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Crime: Rape

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress they have made on their proposals for reform of the law on rape.

My Lords, we published our response to the public consultation Convicting Rapists and Protecting Victims last week. We intend to legislate when parliamentary time allows to strengthen the law on first complaint evidence and special measures for witnesses in court, as well as taking forward a wide range of other non-legislative measures to combat rape.

My Lords, why is it that the conviction rate for rape in New Zealand is four times—I repeat, for the benefit of the sisters: four times—the rate in the United Kingdom? Could the answer be that New Zealand has two separate offences: sexual violation and aggravated sexual violation? Why do the Government not reconsider the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, during proceedings on the Sexual Offences Bill in 2003, which would have adopted within the United Kingdom the New Zealand system and, in the view of many, would have led to a substantial increase in the number of convictions?

My Lords, there is clear concern about the low conviction rate in this country, which, according to the latest figure I have, is 5.7 per cent. As for New Zealand, clearly the Government will always look at international experience. I am aware of the New Zealand system. My noble friend is right to say that there are two different crimes. However, I have to say to him that the Government do not plan to adopt the New Zealand model, which we think creates the risk of a two-tier offence. Rape can be extremely traumatic, whatever the circumstances, even when none of the circumstances applies relating to aggravated sexual violence. That is particularly the case when the offender is in a position of trust; for example, with a partner.

My Lords, is there any evidence that the reform of the law in 2003, which was designed to increase the rate of conviction, has made the slightest difference?

My Lords, it is very difficult to give a concrete answer to the noble and learned Lord. Certainly, there has been a slight increase in the conviction rate and more victims are coming forward. There is no doubt that we need to do more and we hope that our response last week to the consultation will help. But it is also clear that a lot more needs to be done in relation to the performance of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and in encouraging victims of rape to come forward.

My Lords, can the noble Lord help me regarding the Minister responsible for criminal law policy in this respect? I am rather anxious that at one stage it looked as though the law officers might be responsible. It is important that the law officers are law officers and that responsibility for the policy on the substantive criminal law should rest with the Home Secretary.

My Lords, that is a very interesting point. The noble and learned Lord will know that there is a consultation on the role of the Attorney-General, who, I am sure, will take that point into account. Clearly, when it comes to criminal justice matters there is responsibility across government. The Home Office has a vital role to play in that, particularly in its relationship to the work of the police, but other parts of government also have a role.

My Lords, is not the answer to the question of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, that there has been no significant difference in the conviction rate under the Sexual Offences Act 2003? Is it not time that the noble Lord revisited the amendments that I put forward at that stage to adopt the much more successful New Zealand model? That would result in many more people being brought to book for the crimes that they had committed.

My Lords, I made no claim in responding to the noble and learned Lord. We are presented with a major challenge in relation to the conviction rate, which is very low indeed. On New Zealand, all I would say to the noble Lord is that I have already given the Government’s response. Of course we will continue to look at experience in other countries, but our law on rape was developed following five years of extensive consultation and there was widespread agreement on all sides of the House. It is not just a question of the law, but of how the various authorities involved do their jobs effectively at local level.

My Lords, I am not sure what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours meant when he referred to “the sisters”, but I was one of the women who took part in the debate on sexual offences last week and I mentioned the New Zealand experience. When I was there, I found that the difference in the conviction rate was not so much to do with the difference in the law but with the difference in attitude in New Zealand, where women who complain of rape are not immediately judged on their sexual history or their dress or on how much they had been drinking.

My Lords, that is a very important matter. There is no doubt that we have a problem with the perception of rape among some members of the public. Figures show, for example, that a third of the population believes that women are partially or totally responsible if they behave flirtatiously. There are other aspects, too, where public perception needs to be changed. That matter was the subject of the consultation document response published last week. Clearly, much needs to be done in public education.