The Tory government is breaking one if its key manifesto pledges and is completely failing to increase support for victims of crime. Parliament is currently deliberating the Policing and Crime Bill. Colleagues in both the Lords and the Commons have put forward a series of amendments which would increase the rights of victims and make the public sector more responsive to their needs. The government rejected them all.
This stands in sharp contrast to the warm words of the Tory Party Manifesto of 2015. The manifesto said that the Tories would stand up for victims. It stated, "We have already introduced a new Victims' Code and taken steps to protect vulnerable witnesses and victims. Now we will strengthen victims' rights further, with a new Victims' Law that will enshrine key rights for victims".
None of this has happened. This is despite the fact that in this parliament one Act has already been passed into law and there are two bills before parliament dealing with issues related to crime and policing. There has also been a plethora of statutory instruments. Worse, it seems clear that ministers have no plans to introduce new legislation relating to victims' rights, not even in outline.
One of the key aims of any civilised system of justice must be the thoughtful and humane treatment of victims of crime. Unfortunately, this is very far from the operation of the justice system that many victims experience. This can range from the unreasonable inconvenience of multiple delays or postponements of hearing through to the truly traumatic.
Campaigners such as Voice4Victims have catalogued appalling abuses, where the victims sometime feel as if the impact on them of the judicial process or police investigation was worse than the crime itself. Victims are being cross-examined by their tormentors, or not informed of hearings in a timely way, their names and addresses disclosed, personal effects of loved ones are withheld even when they are used as evidence, and the feeling that they are being treated as the criminal is widespread.
Austerity policies have had a series of negative effects. Legal aid has been cut, tribunal fees imposed and cuts to funding of the court system itself mean that the postponements of cases can seem interminable. About two-thirds of all Crown Court trials are delayed or do not go ahead at all. Where they do, only just over half of witnesses say they would be prepared to do so again. Of course, cuts to police numbers themselves mean that individual officers have less time to deal with cases in total, and the thoughtful treatment of victims can just fall away. The Crown Prosecution Service, the court officials and the police are all subject to government cuts and there is an in-built tendency to shift blame to each other.
The government has rejected a series of entirely reasonable amendments which would have made some progress in bolstering victims' rights and how they are treated within the justice system. But they still have a duty to protect victims and to honour their manifesto commitment. These rights should include the right to information at every stage in the process and in a timely way, without unnecessary delay, early involvement in the judicial process, non-disclosure of personal details, the right to challenge prosecuting or legal decisions and the right to equality of treatment, free from discrimination.
The ball is now in the government's court. We in Labour will work with anyone who aims to increase victims' rights. These are fundamental rights and deserve the widest possible support across all parties.
Diane Abbott is the Shadow Home Secretary and Labour MP for Hackney NorthSuggest a correction