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Rape: Prosecutions and Convictions

Volume 805: debated on Monday 14 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to increase the number of prosecutions and convictions in rape cases.

My Lords, there is ongoing work to improve the handling of these sensitive cases and to narrow the disparity between offences reported and cases going to court. In July, the CPS published its rape strategy—the first of its kind for any department. There is also an ongoing cross-government review of the criminal justice response to rape, and this is examining evidence across the system about the causes of the falls in outcomes for rape and identifying solutions to reverse the trend.

I thank the Minister for his reply but, according to police records, there were 55,130 cases of rape but only 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions in England and Wales, until March this year. With the prosecution and conviction rates at an all-time low, can the Minister say how on earth this happened? Swift action is needed, so how long will it take to improve these figures? What measures will he take to ensure that confidence can be restored for those who seek justice?

My Lords, we are conscious of the disparity between the number of reported cases of rape and completed prosecutions. As the noble Baroness observed, the number of completed prosecutions in the year to 2020 was 2,102. However, there are signs of improvement, slight though they may be at this stage. While the number of referrals to the CPS dropped between 2018-19 and 2019-20, the number of persons charged consequent upon those referrals has increased. We are taking steps to ensure that such improvements are maintained.

My Lords, it is quite obvious to those who have been watching this situation that both the CPS and the police drastically need some training and education. The obvious people to go to are charitable organisations that work with women and girls who have been raped. Can the noble and learned Lord tell me whether the review will encompass those organisations and when it will report?

My Lords, it is of course important to see proper co-ordination between the police and the CPS to address these issues. The CPS is planning to consult on rape legal guidance, and the Joint National Disclosure Improvement Plan represents both the CPS and the police. In addition, we now have a joint inspection going on between the CPS and police inspectorates, which we hope will report in the autumn, in response to issues about rape and serious sexual offences.

What steps will the Government take to ensure that the long-standing principle in British justice of innocent until proven guilty for those accused of rape and sexual assault is always upheld? Given the recent examples where those falsely accused of such crimes had their reputations destroyed through speculation in the media and social media, how will the Government ensure that those defending such charges still have the right to an absolutely fair trial?

My Lords, wrongly and deliberately accusing someone of a sexual offence is a very serious matter and should be treated as such by criminal law. Clearly, the impact on those falsely accused and their families can be devastating. Fortunately, these cases are extremely rare and should not distract us from the need to support genuine victims of such crimes to come forward and feel confident that they will be listened to.

Something is going wrong here. As my noble friend Lady Gale said, in 2019-20 there were 55,000 rapes recorded by the police, with just 2,102 prosecutions and 1,439 convictions; yet three years earlier, there were 44,000 recorded rapes with 5,000 prosecutions and nearly 3,000 convictions. The dramatic drop in prosecutions and convictions is put down by Sarah Crew, the most senior police officer for rape in England and Wales, to the Crown Prosecution Service increasing the standard before it will prosecute. This has led also to the police submitting fewer cases to the CPS, because they know it will not prosecute. What changes to the approach on rape prosecutions did the CPS adopt between 2016-17 and 2019-20, and has its approach now changed again?

My Lords, there has been no material change to the CPS’s approach. The evidential stage of the code test remains as it was, despite some suggestions to the contrary. Indeed, the most recent inspectorate report, in 2019, observed that the code test was being applied correctly in 98% of cases. But I acknowledge that we face challenges in this area, and we are seeking to address them, as I say, by way of a joint inspectorate examination of the issue and a cross-government review of how we can improve matters.

First, the need for corroboration in rape cases was abolished; secondly, sentences were increased to a five-year minimum guideline; and then inquiries into the complainant’s character were forbidden. Then the defendant was barred from cross-examining in person, and video links kept the complainant out of the witness box. Recently, there was an exhortation that complainants are, prima facie, to be believed. Despite all this, conviction rates have fallen. Does the Minister agree that further reform should be evidence-based? Will the Ministry of Justice permit academics to look exceptionally into the way that real-life juries have reached their verdicts, whether guilty or not guilty, in a limited number of rape cases?

My Lords, the issue of engaging with juries about how they arrived at their verdicts is complex and difficult. To set a precedent there would be a material step. However, we recognise that it is necessary to address some of the ingrained misconceptions that still exist and persist around reporting these offences. We hope that, by doing that, we will improve outcomes overall.

I call the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Lord Judd? I suggest we go on to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and then come back, if there is time.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have had the painful privilege of becoming friends with young women who suffered such atrocities, including Caitlin Spencer, a pseudonym, whose story is published in the must-read book, Please, Let Me Go? She describes how, from the age of 14, she was groomed, raped, sexually exploited and trafficked around the country by gangs of men. She still sees her abusers driving their taxis with impunity, and many other victims still see perpetrators living freely and intimidating them. What more will the Government do to bring these perpetrators to justice?

My Lords, these are tragic cases. They are particularly difficult to investigate when they are historic. However, we remain determined to pursue all offenders, no matter how historic the offences are.

My Lords, a previous Attorney-General asked for my views, as a criminal practitioner, on the failure to get convictions. Can I persuade the law officer’s department that there should be a special trigger mechanism for particular action whenever digital evidence might be an issue? Since consent seems to be the problem, will he also persuade the Attorney-General to instruct the CPS to publish details of how many cases of rape consent is raised in and how many convictions there are in consent cases?

My Lords, I am not certain that such data is available, but I will make inquiries to see whether it is or whether it can be collected, in a reasonable fashion. I will advise the noble and learned Lord upon the outcome of that inquiry.