THE past year has seen the treatment of victims move to the centre of political debate. There is a prevailing view that support received by victims is falling short and that we, as a society, must do better in supporting fellow citizens whose lives have been devastated by crime.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I welcome this timely focus on the needs and rights of victims. A number of triggers provoked this national debate. Undoubtedly, the catalyst was the case of serial rapist, John Worboys, whose initial application for release on parole was successful.
But there have been other major developments that can no longer be ignored. After a difficult start, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is now firmly established. Its interim report set out recommendations for change. There is an expectation that Government will act.
We also have the Government consultation on domestic abuse. Again, some proposals for change will have wide ramifications for the victim landscape.
The terror attacks in 2017 raised yet more questions about how victims can be best supported.
In Parliament, we have seen Private Members’ Bills tabled, calling for better protection for victims of stalking, and delivering more effective support for victims of modern slavery.
My annual report touches on all these issues. We must use this momentum to deliver a seismic change in the way we treat crime victims in our criminal justice system.
My motivation for change is fuelled by my meetings with victims up and down the country, listening to their experiences of the justice system. Their courage and dignity in the face of terrible adversity never cease to inspire me.
Their first-hand accounts of the justice system tell me that whilst much has been achieved in improving services, there is still so much more we need to do.
The basis for real progress must be a Victim’s Law, which sets out statutory rights for victims. These rights should be underpinned by the following aims: The victims’ right to be heard, to be informed and to challenge.
But giving rights to victims is only part of the picture. If we are committed to changing the victim experience, we need to look at the architecture of victim services.
I want to see victims provided with a seamless journey through the criminal justice system. Victims of the worst crimes need to be provided with a sole contact that I describe as an independent victim advocate.
I see this advocate co-ordinating the victim journey, liaising with other criminal justice partners, signposting and advising. Importantly, they will represent the victim and not a particular agency.
Anecdotal evidence still suggests that compliance with the entitlements under the Victim’s Code of Practice remains inconsistent.
Over the past year, I’ve continued to focus on support given to the most vulnerable of victims.
I’ve also taken a close interest in the entitlements given to victims of mentally disordered offenders and been deeply moved by their stories and difficulties being heard. My report will be published in the coming year.
I continue to take close interest in modern-day slavery, and spoke in support of the Private Member’s Bill which seeks to enhance the support given to its victims.
I’ve also joined forces with Karma Nirvana in calling on the Government to raise awareness in schools and colleges of honour-based abuse and forced marriage.
In 2017/18, more survivors of child sexual abuse came forward. It’s important that all statutory agencies have the capacity to provide survivors with the support they need to rebuild their lives. Many were let down in the past by those meant to protect them. It is important we don’t let them down again.
Looking ahead, we have the Cross-Government National Victim Strategy which is due to be published this summer.
With so much happening across the victim arena, I believe that this timely strategy has potential to deliver lasting change.
I’m calling on the Government to rise to the challenge and be bold in its approach.
As recent events have highlighted, too many victims are let down by our criminal justice system.
Government strategies cannot turn the clock back and undo what has happened in the past.
But I hope the long awaited Victim National Strategy can provide the foundation for building a criminal justice system of the future with victims truly at its heart.
For victims deserve nothing less.
Baroness Helen Newlove, whose first husband was kicked to death by a gang of youths, is the Victims Commissioner. This is an edited version of her annual report.