I have had discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of criminal matters and will continue to do so as and when issues arise. Rape is one of the most serious and damaging of all crimes, and I support the current work that the Crown Prosecution Service is undertaking with other agencies to improve the way in which prosecutions are conducted and victims are treated in such cases. If there are to be any changes to the law or procedure in respect of rape trials—for example, the introduction of anonymity for defendants in such cases—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made clear last week, they will take place only after the issues involved have been fully researched and debated. The views of all those with relevant knowledge and expertise, including the Director of Public Prosecutions, will be fully taken into account.
Victims of rape need to feel confident that those accused of rape will be treated as serious offenders. Does the Attorney-General agree that extending anonymity to those defendants will stop victims coming forward and send a signal that it will be difficult to accuse people?
I do not think that it will in any way lessen the seriousness of the matter; on the contrary, it will emphasise the seriousness. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that anonymity for defendants in rape cases existed between 1976 and 1988. Indeed, I defended rape cases over that period and saw that trials were conducted without difficulty and with no lessening of the gravity of the offence. However, such matters can and will be debated, and if they are debated with a proper emphasis on detail, I believe that we will reach the right solutions.
If we go down the road of balancing victim anonymity with anonymity for the person accused, is not the important consideration that if the prosecution has good reason to believe that evidence will be brought to light if the identity is known, it should be possible to waive anonymity?
Yes; my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have no doubt that that issue is one of those that can be examined. It is worth bearing in mind that the existing anonymity for complainants has the consequence, for example, that there are occasions when a history of false complaints made to someone other than the police does not come to light before a trial takes place. However, that has not been put forward as an argument for removing anonymity for complainant victims. He is correct, however, that such matters can all be looked at properly when we examine this area of the law.
May I begin by welcoming the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Solicitor-General to their posts—it must be like going back to chambers? I also thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the kind words about his predecessors that he set out at the beginning of Question Time, which were gratefully received by Labour Members.
There has been a lot of confusion about this area of policy. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has, like several of his colleagues, spoken about the matter as if we were conducting a debate, but I remind him that the coalition agreement states that anonymity will be extended to defendants in rape cases. Will he lead the Government from the front by admitting that they have got this wrong, accepting that they have made a mistake and dropping this disastrous and retrograde policy?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome; indeed, I welcome her to her role of shadowing the Law Officers in the House. She will be aware that my role is to provide legal advice about policy decisions made by the Government, and she can be reassured that I will ensure that exactly that happens.
As for this policy, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor made it clear when answering questions last week that he wished to engage in a debate to examine this procedure and area of the law, which have caused concern. That is exactly what I invite the House to do, in the spirit in which such debate should be conducted.