John and Penny Clough take the stage to talk about the murder of their daughter Jane with grief etched faces that blend sorrow with a determination that her memory will change the criminal justice system.
I had previously spoken with Frank and with Bob; both also had families traumatised by the murder of loved ones. But they all have something in common besides a life damaged by homicide. They have the over-riding goal of wanting to see victims of homicide having a justice system that really sees them at its heart.
I was attending the Mother Against Murder & Aggression conference where I had been asked to speak. The conference had already heard from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Deputy Director at the Ministry of Justice responsible for victim policy, and I was to speak on Labour’s plans to follow up on the Louise Casey report when we are back in government.
Hearing the heart-wrenching experiences of victim’s families really focuses the mind on the phrase “much done, but so much more to do”. As I was to say, perhaps the biggest impact Labour had on helping victims of crime was cutting the level of crime – ending our time in government with crime 43% lower than when we took office in 1997.
But there are other achievements we are right to be proud of. For example, we saw that the effects of crime on victims was not being heard in court, so we introduced victim personal statements and we understood the even greater needs for those left bereaved by crime so we established the national homicide service.
We saw that the out-dated and incoherent system of coroners we have in this country desperately needed change so we introduced legislation to bring in a Chief Coroner and the powers he or she would need.
Incredibly this government decided to renege on that cross-party agreement but thanks to overwhelming public pressure they had to begrudgingly reinstate the role. Typically the government’s parting shot was to strip away many of the vital powers and abilities and it remains to be seen how much more watered down the role will be once the Government finally get round to its proper implementation.
For all that Ken Clarke and his ministers talk a good game and put out sensible sounding consultation documents, the reality speaks for itself. We have a Legal Aid Bill finishing its journey through Parliament that will see support torn away from vulnerable victims. We have changes proposed to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme that will deny compensation to victims of crime.
From Ken Clarke’s ridiculous and misguided comments on rape, to the hastily-aborted plans to reduce sentences by 50% in return for a guilty plea, it is clear that in practice this government is not viewing the justice system through the eyes of the victim, despite what it claims.
So we have our record in government to show our credentials as a party who champion the needs of victims and the record of the current government that is all froth and no substance.
But what could victims expect of a future Labour government?
Our starting point would be the review undertaken by the Victims’’ Commissioner, Louise Casey. Her review gave a thorough and often disturbing picture of the practical, physical and emotional effects of the loss of a loved one upon victims, and the fact that the criminal justice system currently doesn’t do nearly enough to mitigate any of these
Some of the figures produced by her report are startling: 75% of the 400 bereaved families interviewed in the course of the report suffered from depression, one-in-five became addicted to alcohol and a quarter stopped work permanently or had to move home.
The average monetary cost to the families of each homicide was £37,000 and nearly a quarter of families suddenly became responsible for children as a result of the death of a loved one.
Despite real improvements by everyone from the Police to the judiciary it is still the case that victims and witnesses are on the side-lines of the criminal justice system. As Sadiq Khan, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary said, in government Labour will introduce a Victim’s Law.
One of the key aspects to such a law should be the requirement for the Coroner to release the body back to the family for burial within 28 days unless of course there are exceptional circumstances. No longer should victims’ families have to suffer the macabre games played by some defendants who request repeated post mortems to be carried out and so even delay the victim a prompt burial.
The Police and CPS should be under a legal obligation to maintain the flow of information to families at every stage of the investigation and throughout the trial including on conviction, acquittal or appeal. Good police officers, good police forces, and good CPS offices do this anyway so it isn’t an unachievable burden on the police or CPS.
The new Police and Crime Commissioners will soon herald a new postcode lottery of victim support so Labour in opposition is already looking at how we could improve the system and how Labour PCCs can ensure a coherent network of best practice and high minimum standards that victims can rely upon.
Labour would look to legislate around the treatment of families in Court to ensure victims’ families do have a voice and a formal status in proceedings. And importantly the family should have a seamless, integrated package of help and support with the force of law backing it up.
Nothing will ever take away the pain from families like those of Jane Clough. But given Labour in government has shown it can deliver real improvements our shared goal must be to continue to drive down crime, and for those who are still caught up as victims of crime to create a truly victim-centred criminal justice system.
Rob Flello is Shadow Justice Minister and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South