Dame Vera Baird resigns as victims’ commissioner

Dame Vera Baird pictured at the Ministry of Justice, London - Photographer: Rii Schroer
Dame Vera Baird pictured at the Ministry of Justice, London - Photographer: Rii Schroer

Dame Vera Baird has quit as victims’ commissioner, as she criticises the government for letting down victims over rape, burglary and theft.

In a resignation letter to the new Justice Secretary, Brandon Lewis, she accused the Government of sidelining her and downgrading victims’ interests.

She said the criminal justice system was in “chaos” but added that she could not stay on given the way she and victims had been treated by the Government.

She revealed she had not had any access or meetings with his predecessor, Dominic Raab, for the eight months since February when she was told she would not be reappointed and would have to reapply for the three-year post, unlike her predecessor.

“The lack of engagement from the top at a time of great upheaval for victims reflected poorly on the MoJ’s priorities and the Government’s approach,” she wrote.

This was followed in July by an announcement by Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, that the appointment process was being aborted and rerun even though she had been told by MoJ officials she was an “appointable” candidate.

'Catastrophic backlog'

She was invited to re-apply but she described it as a “ploy to keep me in place as a nominal post-holder in the short-term [rather] than a genuine invitation” as the Government had passed up two chances to reappoint her and she no longer had access to ministers.

“Coupled with this, the Victims’ Bill remains inadequate and the ‘British Bill of Rights’ so severely threatens victims’ human rights that it undermines what little progress the Victims’ Bill is set to bring,” she said.

“I am told the Bill of Rights is set to return in some form and that its withdrawal was only temporary. Further, little has been done to effectively tackle the enormous and catastrophic backlog of cases, particularly in the Crown Court where the most serious crimes are tried.

“This has exposed victims of these crimes to intolerable delay, anguish and uncertainty. It is no exaggeration to say that the criminal justice system is in chaos.

“This downgrading of victims’ interests in the government’s priorities, along with the side-lining of the Victims’ Commissioner’s office and the curious recruitment process make clear to me that there is nothing to be gained for victims by my staying in post beyond the current extension.”

Dame Vera, who took up the post in June 2019, said she now intended to leave the post on September 30.

With interviews for a replacement commissioner not scheduled until December, victims could be left without a watchdog to represent their interests and hold the Government to account for more than six months.

'Dire state of rape investigations'

Allies of Dame Vera suggested she had been driven out after a change of regime following her appointment by then Justice Secretary David Gauke under Theresa May’s premiership.

She has been an outspoken critic of prosecutors’ and police approach to rape investigations which have seen charging rates plummet to a record low of just one in 70 offences. In her first annual report, she said it amounted to the effective decriminalisation of rape.

In her letter, she cited her shining a spotlight on the “dire state of rape investigations and prosecutions” and “woeful” charging rates as evidence of how significant the victims’ commissioner role was in driving forward reform for victims.

As a result, this had seen new privacy safeguards against intrusive and excessive requests for victims’ personal data, and the roll-out of pre-recorded video evidence to spare victims the trauma of appearing in court with their alleged attacker.

“I urge you to reaffirm the government’s commitment to the ambitions of the rape review to drive charging rates back to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament,” said Dame Vera.

Mr Raab said: “I am proud to have published the Victims Bill, seen an increase in rape convictions of two-thirds over the last year, and secured a quadrupling in funding for victims compared to 2010.

"The victims' commissioner role is important, and we re-ran the process because, in all honesty, we wanted a stronger field of candidates, and were confident in getting one."