Murder witnesses to be given same support as victims' families under plans to stop 'cycle of brutal offending'

Ministers plan new measures amid warnings of how unaddressed trauma can spark 'retribution'

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
@lizziedearden
Thursday 04 April 2019 16:24
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People who witness fatal stabbings and murders in London will be given the same support as bereaved relatives under new proposals.

The justice secretary, David Gauke, said trauma can fuel a “continued cycle of brutal offending” amid warnings that children exposed to violence at a young age can become more vulnerable to gangs.

Calls for witnesses to be given help have mounted since a spate of bloody street murders, including a man who was stabbed to death in front of children as young as three at a London youth club.

The proposals were unveiled at a summit held at Downing Street as part of what the government is calling a “public health approach” to tackling the causes of violence.

Mr Gauke said mounting evidence suggested that witnessing serious violence, or growing up surrounded by fighting, can lead to severe psychological trauma and acts of retribution.

“Serious violence devastates families and communities, however they encounter it, and can fuel a continued cycle of brutal offending if the consequences are not fully addressed,” he added.

“By improving the treatment of witnesses, through enhanced support from the National Homicide Service and more proactive interventions with vulnerable young people, all those affected by serious violence can have confidence that the justice system will stand by them and ensure criminals are brought to justice.”

New measures being considered by the Ministry of Justice include extending specialist services provided by the National Homicide Service, which were previously open to bereaved relatives, to witnesses of murder and manslaughter.

The change, offering emotional support, counselling, legal advice and funding for court travel costs, is starting in London but may be rolled out to other regions.

Staff at youth offender institutions are to be trained to spot signs of past abuse, exploitation or serious violence experienced by teenage inmates and direct them to support services.

The government is reviewing the Victims’ Code, which sets out entitlements, to make it clearer what support witnesses of serious violent crime can access.

Diana Fawcett, chief officer of the Victim Support charity, welcomed the proposals and added: “As well as the devastating toll that murder and manslaughter can take on the victim’s loved ones, those who witness these tragedies can be left traumatised and in need of support.”

It came after the home secretary launched a consultation on a new legal duty to ensure public bodies, including hospitals and schools, raise concerns about children at risk of becoming involved in knife crime.

Sajid Javid has also enhanced stop and search powers that allow police to challenge people without reasonable grounds for suspicion in areas where violence is expected.

The prime minister announced a ministerial taskforce to coordinate action on serious violence across government departments.

But critics accused her of bearing personal responsibility for rising violence in Britain after implementing “unforgivable” cuts to policing.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation, said the government had left public services “stripped to the bone” and police “firefighting” stabbings and murders.

“The government and the prime minister in particular has to shoulder some of the responsibility for the government’s failed policies,” Mr Apter said after the start of the summit on Monday.

“What she’s done to policing is unforgivable and she’s now seeing the impact of that.”

There were 285 homicides where the method of killing was by a knife or sharp instrument in the year to March 2018 – the highest number since records started in 1946.

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Ms May provoked fury last month when she said there “was no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers”, which have fallen by more than 20,000 since 2010.

The government has hailed a £970m police funding rise for the coming year but senior officers said the boost – mostly generated by council tax increases – is still not enough to cope with the demand they face.