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Rape Victims: Disclosure of Evidence

Volume 659: debated on Monday 29 April 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service whether he will make a statement on requests by the police for victims of rape to provide their mobile phone and other digital devices.

Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] Not now, mother.

There is widespread recognition that disclosure in criminal cases must be improved. As the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), whom I still call my friend, knows, disclosure of evidence is crucial for ensuring the public’s confidence in the police and in our criminal justice system. It is important to note that police forces have been using forms to request victims’ consent to review mobile phones in investigations, including sexual assault cases, for some time. What is new is the national form that was introduced today, which attempts to distil current best practice and to replace the individual versions being used by the 43 police forces, to ensure that there is consistency and clarity for complainants. That is the intention of the police.

In considering seeking such consent, the police must consider what is a reasonable line of inquiry and ensure that their approach avoids unnecessary intrusion into a complainant’s personal life. In July 2018, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued advice on investigating communications evidence, making it clear that the examination of the mobile telephones of complainants should not be pursued as a matter of course and that, where it was pursued, the level of extraction should be proportionate.

This Government have made protecting women and girls from violence and supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence a key priority, and it is encouraging that more victims than ever before have had the confidence to come forward. However, it is surely critical that victims are not deterred from seeking justice by a perception of how their personal information is handled. They can and should expect nothing less than that it will be dealt with in a way that is consistent with their right to privacy and with the interests of justice.

This is clearly a complex area, and while disclosure is an important component of the criminal justice system in ensuring a fair trial, the police have acknowledged that the use of personal data in criminal investigations is a source of anxiety. They will continue to work with victim groups and the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure that their approach to this issue strikes the necessary, if difficult, balance between the requirement for reasonable lines of inquiry and the victim’s right to privacy. I can assure the House that the Government will continue to work with partners in the criminal justice system to deliver the recommendations in the Attorney General’s review designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure.

I thank the Minister for his response. I have indeed read the document to which he refers. Rape is among the most serious and heinous of crimes, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Victims of all crimes frequently feel that they are treated more like the accused. For example, they are required to provide fingerprints for the purposes of elimination and asked to give their consent for their medical records to be disclosed, and rape victims have to undergo intimate medical examinations after suffering the most appalling violations. However, it is the way in which we deal with these requests that is critical. What we must not do is issue a blanket demand for the handover of mobile phones and other digital devices and then threaten to discontinue a case if a victim, especially a rape victim, refuses to hand them over.

Will the Minister answer the following questions? Will he withdraw this document, because it is going to deter victims of rape in particular from coming forward? Will he ensure that there is no blanket request for rape victims—or, indeed, any other victims—to hand over phones and other digital devices? Instead, will he ensure that any request of victims—in particular, the victims of rape and other sexual offences—is made only if the investigation, including the account of the accused, has been properly looked at and it is the view of the investigating officer, having considered all the material, that such a request should be made? Will the Minister withdraw any document that states—and condemn all assertions—that cases will be dropped if the victim does not agree to hand over any material or device to the police? Does he agree that those threats are unacceptable?

Will the Minister confirm that it is already the practice of Crown Court judges to ask, at the plea and trial preparation hearing, whether all digital material has been obtained and preserved? Does he agree that if the existing law, guidance and practice directions on disclosure were followed, they would do justice to both the victim and the accused, and that their being followed properly by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service would ensure that further distress and threats to rape victims and other victims of crime would not be necessary?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. She is of course absolutely right to describe rape as a heinous crime. She is also right to remind the House that there is nothing new about requesting personal, highly sensitive information from those alleging the crime. She is also absolutely right that that needs to be done with the utmost sensitivity. She may have a different perspective—views may differ around the House—but I believe that the police have made considerable improvements over recent years in that respect.

I have read the document, and the right hon. Lady has asked me to withdraw it. It is not my document, because the process is led by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. What I can say to her, concerned as she is about the risk that the process might lead to those alleging rape not coming forward, is that an impact assessment has been carried out and we will take a strong interest in it. It is not a blanket request. As she knows, the police and the CPS proceed on a case-by-case basis. They have a heavy responsibility to pursue reasonable lines of inquiry and to make such a request only when they consider it relevant.

The right hon. Lady referred to the language in the document, and I think she asserted that the police were suggesting that if someone did not hand over their phone it would not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue. I may be misrepresenting her, but that is what I heard. Language is important, as she knows, and the document states:

“If you refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which could enable the defendant to have a fair trial then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.”

I have discussed that with the police, and they see it as a reasonable statement of fact, but the language used is sensitive and can be discussed with the police and others to see how it may be improved.

My final point comes to the fundamental underlying issue. As the right hon. Lady and everyone in the House knows, we have had a long history of failure in relation to the disclosure system, which sits at the heart of our criminal justice system and public confidence and trust in it. There has to be a response, and the CPS and the police are working closer together than ever before on this. The national disclosure improvement plan, which is now in its second phase, is an extremely credible piece of work, and it fits with that work to try to rebuild confidence in our criminal justice system. She knows that there is a balance to be struck between pursuing reasonable lines of inquiry and protecting privacy, and I believe that the police, with the best of intentions, have tried to strike the right balance, but they are open to improving it if improvement is needed.

Many of us struggle to be away from our mobile phones for half an hour, let alone any longer, so can the Minister reassure me that the police will be sufficiently funded to take phones away from alleged victims for the shortest possible time and to interrogate them with the most up-to-date equipment?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We all know how attached we, our friends and our children are to the mobile phone. It plays a fundamental role in our lives, and the prospect of being detached from it is genuinely alarming. I can give that undertaking. The police are aware of the need to minimise the length of time that a phone is taken away from someone. At the heart of my hon. Friend’s inquiry is a question about technology, the ability to process information quickly, the requirements of the criminal justice system and improvements to the disclosure process.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I commend the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) for applying for it.

The latest Home Office figures show that the proportion of reported rapes reaching prosecution is now at 1.7%, which is an appalling statistic. The rate was at 1.9% in January, so clearly the situation is getting even worse. The Minister knows that the issue of disclosure in our criminal justice system has been a running sore for this Government, with hundreds of cases dropped on that basis, and it is not good enough.

The Minister must accept that the Government’s cuts to resources, to the police and to the Crown Prosecution Service have restricted the capacity of those organisations to investigate and sift evidence. The Government need to get disclosure right. Of course we need relevant evidence to be disclosed in all cases, but there is a big difference between that and those who make a complaint of rape having to open up their entire digital life to be picked over.

We cannot have a situation in which complainants are asked to sign consent forms authorising the investigation of their data without limit, with the case not being taken forward if they refuse. I heard what the Minister said about the language on the form itself but if, in practice, that means, “Give us your mobile phone or the case will be dropped,” that is no way to run any criminal investigation and it will deter victims even further from coming forward.

Given the level of concern that has been expressed today, can the Minister confirm that all complainants will be entitled to fully funded, independent legal advice before they sign these consent forms? Can he at least make that pledge today? When are the Government going to accept that more resources are needed for our police and our whole criminal justice system? When will the Minister finally get this issue of disclosure right and stop failing victims?

The hon. Gentleman lets himself down by trying to make cheap political points on this issue, because we are talking about a very serious matter in our criminal justice system and its integrity. He and other Opposition Members know that the problem of disclosure has run for a very long time, going way back into the 1990s, and I would have hoped that there would be cross-party support for what is being done to make radical improvements to that process.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that one of the big game changers in recent decades has been the exponential growth in the volume of digital data and the challenge that that brings to the police. He continues to give the impression that what has been announced today is a new process, but the police have been taking and requesting access to mobile phones for some time. What today represents is a well-intentioned attempt by the police to bring together best practice in a national form so that there is consistent practice across the country and so that consent is as well informed as possible—that is the intention of this form.

I was never a specialist in criminal law, but my time as a barrister taught me that, during litigation or prosecution, both sides come under an ongoing duty of disclosure. That is a vital principle of our justice system, made all the more important in this context where we have seen a number of rape and serious violence cases collapse upon the emergence of subsequent evidence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what has been proposed is proportionate, reasonable and sensitive, and therefore is not anti-victim but pro-justice?

I believe so. We have to be clear that there is some risk, but there is also a counter-risk, to which my hon. Friend alludes, that continued disclosure failures would lead to more cases, such as that of Liam Allan and others, collapsing at the last moment, which is disastrous for everyone involved. No one should pretend it is easy, but we are very clear, and the House should be very clear, that we need to make material, rapid improvements to the disclosure processes, because they are the heart of the integrity of our criminal justice system.

I think everyone in the House wants to see justice done and the truth established through the investigation of all relevant evidence, but I hope we can also all agree that that cannot and does not justify a general trawl through the private life of any citizen. Investigations in pursuit of information must be evidence-led and targeted. That can involve, as the Minister said, a difficult balance, but the policy, as reported today, gets that balance totally wrong.

There is a world of difference between, on the one hand, seeking to establish whether a particular telephone call was made or a text was sent and, on the other hand, insisting on carte blanche to fish through whatever is on a phone. Has the Minister even assessed whether this policy can be justified under the European convention on human rights or data protection laws? More fundamentally, as Rape Crisis Scotland has argued today, is there not a huge danger that such a policy will put people off reporting rape and sexual violence? Just what measures are in place to protect the privacy of those to whom such requests have been made? Surely there must be a more proportionate and sensible way to support justice and protect privacy at the same time.

I have some sympathy with some of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. One very welcome bit of progress we have made as a society in recent years is in building the confidence and trust of victims of previously hidden crimes, be they domestic violence, sexual violence, rape or modern slavery, to come forward—frankly, I am damned if we are going to go backwards on that. I think the House is united on that. Of course there is some underlying risk, which we will monitor extremely carefully through the impact assessment, but I am serious about the counter-risk. If the police do not get consents and if we really do restrict access to mobile phones in this day and age, we will undermine the process of critical improvement in our disclosure process. As I said, the counter-risk is of cases continuing to collapse at the last minute, which is the worst possible outcome. I am sure that he and I would both wish to avoid it.

The victims of rape are not only those who have had this terrible crime done to them, but people who have been wrongly accused. A young friend of mine was wrongly accused of rape, making his life a misery for months and months; he was bursting into tears and all the rest of it because of the stress. Only through telephone evidence that emerged was it shown that his accuser had been sexting him—this was despite his denials; he had not seen this person for years. So may I just say to the Minister that he should say to the police that this is the right course of action? Of course it has to be proportionate, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) said, justice has to be done, and that includes for those people who have been accused of rape when in fact they are innocent.

My hon. Friend makes an important point in an extremely impressive way. The whole House is united in wanting to see the country make more progress in prosecuting and convicting for rape in a more effective way, because, as the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) says, it is an absolutely heinous crime and there is huge space for us to improve. However, we have to be mindful, not least in the light of very recent highly publicised cases, of the damage when things go wrong, as in the case of Liam Allan, where lives and personal lives are ruined as a result of failures in the disclosure system and cases collapse at the last minute. That is a terrible outcome for absolutely everyone. I impress on the House that underpinning this proposal is a desire of the police to improve the understanding of what they are requesting so that consent is better informed.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I agree with the way this was put by the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and I agree about just how serious the problem is. Let me tell the House about an email I received this morning from a young woman I know. I did not know she had been sexually assaulted. She said, “Six months ago, I was seriously sexually assaulted by a complete stranger. Two months after the assault, the police demanded full access to my phone, including my Facebook and Instagram passwords, my photos, stretching back to 2011, notes, texts, emails and the full history of 128 WhatsApp groups and individuals’ conversations stretching back over five years. I had no prior or subsequent contact with my attacker. I lie awake at night worrying about the details of private conversations with friends, boyfriends, business contacts, family that are now in the hands of the police. It is a gross intrusion into my privacy and theirs. I feel completely as if I am the one on trial.”

We all know, as the Minister has said, that disclosure is a problem, but we also know that there is massive under-reporting of rape cases. We also know that one of the problems in rape cases is that the victim is attacked in court and put on trial herself. The “Digital device extraction” document that has been issued today says quite simply, “Give us all your devices. We will download and review all the material, including deleted material, so that we can give it to the suspect and use it in the trial”. I know the Minister is committed to justice for victims as well as for defendants—I totally accept his good faith in this matter—so I implore him not to dig in and say that this is a good thing. There is a real problem out there that has been exposed, and he really needs to take action on it.

The Mother of the House is entirely right to state that a huge and complex raft of problems underlies this issue, and to point out that in the past there have been—but I hope not in future—failings in how the police used their powers and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities in this area. One thing from which I take encouragement is the police leadership’s candour in recognising that at the heart of this is a problem of culture in the police, and a need for them to take disclosure more seriously and not see it as an administrative bolt-on.

The guidance could not make it more explicit that complainants’ mobile telephones should not be examined as a matter of course, and that where they are, the level of extraction should be proportionate. The guidance makes that clear, and we expect the police to follow it. The Mother of the House makes good points about the workings of the courts in this area, and that is a priority for both Ministers who flank me—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins).

It is important that our proceedings are intelligible for all those observing them, so if there are people present who are unaware of the significance of the Mother of the House, it ought to be explained. The Mother of the House is the female Member with the longest uninterrupted service. In the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), if memory serves me correctly that uninterrupted service dates back to 28 October 1982, so the Mother of the House has served in the House for 36 years, six months and one day. I just thought it was important to make that clear. Whether or not people think it was important to make it clear, I have made it clear, and that is the situation.

I am very happy to accept that that is indeed the case, but as the right hon. Lady does not wish to contribute at the moment, we will hold her in reserve. We will hear from her presently.

Rape is a heinous and horrible crime, and I have seen its consequences at first hand, so I am fully aware, so far as any man can be, of its impact on a woman. At the same time, there are also concerns that if a man is found guilty but is not, that man’s reputation is damaged for the rest of his life.

Knowing rape cases as I do, having been a journalist for some 17 years and having covered the courts, I know that it is common for the defence to attack a woman’s reputation. I would like to hear from the Minister what is to prevent that happening. If the police have all this evidence going back many years, as we have heard, what can be done to ensure that only the relevant information is selected? Who will choose what that relevant information is?

Underlying this issue are decisions around reasonable lines of inquiry and tests of relevance made by the police, the prosecution and, ultimately, a judge, so there are, as my hon. Friend knows, checks and balances in the system. I come back to my fundamental point: I urge the House not to lose sight of the context of this initiative from the police, which is their taking a further step to improve the understanding of what they are trying to do to balance the right to privacy with their duty to pursue reasonable lines of inquiry. That is the context of this debate.

Of course the police must have an effective disclosure regime. The Minister just referred to there being checks and balances in the system to prevent inquiries being inappropriate, but he will know that those checks and balances are already not working, and that they are not even embedded in this document. This document goes in the opposite direction. I urge him to read the form from the point of view of a rape victim who has just been through an awful ordeal. From their point of view, it looks as though they will have their phone taken away, potentially for several months; as though the police will be able to look into all corners of it and into every aspect of their life; as though any of that information could be given to the person who raped them; and as though there are no safeguards in place at all. It is pretty obvious that the form will deter people from coming forward and pursuing cases concerning these awful crimes with the police. Surely, in the interests of justice for women who are victims of awful crimes, the Minister should pull this document back and get the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to rewrite it.

Coming as it does from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, that message will be heard loud and clear by both the police and the CPS. I think that this is an honest attempt by the police to pull together best practice from across a very fragmented system, in which these forms look different in different places in the country, which is wrong. It tries to pull together something that is more consistent, and that tries to inform complainants in a better way about what may or may not happen with their phone, and the consequences of that.

I have spoken to the police about this, because the Government are extremely sensitive to any risk of compounding people’s stress or trauma in this situation. The police have assured me that they have worked closely with victim groups and others on this document, and they are absolutely open to continuing to work with groups to improve it if there is a clear feeling that it needs to be improved. I will certainly take that up with them in the light of this urgent question.

Has the Minister given any thought to whether there is a need for independent authorisation as another safeguard, given that such an invasion of a woman’s privacy will be undertaken through this form?

I respect where that point comes from and the underlying sentiments, but I come back to my point: we are not talking about something new in police processes or the fulfilment of their duties on disclosure. We are talking about a new, national form to replace many different versions across the country. In a way, this is an evolution of an existing process—a difficult one—whereby victims of rape or victims alleging rape are already exposed to the need to answer some difficult and sensitive questions. This situation already exists; the form is, I think, an honest attempt to try to inform that consent in a better way.

Many years ago, I worked for the police in a criminal justice capacity. My role included supporting the victims of sexual offences, including rape. The brave survivors are scarred, both emotionally and physically, and sometimes they develop a distrust of the justice system. That has been aggravated by a number of high-profile trials in which the victim, whether they be male or female, has been accused by the defence barrister of being promiscuous—as though they were almost asking to be attacked. In the light of that, and of the fact that we have such a low prosecution rate for rape, does the Minister think that this action will hinder or encourage victims of rape and other sexual offences to come forward?

I have great respect for the hon. Lady’s experience in this area, and I totally accept what she is saying about the lack of trust out there. I am happy to be corrected on this, but I genuinely think that this country—I am not making any political point here—has made great progress in recent decades in trying to encourage victims of previously hidden crime to come forward. That makes it all the more important that we get this right.

Yes, the volume of rape prosecutions has fallen. That is a concern to us, which is why we are doing a root and branch review of criminal justice processes in relation to rape. However, the number of prosecutions for sexual offences is at the highest volume ever recorded. I come back to my main point, which is that this is not a new process; it is a new form, which the police are open to improving if there is a strong view that it needs to be improved. The motivation behind the form is to try to ensure that consent to handing over mobile phones is better informed. This process is currently done differently across the country, which does need to be remedied.

The charity that I ran the London marathon for this weekend—Barnsley Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Services—sees at first hand the trauma faced by survivors of rape, and I thank everyone who sponsored me to support its vital work. In South Yorkshire, 50 out of 1,400 reported rapes over the past year resulted in a charge; that is just 3.5%. This is completely unacceptable. Let me ask the Minister again: does he honestly believe that survivors of rape giving up their privacy is the solution to addressing these shocking statistics?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her success in the marathon, and on fundraising for a very valuable charity. She is right that the volume of rape prosecutions has fallen. I have spoken to that; it is a concern for us. However, I ask her to respect the point that I am trying to make, which is that the police are already in the business of asking people for their mobile phones, because we all understand that there are things on mobile phones these days that could be incredibly important and relevant to their investigations. This process happens already, and it is because of the recognition of the difficulty around it that the police are trying to improve the system across the country through this national form. Now, it may be a good form or a bad form, and the police are open to improving it if it can be improved, but that is the motivation. I would guard against Members trying to tie this matter in with other issues, however important.

Will the Minister define what he regards as “reasonable”? The point has already been made clearly that there may be many areas of a victim’s life that it is not reasonable for the victim to disclose to the accused, the police or the investigating authorities. I want to know exactly what rights the victim has to refuse to give information, and what impact that would have on any potential case.

The right hon. Gentleman, with his experience as a Minister, knows that what represents a reasonable line of inquiry is an investigative matter for the police, and that although the prosecution will do what they can to assist in identifying potential further inquiries, those suggestions will not be taken by the police as definitive or exhaustive. The right hon. Gentleman talks about compulsion; he will know that we are talking about a form that asks for consent. Consent is not, by definition, compulsory.

In September last year, the Government published, with great fanfare, the victims strategy, but it is very hard to believe that those who wrote the document published today have read the Government’s own policy for victims. Given the huge number of women and men who have experienced sexual violence and are not reporting it—according to the Office for National Statistics, 87% of people suffering sexual violence do not report it—is it not vital that we ensure that nothing is done to prevent people from coming forward, that this document is reviewed, and that the Minister takes personal responsibility for ensuring that it is reviewed in the light of the Government’s strategy and what the House has said clearly today?

The right hon. Gentleman has served in the Government, so he knows that we sometimes have to wrestle with difficult balances. There is an extremely difficult balance to be struck between supporting the police in fulfilling their duty to follow all reasonable lines of inquiry, and our common desire to do everything we can to respect individuals’ privacy.

I come back to the heart of what the police are trying to do. This is not a new process. They are now in the business of gathering evidence from mobile phones. People are handing over phones, however difficult that is. This is an honest attempt to try to bring greater consistency and better information into the system, to try to help potential victims of rape understand the process better. I am absolutely sure that that is the intention. Whether it is being executed in the best way is clearly something on which this House has different views. Having spoken to the police, I am absolutely sure that they will be listening to this carefully. They are genuinely open to discussing with all interested parties how this can be improved. We have to get this difficult balance right.

On 11 April, I asked the Solicitor General whether there will be meaningful guidance for the police and the CPS about the use and trawling of individuals’ digital data. From this form, it does not look as though that has been taken on board. It feels as though the process for disclosure is about the character and credibility of the victim, not the perpetrator who is on trial. Will the Minister rewrite the guidance? Will he set out how long a victim should prepare for not having their phone; whether a timescale could be set; and, importantly, whether the police will be transparent about what data has been copied over when the phone is returned?

The requirement on the police in relation to transparency already exists. On the guidance, again, I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that the Director of Public Prosecutions’ advice on investigating communications data makes it clear that the examination of complainants’ mobile telephones should not be pursued as a matter of course, and that where it is pursued, the level of extraction should be proportionate. That is the guidance that both the police and the CPS understand, respect, and are implementing.

Of course there has to be disclosure relevant to the defence—nobody would dispute that—but this is about the question of what is relevant, especially when, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) said, an alleged assailant is a complete stranger. The impact of this full disclosure requirement, and the headlines in the newspapers, was truly atrocious. Potential victims of sexual assault or rape will have seen some of those headlines, whether it be “Digital strip-search” or “Hand over your phone now”. This is nothing short of a public relations disaster in our criminal justice system. The Minister really should take up the opportunity to review this document and correct that; otherwise fewer people will come forward and report crimes.

I certainly do not want that outcome, and neither does anyone else in this House. That would be a retrograde step. My instinct is to check the facts and look at the impact assessment, but if the mood of the House is that this document is not right, then I will certainly take that up with the police and the CPS. The hon. Gentleman knows that what is a reasonable line of inquiry is an investigative matter for the police and the CPS. On the definition of “relevant”, I am not a lawyer—the Chamber is probably bristling with lawyers—but there are many years of case study to help us to understand that point.