Keir Starmer: Today MPs have the chance to right a major wrong and put victims at the heart of the justice system
The House of Commons has a real opportunity today to significantly improve the rights of victims in our criminal justice system.
For the first time, MPs will be able to vote for amendments to the police and crime bill that would go a long way to introducing a Victims’ Law.
The amendments would give legal teeth to the Victims’ Code, require proper training on victims’ rights, and provide for a “homicide review” for bereaved families where no one has been charged in relation to the offence or there has been an acquittal.
These are simple but effective steps that would make a real difference to thousands of victims. And they will easily become law if the government backs them.
So today is a test of the government’s resolve and their willingness to honour a manifesto commitment to introduce a Victims’ Law.
The road to this moment has been long and arduous.
For many years victims’ rights were ignored or marginalised in our criminal justice system.
Thanks to the work of organisations such as Voice4Victims, who I have had the privilege of working with over many years, and the bravery and dedication of victims this has started to change.
We now have a Victims Code, a Victims’ Commissioner and there have been plenty of charters and guidance to help improve services for victims.
But none of these have legal teeth and the effectiveness of these changes has been piecemeal and patchy.
Despite improvements, our criminal justice system still does not serve victims well.
The problems are obvious.
Many victims, particularly victims of personal or sexual violence, lack the confidence to come forward to report crime. Those that do often lack adequate support and face an unacceptable ordeal in the court room if their case gets that far.
That is why these amendments before the Commons today are so necessary.
Their origins lie in the Victims’ Taskforce report that Baroness Doreen Lawrence, Peter Neyroud and I published in February 2015. After a yearlong consultation with victims, and victims’ representative groups along with many others, including many agencies and bodies involved in the delivery of victims’ rights we concluded that fundamental changes were still needed.
One of the main conclusions the taskforce reached was that there needs to be a clear regime promoting and protecting victims’ rights from the beginning of their engagement with the criminal justice system until the end.
The taskforce also concluded that victims’ rights will only be taken seriously if they are enshrined in law. Welcome as the Victims’ Code is, it can never fulfil its full potential if it is not backed up by a clear legal framework.
The amendments that are being debated today will put victim’s entitlements under the Victims’ Code on a statutory footing and expand the parliamentary commissioner’s role to include investigating complaints made against the police of violations of the code.
To address the wider issues, the amendments would also require police and crime commissioners to assess victim’s services in their area, to draw up area victims plans and then for the commissioner for victims and witnesses to assess the adequacy of those plans.
The amendments also address a little noticed, but significant injustice. Bereaved families are very concerned that where a family member has been killed and no one has been brought to justice or there has been an acquittal, there is no framework governing whether and when the case will be reviewed by police and prosecutors. It is left to the discretion of officers in each police force area. This is completely unsatisfactory.
What is therefore provided in these amendments is for police and prosecutors to agree and adopt national standards for the periodic review of these cases. The issue was thoroughly reviewed by Louise Casey, the victims’ commissioner, in 2011, and the Crown Prosecution Service has published relevant guidance. Draft standards were drawn up in 2012 and agreement between the Association of Chief Police Officers and the CPS was nearly reached. Now is the time to close this gap.
These amendments would not deliver all the progress that is so desperately needed on victims’ rights, but they would be an important step forward.
They mirror the proposals I put forward last year in my private members’ bill, the victims of crime bill. After much hard work from victims’ groups and MPs on all sides, they have now won the support of the House of Lords.
If the government shows the will today in the House of Commons, they can finally become law.
Keir Starmer is MP for Holborn and St Pancras.