All 1 Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe contributions to the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024

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Mon 18th Dec 2023

Victims and Prisoners Bill Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Victims and Prisoners Bill

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Excerpts
Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Haslemere, on a very wise maiden speech. He will clearly bring to this House a great wealth of experience, and I am very glad to add my welcome to others.

This is clearly a much-needed Bill, and today’s many contributions show how important it is that the Bill achieves its aim of increasing support for victims of crime and strengthening their voice. I think the interest in this Bill also reflects how far it still needs to go to achieve that aim. As has been said, the victims of crime have been waiting a long time for this legislation. We owe it to them to ensure the Bill is able to deliver.

It is also now a very wide-ranging Bill, but I want to focus my remarks on Part 1 and the duty to collaborate, particularly in regard to victim support services. Like other noble Lords, I have received emails and briefings from advocacy groups raising concerns about the Bill, and I am particularly grateful for the briefing from Refuge. As Refuge highlights, the Bill presents a vital opportunity to improve survivors’ access to life-saving community-based domestic abuse services. These specialist services provide practical and emotional support to survivors in a safe and local setting, yet many of these services are desperately underfunded, leading to what the domestic abuse commissioner earlier this year highlighted as a patchwork of provision and a postcode lottery when accessing support.

The Bill before us seeks to improve collaboration between commissioners of victim support services via the “duty to collaborate” and has benefited from amendments requiring duty holders to conduct joint strategic needs assessments. But this duty to collaborate must be supported by adequate, sustainable funding. Without new funding to stop the gaps identified by the JSNAs, the Bill—as Refuge highlights—will

“fail to deliver meaningful change for survivors of domestic abuse”.

Increased funding for victim and witness support services to the tune of £147 million a year to 2024-25 from the Ministry of Justice is not ring-fenced to domestic services, and Refuge tells us that existing commitments are insufficient to meet the demand for specialist domestic abuse services. Can the Minister provide any assurance on a commitment to amending the duty to collaborate Clauses 12 to 14 to introduce adequate, sustainable funding for specialist domestic abuse community-based services? The Women’s Aid Federation England has put this figure as at least £238 million a year.

In 2022, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner found that fewer than half of survivors who want to access community-based services are able to do so. Underfunding of community-based services and inadequate contracts often mean that service providers have to rely on insecure, fundraised income. So can the Minister equally offer any assurances on requiring services commissioned via the duty to be delivered on sustainable contract terms of at least three years?

This Bill is also a vital opportunity to strengthen children’s rights to safety and justice. We must not waste this opportunity. Children are disproportionately victims and survivors of the most serious crimes, yet the criminal justice system is not set up to meet children’s needs. National data tends to report on crime trends for those aged 16 and over, so those younger than this are not reflected in the way services are designed and commissioned. As the Children’s Commissioner highlights in her powerful briefing for this debate, a child in care, a child living in a mental health setting, and a child in custody all have the right to request an advocate; yet this is not extended to child victims of the most serious crimes.

In 2022, only 1% of clients accessing IDVA—independent domestic violence advocate—services were under the age of 18, despite the high prevalence of domestic abuse in this age group. The Children’s Commissioner highlights the lack of investment in, and patchy provision of, child independent domestic violence advisers, or child independent sexual violence advisers. These advisers not only work with children to help them understand the criminal justice process and provide much-needed emotional and well-being support, but serve as a vital point of contact with criminal justice agencies. I am glad that in Part 1, under the duty to collaborate, there will now be an explicit requirement to have regard to the particular needs of certain victims such as children. But the Bill needs to go further. Can the Minister offer any assurance that the Bill will ensure that every child victim of the most serious crimes will be offered a specialist advocate, thereby bringing child victims’ rights into line with their entitlements in other systems?

The Children’s Commissioner estimates that one in 15 children under the age of 17 lives in an abusive household, while nearly half of potential victims of modern slavery referred to the national referral mechanism are under 18. Child criminal exploitation is the most common referral reason.

I believe that all child victims should be represented in this Bill, and children who have been criminally exploited, such as those who have been coerced into county-lines drug dealing—an issue that has previously been raised in this House—are victims of abuse. Yet children victimised through criminal exploitation do not always get the support they need. There is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation, so there is a risk that children who are forced to commit crimes are punished rather than safeguarded as victims. A definition of CCE, with guidance following, would help improve the identification of children at risk and allow for better assessment of need. Does the Minister agree that introducing a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation through this Bill would ensure that we see such children as victims first and foremost?