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Information Commissioner’s Office Report

Volume 823: debated on Monday 11 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to implement the recommendations of the Information Commissioner’s Office report Whos Under Investigation: The processing of victims’ personal data in rape and serious sexual offence investigations, published on 31 May.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving protections for victims of rape, so that they are not subjected to unnecessary and intrusive requests for information. We have changed the law to minimise requests for digital information, and we are consulting on new statutory duties to ensure that police requests for third-party material are both necessary and proportionate. We are working closely with the police and other criminal justice partners to consider the ICO recommendations.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. It is hardly surprising that rape prosecutions fell by nearly 60% in four years, even though the number of reports to the police increased, and that the proportion of rape complainants dropping out of cases has risen from 25% to 43% over the last five years. It must be partly due to the fact that, when someone summons up the courage to make a complaint about rape, they are asked to sign a form agreeing access to any information that the police or CPS might care to go fishing for—counselling, school reports and, of course, social media. Does the Minister care to confirm whether, if a rape victim seeks support and rape counselling during the period between reporting the rape and the case coming to court, the police may also access that information if they choose? As the ICO put it, “If you don’t comply, we will come back with an enforcement hat on”. What is the timescale for the change?

That point about “If you don’t comply” is absolutely the opposite of what the Home Office, the police and the CPS’s approach will be. The aim is to encourage victims through a very clear process on whether to hand over digital information. Our aim is to have that processed within 24 hours, because it is not right that someone feels compelled to hand over their phone or feels that the prosecution will not go accordingly if they fail to do so.

My Lords, yet again it appears that the law, and the rules set by the police and the CPS restricting access to rape victims’ sensitive personal information, are not making a practical difference. Is this not a reflection of a culture in the police, the CPS and the courts that does not treat women fairly? What will the Government do to address this?

I cannot disagree with the noble Lord that the rape review and the things we are doing for victims now are long overdue, and that there has been a culture along the chain of letting women down. Indeed, we should be making sure, and we are, that both referrals and prosecutions go forward.

My Lords, concern about non-disclosure of evidence was an issue a long time ago, when I was Attorney-General. The balance has swung the other way, to excessive intrusion. As defence counsel in many rape cases, there is an even more fundamental problem in ensuring that justice is done, as juries are reluctant to convict where the defence is consent. Will the Attorney-General lean on the DPP to publish statistics distinguishing consent cases from stranger-rapes, so that effective prosecutions can succeed in the former?

I think that is the whole point of the criminal justice system: that evidence that comes forward distinguishes between consent and non-consent.

My Lords, can the Minister readdress my noble friend’s question about counselling? It is a real concern of women that after they have made a report, they should be able to get some help—some therapy or counselling—in the considerable period before trial. The fear that that might be exposed to a fishing expedition will affect attrition rates.

I do apologise: I only answered one part of the noble Baroness’s question; I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has come forward. I do not know if she is aware of Operation Soteria, a process through which the victim would be supported through the system from end to end, notwithstanding the need to secure justice and the right outcome based on evidence. I believe that five forces were initially part of the pilot. There are now 14 more, so I hope this will be a way of following due process and being consistent nationally, and a model for the future.

My Lords, the Minister will be well aware, as is widely reported in the media, of children not being believed by police officers when they report rape, including in places such as Rotherham. Does she believe there are some significant changes in that pattern of behaviour by police officers in particular forces? On the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, about support for women and children, organisations that offer such support, particularly those through which women support women, have been decimated. Does she believe that adequate resources are available through the Government and local authorities?

On funding, our VAWG strategy comes with a significant amount of funding. On children and Rotherham, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. In fact, I can think of other parts of the country where the culture makes some of its leaders completely blind to what is going on under their noses.

My Lords, the Minister has already confirmed that she does not believe that the price for justice for rape victims in this country should be that their whole personal life is laid bare. It is causing victims to walk away before their case even reaches court, making them feel doubly victimised. The recommendations in this report are very modest to say the least. Why can the chief constables and the CPOs not just get on with implementing them now? Do they seriously need to be officially told to work together to implement consistent and proportionate treatment of victims—or will we just stand by as our already dismal prosecution rates get even worse?

One thing I feel a bit disappointed about is that the report does not reflect some of the powers that I know the noble Baroness was instrumental in bringing forward within the PCSC Act. They will both help to protect privacy and, I hope, improve consistency across the piece.

My Lords, no one is more concerned than I am that people who have been the victims of rape should be dealt with sensitively and properly, but could I put a point which may not prove popular here? Surely, there is always the possibility in the system that someone might make a malicious charge. It is therefore important to have sufficient evidence and if all, or a lot, of that evidence is closed off it could again cause problems and injustice for somebody else.

I totally agree with my noble friend and refer her to the comments I made earlier. Nevertheless, it is also important in that whole balancing act that people do not feel they have to hand over their mobile phones or that their prosecution will not go forward if they do not.

My Lords, other victims of crime are not expected to hand over such sensitive information as in the case of rape; that is what is unfair. Actually, the victim in such cases can be asked to divulge far more information than the person accused. I hope the Minister can confirm that women should not expect to have personal information about the impact that attack has had on them shared with the defendant—the person who has raped them.

I hope the noble Baroness will agree that I have made that point throughout my answers. It is all about the balance between justice being served and evidence being brought forward but victims, in particular, not feeling coerced into having to do it.

My Lords, it is clear that things are complex in relation to charges of rape and the information you may or may not have to hand over. Obviously, at that moment somebody has had an enormous trauma, whether it turns out to be a criminal offence or not. Can my noble friend please outline what awareness and publicity the department is providing to make sure that women generally are aware of what you can and cannot be asked at that moment, before they are in that unfortunate situation?

What we are working towards and hoping to implement by the beginning of the next Parliament is that the process and the regulations around it are absolutely clear about what is expected of the police, and that there is training to back this up on what people will be asked to hand over. There is an aim towards it being for not more than 24 hours because for many people, it is not only their phone but their entire life.