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Rape Trials: Treatment of Victims

Volume 660: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rape trials and CPS treatment of victims.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Bailey. I was recently privileged to meet an extraordinary and courageous young woman from my constituency at my weekly MP’s surgery. She told me that in May last year a man had attempted to rape her on her way home from a night spent with friends. Physically hurt and emotionally distraught, she made the brave decision to go to the police and seek justice for herself and our community. I was saddened to learn that at the most vulnerable time in her life, when she was most in need of human care and protection, she had been left feeling let down by our justice system.

Time and again, this lady has repeated that although she cannot change what has happened to her, she can try to change what happens to others. As her Member of Parliament, I feel it is only right to speak on behalf of my constituent, who is a voice for many other survivors of rape, attempted rape and sexual assault, to draw attention to the need for urgent Government reform.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I wonder whether he will take back to his constituent the heartfelt feelings of the House for the ordeal that she went through—please convey our best wishes to her. This is not something new or limited to this incident: there are plenty of examples of how the Crown Prosecution Service has not handled this sort of thing very well. I applaud him for what he is trying to do with this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend for coming today. He will find out that we are trying to do exactly what he said. My constituent is in the Public Gallery—not because she can change what has happened to her, but because we can try to change things for the future.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on everything he does in the House, and particularly on this case. I commend him for what he is doing on behalf of his constituents. There have been 820 accusations of rape in Northern Ireland, but only 15 convictions. Does he believe that the CPS, in co-ordination with the police forces, can enable more cases to be tried successfully by offering greater support to the victims and their families—in other words, by working together on behalf of the victim?

As so often, the hon. Gentleman gets it in one. From what I am about to say, he will see that I agree with him. I am sure the Minister is listening to what he and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) are saying.

First, I want to raise the issues of sentencing for attempted rape and the lack of transparency in published statistics. Secondly, I want to turn to the treatment of victims who report their assault, and call for Government action to make this process easier. We must strive to ensure that justice is served and that there is always compassion and support for the victim.

Section 1(4) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 sets out that the maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Under the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, a person who attempts to commit the full offence of rape shall also be liable for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In the case of my Harlow constituent, her attacker had the intention, or mens rea, to commit the full offence. Had it not been for the fact that she had the sheer physical strength to fight him off until a security guard heard her screaming for help and intervened, his attempt might have been undeterred.

In their legislative form, the offences of attempted rape and rape are considered punishable by equal measure. However, by taking into account the circumstances of the case under the Sentencing Council’s guidelines, the court often imposes a lesser sentence on perpetrators of attempted rape because they have not committed the actus reus of rape. For my Harlow constituent, she feels let down by the justice system—robbed of the possibility of a longer sentence for the perpetrator because she fought so hard to fend him off. Will the Minister clarify the Sentencing Council’s guidelines for attempted rape and the basis on which their effectiveness as a means of securing justice is tested?

Another key problem on the subject of sentencing for sexual offences is the lack of clarity in the statistics. I welcome the Justice Secretary’s response to my letter on sentencing for attempted rape, but I was shocked by his acknowledgement that

“The Ministry of Justice does not disaggregate attempted rape from rape offences by sentence length in published figures.”

Can the Minister tell us whether the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice will commit to transparency in sentencing figures for rape and attempted rape, so that we have a much clearer basis on which to assess the suitability of existing law? Will she ensure that this is clearly published, rather than buried in spreadsheets and data tools?

Only 15% of sexual violence cases are reported to the police, and only 7.5% of rape charges result in conviction. These statistics are devastating and demand urgent Government attention. A whole host of factors might well be to blame for these figures: a high threshold for sufficient evidence; the CPS’s continuous demand for more intrusive personal data, including from mobile phones; and the myths surrounding what constitutes rape, to name but a few. However, some responsibility must be borne by the treatment of victims before, during and after trial. We are discouraging people from reporting their assault or forcing them to drop charges, because they cannot bear to continue.

After making the courageous decision to give her statement to the police, the process of my Harlow constituent’s fight for justice has been arduous and often extremely uncomfortable. It is important that I go through some of her experiences in detail—sadly, my constituent’s account is not unique. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, she waited eight hours in discomfort, exhaustion and emotional trauma to have forensic evidence collected at the sexual assault referral centre, or SARC. She was not permitted to wash and was asked to strip down before being swabbed from head to toe and photographed. She was then interviewed and asked intrusive personal questions. At the time, she was constantly waiting for nurses, police and support staff to attend to her.

As they are often the first port of call after an assault, SARCs play a crucial role in the victim’s ability to secure justice. It is possibly the most critical part of the process in obtaining forensic evidence that can be used by the prosecution at trial. However, we make victims wait in distress and discomfort, because otherwise they risk evidence being lost due to a lack of qualified staff. The rape support fund has been a cornerstone for support services, and I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s commitment under the victims strategy to increase spending from £31 million in 2016-17 to £39 million in 2020-21. The solution is not necessarily throwing more money at the problem, although more money will always be welcome; it is essential that money is being used wisely and efficiently to maximise reach.

NHS England says that SARCs delivered services to 20,000 people in 2017-18. In the same year, Rape Crisis supported 78,000 individuals on £10 million less funding. What measure will the Minister take to ensure that the £39 million is used to staff SARCs properly? While they are not staffed properly, we are not only adding to the distress and anguish of victims, but potentially risking the successful prosecution of people who commit such horrific acts. Additionally, the all-party parliamentary group on sexual violence, together with Rape Crisis, has identified concerns about increased competition for this extra money and whether there will be any significant changes to individual centres.

The consequences, of course, are felt by the end user—the victim. As my constituent’s experience shows, the Government’s commitment to strengthen victim support, although wholly admirable, does not always trickle down to the people using the services. For example, sexual assault victims do not get the psychological support that they need. Waiting times for counselling are as long as one year, and the counselling sessions that individuals are offered may be just for a few weeks.

My constituent realised that she needed much more counselling. She actively pressed for more, and was given it. On top of her emotional trauma, she felt guilty that she may have been depriving someone else of vital support. People who have already been through an emotional and horrific ordeal should not be concerned about that. Will the Minister ensure that the additional funding outlined in the Government’s victims strategy will be channelled to staff support services properly, minimise waiting times and allow survivors to start getting on with their lives?

In the months leading up to the trial, my constituent was contacted regularly by the police, who asked more questions and wanted more statements, interviews and photographs of the bruising. The trial took more than a week and a half. She had to express her discomfort at the idea that her attacker would be in the same room as her before a screen was put up. She described the trial and cross-examination as:

“A torturous experience of being asked the most vulgar questions...based on the attacker’s recall of the event, which made me feel so uncomfortable and emotional, whilst being forced under pressure by the lawyer”.

Even after a guilty verdict has been reached, victims are still not free to get on with their lives. My constituent had to wait months before her attacker was sentenced to six years.

Survivors of assault put themselves through that not because they want to, but because it is their only hope of building a case, and yet we jeopardise it by making the process so difficult. Minister, what can be done to speed up the process from reporting to the police to sentencing, so we do not prolong the suffering for longer than is wholly necessary?

Since the perpetrator’s imprisonment, my constituent has been asked by her attacker’s parole board to fill in reams of paperwork to put in place measures not only for her, but for him. Although he got six years—now reduced to just three—my constituent feels like she has been served with a life sentence. She is reeling from the anguish and suffering she experienced. Why on earth should she—the innocent party and victim—face a never ending struggle to keep the perpetrator in prison and feel some sense of safety?

I recognise that resources are limited, and that this is a particularly sensitive area of the law, but we cannot sit by and ignore the problems. The statistics relating to this area of justice are dire, as has been highlighted, and they are not getting any better. In 2017-18, the number of rape referrals from the police to the CPS fell by 9%, the number of suspects charged for rape fell by 8% and the number of rape prosecutions fell by 13%. The volume of sexual offence prosecutions excluding rape also fell by 11%.

My constituent suffered because of the lenient justice system. She suffered in the reporting of the attempted rape and suffered again in the aftermath. That is just wrong. She, like every rape and sexual assault survivor, has suffered enough. The Government must review all these areas and ensure that no one feels let down by the justice system again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for raising this very important issue. I acknowledge his constituent’s terrible ordeal, and I am truly sorry that she feels let down by our justice system. Rape, attempted rape and other serious sexual offences are devastating crimes. I cannot begin to imagine what his constituent has been through. I commend her for her courage in speaking out, reporting the crime, raising her experience with her MP, and continuing to draw attention to the ways in which we can improve the system. I commend her for that, because it is only through reporting crimes that people are brought to justice, and other women who could be victims are saved a terrible ordeal. I thank her for going through the process, which I understand has been extremely difficult.

Does the Minister think there is an opportunity to refer this matter to the Victims’ Commissioner? We have just appointed a new Victims’ Commissioner, Vera Baird, and I wonder whether it would be useful to report this. She is responsible for ensuring equal performance across the whole gamut of the justice system.

I have already had the honour of liaising with Vera Baird, and I very much look forward to discussing this issue with her. The issue of consistency across police forces and the CPS, and within local authorities that deal with rape victims, is very important. We will be discussing these issues, and I am sure she will have considerable insight into them.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for raising this issue. I am very pleased to see the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in the Chamber. I look forward to hearing about her expertise in this very important area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that it is important that we treat victims sensitively and with respect. I agree. I am pleased to have the opportunity today, in my first debate in my new role, to discuss how we can improve the system and what we are already doing. My right hon. Friend went through many issues thoroughly, and I want to respond to them. He said that the sentences for rape and attempted rape start similarly. Rape carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and he is right that attempted rape has the same maximum penalty. A judge will have regard to the sentencing guidelines for the substantive offence, but he then selects a starting point based on harm and culpability as if he were sentencing for the full offence. He will then reduce the starting point at the lower end of the category range to reflect the fact that it was an attempted rape, not a rape. The amount of the reduction will depend on how close the offence was to being completed, and a judgment will be made on a case-by-case basis.

I realise that victims of rape and attempted rape will be extremely traumatised, but they should know that, regardless of the sentence imposed by the court, anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence is automatically made subject to notification requirements—in other words, they are placed on the sex offenders register. The court can also make a sexual harm prevention order on anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence, which can prohibit the individual from doing anything described within it, as long as the court has determined it to be proportionate and necessary.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the lack of clarity in the statistics. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of data. I assure him that the Ministry of Justice is conscious of the importance of data and transparency. During my time there, we worked with the media to improve public transparency. When we build a common platform for taking cases in the criminal justice process through a digital system, we will use it to improve the collection of data, which can then be shared. My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between the statistics collected on rape and attempted rape. I will pass that on to the Ministry of Justice so it can address the collection of its data as the common platform develops. With better data, we can have better scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the treatment of victims and how they feel treated. He is right to say that the figures for reporting and for convictions could be better. That is not a new issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly pointed out, but we have some positive news. According to the most recent figures in the year ending June 2018, there was an 18% increase in reporting of sexual offences. The CPS has also doubled the number of specialist prosecutors in its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences units.

We need to improve the care of those brave enough to come forward. The CPS is working with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to revise the victims’ code, to improve the support and care offered to victims. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, cross-Department and cross-agency work is important. The CPS is also working with the police to ensure that we improve the process of the criminal justice system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned mental health, which is very important. I cannot begin to imagine the consequences of such an ordeal for someone’s mental health. We are launching a new toolkit for therapists and prosecutors on the support that an individual who suffers from a mental health condition will require.

My right hon. Friend mentioned his constituents’ use of a screen, which is an important part of the special provisions in court. We are trying to improve access to special measures, and the Ministry of Justice has committed to recording and monitoring applications for special measures, to ensure that everyone who is entitled to them can access them.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the role of sexual assault referral centres, or SARCs, and the significant funds invested in them. NHS England investment in SARC services increased from £8 million in 2013 to £31 million in 2018-19. As he mentioned, that funding has risen this year and will rise further next year. He is right, however, to say that, as with all public services, funding alone is not sufficient; it needs to be well spent. I say to him that, locally, police and NHS England commissioners have meetings with providers to review their performance. Nationally, NHS England undertakes internal assurance to look at cost, performance and quality, as well as areas of emergent risk.

I am deeply sorry that my right hon. Friend’s constituent had to wait a long time in a SARC. I understand that long waits in SARCs are unusual, as a referral is usually immediate for adults, and an out-of-hours policy states that a SARC can be opened for a referral, which can take up to two hours. I am sorry about her experience. The police, police and crime commissioners and the NHS should all hold SARCs to account. The Care Quality Commission has also started to inspect SARCs and publish the findings on its website. It is extremely important that we ensure that SARCs, which receive public funding, work well.

My right hon. Friend mentioned delays and the time that it takes not only for a case to come to court, but to go through court. It is true that sexual offence cases take longer to go through the criminal justice system than other cases. That is because sexual offences, especially rape, are some of the most challenging and complex cases with which the CPS deals. Yesterday, I met the Director of Public Prosecutions and I raised the issue of delays when such cases go through the system. He made the same point that I have about the difficulty in evidencing those types of cases. He stressed the importance of ensuring that when such traumatic cases are reported, sufficient work is done to ensure a fair trial and that, at the end of the day, if the perpetrator is guilty, he or she is brought to justice.

Unfortunately, successful prosecutions take time. We want to speed up the court process and ensure that cases are heard effectively. I know, through my time at the MOJ, that in both Crown court and magistrates court we are trying to reform the process to ensure that cases are heard more efficiently, through transforming summary justice and better case management systems in both jurisdictions.

This is a terribly important area because people who suffer from serious violent sexual offences—or attempted serious violent sexual offences—may deal with the consequences for life, as we heard from my right hon. Friend. It is therefore important that, as a Government, we continue to look at how we can improve the criminal justice system when dealing with such offences.

I join the Minister in thanking the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing this case forward. I am sure that he will have given his constituent enormous moral support and made her feel that, after a traumatic offence has been committed against her and she feels that the criminal justice system has failed her, she has at least had his full support as he has brought her case to the House. The points arising from her case are so important.

I warmly congratulate the Minister, who I am delighted to see in her new post as Solicitor General. She will take all of these issues forward. I know that her appointment, as well as her support for those in the criminal justice system who want and strive to improve it—particularly in the Crown Prosecution Service—will be welcomed. For my part, I will certainly do everything that I can to help her work.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her comments. It is an honour to follow her in this role, albeit not immediately. She has done a significant amount of work on this matter and continues to do so. I very much look forward to working with her on this important area, which we as a Government want to improve.

It is important to understand the personal experiences of those who have gone through the process so that we can better make change. Although I hope that the constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow will feel that she has some level of personal support, I reiterate that, by coming forward and raising the issue, she has helped to improve the justice system more broadly.

We in Government take such issues extremely seriously. We have already committed to a number of measures, some of which I have had time to mention, some of which I have not. In March, as part of the violence against women and girls refresh, we started an end-to-end review of the criminal justice system response to rape and sexual offences cases, which is ongoing. Debates such as this and hearing personal experiences are so important because they feed into that process. I thank my right hon. Friend and his constituent for a further opportunity to debate this very important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.