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Volume 450: debated on Monday 23 October 2006

13. What plans he has to set national targets for local crime and disorder partnerships for detection and reduction in the incidence of rape. (95431)

Tackling sexual crimes—above all, rape—is and always has been an important priority for the Government. Over the past three years, we have made nearly £6.7 million available to support victims. Specific targets on rape have so far been set at local level within the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. I can tell my hon. Friend that we shortly hope to publish an action plan on sexual violence and abuse.

I appreciate and welcome the finance and support given to rape victims so far, and I accept that targets have been set locally through the local partnerships. However, there is enormous variation in the rate of convictions—from 0.86 per cent. in Gloucestershire, through 6 per cent. in the west midlands where my constituency is located, to nearly 14 per cent. in Northampton. Surely such variation suggests that a stronger lead is needed on the conviction targets.

We think it right to set targets locally, and I would ask my hon. Friend to reflect on how we have dealt with domestic violence, where targets are also set locally. There, we have increased the conviction rate and we are replicating some of the methods that we used for domestic violence to deal with sexual violence. In particular, funding was made available this year for the first time to set up independent sexual violence advisers. We have also adopted some important measures, introducing specialist rape prosecutors in every crime prosecution area. Certainly the conviction rate for crimes such as rape, at just below 6 per cent., is unacceptably low. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers on the production of guidance for the police and we have overhauled the law on sexual offences. We are also introducing procedures to make it easier for victims of sexual crimes to give evidence.

I entirely agree with what the Minister has said about many of the issues relating to targets, but one of the real obstacles is the lack of a common approach from police forces across the country to the victims of rape. We need a properly resourced programme to ensure that all victims of rape are given equal opportunity to receive the support, advice and guidance that they need to pursue prosecutions.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have issued guidance to local crime and disorder reduction partnerships on how to tackle sexual violence, and how to develop a local strategy for doing so. We are also working with ACPO to produce guidance for the police. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that support for the victims is one of the most crucial parts of the process. That is why the independent sexual violence advisers—who work so well in the context of domestic violence, as I have said—can make such a difference. They work with the victim from beginning to end of the process. The victim will be supported more fully, whether they decide to report the offence or not. If they do report the offence, we hope that that will lead to an improvement in the conviction rate.