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Statutory Instruments, &C

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.

By leave of the House, I will put together the Questions on the motions relating to the Statutory Instruments.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 79(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)

Income Tax

That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Ivory Coast) Order 1985 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st October, in the last Session of Parliament.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Canada) Order 1985 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st October, in the last Session of Parliament.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Finland) Order 1985 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st October, in the last Session of Parliament.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Soviet Union) Order 1985 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st October, in the last Session of Parliament.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Norway) Order 1985 be made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 21st October, in the last Session of Parliament.

Customs And Excise

That the Customs Duties (ECSC) (No. 2) Order 1985 (S.I. 1985, No. 1630), dated 29th October 1985, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.— [Mr. Neubert.]

Question agreed to.

Ordnance Survey (Trading Practices)

9.21 pm

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

I am grateful for the opportunity offered by this debate, in which I shall be discussing the livelihood, careers and job security of between 600 and 700 people who have their homes and work in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cheltenham, Sevenoaks and London. They all work for companies whose names will be familiar to hon. Members from days long ago in the classroom, from evenings by the fire, from motoring journeys and from wet nights canvassing on unfamiliar city streets.

Those companies are John Bartholomew in Edinburgh, William Collins in Glasgow, Geographers' A-Z in Sevenoaks, Geographia in Cheltenham and George Phillip in London. They are all small, private sector companies in competition with each other. They draw—this is an important point in what I shall say—and publish their own atlases, maps and street plans. They recruit and train young map-makers. It is a skilled and interesting job offering a good career and worthwhile prospects in the private sector.

Those companies have jointly formed the Map Publishers' Fair Trading Committee to represent their legitimate worries and concerns to Government and Parliament. For more than two years that committee has made representations to the Government about the present trading activities of the Ordnance Survey.

At least 37 Conservative Members are concerned about the issue. Representations have been made to the Secretary of State for the Environment and his Ministers, to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and to the Prime Minister. The matter was raised in debate at the Scottish Conservative party conference and was the subject of motions at the Conservative party conference at Blackpool this year. Most of those 37 Members of Parliament have reflected the bewilderment and anxiety of their constituents who work or are otherwise involved in the private sector companies I have mentioned.

The confusion arises because the Ordnance Survey, which is a Civil Service Department controlled by the Secretary of State for the Environment, has entered the commercial sector of road atlas publishing. The map publishers contend—I fully support them and speak on their behalf—that the activities of the Ordnance Survey represent unfair competition. The Government argue otherwise, and in each and every case Ministers have repeated the original arguments that were presumably drafted by the Ordnance Survey and puffed up by officials and Ministers on their way to a formal letter of response.

I shall later state why I think such competition is unfair, but I shall now argue the points of principle. The Ordnance Survey, as a Government-owned trading activity, is required to be as commercial as possible. The Government have already decided that the Ordnance Survey cannot be privatised—so far, well and good. However, both this Government and their predecessor, elected in 1979, have given the highest possible priority to free enterprise and the growth of the private sector. In the atlas and street plan market, fully competitive trading has provided a rich variety of material to the consumer. In 1979, 1983 and even more so today, Government policy is to stimulate and encourage small business, to privatise Government-owned business wherever possible, and to ensure the greatest possible efficiency and value for money for the taxpayer.

As for activities that must necessarily remain Government controlled—against the Government's clearly stated principles of free enterprise—why are the Government not only allowing but encouraging the Ordnance Survey to move in and use its massive resources, funded by the taxpayer, to seize the lion's share of a market hitherto well served by the private sector? The danger of the Ordnance Survey doing that is not imaginary. It is likely to lead to nationalisation by the back door, through a monopoly of map making in the hands of a Government Department, while a hitherto healthy private sector takes a caning and risks eventually going right down the pan. How can that be sensible Government policy? Is it just a staggering example of the right hand not realising what the left is doing?

There is some doubt about the fairness of the competition provided by the Ordnance Survey publications. The Government have said that it is fair, but the map publishers argue that it is not. I hope that the Minister will deal with these points and the question of unfair trading. No one denies that the Ordnance Survey is taking business away from the private sector. The Department of the Environment justifies that by arguing that the Ordnance Survey commercial business is expanding the market. The Ordnance Survey uses the same justification for the expensive advertising campaign that it has recently commissioned.

How does the Minister reconcile this with the Ordnance Survey's annual report for 1984–85, which clearly shows a 4·9 per cent reduction in the volume of Ordnance Survey small-scale maps sold during the past three years and a reduction of 8·9 per cent in the volume of large-scale maps sold during the same period? How can the charge of unfair trading by the Ordnance Survey be denied when in respect of the Ordnance Survey atlas of Great Britain the cost of compiling and drawing the maps used in that atlas—estimated at £500,000—was not taken into account?

The maps used in that atlas—the first Ordnance Survey joint venture—are a publicly owned asset worth at least £500,000. Therefore, why was a private company—in this case Country Life Books, which was the co-publisher—allowed to profit from the use of this asset without being charged an appropriate fee, especially as the independent map publishers would have to pay an appropriate fee?

Ordnance Survey advertising costs are extremely high compared with those of the private sector map maker and publisher, and some of its advertisements relate both to the commercial and non-commercial products of the Ordnance Survey. Will the Minister give an assurance that there has been no cross-subsidy?

The Ordnance Survey spends most of its money on large-scale surveys, and that is inevitably the area of greatest loss. Last year's expenditure was £33·6 million, with a revenue of only £11·4 million. Rather than trying to reduce the deficit of £22·2 million by commercial undertakings that are causing so much difficulty and are blatantly unfair to the private sector operator, why not follow the principle of leaving costs where they lie and recover the deficit from those who benefit from large-scale mapping? This could be done by placing an appropriate charge on the use of this mapping for, say, the sale and purchase of land, buildings and houses, and a small charge, possibly relevant to agents' fees, could eliminate that deficit altogether.

Why is the Ordnance Survey, which is now a competitor in atlas and town plan publications, still allowed to dictate the rules and costs for the use of national survey data by its very own competitors, all of which operates to the single advantage of the Ordnance Survey? In the case of the Ordnance Survey motoring atlas, co-published with Temple Press, why was the facsimile royalty charge not included in the product pricing?

The first Ordnance Survey co-publication arranged with the Hamlyn group was done without any invitation to bid being offered to any other publisher, yet a condition of Ordnance Survey co-publication is that only Ordnance Survey mapping material is used and that the copyright remains vested with the Ordnance Survey. Private sector map makers and publishers, such as Geographers' A-Z and Bartholomew, are thus prevented from entering such agreements as it would mean discarding their own mapping material. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is discrimination against the private sector map maker, who has invested a great deal of capital in the cartography of the country?

I come back to my earlier point of principle. The risk that we run is of gradually losing the activities of the private sector map maker and moving to a monopoly where map making is carried out only by the Qrdnance Survey; and although it may co-publish with publishers, none of those 600 or 700 map makers will be working in the private sector. That cannot be right in terms of the Government's political principles.

It has been argued that the review by Peat Marwick Mitchell and Company has been used as evidence of fair trading by the Ordnance Survey. In their report, the accountants said that this was not the purpose of their investigation. In paragraph 2.11 they said:
"Our brief did not ask us to comment substantively on the equity of the Ordnance Survey's commercial operations, but rather to recommend a form of presentation in the trading accounts which would allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions as to equity."
Paragraph 2.4 says:
"we have not conducted an audit of its accounts and not attempted to check either compliance with systems explained to us or the accuracy of the accounting statements so far produced."
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the accountants did not investigate any specific Ordnance Survey commercial production, such as the Ordnance Survey atlas, to prove or disprove the specific charge of unfair trading on specific products?

An undertaking was given that Peat Marwick Mitchell and Company would conduct an independent review and that it would investigate the charges that the Ordnance Survey was trading unfairly. I attended a meeting with a previous Minister when that assurance was given. Why, then, were the accountants given their terms of reference by the very organisation that they were required to investigate? We know that their findings went first to the Ordnance Survey before being presented to the Minister. Naturally, the group that I represent cannot feel confident that that survey was completely impartial.

Will my hon. Friend guarantee that the presentation of Ordnance Survey trading accounts will, in accordance with the terms of reference given to the investigation, be in sufficient detail for the reader to be able to judge whether trading has been fair for any particular Ordnance Survey commercial publication? We are competing with new products in the shop and on the street.

I move on to the general efficiency of the Ordnance Survey as an organisation. The Department of the Environment has said that detailed reviews of the map-production facilities—

I do not think that my hon. Friend means to imply that Peat Marwick Mitchell and Company was not impartial, although I agree with his point. Is not my hon. Friend saying that the terms of reference that the company was given were not sufficiently all embracing for it to answer the questions that we should have liked it to answer?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am casting no aspersions upon the professional ability of Peat Marwick Mitchell. As I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, if one wants consultants or accountants to answer a question it is crucial to detail the exact question that they must cover. In this case that was not done to the satisfaction of those who are worried about unfair trading practices.

As I said, the Department of the Environment has told us that detailed reviews of the map production facilities at Ordnance Survey headquarters have established that the current operating arrangements are the most economic method of working. Who has undertaken those reviews? Can the people involved be asked to explain how it is more economic to confine the expensive equipment and air-conditioned accommodation that exists there to single-shift working? In our view, the kind of capital tied up in the Ordnance Service operation, if held in the private sector, could not be sustained by single-shift working. Machinery and equipment would have to be used far more extensively.

I find it surprising that the Government do not pursue that point directly and specifically. Do we not argue in every other case that when free enterprise is involved it is its need for continuous profitability that forces management to make the best use of its capital equipment? I suggest that the pressures are not there in this case.

I also bring to my hon. Friend the Minister's attention the fact that a Rayner inquiry was carried out into the former directorate of overseas surveys, the sister organisation to the Ordnance Survey abroad. That has now been dramatically reduced in size and incorporated into the Ordnance Survey. That survey by Rayner found that the directorate of overseas surveys was less efficient than the private sector. The standards of operation and staffing at the directorate were at the time of the inquiry comparable to those of the Ordnance Survey. The private sector, not unnaturally, believed itself to be more efficient than the Ordnance Survey. As there has been no similar inquiry into Ordnance Survey efficiency, does my hon. Friend agree that such an inquiry should be initiated as soon as possible?

I am grateful for having had rather longer than one normally gets to develop my point in this Adjournment debate. I said that a considerable number of Conservative Members are, not unnaturally, worried about this matter. I can perhaps summarise that anxiety in the words of one of my hon. Friends who wrote in support of the points that I have been airing tonight. He said:
"In the light of my strongly held views that small business should be encouraged and not subject to what is unfair competition, I certainly support the thrust of the argument put forward by members of the Map Publishers Fair Trading Committee.
That is merely one quotation from similar points made by a great many of my hon. Friends who are also bewildered, uneasy and angry at what appears to be a contradiction in terms of Government policy and action.

9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) has initiated the debate. I am pleased also to acknowledge that he has included a number of colleagues in much of what he has said. He knows that I share his concern that a Government Department should not be allowed to enter the market and to take work away from successful private sector businesses by any means of unfair competition. I acknowledge the task that he has undertaken on behalf of private map makers throughout the country in his remarks. I shall do my best to set out in context the position of the Ordnance Survey in relation to private sector operators.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks knows that in 1981 my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), when Secretary of State for the Environment, set out clearly the Government's policy towards Ordnance Survey activities. In particular, this policy required the Ordnance Survey to reduce its call on public funds while remaining efficient. The main method by which this was to be achieved was by raising the financial recovery targets for its large-scale activities, by maximising the recovery on small scales and by encouraging greater co-operation with private sector publishers. Within the management of the organisation, it had to operate within the constraints of financial and manpower limits and to recover the cost of commercial products from its customers together with a return on the capital employed.

It has been suggested that the Ordnance Survey should meet its financial targets solely by improving sales of its existing products. It has, of course, attempted to do this, but without success. It therefore finds itself competing in the area of the market which private map publishers find commercially attractive. It is worth mentioning that practically all private sector publishers which produce atlases and maps of Great Britain use Ordnance Survey material as their base.

Without the co-operation of the Ordnance Survey in making this mapping available, many of these publishers could not have created their mapping businesses and could not continue in business. It is, of course, the Ordnance Survey which carries the large costs of keeping the mapping up to date, and it continues to do so within the much more stringent guidelines introduced in 1981, which, as my hon. Friend says, are continously under review. Despite this, on entering the market previously dominated by the private sector, the Ordnance Survey has not sought to withdraw permission for the private sector to use Ordnance Survey material, which obviously it could have done. It has entered the market on equal terms by charging itself royalties for the use of its own material and by using full commercial guidelines and overheads.

My hon. Friend referred to advertising. I know that there have been criticisms about the way in which the Ordnance Survey has used advertising. It has been criticised by consultants for spending too little in the past on advertising campaigns. The current campaign is being funded by small-scale map revenue. Even so, there has been some criticism of the Ordnance Survey's commercial activities by a minority of publishers, and it was to eliminate any possible worry about unfair competition from the Ordnance Survey that my hon. Friend the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government announced the publication of "Guidelines for Ordnance Survey Commercial Activities" in July 1984. These guidelines direct that the Ordnance Survey undertakes its commercial activities on a fair basis and it is a cardinal requirement that there should be no unfair cross-subsidy of this commercial work from the basic scales to which the taxpayer contributes. My hon. Friend will know that the Ordnance Survey commercial trading practices were queried when the map publishers fair trading committee put a case to the Office of Fair Trading, but will also know that the OFT eventually concluded that the complaints were not justified.

The Ordnance Survey is meticulous in ensuring that its commercial trading practices are not just fair, but seen to be fair. It is a matter of routine that, when establishing a selling price, all costs contributing to co-publications are considered. The use of marginal costing is not employed. Not only are the Ordnance Survey direct material and overhead costs considered; so, too, are the co-publisher's costs which normally include editorial, printing, design and storage costs in addition to salaries and overheads. The accounting methods used by the Ordnance Survey are as nearly as possible in line with those used by any commercial undertaking.

A royalty rate in line with that charged to private sector publishers for an equivalent product is similarly included in the costs. The value of the Ordnance Survey name is taken into account and selling and distribution costs are included. Finally, a realistic profit margin is added before the selling price is determined. Unless the profit is attractive to both the co-publisher and the Ordnance Survey, such a project will not proceed. Later this year, the Ordnance Survey will publish its 1984–85 trading accounts. This will be the first time—I hope that this answers my hon. Friend's point—such detailed accounts have been published. I am sure that they will be of interest to all other map makers for comparison.

To establish its co-publications, the Ordnance Survey invites publishers to come to open days at its Southampton headquarters so that ideas can be exchanged. These open days have so far attracted about 80 publishers, some of which are established map publishers and some of which are not. No publishers have been excluded from the open days, or from consideration as potential co-publishing partners. Ideas for such co-publications are generally put forward by private sector firms. It is very rare for the Ordnance Survey to initiate a co-publication.

After discussions with a potential co-publisher, a joint decision is taken as to whether the project will proceed. An important consideration at this stage is whether the project uses the archive sensibly. After initial approval, there are a number of stages during which the project is reviewed and a decision to proceed or cancel is taken, but the overriding principle in these reviews is financial viability.

The Government believe that one of the benefits of competition is to improve the standard of products, and since the Ordnance Survey expanded its commercial activities, the quality of maps, atlases and guidebooks has improved. Those new products have increased public awareness of maps and generally given a better understanding of maps. It is hoped that that will stimulate a greater demand, which will be to the advantage of private sector map publishers and the Ordnance Survey.

I have noted the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks has made so eloquently, and must assure him that the Government share his interest in the continuing viability of small businesses. That is why the Ordnance Survey is required to follow very correct trading practices so that there is no danger of successful private sector map makers being disadvantaged by unfair competition from a Government Department.

I have already mentioned that the Ordnance Survey will be publishing its trading account for the first time later this year. In 1984, the Government asked the eminent firm of city consultants Peat Marwick Mitchell to advise on the format and design of those accounts. My hon. Friend spoke at length about its report. At the start of the review, Peat Marwick and Ordnance Survey agreed that the study would not simply advise on the trading accounts, but would "examine underlying costing methods" in order to be confident that costs are attributed to different products fairly, particularly to the co-publications that are not Exchequer-supported.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, announced the publication of the Peat Marwick review in April 1985. It concluded:
"subject to the points made in the report we are generally satisfied that accounting methods used by Ordnance Survey to allocate costs between products are soundly based and cover all major costs"
and particularly

"the use in internal product costings of a notional royalty rate equivalent to that charged to third party publishers is fair; an argument can be advanced that the particular rates used in internal product costings are sometimes too high".
All the independent evidence therefore shows that Ordnance Survey is acting fairly. Most map publishers base their products on Ordnance Survey material and accept competition with each other. I am bound to ask: why should Ordnance Survey be the only publisher not allowed to use Ordnance Survey mapping in the profitable areas of the market? One can hardly expect Ordnance Survey to continue carrying out the expensive survey, providing the unprofitable mapping, producing the base-mapping as a source for its own competitors, while allowing them to keep the more lucrative areas.

Fears are also expressed that Ordnance Survey competition may undermine employment in private sector map publishing. My hon. Friend opened the debate by referring to employment. However, I think that it is true to say that Ordnance Survey co-publications have created considerable work in private sector printing, publishing and distribution sectors. In fact, all the co-publications have been printed by private firms, and some hon. Members will doubtless find many employers in their constituencies who support the new Ordnance Survey activities.

While I accept that there may be increased work through the co-publications, does not my hon. Friend agree that that work does not use map makers? It is only publishing work. I was being very specific about the career opportunities for those involved in map making in the group that I was speaking of.

I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes about employment, but I reiterate that the group of people to which he referred has several opportunities for its expertise in map making as well as increased opportunities for employment arising out of increased publication of Ordnance Survey and private sector map making.

With regard to continuing Government policy towards Ordnance Survey, I can do no better than quote from a recent letter by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in which she stated:

"It is an essential part of the Government's policy that where there are Government-owned trading activities which cannot be privatised (and we have looked at Ordnance Survey and decided that it cannot be) then they should be run so far as possible on a commercial basis. That means that the cost of the services should fall to the fullest possible extent on the customers of those services, and not on the taxpayer. We therefore require Ordnance Survey to expand the market for their commercial products on the basis of fair competition without cross-subsidy or any Government guarantee".
Finally, Ordnance Survey has long been held in high regard and I am sure that under present policies it will continue to be, and that the Government, the private sector and the public will all continue to benefit from its activities.

Rape

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.