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Sexual Abuse Offences

Volume 554: debated on Monday 3 December 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nicky Morgan.)

In February 2011, my constituent Margaret Felwick contacted the police to report a serious sexual abuse offence carried out on her by her brother, Mr Geoffrey Genge. The offence had taken place 50 years before, but Mrs Felwick had never felt able to bring the incident to light. On discovering that her sister and cousin had also been abused by Mr Genge, Mrs Felwick could be silent no longer. All three victims contacted the police.

The police handled the allegations with professionalism. They were sensitive in their approach, thorough in their investigation and also very reassuring. My constituents were concerned that it was too late to prosecute. The police assured them that it was not; although the incidents might have occurred 50 years before, there was strong evidence to support the case and an attempt to prosecute should be made.

The case was referred to the local Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS assessed the evidence and, in August 2011, notified Mrs Felwick that the prosecution would go ahead. The CPS believed that there was enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction. It believed it to be more likely than not that Mr Genge would be convicted. Mr Genge was summoned to attend a court hearing and charged with five offences of rape and sexual abuse between 1957 and 1961 relating to Mrs Felwick and her two relatives. He pleaded not guilty. The case was scheduled for trial on 27 March 2012.

Then, on 10 January, my constituents were told that the case against Mr Genge had been dropped. The announcement was made in a letter from the CPS that came out of the blue. There was no attempt to discuss the matter with the victims. From that moment onward, the handling of the case was a disaster. In explaining its decision, the CPS told Mrs Felwick that she had a strong case and described her as a respectable and believable witness. It even confirmed that the number of victims making a complaint against Mr Genge made the prospect of prosecution more likely.

However, there was a problem. The CPS had discovered that the defendant’s solicitor was preparing an abuse of process defence. He would argue that there were barriers to obtaining the evidence needed for a fair trial. He would say that too much time had passed since the abuses had occurred. The defence, he would argue, would not have a proper chance to put up the evidence they wanted to present.

The CPS then decided that, in view of the abuse of process defence, Mr Genge might well be acquitted. A casework lawyer wrote to my constituents explaining that

“it is not certain that this would happen and as I have said it is no reflection on your evidence. But it does mean that the Code for Crown Prosecutors requires me to stop the case rather than pressing for trial”.

Therefore, the police believed the victims and the CPS found them to be credible, but the case was stopped because of consideration for Mr Genge. No reference was made to the victims at all.

Why did the CPS give my constituents hope that the case would go ahead, charge the defendant, thus bringing the matter into the public domain, and then change its mind at the last minute? Abuse of process is not a novel concept; lawyers deal with these types of issues fairly regularly. If there was a problem with the evidence, and if the defendant’s application was likely to be successful, why did the CPS not think of that sooner?

The result of the decision was devastating. On 11 January, the much respected Plymouth Herald reported that Mr Genge had been wrongly accused of rape. It said that the prosecution had offered no evidence and so the case had been thrown out. The paper carried the comments of Mr Genge’s solicitor. He described my constituents’ evidence as “weak” and their charges as “odious”. He said that the case was

“a shocking waste of taxpayers’ money”

and claimed that the CPS had undermined

“the integrity of the criminal justice system”.

Naturally, my constituents felt like victims all over again. The CPS made no attempt to refute the outspoken and scandalous claims or to make it clear that the case was not stopped due to a lack of evidence. Not only had my constituents lost their chance for justice; now their reputations were being battered as well.

The upshot was as follows. My constituents were abused as girls by Mr Genge. They suppressed the damage and the injustice for 50 years. They discovered that others had suffered the same fate and so plucked up the courage to come forward. The police believed them. The CPS believed them. The case started. Proceedings were issued. Nothing changed except that the CPS discovered a law that it should have known about at the time proceedings were commenced, and the case was dropped. A local solicitor, whose rhetoric was truly disgraceful, was allowed to drag my constituents’ names through the mud. They came to me for help.

I set up a meeting with the deputy chief Crown prosecutor for the south-west to discuss the case. My constituents and the barrister who had advised the CPS not to proceed were also present. It was not an edifying experience. The barrister tried to talk us into submission. He clearly did not understand how much damage had been done to the reputation of my constituents, or their genuine distress. He gave the impression of complete indifference to their plight. I left the meeting very angry indeed. One of the claims that the barrister made was that the CPS wanted to protect the victims from the ordeal of a trial—but the victims were desperate for a trial. They wanted the hearing to take place so that the truth could come out after all these years. If the CPS had truly wanted to protect the victims, it would have pushed for justice. If justice could not be done, the CPS should have made a decision not to prosecute when it first considered the evidence.

This debate has come at a timely hour. Public interest in sexual abuse cases has been sparked by the shocking revelations about the late Jimmy Savile. For the first time, many victims have felt able to come forward and talk about the abuse they have suffered, and their stories have shocked people across the country. A full police investigation into abuse allegations is now under way. The police are being encouraged to follow the evidence where it leads them, and in recent weeks they have not been hesitant to arrest people in connection with allegations as and when they have arisen. Mr Freddie Starr was questioned about an incident relating to a young girl in the 1970s, Mr Wilfred De’Ath was questioned over allegations of abuse dating back to 1965, and Mr Dave Lee Travis was held over accusations of sexual assault relating to the late 1960s.

Of course it is right that these investigations take place. It is right that justice is done for victims whose lives have been damaged by abuse. However, if action can be taken in relation to offences by Jimmy Savile, who is dead, and if others are in the firing line about incidents relating to 30 or 40 years back, why can a prosecution not take place against Mr Genge? There is now a strong public interest in sexual abuse cases being investigated and prosecuted. The CPS must get its act together. It must make sure that prosecutions are dealt with in a sensitive, thorough and professional way. Every effort must be taken to ensure that justice is done.

The Felwick case is one of the worst I have come across in 20 years of doing this job, so let me ask the Solicitor-General some very specific questions. First, if abuse of process is a well known defence in cases of this kind, why did the CPS not consider it when it first decided to prosecute? Why was it suddenly so certain that the defence’s application for an abuse of process would be successful? Secondly, if prosecutions cannot be brought for cases which have occurred 30 years or more in the past, how can progress be made in investigating other historical offences? Thirdly, when the CPS decided to change its mind halfway through Mr Genge’s prosecution, why on earth did it not consult my constituents before the case was dropped? Finally, why did the CPS not do more to protect the reputation of my constituents? Why did it not make it clear that the prosecution was not stopped on the basis of weak evidence, as was claimed by the defendant’s solicitor, but because of a legal technicality and CPS timidity?

I have met Mrs Felwick many times. She is a gentle, reasonable and decent human being. I cannot think of a single motive she would have to raise this matter after all these years if it were not so that the truth could be told. Why would she want to put herself through the trauma of a trial if not for justice to be done? I have utter faith in Mrs Felwick and her relatives. I have absolutely no doubt that Mr Genge abused my constituents when they were children, and he is getting away scot-free. This is not British justice. I ask the Solicitor-General to review this case and the decision not to prosecute, and to ensure that justice is done.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) on securing this debate. He is one of the most respected Members of the House—a solicitor who has practised in the courts and who is known for his passion and his commitment. I pay tribute to the active role he plays in supporting his constituents.

This evening my hon. Friend has pointed to issues about a specific case and the decisions taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, and he has also raised some wider matters about the approach that prosecutors take. He raised four key areas of concern about the case: whether the original decision to prosecute was right; the later decision to offer no evidence; how that decision was communicated to the complainants; and the effect of the decision on them.

My hon. Friend has been in correspondence with Barry Hughes, the chief Crown prosecutor for the south-west, and I believe that a meeting has been arranged for tomorrow to discuss these matters further. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned for his constituents, who after many years plucked up the courage to report serious sexual offences to the police. It is in the public interest for such reports to be made, however long ago the alleged offences occurred.

The charges in the case relate to a number of serious sexual offences, including rape. The prosecution was commenced and preliminary hearings took place in September and October 2011. The decision not to proceed with the prosecution was made in early January 2012, following further consideration, and the case was dismissed when the CPS offered no evidence at the plea and case management hearing on 9 January 2012.

My hon. Friend will be aware from his experience that the code for prosecutors provides a test in two parts as to whether a case should be pursued. The first is the evidential test and the second the public interest test. There is also a duty for the prosecutor to keep the issue under review as the case proceeds. If at any time the code test is not, or is no longer met, a prosecution cannot proceed.

In this case the allegation was a serious one and related to offences more than 50 years ago, which is a long passage of time, but the reviewing CPS lawyer was mindful of that delay and the potential difficulties. He gave careful consideration to the matter and authorised the police to make charges. At that point, counsel was instructed to conduct the case and advise, which is entirely normal procedure, and he did. He looked at the issue of the potential difficulties with the age of the allegations.

The assessment of how likely it is for a prosecution to succeed in such circumstances is not entirely straightforward. The prosecutor has to consider, on the particular facts of the case, the likelihood of the court deciding that the delay may prejudice a fair trial, and the prosecution has to be stopped if it is felt that there is a risk that an application on abuse of process would succeed.

In this case, once the CPS specialist rape prosecutor who was dealing with the case had the benefit of advice from counsel, he considered that a defence application to the court to stop the proceedings would be likely to succeed. The prosecution was, therefore, no longer satisfied that the test in the code for Crown prosecutors was met and the decision not to continue was taken reluctantly by the CPS, mindful of the distress that it could cause the complainants. It does not follow from that decision, however, that the complainants were or are not believed. Put simply, the decision was taken because, in this particular case, the passage of time may have undermined the fairness of proceedings on the individual facts.

I understand that on 5 January 2012, the police informed the complainants that no evidence would be offered at court and then confirmed to the prosecutor that this had taken place.

No evidence was offered at court and the case was dismissed on 9 January. Within 24 hours, the CPS wrote to the complainants informing them of the outcome and offering a face-to-face meeting. Two of the three complainants accepted the offer and a meeting took place on 27 April 2012. My hon. Friend has attended such a meeting with the complainants, the CPS and counsel, and I have learned with regret that the meeting was not satisfactory and did not provide the reassurance sought about the decision making in the case.

Before I come to my hon. Friend’s four points, I will deal with the wider issues. The CPS has made a huge effort over recent years to improve the prosecution of offences of serious violence and violence against women and girls. Since 2001, it has produced a great deal more guidance on domestic violence, rape and sexual offences, prostitution, human trafficking, and children and young people. There is a major effort to offer support to victims and witnesses. I have a particular interest in this area as a member of the inter-ministerial group formed to discuss these issues.

Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the CPS prosecuted almost 20,000 more cases each year involving violence against women and girls. The number of convictions has risen accordingly and we now have the highest conviction rate on record. In rape prosecutions, there has been a 4% increase in the conviction rate year on year. That rate is continuing to increase. Rape cases are now prosecuted by specialist rape prosecutors in all CPS areas, who must satisfy a set of criteria that include attending compulsory training. Rape and serious sexual offences training is based on real-life evidence and includes experts from outside the CPS, including from the voluntary sector.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Savile case and the prosecution of cases of child sexual exploitation. The investigation and prosecution of such cases is particularly important to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has led a review of the Rochdale case, which my hon. Friend will recall was particularly concerning. The DPP recently held a meeting with the CPS, the police and the third sector. Guidance on how such cases should be dealt with by prosecutors is due in the new year.

I will now turn to my hon. Friend’s specific questions. The initial decision to prosecute was taken by a specialist rape prosecutor. It is important to bear it in mind that abuse of process is complex and is dependent on the individual facts of the case. An initial view of a case can change during the course of the prosecution and, as the case develops, it must be kept under review. That is what happened here.

My hon. Friend asked what this case means for other allegations of abuse that took place 30 years ago or more. The CPS decision in this case was based on its individual facts. The CPS regularly prosecutes cases that go back more than 30 years. The Attorney-General and I refer cases in which the sentence is unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal and we have done that recently in abuse cases that go back many decades and that involve defendants who are over 70 years of age.

On the consultation with the complainants, the police informed the complainants of the decision before the prosecution was dropped and face-to-face meetings were offered, as I have said. However, I accept that those meetings did not provide the reassurance that my hon. Friend would have wanted.

The final point relates to the CPS’s subsequent handling of the explanation of the decision. In response to the comments of the defendant’s representative to the Plymouth Herald, the CPS district Crown prosecutor made a statement in general terms about the CPS’s decision making in the case, and there was also a statement by a police spokesman. However, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents that more might have been said to correct the impression, created by the comments of others, that the CPS’s decision was based on anything other than the factors to which I have referred.

I would like to make it clear that I, the Attorney-General and the DPP are determined that cases of sexual violence are prosecuted robustly, with proper consideration for victims and witnesses. Although we do not direct the DPP on how to act, we meet him regularly to discuss these matters. I was sorry to hear the concerns that my hon. Friend outlined, but I am grateful to him for bringing this case to my attention. Although it is not possible to reopen the case, I will ensure that these matters are drawn to the attention of the DPP. I hope that my hon. Friend has a positive meeting with the chief Crown prosecutor tomorrow and I invite him to discuss the matter with me further after that if he wishes to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.