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Responses to the first reading of Victims and Prisoners Bill

Date:2 MAY 2023
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The Victims and Prisoners Bill introduced by the government will fundamentally transform victims’ experience of the criminal justice system. Legislation will enshrine the principles of the Victims’ Code in law, give ministers powers to direct the inspection of justice agencies that are failing victims, and create better oversight of those agencies.

The parole system will also be overhauled allowing ministers to block the release of the most dangerous offenders including murderers, rapists, and terrorists - putting public protection back as the overriding focus of the parole process. The bill will also legislate for a new release test for the Parole Board making it clear that public safety is the only priority when making release decisions – to stop a balancing exercise taking into account prisoners’ rights.

The new legislation will also stop prisoners serving whole-life orders from marrying or forming a civil partnership in prison. This will deny these criminals the important life events they stole from their victims while ensuring their horrific crimes are treated with the seriousness they deserve.

Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, said: "Our reforms will improve the experience for victims from the first meeting with a police officer to the support they get in court. and we will refocus the parole system on its overriding duty to protect the public from violent and sexual criminals."

The Victims and Prisoners Bill will put the principles of the Victims’ Code on a statutory footing meaning that where appropriate victims will have a right to:

  • Challenge decisions which directly impact them, for example getting the CPS or police to review why their case has been dropped in the most serious cases like rape and domestic abuse
  • Receive information to help them understand the criminal justice process, such as on claiming compensation, how their case is progressing and its outcome
  • Access vital support services such as Independent Sexual Violence and Independent Domestic Abuse Advisors
  • Have the opportunity to make their views heard, for example being able to ask to read out their Victim Personal Statements in court

When victims are failed, the changes announced today will give ministers the power to get the criminal justice inspectorates to jointly inspect prisons, police forces, courts the CPS and probation to drive improvements in how they support victims. The process for victims making formal complaints will also be simplified by removing the requirement for them to go through their local MP before speaking to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

The bill also bolsters the role of the Victims’ Commissioner by requiring criminal justice agencies to publicly respond to their recommendations and set out the rationale for accepting or rejecting them.

Children born as a result of rape will also be explicitly designated as victims in their own right making clear that they are entitled to access support services and information on their case.

Justice Minister, Edward Argar MP, said: "We want victims going through the justice system to feel listened to, supported, informed, and to be treated fairly, properly, and with dignity. Taken together, these measures will mean victims always know the level of help they should receive and always have somewhere to turn."

The government’s overhaul of the parole system follows high-profile parole decisions in cases like John Worboys and Colin Pitchfork that have shaken public confidence in the system.

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However, responses to this have been mixed.

Commenting on the Victims and Prisoners Bill as it receives its first reading in Parliament, Refuge CEO Ruth Davison said: "It is disappointing that the government has failed to take on board Refuge’s and the Justice Committee’s recommendations to strengthen the Bill so that it makes a real difference for survivors of violence against women and girls. This is a missed opportunity and one which will do little to convince survivors that the government is prioritising their needs or recognising the seriousness of crimes committed against them. 

In order to make any real difference to survivors, the Bill must be radically changed and strengthened. Only then can it hope to begin to create the much-needed change for survivors of domestic abuse and VAWG (violence against women and girls) related crimes and ensure services supporting survivors are adequately resourced to provide the life saving and life changing support needed.  

The Victims and Prisoners Bill is a hugely important and overdue legislative opportunity to improve survivors’ access to specialist community-based services, so it is discouraging to see that no additional funding has been announced today for these vital services.  

Community-based services are a lifeline for survivors, enabling them to access services in the way that best reflects their needs. Lack of funding for these crucial services has led to the current gaps in their provision and a post-code lottery of patchy provision of services throughout the country. It is only with an appropriate and sustainable funding package that these important services can provide the valuable support all survivors need and deserve. 

Refuge recommends that the statutory duty on Police and Crime Commissioners, health and local authorities in England to work together when commissioning support services for survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse is strengthened to require relevant authorities to commission specialist domestic abuse community-based services at a level that meets local need. This must be backed by adequate, sustainable funding of £238 million per year to ensure truly holistic wraparound care is provided by specialist organisations.  

At Refuge we hear time again how the criminal justice system fails women and their children, and how they are not made aware of the support systems available to them. It is positive that this Bill will finally enshrine the overarching principles of the Victims’ Code in primary legislation and place a duty on criminal justice bodies to promote awareness of the Code but far too often we hear that police officers, judges and court staff lack knowledge around the dynamics of domestic abuse and VAWG. This Bill needs to include a statutory duty for all police and criminal justice practitioners to undertake mandatory, trauma-informed training so that they are equipped to support survivors. "