Priti Patel is an elected Member of the Conservative Party Board, the 1922 Committee’s Executive and the Public Administration Select Committee. She is also a member of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Witham.
The Conservative Party has a long and proud tradition of being a party of law and order. We believe in fairness in the criminal justice system and strong punishments for those found guilty of crimes. New reforms introduced by this Government have followed that fine tradition. Those caught in public with knives can expect mandatory custodial terms. Offenders found guilty of a second serious violent or sexual crime can expect a mandatory life sentence. We’re looking to legislate for life sentences for those involved in human trafficking. And some of the most dangerous prisoners will no longer be automatically released half-way through their sentence.
Our streets are being made safer as crime is falling and the era of soft justice being dispensed by our criminal justice system is being brought to an end. There remains more to do to restore confidence in the justice system, including the reform of the ridiculous human rights laws that defy common sense. But Conservatives in the Coalition Government are making a real difference in the fight against crime – and doing so while keeping tight controls on public spending.
Dealing with offenders – both in terms of punishment and rehabilitation – is one side of the criminal justice system. The other side of the system is the victims of their crimes and how they are treated. At the moment, we measure the success of the criminal justice system predominantly through examining reductions in the crime rates. But going forward we should also examine the way victims feel about the justice system and the services they receive as an important measure of its performance.
Historically, the justice system has not always provided victims with the comprehensive and consistent levels of service and support that they need and deserve. Results from the British Crime Survey have shown that, over much of the last decade, around one-third of the public believed that the criminal justice system met the needs of victims. Statistically, that is simply not good enough, and when you hear of some of the many cases in which victims have felt failed by the agencies that should be protecting them the case for reform is obvious.
In my constituency, I am currently supporting a resident whose 12 year old son was threatened in the local park with a knife by a drug-addicted alcoholic with previous convictions. The offender was bailed at a court hearing and my constituent only found out about this outcome from a local newsagent, instead of from the police or Crown Prosecution Service. In another case, a constituent’s son was murdered abroad, and the bereaved family has received very little assistance as they faced considerable costs to attend the trial and suffered from a lack of information being provided.
It is because of cases like these that I introduced to Parliament a Bill in December 2011 that would have legislated to give victims of crime more rights and access to better services. Since then, the Government has introduced a new Code of Practice for victims of crime, which goes some way to improving the services for victims and raising awareness among the agencies that work within the criminal justice system of the needs of victims. The new Code came into force in December, was welcomed by Victim Support and will make a positive difference to many victims of crime.
Just as Conservatives in Government are transforming the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders for the better, we can be proud of the new help being given to victims. But we must not be complacent and, going into the next election, we need to look at what further action we can take to help victims of crime, including the introduction of a new Victims’ Law. Such a law would strengthen the rights of victims and reassure them that the criminal justice system is fair to them. It would be an opportunity to reinforce the provisions in the Code and help improve public confidence in the justice system.
The Labour Party, with their abysmal track record on justice issues, have now woken up and realised that victims deserve more from the justice system. Last month, they announced that former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, would lead a review into the treatment of victims. But Labour has no credibility on this issue, and we need to make sure that the public are made aware of the shallowness of their actions. They are the party that passed the Human Rights Act, which has left many victims bemused as the courts and judges in Europe use it to protect dangerous offenders, murderers and rapists.
Keir Starmer’s involvement will also raise eyebrows. While he now talks about the importance of victims in the justice system and their rights, the CPS under his watch came up short on many occasions. Research from Policy Exchange highlighted how there were over 152,000 cases in 2011/12 which the CPS dropped, meaning that those victims did not see justice done in the courts, while one-in-four cases handed to them by the police were not proceeded with. It also exposed the questionable reasons for the CPS deciding not to prosecute the overwhelming majority of those involved in trespass and criminal damage at Fortnum and Mason during the student protests in March 2011. Victims of crime expect to see offenders face justice in the courts, not be let off by prosecutors unwilling to prosecute.
Moreover, the CPS was also accused under his time as DPP of ‘hiding’ complaints made about it, including one in which a prosecutor failed to take account of new evidence provided by the victim in a domestic violence case. Alarmingly, the CPS then dropped a number of charges in exchange for a guilty plea on a charge of threatening or abusive behaviour and have since apologised for their actions. In a separate case, the CPS failed to prosecute Tony McLernon for attempting to strangle his pregnant partner, who then murdered her two months later.
The public expects the CPS to treat victims of crime with respect and courtesy. This was not happening to the high standard that victims deserve while Keir Starmer led that organisation, and he should take responsibility for those failings.
While Labour cannot be taken seriously when it comes to victims of crime, the Conservative Party must continue to set the agenda in this policy area and continue to put the victims of crime first.