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Attempted Rape Bill

Volume 446: debated on Friday 30 January 1948

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Order for Second Reading read.

3.23 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This is a very short Bill and I hope it is an uncontroversial one which may not give occasion for any very lengthy oratory. Certainly it will not give rise to any very great oratory on my part. The object of the Bill is to remedy an admitted defect in our criminal law. The House may be aware that the maximum penalty at common law for the full offence of rape is penal servitude for life, and that the maximum penalty for attempted rape, which is a misdemeanour at common law, is imprisonment for two years or a fine. His Majesty's judges have complained for a long period, as very serious cases of attempted rape have come before them, of the inadequacy of this maximum penalty for the attempt to commit rape. They have pointed out that the attempt to commit the full offence may cause to the victim all the indignity and all the terror of the full offence and yet because the resistance to it, at a very late stage perhaps, is effective, the maximum penalty, instead of being penal servitude for life, is only two years' imprisonment.

The purpose of the Bill is to raise the maximum penalty. Of course, we deal only with the maximum penalty, as is always the case in our law. We propose to raise it to seven years' penal servitude. Unfortunately, I am not able to give to the House, as I had hoped to do, separate statistics showing how many convictions there have been in recent years for attempted rape, because the criminal statistics, in the form in which they are compiled, do not distinguish between convictions for rape and convictions for attempted rape. The figures I can give are those for the two offences put together.

I am afraid that, as in the case of so many offences of violence against the person, the figures have risen since the year before the war. In the year 1938 the number of convictions was 40. After remaining steady or slightly lower during most of the war, the figure rose steeply to its maximum point in 1945, when there were 100 convictions, and in 1946, the latest year for which I have the figures, the number was 65. These are figures of convictions; there were a good many more cases known to the police in which they were not able to bring the offence home to an individual and to secure a conviction, although it was established that the offence had been committed.

Bearing in mind that an attempt to commit the offence may be in some cases, and often is, as brutal as other offences with violence which carry much heavier penalties, the House will find no difficulty in agreeing that a maximum penalty of seven years cannot be unduly high for the worse type of offence and that a maximum of two years is certainly unduly low. I have referred to other offences with violence which carry heavier penalties, and I would like to give an example. In case of an assault with intent to rob under the Larceny Act, 1916, although that is, in effect, merely an attempt, that is, an assault with intent to rob and not the full offence to rob, the maximum penalty is five years. If it is committed with aggravation or arms, the maximum penalty for the attempt, that is to say, the assault with intent, is penal servitude for life; that is, if one assaults someone with intent to rob and uses aggravated violence, one may get penal servitude for life, but if one commits a similar assault which is as aggravated but with intent to rape, the maximum is two years.

In Scotland the limitation does not exist. Under Scottish law the courts can give imprisonment for an indefinite period, and in nearly half the cases which arose in the years 1935 to 1944 of assault with intent to ravish, which is the way the Scottish law describes it, penalties were imposed which were heavier than the maximum which could be imposed in England.

It may be said that there are other anomalies rather similar to this in our criminal law, and it may be asked why this has been singled out. It is unfortunately true that there are a number of anomalies relating to particular offences, but the House will agree that a complete review of such anomalies would be a very heavy task. We are already in a very large measure, the Criminal Justice Bill, tackling one whole side of criminal justice law but are not tackling the question of penalties for individual offences. If we were to attempt a similarly comprehensive Measure catering for that side of the subject we should certainly require long study and consultation with many bodies and persons concerned with the administration of the law, and we should be involved in long debates and in some cases in controversy. In the case we are dealing with there is a very solid consensus of judicial opinion. His Majesty's judges have brought this to the notice of the Home Secretary over quite a period of years. The crime is more frequent than some of the other crimes in respect of which the penalties are somewhat anomalous, and a further factor which makes it reasonable to deal with this item now is that there can scarcely be room for dispute that insofar as it goes it is reasonable. The Government therefore feel justified in bringing it forward as a special case, and I hope the House will be prepared to give the Bill a speedy Second Reading.

3.30 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman opened his remarks by pointing out that this was a non-controversial Measure, and I am certain the House will agree. This is really a most brutal form of crime and one which should be punished drastically. In my opinion, even the extension of the punishment to a maximum of seven years is too lenient. I would rather have seen the Scottish system adopted which places no limit on the length of punishment that can be given. However, I sincerely hope that this Measure will be given a Second Reading without any opposition.

3.31 p.m.

It is most unfortunate, in the view of those authorities who are entitled to express an opinion on this matter that it should be found necessary to introduce this Bill this afternoon. The trend of modern ideas on the subject of criminal punishment has been rather in the direction of reducing than increasing the penalties, and the figures given by my hon. Friend were not as conclusive as perhaps they ought to be. He said the statistics showed that in 1938 there were 40 convictions for rape, in 1945 they had gone up to 100, and in 1946 the number of convictions had fallen to 65. There seems to me to be no evidence that the number of convictions for sexual offences is increasing. When the Home Office figures relating to these offences are examined, it will be found that in 1913, 1,004 were convicted. That figure dropped in 1938 to 729. In 1945, the last year for which I have any figures, the number was 850, so that in the year 1945 the number of convictions for sexual offences, which includes a number of other things besides rape, had fallen compared with 1913. Further, when the figures for 1945 are analysed, it will be ound that of the 586 prisoners received in various prisons in this country for rape, in not more than 60 cases did the judges consider it necessary to send the criminals to penal servitude.

Those figures put a different complexion upon the matter from that which might appear at first sight. In saying this, I do not question that the maximum penalty of two years, in what we all hope is a small number of cases, is inadequate. As a general rule, however, it is always undesirable to legislate from a comparatively few instances. That may be a danger on which we are embarking in agreeing to the Second Reading of this Measure. Only the other day, on another question, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General pointed out that it was very difficult to legislate in a certain type of case, which could best be dealt with on its individual merits. With those few provisos, I welcome the Bill cordially, and I hope it will have the effect which is in the minds of those people who have sponsored the proposals embodied in it.

3.35 p.m.

I can well appreciate the feelings of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) on the fact that at this time, when the tendency perhaps for 100 years has been towards lighter punishments, we should be going to the trouble of singling out one offence for very much heavier punishment. I feel, however, that this is necessary, and therefore welcome the Bill.

The Bill is necessary for two reasons. Although the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, which is a codification of offences against the person, has stood the test of time remarkably well, there is, nevertheless, this single anomaly which requires attention. The second reason is one which the hon. and gallant Member dealt with by implication when he referred to the fact that it was only in a small proportion of a large number of cases of rape and attempted rape in 1945 that heavy sentences were imposed. That may well be so, but, as the Under-Secretary of State pointed out, it is most desirable that judges should have power to deal with those few cases where a heavier punishment is deserved. I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary has today called in aid of his proposals the views of His Majesty's judges. I hope that in future he will always respect those views, and not call them in aid merely when he wants to call them in aid, but give them the attention they deserve on all occasions.

I must express a regret concerning the Bill. When we are thinking of crime we should think closely of the effect of crime upon the victims. There is no doubt that these cases of rape, and even attempted rape, have the most deplorable effects. There comes to my mind the case of a fairly young woman, an officer in one of the Women's Services, who was travelling on board a troopship during the war, and a rape was attempted against her. It had a very serious nervous effect on her, and she was unable to do any proper work for about a year, although she was not physically mutilated at all. The person who committed the offence was earning exceedingly good pay, and could quite well—had the courts cared to use any power that had been given them—have been made to compensate that girl for her loss of earnings, or some of her loss of earnings, during the time in which she suffered. I mention that because I sincerely hope that before many months are past, the House will consider, more than we have in the past, this question of compensating the victims of crime. It might be out of Order to go into that in any more detail at this moment, but I think it should be mentioned in passing.

I mentioned this anomaly on the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill, and I am very glad that the Government have acted so promptly on my suggestion.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.— [Mr. Joseph Henderson.]