Dame Vera Baird: who is Victims’ Commissioner and what did she say about standing down?

Dame Vera Baird KC has announced her intention to end her term as Victims’ Commissioner - and said the criminal justice system was in ‘chaos’

Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird has announced she will stand down in a scathing letter to the Justice Secretary, saying the criminal justice system is in “chaos” and claiming her office had been sidelined.

She also accused the Government of “downgrading” victims interests in its priorities.

In a letter to Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis, she said under his predecessor, Dominic Raab, she had twice been invited to apply for a second term in the post, which was due to end in June.

She also said she had not met with Mr Raab since she had been invited to reapply.

Dame Vera Baird.
Dame Vera Baird.
Dame Vera Baird.

What did Dame Vera say in her letter?

Dame Vera said despite having received assurances from the Ministry of Justice that she was considered to be an “appointable” candidate, there had still been no appointment and the recruitment process was being re-run.

However, in her letter, she said that unlike her predecessor she was not offered an automatic second term, although she was “strongly encouraged” to apply when it was opened up to competition earlier this year.

“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,” she said.

“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.

“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.

“As such, my term will end on 30 September.”

At the same time she complained of a lack of access to ministers, and that she had not met once with Mr Raab since he invited her to reapply in February.

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

Who is Dame Vera?

Dame Vera, a former Labour MP, solicitor general and police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, was originally appointed to the post championing victims’ rights in 2019.

The role of Victims’ Commissioner is to promote the interests of victims and witnesses, and regularly review the Code of Practice for Victims.

Baird was a government minister from 2006 to 2010 and the Solicitor General for England and Wales from 2007 to 2010. She served as the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria Police from November 2012 to June 2019.

She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to women and equality.

Dame Vera has been a vocal critic of the approach to rape investigations.

In her letter she highlighted some of the work she’s done, saying : “I want to underline how significant this role is in driving forward much-needed change for victims. As Victims’ Commissioner, I have shone a spotlight on the dire state of rape investigations and prosecutions. I secured new privacy safeguards against intrusive and excessive requests for personal mobile phone data in rape investigations. I successfully campaigned for rape victims to pre-record their evidence and cross-examination, sparing them years of anguish awaiting their day in court.”

What else has been said?

Rape Crisis England and Wales said: “Rape Crisis England & Wales would like to extend our thanks to Dame Vera Baird for her commitment and dedication to improving the experiences of rape victims in the criminal justice system and to wish her luck for the future.”

Recruitment is underway for the Victims Commissoner post.

Reacting to the news that Dame Vera’s term is coming to an end, Claire Waxman, London’s Victims Commissioner said in a series of tweets said: “I am hugely disappointed that, for the first time in years, we will not have a National Victims’ Commissioner in post. It’s a critical role to ensure that the interests of victims are championed to help influence much-needed change in this country.

“It’s also a critical moment for victims, with a justice system in crisis as our courts struggle to deliver justice, & the Victims’ Bill finally going through Parliament. Having worked closely with Vera for the past few years, I am very grateful for all the work she has done.

“She has been a tireless advocate. Anyone coming into the role at this stage must have a deep understanding of the challenges in the justice system, a desire to centre voices of victims, & fresh ideas for radically strengthening the Government’s Victims’ Bill.”

Meanwhile, the Telegraph reports that Dominic 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.”