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Alun Michael: I shall focus primarily on new clause 18, which contains the essence of my proposals, which would assist Ministers in making a reality of the concept of the commissioner for victims and witnesses in a way that would command widespread support.
I have been involved in witness issues for many years. Indeed, I was involved in setting up a very early victim support group in Cardiff, along with Jonathan Evans, who went on to become a Conservative MP some years later, and is now a Member of the European Parliament, but who was then responsible for defending people in Cardiff within the court system. So I have followed these issues for many years.
During my time as the deputy Home Secretary, and during my many years in opposition, I worked closely with Victim Support, which I found to be a constructive organisation concerned with practical issues that would be of real benefit to victims, rather than with representative or headline-catching issues. I was therefore very concerned to read its evidence to the Committee about the amendments to the commissioner idea. It had originally supported the concept of having such a commissioner when the idea was proposed five years ago, but it said in its comments on the Bill:
“Since then, the Victims Code Of Practice has brought about many of the basic improvements in the system that would have fallen to the Commissioner, so the rationale for the role is now much weaker. Further improvements could be better delivered through proper monitoring of the Code and regular increases in its service standards.”
It went on to say:
“In addition, the real voice for victims lies with organisations such as Victim Support and others in the voluntary sector who help victims of crime. The Commissioner will duplicate that role and waste valuable resources.”
Should that be the case, there would be some sense in the conclusion that Victim Support reached. It stated:
“We are therefore calling on the Government to set out a clear argument for why it thinks the Commissioner is still needed after five years have passed and, unless it is able to do so, to repeal the Commissioner provisions and redirect its funding towards front line services instead.”
It has clearly given the Government the opportunity to say, “No, there is a focused piece of work that the commissioner could undertake.”
Evidence that has been heard by this Committee and by the Select Committee on Justice has raised the concerns of victims and others about making complaints about and getting redress within the criminal justice system. We heard that there are 10 different agencies and organisations. The list that shows how complaints are dealt with, in relation to different aspects of the criminal justice system, shows that the methods are varied and inconsistent. They might be suitable for the work of the relevant agencies, but they certainly do not hang together if anyone has a complaint about what the criminal justice system as a whole has done. Hon. Members might share my experience that when one is trying to get redress for a constituent, when something has gone wrong, it is often difficult to know whether it went wrong because of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service or the courts’ administration. Until one can answer that, one cannot get into those separate silos of complaint.
We could take away the burden currently on the victim, if they have a complaint, of knowing where to address it and of having to understand the criminal justice system in order to make a complaint. I therefore suggest that the commissioner should be given a clear but very simple and inexpensive responsibility, which is to be the point of co-ordination. Victims and witnesses would make their complaint to the commissioner, who would then ensure that the right silo of complaint examination dealt with it, or, if the issue was clearly not for one agency rather than another, that agencies co-ordinated their activities to ensure that the focus was on giving the right answer to the victim and dealing with the complaint, rather than playing games across the silos, going right down the practical depths of individual organisations.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is describing a one-stop shop, is he not?
Alun Michael: It is a one-stop shop, but the shop does not have to have all the goods for sale within it. The point is not to take away the responsibility for existing agencies and existing complaints systems to deal with complaints. The new clause would take away the burden on the victim to understand the criminal justice system to be able to make a complaint effectively.
I suspect that the new clause would also be a great help to Members of Parliament, who currently have to try to understand the criminal justice system. I believe that even those of us who have been involved in it for many years would agree that that is not the simplest thing to do.
My proposal in new clause 18 is that we insert a clause to allow the commissioner to
“receive complaints from victims and witnesses about the workings of the criminal justice system”.
The responsibility then would be either to
“indicate the appropriate body to deal with the complaint or co-ordinate consideration of two or more bodies where there is shared responsibility or a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the issues about which the complaint is made.”
There are two other elements of the new clause. One is that the commissioner
“shall be supplied with a copy of the response of any such body or bodies and may request that the findings be re-considered.”
In other words, the activity of the cost remains with those organisations, but the commissioner is able to act in the interests of the victims.
Finally, the Lord Chancellor
“may issue guidance to the relevant bodies in the Criminal Justice System setting out how they should co-operate with the Commission and with each other in order to provide an appropriate response to victims and witnesses.”
I am certain that any Lord Chancellor would see that as an opportunity to tidy up some of the operations of the system.
Giving the commissioner this role in respect of complaints would enable him to change the culture of the criminal justice system without increasing costs. The costs to the commission would be minimal, and the benefits would be standard-setting rather than having to intervene directly. It would be a major and positive development.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): For clarification, a couple of constituents recently told me that false allegations made against them were investigated by the criminal justice system and disposed of without any prosecution. There is no stain on their character, but the investigation has been disclosed to employers in enhanced Criminal Records Bureau checks. Would the system that my right hon. Friend describes extend to those people as victims?
Alun Michael: Very simply, if as victims they were complaining about how they had been dealt with in the system, they would currently be able to use one of 10 different complaint systems. My proposal would enable the commissioner to help them to address their complaint to the right organisation, or to ensure that there was co-operation across boundaries. It might not deal with some of the more complex areas of false accusation—some of them would fall outwith the nature of the complaint system—but it would assist somebody who had a complaint such as that against the system.
I shall now explain the three amendments, including the one that I moved, amendment 156, which would omit line 35. I do not understand why the Government want to stop the commissioner being able in law to carry out research. Whether the commissioner is able to carry out research or not would depend on what resources are provided by the Lord Chancellor, so the Government would control any expansion in research activity. It seems unwise to remove from the Bill something that might never be used but that might need to be used in the future.
6.30 pm
Amendment 163 is about the Government’s attempt to omit subsection (3)(b) which is about the laying of reports before Parliament. The Government have proposed a new system of reporting in which reports would be made to the Secretary of State for Justice, the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary. I am perfectly happy for them to receive reports, but it seems rather odd that a report should not be laid before Parliament. In that regard, I have made a further suggestion, which is that the Government would be supported in deleting the existing provision if the three Ministers who receive the report have the responsibility of laying it before Parliament. It seems that the report of the commissioner should end up before Parliament, but the way in which the clause is worded suggests that that would not be the case.
These are fairly simple points aimed at assisting the Government in addressing the concerns raised by Victim Support and enabling them with very little pain or cost to do something really useful. I hope, therefore, that the proposals in new clause 18 will be accepted by my hon. Friend.
Mr. Garnier: The principles behind new clause 18 are something that we broadly share. The right hon. Gentleman can correct me if I am wrong, but I suspect that they are drawn from the Victim Support manifesto from earlier in this decade.
Alun Michael: They arise from looking at the concerns that have been expressed by Victim Support, which I quoted, and from the evidence about how difficult it is to find one’s way through the complaints system. It is as simple as that.
Mr. Garnier: It is a coincidental invention, but none the worse for all that. In the Victim Support manifesto 2001, it stated that the role of the victims commissioner should be to ensure that agencies implement changes to their policies or procedures where these have proved not to have taken full account of the interests and needs of victims; advise victims on how to seek redress, giving assistance in important test cases and initiating proceedings in the Commissioner’s own name; deal with individual complaints where resolution at an earlier stage has not been successful; scrutinise proposed legislation which will affect victims of crime; conduct inquiries into issues of public concern that would not be resolved through the outcome of individual cases; and seek to reduce secondary victimisation. Those are all reasonable aims to try to achieve.
The one thing that puzzles me about the Government’s approach is how slow they have been. Six years ago—probably longer—they heralded the establishment of the victims commissioner. In 2002, the post was proposed in their document “Justice for All”. It was legislated for in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. The post was advertised, but they never appointed anyone to fill the job. Then the Prime Minister announced it yet again in his speech to the Labour party conference last year. Now under this clause, we get provision to pay for his salary and pension and allowances and gratuity. The whole process has taken far too long.
The Government have appointed an interim victims champion, and at last we are seeing the Government moving toward doing something practical about making it possible for the victims commissioner to carry out his functions. None the less, it has taken seven years, and the Government must explain why they have taken so long to achieve what must not be a party political or a controversial matter, but something that so many of us think is appropriate.
Jenny Willott: I am glad that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth has tabled these amendments. I share his views about the value of Victim Support and the job that it does. I declare an interest as a former employee of Victim Support in the area in which the right hon. Gentleman worked. The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point.
I share the concerns of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough about the delay in implementing the victims commissioner. Given that it has been such a long time since the measure was originally proposed, a bit of a stocktake as to how the situation has changed and what powers are needed seems sensible. With the implementation of the victims code of practice, things have improved. There is a feeling from organisations such as Victim Support that things have got better in a number of ways, so it makes sense to re-evaluate the powers of the victims commissioner. However, the concern about the clause, which would be put right by the amendments tabled by the right hon. Gentleman, is that the Bill as drafted waters down massively the powers of the victims commissioner without giving it any real role. The role is not one that has been put in place before, so to take away pretty much all its teeth before it has had a chance seems completely daft.
For me, the key issues are around transparency and reporting to Parliament, which I find difficult to understand—I shall be grateful if the Minister will clarify why that has been removed and why the commissioner is only reporting to Ministers. The role of Parliament in such issues is important. It is also important that the commissioner has the ability to do something. The proposals in new clause 18 are a sensible way forward, but I have real concerns about the powers being removed by the clause. I fully support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Gentleman to reinstate some of the powers and responsibilities of the commissioner, so that when we finally see a full-blown victims commissioner, they are in a position to do something. It is a crucial role and removing the ability of the commissioner to do anything is just kicking their legs out from underneath them before they even start, so I wholeheartedly support the right hon. Gentleman’s amendments.
Maria Eagle: I shall try to deal with the points raised. We are making changes to the legal framework, which as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said was in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, for a number of reasons. One is that, as he said, we were unable to get the right level of applications to appoint. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central was saying, things have changed and improved a lot in the interim. While not having been able to appoint at the time of the first advert, for the post as originally envisaged, we carried on and now fund Victim Support with a core grant of £30 million a year, plus an additional £12.5 million since 2007-08, to provide a national network of support and engagement with victims and witnesses. So, Victim Support is now a national organisation, with a central policy function. We do not now believe that there is good value in establishing a separate office for the commissioner with roles that are effectively carried out by Victim Support as a national organisation.
We have, as the hon. Lady mentioned, introduced the code of practice for victims of crime, which sets out standards of service that victims can accept. We have developed witness care units, to provide information and support for witnesses to attend court and give their best evidence. I have already mentioned the development in Victim Support, which included a lot of financial support from the Government, and the 42 local criminal justice boards, which bring together criminal justice agencies at a local level to work in partnership, with a primary responsibility of supporting victims and witnesses. There is also much more availability of special measures to help vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. In fact, the landscape has been transformed and it is for that reason that we want to change the functions that the victims commissioner should undertake, to take account of that changed circumstance. That is why we are bringing forward our suggested changes in the Bill. I hope that the Committee will accept that.
We do not believe that there is a necessity for an elaborate statutory support structure for the commissioner. It would distract the focus of the commissioner’s work, which should primarily be about understanding the needs of victims and witnesses and promoting their interests. The commissioner can effectively be supported by a core office of civil servants or other seconded professionals from criminal justice agencies and take advice, and work with other important experts such as Victim Support. That is why we no longer consider it appropriate for the commissioner to have the power to undertake research.
I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth that we remain fully committed to research. For example, last year the Department published research papers exploring victims’ and witnesses’ experiences of the criminal justice system and an evaluation of the victims advocate scheme. We want such valuable research to continue. We want the commissioner to have access to it, but we do not believe that it is necessary for him or her to have their own research capability. In planning our own research programmes, we would expect to enter into discussions with the commissioner about priorities and to take his or her views into account.
Amendments 157 and 163 relate to reports by the commissioner. Amendment 163 would retain the duty on the Justice Secretary to lay before Parliament a copy of any ad hoc report issued by the commissioner, while amendment 157 would require the Justice Secretary to lay the commissioner’s annual report before Parliament. I completely understand the reasons for the amendments, but we are not seeking to downgrade the importance of the reports issued by the commissioner. There is great value in laying reports by statutory bodies and office holders before Parliament.
In future, the commissioner will chair the victims advisory panel. Section 55 of the 2004 Act requires the panel to produce an annual report for any year in which it has been asked to provide advice by the Justice Secretary. Under section 55, the Justice Secretary is required to publish those reports and lay them before Parliament and it is in that way and to avoid duplication that the commissioner’s work will be laid before Parliament.
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