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Convicting Rapists/Protecting Victims

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

It will be appropriate to impose a time-limit. Front Benchers are allowed 20 minutes; they may consider taking rather less. A time limit of five minutes is imposed on Back-Bench speeches.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the Government consultation on convicting rapists and protecting victims.

I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on convicting rapists and protecting victims, which follows the publication yesterday of our response to a consultation paper of the same name.

Rape is one of the most feared and most damaging crimes in our society—5 per cent. of women and 0.4 per cent. of men have been raped as adults—and it devastates the lives of victims, often some of the most vulnerable people there are. The harm caused can be severe and long-lasting, affecting the sexual, physical and mental health of the victim. It takes enormous courage for a victim of sexual violence to report such a crime and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and to see justice done. Our new public service agreements will, for the first time, make it clear that tackling sexual violence must be a priority across England and Wales.

Contrary to the popular view—it cannot be said too often—rape is not usually perpetrated by a stranger: a man in a mask on an isolated footpath hitting someone over the head and grievously injuring them. According to the British crime survey, 54 per cent. of rapists are current or former partners of the victim and only about 17 per cent. could be called strangers. With non-stranger rape, there is often no independent witness present and little or no forensic evidence.

The Government have already made a number of changes to the law and to how police and the Crown Prosecution Service work together to try to tackle rape. In particular, we have excluded much previous sexual history evidence from trials. That used to undermine victims and make it frightening for them to countenance coming to court. We have strengthened the law on rape through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, improving the definition of consent and requiring that any belief that the complainant was consenting has to be reasonable before it can operate as a defence. We have updated the law on bad character and hearsay to ensure that all relevant evidence is considered by a jury.

We are determined to take all measures necessary to improve the conviction rate in rape cases. Ministers have said many times that the conviction rate is unacceptably low. Increasing the conviction rate is vital in order not only to deliver justice for victims but to send a deterrent message to potential offenders, prevent rapists from committing further offences and secure the confidence of victims and the wider public in the criminal justice system. It is also important for the criminal justice system, as a low conviction rate can deter the application of the rigour and thoroughness that it is appropriate to apply to inquiries into serious sexual offending behaviour.

My hon. and learned Friend will want to congratulate the CPS in Wolverhampton on securing a conviction rate of about 80 per cent. The difficulties to which she referred are particularly hard when cases involve children. Will she make that a feature of the consultation? There is an unfortunate case in my constituency with which the CPS has been unable to proceed simply because it involves a child’s word against an adult’s, even though more than one alleged offence against the same person is involved. Will my hon. and learned Friend pay particular attention in the consultation to that difficult and sensitive area?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the interest that he has taken in such issues, which are extremely difficult. Measures have been put in place to try to support children so that they can come forward and give appropriate evidence, but it is not always practical or appropriate for cases to be continued in every circumstance. If I can assist my hon. Friend with any particular element of the case that is troubling him, I would be pleased to meet him about it.

Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to gather any evidence on the degree to which sexual assault referral centres such as Millfield house in my constituency, with their counselling sessions and sympathetic medical examinations, have been able to assist in encouraging and enabling women to pursue rape cases? Does she share my hope that with the belated awareness of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about the importance of the matter, the Opposition will vote in favour of measures that will enable us to increase conviction rates, rather than oppose them as they have sometimes done in the past?

Since a good deal of the fall-out for people who complain about rape happens at the start of the process, it is common sense that sexual assault referral centres, which support complainants as if they were patients and look after their needs, are bound to encourage them to have the confidence to remain in the prosecuting process. Although no concrete research shows that that is the case, it is counter-intuitive to suggest anything else. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) knows, we have multiplied the number of sexual assault referral centres as fast as possible in the past few years. There are approximately 19 and there should be one in every criminal justice area in two years.

Yes, I welcome the Opposition’s new interest in the topic of rape and hope that they can now support our measures.

I am obviously pleased about the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on the subject, but to suggest that it is a new interest, when the Solicitor-General knows that we both served on several Bill Committees in which we scrutinised those matters closely—and, indeed, agreed on many things that needed to done—is perhaps not the best way to start such a debate.

Unfortunately, my last recollection of a Conservative attitude to rape is the suggestion of anonymity for male defendants, to—as it was put in Committee—“level the playing field”. I am therefore sorry to say that I cannot accept for a moment the contention that the Tories have systematically supported the things that we tried to do to improve the conviction rate. Indeed, I have already said that we excluded previous sexual history, which was done nearly over the dead bodies of Conservative Members. Many years ago, before we were in government, I drafted amendments for a Back Bencher who presented them in a Committee on a much earlier criminal justice measure. We begged the Conservative Government to introduce limits on the admissibility of previous sexual history. That was rejected out of hand. I am afraid that we are considering a fairly new road to Damascus conversion for some Opposition Members.

I shall carry on because I have given way at least three times in the past five minutes and there is much to say.

Let us consider the conviction rate, which stands at 5.7 per cent. for reported rapes. We do not know how many rapes are reported but we believe that the figure is approximately 15 per cent. That is an increase on the historic number. The figure of 5.7 per cent. represents a decrease in the conviction rate, which has been falling since the 1970s. In the past decade, especially in the past five years, there has been a significant increase in reporting rape, and it is important to put the conviction rate in that context. Overall, since 1997 when 6,500 rapes were reported, the figure has increased substantially so that 14,500 rapes were reported in 2005-07.

That rise in reporting is important because it demonstrates that victims increasingly have the confidence to come forward, and that the steps that we have taken in the past decade expressly to give them confidence of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley described, are starting to work. More victims have the confidence to come forward and complain. There are greater numbers of convictions for rape and the overall percentage is moving in the right direction. In the past year, 863 individuals were convicted of rape, whereas 618 individuals were convicted of rape in 1997. Approximately 250 more rapists are convicted every year as a consequence of enhancing people’s confidence to come forward.

I am happy to say that conviction rates on complaint are beginning gradually to turn the corner. I do not pretend that 5.7 per cent. is much to write home about, but it is an increase of 0.5% per cent. in the past two years. Although that sounds small, the figures together represent a 10 per cent. rise in the past two years. We have increased by a third the number of people who are convicted annually of rape. The conviction rate is starting to increase, so there is hope that the measures that we have put in place are starting to bear fruit. However, it is clear that there is more to do.

We put out a consultation paper in 2006 on four issues that we thought could strengthen the existing legal framework. They related to the consent element in rape, evidence or information about the psychological reactions of rape victims, the use of video evidence and the law relating to the admissibility of evidence. Let me go through each of them quickly.

Under the current law, the statement that a victim of a sexual offence makes to someone else can be heard by a jury only if it is made as soon as it could reasonably have been made after the offence. It is now pretty well known that victims of rape or other sexual offences may delay making their complaint for a variety of reasons, the trauma being one of them, the humiliation and embarrassment being others. We believe that juries should be allowed to hear and take account of as much relevant evidence as possible, so we shall legislate to make statements from victims about a rape automatically admissible, whenever they were made. We have decided, too, that it is right that the new legislation will apply to every offence. We will include evidence of all complaints and all offences, subject always to the judge’s discretion to exclude evidence that it is unjust to admit.

My hon. and learned Friend will know from the discussions that we have had that I spent most of the summer recess serving as a juror on two complicated rape cases. I am intrigued by what she just said, because—I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of this—jurors receive a transcript of the defendant’s statement to the police, but not one of the complainant’s. The victim’s statement is not taken into the jury’s retiring room, so jurors just have one version of events. Is my hon. and learned Friend saying that such evidence will be admissible and that jurors will be able to read the victim’s statement?

No, that is not quite my point. My hon. Friend has raised the issue with me and I understand her concern. She is saying that when a defendant is interviewed by the police the answers to the questions are always given to the jury when it retires, but not the complainant’s statement. I am talking about a different point, although when I talk about videoed evidence my hon. Friend will find it helpful that we have made a different step from the one that I have just set out.

We are determined to ensure that rape complainants receive the fullest protection that they can. Since video recorded evidence can be accurate and compelling, we intend to extend the video recording special measure to adult complainants in cases involving sexual offences. We shall vary the legal test, so that such recordings are automatically admissible. Prosecutors will also have a broader discretion to ask supplementary questions of a witness. That means that when the police first feel able to interview a complainant, they will not do so by writing down a statement; rather, they will video what she has to say. That video will stand as her evidence in chief in court, although the prosecutor will be able to ask supplementary questions if he wishes and cross-examination will of course follow thereafter. That will help to address the problem that my hon. Friend raised and ought to shorten the period that the complainant has to spend in the witness box, reliving the intimate details of the trauma. The new procedure should also give the jury a good, fresh impression of her evidence.

I am going to carry on, because I have got a lot to say and I am conscious that others wish to speak. No doubt Opposition Members will take their chances to do so.

Capacity to consent has been a difficult area. Problems occur where a person is intoxicated. A person can be intoxicated to the extent that they do not have the capacity to consent. That can be exploited in order to have sex and if it is, that is rape. We have asked whether the law in that area needs changing. Contrary to some assertions in the press, we were never contemplating a grid system, whereby a person’s capacity could be judged against what they had drunk, but the problem was highlighted when the Crown withdrew a case in Swansea because the complainant could not say that she had said no, as it were, because she was very drunk. The question whether she was so drunk that she did not have the capacity to decide either way was not left to the jury, but now we have a judgment from the Court of Appeal, in the case of R v. Bree last March, saying that that is how the law should operate. A person’s capacity to consent through the drink or drugs is what matters, and that capacity can evaporate well before she becomes unconscious. That is the issue to be left to the jury now. It is not a question of asking, “Was she so drunk that she can’t remember whether she consented or not?” Rather, the jury must ask whether she was so drunk that she could not have had the capacity to say yes or no.

We do not feel that we have to do any more, because that case has clarified the law. It is notable, however, that as recently as July, there was another case on almost exactly the same facts, in which the judge at first instance behaved in almost exactly the same way. That case has come to the Court of Appeal and been put right, and the law has now been set out with even greater clarity. The Judicial Studies Board has issued guidance on this matter for judges, and it is imperative that they take it on board. I know that the board will make greater efforts to spread the judgment if it needs to. It is obviously a matter for concern that, having had a clear judgment in March, the same issue had to go to the Court of Appeal following a case in July. We have already put this into guidance for our police and prosecutors on sexual offences.

We also looked at whether evidence on the psychological impact of sexual offending on victims should be presented in court by experts, and whether there were other ways of presenting juries with the information about victims in general, rather than about the behaviour of a specific individual. A lot of myths surround the crime of rape. An Amnesty International document produced in 2005 identifies a blame culture against victims of rape. Similar research in the US suggests that that is an important feature in many acquittals. Every report from the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and from the inspectorate of constabulary has talked about the scepticism about rape complainants that is borne of myths, and about the misunderstandings about how complainants will behave after they have been raped.

It has been practical to train those myths away from professionals. Lawyers and prosecutors have been trained, and judges go on serious sexual offence courses. Barristers will now have to go on a course before they can prosecute rape cases. Juries, however, have so far been out of reach. We now consider it desirable for juries to receive information about the psychological reactions of rape victims, in order to dispel these myths. However, rather than have the prosecution present evidence, we are going to set up a group of academics, doctors and—I am happy to say—judges to help us with this proposition.

I commend my hon. and learned Friend for the extensive training throughout the criminal justice system that she has outlined. Is she aware, however, that there is a huge variation in the performance of the various police authorities? My own police authority in Bedfordshire is, sadly, among the worst for tackling domestic violence and rape. Will she ensure that there is greater scrutiny of police forces, as well as greater training, so that we can be assured that there is not a postcode lottery when it comes to the effectiveness of the police’s prosecution of these cases?

My hon. Friend is right. She makes a very good point, and I will return to it in more detail later. Happily, my own police authority, Cleveland, is somewhere in the middle.

We shall ask the group of academics, doctors and experienced judges who have dealt with a lot of sexual offending—with the blessing of the senior judiciary—to decide what even-handed material could helpfully be put together to give to juries. They will do that job quickly; they have already met once in the course of the consultation, and they will meet again in December. We are seeking to get on with this. Justice must not be defeated by myths and stereotypes.

I should like to ask, for the sake of clarity, whether this new system will operate in a way similar to that in which expert evidence is brought before a court in any other kind of case. Expert evidence can be given on the psychological effect of rape. If it were a motoring offence, the expert evidence could be on the state of the tyres, or something like that. I do not mean to draw a parallel between the two; I am merely asking for clarification on how this will work in court. I am very much in favour of it, and I wonder whether it will work along similar lines to expert evidence.

I am glad to have the hon. Lady’s support. The experts, particularly the psychiatrists’ expert, feel confident that there is a broad understanding among experts of what might be called typical—that may not be the right word—responses from rape complainants, so I am hopeful that there could be a consensus in respect of what information could usefully be put before juries. Unless they have some specialist knowledge or unless they have been exposed to rape themselves, jurors will not follow it, as it is quite counter-intuitive. We hope that this will not need to be expert evidence in the sense of being partisan on either side and that it could be put before the jury in some neutral way in order to dispel these myths so that the jury’s minds will remain open in a way that we hope all British jury’s minds are open. That is how I hope it will work.

I must say that I feel reasonably optimistic about this and I am particularly pleased to have the judiciary so fully on board in respect of it. A member of the senior judiciary told me this week that when he had been on the serious sexual offence training course and had heard from psychiatrists what reactions are or are not typical of rape complainants, he said that it was like scales falling from his eyes. He felt that it could be hugely helpful for jurors as well, which is very cheering.

There is a bigger job than just for juries, as awareness raising is a serious issue and it is a responsibility of all of us—politicians, experts and victims themselves, if they can manage it—to help change public opinion. There is also the media. It was quite by accident—I do not usually have this invidious habit—that I listened to “The Archers” last Sunday. It is running a storyline at the moment about a young woman—[Interruption.]—youngish, is she? She was raped some time ago, but had not complained and was helping the man out. She failed to report it, but I think that she has now. The programme showed how traumatised she was and how difficult she was finding the whole process. I think that that is quite helpful—depending, I suppose, on how the storyline develops from there.

Let me move away a little from the criminal justice system and speak about the broader work being done to tackle rape and other sexual violence. Consultation is very important and we believe that reforming the law will improve outcomes, but is not enough in itself. We have a cross-governmental action plan to prevent sexual violence, to increase access to support for victims and to improve the way in which cases are investigated and prosecuted.

Has the Minister had the chance to read the End Violence Against Women report “Map of Gaps”, which was published this week? In particular, what does she make of the finding that most women in the UK do not have access to a local rape crisis centre? Do the Government intend to address that problem?

I have read “Map of Gaps” and I have enormous respect for End Violence Against Women. I shall come on to that in due course, if I may.

It must be our ultimate aim to prevent sexual violence, challenge the culture that tolerates it and support those at risk of victimisation across the board. Attitudes need to be addressed very early. As days go by, we are educating the next generation of jurors, so we must start with education. All secondary schools deliver sex and relationship education and by the end of 2009 we expect them all to meet specific standards in relation to personal, social and health education, including sex, relationships, emotional health and well-being.

Clearly, we need to challenge the behaviour and attitudes of the minority of men who think that it is okay to have sex without consent. Last year, the Government ran a pretty effective and very hard-hitting campaign stressing the importance of active consent to sex. My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), has helped to launch the men’s coalition. I am very pleased about it, as it is a group of leading men’s organisations that aims to provide a male voice to challenge exactly that culture—any male culture that colludes with any kind of violence against women. The men’s coalition will challenge that and we will continue to see what else we can do to support it and spread its work.

Those who commit sexual offences receive tough sentences. The average length of a sentence for rape has doubled since the 1980s—it is now about seven years, whereas at that time it was three years and four months—and we have introduced indeterminate sentences for people convicted of rape who pose a danger. Fifty-seven people are serving life sentences for rape. On release, serious sex offenders are managed through multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—by the police and offender management services. MAPPA appears to work: in 2006-07, only 0.08% of high-risk offenders managed within MAPPA were charged with a further offence.

Increasing access to health and support services is very important. We have a duty to help those affected by sexual violence to deal with the consequences of their ordeal, and I am pleased that we have been able to invest around £10 million in services.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Government’s response to the report, and the responses that the report received, on what is an extremely important topic. I also welcome the opportunity to examine more widely issues relating to what is acknowledged in all parts of the House to be not only a very serious offence, but a serious problem.

This is not a new topic. The Solicitor-General and I had the pleasure of debating it during consideration of the Bills that became the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On the whole, in my experience, there is cross-party agreement on the issues. Indeed, the changes that we brought about as a result of the Sexual Offences Act, involving definitions of rape and issues concerning capacity, were welcomed throughout the House, and that is exactly as it should be.

I am slightly sorry that at times the Solicitor-General appears to consider this an area in which she alone, or her party, enjoys a monopoly of wisdom or, indeed, caring. I do not think that that is fair to the Conservative party, or indeed to other right hon. and hon. Members. But I want to enter into the debate in a good spirit. If I highlight issues about which I have some concerns, as I shall do shortly, it is not because I do not wish to support the Government’s intention of ensuring that more of those who have committed rape are convicted, but because we must be careful not to undermine the basis of the criminal justice system in a way that would lead to miscarriages of justice, thus ultimately doing nothing at all to ensure that more rapists are brought to justice.

I will in a moment.

I remind the Solicitor-General that when we passed the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Government expressed the hope that it would make a substantial difference to conviction rates in rape cases. There is no escaping that: it was why the Government introduced the Bill, and it was one of our reasons for supporting measures that we considered fair, reasonable and proportionate.

As the Solicitor-General said, although the Act has gone some way towards improving conviction rates, it has had nothing like the impact for which the Government hoped. I venture to suggest that that is because of the increase in the number of rape allegations in the last 30 years, caused partly—and very properly—by the right to complain about rape in marriage and partly by the rise of what is colloquially known as date rape, involving persons who have had an intimate relationship that may have ended recently or may still be ongoing at the time of the rape.

Rather than speaking from a sedentary position, the hon. Lady should listen to what I have to say. She can intervene in a moment.

I accept that the term “date rape” is sometimes used in the context of people who are raped during a date with someone whom they do not know very well, but I have also heard the term used in the sense in which I am using it, to denote rape involving individuals who are known to each other.

The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am not going to get involved in an exercise in semantics as that would not be helpful.

I think there might be agreement that, as the hon. and learned Lady said, the rise in rape is not a result of stranger rape, or people being dragged into the bushes or knocked over the head in a darkened lane at night, but in large measure results from the fact that people are properly coming forward and complaining about rape in the context of a relationship where they know their assailant. As the hon. and learned Lady acknowledged in her speech, that presents a real challenge, and we in this House must address it. First, we must ask how we can ensure that women who have been raped come forward and make allegations when we know—this is a telling fact—that many such women are in some uncertainty as to whether the allegation they wish to make constitutes rape. In many cases it almost certainly does—that point was picked up in Government statistics. We must also address how to ensure that that happens while also ensuring that there is fairness for the accused, and how to get such cases through the courts so as to ensure the conviction of those who are guilty.

That is a very real challenge because all the evidence suggests that there are two major reasons why conviction rates are so low. First, a substantial number of the cases complained of never reach court at all. It is worth running through the statistics on why that is the case: one sixth of the complaints initially made are not investigated because the police conclude—one hopes they are right in this—that they are false; a quarter are dropped because of insufficient evidence; and one third are withdrawn, often because the victim will not co-operate further, which presents another challenge that should cause us a great deal of anxiety. We also know that once such cases get into court, the nature of the allegations presents juries with enormous difficulties. They must decide whether a very serious offence has been committed, and if the person accused is of previous good character and the consequence of conviction is a long period of imprisonment—as it should be—if there is any doubt, the defendant is entitled to the benefit of it. We have seen over and over again that such cases present real problems. It is worth noting that the conviction rate in such trials is now 44 per cent., and although that is too low, as the hon. and learned Lady has said, it is substantially higher than the initial statistics would suggest.

I must also say that it is not my professional experience that jurors treat rape allegations lightly. Rape is viewed in our society as a very serious matter, although I agree with the hon. and learned Lady that there might be issues about young people’s attitudes as to whether certain sorts of behaviour may render a subsequent complaint by a victim in some way wrong—I think we are in agreement that we would not wish to countenance that.

What should we do? My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made the point, which has been picked up, that greater support for rape victims is needed. It is worth pointing out that there were 68 rape crisis support centres in 1984 and there are only 45 today. There are funding issues in respect of whether the centres can survive in the long term when they tend to have a hand-to-mouth existence. I very much hope that the Government will be able to address that. As the hon. and learned Lady will be aware, we have said that the three-year funding cycles are unsatisfactory.

I think that there is also complete common ground between the hon. and learned Lady and me on wider educational issues. It is vital that there is an understanding within the sex education context of people’s rights in intimate relationships. That should be inculcated and fully understood at a young age, because in the long term that might do more to reduce the incidence of rape than almost anything else. I hope that the Government will have the opportunity to look—we will support them in doing so—at ways in which to take that forward.

We also need to consider whether we are getting the right sentences, although I acknowledge that the Solicitor-General says that some of the statistics show a continuing rise in sentences in rape cases. That is also a difficult area, but if the Government make any suggestions, we will consider them creatively.

I turn to the issues raised in the report. I note that the first recommendation is that the Government take the view that there is no need at present to interfere further with the law on capacity, and they are right. We carried out a major change in the 2003 legislation and, while I share the Solicitor-General’s disquiet about the problems with several cases in which the judiciary and, sometimes, prosecuting counsel did not seem to understand the new rules, any form of legislative change takes time to be transmitted down the chain. I am pleased to hear about special training for those prosecuting such cases.

I am sure that the Solicitor-General will agree that the case of R v. Bree has laid down clear parameters on the issue of capacity. I hope that those are properly understood and that, as a result, we will have no further instances of trials being abandoned even though the issue of capacity could be resolved in the jury’s mind. I endorse the judiciary’s assertion in R v. Bree that it was certainly not Parliament’s intention to say that a person lacked capacity only when they became unconscious, and I am pleased that that has been made clear.

I find the second issue, that of expert witnesses, more difficult, and I shall explain why. I was struck by the Solicitor-General’s comments, because her language about a desire to see expert evidence admitted or special training for juries was much stronger in tone than the contents of the Government’s response in the report. I do not know whether that indicates some difference of view between the Solicitor-General and others in the Law Officers’ Department or the Home Office about how to approach the issue, or whether it is her personal view. In any case, one does not match the other, and I detected considerable hesitation in the report, insofar as it made it clear that there were potential problems with getting expert evidence admitted, which the Government fully recognised. I share those concerns.

I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but he appeared to be eliding what I took to be two separate issues. One is training for juries, and the other is expert evidence on a particular offence. Those appear to be separate to me, but the hon. Gentleman appeared to elide them.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Perhaps in eliding those issues I am reflecting in part a slight uncertainty about the Government’s aim. There are different ideas. One would involve giving jurors a pack before they start a rape trial, giving the background statistical issues on rape and the problems of post-traumatic disorder leading to victims complaining only a long time after the event. The other would bring experts into court to explain those issues to juries in the course of the trial.

Both present difficulties. If we were to do that, the defence would have to be entitled to do the same thing. The Solicitor-General shakes her head, but on the basis of equality of arms and fairness of trial, it would be difficult to avoid that. The problem, as those of us in the legal profession know, is that some experts are tremendous individuals who act neutrally, and others can be hired guns who will say virtually anything in court that anybody wants them to say. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) says, “Most of them”.

There is plenty of material that I can imagine defence counsel wanting to put before juries about, for example, the claimed incidence rates of false allegations, that I would not particularly want handed out. I am by no means clear in my mind as to how that problem can be overcome. From reading the Government’s report, I detected that although they intended to consult further, they had not made up their mind, which is why I was struck by the far greater note of certainty given by the Solicitor-General at the Dispatch Box. I shall take it that the Government’s position is as set out in the paper, in which case I unreservedly welcome it. If there is a sensible way forward that meets the needs of fairness to defendant and victim, and the prosecution—it is an advantage to the prosecution—we shall look at it sympathetically, but there are real issues and problems about bringing in experts. I cannot conceive of a circumstance where an expert could be brought in for one side without allowing the other side to have their pennyworth-say on the matter.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has not had long to read the document, and that as the concept is relatively new it is not easy to grasp. We are not talking about expert evidence now, as I thought I had set out reasonably lucidly for the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), although expert evidence was certainly within our contemplation when we launched the consultation, and most of the senior judiciary who responded were in favour of expert evidence and did not see the problems the hon. Gentleman has found with it. As he has not had much opportunity to read the document, let me make it clear that the idea is to try to find something consensual that can be put before a jury as a piece of public service information, not related to this or that defendant or this or that complainant, and I am enthusiastic about the prospect. It could be a key piece of public education material for jurors and other people, and I am sure he accepts that is long overdue. I am so pleased that the judiciary are joining in with that effort.

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for her remarks, but I shall simply quote the Government’s position:

“The Government’s view is that whilst it would be desirable for juries in rape cases to receive expert evidence concerning the characteristics of behaviour and psychological reactions that victims of rape may demonstrate, so as to seek to break down what are well recognised to be stereotypical myths about the way rape victims react, there are substantial risks to this proposal and it should be approached with caution.”

The document goes on to refer to general evidence, but the high point is:

“Consequently we will continue to look for ways in which general expert material could be presented in a controlled and consistent way with a view to dispelling myths as to how victims behave after incidents of rape. We will ask the experts who came to help us in formulating the Government’s response on this issue to continue to work to find an appropriate and fair way forward.”

To which I say hooray, but I inferred from the Solicitor-General’s comments that there was much stronger certainty of a particular outcome than I read in the report. That is all I wanted to say on the matter.

I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is either nit-picking or trying to count the number of angels on the head of a pin. Does he support the endeavour of seeking to dispel the myths and stereotypes that impede successful convictions in rape cases or is he against it, as the Tories have repeatedly been against attempts to improve conviction in rape cases?

Again, I quote from the Government’s report, which states that if there is

“an appropriate and fair way forward, if that can be achieved, we will be prepared to legislate”.

That is our position, too, but it is not what the Solicitor-General has told the House in the course of the debate. It is slightly regrettable that the Solicitor-General’s views in the debate appear to be at variance with what the Government said.

In that case, the Solicitor-General did not read it before she came to the Dispatch Box.

I want to turn to the other points that arise about research, but before I do I want to say one more thing. A point was made about whether there should be more research into juries’ attitudes. I suggest to the hon. and learned Lady that that might be quite sensible. The point has been made that there is a problem in relation to general societal attitudes, perhaps particularly among young people, when it comes to whether rape is really rape if somebody has worn provocative clothing or if it has taken place in particular circumstances. I wonder whether that is in fact the attitude that gets taken into the jury box. It might be worth looking at whether those are the key problems in rape cases.

I think the hon. Gentleman may have misspoken slightly. The existing evidence shows that myths about rape and attitudinal problems are mainly held by the older part of the population, rather than the younger part.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I may have done so. I simply make the point that we do not have jury research in this area, as far as I am aware. It would be possible to carry out such research. If the Solicitor-General would like to promote that, either herself or through the Ministry of Justice, it would be worth while. Such research might also clear up the question whether it is mainly older people or younger people who hold such attitudes. My point is that to take general societal attitudes and then say that jurors will invariably hold those attitudes at the end of a trial, when they have heard the evidence, is not necessarily borne out by my experience as a practitioner. My experience is that people may come into the jury box with prejudices, but if cases are properly presented on all sides, they often do not have them by the time the trial has come to an end. Equally, sometimes, they may do. It is an issue that we just do not know about.

On special measures, the proposals in respect of video recording appear to us to merit careful consideration. I can certainly see that there are some powerful arguments for extending the rules on video recording to make it of general application, as long as that can be done in a way that ensures that the defence is still in a position to put its case. We already allow that in a number of categories. The Solicitor-General did not have time fully to develop her arguments, but we would certainly be willing to support the proposal, as long as we were satisfied that fairness in the trial process could be maintained.

I am strongly of the opinion that it must always be the choice of the victim whether they wish to have that process in place. To deny a person the right to go into the witness box in court and to explain in front of a jury what happened to them is something that should not be undertaken lightly. It would be contrary to all normal principles of justice—if the person wanted to go into the witness box. However, these are areas where better protection needs to be provided.

There have been a number of statements about the impact of such evidence. It is quite right that, if one is looking at a small video screen in a jury box, the impact may not be very significant at all. Equally, if one puts a big plasma screen up on the wall, it may be argued that the impact is disproportionate. These are quite difficult areas. One of the reasons why we have always tended to require people to come to court to give evidence is that it is a controlled and quite neutral environment. There are always risks that if one moves outside such an environment, that can be exploited. That does not necessarily follow and there are powerful reasons for arguing that video evidence may become the norm in most rape cases, but there are issues that need to be guarded against. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be able to respond positively to those points.

I want to bring my remarks to a conclusion, because I am conscious that others wish to participate in the debate. I repeat what I said at the outset: we need to ensure that justice can be done for victims of rape. It is a difficult area. We need also to recognise that it is difficult possibly because of societal attitudes that need to be changed, but also because jurors, who in my experience try to do their best, are often confronted with impossible questions to answer in rape cases. We need to do our utmost to ensure that those questions are presented simply and in a way that does full justice to victims’ problems. However, we need to ensure that the rights of defendants to a fair trial are recognised, too. We cannot escape that, and I say to the Solicitor-General that that is as important an aspect of justice as the rights of the victim. We need to ensure that both are protected.

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

There is approximately half an hour left for the debate. I make a further plea that the remaining Front Bencher and Back Benchers impose on themselves even tighter discipline than the five-minute limit that I originally suggested for Back Benchers.

It is a shame that there is so little time for this important debate, especially given the wide interest in the House.

I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s decisions on the consultation. They have made the right choices. I have one small quibble on the matter of expert evidence, but I have a suggestion that I hope might be helpful.

The high 95 per cent. attrition rate in rape cases is a matter of deep concern. Other crimes have similar attrition rates, but they are not as serious as rape. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is right that there are inherent difficulties involving evidence in the vast majority of rape cases—some 80 per cent.—in which the victim knows the defendant. However, such a high attrition rate requires not just an explanation, but correction.

The attrition rate itself must be seen in the light of the whole process, not just the events at trial, although there is, of course, feedback between several parts of the system. There are at least seven points determining when cases drop out of the system: whether they are reported by the victim in the first place; whether they are recorded by the police; whether they are pressed by the victim; whether the Crown Prosecution Service charges; whether evidence is offered by the prosecution in court; whether the case is put to the jury by the judge; and whether the jury finds the defendant guilty. There are problems at each stage, although I do not have time to go into all of them. There are worrying aspects of what happens in rape cases, which justify further action.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that a sixth of cases drop out because they are not recorded by the police as rapes. “Without Consent”, a report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that was published in January, shows that a third of those cases have been “no crimed”, to use the jargon, mistakenly. The fact that the Home Office’s counting rules are not being complied with in one third of those cases is a matter of deep concern.

The vast bulk of cases drop out of the system at the CPS charging stage. Why is that going on? For the most part, the CPS says that there is insufficient evidence, but that covers a vast variety of circumstances. The key is case building and co-operation between the police and the CPS—and bringing in the victim as well—to ensure that cases are as strong as possible. There are several purely practical problems at that stage: the quality of the interview; who is doing the interview; what they know about the law; and what they know about what will be required at trial.

The question of the quality of videos often comes up when one speaks to practitioners on the bench and at the Bar. Expanding the use and availability of video evidence is a good idea, but a video makes little difference—in fact, it can harm a case—if it shows the tops of people’s heads and if what they are saying cannot be heard.

Moving on to the central point—jury acquittals in cases in which it is suspected that the jury has borne in mind myths and stereotypes about rape—research indicates that, unfortunately, it is not just juries who hold incorrect or objectionable views. Such views can also be held by the police and, dare I say it, prosecutors and even judges. The only comment that I shall make about the myths is that there is a difference between the factual errors to which people are prone, and the attitudinal problems. There are factual errors about what rape is—about whether it has to do with strangers or acquaintances, whether there is resistance, whether the person who is raped has reported it early, and even the extent of false allegation. There is very little objective evidence that there are significantly more false allegations of rape than false allegations of other crimes. One need only think of thefts reported for the purposes of insurance to see how the usually suspected differences are not always accurate.

There is a distinction between factual errors and attitudinal problems such as the belief that there is such a thing as contributory negligence—that is, that victims are to blame for the crimes committed against them. It will be easier to overcome the factual errors than to overcome the attitudinal errors. I differ slightly from the Government on one point—the question of expert evidence, and how one gets across the point about myths and stereotypes. I urge the Government to leave open the possibility of using expert evidence. The document seems to rule that out, but I urge them not to do so.

I find it difficult to see that presenting a pack to a jury beforehand is not a form of giving them some expert evidence before they start. I find that distinction rather blurred.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but juries currently receive some training on the general functions of juries in the form of a film, or short TV programme. I am attracted to the suggestion that the myth-busting document be delivered not as a booklet, which will have a rather limited impact, but as a film or TV programme. However, I add that the possibility of oral expert evidence should be left open. As I understand it, the Government’s objection to that—the hon. Gentleman reflected this point—is that it would lead to a battle of experts. There would be an expert on one side and an expert on the other, and then a whole day would be spent in bickering.

Under rule 35 of the civil procedure rules—I must admit that I am more familiar with them than with the criminal procedure rules—the court has a power to order the parties to produce a single expert, agreed on by a panel. That might be a way forward that allows the possibility of an oral general expert witness system.

I want to make one further point about what happens at trial. It concerns sexual history evidence. I ask the Government to reflect further on a long-standing problem. A great deal of work has gone into the question of whether the former practice of regularly cross-examining women on their sexual history deters people from reporting rape, and it clearly does. The law has been reformed, but a report for the Government by Kelly, Temkin and Griffiths showed a need for further reform, further clarity in the law, and further care to be taken over the extent to which that evidence is allowed. It is true that for the most part, that evidence is now handled far more sensitively than it was before—partly, I suspect, because defence lawyers who go over the top with that sort of evidence know that what they are doing may be taken into account by the judge on sentence. Nevertheless, there is research on that point which indicates that a further look should be taken at such evidence.

The Government are on the right track and I congratulate them on the document that they have produced, but there is a very long way to go before we get justice for the victims of rape.

I am sure that Members in all parts of the House can agree that forcing someone to have sexual intercourse without consent is an appalling crime, and that the trauma of rape is one of society’s most pressing problems. It has profound immediate and long-term consequences for women’s physical and mental health, yet rape is shrouded in a cloak of secrecy and the problems that it creates are rarely acknowledged. So I welcome the Government’s measures to help jurors and others working in the criminal justice system, such as the police and judges, to understand the reality of rape and to try to dispel the myths and stereotypes that we have been discussing this evening, which contribute to the extremely low conviction rate for this offence.

My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has said:

“It is an undeniable truth that rape is a difficult offence to prosecute”,

and she is rightly determined that all parts of the criminal justice system should work together to ensure that the cases that come to court are as strong as possible.

An Amnesty International opinion poll in 2005 showed that one third of the UK public believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she behaves “in a flirtatious manner”, is “drunk” or is wearing “sexy or revealing” clothing. These attitudes, parading as common sense, appear to pervade the criminal justice system and many jury rooms. The reality of rape is that at least 47,000 women in England and Wales are raped each year, and the majority of those rapes are committed by someone whom the victim knows, often a partner or an ex-partner.

The Government’s progress on rape since 1997 is commendable. Strengthening the existing legal framework further will not only improve the outcomes of rape cases in the UK, but send a strong message to the rest of the world that rape is an appalling crime, that it devastates the lives of victims and their families, and that rapists must and will be penalised accordingly. As well as strengthening the legal framework, it is important to improve care for victims and witnesses. I commend the Government on that area of work, too.

In my constituency, Calder Valley, the sexual assault referral centre has given much needed support to both victims and witnesses in a safe, women-only environment. The extension of this network will ensure that victims receive appropriate medical care and counselling, and will assist the police in their investigations through forensic evidence.

In the Government’s action plan on sexual violence published last April, reference is made to the funding of the distribution of a legal handbook entitled “From Report to Court”. That is for adult survivors of sexual violence and will help to demystify the criminal justice system and help victims to make an informed choice about whether to pursue a criminal justice resolution. I hope the Minister will be able to announce financial support to revise and reprint that valuable report.

In conclusion, I am delighted that there is to be more support for survivors of rape and other sexual offences, and strategies to improve the conviction rate. These are important strands of the Government’s goal to end all forms of violence against women in the UK. I hope that parliamentary time will be found to debate the relevant legislation as a matter of urgency.

In view of the time and the number of hon. Members who want to speak, I will not go over ground that has already been covered, except to underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that over hundreds of years in this country we have deliberately constructed a system of criminal justice where there is a chance that the guilty will go free, to avoid the prospect of the innocent being convicted. I do not believe that the Government intend to undermine that principle, but we should address the issue, like all others within the criminal justice system, with that in mind.

I shall turn to what the Government want to do about what I accept is a real problem. The concept of general expert evidence causes me particular concern—I declare an interest as a non-practising criminal barrister. If the evidence is agreed between the parties, it seems to me that it must be equivocal—it must be the sort of evidence that will not tremendously assist the jury. If it is a question of two separate experts giving evidence on the likely behaviour of a rape victim, neither of those experts will be dealing with the specific set of circumstances that the jury is confronting in the case.

That the evidence may not be of particular assistance to the jury in deciding the specific circumstances of the case is not the only issue, because the situation may be worse than that. If the expert or experts provide a list of the types of behaviour in which a genuine rape victim may engage, the danger is that if a particular genuine rape victim, who is the prosecution’s main witness, has not demonstrated any of those types of behaviour, the jury might conclude that that person is not therefore a genuine rape victim. That is a real concern about the Government’s proposal.

It would be wrong to conclude that the problem is necessarily within the trial process. Other hon. Members have already referred to the fact that the attrition rate is most severe in cases of rape before the case gets anywhere near a jury. I shall make one quick remark about videotaped evidence in chief, which, broadly speaking, I support—it seems sensible to extend that measure. My only caveat is that it seems equally sensible that the judge should make it clear to the jury that that option is available to every complainant in a rape case, so the jury does not have the sense that videotaped evidence marks out that particular case as distinctive, which might be prejudicial to the defendant. It seems to me that that would be a sensible safeguard.

The other half of the argument is just as important, if not more so. It concerns how one assists those who complain of rape, through every stage of the process. I accept the Solicitor-General’s statement that it is helpful to have sexual assault referral centres. However, I wonder whether, in parts of the country where there are already very successful voluntary sector agencies providing just that type of support, it is really necessary to reinvent the wheel.

The Solicitor-General opened the debate by criticising the Conservative Government, but over the past 11 years we have seen the end of the yearly funding cycle for rape crisis centres. The number of centres has fallen from 68 to 45, and support for victims is now worse under this Government than it ever was before.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not helpful to approach such serious matters in a partisan manner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has said, it is regrettable that the Solicitor-General engaged in doing that earlier.

I want to conclude by discussing the crucial question of the voluntary sector. In my constituency there is an organisation called Rugby ROSA—the Rugby rape or sexual abuse support project. That organisation provides first-class support to precisely the people whom we have been discussing throughout this debate. It will run out of money and shut down entirely in March, unless something substantial is done. I do not see why it is sensible for the Government to invest money in a new organisation when they could invest in existing voluntary sector bodies that do the same work just as well, if not better.

It is worth noting that that organisation in my constituency is the only organisation in Warwickshire that offers support not only at the time of a criminal proceeding, but for a long time thereafter, and not only to women, but to men, too. It is important to remember that the victims of rape or sexual abuse are male as well as female, and it is important to make sure that the provision of support and services is across the board and for both sexes. I hope very much that the Solicitor-General can help me with that.

I also hope that there is not a situation in which Government funding is allocated for the sexual assault referral centres, but money that could go to the voluntary sector to support the type of services that I have described is diverted into other services that simply replicate—or perhaps do not do as well as—the work that the organisations in my constituency and elsewhere do exceptionally well.

I hope that in pursuing what I understand are well-meant efforts to deal with what I accept is a serious problem, the Solicitor-General does not throw the baby out with the bathwater and damage the best aspects of the British justice system or reinvent the wheel by making the state an inadequate substitute for what the voluntary sector already does well.

As I said earlier, while many Members were enjoying their summer holidays I spent most of my time ensconced in a court room, dealing with just these types of cases. What I want to say is based not only on my experience as a juror on rape cases, but on my work experience before entering the House, when I worked on many mass-market women’s magazines and on teenage magazines. In addition, I represent Cleethorpes, whose neighbouring constituency is Great Grimsby. Ian Huntley committed many sexual offences in those two towns before going on to murder the two little girls in Soham. Nobody believed the young women who kept coming forward to say that Huntley had sexually assaulted or raped them.

First, I want to praise the Government, who have done a lot, although we can do more to increase the conviction rate.

The hon. Lady asks what the Government have done. She does not know her subject. The Government have done a great deal to assist rape victims.

Jury education is vital; the myths need to be dispelled. I have listened to what other Members have said, particularly the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), many of whose comments were completely wrong. The Liberal Democrats have got it right. Jurors have to sit through training on their first day, when they are shown videos, given leaflets and told all sorts of things. People can do it; leaflets to guide people, not necessarily only in rape cases, but in any cases, could easily be produced. Generally speaking, however, people know what robbery is, but there are still myths around rape. The myths that there were when I was working on women’s magazines are still there now, and we must tackle them if we are to convict more rapists.

Over the years, I have heard all sorts of things about rape cases—“She wasn’t upset enough,” “She wasn’t traumatised,” or “She was truanting from school.” Such allegations get thrown in to cast aspersions on a person’s character. If the victim did not run away, fight back or scream, or if they knew the accused, or had had a drink or a joint, people almost believe that there was contributory negligence. That implies that the woman—such cases largely involve women, although not always—somehow brought it on herself. We owe it to justice to spell out that issue so that jurors know that those are all myths.

If we are to consider the court experience, we need to do an awful lot more work on consent and what constitutes consent. Again, it is almost as if there were contributory negligence—“She accepted a lift from him,” or “She went for a drink with him, got in the car and went back to the flat; she knew what was going to happen.” People believe that such prior activities constitute consent. That issue has to be spelt out to jurors far more explicitly.

We must also consider the test of being beyond reasonable doubt. That needs to be spelled out to juries, particularly in these kinds of cases. I am sorry to say this, but far too many defence barristers say to people, “If you have any doubt”. The test is whether something is beyond reasonable doubt, not any doubt.

The victim statement should be given to the jury when it retires to consider its verdict. At the moment, only the alleged rapist’s statement is given to the jury. If it is a long trial or there are multiple defendants—if, say, it is a gang rape—we only get their version, not the victim’s. If the victim’s version was given, we would serve justice very well.

My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has done a good job. If anybody has been through these experiences and wants to get in touch with me, I am happy to listen to their experiences.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Something very queer went wrong with the clock earlier; it seemed to go in two directions at once. I told the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) that I would deal with “Map of Gaps”, the report by End Violence Against Women, and I will do so now. I have immense respect for End Violence Against Women. Liz Kelly, the chief researcher on that document, is going to serve on our group of experts, which aims to produce some myth-busting information and to advise on how it might be put before juries. The research in “Map of Gaps” is a useful snapshot of local services for women who have suffered violence, and it shows some significant gaps.

Contrary to the assertions of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), our funding of support services for those who have suffered from violence against women has increased enormously—from £250,000 annually in 1997 to £3 million now. She really needs to think, read and understand that the Government whom she supported did nothing about domestic violence and nothing about rape. Unfortunately, the speeches by Conservative Members indicate that their attitudes have not changed. I agree that Rape Crisis centres need securer funding. We have a stakeholder group working with Rape Crisis, and we have rolled over its victims fund financing for another year to help it to secure its funding, which will ultimately have to be local.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) made the good point that the 5.7 per cent. conviction rate hides a lot of variations. Some police forces manage as high as 13 or 14 per cent., others less than 1 per cent. We now have a Home Office unit working with the police to spread best practice. That should help considerably, practically and quickly. I am grateful for the broad welcome for the document given by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I agree that previous sexual history and its admission continue to be an issue.

I welcome the doughty support of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty). I welcome, too, the sensitive response to jury service that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) demonstrated. She has talked to me about that issue several times, and she has confronted the issues on the front line that we are trying to develop policy to deal with.

I was disappointed by the responses of the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), who made poor contributions cautioning me that we must not bend the rules against defendants at a time when we are trying to make trials fair for victims as well—a long-term and profound need that they continue to be unwilling to address. It was clear that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield had either not read the document or misunderstood it, because video evidence will not be forced on to any rape complainant, but will be a matter of choice on the face of the document. Furthermore, I am afraid that his inept or deliberate attempt to textually criticise a paragraph in the document to try to undermine what the Government intend to do reflects badly on the Opposition, on a total lack of interest, despite the leadership of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). We will continue to champion the rights of rape victims.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of the Government consultation on convicting rapists and protecting victims.