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Crime: Rape

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they are considering any proposals for the reform of the law on rape.

Yes, my Lords. Earlier this year we published a consultation paper. It sought views on whether to reform four different aspects of the law as it affects rape trials as part of a broader strategy to ensure that perpetrators are effectively prosecuted and that victims receive proper support. We are at an advanced stage in considering responses to the consultation and expect to publish our conclusions shortly.

My Lords, is not the inevitable consequence of the workings of the law as currently framed that we will carry on imprisoning innocent people such as Warren Blackwell, who was falsely accused by a serial and repeated liar, Shannon Taylor, who has a history of making false accusations and having multiple identities? As a result of her accusations he spent three and a half years in prison following a shabby and inadequate police investigation and was exonerated only when the Criminal Cases Review Commission inquiry cleared him and traced her history. Should not mature accusers who perjure themselves in rape trials be named and prosecuted for perjury?

My Lords, it is not inevitable that people will be falsely accused. One of the tragedies of rape allegations is that very few of those who suffer this most dreadful crime have the courage to come forward at all. The issues with which we are now dealing will mean that we have a better chance of getting justice for both the perpetrator and the victim.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 2003 the conviction rate for rape was, we were told, 41 per cent, compared with an average of 40 per cent in murder cases? Has there been any increase in the conviction rate since Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force? If not, is that not another example of highly controversial legislation in the criminal field which has either no effect or the opposite effect to that which is intended?

My Lords, fewer than 6 per cent of recorded rapes result in a conviction. That is a level of which none of us should feel proud if the allegations have been properly put forward and dealt with. As the noble and learned Lord will be aware, the current legislation has been in place for only a relatively short period. It is too soon to make an accurate evaluation of the impact of our changes.

My Lords, I welcome the gradual increase in the conviction rate in rape cases, but there is a very slow increase from previous years, and because of variations in how police forces record these cases, the result is that serious perpetrators of violent and sexual offences, many of whom are serial offenders, are seldom brought to justice. What is being done to harmonise good practice among police forces?

My Lords, we have made real improvements. The introduction of the sexual assault referral centres, the coming together of the MARACs approach—which is a multi-agency risk assessment—and the sharing of data between police forces and other criminal justice agencies have meant that we now have a better response than we have had in the past. There is much to do, and I assure the House that all parts of the criminal justice system, including the police, are working very hard indeed on this issue.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that allegations of non-stranger rape are very easy to make, very difficult to prove and even more difficult, in some cases, to refute? Therefore, any changes in the law in this very difficult area of interpersonal relationships should be made with great caution.

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend on that. Your Lordships will know that during the passage of the new Sexual Offences Act we looked very carefully and consulted very widely over a period of three years before changing the rules on consent. We thought that it was correct to look at this issue; it is being looked at, and I assure your Lordships that great care is being taken in relation to that matter. We will very shortly be able to share with the House and the public the consequences of our deliberations.

My Lords, evidence suggests that alcohol has become a major factor in facilitating rape and sexual assault. Some studies have shown that in up to 81 per cent of rape and sexual assault cases the victim has been drinking before the assault, and the perpetrators have shown a significant issue in relation to that too. In relation to alcohol, there is also the spiking of drinks.

My Lords, following the point made by the noble Baroness, while it is obviously the Government’s duty to keep the law up to date so that it affords proper protection, is it not also necessary to make it clear to girls that they have a responsibility not to put themselves unnecessarily at risk by excessive drinking?

My Lords, we have campaigns aimed at all young people on how to keep themselves safe. If I may respectfully suggest to the noble Lord, rape is never the fault of the woman who suffers it.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the Minister on her excellent work in bringing forward legislation in the field of all violence against women, especially on domestic violence. Most rapists in this country get away scot-free and are able to maintain their anonymity. There are an estimated 80,000 incidents of rape or attempted rape. What measures will be in the report to help women in bringing forward complaints of rape and to ensure that they will be given all the help, support, advice and aid that they need so that rapists pay the price for their terrible crime against women?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her compliments and assure her that we are working hard on this issue. The Government’s consultation dealt with four issues. First, does the law on capacity need to be changed? Secondly, should prosecutors be allowed to present expert evidence concerning the crime of rape in general? Thirdly, should evidence of complaint that is not recent be admitted? And, fourthly, should changes be made to the special measures provisions? All those issues may impact on our ability to accurately identify those who have perpetrated rape and bring them to justice. The results of that consultation will come soon and our work on sexual assault referral centres is making a helpful impact.