Sitting in her cramped office just a stone’s throw from the Ministry of Justice in Westminster, Dame Vera Baird is unapologetic about her outspoken criticism of police, prosecutors, courts and government for letting down victims.
The victims’ commissioner has just put the finishing touches to a no-holds-barred resignation letter accusing the Government of sidelining her and downgrading victims’ interests.
Struggling to contain her anger, the career barrister, former solicitor general and ex-police and crime commissioner is quitting in defiance at what she sees as shoddy treatment by the Government that has left her as no more than a “nominal place-holder”.
She has twice been told to reapply for her job as the watchdog for victims, which is now subject to an open competition, and says she has had no access to the Secretary of State for Justice since February, when then holder of the post Dominic Raab told her she was not being reappointed.
“The lack of engagement from the top at a time of great upheaval for victims reflects poorly on the Ministry of Justice’s priorities and the Government’s approach,” she says. “Asking me to re-apply, given that two opportunities to re-appoint me have already passed and my office is no longer given much access to ministers, seems more a ploy to keep me in place as a nominal post-holder in the short-term than a genuine invitation.”
Many of Dame Vera’s criticisms of the criminal justice system chime with what ministers and police now acknowledge: that charging rates for crimes like burglary are “shamefully low”; that more back-to-basics policing and bobbies on the beat are needed; that the system is currently failing rape victims; and that the court backlogs are adding to victims’ anguish.
However, the apparent breakdown in relations means she will now leave her post on September 30, which could leave victims with a six-month gap where there will be no official national watchdog to champion their interests and hold the Government to account.
“I don’t want to be seen to be abandoning victims but the fact is I haven’t talked to the Secretary of State for eight months,” she says. “The victims’ bill has disappeared into the ether but hopefully will come back. Little has been done to effectively tackle the enormous backlogs that expose victims to intolerable delay, anguish and uncertainty. And the barristers’ strike has just brought it to a complete deadlock.
“It’s just this complete failure. They’re not looking after victims and they’re not letting us have access. What role am I playing since I know they are not going to appoint me? I am just holding the spot, taking the money.”
The choice of Dame Vera Baird, 72, as victims’ commissioner was always an unusual political fit. Self-avowedly more a Brownite than a Blairite, she was a high-flying barrister within New Labour, succeeding the former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam as MP in the north-east constituency of Redcar in 2001 before being appointed solicitor general by Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010.
Lancashire-born, she says that her affiliation with the north-east of England, where she was also Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner (PCC), comes down to the fact that she “fell in love with a bloke who lived in the north east” – her first husband David Taylor-Gooby. They divorced and she remarried although her second husband, Robert Baird, died a year later from complications following open heart surgery.
As a young barrister in the 1970s, she earned a reputation as a campaigner, even donating her fees to support the cause of local residents in the Northumberland country park of Druridge Bay against nuclear waste disposal, as well as representing political protesters at Greenham Common, other peace camps and on anti-apartheid marches.
One of her personal passions throughout her life has been running. Even now, every other morning she heads for the parks, woodland and open ground around her home in north London, keeping track of her distances and times, around 6km (3.7 miles) each run, on her Fitbit. “I run in the morning, it really sets you up for the day. It’s just that kind of whole challenge in the fresh air. You do get a buzz.” Her favourite film is Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning tale of two Olympic athletes’ rivalry.
After Labour’s defeat in 2010, Dame Vera spent seven years as Northumbria’s PCC where she persuaded burly north-east bouncers to become guardians of vulnerable women in the night-time economy. They became so enthused by their mission that they wore little badges with images of open arms. It was in 2019 that she decided to apply to be victims’ commissioner, one of six candidates including Conservative nominees. She was appointed by David Gauke, then justice secretary, and Theresa May, then prime minister. Dame Vera replaced Baroness Newlove, a Conservative peer who served as England and Wales’s first victims’ commissioner for seven years after being reappointed.
“I was extremely impressed with Theresa May and the attitude she took to domestic abuse – there would not be the domestic abuse legislation there is if it hadn’t been for Theresa May,” says Dame Vera. “I was interviewed by David Gauke and we discussed whether politics was relevant and both of us decided it wasn’t in this role.”
Indeed, she maintains she has been “punctilious in making sure politics doesn’t come into anything I do as victims commissioner. I have criticised the Government as I would have criticised any other government, if they have done anything wrong and praised them when they took on section 28,” a reference to the rollout of pre-recorded cross examinations on video to spare rape victims the trauma of court appearances.
Her four-year tenure has, however, seen unprecedented political and social upheaval, taking in three prime ministers and four justice secretaries, not to mention the Covid pandemic locking down the criminal justice and courts system, and now an economic and cost of living crisis. At the very least, it means none of the current ministerial incumbents have any political capital invested in her, while the new governments have turned their backs on the more “liberal” approach espoused by Gauke, her first secretary of state.
That has not stopped her being a vocal defender of victims’ rights, not least over the crisis of confidence in policing in London. As victims’ commissioner, she says her lowest point came when she was at a neighbour’s house for supper and the news broke that it was a police officer who had murdered Sarah Everard.
“I can remember when we heard she’d been killed by a police officer,” she says. “It was very clear that the authorities were really going to have to grasp this issue – that the safeguarding of young girls on the street is really not being attended to. Young women would tell me they were harassed on the street, and I would ask: ‘Why didn’t you report it to the police?’ The reply would be because they don’t even prosecute rape: ‘They never take any notice of me,’ they’d say.
“There’s a general, low sense of how the police look after women in a public or a private place. Women have got nowhere to go where the police will take them seriously. So you knew there was going to be an enormous crescendo that was going to compel the authorities to look at why the police were so bad at this.”
In addition, Dame Vera says the police still have a way to go to tackle domestic abusers and sexual predators within their own ranks, partly due to the poor screening of recruits. It was an issue exposed by Everard’s killer Wayne Couzens’ transfer to the Metropolitan Police, despite previous evidence of his misogyny, and is expected to be the subject of a damning HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report next month.
She recalls how, at one force, senior officers placed an officer accused of domestic abuse on “light duties”. “That may be an appropriate way to react as an employer but it’s wholly contrary to reassuring the victim that anything is going to be done about this individual by the very people who put him on light duties and will probably send him home to her,” she says.
Dame Vera notably claimed in her first annual report that rape had been “effectively decriminalised” as perpetrators were being convicted in just one in 100 cases. Asked if she still believed this to be the case, she says: “The data speaks for itself. Prosecutions have increased a very little bit but given they crashed by 2,000 cases a year over two years, it isn’t promising.”
What is promising, she says, is the roll out of Operation Soteria by forces including the Met, where officers focus on investigating rape suspects’ patterns of behaviour before, during and after reported attacks rather than testing the victim’s credibility, which has been blamed for the increase in victims withdrawing from cases.
“You just have to read the latest reports – by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services – on women who’ve had their entire phone downloaded and scrutinised, their school reports, their medical records and any therapy they’ve taken scrutinised right the way through and the defendant is not even arrested,” she says. “The police take every other kind of offence seriously and believe it. You call them to your house and say you’ve been burgled even if there’s no sign it’s been done. They don’t start to ask people about their background to see if they can suss out whether you’ve lied in your past. They take it and deal with it. Rape is quite different. It’s very misogynistic. It happens to men, but it’s primarily about women.”
Dame Vera backs the Government’s rape review which has seen pre-recorded video evidence rolled out, specialist rape courts trialled, millions invested in specialist advisers for victims of sex crimes and performance tables exposing delays. But she warns that these are, as yet, “the tiniest of steps”. “These are the seeds of returning it to be a criminal offence that’s taken seriously by the authorities but there needs to be a huge amount of political will to drive this through,” she adds.
She remains unconvinced that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has changed enough from “failing to prosecute a very large number of men because they had insufficient faith in the complainers”. “I am unaware of any sense that they have admitted getting anything wrong and need to do more,” she says.
Every burglary victim should be visited by police officers, says Dame Vera, admitting that this week’s report into the Met’s failure to respond to and investigate neighbourhood crime was “pretty breathtaking” in exposing that “police don’t appear to be doing bread-and-butter policing properly”.
Police underestimated the trauma of burglary and theft at their peril. “People can get into a position where they don’t feel safe in their own home,” she says. “And they don’t feel safe going out of it in case it’s burgled while they’re away. To have dealt with it with such disregard surprises me. This is policing by consent – no victim is consenting to this kind of treatment.”
A lot of the blame for the plunging charging rates for burglary and street theft – which have at least halved from 10.8 per cent to 5.4 per cent and 2.6 per cent to 1.3 per cent in six years – she apportions to the decimation of neighbourhood policing and loss of experienced officers.
“When we had neighbourhood policing, they were a deterrent for neighbourhood crime, and a massive source of intelligence,” she says. “You would get a little word from somebody on the street, who might disclose there was some serious drug dealing going on at number six.”
It has all led to the public feeling “remote” from the police who have lost a “great deal” of the public’s trust, she says. “Police have become detached from the people that they police in the communities they occupy, which means people may be reluctant to come forward to help catch criminals.”
In Northumbria, whose force received a glowing HM inspection report this week, she says she resisted cuts to neighbourhood policing, tried to increase the focus on victims and trialled independent rape advisers, a scheme that is now being expanded nationwide.
Asked if it was right for London mayor Sadiq Khan to force out Dame Cressida Dick as Met commissioner, she is reluctant to comment except to indicate that the politicisation of policing is wrong. “There are two sides to this, I’m afraid I think politics is intensely involved in one way or another.” Asked if that was good or bad, she fires back: “It’s a very bad thing.”
As a barrister, she is loathe to comment on live cases but, when asked about Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man shot dead by a police officer in London, she says the Met should be “completely open with the family” and that watchdogs investigating it needed to “speed up” their inquiry from the current six- to eight-month timescale.
She doesn’t take sides on the barristers’ strike but is critical of the Government for failing to resolve it despite being told in a Ministry of Justice-commissioned report last November that there was an urgent need to deliver a 15 per cent rise in their fees. “The Crown Court is going to come to a complete halt if it hasn’t done that already,” she says.
Her biggest fear is that longer court delays will lead to more victims dropping out of prosecutions and potentially dangerous offenders being released from jail onto the streets before being sentenced. “Take rape,” she says. “The CPS convicts about 70 per cent of the men they get to court, so that is 70 per cent of people who are not going to get to court for rape who are getting out on the streets because custody time units are not going to be lengthened.”
She pulled no punches in her letter to Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis. “The downgrading of victims’ interests in the Government’s priorities, along with the sidelining 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. As such, my term will end on 30 September.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the criminal justice system is in chaos.”