HC Deb 30 June 1982 vol 26 cc903-6

4 pm

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to improve the help given to victims of violent crime. All hon. Members, especially those representing urban areas, will be aware of the appalling growth of violent crime in our towns and cities. Rarely does a weekend go by in my constituency without disturbing news of someone being mugged or someone's home being broken into, lives shattered and people left helpless after gangs of marauding youngsters have ransacked homes for little or no financial gain. On Merseyside a home is broken into every 20 minutes. One crime is committed every four minutes. Yet for all the evidence of the scale of the problem, precious little has been done to improve the help that is given to the victim.

My Bill sets out to make a small contribution in three areas and to redress the imbalance between the rights of the offender and the rights of their victim.

First, the Bill would establish statutory victim support schemes in every local authority. It would be their job to complement the work already being done by voluntary organisations which, with the best will in the world, are unable to provide comprehensive cover for the entire country. On Merseyside, volunteers such as Mrs. Joan Jonker of the local Victims of Violence organisation, do an excellent job, but they are the first to point out the inadequacy of simply relying on volunteers.

Under the terms of the Bill, once the police have been notified of an offence, they would immediately get in touch with the victim support unit, which in turn would arrange a visit to the victim. No one should underestimate the value of help, comfort, advice and administrative assistance at a moment of great personal desolation. Yet, at present, apart from the police taking details of the crime, a victim is often left in isolation and fear, haunted by the prospect of their assailant returning. A much more practical and sensitive response is required.

The support unit would assess the needs of the victim and then co-ordinate the response—help perhaps from the DHSS in replacing stolen electricity or gas money or the rent money; perhaps a visit from the doctor if that is needed or a visit from meals on wheels or the home help service, provided through the social services department. The installation of a security system might be needed—something as simple as a lock on the door or a burglar alarm—or help in obtaining sheltered accommodation through the local housing department.

That type of immediate aid, comfort, support and help requires more than voluntary efforts could possibly provide, operating as they do without any major financial backing. The pitiful Government subsidy last year to the National Association of Victim Support Schemes was the princely sum of £23,000, which was divided between the national headquarters and 60 local schemes—about £380 per scheme. There is the strongest possible case to improve that provision. I have tried to impress that view on the Home Secretary and the Ministers at the Department of Health and Social Security when I and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), have been to see those Ministers about the matter.

It is worth mentioning that the last available figures in the House of Commons Library showed that in 1981 349,000 homes were broken into and approximately 15,000 muggings took place. It was further estimated by Roger Berthoud, writing in The Times, that for every pound that is spent on offenders about 1p is spent on victims—a ratio of 100:1. That is a grotesque position. A great deal of sentiment is expressed about victims, but there is no point in being long on sentiment while short on cash. Parliament must make better provision to aid voluntary groups when they exist, and to make statutory provision where they do not.

By way of example of what can be done I should like to pay tribute to Liverpool city council which, following representations from me, has initiated a pilot scheme to provide intruder alarms in the homes of 300 elderly people. However, that is insufficient and the scheme needs to be extended, particularly to all partnership areas. The Secretary of State for the Environment should sponsor more such initiatives through the urban aid programme.

How we treat the vulnerable and the weakest members of our community is a touchstone of a civilised society. If more work was done to prevent crime—for example, by preventing easy access into elderly people's homes—much unnecessary cost in financial as well as human terms might be avoided.

I move now to the second area covered by my Bill. There needs to be a reform of the present terms of reference, scope and practice of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The reforms would include the disclosure of all relevant information by the CICB to victims and their legal advisers that would be helpful or necessary to the victim's application for compensation. There should also be a right of appeal from decisions of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, and local boards should be established for the sake of accessibility and to improve the promptness of investigation and decision. It cannot, be right that two Merseyside mothers whom I met recently had to wait 18 months for their claim to be settled, following the tragic murder of their two sons. It is also well worth remembering that they told the hon. Member for West Derby and me that they had never had, in the time since the tragic events occurred, a visit from a local authority welfare worker or social worker. One of the families was forced to go to a finance company to get a loan to pay for the funeral of the son. That local authority, which was not the Liverpool city council but another Merseyside council, has a duty to implement the type of statutory scheme that I outlined earlier. Along with the reforms that I advocate in the criminal injuries procedure, that would mean that a more compassionate response would be forthcoming.

The Government should also examine the ludicrous situation whereby a victim is unable to claim legal aid when pleading his case before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. There is more than a touch of Gilbertian irony in the present administration of the legal aid system, whereby the offender but not the victim can usually easily claim legal aid. Similarly, the victim should have complete access to information about the injuries he sustained and the circumstances in which the offence was committed. A duty should be placed upon the courts to determine and place on record the victim's injuries.

My third point deals with the relationship of the victim to the legal process. My Bill would enable the victim to appeal against a sentence imposed on an offender which in the view of the victim or his relatives bears no relation to the scale of the injuries sustained. Just as the offender is able to appeal against a sentence because he feels it is too harsh, so the victim should be able to appeal when he believes the sentence is unrealistic. This safeguard would in itself lead to a more rational system of sentencing. Along with many other hon. Members, I greatly regret that our prisons are full to overflowing with vagrants, alcoholics, fine defaulters and prostitutes. They are people who should be receiving help and support from society—not prison sentences. In the case of those who have inflicted suffering and injury on the weak, the elderly and the most vulnerable, society must act to protect them from the perpetrators of such callous, violent crimes.

At present, it would appear that there is no such person in law as the victim of a crime. A victim, in the eyes of the law, appears to be a person who may or may not be called upon to give evidence tending to convict or acquit the person alleged to have committed an offence. If the person is acquitted, the courts appear to have little further interest in the matter, even if the victim has been gravely injured. On the other hand, if the accused person is convicted, the courts may or may not make a compensation order on behalf of the victim. That cannot be done unless an application has been previously lodged. That really is too cavalier a way to treat those who have been on the receiving end of all that has occurred. My Bill sets out to redress the imbalance between the victim and the offender.

In England and Wales there are nearly two and a half times as many cases of wounding every year as there were 10 years ago. Robberies involving violence have doubled in the same period. In London, where nearly one-quarter of all English crimes take place, wounding has increased by 50 per cent. between 1975 and today. Such offences are not confined to London. In Nelson, Lancashire, an 81-year-old woman was killed for the £5 that she had in her home. In Manchester a church service has been switched from the evening to the afternoon because of attacks on members of the congregation.

I end where I began, in Liverpool, with the stories of two constituents. One lady aged 80 years was attacked in her flat and raped. Her screams for help were ignored. The rape took place at 5 o'clock in the morning. By the time a neighbour realised that she was screaming the assailant had escaped. The 80-year-old lady was left physically injured and severely shocked.

The other case concerns a council tenant living on the Chatsworth Street estate in the Edge Hill constituency. He is a man without legs and, therefore, confined to a wheelchair. He said of the break-in of his home: Someone came in the bedroom window and hit me with a cobblestone. He hit me five times. He took 40 cigarettes and the gold watch that was given to me when my legs were taken off. These are only two of many cases but the plight of the victims demonstrates more vividly than any speech why the House should pass the Bill and do more to help those who are victims of our violent and sometimes sick society.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. William Pitt, Mr. Eric Ogden, Mr. David Penhaligon, Mr. Cyril Smith and Mr. James Wellbeloved.