Oral Questions in Parliament | Full text from the Adjournment debate called by Andrew George MP on Victim Support
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the support for victims in the judicial system. Many Members are interested in the subject, and some might wish to take part in the debate. I made it clear to both the Minister and the shadow Minister that I wish to focus on the tragic case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, which I raised more than 10 years ago in a parliamentary debate on 8 January 2001.
I have been working on the case with Joanne Bryce and her family, who come from my constituency in St Ives. We have pursued a number of issues that have arisen from the killing of Claire Oldfield-Hampson in 1996. Unfortunately, those issues have never resulted in any kind of closure for the family and many remain unresolved. I am pleased to say that my constituent was able to visit me in Parliament today and will be monitoring this debate.
I wish to bring this issue to a number of general conclusions that may be relevant to other cases in today’s debate. I have given the Minister advance notice of the background to the case and the issues that arise that are relevant to his portfolio. A range of concerns fall under the broad umbrella of victim support. No doubt, Members will find that a number of those concerns differ from the ones that they want to raise, but some will be similar.
We are debating this issue on a day when the consultation on the Government’s sentencing policy has come to a close. Although that is not directly relevant to the issues that I raise, there are some indirect references to the manner in which the cases are dealt with. In this instance, the case was mounted in mitigation. In other words, the convicted was prepared to accept a manslaughter charge rather than a murder charge.
I come to this issue in support of my constituents. I have no legal training or any experience of the court system, particularly the criminal justice system. Looking at the issues that have arisen from this case, I have to say that I was overwhelmingly shocked at what I considered to be an absolute travesty of justice. As I said in the debate more than 10 years ago, this is the case of an innocent victim who was treated by the judicial system as if she were the perpetrator of the crime and her husband the victim: the trial primarily dealt with the case in mitigation and did not address any of the points that would have challenged that.
The people whom we are talking about today are the victims of a series of events, which, if their case gets to court, could be described as life-changing, life-defining or, tragically in the case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson, life-ending. The justice system uses as a metaphor the image of the scales—the scales of justice—which have to be balanced. Yet the debate that takes place is often remote from the events themselves and can be conceptual and intellectual. Those engaged in the system never wish to appear to prejudge any case. None the less, the case that I wish to present today shows that victims are often treated in an imbalanced manner by the system itself.
Let me explain the background to the case. According to the courts, Claire Oldfield-Hampson was unlawfully killed by her husband with a hammer on 25 September 1996. He buried her body in a shallow grave in the garden in the early hours of the following day. Within two days, he was using her bank accounts and leading a life of deception involving their seven-year-old child, Felicity, who provided excuses for her mother’s absence.
The deception was perpetrated for two years. Calls in person and by telephone were received by Hampson and further excuses were given. Regular contact was maintained between Felicity and her grandmother, Mary Oldfield, who became a constituent of mine, but who sadly died a few years ago. At that time, she lived only five miles away. Mary met the child on a fortnightly basis. She baked cakes to send to Claire, knitted for her and exchanged Christmas, birthday and wedding anniversary cards. They had been very close. Mary Oldfield gave a cheque for £3,000 to David Hampson to give to Claire to help them through some difficult times and she offered them a car. The family was supportive to the Hampsons in many ways.
The deception continued until the family—Joanne Bryce and her husband, Alex—became increasingly concerned and encouraged the commencement of police investigations in December 1998. Hampson confessed to killing his wife only when it became absolutely clear that there was no other possible explanation for her absence.
Hampson was tried at Northampton Crown court in October 1999. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility because he alleged that he was depressively ill as a result of his wife’s constant nagging.
Judge Francis Allen concluded by accepting that Hampson’s wife behaved in a way that was calculated to impact on his mind. The judge gave Hampson a six-year prison sentence that was then reduced to four years on appeal in July 2000. He was released in December 2000, only 14 months after the original trial.
During the two-year deception, Hampson plundered Claire’s bank account, shares and insurances to the tune of £11,000 and fraudulently claimed benefits. The intention of seeking a conviction for fraud was dropped on the grounds that Hampson would ultimately be tried for a more serious capital offence. Four days before the original trial, the Crown Prosecution Service accepted a plea for manslaughter. No witnesses were called; there was no jury; and the trial took under an hour. If anyone wishes to read an example of what I consider to be injustice, they should read the transcript of that trial, which was purely a case in mitigation.
Claire Oldfield-Hampson was killed by her husband in 1996 and then she was exhumed by the state from the garden that she had been buried in, dragged along to the court and slaughtered again in public—verbally. It was a travesty, frankly. I urge people to look at this case. If it is an example of what our judicial system does, we should be ashamed of what we do in the name of the victims of capital offences, such as murder and manslaughter.
In fact, there were several travesties in the court, beginning with the opening words of the defence counsel. The defence counsel said that Hampson was
“a man of good character”.
Hampson killed his wife; buried her in the garden; took her money from her; deceived her family and the world; involved a child in that deception; attempted to defraud the benefit system; fraudulently accepted money from his mother-in-law; and he only accepted his guilt at the 11th hour. In addition, he had a less than impressive—in fact, it was rather dubious—employment record. Apart from all that, perhaps he was a man of good character, but the rest of it does not look very good, does it? Nevertheless, we were told that he was
“a man of good character”.
We were also told that Hampson was depressively ill and that there was a causal link between that illness and the killing. Two years after the killing, he was seen by two psychiatrists. Basically, the case for prosecuting him for manslaughter rather than murder was based on what I described at the time and still describe now as the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. Somehow, it is thought that a psychiatrist can determine the state of mind of someone two years previously—someone who, as the evidence shows, was known to be very successful at deceiving people—yet Hampson was able, in my view, to deceive everyone involved in the whole system into believing that he had taken those actions and killed his wife as a result of her constant nagging, which we were told had impacted on his mind. In fact, we were told that the nagging was calculated to impact on his mind. So we were told that Claire was constantly nagging Hampson, making him depressively ill. Once again, however, there was little corroborative evidence and no opportunity for proper cross-examination.
Perhaps what was most hurtful of all were the claims made in the case that Felicity, Claire’s seven-year-old daughter, had
“received very little love or affection from her mother”.
The transcript of the case continues, saying that Felicity
“turned very much more to her father, who was a warm, kind and loving parent to her.”
I sent the Hansard report of the 2001 debate in Parliament on this case to the then Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, and subsequently I met him to take him through what I considered to be some of the inadequacies in the system. We went through some of the issues and indeed he wrote to me again in August 2001 to try to contradict some of the claims that I had made to him. The claim that Claire’s daughter received very little love or affection from her mother might sound like a rather subjective assessment, but I felt that it was very significant and that I should say so. Joanne Bryce and her husband demanded a police investigation, which was undertaken by Bedfordshire police, as a result of the complaints that were made about the way that Claire’s family were treated.
Then David Calvert-Smith wrote to me out of the blue in December 2002 with a letter of apology, which I thought was very noteworthy. In that letter, which is dated 24 December 2002, he said:
“Specifically, in my letter of 7 August 2001 third paragraph I asserted there was no evidence on the prosecution file to support the statement “that Claire loved her daughter very much”. At the time of the prosecution and indeed at the time I wrote to you that was correct. What has now become apparent from the Bedfordshire enquiry is that had other witnesses been seen and interviewed during the original investigation and other sources of information examined and revealed to the CPS, then that assertion (that there was no evidence that Claire loved her daughter) should not, and
would not, have been made. Although not directly privy to the Bedfordshire Police enquiry, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Cambridgeshire and his staff have been assisting that Force’s investigation in every possible way. I do not know and cannot anticipate what the eventual outcome of that enquiry will be”—
etc, etc. He continued:
“My statement will understandably have caused distress to Mr and Mrs Bryce. I am sorry that you and they were given what has now been revealed to be wrong information.”
The fact is that one of the fundamental arguments in mitigation was the charge that Claire was an uncaring and unloving mother and a nagging wife. Of course, just a small amount of additional investigation proved that charge to be untrue.
Quite apart from what, in my view, was the travesty of justice meted out to the memory of Claire Oldfield-Hampson by two courts of law, a number of other issues need to be addressed. Some of them have been addressed by the Government since the trial. The Crown Prosecution Service at Huntingdon had said that the charge would never be downgraded from murder to manslaughter, yet Claire’s family were told only five days before the trial that the charge would be manslaughter rather than murder when the CPS phoned to let them know, giving them no opportunity to have a discussion or to challenge why.
My constituent, Joanne Bryce, points out:
“There was no trial only a hearing with no jury and no witnesses, and no-one to challenge the information that had been taken from Hampson.”
Only Hampson’s argument was heard. Joanne also pointed out:
“There was a complete character vilification of Claire – 9 out of 11 national newspapers ran with the headline “Nagging Wife killed by husband”. It seemed that nagging was the capital crime and the killing just a minor incident. All this went unchallenged…Claire’s personal diaries must have evidence of family relationship”.
There was certainly a lot of material in Claire’s diaries that was never made available at the time or shown to the court. There was also video evidence about Felicity’s relationship with her mother and Joanne notes that
“there were 66 exhibits which had there been a trial would have been in the public domain.”
I have already mentioned the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. The police failed to provide a Home Office information pack; they did not provide a family liaison officer and there was a failure to identify the senior investigating officer, so Claire’s family were never told who that officer was. There was a failure to provide information about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme in respect of the funeral expenses; there was a failure to obtain evidence of Claire’s character; there was a failure to investigate fraud and theft; and the family were denied access to Felicity, who had been placed in the care of the murderer’s family.
There are other issues that have arisen that I want the Minister to address, particularly the fundamental right of a murderer to remain the next of kin of their victim. As a result, the murderer still has the right to access the estate of the person they have murdered, in the case of a domestic killing such as this one, so my constituent, the sister of the woman who had been killed, had no right of access to the house, whereas the murderer’s family
could go in and help themselves to what they wished. She had to plead with the murderer for access to the death certificate to proceed with the funeral. The murderer had full access to all the family heirlooms and to Claire Oldfield-Hampson’s records from way before they first met, but all of that was denied to the blood relatives.
I think the Minister knows the question I wish to ask today. Is it not right that someone charged with a capital offence, but not yet convicted, should have such rights at least suspended, if not removed entirely? I cannot understand how this kind of situation can occur in this country, with a murderer having control over the estate and life memory of the person they have murdered. Should we not be addressing ourselves to these issues?
There was a swathe of other failings in the case, many of which were identified by the Bedfordshire police investigation. The report of the investigation was submitted in December 2002, but even now, nearly 10 years on, the family are seeking to gain access to the full version, which contains more than 100 redactions.
Before today’s debate, I sent the Minister my notes, and I urge him to look carefully at the case and address the issues that I have outlined. I had hoped that the Claire Oldfield-Hampson case was a one-off, but since then other people have contacted me about similar ones. Recently, Angela Geddes of Carnoustie in Angus contacted me. She spoke out after her father Roger admitted killing his wife Ann at the couple’s home there. She gave me a newspaper cutting, which states:
“The daughter of a woman killed in a horrific axe attack by her husband has hit out at a decision to allow her father to plead guilty to a reduced charge of culpable homicide. Speaking after her father Roger Geddes admitted killing wife Ann, the couple’s daughter Angela Geddes said: ‘The family are devastated at the lack of justice and the charade we have seen in court’.”
That case is in the different legal context and judicial system of Scotland, but the killing took place only last year and the same argument applies. Angela Geddes says:
“I do believe he has managed to deceive the psychiatrists who do not know his true colours and only hope he shows them before he is released and becomes a danger to my family and the wider public.”
Again, just last year psychiatric evidence was used to mount a case in mitigation.
It is a good thing that this Government and the previous Government have committed resources to Victim Support and other advocates for victims. There is also the code of practice for victims of crime, but even Victim Support has contacted me to complain that although the code covers most of the issues,
“Local Criminal Justice Boards have now been asked to stop reporting on it to the Ministry of Justice, meaning it’s now essentially not being enforced. This bodes very badly for victims”.
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman paints a very vivid picture of the trials of his ongoing fight for justice for his constituents. I was interested to read the extract from Hansard that he sent us, of a speech he made in the House in 2001:
“First and foremost, our justice system should consider the victims and their families. After all, it is primarily on their behalf that our society seeks to uphold the law and administer justice. Victims are already grieving and aggrieved parties. The process should not leave them more aggrieved.”—[Hansard, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 852.]
In my constituency, James McVey, a young man of just 18 years of age, lost his life to what is sometimes termed “a one-punch assault.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at times far too much emphasis is placed on the rights of the perpetrators of acts of violence and not on the rights of their victims?
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
Although I say it myself, I could not have put it better myself. The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely right. The conclusion that we draw from these kinds of cases is that the perpetrators appear to be treated with a great deal more respect than the victims. I do not think that we have the balance right; the scales of justice have tipped over too far in some cases.
I am aware that many other people wish to take part in the debate and I apologise for having spoken at such length, but I feel very passionately about this deeply concerning matter. I have these questions for the Minister. Does he agree that the issues raised by this case and by the difficulty that we have had in trying to secure justice, clarity and closure, would benefit from a departmental review? What progress has been made in the 10 years that have passed since I first raised the issues, and what progress still needs to be made? Although the introduction of victim statements has helped, they have been rather intermittent and not widely used, so what further proposals are there to ensure that victims and their families receive fair treatment? Does the Minister agree that it is appropriate to suspend the rights of people charged with murder and manslaughter, including their entitlement to be next of kin, hold the death certificate and handle the victim’s estate, and finally, does he agree that claims made in mitigation should be open to challenge in court by victims and their families?
My constituents have been unable to achieve what they seek: closure. In fact, the further they look into the case the further they appear to be from closure. We would certainly welcome an opportunity to meet the Justice Minister to ensure that lessons are learnt from this and the many other cases in which we believe justice has not been served.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford, Conservative)
This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Mr Scott, and I hope that I do not disappoint. I assure both you and Members who are hoping to speak that I intend to make only a very short contribution.
I congratulate Andrew Georgeon securing the debate, and I am afraid that with my contribution I shall further demonstrate that his constituents’ experience was not a one-off. This is a very timely debate because yesterday one of the men convicted of murdering Russell, the son of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Crookes, was released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence. The murder of Russell Crookes by Graham Wallis and Neil Sayers was brutal and sent shock waves through the local community, but it is the experience of the victim’s family, who have lived the past 12 years at the mercy of the criminal justice system, on which I wish to focus this afternoon.
As I read the Hansard of the debate secured by the hon. Member for St Ives a decade ago, I was struck by his words:
“I simply want to make the case for greater consideration in the courts of victims and their families, especially in cases involving capital offences in which victims cannot be present in person to defend themselves against accusations that may be made against them.”—[Hansard, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 848.]
Russell was a victim who could not defend himself. In the blink of an eye, his family lost their son. They will grieve for ever, but they lost more than their son; they lost their faith in a system that has, in their view, consistently put the rights of the perpetrators before their own. That system promises on paper to protect and support victims, but sometimes fails to do so in practice. The charities that do an excellent job of supporting victims’ families emotionally are being undermined by mistakes that could be avoided easily if the system were improved.
I do not have time to discuss in detail all the errors experienced by the Crookes family, but Mr Crookes has been left in no doubt that the victims of crime and, in his case, murder are treated with little or no thought whatever. It is clear from my constituents’ experience that communication and co-operation between the various units working within the criminal justice system are poor and need complete overhaul. In his case, the left hand and right hand did not always know what the other was doing. Unfortunately, as a consequence, the Crookes family lost the opportunity to provide a victim personal statement to the parole board reviewing Mr Wallis’s conditions, an incident that a previous Justice Minister called “unacceptable”.
As the family of the victim, they have experienced additional trauma due to communication failures and have often been left feeling that the system is loaded in favour of the perpetrator of the crime, with little or no understanding for the victim. A recent example occurred when the Crookes family requested that a particular London borough be included in the exclusion zone when Mr Wallis was released, as a member of the Crookes family regularly works in and visits the borough. Their request was not granted, as the perpetrator has family of his own in the borough, which would apparently assist greatly with his rehabilitation into the community. The decision has left the Crookes family feeling as though asking for their views was merely a tick-box exercise. Although they recognise that their natural desire for the men who killed their son to stay in prison for ever is an impossible one, they feel that it is unjust that their rights should appear secondary, and that is what makes them angry.
Finally, I turn to the financial impact on victims’ families. The issue has been in the news recently, and I know that the Government and the victims’ commissioner are considering it, which is welcome. Understandably, the families of those who are murdered can be left severely traumatised during difficult periods such as parole boards or release dates and may need psychiatric assistance. It is an expensive service that they would not need if it were not for the actions of others. Yet again, it is the victim who is punished. I hope that when the Government and the commissioner consider victims’ financial losses, they consider counselling costs.
The Crookes family have suffered from a system that they think has not served them well. Over the years, they have made useful suggestions through my predecessor and me for reform to increase equality for victims. They include proper consultation and listening exercises with
victims rather than tick-box exercises; better training for those involved in offender management and victim liaison so that victims know, for example, that they are entitled to submit statements in advance of parole boards; and a system that makes it apparent to the panel in cases when no victim personal statement is made that it is because the victim has decided not to submit one, rather than because a mistake has been made in the process.
We must gain some sense of justice for victims. Mr Crookes said to me in an e-mail yesterday that
“we miss Russ greatly but as victims his and our human rights are being violated all the time to suit the criminal”.
If that is how a family feel at the end of the process, the system has failed, and the Government need to recognise and reform that failure before they let down the family of another murder victim.
Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Labour)
I apologise for the hoarseness of my voice, Mr Scott. Hopefully, with the help of a glass of water, I will be able to proceed.
This debate is on support for victims of crime. I want to raise the issue of a group of British victims who have received no material support from their Government—British victims of terrorist attacks overseas. Those victims deserve support from their Government not only on the practical level—travel insurers are usually unwilling to cover the costs associated with death or injury resulting from a terrorist attack—but, more fundamentally, because British citizens remain British citizens wherever they may be, and particularly because of the context of Britain’s central role in the fight against global terrorism.
For those reasons, British victims of overseas terrorism deserve the state’s support, yet British victims of attacks in Bali, Sharm el Sheikh, Turkey and Mumbai have received no material support from their Government. They have been left to struggle with the costs of repatriation of dead or injured loved ones and the costs imposed by serious injury and disability. That is wrong. Our Government’s obligations to citizens do not cease outside our borders, and it is fair to say that Britain’s central role in the global fight against terrorism creates added risk for British citizens. The Mumbai attacks are one example. As I am sure that hon. Members are aware, the Mumbai terrorists specifically sought out those with US and British passports. British citizens must not be intimidated out of travelling the world freely by the threat of terrorist attack. We, as a state, and our Government should do everything in our power to minimise the risks associated with terrorism overseas.
The absence of Government support has been deeply frustrating for victims and their families. In the aftermath of attacks in Turkey and Egypt in 2005, survivors and bereaved relatives were initially told to look to the perpetrators of the attack for damages, or to the Government of the country where the attack occurred. Neither of those options is credible. One can imagine the difficulties in trying to receive compensation from the terrorists themselves, and although we have reciprocal agreements with some foreign countries, particularly within the EU, we have no such agreements, or no
effective agreements, with many other countries. Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and India are but a few of those countries, and threats in those countries to British and western tourists are growing.
Since 2005, groups of families have run sustained campaigns to change the situation. The families have worked with Members past and present from all parties to bring the issue to the Government’s attention. Those Members include Ian McCartney, Mr Ellwood and my right hon. Friend Tessa Jowell, who as Minister with responsibility for the issue set up the previous Government’s humanitarian assistance unit.
After many false starts, the previous Government instituted a victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme in January 2010. Sections 47 to 54 of the Crime and Security Act 2010 made full provision for the Secretary of State for Justice to introduce the scheme. Compensation would have been payable to all victims of overseas terror attacks occurring from 18 January 2010 onwards. In addition, the previous Government promised one-off, ex gratia payments specifically to survivors of the Bali bombings. Many terror survivors received letters informing them about their compensation signed by the former Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, and the former Cabinet Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. We know that the practical and legal obstacles to a terror compensation scheme can be overcome. It is possible to give British victims of overseas terrorism the support that they deserve.
Of course, with a change of Government, the landscape often changes. After an election, families are forced to go back to square one with a new Government—one cannot complain about that, because that is what happens in a democracy. However, families have had to ask for an explanation of the new Government’s position on the statutory scheme and the ex gratia payments to survivors. They were told to wait first until after the comprehensive spending review and then until after the current review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme. As hon. Members will understand, that was a real blow to survivors and families when they felt that their battle had been won.
MPs of all parties have been pushing the Government on this issue. In a recent Adjournment debate initiated by Andrew Percy, the Minister signalled that the review of the CICS would be completed by the summer recess, and that is welcome news. However, that leaves many unanswered questions, which survivors would like the Minister to address, so let me put them to him. First, what aspects of the overseas terror compensation scheme will be covered by the review? Secondly, will the Government make a decision on the implementation of those clauses of the Crime and Security Act 2010 that relate to this issue? Thirdly, will they make a decision on ex gratia payments to existing terror victims in the course of their review? Fourthly, if they are unwilling to fund compensation, what work are they doing to persuade insurers to extend their coverage to include acts of terror? Finally, what contact have they had with British victims of recent terror attacks in Morocco, Israel and Russia, who would have been eligible for compensation had the previous Government’s legislation been acted on?
I hope that the Minister can throw some light on those and other issues. I know for a fact that the families of British victims of overseas terrorism will be delighted if the Government can push forward on this issue.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew George on securing the debate. He set out the tragic case of his constituent, Claire Oldfield-Hampson, which he has clearly pursued relentlessly over the past 10 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention, and possibly that of other Members, to a number of issues. For example, when the defendant attacks the victim’s character or reputation, the victim or their family should have the opportunity to defend it. Defendants should also be made fully aware of the fact that if they accede to a guilty plea, any claims they make against their victims will be open to full and proper scrutiny. My hon. Friend also made a number of points about who can control the estate. All of them are strong points, and I am sure that the Minister will give them detailed consideration when he responds. Incidentally, it is one of the strengths of this Chamber that Members have time to raise such issues in detail, given that the time to do so is often not available to us on the Floor of the House.
I welcome the steps that the Government have taken so far to support victims, such as their proposals to ensure that the victims fund is supported through deductions made from prisoners’ earnings while they are working in prison. At the beginning of this year, the Secretary of State also announced funding that organisations such as Victim Support could bid for, and that is very welcome.
I want to raise a couple of cases that are relevant in general terms. They involve victims of crime abroad, although not victims of terrorism, which was the issue raised by Gregg McClymont. I understand that this is the responsibility not of the Minister, but of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I hope that he will be able to respond, because the issues are pertinent to victims. There are also issues about whether UK victims of crime abroad could access victim support services here, so these things have a UK bearing.
I shall refer to two cases, which I have raised previously in this Chamber, most recently on 3 November 2010, when the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend Mr Browne, responded. The first involves Robbie Hughes, who is a British citizen. He was on holiday in Malia, in Crete, when he was allegedly attacked by a group of British tourists, and left severely brain-damaged as a result. The second involves Neil Juwaheer, the son of a constituent, who died in suspicious circumstances in a Brazilian police station. According to the autopsy carried out by the family, he had been bound with cable and had suffered serious injuries, including head injuries. The police allege that he had drugs on him, but the
evidence they say they had went missing and suspiciously turned up a number of months, if not years, later. The family have been trying to have DNA tests made on the package of alleged evidence, about which they are very suspicious, to see whether it was ever inside Neil Juwaheer, as the police allege, or whether the police in fact produced it subsequently because they thought they needed evidence to substantiate their allegations about what happened, which seemed to be in direct contrast to the family’s autopsy.
I know that at least one other Member is seeking to get into the debate, so I will make just two points. First, the Minister may not be aware that work is going on at European level on victim support systems. The European Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, is looking at new laws to require victim support systems in every EU country. This is the sort of thing Philip Davies might be inclined to intervene on, so before he does, let me just say—he might be surprised to hear this—that I do not support the initiative. I do not think the EU should set EU-wide laws on the victim support systems that should be required in every country. However, the EU may have a role in trying to ensure that other European partners learn from best practice here. As I understand it, victim support in the UK is indeed very good, compared with virtually anything else that is happening in Europe.
The Minister may want to take the issue up with the FCO to see what discussions have taken place on the initiative. It has been pushed by Maggie Hughes, the mother of Robbie, my constituent, and it has received a lot of interest around Europe, including in Germany, where it is likely to feature shortly in a television programme. As a result of Maggie’s work, the victims commissioner in this country has looked at the support that could be provided to UK victims of crime abroad, and the FCO website has certainly been improved as a result. I hope the Minister will want to pursue that matter with colleagues.
On the second case, undertakings were made in a previous debate in response to a number of queries that I raised. I asked about the information that can be provided to UK victims of crime abroad, the support that can be given to them and members of their family and the help that can be given to ensure that crimes are properly reported. One of the biggest problems for victims of crime abroad is getting the crime recorded in the first place. If the police abroad are not willing to register the crime, the FCO might need to ensure that it is properly registered. I also mentioned the need to tackle police corruption, as and when it is encountered, and the need for additional support for victims of crime who are seriously injured.
The Government are improving services for those who are killed, which I welcome, but they are not improving them for those who are seriously injured. In the Neil Juwaheer case, the Government could argue that he was, perhaps, a criminal and therefore not entitled to support; but, first, that has never been proven in the eyes of the family and they are pursuing the matter, and, secondly, even if it were true, the family need support, because there is no suggestion that they are involved in any criminal activity and they are UK citizens.
Those are the two points that I leave with the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives made some very strong points about support for victims of crime in the UK. Equally, we heard about victims of terrorism abroad, but the Government could be more proactive in supporting the large group of UK citizens who experience other crimes abroad.
Lee Scott (Ilford North, Conservative)
It is my intention to call the shadow Minister and the Minister to speak at approximately 3.40 pm.
Mike Weatherley (Hove, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I thank my hon. Friend Andrew George for securing this much-needed debate on the support available for victims of crime.
I want to raise two separate points. The first relates to victims of car theft. BBC “South Today” recently contacted me about a constituent of mine who had had his car stolen. When the police informed him that the vehicle had been recovered, he was obviously pleased, and he agreed to the police request to fingerprint the car in an attempt to find the perpetrator. When he had managed to recover his vehicle from the police, one can well imagine his surprise when he, as a victim of crime, was also presented with an £80 parking charge and a release fee of £150. That is not an isolated incident—it is Government policy and has been since 2005. Victims of crime are treated as if they had parked incorrectly or abandoned their vehicles, which have then been towed. In this case, Sussex police responded that it acts in accordance with the law. I am sure that hon. Members agree that such a policy merely adds insult to injury for the victims of crime and needs to be re-evaluated. I ask the Minister to review the guidelines urgently.
My second point is rather longer and relates to issues that have come to my attention in my capacity as chair of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on retail and business crime. I will focus on victims of crime in a business context, with particular reference to the small business sector, which is disproportionately targeted and for which less support is available. The APPG inaugural meeting on 29 March was attended not only by an impressive number of hon. Members, but by business representatives who sit on the National Business Crime Forum, whose members collectively represent hundreds of thousands of businesses across the UK, and by the press, including representatives from Crime Reduction Partnership News, Retail Newsagent and Retail Express.
At the meeting, we heard that the trade magazine Retail Newsagent carries weekly stories about shopkeepers who have been victims of crime, ranging from systematic shoplifting to assault, robbery and murder. Many of us remember the high profile murders last year of convenience retailers for little more than the cash in their tills, cigarettes and candy. Indeed, Retail Newsagent reported:
“It is now true that running a corner shop is statistically more dangerous than joining the police force when it comes to losing one’s life in the course of the working day”.
The Sentencing Council needs to recognise the vulnerability of shop workers to assaults by establishing clear guidance, which does not exist now, to protect retail workers. Retailers rightly feel that their cases are relegated to the realms of victimless crime by the justice system.
We heard from Crime Reduction Partnership News that crime and disorder reduction partnerships incur nominal costs to operate—it can cost £350 a year to gain the necessary professional indemnity and public liability insurance coverage for a village or town. In some cases, towns and villages find it hard to raise that sum, and Crime Reduction Partnership News reported that if the Government underwrote CDRPs, as they do neighbourhood watch, it would be a huge help. The challenge would normally be developing appropriate insurance models, but such models already exist for neighbourhood watch. The precedent in underwriting neighbourhood watch schemes can realistically be applied as the model for underwriting CDRPs. It would have a huge impact on levels of crime for a relatively negligible cost, so the Government should look into doing so.
The increasing devolution of power to local authorities carries its own problems. Issues exist with a lack of standardisation from one police authority to another in reporting crime. That has an impact on businesses that work nationally or across several local authorities, and the lack of a joined-up approach manifests itself in a difficulty in meaningfully tackling organised crime. When the Localism Bill is enacted, we will all have to be vigilant to ensure that the unintended consequence in our communities is not that victims see bureaucracy getting in the way of a collaborative approach to bringing organised criminals to justice.
Who is most at risk? A recent Federation of Small Businesses report shows that community-based, convenience retailers are significantly more vulnerable than any other category to high-value robberies, with 41% of the total sector losses, and almost double the value is stolen from them as is stolen from supermarkets. That is unsurprising considering that independent businesses are likely to be open at unsociable hours with fewer staff and fewer sophisticated security measures than supermarkets. A discussion needs to be had with police representatives across the country to build a strategy specifically to address the disparity in vulnerability to crime of large and small businesses and how that disparity can be combated.
One huge concern is the under-reporting of crime. Businesses often fail to report crimes as they feel an inadequate amount is done to justify taking the time to respond. Retailers report that crime is often lost in crime reporting figures and there is little practical recourse to bring criminals to justice.
It is not all bad news though, because there is some support available to victims of crime provided by both the private and the public sectors. In the case of the former, there are instances of industry providing solutions in the spirit of the big society, such as Facewatch. That initiative is designed to help victims of low-level crime and create an online partnership between premises, such as bars and shops, and the police. Using Facewatch, a victim can not only get an instant crime reference number from the premises, but can also call CPP card protection, which will arrange for the cancellation and reissue all of their cards for free, even if they are visitors to the UK, with just one call.
I referred to the reluctance of businesses that have been victims of crime to report it, and that is not just anecdotal. Victim Support, which does tremendous work supporting victims of crime on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, concedes that it has trouble connecting with
victims, and the way in which crime is recorded often lets victims fall through the support net. For example, if a shopkeeper lives above their shop and a crime is committed in the premises below, it is recorded as a business crime, whether or not the retailer has been assaulted, but the premises is also their home, and in any other circumstance the victim’s details would be passed to Victim Support to give the appropriate advice and assistance. That is but one concrete example that demonstrates that more needs to be done to bring police representatives, organisations such as Victim Support and business representatives together to discuss how police reporting can change for the better, so that existing resources can be adequately utilised.
Unfortunately, victims of crime have few statutory rights within the criminal justice system, and what rights they have are under threat. Victims of crime have the right to receive a basic level of service from each criminal justice agency under the code of practice for victims of crime. Everything victims are entitled to under the code is pretty basic—the sort of things that one would assume victims would receive automatically from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the code is under threat as part of a Ministry of Justice review of support for victims and witnesses. The Government have already removed the duty on local criminal justice boards to report on their compliance with the code, which means that no one is monitoring compliance with it or holding agencies to account where they fail to comply. There is a danger that the Government will downgrade the code or abolish it altogether, which would mean that victims of crime would have no statutory right to receive a decent level of service from the criminal justice system. Abolishing the code would be a serious retrograde step and would turn back the clock on victims’ rights.
The issue is not only about how we deal with crime and its victims, but about the perception of crime, which is paramount. It has a huge detrimental effect on the confidence of people who enter or remain in the independent business sector. Following the murders of Gurmail Singh and Jashbhai Patel in Huddersfield last year, a survey of retailers’ perceptions of crime by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents gathered some startling results: 51% of respondents stated that they expected crime to increase; a staggering 31% were unsure as to whether their business could even survive the next two to three years; and 57% thought that the police could do more to deter crime. However, the report demonstrated a high level of contact with neighbourhood policing units, which is a positive indication of the big society at work.
I draw attention to the work of Baroness Newlove, the Government’s champion for active safer communities, and her report, “Our vision for safe and active communities”. She says:
“The report calls for a change of culture on the part of communities, no longer seeing crime and ASB in their neighbourhoods as ‘someone else’s problem’; and on the side of services, going beyond simply asking communities what their problems are, to seeing them as equal partners in dealing with them.”
My hope for the newly formed all-party group is that it becomes the bridge that fosters the necessary dialogue that business is so desperately calling for. I welcome every colleague present to come along to our next meeting to discuss the experiences in their own constituencies.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington, Liberal Democrat)
There will be a statement later today about the national crime agency, which will have, among other things, a command that will look at economic crime. What expectations, if any, does the hon. Gentleman have of how that may be able assist the businesses that he is talking about?
Mike Weatherley (Hove, Conservative)
Businesses, as I have been explaining, have a real problem with crime, but the justice system does not seem to address that in the same way as it recognises individuals. I look forward to the statement and will review it with interest to see how it can assist.
I will close my remarks with three key questions to the Minister. First, what are the Government’s plans to re-evaluate the manifestly unjust policy whereby police treat victims of vehicle theft as if they had been irresponsible in abandoning their cars by charging them parking and release fees? Secondly, what measures do the Government propose to put in place to mitigate the impact of reduced provision of services to victims of crime, with particular reference to Victim Support’s recent appeal to the Department for transitional funding to oversee the period of restructuring to ensure that services are not drastically or adversely affected? Thirdly, will the Minister attend and perhaps address an upcoming meeting of the all-party group to discuss how the Government could support victims of crime in non-domestic cases, where support is even more lacking?
Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)
I begin with an apology to you, Mr Scott, and to the Minister and the shadow Minister, Robert Flello. I may not be able to stay until the very end of the debate, because I have to meet some constituents. I apologise for that discourtesy. I will keep my remarks brief, because some excellent points have been made. I commend Andrew George for securing this debate, which deserves as much time as possible, so that the Minister can address the points that have been made.
I want to focus on a few areas that may not have been brought out by the debate so far. One of the main areas that we should surely focus on is how we prevent people from being victims in the first place—how we prevent future victims of crime. Different things are important to victims: prevention from being one in the first place, and if someone is a victim of crime, they want the person responsible to be detected, punished properly for the crime that they have committed and not go on to commit further offences. I am worried that, on most, if not all those issues, the Government are in danger of heading in the wrong direction.
On preventing people from being the victims of crime, one of the things that I am most concerned about is what happens when people are released from prison before the end of their sentence. I might not be present to hear the Minister’s closing remarks, but I hope that he will be good enough to tell the Chamber how many people are victims of crimes committed by people let out early from prison before the end of the sentence that was actually handed down. We now know that people are, at the very most, released automatically halfway through their sentence and that some are even let out before that. It would be interesting for the public to know how many crimes are committed by people
who have been released from prison at a time when most people would consider that they should still be in prison serving the full sentence handed down by the court.
It is perfectly reasonable that the police cannot prevent crimes when people who are unknown to them commit them for the first time. It seems, however, that our criminal justice system is creating so many unnecessary victims of crime by releasing people early from their prison sentence, only to see them go on to commit further offences. If we want to stop people being victims of crime, we should focus on that first.
What about the things that people want when they are the victims of the crime? Presumably, the first thing they want is for their crime to be detected by the police. Two of the best tools that the police have for detecting crimes are CCTV and the DNA database. An enormous number of crimes are solved by using CCTV footage, technology and the DNA database.
We have also heard recently that the Government are concerned about preventing victims from having to go through the trauma of giving evidence in court. That was supposedly the genesis of the idea to give people a 50% discount on their sentence if they pleaded guilty early. I say to the Minister that I do not believe that the reason for giving a 50% discount to people who plead guilty early had anything to do with trying to prevent victims from having to give evidence in court. It was simply a way of having fewer people sent to prison or fewer people in prison at any one time. That was the motivation. The view that it was a benefit to victims was a positive bit of spin to put on it.
If we want to prevent victims of crime from having to go through the trauma of giving evidence in court, one would have thought that the Government would be anxious to use the benefits of CCTV and DNA. CCTV gives an unbiased account of what happened for a court to see, devoid of anybody’s spin, recollection bias or mistake. Often, when CCTV is viewed by defendants and their solicitors, it leads to a change of plea from not guilty to guilty. That certainly happens when defendants were drunk or on drugs at the time of committing a crime. It not only saves courts time and money, but prevents witnesses from having to go through the trauma and stress of giving evidence in court. The Government, however, appear to be trying to make it as difficult as possible for the police to use CCTV. They are trying to introduce extra regulation for the use of CCTV. If the victim is our top priority, surely the Government will rethink that and make it easier for the police to use CCTV evidence.
CCTV actually prevented Richard Whelan’s girlfriend from having to testify against his murderer, Anthony Joseph, who brutally stabbed Richard on a bus while he was attempting to defend his girlfriend. The attack was caught on camera and Joseph was jailed.
DNA is also one of the main ways in which the police can find the perpetrator of a crime, yet the Government are hellbent on taking people off the DNA database, and that will presumably make it harder for crimes to be detected. In fact, there have been 150,000 cases in which a DNA sample has been taken from the crime scene but there has been no match on the DNA database. Obviously, if everybody was on a DNA database, all those crimes
would be solved at a stroke. Will the Minister explain why the Government are going out of their way to try to make it as difficult as possible for the police to use such technology to find the perpetrators of crime in the first place? I am sure that victims of crime do not understand it, and neither do I.
What I want to know most of all is why so many repeat offenders are not sent to prison, because that is the one thing that creates more and more victims of crime. Last year, 3,000 burglars and 4,500 violent offenders with 15 or more previous convictions were not sent to prison. If somebody goes before a court with more than 100 previous convictions behind them, they are still likely not to be sent to prison. Those are the things that really irritate the victims of crime.
My final point is about the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. I think that the hon. Member for St Ives touched on the issue—he certainly implied it—of the CPS undercharging people by charging them for a lesser offence that they did not commit, rather than prosecuting them for the more serious crime that they did commit. That is one thing that particularly infuriates victims.
The calibre of the CPS is also an issue, and I will end with a tale of what I think is the most depressing day that I have ever spent, sitting in Bingley magistrates court watching the day’s proceedings. I saw CPS lawyers reading cases for the first time—they clearly had not read them beforehand—while the defence solicitor was briefed up to the nines. On one occasion, the CPS lawyer did not have the file in front of him and prosecuted the case from the file handed over to him by the defence solicitor. This is British justice in 2011. We should be ashamed of ourselves. If the victim of that crime had turned up, they would have been horrified to see what was going on. The Government really need to get a grip and put the victim—not the criminal, as happens now—at the heart of the justice system.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in this Chamber, Mr Scott. I congratulate Andrew George on securing today’s debate on an extremely important issue that has troubled him for more than a decade. Even though it is some 15 years since Claire was murdered, I should like to take the opportunity to express my condolences to her family for the ongoing pain that I am sure still results from her death.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of very good points. Certainly, his concern is not lost that, in circumstances such as those that he described, rather than the scales of justice being blind, they are weighted against the deceased. Indeed, how can it be correct that a murderer remains in all circumstances the next of kin? I find it incredible and horrifying that, where a prima facie case exists, those rights are still in existence and are not suspended. The point made that the criminal justice boards no longer need to file certain reports is also very worrying.
The relevance of today’s debate is heightened even more in the light of the Government’s review into the criminal injuries compensation scheme and the role of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. In the time available, I should like to bring to the discussion
the issue of financial support for the victims of crime and the wide-ranging financial consequences that a crime can have on victims and victims’ families.
The impact of crime affects each person differently and can have various wide-ranging emotional, physical and financial implications. As we have heard, organisations such as Victim Support play a fantastic role in providing victims and witnesses of crime with both practical support and varying forms of emotional support. The valuable support and advice that Victim Support and others provide victims with should not be understated. Victim Support contacts more than 1.5 million victims of crime each year, but it and other voluntary organisations cannot provide the financial support and compensation required to help victims recover from the financial impact that crime can have on them and their families. The effects of crime can take many forms and, as I said, crime impacts on each individual differently. Victims can become isolated and suffer from anxiety, depression and amnesia. They are scarred and can become scared or reluctant to leave the house.
Victims of crime can also find it difficult to take pleasure in activities and social events that they previously enjoyed. That can have a damaging effect on a person’s family and social life and can therefore have a harmful effect on their relationships with family and friends. Many victims of crime develop anxiety or depression, which can lead to dependency on alcohol, tobacco or even precipitate drug use. Although crime rates have fallen significantly in recent years, one in five people are still likely to be a victim of a form of crime. Of course, for those people who are victims, the overall decrease in crime does not make their own experience as a victim any less traumatic. Given the wide-ranging emotional and physical impact that crime can have, it is imperative that financial support is provided to cover its direct financial impact—for example, as we have heard, the costs of counselling and other remedies such as emotional support therapy and health costs for any rehabilitation.
The commissioner for victims and witnesses, Louise Casey, recently revealed ahead of the publication of her policy review that families bereaved through murder, manslaughter or culpable road death face costs of an average of around £37,000. That includes costs for trials, legal fees, court proceedings, counselling and loss of earnings. Figures from a specific survey of 36 bereaved families show that legal costs range from between £280 and £150,000, with the majority of families meeting the costs themselves and only one family receiving legal aid. The survey found that the total estimated costs incurred for the 36 families were £1.3 million, which rises to a higher figure if loss of earnings is included. The annual figure of costs incurred is around £37,000 or, indeed, £113,000 if loss of earnings is included. Counselling costs for those surveyed averaged around £2,500, and 35 out of 36 of the families surveyed experienced loss of earnings.
The majority of victims of crime were unable to work, in some cases because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some people lost their jobs; some had to leave work; and some got unpaid leave from their employer. Bereaved families also have the costs of child care to think about when a parent or guardian is murdered. One example of how a bereaved family can suffer a loss of earnings is provided by the situation of Barry Mizen, whose son Jimmy was tragically attacked and killed in a
horrific attack in London, with which all hon. Members will be familiar. Barry Mizen was a self-employed shop owner. He had to shut his shop in the wake of his son’s murder and therefore had no money coming in for a substantial period.
Freedom of information requests made by the Daily Mirror show that the average amount of compensation received by the families of the 12 people shot by Derrick Bird, the gunman who murdered 12 people in Cumbria, was around £12,250. The figures highlighting the costs incurred by victims and victims’ families put into context the financial compensation awarded and shows how it would be, to say the very least, regrettable—indeed, it would be a severe blow to victims—if the Secretary of State for Justice approves cutting the Government’s payment awarded to victims and victims’ families, as is feared will happen. That would be highly regrettable and, as we have heard, says much about the Government’s attitude towards the victims of crime, particularly when they have still not implemented the compensation scheme proposed in the Crime and Security Act 2010, which had cross-party support.
As my hon. Friend Gregg McClymont said, although British victims of terrorist attacks in the UK are eligible for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, that does not extend to the victims of overseas terror. Hon. Members will also be aware that travel insurers in the vast majority of cases do not pay out to victims of overseas terror attacks. The victims of overseas terrorist attacks are all still to be compensated by the Government—for example, Will Pike who was paralysed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, the victims of the Bali bombings and the victims of the 2005 Sharm el Sheikh bombings.
It cannot be right that, when the rights of prisoners and criminals appear to be enhanced all the time and the Lord Chancellor constantly has to defend his position, British victims of terrorist atrocities overseas are still waiting for compensation promised to them by the Government. If a terrorist attack should happen somewhere in the world tomorrow—heaven forbid—UK citizens and their families would be ineligible to receive Government compensation. The Government must re-evaluate how they treat victims of crime both here and abroad. If they cut the financial support offered to the victims of crime and do not compensate the victims of terrorist attacks abroad, it will have a devastating effect on the well-being of both victims and victims’ families, as well as sending the message that helping the victims of crime is not viewed as important by the Government.
I should like to take a moment to comment on a few of the speeches that have been made so far today. Hon. Members from all parties have made very good contributions. In the few moments remaining, I shall mention the speech of Philip Davies. I find it extremely worrying when I agree with much of what he says. I am not sure whether I find it more worrying than he does—I suspect he finds it more worrying than I do. The use of closed circuit television and the DNA database is extremely important. When we were in government, we were great advocates of those systems, and it is surprising that the Government do not seem to be continuing with that. On the 50% discounted sentence, perhaps sometimes through gritted
teeth the 33% discount is there, but the push to make it 50% seems very strange indeed. Victims will see an extremely worrying trend.
Overall, the Government must finally put the victims of crime at the heart of their justice policy. They cannot prevaricate any longer; they must take action to do so. The rights and well-being of victims and victims’ families should always come before those of the criminal. Sadly, that is something we are not seeing and have not seen for a while.
Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew George on securing this timely debate about the wider topic of support for the victims of crime and the narrow case he raised. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and for a decade he has worked on their behalf on the case he mentioned. We should respect the determination with which he represents his constituents.
I begin by making it absolutely clear that the Government are committed to placing victims and their families at the front and centre of the criminal justice system. I view my remit as the Minister responsible for victims and for the wider issue of offender management through the prism of victims. Let us consider the system changes we are trying to deliver around, for example, work in prisons. What are they for? They are to generate the resources for offenders to compensate their victims and to create more resources to assist the victims of crime. One proposal in the Green Paper is to make it a duty for sentencers to consider a compensation order as the first point of departure in their sentencing. Hon. Members will have to wait until we formally respond to the consultation and introduce the legislation, but I do not see anyone demurring from strengthening that duty. That is the direction of policy—to ensure that victims are our consideration.
The future victims of crime, as my hon. Friend Philip Davies made clear, are absolutely at the centre of concern. That is why we are advocating a rehabilitation revolution and a complete step change in how offenders are dealt with and managed by our system. If we fail to effectively rehabilitate them while they are in our system, they will go out and reoffend again, and we have to address the dreadful reoffending rates. I suspect that he and I are in the same place on that. The Government face the constraint, of course, of the legacy of the financial position we received from our predecessors.
We are committed to ensuring that criminal justice agencies work to help families through the process of the investigation and trial, and afterwards. We are committed to providing families with a voice in the criminal justice system. We are committed to providing them with the support and the help that they need to deal with the consequences of crime. It is deeply unfortunate that the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives was mishandled. I understand the pain that such a traumatic experience can cause for bereaved families, but I accept that as much as I might understand the pain, it is beyond the power of any Government or
Minister to repair that trauma. All Governments, however, will want to do their reasonable best to continue to improve the service to victims.
Support to victims and their families has improved dramatically since the case described by my hon. Friend. He referred to the work of Joanne Bryce, which, over a prolonged period, has contributed significantly to that improvement. Many of the things that she identified in association with the case have led to direct improvements, which I will cover if I have time. Constantly improving the system will continue.
During the debate, my hon. Friends made some suggestions that I will want to look at. My hon. Friend Tracey Crouch suggested that there should be a positive duty to explain the absence of a victim impact statement to the parole board hearing. I undertake to look at that extremely good suggestion.
My hon. Friend Mike Weatherley drew attention to an anomaly concerning retailers who live above their premises, the recording of crime and the sort of support triggered by victim support in cases of assault. We will constantly look at such suggestions, with the objective of improving the system.
I want to be clear to the Chamber that the law is on the side of the victim and the victim’s family. In the case of homicide, there are safeguards against the offender benefiting from the crime. Under the rules of forfeiture, any person found guilty of murder is automatically disqualified from inheriting property from their victim. In the case of manslaughter, they are disqualified unless a specific court order is granted in their favour. The bereaved family can make an application to the court to ensure that the killer is not responsible for the administration of the victim’s estate, under section 116 of the Senior Courts Act 1981. I understand fully that people who have just suffered such a tragic loss are likely to find the process confusing or complicated. That is one reason why the improvements in support are so important, and why, since October 2009, the Ministry of Justice has supported an advice helpline to provide legal advice to relatives who have been bereaved by homicide, and advice on associated personal and social issues.
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
That is an encouraging reply. Will the Minister clarify whether those rights were in place at the time of the trial that I referred to today? If so, do victims now get a level of support and advice, through those procedures, to ensure that their rights can be enforced and that the perpetrators of homicide are not entitled to determine the outcome of the estate of victims, as happened in the case I raised today?
Crispin Blunt (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Prisons and Probation), Justice; Reigate, Conservative)
That is the case. The right to apply to the court is in the Senior Courts Act 1981, so the right was in place. As my hon. Friend pointed out, however, the family were in ignorance of it. In the spirit of constantly trying to improve the service we provide victims, there is now an advice line for bereaved people in such situations to draw their attention to their rights under the law.
Since the mid-1990s, there has been a great deal of work to improve the experience of victims and their families in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice agencies are more victim-focused and more readily able to take account of victims’ wishes and needs at every stage of the justice process. The courage of victims in
coming forward to report crime and giving evidence is central to a strong, fair criminal justice system. Coming forward can sometimes be daunting for victims, especially those who are vulnerable or intimidated. It is therefore right that there are protections for victims in the system and that there are services to which they are entitled and safeguards against further victimisation. We are not complacent, however. There is more work to do and I am currently reviewing the support that victims are given at each stage of the process—investigation, prosecution, trial and beyond.
In 2006, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service worked together to introduce witness care units in every police force area in England and Wales. Witness care units are dedicated teams that keep victims and witnesses updated and informed about developments in a case from a suspect being arrested to an offender being sentenced. They provide victims with vital information on bail conditions, court dates and outcomes. In the same year, the code of practice for victims of crime was introduced. It sets out the services that criminal justice agencies must deliver for victims of crime. It specifies how victims should be kept updated, how often the police and other agencies should contact them, and ensures that the criminal justice system as a whole recognises the central role of victims in the delivery of justice.
I am conscious, Mr Scott, that I will not be able to do justice to the debate in the time that I have available. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me.
Other individual agencies have their own initiatives to help to ensure that victims are kept informed and engaged and, above all, kept safe. The police provide bereaved families with specialist support and a single point of contact through nominating a family liaison officer—a specially trained police officer who will explain the criminal justice process to the family, and act as their first point of reference for any questions. I should point out that in 2008-09, the last year for which we have figures, victim satisfaction with the police was 83%.
The CPS has introduced the victim focus scheme for bereaved relatives. Under the scheme, the prosecutor will write to the bereaved family through the family liaison officer, and offer to meet them to explain the role of the CPS, the court process, the charges faced by the defendant and the role of the victim personal statement. If I have time, I will say more about victim personal statements in a moment.
Under the victim focus scheme, prosecutors will meet bereaved families again if a defendant is convicted, in order to answer further questions. Meeting relatives when there has been an acquittal, which can be equally traumatic, is also being piloted.
The National Offender Management Service operates the victim contact scheme. Victims are eligible when an offender is sentenced to 12 months or more in custody for a violent or sexual crime. The scheme makes sure that victims of serious crime are kept informed if there are developments or changes in the offender’s sentence, and that they have an opportunity to submit evidence to parole board hearings and request licence conditions.
Throughout the criminal justice process, there is support for victims that did not exist in the 1990s. Criminal justice agencies have embedded consideration for the welfare of victims in their ways of working and in their internal procedures. A good example of how that works across the full range of victim contact with the system is the victim personal statement, which was introduced in 2001. It is the determination of this Administration to ensure that the victim personal statement will count for more than it does now. Governments of either colour will want to continue to improve support to victims of crime.
I am conscious, Mr Scott, that I have not been able to respond as fully as I would like, but there is much more to come from this Administration regarding support for victims of crime, making sure that offenders are the ones who will be held accountable; the burden of dealing with victims of crime will fall more on them. Victims will be receiving appropriate support from the state as well.