The claims surrounding Keir's role as DPP:
Whilst only having been in the job since April, Keir Starmer has made waves in the Labour Party with his measured and detail orientated approach to politics (as our recent article indicates). Yet despite such recent popularity, rumours abound concerning the ex-barrister’s past, with many accusations being made about his previous role as head of prosecutions.
A viral social media post claims that in 2009 Keir Starmer, then serving as DPP, helped the infamous paedophile Jimmy Savile escape justice over sexual abuse allegations. Another claims that Starmer was likewise to blame for the Police’s dithering response on the Rochdale grooming gang scandal, in which young white girls were groomed by sex gangs of south-east Asian heritage. In more recent news, three conservative MPs shared a doctored video in an attempt to incriminate the ex-head of prosecutions, only later to take the videos down (you can find the full video here).
With such incendiary claims being launched against the Labour leader it is surprising to see so little mainstream media coverage of the accusations. Yet as a recent poll by Redfield and Wilson Strategies reveals, only 15% of people are purportedly aware of these social media posts, while a further half are even unaware of his time as Director. So is there any truth to these claims, and what authority did Starmer really have?
WATCH: Starmer in action as Director of Public Prosecutions announcing charges against former MP Chris Huhne:
The Crown Prosecution Service:
As Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Starmer headed England and Wales’ principal public agency for criminal prosecutions: the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Acting as the legal gatekeeper, the CPS advises investigations, decides whether a suspect should face charges, and, in cases where a prosecution is viable, prosecutes.
Taking on cases both major and minor, CPS prosecutors must adhere to a strict regulatory code. Known as The Full Code Test, it is the be all and end all that determines whether a case can proceed to prosecution, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest. If a case does not have enough evidence for a viable prosecution, CPS can under no circumstances proceed.
Tough on Benefits Fraud?
During the Labour leadership election earlier this year, Starmer frequently drew attention to his credentials as DPP by invoking the high watermarks of his tenure: from his vindication of the 1998 human rights bill to a record-high rate of domestic violence convictions, from the outset then, it indeed appears difficult to critique his record. However, detractors have suggested that in looking past the sheen of his statesmanlike persona, one finds a career marred by questionable decisions. One such example was the reform to prosecutor guidelines, a response to the public costs of benefit fraud, at that time totaling around £2bn.
Critics suggest Starmer ‘removed the financial threshold’ for government spending in tackling benefits fraud while instituting stricter punishments for fraudsters, despite the crime totaling a mere 0.7 percent of overpayments made by the Department of Work and Pensions. But such critics misinterpret the remit of the CPS. What Starmer introduced were alterations to the prosecutorial guidelines, which guided prosecutors’ decision-making.
The alterations in question advised that prosecutors from then on would make decisions under The Fraud Act, effectively increasing the maximum possible sentencing from 7 years to 10. This concerned those such as the head of Citizens Advice who expressed fears that innocent people may accidentally be wrongly charged with harsher sentences. However, the introduction of the act appears to be the CPS’ attempt to deter benefit fraud in its organised forms, aligning guidelines with how prosecutors treated other forms of fraud. This is evident in the inclusion of aggravating features such as professional planning and coercion to commit fraud, features designed to deliver harsher sentences to organised criminal elements - not for innocent people overclaiming in error.
As such, it seems a misrepresentation to suggest Starmer was responsible for increasing the punishments for benefit fraud per se. Those often criticising him often specifically go off his public announcements as DPP which elided technical jargon in favour of media-friendly language, opening him up to misinterpretations about the guidelines.
The Savile Case:
In 2009, the CPS reviewed four claims made against Savile, some going back as early as the 1970s. In what quickly became fatal for attempts at prosecution, Savile’s victims refused to take legal action against him. Since they would not support prosecution, the CPS concluded it was not possible to raise charges against Savile. Both police and prosecutors found that the unwillingness of victims to appear in court was an insurmountable obstacle to prosecuting the paedophile.
Saville later died on October 29th, 2011, aged 84. Yet this was 56 years after committing his first sexual offence in 1955. It seems extraordinary that allegations took so long to materialise, and the fact so many victims refused to come forward is testament to the corrosive effects of power and privilege upon the justice system. Justice was thwarted because the victims were afraid that demanding it would ruin their lives. Yet it would be Starmer who would later claim that the CPS itself was to blame for its handling of the case, providing a public apology in 2013.
Contrary to claims on social media then, Starmer only became involved with the case several years later. As per the CPS guidelines discussed above, the decision not to prosecute in 2009 was made by the then reviewing lawyer, Roger Coe-Salazer - not the DPP - as is the norm with such cases. During a PMQ’s in 2012, David Cameron declared that Starmer would order a review of the evidence considered by the CPS in 2009 against Savile.
Aftermath & Inquiry
On the request of Starmer, Alison Levitt, his then Principal Legal Adviser, released a report in 2013 on the 2009 decision not to prosecute Savile. It found that if prosecutors had taken a different approach then prosecution may indeed have been possible. Levitt found that Surrey Police did not tell the victims that other complaints had been made against Savile also, and that had they known this, victims would have been more likely to press charges.
The report also discovered a ‘lack of understanding’ by officers concerning the law and practice, concerning sexual offences. It was found that outdated regulations and training were partially to blame in the failure to prosecute Savile, indicating structural issues in the way officers were trained, rather than being a matter of personal responsibility.
Further to the internal CPS report, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) similarly conducted a 2013 review into the failure to prosecute Savile. In it, they largely substantiated and reinforced many of the conclusions concerning the structural and systemic barriers in police by the Levitt Report.
One of the great difficulties in sexual abuse cases is that prosecutors are faced with a ‘my word against yours scenario’. This problem is prevalent in not just cases of paedophilia like the Savile case, but also those of the Rochdale grooming gangs, and more recently given voice by the #MeToo movement. It was this issue in particular which Starmer’s reforms sought to change.
WATCH: Keir Starmer details revised abuse guidelines during his tenure as DPP
In a televised BBC interview in 2013, Starmer asserted that "the days of the model victim are over”, and that such cases would from then on be “be investigated and prosecuted differently, whatever the vulnerabilities of the victim”. Introduced to “correct the over-cautious stance the CPS took in the Jimmy Savile and street-grooming cases" the reforms were believed to display a better understanding of human psychology, including the following injunctions:
1. Under the guidelines, prosecutors are told to focus on the credibility of allegations, not on whether victims make good witnesses.
2. All suspects are to be investigated to see if they possess indecent images.
3. The guidelines cover how victims should be treated and how a case should be built and presented in court.
4. The scrutinising of harmful presumptions over how ‘real’ victims behave, challenging the ‘model’ victim myth.
5. Authorities were directed to investigate any links between the possession of child pornography and abuse.
6. They also seek to raise awareness of how victims in some ethnic communities are controlled by offenders who might use notions of "honour" or "shame" to deter them.
7. The guidelines will also highlight a number of ways victims of abuse can be manipulated and blackmailed to keep quiet, which include threats to publish indecent images or implicating victims in other offences.
This article was coauthored: