Rotherham nightmare must wake us up to the horrors too many victims face

In a week when our nation’s eyes are fixed towards Scotland, we cannot afford for recent events in Rotherham to be forgotten.

Three weeks since Professor Alexis Jay’s explosive report exposed the scale of child exploitation in Rotherham, the tremors from the horrendous revelations are still being felt; last week the Chief Executive of Rotherham Council became the latest person to step down.

What happened in Rotherham needs to be investigated and the perpetrators responsible must be brought to account. That is clear from the gross failures of policing, accountability and basic human decency catalogued in Professor Jay’s report.

Above all however, the nightmare of what those young people went through should make us all wake up to the horrors that too many victims of crime have to endure right across our country.

There are two aspects to this.

The first is that far too many victims simply don’t feel able to come forward. When they do, they face a battle to be listened to.

Rotherham represents many failures, but detection was not one of them. Crimes were brought to the attention of the police. But they weren’t acted upon. When victims did come forward, no-one took them seriously.

It is part of a sorry pattern we’ve seen before – from Savile, to Rochdale, to the gang jailed for life in Oxford last year for grooming vulnerable young girls.

So we need to create a new culture that ensures all victims are protected and listened to - no matter who you are, where you come from or who has wronged you. That is the most basic concept of justice that we have all rightly been brought up to expect.

But secondly, we also need to make getting justice less of an ordeal for victims who do come forward.

For too many victims, reporting a crime represents not the end of their distress, but the beginning of a different one. Too many are left feeling that the criminal justice system is working against them, rather than as a service to protect their rights.

More than half of victims who report crimes do not receive updates about the progress of their case.
No-one is currently responsible for assessing and ensuring the needs of victims are properly met in each region, resulting in a patchy postcode lottery of support services.
And when victims do have their day in court, many are made to feel on trial themselves – from the way many vulnerable witnesses are cross-examined, to the victims of domestic violence who still face having to disclose their safe addresses in open court.

It all adds up to a culture in urgent need of overhaul.

That’s why I’ve been working with Labour’s Victims Taskforce, led by Sir Keir Starmer, to deliver a transformation in how our criminal justice system serves victims. We have said that we will guarantee victims of crime new entitlements through our country’s first ever Victims’ Law.

This will enshrine minimum standards of service in statute, as well as the ability to hold those services to account when standards are not met. It will also serve as a catalyst for wider change in the victims’ experience.

Many of these issues are challenging and complex, but they cannot be ignored. We must replace the culture that failed those young people in Rotherham and build a new one which we can all have confidence in. If recent revelations aren’t spur enough for us all to act, nothing ever will.

This article was first published in the Barnsley Independent on 17th September 2014.