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Crime: Rape

Volume 692: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proposals they have for increasing the number of convictions for the offence of rape.

My Lords, the Government have overhauled the law on sexual offences, introduced specialist officers and prosecutors and consulted on changes to the legal system to help build better cases. We are supporting police forces and the CPS to implement recommendations from the 2007 rape inspection and are monitoring performance closely. This year, the Home Office is investing a further £3 million in supporting victims, including through the criminal justice process.

My Lords, why is it that while reported rape conviction rates in the UK are 5.3 per cent, in New Zealand they are 22 per cent; in Belgium, 16 per cent; Finland, 16 per cent; Israel, 16 per cent; Switzerland, 15 per cent; and in Germany, 23 per cent—four times the UK rate? The list goes on, and we are still trawling the world. Could the answer be that the law overseas accepts varying degrees of offence and penalty; that some countries use judges and experienced assessors and not juries; and the rejection of approaches such as those from a very powerful women’s lobby in the United Kingdom which is blocking reform of the law and yet not thinking the case through properly?

My Lords, there are varying degrees of cases in various other countries because they have different systems of judicial and criminal law. Our system needs improvement and a lot of work is being done to make it. We will of course look at international experience to assist us in that.

My Lords, bearing in mind that 50 per cent of the rape cases brought to trial end in conviction, does the noble Baroness agree that the jury system is working extremely well in rape cases?

My Lords, the jury system has certainly served us well. However, in looking at the review, we have to look at how we can better assist the jury to come to the best-informed decision.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree—I am sure she does—that although increasing the number of rape convictions is very important, it is equally important to try to reduce the number of rapes? It is estimated that about 80,000 rapes occur in this country every year. Will she support a public education campaign to educate men and boys, first, to respect women and girls and, secondly, to accept that all forms of violence against women, including rape, must stop? Such violence in today’s society, given that we call ourselves a civilised society, is totally unacceptable. If such a campaign were successful, we would not only see a reduction in the number of rapes but be able to claim to live in a much more equal society.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend how important it is that we reduce the number of rapes and assure her that much has already been done, in the citizenship programmes and the other programmes being rolled out in schools, to assist children to better understand how they should respond in their relationships. However, there is a duty on us all to try to create a situation in this country where violence against anyone, but especially violence against the vulnerable, is totally reprehensible and abhorred.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the real problem is not so much the rape cases that go to court but the rape cases that do not go to court, and that, although there may be a superficial temptation to widen the law on rape, or indeed to change that fine balance between prosecution and defence in rape cases, that might well have a counter-productive effect on the attitude of jurors? Perhaps the best service that can be done to women is to make the procedures of examination and investigation more humane and more sensitive.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, and reassure him that that is exactly what we are doing. It is of great regret that only 6 per cent of rape cases are reported. We have a huge difficulty, because many women feel such shame, hurt and distress at what has happened to them that they never tell anyone at all.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the great increase in drinking among the young—I certainly include girls in this—is really responsible for an awful lot of these accusations, if not the reality?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that alcohol can play a part in this. This is why the Government’s alcohol strategy and the work that we are doing with young people to help them better to understand what they are drinking are so very important.

My Lords, has the Minister evaluated the special measures that were brought in under recent legislation and their impact on convictions? There can be nothing worse for a woman who has been the victim of rape than to find that the perpetrator has been acquitted. The special measures may well put a barrier between the victim and the jury. I have heard it said that it sometimes looks like a television play when the victim gives evidence on television. What consideration has been given to that?

My Lords, consideration has been given to that matter. The opportunity to use the special measures assists a number of women who would not otherwise have the courage to come forward and go through the process. Of course a balance must be struck, but we must listen to those victims and do what we properly can to make it possible for them to give their evidence.

My Lords, what progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service, which was published in 2005? As the Minister will recall, the report stated that the scale of false allegations was overestimated, that there was inconsistency over the way in which forensic doctors examined victims, that there was a lack of training for front-line officers, and that it was necessary for authorities to challenge claims of consent much more vigorously. What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of this very important report?

My Lords, a lot of work has been done. As a result, in April, the Government published a cross-departmental action plan on sexual violence and abuse. Improving the response of the criminal justice system to sexual offences is one of the three key objectives of the plan. That is being rolled out right across the country. There is monitoring, and there is assistance to forces and others who do this work. We therefore believe that we have a really good programme of work to achieve this improvement.