Protection of Victims of Crime

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Martin Caton 

Ashworth, Jonathan (Leicester South) (Lab) 

Blunkett, Mr David (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab) 

Blunt, Mr Crispin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)  

Chapman, Jenny (Darlington) (Lab) 

Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab) 

Doyle-Price, Jackie (Thurrock) (Con) 

Mulholland, Greg (Leeds North West) (LD) 

Qureshi, Yasmin (Bolton South East) (Lab) 

Reevell, Simon (Dewsbury) (Con) 

Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP) 

Stewart, Iain (Milton Keynes South) (Con) 

Wallace, Mr Ben (Wyre and Preston North) (Con) 

Wiggin, Bill (North Herefordshire) (Con) 

Alison Groves, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(6):

Bell, Sir Stuart (Middlesbrough) (Lab) 

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European Committee B 

Tuesday 26 June 2012  

[Martin Caton in the Chair] 

Protection of Victims of Crime

4.30 pm 

The Chair:  I suspect that I will not get a positive answer to this question, but I will ask it anyway. Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to this Committee? Clearly not. 

I call the Minister to make an opening statement. 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt):  Mr Caton, one of my earliest memories from when we arrived in the House in 1997 was our meeting the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, when we were in the same dining room together. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship 15 years later. 

Support for victims and witnesses of crime is a priority for the Government. When the proposal was published last year, we welcomed the European Commission’s prioritising such support, as we have done domestically. In January this year, we published a consultation, “Getting it right for victims and witnesses”, which set out wide-ranging reforms to improve support for victims and witnesses. The Government intend the response to the consultation to be published shortly. 

While we continue to strive to improve the experience of those unfortunate enough to fall victim to crime within the UK, we must remember that UK citizens increasingly travel and work across the EU and some of our citizens will fall victim to crime in another member state. To compound the effects of having suffered a crime, support, including even basic information, is often woefully lacking. Many hon. Members will have heard of their constituents suffering sometimes very serious crimes and being left in the dark by the authorities in the member state concerned. We want to ensure that UK citizens are provided with the information, support and protection that they rightly expect should they fall victim to crime in the EU, and that is why the Government took the decision to opt in to the proposal last August. 

Right hon. and hon. Members on this Committee will recall from the debate on the proposal in July last year, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, that officials had worked hard to influence the Commission’s proposal by sharing the UK’s wealth of experience and knowledge of supporting victims through the criminal justice process. When the draft directive was published, Commissioner Reding recognised that the UK is an example of best practice in this area. The draft directive respected the fact that in common law countries victims do not have a formal role in proceedings. During the negotiations, the Government have been able to influence the proposal and to ensure that the minimum standards of support to which all victims across the EU will be entitled are, according to

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our experience, the right ones. Supporting victims of crime is essential to encourage them first to report the crime, and then to provide evidence, without which justice cannot be done. 

In the challenging economic climate, it is essential that any obligations are proportionate. Through negotiations we have sought to ensure that the obligations are in line with current domestic practice, and that where they are not, they are not contradictory to Government policy or financially burdensome. I am delighted that those aims have been realised. Where we identified obligations in the Commission’s original proposal that were potentially expensive and disproportionate to the needs of victims and to the criminal justice outcome, the text has been amended—for example, there is no longer a right to free interpretation or to refund the expenses of a victim who attends merely to watch a trial; such rights apply only to a victim who is a party or who is called as a witness to give evidence, which is what is necessary for justice to be done. As that reflects current UK practice, I am pleased to report that the directive will require no changes in such areas. 

Issues of fundamental importance, including judicial discretion to decide when special measures are to be used in court and training obligations for criminal justice professionals and the judiciary, have been negotiated to ensure that they are not contradictory to current UK law or practice. Once adopted, the proposal will ensure that all victims have the right to basic information about the criminal proceedings. As we know from our experience in the UK, that is the one thing that most victims want, and we provide it under the victims’ code. Victims will also be referred to victim support services in accordance with their needs; they will be assessed to identify any specific needs and, if it is compatible with the principles of a fair trial and the principles on which judges must exercise their discretion, those needs will be met. 

On changes that must be made, there are two obvious ways in which we must change our law or practice. First, the directive requires the police to provide complainants with a written acknowledgement of their complaint. Current practice is to provide a crime reference number orally for low-level complaints, so that will have to change. We are told that in some cases—no mention of the UK was made in this regard—the police fail to act on complaints of crimes and deny having received the complaint; a written letter of acknowledgement will put a stop to that. Secondly, we may have to change our law to make it clear that judges have the power to clear the court so that the hearing can take place without the public being present. In many cases, judges can already do that, but we will need to ensure that their power to do so is sufficiently broad. 

The European Scrutiny Committee requested an update on progress since my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor last wrote to it on 11 June. Since the text that the Committee has referred for debate was deposited, negotiations with the European Parliament have taken place. In the letter submitted to the Committee on 11 June, my right hon. and learned Friend noted that article 7, “Interpretation and Translation”, was still the subject of negotiations and that there was some disagreement about the language that would be acceptable to define to which victims the rights apply. Agreement has been reached to revert to a text very similar to that

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agreed on a general approach that limits the rights to interpretation and translation, “in accordance with their”—the victim's— 

“role in the relevant criminal justice system in criminal proceedings.” 

A text was agreed less than a week ago, on 21 June, at ambassador level, and that text has been provided to Committee members in the document pack. We expect the European Parliament to agree to the text. 

I hope the Committee is reassured that the outcome of the negotiations in December has remained largely intact. There is a new duty to provide shelters for victims who need a safe place due to an imminent risk of intimidation, and to provide targeted support for victims with specific needs, such as rape victims. We accepted those duties because we already provide such services and believe that they add great value to the criminal justice system. Without a safe place from which to report the crime, and without the support of a rape crisis centre, we may not get the evidence we need to bring perpetrators to justice. We welcome the fact that such facilities will be more broadly available in other member states, should UK nationals fall victim to crime abroad. 

The European Scrutiny Committee has also requested that I focus on the transposition requirements for each of the relevant articles and explain how they will be met by existing national law and/or practice. Although, as I have said, negotiations have been conducted with that in mind, it is rather early to have undertaken full transposition analysis, given that the agreement was reached at ambassador level only last week. Member states will have three years from the date of adoption to implement the directive. 

We have options for the form in which we transpose the obligations in several of the articles, and each option has pros and cons. We are considering where and how best to put the obligations so that they meet the Commission’s requirements for effective implementation but disturb our criminal justice systems as little as possible. Some of the obligations in the directive are contained in legislation. For example, our duty to enable victims to 

“be heard in the courtroom without being present” 

is already met by section 24 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which permits the use of “live links” so that the witness can be heard without being present in court, 

“if it appears to the court to be in the interests of justice to do so”. 

Other obligations are met through the criminal procedure rules and practice directions that regulate judicial conduct of trials. Other obligations are currently found in quasi-legislative documents, which are not legislation themselves but have significant legislative underpinning. Those include the victims' code and the code for Crown prosecutors, both of which are statutory codes subject to safeguards that reduce the power of the Secretary of State to change the guidance inappropriately. There is also relevant guidance promulgated under the Crown Prosecution Service code, and detailed guidance from the Director of Public Prosecutions, “Achieving Best Evidence”, which is relevant to the obligations in the directive on the police when interviewing victims of crime as witnesses. 

We are approaching transposition with care. Our criminal justice system is complex; it covers three jurisdictions—England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern

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Ireland—and we must ensure that criminal proceedings remain fair. We wish to minimise disruption in our systems as much as possible while also implementing the obligations in the directive fully. Our final decisions have not yet been taken and, indeed, we have three years to implement the obligations. 

I am ready to respond to questions, however, article by article, recital by recital, if members of the Committee so desire. 

The Chair:  We have until 5.34 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief, but it is open to them, subject to my discretion, to ask related, supplementary questions. 

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab):  Bearing in mind that these are minimum standards that victims of crime should expect, the Minister did not mention an issue that I know is of great concern to many Members and their constituents who have been in the unfortunate situation of losing a member of their family to crime overseas: the return of the body. Louise Casey, in her report on homicide, was very clear that unless there were exceptional circumstances, the body should be released for burial within 28 days. Can the Minister comment on what provisions there may be for that? 

Mr Blunt:  I am grateful for the question, but have to confess that that is not covered by the terms of the directive. I will have to write to the hon. Lady with a full answer, unless it is forthcoming before the end of these proceedings. 

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab):  I am stretching the Committee’s patience a little, but I want to ask the Minister how he thinks the changes to the victim support arrangements and their fracturing into the 43 police areas in this country will enable the Government to implement coherently those parts of the directive that are about the kind of victim support we would expect to give here to overseas visitors to this country who have experienced problems. 

The Chair:  Order. That does stretch things, but if the Minister is prepared to reply, I will allow it. 

Mr Blunt:  As the right hon. Gentleman might anticipate, I will not give the results of our consideration of the consultation on victims policy to the Committee first. It might be more appropriate to do it in the usual way. I anticipate that we can give him full satisfaction shortly. 

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD):  I will not detain the Committee long. I very much welcome how the coalition has been negotiating to ensure that no unnecessary burden is placed on this country, but this is of vital importance to those who have been victims of crime abroad. I have had to deal with at least one such harrowing case. Does the Minister agree that is it extremely important not only how the Government deal with with the issue, but that Members of the European Parliament support the directive? 

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Mr Blunt:  As my hon. Friend is aware, the matter is one for co-decision with the European Parliament. At one stage during the course of their consideration, a substantial number of amendments were tabled by Members of the European Parliament. The current position, as I understand it, is the position agreed between both institutions, so we can be reasonably confident that, the directive having been agreed at ambassador level, we are now dealing with what will proceed, subject to the scrutiny reserve we have entered. 

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about the reason why we decided to opt in. The United Kingdom’s victim services arrangements, developed progressively over 20 years with significant advances under Administrations of all stripes, are now one of the leading models in Europe of such services. When our citizens travel to Europe, we of course want such services to be available to them as well. We have been held up as an example of good practice in the European Union, which is why we had a powerful negotiating hand to play and, to be frank, why we achieved pretty much all our substantive negotiating objectives. We have also enjoyed support for the measures throughout the House and in the European Scrutiny Committee; that was made clear in the course of the debate last year. I am delighted that there is such a substantial degree of consensus, and I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s properly drawn emphasis. 

The Chair:  If no more Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to debate the motion. 

Motion made, and Question proposed,  

That the Committee takes note of the proposed draft Directive, deposited on 6 December 2011 by the Ministry of Justice, establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime, and repealing Framework Decision 2001/220/JHA; supports the Government in welcoming the objectives of the draft Directive; and further supports the Government's view that existing national law or practice in England and Wales largely fulfils the obligations in the draft Directive.—(Mr Blunt.)  

4.46 pm 

Jenny Chapman:  It is obviously the case that our victim services are among the best to be found, but they are not the best that they could ever be. The fact that they are better than they are in Ukraine should not be enough to allow us to rest on our laurels. 

The Government make the right noises about victims being at the heart of justice policy, but some of their decisions make that hard to believe completely. Legal aid cuts, the watering down of child protection through vetting and barring and the changes to remand stand out as examples of how the Government have failed to demonstrate a victim-centred approach. In fairness, we acknowledge the scale of the challenge. 

Louise Casey’s report on the needs of families bereaved by homicide shows that the vast majority of victims’ families—more than 80%—have suffered trauma-related symptoms, three quarters have suffered depression and one in five have become addicted to alcohol. All the people in the survey said that their health had been affected in some way, 55% found it difficult to manage their finances following the bereavement and one in four stopped working permanently. The average cost of the homicide to each family was £37,000, with costs ranging from those for probate to those for funerals, travel to and from court and even for cleaning up the

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crime scene. The majority of people got no help with the costs and some were forced into debt. The review by the Victims’ Commissioner shows that the effects persist for many years. 

The scale of the issue becomes stark when we consider that 30 million crimes against people or property are recorded each year throughout the European Union, resulting in about 75 million direct victims of crime every year. British citizens should receive the highest standards of support in any member state, and clearly we support the directive and agree with much of what the Minister has said—we will not seek to divide the Committee. 

In the draft directive, the EU has sought to build on the 2001 Council framework decision, which established general minimum standards. The rationale is that some member states are doing more than others—the UK can hold its head relatively high in that regard—but that leaves a patchwork of uneven standards of protection and support for victims. The directive will help to provide greater certainty for UK citizens. 

More must be done to make sure that victims’ families do not have to suffer unnecessary delays and further trauma following the loss of a family member abroad. We are concerned about the provision of information for victims. Although the Lord Chancellor says that he is confident that the article is generally compatible with current practice in the UK, I wonder how confident he is about the uniformity and quality of practice in the UK in the light of the commissioner’s report. 

Similar concerns apply to the use of the victim personal statement, and the Minister is familiar with those concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) has previously suggested that Ministers take time to read the strategic audit of the criminal justice system from Victim Support, which makes sombre reading. It deals with the use of victim personal statements and notes that the police are responsible for offering victims the opportunity to make a statement, but that they are not required to do so by law, and VPSs are not even mentioned in the Government’s primary document setting out the services that victims can expect. 

The report states: 

“The actual situation on the ground is poor”, 

so although the codes and the legislation may be right, implementation on the ground is lacking. It goes on to say that, 

“of those whose cases reach court, less than half recall being offered the opportunity to make a VPS. Moreover, of those who did make a VPS, only two-thirds felt it was taken into account. Furthermore, the likelihood of being given the chance to make a VPS varies considerably across England and Wales. For example, victims living in London were less than half as likely to be offered it as those living in Northumbria. The likelihood of the victim feeling that the VPS is taken into account also varies considerably across regions.” 

We therefore hope that, despite their heavily caveated words in response to article 19, the Government will take on board the need to protect victims from having contact with offenders and their families, including the all-too-frequent situation of a victim’s family having to sit alongside the defendant’s family and having to listen to them laughing, joking and making hurtful comments. 

We should also consider the relationship between the media and the privacy of victims. It is good that the Lord Chancellor has asked for the principle of media

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independence to be respected under article 23, but at what cost? The case of Milly Dowler shows the need for greater training in the professions, notably the judiciary, on how victims’ families are treated. The directive is a good starting point, but the UK should cover other things. We are concerned about whether the proposals have teeth and whether families can appeal decisions. Where is the right to request a review of the decision on what charge offenders will face? The directive is an opportunity for the Government to negotiate a better deal for victims at EU level and to establish a minimum standard of service for victims in the UK. The proposed standards have to be seen as minimum ones, and we should aim to provide the best possible support and care for victims of crime. I have already given the example used by Louise Casey: it is clear that the body of the deceased should be released within 28 days except in exceptional circumstances, but the proposals do not mention such cases. 

In conclusion, the Opposition welcome the Commission’s approach. We urge the Government not to procrastinate, but to ensure that the proposed provisions are implemented across this country. They should not just appear in a code or a law; they should be the actual experience of victims on the ground. 

4.52 pm 

Mr Blunt:  I am grateful for the views expressed and the questions asked in Committee. The contributions of the European Scrutiny Committee and of the parallel Committee in another place in scrutinising the directive since it was first proposed by the Commission have been valuable. The Government are committed to ensuring that time is made available for debates on proposed European Union legislation, and we have twice honoured that commitment in relation to the directive. This debate was requested by the European Scrutiny Committee, which has a clear interest in this topic, and I thank the Clerk of that Committee for her assistance. 

I also thank my departmental officials for their work, not least for the frankly triumphant success of those who negotiated on our behalf to get the directive into such a satisfactory shape that it enjoys the support of

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this Committee and, I am sure, of the whole House. Negotiations on the directive have been intensive, and developing a directive that is appropriate for the legal systems of all member states has been challenging. We are pleased with the outcome of the negotiations, and I am confident that the directive will afford victims of crime in Europe clear and appropriate rights in their contacts with the criminal justice system. 

The hon. Member for Darlington went slightly wide of the directive. I am not entirely certain that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union any time soon, not least if it fails to sort out some of its politics. However, we are absolutely united with her on the importance we should give to victims of crime and on our continuing to work hard constantly to improve services for them. We will shortly respond to the consultation on our proposals about victims and witnesses, and that will be the appropriate time to go into the detail, but we are presaging a step change in the Government’s investment in victims’ services. 

The hon. Lady spoke about victim personal statements and how variably they are used. She has correctly identified the position inherited by this Administration. I absolutely agree with her about the central importance of getting a proper role for victims, including for the delivery of restorative justice. I sincerely hope that, when she sees the details of our proposals, she will recognise that we have gone as far as we can. 

The issue about releasing the body of the deceased is not addressed in the directive. The homicide fund can be used to assist UK citizens faced with the tragic circumstances of having to repatriate a body. Through that fund, the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provide support to bereaved families in meeting the kind of costs that arise for people who find themselves in such an awful situation. 

I am delighted that the Committee is so supportive of the directive as it is now drafted, and I commend it to the Committee. 

Question put and agreed to.  

4.56 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 28th June 2012