It is a pleasure to join you again at your Conference. I know that a great deal of time and effort has gone into arranging this weekend and would like to offer my congratulations to David and his colleagues for bringing together so many again.
I know that for the many families represented here that it is an important point in the calendar. Not just to hear speeches at a conference but to meet over the weekend and support each other.
What binds you together is tragically the loss of life at the hands of a murderer - and I pay great tribute to you all for this - is a determination to seek justice for victims of homicide.
Over the last year I have been in contact with David Hines and the National Victims Association on many occasions. I have also met with other charities and individuals who have either been affected by homicide or serious crime or who work with those who have. The people like you that I meet the more inspired I am by you courage and fortitude and sadly the more aware I have become of the current lack of provision for support and assistance to those like you who have suffered the most traumatic of losses. It has been through these meetings that I have been able to formulate our plans for supporting victims of the most serious and violent crimes. My basis premise is that at the very least when it comes to victims of crime, support must be given to families of homicide victims. Whilst we should avoid a hierarchy of rights for victims, the state has a particular responsibility when crimes of homicide take place.
So a year has passed since I was last here. But what has happened? As you are no doubt aware, we have seen the playing out of the expenses debacle. Many of my own constituents, as well as the wide press scrutiny, have served to make me aware of the depth of feeling against politicians that exists and the way in which our honesty and integrity have been called into question. I am not here today to defend politicians or to make excuses. 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 which you are facing. It is important that politicians made promises they can keep and deliver what they say.
I am all too aware of how the present Government have failed in this respect over recent years. The NVA has I know itself been at the sharp end of this failure over the last year.
As we have seen, Labour has made plenty of noises about victims and the treatment which they should receive at the hands of the criminal justice system. None more so than the mantra of placing victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. However, we have also seen that too often what may have been a genuine proposal failed to make it to the action stage. Although much has been discussed and proposed, the amount of real change has not matched expectations. I know that victims or the families of victims like you remain let down by the system and believe that there is still some considerable way to go to create a situation where you are genuinely at the centre for the justice system.
I am sure you could list back to me the initiatives, policy papers and ideas which have been proposed to benefit victims 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" and "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
Today I am not here to present you with a list of empty promises of what a Conservative Government would do. I do not want to do what Labour have done and have repeatedly offended when doing so by over-promising and under-delivering. Rather, allow me to set out the things we have already promised which will have a significant bearing on the experience of victims and to set out the direction our future victim's policy will take. It would be unfair of me to claim that the Government has achieved nothing for victims of crime over the past twelve years. Yet it is true to say that there have been many opportunities which have not been grasped. However, I believe this paves the way for my Party to take hold of some of the lost opportunities for reform.
Since I was last here at your conference thousands more prisoners have been released early and many have committed serious violent crimes. We think it is unacceptable that since it's introduction in June 2007, just 2 years ago, more than 59,741 prisoners have been released early under the End of Custody License scheme. Even worse is that there have been 1,237 alleged offences committed by offenders while on ECL, most significant of which are three murders and two rapes.
We will end the current early release of prisoners. Lives have been lost as a result of the policy of releasing certain prisoners 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 early release.
As part of our 'Rehabilitation Revolution' we will ensure that more comprehensive and effective rehabilitation and resettlement takes places whilst a prisoner is in custody. Of course prison is a place of punishment and must remain so if it is to act as a deterrent for criminals. Furthermore, it provides the natural justice which is required when offences are committed. However, in the long term, governments fail the public if more is not made of the time spent by offenders whilst in custody. It would be naïve to think that this would bring about a complete end to re-offending. But by working out a comprehensive and effective programme for offenders, our belief is that we can see more offenders rehabilitated, resettled and more importantly, fewer victims.
The Government has an unenviable record in trying to establish the role of a Victims Commissioner. It has made four separate announcements in the last six years heralding the establishment of a Victims and Witnesses Commissioner.
In 2002, it was proposed in 'Justice for All'. In 2004 it was legislated for in the Domestic, Crime and Victims Act. In 2006 the post was advertised but no appointment made. Gordon Brown announced it yet again in his speech to the Labour Party Conference in 2008 and the Coroners and Justice Bill currently before Parliament makes changes to the role of the Commissioner as laid out in the 2004 Act. Additionally, in January 2009 a Victims Champion, Sara Payne who is here today, was appointed as an interim measure until a Commissioner is found. Whilst this signifies the Government's intention to finally appoint a Commissioner, it will have taken them seven years to fill the post. That is of course assuming that this will happen in 2009. To date, intentions have counted for nothing.
Should we be elected to Government before a Commissioner is appointed by the existing Government, we will prioritise the recruitment of a Victims Commissioner.
We are disappointed that the Government appears to have downgraded the role of the Victims Commissioner. As they have invested more money in Victim Support to provide services victims, it seems they now believe that a Commissioner with stripped down powers is all that is necessary. In the Public Bill Committee for the Coroners and Justice Bill early this year, the Minister said, "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 ...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 is establishing a separate office for the commissioner with roles that are essentially carried out by Victim Support as a national organisation."1
So that is it as far as the Government are concerned. Victims Support has the cake of public money and they can eat it.
As well as calling into question the proportion of funding allocated to one organisation, yet again, the Government has proven its ability to make promises which turn out to have very little substance, if any at all.
Having spoken to many victims over the last year or more, I have been struck by the many practical measures which you believe would make your experiences slightly more bearable.
We recognise the role which voluntary and charity groups like NVA can play in supporting victims and their families. We believe that more could be done to ensure that these groups are able to carry out the valuable work they do.
In 2004, a Victims Fund was set up to specifically support services for victims of sexual offending. £4 million was used to start the fund, the monies coming from the recovered proceeds of crime. Since then, other sources of funding have included further monies from asset recovery funds, central government and the Victims Surcharge fund. Subsequently monies have also been allocated for victims of hate crime and homicide.
However, since its inception in 2004 only £8.75 million has been invested in the fund. Of the £1.75 million invested in 2008/09, whilst £1.25 million has been spent on support for victims of sexual violence and abuse, only £500,000 is allocated for the support of victims of homicide and hate crime to date.2
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 maintain a Victims Fund to ensure that money continues to be channelled directly to charities and support groups working directly to victims. Whilst we acknowledge the work done to provide substantial funding for the support of victims of sexual offending, we believe that not enough has been done in the support of victims of violent crime and particularly those bereaved by homicide. Therefore we will explore ways in which the monies being channelled into the Victims Fund can be increased. For example, we have previously announced how 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. Legislation is in place to enable this to happen yet it has never been implemented. Aside from funding Rape Crisis Centres as we have previously announced, 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.
We also want to ensure that the criminal justice system ensures the adequate compensation of victims and their family. Just 33% of the public believe that the system meets the needs of victims. Dissatisfaction with court-ordered compensation and the way in which it is paid in tiny instalments over a long period of time; frustration at the bureaucratic workings of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authorities, we have heard over and over again about how the current compensatory system drags out the already traumatic experience of grieving for a loved one or recovering a life shattered by violent crime. 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 will reform criminal compensation to make this happen.
When coming to terms with violent crime or homicide, it is important that the justice system does what it can to practically support victims.
One simple yet valuable way in which this can be done is by keeping victims informed of the criminal proceedings against the offender. 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. The 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. Whilst we acknowledge these moves, we believe there should be a greater focus on the needs of victims. We will 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. If necessary we will look to overseas models of informing victims. The example of the VINE system in the United States which involves a personalised victim notification system is something we will explore further.
I am aware of the problems faced by victims and their families when it comes to the court hearing against the perpetrator of the violent crime against them.
Jack Straw has recently said that "victims and witnesses fared badly within the justice system- prosecutors would barely even speak to their own witnesses, and victims and witnesses could be made to share a waiting room with the friends and family of the defendant. There was little or no help for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence. Since 1997, this Government have worked very hard to give a central voice and priority to victims and witnesses."3 In spite of this Government rhetoric, we believe that not enough has been done and have heard from many victims and witnesses who are testimony to this belief.
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 in the face of the loss of a loved one or the recovery from a serious or violent incident. For example, Victims and their families will often struggle to find somewhere to sit within a court room. Furthermore, they will often be in close quarters with the offender's supporters. We want to ensure that in the worst cases a court is compelled to ensure that there is somewhere separate and secure for the victim and their family and friends to sit at all times.
Finally, I want to touch on one further area which I feel shows the Government's disregard for victims of homicide in particular.
The Coroners and Justice Bill is yet another Ministry of Justice Bill which is trying to do too many things. That is a debate for another day, but what I would like to draw light to the amount of time spent debating crucial elements to the proposed legislation. The Government is seeking to amend homicide laws. This conference would no doubt welcome change but would also expect Parliament to take seriously the need to get the change of law right. However, the way the Bill has been timetabled in Parliament has meant that the section on homicide reform was not debated on the floor of the House of Commons. It is a scandal to top the expenses scandal that the Government timetable prevented important clauses from being discussed by the House of Commons as a whole. Rather, it has been left to the House of Lords to deal with the key parts, of yet another Christmas Tree Bill where a mass of items have been hung onto a generic justice bill. The fact that in the last two years we have had two Bills like this which attempt to cover a whole host of important yet complicated aspects of justice under one title speaks to me of the disregard for the justice system rather than a respect. It also means we fail to give adequate recognition to the people who are affected by the new law being created. In this case, the victims of homicide and their families.
However much the Government talks about supporting victims, appoints a Victims Champion and so on, we need to judge them by their actions over the last 12 years which is a failing criminal justice system that has failed victims.
What I have presented today is by no means the final word on victims of serious and violent crime from me or the Conservative Party. Over the coming months you will hear more from us. However, I trust it goes some way to display our commitment to the needs of families and individuals like you who are seeking justice for themselves and most importantly for their loved ones. Please do continue engage with us on these issues. This area is one where unfortunately, experience counts. We cannot attempt to grasp all of the issues at stake unless those who know what it's like to be a victim inform us.
Thank you for the opportunity to attend your conference and listen to you today.
1 General Committee Debate for Coroners and Justice Bill, Column 665, 9th March 2009
2 PQ reply
3 Hansard - 26/01/09 - column 26