My Lords, the CPS is a partner in the ongoing cross-government review of the criminal justice response to rape. It has already accepted all recommendations in the recently published HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate’s Rape Inspection 2019 report, and, together with the police, is developing a joint action plan that will address issues raised in the report and, in due course, the findings of the cross-government review.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that rape victims are finding it increasingly difficult to access justice, as the police refer fewer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service and fewer allegations of rape are being prosecuted and convicted, according to new figures? The number of cases referred by the police for charging decisions fell by 32% in the year to September last year, while prosecutions by the CPS fell by 26% and convictions dropped by 21%, which is the lowest level in more than a decade. Does the Minister agree with the Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill, who said:
“I share the deep public concern over the growing gap between the number of rapes being reported, and the number of criminals being convicted of this sickening offence … There is a clear need for end-to-end action to provide better support for victims of this devastating crime, and to bring more offenders to justice”?
The Minister mentioned the review. Can he say a little more about it, including when the findings will be announced and what action will be taken on it?
My Lords, we are concerned by the reductions in the number of referrals for charge and in the number of prosecutions. That is why we are concerned to take forward the review, which we hope to complete this year. As regards the figures, I should perhaps point out that the volume of pre-charge receipts from the police fell from 3,375 in 2018 to 2,890 in the year ending September 2019. That is a decrease of just over 14%. There were 2.343 completed prosecutions in the year ending September 2019; again, I acknowledge that that was a fall from the previous year, when there were 3.034.
My Lords, 35 years ago I published a book called Investigating Rape: A New Approach for Police. That book was based around the theory of rape trauma syndrome, which leads victims to give accounts which are initially contradictory. It appears that the fall in rape prosecutions is because the prosecutors are finding discrepancies in the victims’ accounts. Will the Minister explain to the House whether rape trauma syndrome is taught to prosecutors?
My Lords, whatever the terminology may be, RASO prosecutors are trained in all of these matters, and when they come to apply the merits test in relation to such complaints they do so simply on the basis of the merits. Certainly the CPS is clear that victims and witnesses should never be discouraged or prevented from seeking therapy and counselling, whether before or during a trial process, and that the need for such counselling should be taken into account when addressing the evidence placed before the CPS.
My Lords, the other day there were more media reports of young girls, raped as children, who cannot get justice because of the one-year time limit to commence proceedings for unlawful sexual intercourse set by the old Sexual Offences Act 1956. When I raised this question with the noble and learned Lord last October, he referred to the review that he has just mentioned to my noble friend. Do we really need a review to bring forward action to close this unjust loophole that is protecting rapists and not giving victims the justice they deserve?
My Lords, I appreciate the concern that has been expressed in respect of this matter. We are taking forward the review but, in addition, we are also setting up a child sexual abuse stakeholder forum, which consists of survivor groups, key national charities and academics in order to address this issue.
My Lords, a recent study highlighted that only 25% of university students who had experienced rape went on to report it to their university or to the police. It is therefore of concern that, since 2016, 300 non-disclosure agreements have been issued by universities in response to student complaints, including assault and harassment reports. The Office for Students and Universities UK are working to improve the handling of harassment and misconduct by universities, but can the Minister advise the House when the Government plan to legislate against the misuse of NDAs by higher education institutions to ensure that students are not discouraged from reporting these assaults?
My Lords, there has been widespread concern about the utilisation of non-disclosure agreements, not only in the context of university administration but across the board. It is a matter of concern, but I cannot at this time indicate a time for the introduction of legislation on the matter.
In its thematic review of rape cases, the CPS concluded that, if 58,657 allegations of rape were made in the year ending March 2019 but only 1,000 successful prosecutions followed, something must be wrong. It is not kidding. The CPS points the finger at underresourcing and additional factors such as the growing evidential importance of digital media. The Minister has referred to the review: does he agree that it needs urgently to be carried out and that the resources, and legislation if necessary, should be provided to create a system fit for purpose and to restore justice for victims of this heinous crime?
I concur with the sentiment expressed by the noble Baroness. On digital material, which has increased enormously in recent years, the CPS introduced a guideline in July 2018 which makes it clear that it should not be assumed as a matter of course that such digital material is looked at. However, we have launched a recent consultation on the revised disclosure guidelines. That will run until 22 April and I hope that those who have an interest in this matter will direct their comments to the Office of the Attorney General in that respect. With the recent increase in funds to the CPS, we have taken steps to increase the number of prosecutors by about 20% in order that we can be more effective in pursuing RASO prosecutions.