In a speech to the House of Lords, Baroness Newlove sets out her views on how the Victims and Prisoners Bill needs to be strengthened.
Second Reading, Victims and Prisoners Bill, House of Lords – 18 December 2023
Nearly 13 years ago, I stood with some trepidation as I I made my maiden speech to your Lordships in this House.
In that speech, I called for victims to be treated with respect and to be helped to participate in the criminal justice system.
I informed the House that if victims do not have confidence in the justice system, and if witnesses walk away, then we all suffer.
My Lords, in 2007 I learned that courage was not the absence of fear. I hid it behind a mask of boldness.
Today, sadly I am a little older, hopefully a little wiser – and maybe, yes, there are a few grey hairs.
However, losing Garry 16 years ago I have with every year that’s gone by faced barriers: the waiting and the silence, many appeals, many paroles, every application I have sat there.
Nevertheless, my determination, my passion, to see all victims of crime being treated with respect and furthermore given all the support they need in their criminal justice journey, is just as strong today.
My Lords, this Bill has been a very long time coming.
And with the utmost respect across the chamber, I’ve heard too many things about prisoners.
And that’s why I was disappointed when this Bill was announced in the other place, that we know have a Victims and Prisoners Bill.
For many prisoners there is lots of legislation. For victims, this was paramount that they were foremost at the top of the tree.
I know I have been calling for this Bill along with many others in this sector – for a a Victims Law – for close to a decade and yet we are sharing the platform with prisoners once again.
This Bill, therefore, has to be a once in a generation opportunity to transform victims’ experience of our criminal justice system.
Justice should always treat victims with decency and respect.
It should listen to victims instead of talking at them.
It should share information willingly and with sensitivity.
It should give victims a voice, make them feel like a participant and not an onlooker.
A justice system that does all of the above only then will it help heal some of the victim’s wounds. It can bring catharsis, regardless of the outcome.
It can also give other victims the confidence to come forward and report crimes committed against them.
On the other hand, a justice system that does none of these things will only add to the trauma of the crime and create disillusionment, with victims and witnesses simply walking away saying never again.
I applaud the government for making the time for this important Bill, however in the middle of Christmas period it feels very fast forward and I look forward to working hard in Committee stages.
This is no disrespect to my noble Friend, Lord Bellamy, who I am really glad he is still here.
I’d also like to thank the hard work on the part of officials in putting it together.
Nonetheless, I have to say, I do believe the Bill, in its current form, needs strengthening if it is to deliver the change that’s promised for so long and we are looking forward to getting that.
And when I say I mean all, I mean the ambition cuts across all party lines.
It is an ambition shared by Noble Lords on all sides of the House. I know from my work on the Domestic Abuse Bill and on the Online Safety Bill that this House is at its finest when it comes together, cross-party, to scrutinise a Bill.
Since my re-appointment as Victims’ Commissioner in October, I have made it a priority to reach out and engage with as many victims’ groups as possible.
I’ve written many letters to ministers, to they’ve got lots of home work, just like me.
The consensus is clear however: they do welcome the Bill, my Lords, but they tell me it does not go far enough.
Let me explain why.
The Victims’ Code sets out the rights that victims should expect to receive, from the moment they report a crime to the end of their trial.
My Lords, as I’ve been told earlier in my journey as Victims’ Commissioner and as a victim, that’s purely just persuasive guidance, surely.
Rights under the Code, therefore, include help to understand the process, updates on their case, respectful treatment, procedural justice and support as and when it is needed.
However, time and time again victims tell me that their treatment falls below this standard.
According to my Victim Surveys, which other Lordships have mentioned in this house, thank you very much. less than a third have even heard of the Victims’ Code. Haven’t heard of the Victims’ Code, my Lords.
I am sure criminal justice agencies for some are well intentioned when dealing with victims. But all too often, the culture is more “..lets do what we can” rather than “…supporting victims goes to the heart of what we are all about”.
My response to these good intentions is “thank you very much” but victims want more than just ‘favours’; they need proper statutory rights.
They want their rights to be made fully known to them, to be enforceable, to be properly monitored and to be delivered with respect and sensitivity.
And on this point, I am just not convinced the Bill, as it stands, can deliver that.
The government promised it would be: “putting the Victims’ Code on a statutory footing, giving victims enhanced rights.”
Yet, the Bill as drafted falls short of doing this. This needs to be addressed.
Then there is the issue of compliance. Rights are meaningless unless they are upheld. And there need to be a robust system in place to make sure they are being upheld.
The Bill makes a good attempt at achieving this and has much that I applaud. But compliance monitoring needs to be more transparent.
Importantly, it also requires independent scrutiny to avoid the impression of government marking its own homework.
The Bill needs to go further on this issue.
In fact, I believe effective oversight and scrutiny of compliance is fundamental to the Bill’s success.
As well as better compliance I am also keen to see the Bill reaching out to those groups of victims who are currently left in the cold.
Persistent and targeted anti-social behaviour is a crime that is not “low-level”, and it causes high levels of harm, as I know only too well, my Lords.
Yet there is no mention in the Bill of how these victims can be guaranteed to receive the support they often so desperately need. We must remedy this.
Victims of some of the worst crimes have fewer rights in cases where the perpetrator is detained under the Mental Health Act. Yet the impact of the crime is no less than for any other victim.
I want this Bill to deliver parity of treatment for those victims.
And finally, we all know victims of sexual violence face huge hurdles in getting justice.
Too often they face unwarranted invasions of their privacy. If we are to help them receive true justice, this Bill needs to do so much more to give them the protections they deserve.
Again, I see this Bill as a vehicle to deliver these protections.
In conclusion, my Lords, I do welcome the government’s commitment to deliver for victims. But I truly believe we must be more ambitious if we are to achieve the transformation victims rightly deserve.
Because a law without justice for victims is a wound without a cure.
- The speech was delivered in the chamber of the House of Lords on Monday 18 December 2023 (16:54 – 17:03).
- The speech has been checked against delivery.