Alex Sobel: Government has to speak up for victims of crime

WHEN I applied for a debate on the rights of crime victims, little did I know how timely it would be. Then other night, both our car and our garage were broken into. Nothing was stolen, but the damage to our property and knowing that we are vulnerable to criminals are concerns, and I redoubled my resolve to get better rights for the victims.

Should the police and others be doing more to uphold the rights of crime victims?
Should the police and others be doing more to uphold the rights of crime victims?

In advance of this debate, I surveyed constituents on their experiences and two of the respondents spoke about the lack of support they had also experienced after being victims of theft from their cars. I also had much more concerning examples, where people were victims of serious incidents and there were serious gaps in provision.

One constituent who had been at the Manchester Arena for the Ariana Grande concert when the tragic bombing occurred wrote to me, saying: “Whilst I appreciate thousands were affected by this event, receiving mental health support since then has been hard work. It has taken nine months for my daughter and I to receive any kind of support due to long waiting lists, lack of funding etc. Those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder have been ignored unless they had physical injuries.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

When I undertook the survey, a range of crimes were reported to me and often the victims did not feel that they had received sufficient support after crimes ranging from muggings to violent assault to rape.

A group in society that is particularly vulnerable to crime is older people. I am grateful to Age UK for releasing a report last week on fraud relating to older people. The report found that more than two fifths – 43 per cent – of older people, which is almost five million people, believe they have been targeted by scammers.

Only a minority of fraud victims report their experience. Among people aged 65-plus, nearly two thirds – 64 per cent – of those targeted by fraudsters did not report it to an official body such as Action Fraud, the police, a bank or a local authority.

About a third of those targeted confided in friends or family, but more than a fifth admitted they ​did not tell anyone at all, because they felt too embarrassed. And for the minority of older people who do report fraud, support is inconsistent across the country.

Age UK has won funding from City Bridge Trust to pilot a new scam prevention and victim support service. Working in partnership with Action Fraud, a number of local Age UK groups in London will raise awareness of scams among older people and their friends and family; they will give one-to-one support to older people who are vulnerable and at risk of scams, empowering them to feel safer and more confident; and they will provide specialist one-to-one support sessions for older victims, helping them to address the financial, health and social impacts of fraud.

This is a great initiative. However, should not such support be available across the country for every older person who needs it, funded by the Government, and using proceeds of crime moneys if the Government cannot pay for it out of general taxation?

Our criminal justice system must ensure that it has the rights of victims of crime at its heart. When it fails to do so, it not only affects the victims themselves but risks undermining wider public trust in our justice system.

The most significant reform in this regard was arguably the introduction of the Victims’ Code by the last Labour government, which came into force in 2006. It sets out the rights and entitlements of victims, making it the single most important document for victims of crime in England and Wales.

It outlines clearly and precisely the level of entitlement that victims can expect from each criminal justice agency they encounter. However Victim Support has found evidence to suggest that there is a routine failure to uphold the Victims’ Code.

Furthermore, there are new setbacks for victims of crime on the horizon, with the announcement that the Government plan to sell off more than 100 courts for not much more than the average UK house price.

That decision piles yet more pressure on the remaining courts and risks hearings ​being further delayed and rescheduled, which can have a distressing impact on victims and witnesses and creates a justice system that is less accessible for people.

What do victims of crime need from the Government? A victims’ law that would seek to guarantee victims a minimum standard of service, including placing victims’ right to review on a statutory footing, not only for the CPS but for the police, too.

It must be made easier to hold justice organisations to account if we are to maintain confidence in the criminal justice system.

Alex Sobel is the Labour MP for Leeds North West. He spoke in a Parliamentary debate on crime victims. This is an edited version.