MPs meet their constituents for many reasons but most often when they have a problem and need our help.
When we do, we usually find our constituents’ problems are far from unique but are replicated in thousands of cases across the country.
For me, this has never been truer than when dealing with victims of crime.
As a newly-elected MP for Witham, in Essex, in 2010, I came across two heart-rending cases.
The first was a family who lost a loved one to murder, only to find the murderer tormenting them from behind bars through publicity and hollow appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.
The second was a family who lost a son to a murder overseas, and found the trauma of homicide was compounded by the frustration of foreign bureaucracies, language barriers and spiralling travel costs.
As soon as I raised these cases with fellow MPs, ministers or the media, it was like opening an echo chamber: countless similar cases emerged.
I was elected to represent the people of Witham, but now every week I find myself replying to emails and letters from victims of crime from as far away as Humberside and the West Country.
The fact that so many people come to me for help and advice is a damning indictment on those people and organisations who are supposed to protect and support victims.
But it is also a clear verdict that so far, the Government has not done enough to come to the aid of people whose lives are being ruined by crime. Ministers are now working on revised ‘Code for Victims’ guidance explaining what they can expect from the criminal justice system and how they can complain if their rights are not upheld.
It is a welcome move but, frankly, it is not enough.
The time has now come for us to legislate – to enact the first-ever ‘Victims Law’ setting out in black and white not how those affected by crime ‘should’ be treated but how they ‘must’ be treated.
Rather than cajole the courts and other agencies into treating victims better, we must force them to do so in six clear areas.
First, all victims must be referred to support services – and offered an assessment of their needs – within 24 hours of making a complaint to the police.
Secondly, victims must be consulted and informed about any decision to charge, caution or take no action against a suspect and have that decision properly explained to them.
Similarly, they must be informed and consulted about parole applications and informed about the release from prison of their offender and any subsequent recall to prison.
They must also be treated with courtesy and respect by all criminal justice agencies and not discriminated against on any grounds including age, gender, disability, ethnicity or religion.
There must be a legal right for crime victims to make an impact statement, to have to it read out in court and for it to be taken properly into account by judges when they pass sentence.
Finally, witnesses should not be penalised by their employers for taking time off work to give evidence or to assist criminal justice agencies in the investigation or prosecution of a crime.
Some of these points are already contained in the existing Code for Victims.
But backing them by law would a huge step forward. Without it, I fear many people whose lives have been blighted by crime will see little real improvement in how they are treated.
The evidence suggests the public agrees. While 80 per cent of people feel the system is fair to those accused of committing a crime, just 36 per cent say it meets the needs of a victim of crime. Studies have also found that confidence in the justice system falls by 10 per cent after someone has become a victim of crime, while over one in two families of murder victims feel the Crown Prosecution Service is ‘aloof’ and ‘unsupportive’ of their needs.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling deserves much credit for going further than any of his predecessors in championing victims with new laws to take more money from criminals and from salaries paid to working prisoners to fund victim services.
I welcome the appointment of Baroness Helen Newlove as Victims Commissioner. But I remain sceptical that others understand the need to ensure delivery on the ground matches the rhetoric in Whitehall.
Government reshuffles can be interpreted in many ways but for me there was only one headline last week: three Victims’ Ministers in three years. I often wonder if those at the very top who have never been personally exposed to the grim reality of our criminal justice system do really ‘get it’.
A few days ago, in the House of Commons, I listened to people who know the often awful truth – victims themselves and those who support them.
Their questions said it all. Why is there an expert witness to explain to jurors the learning difficulties of a man accused of rape but not for the woman who has accused him?
Why do some prosecutors sit on their hands when a vulnerable witnesses is bullied and badgered for hours on end by aggressive defence lawyers?
What gives some judges the right not to bother to agree before a trial begins the kind of questions lawyers can ask a child abuse victim and what support that child might need ?
The only answer is that the scales of justice have for too long been tipped in favour of criminals and the agencies of the state which uphold the system.
Take the case of Douglas and Josephine Manwaring. Their daughter was brutally murdered 20 years ago but when they wrote to the Parole Board considering her killer’s application to be released, their views that he should remain in jail were censored and silenced.
This family was effectively told by the justice system that they did not matter and should not have a voice.
In my own constituency, victims of Bradley Wernham, one of Britain’s most prolific burglars who committed over 600 offences, were never contacted or consulted by the authorities who decided among themselves to let him go free.
Today, I am releasing a report, alongside the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling. The report has been compiled with contributions from charities that represent victims of crime, and it is heartbreaking to read the countless examples of the mistreatment and lack of care for victims and their families.
In so many instances, the trauma of a trial and the lack of proper support means that victims are effectively being repeatedly re-victimised by the justice system. There are, of course, some excellent examples where victims have been afforded the dignity, care and support they need. But sadly, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. The police, Crown Prosecution Service, parole boards and courts must take a long hard look at themselves, and in everything they do keep victims at the forefront of their mind.
To fill the void, charities and peer-to-peer support groups have sprung up to help victims of crime, such as Victim Support which celebrates its 40th anniversary next year. Their chief executive, Javed Khan, writes powerfully in my report about the scourge of child sexual exploitation and the work of his Young Witness Service.
The report includes the views of other organisations too who have the authority to speak up for victims and the Government and criminal justice agencies must listen to their criticisms. I believe that this country should become a world leader in supporting victims of crime. A Victims’ Law for this country would set us on that path. But most importantly, it would let victims know that they matter and that the criminal justice system is on their side.