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Sexual Offences Legislation

Volume 795: debated on Monday 28 January 2019


Asked by

My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that the law on sexual offences is fit for purpose and responsive to changes in attitudes and behaviours. The Sexual Offences Act 2003, amended in 2015 and 2017, has a clear and comprehensive framework of offences to deal with the scourge of sexual abuse and exploitation.

My Lords, I have a simple question: is the law credible in helping genuine accusers when a man now on remand, charged with making false allegations of multiple homicides, fantasy assaults by paedophile rings and fraud, is able to accuse Sir Edward Heath and Lord Janner of rape, and is believed by the police so that the press publishes their names, destroying their reputations? The innocent are treated as guilty and the guilty, false accusers are treated as innocent until found to be lying, by which time the damage is done. Their real motive is compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The law is a shambles.

I respect the tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and his simple questions in this area. The case that he has raised has been the subject of extensive debate in your Lordships’ House in recent months. To wrongly and deliberately accuse someone of a sexual offence is a very serious matter and is treated as such by the police. The noble Lord will be aware that Carl Beech, aka “Nick”, has been charged with 12 counts of perverting the course of justice and one of fraud. All people charged with, or indeed accused of, an offence, sexual or otherwise, remain innocent until proven guilty.

Is it not imperative to restore full respect for the cardinal principle that my noble friend has just mentioned, a principle so flagrantly violated by Mr Mike Veale in respect of Sir Edward Heath and, sadly, by the Church of England in respect of the great bishop George Bell, although the latter’s reputation has now been largely restored as a result of a welcome report from the Church last week? It is tremendous news that George Bell is to get a statue in Canterbury Cathedral.

I acknowledge the strong feelings on all sides of the House on this matter. It is extremely important that we get the balance right. Since the events to which noble Lords have referred, a number of steps have been taken. For example, the College of Policing guidelines on media relations, which dictate when a person’s identity should be released, have been subject to consultation. They were updated in 2017, and further updated in 2018 to include deceased persons. A lot has gone on in this area and I believe there has been much improvement.

My Lords, the coming Domestic Abuse Bill is very welcome but there is a gap, in that it does not seem specifically to cover people whose immigration status is uncertain. They risk being taken as immigration offenders if they report sexual violence, which makes them reticent to report incidents. Does the Minister agree that anyone subject to sexual violence should have equal recourse to the law, regardless of their immigration status? Could that not be made clear in the Domestic Abuse Bill?

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for raising that issue. The Domestic Abuse Bill was published in draft form on 21 January, following a long consultation that received 3,200 responses. Its goal is to deter offenders and protect victims. The noble Baroness is quite right that people whose immigration status is unsure need protection too, and I hope she will put forward the points that she has raised as the draft Bill comes to your Lordships’ House.

In addition to the need for legislation, there is clearly a need to identify and support vulnerable adults and children before, as well as after, abuse takes place. What action is being taken in this respect by the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care?

The noble Lord raises an important issue. One of the ways in which the law has been progressing over recent years is that many of the more recent changes have focused on early intervention, which is critical, particularly when it comes to communication of a sexual nature with a child. With regard to specific action being taken by the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, as Victims’ Commissioner I have to put my pennyworth in. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, mentioned the criminal injuries compensation scheme and suggested that victims are in it for money. I suggest that he reads my recent report, which came out on Wednesday. I have met many victims who are not in it for the money; actually, they are in it for justice for what happened to them. Do the Government have any plans to review and amend the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 to include a requirement to seek complainants’ consent in relation to their digital evidence and personal records, with a clear and defined limit and effective judicial oversight? Many victims listening to this already do not come forward, and I do not want many more not to come forward because of what goes on in procedure.

I commend the work done by my noble friend the Victims’ Commissioner. It is a very weighty tome that she has worked on, looking at the criminal injuries compensation scheme. There are many things we can do in this area. We will take on board the recommendations of the Victims’ Commissioner, and those of IICSA, and we are consulting on future changes to the scheme. The report will come out later this year.

We will bring forward legislation as soon as possible, for example to remove the pre-1979 “same roof” rule, which will mean that certain victims can reapply. I will write to my noble friend on her specific point about the legislation.

My Lords, the dead cannot answer. There is still a question mark that has not been removed from the reputation of the great George Bell. Should it not be the absolute rule, and should not the Government give this immediate attention, that for any dead person accused there should be no publication of their name until there is really substantial evidence of guilt?

I refer my noble friend to my answer to a previous question. Following the events of recent years, there has been a substantial and significant change to the College of Policing guidance. This now covers deceased persons too, and is published on the Authorised Professional Practice website, available for all practitioners to see. The previous Home Secretary asked the HMICFRS to do a short and targeted review of this issue in particular, to make sure that the release of people’s names prior to charge is done in only the right circumstances.