Labour is on the side of victims. We need to strengthen their rights

Peter Kyle

Imagine falling victim to a serious assault. Perhaps one motivated by personal characteristics like race or sexual orientation. Perhaps one resulting in an admission to A&E. The immediate physical damage could be immense, and we trust our heroic NHS doctors to help repair those wounds. Yet it is the mental scars that can hurt the most: the sense of personal safety destroyed, and the anxiety that someone else might face the same suffering inflicted on you just some moments ago. What would you need to process the trauma inflicted upon you? What would you need to begin moving on?

If it were me, I would wish for the criminal justice system to step in. Trained professionals should be on hand to explain what comes next, laying out your rights as a victim and how you can go about enforcing them. Regular updates should be given on progress in the case, with updates on arrests, court appearances, sentences and parole decisions. Referrals to support services should be made, and you should be given the ability to explain in your own words to the court the consequences of what happened.

In government, Labour took the first steps towards introducing exactly the kind of provisions I have just laid out. We established the victims’ code of practice, setting down expectations on criminal justice agencies to acknowledge victims and treat them with respect. We set up the office of the Victims’ Commissioner, originally held by Baroness Casey, to promote victims’ interests and encourage good practice. We introduced the presumption into policy-making that victims matter – and so does their voice.

The final step was to turn victims’ rights into law, enshrining the key entitlements in an ambitious victims’ law to take victims away from the periphery and place them at the heart of the criminal justice system. The Conservatives committed to do the same thing once in office – yet despite repeatedly pledging a victims law in manifestos and Queen’s Speeches, no such law has arrived.

The impacts of this are severe. The proportion of criminal cases failing due to victim non-cooperation has trebled since 2015, now standing at one quarter of all cases. A recent survey by the Victims’ Commissioner revealed that only 14% of rape respondents believed justice would be done if they reported a crime. Backlogs and the challenges presented by Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem further, with a 79% increase in court cases failing due to victim dropouts since June.

Each one of those cases involves an individual whose life may have been turned upside down by what they experienced. If their only interaction with the justice system is so negative, how can we expect victims to trust not just that system but the state at large? If vulnerable victims are let down by the system, it should come as no surprise if they are preyed on by ruthless criminals who offer alternatives – for example, 220 of the 306 suspects named in 2017 homicide investigations in London had previously been a victim of crime themselves.

Victims cannot wait for justice any longer. Rather than waiting for the Conservatives to fulfil a decade-old promise, Labour are stepping up to fill the gap. In that spirit, today we are introducing to the House of Commons a victims’ bill of our own under the ten minute rule procedure. This bill extends and develops a 2015 private members’ bill co-drafted by Keir Starmer and the Victims’ Commissioner for London, Claire Waxman.

It puts victims’ entitlements on a legal footing for the very first time, including the right to be informed of your entitlements at the earliest possible stage. It expands victim service provision to cover victims of persistent anti-social behaviour, so that those suffering campaigns of racist abuse are not left behind. It ensures that frontline professionals receive trauma-informed training, and toughens sanctions on those who routinely disregard victims and their families.

Having dithered and delayed for years, the government now has to act. We urge the government to examine these proposals in depth and either pass this bill, or bring forward a comprehensive draft of their own in the coming months. We will keep the pressure up, because it is Labour that has always been – and always will be – the party on the side of victims.

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