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Mike Wood: Crime is significantly lower than it was in the mid-1990s, but there has been a change in the pattern and the nature of it. The increases in crime have been in what many people would regard as the more serious types of crime, particularly violent crimes. Much of our criminal justice system is understandably and rightly focused on the perpetrators of crime: on how we can prevent people from being drawn into a life of crime by tackling some of the root causes that make them more susceptible to it, or, on the penal side of the criminal justice system, in dealing with sentencing, public protection and making sure that those people cannot cause serious damage. We need to make sure that that is not done at the expense of neglecting those who suffer most directly from such crimes: the direct victims of crime.
Many of the changes in the pattern and nature of crime in our communities have consequences for the experience of victims. We need to ensure that how the Government and society treat and support our victims through the process changes to reflect their own changing experiences. In my constituency, over the past year we have seen over 1,500 violent crimes recorded. Worryingly, that is a massive 30% increase on the previous year. Each of those violent crimes clearly has a direct victim, many of whom will need support. All will need consideration of how the criminal justice system proceeds in dealing with the compilation of evidence, prosecution, and, where appropriate, conviction and punishment of those responsible for those crimes.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, huge progress has been made in recent years. When I was studying law in the mid-1990s, victims were, if anything, an afterthought in the whole system. When I was training for the Bar, the way that barristers and legal representatives were to approach victims was not even covered in the vocational training. The whole system seemed to assume that victims were little more than onlookers, with no more stake in proceedings than any other member of society.
I certainly welcome the enormous progress that has been made, particularly over the past 12 years, starting with the introduction of the victims code. It is right that we pay tribute to the work done by previous Governments to introduce the Victims’ Commissioner, who has done some extremely important work to ensure that victims’ interests are considered within Government and more widely. More recently, police and crime commissioners up and down the country have put the rights and interests of victims at the heart of their work, ensuring that they are a priority in local policing. The best PCCs ensure that is a key part of their focus, beyond what most people probably associate with their core work.
Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, but I am also concerned that the number of victims applying to civil courts to try to get non-molestation orders against abusive partners or ex-partners seems to be on the increase. I hope that we will be taking action to try to stop that, because sometimes it costs people up to £10,000 to get an ex-partner off their back.
Mike Wood: I am sure that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point, which I agree with. Of course, some of the legislation going through the House is relevant to that point, whether the legislation relating to the Government’s domestic violence strategy or private Members’ Bills, such as the Stalking Protection Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston. They will allow the criminal justice system to ensure that perpetrators are stopped before their crimes, which are directly largely at women but also at men, escalate to something more serious.
Although much progress has been made in recent years—and we all recognise that the £200 million being spent on supporting victims is a considerable amount of money—I am sure that we all have examples from our constituencies of victims being let down by the system. One of the most upsetting cases that I have dealt with recently involved a young woman in my constituency. The charges for the crimes that she was the victim of covered a range of serious offences, including sexual offences and false imprisonment. Her statement included evidence of very coercive behaviour, domestic violence and assault. Yet her experience of our criminal justice system was simply not good enough.
After an arrest was made, the communication from the police was certainly not good enough, but it got worse as the cases progressed. At the initial bail hearing there was little or no communication from the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. The family understand that the CPS did not contest the bail hearing, despite the very serious offences involved, but they still do not understand how or why that decision was made. The suspect was released on bail and continued to live in the local area. Although bail conditions were of course imposed, the police offered no reassurances on how the victim could be protected pending trial.
The accused was re-arrested after an incident and an application was made to vary the bail conditions, but that hearing was missed because, as far as we can ascertain, they were taken to the wrong court on the day of the hearing after a weekend in a police cell. Having missed the hearing, the accused was re-released on the existing bail conditions. We can only imagine how that affected the victim and her family. It is simply not good enough.
Perhaps more worryingly, the victim and her family have constantly been told that it would be better if she did not have any counselling, therapy or help to deal with these traumatic experiences until the trail concluded, in case it influenced the evidence. A victim may have to wait 15 or 18 months before the case comes to trial, and all that time without proper support is extremely damaging. Even with the best psychiatric support, therapy and counselling, and any other services that the state, the third sector or anyone else can offer, it is difficult to see how that damage could be repaired at a later stage.
Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point about the suggestion that victims should not have counselling before going to court. I have heard about that a lot recently, from both the police and the CPS. Is that something the Minister could look into, because there are appropriate types of counselling that would not disrupt people’s recollection, and they are being denied that support?
Mike Wood: I hope that can be considered. Clearly nobody wants to endanger a fair trial, or to give another reason to cast doubt on credible evidence. The circumstances of a lot of domestic violence and serious sexual offences mean that the evidence available is often not as concrete as it might be for other types of crime. We really do need to ensure that victims receive both the service they deserve and the support they so desperately need. This strategy is an important first step in making sure that is the case. I have referred to only one example from my constituency, although it is a particularly distressing one, but I am sure that there are very few Members, if any, who have not encountered something similar in their own constituency casework.
I welcome the strategy that the Minister introduced today, and particularly the plans for a victims Bill. It is so important that we look to place on a statutory footing the strengthening of those rights already provided in the code and of the powers that the Victims’ Commissioner has to ensure that victims’ rights are protected within Government and outside, to ensure that victims and their families have access to information—the right to be informed—and the right to be properly involved. Clearly, this does need to be done on a cross-Government basis, as it does not all fall within a single Department.
The crime survey of England and Wales suggests that one fifth of adults will be the victims of crime this year in some form. The strategy is an important step in making sure that those victims who have already suffered from crime are not made to suffer again through the process that follows that crime.