After a career of nearly 50 years, Vera Baird is still fighting for change
Vera Baird (Credit: Simon Hadley / Alamy Stock Photo)
The common theme weaving through Vera Baird’s long and varied career is her tendency to advocate for the rights of others. While her job title has changed – from criminal barrister to Queen’s Counsel, from Redcar’s MP to solicitor general, and from police and crime commissioner to victims’ commissioner – Baird’s drive for social justice appears unwavering.
The House joins Baird in a sunny Portcullis House office during recess. Looking out over the London Eye, she is reflecting on the landmark case that made her confident she could continue to make change through politics.
“Emma Humphreys was a young girl who had had a very straightforward upbringing and fallen in with a man much older than herself. He raped her, he controlled her, he pimped her,” she says. One night, the man had brought friends round intending group sex. Humphreys, 16 years old at the time, stabbed him, and was later convicted of murder. “By the time I got involved with that case, she was in some dusty corner of Holloway, and had been for a decade,” Baird says.
When Baird entered Parliament, she was able to present Humphreys’ case to the Law Commission, who were looking at the law of murder at the time. Baird succeeded in changing the law to make it easier for women who had not lost their temper, but had struck out in fear, to have a real defence and less easy for men who had lost their temper to not be convicted of murder. “That kind of first achievement really buoyed me up into thinking: I got this right, there are things I can do,” she says proudly.
I am afraid the government has systematically starved the criminal justice system of sufficient funding
Baird went on to become solicitor general in 2007, but was displaced when she lost her Redcar seat in the 2010 general election. Baird describes holding the role of solicitor general while a member of the governing party as “curious”. However, she was adamant that the law took precedence over politics. “I had to advise people: ‘I know this is Labour policy, but actually, I don’t think you can do it legally.’ That is a strange position really; you’re a lawyer first and a politician second,” she says.
After serving as Northumbria police and crime commissioner for seven years, Baird became victims’ commissioner for England and Wales in 2019.
“My role as victims’ commissioner was obviously completely politically neutral,” she says. “We worked on the biggest possible list of victims’ organisations so we knew what was wanted in each kind of criminalisation at any stage, and then I had to act as a conduit to the people who were delivering the services: the police, the crown prosecution service, the judiciary, and overwhelmingly to ministers to say, ‘you need to do this for victims’.”
Some ministers, in Baird’s view, were easier to work with than others. While Baird describes her interactions with Robert Buckland, then secretary of state for justice, as frequent and productive, she is less praiseworthy about Buckland’s successor, Dominic Raab.
“I felt that we were making real progress. But when [Buckland] went out and the secretary of state changed, I saw [Raab] once online with the domestic abuse commissioner to have an introduction. We talked briefly about one or two issues in a half hour, which I thought was just a preliminary chat. And then I never saw him again.”
The next time Baird met Raab was in January last year, when he called her in to Parliament to tell her he would be putting her role out to competition, and encouraged her to reapply. Baird since learned that Raab blocked her application from progressing through to the next stage of the recruitment process. How did that feel? “It was not personally upsetting because it was political from the start,” she says.
As far as Baird knows, the victims’ commissioner role still lies empty today. “The last thing I heard was that they had advertised for applicants, which would be the second or the third time that they say they have done that, because the first time around, of course, he invited me to apply even though we now know, he blocked it when I did,” she says.
The Ministry of Justice has said it expects to appoint a new victims’ commissioner in the spring, and told The House: “Victims of crime have the government’s unwavering commitment which is why we are quadrupling funding for support services, recruiting 1,000 Independent Sexual Violence Advisers and launched a 24/7 rape and sexual abuse helpline. The Deputy Prime Minister offered Dame Vera a contract extension until the end of 2022 which she declined and she was then invited to reapply for her role.”
While the Office of the Victims’ Commissioner says it is “committed to ensuring the interests of victims and witnesses continue to be represented at the highest levels during this interim period”, Baird fears the impact her vacant role has made on victims. “[The] role as victims’ commissioner had collapsed in terms of its efficacy and in terms of its ability to deliver some improvement for this huge cohort of victims,” she says. “Note too, that my erstwhile colleague, the modern slavery commissioner, left last April and hasn’t been replaced. They are damaging victims through this legislation.”
The lack of perceived concern for victims is symptomatic of a criminal justice system that is failing, claims Baird. “It is in chaos,” she says bluntly. “There are record backlogs in the courts, despite the fact that charging of cases has collapsed. How on earth they managed to sustain huge backlogs when so little is being taken seriously enough to lay a charge is a great puzzle. I am afraid the government has systematically starved the criminal justice system of sufficient funding.”
While Baird feels we are living with “gesture politics” and “insufficient leadership and attention being delivered” to victims under the current government, her new role gives her renewed power to make positive change. In January, Baird joined Labour’s women and equalities team, working with shadow secretary Anneliese Dodds and Baroness Thornton, shadow spokesperson for women and equalities in the Lords. Baird has gone full circle to her days as an MP, where she advanced the 2010 Equalities Act through the Commons. “I am very pleased and proud to be taking a fairly backroom role in this,” she says, adding it gives her the chance to get her equalities knowledge back up to speed.
As well as travelling to Australia to consult the Queensland government on whether they should employ a victims’ commissioner, she is working on her writing, and hints a publisher is interested in producing a book on her views about victims’ policy.
The House leaves Baird as she is considering writing a blog post recommending the sentence of David Carrick, the police officer convicted of multiple counts of rape, be revised.
“When all comes to all, I am an advocate – that is what I spent 20 years of my youth doing,” she says, “and so, I want to keep arguing for change that still needs to be done.”
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