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Criminal Justice Review: Response to Rape

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021


The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 25 May.

“I am grateful to the honourable Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for her continued interest in the Government’s work in this area. Rape and sexual violence are devastating crimes that impact on victims for the rest of their life. When victims take the brave step of reporting the crime, they expose their deep personal trauma in the interests of justice. The criminal justice system needs to support those victims, believe them and ensure that their needs are met at the heart of the criminal investigation.

The Government have long recognised that the decline in the number of effective trials for rape and serious sexual offences in England and Wales is a cause of significant concern. As a result, we commissioned the end-to-end rape review in March 2019 to look at evidence across the system, from reporting to the police to outcomes in court, in order to understand what is happening in cases of adult rape and serious sexual offences being charged, prosecuted and convicted in England and Wales.

Our review represents a serious commitment to change by the Government and our partners. At its heart will be a set of actions that will drive system and culture change to ensure that the victims feel supported and able to stay engaged with their case. That, combined with updated and stronger case preparation methods, as well as increased communication between all those involved in the prosecution and new charge mechanisms, should lead to more cases reaching court and, we hope, defendants pleading guilty.

To ensure that that happens, I have been tasked by the Prime Minister to take personal leadership of the actions from the review, working with colleagues across Government to ensure accountability of operational partners for delivery. I will of course regularly update the House on our progress.

On the substantive question, I was keen to publish the rape review last year. However, following extensive feedback from the Victims’ Commissioner and the victim sector that we needed to take account of the End Violence Against Women Coalition’s The Decriminalisation of Rape report and the pending judicial review judgment, we took the decision to delay publication. We have used the time since that delay to carry out further research and engage with stakeholders in order to formulate an ambitious and wide-reaching action plan, which we will be publishing shortly after recess. When we publish the report, I will present it to Parliament and write to colleagues across the House to outline our approach. I look forward to working with the honourable Member and, indeed, all Members across the House to ensure that this action plan drives the substantial change we need to see.”

My Lords, there is a lamentable state of prosecutions for rape in England and Wales. Equally, there is a shared desire between all parties to see better, fairer outcomes and support for victims as they travel through the criminal justice system. The Minister in the other place spoke yesterday about a new structural and cultural change to increase the number of rape prosecutions that we see in our court system. I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, will the rape review, which we expect to be published relatively soon, commit to indicators of progress, similar to those that we see in the violence against women and girls Act in Wales? Secondly, will the review commit to a support plan for rape survivors, as recommended in the Labour Party’s recently published green paper? If the Minister can give positive responses to those questions, it will go some way towards sharing a way forward to improve this lamentable position.

My Lords, as the Minister in the other place made clear yesterday, the underlying statistics in this area are indeed regrettable. He made it clear that he is taking personal leadership on this matter because rape is a cross-agency issue. We have the police and the CPS, both of which are rightly independent of government, and we have the Courts Service and the judiciary. Everybody must come together to improve the current performance.

The rape review will be published shortly after the Recess. I am afraid I cannot provide advance notice of its details today but I very much hope that, when they read it, the noble Lord and the whole House will welcome it because we intend it to be a transformational document that will lead to transformational change. Supporting victims of rape is an absolute priority for this Government; we have invested significant sums in that.

Let me give the House just one example of a change that can be made and which has real consequences. We have put in £27 million to create more than 700 new posts for independent sexual violence advisers. They stand with victims throughout the process. We have seen what is terribly called victim attrition. People opting out of the system goes down by 50% and more than 50% of people stay in if they have these advisers to help them. We will work, I hope with the noble Lord, to improve the statistics in this area.

My Lords, delaying the report to await the Court of Appeal judgment on CPS charging decisions is understandable, but one wonders why the report has taken two years. This is a dangerous crisis. Rape prosecutions were down from more than 5,000 in 2016-17 to fewer than 1,500 in 2019-20, in spite of an increase in reported rapes. In 2020, more than 52,000 rapes were reported but there were only 843 convictions. Potential rapists become ever more confident of impunity, and the lives of women and girls become ever more threatened.

Without second-guessing the report, may I press the Minister on two points? The first concerns ending the culture among young men and boys that condones harassment, even rape, and expresses the arrogantly sexist view that “she was asking for it”. We see it in schools, universities and colleges. Will he pledge substantial extra resources for citizenship education to turn this around and teach respect for women and girls?

The second point concerns that trauma of legal proceedings and probing the sexual history of rape victims. In his report from Northern Ireland, Sir John Gillen recommended that victims have legal representation to oppose the disclosure of their personal data, including mobile phone records, and to oppose them being cross- examined on their sexual history in cases where such issues arise. Will the Government agree to provide that?

My Lords, it is not correct that the review was delayed solely because of the judicial review of the CPS policy. The noble Lord will be aware that the court concluded that there had not been a policy change, although, frankly, I accept that that does not mean that there were no important issues for the CPS to address. The delay was also in part because we wanted more engagement with victims’ groups. We are delighted that Emily Hunt has joined us; she can give us, and has given us, invaluable insight from her position as a victim.

As far as the culture is concerned, the noble Lord is absolutely right. This is a cross-governmental issue. It is fair to say that, in schools and colleges, there is now more understanding of what consent means and, if I can put it this way, of what consent does not mean. If I may be personal for a moment, frankly, I see that in the education my own children get at their schools. They get an education that I do not think people in this House would have got when they were at school.

On legal proceedings, the noble Lord is absolutely right. There are careful rules now over when a claimant’s sexual history is relevant to the case. Often, it is not. We have put in place a number of changes to ensure that complainants are better looked after by the courts system. For example, Section 28 is currently being rolled out. It will enable vulnerable victims and witnesses who are subject to intimidation to give evidence and be cross-examined online and on-screen in advance of the trial.

Everyone is agreed that the present system is failing badly, with only 1.6% of rape allegations leading to a charge and so many victims left traumatised by the process. The Minister called this “regrettable”. To a lay person in this sphere, to put it bluntly, it comes across as quite appalling.

I want to press the Minister, if I may, on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which I am afraid he did not answer. Does he agree that, if we are serious about the recommendations when they are published, the Government will need from the outset to do what the Welsh Government have done: put forward a number of progress indicators, with a report published each year? If it is anything like the Northern Ireland report, there could be hundreds of recommendations in a wide range of spheres, and it would be so easy for them simply to drop through the sand unless there is a proper system of prioritisation and annual reports to Parliament on the progress on their implementation.

My Lords, I will not quibble over the adjectives we use. The present position is entirely unsatisfactory. We need dramatic improvement, and it is my hope and that of the whole Government—particularly my honourable friend Mr Malthouse—that we will see that improvement.

On the specific point about data, we recognise the need for all partners across the criminal justice system to be held accountable for their part in improving outcomes for victims of rape and sexual violence, as well as for delivering on the action plan in the review. We will look for ways to address this. As Mr Malthouse said in terms in the other place yesterday,

“transparency is one of the key themes that we have been looking at … There will be an announcement, when the plan comes”,—[Official Report, Commons, 25/5/21; col. 267.]

as to how we will approach and publish the reporting of data.

Is the Minister aware that an analysis of Home Office figures published this week by the Guardian revealed this:

“While there were 52,210 rapes recorded by police in England and Wales in 2020, only 843 resulted in a charge or a summons—a rate of 1.6%.”?

Does the Minister agree that this figure indicates that there is very little sign of justice for victims, with most perpetrators just getting away with it? Is the Minister confident that, when it is finally published, the review will encourage victims of rape to come forward, give them all the support they need and mean that they can have confidence in the justice system—that is, that the perpetrator will be brought to justice?

My Lords, I am absolutely aware of the figures referred to by the noble Baroness and recognise the need to do more to drive up the number of prosecutions and convictions. That is why this matter is a major focus for the Government and the CPS as we work to reverse what has been a negative trend over the past few years. It is fair to say that, if you look at the very recent history over the past quarter or two, the volume of prosecutions and the proportion of suspects charged have increased. However, progress is too slow and we need to do far more. I know that the CPS is working hard to continue the current trend.

We are putting in significant extra funds. I referred earlier to the independent sexual violence advisers. We have also put in an extra £51 million to increase support for rape and domestic abuse victims. However, more needs to be done, and the Government and I are determined that more will be done.