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End-to-end Rape Review

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 21 June.

“I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s End-to-end Rape Review Report on Findings and Actions. Rape and sexual assault are some of the most horrific offences dealt with by our criminal justice system. They can leave devastating effects on victims for life. While the majority of victims of rape are women, this crime can have a devastating effect on male victims as well. Over the last five years, we have seen an alarming decline in the number of police referrals, charges, prosecutions and convictions for these sorts of crimes—a trend that the Government are determined to reverse with urgency. I want to pay tribute to the bravery of victims and to commend their courage in coming forward to report these crimes. It is crucial that the system gives all victims the reassurance that they will be believed and that they will receive the right support, right from the moment they report their crime through to the conclusion of their case and beyond.

In March 2019, the National Criminal Justice Board commissioned the first ever end-to-end review of how the criminal justice system handles rape cases. The rape review report and action plan outlines how we will act on its findings to deliver much-needed improvements, building confidence in the system and encouraging more victims to come forward. That will enable cases that are better prepared from the start, more prosecutions of rapes, greater encouragement of early guilty pleas, and fair and timely trials. This has been a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, the Attorney General’s Office—I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for being here today—the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which is something that we believe will be crucial to its long-term success. Alongside the action plan, a government social research report outlining the underlying primary research in detail is also being published. I have laid that report before the House.

Our action plan sets out a robust and ambitious programme of work to improve the way in which the criminal justice system responds to rape at every stage in the process, so that victims are better supported to get the justice they deserve and so that all our constituents can have confidence that perpetrators of these sickening crimes will be rightly punished. As the House will know, this has been a priority area for government for some time, and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the work already done, alongside the new actions that we are committed to delivering in the implementation of the review.

We appreciate that this is not the first piece of work in this area of criminal justice, and that both victims and stakeholder groups want change to happen as quickly as possible. The Government could not agree more, which is why the Minister for Crime and Policing will be personally pushing this work forward, and the Government will publish updates every six months detailing progress to ensure clear accountability. That will include scorecards monitoring progress against key metrics, including timeliness and victim engagement in each part of the system, and implementation of the action plan. Our ambition is for the volume of cases referred by the police for charging decisions and reaching court to return to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament.

One of the key themes of the review is how we can create the conditions that will enable effective joint working between the police and CPS. It launched its joint action plan in January this year. That will enable both the police and CPS to work hand in glove to support rape victims and to secure convictions. In the implementation phase of the review, we plan to introduce joint decision-making guidance for CPS and police investigation teams that will be implemented as part of a necessary culture change. We will also build on the shared learning and development in the form of training and guidance around trauma, to develop understanding of its effect on victims right across the system. In the next 24 months, we will have a framework for a new operating model that can be adopted by forces nationally.

A key plank of our work to transform the way in which cases are dealt with is the pathfinder programme known as Operation Soteria, which is being launched to drive systemic and sustainable transformation in how the police and CPS handle investigations into rape and sexual offences. I am pleased to say that we have already begun to transform the support provided to victims by publishing a revised victims’ code, which sets out 12 clearly defined rights. We have invested record amounts in support over the last 18 months, including spending more than £70 million on rape and domestic abuse services in 2020-21 and £27 million on the expansion of the independent sexual violence adviser service—the ISVA service.

I accept that more needs to be done to reform support services to meet current and rising demand, and ISVAs play a crucial role. Research suggests that their involvement in the criminal justice system can make a victim 49% more likely to stay engaged and see their complaint through to its conclusions. With that in mind, we will shortly consult on a statutory underpinning for the ISVA role as part of the forthcoming victims Bill consultation. The police and CPS will work together to introduce minimum standards on how to communicate with ISVAs after a complaint is made, throughout the investigation process, through charging decisions and through court proceedings themselves. This will be done through a national framework to ensure that standards improve right across the country.

We are also committed to ensuring that no victim is left without a means of communicating through an extremely traumatic period in their life, which is why we are working to increase the capacity of the front-line technology used to examine digital devices. We will work with the mobile phone technology industry to support police efforts to provide swap-out phones for victims to use when their own devices are unavailable. Our ambition is that no victim will be left without a phone for more than 24 hours.

We recognise that the court experience can be particularly distressing. Last year, we rolled out Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to help support children and vulnerable adult victims and witnesses to give their evidence and be cross-examined sensitively. We are already piloting the same arrangements for intimidated witnesses and victims in three locations, and plan to increase that pilot to three additional courts. Subject to that evaluation, we aim to commence full rollout to all Crown courts for this group, and will consider whether any further legislative change is needed. We also plan to test the use of Section 28 in the youth court.

We will continue to explore how we can increase the use of special measures in rape trials, and will develop a best practice framework for rape and sexual violence cases during court proceedings. Additionally, we have asked the Law Commission to explore the use of rape myths and evidence about victim credibility at court to see whether there are changes we can make there to improve the experience for victims and give them the opportunity to present their best evidence. In addition, the CPS has updated its legal guidance to address rape myths and stereotypes.

We will go further than the work outlined in the review; later this year, we will publish a new strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, and we will consult on the new victims Bill. I am sure that the whole House will join me in acknowledging the many people and organisations who are working tirelessly to improve the way in which these cases are handled. I thank the organisations in this field. Their expertise, research and challenge is invaluable. I am incredibly grateful to Emily Hunt in particular, who has been working as an expert adviser on the rape review, and ensured that the voice of victims was heard loud and clear as the Government considered their approach.

I reassure the House that if the proposed actions do not yield sufficient change in the timescales that we have set out, the Government are prepared to look at more fundamental changes to the criminal justice system, including measures to strengthen accountability and governance more widely. The review represents just the beginning of this work. We must continue to challenge the entire system to deliver urgent and sustained change. We owe that to every victim of these terrible crimes. Every part of the system can and must do better; now is the time for it to deliver. I commend this Statement to the House.”

The issue about the extent to which rape is properly prosecuted in this country is now a real one. The Lord Chancellor rightly apologised for the lack of prosecutions, yet did nothing to deal with the problem properly. He announced a sum of money, in the region of £150 million, most of which went to refuges. Refuges are very worth while but will not deal with the problem of the lamentably low rate of convictions for rape. The average amount of extra expenditure on rape cases, if one applies it to the number of rape cases the Government estimated last year, is £15 a case.

Why have the Government not made more resources available, if their apology is serious? Why have they not rolled out Section 28, which allows for victims of rape to give evidence as soon as possible after the crime has been committed and for their evidence to be recorded?

I congratulate the authors, researchers and statisticians who have contributed so much to this comprehensive and excellent review. I trust that the Government will fully resource its recommendations, but agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that there is no sign of it so far.

I focus on one of the review’s findings—namely that, in 57% of all adult rape cases, the victim feels unable to pursue their complaint. Given that in 90% of cases the victim knows the perpetrator—as a member or friend of the family, fellow student or worker, friend or acquaintance—that may not be too surprising. I strongly suspect that very few of those withdrawals concern the small minority of cases where the perpetrator is unknown. I am interested to know whether the Minister has a figure for the percentage of withdrawals in cases of stranger rape.

So, what are the reasons for disengagement by the victim? First, there is delay. Giving evidence is always a stressful experience, as I know well. Standing exposed in a witness box with one’s honesty, accuracy of recollection and motives challenged is not pleasant. Giving evidence about intimate sexual encounters must be agonising and overwhelmingly stressful. Only those with a high degree of courage and persistence can be expected to stay the course without considerable support. I very much welcome the pilot schemes for the recording of evidence and cross-examination early, well before trial. How soon can those pilots be evaluated and rolled out? Months, if not years, of waiting for a trial must disincentivise victims pursuing their case.

Secondly, there is the intrusion into privacy. In January 2018, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, introduced a debate on this topic. I suggested an algorithm which would require the defence to co-operate by setting out their case in a defence statement and, at that point, indicating keywords for the search of mobile phones. The revised Attorney General’s Guidelines on Disclosure, published in 2020, set out such a system and it is now operational. The review recognises the importance of privacy by its requirement that mobile phones be returned within 24 hours. If that is done, I hope this disincentive to reporting rape will be removed.

Thirdly, we come to sentencing. I am not convinced that longer and longer sentences have any benefit. The review points out that the minimum sentence guideline is now six years and that the average term served for rape is nine years. This increase in sentencing coincides with a decrease in convictions. So many cases depend upon consent, without these days, in England and Wales, any need for corroboration. The lack of consent by the victim must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, and that is the highest degree of proof.

A victim, already oppressed by delay in bringing a case to court, must generally also contemplate the destruction of the life of an offender whom she knows and may even love. That may also be a potent reason for her to disengage from the case. That there should be a substantial and significant sentence of imprisonment for rape is not in doubt, but excessive increases year on year may have unexpected consequences to the detriment of justice.

Ultimately, the jurors are the judges. Acquittals reflect societal attitudes. At the moment, judges seek hard to dispel the myths and prejudices of the past, with lengthy exhortations and directions to the jury—but attitudes begin in the classroom, and we must train teachers to inculcate respect for others and, above all, the meaning and parameters of consent.

In the last few years, we have developed teams of specialised investigators and prosecutors, special measures for court hearings and victim support services. All these are steps in the right direction but have manifestly had no impact on the rate of convictions. We must try harder. We will support the Government further in implementing the policies that are set out in this review.

My Lords, I turn first to the points raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. First, I should repeat the apology that the Lord Chancellor gave in the other place yesterday, setting out by reference the reasons why he gave it, given the time.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said, it is not right to criticise the Government’s response to the rape review for lacking in ambition. On the contrary, we have set out clear ambitions for rape cases with the police and the CPS, and we have set out actions against which they, and we, can be held to account. We want to return the volume of trials for rape to pre-2016 levels, with corresponding expectations for police referrals and cases charged. We want to ensure that no victim is left without a phone—noble Lords will appreciate how important the data found on phones these days can be in these prosecutions—for more than 24 hours. We should not underestimate how difficult it can be for a victim to hand over her—it is invariably her—phone and to know that it will be looked at. We will also publish updates every six months, detailing our progress against our expectations, with scorecards monitoring progress against key metrics, including timeliness and victim engagement in each part of the system. That will enable us to provide information on a regional and local level, to see where things are working well and where there is room for improvement.

I turn to the other substantive point that the noble and learned Lord made, about Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, which enables people to have their cross-examination recorded in advance. The pilots of this provision have focused on complainants for sexual and modern slavery offences. We are extending them from three to six Crown Courts. I want to increase the availability of Section 28, but we need to do this properly. This is a radical departure from the normal court process, where evidence is given at the same time, in front of the jury. The pilots enable us to understand the impacts of this way of giving evidence—not only the impact on the evidence itself but the operational impacts on the courts, because they have to set out, and set up, a bespoke hearing for such evidence to be given.

Although we have some experience of this working for vulnerable victims, primarily children, victims who can be intimidated or are subject to distress, such as victims of rape and sexual violence, are in a different category. That is why we need to look at the pilots and see how it works in practice before we roll it out nationally, if that is what we do.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The reasons for complainants’ withdrawals are complex, regardless of whether the victim knows the perpetrator. I do not have specific data for withdrawal in stranger-rape cases, but what we do know is that in all cases, good-quality support is a key factor in maintaining victim engagement with the process. That is why we are funding more ISVAs, and we will consider putting that on a statutory basis. As for delay and prerecording cross-examination, I think I have dealt with that point already.

As I said earlier, we recognise that a lack of privacy can be a deterrent and that having your phone gone through can be a very distressing process. We want to ensure that the focus is on the alleged perpetrator and investigating them, rather than on investigating the alleged victim. That is why we do not want to see victims without their phones for long periods of time, and only information that is necessary for an investigation will be asked for. In addition to new guidance for police and information for the public, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will clarify the power used to extract information from victims’ devices and will include privacy safeguards.

As to sentencing, I must disagree with the point made by the noble Lord. Rape is a very serious offence and merits a significant sentence. I take issue with his proposition that there have been excessive increases. On the contrary, I suggest that the sentences for rape, which ultimately are a matter for the judiciary, are entirely appropriate for the very serious nature of that crime.

However, I agree with the noble Lord’s point about the importance of education. A tackling violence against women and girls strategy is forthcoming. It will focus on prevention, recognising the importance of education for preventing violence against women and girls. If I may say so, from my own knowledge of what is being taught to my children in secondary school today, the education given to children today in areas such as consent and sexual relationships is far improved and much better than it was years ago. That is a very important part of the process, and I agree with the noble Lord that education is a key component in this debate.

On that note, I echo another point that the Lord Chancellor made yesterday in the other place: we will work across party lines when it comes to this issue. I therefore welcome the noble Lord’s concluding remarks, in which he indicated that he too would be prepared to work on that basis.

We come to the 20 minutes for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers are brief, in order that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, there is much to support in this review. I am pleased that the Government have been so candid in their assessment of what is a totally unacceptable situation, but I do not doubt their commitment to trying to rectify it.

It is particularly encouraging to see that the report is committed to implementing an offender-centred police process. Putting victims and their character at the centre of the investigation, rather than the suspect and his behaviour, is one of the biggest reasons why so many cases fall down and have “NFA” stamped on them. We have to try to change the culture of questioning the victim’s behaviour and focus instead on perpetrators and why they are doing this. In my view, this approach should always have been the norm. Will the Minister commit the Government to a further funding stream and ensure that this approach is rolled out across forces as quickly as possible?

My Lords, on funding, we have invested record amounts in support for victims in the last 18 months. We spent more than £70 million on rape and domestic abuse services in the financial year 2020-21, and £27 million on the expansion of the independent sexual violence adviser service—ISVA —which I mentioned earlier. The data is extraordinary, showing that a victim is 49% more likely to stay engaged with the process and see their complaint through to its conclusion if they have that support. That is why we will be consulting on a statutory underpinning for the ISVA role.

My noble friend used the phrase—if I have taken a correct note—“totally unacceptable” to describe the current position. I do not dissent from that. I also agree with her, as I said earlier, that we need to have more focus on investigating the perpetrator and less on investigating the victim.

My Peers, while I welcome the publication of this rape review and the Government’s apology for the failings on rape—and an apology from the Government is to be welcomed—there is very little consolation for the women who have been failed, including the many victims whose cases have not been progressed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

A few days ago, I heard on Woman’s Hour about the case of a woman who had been raped and went to the police, who dealt with her case very well—but the CPS refused to prosecute, as it said that the recording from the CCTV had shown her holding hands with her rapist. Can anyone imagine what this woman felt after all she had been through? Would the Minister agree with me that this should never have happened and that cases like this do nothing to encourage rape victims to come forward?

The review mentioned £70 million spent over the past 18 months on domestic abuse and rape services. Can the Minister say how much of that £70 million is to support victims of rape and how much is allocated to victims of domestic abuse—which is vital but has nothing to do with improving victims’ experience of the criminal justice system or improving rape convictions? Can the Minister explain how much of this funding is to support rape victims in getting justice?

The charity Refuge has called for a total overhaul of the rape criminal justice system—both the police and the CPS—and has said that it cannot accept such monumental failings any more.

Thank you. So could the Government urgently provide adequate sustainable funding for specialist rape services, which have been very seriously eroded in the last few years?

I do hope this review will produce positive results for victims and ensure that rapists are answerable for their crime.

My Lords, we can certainly agree on the last point. The focus of the criminal justice system is indeed to make sure that rapists are answerable for their crimes—and they are heinous crimes.

I obviously cannot comment on the particular instance that the noble Baroness mentioned. Of course, the CPS is quite properly an independent agency; decisions to prosecute or not to prosecute cannot and must not be taken by Ministers. But what I can tell the noble Baroness and the House is that the CPS is committed to reversing the negative trend in prosecution volumes seen over recent years. The CPS and the police are putting together a joint plan. The CPS is itself committed to a range of actions to drive forward improvement. This includes consulting and publishing revised rape legal guidance, including new content on challenging rape myths and stereotypes. From what I heard of the example given by the noble Baroness, that is a good instance of “rape myth”, and it behoves everybody engaged in this debate to make sure that the public know the facts and are not distracted by myths.

The noble Baroness asked me a couple of precise questions on funding—in particular, the division of the £70 million figure as between rape victims and domestic abuse. May I please write to her on that point, together with the other point on funding which she put to me?

The Statement says that Operation Soteria will transform how the police and CPS handle investigations into rape and sexual offences, and the Operation Bluestone pilot in Avon and Somerset has shown that there is an effective way of working. Can the Minister say if it is true that Operation Soteria will involve only four police forces and has funding for only one year? This is hardly a universal rollout of a new culture of transforming rape services. Can he say when it will be rolled out and properly funded across the country? Victims and victims’ organisations have rightly made it clear that not one day should be lost.

My Lords, it is not only Operation Soteria that we need to focus on. As part of Operation Soteria, we are working with pathfinder police forces to test the latest technology, including advanced analytics such as machine learning, to, for example, get data off phones as quickly as possible. We will certainly make sure that all police forces have access to the best technology available, so that all victims around the country can see the improvement that the Lord Chancellor and I—indeed, the whole Government—want to see in rape prosecutions. That will involve work not only with the police but with the CPS.

My Lords, there is much in this report that I could talk about and there are many questions but because of time and other speakers, I shall be brief. While I have the greatest respect for the Secretary of State for Justice, the right honourable Robert Buckland, I think this is a shameful report containing nothing that we did not know many years ago. As the former Victims Commissioner for more than seven years, I have met hundreds of victims of rape who have no confidence and would not expect other victims to go through the system. However, saying that, I am very happy to read about the role of ISVA as advocates to help victims of sexual abuse and rape. Their role is very important, so will the Minister say how they are going to be funded? Is it going to be through the Home Office, or does a costly fee have to be paid to become an ISVA? Can we have them as registered intermediaries so that they collect CPD credits and are professional right the way through? That will entail an advocate for the victims law later in the year.

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to mention the victims Bill, which is an important element in this debate. Of course, with her background, she is a strong advocate for victims in this area. She is absolutely right to focus on confidence. We want to make sure that victims have the confidence to go to the police, to stay engaged with the process and to give evidence. That is why all these issues, whether data from phones or Section 28, are all part of making sure that victims stay engaged with the process. On funding, as I mentioned there will be a consultation about statutory footing for ISVAs and I will refer her to that in due course.

My Lords, I make a plea. There are a number of 70-plus year-old men who, following controversial sex offence trials, languish in prison, ill and with disabilities. They are no risk to society and, during the pandemic, their CCRC case reviews are, legally, access and procedurally problematic. Why not let them home under monitored conditions and free space for people who are a real danger to society? John McGuinn of Darwen in Lancashire is one of them. He is a celebrated case and I appeal on his behalf and that of others.

My Lords, I am not sure it is right or proper for me to comment on individual cases from the Dispatch Box. There is a proper procedure for people who seek probation or to have sentences served outside a formal prison, and I think it would be unwise and probably improper of me to say any more on the subject than that.

My Lords, the heinous crime of rape, including marital rape, violates trust and dignity as well as physical and mental well-being. There cannot be consent to rape, which violates the most fundamental, basic right to say no. Victims must be believed. I worry how many other victims are not reporting.

This report reinforces what we and women’s rights organisations know. As my noble friend Lady Newlove said so eloquently, women’s organisations have repeatedly called on the Government time and again for action, funding, services and training, including for police officers. Indeed, we have failed hundreds of thousands of women victims and survivors, with the Government fully aware of all the facts contained in this report. Given what the Minister said on the need for education, are the Government further considering the resource implications of the report alongside a public information and education campaign? Knowing also that sexual violence and the abuse of children is prevalent in schools, are they considering working with all communities to state that sexual violence is against the law, that we take this as being of the utmost seriousness and that we are as committed to eradicating this pandemic of sexual violence as we are to erasing Covid, both nationally and globally?

My Lords, I am very happy to accept the two adjectives used by the noble Baroness: “serious” and “committed”. That is exactly what we are. She is right to say that there are resource implications. There are resource implications in what I said about mobile phone data and Section 28, but we want to make sure that the criminal justice system delivers for victims of rape. Obviously, as the Lord Chancellor said yesterday, resources are a necessary part of that.

My Lords, I welcome the review and the Government’s commitment on this issue. One of the current problems that rape victims face is severe court backlogs, which cause victims to withdraw before their case is completed. Section 28 would be a valuable tool in combating this problem. Allowing victims to pre-record evidence would help them to stay in the justice process as they could be cross-examined on evidence much earlier. Greater use of this is being piloted, but we have already had pilots for several years. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us when the Government hope to see Section 28 in use across all Crown Courts?

My Lords, I am reluctant to give a date for that because we really have to see how it works out in the courts in which it is being piloted. I have already explained that its use in cases of rape and sexual violence raises different issues from its use in the case of vulnerable witnesses in, for example, domestic abuse and children’s cases. With respect to the delays, we now have more jury courtrooms available than we did before the pandemic. We have Nightingale courts to provide more space as well. As the Lord Chancellor has said, we are running the criminal justice system hot this year; there is no limit to the number of sitting days in the criminal justice system this year.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lady Helic, would my noble friend the Minister consider putting it out to the police and crime commissioners to create strategies that work across their police forces to measure the progress being made by their local police authorities on responding to victims’ needs? I also refer to the critical issue of children who have been groomed and been victims of multiple rapes during the grooming process. If justice has been served, can we make sure that those young people get the support, both physically and mentally, that they will need long after they have had their time in court?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to focus on the importance of PCCs in this area. Although, as I have said, the scorecards which we intend to bring in will look at local and regional data, the role of the PCCs in this regard is also very important because they are the people on the ground and they have the relationship with the local police force. Her second point is also extremely important. Victim support does not stop when there is a conviction or a sentencing. Support for victims has to carry on because we know that, for the reasons that my noble friend has said, victims are in need of support often for a considerable time after the perpetrator has been convicted of and sentenced for the crime.

House adjourned at 6.40 pm.