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Rape: Criminal Prosecutions

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Justice to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Last year, in the end-to-end rape review, this Government committed to more than doubling the number of adult rape cases reaching court by the end of this Parliament. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, but we are starting to see early signs of progress. There are more victims reporting these cases to the police. The police are referring more cases to the CPS and the CPS is charging more cases. Rape convictions are increasing—indeed, there has been a 67% increase since 2020—and timeliness is improving, with the time it takes for cases to be completed, from charge, continuing to fall, down by five weeks since the peak in June last year.

This is encouraging, but it is just a start. That is why we have identified eight levers that are driving this change. First, we are increasing victim support. We have now quadrupled the funding for victim support provided by Labour to £192 million by 2024-25, as well as increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers to more than 1,000 by 2024-25.

Secondly, we are rolling out pre-recorded cross-examination for rape victims to all Crown Courts nationally, helping to prevent more victims being retraumatised by the experience of giving evidence in a live trial. Thirdly, suspect-focused investigations, known as Operation Soteria, are being rolled out nationally. That will be completed by the first half of next year, and will mean that the police focus on the suspect’s behaviour rather than on the victim’s credibility. Fourthly, we have reformed and clarified disclosure rules, working with the police to make sure that victims’ mobile phones are examined only where strictly necessary.

Fifthly, we are reducing the stress of intrusive requests for third-party information—for example, medical or social services records—and working with the police and the CPS so that they are gathered only when relevant. Sixthly, we are boosting capacity and capability by increasing the ranks of our police and the number of specialist rape and sexual offences roles in the CPS. Seventhly, our efforts to expand Crown Court capacity continue, with a £477 million investment over the next three years to reduce victims’ waiting time for trials. Eighthly, our CJS delivery data dashboard is increasing transparency and giving the Government and local leaders the information they need to do better for victims.

We are going even further than the commitments that we made in the rape review because we have listened to victims and those who work with them. We have recently announced a pilot of enhanced specialist sexual violence support in three Crown Court centres. This Government are on the side of victims. We want no rape victim to feel as though they are the one on trial. We want every rape victim to feel that they can come forward and seek support. We want to lock up the rapists who commit these abhorrent crimes. We want to protect the public. We will make our streets safe.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Question in the other place. This is a deeply serious subject. The situation in our Crown Courts is dire. Home Office figures show that just 1.3% of the 67,125 rape offences recorded by the police in 2021 led to a prosecution. The Statement pointed to a small improvement in the figures, and I acknowledge that improvement. However, those improvements are starting from a tragically low base. In the vast majority of cases the police do not refer the case to the CPS because they see witnesses as unreliable through drink, drugs or mental capacity.

I and the Government believe that the proper training of police officers can improve this situation. I have two specific questions for the Minister. First, does he believe that there should be specialist rape units in all police forces? Secondly, does he believe that the number of specialist trained police officers should be publicised and publicly available?

My Lords, I am sure that the question of improved training for the police has an important role to play in dealing with the situation that we are faced with. We are undertaking, in effect, a multitrack approach, which I think has three main aspects: restoring victims’ trust in the system; improving investigations—that is where police training comes in very directly; and improving the procedures in the police, the CPS and the courts. With those three aspects, including increased training for the police, I venture to hope that we shall recover from the present situation.

My Lords, 71.2% of the 1,500 cases prosecuted last year resulted in a conviction. However, of the 55,000 complaints, 23,259 victims did not support further action. What causes have the Ministry of Justice identified for nearly half of complainants refusing to support a prosecution?

There appears to have been some loss of trust in the system on the part of victims, which we are doing our best to remedy. The very beginning of the programme, as I sought to explain, is about restoring victims’ trust in the system. The importance of independent sexual violence advisers is crucial here. There is evidence that the intervention of such an adviser improves the likelihood of a victim complaining and persevering with the case. There are, as I said, trials of specialist units in three Crown Courts to support victims. We are working with Rape Crisis England and Wales to mobilise the best-quality support service for victims. This month we shall start operating a 24-hour victim support service. This combination of measures on this multitrack approach will, I hope, alleviate the situation to which the noble Lord refers.

My Lords, while I welcome the Statement and lots of money being thrown into this area, I do not feel that this supports victims. This all seems to be going into agencies that should know how to treat victims first and foremost. I am supporting victims—rape victims—where police officers are not supporting them or giving the right advice. As Victims’ Commissioner, I worked on a lot of what is in the Statement. IDVAs and ISVAs are very important but just over 1,000 is not enough to support what they have to do—and that is by 2024-25. This seems to say that we are going to have talks with all the agencies, but who is talking to the victims? How is the information being received by victims? I am not disappointed by the money, but this is about agencies letting victims of all crimes down—never mind rape victims—and it is not very victim-focused. This will all join together only when we have legal rights for victims.

I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention and take note of what she says. We are working as hard as we can to introduce a co-ordinated and effective support service for victims. There is in prospect a further victims’ Bill, due later this year, which I hope will reinforce support for victims. It is a matter of co-ordinating, improving and building on what I suggest to your Lordships is the encouraging start we have already made.

My Lords, having spent most of my professional life at the criminal Bar, I am deeply concerned about the entry of young people to—and now their exodus from—the criminal Bar, loaded with debt from degrees, conversion courses, Bar finals and pupillages. I have two specific questions. First, why will the proposed increase in fees not come into effect until September and will it affect trials? Secondly, if the Attorney-General, as the head of the Bar, has not met the Criminal Bar Association, will she do so to discuss what other practical steps can be taken to deal with the appalling delays in rape cases? Delays in consensual cases rapidly diminish the chances of conviction in my experience.

My Lords, part of the noble and learned Lord’s question puts me in a difficult position because last year I was responsible for a quite separate, independent review of criminal legal aid. The matter of criminal legal aid and fees will therefore be dealt with by my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart on another occasion. Having carried out that independent review, I am not in a position to enter into that matter—much as I would wish to, I am not able to.

On the question of delays in criminal trials, as I indicated, the delays are falling—slowly, but they are falling—and we are taking very large, important steps to reduce the waiting time before these cases take place.

My Lords, gender-based violence has been a major theme in our discussions across the Anglican Communion, from a wide range of cultures. Many international communities look to the United Kingdom to lead in this area, given the deeply traumatising effect that such violence can have—obviously on the victims but also on whole communities over generations. David Cameron originally signed up to the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, in company with almost all our European partners; why has that decision not been ratified by subsequent Governments, putting us in the small company of Bulgaria, Hungary and a few smaller eastern European nations? Although that may not indicate a lack of commitment in this area, might it not at least be seen in that light?

To the best of my recollection, we are on the point of ratifying the Istanbul convention. I am not in a position to confirm that this afternoon, but I will write to the right reverend Prelate or place information in the Library. He will forgive me for not being able to give a fuller answer to his question.

My Lords, it is vital that rape victims have confidence in the police. It is nine months since the conviction of a serving Metropolitan Police officer for rape and murder, four months since it was revealed that officers were joking about raping women in a work WhatsApp group and a few days since another lone female was murdered on the streets of London—and, today, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services placed the Metropolitan Police in special measures. Why has the Home Secretary not appointed a new commissioner to help to restore women’s trust and confidence in the police?

Although I have total sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, would my noble and learned friend agree that it is vital that we never lose sight of the basic principle of English justice—namely, that a man or woman is innocent until proven guilty?