Dan Jarvis: Victims’ needs at the heart of justice

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SIX weeks on since Professor Alexis Jay’s explosive report exposed the scale of child sex exploitation in Rotherham, the tremors are still being felt.

What happened in Rotherham needs to be investigated and the people responsible must be held to account.

Attention to date has understandably focused on South Yorkshire’s former police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright, who has rightly stood down.

The leader of the council (Roger Stone) and the director of children’s services (Joyce Thacker) have also resigned, while its chief executive (Martin Kimber) will be standing down later this year.

We won’t find the answers we need, however, by pointing fingers at just one or two individuals. The scale of failure was much greater than that.

That is clear from the gross failures of policing, accountability and basic human decency catalogued in Professor Jay’s report. It underlines that a scandal where 1,400 children are allowed to suffer appallingly over 16 years doesn’t happen when one or two things go wrong. Several hundred things have to go wrong.

Above all, however, the nightmare of what those young people went through should make us all wake up to the horrors that too many victims of crime have to endure right across our United Kingdom.

There are two aspects to this.

The first is that far too many victims simply don’t feel able to come forward. When they do, they face a battle to be listened to.

Rotherham represents many failures, but detection was not one of them. Crimes were brought to the attention of the police, but they weren’t acted upon. When victims did come forward, no-one took them seriously.

It is part of a sorry pattern we’ve seen before – from Savile to Rochdale to the gang jailed for life in Oxford last year for grooming vulnerable young girls.

We need to create a new culture that ensures all victims are protected and listened to, no matter who you are, where you come from or who has wronged you. That is the most basic concept of justice that we have all rightly been brought up to expect.

But secondly, we also need to make getting justice less of an ordeal for victims who do come forward.

For too many victims, reporting a crime represents not the end of their distress, but the beginning of a different one. Too many are left feeling like the criminal justice system is working against them.

More than half of victims who report crimes do not receive updates about the progress of their case.

No one is currently responsible for assessing and ensuring the needs of victims are properly met in each region, resulting in support services that amount to a patchy postcode lottery.

And when victims do have their day in court, many are made to feel on trial themselves. This includes the way many vulnerable witnesses are cross-examined or the victims of domestic violence who still face having to disclose their safe addresses in open court.

It all adds up to a culture in urgent need of overhaul. That’s why Labour’s Victims Taskforce, led by Sir Keir Starmer, has been working over the past year to deliver a transformation in how our criminal justice system serves victims.

The contrast with the hastily cobbled together proposals announced by the Government could not be starker. After more than a year of clinging to toothless and unenforceable codes of practice, Ministers have rushed out a sticking plaster solution that won’t heal the wounds in our criminal justice system.

Labour will go much further and guarantee victims of crime new entitlements through our country’s first ever Victims’ Law. This will enshrine minimum standards of service in statute, as well as the ability to hold those services to account when standards are not met. It will also serve as a catalyst for wider change in the victims’ experience. For instance, we need more facilities where victims can report crimes and give evidence that are less intimidating than a police station.

And we need to lend greater urgency to debates about the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse.

Many of these issues are challenging and complex, but they cannot be ignored. We must replace the culture that failed those young people in Rotherham and build a new one that we can all have confidence in. If recent revelations aren’t spur enough for us all to act, nothing ever will.

Dan Jarvis is the Shadow Victims Minister and the Member of Parliament for Barnsley Central.