This has been a terrible week for the Government’s violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy.
On Sunday we heard that less than a third of prosecutions for rape against young men result in convictions. On Monday, we discovered the senior figures in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have advised prosecutors to take weak cases out of the system to improve conviction rates. On Tuesday, it was the turn of HM Inspectorate of Probation to inform us that, in seven out of 10 cases, there is inadequate protections for victims and their children when perpetrators return to the community.
And on Thursday, the CPS published its annual VAWG report which contains a number of damaging statistics for the Government. While VAWG referrals to the CPS from the police was down by only 0.7% on last year, the number of suspects charged fell by 3.1%, and the number of prosecutions was lower by 5.9%. In previous years, the CPS has been proud of its increasing prosecutions. What has changed?
There’s even more bad news in the report. For rape-flagged cases, there was a 23.1% drop in the number of suspects charged. This is a jaw-dropping decrease and sends worrying signals to any potential victims or survivor thinking of coming forward to report a crime.
Do not mistakenly think there has been a decrease in the number of rapes. Instead, in the wake of #MeToo, more people are coming forward than ever. Police recorded rape is up by 15% on the previous year and Rape Crisis figures show a 17% annual increase in individuals trying to access their service.
The root cause of the drop in charges and prosecutions surely lies in the chronic underfunding of police, justice and support services. The capacity of these services has been radically reduced through years of austerity and it is victims who have paid the price. Police are overstretched across the country. The number of police officers is now at its lowest since records began. According to BBC, police funding fell 20% in real terms between 2010 and 2017. With resources so tight, it becomes harder to find and collate the necessary evidence required to bring a prosecution through the CPS.
This VAWG report showed a dramatic increase in the number of pre-charge decisions being ‘administratively finalised’ up from 4.6% to 8.1%. ‘Administrative finalisation’ occurs when a suspect fails to answer bail and a warrant for them is outstanding, or, the police have asked the CPS for advice but did not submit a full file for a charging decision. There could be a number of reasons that this is occurring. Changes to the law on bail have caused concern, and the CPS acknowledges in its report that these changes may be linked to the overall fall in prosecutions of VAWG cases. Another reason might be the resourcing issues for police in bringing together the required evidence to meet charging criteria. Taken together with the news from earlier this week that senior CPS staff have cautioned prosecutors against taking on ‘weak’ cases, the Government need to clarify whether there has been a shift in policy to focus resources on ‘winnable’ cases.
Sadly, victims’ experience of the justice system is often poor. Some Police forces are now insisting on access to victims’ personal data including health and counselling notes and full access to their electronic devices. However, in some areas, no such data is required. Vera Baird, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, aptly summed up the unfairness of the move, “There’s no excuse for a trawl through everything in their life for something the defence can throw at the victim in court to dent their confidence or question their reputation. A criminal case is about what happened not whether the complainant qualifies for sainthood.”
This week we’ve experienced a steady flow of bad news about the failures of multiple departments to prevent and prosecute violence against women and girls. This is emblematic of the shortfall in support for victims, who so often fall between the gaps of different Government bodies.
The Government’s proposed Victims Strategy is a step in the right direction, but if it’s good intentions are to become anything other than words on a page, it must place support for victims on a statutory footing.
It is my view, given their responsibility for commissioning victims’ services, Police and Crime Commissioners are best placed to coordinate local services. This should include details of the services they are commissioning, and the contributions of other key partners like local authorities, health and the third sector. Such an approach would force cooperation and encourage transparency, requiring the local partners to use their funding and expertise to plug existing gaps in provision. The Government appointed Victims Commissioner should be mandated to hold PCCs and partner agencies to account for the quality of their ‘Victims Offer’.
These statistics should be a wake up call to us all. Too many victims see their cases fall down before they even reach court. Too many victims experience an intrusive, abrasive justice system. Too many victims do not get the support they need to become survivors. Now is the time for change.