THE BLOG

Victims of Crime Need Real Action Not Lip Service

15/09/2014 16:27 BST | Updated 15/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Many of us couldn't imagine being the victim of a serious sexual assault. But say you were. Think how you may feel. What then, if the police and local authority ignored you when you come forward, didn't take you seriously, and treated you as if you had done something wrong.

What about if you were the victim of a violent crime? Did the right thing and cooperated with the trial which led to the offender being found guilty and going to prison. Imagine you're in a supermarket and you bump into that same person who was sent to jail for attacking you. But you didn't know they'd been let out.

This is happening up and down the country, day after day. Innocent victims and witnesses are being treated by our justice system as an afterthought at best or often ignored altogether. From Rotherham to Rochdale, from the way Millie Dowler's father was treated at the trial of her killer, to the way bereaved families are treated at Parole Board hearings, as happened recently to the McGinty family. Time and again we are hearing the same old stories.

And this is eroding the public's confidence in our justice system. Why come forward and report crimes if you're going to be batted away, or treated like a criminal yourself? Just last year, in the Oxford abuse trial, one of the girls giving evidence said her courtroom experience was as traumatic as the crime itself, while others said they'd think twice about coming forward to report crimes in the future. This would be a disaster for victims, and cripple our attempts to keep our communities safe. Without victims and witnesses coming forward the wheels of justice would soon grind to a halt.

That's why back in 2011 I announced a victims' law and last year launched a Victims' Taskforce to come forward with proposals for what should be in such a law. Legally enshrined rights for victims and witnesses will place duties on courts, police, prosecution services, probation and prisons and deliver the step change we need.

And it's not just Labour who thinks the time has come for a victims' law. Back in 2011, the previous Victims' Commissioner, Louise Casey, called for a victims' law. She said "the system currently fobs victims off with charters, codes, and nowhere to complain when things go wrong".

The Taskforce members - former Director of Public Prosecution Sir Keir Starmer, former Chief Constable Peter Neyroud and Baroness Doreen Lawrence - are all leading figures in and around our justice system. They've run an extensive consultation exercise and have organised discussions up and down the country with victims and victims groups as they pull together their recommendations.

Time and again over the last four years we've pressed the Government to support our plans for a victims' law. Repeatedly they've refused to do so, going so far as to attack our plans. Just last week in the House of Commons chamber ministers were given the opportunity to back a victims' law - an opportunity they didn't take. Back in July Chris Grayling even attacked Labour's victims' law, saying "the opposition always talks about laws".

So this weekend's sudden conversion by the Government to the need for new 'laws' - a victims' law - is a little surprising. After all, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Of course if the Government are sincere about their new found passion for victims, it is to be welcomed, but it is little wonder many are cynical. Particularly as when one digs beneath the headlines, what they're actually proposing falls far short of the kind of wholesale cultural change our criminal justice system so desperately needs.

In fact it smacks of a hastily cobbled together package of existing policies and minor changes to the law. There's been no consultation with stakeholders. Few of the active campaigners in this area I have spoken with knew anything about it, and hadn't been party to any planning or discussions with ministers. They are somewhat cynical about why this, and why now. Are the Tories serious about this or is this just another attempt to close down a potential dividing line?

Victims and witnesses have cause to be wary This Government's record is shameful in this area. Remember when they wanted to cut jail terms by half for those pleading guilty early? Recall how they slashed compensation for thousands of innocent victims of serious and violent crimes? And when they left the crucial Victims Commissioner post vacant for over a year? Or the current Justice Secretary's and his predecessors grotesquely offensive remarks on rape? And let's not forget how they want to abolish the Human Rights Act and walk away from the European Court of Human Rights - both of which have done so much to improve the way victims are treated.

So excuse me if I'm a little cynical about this reversal of the Government's position eight months out from a General Election. After all, the Government's record over the last four years doesn't fill me with confidence. Only Labour's in depth, expert informed Taskforce will come forward with the proposals which will transform the culture in our police, courts, prosecution service, prisons and probation. And only the next Labour Government will deliver a justice system that places victims at its heart.