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Crime: Rape

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on sentencing for the offence of rape.

My Lords, the Government believe that rape is a very serious offence, with dreadful consequences for the victim. The seriousness with which the offence is viewed by the Government, Parliament, the courts and society at large is reflected by the fact that the maximum penalty is a life sentence and that the average determinate custodial sentence imposed is eight years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, does he agree that the careless and damaging remarks made last week by his right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor have undermined the confidence that victims have in the criminal justice system? The views expressed seemed hopelessly out of touch and out of date, and have offended many people, including victims of sexual violence. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no downgrading in the priority given to prosecuting those who have committed offences of sexual violence; and that the Government will not reduce the number of specialist rape prosecutors —now around 840 in number—employed by the Crown Prosecution Service over the comprehensive spending review period?

I do not know who is damaging confidence most, if damage has been done. It certainly was not anything that my right honourable friend said. Anybody who analysed what he said would accept that. I was caught by a paragraph in the Stern review, which said:

“We need to look at rape victims as people who have been harmed, whom society has a positive responsibility to help and to protect, aside from the operations of criminal law. Whether the rape is reported or not, whether the case goes forward or not, whether there is a conviction or not, victims still have a right to services that will help them to recover and rebuild their lives”.

That is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government and we will stick to it.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it was extremely regrettable that the leader of the Labour Party chose to jump on a populist bandwagon the other day in an effort to undermine a Secretary of State who is pursuing some of the more progressive and enlightened policies of this coalition Government?

I am very grateful for those comments. The Labour Benches and the Labour leader must make their own minds up whether that intervention was opportune. All I know is that this Government and this Secretary of State have put rape support centres on a secure financial footing for the first time, with £10.5 million of grant funding allocated to existing centres across the country over the next three years. Up to £600,000 is also being provided to develop four new rape support centres. We have run a grant-funding programme to award the voluntary community and social enterprise sector up to £30 million in grant funding over three years. We have guaranteed funding of up to £2 million a year for the next three years to fund specialist support for adult victims of human trafficking. We have provided Victim Support with £114 million in grants spreading over the next three years. That is the action that this Government have taken on rape: standing by women, supporting them and giving them the support they need. Everybody realises it is an extremely traumatic experience.

My Lords, would it not be quite wrong for the Government to duck legislating in the area of rape, given the problem we had this last week? In particular, the argument over whether men should have anonymity in rape cases remains outstanding, as does the question of whether women who make false allegations should enjoy the anonymity that they currently enjoy.

I know that the noble Lord has raised these matters on a number of occasions. The Government’s sentencing and legal aid Bill will shortly come before the House—or, rather, before Parliament, as it will go to the Commons first—and it will give us a chance to consider again the issues that he has raised consistently. However, his assertion that there are large numbers of false claims for rape is not, as far as I am concerned, borne out by research.

My Lords, leaving aside what the Lord Chancellor may have said, does the noble Lord agree that sentencing in rape cases, as indeed in all cases, is a matter for the judges? Subject to the maximum sentence for any given crime, which in the case of rape is, as the noble Lord has pointed out, life imprisonment, it is for the judges to decide where the particular case fits, subject of course to the guidance of the Sentencing Council.

My Lords, perhaps this is an opportune time to say from the Dispatch Box that this is certainly a case where Parliament should trust the judges, and so should society at large. Only the judge hears the full case, the full information and the full background and is able to make a proper judgment as to the required punishment. Nobody should be in doubt that the judiciary, the Government and society at large treat rape very seriously and the perpetrators will be punished appropriately.

My Lords, are the Government considering reclassifying consensual sex by two people under the age of 16, given that that appears to be very different from rape? Only 5 per cent of victims feel able to report rape and, for two-thirds of victims, rape by a partner or ex-partner involves violence to the point of choking or strangulation.

The case that the noble Baroness brings up is one that is best left to the good judgment—and it is the good judgment—of the authorities involved in those cases. It is extremely difficult to make broad-brush assumptions. I note what she says and, for our review of sentencing, I will take back the particular point that she has raised.

My Lords, all incidents of rape are serious and to indicate otherwise sends the wrong message to victims of rape. Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that there is a public awareness campaign about the laws on rape and consent so that we make it absolutely clear that non-consensual sex is a serious offence? I believe that this would clear up any misunderstandings that have happened over the past week.

I do not think that there are misunderstandings from over the past week. There has been no doubt that this Government take rape very seriously, and the Secretary of State takes rape very seriously. The amount of money, even at a time of difficulty in overall spending, has been maintained and the number of rape advice centres has been extended. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time to publicise the seriousness of rape, and I think that that could be started in the schools and by looking at some of the worrying things in advertising, in pop music and in some of the newspapers, which have been so quick in their editorial pages to condemn my right honourable friend. Some of those should look at where they put the position of women in society and whether they encourage young men to give women the respect that they should have. That might be a start.