I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical allegations of sexual abuse and the justice system.
I am glad to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for selecting this debate.
I want to raise issues highlighted by one of my constituents, who I will call Sharifa. In 2003, when Sharifa was 15, her father sent her to the UK to escape political violence in Africa; he was later killed because of his political activities. Newham Council placed Sharifa in foster care. Eventually, she was able to rent a flat on her own. She went to school in Edgware and did BTECs at Barnet College. Aged 17, she attended the Royal Free Hospital for minor cosmetic surgery on an ear because of a burn she had suffered in childhood. A surgeon in the ear department, who was a man in his 50s, committed a serious sexual assault on her, in the course of which another doctor came into the room; otherwise, Sharifa is convinced that she would have been raped.
The assault was devastating for Sharifa’s mental and physical health. She says:
“I came out of that hospital room angry, scared, confused, naive, but I could not tell anybody because I did not have any close friend or anyone to tell, nor did I know of the Police. All I knew was that if I told the hospital doctors, they would not listen to me but put me on the next flight back to Africa. Therefore I had to keep quiet and suffer in silence.”
She went home and set about cleaning herself with soap. She developed obsessive compulsive disorder, and has had years of nightmares and sleep deprivation; treatments have been ineffective and excessive use of soap led to gynaecological problems.
In 2011, Sharifa went back to the Royal Free Hospital for treatment for those problems. What happened then is unclear, but her health problems became worse. Today, she cannot sit comfortably at all and says:
“My reasoning ability has decreased over the years due to the struggles I’m going through, loss of enjoyment to life, excessive depression, panic, severe anxiety, chronic pain…I’m tired writing about this trauma thinking about what I have gone through.”
In late 2011, Sharifa obtained a UK passport and started to feel more secure. In 2012, she completed a university degree, but her mental health worsened. Lawyers would not help, because over three years had passed since the assault. She attended the Royal Free Hospital for injections, hoping every time that she would be able to confront her assailant, but she never did; she never saw him.
The right hon. Gentleman is discussing an important issue and I entirely support what he has just said. However, does he agree that although large-scale investigations draw media attention, equal attention must be paid to individuals who have come forward, and that funding must be available for numerically small but personally massive cases just like the one that he is referring to?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is important that, whatever the circumstances, victims should feel confident that they can obtain justice.
In Sharifa’s case, eventually a doctor at the Royal Free advised her that the hospital would not help and that she should go to the police, so that is what she did in 2019. She was interviewed by two sympathetic and helpful police officers. However, at a photograph identity parade in Tottenham Hale that year, she was unable to identify her assailant, but she is convinced that her assailant was among three pictures she saw then of people who looked similar to her assailant. They were recent pictures; she did not see a photo of her assailant from 14 years earlier, although the police said that they have one. It would also have helped if she had actually seen the people in those photos, because her assailant’s physique and gait have stuck in her mind.
The police officer at the parade, unlike the earlier officers, seemed unsympathetic and impatient. Sharifa’s memory and mental health problems made her feel uncomfortable and under pressure. The police concluded that there was no basis for a prosecution, so in late 2019 she came to see me. I asked the police to reopen the investigation. Sharifa did not know the name of the doctor who committed the assault, but she did know the name of the doctor who interrupted the assault. The police had interviewed him, but he could not remember the event.
The police reply to me is as follows:
“Detectives were…able to make enquiries with a doctor who was named on one of the referral letters. Further enquiries with Maxilofacial Prosthetics confirmed that this doctor, whose name I will not disclose, had registered on 1 May 1983 and retired his membership on 30th April 2015. During this period of registration, this doctor had an unblemished record and furthermore he was never in receipt of any complaints or allegations. The doctor provided an evidential account completely denying the offence. He stated that he could not recall ever meeting Sharifa. There is no evidence that he ever met Sharifa as no medical records were recovered.”
The reply from the police concluded:
“I have carefully reviewed all the evidence in this case and find that the decision not to refer the case to The Crown Prosecution Service to be correct.”
I went back to the police and made the point that Sharifa had given me a clear and persuasive account of what had happened, but the officer firmly declined to pursue the matter any further. Women Against Rape then corresponded with the police and raised a number of questions, including this point about the identification parade:
“The photographs shown to Sharifa were recent and were not from the time of the offence, 14 years earlier. Due to the passage of time the man in question will undoubtedly have changed somewhat, therefore the photographs should have been from the time of the incident. Can you now show her these?”
The police continued to decline to pursue the matter. At the suggestion of Women Against Rape, Sharifa requested a full copy of her medical records. There she found the name of the doctor. That was a major breakthrough. The police confirmed that that was the person they had identified, but were not willing to discuss the matter further. Women Against Rape suggested lawyers, who might take up the case. None was willing to do so.
A year ago, Sharifa came to see me again. She is not able to work, has no substantial funds and cannot afford a solicitor. One lawyer I contacted took a thorough look but concluded that the case did not meet their risk assessment and was not willing to take the case.
“I have spoken to many solicitors. None of them is helping. I am left on my own, as I was in the past.”
I wrote to the Health Secretary and received a sympathetic reply from the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), who was then a Health Minister. She made several helpful suggestions. Sharifa has tried all of them. Citizens Advice sent a letter in relation to the subsequent hospital treatment, but that came to nothing. The local Healthwatch secured a meeting with the Royal Free but Sharifa felt that its concern was just covering up what had gone wrong. The local sexual assault referral centre said it could not help, as the assault was so long ago. Another sexual assault referral centre said the same. A local legal advice service said that it could not help.
Sharifa is stuck. How can she obtain justice over what happened to her? She says—I think with good reason—that her life has been ruined because of what happened to her at the hospital in 2005. She has severe and continuous pain and serious mental health problems, but she is a determined woman. She is finding her voice. She benefits from supportive friendship. Her account is compelling, and I am convinced that it is truthful. She writes clearly and powerfully. There must surely be some avenue available for her to obtain the justice to which she should be entitled.
These are my questions to the Minister. What are the opportunities in the system for someone in Sharifa’s position to obtain justice? Can she do so even though, for completely understandable reasons, it was a long time after the assault that she reported it? What provision can support her, given her lack of funds? One consequence of what happened is that she has been unable to work and has always had to depend on social security. Is it really the case that someone young and innocent, newly arrived in the country, cannot effectively be protected by the criminal justice system and that someone choosing to abuse such a person will have a very good chance of getting away with it?
Sharifa’s case raises a number of wider issues, three of which I will highlight. First, there is the time limitation period. Rules on limitation periods in civil proceedings are pretty complicated. Sexual abuse inflicts both physical and psychological harm. The law typically treats such cases as personal injury claims. The time limit for bringing a civil claim in a personal injury case is three years from the date on which either the cause of action accrues or, if later, three years from the date of knowledge of the person injured. If the injury was suffered by a child, the three-year period is not initiated until they reach the age of 18. That brought Sharifa one additional year, but not enough, as 10 years later she is only just learning about the potential route to justice that she could have taken.
The court has discretion to allow a personal injury claim to be brought if the limitation period has expired, but that happens in only a small number of cases. The court would need to consider a long list of factors set out in the Limitation Act 1980. For victims eventually able to summon the courage, support and funds to pursue their case, their chances rest on the decision of a judge. The discretionary process involves both parties setting out legal and factual arguments. With a lot of uncertainty around the likely outcome, a claimant, especially one already suffering the effects of trauma, may well be dissuaded from pursuing a claim.
Survivors of sexual abuse, and childhood abuse in particular, are often unable to talk about the trauma they suffered for years. That should surely not disadvantage a claim brought later in life. The Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Act 2017 removed the three-year time limit for childhood abuse victims in Scotland. Do the Government plan to follow suit and abolish it for survivors in England and Wales as well? I hope they will.
Secondly, Sharifa’s case highlights the difficulty of lay people knowing how to seek justice. On 21 July last year, the Government published their violence against women and girls strategy, which recognises that sexual harassment and assault, both in public and private, is much too common. It found that women often do not report sexual harassment because they do not think it is a crime or that it will be taken seriously by the police. For Sharifa, there was the added uncertainty of a young, vulnerable person, new to the UK, with no friends or family here to support her, and no way to know what she should do.
Analysis published by the Office for National Statistics in November concluded that:
“Violence against women and girls can lead to significant and long-lasting impacts such as mental health issues, suicide attempts and homelessness”.
It reported that in the year ending March 2020, around 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales, which is 7% of the female population, and 3% experienced sexual assault. Women’s Aid has reported that nearly half of women in refuges are depressed or feel suicidal as a direct result of the assault they suffered. It says that the real figure is probably higher, as stigma and fear around disclosing mental health problems, the main injury that Sharifa suffered following her initial assault, discourage women from speaking up.
Pathways to seeking justice need to be clearer and more accessible to victims. The violence against women and girls strategy commits to a national communications campaign to raise awareness of gender-based violence. Consultation on that strategy has not started yet, despite calls for it to do so from the Victims’ Commissioner. Can the Minister tell us what the timeframe for that will be?
Thirdly, we need to note that reports of sexual assaults in hospital are rising. An article published in September reports, on the basis of freedom of information requests, a nearly fivefold increase in reports of rapes in hospital between 2011 and 2020.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue with the Minister, and I am grateful to her for being in her place. The experience of my constituent Sharifa is unique, but it raises concerns affecting a much larger number of women. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
May I take this opportunity to wish a happy new year to you and all the team, Mr Betts, and to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)? It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for sharing the vital, harrowing and heartfelt account of his constituent, which we cannot listen to without feeling extremely distressed. It is clear from that account, which he set out incredibly powerfully, as he always does, that Sharifa has seen the worst of a system that is supposed to deliver justice and support. I pay tribute to her tremendous resilience and courage. It cannot be easy for her to speak about these issues, especially given the trauma she has suffered. I hope to address the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. We will be happy to meet him at the end of the debate to go through the specific details of the case, because there are some facts that we do not have yet. Other ministerial colleagues may be interested in this, and I am happy to act as a point of contact and to do whatever I can to help him.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a key point about the contact that Sharifa had with the sexual assault referral centre. These centres are commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care through NHS England and NHS Improvement and are designed, as he said, to provide an integrated response to sexual violence and rape, and are available to all victims and survivors of violence and abuse, irrespective of age, gender or when the assault and abuse occurred. There is a lot of positive work to talk about, including the increase in investment into these centres every year since 2015, but it is clear that the services could have worked much better in this instance. There is always more for us to do to improve on that.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about practical and financial support for victims, which is of course at the heart of the Government’s violence against women and girls strategy. In February last year, we launched the #ItStillMatters campaign to help victims and survivors of sexual violence understand their rights and to raise awareness of the support services available to them. Support is available from ISVAs, or independent sexual violence advocates—specially trained advisers to help people who have experienced sexual violence. We are further bolstering support, including by developing a new 24/7 support service for victims of sexual violence, regardless of when and where the abuse took place.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Victims’ Commissioner. We introduced a revised victims code that came into effect in April 2021 and sets out the way that victims should be treated and supported by criminal justice agencies. I recognise that he talks about an historical case, but he raises wider issues, so the code is relevant here. Where the police decide not to prosecute a suspect, victims have a right under the code to ask for a review under the National Police Chiefs Council’s “Victims’ right to review” scheme, subject to certain conditions being met. The scheme allows a period of three months for a victim to request a review of a police decision not to prosecute a suspect. Requests made after this period should be dealt with at the force’s discretion. The police may also consider requests made on the victim’s behalf from, for example, a solicitor or MP.
As we all know, the police are operationally independent of Ministers, and the Government are not able to instruct the police to take a specific course of action, but I am clear that I expect them to investigate where there is a case to do so. Moreover, I would expect any complaints made in relation to the handling of a case to be investigated fairly and diligently by the force. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman has already been in contact with the police in connection with this case, so the next step is definitely for me or a ministerial colleague to meet him to see what further steps remain.
We are looking to improve the justice system as a whole. Through the Government’s upcoming victims Bill, we will ensure that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system. The recently published consultation is the first step towards a victims law to deliver the vital improvements needed. We have taken a number of other really important actions in this space. I highlight the Government’s work on the end-to-end rape review, during which we took a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape. In too many instances, it simply has not been good enough. We will not rest until we have delivered real improvements.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the timing for the VAWG national communications campaign, which is a central part of our tackling violence against women and girls strategy. It was a key commitment that we would launch a comms campaign this financial year that targets and challenges the perpetrators of these awful crimes, and ensures that victims can recognise abuse and receive support. It is vital that the public do not think that there is any way that they can get away with these unacceptable behaviours and crimes. I reassure him that a considerable amount of work is going on with stakeholders. I am leading on that work and have had numerous meetings with the women’s sector, academics and victims’ services.
We want to ensure that we get the campaign right. Clearly, designing any Government-led campaign is complex. We need to ensure that the messages, when we promote them, are received and are likely to lead to the kind of behaviour change that we want, because we are spending public money on it and we want to ensure that we get it right. We have a collaborative process under way, which we are very confident will help to deliver an effective campaign that provides value for money and delivers lasting change. I am confident that the right hon. Gentleman will see some tangible results very soon. Please be reassured that I am pushing the team in the Home Office to crack on with that work because, as he says, it is vital.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about time limits for bringing claims. In England and Wales there is a statutory time limit of three years for bringing a personal injury claim, although section 33 of the Limitation Act 1980 makes express provision for the court to exercise discretion in granting extensions to that. Such discretion is regularly applied in historical sexual abuse claims, and judges have guidance on what should be taken into consideration, including guidance specific to child sexual abuse cases. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that is under way. In our strategy, we have said that we will consider further reform in the light of the inquiry’s recommendations, which we have not yet received.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights the Scottish legislation, which offers one possible model that we will consider as part of the process. He may wish to know that there have been some claims. In 2020, three claims over 20 years beyond the three-year statutory time limit were allowed by the judge to proceed to trial following a section 33 exemption application, although I appreciate that his constituent has not had that experience. Undoubtedly, there is a frustration in her case.
I put on the record again my sincere thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for advocating on behalf of his constituent. I wish her all the best. He said that she is a determined woman, so I pay tribute to her ongoing fight to receive justice; it is vital that she does so. She has shown such bravery in telling her story and sharing her terrible experience. Although I obviously cannot provide him with an immediate resolution, I hope that I can reassure him that we are taking the issue seriously. We are taking all the steps that we can to ensure that victims receive access to justice. I ask him to write to me with full details of the case, and I or a ministerial colleague will meet with him. Some of the issues are led by different Departments—some sit with the Ministry of Justice; some even sit with Health—but we will assess that, and we will definitely meet her and him, to ensure that we have explored all possible avenues.
Question put and agreed to.