Sarah Champion MP
20th February 2019
All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
I’d like to thank you again for asking me to appear at your recent session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. You also asked for written submissions. This letter sets out in greater detail some of the points I raised in person.
As you are aware, I have supported the need for IICSA from the outset. I have given evidence at their open hearings and welcome their interim recommendations. It gives victims and survivors the opportunity to be heard. It enables us to learn the mistakes of the past and safeguard future generations of children. It offers encouragement to those who have suffered in silence that it is safe to come forward.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial we do not put on hold the issues you and your colleagues are looking into until the Inquiry has concluded.
There are many much needed changes to the way adult survivors are supported. We need to act quickly.
The role of the Victims’ Commissioner is to promote the interests of victims and witnesses, encourage good practice in their treatment, and regularly review the Code of Practice for Victims which sets out the services victims can expect to receive.
I’m here to listen to the views of victims and witnesses, understand the criminal justice system from their point of view and try to help improve the services and support available.
To that end over the past few years I’ve met many survivors of abuse and have been profoundly moved by their pain and sense of being let down by those who were meant to look after them. Their anger and frustration that they were not listened to is real and heartfelt.
I have also been privileged to attend and speak at meetings of support groups. I work closely with organisations such as NAPAC. Their CEO, Gabrielle Shaw is a member of my advisory group and I am grateful to her and her team for their advice and briefings.
Victim focused response
In recent years, we have seen a conscious decision by many authorities to change their approach to how they treat victims of sexual abuse. I believe one of the most important changes is that they ensure victims are listened to and given the sense that their accounts are believed.
The police have a parallel responsibility both to support victims of crime and to undertake fair investigations. With sexual offences, victims and survivors have faced disbelief throughout their fight for justice. This has deterred many abuse victims from coming forward.
Lately, we have taken great strides in building confidence with these victims, resulting in more being prepared to come forward and disclose. This is in part because of the change in the police approach to victims.
There is now a debate about whether this is the correct approach. Whether the police should adopt a neutral stance to victims. The change appears to be based upon a view that with sex offences, police officers are unable to take a robust and impartial investigation if they offer a victim belief that their allegations are true.
If this is the case, I am strongly of the view that a diminution of victim support is not the solution. Instead, I would suggest it is a matter that needs to be addressed through training and guidance.
I am also of the view that we have created a climate whereby victims of sexual offences are routinely having their personal lives disproportionately investigated and disclosed in criminal trials. In doing so, we are re-traumatising them and potentially infringing their right to privacy.
Signing a Stafford statement appears to give blanket consent allowing police and CPS access to all your personal data from school, social services, medical, psychiatric or even notes from counselling.
Signing the statement means that the victim has no right to object or be consulted. Disclosure of such sensitive material can have a devastating emotional effect. Again, it can act as a barrier in victims coming forward or pursuing justice.
I accept that some personal records may need to be obtained and shared with the defence to test the truth of the victim’s case. But it should be limited to information relevant to the facts, and obtained through reasonable lines of inquiry.
I would like to see the government to review and amend the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, to include a statutory requirement to seek complainants’ consent in relation to their digital evidence and personal records, with clear and defined limits and proper judicial oversight.
I hope that this is something that your APPG can give consideration to.
Turning to the provision of support, my visits to victim support services across the country tell me that on the ground services are struggling to cope as so many more survivors find the courage to come forward and ask for help. This is no reflection on the professionals who are doing their very best, but simply a consequence of rising demand and lack of provision.
For example, in 2017 NAPAC answered eight and a half thousand calls and emails on their national support line and email service – less than a tenth of the number (nearly 90,000) who were trying to get through to them during this period.
We know that adult survivors of child abuse are almost twice as likely to have a long-standing illness or disability compared to non-child abuse victims.
Traumatic life experiences can have a significant impact on people’s lives, increasing the risk of poorer physical and mental health and unemployment, as well as poorer social, educational and criminal justice outcomes.
Providing appropriate therapy and support can have better outcomes for people affected by trauma.
Survivors need the support of highly trained and specialist counsellors to deal with the effects of trauma.
I therefore want the Government to do four things;
- Social agency response. Dealing with all of these issues requires the cooperation of health services, schools and colleges, job centres, housing authorities and social services, to name but a few. I want to see a statutory duty for these agencies to cooperate in developing plans to enable each survivor to move on and lead fulfilled lives.
- Ensure that there are enough practitioners in all of these services who have the training and skills to be able to assist survivors. I sense that there are parts of the country where there are simply not enough practitioners to cope with the volume of demand. However, I am not sure there has ever been a national audit, looking at both supply and demand and identifying where gaps exist. Support for survivors must not be a postcode lottery.
- Staff in a wide range of agencies, including health, education, housing and social services need to be trained in the needs of adult survivors and be part of multi-agency support packages. I am concerned that there is insufficient resource to meet these wider training needs, nor that training, when on offer, is always accredited. This needs to be addressed.
- To deliver the support being called for will inevitably cost money. We owe it to survivors, many of whom have been let down badly in the past, to make sure resource matches demand. In the past, funding has been divided on a population basis and not according to the number of survivors known to be living in any one area. We need to have a mechanism whereby the funding follows the individual.
Commissioner for Child Sexual Abuse
All of the above requires coordination and collaboration. It needs to be driven by the centre. Currently, responsibility for survivors is divided across so many agencies and government departments.
We are about to appoint a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to perform the role of working across government, championing the needs of domestic abuse victims, auditing the support available and reporting to Parliament. I welcome this, but believe that there is an equally pressing need for a Child Sexual Abuse Commissioner to perform exactly the same function. Such is the complexity and the scale of such a task, we cannot operate as we are at present.
The provision of services to support victims/survivors of child sexual abuse varies across the country – victims and survivors can face a postcode lottery, with the prospect of receiving excellent services in some places, but inadequate ones in others. Agencies, however well-meaning, often work in silos, leaving survivors constantly having to repeat their stories and battle to be heard.
I believe we need a CSA Commissioner, appointed by government and with statutory powers. This commissioner can champion the needs of victims and survivors, monitor the support on offer to them and hold the police and all other criminal justice agencies to account.
A CSA Commissioner can ensure the issues facing victims and survivors of CSA are at the centre of public debate, and that their voices are heard.
Criminal Injuries Compensation
Finally, I’m aware that in previous sessions you have heard survivors describe their experience of claiming compensation when asking me to give evidence last week, and so you asked me to touch on my recent review of criminal injuries compensation.
There are a number of findings from my report of last month which are of particular relevance to victims of sexual crimes including child sexual abuse. I very much hope your APPG will support these findings and join me in pushing government to make the changes that are so desperately needed to the Scheme.
I found that the process of applying for criminal injuries compensation can be distressing for victims. Having to repeat their story is re-traumatising, re-triggering and potentially unnecessary when the CICA should be able to get all the necessary information from the police. I have made 8 recommendations in my report, which if implemented, would go some way to making the CICA process less traumatic for vulnerable victims.
The Scheme is highly complex, particularly when seeking compensation for psychological harm. Nearly 40% of victims need help from a third party to apply because of the stress caused by applying and the complexity of the Scheme.
There is poor and patchy support from locally commissioned victim services. this means many victims have to resort to legal support and in doing so, can lose up to 25% of their award in legal fees.
I have made 5 recommendations to address this issue including that the MoJ should fund PCCs to commission legal advice and representation for the most vulnerable and traumatised victims who wish to claim criminal injuries compensation. Their needs will be greater than most and without this legal support many will have no option other than to hire solicitors on a no win no fee basis, thereby losing a significant amount of their final award.
There is a lack of awareness about the Scheme amongst criminal justice professionals. Many victims are not told about their entitlement to apply for compensation by the police or victim services. the MoJ should consider how it might improve the publicising of the Scheme and how agencies can monitor and be sure that the Scheme is being brought to the attention of eligible victims who contact their staff. The CICA should review its online information and online profile to see how it can be improved, making it easier for victims to contact them. For example, an online search highlights four private companies ahead of the CICA site.
Victims face long waits for decisions. When they receive an offer, they have no idea whether it is fair and reasonable. Lawyers challenge awards in a high proportion of cases, but how can a victim who has opted to make their own claim do this?
Victims of sexual crimes are often told not to apply until after the trial because it could be used against them in court. When they do claim, some find that they are out of time. I am calling on the MOJ to consider extending the application deadline for submitting a compensation claim to two years after reporting the incident, or, one year after the trial has concluded, whichever date is the latest, thereby giving victims the option to submit their claims once the trial is complete.
Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme specifies that it is for ‘blameless’ victims. Rules on criminal convictions mean that applicants with unspent convictions for any crime are not eligible for compensation. If the applicant’s conduct is thought to have contributed to the incident or injuries, the CICA can deduct a proportion of the award or can decline an award altogether.
Given what we now know about crimes such as childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, childhood criminal exploitation, coercion and control within the context of modern day slavery or domestic abuse, I would question whether it is always appropriate to deny victims compensation on the basis that there is a direct link between their criminality and crimes committed against them. Some injuries such as brain injuries can also cause victims behaviour to change, and this should be a consideration.
I believe that the policy of declining such applications should be reviewed in light of our better understanding of the complex relationship between abuse and exploitation, and the committing of offences, as well as other crimes involving coercive control, and the causal link in criminalising many of these victims. The MoJ should consider the devastating impact of refusing compensation to bereaved victims on the basis of the conduct of the deceased.
In September last year the Justice Secretary David Gauke committed to abolish the pre-1979 same roof rule which has denied compensation to some victims.
I understand that the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority will wait for legislation to be passed to amend the Scheme before deciding claims where the pre-1979 same roof rule would affect an award being paid.
I would like to see this change to legislation as soon as possible and clarity given to survivors who have previously applied regarding whether their claim can be submitted.
I want a fundamental reform of the scheme. I want the process simplified and de-traumatised, and we need to offer free support for vulnerable victims.
I hope this submission is useful in adding to the evidence informing your inquiry. If I can be of any further assistance please do contact my Head of Policy, Rachel Hersey on Rachel.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Baroness Newlove of Warrington
Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales
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