My Lords, we are committed to ensuring that the law is fit for purpose and that the offence of rape is well understood. The decline in the number of rape cases reaching court is a matter of concern. The Government are committed to a cross-government review of the criminal justice system’s response to rape. If barriers to justice are uncovered, we will take action.
My Lords, how can it be right that young girls aged 13 to 15 who were groomed, exploited or manipulated into having underage sex cannot get justice for the crimes against them because the abuse they suffered took place before 1 May 2004? The one-year time limit to commence proceedings for the offence of unlawful sexual intercourse, set by the old Sexual Offences Act 1956, is protecting countless perpetrators who should otherwise still be prosecuted for abusing underage girls. I believe, as do many others, that legislation can put this right. Will the Minister commit the Government to investigating and closing this loophole?
My Lords, I can understand the noble Baroness’s concern about this issue. That is why we are taking forward a quite urgent cross-government review in relation to rape. Where we consider that there are gaps in the law and these are identified, we intend to take action.
My Lords, the number of convictions for rape fell by 26% between 2017-18 and 2018-19, while the proportion of reported cases being prosecuted declined to a mere 1.4%, the lowest on record. How does the Minister account for these figures? What steps will the Government take to ensure that the relevant departments—the Ministry of Justice and Home Office and, perhaps, the Department of Health working with the victims—address this deplorable failure in the justice system?
My Lords, I fear that the drop in the number of rape cases being referred to trial is even greater than the noble Lord suggests. Current figures indicate that approximately half the number of cases is reaching court, from a peak in 2015. That is a matter of real and material concern and is why we have set up a cross-government working group—a sub-group of the Criminal Justice Board—to bring forward an action plan as soon as possible. We hope to have that plan in place by the spring of 2020.
My Lords, whether or not the Government’s review leads to a change in the law on rape, does the noble and learned Lord nevertheless agree that there is much more to be done to support and counsel victims at every stage of the criminal process, particularly in collecting and disclosing personal data, and in supporting victims giving their evidence, through to verdict and thereafter? Would such comprehensive support not encourage more victims to report rape and support prosecutions?
My Lords, we recognise the significant importance of support for those who make complaints of all sexual offences, and rape in particular. It is necessary to look at taking forward further the scheme for the giving of evidence under Section 28. It is also appropriate to have in mind the use and application of Section 41 in relation to the potential for examining complainants about their sexual history. These matters have been under fairly constant review since Dame Vera Baird’s study in 2017, followed by the CPS study the following year and, more recently, in work done by the Criminal Bar Association. We do recognise the need for support and consideration in these cases.
My Lords, I have been involved professionally in a number of rape cases. Will the House accept the distinction between the small number of cases where the issue is identification and the much larger number where the issue is consent? The problem is that juries are reluctant to convict in those cases. Are the Government satisfied that the problem of non-disclosure of evidence has been solved? Will they provide resources for the CPS to upgrade the pay of prosecutors so that only the best counsel is available and able to prosecute in these very serious cases?
My Lords, the issue of consent is clearly a challenging matter. We consider that the present law encompassed within Section 74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is fit for purpose. There is guidance as to how that should be approached, and we believe that it strikes an appropriate balance between complainers and those who are complained against. As for the actual prosecution of these cases, we consider that that is carried on in a responsible way and that we have addressed the issues of disclosure which caused such disquiet only a year ago in a number of cases. Indeed, as the noble and learned Lord may be aware, the present Attorney-General instructed an examination of issues of disclosure in order to ensure that, going forward, that should not create a problem for these prosecutions.
My Lords, there are minority communities that import brides from abroad and, in the name of marriage, proceed to rape women who do not know the language or the law, do not know who to go to and certainly cannot go to the kin group around them. Are there any provisions for a specialist group to deal with imported brides?
My Lords, a number of support groups are available to deal with the sorts of cases that the noble Baroness has outlined. It is a particularly insidious form of sexual crime and one that is sometimes difficult to identify, partly because of issues of language and partly because of issues of social acceptability in the community in which such a person may find herself. As I said, there are support groups and we encourage their use in that context.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it might be helpful if children—and I repeat: children—were taught at an early age about the issues around sexual encounters and consent? Boys, in particular, need to understand a bit more clearly what consent actually means in these circumstances. That might make sexual crimes such as rape a little less common.