The selection of Dame Vera Baird, 72, as victims’ commissioner was always an unusual political fit. A self-proclaimed more Brownite than a Blairite, she was a high-flying New Labor barrister and succeeded former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam as MP for the North East constituency of Redcar in 2001, before being appointed solicitor-general by Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010.
Lancashire-born, she says her association with the North East of England, where she was also Northumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), comes down to her “falling in love with a guy 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 of complications from open heart surgery.
As a young barrister in the 1970s, she gained a reputation as a campaigner, even donating her fees to support the cause of local residents in Northumberland country park Druridge Bay against nuclear waste disposal, as well as representing political protesters at Greenham Common, other peace camps and at anti-apartheid marches.
One of her personal passions throughout her life has been running. Even now, every other morning, she heads for the parks, woods and open land around her north London home, keeping track of her distances and times, about 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 such a challenge in the fresh air. You get a rush.” Her favorite film is Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning tale of the rivalry between two Olympic athletes.
After Labour’s defeat in 2010, Dame Vera spent seven years as Northumbria’s PCC, persuading powerful North East bouncers to become guardians of vulnerable women in the night-time economy. They got so excited about their mission that they wore little badges with pictures 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’ first victims’ commissioner for seven years after being reappointed.
“I was extremely impressed with Theresa May and her stance on domestic abuse – there wouldn’t be the domestic violence legislation that 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 we both decided it wasn’t in this role.”
Indeed, she maintains that she has been “punctual in ensuring that politics does not come into anything I do as Victims Commissioner. I have criticized the Government as I would have criticized any other Government if they have done something wrong and praised them , when they undertook Section 28,” a reference to the rollout of pre-recorded video cross-examinations to spare rape victims the trauma of court hearings.
However, her four-year tenure has seen unprecedented political and social upheaval, hosting three prime ministers and four justice secretaries, not to mention the Covid pandemic locking down the criminal justice and court system, and now an economic and cost-of-living crisis. At the very least, this means that none of the current ministerial officials have invested political capital in her, while the new governments have turned their backs on the more “liberal” approach advocated by Gauke, her first foreign minister.
That has not stopped her from being a vocal defender of victims’ rights, not least over the crisis of confidence in the police in London. As the Victims’ Commissioner, she says her lowest point came when she was at a neighbor’s house for dinner and the news broke that it was a police officer who had murdered Sarah Everard.
“I remember when we heard that she had been killed by a police officer,” she says. “It was very clear that the authorities really had to get to grips with this issue – that the safeguarding of young girls on the street is really not taken care of. Young women told me they were harassed in the street and I asked, ‘Why didn’t you report it to the police?’ The answer would be because they don’t even prosecute rape: ‘They never take notice of me,’ they would say.
“There is a general, low perception of how the police look after women in a public or private place. Women have nowhere to go where the police will take them seriously. So you knew there would be a huge crescendo that would force the authorities to look at why the police were so bad at this.”
In addition, Dame Vera says the police still have some way to go to tackle abusers and sexual predators within their own ranks, partly because of the poor screening of recruits. It was an issue exposed by Everard’s killer Wayne Couzens’ transfer to the Metropolitan Police, despite earlier evidence of his misogyny, and is expected to be the subject of a damning report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary next month.
She recalls how senior officers in one force placed an officer accused of domestic abuse on “light duties”. “That may be an appropriate way to respond as an employer, but it is completely at odds with assuring the victim that something will be done about this person by the very people who are putting him on light duties and are likely to send him home to her.” she says.
Notably, Dame Vera claimed in her first annual report that rape had been “effectively decriminalised”, with perpetrators convicted in just one in 100 cases. Asked if she still believed that was the case, she says: “The data speaks for itself. The prosecution has gone up a little bit, but when they crashed at 2,000 cases a year over two years, it’s not promising.”
What is promising, she says, is the roll-out of Operation Soteria by forces including the Met, where officers focus on investigating the behavior of violent suspects before, during and after reported attacks rather than testing the credibility of the victim, who has been blamed for the rise in the number of victims withdrawing from cases.
“You just have to read the latest reports – from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services – about women who have had their entire phone downloaded and searched, their school reports, their medical records and all the therapy they’ve taken, searched through, and the defendant hasn’t even been arrested,” she says. “The police take any other type of offense seriously and believe it. You call them at your house and say you’ve been burglarized, even though there’s no sign that it’s been done. They don’t start asking people about their background to see if they can find out if you’ve lied in your past. They take it and deal with it. Rape is completely different. It’s very misogynistic . It happens to men, but it’s primarily about women.”
Dame Vera is backing the Government’s rape review, which has seen pre-recorded video evidence rolled out, specialist rape courts brought to justice, millions invested in specialist counselors for victims of sex crimes and performance charts exposing delays. But she warns that it is still “the smallest steps”. “This is the seed of returning it to being a criminal act which is taken seriously by the authorities, but there needs to be enormous 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 confidence in the complainants”. “I am not aware that they have admitted that they have done something wrong and need to do more,” she says.
Every burglary victim should be visited by police officers, Dame Vera says, admitting that this week’s report into the Met’s failure to respond to and investigate neighborhood crime was “quite stunning” by revealing that “the police don’t seem to make bread and butter police properly”.
The 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 comfortable walking out of it if there’s a break-in while they’re away. To have handled it with such disregard amazes me. This is consensual policing — no victim gives consent for this type of treatment.”
Much of the blame for the declining burglary and street theft rates — which have at least halved from 10.8 percent to 5.4 percent and 2.6 percent to 1.3 percent in six years — she assigns to the decimation of neighborhood policing and loss of experienced officers.
“When we had neighborhood police, they were a deterrent to neighborhood crime and a massive source of intelligence,” she says. “You’d get a little word from someone on the street that might reveal that there was serious drug dealing going on at number six.”
It has all led to the public feeling “distant” from the police, who have lost “a large part” of the public’s trust, she says. “The police have become detached from the people they police in the communities they occupy, which means people can be reluctant to come forward to help catch criminals.”