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David Burrowes: We need fundamental change to our criminal justice system

Thank you for the opportunity to address your conference today. I recognise that there are many people here today with practical experience which needs to be brought to the fore of policy making and I look forward to meeting some of you today and hearing from you.

I know from my time as a Defence Solicitor that changes have been made to provide greater protection for vulnerable witnesses and more of an input for victims.

However I firmly believe from both my time as a solicitor and as an MP, that one of the most abused phrases by this Government has been their mantra of putting 'victims at the heart of the criminal justice system'.

Over the last year I have been undertaking a policy review in relation to victims and witnesses. During the course of this work I have met with many charities and victims including those who have either been affected by the most serious of crimes or who work with those who have. I pay tribute to them all and recognise that sadly those who are victims of crime are often the experts in knowing about the failures in our criminal justice system.

As you are no doubt aware, the trustworthiness of politicians has been called into question over the last six months. However, there is a wider issue of trust that goes beyond expenses claims. Integrity and honesty also mean not making empty promises or paying lip service to the issues facing you. It is important that politicians make promises they can keep and deliver on what they say.

Too often, victims and witnesses have fallen foul of chronic over-promising and under-delivering.

Labour has made plenty of noises about victims and the treatment which they should receive at the hands of the criminal justice system. However, the volume of proposals announced and consulted on has not equated to the volume of measures put into place.

I am sure you could list back to me the initiatives, policy papers and ideas which have been proposed to benefit victims and witnesses of crime published since 1997. In recent years they have included:

  • 2002: "Justice for All"
  • 2003: "A New Deal for Victims and Witnesses"
  • 2004: "The Victim's Charter", "No Witness, No Justice" and the "Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act"
  • 2005: "Hearing the Relatives of Murder and Manslaughter Victims" and "Rebuilding Lives - supporting victims of crime"
  • 2006: Victim Advocates and the Victims Advisory Panel were established
  • 2008-09: Coroners and Justice Bill

And most recently, Jack Straw's announcement of the development of a National Victims Service and the prospect of another white paper.

I believe that there is huge potential for criminal justice reform to do much better for victims.

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One of the obvious failings in the criminal justice system is the high re offending rates. Offenders are going into the Criminal Justice System yet too often coming out and creating more victims. This must and will change under a new Government.

We think it is unacceptable that since it's introduction in June 2007, just 2 years ago, more than 69,877 prisoners have been released early under the End of Custody License scheme. Even worse is that there have been 1,401 alleged offences committed by offenders while on End of Custody Licence, significantly including at least three murders and two rapes.

We will end the current early release of prisoners as soon as possible. Lives have been lost after some prisoners have been released early. We believe that this has been too high a price to pay to address prison overcrowding. When sentenced, prisoners should be given a minimum sentence which they and the public know they will have to serve. They should also be set a maximum sentence length. The only way in which they won't serve the maximum sentence length will be because they have earned their release. Honest sentencing is a real way to put the victim at the heart of the justice system.

As part of our planned 'Rehabilitation Revolution' we will ensure that more comprehensive and effective rehabilitation and resettlement takes places whilst a prisoner is in custody. Government fails the public and victims if we do not do more when offenders are in custody than merely contain, churn, and chuck out. Of course prison is a place of punishment and must remain so to act as a deterrent for criminals. But our belief is that more offenders rehabilitated and resettled will equal fewer victims.

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We also want the criminal justice system to ensure the adequate compensation of victims and their family. Just 33% of the public believe that the system meets the needs of victims. Currently only 1 in 5 court sentences have a compensation order attached to them. Unsurprisingly, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the limited court-ordered compensation and frustration with the bureaucratic workings of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authorities. One way in which the criminal justice system can practically put victims at its heart is by ensuring that compensation is paid to the victim as effectively as possible. We wish to reform criminal compensation to make this happen. We are looking at the merits of introducing  'Reparation Orders, following the example of New Zealand, with a strong statutory presumption in favour of reparation being made by the offender to the victim. Replacing the current regime of compensation orders, the presumption would mean that if a court can lawfully impose a sentence of reparation, it must do so unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Too often compensation is currently not considered due to a lack of information and opportunities are lost to obtain compensation from an offender. Such Reparation Orders could have a wider coverage than the present compensation order. We would wish the offender to provide the financial reparation directly to the victim in the form of compensation and by contributing to the Victims Fund.

A significant failure of the Labour Government has been the poor enforcement of compensation owed to victims. It is simply not acceptable that the Government cannot account for how much compensation is actually paid to victims. Our research has found that outstanding amounts of compensation owed by offenders to their victims rose 18.4 per cent to £150 million in 2008/09. While courts made new compensation orders totalling £66 million last year, only £42 million was collected. We will look to ensure that reparation orders are enforced much more rigorously than the current system of compensation orders.

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We believe all victims should have a voice within the Criminal Justice System.

The use of victim impact statements is welcome although it should be properly focussed upon the reparation part of any sentence.

Many victims do not necessarily want a greater voice in court proceedings but do want to be kept informed from charge to trial, sentence and release.

Louise Casey was right when she recently gave evidence to an All Party Group inquiry to criticise the lack of, in her words, 'relentless information'.

At a time of increasing transparency and easier access to information, the criminal justice system is too closed and insular. Local court reporting - the forerunners of the local press - is virtually non-existent. The public have little idea what goes on in their local courts. As court locations become more centralised, there is little connection between the court process and the community of the victim and/ or the offender. Public confidence is determined by a perception of the effectiveness of the national Criminal Justice Sysytem rather than any real understanding of the quality of the local justice system.

In 2002, the Government announced it had invested £11 million in the Crown Prosecution Service to communicate prosecution decisions direct to the victim. It promised that by 2005 it would be possible for victims to track their cases online. That planned target of 2005 has not been met. In September 2008 the plans were re-announced and in April 2009 the Engaging Communities in Criminal Justice Green Paper outlined plans for local communities to have access to court outcomes. We will make it a priority to ensure that all victims are fully informed about the progress of criminal proceedings, hearing dates, adjournments, grants of bail, sentence dates and decisions and dates of parole/release.

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For many victims, a simple apology is all they are really looking for. Whereas at court only 10% receive one, 90% of victims who participate in restorative justice receive an apology direct from the offender. Other victims want answers to their questions - why me? And some victims want to confront the offender with the real impact of their crimes, to make them understand the impact of their actions on others, in the hope that the offender will be motivated to change their way of life. The latest evidence - from serious adult offenders in England and Wales - suggests that for some offenders meeting their victim does lead them to desist from offending.

I have been impressed by the recent findings from Northern Ireland. In their youth justice system, young people attend a restorative justice conference, to which the victim is always invited. Over 70% of victims want to attend these meetings and the great majority - around 80% - express themselves satisfied afterwards. I heard last week from a conference co-ordinator, who told me first hand about the experience of one victim's family she had worked with. They used the restorative justice process to really confront a young offender with the impact a violent attack had had on their whole family, all of whom had a chance to contribute. Whereas so often these wider victims of crime are not heard or acknowledged and have no opportunity to move forward after a crime, RJ provides an answer.

We have to find ways within our criminal justice system to give more victims access to restorative justice. Of course this is not something all victims want. But the research suggests that for those who do want to participate, restorative justice can be uniquely effective in providing them acknowledgement of their suffering as offenders take responsibility and express remorse.

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Whilst we should avoid a hierarchy of rights for victims- to the individual all crime committed against them can be incomparable- the state has a particular responsibility when serious crimes like homicide take place.

The reality is that only a slither of the victims funding cake has gone to victims of the most serious crimes. Frankly it's not good enough.

A Conservative Government will seek to maintain and extend a Victims Fund to ensure that money continues to be channelled directly to charities and support groups working directly with victims and witnesses of the most serious crimes. We believe that not enough has been done in the support of victims of violent crime and particularly those bereaved by homicide. As we have previously announced, we would ensure that prisoners, who currently do not pay compensation to victims, could contribute to the Victims Fund through money they earn whilst in custody. The 1996 Prisoners Earnings Act is in place to enable this to happen yet it has never been implemented.

We would anticipate increased monies to support specialist groups who work with those who have been bereaved by homicide or who have suffered serious violence. I have been struck how badly some of those families of homicide victims have been let down by the Criminal Justice System and have lacked support. More could be done to ensure that smaller voluntary groups are able to carry out the valuable work they do in this area.

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Last year Jack Straw said that, "this Government have worked very hard to give a central voice and priority to victims and witnesses." Whilst progress has been made in relation to protecting vulnerable witnesses, we have heard from victims that there are still practical problems faced by victims and their families when it comes to the court hearing.

We will consider a range of measures to ensure that victims do not have to add a bad experience at court to the list of issues they face having lost a loved one or been the victim of a serious or violent incident. For example, Victims and their families will often struggle to find somewhere to sit within a court room. They will often be in close quarters with the offender's supporters. Simple measures can often make the biggest different. For example, Courts providing a designated area for victims and vulnerable witnesses where they will be free from intimidation.

The Labour Party Conference this year saw the announcement by Jack Straw of a National Victims Service. The Ministry of Justice will work with Victims Support to get this off the ground. Whilst I welcome this belated move to increase specialist support for victims, I would argue that this role is already being played by smaller charities like the National Victims Association without Government support and to some extent, by Victims Support. We should open up the provision of specialist support for victims and their families following serious crimes. We need to look at which organisations would be best placed to take this service forward and how the role of a new Victims Commissioner can help this develop. We also need to make better use of existing funding and recognise areas of waste, such as the repeated victims' needs assessments.

I await with interest the Government's white paper which I hope have proposals which will last longer than the day's headlines . If they want to take our ideas they are welcome. The interests of victims go beyond political point scoring. The Government needs to recognise that it is not just about throwing more money at one organisation and assuming this will fix all the problems. It's not just about appointing a public figure without any statutory clout to absorb the dissatisfaction of victims and witnesses. It is about a change of focus, dynamic and culture. Victims and their families do not just want someone to hold their hand as they travel through the justice system and the aftermath of the crime that has been committed. They want to know that justice has been done for them and their loved ones. It is not right that victims who have already suffered much at the hands of an offender, still experience victimization at the hands of the justice system.

We need more than a new victims and witness policy. We need fundamental change to our criminal justice system and Conservatives are ready to deliver that change.

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