Sarah Champion: Victims must get support in their darkest hours

I REGULARLY meet victims of crime before, during and after their involvement with the judicial process. Regrettably, very few have ever received the level of care, support and service that they should be able to expect.

The criminal justice system continues to let down victims, says Rotherham MP Sarah Champion.

Sadly, what I hear most often is how traumatic the experience was. Survivors of child sexual exploitation will invariably tell me that their encounter with the judicial system was a second form of abuse.

Now we must see real changes in how we support victims of crime. The Government’s plan to address the current deficit is most welcome, but we now need to focus on the detail of the Victims’ Strategy.

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There are statements about co-ordinating and about combining and reviewing the effectiveness of funding, but, with the exception of the £8m increase in funding for sexual assault referral centres – SARCs – over the next three years, there appears to be little additional money entering the system.

Victims need more support, says MP Sarah Champion.

What is actually needed is simply more cash in the system. In the new strategy, it is acknowledged that “support is not always available as and when victims need it” in the current system.

There are two areas of consideration – first, the provision of early intervention services at the point of disclosure, such as SARCs, and, secondly, the accessibility of universal long-term services, such as mental health support, housing and benefits to victims in need of ongoing support.

SARCs are crucial. A Council of Europe study found that there needs to be one sexual assault centre for every 400,000 women. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are currently 28 million women in England, but there are only 47 SARCs, leaving us 14 short of the recommended minimum standard.

Providing such services is not just good for the victim; it is also good for justice. Bristol University has just demonstrated the vital role of independent sexual violence advisers – ISVAs – in improving criminal justice outcomes. Analysis of 585 rape cases showed that 36 per cent had the support of ISVAs. Where an ISVA was involved, 43.2 per cent of suspects were charged, as against 21.5 per cent without their involvement. Convictions followed a similar pattern: a 12.3 per cent conviction rate if the victim had an ISVA, as against 5.4 per cent if they did not.

Predominantly, victims services are commissioned by police and crime commissioners using grant funding, but they are hamstrung by the Ministry of Justice, which generally makes grants on an annual basis. This means that small charities receive only short-term funding, making it much harder for them to invest in local services for the long-term.

The need for long-term support for services is pressing. SARCs and other victims services are brilliant at providing an emergency care package and then referring on to other services, yet too many victims receiving an assessment of their needs at a SARC then face delays in accessing the recommended therapeutic services.

Last year, the Children’s Commissioner (Anne Longfield) said: “We know that most adult mental health problems start in childhood and that without treatment, children’s problems are likely to get worse.”

It is therefore appalling that Public Health England found in 2016 that only 25 per cent of children who needed mental health treatment received it.

Where statutory services are unable to support victims, third sector organisations desperately try to make up the shortfall. Organisations such as Rape Crisis provide vital lifelines for victims and survivors in their time of crisis, yet they are unable to meet the demand with their current levels of funding.

More than 6,000 women and girls are currently on Rape Crisis’s waiting list, and in my constituency, the Rotherham abuse counselling service has 260 people on its current waiting list. The average waiting time is now seven months. Not to address this is ​not only morally but fiscally irresponsible.

To support victims of crime in a professional and timely manner enables them to quickly rebuild their lives. If we do not do that, the cost to the state resulting from, for example, mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, self-harm and issues around maintaining a job or relationship as a result of the crime will cost the state much more in the long term, not to mention the damage to the individual.

The Victims’ Strategy is an excellent first step, but for it to become more than words on a page, it must place a statutory duty on police and crime commissioners to publish a local victims’ offer that sets out the minimum standards for supporting victims.

The Victims’ Commissioner could then be mandated to hold the PCCs and partner agencies to account for the quality of their victims’ offer against an agreed gold standard.

Sarah Champion is the Labour MP 
for Rotherham. She spoke in a Commons debate on the Victims’ Strategy – this 
is an edited version.