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Rape Defendants (Anonymity)

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2010

5. What evidence he took into account in deciding to bring forward proposals to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials. (2220)

9. What evidence he took into account in deciding to propose to grant anonymity to defendants charged with rape. (2224)

11. What evidence was considered before the announcement of proposals to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases. (2226)

The proposal to grant anonymity to defendants in rape trials was included in the coalition agreement following negotiations between the two coalition partners. All the policy commitments made by the coalition Government were derived from the existing policy of one or both of the governing parties. The issue of anonymity for defendants in rape trials was adopted as party policy by the Liberal Democrat party while in opposition. It was also the subject of an extensive inquiry by the Home Affairs Committee, in its fifth report published on 24 June 2003.

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer. His Minister has indicated that he believes the stigma associated with those accused of rape is so damaging that, uniquely, they need further protection through anonymity, but evidence shows that the public are far more hostile to paedophiles and murderers, so why, on the evidence, does he choose to extend anonymity to those accused of rape?

There are arguments on both sides of the question, and they have frequently come before the House over the years. The Government think it is right to have a reasonable debate on them. That is one of the arguments in favour of anonymity. The argument that I have always thought is the strongest for anonymity is in cases in which the victim has anonymity—when there are allegations by children against teachers and others, or allegations made by women or men in rape cases. Where the victim is allowed anonymity all the way through, there is a case, which the House has accepted on occasions in the past, for giving anonymity to the person who is accused. There are other arguments on both sides of the case. We are not likely to have early legislation on the matter. This was the principal subject of debate in 2003 when there was a Bill before the House, and it divided all three parties. It is not a matter for party political ideology. It is a question that the House as a whole should consider with care.

In my experience of working with sex offenders, it is extremely unusual for someone to offend on only one occasion. Publicising the name of the person accused often allows other women to come forward. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman look seriously at this evidence, at research that has been done by the Home Office, and at research to which I have been directed, by the excellent criminology department at Sheffield university?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) reasonably said in the Adjournment debate, we are looking at evidence and seeing how many cases are multiple offenders, and in what particular cases that might have led to further complaints and detection, but I point out that 53%—I think that is the figure—of those accused in serious rape cases are known to the person making the accusation. They are usually ex-partners or ex-husbands. In those cases, where the person sometimes gets anonymity if they are the husband, not granting it might betray the identity of the complainant, and sometimes the person accused does not get anonymity, if they are the partner. There is a perfectly serious case to be made on both sides of the argument, and the coalition agreement has contemplated going back to anonymity. I had to look up which way I voted the last time the question was before the House. Other hon. Members would probably have to do the same. I voted in favour of anonymity then, but we are now listening to the arguments.

I have worked with victims of sexual violence and know how difficult it is for women to come forward and report offences. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that the issue is not about party politics; it is about protecting very vulnerable victims of crime. If the Government intend to press ahead with those proposals, will he outline how they intend to encourage women to report rape offences and what measures will be brought forward to drive up the conviction rate in rape cases, which remains significantly lower than it should be?

The Government are committed to providing up to 15 more rape crisis centres. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that, obviously, nobody is questioning the long-standing decision that anonymity be given to all victims making allegations of rape. It is obviously important that everything possible be done to encourage more women who have suffered from that crime to come forward and seek the prosecution of the perpetrator.

I listened with great care to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State said about the mystery of where the policy came from, but can he enlighten the House as to why, over that weekend of negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party about the coalition agreement, the matter suddenly became a major priority when it had not been in either manifesto before? Will he also please tell us how many women were involved in those negotiations?

I was not involved in the negotiations, but the policy actually emerged from them. I remind the hon. Lady that the Liberal Democrat assembly voted in favour of the policy in 2006, but it did so against a background of considerable debate. People from all parts of this House decided to vote for anonymity in 2003, and we recently had a report from Baroness Stern, who I do not think supports anonymity but recommended that the matter be debated more extensively.

The one thing that I can say to the hon. Lady is that the idea that the proposal was a male decision to the exclusion of female sensitivity on the subject is, frankly, slightly wide of the mark. Nobody in the House denies that rape is a serious offence; nobody in the House wants to reduce the protection that is given to women who are threatened with it or experience it.

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the likelihood of rape victims coming forward of his policy to extend anonymity to defendants in rape trials. (2221)

15. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of his proposal to introduce anonymity for defendants in rape cases on the number of prosecution brought in such cases. (2230)

The Government totally support the anonymity of rape victims and regard rape as a very serious crime that should be prosecuted in all cases where sufficient evidence exists. There seems to be no reason, however, why a victim should be deterred from complaining because the name of the accused will not be immediately publicised. The Government are, however, prepared to consider all arguments on that or any other aspect of the issue.

The point is that the Justice Secretary has come before the House and talked about the proposal as if he were suggesting perhaps a Green Paper or a national debate, but it is in his programme of government, and I notice that his Front-Bench team is a Liberal-free zone. Does he feel, and will he now admit to the House, that basically he has been sold a pup?

No. I think that it is a serious issue, and, although I may not have initiated its appearance in the coalition agreement, the hon. Gentleman may gather that I am not averse to the House looking at it again. There are people who want us to do so, and we will have an opportunity, no doubt in due course, to put it to Members. I am not responsible for the whipping in the House, but I suspect that all three parties would rather prefer a fairly free vote on the issue, because I do not think that there is any consensus in any part of the House, unless I am suddenly told it is—[Interruption.] The Labour party is looking for new policies, I know, but I do not think that it has decided to make this issue the central plank of its much overdue reform.

We have said that we are attracted by the argument, and that we will debate it and consider all the arguments produced by Members from all parts of the House. The Prime Minister actually referred Members to the Home Affairs Committee on which he sat, which on an all-party basis recommended anonymity, at least until the time of charge, only a few years ago.

I am pleased to hear that there may be a free vote on this issue and that the Secretary of State has so little personal enthusiasm for the policy. Does he agree that the main problem in rape cases is the low conviction rate and the fact that rape victims are not believed? Rather than trying to create ways to provide those accused of rape with more protection, we should be looking at ways to make sure that women feel able to come forward and that we increase the conviction rate.

I hasten to repeat that I have no responsibility or control over the whipping arrangements of any of the political parties in the House. When I was operating as a Back Bencher, I took this sort of vote very seriously. I considered it seriously in 2003 and came down in favour of voting for anonymity. It is no good trying to sweep the issue from the field, and we are not going to do that.

The conviction rate among those charged with rape is 38%, which is lower than that for some other offences, but rape is different in many ways from more straightforward crimes such as theft. In rape cases, we are essentially relying on the frame of mind of one of the parties; something that is perfectly lawful and affectionate if the woman is consenting is a very serious criminal offence if she is not.

Juries are the best people to decide whether they believe one version or the other in what, in my very distant experience of such trials, can sometimes be difficult cases that are best left to juries. That is why I am urging that this is a serious issue, and the coalition agreement was right to raise it. We have expressed our current intention, but Members from all parties will want to listen to all the arguments on both sides and not just be driven away from considering them.

When the black cab driver John Worboys was charged with a string of sex attacks, more than 80 women felt that they could come forward and present themselves as victims. Anonymity for rape defendants would have prevented that from happening. Surely the Justice Secretary agrees that it is important that victims should feel able to come forward, not only to seek justice for themselves, but to strengthen the case for prosecution.

That could be a good argument, and we will look at it; evidence of that is, I think, one of the things that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said we would consider. We are trying to have a look at the Worboys case, which is always cited, to see how far the response to that was caused by publicity about the name of the accused person and how far it was a result of the police investigation into the nature of the rape. We can come back to that in later debate. It is not a conclusive argument. A very large number of rape cases do not involve multiple offenders; essentially, they often involve people who are well known to each other and have a history of a consensual sexual relationship.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that the appropriate counselling is available for victims coming forward? That counselling has recently been withdrawn in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). It is now provided by volunteers. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at ensuring that appropriate funding is put in place for that service?

I certainly will. I have already referred to our commitment to try to provide new rape crisis centres, preferably using the proceeds of crime when they are recovered from criminal offenders. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that we are long past the stage at which a woman complaining of rape is treated as if she were complaining about a handbag robbery. There is no doubt that all these cases have to be treated with considerable sensitivity because it is very difficult for a woman to bring herself to complain and not enough do so, even in the present climate of opinion.