not quite finished explaining the overall framework. The essential problem here is not the code itself, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, kindly said—it is not a bad document, I venture to suggest—but a lack of awareness, police not doing their job and nobody knowing quite what should be done if that were to happen. The idea behind the basic framework of this legislation is to force the relevant bodies to take steps to comply with the code. That is why Clause 6 says:

“Each criminal justice body which provides services … must … take … steps”

and “must … keep under review”. Clause 7 provides that they must provide various activities, et cetera, and must collect information, that a local policing body must do this, that and the other and that the various constabularies referred to later must do these things. The idea is that we have a code and a framework, and we must make sure that the bodies responsible for enabling victims’ rights do so.

In the Government’s view, you do not materially increase the likelihood of them doing so by putting the code into a schedule, any more than you increase that likelihood—to deal with another point—by converting a “should” into a “must”. That is another bit of fine tuning. The principles of the code are set out in Clause 2; for example, that you “should provide information”. You could say that you “must provide information”, but that does not really change the enforceability unless you have a whole statutory framework for what the information should be, who should provide it and how it is to be done. That is all in the code at the moment, where it should be.

I do not want to refer again to angels dancing on pins, but I think we are slightly at cross-purposes as to what we mean by things “in law”, “legal enforceability”, or “statutory codes”. That is the Government’s basic position on this.

I do not want to stop the Minister when he is in full flow. I understand how difficult it must be when people leap up because he has a comma in the middle of a sentence.

It seems to me the Minister has already conceded the next group of amendments, which are about compliance and data monitoring. Can he remind us why in Clause 2 it is “should”, not “must”, since he has just cited and relied on other clauses which use “must”? I do not know whether I have elevated myself to the status of an angel with that.

I think the short answer is that the purposes of those later clauses is to impose a statutory duty on the relevant bodies. The purpose of Clause 2(3) is to set out the principles. In terms of these, the Government’s view is that “should” is a more appropriate word than “must”, because the principles are very broadly expressed. Noble Lords might argue that “should” and “must” are almost interchangeable. I think we are again drawing really fine distinctions.

Perhaps I could just deal with two or three other points that arise on this part of the Bill. One is the question of the affirmative procedure as against the negative procedure. If I may say so, at the moment the code is subject to the negative procedure. Noble Lords can pray a resolution against it—of course there is going to be a debate in Parliament. I would respectfully suggest that it is more flexible than our somewhat—on some occasions at least—torrid debates in the Moses Room on affirmative resolutions. Noble Lords cannot change anything, it is very formalistic, and I respectfully suggest that making it an affirmative resolution is not a material improvement.

To keep the whole structure flexible and adaptable—I have used various words beginning with “a”, and I think I could add “adaptable” to this cohort—the Government suggest that it is not a useful move to put the code without the accompanying description in the statute itself; that in itself has no material effect on the Government’s view.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in this debate.

I remind noble Lords that Clause 5 makes it clear that failure to comply with the victims’ code, currently and as proposed in the Bill, does not make a person liable to criminal or civil proceedings. The code has no legal teeth.

Let us cut through a bit of the legal waffle. The noble Baroness the Victims’ Commissioner is right: this is a code without enforceability. No victim can enforce their rights in any court in the land, and even the Victims’ Commissioner appointed by the Government of the day cannot enforce the code. That is why the amendments in this group dovetail with later amendments which would give the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, and her successors and heirs, some modest powers to issue notices to public authorities, to publish those notices and, in extremis, to take legal action.

With the greatest respect to the Minister, to say that there is no difference between the scheme that is offered in these amendments and the current position is just not accurate as a statement of law. He said that this amendment is unnecessary and unhelpful. I hope that I have dealt with that. He said he did not want to burden the legislation with a schedule. I do not want to burden victims because this Bill is supposed to be about them. I know where the balance of the argument is between a few extra pages in a schedule and this toothless, illusory, broken promise to victims.

As for the arguments about how clunky it looks to have a code in a schedule to legislation, compared with the sparkly thing that could be on the Victims’ Commissioner’s website, we have that all the time. The convention rights—which may not be totally popular with everyone on the Benches opposite—are popular with me and mean a lot to people. They are in a schedule to the Human Rights Act. They are popularised in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people. They know that this is not a code of guidance; it is a Bill of Rights.

As I have said before, parties on both sides of this House have, for many years, talked the talk about victims’ rights—more legislation, longer prison sentences, et cetera—but have not actually delivered a right to see the transcript, to have a separate room at the court, to be treated with dignity. Let us have this debate but let us not pretend that there is no legislative or legal difference between the current and proposed positions.

I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. Because I have so much respect for him as a lawyer and a former senior judge, I urge him and his colleagues to think again about this. It would not cost a penny, but it would mean so much to so many people. Putting this and the subsequent amendments that we will debate on a legislative footing would give the Victims’ Commissioner some judgment and power to give this code teeth.

For the time being—but only for the time being—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed.

Clause 3: Preparing and issuing the victims’ code

Amendment 24

Moved by

24: Clause 3, page 3, line 28, at end insert “and the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses”

Member's explanatory statement

This refers to the duty on the Secretary of State to prepare a draft Victims’ Code. The Victims’ Commissioner has a statutory duty to “review the operation” of the Victims Code. The amendment would put a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the Commissioner when making any changes to the victims' code or issuing any statutory guidance relating to it.

My Lords, at the risk of trying the Committee’s patience, we are now talking about the role of the Victims’ Commissioner. Again, the thrust of these amendments moves in a similar direction and gets more into the specifics of the role of the commissioner.

Even under the scheme as currently proposed by the Government under the various provisions of the Bill, the government-appointed Victims’ Commissioner has very little respect and power. Even in places where the Secretary of State must, for example, consult the Attorney-General, there is no similar obligation to consult the Victims’ Commissioner. I find that constitutionally odd. It seems that one does not require a statutory duty to consult the Attorney-General. One hopes that in a rule-of-law Government and with cabinet government, it would be commonplace, without statutory provision, for Home Secretaries, Justice Secretaries and Cabinets to consult the Attorney-General. Maybe I live in the past and that is another place.

The Victims’ Commissioner is a creature of statute; therefore, there should be statutory duties to consult the Victims’ Commissioner, particularly when there are the sorts of provisions that the Government are already proposing in their own scheme.

I have, perhaps, taken up too much time already. In short, wherever there are powers and duties and anything proposed in the Government’s case to protect the victims by improving the code or compliance with the code, there must be a role for the Victims’ Commissioner. The Government should not be afraid of that because they appoint the Victims’ Commissioner. One would hope that they would appoint someone whom they trust and respect and who has at least enough judgment to be the guardian of the victims’ code and of this whole approach.

Anything less is really, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, suggested in her remarks earlier, a bit of an insult to victims. This is not just a toothless tiger; at the moment I wonder where even the gums are. It is embarrassing. At least in the Government’s own case, with their own scheme as currently devised, this suite of amendments, to put it shortly, is putting the Victims’ Commissioner in every place where she should be.

My Lords, the role of the commissioner is to review the operation of the victims’ code. The 2004 Act, which introduced the code, also created the post of a Victims’ Commissioner. It was the clear intention of the Government and Parliament that an independent Victims’ Commissioner should be able to champion the needs of victims and challenge the Government when code entitlements were not being complied with. Given the concerns many of us have about code compliance, the importance of the commissioner role cannot be overstated.

Since 2004, there have been just three Victims’ Commissioners: the noble Baroness, Lady Casey; Dame Vera Baird; and me. We have all come to the post through very different journeys, but, as those of your Lordships who know the three of us will testify, we have one attribute in common: we are, shall we say, a feisty bunch. However, I have to tell your Lordships, and I feel sure that my erstwhile fellow commissioners would agree, that there are times when being feisty is simply not enough.

Twenty years after the role was created, the time has come to give future Victims’ Commissioners the tools to do the job Parliament intended. This means that, when the commissioner makes recommendations, the Government and agencies take the trouble to consider them and respond. In my experience, this rarely happens. I therefore welcome the provisions in the Bill to make this a statutory requirement.

However, we need to go further. A basic requirement should be that the Victims’ Commissioner is consulted when the Government amend the code or issue statutory guidance in relation to it. Yes, the Government do consult me, but as a favour, not as a statutory duty. All too often, the consultation comes after the policy has been developed, and occasionally on the day it is to be announced, giving the sense of a fait accompli. Changes in the law will not necessarily stop this happening, but it is a start. That is why I am supporting Amendments 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 35, 43 and 48 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

I also welcome Amendment 49, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which requires criminal justice agencies to co-operate with future Victims’ Commissioners. Again, if successful, this clause will not take effect until after I have left office. In my experience, many agencies I deal with are very helpful. HMPPS, for example, is particularly helpful. With some others, it can vary. For an independent Victims’ Commissioner to offer robust scrutiny, they need to have access to data and information relating to their statutory duties.

The duty set out in this amendment is not without precedent. The domestic abuse commissioner has exactly the same power. I understand it has never had to be used, but all parties concerned know it exists. These amendments combined will change the dynamics of the relationship of the commissioner with the agencies and with government. It makes her or him a formal part of the criminal justice architecture, and it gives them the authority to speak and be listened to.

My Lords, I will amplify what the noble Baroness just said by actually quoting from the Government’s own description of the Bill and what is in it. A paragraph headed

“What happens if victims do not receive their entitlements?”


“We think that all the measures set out will strengthen the service victims receive. As the Code is a statutory code of practice, all relevant bodies should already comply with it”.

We know they are not, so the status quo we are starting from is, to a very large degree, that the bodies which are meant to be complying with the statutory code of practice are not doing so. The paragraph continues:

“However, if things go wrong, victims can make a complaint”.

It is up to victims themselves, who may or may not be aware of what their rights are under the statutory code, to identify that they are not receiving their rights, and then it is up to them to make a complaint. What is the Victims’ Commissioner for if not to act as the obvious channel and filter for all such complaints so they can go directly through her or him to His Majesty’s Government?

What the Government have described here is a complete, accurate illustration of the problem we have. It is not working at the moment. What the Government have said will improve it, on the basis of the evidence we have, but, frankly, the arguments we have heard so far do not really give us any room for optimism, so I suspect I speak for everybody in the Committee when I say that, rather like my school reports, I think the Government “should do better”.

My Lords, I have my name to Amendment 49 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on the duty to co-operate—which seems to me not something that should have to be said, but clearly does. It is another aspect of compliance. As ever, it is important to have the data on which to make recommendations and directions, give advice, or whatever. That is what Amendment 49 is about. It is about providing the tools for the independent Victims’ Commissioner to be effective. The amendment is based on the importance of monitoring compliance with the code, and one would think that the commissioner will be expected to be on top of the data. That needs co-operation. I think that is probably enough said. I am very much on the same page and the same paragraph as other speakers.

From these Benches, I will be extremely brief, because I agree with everything that has been said. I signed Amendments 27 and 29 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I absolutely support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, which my noble friend Lady Hamwee has also signed. We cannot have commissioners who are commissioners in name only. They need clear roles, responsibilities and powers, and clear limits to those powers. The problem at the moment is that they do not, so we support the amendments.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said it right when she said that it is time to give the Victims’ Commissioner the statutory place and rights that are appropriate. That is exactly the point of this suite of amendments. They aim to do two things. One is to give the Victims’ Commissioner the right status to be able to get the right information and have the right relationships to make them most effective, but it is also placing duties on other organisations to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner. That is what this suite of amendments is about. That means that they are very important. They also reflect the powers that other commissioners have in this space.

We have a group of amendments which give the Victims’ Commissioner a statutory duty to review the operation of the victims’ code, placing a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the commissioner when making any changes to the victims’ code or issuing any statutory guidance relating to it. The amendment refers to the duty of the Secretary of State to consider any representations in relation to the drafting of the victims’ code in consultation with the Attorney-General. Again, I thought, “Why do you have to say that?” But, actually, I think we have to.

Amendments 27 and 29 alter the procedure for amending the victims’ code to require formal consultation with the Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses—I did not think that was necessary either, but if we need to say that, then we do—and affirmative parliamentary procedures.

Amendment 28 refers to

“the duty on the Secretary of State to consult the Attorney General on any revisions”.

Amendment 35 refers to

“the Secretary of State’s duty to issue regulations on the information to be collected by PCCs at a local level”.

Amendment 43 also places a duty on the Secretary of State to

“issue regulations on the timing and format of the information”.

This is about relationships that the Victims’ Commissioner needs to have to do their job effectively—with the Attorney-General, with PCCs, with the agencies with which the commissioner has to work.

My amendment—again, you would not think it would be necessary, but it clearly is—states that there is a specific public authority duty

“to co-operate with the Commissioner in any way that the Commissioner considers necessary for the purposes of monitoring compliance with the victims’ code”.

If we do not give the Victims’ Commissioner the power to ensure that the code is being complied with, we are not taking victims seriously. If we do not do that, we do not place the right kind of duties on the Secretary of State. We also need to make sure that the way the Victims’ Commissioner works is joined up with all the different agencies that she—it has always been “she” so far—needs to have.

We are very keen on this group of amendments because it does those two things: it gives the Victims’ Commissioner power, and it places a duty on different parts of the state to provide, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said, formal parts of criminal justice infrastructure. This a powerful suite of amendments that I hope the Minister will agree to, and certainly will discuss with us as we move forward.

I am very grateful, once again, to all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments, which is related to the previous group. I am very sorry if the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and I have managed to fall out over what is actually a legal discussion. Maybe we can pursue some of the points that were made in the previous group further, so that we understand each other and where those who support those amendments are coming from.

As far as this group of amendments is concerned, I will take first the amendment that would place a specific duty on specified public authorities to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner. I do not think anyone is in any doubt—and certainly the Government are not—that the Victims’ Commissioner plays a most important role that requires collaboration across the criminal justice system and the support sector. We recognise that there is other legislation affecting the domestic abuse commissioner which gives them the kind of powers that I think are partly, at least, being sought under this amendment.

I cannot at this moment accept the amendment, as I am sure noble Lords completely understand. But I am very much open to working with the Victims’ Commissioner and the House on whether there is any common ground on this approach, which would help us build up the bricks we are looking to build up to create the building that will enable this whole system to be more effective.

As regards the amendments to require the Secretary of State to consult the Victims’ Commissioner, I first make an extremely nerdy point, just for clarification. Clause 3(3) states:

“In preparing the draft the Secretary of State must consult the Attorney General”.

That is probably a bit confusing at the outset, but what is essentially being said is that the Secretary of State must consult relevant Ministers responsible for the bodies to which the draft is to apply: the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary—both of whom are englobed in the phrase “Secretary of State”—and the Attorney-General, who is responsible for the Crown Prosecution Service and similar justice bodies. It is a sort of ministerial consultation.

As to the question of consulting the Victims’ Commissioner on the code, further amendments to the code and so forth, I cannot imagine any circumstances in which the commissioner would not be consulted on all these matters. We have not set out in the Bill all the stakeholders that should be consulted but I would very much like to continue to work with the Victims’ Commissioner on this issue and how we continue to recognise that vital role. Again, may we take this amendment under advisement and see how far we can go?

I am mindful of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove: because the Victims’ Commissioner is not a statutory consultee, consultations often arrive as the policy is announced. It is a tick-box exercise. The point of making someone a statutory consultee is that they have to be notified as the process starts, not as it ends. If the Minister is going to have a discussion with the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, it would be really helpful to understand how the position outlined by the noble Baroness can be prevented.

I am grateful to all noble Lords in the Committee, in particular the Minister. He will forgive me if I was overly animated; I hope he does not think that we have fallen out as I find it hard to envisage circumstances in which we would do so.

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification of the Government’s intention in Clause 3(3): that the consultation will be broader than just the Attorney-General and will include the whole Cabinet or any relevant Secretary of State. I may be a fool but I always thought that, in our constitution, the Cabinet, the Government and the Secretary of State were virtually indivisible and there was no need to create statutory duties on individual Secretaries of State to consult each other. I may be wrong about that but the Minister’s argument is that he needs provision in the Bill for the Secretary of State to consult the Attorney-General, yet no similar provision is required for the Secretary of State to consult the statutory creature—the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, does not look like a statutory creature; she is a wonderful human creature—that is the Victim’s Commissioner. I am confused about that but perhaps, in due course, the Minister and his colleagues will deliberate it; I like the noises that I am hearing about possible reflection.

Without provisions of this kind and of the kind that we will debate in the next group, this whole part of the Bill will be Conan Doyle. In particular, for fans of Conan Doyle, this is The Adventure of Silver Blaze. This is the curious incident of the victims’ code that made friends and did not always bark in the night. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment and not bark in the night.

Amendment 24 withdrawn.

Amendments 25 to 27 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Clause 4: Revising the victims’ code

Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.

Clause 4 agreed.

Amendment 30

Moved by

30: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—

“Compliance with the code: minimum thresholds(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations issue minimum threshold levels of compliance with each right of the victims’ code.(2) If a minimum threshold is breached by an organisation for two consecutive years, the Secretary of State must commission an inspection of that body with regard to that breach.(3) The Secretary of State must, as soon as is reasonably practicable, lay before Parliament the report of any such inspection.” Member’s explanatory statement

This clause requires the Secretary of State to establish for agencies listed in the victims’ code minimum levels of compliance with code entitlements, which, if breached, will prompt independent inspections.

My Lords, we are starting this group, but I suspect that we will stop it in about 29 minutes, so we will make what progress we can.

In moving Amendment 30, I will speak also to a large number of amendments in this group: Amendments 37 to 46, 50 and 83. They come in three groups. Amendment 30 is to do with requiring the Secretary of State to set minimum threshold levels of compliance for each right of the victims’ code, carrying on from the discussion that we had on the previous group. The group of amendments consecutive from Amendment 44 seek to place a statutory duty on the Victims’ Commissioner to compile and publish an independent annual report on justice agencies’ compliance with the victims’ code. Amendment 83 is an old chestnut for the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and me, to do with training for the police to better understand and deal with stalkers.

Starting with Amendment 30, which is about the minimum threshold levels of compliance for each right in the code, during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the Justice Committee stated:

“As drafted, the Bill fails to adequately address the issue of agencies’ noncompliance with the Code—we are concerned by this given that it is one of the principal reasons for the Bill”.

Therefore, this amendment has been designed, working very closely with the Victims’ Commissioner and her office, precisely to fill the gap that was identified by the Justice Committee.

For many people, experiencing crime is a life-changing event, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, has testified on more than one occasion. It is the effect of not just the crime but the justice process that may follow it which victims have to endure. While we know that some victims receive an exemplary service, this is not everyone’s experience. Victims can end up in a very bad place, feeling lost, voiceless, in a complex and seemingly unfeeling system, feeling like a bystander, being told about rights which in theory they have but which are probably not properly explained to them and certainly do not feel as if they are being received.

Clearly, this should not be the case and I do not think that it ever was the intent of His Majesty’s Government when they were drafting the original Bill, the code and now this Bill. However, we are where we are. While the victims’ code sets out the minimum level of service that victims should receive, that they should be treated with respect, dignity, sensitivity, compassion and courtesy, be provided with information and updates about their case and be referred to the right support services, we know that this is not always the case, and a systematic lack of compliance with the code means that many victims are being let down.

The most recent survey by the Victims’ Commissioner found that only 29% of victims had been offered the opportunity to make a victim personal statement, despite that being one of the key rights under the code. That is under one-third, on a part of the code which the Minister said a few minutes ago is a statutory requirement to deliver. That is not a very impressive scorecard. The Bill as it stands does go some way to address this: it places the key principles of the code in law and introduces a duty on criminal justice agencies to collect and share data. However, while these are welcome steps, they do not go far enough. They go some way towards monitoring victims’ rights, but they do not ensure that victims receive them. Introducing minimum compliance thresholds will strengthen accountability and provide a means of putting the victims’ code into force.

Organisations which persistently—by which one means over a period of two consecutive years—and systematically fail to meet the thresholds will be subject to an inspectorate inspection to investigate problems and drive improvements. The thresholds that will be put in place by this amendment will make absolutely clear the levels of service that victims must receive. They will provide a systemic and consistent way of holding justice agencies to account for how they treat victims. If victims are consistently not being referred to support services, not being provided with updates and not been given the chance to make a victim personal statement, this amendment provides a clear way of identifying this, of escalating it and, perhaps most important of all, putting it right.

The Government made it a laudable aim of the Bill to

“put victims’ interests firmly at the heart of the justice system”,

but we contend that the Bill falls somewhat short of that.

The next series of amendments, from Amendment 44 onwards, seeks to place a statutory duty on the Victims’ Commissioner to compile and publish an independent annual report on the compliance of justice agencies with the victims’ code. The Government are committing in the Bill to collect the sort of data that will identify what is happening out there, but data alone will not deliver the culture change that is required to ensure that victims are treated better within our justice system. We must go further to ensure that victims have guaranteed rights, not apparently guaranteed favours.

Clause 10 requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual national report on code compliance. The Government are proposing that they collect, analyse and publish a report on code compliance themselves. Sceptics could possibly perceive that the Ministry of Justice is, in effect, marking its own homework. I suppose the question we are asking is: do we feel that is right? I think we feel that there should be—this is absolutely crucial—robust and independent scrutiny of code compliance. The proposed system of police and crime commissioners collecting compliance data locally, and the Ministry of Justice preparing a national report, provides neither independent rigour nor effective challenge.

One of the core remits of the Victims’ Commissioner is to monitor how criminal justice agencies comply with the victims’ code. Surely, as this is a core function of this office, it only follows that it is right and proper that the Victims’ Commissioner should be the person to collect, analyse and publish this report on code compliance. It is only by having a truly independent appraisal of code compliance, issued by the Government’s own appointed Victims’ Commissioner, that we can start to deliver true accountability, with criminal justice agencies fully held to account on their delivery of victims’ code rights.

Lastly, there is the matter of training for dealing with stalking. Last week, I had the privilege of speaking virtually to Richard Spinks, the father of Gracie Spinks; your Lordships may remember this particularly horrendous case where Gracie was attacked and killed by a man, a rejected partner, who had been stalking her continuously for an extended period. She had made more than 40 complaints to Derbyshire police; but they did, in effect, nothing. The coroner’s report was absolutely devastating. The Derbyshire police were not trained; they did no proper assessment of the level of risk; and they were found to be guilty of gross negligence. One of the results of this was that South Yorkshire Police, which was brought in to investigate the lamentable performance of the Derbyshire Constabulary, was so affected by what it found in this investigation that it resolved to go back and transform the way it prepares for, deals with and understands cases of stalking. The effect was such that it saw how bad bad could be.

The good news is that there is some good practice out there. I thank the Suzy Lamplugh Trust for giving those of us who have tried to advocate for better policing and understanding of stalking for many years such enormous support. It has embarked on a scheme in Cheshire, working with the Cheshire Constabulary, which is, undoubtedly, the best in class. The police are properly trained; they can assess risk quickly and effectively; they are organised in such a way that they are properly resourced and can act very quickly. They have excellent internal communication channels, which is not the case in every force, and are able to make it work.

Perhaps I can just remind noble Lords of the sheer complexity of stalking, because there are many different kinds of stalker. The most common is the rejected stalker; I think that was the individual who was in the BBC news today—the gentleman who was confronting police officers with a crossbow two days ago, and who was shot dead. He had not only a crossbow but body armour, several knives and machetes et cetera, and he was determined to break into the bedroom of a woman who lived in that area, no doubt to try to kill her. This is a man who had a record of harassment and bad behaviour, and was supposedly under monitoring by the police. None the less, he managed to accumulate this variety of weapons and personal armour, and we must be very thankful that the police managed to intervene and at least put the perpetrator out of his self-inflicted misery, although I am sure that the trauma felt by the intended victim will live with her for a great many years.

There are several other types of stalker; each has different characteristics and drivers. We know enough from the work over the years to be able to anticipate the type of behaviours they will exhibit and the type of threats they are likely to bring to bear. If you understand it and identify it quickly when a victim complains of stalking harassment, you are in a much better position to do something about it with knowledge and purpose, and in a way that is actually helpful to the victim.

I do not need to reiterate the sheer scale of stalking, but it is by far the largest single cause of harassment to victims in this country. It is approaching 1.9 million cases per year, which is a staggering statistic. I think I have said enough, and I beg to move.

My Lords, this group is about giving teeth to the toothless tiger that is the victims’ code. To be clear, currently in law, and as proposed by the Government’s scheme in this Bill, the only indirect enforceability would be that if anybody has any other kind of proceedings against a relevant public authority, the victims’ code can be taken into account. That is it. That is not an enforceable right in any usual sense of the concept, because enforceable rights require duties that must be enforced.

Various options have been proffered by noble Lords in the Committee in the various amendments in this group. Mine is Amendment 31, on which I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and, once more, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I propose here that the teeth, to some extent, go to the Victims’ Commissioner. As I said in the debate on the previous group, the Government appoint the Victims’ Commissioner; this is not some dangerous person who will be litigating everywhere. This is an appropriate person who has been appointed by the Government of the day.

I am not suggesting that victims should be able to sue directly in the courts on the victims’ code. Frankly, there is no legal aid for them to do so anyway, and I do not want them to be traumatised by more litigation when they have been so traumatised by the principal proceedings in which they have had such a bad experience. But I do want them to have real rather than illusory rights, which can be enforced.

The thing about enforceable rights is that they become more real just because they exist, because the public authorities concerned will take note. I believe they will take greater note when they know that down the road, in extremis, there is a potential reckoning if they continue to ignore victims in the way that they have, to deprioritise them or to do whatever it is that has led to some of the stories we have heard in Committee this evening.

My proposed scheme is to replace the current Clause 5, the toothless tiger, with the following enforcement procedure. Incidentally, this is not about specific cases. It is not about the Victims’ Commissioner doing something that she does not do at the moment and getting involved in this criminal case or that; there would be obvious problems with that. This is about general practice. When, for example, it comes to the notice of the Victims’ Commissioner that women are being treated appallingly when they report rape and have their mobile phones taken or are not allowed to speak to counsellors—clearly things that would never happen in real life; I am just hypothesising for a moment—the Victims’ Commissioner in the first instance would do what she does already, which is to try to engage with the public authorities at length and persuade them that there is a problem in general that needs to be dealt with.

However, there are measures in the proposed new Clause 5(4) for when that is not being complied with. In the first instance, in Clause 5(4)(a), the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to issue a notice of general guidance. It would not be about a specific case but would be general guidance to the relevant public authority about its practice that, in her view, was not complying with the code. Whether it is about separate rooms in the Crown Court or the information being required, the victim is not being treated according to the code, so the commissioner issues the notice, initially in private.

If that is not complied with within a reasonable period of time, under Clause 5(4)(b), the next tool in the armoury—which is still pretty modest—is that the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to publish that notice. In my view, that public notice is another tool for accountability in relation to the intransigence of public authorities that are simply not complying with the code.

There is then a further step. One would hope that it would very rarely happen, but maybe sometimes it would need to. This is not about specific cases and would not involve individual victims having to go through legal proceedings, but in extremis the Victims’ Commissioner would be able to start proceedings in an appropriate court or tribunal, defined in rules by the Government, to seek enforcement of the code. That would be only the Victims’ Commissioner, not any litigant in the land who was being mischievous with their money, or lefty human rights lawyers and all that stuff. It would be the Victims’ Commissioner, who is trusted and was appointed by the Secretary of State in the first place.

I think that is a pretty modest and balanced scheme for giving the toothless tiger not great big scary teeth but just some milk teeth so they can nudge these public authorities, which have had all this time and all these years with the current code and the current scheme, which is going to be replicated in the Bill proposed by the Government. It would get the Victims’ Commissioner a little bit more by way of a power to deliver for the victims that she serves.

My Lords, I hope I can do this in the time allotted, as they say.

I shall speak to Amendment 51 on training in relation to support for victims. Very simply, Clause 6 directs that criminal justice bodies must take reasonable steps to promote awareness of the victims’ code to victims and other members of the public, but the Bill does not mandate that professionals within these bodies receive any training in the code. There is no point in this provision in Clause 6 if those who are to carry it out—those who are acting on the ground within the agencies, under the chief constable or within the prosecution service—are not aware of their duties or trained properly to deliver them. This part of the Bill risks being a fig leaf. To make it effective, those responsible for it must be trained in delivery. Is this not just common sense?

The evidence base is that there is a need to provide training and that it is clear that there is a widespread lack of awareness of victims’ rights. I take you back to two surveys. In 2019, the London victims’ commissioner conducted a review into compliance with the victims’ code of practice. She heard from over 2,000 victims of crime. The review revealed examples of unacceptable service. It showed that a proportion of those who work in the criminal justice service lack the skills or training to understand and respond to victims’ needs effectively. Victims suffer the consequences of those problems time and again; they simply were not informed of their rights. In short, the code was not delivering.

Let me give some examples. Fewer than a third of the victims reported being told about the code of practice. Of course, some of them may have forgotten, but certainly a large proportion were not told. As a result, they did not know what their rights were—they did not know they had any rights. It is no use giving the victims rights if they do not know about them. Largely, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are not trained to do this. It is not because they are wicked people; they just do not know about it. There are many other deficiencies. Read the review if you want to know more.

More recently, in June 2022 the office of the Victims’ Commissioner launched the Victim Survey, an online survey of victims of crime in England and Wales that asked them about their experiences as a victim of crime. I will give a few examples. Fewer than a third, only 29% of respondents, were aware of the victims’ code. The same percentage said that they were offered the opportunity to make a victim personal statement. In other words, if that is right, 71% were not offered that opportunity. Again, allowing for some people not being very capable or bright, it shows a large proportion, on any basis, were not informed of really basic information.

Data from the user satisfaction survey in London shows that only 25% of victims were made aware of the victims’ code. In the same period, the answers showed that 50% were offered victim support services—in other words, half were not; and 59% were given the opportunity to make a victim personal statement, so around 40% were not. It is the “nots” we are interested in here. Only 12% were offered information on compensation. Again, making allowances for the fact that it may not have been appropriate or necessary and that some people are forgetful, a large proportion were not told about possible compensation and how to claim it, and that is important. Even a small amount of compensation can make an individual who has been the victim of crime feel a bit less disgruntled. I speak as someone who sat as a recorder in the Crown Court for 20 years.

Those are all rights in the victims’ code. They are all failures; just read the survey for more. It is plain that there is no training. We need it and it should made part of the statute. So, I commend this amendment to the Committee.

Debate on Amendment 30 adjourned.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.58pm.