Dominic Raab blocked victims’ commissioner’s reappointment | Dominic Raab

Dominic Raab blocked the reappointment of the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales earlier this year and is not expected to find a replacement for months, the Guardian can disclose.

Victims’ groups said the lack of a commissioner meant critical legislation was passing through parliament without an independent tsar, in effect silencing victims and limiting scrutiny.

Sources said Raab, the justice secretary and lord chancellor, intervened to prevent Vera Baird from staying in the watchdog role, which she had been told to reapply for in February in advance of the end of her tenure in June.

She stepped down from the job in September after being told in July that she had not been successful in the recruitment round, despite officials having found her to be “appointable” to the post, according to her resignation letter.

The appointment of a successor has since stalled and the post is expected to remain empty until the spring, sources say.

In her resignation letter, Baird said the criminal justice system was in chaos and accused the government of downgrading victims’ interests at the same time as reducing her access to ministers and failing to provide clarity regarding her reappointment.

She said Raab had “encouraged her to apply” for her role in February, rather than reappointing her, as her predecessor had been. She said she was then “brusquely informed that there would be no appointment from the recruitment process after all” in early July and told she could apply again.

At a justice select committee evidence session on 22 November, Raab was asked to comment on Baird’s claim that he had not met her since February, and replied saying her was “pretty sure” he had met her virtually and in person and would provide further details. A spokesperson for the select committee said such details had not yet been received.

The decision has angered victims’ organisations and Whitehall officials who say it is another example of the government failing to recruit watchdogs. The government has not filled the role of the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests since Lord Geidt resigned in June.

In August, the Home Office was accused of deliberately failing to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner – which is a legal requirement – to avoid scrutiny while trying to push through legislation on the issue. The role has been vacant for eight months, having been advertised in December 2021 and final interviews having taken place on 14 April this year.

Critics say there are parallels with the victims bill, which focuses in part on the role of the victims’ commissioner and an expansion of their statutory powers, which is expected to return to parliament in the new year.

It is understood that the bill is behind schedule and the government had not yet published its response to the justice select committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report and its recommendations by the end of November as planned.

Diana Fawcett, the chief executive at the charity Victim Support, said victims who had been waiting years for a victims bill were now also waiting for a commissioner.

“Besides leaving a void where there should be a strong advocate for victims, it also means that at a pivotal time there is no one in post to hold the government to account and scrutinise their decisions,” she said. “This situation is unsustainable and unacceptable and the government must rectify this urgently.”

The sifting of applications for the job of victims’ commissioner was supposed to have happened by 7 November and interviews for the post should have taken place this week. But sources said neither deadline had been met. MoJ sources said interviews were not anticipated before February, before the final candidate is given “ministerial signoff” in the spring.

The absence of a victim’s commissioner has been noted by Raab’s former cabinet colleague Priti Patel, who in written questions on 29 November asked him when the next commissioner would be hired, why the process had been delayed and what interim arrangements had been put in place to support victims.

In reply, the justice minister Edward Argar said he expected a new commissioner to be identified “in early 2023” and officials were meeting regularly with the sector.

Farah Nazeer, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said the lack of a victims’ commissioner was a “real concern” at a crucial time, and she contrasted it with the “rapid pace of progression” of Raab’s bill of rights, which she said would also have implications for survivors of domestic abuse.

“The lack of a victims’ commissioner in place to scrutinise both the victims bill and the impact of the bill of rights on victims is deeply concerning,” she said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the victims bill would be subject to extensive scrutiny in parliament, “including a session of the justice select committee where Dame Vera Baird was a witness”.

They added: “The deputy prime minister offered Dame Vera a contract extension until the end of 2022 which she declined and she was invited to reapply for her role. We are now working as quickly as possible to fill the vacancy.”

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