Victims of crime deserve more than a code

I hold many memories from the day I was elected to parliament, but I often reflect on a conversation I had in the midst of polling day. I met a woman who had endured the horrific pain of losing her sister - who had been raped and brutally murdered. I remember listening to her describe the profound impact it had on her family and, in her words, the "fog of despair" that engulfed her upon first hearing the tragic news.

That one conversation had a profound impact upon me. During every stage of the criminal justice process, from the crime being committed, to the offender being released, there is a victim that must be considered? The effects can be long lasting, physical and emotional. As the new Shadow Victims Minister, I am clear that our Criminal Justice System must revolve around the victim and place at its heart the needs and recovery of those who have suffered.

And I'm passionate about this, because I realise just how important it is that we do all we can to maintain and enhance the confidence of victims and witnesses in our criminal justice system. The day we lose that confidence is a dangerous and sad day. Victims need confidence that their views are integral to the process; that they'll be treated with dignity and respect.

Today the government published a Code of Practice for victims of crime. The main element of this is centred around victim impact statements, which were originally introduced by Labour to convey the pain and anguish felt by the victim in the courtroom. They do make a difference; but only when they are actually taken, and read in the courtroom. By introducing a code, rather than a law as Labour propose, this Tory-led government is demonstrating just how out of touch they are with the reality of the criminal justice system, and the needs of victims.

To make real change in this area, the government should ensure that the right to make a victim impact statement is enforceable and that there is someone to oversee the process. Without statutory underpinning, the only message this latest announcement sends to victims is: this government is not on your side.

The issue of rights for victims is one where there is clear blue water between Labour and the government. Despite advice from the previous victims' commissioner, Chris Grayling won't legislate for a victims' law. We are crystal clear that a future Labour government will legislate - legal rights for victims, helping to change behaviour and culture across the whole of our criminal justice system to create a system that is properly focused on the victim. Our message to victims is similarly loud and clear: we are on your side.

The reality is that this has been one of the most victim-unfriendly governments in recent times: a toothless code instead of a law which makes real change, insensitive comments by the current and previous justice secretaries on the issue of rape, leaving the victims commissioner role vacant for over a year, and downgrading it to just two days a week.

And we should also be concerned about the government's intended privatisation of the victim support service. The opening up to the market and the lack of clarity regarding the way in which this will work means that the government run a risk of fragmenting the service, leaving behind a postcode lottery for victims. And today, the publication of a victims code that is weak, unenforceable and of no more value than the paper it is written on.

Labour's victims law would seek to include measures such as a right to be kept informed by the police and prosecution services as a prosecution proceeds. A right to be informed in advance if a perpetrator is to be released from custody. We would look to introduce legal entitlements for victims, including: the production of a victim impact statement, a right to be treated decently in the court room with an explanation of court proceedings in advance of cases - pretty basic stuff in the 21st Century. We would also look at the right to sentencing remarks in writing, access to restorative justice - not instead of 'punishment' for those found guilty, but in addition to punishment.

We will also introduce improved training for judges and magistrates - so they understand the needs of victims and witnesses in the court room, particularly in the heat of cross-examination and giving evidence.

Furthermore we would ensure that the victims and witnesses commissioner would be full time and reported annually to parliament on the government's performance. None of this is rocket science. Many people probably think these rights already exist. They don't. Chris Grayling doesn't believe in them. We do.

So at a time when 42% of victims feel they are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system we should be doing all we can to protect people from becoming victims of crime. Tough on crime - yes, tough on the causes of crime - yes, also. It means reducing the number of victims, and it also means treating those who have suffered with the dignity and respect they deserve. For those people - and for their families - we need to move to a place where the criminal justice system doesn't confound their experiences but actively seeks to address them in a way that is fair, timely and in line with what could reasonably be expected in a modern democratic system.

I'm still in contact with the woman I met on polling day - and she is doing fine, but her life has been scarred by the crime that was perpetrated on her family. We owe it to her and to all the victims of crime and their families - to do better to ensure that victims and witnesses are absolutely central to the criminal justice system. So we will stand up for them, even if this government won't.

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