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Rape: Criminal Prosecutions

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, if she will make a statement to the House on the incidence of rape cases not taken forward for criminal prosecution.

I thank my right hon. Friend for posing this important question. Last year, in the end-to-end rape review, the Government committed to more than doubling the number of adult rape cases reaching court by the end of this Parliament. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, but we are starting to see early signs of progress. More victims are reporting cases to the police. The police are referring more cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, and the CPS is charging more cases. Rape convictions are increasing: there has been a 67% increase since 2020. Timeliness is improving; the time between a charge being brought and cases being completed continues to fall—it is down five weeks since the peak in June last year.

That is encouraging, but it is just the start. That is why we have identified eight levers that are driving the change. First, we are increasing victim support. We have quadrupled the funding for victim support since Labour was in power—it will rise to £192 million by 2024-25—and we are increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers to more than 1,000 by 2024-25.

Secondly, we are rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination for rape victims to all Crown courts nationally. That will help to prevent more victims from being retraumatised by the experience of giving evidence in a live trial. Thirdly, suspect-focused investigations—this is known as Operation Soteria—are being rolled out nationally. That will be completed in the first half of next year, and it will mean that the police focus on the suspect’s behaviour, rather than on the victim’s credibility. Fourthly, we have reformed and clarified disclosure rules, and are working with the police to make sure that victims’ mobile phones are examined only where strictly necessary.

Fifthly, we are reducing the stress of intrusive requests for third-party information—for example, medical or social services records—and are working with the police and the CPS on ensuring that they are gathered only when relevant. Sixthly, we are boosting capacity and capability by increasing the ranks of our police and the number of specialist rape and sexual offences roles in the CPS. Seventhly, our efforts to expand Crown court capacity will continue with a £477 million investment over the next three years to reduce victims’ waiting time for trials. Eighthly, our criminal justice system delivery data dashboard is increasing transparency and giving Government and local leaders the information that they need in order to do better for victims.

We are going even further than the commitments that we made in the rape review, because we have listened to victims and those who work with them. We recently announced a pilot of enhanced specialist sexual violence support in three Crown court centres. This Government are on the side of victims. We want no rape victim to feel as though they are the one on trial. We want every rape victim to feel that they can come forward and seek support. We want to lock up the rapists who commit these abhorrent crimes. We want to protect the public. We will make our streets safer.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, for coming to the House to set out the additional measures that the Government are putting in place, and for allowing hon. Members to probe the effectiveness of those measures and what is being done to address the unacceptable decline in rape prosecutions in recent years.

The figures show that more than 67,000 rapes have been reported—the highest figure on record, but probably still only the tip of the iceberg. Despite the measures that my hon. Friend has announced, victims still face the trauma of knowing, when they report, that in the past, police, court staff and many others have not been properly trained to support victims—hence the high drop-out rate among victims taking cases forward. The measures that my hon. Friend has introduced will start to help, but rebuilding trust with victims cannot be done overnight. That is why it is so important that Ministers talk about the measures that they are introducing and come to this House to enable us to inquire about their effectiveness.

The Government’s independent adviser on the rape review said recently that

“no one involved thinks where we are is good enough—because it is not even remotely good enough”.

She said that a year on, we are

“doing better, but still pushing further.”

By coming to the House today, the Minister is enabling hon. Members to hear more fully what she and other Ministers are doing to rebuild trust among victims and, importantly, to deliver the Government’s ambition to double the number of rape cases that reach the courts by the end of this Parliament—an ambitious plan on which we need to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for asking this urgent question. She is absolutely right to identify the need to rebuild trust in the system among victims. The golden thread that runs through all our work is non-defensive transparency. That is why, in our forensic examination of each stage of the criminal justice system, we are working with the police, the CPS, the judiciary, as constitutionally appropriate, and all the agencies, as well as the vital victim support charities and agencies. We are working together so that at each and every stage we can measure the impact of our efforts and try to communicate it to victims.

I understand that people want us to do more and go faster, and that they want to see improvements. However, I ask colleagues across the House to please bear in mind that what we say in this place has a resonance with victims. We must ensure that we are being accurate about progress when it is happening, so that we encourage victims to come forward, and so that they know that change is happening in the system.

This feels like groundhog day. Yet again, we are debating this Government’s appalling record on tackling rape. As the latest scorecard shows, court delays are still at near-record highs, rape convictions are still at near-record lows, and countless prosecutions are not being taken forward. The Government promised to restore 2016 charging levels, but they are still way off target. When does the Minister think that they will meet that pledge?

The Conservatives first commissioned the end-to-end review of record low rape prosecutions back in 2019. Two years after that, we got a report that recommended only piecemeal changes. One year later, little has changed and only a fraction of what was promised has been implemented. When does the Minister expect this to be delivered in full?

The typical delay in the completion of cases in court has reached three years. The number of rape trials postponed with a day’s notice has risen fourfold, and 41% of rape survivors withdraw their cases before they even get to court. Labour pledged to roll out specialist rape courts across the country, but the Government have produced just three pilots. When will they extend this to every Crown court?

Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 has finally been rolled out, but to just 26 courts. Why has it taken so long, and why only 26 courts, when 77 Crown courts already have the equipment and facilities to support this? Furthermore, the joint inspectorates’ report found that section 28 has not been used consistently by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service. Why is the necessary awareness and training not already in place?

Labour has a plan to tackle rape because we are serious about ending violence against women and girls. That is why we published, more than a year ago, a survivors’ support package containing detailed measures to drive up prosecutions, secure more convictions, and put rapists where they belong: behind bars. This is a Government who are still tinkering around the edges, three years after recognising the shocking scale of their own failure. This is a Government with no serious plan to bring justice for victims of rape, and no serious plan to tackle violence against women and girls.

One of the disappointments of the hon. Lady’s responses, and indeed her advocacy last week, is that in the past we have been able to find cross-party consensus on matters that are of great interest to Members on both sides of the House, particularly in relation to the Bill that became the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, when Labour Members either insist on using figures that are not correct—not up to date, for instance—or seek to criticise the Government, perhaps not realising that in doing so they are also criticising the police, who are operationally independent—

They are criticising the Crown Prosecution Service, which is operationally independent, and the courts, which are constitutionally and operationally independent. All three of those agencies in the criminal justice system are working together to make the difference.

On the national roll-out of section 28, the hon. Lady is wrong. We now have 47 Crown courts operating section 28, and we are rolling out section 28 recordings across the country, nationally, far faster than we anticipated in the rape review. On enhanced specialist support in courts for victims of sexual violence, again, we have worked closely with the judiciary. We are piloting it, as we are obliged to do, and I am sure that others in the House will understand why we have to tread carefully, but we hope and expect that the result will justify further rolling out. As for Operation Soteria and suspect investigations, we will have rolled that out in a further 14 police forces by September, and we will have rolled it out nationally, across all forces, in the first half of next year.

When the hon. Lady criticises this Government, she is, I am afraid, implicitly criticising those who are working on the frontline, making these changes happen.

A male Member of the House is shouting at me across the Dispatch Box while I am trying to explain. This is a deeply serious subject, and it must be—I would hope—a matter on which we can find measured and constructive ways of working together in order to improve justice for victims, because that, surely, is what we should all be focusing on.

Support for victims of rape is essential to ensuring that more of these crimes are brought to prosecution, but rape victims often say that, having gone through the trauma of the assault, they are then dehumanised by being treated, effectively, as a piece of evidence when they report it, and then have to prepare themselves to be traumatised yet again when they appear in court. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with the Department of Health and Social Care to make good the NHS’s commitment to giving all victims of rape a lifetime care pathway, so that they can be confident enough to appear in court?

I thank my hon. Friend for identifying not just the immediate impacts of sexually violent attacks but the lifelong impacts that they can have. The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are involved in all the discussions that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have on this. NHS England is particularly keen to roll out support to victims longer term as well as short term, and also to roll out the further provision of more independent sexual violence advisers, which we have committed to do by 2024-25, bringing the total to more than 1,000 ISVAs nationally. They will be critical as part of the recovery process. Having met many of them recently, I understand how valuable they can be for victims both in their recovery and in giving them the support they need to take these important criminal cases forward.

I am sure the Minister will realise that the whole House welcomes any new measures, but could she say what is being done about some of the older cases that have been stopped in their tracks? Will she ensure that adequate resources are there for those legacy cases where justice has not been done?

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising those historical cases. They are in the system and the injection of investment—£477 million in the overall Crown court system—will help with those particular cases. One of the reasons we selected the three pilots as we did—I should say that the Lord Chief Justice very much worked on this—is that we looked at the backlog of sexual violence cases within courts. For those courts with a lot of sexual violence cases—through no fault of anyone; we are not alleging that there is any fault within the system—and with these backlogs, we hope that this enhanced specialist support will give us some evidence as to whether these measures work, with a view to going further if need be.

I have absolutely no doubt of my hon. Friend’s commitment and dedication to this cause, and I am grateful to her for that. A lot of the figures she quotes are encouraging, but the fact is—she says it herself—that we have a long way to go. As she said, key to this is confidence in the system. Victims need confidence to come forward in the first place and then confidence to stay the course through the process, which can be fairly punitive, as she would be the first to admit. What more can she do to drive that confidence among victims?

There are many ways in which we can support victims. One is through specialist support such as ISVAs and the victims charities that do such a vital job of working with women and victims of sexual violence. Another thing that we are in the process of setting up is a 24/7 support line for victims of sexual violence, and I am extremely grateful to Rape Crisis for its help on this. We are testing it carefully over the next couple of months to ensure that we understand when peaks and flows will necessitate proper staffing, but we are absolutely committed to providing those services so that victims can get the help they need when they need it.

On the basis of what the Minister said earlier, will the number of rape prosecutions be doubled by the end of this Parliament?

We have measured it very carefully and we have committed to doubling the number of cases received in the Crown court by the end of this Parliament. This is a work in progress.

When we talk about this distressing subject, there is the potential to go into abstraction and talk about statistics when, in fact, behind every one of those figures is a shattered life. What is being done to ensure that people dealing with victims of rape and sexual assault understand fully the trauma that the individual going through the process is experiencing, so that they can help them to stay in the process?

The focus of Operation Soteria, the police technique of focusing on the suspect rather than on the witness’s credibility, is critical to the increased understanding that my hon. Friend talks about. He is right to say that when we talk about percentage increases and so on, it can take away from the individual person or people who have been so hurt and traumatised. If I can just translate this into English, from October to December last year, 467 people were convicted of a rape offence. That represents a 15% increase on the previous quarter. Those 467 people were convicted and sentenced by the courts, thereby protecting the public from their violent behaviour.

I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) for bringing forward this vital urgent question today, and to thank the Minister for her comments from the Dispatch Box and her update on what is happening. But given everything that is facing the Secretary of State—record court backlogs, appallingly low conviction rates for rape and women losing faith in the criminal justice system—is it not a bit odd that his main priority seems to be going on the media to defend the indefensible Prime Minister and overhauling human rights laws? What does that say about the priorities of this Government?

I worked with the hon. Lady on the Domestic Abuse Bill and I know how committed she is to ensuring that victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence secure the justice they deserve. The whole of this Government are committed to this piece of work, from the very top. From the Prime Minister down, this is an absolute priority for the Government. I welcome scrutiny—I welcome hon. Members asking me questions at the Dispatch Box—but I also ask please that we acknowledge it when there are early signs of progress, precisely because I want to encourage victims to come forward and get the support they need.

Yesterday, I met the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, who singled out my police force, Dyfed-Powys police, for its early engagement with the Crown Prosecution Service as it seeks to secure charging decisions. The CPS is urging police forces to be proactive and to seek advice as early as possible so as to improve the number of cases that can progress. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Dyfed-Powys police on this and urge other police forces across the country to adopt this practice?

Very much so. My hon. Friend has enjoyed the success of ensuring that cyber-flashing will become a criminal offence when the Online Safety Bill is passed. In relation to her police force, this is precisely why we are publishing local data dashboards. I genuinely want Members across the House to scrutinise what is happening in their local area so that they can help us to hold the police, the CPS and others to account for decisions such as taking a police referral to the CPS. We will be trying to disaggregate that data even further, so that where there is a request for advice as opposed to a charge, for example, we are making that clear. This is a whole-system effort to improve at every single stage of the criminal justice system, and I would like to thank the police, the CPS and the courts for all their efforts.

I am pleased to see both the Home Office and the Department of Justice represented on the Treasury Bench for this urgent question. The Home Affairs Committee produced a report in April on the investigation and prosecution of rape, with several recommendations that I hope the Government will find helpful. Unfortunately we are outside the eight-week deadline for that report to be responded to by the Government, so could I raise two of the recommendations that I think will help the Government in their aim to sort this out? The first is to have specialist rape investigation teams in all police forces. The second is for the Government to ensure the publication of all specialist trained officers so that we know that there are sufficient officers in our police forces to do this important work.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee most sincerely for her Committee’s report. We will be responding, of course. I hope that she will bear with us. I am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who is sitting just behind me, that we want to ensure that our response is as thorough and positive as possible, so please watch this space. In terms of specialist police officers, I completely understand why this is a suggestion that people raise. My only caveat is that I want every single police officer in every single force to be trauma-informed and aware of how to investigate these cases, for the simple reason that when an officer first comes to the scene of a crime—on a busy Saturday night, let’s say—I want that officer to be an expert in how to treat victims in the aftermath of an attack. I want to be more ambitious than simply having a specialist in the force; I want every single officer to be aware of this, which is what we are trying to achieve through the roll-out of Op Soteria.

Our tackling violence against women and girls strategy has set out our objective to make the streets safer for women and girls, but the need for confidence in the justice system has been mentioned time and again. Can my hon. Friend make it clear that this is a priority for the Government and also tell us how we can use technology to deliver the justice that is needed?

I reiterate that this is a priority for this Government, from the Prime Minister downwards. It is also a priority for colleagues on the Back Benches from across the House, who have raised it. I am very grateful to Conservative colleagues who have raised issues such as cyber-flashing and the use of intimate imagery on the internet, which we will no doubt be discussing as the Online Safety Bill makes its way through this place. There is huge support on the Back Benches for ensuring that victims of domestic abuse get the justice and support they need, and I am extremely grateful to every Member of this House who can join us in our efforts to improve justice for victims of these horrendous crimes.

I have had too many cases where survivors of rape have not reached the evidence thresholds demanded by the CPS and, as a result, their cases have collapsed or not even been able to be taken forward. That clearly has an impact on confidence in the system, particularly on the issue of consent and with one word being played off against another even if there is forensic evidence,. What measures is the Minister taking to improve a victim’s opportunity to take their case forward in that context?

The hon. Lady hits on a sensitive point, in that the “Code for Crown Prosecutors” sets out the tests that prosecutors must apply, not simply in cases of sexual violence but across all criminal cases, and the threshold of 51% or thereabouts for the evidential stage. This means that, as we know from speaking to victims, there are occasions when the CPS does not believe that test has been met, which is why the roll-out of Operation Soteria, both across police forces and across CPS regions, is so important. In this effort for non-defensive transparency, the CPS is looking at its own actions and ensuring that the right standards are being met, for example in the application of the test and in disclosure. All of this is being lined up to ensure that the law is applied properly and appropriately. We have also reformed disclosure guidelines recently, in order to help the police and the CPS make important decisions about whether material needs to be gathered at all and, if it does, whether it meets the very specific circumstances in which it falls to be disclosed.

I welcome the increase in the conviction rates. Having worked closely with my hon. Friend, I have witnessed her determination to address the underlying issues and find solutions for victims of serious sexual offending throughout the country. The issue we have missed out of this debate is that the vast majority of cases are not even referred to the CPS by the police. My concern is that unless there is a slam dunk, an overwhelming case, victims are being penalised, so that those who have addiction or mental health problems are being viewed as unreliable witnesses by the police and their cases are not even being referred. How does she feel about that? What steps are being taken to address the issue?

I thank my hon. Friend, who brings his professional expertise into this Chamber. He is right to say that the focus on a victim’s credibility has in the past meant that too many cases are dropped when they should not be. We have therefore had the roll-out of this suspect-focused investigation technique, Operation Soteria, across the first five forces, and that learning is being shared nationally ahead of the national roll-out next year. This is what will make the real difference, both to the police and to the CPS.

The Minister will be aware that Warwickshire has the lowest conviction rate in the country and was one of the first forces to close its rape and serious sexual offences unit, doing so back in 2014. I have a case where an individual has been charged with two counts of rape. Originally, the plea hearing was back in December 2021. The court date was set for this August, but that has now been put back to May 2023, causing great distress to the victims, as the Minister can imagine. Beyond the dashboard she mentions, what is she doing specifically to address the issues in Warwickshire?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot comment on an individual case. On local policing, the local CPS and the application of all the measures we have talked about in this urgent question so far, the point of the dashboards is precisely to give him, me and others that data, which otherwise has not been collated, so that we can start asking those questions about individual areas. For example, we know that West Yorkshire is doing better than the national average on the police referring cases to the CPS. My question is: why can we not replicate that nationally? We are having those sorts of conversations, with non-defensive transparency, which, I hope, will really begin to see results for victims.

I commend my hon. Friend for her emphasis on local facts. This morning, I was talking to Suzanne Llewellyn, the chief Crown prosecutor for Wessex, who told me that currently 12 people are being prosecuted for rape in Dorset, which is twice as many as in the same period of 2016, and that in three of the past four quarters the rape conviction rate in Dorset has been 100%, which obviously compares very favourably with the national average of 68%. So there is good news at the local level, and we need to do more to bring that to the public’s attention.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that. I genuinely encourage every Member to look at the figures and have those conversations with their local police and CPS to understand what is happening in their local areas. I welcome this scrutiny; it is absolutely the right way to drive change. I thank him for his particular focus on his local area.

First, I thank the Secretary of State for her answers and her clear intention to address the rape criminal prosecution backlog—that is well done. What additional support can be offered to victims and their families, who can be intimidated by the perpetrator and their family connections? Does she agree that a case will often rely on a victim’s ability to testify well, and that that pressure can deliver opposite results and victims who feel that they are unable to cope or to challenge?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for my temporary promotion.

The best way this can be dealt with is through the section 28 roll-out. For those who are unfamiliar with it, let me say that this is the provision whereby victims of serious sexual violence and modern slavery offences can pre-record their evidence—for examination in chief, cross-examination and re-examination—perhaps months ahead of when the case will be tried in the Crown court in front of a jury. That means, first, that the victim is not giving evidence in a live trial, which can bring its own pressures, and also that they give their evidence much sooner in the process, thus helping with our victim attrition rates. We are examining this very carefully and rolling it out as quickly as we can, but I very much hope that by the end of this Parliament we will really begin to see some dividends from it.