Baroness Newlove: "Nobody should be a statistic – these are human lives"
After more than six years as the Victims Commissioner, Baroness Newlove will leave the post at the end of this month. She talks to Jess Phillips about her fight for victims' rights
Baroness Newlove is not your ordinary Whitehall apparatchik and she is certainly not your ordinary peer of the realm either. I arrive at her office in a perfectly normal Ministry of Justice Office building on petty France. No bells and whistles here, just an office building much like any in the country, which I suppose is fitting for a woman who was given her role as the Victims Commissioner for England by virtue of her ordinariness.
In 2010 after the announcement that she was to enter the House of Lords, Helen Newlove commented that she was “just an ordinary woman, propelled into high profile by a set of horrifying circumstances which I wish with all my heart had never occurred”.
In 2007 Garry Newlove, her husband and the father of her three daughters was murdered outside their home in Warrington, Cheshire. He had confronted a gang of youths who were vandalising her car. This had not been an isolated incident but a long-running campaign of youth gang crime in the Padgate area of the town. The youths repeatedly kicked and punched Garry and he died just a few days later of his injuries. Three youths were sentenced to life imprisonment, two other suspects, also teenagers, were tried for the murder but found not guilty.
When I arrive in her office, we are joined, as is to be expected, by a civil service member of her team, although I am not sure why because Helen Newlove is going to say exactly what she thinks, regardless of guidance. She does not speak or greet me like most government officers might, with a polite handshake and an offer of a cup of tea, she throws her arms around me and gives me a cuddle because the week I interview her, I have myself been a victim of vitriolic abuse and harassment and she wants to hear about that. I guess this approach will define her entire reign as the Victims Commissioner – she understands how to talk to victims and she genuinely cares about how the system treats them.
At the end of this month she is leaving her post as the Victims Commissioner, a role she has had since David Cameron appointed her in 2012. The rules of the role mean that you can only serve two terms, and I get the impression she would gladly stay on if she could. “I've done the two terms. And that's it. Which is sad in my case, because I've had to build it from scratch, but I am leaving it in a better place” she says.
It seems to me that when David Cameron gave her the role there was an element of getting a good day’s PR about it. An ordinary working-class woman with a purposeful if tragic hinterland makes a good day’s press. But Helen Newlove was determined not to just be some fluff story. “I didn't have a desk, I didn't have any staff, I was going back to Number 10 saying this is really ludicrous, because I was passionate about this role. ‘Don't mess with me,’ I told them, ‘that's not respecting victim’. I've got a good solid team, but it has been a moving target. Without sounding too cynical, you have to fight for it to be a real thing rather than them just getting to say, ‘we've done this good thing.’”
That said, she clearly had a good relationship with Cameron and her fondness when talking about him and the years of his administration are clear. “He's not going to be remembered well, but I think that what we're seeing now, the intentions he had, no matter how, in some cases, flawed those intentions might have been. He was passionate about my stuff. I felt like he cared.” She still keeps in touch with the now elusive ex- PM. “He's given me 200%. And still does.” I don’t know why I am surprised perhaps it is because today politics so dominated by Brexit, I have forgotten that Cameron did have a programme of work about improving the country. Baroness Newlove is a reminder that we used to talk about other things.
So how is her relationship with Theresa May? No matter what we say about our current Prime Minister she was the Home Secretary for many of the years that Baroness Newlove occupied the role of Victims Commissioner, they surely have a good relationship? “She stayed the Home Secretary for many years, so give her her due on that one, and she is very thorough.” This seems to be the classic cursory compliment of a teacher to a student, a sort of “they have neat handwriting” compliment. “I think she’s a different personality that we're working with. And so I've not been able to build up a relationship, but I am very grateful for what she did in the Home Office. But for me, my job here is with the Justice Secretary, I've had three of them, which doesn't really send a good message to people, especially when you set up meetings with victims and there’s been a change. But I think that's part of your journey, just about reality of what can happen in government.”
Astonishingly Baroness Newlove, even with her grand title and important job, can still see from her own personal experience how the system fails victims. She tells me two stories of how she was treated poorly, one in the parole hearing of her husband’s killers where she was treated poorly at the prison, and another as a victim of a simple theft. “I'm not having the gold standard, I’m really not. I reported having my purse stolen on a train. The camera could see the thief take my bag. They caught him and he said there was no cash in it. The police officer asked me to provide statements to prove I’d had cash. I gave him all the evidence, because so often the victim has to find all the evidence, but I didn’t send a signed copy because I was all over the country and not at my desk. They said, you know, we can't hang on to this offender, unless I proved I took the money out of a cash machine, it was his word against mine. And I thought no wonder nobody reports a crime.”
Newlove knows things are not perfect but she has effected change. She cites as her proudest achievement her review on what works for victims, which brought together the best available international evidence on what works to support victims in criminal justice system, and highlighted the importance of co-ordination of support services and effective communication. “It's mentioned all the time as we go around to conferences or papers, even in the HDMI inspectorates. So that means that they are recognizing that we need to change the culture of how we treat people in the criminal justice system.”
She wishes she had achieved a Victims Law, something she has long campaigned for. She managed to work to get a pledge in to the Conservative election manifesto, but it is yet to come to fruition. “I have not dropped that baton yet. I'm glad the government now have done the Victim Strategy. But that's just one step. I want victims to have legal rights, for people to recognize what needs to be done.”
It is clear to me from this interview and also Baroness Newlove’s Twitter output that she is not afraid to challenge the Government when she thinks they are wrong. For many working in the field of victims this was a concern – after all, she was a Tory peer, no matter how unconventionally that came to pass. “I'm still not a ‘yes person’. I am independent in this role, I'm very, very insistent that it's independent. I'm grateful that I can challenge the government. And, and I think that's my biggest achievement is that I’ve actually changed things, it’s just never quick enough.”
'I always said Garry would never be a statistic. Nobody should be a statistic, these are human lives'
The week after I interview Baroness Newlove, Vera Baird is announced as her successor. Newlove had nothing to do with the appointment, and in fact had no idea who it was going to be when I asked her. I find this an unusual quirk, that the women who put the role on the map gave up so much of her personal life to building the role was allowed no input or even knowledge of who might take her work forward. Vera Baird QC has a prestigious hinterland – a QC, as compared to Newlove who was a legal secretary, a former MP and Minister of State and most recently a Police and Crime Commissioner with quite the reputation for defending victims, especially of sexual and domestic violence.
Baird is a serious player and a serious woman, who comes from the opposite political side to Newlove. They are quite different but if anything Vera Baird’s appointment should be a testament to what Newlove fought to create – a job that would be taken seriously, would challenge and be independent.
“I always said Garry would never be a statistic. Nobody should be a statistic, these are human lives.” As she passes the baton, while systems may still have a long way to go before they truly improve, I think she has certainly made it so that victims matter.