I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of defendant anonymity.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject for a second time. On this occasion, I am a little less inhibited by time pressure, but I am conscious of the number of people seeking to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will not delay the House too much. Since I last addressed the House, in the 7 June Adjournment debate, the Government have reviewed the arguments more fully and our thinking has advanced, and I look forward to the opportunity to explain where matters now stand. I also look forward to dispelling some common myths and misconceptions about our policy.
I emphasise again that the question of anonymity for rape defendants is wholly consistent with our fundamental commitment to supporting victims of crime. Violence against women, girls and vulnerable people is totally unacceptable, whatever the context or circumstances. We know that victims of sexual violence often find it very difficult to report a rape to the police, and of course for those who have felt able to come forward, going through the criminal justice process can be an incredibly difficult and painful experience. Our focus is on the rights and welfare of the victim, and we are committed to ensuring that every victim of rape has access to appropriate support. In particular, we are looking at putting funding for rape crisis services on a more sustainable basis and at establishing new rape crisis centres where there are gaps in provision.
The Government Equalities Office is currently carrying out a consultation on a strategic action plan, including Government action on working with a more sustainable violence-against-women voluntary sector, based on cash, commissioning and capacity building. It closes on 23 July. The action plan suggests a capacity-building project to be carried out in partnership with the relevant umbrella bodies, to support their ability to represent Members and work together to influence the Government. The Home Secretary will be chairing a meeting of Ministers across government later this month to discuss how we tackle violence against women more widely.
We will not conflate myths and stereotypes about false allegations with our detailed work on the proposals for defendant anonymity. This debate is not about doubting victims’ reports or repeating uninformed arguments about false allegations. Baroness Stern has stated in her independent and impressive review that this is an area on which we need further research, and the Government are looking into this. I want to make it clear that Baroness Stern’s review of the evidence found that only a very few rape allegations are false:
“It is not possible to establish an exact figure and the research that is available gives a wide range of suggested percentages. Some research suggests that a figure of eight to ten per cent of reported rapes could well be false reports. However, those we spoke to in the system felt that there were very few.”
I will give way to the right hon. Lady, but I would like to get through the bulk of my remarks, and make clear the Government’s position and the explanation for it. I will then be happy to take further interventions. At this stage, however, I am happy to give way to her.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has just put it on the record that, based on the available evidence, there is little evidence of a high rate of false allegations. In that context, will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who did not help the debate when he said, having been questioned about falsely accused rape defendants:
“We know that a lot of people are falsely accused”?—[Official Report, 9 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 328.]
I think that the right hon. Lady will appreciate what I am about to put on the record regarding the detail of evidence in this area. I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that the Government will make a full response to Baroness Stern’s recommendations in due course. I want to make it clear that the issue of false allegations is not one of the reasons for considering changes to our policy on rape defendants. It would be were there strong evidence that a significantly greater number of false allegations are associated with rape than with other offences, but the Government do not believe that to be the case.
On that question, I remind the House again, as I did in the earlier Adjournment debate, that there are in fact two anonymity commitments in our coalition agreement. One relates to rape, the other—referring to no particular offence—to teachers. The House will wish to note that there is a specific reference in our coalition agreement to protecting teachers from false allegations, but no such linkage over rape complainants. It is therefore important that we distinguish between these two commitments. The criminal justice Departments will therefore need to carry out further work in conjunction with the Department for Education before we are in a position to provide a clear statement of how we intend to proceed on the teacher aspect.
The remainder of my remarks, therefore, are addressed to the issue that has caused the most controversy and interest in the House—the issue around rape defendants. However, we will listen carefully to any contributions today on teacher anonymity, which will help to inform our discussions with other Departments.
We are committed to supporting victims and improving the investigation and prosecution of rape.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify in more detail the proposals on teacher anonymity? Is he suggesting anonymity in respect of abuse, sexual abuse or rape, or have the Government not yet clarified in their own mind in precisely what circumstances teachers will be granted anonymity? Furthermore, will it extend to teaching assistants and other staff in schools, such as caretakers?
I am surprised by that intervention because the Government made their position clear yesterday in a written ministerial statement by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb). It bears repeating:
“Finally, we will give teachers the strongest possible protection from false accusations. We will give anonymity to teachers facing accusations from pupils. This Government want to put an end to rumours and malicious gossip about innocent teachers which can ruin careers and even lives.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 12WS.]
As I said, we will now hold discussions with the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Law Officers about how to proceed. Right now, however, I do not want to say anything further about that, as I have a significant amount to report to the House on the Government’s position on rape defendants. I want to focus on that now.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I would like to set out the Government’s analysis and position, and then I will be happy to take further interventions.
We are committed to supporting victims and improving the investigation and prosecution of rape. It will be useful to the House if I share our best understanding of what happens to rape complaints made to the police. In 2008, 13,093 complaints of rape were made to the police. Based on a Metropolitan police survey in 2007, we would expect that one third of these were no-crimed and that 30% of this third—about 10% overall—were false allegations, which I believe to be reasonably consistent with false allegations around other offences. That is why the number of false allegations is not part of the reason for changing our position on this issue. Police identified 80% of suspects, and 73% of these were arrested, but only 44% of those arrests resulted in a charge by the Crown Prosecution Service, perhaps due to withdrawal of evidence by the victim, which could be caused by fear of reprisals, the court process or the lack of emotional strength to continue.
What we know about case disposals in 2008 is as follows. Some 2,395 cases were proceeded with at a magistrates court, of which 1,822 were sent to the Crown court, with 24% of cases not proceeded with for various reasons, including the charges being dropped, although in some cases the defendant will have been convicted of other offences at the magistrates court. Of the 1,822 cases that proceeded to the Crown court, 24 were not tried for a variety of reasons. However, 1,798 men went on trial accused of rape in 2008, 51% of whom were convicted of rape, with 77% convicted either of rape or another offence. Of those who went on trial, 406 pleaded guilty and 1,392 pleaded not guilty. Of those pleading not guilty, 36% were convicted of rape, while 885 of those pleading not guilty were acquitted of rape or attempted rape. I estimate from the information made available to me that about half those will have been convicted of another offence, but it is not yet possible to be precise about that from the data examination that I have been able to undertake before today’s debate.
We need to empower police officers to improve rape investigations. We are all aware, as the recent Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into Kirk Reid has again demonstrated, of the terrible consequences that investigative failures can have. To demonstrate our commitment to improving the criminal justice response to rape, the Home Office will continue to fund the rape support programme this year, providing additional targeted support to forces to improve their approach and practice on rape investigation. We will also consider carefully how we can support agencies’ joint work on sharing intelligence and good practice.
The anonymity debate has been characterised by a number of myths and misconceptions, which have unfortunately served to obscure rather than clarify matters. For example, it is alleged that anonymity for defendants would deter victims in general from coming forward. One can easily understand the argument that depriving complainants of anonymity would indeed have that effect. Their cross-examination about painful personal matters would be exposed to the public gaze, which is bound to have a deterrent effect on the willingness of others to come forward. Parliament has long recognised that reality. However, it is difficult to understand how the anonymity of a defendant could possibly have such an effect. There is an argument that reducing publicity around rape investigations and trial should make it easier for complainants. That would be an effect of protecting the defendant’s identity. The strength of that effect before and during any trial will be a matter of judgment.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that one of the reasons why people fear that introducing anonymity for defendants just in rape cases will deter reporting by victims is that he would be singling out that one crime for such treatment? Extending anonymity to defendants in all cases might not have the same impact, but by singling out one particular offence, the hon. Gentleman is in danger of sending a clear signal to victims that they will not be believed.
I understand that that is one of the counter-arguments, but in the end it comes down to a matter of judgment and balance among a number of competing arguments. I am quite happy to concede that the argument that the hon. Lady has set out has some weight, but other arguments have to be weighed in the balance too. Let me therefore put those arguments before the House.
To turn to our proposals, we have now had the opportunity to consider both the arguments and the background in further detail. The last time the subject was debated at any length in Parliament was during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Reference to those debates is highly instructive, and I would like, if I may, to dwell for a while on that subject. Anonymity for defendants was first raised in another place not by a Government or Opposition Member, but by a Cross Bencher, Lord Ackner, the late former Law Lord, who had tabled an amendment to the Bill. Lord Ackner’s view was as follows:
“For 12 years this anonymity”—
that is, defendant anonymity—
“was enjoyed. I have heard nothing to suggest that during those 12 years there were occasions when it worked to the disadvantage of justice. I have not limited my request to pre-trial because pre-trial is only part of the issue.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 June 2003; Vol. 648, c. 1095.]
Their lordships narrowly accepted Lord Ackner’s amendment, so that when the Bill passed to this House it contained provision for defendant anonymity. The then Government decided to resist that in its entirety. In Committee, the Opposition tabled alternative, probing amendments that would have granted anonymity either all the way to conviction or, as the case may be, up to the point of charge. Only the latter amendment was pressed to a Division. A similar Opposition amendment was tabled on Report and was also pressed to a Division. Interestingly, the Government of the day indicated that they accepted the desirability of pre-charge anonymity in principle, but preferred a non-legislative solution. Some scepticism was expressed by a number of speakers in both Houses about whether the non-legislative approach was realistic. However, there was also some support for the suggestion that a non-legislative solution would be ideal.
When the Bill returned to the other place for consideration of this House’s amendments, Lord Ackner moved an amendment similar to his earlier one, but on that occasion it was defeated. However, the coalition partners joined together to support a narrower amendment, tabled by Lord Thomas of Gresford, that would have provided statutory anonymity at the pre-charge stage. That amendment was duly passed. When the Bill returned once again to this House, the then Government maintained their previous position and the Lords amendment was again deleted from the Bill. The matter was once again pressed to a vote. That was followed by yet another round of debate in the other place. Ultimately, no further Opposition amendments were pressed, for fear that the whole Bill would fall as a result.
In the latter stages of the Bill, Ministers indicated that discussions had been held with the Association of Chief Police Officers and with the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. As a result of the latter discussions, the press was looking at its code of conduct, to see how it could be strengthened to ensure that those suspected of offences—but not yet charged with them—were not named in the media. The burning question prompted by this saga is: what happened next? The answer is that the Press Complaints Commission issued a note in 2004 that specifically addressed the reporting of people accused of crime by reference to the relevant sections of the editors’ code of conduct.
It appears to be widely assumed that there is a self-regulation scheme in place that clearly prohibits the reporting of anybody accused of a crime but not yet charged with it. On close examination, however, the 2004 interpretative note does not provide complete reassurance. Nowhere does it contain an outright general prohibition on the reporting of pre-charge allegations. In fact, in the main, no mention is made of the distinction between pre and post-charge reporting at all. For that reason, anybody affronted—for example, by the reporting of an allegation that was not followed by charge—and who wanted to complain to the PCC about the matter might well find that they had no grounds to do so under the interpretative note or code.
A further point, which soon became apparent from the exhaustive examination of the issue undertaken in this House and another place during the passage of the 2003 Act, is that both the then Government and the then Opposition parties settled on a position of agreement—in principle at least—to non-reporting up to the point of charge and normal reporting procedures thereafter.
Much has been made in the past of the importance of open justice and the free reporting of criminal trials as key elements of maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system. We support that view. There is, however, another important reason of principle for distinguishing between the reporting of trials and the reporting of allegations before the point of charge. In the case of the latter, we are dealing with allegations that have not been subject to a full range of investigation.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to set out where the Government are on this issue, and then I shall be happy to take further interventions.
When there is an allegation before the point of charge, there may have been some degree of investigation into the allegation, but there will have been no formal assertion on the part of the state that anybody has a case to answer. Those points provide grounds to inhibit reporting that are not present at the trial stage. Therefore, having carefully reviewed the extensive background, having taken account of the fact that nobody should be appearing in a criminal trial unless the prosecuting authorities have assessed all the available evidence including any exculpatory unused material, and prosecutors having applied the other provisions of the code for Crown prosecutors and decided to bring criminal charges, the Government are minded to strengthen anonymity up to the point of charge. This is consistent with the findings of the Home Affairs Select Committee—on which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister served—in 2003, and also with the reply that he gave to the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s questions last month.
Will my hon. Friend expand on this a little? Does he understand the concern that is felt on both sides of the House that, by singling out rape in this way, he is sending out a negative signal about women and about those who accuse men of rape?
I do understand that, but we also have to take into account the arguments that sit on the other side of the equation. We are dealing with the environment in which these allegations are handled by the media. This is the position that the Government think strikes the right balance. It happens to be the position that was thought to strike the right balance by the previous Government and by the previous Opposition, when the matter was considered in 2003. It is also the position that was thought to strike the right balance by the Home Affairs Select Committee when it considered the matter in 2003. Therefore, unsurprisingly, this is the conclusion that the Government have come to.
I am extremely puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He has set out a very defensible position on why someone’s name should not be in the public domain before they are charged, but why is that desirable only in relation to rape and not to any other offence? Surely the same should apply to anyone who felt that they had been wrongly accused of theft or burglary or any other offence.
The strongest argument is around the balance of harms. The complainant in a rape trial has anonymity, and everyone who has considered this issue in the past has come to a balanced judgment that it is therefore appropriate to give the defendant a degree of anonymity. Because of the way in which rape is reported, these will have been the considerations that have guided previous Governments and Oppositions, and previous parliamentarians, in their consideration of this issue.
The Minister has correctly described the views of the Select Committee, of which the Prime Minister was a member, in 2003. I was not serving on the Committee at that stage. He has set out the Government’s views very clearly today. Does this proposal exclude the possibility of the further research into false allegations that the Stern inquiry suggested? Is he dismissing the idea of further research altogether?
No, it does not. I am delighted to say that the right hon. Gentleman has provided me with a cue to begin the next part of my speech, which deals with that issue.
In taking our position forward, we will examine the question of section 44 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which I understand has never been implemented. That section grants anonymity at the pre-charge stage to persons under 18 years old who are involved in criminal investigations, including suspects. It already provides a statutory equivalent for children and young persons to the measures that we have in mind for adults, and as such is linked to the present debate.
Now, for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and other hon. Members, I should add a final note on the question of research. As hon. Members will be aware, the director of analytical services in the Ministry of Justice has been asked to produce an independent assessment of the current research and statistics on defendant anonymity in rape cases. We are aiming to publish this report before the summer recess, in the week commencing 26 July. It will cover all the available research and statistics on the subject and is intended to inform the debate.
Will the Minister clarify whether the published research—which will be immensely helpful—will include an analysis of media coverage, including, for example, statistics on coverage suggesting that the victim was in some way to blame? Or is media coverage to be excluded from the analysis?
I will direct the attention of the director to the hon. Lady’s remarks, to see whether it is possible to achieve that objective. If we were able to come to intelligent conclusions that would assist the debate, I am sure that that would be useful. We shall have to see whether this will be possible; we will examine the matter and try.
I am glad that the Government are listening and proceeding slowly, but there are other wide-ranging issues that I hope are also under consideration. Can the Minister tell us whether anonymity is being considered in the context of all sexual offences, as one category— [Interruption.] I am asking the Minister. Is it also being considered in the context of all offences of violence, which is the other big category? Having single solutions for single types of offence, however important the offence is, would be the wrong way to go. Looking at this in the broader context is the right way to proceed.
The Government have come to a view on where we want to strengthen the position, and it is around the offence of rape. There are arguments about whether this should apply more widely, and we have given careful consideration to them. Setting aside the issue of teachers—that is seen as discrete and should be carried forward separately—it is the Government’s view that we should limit this to the particular offence of rape.
Our current thinking is that the available evidence does not absolutely dispose of some of the questions that have arisen in relation to anonymity, even at the pre-charge stage. There is an important outstanding question of the extent to which anonymity might frustrate further police inquiries into an offence. We are looking at what further research might be required to fill in any gaps. This will enable us to take a view on any exceptions that it might be necessary to build into a general anonymity rule.
Finally, I would like to explain how we intend to take matters forward over the summer. I want to stress that we have been treating this issue as a priority, and we will continue to do so. We recognise that the subject is of considerable interest to many people inside and outside the House, and in another place. In the circumstances, it would be undesirable to allow it to slip.
It is important to put on record that the previous Government’s position was not the position that the Minister has described—namely, that rape defendants should have additional separate protection in terms of anonymity. I also want to ask him to say a little more about this issue, as it concerns the House greatly. It would be helpful if he could give us a further explanation of why the Government think that rape defendants should be treated differently from every other kind of defendant.
I think I have already answered that question—[Hon. Members: “No, you haven’t!”] I am quite happy to accept that I might not have answered it to the satisfaction of the right hon. Lady and other Opposition Members.
Our aim is to set out our detailed position at an early date. We envisage making a further announcement in the autumn, as soon as possible after the summer recess. In the meantime, we will continue to investigate those areas that still require further thought. I have already discussed the read-across to our commitment regarding teachers, and the scope of the provisions will clearly form a central element of that further work. Over the same period, we also intend to investigate the extent to which research might be required to fill in any gaps. The one area I have highlighted is whether anonymity might frustrate investigations. On the face of it, that is the most that is required, but we will reflect carefully. We will also use the intervening period between now and the autumn to engage the media, which has a key interest in the subject. I know the media would like to be consulted at the earliest available opportunity, and we will take steps to ensure that this happens. In these days of multiple media, we recognise the wisdom of discussing our proposals with broadcasters, as well as with the more traditional paper-based news industries, and we will do that.
We will also have discussions with other relevant organisations. At this time, we have not decided exactly who is relevant for this purpose, but I am aware that the Association of Chief Police Officers has been mentioned a number a times in connection with this subject, and we will certainly take note of its views in developing our scheme further. We will speak to specialist voluntary sector organisations, the education sector and the children’s work force with a view to gaining a better idea of the detailed impact on suspects and victims, and we will work up practical options for implementation.
We see no case, however, for a formal consultation—[Hon. Members: “What?”]. The detailed arguments in this area are already well known, and we are not convinced that a formal consultation exercise would add value. It is capable of obscuring the real issues, and would certainly delay matters considerably. That cannot be in anybody’s interests.
Let me conclude by saying that it is a pleasure to be able to report real progress on this subject. As I have said, we look forward to being to announce further developments after the summer recess.
I begin by welcoming both the Under-Secretaries of State for Justice to their ministerial places to discuss this extremely important matter, in which there is much interest on all sides of the House and outside it. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), made an interesting speech, and I intend to take up some of the points he raised, but let me say that we do not disagree in this respect—rape is a heinous crime that wrecks lives and causes many victims unending suffering.
Rape is a more prevalent crime than is often imagined in the public consciousness. I have here some figures derived from official statistics. Every week, up to 2,000 women are raped, up to 10,000 are sexually assaulted, and between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police—these are figures taken from the joint inspection of the Crown Prosecution Service and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. More than a third of all rapes recorded by the police are committed against children under the age of 16. As I think the Minister recognised at the beginning of his remarks, all that shows that this is a matter of huge import, not only to Government and Opposition Members but to all our constituents—and particularly, I might say, to women. Although men are subjected to rape—about 7% of victims are male—it is overwhelmingly women who are the victims of this particular offence. I do not intend to ignore the fact that it is not only women who are involved in this type of offence, but, as I say, it is overwhelmingly women who are affected.
Looking back at the history of this crime over many decades, it is clear that there has been agonised and sometimes passionate debate—in this House and in the wider society—about how best to deal with rape, how best to make sure that perpetrators are brought to justice and how best to assure women and others that they can be protected by our society’s statutory authorities from being subjected to this crime.
Despite the terrible figures, there is some cause for optimism. Following a great focus on improvements, the last decade or so has seen some forward movement, and a great deal of effort has been put in by partners, statutory and otherwise, across the criminal justice system who have done good work to bring together their input to focus on the key question and to tackle low levels of reporting and low levels of conviction. Labour Members accept, as we did when we were in government, that more needs to be done. We can say that reports to the police have doubled in the last 10 years, which is a good thing. We can say that there has been a 50% increase in the level of convictions—and the Minister’s figures implied that, although he did not put it in that way. From charge to conviction, about 58% more have been convicted of rape or other sexual offences.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there are cases where someone is accused of rape, as a result of which other victims come forward and the person accused of rape can be convicted as a result of that, although he would not have been convicted if the others had not come forward? In other words, the first accusation might not have been completely conclusive, so the anonymity of defendants can lead to more rapists and more rapes.
I accept what my hon. Friend says. There is no doubt that rape can be a serial offence. Perpetrators of rape often do not stop at one offence; they continue their offending behaviour, so anything that deters victims or those who have been attacked from coming forward might have the unfortunate effect of making it more difficult to catch serial attackers at an early stage. It has been recognised for decades that gaining convictions is hard. The Minister read out the figures on attrition rates, to use that shorthand. Those figures show how hard it is to convict the guilty, so anything that makes it harder or deters people from coming forward or anything that makes it more likely that they will not believed when they do come forward can only be bad for the impact on conviction rates.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that there has been an improvement in approaches to rape, but is not the underlying factor that informs—in my view, informs absolutely—what the Government are proposing the view that rape is an “avoidable” crime? It is assumed, for example, that if the woman had worn a longer skirt or drunk rather less or had not placed herself in situations that the external eye regards as dangerous, the rape could have been avoided. Would not the according of anonymity to an alleged perpetrator of rape simply reinforce that total fallacy, which it is so difficult to change?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there are many myths about rape. It is one of the few crimes for which victims are frequently blamed, if not by the statutory authorities, at least by society or certain elements of society or by those investigating the crime. One crucial thing we as a society must do if we want to convict more rapists is tackle all the causes of failure. We have to encourage those who have been raped to report in greater numbers, and we have to ensure that the support is there to enable them to go through the ordeal of trial and investigations, which can carry on for too long, often for many months. We must also provide aftercare and support for the victims. Anything that detracts from that will not help us as a society to deal with this heinous crime, and a consequence will be that more victims and more families will be affected. We should remember that it is often not just the victim herself who is affected by the crime and its aftermath but the children. We also need to bear in mind the fact that many children are themselves victims.
I agree that the idea is not to put people off, but to encourage them to come forward when a criminal justice process is being gone through. Does the hon. Lady agree that, as the police say, it is often not the name or physical identity or picture of the suspect that brings people forward but the knowledge of the method of operation? I speak as the MP of John Worboys, who operated as a cab driver. The knowledge that the offender was a cab driver was enough to encourage others to come forward. It could be knowledge that the person committing the offence usually climbs through a window at 1 o’clock in the morning. The point is that is often the operation, not the identity, that is important.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that revealing the modus operandi can bring women forward. Often, women do not want to report, and only when it is reported in the media or elsewhere that the person is committing the offence against other women do they have the courage to come forward. Anything that inhibits that process can damage efforts to catch serial rapists and to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way twice to me. Is she aware of cases in which, in response to individual children coming forward to say that they had been abused by a man running a teenage football team and by teachers, other members of the football team and the class concerned came forward with evidence of a multiplicity of abuse, leading to convictions? If defendants are given anonymity in rape cases, and if teachers are given anonymity in cases of sexual abuse, it will lead to more rapes, and it will lead to more rapists, including teachers, being free.
I fear that my hon. Friend is correct. In a meeting of the all-party group on domestic and sexual violence yesterday, I listened to Chief Constable Dave Whatton, the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on rape, give examples from his force of the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend refers. For example, when allegations were published about a particular teacher, further victims came forward, enabling a conviction that might not otherwise have happened. Another similar example from his force concerned a vicar. We need to be careful to balance the potential advantages and disadvantages of the approach that the Government now say that they will take.
The Minister made a great deal of the issue of balance, but vulnerable victims are often abused by someone in a position of power, who gets themselves into that position in order to carry out abuse. The weight of difficulty for victims is so enormous that equating their situation with that of a defendant is completely erroneous.
I agree with my hon. Friend: equating the position of the complainant with that of the defendant is erroneous.
The Minister tried to clarify the Government’s policy, but the coalition Government’s programme set out in nine words, with seemingly admirable succinctness and clarity, that
“we will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants”.
However, since its publication, all kinds of outrage, consternation and surprise have been caused, for two reasons. First, many people, including me, believe that the policy will not help to bring rapists to justice, but will do the opposite. I do not think anyone in the House would disagree about the need to bring more rapists to justice.
Indeed, I assume that must motivate the Government’s policy, but the Minister did not set out in great detail in his speech why the coalition had such a focus.
This country has a system of open justice, which is extremely valuable and an important part of our justice system. It should be changed only with great thought and for very good reasons. As anyone who has practised the law would be keen to set out, one can be accused of many crimes that can have an extremely deleterious effect on one’s reputation, on one’s standing in society, and on one’s capacity to hold down a job, hold a family together and live a normal life, whether or not one is found guilty. Rape is certainly among such crimes, but so are murder, downloading child pornography, stealing when one is in a position of trust and many others. What surprises me about the proposal is that rape, rather than all sexual offences, is singled out for such treatment.
No, I want to make some progress.
The coalition agreement set out the matter clearly. The proposal will not help to bring rapists to justice, and the apparently clear and succinct policy was in neither of the coalition parties’ manifestos. Therefore, it went from not even being important enough to mention when seeking votes from the public and a mandate from the electorate, to being such a major priority for the Government that it merited a specific mention in the coalition programme for government. Why was that? Nobody has told us. I am extremely grateful that we have this debate, which enables us to explore the matter in more detail. Where did the policy come from? Who suggested it? Who thought it was a good, or even workable, idea? Who, if anyone, was consulted about it? How did it go from being unmentioned at the election, by either the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, to being a top priority over the weekend of the coalition negotiations?
The Minister tried to explain the proposal in a little more detail, but I fear that he has only added to the enormous confusion. Many Opposition Members have raised the matter with a variety of Ministers ever since the coalition programme for government was published. The acting leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), raised it at the first Prime Minister’s Question Time of this Parliament. To say that the Government have responded with confusion and inconsistency is an understatement. It is not solely that Ministers from different parties say different things, but that the inconsistency and confusion, hardly helped by the Minister’s statement today, are much more widespread. To an interested observed such as me, it looks like the Government do not have a clue what their policy is, because they have not taken any steps to work it out yet.
Much has been made of the report by the former Home Affairs Committee, and of the current Prime Minister being present when it took evidence. On 23 April 2003, however, when it took evidence on false allegations, he was not present. People must therefore be careful about laying claim to such knowledge and information.
I was not aware of that, but my right hon. Friend has put a lot of effort into dealing with the issue, and has raised it most consistently and effectively from the beginning of this Parliament.
It is important to clarify precisely what the Government’s policy is. According to the Minister’s statement today, the policy is to extend anonymity to defendants in rape cases up to charge. However, that has not been entirely evident from what Ministers have said. We have had answers from the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Justice Secretary, the Leader of the House, the Attorney-General, the Minister for Equalities and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate, which have all been different in substance and tone. When pressed, the Prime Minister said that he was in favour of extending anonymity only to charge. The Deputy Prime Minister, when pressed, retreated into immediate and wholesale abandonment of the policy, suggesting that the Government had merely “proposed the idea”, as if he were running an academic seminar rather than a legislative programme. He added:
“If our idea does not withstand sincere scrutiny, we will of course be prepared to change it.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 50.]
I hope that that, at least, still holds.
The Under-Secretary of State, until today, has made it clear that he wants anonymity up to conviction. Last month he said that
“it could go wider. There are reasons why it might also be applied to other offences.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 155.]
The Minister for Equalities has also supported anonymity up to conviction, blogging that
“a perpetrator would only be named if convicted.”
That seems to have changed today.
Meanwhile, the Justice Secretary, who appeared to be fed up with being asked the same question more than once, said in exasperation that it was all the Liberal Democrats’ fault anyway because it was their policy. The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats had better get used to being blamed for everything by his so-called partners in Government. The Justice Secretary went on to say that it was not going to happen quickly, although that is not what we have been told by his Under-Secretary of State in the House today.
The Justice Secretary said that he favoured a free vote, or a “fairly free vote”, as he put it. I must remember to ask the Opposition Chief Whip exactly what a fairly free vote is—or perhaps I should ask the Government Chief Whip.
Compounding an already complicated and confusing picture, a number of Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State today, have said that they will “bring forward options” or are “attracted by the arguments”. They have said, “We will debate it”, or have called for evidence. Perhaps I am missing something about the new politics that we are told we now have, but I had always thought that Governments did those things before deciding on policy, not afterwards. This Government appear to be indulging in prejudice-based rather than evidence-based policy-making.
The hon. Lady certainly ought to give way at this point, having been part of a Government who indulged in policy-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based policy-making. She is entitled to her fun, but she should recognise that what I have said today is clearly consistent with the coalition’s programme. The coalition has listened to the contributions that have been made, including the questions to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and the debate led by her right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. We have reached a view on the appropriateness of the scope, and how the law should be applied. We are also still asking for evidence relating to the issue that was raised earlier. The hon. Lady will have to get used to the fact that ours is a Government who will actually listen, and take account of evidence that is promoted.
That was a very long intervention, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be as good as his word, and will listen. I hope that his travelling on the issue has not been completed. He has obviously changed his mind: until recently, he was saying that he wanted anonymity up to conviction, and that it “could go wider” in respect of other offences. Even after his speech, it is still not entirely clear to us precisely where the Government are. The Justice Secretary made it plain that this was not a priority, that it would be kicked into the long grass, and that when it did come up there would be a “fairly free vote”. That is not what we have been told today.
I will give way to the Under-Secretary of State in a moment.
To reach a conclusion without any consultation—to decide the policy first and consult afterwards, when the effectiveness of the policy and the likelihood of its success are such an issue—is not a sensible way of proceeding.
I shall leave aside the difficult task of pinpointing precisely what the policy is. The position has changed today, but it is still not absolutely clear. What is absolutely clear is that no one was consulted. There seem to be no ideas and no evidence about the impact of what I believe to be a retrograde and deeply troubling policy. The Ministry of Justice has confirmed in written answers that no written evidence was considered before the policy was presented. Ministers have met no victims’ organisations, rape crisis organisations or members of the judiciary.
Given that the Under-Secretary said today that there would be no consultation, it is clear that Ministers do not intend to meet and properly consider the views of those who know most about the issue and have most to say about it. That is a disgrace. Only now, after the policy has been decided, are Ministers analysing options and implications and asking for evidence, and they keep changing their minds about exactly what the policy is. Only now, after the policy has been decided, are they asking MOJ statisticians to pull together the existing evidence base. Should not the Under-Secretary have done all that before? Of course he should.
I hope that I can help a little. I believe, and the Opposition believe, that it is not in the public interest to abandon the principle of open justice when it comes to such serious offences as rape. Singling out rape as an offence for which, uniquely, the defendant is granted a right to anonymity clearly suggests that false accusations are widespread, and that victims should be disbelieved by the criminal justice system, by investigators and by juries. That will deter people from reporting rape, which the Under-Secretary says he does not wish to do.
Not at this point.
In fact, people accused of sexual crimes should not be treated any differently from other defendants. If the Under-Secretary singles out rape from all other sexual offences, let alone offences of violence, he will send a clear signal that there is a reason for his action. That will impinge on victims’ capacity to come forward and the likelihood that they will do so, which will in turn impinge on the conviction rate.
The argument that there should be anonymity for defendants because there is anonymity for complainants is a false one. There is a public interest in bringing rapists to justice. A victim is a witness to a crime, not simply another party to a family law case or a civil case in which some kind of equivalence might be seen between parties. Rape is often a serial crime, and it is often only after many crimes that a perpetrator is brought to court. Previous victims often come forward at that point. That can be essential to the securing of a conviction, but the Under-Secretary’s policy is likely to make it less efficacious.
Many organisations have contacted Members about the proposed policy, including Rights of Women. It has endorsed a statement signed by 50 leading women’s and human rights organisations, including many rape crisis centres and organisations that deal with victims of rape. It believes that giving suspects anonymity, whether until charge or until conviction, will hamper police investigations, enable serial offenders to evade detection—thus placing more women at risk of sexual violence—reinforce erroneous and harmful myths about the prevalence of false reports of rape, thereby deterring women from reporting it, and send a clear message to women that they are not to be believed. It calls on the Government to drop their proposals on anonymity, and instead to focus their energy where it is needed by concentrating on securing sustainable services for survivors of sexual violence and improving the investigation and prosecution of rape.
The ACPO lead on rape, Chief Constable Dave Whatton—who knows a thing or two about the subject—has said
“The proposal to extend anonymity in rape cases beyond victims would require primary legislation. ACPO has yet to see the detail of the proposals but would welcome being part of the formal consultation process.”
Well, apparently there is not going to be a formal consultation process, although the Under-Secretary did say that he would talk to ACPO, which is at least something.
Chief Constable Whatton also said:
“The welfare of rape victims needs to remain a priority. Our main concern would be in regard to the impact any changes on anonymity would have on victims, in particular on their confidence to come forward and report rape.”
It seems to me that the entire focus of the Under-Secretary and the Government on the issue of anonymity for defendants in rape cases rests on the level of false reports, although the Under-Secretary said that it did not. I think that one of the strongest arguments advanced by Members on the Government Benches who favour the proposal is the idea that there is a lot of false reporting. The last Home Office research on that was in 2005 and it suggested that the true figure was closer to 3% than the 8% to 10% that has been stated. However, false reporting is obviously a concern for those who are falsely accused, and it must be tackled. There is no disagreement between us on that. The question is whether the best way to tackle this is to allow anonymity for anybody who might be accused of any kind of offence, including all the people who are guilty. We argue that that would lead to less reporting and less ability to convict the guilty.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to draw a distinction between acquittal and false allegation? Rape is a difficult crime to prosecute and juries will sometimes not convict, and that is right, but that does not mean that the complainant lied.
That is right; my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. There are very few examples of malicious reporting. When the public talk about false reporting, they are often really referring to malicious reporting, which we all agree is a perversion of the course of justice, and can be, and is, charged as such where it is discovered.
We must make it clear that in the current context anonymity in effect means reporting restrictions. What we are talking about, therefore, is not an objective descent of anonymity on to a named individual, but inhibiting our free press from reporting matters of public interest. I had a word with the Newspaper Society about what it thinks about that.
The hon. Lady is very generous. There are already episodes in our criminal justice system where names are withheld. Her former Government enacted terrorist offences legislation that allowed the names of defendants to be withheld, and for “A”, “B” or “C”, for instance, to be used instead. There are also thousands of youth trials every year in which the names of young people are withheld, and that has been the case for decades. This step would not be unique, therefore.
We do not, however, say in respect of any crime that there should be a generalised anonymity for defendants. Particularly for the crime under discussion, that is what would lead to the deleterious side effects I have been outlining. Having looked into this matter, I do not think the downsides of granting anonymity just in respect of rape could possibly justify the impact on the very few instances of malicious reporting that it seems there are—we do not know the precise number.
The Newspaper Society says that the law should remain unchanged; the victims of alleged sexual offences are protected against identification during their lifetimes, but even those restrictions can be waived or lifted by the court in specific circumstances. It thinks the Government’s proposals are potentially far-reaching, and that that is fuelled by an imprecision in how they are set out. It thinks they could prevent the release, exchange, dissemination and publication of material, and that they could prevent investigation and reporting, including in respect of accuracy and legal checks, despite the real public interest in that being done. It also thinks they could fuel rumour and malicious gossip that is not just confined to the actual subject of the allegations, rather than prevent or curb that. It said, too, that the written statement on teacher anonymity was very imprecise, and that it is against it because of its imprecision and the potential impact on the capacity of a free press to do its job.
I wanted to raise the following matter with the Minister, but he would not give way to me. I am unclear as to whether we are talking about anonymity for any accusation, such as a teacher being suspended in a disciplinary situation, or only for any criminal matters, such as rape.
I agree that some imprecision remains, and we would have many questions about the Government’s intentions. One can understand, of course, that teachers who are maliciously accused of things have a terrible time. There is absolutely no doubt about that, but if the suggestion is that we revert to not believing children when they make allegations of abuse, that is a very dangerous and retrograde step. For too many years in the past, before we took safeguarding children quite as seriously as we now do in our society—and I hope we will continue to do so—children who made allegations were frequently disbelieved, with the result that abuse, including sometimes serious sexual abuse, continued for years. That destroyed lives, and we left vulnerable children completely unable to be protected because of the then attitudes about whether to believe what they said. Any signal—and this Government have given a number of them—that we are reverting to that practice is extremely retrograde.
I do not believe that getting rid of the rigour of the barring and vetting scheme, which arose out of the Bichard report into the Soham murders, sends a good signal about safeguarding children. I do not believe that abandoning ContactPoint sends a good signal about the intention to safeguard children. I do not believe we should add in anonymity in all circumstances for teachers against any allegation made, and perhaps for a wider range of school staff, because why stop at teachers? Why not school caretakers as well, and dinner ladies, teaching assistants, or any other number of staff in schools? I do not believe that sending that signal can possibly help us safeguard children in this country. It is a retrograde step. I do not believe we have seen any real evidence, thought or policy development that has led to those specific nine words and the other paragraph about teacher anonymity in the coalition agreement.
I believe the Government are undertaking a calamitous and retrograde march backwards into the past. Given the range of views that there clearly is among Ministers, I believe there is still time for the Government to think about this, and to do better than they are proposing. I believe they should think again about consultation, as this kind of policy should be properly consulted upon. The experts out there in our society dealing with these situations every day, whether in schools or in our criminal justice system, deserve and need to be asked by this Government what they think the impact of these policy suggestions would be.
Given that the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State for Justice, clearly signalled to the House that this policy is not on the list for early legislation, and given that he clearly signalled that he intended his party to have a fairly free vote when it was brought before the House, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), should say to the House in winding up, “We will consult. We will take this away. We will think again. We will have evidence-based policy making, not prejudice-based policy making.” I urge him to do so.
I cannot hope to match the rhetoric of the new Members who have spoken before me with such great passion in their maiden speeches. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate. I am not quite the last of the new intake of Members to get off the mark, although the list of those who have not done so is gradually diminishing. May I also congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on the excellent and fair way in which you have presided over this Chamber?
I wish to start my maiden speech by paying tribute to my predecessor, Paul Clark, who was elected to this House in 1997, when he overturned a 16,000-plus Conservative majority. Paul was a local boy, who grew up in Gillingham and cared passionately about Gillingham and Rainham. He served on the Back Benches of this House, as well as on the Front Benches as a Transport Minister. I wish him well in whatever the future holds for him.
It is a great privilege and honour to represent Gillingham and Rainham, which has been my home since I was six- years-old; I attended Richmond infant school, Napier primary school, Fort Luton high school for boys and then the Chatham grammar school for girls sixth form—yes, I did say Chatham grammar school for girls. Being the only boy in a class of 20 girls has its challenges, but I must say that it was an excellent experience. In all, I was very fortunate to have some dedicated teachers throughout my education, who inspired me to be the first in my family to go to university. I was able to read law at the university of Wales in Aberystwyth, which led me to qualify as a barrister, and this firmly instilled in me the values of fighting for justice, both as a defence and prosecuting advocate.
Gillingham and Rainham is a great constituency. Even in 55BC, when conquering Britain and passing through the area, Julius Caesar paid tribute to the men of Kent as the most civilised—I agree with him entirely. The towns, which have strong naval and military ties, are home to the Royal Engineers and are steeped in history. Both General Gordon and Lord Kitchener have links with the Royal School of Military Engineering. Currently, the Royal Engineers have two regiments serving in Afghanistan, and our constituency is very proud of the brave and courageous men and women who are there on active service. Many Victoria crosses, from both world wars, have been awarded to those with connections to Gillingham and Rainham, notably Major James McCudden from the first world war and Lieutenant Eugene Esmonde, of the Naval Air Service, from the second world war.
Although 400 years of naval heritage presence has now gone, it is still a matter of pride that Lord Nelson joined his first ship in the very dockyard where his famous flagship Victory was built. All that makes me very proud to represent Gillingham and Rainham, but there is also an international link, because Will Adams, who travelled to Japan in 1598, was the first British sailor to travel to Japan—he was also from Gillingham.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Gillingham is home to a great football team, the Gills, although I have to say that watching the Gills is a bit like living life on the edge—one just never knows what is going to happen next. This is often reported in the excellent local newspapers, the Medway Messenger, Medway News, and Your Medway.
Gillingham and Rainham are part of the Medway unitary authority, an efficient, well-run Conservative council, which for the past 10 years has been very effectively led by Councillor Rodney Chambers and its chief executive, Neil Davies. I am very much looking forward to 2012 and the Queen’s jubilee, when I hope that Medway will rightly be given city status.
As a former barrister who both prosecuted and defended in criminal cases at all levels and who passionately believes in obtaining justice for the victims of crime, I am delighted to make my maiden speech in this debate on something that has rightly for many years now concerned this House, namely bringing to justice those who commit sexual offences, which are some of the most serious crimes on the statute book. In so doing, we must take care when addressing and balancing the competing interests of the victim against the rights of a defendant, who stands accused and is innocent until proven guilty.
One of the foremost issues that needs to be urgently considered is the low conviction rate in such cases, upon which considerable work has been done by successive Governments. However in so doing, we may have unwittingly crossed the line while balancing that issue against not only the right of the defendant to a fair trial, but, more controversially, the thorny question as to whether there should be a right—and if so, to what extent it should apply—in relation to the protection of the identity of defendants accused of and charged with sexual offences of all categories of such serious crimes.
In particular, recent experience has demonstrated that there are, unfortunately, occasions when defendants have, often for myriad complex reasons, been unjustly and falsely accused of sexual crimes. Extreme suffering is caused to victims as well as to those falsely accused in these cases, thus it is necessary to address these questions and face the challenges that they present head on. The low conviction rate in cases involving sexual offences is thought by many who practise in this field to be often due to the length of time between the commission of the offence and the date of trial. This not only leads to injustice in relation to memory recall, but causes considerable additional suffering to the victim while they await resolution of the same.
Some European jurisdictions have sought to address these issues by designating certain courts as exclusive rape and domestic violence courts, solely concerned with the hearing of such cases. Those courts are specifically designed to hear video evidence, the staff are sympathetically trained and the courts are victim-friendly—for example, they ensure that the risk of accused and accuser unwittingly meeting is reduced to a minimum. As a result, cases are heard within a very short time of allegations being made, evidence is fresh and the statistics demonstrate that conviction rates have risen.
The needs of true victims in allegations of sexual offences are always in the forefront of our minds when we legislate in this House, just as they are uppermost in the minds of those on whom we rely to dispense justice fairly on a daily basis in our courts: the judiciary of England and Wales. Our judiciary have been admired for generations and used as a model in many evolving democracies. We are justly proud of their work and it is time that we acknowledged our faith in them by restoring to the courts some of the important discretion that had traditionally always been entrusted to them by this House, but that has, unfortunately, been eroded by the previous Government in many areas, for example, in sentencing policy.
The effect on those falsely accused of serious sexual offences by the publication of their names and the revelation of their identities in the media can have long-term and far-reaching disastrous unintended consequences. In April, a taxi driver who worked for a firm in my constituency was cleared of rape at Maidstone Crown court. The story had been reported on the front page of the Medway Messenger, the largest circulating local newspaper in the area. It was only on the day of the trial—months later—with the defendant waiting in anguish, that the two supposed victims admitted that they had made up and falsely invented the serious allegation in order to avoid having to pay a taxi fare. They were later jailed for two years. The consequences for the wrongly accused defendant have been nothing short of disastrous as a result of the publication of his identity in the media. The concept of “mud sticks” is alive and kicking. He and others like him in the future deserve some measure of protection, as I believe we still have a system of justice in this country, of which we are justly proud, in which the accused is innocent until proved guilty on conviction by his peers. If safeguards are required to reinforce that in sexual offences cases until conviction, in order to balance these competing interests, they should be put in place as a matter of urgency.
I immediately acknowledge the arguments in favour of the publication of the identities of those accused of serious sexual offences, such as that might encourage others to come forward. However, that approach does fly in the face of the presumption of innocence and presumes that anyone accused has done this before. We should examine the statistics carefully in trying to balance these crucial and diametrically opposed interests. Neither should be sacrificed in the interests of the other without the most careful consideration.
Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 has served us well in relation to the publication of the name, address or any other particulars calculated to lead to the identification of any child or young person who is involved in criminal proceedings, including those on sexual offences. A court has complete discretion to hear anybody in support of or in opposition to an application pursuant to the section and consideration should be given to the extension of it automatically to include all those accused of serious sexual offences, allowing a judge to lift such a restriction in appropriate cases until conviction. A restriction until charge does not go far enough, as the test for charging is a “reasonable prospect of conviction” and thus far lower than the standard required for conviction by a jury.
In other words, we should trust our judiciary to maintain the balance in any case, having carefully considered the competing arguments. We must also do everything we can to bring to justice those who commit such serious crimes.
It is an enormous pleasure for me to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), which I thought was excellent. I first met the hon. Gentleman on his first day on the House and I did what every old Member does to every young Member—no, not that! I asked him when he was going to give his maiden speech, and I kept asking him week after week. He said that he was going to save it for a really important debate and he was right to do so. He spoke with great eloquence and enormous passion about his constituency. He cleverly named all three local newspapers, the leader and deputy leader of his council and his local football team, and he becomes, of course, the most famous graduate of Chatham grammar school for girls. That kind of story is almost new Labour.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make a huge contribution to this House. We on the Opposition Benches and, I am sure, Members on his side look forward to his eloquence in future debates. I wish him well in what I am sure will be a long parliamentary career. He was right to mention Paul Clark. Paul—or Mr Clark, or whatever we call former Members of the House—had a very small majority. We would have been delighted if Paul had won again, but the hon. Gentleman has turned the majority into five figures. We wish Paul Clark well in his career; he was a very popular Member and was admired and liked on both sides of the House.
This debate, like all debates in the House, is very important. I am speaking only because the Home Affairs Committee has been mentioned on numerous occasions. The Prime Minister has mentioned the deliberations of the Select Committee in 2003, when he was a member, and Members on both sides of the House have referred to that, so I felt it appropriate to inform the House of what the Select Committee decided when it conducted an investigation into this important matter seven years ago.
The Prime Minister was a member of the Committee at that stage, but I did not know until my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) mentioned it in her intervention that he was not present when the evidence was taken. However, as a former member, she will know that it is not vital to be there when evidence is taken so long as one is part of deliberations on the proceedings. I say that in the presence of one new member of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood). We look forward to the Government’s tabling the order to set up the Select Committee so that we can meet and start to discuss these matters—I know that the Minister is no longer a Whip, so he has no control over these matters. This is certainly one of the issues that we will want to consider.
The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham came up with the crucial point that was perhaps missing from the Minister’s speech. Why is it necessary to extend anonymity just for those who have been accused of rape up until the time of charge? That is what the Select Committee said and I will read verbatim from our recommendations in the course of my speech. It is necessary for those cases in which people feel that they are falsely accused and turn out to be falsely accused, and the huge level of publicity that occurs as a result of such cases. In a sense, we should include the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and the shadow Minister in these discussions, because what concerns Members of this House who are worried about the issue is the fact that people can make false accusations and as a result whole lives can be destroyed—not just the lives of the people who have been falsely accused but those of their families, too.
As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), said in what I thought was the finest speech that she has given in this House on any subject, these are important issues that need to be discussed and explored properly. That is why I think that the Government should pause, having stated their position clearly, as the Minister has. There is a need to pause, because this decision has implications not just for rape cases but for the whole criminal justice system.
I would probably be described as a conservative with a small c, because I believe passionately that those who are falsely accused are also victims. I do not mean those who are acquitted because there is not sufficient evidence, but those who are maliciously—I think that this point was made—falsely accused of rape or any other crime or misdemeanour. It is a terrible thing to be falsely accused when those accusations are not put to the relevant person and they are not given a chance properly to respond. Unfortunately, that is how the criminal justice system works at the moment.
We need to think very carefully before we make any extension. I am not saying that the Government have not made their case, because, as I shall show when I read out the Select Committee’s recommendations, it is entirely in accordance with what the Committee recommended in 2003. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, who has read the transcripts will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that the decision was unanimous. Given the personalities who have sat on the Home Affairs Committee in the past 10 years, including our most distinguished former member, the Prime Minister, it is quite difficult to get unanimity, especially on issues of this kind, so we should not dismiss absolutely what the Committee said in 2003. Indeed, we should use it as the basis for a period of wider consultation.
Perhaps I should be clear about the consultative process. We will not be having a period of formal consultation with all that that entails, but we will have a process whereby people will be able to contribute and listen. When we put out our research analysis, there will be another opportunity for that. If we need to go down the statutory route, there will not, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, be an immediate opportunity to do so.
That is most helpful. I am not sure whether the Minister has given us a timetable for the consultation period, but perhaps his colleague, the other Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will do so when he winds up. The Minister has given a timetable for the independent study into research that he is conducting, although I am not sure how independent that research will be if it is done by a director at the Ministry of Justice. If it is to be called an independent inquiry, it might be appropriate for it to be done by a former High Court judge or a serving judge rather than a civil servant—not that I cast any aspersions on the officials in my former Department, who were all fine people. They have all the minutes from previous Ministers’ meetings, so we must never cast aspersions on our former civil servants. The inquiry probably will not be as independent as one would hope, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider that issue.
I am with the Minister, however, regarding the fact that someone will be looking at the research that has been conducted or that will be conducted in the next few weeks. That is what the Stern inquiry suggested—proper, appropriate research into the false allegations issue—and that will be helpful.
Does my right hon. Friend feel that there is an equivalence between the sort of case being discussed, in which someone is accused and found innocent, and someone being raped? We seem to be making out that there is some sort of equivalence, but surely there is not.
No, there is not an equivalence—that takes the debate in the wrong way, and we need to be careful and temperate in the language that we use. There is no equivalence, but we should not forget those who are falsely and maliciously accused but have not committed an offence of that kind. The newspapers revel in reporting allegations about offences of a sexual nature because it titillates the editorial writers in our tabloid papers. We should not forget how awful it is for someone to have a malicious rumour spread against them, but that is in no way equivalent to the rape of a man a woman, which is a terrible crime. I think that all hon. Members in the House agree on that.
Let me read the recommendations of the Select Committee in 2003. I shall not read all of them—just the couple that are relevant to what we are discussing. The Committee said:
“On balance, we are persuaded by the arguments in favour of extending anonymity to the accused. Although there are valid concerns about the implications for the free reporting of criminal proceedings, we believe that sex crimes do fall ‘within an entirely different order’ to most other crimes. In our view, the stigma that attaches to sexual offences—particularly those involving children—is enormous and the accusation alone can be devastating. If the accused is never charged, there is no possibility of the individual being publicly vindicated by an acquittal.”
The second relevant recommendation is:
“We therefore recommend that the reporting restriction, which currently preserves the anonymity of complainants of sexual offences, be extended to persons accused of those offences. We suggest, however, that the anonymity of the accused be protected only for a limited period between allegation and charge. In our view, this strikes an appropriate balance between the need to protect potentially innocent suspects from damaging publicity and the wider public interest in retaining free and full reporting of criminal proceedings.”
From what the Minister said today, I gather that is what the Government are suggesting. Even though I was not chairing the Committee at the time, it would be totally churlish for me to say that the Select Committee got it wrong.
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the recommendations he read out referred to all sexual offences, including those involving children, and rape was not in fact singled out?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, which is why I would be keen for the Committee to revisit the issue. I shall try to make a deal on the Floor of the House with the Minister, if he is open to deals. As a former Whip, I am sure he is used to such things. A member of the Select Committee is in the Chamber. The Committee has not yet met although it will do so for the first time next week if the Government table the motion that sets us up—I cannot think why the Government have not yet set up the Select Committees.
Will the Government please give us the opportunity to examine defendant anonymity again, in the light of what was said in 2003, in the light of their proposals and in the light of the fact that there will not be the all singing and dancing consultation that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister wanted? Will the Government give us the opportunity to look at the evidence that civil servants at the Ministry of Justice are preparing? Let us deliberate so that we can come back to the House, perhaps this year—if the Committee agrees; I am not trying to get the Committee to do anything, because it is a Committee decision—with a firm set of proposals that the whole House can discuss, rather than rushing things through. That would allow the whole House to deliberate and would enable us to look at what we said in the past in the light of the evidence of the past seven years.
Others will come to the House in future and say that if we extend anonymity for a particular offence, we must look at the whole criminal justice system and extend it for other offences. There is a powerful argument for doing that, so that such matters are kept before the courts, and not decided by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Sometimes, newspapers trash people’s reputations in a way that no court proceedings could do—I am not speaking personally of course.
I hope that the Government will think again. Perhaps when the Minister winds up, he will give Parliament the opportunity to examine these matters more carefully.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I compliment the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on his speech. I shall come back to the content, but I largely agree with what he said and would like to add to his arguments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) ticked all the maiden speech boxes, and I congratulate him on that—except for his bigging up of Gillingham. Gillingham regularly play Millwall, and Millwall often win, so he cannot expect my support for the Gills, although as I go to many games I shall look out for him and entertain him willingly if he comes to any games at The Den.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made a comprehensive speech, on which I compliment her. Like the right hon. Member for Leicester East, she covered the ground well. She combined passion with warnings that we must proceed carefully, as I shall seek to do in my few remarks.
The Government are to be congratulated on having brought the matter to debate early in the Parliament, and I thank my the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt),on doing so. He and his colleagues said they would do it and they have. It is right that the Government are trying to ensure that the voices of Parliament and those who communicate with us are heard, without having to hold a formal, national 12-month or two-year consultation. We can have proper processes of deliberation, and my understanding is that we have plenty of time, because the proposal is not in this year’s legislative programme. It was not in the Queen’s Speech, so we have at least a year to see where we want to go.
I have one more deliberative point. There may be a case for relevant Select Committees to meet jointly to look at this matter, because clearly there is a home affairs issue and a justice issue. I hope that when the Committees are set up, the two Committees might think of doing the work together, instead of doing two separate bits of work. That would be the logical thing to do.
I say very clearly that before I entered the House—now a long time ago—I was a practising barrister and both defended and prosecuted in serious sexual offences cases, including rape cases. That work, my work as a youth worker and my work as an MP—which has included dealing with some of the most horrendous cases of rape of people who have come to see me themselves, or of their daughters—have made me absolutely clear about the need to get the law right, and to ensure above all we achieve the first objective: the perpetrators of these most horrendous of crimes are brought to justice. There have been too many failings in the criminal justice system as a result of which that objective has not been achieved.
I have had to nurse several families through the fact that the criminal justice system has failed and let them down—sometimes with traumatic consequences for the individual, who as an adult has not been able to carry on trusting the system or other people. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood was right to say that very nearly all the people concerned are women—more than 90%—but occasionally there are men too, and we should not forget that such things could happen to anyone.
I absolutely agree with that. I was very critical, publicly and in the House, of the fact that it took so long for Ian Huntley to be brought to justice for the Soham murders, given that although he had not been convicted before, he was on the radar of the police in Lincolnshire, I think, and on Humberside, before he moved to Cambridgeshire. I was also very critical of the fact that John Worboys, who lived in my constituency, was not brought to court until he had committed at least 70 offences. I think that the police have gradually learned the lesson and are improving their system, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has relevant ministerial experience, knows, but it took a lot of work to get the police to change their attitude and to take these issues much more seriously all the time. There have been many cases relating to offences in my constituency and elsewhere—in the latest one, a man who was a serial offender was arrested in relation to offences in south-west London—where the pattern of serial offending was such that clearly there could and should have been earlier intervention; the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) is quite right.
Without repeating what others have said, let me quickly remind hon. Members of how we got to this point. In 1976, we legislated to give anonymity to complainants in rape cases. That was extended to other sex offences in 1992. In 1976 we legislated to give anonymity to defendants in rape cases for the period until 1988, when the law was then changed. After a period of just under 12 years, the law went back to where it was before, and where it remains. Since then, despite the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was a major piece of legislation, we have not changed the law in this area. The same year, the Home Affairs Committee came up with its recommendation that we should change the law, but we have not done so, and it was against that background that my party—it is not a secret—had a long debate specifically on rape at the 2006 Liberal Democrat conference, because of the concern about the low number of convictions. That was what precipitated the debate, and I want to share its conclusion because, yes, the source of this policy is indeed my party’s deliberation.
We noted that the rate of conviction is only about 5%—a figure that we have often heard and that is much lower than that in many other places in Europe. Reported rape is rising every year, but successful prosecutions are not rising; indeed, they are falling. The number of rapists who are given a caution and freed almost doubled in the previous decade. The health-related costs of rape are phenomenal, let alone the other social costs. The Sentencing Guidelines Council allowed the perpetrators of rape to avoid jail if they showed remorse—not something that I would ever countenance. Amnesty International produced a worldwide report that challenged the perception—this point was made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson)—about self-induced offences and said that it was far from the truth in most cases. Clearly, such offences are as far from any other from being self-induced.
We also flagged up the tainting of those who were accused and then acquitted. I want to step back for a second. I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the House know that the people who are most vilified in prison and those in the community who are viewed with most suspicion are those accused and either convicted or not convicted of the most serious sexual offences—more so than other offences of violence, apart from the most horrible ones, such as child murder or domestic violence and the rest.
I accept that the vilification of sex offenders inside and outside our prisons is a factor of which we must be mindful, but it is important that we have more information on different experiences of sexual offence. The vilification of sexual offenders who have committed offences against, for example, children is quite different in my experience from how the media and the public respond to sexual offences against women—particularly, for example, young women who have been drinking or who are known to their attackers.
I accept entirely what the hon. Lady says. She is right, which is why we need to proceed with caution. These areas are both sensitive and ones in which there is still prejudice and misinformation, and it is very important to distinguish between different categories of offence and activity.
We did not debate the whole issue of anonymity in the criminal justice system, nor other ranges of offence, but we concluded that a whole raft of changes should be made, only one of which was the proposal for anonymity. We suggested making more progress with special prosecutors for rape cases and an expansion in the number of sexual assault referral centres. Rape victims should be examined only by properly qualified forensic specialists who are trained in examining rape victims. A national rape helpline should be established. Special awareness training and education should be given to police officers and health and social care professionals to support male victims of rape. We opposed the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s proposals to allow the avoidance of jail for the perpetrators of rape if they show remorse.
I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to continue just for a second.
We requested that the Home Office commission a new study of why there is such a low conviction rate in England and Wales. We suggested a public information campaign to close the gap between the perception and the reality of rape. Only lastly did we suggest a change in the law—agreed after debate, discussion and a vote by a majority—to prohibit the media from identifying anyone directly or indirectly about whom a complaint of rape has been made, and until such time as they have been convicted.
It was therefore not surprising that the Government have looked at the issue, even though I accept that it was in neither the Liberal Democrat nor the Conservative manifesto. The public did not, therefore, become engaged on the matter in the election campaign. I am not defending the fact that the proposals are in the coalition agreement, but saying clearly that I am sure that if the outcome of this deliberation and the response to the Government’s policy proposal, which came from the Liberal Democrats, is a consensus in the House and around the country not to proceed, both parties are open to persuasion along that line.
I want us to go deliberatively, because there is a strong case for changing the law, but it is not a cut-and-dried, open-and-shut case. I hope that the rest of the debate is much less partisan than the beginning of it, because this is not a party political issue—[Interruption.] It is absolutely not a party political issue. People outside would not understand if we took partisan positions, and I absolutely encourage the Government to think like the Lord Chancellor, who was right that a non-whipped vote would be entirely appropriate. I am in favour of many more such votes on such matters, which are not proprietarily the view of one ideological group or the next.
Let me make my other comments. If I have time to give way to the hon. Lady at the end, I will do so very willingly.
I want to address succinctly two wider issues that have been touched on. We must deal with the objective of maximising the number of people brought to justice for both rape and other serious sexual offences, but we must also achieve the second objective of avoiding the harmful stigma of such allegations, which can often lead to suicide, attempted suicide and the like, for which there is evidence. There are therefore two big criminal justice issues for our country—this is an England and Wales issue. We need first to decide whether open justice—the principle that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said should be our starting point, as it should—should be circumscribed at all. At the moment, we have done that for complainants in certain offences, but should we circumscribe open justice at all in relation to defendants? We could either do that for the category that I would call sexual offences against other people, by which I mean violent sexual assaults, which are not all rapes, or we could propose anonymity for other types of assault. I do not believe that there would be a case for inclusion for any other violent offences, and I am also not persuaded that child pornography or other such offences should be included. However, there may be a case for anonymity in cases involving sexual offences—of any type—against another.
The second question is on the limitation of the period of anonymity. Should we have a very limited period of anonymity, for example, up until charge, a longer period, which could last to the beginning of the trial, or the longest period, which would be up to the end of the trial and conviction?
I should like us to look very carefully and deliberatively at those two sets of options. Are we talking only about rape or about a wider set of sexual, serious, violent offences? Should anonymity last only for the period between arrest and charge or for longer? My hon. Friend the Minister and the Government want to listen to the voices and hear about the research. I hope that the House can do its duty properly and ensure that we come to the right conclusion. That will need a bit of time, but let us please not be overly partisan about it.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) hopes that this will be a non-partisan debate. The speeches that we have listened to this afternoon have been non-partisan in a party political sense. However, in relation to the policy that his Government are presenting, there is a marked lack of evidence that the proposed change is necessary, or that it would bring about any kind of improvement in convictions for rape, which, if I understood him, was at the centre of his argument.
The hon. Gentleman also hoped that given the amount of time the Government are affording to the debate, decisions would come about by consensus in the House and the country. How can there possibly be any consensus in the country if his Government do not enter into the widest, deepest and most detailed consultation? The question remains: why have his Government selected the offence of rape? Why should alleged perpetrators of rape alone, among alleged perpetrators of other crimes of violence, be afforded anonymity? Answer has come there none.
As we heard in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the implications of that proposal are wider if we go down that road. She touched on the issue of affording anonymity to teachers, and the hon. Gentleman’s Government have again come up with no detail of the alleged offence that a teacher might have committed. She gave the graphic example—and we all know about this—of children who had been abused not only by teachers, but by members of their family or other people in authority, and the automatic response of society at the time had been to disbelieve the children, with the result that the abuse continued in an ever wider circle. I refer to the past, but from contemporary reports we know that this still goes on. The scandal of what has happened in the Catholic Church continues to reverberate. The central essential there was the idea that secrecy was all, and so the imbalance of power between the abused and the abuser was reinforced. That is my fear about this proposal and the selection of rape as the only violent act that is afforded this kind of anonymity.
In his opening remarks, the Minister said—forgive me for paraphrasing, but I cannot remember his exact words—that it is now an accepted absolute that acts of violence against women are anathema, and that everybody in this country, this House, the criminal justice system and the police service are automatically appalled by acts of violence against women and, as a result, are immediately on the front foot, exercising all their abilities, talents and resources to track down whomsoever commits such heinous acts. We all know that that is absolute fantasy. We are witnessing at the moment one of the largest manhunts that this country has ever seen to try to track down a man who, it is alleged, has murdered one individual and shot at and injured two others. He boasted before he left prison of what he planned to do. I have no doubt that prison officials were very busy, but I am equally sure that it went into that little pocket—although it is getting bigger and bigger in my view—of something called “a domestic” in the criminal justice and police system. All it needed was for those officials in the prison to take the threats seriously, to ring the alleged perpetrator’s local police station so that the police there could take those threats seriously themselves, and perhaps the largest manhunt in British history would never have needed to take place.
There is still, as I said in an earlier intervention, a prevailing view in this country that incidents of rape, for example, are the fault of the victim—[Interruption.] Members opposite may groan and moan, but it is not so long ago— I remember it distinctly—that a judge who summed up in a rape case advised the victim of the rape that she should perhaps have worn a longer skirt. I am sure that that would never happen now, but I think that people still have similar thought processes.
I am sorry, but I did not catch the end of the hon. Lady’s question. I will give her direct evidence of a constituency case of mine, in which a woman had been systematically abused by her partner. The law acted and an injunction was laid, meaning that the perpetrator of the offences was not allowed within a certain distance of their home. What happened? His brothers took over. It is a fantasy to think that everyone in this country regards acts of violence against women as totally beyond the pale. Let us take honour killings, for instance. Does she seriously think that people who are genuinely opposed to acts of violence against women would enter into an honour killing?
Does the hon. Lady not accept that there is a huge danger, in this debate and any consultation process, of this becoming a battle of the sexes and a gender issue, when clearly it is not? Defendant anonymity and surrounding issues are about trying to impose fairness for all in the criminal justice system.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the evidence presented in the Chamber—obviously he is not the only person on the Conservative Benches obsessed with evidence-based decisions—shows that rape is exercised almost exclusively against women, so there is a gender base.
Some 40% of all rape complainants are either male or children, and of the 60% who are aged over 16 and female, we do not know—we do not have the statistics—how many made a complaint about something that happened to them when they were children. It is unfortunate that we do not have those statistics after 13 years of a Labour Government.
We have already established that, as far as children are concerned, we are all in absolute agreement. That is why the question has been asked: why has an alleged rapist been afforded the privilege of anonymity, but someone who, for example, has been downloading child pornography has not? It has not been explained to me why rape is the act being afforded this particular privilege. I would argue that, if the Government go down this road, they will deeply undermine the concept of the unacceptability of rape and general acts of violence against women. Far too often, we hear of cases in which, for example, a woman has laid before the police the serious threats she is facing daily from an ex-partner. We then read that the police did absolutely nothing about it. We know of terrible incidents—one cannot say it is more terrible than when children are killed—in which such women and their children have then been killed by those partners. I have already given the example of honour killings.
In a recent, highly publicised case of the most heinous crimes, every report began not with “Three women were murdered”, but with “Three prostitutes were murdered”. I return to what I believe is still a central issue here, and a reason I am so opposed to the Government’s proposal: there is still the belief that attacks on women are engendered by the women themselves.
It is no use the hon. Lady shaking her head. We both know of incidents in which people have not reported an incident of rape because they were drunk at the time, and they know that they would be castigated for it. Equally she knows that when women do come forward claiming to have been raped, the initial response in quite a wide circle is that they are making it up, which is why we have to be exceedingly careful about going down this road of putting rape in this special category that other violent crimes are not granted. If the Government were arguing that all violent and violent sexual crimes should be afforded anonymity, and if there were sufficiently wide consultation on the proposal—not just in the House, but in the country at large—I would be prepared to consider the Government’s central argument, which is that a false accusation can damage an individual’s life, their family’s life, and, in some instances, their professional life. However, I entirely agree with the point that if we go down that road, we will be undermining one of the basic concepts of our criminal justice system, which is that accusation and argument in criminal cases should take place in public. I would be extremely chary of moving away from that position, but what the Government are proposing and their lack of commitment to wide consultation cause me grave concern.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, made a salient point when she raised the issue of freedom of the press. That is another issue that we must consider deeply before we make any changes. However, I return to the point that I made slightly earlier, and which reinforces my contention that we are still insufficiently adamant or active and that insufficient resources are put into tackling the broader issue of acts of violence against women. I gave the example of the recent incident where three women were brutally murdered and every single news outlet began its report of the event with the words, “Three prostitutes”.
I also think that Dr Shipman would perhaps not have got away with his mass murder if his victims had been young women, as opposed to middle-aged or elderly women, because there would undoubtedly have been a desire on the part of the press—well, perhaps “desire” is an extreme word—to present the case as though these particular acts against women had a sexual undertone. In my view there is still this prevailing attitude—it might not be directly acknowledged, but it permeates so many aspects of the criminal justice system and law enforcement—when it comes to acts of violence against women, for the immediate reaction is to say, “We have to be careful about this.”
Hon. Members will know the argument about malicious accusation, but I have seen too many constituency cases and too many women and their children who have been brutalised because not enough people have taken what has been said to them sufficiently seriously, often ignoring the evidence before their eyes. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) made a salient point in his maiden speech when he talked about the different approaches to such crimes in Europe, where there are special courts that are properly financed, with support for victims. That is a lesson that we should be learning in this country far more quickly than we are. I absolutely admit that we have made strides in that direction, but we need to make bigger strides and more of them.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to make my maiden speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am especially glad to be doing so in front of your good self.
In the past few weeks I have listened to, and had the opportunity to contribute in, some excellent debates about foreign affairs, international development and the nation’s finances, but I have waited to make my maiden speech in a home affairs debate. Home affairs is often not seen as a glamorous policy area. It is often overlooked and undervalued, but it is a policy area that affects everybody, all the time. We tend to notice home affairs only when things are not working properly; and let me assure the House that after 13 years of the previous Government, people in Cannock Chase have been noticing it more and more. Uncontrolled immigration, police filling in forms rather than being out on the streets, an explosion in knife crime, burglars being given more rights than the owners of the homes that they are breaking into, and a general culture of petty lawlessness and lack of responsibility have all combined to make local people feel less safe and less secure. If we are to do anything with our time in office, I sincerely hope that we will restore a sense of confidence and pride in our communities that brings with it a sense of order and security.
Let me turn first to Cannock Chase and its predecessors. Traditionally a bell-wether seat, Cannock Chase has a long history. Cannock—or Chenet, as it was called then—was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, and is thought to mean “hillock”. Over the years, it has been home to kings and to coal miners. In the reign of Henry VIII, the oak-filled forest of Cannock Chase was frequented by the king and the gentry for hunting. Then came the industrial revolution and it became the petrol station of the country, with coal from its mines fuelling the factories and the nation’s industries. In 1958, the Chase—the largest surviving area of lowland heath in the midlands—was designated an area of outstanding natural beauty because of its beautiful landscape, its wildlife and its history. The Chase is still home to some 800 wild fallow deer, which are descended from the original herd introduced in Norman times for hunting purposes.
Let us fast-forward to 2010. The Chase is now famous for its mountain biking trails and its musical concerts. Since 2006, the forest has been used as an open-air music venue, hosting stars such as Jools Holland and Status Quo. In fact, I was there just two weeks ago when I took my mum and my girlfriend to see Simply Red. The constituency comprises three main towns: Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley. Each has its own character, history and traditions. Increasingly, however, each also has its own problems. Our challenge in Cannock Chase is to restore those towns to their former glory, with shops opening rather than closing, people moving to them rather than from them, and businesses and families thriving and staying. I very much hope to be a catalyst in that regeneration.
Cannock Chase is fortunate to have been served by hard-working and dedicated Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)—never shy about coming forward, and always first to defend the nation’s interests—began his political career there in 1983, eventually rising to become Margaret Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Although he now finds himself representing the people of Aldershot, he is still remembered fondly by many of the constituents I spoke to during the election campaign. It is a great pleasure to see him continuing to serve the nation in his new Front-Bench role.
More recently, the seat was in the capable hands of my predecessor, Dr Tony Wright, from 1992 until his retirement in 2010. Dr Wright was well respected on both sides of the House. He was independent minded and not afraid to stand up and criticise his own Government when he felt it right to do so. He also had a keen interest in the political process, and his most significant contribution to the House was his chairmanship of the Wright Committee. In the light of the expenses scandal, the country and the Commons cried out for real and lasting reform, and, in a calm and measured way, Tony Wright and his Committee delivered this. The recommendations in his report, which are now being implemented in full by the coalition Government, have ensured that the role and relevance of Parliament as an institution have increased, as have those of Back Benchers. In my view, he was simply one of the best parliamentarians of recent times. It is therefore no wonder that he never got to serve as a Secretary of State—only the Labour party could ignore such talent, and put its spin above his substance. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him a happy and healthy retirement.
I should also like to make a brief mention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), the Government Chief Whip, known in a former life as Cannock Chase District Councillor McLoughlin. He is a former miner at Littleton colliery, and Cannock is very proud to call him one of its own.
Cannock Chase is sometimes called the forgotten part of the west midlands. Often dismissed as a former mining town, it was ignored by the Conservatives for too long as a no-hoper, and taken for granted by Labour. People locally told me that they felt let down by Labour. One day, when I was campaigning with my great friend, ally and supporter, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—who was key to my success in the election—an elderly lady came up to me and said, “Young man, there’s only one thing worse than being let down, and that is being taken for granted.” As a Conservative representing a former mining seat, I will not and cannot ever take my constituents’ votes for granted.
Before coming back to home affairs, I want briefly to mention my family. I do not come from an especially political family, but my great-grandmother was one of the first ever female councillors in Birmingham—admittedly for the Labour party—in the early 1950s. She fought one parliamentary election and eight municipal ones, and my mother and my grandmother still live in the Moseley and King’s Heath wards that she stood for on three occasions before finally being elected in Longbridge. A successful café owner, in 1950, when the House of Commons kitchens were reported in the national press as running at a loss, she publicly offered to supervise the catering right here, to pay £1,000 for the privilege of doing so and still make a profit. History does not record why her offer was never taken up—[Hon. Members: “Shame.”] I have with me the newspaper article that reported this incident.
My parents both ran small businesses in manufacturing and public relations and instilled in me those small-business values of hard work and self-reliance—values that many in this country would do well to follow. Because of their hard work and success, they were able to send me to the best secondary independent school in Birmingham, King Edward’s in Edgbaston. At the time, more than a third of the school comprised pupils with some form of an assisted place, which engendered an incredible atmosphere of competitive learning. I very much hope that during my time in this House, the education debates will return to the subject of selection by ability, whereby the brightest pupils are taught with their peers in exactly the same way as the best young sportsmen are intensively coached in academies to become the stars and Olympians of tomorrow.
I talked earlier about the importance of home affairs policy, and I am delighted to speak in a debate that, to me, represents one of the continuing running sores of our criminal justice system—the continued lack of anonymity to men who are accused of rape. Let us not beat about the bush here: a false allegation of rape can ruin a man’s life. Even if he is tried in a court of law and found not guilty, he will still remain suspect in many people’s eyes. It is human nature to say that there is no smoke without fire, especially, it would seem, when it comes to the thorny issue of rape. It is virtually impossible for a man to survive an accusation of rape without a stain remaining on his character. There will always be whispers and rumours and slurs.
To me, what this debate is about is very simple: it is about avoiding punishment before, and sometimes without, trial. That is why I welcome this debate on the Government’s proposals to grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases. For me, anonymity only until trial is not enough, because the principle of no smoke without fire still applies. Surely all hon. Members will accept the principles of equality before the law and equality between men and women. Surely all hon. Members also believe that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.
The legal situation that exists now protects women in rape trials, but it does not protect men. It gives women anonymity, but not men. A special legal exemption has been made in the case of rape, but why has it been made just for those making the accusation? Why does that same protection not apply to those who are being accused? If we are singling out this particular area of the criminal justice system for special treatment, why should it not apply equally to both men and women? Male defendants should be afforded the same protections as women making the accusations because every man is innocent until he is proven guilty. If women need anonymity for this particular type of case, so do men.
We would all agree that men who are convicted of rape should have their names made public. Convicted rapists should be known and should face the consequences of their actions in respect of public opinion towards them. All that the Government’s proposals mean is simply that a man will face those social penalties after he has been convicted of the offence rather than facing advanced trial by others who will always think that there is no smoke without fire. In high-profile cases, this will also avoid trial by media in advance of trial by court.
I have listened to all the arguments made today, but I still do not understand why some Labour Members oppose this simple reform. I have heard that if men are given anonymity, it might somehow discourage other women from coming forward, but let us not forget that guilty men will still be exposed when convicted. If anything, the change should encourage more women to come forward because they will have seen that a conviction has been successful.
There is, of course, a strong argument for having no anonymity at all in any legal case. Anyone who believes in a completely open system of justice would agree with that, but the reality is that exceptions have already been made in cases involving children or women making accusations of rape. Surely if a male defendant in rape cases is innocent, he is just as vulnerable as they are. Why are women and children vulnerable, but not men? No one on the Opposition Benches has answered that today. The law is the law, and it should treat men and women equally dispassionately or equally protectively. That is why we should either remove the right of anonymity for women, which no one is suggesting, or we should extend that right to men under precisely the same principle that extends it to women. In this, the mother of all Parliaments, we should do everything that we can to avoid punishment before, and sometimes without, trial.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). I must say that during his speech I found myself wishing that we could go back in time and see Cannock Chase in the days that he described. I regularly travel from Birmingham northwards, as my husband comes from Birmingham, and I have never thought of Cannock Chase in those terms, but I will do so in future. The hon. Gentleman paid a full and correct tribute to Tony Wright, whom we all miss, and who, as he rightly said, has left us with an important legacy. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his pursuit of home affairs, but, unusually, following a maiden speech, I will be disagreeing with him on several issues, although I will do so in the customary fashion in this House.
I want to make a few points in this enormously important debate. I am worried that the Government’s policy is ill thought out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) dealt well with the issue. The Government should think again, and carefully, about the matter. No one in this Chamber underestimates the impact on a person of a false accusation of rape or any other crime. In my many years in social work, I worked not only with many victims of sex offenders but with sex offenders themselves, and on a few rare occasions witnessed first hand the impact of what subsequently turned out to be an unproven accusation.
Over the years, I have watched the situation for those complaining of rape improve, fortunately. Some Members of a similar age will recall—some Members, happily, are younger and will not—that back in the 1980s some television programmes were made in the Thames valley about police interviewing rape complainants. Many people were rightly horrified to see the general attitude of disbelief, which was one reason for the low reporting of cases. Fortunately, much has changed since that time, although not as much as we might like. However, the successful prosecution rate for rape continues to be of significant concern. In such situations, to protect people from false allegations, we must expect good investigation and evidence gathering. In a number of cases of false allegations of which I have heard, that has not been the case. Adopting a general position of belief, which is essential, does not mean ignoring the importance of good investigation and evidence gathering.
Let us be clear: this crime is not only heinous, but enormously difficult, for many reasons, to investigate. It is difficult for victims to talk about. None of us would welcome having to talk about sexual matters—even those on a consensual basis—but talking about an attack or crime of such a nature to people one does not know, and to have to go into intimate details, is very difficult. Rightly, we have talked about children being involved, and I dealt with that on a professional basis for many years. How do children explain what has happened to them when they might not even have the necessary words? How do they talk about it when they might feel that people are looking at them as if they have done something wrong themselves? We must take that into account.
Even when adults are involved, we are talking about a situation in which perhaps only two people were present and there were no other witnesses. We are talking about one person’s word against another’s. Even when, according to any objective judgment, a woman has done nothing wrong, she will still be asking herself, “Did I do something wrong? Did I invite this in some way?” We as a society must say, “No means no. Rape is not acceptable. Sexual relationships without consent constitute rape, and should be subject to prosecution.” However, the difficulties involved cannot be underestimated, and the situation must therefore be approached very carefully.
It is important that we adopt a position of belief, because, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, too many people have not been believed in the past. If it is felt that the first thing victims must do is prove that something has happened to them, even fewer women will come forward, and children will not summon up what is an almost impossible level of courage to speak up and say, “Something happened to me.” I have watched people who have been abused trying to give evidence in court. I shall never forget seeing a young woman who had been abused while in a children’s home, standing there petrified and trembling, almost unable to give evidence. In such circumstances, the position of victims is very difficult.
The issue of offending behaviour involves a great many myths. We talk about rape as if it suddenly appears out of nowhere, but someone who commits rape may well have previously committed other, lesser, sexual offences. I use the word “lesser” in relation to the criminal process, not in relation to the impact on the victim. The offender may have tested a situation, or fantasised about it, before committing the offence. In many cases, a pattern of behaviour has been formed.
That is one reason why those of us who oppose anonymity after charge—anonymity before charge is a different matter—consider it important to do so. Someone who comes forward and says “This happened to me too” provides corroboration of that pattern of behaviour, and leads people to feel that they can believe what is being said. As I said earlier, if just two people are involved it is one person’s word against another’s. If a pattern of behaviour has been established and people provide detailed corroboration, it becomes possible to proceed with a prosecution.
The hon. Lady is always listened to seriously and with respect. May I ask whether she has reflected on my earlier suggestion to her hon. Friend the. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that what leads to more women coming forward is not necessarily the information that an individual lives at a certain address, is a certain height or has hair of a certain kind, but may be a pattern of behaviour? That is information that can be shared immediately, and the police often do share it just to get people to come forward, as indeed they should.
I agree. In my experience, it is possible during the investigative process—in which, as I have said, I have been involved on the social work side—to question people who may have been in contact with the person concerned, without necessarily naming that person. For example, it is possible to contact previous residents of a children’s home and ask, “Did anything ever happen to you that gave you cause for concern?” Conducting the investigative process properly protects against false charges, or charges that turn out to be false.
We must look at this situation in the round, and we have to say, “This is too important not to have a formal consultation.” I have been encouraged by the fact that the Government have been prepared to discuss this more, and to accept that the nine words that were in the coalition document are not sufficient, but I plead with them to have a formal consultation. This is a matter that deserves to be addressed with that level of seriousness.
I gently say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that this is not a gender issue. Many victims are men and boys. Indeed, one concern is that boys who were abused as children find it particularly difficult to come forward and say they have been abused, because there is still the stigma that means they might be called gay. Sometimes—but not always by any means, as this is not a direct correlation—victims who have had something terrible done to them as children go on to become perpetrators because they do not know the rightful place of sexual relationships in adult situations. We talk about the lifelong effects of sexual abuse—that is one of them, and we should take it very seriously.
That points to another reason why it is enormously important that people have the confidence to come forward early and say they have been abused. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) mentioned the impact on families. If people come forward early, it stops there being future victims. We must constantly bear down on this issue to stop there being future victims and to stop the cycle of sexual abuse continuing.
I ask Ministers to answer the following questions again and in greater detail. Why rape? Why not all sexual offences? Also, why has this proposal been put forward at all if not because of the issue of false allegations? The Minister said very clearly that it was not based on the issue of false allegations, but he did not tell us what it was based on.
This debate deserves greater clarity, not more confusion, which is what we got from the Minister today. The matter under discussion is complex and important, and we need to take time over it. We need the Select Committees to take a look at it, and we need a proper public consultation so that everybody who has a story to tell and every agency that has worked with people affected by this can respond and put forward their views.
I understand how the proposal may have emerged. It might, perhaps, have happened without enough thought and late at night when people had not had any sleep during the period when the coalition agreement was put together fast. That does not have to bind us to carrying the proposal through, however, and to making a decision that would be detrimental to the people we should be caring about, whether victims or offenders. I ask Ministers to think again.
May I begin by thanking the Minister, as I know he has listened to many of us who do not support all of the Government’s proposals in this matter? I know that he has made movement, too, and I am very grateful for that, and I am also sure that he will continue to listen to all that is said on this topic. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) has had to leave the Chamber, because I also want to say, with great respect to her, that I think she is living in the past.
I pay tribute to the last Government for the great strides they took in ensuring that justice was done for all those who make a complaint of either rape or sexual assault. I work as a criminal barrister—I say I work as one, because I like to think I can still do the occasional case—and I have been in practice for some 16 years. I very rarely prosecute as I have a defence practice, and I have defended many men who have been accused of rape or sexual assault. On one occasion, I defended a woman who was accused of rape. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), this is not a gender argument—that has been identified by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). We know the statistics and they are poor—we wish they were a lot better. However, as I have said in an intervention, we know that 60% of the people who make a complaint of rape are females over the age of 16, and that 40% are children—that includes males.
I echo what the hon. Lady said about young men making complaints about rape. I was involved in a case where I defended a man who was accused of the persistent and long-term buggery of a young man whom he had adopted. That young man did not make his complaint until he had run away from home—understandably. At the age of 18 he came forward to complain about this dreadful abuse, and my client was convicted. There is no way that that young man would have come forward to make his complaint if he had thought for one moment that his name would ever appear in the newspapers.
It is important that we all understand that there is no such thing as anonymity in a criminal justice system, save with one very rare exception; there are certain cases where the prosecution, with great care and after a lot of thought, applies to a learned judge that a witness in a particular case should have complete, true anonymity, so that their name is not known to the defendant or, indeed, to anybody else in the court. It is a bit of a myth that there is a long queue of women who somehow enjoy complete anonymity and can make up false allegations, knowing that their name will never be known. As all of us who have practised in the criminal justice system know, on an indictment the name of the complainant is there. It is a sad moment in court when one sits there, an indictment is put to a defendant and the name of the child is read out—the name is given as “a child under the age of 13” or “a child under the age of seven”. So there is no such thing as the anonymity of complainants.
There is also no such thing—I would hope—as the anonymity of defendants. As has been said, we are talking about a prohibition on the publication of a name. I know that I am of some age, but when I worked as a journalist many years ago the name of somebody who had been arrested was never publicised. What has happened, in reality, is that too many police officers have decided that it would be in their interests—I say no more than that—to release the name of somebody who has been arrested, especially somebody in the public eye.
I want to nail a bit of a myth that suggests that it is only the accusation of rape which casts such a terrible slur on someone’s reputation. I am not diminishing, for one moment, the appalling trauma involved, especially for young men—I am talking about those whom I have defended, who were often not the brightest or the most resourced—of often waiting for more than a year before the Crown rightly and properly decides not to proceed. We should never underestimate the trauma for those young men and their families when they are facing that charge. I believe that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said that the sentencing guidelines say that if someone has been convicted of rape and they express some remorse, they would not get a custodial sentence, but with respect, that is not right. My understanding of the sentencing guidelines is that the starting point, even on a guilty plea, is a sentence of some four to five years. It is that very knowledge that adds to the great trauma of young men, notably, who face an allegation of rape, but many other people who face other allegations are also traumatised by that and by the criminal process.
For example, I am told that two city councillors in Nottingham were arrested on charges of fraud or some other misdemeanour. The fact that they were never charged never appeared on the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post—I think it was slipped away on page 6 or in some such place. That allegation was hugely damaging to their reputation. I can think of all other sorts of examples—dentists or doctors might be accused of something and arrested, their names could be published and again their reputations would be sullied.
As so many others have said, I urge the Minister to consider with great care why he is singling out rape. I know the point is not lost on him that the accusation could be made that, for some reason, we on this side of the House do not believe in the proper prosecution of people who rape women, who rape young men and who rape children, whereas we all know that we take it seriously. I am grateful to have heard all the proposals that have been put forward by the Minister about the need to support people when they make allegations of rape.
Rape, like all criminal offences, falls into many different categories. I have touched on the fact that a significant number of the people who complain about rape are children. We also know that a significant number of the 60% of complainants who are females over 16 must be making complaints about what happened to them when they were children—that is, historic allegations of abuse. It is unfortunate that we do not have those figures; we should.
We know that there is a big difference between somebody walking along a street or a road who is attacked by a complete stranger and the other category of rape complaint, which relates to two people who are known to each other. Again, it is not as simple as it is often portrayed. They might be known to each other because they work together, so there is some sort of relationship, or because they have met in a public house and exchanged words. They might be known to each other because they have been married to each other for a considerable length of time or because they have been in some sort of relationship. They might be known to each other because they have gone out for the first time on a date and because something has occurred that has caused that woman to make a complaint of rape. It is a fiendishly complicated issue and we cannot take a broad-brush approach and say that all allegations of rape fall into the same category. They profoundly do not.
In the little time I have left, I want to touch on one issue that concerns me. Again, I know from what I am told that there is a real problem with a lack of good sound evidence. I am afraid that the Minister will have to rely on a lot of anecdotal evidence, but I have no doubt from my practice and from talking to other members of the Bar and to members of the judiciary that when a name is put into the public domain, other complainants come forward. There are many instances of it. I know from my practice that when the name of a priest who was arrested went into the local newspaper, other women came forward who had been to him and to whom he had been their minister. When they knew that others had made a complaint, they came forward. That tendency should not be underestimated.
As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have had the good fortune to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. I know that in addressing this Chamber I must not touch too much on what I hope to say when we discuss the Bill, but I ask the Minister to consider allowing anybody who is arrested to enjoy the privilege, almost, of not having his or her name published in the press. I believe that we can do that effectively and efficiently while still allowing the prosecution to apply to a judge, depending on the particular circumstances of an offence, for the name to be published. We must allow our judges to exercise their discretion, which they usually do, when they are allowed to do their jobs, particularly well.
The last Government did a great deal to redress what was clearly the wrong balance, with women not being believed, best evidence not being gathered and so on. However, I am bound to say that I think that in some respects the balance has been tipped too far. Those of us who practise at the criminal Bar are concerned about the number of prosecutions that continue when we know that, if the allegation was not of rape or sexual assault, they would not proceed. We have to make sure that when the police investigate an allegation, they do not involve themselves. With great respect to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, it is not a question of the police officer who investigates the allegation believing the complainant. That is not their role or job.
This is a very important point. I was saying not that the police officer had to believe the complainant, but that their initial approach when someone comes to the police station should be to adopt an attitude from the outset that that person has something relevant to say that is likely to be true. That does not mean that they should put aside all the issues of evidence.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. The correct word, which I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for supplying, is “empathy”. I have no trouble at all with police officers who are not involved with the investigation, and all the support services, giving support to the complainant, but it is absolutely imperative that the police officer or officers involved in the case should be of the right rank. I have seen too many cases involving someone who has probably just become a police constable—other learned hon. Members are saying, “Hear, hear!”, because we barristers have had almost daily experience of this. It is also imperative that the police should apply the same standards to complainants in rape and sexual assault cases as in any other case. Some of us have been greatly disturbed by changes in policy codes that seem to suggest that there should be a different standard and test when deciding whether to prosecute in rape and sexual assault cases, because there should not be. If we do all that, there is a good chance that the rape conviction rate, although it is very good—we should get those figures sorted out; perhaps other hon. Members will enlighten us—will rise. I urge the Minister to continue consulting, and perhaps my private Member’s Bill could, with the backing of both sides of the House, be the perfect solution.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I feel that it might not be too long before she is elevated to the Front Bench. In addressing the debate, she demonstrated what she brings from her experience, as well as her thoughtfulness.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) on making their maiden speeches. They chose an interesting debate in which to do so. May I suggest that the debate could, as they start their apprenticeships in the House, be seen as a master class in how not to develop Government policy? I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) forensically took apart the Minister’s opening statement. As the debate is entitled “Defendant Anonymity”, I had hoped that the opening statement would allow discussions to go in a different direction. I thought that the Minister might say, “We’ve thought about this and we may have been wrong to single out rape defendants, so today gives us scope to talk about this on a wider basis.” Unfortunately, however, the Minister has reaffirmed the determination to focus on anonymity for defendants in rape trials, and that is regrettable.
We have had many debates in the House since the general election, including heated and passionate debates on how to cut the deficit, on electoral reform and on the number of MPs we should have, and only this week we have had the statement about which schools will go ahead in the Building Schools for the Future programme—or not, as the case may be. However, few of those issues have provoked the reaction that greeted the proposal to extend anonymity to defendants in rape cases. Little did right hon. Members who are now in government know, all those weeks ago when they were holed up in meetings in the Cabinet Office thrashing out the details of the coalition agreement, the maelstrom that nine words on page 24 would cause. I am afraid that the policy of singling out rape has little evidence to justify it, and that has been confirmed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The policy, in isolation, really does not help the justice system or victims, and Ministers have been saying different things about it from one day to the next.
When the law on giving anonymity to defendants in rape cases last applied, it created a legal quagmire. It was a mess, where those accused of inciting rape were given anonymity but not those who conspired to it. The names of defendants charged with aiding and abetting rape were known, but not the names of those charged with burglary with intent to commit rape. The public knew the names of those who had planned to rape but failed, but did not know the names of those who had succeeded. It is an incredibly complicated area, not only for rape but for other offences, should we go down that route—I have sympathy with the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe on expanding that aspect. Let us be in no doubt, however: any movement on the issue, in any direction, will create a lot of controversy. We must be careful about unforeseen consequences.
No one seems able to explain why we need to give rape suspects anonymity in the first place. As has been said, singling out rape defendants sends a devastating message to the victims of rape—that, uniquely, among all other complainants, they are not to be believed, even when Home Office research shows that false allegation rates are no higher for rape than for any other crime.
The proposal touches on what is meant by false allegation. Philip Rumney, of Sheffield Hallam university, provides the best definition I have come across. He says that
“a false allegation can be defined as the description of an event that the complainant knows never actually occurred”
“a conscious or malicious motive on the part of the complainant.”
Those two elements—the fact that the complainant knows that what she or he is alleging never actually happened and the malicious motive—distinguish genuine false allegations from other cases when the complaint is withdrawn rather than retracted, when there is insufficient evidence, or when as we know, sadly, that owing to mental health problems the complainant genuinely believes that they have been attacked.
We have not even talked about other vulnerable victims, who often face cynicism about their complaint. Many people with learning disabilities have not been believed. Elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia may find it hard to convey what has happened to them and—I am sorry to say—may be dismissed when they come forward or talk to family and friends about what they have experienced.
There is already evidence that too many cases are wrongly classified as false allegation. That is a problem and we need research to make sure that recording is clear, not only for rape but for other crimes too. I think that the police and prosecutors have made huge progress in that area, particularly when they have specialist training, so I do not want the House to misinterpret what I am saying. However, Home Office research in 2005 found that the police displayed
“a tendency to conflate false allegations with retractions and withdrawals,”
thereby feeding a damaging culture of scepticism, which deters victims from coming forward to seek justice. The proposal is likely only to harden such attitudes, when we should be challenging them.
The only other possible justification for the proposal is that the damage associated with being accused of rape is of a completely different order to every other crime. Members have cited other crimes when a person who was falsely accused felt justly aggrieved and distressed, and the result was suicide or other action that caused distress to their family. It is not credible to suggest that being accused of rape is uniquely devastating, in a way that being accused of domestic violence, murder, sexually abusing children, or even defrauding a popular charity are not.
We have witnessed the rather bizarre spectacle of Ministers coming to the House, or writing to Members, asking them to provide evidence to support the Government’s policies. I know that times are hard and Departments are facing cuts of up to 40%, but if the Government are not able to find evidence to support their own policies, it is not our job to do so. Indeed, a month ago the Minister wrote to me requesting evidence and asked me to provide it within a week. I am pleased to tell the House that I was able to meet his deadline, but I am less pleased to have to inform the House that I have yet to receive a reply. Perhaps I should have insisted on a deadline for comments from the Minister.
In response to my Adjournment debate, the Minister said that the Government would proceed on the evidence, and no one doubts the need for more and better research. Baroness Stern made that point very eloquently in her review earlier this year; but she said that the evidence needed to be looked at before the policy is decided. The coalition has committed itself to granting anonymity to rape defendants before even looking at the evidence. That suggests to me that the Government are proceeding not on the evidence, but on the basis of a misconception.
If I have not formally thanked the right hon. Lady for the letter, let me put that on the record now. I assure her that I was not anticipating evidence from her in support of the Government’s position; it was really a challenge for her to come forward with evidence, on the basis of the issues that I raised in the Adjournment debate and have repeated today. If there is evidence that would cause us to rethink, let us have it. We are looking for it and we will publish our analysis by 28 July.
I certainly was not seeking to provide evidence to support the Government’s position. I was providing evidence to explain why the Government’s position was wrong. What I have failed to receive is evidence from the Government as to why they are pursuing this singular policy of anonymity for rape defendants.
In one of Baroness Stern’s 23 recommendations—I hope that the Government will give the other 22 equal time and priority—she asks that there should be research, and
“that the Ministry of Justice commissions and publishes an independent research report to study the frequency of false allegations of rape compared with other offences, and the nature of such allegations.”
She was saying that the matter should be looked at in the round.
As I said earlier, I am sad today that the opportunity was not taken by the Government to knock this coalition proposal on the head and move us into an area where we could find some consensus and agreement across all parts of the House.
In that context, if the evidence that Baroness Stern and others have asked for is forthcoming, in the form of further research, would the right hon. Lady be prepared to look at an idea that goes more broadly than rape? Is she willing to accept, at least in principle, that there may be a case for anonymity in other categories, not single-offence categories?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I actually made that point in my contribution to the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, and I am open to that. What I am not prepared to accept is moving in that direction until the coalition Government have clearly stated that it was wrong to focus on rape, and that they have learned from the contributions and the pressure and the lobbying from Members in all parts of the House to change that viewpoint. That is because I think that it is really important to send a message to the country that when someone gets something wrong, they should say that they have got it wrong. A lot of organisations, which are listening to this debate, are very concerned about the message that was sent from that coalition agreement about the attitudes to victims when reporting rape, and the assumption that they, more than for any other crime, might be guilty of making false allegations.
An issue has been raised in this debate about equality between defendants and complainants. In a report in The People on 27 June, it was stated that the Government planned to extend anonymity to defendants in all cases where the victim is not named, under the cover of ensuring “equality before the law.” Equality before the law does not and cannot mean identical treatment for defendant and complainant. There is a vast array of ways in which the criminal justice system already, and rightly, treats defendants and complainants differently. Both should be treated fairly, but that does not mean identically; if that were the case, presumably we would no longer afford the defendant the advantage of the burden of proof, and complainants would have to be held on bail or in custody before their case came to court. The suggestion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why victims of rape are given anonymity in the first place, and that has been expressed very eloquently by colleagues in today’s debate.
It is not credible to suggest either, as the Lord Chancellor has done, that protecting the identity of the defendant protects the identity of the complainant. Just because most attackers are known to the victim does not mean that the victim would be immediately identifiable from the attacker’s name being known. It could be a boss at work; it could be someone they meet on the bus every day; it could be someone they know in the nightclub, or a friend of a friend.
It is in the public interest that the victims of rape come forward and report their crimes, so that rapists do not escape prosecution and are prevented from attacking other victims. There is no equivalent public interest in allowing defendants to remain anonymous. That does not mean that I do not understand the damage that false allegations can cause. We have already heard during today’s debate about a case where someone was tried for making a false allegation and—I think that I heard correctly—got two years in prison. That is a serious sentence for a serious crime.
As I have said, there may well be a case for looking at whether all defendants—not just those in rape cases, or even in cases that involve sexual offences—should be afforded anonymity until they are charged, but I am afraid that that was not the coalition’s proposal. I am still not clear whether the Government will pursue that proposal. Certainly, one thing is clear: if we wanted to consider that wider debate, the way to start it was not to focus on rape at the outset. That has been completely unproductive. The only way that we could start such a debate is for the Government to make a clear statement—today offered the ideal opportunity to do so—accepting that they were wrong to single out rape defendants and acknowledging the damage that that has done.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said earlier, there have been very real improvements in the way that victims of rape can expect to be treated in the criminal justice system, but there is some way to go. As Dave Whatton, the chief constable of Cheshire constabulary and the senior police officers’ lead on this matter said at the all-party meeting yesterday, the single biggest challenge that the police face is still the lack of confidence among victims, which stops them reporting their attack and prevents rapists from being brought to justice.
The Government must surely now realise that their proposals would make women less likely to come forward and, I am afraid, embed a dangerous culture of scepticism, when so much has been done to improve trust between the victims of rape and the criminal justice system. We need an informed debate. There should be at least a Green Paper, so that we can discuss the issue in detail, and I hope that the Minister will deal with that in summing up.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on her speech and on the passion with which she spoke during the Adjournment debate that she initiated. Many right hon. and hon. Members have brought special expertise to the debate, either as barristers or from a background in social work. My background is that I am a doctor. For five years, I was a forensic medical examiner for Devon and Cornwall police and spent many long nights with women and some men who had been the victims of horrendous sexual and physical violence. I have also been a family doctor for many years and have been a practitioner for 24 years in total.
I have lost count of the number of women—they are mostly women—whom I have seen who have not made an allegation of rape. The reasons are many and complex. I can testify that the vast majority of those crimes go unreported, because of misplaced feelings of guilt, real fear of reprisals, a belief that the victims will not be believed and, in many cases, just a sense that they want to put something so horrible in a box on the shelf and never visit it. That is the truth of the matter.
I pay tribute to the many women who have the courage to go forward and make a complaint. I want to point out something that the women I saw had in common. Many of them told me that the reason they were going through what is, quite frankly, a very unpleasant examination after a horrendous experience was not for themselves, but because they believed that it would protect other women. I ask the Minister to consider why those women would report a rape if they thought that there was no possibility that other women might benefit.
I completely understand the many arguments made in favour of protecting the innocent who are subject to false allegations, but we need to remember that the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. For every 100 women I saw—I believed the vast majority of them—I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who had their day in court and saw a conviction. We need to be clear that the scales are already tipped in favour of the defendant in a rape case. We need to be very careful that we do not add a further barrier to women coming forward and making allegations.
The second point I should like to make is on the difficulty in this country with serial offenders. Many hon. Members have referred to John Worboys, who drugged his victims in the back of his taxi, but let us be clear that the No. 1 date rape drug remains alcohol. Many rape offenders are serial offenders—they are frequent fliers. When I examined women in the presence of police, it became clear that many of those whom the women named as the person who had attacked them were known to the police and had form. We need to be careful that we do not put further barriers in the way of identifying such people so that others can come forward with their experiences.
Those were the two main points that I wanted to make today. Many hon. Members have said that this is not a gender issue, and I agree. However, we need to be careful that we do not make it a political issue. I have some reservations about the way in which some Members have tried to make it so. I would like the Minister to consider free votes, because that is the best way to take the political heat out of the argument and to focus on the real issue of who we want to protect. I request that he look carefully at my suggestion.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to this debate, which is on an important and sensitive subject. I am very honoured to take part in a debate in which so many hon. Members have so much experience to contribute to our thinking. My desire to speak reflects my personal concern that the current proposals are both unworkable and, more importantly, counter-productive to our shared stated aim of achieving better outcomes for rape victims and justice for our society as a result.
This is a difficult debate to participate in, not least because it is still not clear what measures the Government intend to introduce. What has been published on the proposed legislation poses a number of questions. For example, what does anonymity actually mean? Are we talking about printed or public or local knowledge of a case? How could that be secured at any level? Inevitably, as hon. Members have said, people in the criminal and legal system will know, or will be able to secure access to, the identity of an accused person, as part of the day-to-day functioning of our court systems. Given the concerns about the relationship between our courts, our media and our criminal system, which were admirably outlined by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the difficulty of enforcing anonymity is a clear challenge to the proposals.
Moreover, how far would the anonymity have to go to be sustainable? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) pointed out, what if somebody is accused of a number of interrelated offences? Would co-defendants be covered? They might be accused of less serious crimes, such as aiding and abetting, but would they be given anonymity to protect another defendant? What would it mean for a case if the name of a defendant or co-defendant became public? Those questions go alongside more important ones that we need to tease out. Would anonymity apply at arrest, charge or trial? It is clear that the nine words in the coalition document have stirred up a hornets’ nest, and I am grateful that we are having this debate to try to tease those things out. I hope that the Minister will answer the many questions that right hon. and hon. Members have asked.
It has been said that the measure needs to be introduced because the offences in question are so distinct that to accuse people of them falsely is to destroy lives. As others have asked today, why only rape? Why are teachers accused of such offences in a category alone? The inclusion of teachers reflects the fluidity of the thinking and its inconsistency. If anonymity throughout a criminal case were possible and desirable, could we define and measure the social penalty of being accused of a crime, or being exonerated, including before charges were made, in a manner that was satisfactory to all concerned? Anthropologists will tell us how shame, as a concept, contributed to many different accusations. It can be argued, as many in the debate have, that false accusations of paedophilia, murder, serious violence, hate crimes or domestic violence can just as easily destroy somebody’s life and those of their loved ones. Indeed, why are teachers alone in our public services afforded such protection? Why not doctors or care workers?
The debate is about more than legal semantics, and Members on both sides of the House who are concerned about the proposals care for more than intellectual consistency. It is clear that they are also worried that giving those accused of rape anonymity and not those accused of any other crime sends the message that rape is different and separate. In doing so, the proposals take us backwards as a society in addressing rape rather than help us to make progress. Furthermore, the proposal flies in the face of the evidence available to us about the nature of rape and how it is prosecuted. We do not have enough data on false accusations.
Many hon. Members have already referred to the excellent report on this issue by Baroness Stern, which identifies many of the challenges that we face with this crime. Above all, her report tells us that if victims do have the courage to come forward, and are willing to go through the criminal justice system, conviction rates are improving and justice is possible. But her report also highlights the fundamental problem of the high level of attrition of cases, and that is why we should be extremely cautious about doing anything that could make the process even harder. It also makes the case for looking again at how rape is handled by the criminal justice system.
The test for this proposal must be whether the intended benefits it could offer outweigh the risks that it poses to the detection and prosecution of rape. The benefits of the proposal could be strong only if we could prove that the false reporting of rape is systematic and widespread above and beyond that of any other crime in our criminal justice system. As Baroness Stern herself argues, we simply do not know that, and we do not have enough evidence about the false reporting of rape to make such a judgment. She rightly argues—and many hon. Members have agreed—that we need more research on that issue. Crucially, she also asks for more research into the false reporting of all offences instead of singling out rape. I hope that Ministers will address that point in the research that they are conducting, so that we have a greater understanding of the incidence of false reporting across the criminal justice system.
The lack of evidence is partly due to the difficulty of defining a false accusation, as many hon. Members have pointed out, and whether such accusations are malicious. Another issue is how incidents are marked as “not crimed” in the system and the danger of using that as a proxy for evidence of false allegations of rape.
If we do not have the evidence, and the Government claim that this proposal is not about dealing with false allegations, where has it come from? We are all aware of the media coverage that this topic has generated—much heat but not much light. The coverage is selective. I have recently made representations on behalf of a constituent who was tried for making a false allegation only to be acquitted, and now finally charges are being brought against the attacker. That case raises many serious concerns about the ability of our justice system to deal with rape, and the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in addressing complaints about how such crimes are investigated. I am continuing to pursue those complaints, but to have struggled for justice for so long in such a context must have been extremely difficult. To ask victims to come forward and report rape in an environment in which the law enshrines the notion that some victims will lie would be even harder.
No one suggests that being accused of rape is not a serious matter, but to presume that—unlike in any other crime—an allegation could be based on lies, the Government are on dangerous ground if they do not have the evidence to support the policy. It also stands in contrast to the evidence that publicising the report of a rape can be vital in the prosecution of cases. Several hon. Members have already highlighted the shocking statistics on the reporting of rape and the concerns that that will be adversely affected by giving those accused of the crime anonymity. Whether in the cases already mentioned of Worboys and Reid, or those involving individuals who knew their attackers, there is strong evidence that public accusations can give other victims the confidence to come forward and report their experiences.
The question of how cases are put together is not incidental but integral to the debate and the danger of these proposals. As investigations in the difficult area of proving a lack of consent can often involve very vulnerable people, we must be sensitive to what can be done to support them.
An interesting study by the Metropolitan police from 2005 found that 87% of those reporting rape had at least one of four vulnerabilities—being under 18, having mental health problems, having ingested alcohol before being raped and of having been or being in a relationship with their attacker. As the report points out, those add to the considerable complexities of prosecution and increase the chances of the withdrawal of a case early in the process. As I have said, I am concerned about the way in which cases are handled by our criminal justice system, something that the police have also put on the record in their conversations with the Eaves Partnership in London. The police acknowledge that
“the majority of cases are lost during the investigation process for a number of reasons including victims’ loss of faith in the process, the length of time the investigation takes, lack of communication between police and victims.”
To add into that mix a presumption of dishonesty could only make it harder for all concerned to take the journey towards justice. Indeed, if research is to be done, it should, in order to flesh out fully the challenges we are talking about, take into account not simply the concept of rape, but the outcomes and causes behind the complaint, whether the police felt that the victim would not be able to go to trial, whether evidence was gathered well enough to stand up in court, whether the victim withdrew their complaint, and whether the individual was tried. I suspect that, if we are able to gather such data, the picture would be very different from that being painted in the reporting of rape allegations and in the language used by some when talking about the subject.
Given that this proposal could deter victims from coming forward, we should work harder to explore other options that do not make a presumption about the likelihood that a complainant has lied about such a crime. Yesterday, Baroness Stern called for more work to be done to establish whether the existing guidance on anonymity in rape cases from the Association of Chief Police Officers has been followed, and if not, why not. I hope the Minister will also take up that point. Above all, I urge the House to search its soul in this debate. The question is not whether it is feasible to give some rape defendants anonymity and not others; we must ask why we are still struggling to bring those who commit such offences to justice and how we can address this problem. If we do that, we will see that proposals for anonymity are not part of the solution.
The problems are complex, but there are several indications of where action could be taken. I come to this debate as a London MP faced with extremely troubling statistics on the prosecution of rape in the capital which show that our conviction rate is well below the success rate in other metropolitan areas. That is why I welcome the move to Sapphire units and co-ordination across London. The reality is that staffing such units is especially hard in outer London, in areas such as mine, where officers receive little recognition for taking on such work, in contrast with other roles within our police force.
We should also learn from the Payne review and George Alberti’s research, and offer more support for victims. I would favour the extension of the role of independent sexual violence advisers as distinct from police or other criminal justice officers. We must also be mindful of the funding for rape crisis centres, which face a struggle for existence under the new Administration. Indeed, I fear, under the new Government’s public services spending freeze, that it will be harder, not easier, for specialised units for rape and sexual assault victims to improve conviction rates and bring rapists to justice, given that they are already under-staffed, under-resourced and lacking specialised rape lawyers. I hope that Ministers will today make a commitment, given their interest in this subject, to ensure that those services are properly funded and protected.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to turn their attention from the tabloid headlines, and instead focus on addressing these challenges. The Government’s proposal would give credence, without any evidentiary foundation, to the idea that lying is an aspect of this crime and not any other. I can see that others across the House agree with me, and I appeal to them to work with us to raise these concerns. As legislators, we must not send out the message, however unintended, that we think that those who come forward to report rape are more likely to mislead than any other alleged victim of crime. As members of society, we must work together to protect the vulnerable and hear the voices of victims with an open mind. A public consultation would guarantee and encourage that. I urge the Minister to change his mind and ensure that we hear those voices in this debate.
It is a great honour to make a contribution to a debate that has been singularly well informed, not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who made a particularly useful contribution, but by the very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has an almost unique perspective on these matters. It is a perspective slightly different from mine: I spent many years slightly further down the food chain, dealing with both the prosecution and defence of serious sexual crimes in the Crown court, including the abuse of children, rape and other offences of a sexual nature, involving both males and females.
It is perhaps inevitable that a debate about defendant anonymity has been dominated by the issue of the treatment of the victims of rape and the investigation of that very serious crime. That is not a criticism—in fact, it is a rather welcome development. It is inevitable because the focus of the proposal in the coalition document was centred on rape. That was a mistake. The points made about broadening the ambit of the anonymity question are right. Perhaps the most important point made today, however, was the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe: the word “anonymity” is causing us a problem. It is taking us away from the real issue, which is the coverage and reporting of such cases, an issue that has been thrown into particular relief in recent years by the power of the electronic media and the internet.
For generations, local newspapers were, with the greatest of respect to them, the chip paper of tomorrow. They were easily forgotten—trashed, buried. However, the internet is not just for Christmas; it is for life. I am sure that we have all had constituents who were the victims of false allegations years and years ago, but who are haunted by the spectre of a Google search linking their name for ever with that false allegation. I am sure that we have all had cases of people pleading for help—some of them have mental health problems as a result of what happened to them. Let us not forget that none of the proposed changes to the law will help those people, which is why the point made some time ago by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—that this issue not only covers home affairs or justice, but is a media matter, for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—is so important.
The more I think about the issue, the more I come to the conclusion that we should be grappling with the equally difficult—indeed, perhaps somewhat more difficult—question of the power of the internet, and how to regulate it and seek in some way to expunge the names of those innocent individuals from that awful spectre of a Google search when, for example, they apply for jobs and find that their names are for ever besmirched. That is the problem that so many innocent people have to face, and it is a problem that we need to start talking about, and seeking to address and in some way solve.
I return to where we are in this debate. Recognising the problem that I have outlined, I think that reporting restrictions should surely not be confined to rape or sexual allegations generally. There are many scandalous allegations made against individuals—they have been well discussed today, but I shall not repeat them for fear of overstepping my time allocation. However, the point has been powerfully and simply made by many colleagues in all parts of the House that to try artificially to restrict the proposal to one category of crime not only poses the kind of problems that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) identified in her powerful contribution, but risks taking us back to the naturally emotive issues that surround the crime of rape.
I should like to digress for a moment and talk in support of the many speeches that have been made today about the need for better investigation of rape crimes. Let me tell the House that my experience of the prosecution of rape is that juries always look for that extra bit of reassurance—particularly where consent is the issue—that they can often get from powerful scientific evidence. “Why scientific evidence,” one might ask, “if the issue is consent? How on earth can that be relevant?” The answer is that trials can take peculiar twists and turns. Issues that might not have seemed important to investigating officers at the outset of the investigation can suddenly loom rather large in the consideration of the jury when one goes through the evidence with a fine-toothed comb.
I will give the House a simple example. Where the act took place can often be a powerful indicator of whether consent or the lack of it can be proved. For example, if the act took place on a floor or an area that would not be consistent with consent, scientific evidence can often help to prove a case, particularly if the defendant and the complainant disagree about where the particular act of intercourse or sexual misconduct took place. I know that that might sound like arguing with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, but the truth is this: the scene of a crime of rape should be treated as seriously as the scene of a crime of murder or any other alleged act of serious violence. Far too often, scenes of crime are not sterilised, preserved or properly protected by investigating officers, with the result that valuable sources of evidence are lost. I accept that that is a question of resources, and I know that senior police officers will have a very difficult round in the year ahead, but time and again police officers have told me that this is a problem that they face. There is no lack of will or empathy involved; there is simply a lack of resources for conducting proper investigations of rape allegations.
The attrition rate has been mentioned. That is perhaps rather an inelegant phrase to use when we are talking about such a sensitive crime, but we must not forget this. The rate will be increased if prosecutors make decisions to pursue cases that fail the test of a reasonable prospect of conviction. That should be a cast-iron test to be applied to every case, irrespective of the type of allegation. I do not say that in a cold-hearted way; I believe that such a test serves the public interest.
Let us put the questions of attrition and investigations out of our minds for the moment and return to the question of reporting restrictions. I believe that there is a case for the creation of a discretionary power for judges to impose reporting restrictions in whatever cases they see fit, subject to a simple test—namely, that of the interest of justice. That is a wide test that is applied by the judiciary up and down the land every day of our working lives. At a stroke, it would cut through all the sensitivities that have been quite properly expressed today, and all the problems that come with identifying particular professions and particular types of offence. We must trust the judiciary to do the job that they are trained to do.
In that regard, the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe—I nearly called her my learned friend—was an extremely important one. She proposes discretion up to charge. I would go further and propose discretion throughout the course of the trial. That could cover a range of different allegations. It would also allow a properly informed judge, faced with an unmeritorious application from a defendant who perhaps did not deserve the protection of reporting restrictions as much as someone of good character, to make a decision based on all the information before them. That would remove the quite natural emotion that we hear in debates such as this one, and allow us to avoid the natural collision of views over the investigation of the serious crime of rape, as well as the more general issues about journalism, reporting and reputation.
For that reason, I urge the Government to think again about their current position and to widen the ambit of the measure to include a wide range of offences. Furthermore, the word “anonymity” might be relevant in the case of an undercover police officer, who can now give evidence while being protected by statute—following the problems of two or three years ago when the European Court ruled that the current common law position was inadequate—but we should stop using the word in relation to this debate. We should be talking about reporting restrictions. If we do introduce legislation on this subject, I want that term to be used. On that note, I hope that I have in some way contributed towards this excellent and well-informed debate.
At the nub of this debate is the question of whether the police should be allowed the discretion to release the identity of people who they believe are serial rapists, with a view to getting more victims and more witnesses to come forward and provide more evidence to facilitate prosecution. That point was touched on in an excellent speech by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who obviously has a great deal of experience in this area. We have heard good debating points, but we really need to get to the nub of the issue, because I fear that if the anonymity proposal for rape defendants goes through, we will end up tying the hands of the police.
We are not talking about allowing all the names of all the people ever accused of rape to go out to the media before charge. Rather, we are talking about whether in certain instances, where people are known to be serial offenders but have not been successfully prosecuted, the police should be allowed—given the statistical background we have discussed—to facilitate the process of getting more people to come forward. I believe that if the anonymity proposal is pushed through, we will simply end up with more rape—particularly by serial rapists—less reporting and fewer convictions.
In my area of Swansea West, as elsewhere, there is serious and widespread concern about this issue. I know that some Members have said that it is not political, but I have encountered people saying, “Look, I voted Liberal Democrat, and I did not vote for hiding the identity of prospective rapists and increasing the number of rape victims. I did not vote for that.” This policy emerged, of course, from a Liberal Democrat conference resolution in 2006. To be fair to the Conservatives, in 1988 the veil was pulled and hidden identity was thrown away under pressure from the police, who said that anonymity was preventing women from reporting. That remains the case, so I hope that the Conservatives will go back to their previous position. I realise that some sort of deal has been done on VAT and everything else, but let us not allow it to get in the way of the rights of women and their protection. Disclosure generates confidence—confidence to stand up and be counted against serial offenders.
Most crime generally is serial crime. We all know that the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by just a few people—and that is certainly the case with rape. Like other Members who have spoken, I have had the great pleasure of witnessing a presentation by the chief constable of Cheshire, Dave Whatton, who showed evidentially the relationship between disclosure, witnesses coming forward and subsequent convictions. The reality is that a person comes up for a rape trial, often on their own, but with disclosure, others might come forward. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, in some cases, evidence from the first victim might not be sufficient for conviction, but it might be with the collaborative evidence of others. Without that additional evidence, the case is likely to fall and more serial rape is likely to be the result.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunity for the press to publish information about defendants, which could strengthen the case if more women come forward. Their cases might not get on the charge sheet, but even if it is the first time that they have come forward, it would help to give them closure, in that they would know who their attacker was and their additional evidence would hopefully contribute to a successful conviction and their attacker going to jail.
That is absolutely right. We talked earlier about the problem of putting things in boxes and isolated cases. Some women go through thinking that they have contributed to the incident or even that it is somehow their fault, but if they knew that the person had a consistent pattern of behaviour in raping women, they would no longer think like that. Sometimes a woman—or a man—does not want to stand in front of a court; a difficult case might fail completely because no one else comes forward and the evidence is insufficient. In those circumstances, the victim could end up being branded as a woman—sometimes a man—who makes false accusations. They have told the truth, but on the balance of evidence available from only one witness, the accused is found not guilty, and the woman then becomes “a liar”. What signal does that send when we want to encourage more witnesses to come forward?
I appreciate that the point was made seriously, but I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee—the point about Google raised by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) was well made—that there is an equivalence between the psychological and reputational difficulties of the accused, although they certainly exist, and a lot more women being raped. There is no qualitative equivalence between them. Quantitatively, the number of malicious, false allegations is minute, whereas the number of unreported—certainly unconvicted—rapes is massive. On the balance of the argument, qualitatively and quantitatively, the case for anonymity is not made.
We must maximise our impact on injustice against victims and the wrongly accused. Ultimately, however, there is a trade-off, because if we push forward with anonymity, there will be more rape, more rapists and more rape victims. A few innocent people might get accused because of the culture and environment we create, but it is obvious where I stand in that trade-off.
The chief constable of Cheshire gave the example of a vicar who used to be a teacher. There was a media revelation about him being accused, and immediately eight more victims came forward, as a result of which he was convicted. We have heard about the 12 women who came forward about the black-cab driver; suddenly, after photos were published, 81 more women came forward. In the case of the paedophile running a teenage football team, publicity led to 14 more victims coming forward. Under the anonymity proposal, that would not have happened, and we would not be protecting the victims, including children.
There is a prisoner’s dilemma whereby we rely on the brave victim coming forward and encouraging other people to have the confidence to do so. With anonymity, the risk is that that person will stand alone, and that in the time between the accusation and the court case, she will be open to harassment through texting and phone calls saying, “You haven’t got a chance. You know you’re going to lose.” Then, when she does lose, other people will look at her and say, “I’m not ending up like Mary. She was harassed for ages, and now she is regarded as a liar.” Anonymity changes fundamentally the power relationship between victim and accused. The accused will realise that, it will reduce the risk to serial rapists who use drugs or alcohol to carry out their crimes, and it will increase rapist confidence.
Under the proposal, the balance could tip even further against the victim. The statistics already suggest that 0.5% of women are raped each year—about 140,000 women a year. Of those, about 100,000 do not report the rape. Why is that? Obviously, there is a systemic problem with the justice system. About 5% of women in the population—1.4 million—have been raped. Despite that horrendous figure, we are discussing measures to deter people from coming forward.
The chief constable of Cheshire gave a snapshot of statistics in the year to March 2010. He reported that 155 crimes had been recorded as rape, 33 of which were prosecuted, with 23 convictions. Nobody was found to have put forward a malicious, false accusation, although 13 cases were regarded as non-criminal. His evidence suggested that, occasionally, accusations are dismissed. I do not pretend that there are not malicious, false allegations, but there are few of them. Obviously, false allegations are serious, because when people are found to have made them they are punished by, for instance, as has been mentioned, two years in jail, which is fair enough. However, we should not change legislation because of a small number of people, when a large number of people are suffering very serious consequences, against a backdrop of a massive amount of rape. We should not rush a change through before the summer recess as has been suggested.
Women, in particular, will see the proposal in the wider context of a new Government suggesting that there should be less closed circuit television and less use of DNA, and now they are suggesting that there should be anonymity. Plus they are cutting £125 million from the police grant. When all that is put together, it does not look good to the victim, or suspected victim, of rape. To those watching this debate, I point out that 1.4 million women have been raped. Again, that is against a long-term cultural backdrop of endemic sexism in the judicial system. I see men on the Government Benches raising their eyebrows, but we have all heard about contributory negligence: “She was drunk”; “She had a short skirt on”; “He couldn’t help himself”; “He was a former boyfriend”; “And what about her sexual history?”; “What about his military career?”—all irrelevant, erroneous considerations. Consent is consent.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those days are long past? Raising the sexual history of a complainant is specifically prohibited, apart from in extremely rare circumstances, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Does he agree that that is a long time ago? We have moved on greatly in the past 15 to 20 years.
No, I would not agree. I heard of a recent case where such suggestions were made about clothing and all the rest of it by the barrister in putting the defendant’s case. That is still the backdrop. We can all pretend that we do not live in the environment in which we do. The environmental context is pulled in when such cases are considered, and that is another reason why people do not want to come forward. They say, “Oh no, I was out on a Saturday night and I’d had a few drinks, so it’s an I-was-asking-for-it type of thing.”
To be fair, in the past 13 years, the hon. Gentleman’s own Government made immense efforts with the judiciary to change previous judicial thinking, however misinformed it may have been, as the judiciary would tell him. The previous Government did a huge amount; does he not agree with that?
I must agree with that. A huge amount was done by the previous Government in this direction; that is completely true. My simple point is that the statistical backdrop is horrendous, the direction of travel of the proposal is regressive, and the cultural backdrop is sexist. As was said, the previous Government did a lot to move in the other direction. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the sort of arguments that I mentioned are frowned on, but what about the image of the system held by the people whom it serves? We have a situation where 100,000 people are not coming forward into that system because they have no confidence in it. At the same time, a dog whistle is being blown, as regards defendant anonymity. I genuinely think that such anonymity will protect more serial rapists and lead to more rape.
This is a key moment for the Government, with regard to the future of justice in cases of sexual violence. I very much hope that they pull back from what I regard as a retrograde, regressive, sexist and backward position.
Like many people in this debate, I have specific experience of the problems, having served as a prosecution barrister on behalf of the Attorney-General for many years and, more specifically, having run a free representation unit that provided criminal injuries compensation assistance, and having worked with Victim Support. In fact, the previous Government gave me an award for the work that we did for Victim Support; I accept that that will not happen ever again, but I pray in aid the fact that that award was for the work that we were trying to do on behalf of those who were so grievously affected by the issue that we are discussing.
I would like to think that we have grasped an important, serious issue, but we have done it improperly. The coalition agreement says:
“We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants”,
when ideally it should say, “We will consult on the issue.” If it had said that, many things would have been a lot easier, as they also would have been if it had followed the Select Committee on Home Affairs 2003 report in respect of sexual offences. We all understand that mistakes may have been made in the drafting of the coalition agreement, and I see no difficulty in these matters being reconsidered and handled in a better way upon reasoned conclusion over the coming months and years.
All of us must accept that the conviction rate is too low, and all of us must also accept—as I attempted to explain in my intervention on the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies)—that much was done by the police and the previous Government, following on from work done down through the years, to provide greater assistance on this issue, and it continues to be done.
I comprehensively reject the idea that the judiciary are fundamentally biased against individual persons. That is not the experience of those of us who have spent a lot of time in the courts. Whatever may have happened in the past, my experience is that it does not happen in the present day and age.
I support the broad principle that we should consult on, and review, this issue. There is rightly considerable concern that people who are acquitted of certain offences should not have their lives ruined—and in some cases their lives are comprehensively ruined. It is accepted that in some types of cases, particularly serial rapist and sex offender cases, the widespread publication of certain details makes a difference to the conviction. That is one of the inherent flaws in the argument for going down the proposed route, but it is patently possible—this is done in a variety of other scenarios in judicial contexts—for these situations to be dealt with in a way that allows judicial flexibility. Also, the police can in certain limited instances apply to publicise such details precisely because they wish to go down what we might call the Warboys route as they think there are other related sexual offences and they want them to come to light. That similar fact evidence is already inherent in the system and followable in the system.
However, I have represented someone who was wrongly convicted of a criminal offence. I have absolutely no doubt of his innocence, but that gentleman was convicted and it took me one year and about two weeks to get the Court of Appeal to overturn the decision. That young man was desperately affected, and I do not think he will ever be the same again. It was no comfort thereafter that the individuals involved were subsequently prosecuted. That is but one example of many. Plenty of other people, such as Peter Bacon and Matthew Kelly, have been in similar situations where these matters coming to light makes life very difficult.
We should look back at the best evidence. For me, that comes at present from the Home Affairs Committee 2003 report. It is worth while contemplating the fact that some sensible and very serious luminaries were serving on the Committee at the time: Janet Dean, Chris Mullin, Bridget Prentice, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), Gwyn Prosser, the hon. Members for Bradford West (Mr Singh) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), Ann Widdecombe, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), the current Prime Minister. Those are the names listed on the Home Affairs Committee 2003 report, and their proposals were clear. As was explained by the current Select Committee Chairman, there were good reasons why on balance they came down in favour of anonymity not for rape specifically, but for sexual offences. As is well known, they had the support of the Metropolitan police, which is relevant because the police have been often mentioned today. They had that support because the Metropolitan police made the point in relation to sexual offences, particularly sexual offences involving children, that the publicity was damaging for everyone involved, not just the defendant.
So I submit that the favouring of the move is based on the current evidence that is best before us, and that evidence comes from the Home Affairs Committee. I endorse, however, the proposals of the Chairman of that Committee and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that this is patently something that should proceed by way of proper consultation, ideally by both that Committee and the Select Committee on Justice working together and addressing all the evidence as they progress. I am certain that if they did that, a productive and useful process would be engaged in and the matter would move forward.
I wish briefly to discuss the issue of teachers and doctors, because I endorse entirely the proposals in respect of them, having also represented teachers who have been affected and been subject to allegations. This is a question that this House has to grasp, because although schools are not being paralysed, they are being considerably affected by the way in which teachers are struggling to cope with these issues. I finish by saying that I support the proposal in broad terms, but it is capable of great improvement.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, but I am concerned and saddened that the coalition Government have proposed to give anonymity to rape defendants. I do not wish to repeat many of the excellent points made by my hon. Friends, and by the hon. Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who have brought their professional expertise to bear on this subject, but this is a serious issue.
Being falsely accused of any serious crime can have devastating effects on a person’s life. However, experts in the field confirm that false accusations of rape are very rare. The Association of Chief Police Officers rape lead, Chief Constable Whatton, has said:
“The public perception is that there are lots of false allegations; my professional view is that there aren’t”.
Likewise, Baroness Stern’s “review into how rape complaints are handled by public authorities in England and Wales” states that
“those we spoke to in the system felt that there were very few. A Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyer told us, ‘They are extremely rare. I have been prosecuting for 20 years, and have prosecuted for a false allegation once.’ The judges we talked to said these cases occur very infrequently. An experienced police officer had come across two such cases in 15 years.”
So giving anonymity only to rape defendants sends out a very clear message to rape victims that they alone are not to be believed. It tells them that they alone are not to be taken seriously. It suggests to them that there is no point in coming forward because nobody will believe them and, worse than that, as they will not be believed there is no chance that the rapist will be convicted and so there is no point in reporting rape. This would be a very backward step. Rape has a devastating effect on the victim, with the after-effects lasting for years. It is a particularly difficult crime to report and it can occur in a wide range of circumstances; it is far more widespread than is commonly known, with some 2,000 women raped every week and some 10,000 women sexually abused.
Victims of rape naturally find it very difficult to come forward, because they are often very embarrassed about what has happened, and manipulative rapists can often make the victim somehow feel partially responsible for the assault that has taken place. Victims are very worried about having to describe to complete strangers what has happened. They are also very worried about what they know will be a very long and complicated process and about being cross-examined about intimate details. Over the years, those difficulties have been recognised and efforts have been made to improve facilities and to increase the availability of specialised professionals, but it is still a big step for a victim to come forward to report rape.
One major deterrent to rape victims coming forward is the worry that they will not be believed. Giving rape defendants, and only rape defendants, anonymity sends a very clear message to rape victims, more than 90% of whom are women, that they are unlikely to be believed. It reinforces many of the insidious myths about rape—for example, that somehow the victim was asking for it or was somehow responsible for it happening.
Victims are very worried about the attitudes they will encounter if they report rape. Unfortunately, in a report produced in 2007, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has shown that a key problem in the investigation of rape cases is “a culture of scepticism” among many police officers and prosecutors. Giving anonymity only to rape defendants will serve merely to reinforce that culture of scepticism, and although the culture might be slowly changing, the perception of many women is that it still exists. The fact that women perceive that to be the culture is making them reluctant to come forward and giving anonymity to rape defendants will only reinforce their concerns.
The proposal is like giving some sort of charter to serial rapists. Whereas now when a defendant is named, other victims are given the courage to come forward and provide additional evidence that can help to secure a conviction—many such cases have been cited this afternoon—what is proposed will do the opposite. It will hamper police investigations and make it much easier for serial offenders to avoid detection and to reoffend again and again. We all know that it is well documented how such people try to get themselves into a position of trust or a position in which they know they will have the opportunity to repeat their crime again and again.
Do the Government recognise that giving rape defendants greater protection could reduce conviction rates, particularly for serial rapists? Do they realise what a negative message they are sending to victims of rape—that they, and they alone, are not to be believed?
Enormous efforts have been made to improve the treatment of rape survivors in the criminal justice system, but no matter what is done reporting rape will always be traumatic. I implore the Minister not to proceed to accord anonymity to rape defendants because it would be an immense backward step and would undo a lot of the good work that has been done in this area.
Several Members have asked the rhetorical question, “Why treat rape differently?” The reality is—I say this having had 16 years of experience at the criminal Bar in England and Wales—that it would not be treated differently by the law in several respects. The identity of defendants is withheld every day in hundreds of cases in our criminal justice system in cases in youth courts, or those with persons under the age of 16 who are involved in proceedings. That has been so since the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so there are plenty of such examples every day. I accept that that relates to young people, but the principle exists.
That principle was reinforced by the previous Labour Government and applied to adults in relation to certain terrorist offences. Thanks to Labour legislation, the anonymity of defendants was applied in those cases, which is why one reads in the media about the cases of N or A. When Labour Members refer to the uniqueness of this proposition, I submit that they are wrong for those reasons.
Rape is also different from other offences. Often it is one person’s word against that of another, particularly as regards allegations when consent is an issue. Of course, in cases when consent is not an issue, the same principle does not apply. A situation in which the evidence is the word of one person against that of another—I do not exclude males here, because males can be victims of rape, as we have discussed—can never be the case in allegations of sexual offences against children. Consent will never be the issue there. When consent is an issue among adults in a rape case, there is often no supporting evidence for a jury to get a grip of that can corroborate a complainant’s account. That makes rape different from many other offences that are prosecuted in our courts and it might partly account for the exceptionally low conviction rate for rape—assuming that one accepts there is an unusually low conviction rate, because that is not universally accepted within the profession.
In every case, jurors have to be sure of a defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt before they convict. When it is one person’s word against another’s, my experience, and no doubt that of others who have practised in the criminal courts, is that juries may be unconvinced that they can be sure enough to convict someone of such a serious offence. In almost every other case nowadays, before a court prosecution is launched, the Crown Prosecution Service will require corroborative inculpatory evidence against the defendant, such as forensic, CCTV or eye-witness evidence. The prosecution would be very unlikely to proceed in cases of murder, grievous bodily harm or similar offences without some evidence other than one person saying, “This is what happened.”
No doubt, hon. Members will know that in every case the CPS has to satisfy itself regarding two criteria—first, that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and secondly, that it is in the public interest to proceed. To satisfy the first test, supporting evidence would invariably be needed. It has been my experience, and that of others from the Bar who have spoken in the debate, that that test seems not to have been applied by prosecutors in rape cases. It seems that prosecutors are much more robust about telling the police that they are disinclined to prosecute grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm cases to court because there is not enough evidence, whereas that decision seems to be left more to jurors in rape cases. I urge that prosecutors should think carefully about applying a proper test to rape, because nothing in law separates rape cases from the requirement that there should be a realistic prospect of conviction. Rape has those unique characteristics, so it stands apart from most other offences in the criminal lexicon.
A second reason that I offer for the low conviction rate is the fact that the law makes no differentiation between a stranger rape, as they are sometimes called, and another type of rape in which the accused is known to the victim. I am not calling for the law to make that differentiation, but jurors invariably do make a distinction. Many members of the Bar have found that jurors are reluctant to convict of rape when there have been historical sexual relations of a consensual sort many times, because they know that the sentence will be particularly severe.
Labour Members often ask what makes rape different, but their Government made it different legally. One more example of that is that the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 recognised sexual offences as different, and section 41 placed restrictions on the cross-examination of rape complainants, creating a presumption against asking questions about previous sexual history. I do not argue that that is inappropriate, but it does restrict barristers from asking questions in court in a way that simply does not apply to other types of offence.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the previous Government changed the law in that way? Surely it was because of the kind of severe cross-examination of rape victims that had taken place previously in which victims were reduced to tears in the witness box, which had clear implications. One point that we have been arguing all afternoon is that that reduced the likelihood of a woman who had experienced rape from coming forward and making such allegations.
Nothing I say is designed to make it more difficult for women to make a complaint of rape. I accept and understand from my professional knowledge that it is an extremely difficult thing for women and men to do. However, my example showed how that offence is treated differently by the law. When Opposition Members ask why I say that such cases are different from all others, I fear that their argument is weakened by the provisions in their 1999 Act.
We are not talking about false allegations of rape as such, but it is right to bear it in mind that we have a system that we must cherish: a person is innocent until proven guilty. I accept that there must be no barrier to people making a complaint, because it is already extremely difficult for them to do so; but Her Majesty’s Government are not trying to do that in this proposal. Rape is uniquely stigmatising, so much so that if one goes to prison, as I have done—obviously to see clients—one can see what happens there. Prisoners charged with rape—never mind convicted—are treated differently from other prisoners. The sad reality is that a person charged or convicted of murder or a serious offence of violence can actually be respected in the prisoner context, but those accused of rape have to be segregated. There is a unique stigma.
Rape is uniquely stigmatising and it is already treated differently by the law. I give an example, from my legal knowledge. A 17-year-old military recruit and a younger girl, aged 16, made contact via the internet. He travelled to meet her and they had sexual relations. He drove her home, by which time her father was out looking for her; indeed, she saw him in the car. At her doorstep, the mother asked, “What has he made you do?” The girl had some psychological problems and it was clear from computer conversations with friends that she was very frightened, but it was also apparent that the case was prosecuted wholly partially, with officers repeatedly reassuring her at interview that she had done the right thing. Of course, they wanted to do the right thing for her, but one has to ask whether it was doing the right thing by a complainant to reassure her repeatedly and not put her, or him, to the test on the quality of their evidence. It will be explored in court proceedings, which puts the complainant under even more pressure.
In the case I am describing, the young man was remanded, released on bail and remanded again. The case came before a Crown Court judge and when counsel—not me—asked the first question, “He didn’t rape you, did he?”, the answer was “No”, and the case was dismissed. I regret to inform Members that such cases happen on a regular basis.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that such cases happen on a regular basis, but there is no evidence for that—it is anecdotal. One of the things Baroness Stern was asking for was better evidence of false allegation in all crimes, including rape. We need to get the data and evidence right, because such phrases do not help the debate at all.
In the absence of statistics, one can only go by one’s anecdotal experience, and it is reasonable for barristers who have worked in the Crown Court daily for many years to draw on that experience. I differ from what the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said about the number of cases prosecuted as perversions of the course of justice or malicious reporting of rape. That number will be very much lower than the average. That is because it is very difficult to prove a negative, and one would normally have to ascertain that the complaint was made in wholly and probably dishonest circumstances—for example, it might later transpire that the complainant and the victim were in two different locations. But it is illogical for the hon. Lady to draw the conclusion that because there are X prosecutions for perverting the course of justice, there are not that many false accusations. The two are totally different.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I was quoting the professionals who have been involved for many, many years in such cases? I was not quoting the number of actual cases that might have been brought. I was quoting what the professionals had said, and they said that the number of false accusations being made anywhere in the process was extremely low.
Nothing that I have said is designed to protect the guilty. I accept what the hon. Lady says. As far as I am concerned—I emphasise this—anyone convicted of this sort of crime deserves the full wrath of the law and society. I am motivated here—I am sure that all Members would sympathise with this—by the protection of the innocent, and the ancient principle that all in this country are innocent unless or until they are proven guilty is a principle that we should never derogate.
I will not speak for long, as many of the arguments that I wanted to make against the coalition’s proposals have already been made very eloquently and forcefully by fellow Members on the Opposition Benches—and also, on occasion, by those on the other side of the House. With some exceptions, the level of debate on this very sensitive subject has been such as to make me feel very privileged to take part in it, although I still regret absolutely the necessity for me to do so.
I want to share with the House the experience of one of my constituents, to illustrate the distress that the coalition’s proposals are already causing to many people in my constituency. I should say that the family concerned asked me specifically to share this information when they heard of the coalition’s proposals.
I will be keeping the identity of my constituent private. When we hon. Members make reference to victims of other crimes, such as murder or stabbings, we often name them. We do so because we think that brings honour on them. But not in the case of rape. The stigma of rape still contaminates the victim, even in the 21st century. I know that we all believe that that is wrong, and that many Members on both sides of the House, and indeed people across the country, have worked for years to eliminate that stigma, and huge progress has been made. But the coalition’s plans risk endangering much of that progress. That is because giving rape defendants anonymity is a unique fashion of saying to the public, to the jury and to the victim him or herself, that victims are not to be trusted.
My constituent was raped many years ago now, but her experience still impacts on her life and that of her family. Her attacker drove into her, causing her a minor injury. He then apologised profusely and offered to give her a lift home. En route he parked and forced her into a disused building, where he raped her after repeatedly punching her in the face. She was held hostage for many hours. She feared for her life, and indeed her life was in the gift of her attacker. Fortunately, she managed to escape, and fortunately also the police were able to trace the attacker. But even after arrest, my constituent’s attacker viewed his crime with little seriousness. He intended to plead not guilty. He said the victim wanted it all along. After all, she had got into the car with him; she must be in the habit of having such encounters with strangers on the street. And it was only her word against his. One can only imagine how distressing that was not only for the victim, but for her family.
I want to emphasise that the reporting of rape is always a distressing experience for the victim and those who are around him or her. By introducing these proposals, the coalition is now making my constituent and her family relive that experience. In her case, only when another of her attacker’s victims came forward, owing to the publicity and the naming of the attacker, did the case become strong enough that the defendant decided to plead guilty, thereby saving her from the trauma of having to give evidence. That ended the prospect of my constituent having to relive her pain in a court case, but she is still reliving her pain now when she thinks that, if the coalition’s proposals had been in place, her attacker may never have been convicted.
The Government’s main argument, as we can understand it, for giving rape defendants anonymity seems to rest on the possibility of false allegations. It is true that false allegations of any serious crime can ruin lives. It is terribly distressing to be falsely accused of any crime, and we must do all that we can in the justice system to minimise the likelihood of that happening. However, as I believe the Minister acknowledged, there is no greater likelihood of false allegations being made in cases of rape than in cases of other crimes, whereas we all know—we have the statistics to show it—that the under-reporting of rape is far greater than that of other crimes of a similarly serious nature. So why does it make sense to introduce these proposals to give anonymity to defendants when we need to do all that we can to encourage rape victims to come forward?
Hon. Members have discussed the principle that anonymity is awarded in relation to vulnerability, such as that of children. Children, the victims of organised crime and rape victims are given anonymity, but rape defendants do not fit into that mould of vulnerability. Indeed, the Minister said that one reason for giving anonymity was to create—I think that this was his phrase—a balance of arms. I hope that he did not mean to imply that the objective of our criminal justice system is somehow to clear the ground, so that the defendant and the claimant can fight it out like some sort of mediaeval tournament. That would be a regressive step.
I hope that the coalition will understand that these proposals will take our criminal justice backwards and that, if we want to live in a society, as I am sure that we all do, where respect for law and belief in justice are given to all, male or female, defendants and accused, awarding anonymity to defendants will be a most regressive step.
I am glad to have the chance to contribute however briefly to the debate. I must start by apologising to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the whole House for the fact that I cannot be present for the winding-up speeches since I have an urgent appointment in my constituency with the fine young men and women who serve in the Corby air cadets. I hope that Ministers will forgive me. I will therefore be very brief, because everything that needs to be said has already been said. We have seen—have we not?—politics at its best in the debate, which has been non-partisan, sober, well judged and rational.
I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman). I am also most encouraged by what the Minister said today, because the coalition Government are proceeding in the proper way. It is clear that they intend to consult and to listen. I am not persuaded that a long, formal consultation is necessary as long as the informal consultation is wide and genuine.
I urge Ministers to take account of the views of no less a personage than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who referred in a reply to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to the 2003 report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We heard today from the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) exactly what the Committee’s proposals were. If the House will forgive a little repetition, they were that we should consider extending anonymity to those accused of all kinds of sexual crimes, including sexual crimes against children.
Surely the main concern—it has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House—is the exceptional nature of rape that is implied in the current proposals. However, I suggest that the Minister look at the wording of the phrase in the coalition document. It says that we will introduce anonymity for rape defendants, not that we will bring forward anonymity only for rape defendants. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, in her very fine speech, offered a good compromise that Ministers might like to consider. She suggested that there is a case for looking at the trauma of people who are wrongly accused of crimes of all stripes, and for considering widening anonymity to those accused of sexual crimes or crimes of extreme violence. They might also consider giving discretion to judges and the police. Surely that is one way forward.
As I said, I am encouraged that the Government wish to consult. Clearly, as we have seen from the tenor of the debate, this is not and cannot be a party political issue. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor suggested that there could be a free vote, and I associate myself with the plea that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made for that. However, if that is not the case, we might look at expanding the application of anonymity. That would provide a way forward that could command support and respect on both sides of the House. I am very encouraged by the way in which the Government are seeking to consult properly and to listen to Members on all sides of this very important issue.
May I begin by paying tribute to the excellent maiden speakers? In that, I single out the astute comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who mentioned all his local newspapers. It made me wish that I had mentioned during my maiden speech what fantastic publications we have in the Oxford Mail, the Oxford Times, the Abingdon Herald, and the Oxford Journal.
From the outset, I must declare that I have great sympathy with some of the objections that I heard today. Just last week, there was an attempt to abduct a young girl in my constituency from outside a primary school just five minutes from my home in Oxford. I would not want to support any action that would make it harder to find that man and bring him to justice, or action that would make it harder to prevent him from actually succeeding on a future occasion.
I have spent some time investigating sexual violence in conflicts for the Conservatives’ human rights commission and as a volunteer for the local domestic abuse group. I have met, and heard the testimony of, victims of some of the worst crimes imaginable. Those testimonies are seared on my memory, and it is difficult for me to remain completely objective on this issue. As a result, the suggestion of granting anonymity to rape defendants made me very nervous. I am worried that the proposal will send the wrong message to rape victims at a time when we have managed to turn around the culture of disbelief and the poor treatment of rape victims by police and the courts. Credit must go to the previous Labour Government and some of my hon. Friends for the impressive work they did in the past decade to achieve that.
I am also concerned that anonymity will prevent women who find out that their rapist is charged with another offence from coming forward. At the same time, we must accept that in this country, innocent until proven guilty is the fundamental tenet of our law, and we must defend it fiercely. The imperative to protect ourselves, our families and our communities is one of the strongest that we experience, but we must ensure that in trying to do that, we do not give away the very life we want to protect. The rule of law shields us in our innocence and punishes us only in guilt.
I must disagree with some of the comments made today. On the moral spectrum of our culture, sexual offences—especially rape and paedophilia—rank higher in public disgust than many other offences. It is for that reason that if we heard that a teacher at our child’s school or a local GP had been accused of rape, we would find it very difficult not to take action to protect our children on the basis of that suspicion, but if we found out that one of the governors had been accused of theft, we would wait to test the veracity of the allegation before taking action.
The Government’s proposal is not to give anonymity to those accused of paedophilia. Rumours abound in schools when things go wrong, and if someone were protected by anonymity and another child were to be hurt by that perpetrator, what kind of signal would that send to society?
I am merely trying to make the point that our culture ascribes greater disapprobation to sexual offences than it does to other offences—as some in this Chamber have claimed.
I have a constituent who was wrongly recorded as being a sex offender for 15 years before he discovered the error, and the distress that he has experienced has been extreme. Ironically, the very fact that conviction rates for rape are so very low and reoffending rates so famously high perpetuates this culture. When so many defendants are acquitted, there is a sense that it is not because they are innocent but because the system is so poor that it is letting off the guilty. There is a sense that even if they got off that time, the likelihood is that they will do it again and probably do something worse. That means that acquittal in sexual offence trials accords the defendant legal innocence, but does not necessarily accord them innocence in the court of public opinion—they may have lost that for ever.
I apologise to the hon. Lady for not being in my place at the very start of her speech. Unfortunately, the situation she has just described reflects the fact that it is difficult to achieve a conviction in sexual offence cases. Some of those who have committed offences will be found not guilty because the case has not been proven.
I accept that, which is why we are in such a difficult position and why this debate is important.
In an age of tabloid journalism, the internet and social networking, the potential damage that such an allegation can cause has increased exponentially and it has become dramatically more difficult to contain. Let us not pretend that we always respond moderately to such allegations. Recently, a paediatrician was targeted because it was thought that she was a paedophile. I am unsure whether the granting of anonymity would be able to contain gossip-mongering and I would like to see that taken into consideration in the inquiry and the expert evidence over the summer. It is worth considering whether there is a way to provide some workable form of anonymity to those accused of all sexual offences in limited circumstances and for limited periods of time. As I say that, I am very conscious that we have heard some very learned contributions from many lawyers today. I am not a lawyer and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I try to articulate some of the areas that concern me.
Few of us on either side of this House would be comfortable with the suggestion that automatic anonymity should be granted for any point beyond charge. If proposals were to be made, I would be keen to see a framework that required judicial oversight after charge and a set of criteria that limited eligibility to exceptional circumstances, for example where the police do not consider the defendant a risk to others or if his ability to continue working or living in his community would be catastrophically affected. As has been mentioned, in 2003 the Home Affairs Committee recommended anonymity between allegation and charge, but I would point out that that was for all sexual offences, not just rape. It seems reasonable to offer anonymity for the first period, but I am not necessarily convinced about any period beyond that.
I am also concerned about the impact anonymity might have through additional bureaucracy, if individuals will have to fill in extra forms and go to court for a judgment, about a time lapse in charging, and about whether that will have an effect on fairness and conviction rates. I would welcome more specialised evidence, and I would feel reassured if the inquiry to which the Minister referred were to include significant, if not formal, consultation with those who work on the front line of support services for sexual offences victims. A great deal of concern has been expressed by some in my constituency, and it would be appreciated if they could be consulted.
I do not want to continue much longer, because there has been much debate already and most of the points have already been made. However, before being satisfied that defendant anonymity will be workable, I would want to know that other options for bringing multiple victims forward, such as publicising the modus operandi, would be just as effective as publicising identity. I would want to know that this anonymity would not prevent police from using artistic impressions or closed circuit television shots to hunt suspected criminals where appropriate. I would also want to know that in the labyrinth that is the prosecution of sexual offences, it is possible to produce workable legislation, the bureaucratic burden of which does not outweigh its value.
Most of all, however, I just want to be convinced of one thing: that introducing anonymity for these defendants will not make it harder to convict those who are guilty. I will not close my mind to the possibility that anonymity for sexual offence defendants might be a useful tool in our justice system, but it is wrong that those wrongly accused of rape should have their lives permanently destroyed. However, let us ensure that, in offering anonymity, we are not creating another wrong and setting back sexual offence legislation. Two wrongs do not make a right, and the road this far has been a long and hard one.
We have had an extremely good debate across the Chamber on this thorny issue. I welcome the debate, and thank the Leader of the House for listening to the entreaties for one, and the Government for finding the time to provide it. It might have something to do with the lack of legislation at present, but none the less we are grateful to the Government for finding the time to have it.
I congratulate all those who have spoken on both sides of the House, because the debate has been of an exceptionally high quality. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who is no longer in his place, but who earlier made his maiden speech. Although I did not agree with absolutely everything he said, Labour Members were grateful for his kind remarks about his predecessor, Paul Clark, who is a friend of mine. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman was a bit of a rebel, because he said he believed in anonymity for all sexual offences until conviction, rather than just until charge, which the Minister argued for.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), who is in his place, on his maiden speech. He conjured up a picture of his constituency that I think we all enjoyed. However, he conjured up more of a picture of his family, which we all enjoyed possibly even more. I would have liked to have met his grandmother—I wonder what she would have thought about him sitting on the Tory Benches. [Interruption.] He does not have to answer that. She would no doubt have been proud in one way. The hon. Gentleman admitted to seeing Simply Red with his mother and girlfriend, which was a risky thing to do, but none the less I am sure he will prove an assiduous Member of the House. He paid generous tribute to his predecessor, Tony Wright, to whom we on both sides of the House have reason to be grateful—I have more reason than most because I inherited his office. From my point of view, therefore, it is particularly good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place—if he understands my point!
I want also to congratulate Members from both sides of the House. Perhaps more so than in most debates, we have heard contributions informed by the professional experience of those Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was a criminal barrister before he came to this place, and he spoke from his experience in that respect. He also set out—in some detail and quite illuminatingly—the source of the policy that the hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench are having to front up, which is a policy that probably did not appear in the coalition programme for government at their suggestion. He set out in detail the policy that the Liberal Democrats adopted, which appeared to be a minor part of an extensive debate at their conference. Indeed, the suggestion appears to have been made that there should be anonymity to conviction, and in a much wider range of offences too.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) also has experience as a criminal barrister, as do the hon. Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). One of the things that struck me about many—although not all—of the contributions that we heard was a deep scepticism about the possible consequences of the policy, if it is proceeded with in the way that it is set out at present, for ensuring that rape victims come forward to report rape and can be supported all the way through to trial, and that justice is served and those guilty of rape are found guilty of it and dealt with appropriately by society.
All those speakers had helpful points to make about their experience and suggestions for how the policy—wherever it came from and whatever its provenance—might be improved. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxtowe and others for the tributes that they paid to the strides taken by the previous Government. The hon. Lady said that she had a private Member’s Bill, and we look forward to seeing her take it forward. I am not quite sure what number she came in at, but—[Interruption.] I gather that she will get a chance for a Second Reading, in which some of us will no doubt take part.
Like many Members, the hon. Lady also questioned why the coalition had decided that rape was the only offence where the defendant ought to be protected in the way proposed, and I do not think that we have yet heard a satisfactory answer to that. Many Members have suggested that even if one accepts the unique difficulty of dealing with the offence of rape, there are other sexual offences that have similar difficulties. With respect, I do not think that the explanation that the hon. Member for Northampton North gave convinced all of us on this side of the House. He referred to the youth courts, but defendants in the youth courts are granted anonymity because of their youth across the entire range of offences. Therefore, the argument about singling out defendants in rape cases as uniquely needing such protection is not dealt with by his point.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who I had not realised was a forensic medical examiner. She brought to her speech the clarity and succinctness of her scientific background, speaking briefly but making some extremely salient points. She said that, from her experience of dealing with victims at that sensitive time shortly after they have been attacked and reported the incident, she knows that the majority of such crimes are not reported and that fewer than 5% of the women she saw ended up securing a conviction.
Perhaps most importantly, the hon. Lady made it clear that it was her impression, from her professional experience, that many women have the courage to come forward and report an incident—thereby setting out on that long and difficult road—only because they think that they are helping other women. If any policy, well intentioned or otherwise, prevents women at that sensitive time from thinking that they will help other women by reporting, we will be doing them a disservice by proceeding with it. What will happen is less reporting; consequently, there will be more scepticism and more rapists will get away with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), among others, made the important point that serial rapists would get away with it, which would equate to there being more victims. The speech of the hon. Member for Totnes was brief, but it was extremely salient.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) made an extremely good speech, as we have come to expect from her. She took up this issue at an early stage and pressed the Government on it, and, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) knows well, she does not let go once she gets started. Her speech was not only powerful but extremely salient. She said that the Government had today spurned the opportunity to retreat a little further, having thought about the matter in more detail. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) would do us all a favour—including, I dare say, his colleague, the hon. Member for Reigate—if he were to tell us at the end of the debate that the Government would be willing to listen a little more than they have so far, and would be willing to go away and do a number of things, which I shall come to in a moment.
Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) brought to her speech her experience as a social worker of dealing with some of these issues. Her speech was also extremely powerful. It helps the House, when we are considering these matters, to have such a professional perspective from Members. She said that this was an ill-thought-out policy, and as many people have done she urged the Government to think again. She brought great insight to her remarks, based on her professional experience, and said that we should never underestimate the difficulties involved in prosecuting rape.
Importantly, my hon. Friend said that we had to proceed from a position of believing people. We do not necessarily need to say a complainant, “I’m going to believe you 100%, regardless of the evidence arising out of the investigation”, but when a woman, man or child comes forward to report a rape, we must not start by giving them the impression that we probably do not believe that it happened. There was far too much of that from the statutory services in the past, but we have moved away from that now. The barristers on the Government Benches who have spoken today made it clear that things have improved, and I agree with them. We must not do anything that takes us back to those bad old days.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West urged the Government to think again, describing the anonymity proposal as a dog whistle, and saying that it would protect serial rapists, resulting in more people getting away with rape and fewer victims coming forward. It ill behoves the Government to ignore those warnings; they really should bear those concerns in mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) pointed out the inconsistencies and complications of the policy, as well as some of the unintended consequences that might follow if it is introduced very quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) tackled the issue of false allegations, and set out the argument why, in her opinion, the measure would represent a retrograde and undesirable step. She made her arguments very strongly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) powerfully described the experience of one of her constituents, illustrating how publicity can be important in certain instances. Other hon. Members have also set out the experiences of those who have been wrongly accused, which were different from that described by my hon. Friend. Of course, one case alone cannot change the law, and we must look across the board at the impact of all these factors on this particularly sensitive issue.
The Government should be asking themselves a number of questions when they go away to consider these matters further, as I—and Members across the House—urge them to do. What will be the impact of anonymity at whatever level—for charge, for conviction, for rape or for a wider range of offences—on the ability of victims to report attacks and on the likelihood of them being believed? It is important for Ministers to consider that question. Also, what impact will it have on the ability of the police to investigate and catch rapists? What impact will the proposed reporting restrictions have on our free press and the concept of open justice? We must remember that the wider we extend such a provision, the greater the impact on the very basis of our justice system, according to which allegations are made, cases are heard and dealt with in public, so that justice can be seen to be done as well as be done. These are important concepts and the wider we range across breaching that system, the more fundamental the risk to it.
Will these proposals really make it easier to catch and convict rapists? Why, oh why, single out rape as a crime for different treatment? We should look at the impact—not just the intentional impact, which one accepts is obviously not to make things worse—of doing so. What will be the practical impact on the victims who might otherwise have come forward? Let us have the research done on the level of malicious false reporting. Baroness Stern has called for it, and a number of Members have said that the evidence base is not extensive enough for us to be clear. That is true, so let us have that report.
Finally, how does anonymity for defendants improve the conviction rate for rape? At the end of the day, it is the conviction rate that we all want to see improved. That is what will send out the signal from society that this crime will not be tolerated and that we fully intend to crack down on it.
Let me ask the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon three things before he replies. Can this new research on attrition and the level of false reporting that Baroness Stern has called for be carried out before the policy is finalised, implemented and legislated for? Will he give us an assurance that the research will not simply be a review from a senior civil servant—all of whom in the Ministry of Justice I greatly respect, by the way? We do not want just a survey of the existing evidence base, which would be helpful but would not take us forward. We could all go to one place to read it, but it would not add to our knowledge. Can we have real research, as Baroness Stern has suggested, into the real level of malicious false reporting? That is the important issue here.
Secondly, can we have a proper and full public consultation? The call for it from across the Chamber has been widespread, including from some Members who have supported the proposals and others who have expressed grave doubts about them. I was concerned when the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate promised “a consultation”, but only a short, limited and restricted one. For a subject as sensitive and important as this one, such a low and restrictive level of consultation is insufficient, especially when the change could have a big impact on our capacity to deal with this crime. There is no argument against having a proper and full public consultation, particularly if it is true that the Government do not intend early legislation on this issue. I want the Minister who is about to reply to commit himself and his Government to giving us the consultation that we want.
Finally, I have been struck by the high level of dissent expressed by those on the Government Benches behind the Minister. It has been gently and politely put and has rightly been couched in professional terms, but it is dissent none the less. A great deal of concern has been expressed by Government Members, while for Labour Members the concern is universal. The policy that the Minister who opened the debate seemed determined to pursue is wrong. It is not thought through; it is not based on evidence; and it will have deleterious, and possibly devastating, effects on women victims of rape and on those who seek to improve the outcomes that society wants in dealing with this horrendous crime.
Will the Minister who just about to reply do this for us? Will he withdraw the proposals, admit that they were not properly thought through, go away, think again, get the evidence in order, and then come back to the House with fully thought-through proposals that are evidence-based and convincing, having consulted widely? Were he to do that, he would get a cheer at the end of his speech. Let us see what he will get.
I agree with the shadow Minister that we have had a good, informed debate, with tremendous contributions from many informed people. It was excellent to hear so many good contributions from new Members on both sides of the House. Generally, the debate has been non-partisan, which, given the subject matter, is healthy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on an excellent and thoughtful maiden speech, which let us in on the lasting effect of his having had a single-sex education. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) made an eloquent maiden speech, and his proposals to beat the fear of crime through a community-led approach were well put. We will forgive him the Simply Red concert last weekend.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made a strong opening speech, but it was sometimes based on proposals that are simply not the Government’s position. She said that we were not saying what the Government’s position is. In response to her, and to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) who made the same point, I say that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), made our position clear in his opening remarks. Let me repeat what he said: we intend to strengthen and formalise the current arrangements for anonymity up to the point of charge in rape cases. We will publish an independent report of existing research on rape before the summer recess, and following the request of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, we will consider whether new research is required to supplement it. Obviously, we will make a further announcement in the autumn.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) questioned the independence of the report commissioned. I assure him that the report will be peer-reviewed by two independent, external experts, that their comments will be addressed by the report authors, and that the process will be rigorous.
To be fair, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood noted, we set aside a whole day in Government time for this debate. I trust that that leaves the House under no illusions from the outset about the importance with which we regard this issue, our desire to give direction on what is required, and how we will move the issue forward. Hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made many helpful general points on dealing with rape, which were slightly off the specific topic of the debate but none the less helpful.
I appreciate the time and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. Am I right in thinking that the Government intend to look at the issue of anonymity with regard to rape only? Clearly, most Members, in all parts of the House, did not want such exclusivity.
I will not, because I have little time and I have a lot to do.
I share my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s view that our proposal has been somewhat misrepresented. Our position is not anti-women in any way, shape or form. It does not imply any view of the prevalence or otherwise of false allegations. There is no evidence that our position will reduce the likelihood of women reporting rape, as has been suggested. There is considerable evidence that rape is under-reported and that most attrition happens in the pre-charge stages where victims or the police decide not to proceed. The difficulties involved for victims were well explained by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). They advised that we must be careful not to create barriers preventing victims from coming forward. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) drew attention to the dangers that would result if we got that wrong.
Many Members explained why rape is often not reported to the police. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, victims may think that the police will not see what happened as rape, they may have a general distrust of the police and criminal justice agencies, or there may be language or communication difficulties. Sometimes there is a fear of disbelief, blame, judgment or further attack, or a fear that friends or family will come to know about the incident. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) noted that rape is not a gender issue. The issue normally comes down to the lack of consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) elaborated very well on that point, as did the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah).
Let me make it clear to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) that the Government are not complacent about rape. As she will know, 18% of respondents to a recent London survey of 1,061 people aged 18 to 50 agreed with the statement that most claims of rape are probably not true. That is obviously a matter of great concern, which is why it is so important for the Government to continue to work hard, in partnership with other agencies, to engender a more civilised 21st-century view.
I am afraid I cannot.
Let me say to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State told the House earlier, there is no evidence that defendant anonymity would have an adverse impact on reporting. Victims may well be encouraged to come forward by the understanding that the criminal justice system is likely to deal with their complaint effectively and anonymously, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to understand how a suspect’s or even a charged defendant’s anonymity can have an impact.
A more interesting suggestion relates to anonymity and previous offending by a defendant. Many people claim that defendant anonymity would prevent other victims from coming forward. Research conducted by Feist and others in 2007 suggests that being able to link an assault to another sexual assault against another victim is likely to help to secure a conviction, so the point is important.
There is some anecdotal evidence that publicity surrounding a case has allowed more victims to come forward. The case of John Worboys is most commonly cited in that context, and was indeed cited today by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). It is not clear, however, whether the defendant’s name or the release of other characteristics, such as a suspect’s distinctive modus operandi, is the most important factor. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, although I think the latter reached a different conclusion. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary spoke in detail about the point during an Adjournment debate on 7 June, and I know that he was grateful for the information he subsequently received from the right hon. Member for Don Valley, who spoke today with knowledge about an issue about which she cares very much.
More generally, the overriding impression given by many Members was of the sheer complexity of the subject matter that we have been debating. We heard about the history of anonymity for defendants in rape cases, which goes back well over 30 years. During that period, the legislation has fluctuated between diametrically opposed policy positions, and it has been a talking point over a number of changes of Administration.
As for the scope of anonymity, some Members have said that our proposals are not specific enough, while others—and, in some instances, the same ones—have said that we are wrong to include only rape, and to exclude other offences. What we are doing is delivering on coalition Government promises. The Opposition may not like that, but this is what we promised, and this is what we are going to do. I note that the Home Affairs Committee may now wish to consider the wider issues. We shall be pleased to see its report, and to engage with it and the House on those wider issues.
Anonymity in rape cases is clearly precedented. If other offences are now to be included, we will need to review which ones. We will need to do that very carefully, not least because of the impact the arguments for press freedom will have on the scope. We will want the scope to be as narrow as possible. This is a big area and we will remain open to discussion, but it needs to be put in that context.
The issue of anonymity for rape defendants has been bound up by some with our other coalition commitment that we will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils. That also has a long and complex history, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, but we do not necessarily see the two situations as the same. The two commitments we have made will need to be reviewed as stand-alone issues even if their remedy may have certain similar aspects.
I have pointed to the complexity of the historical background, but anonymity also raises some complex legal issues. In the particular context of rape, it is clear that anonymity cannot be invariable and absolute, because there may well be situations in which it should be waived. The obvious example is where a suspect needs to be apprehended, but there are others. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made a strong case for judicial involvement in waiving anonymity where relevant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) also made some wise observations on publicity. Their experience in this area came to the fore in their valuable contributions.
Another issue was mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He asked about the situation in which the media want to publicise the fact that public authorities are reluctant to act in a case where action appears justified. Another example could be that where suspects wanted to waive their own anonymity, for example in order to establish an alibi. That would itself generate issues. Should the suspect’s right of waiver be absolute, even if it could result in identifying the complainant in a case? Taking all the above into account, I hope the House understands why we have consistently made it clear that we need to address this subject carefully, keeping our options open until the time is right to made our detailed position known. That approach was clearly right, and remains so.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood criticised the coalition Government commitment for containing only a broad statement of principle, but that is what it was—a broad statement of principle. We have now refined it without losing the principle, and we have always been clear that there are various ways in which the commitment could be implemented.
My hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), for Cannock Chase, for Gillingham and Rainham, for Broxtowe, for Hexham and for Oxford West and Abingdon all in their different ways powerfully and appropriately described the real and damaging consequences of false accusation and the importance of presumption of innocence in our law. The theme of false accusation was elaborated on very eloquently by the right hon. Member for Leicester East, who asked if the Government will be carrying out research into false allegations, as called for by Baroness Stern. I can advise him that that is under consideration by the relevant Departments as part of our overall response to Baroness Stern’s review.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood mentioned aspects of the previous Government’s record on assisting rape victim support, many of which were very worthy achievements which we hope to develop. She was less forthcoming, however, about the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark noted, after a decade of Labour Government the situation for victims is still very far from what anyone in this Chamber would wish it to be. In that context, I think the Opposition may wish to consider working with us on a consensual basis, rather than adopting an aggressive approach to this serious issue. That is what the public will wish to see, I dare to say. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said earlier, we will continue to investigate those areas that still require further thought, including whether anonymity might frustrate investigations, and any other gaps.
I can assure the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood that we will consult and seek views. However, we do not, as my hon. Friend said, see any case for holding a formal public consultation as we believe that the detailed arguments on the specific issue of rape are very well established.
Let me conclude by saying that the Government—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3))