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Crime: Rape

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have to change the way in which prosecutions are undertaken in rape cases.

My Lords, rape is a crime of the utmost seriousness, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all agencies across the criminal justice system work together to bring offenders to justice. We are keen to find ways of improving the way in which offences of rape are investigated and prosecuted, and how victims of rape are treated. We are therefore carefully considering the recommendations made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, in her review of how rape complaints are handled by public authorities, which was published earlier this year.

My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General to his place on the Front Bench. As the shadow of the shadow of my former self, I look forward to questions with him. Bearing in mind the trenchant criticism of the provision in relation to anonymity that came from the judiciary, prosecutors and the police, do the Government intend to pursue that as an issue? Further, if they do, how will they deal with questions in relation to multiple offenders?

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her kind words of welcome, which I appreciate very much. I pay tribute to work that she did in her high office of Attorney-General. In the short period that I was in the House, any dealings I had with her across the Chamber or in Committee were always conducted with great clarity and, particularly, great courtesy. As a law officer, I will do well if I aspire to the standards that she set.

Anonymity is an issue that has been around and debated over many years. Indeed, anonymity for defendants was the case between 1976 and 1988. The Select Committee on Home Affairs in the other place during the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill made a recommendation for anonymity in the period between arrest and charge. We are willing for this issue to be given a full airing. People with expertise should be able to present evidence on this. On the specific point that the noble and learned Baroness makes about multiple rapes, I have certainly seen arguments around this; they have been well aired, even in the past two or three weeks, in the other place. We would want more assurances and evidence that that is the case. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. In the specific case of Worboys, which is often referred to, it was not necessarily the name that encouraged other women to come forward but the modus operandi of a particularly despicable and villainous crime.

Will the Minister confirm that, whatever changes are made to the law in relation to the prosecution of rape, priority will be given to increasing the appallingly low level of convictions?

I can give the noble Baroness assurances on that. Our priority, which was shared with the previous Administration, is very much that those who are guilty of this particularly serious and heinous offence should be brought to justice and convicted. There are a number of ways in which that should be taken forward, not only with regard to the prosecution system but as regards the police and, indeed, reassurances which can be given to victims of rape who want to come forward. It is our objective to raise the conviction rate.

My Lords, the Minister spoke of talking to experts. Does he accept that the greatest experts in this field are those who have been victims of rape? Will he ensure that their views are taken carefully into consideration and that he listens to the groups representing them?

I am certainly prepared to give that assurance. Those people have a very regrettable but very real experience. It is because of the importance that we attach to the way in which we as a society deal with victims that the coalition Government are committed to trying our best to increase the number of rape crisis centres and to put those which exist on a more stable financial footing.

My Lords, evidence has shown that the two-tier offence arrangements that exist in New Zealand lead to far higher levels of successful prosecutions. Would the Government consider changing the law in the United Kingdom to mirror the arrangements in New Zealand?

I must confess that I am not overfamiliar with the law in New Zealand. However, as I indicated in an earlier answer, there is a concern, which I am sure is shared on all sides of your Lordships’ House, that we should do more. We ought to find ways to do more to raise the conviction rate. If there is relevant evidence from another jurisdiction that has many similarities to our own, we would be prepared to look at that.

I congratulate my noble and learned friend on his appointment and wish him every success in it. Will he confirm that methods have been developed in recent years to make the procedures much more sympathetic to women victims, who perhaps have not been treated as well as they should have been in the past, and that every attempt will be made to make sure that they do not have to go through an ordeal which to their mind is almost as bad as what originally happened to them?

I am very grateful to my noble friend for his kind remarks. Advances have been made. Indeed, in the report to which I referred, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, stated that attitudes, policies and practice have changed fundamentally and for the better. She reflected on the fact that in England and Wales there is a specialised system for dealing with rape at police, prosecution and judicial levels. However, she also found that practice was not uniformly good across the country. She recommended that there should be more encouragement for those who are displaying good practice, and that, where it is not good, there is certainly considerable room for improvement. Steps are in place to try to ensure that that happens.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on his new office. In the consideration which is being given to this very delicate and difficult issue of rape, will attention be given to the age at which an offender can properly be prosecuted for this offence?

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his kind remarks. I had much pleasure working with him on your Lordships’ Constitution Committee over the past 18 months. I understand his point and perhaps the implied reference to a recent case. We have indicated that the most immediate issue we are considering relates to anonymity. However, rape is never far away from the consideration of both Houses of Parliament. I have no doubt that the point about age, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, will recur in our debates.

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord on his appointment. Will he ensure that any changes to the criminal law are evidence-based and that no change in the anonymity rules is brought into effect until there is an opportunity to get statistics from police forces all round the country on whether the anonymity of the defendant would result in fewer women coming forward with their complaints?

I am grateful to my noble friend for his welcome. I certainly share the view, which is not specific to this case, that evidence-based legislation, particularly in relation to criminal matters, is almost invariably the best way forward. That is why we have said we will consider options and that any option we bring forward will be based on considerable debate and, I hope, evidence. Indeed, in another place Ministers have called for and welcomed evidence that will be given by people with expertise in this matter. I very much hope that in this House noble Lords who have expertise will be willing to share their views and any evidence which would help us to arrive at a proper option.

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord explain exactly why those accused of rape should be entitled to greater protection than those accused of other serious crimes?

That question is sometimes raised. As I indicated earlier, the issue has been debated for some considerable time. It is a realisation of the severity of the stigma that is attached to rape. It is a unique crime, inasmuch as the victim has anonymity. In terms of its apparent uniqueness, perhaps I may draw attention to the fact that in the coalition Government’s programme for government we are also considering proposals that would give anonymity to teachers who are falsely accused by pupils. Where professional and personal reputation is at stake, we want to look at these issues with a proper degree of sensitivity.

My Lords, given that the Minister told the House that securing more prosecutions in rape cases is a priority as regards this range of offences, in what way do he or the Government believe that securing the anonymity of defendants will assist in that?

I am not sure that there is necessarily a direct link. There are many other approaches we want to consider whereby we can raise the conviction rate. It is also important to remember that the 6 per cent figure that is sometimes used represents the percentage of cases that are initially reported to the police. In fact, the figure, in terms of convictions in cases that are taken to court, including those convicted of lesser but nevertheless serious sexual offences, is approaching 59 per cent. There is always room for improvement. The report of the review of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, made many recommendations for public authorities—the police, prosecution and judiciary—to improve their service. There are ways to raise the percentage of convictions, an objective shared by all parts of this House.