Tories plan victims' charter

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The Independent Online
VICTIMS OF crime should be assigned their own police officer, lawyer and access to police files to allow them to take out a private prosecution, the Tories urged yesterday.

In her first big policy announcement as the shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe said the public had been badly let down by the Crown Prosecution Service's bureaucracy and its failure to pursue cases. The family of Stephen Lawrence, who took out a failed private prosecution, would have benefited from the changes her party proposed, she said. Stephen was murdered in south-east London by a gang of white racists.

To prevent victims from becoming the "forgotten statistics of crime", they would be given four "absolute rights" to ensure police openness if the Conservatives won power.

Under a "Victims First" policy, they would have the right to inspect witness statements held on file and be allocated a named police officer and named CPS lawyer to keep them informed on the progress of their case.

She said people should not be deterred from taking out private prosecutions because of lack of information from police on their case.

"It is time to put victims first. At present the system is letting them down and this Labour Government has done nothing to stand up for their interests," she said. "Crime causes deep distress and upset for many tens of thousands of people each year. Whilst we cannot hope to relieve this entirely, Victims First provides a process by which their questions can be answered and their concerns addressed."

She said the Lawrence family, who were repeatedly not kept informed about their case, would have been given more open treatment under the plan.

"There are certainly aspects that would have helped. As far as [the Lawrences] could see, nothing was happening. If they had been entitled to their own progress reports, it could have helped them," she added.

Similarly, the public felt "vastly let down" by some CPS decisions and its bureaucracy.

Norman Brennan, the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, a charity that has acted for the family of James Bulger, the two-year-old murdered in Liverpool by two older boys, backed the plans. PC Brennan, a former robbery squad officer, said: "This is the first time I have heard of victims of crime being put first.

"We seem to have an emphasis in this country to put the offender first - which I as a police officer and a rational person think should happen - but why is it that victims should also be at the back of the queue?"

Miss Widdecombe denied the proposals would waste police time as victims pursued officers with their case.

"They are having to take the phone calls anyway. What is happening is that, when victims make the phone calls, they are getting frustrating answers because they do not have access to the same person and they do not know who to ask for."

The right to see witness statements would be restricted in a small number of cases to avoid possible reprisals against suspects or witnesses, she added.

Paul Boateng, a Home Office minister, said the Tories had forgotten that during their own time in office they had neglected victims and set up the bureaucratic CPS system.

Labour had increased funding for victim support by 50 per cent to pounds 19 million, enough to provide a specialist adviser in every magistrates' court, Mr Boateng said.

"We have created a new local chief crown prosecutor position in every police force area to improve co-ordination and ensure a better service for the victims of crime," he said.

"Ann Widdecombe is suffering from Rip Van Winkle syndrome. Whilst she was asleep in the Home Office, victims were being neglected."