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Volume 87: debated on Thursday 21 November 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.58 pm

In a House where women are so greatly under-represented, we have a special responsibility to concern ourselves with the growing scourges of modern-day society. I am grateful for this opportunity of raising the question of the growth in the incidence of rape, and, particularly, in the divergence of sentencing policy that we appear to be seeing in the judiciary at present.

Rape is one of the nastier and, certainly, more violent crimes. We should speak of it as precisely that—a vicious sexual assault on another person who neither invites nor desires such an attack. Today detective chief superintendent Thelma Wagstaff of the Metropolitan police is quoted in the newspapers as saying that the crime of rape—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Thelma Wagstaff said that the crime of rape has increased by about 6 per cent this year, and that it is getting nastier. Five years ago a victim would have told the police "He raped me." Now the offender is also committing buggery, forcing the victim to have oral sex and urinating over her. The growth is in one of the most appalling crimes, and the House must consider it with great urgency.

Sexual violence against women is a continuing problem. Recent publicity has highlighted the horrifying growths of gang rapes, rapes of small children, and some of the most appalling degradations of human beings. However, rape has existed for as long as there have been human beings. I trust that we shall not only remember it in the House when there is a great deal of unpleasant publicity about it. If we are to deal with some of those difficulties, we must consider the matter in wider terms than we have done so far.

We must consider how police procedures operate when a rape is reported to them. The Metropolitan police also reported that when women police constables were appointed specifically to deal with this violent crime, there was a 60 per cent. increase in the reporting of rapes. That is an astonishing figure, and it shows that this underlying frightening crime has always existed in the community. I am sorry to say that the feeling continues that in some way the woman contributes to the circumstances, although not in those who understand the enormous degradation and fear that the victim suffers, by wearing particular clothes, by her inability to get herself home safely, or by the fact that young people are on the streets after a certain hour of night. In those cases it is suggested that they are contributing to the violent crime that is perpetrated against them.

It is important to stop talking about victims of crime in that sense. Frequently when a woman must go through the traumatic experience of reporting what has happened to her, she desperately needs to be handled by people who are carefully trained and understand the extent of the problem.

I am increasingly worried that we do not have sufficient special centres available. I welcome the fact that the police have now thought about the need to create special legal and medical centres, where rape victims can be given assistance by those most skilled. However, we are still not dealing with many of the problems as we should.

Because of the rise in the number of rape cases, I asked to see some of the statistics on sentencing, and was horrified to see what seemed to be a drop in the severity of sentences being handed out, and that they do not seem to comply with the judges' orders. We must have consistency in sentencing, and the sentences must reflect the anger and outrage of society as a whole. We cannot tolerate the suggestion that, although rape is a serious crime, custodial sentences are not apposite and that it is probably better to move away from long sentences.

The reported remarks in a court case of a recent gang rape were clearly framed in terms that reflected the anger of society, but the sentences that were applied, although not out of line with the existing sentencing policy of many judges, did not seem to reflect the anger adequately.

I find it quite impossible to understand why the murder of a child or the most savage and violent rape of a woman should not be reflected in a sentence that at least ensures that those who perpetrate these appalling crimes are not allowed to escape the true consequences of their actions.

The Government have another responsibility. I want them to consider urgently whether they can provide funding for a series of rape crisis centres. There are several of these autonomous centres which give support and legal and medical counselling to people who have been subjected to rape. They are funded by a Department of Health and Social Security grant of £22,000 for three years—a minute amount of money when one considers the highly skilled and difficult task that people in those centres accomplish. It is important that they should not depend, as they do now, largely on voluntary donations.

Will the Minister consider talking to his opposite numbers with responsibility for health and for education as a matter of urgency and try to establish a series of rape crisis centres across the country with proper funding? That would enable them to begin to deal with this unholy tide of savagery. The centres provide after-care for many of those who will have to go through the trauma of a court case after their appalling experience.

Many women who succeed in coming to terms with what has happened to them, but who nevertheless go through a period of shock, need support to get through a court case. They need independent counselling and it is important that they should have access to women lawyers and women doctors. There are few women police surgeons. That is a disadvantage because this is the one crime in regard to which even the most levelheaded women flinch from a male doctor.

The London Rape crisis centre sees about 1,300 women for the first time in a year. It has about 3,000 cases, but many of them are second and third visits. The centre tells me that it is its very independence and autonomy that those with whom it deals most value. Women who have been raped are vulnerable to official procedures that carry them along with scent regard for the sensitivity of the situation. It is those who have to deal with rape victims who must consider how best to deal with the matter. It is clear that, until now, we have not succeeded in that regard.

Will the Minister consider sentencing policy, and now? Why is there so much variation in sentences? Why is it impossible to reflect society's clear view that such barbaric behaviour is unnacceptable at any level? The rundown of public services and difficulties experienced in quite simple things such as public transport, the need to travel alone and the reduction in the number of guards on trains, all affect women's feelings when travelling on public transport. They are at risk. Therefore, the Government have a special responsibility to seek ways of protecting them. We are very few in the House although we are vocal for our number. Nevertheless, there are many outside who look to us for protection. They have not received it so far. I hope that the Minister will give me an undertaking tonight.

10.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. David Mellor)

It is not empty piety on my part when I say to the hon. Lady the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that I greatly enjoyed her speech. She spoke with eloquence. She has raised a topic of importance and significance and I am glad that she had the opportunity to do so. I say so rather against my own interests because I had anticipated an early evening. If every Adjournment debate was on as important a topic and was conducted as effectively as the hon. Lady has conducted this one, there would be fewer junior Ministers with a jaundiced look as the moment for an Adjournment debate came near.

I endorse every word that the hon. Lady said about the nature of the crime of rape. It is always a serious matter. Very often it is a vicious offence and it is properly regarded as one of the most serious offences in the criminal calendar.

It is an appropriate starting point to emphasise that the view of Parliament for many years has been that the maximum penalty for rape should be life imprisonment. I shall say more about sentencing, but it is not the duty of Parliament to pass sentences. That is the duty of the courts and it is distinct from our role of making legislation and the Government's role as the executive. Parliament has left no one in doubt about the view that it takes. Life imprisonment is the maximum sentence available to the courts. Only offences that are regarded as the most grave carry that term of imprisonment. Rape is one of them. That is the clear message that the House has sent out for many years.

I am glad to have played some part in permitting another message to be sent out, with the assistance that the Government were able to give to the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1985, put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), another doughty lady campaigner in the House. One proposal in that Act that was perhaps overshadowed by the proposal on kerbcrawling was that the possible penalty for attempted rape should be raised from seven years to life imprisonment.

It was an anomaly that the offence of attempted rape—a serious matter for which the full intent to rape is required—should carry a penalty so low when the offence of rape itself carried life imprisonment. Now the two are equated. Therefore, the courts have all the powers they need to pass sentences that can truly reflect society's abhorrence of this crime.

The hon. Lady mentioned sentences. Of course, I am only too happy to take the opportunity to put on the record what we in the Home Office know about recent sentences for rape in the hope that it will be of interest. The figures for 1984 show that a total of 325 defendants were sentenced by the Crown courts for rape. Of those, 212 went for immediate imprisonment as adults, 97 young offenders received young offender custodial sentences in youth custody detention centres and the like, two received hospital orders and 14 received non-custodial sentences.

When one comes to the length of the term of detention imposed in a youth custody detention centre or prison, one finds that of the 297 offenders sentenced to imprisonment, 81 were sentenced for up to two years, 190 for two years to five years, 20 for over five years, and six to life imprisonment. That suggests that the average sentence for rape is in the region of two to five years.

I stress again that it is not for me as a Minister to comment on the propriety of sentences, but I suspect that the hon. Lady would say an average of two to five years is inadequate. She nods her head in agreement. I imagine that a large number of people would agree with her. However, I repeat that it is a matter for the judiciary. It is for Government and Parliament to ensure that there is no let or hindrance to the judiciary in passing those sentences because the maximum penalties are set too low. Now that Parliament has increased the maximum sentence for attempted rape, no one can fairly suggest that Parliament has failed in its duty in asserting that the maximum available sentence is life imprisonment.

My concern is whether the guidelines of the Lord Chief Justice is being followed by the individual courts. I accept that there is no conceivable way in which Parliament could or should decide what sentences there should be in individual cases when we have not heard the evidence. If there are guidelines, it is important that they should not only be followed but be seen to be followed.

Will the Minister undertake to consider the definition of rape, which is very narrow and needs some redefining? It excludes many serious sexual assualts.

On the second question, a range of charges are available. Although indecent assault is a lesser charge than rape, as a result of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Drake the penalty for indecent assault has been increased from two to 10 years. Even if the act of rape, which has to be fairly rigorously defined, has not been committed, there are other offences, carrying substantial penalties, which can be charged in appropriate cases.

There are constitutional proprieties to be observed with regard to guidelines. That is a matter for the Court of Appeal and not for me. The leading case on the matter is the Crown against Roberts in 1982, in which the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, emphasised his view of rape in terms with which I think the hon. Lady would agree. He said:

"Rape is always a serious crime. Other than in wholly exceptional circumstances, it calls for an immediate custodial sentence, first of all to mark the gravity of the offence, secondly to emphasise public disapproval, thirdly to serve as a warning to others, fourthly to punish the offender, and last, but by no means least, to protect women".
The significance of the Roberts judgment was that it listed various aggravating factors where it would be appropriate for the courts to take a particularly severe view in punishing an offender. It has to be borne in mind that, although rape is always a serious matter, rapes vary in gravity, particularly as regards the amount of violence applied.

In the Roberts judgment, the Lord Chief Justice listed the matters that would assist judges in determining whether a rape was a particularly serious one and thus merited a particularly severe penalty. The points listed were: whether a weapon had been used to frighten or to injure; whether the victim had sustained serious physical or mental injury; whether violence was used over and above that necessarily involved in the act itself; whether there were brutal threats; whether there were further sexual indignities or perversions other than the rape itself. The latter point is particularly relevant to the very telling and equally chilling phrases in the appropriate speech made by the Metropolitan police detective from which the hon. Lady quoted. Other points listed were: whether the victim was young or old; whether the offender was in a position of trust; whether the offender had intruded into the victim's home; whether the victim had been deprived of her liberty for a period; whether there were multiple rapes, or rapes by a group. That might be thought to be clear guidance to the courts as to the categories of rape that merit exceptionally heavy sentences.

However, the Lord Chief Justice has not yet set out further guidance as to the appropriate bandings in terms of sentences. The parallel might be the case of Aramah, relative to the sentencing of offenders for dealing in class A drugs, where clear bandings are given in terms of the years of imprisonment that might be appropriate for any given value of drug smuggled. The hon. Lady is asking whether there might be a case for the Court of Appeal to go a little further and convert the Aramah principles into the sentences applicable in rape cases. That is not a matter for me, but it is by no means an unhelpful suggestion, and I undertake to send a copy of Hansard to the Lord Chief Justice. He must make of it what he will. It is clearly important that the courts should reflect the gravity of such offences, especially the serious manifestations shown by some of the examples given in the Roberts case.

The hon. Lady also asked about the underlying reality in recorded offences of rape. We all know that there is a dark figure of crime and that the number of crimes recorded in no sense represents the number of crimes committed. We must also be clear that sexual crimes are among the most difficult crimes to report, because the victim feels humiliated, distressed and embarrassed, not only at having to recount what happened but at the fear that it might be put to her that she had led the individual on. By making the complaint, she might render herself liable to an ordeal lasting for months, involving her in giving evidence publicly about intimate matters.

In recent years, a conscious effort has been made to help the victims of rape to have more confidence in the authorities so that they will make complaints, and so that they can be confident that their complaints will be sensitively handled. One consequence of that is that the number of rapes recorded has increased significantly in recent years. I have the figures from 1974 to 1984. From 1974 to 1981, the figure fluctuated between 1,000 and 1,200. In 1984, it had increased to more than 1,400, and the figure for the first six months of this year shows a further significant increase. For the first six months of 1985, 780 rapes were recorded in England and Wales, compared with 613 for the same period in 1984 and 591 for the same period in 1983. During the first six months of 1985, the increase in the Metropolitan police district was 248. For the first six months of 1984, it was 152; and for the first six months of 1983, it was 138.

We do not know whether there is an underlying upward trend, but we know that the Metropolitan police and other police forces have made a real effort to ensure that the reporting of rape is made easier, that the interviews are sensitively handled and that matters proceed in a way guaranteed to give the victim the greatest confidence in the system. As far as we know, until recently in some police areas, when a victim did not wish to proceed with a complaint, it was not registered as an offence. Now it is. That may have caused an increase in the figures, but it is a worthwhile consequence of the efforts to make the figures more material and to reflect genuinely the incidence of that crime in the community.

The Government played their part in this by issuing, in March 1983, guidance to chief officers on the conduct of rape investigations. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has seen that, but I shall send her a copy. It covers such matters as medical examinations, and the importance of sensitivity in questioning victims and of ensuring the victim's comfort and anonymity. The circular emphasises the need for medical examinations to take place in an environment where stress is reduced and where there is an atmosphere of care and concern.

The Metropolitan police have a special working party on rape and it is looking into the matter of recruiting more female police surgeons, as the hon. Lady suggested. The police hope to open a number of victim examinations suites where rape victims can be medically examined and interviewed in discreet and reasonably congenial surroundings. The first of these will shortly be opened in Brentford.

The interviewing of rape victims should be carried out by an officer experienced in such cases who, as the hon. Lady says, will often be a woman police officer. The Metropolitan police have a special scheme for women police officers to train them in taking statements, and for detectives there is a course on the techniques of sexual investigations. That was introduced last December.

In general it is not necessary to ask a complainant about previous sexual experience with third parties, because under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 there are strict limitations on discussion of this matter in court. The police can take an active interest in the welfare of victims by referring them to local medical, social or voluntary services. The Metropolitan police have recently made arrangements with a number of London hospitals with specialist facilities for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, to provide priority appointments for the victims of serious sexual assaults. If the victim does not want a priority appointment, she will be given the addresses and telephone numbers of the hospitals and all the details.

These are steps in the right direction, but the other important matter is that the police should fully investigate rape, treating it as the serious offence it is. It is reassuring to know that last year some 68 per cent of reported rapes—that is, some 975 cases—were cleared up. Obviously, one wants the figure to approach 100 per cent and no one is complacent about 68 per cent, but the fact that two thirds of rapes are cleared up is a fact upon which we must congratulate the police and it will spur them on to further efforts.

There is one other matter which the hon. Lady did not mention; the necessary changes in the 1976 Act about the anonymity of the victim and also the restriction, save with the permission of the judge, on the way in which the victim might be cross-examined about previous sexual experience. The Act also had in it a provision that the defendant should also enjoy the privilege of anonymity. The Criminal Law Revision Committee report on sexual offences, published last year, endorsed the views of the Heilbron committee which had earlier considered this matter. It was entirely in favour of anonymity for complainants but was against it for defendants.

The Criminal Law Revision Committee rejected as invalid the argument that the man should be granted anonymity just because the victim has it. The anonymity rule seems to suggest that in some way the interests of the victim and the defendant can be equated in a way which is not helpful. The Criminal Law Revision Committee also drew attention to the difficulty which arises where a man is charged with rape and other offences. If he is acquitted of rape but sent to prison for other offences it may be that a newspaper would be acting unlawfully if it named him. That is an extraordinary situation. Similarly, if a dangerous criminal charged with rape escapes before conviction, publicity cannot be used to trace him. In time, perhaps, the House will have an opportunity to reconsider that point.

This has been an important debate. There are areas which can be dealt with only by the courts and we must leave it to their judgment. Parliament must set out the framework of the sentences that are appropriate for rape, and we have done that. Parliament and the Government must intervene in other ways, and I hope I have set out what the Home Office has tried to do. I have taken the hon. Lady's point about the Department of Health and I shall certainly relay her opinions to the Department. This has been a valuable opportunity for me to reiterate what she has done. There are few graver and more appalling offences in the criminal calendar than rape and everything the Government are doing is designed to reinforce that strong and firm message.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.