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Operation Soteria

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 13 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the effectiveness of Operation Soteria, and (2) last year’s statistics on the (a) attrition rates, and (b) waiting times, in cases of reported rape in England and Wales.

My Lords, there are early signs of improvement. In the pioneering Soteria force, Avon and Somerset, the number of cases charged has more than tripled; the number of victims who withdrew at the police stage and post charge remains high, as does the time it takes for cases to pass through each stage of the system. There is further to go to improve the response to rape, but I am pleased to report that all 43 forces are now implementing the Soteria approach.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Minister, who is of course a law officer and a criminal lawyer of some distinction. But prosecution volumes are lower now than 10 years ago, despite reported rapes being up by 30,000. He will know that this is a particularly complex and sensitive offence, and it requires resources. Is it not time to experiment with specialist rape courts to give this grave offence the priority and the resources it needs?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her Question and for giving me of her time yesterday at our informal engagement so that she could outline the thinking behind this Question on an exceptionally important topic. She asked about introducing specialist courts for sexual violence; we have already completed a national rollout of pre-recorded evidence, which spares victims the ordeal of having to appear in a live courtroom and assists them in giving their evidence to the best effect. We will update the victims’ code so that CPS prosecution teams must meet with rape victims ahead of court cases to answer their questions and allay any concerns that they may have. In the next phase of our specialist sexual violence support project, we will ensure that participating Crown Courts have the option to remotely observe a sentencing hearing by videolink, and that will be available to any victim of crime who seeks it, subject to the agreement of the judge.

My Lords, there certainly are some improvements—and that is to be commended—but they are incremental against, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, the stages of the process. It is a particularly difficult set of crimes to investigate, often because of the consent issue where there is an existing relationship or, alternatively, because 70% of the victims are vulnerable at the time of the attack; in fact, they are often selected because of age, infirmity, alcohol or whatever. I wonder whether it is time for the Law Commission to consider whether the law fits the nature of the crime and whether it would allow research with juries to understand why they do not convict in some of these cases—something that is not allowed now. Otherwise, I think both the investigators and the prosecutors are getting worried about the prejudices exhibited sometimes by juries and therefore the charges do not go forward and the whole system stops. I just wonder whether it is time for an objective look at the crime as well as the investigation.

My Lords, I am again grateful for that contribution from the noble Lord, who of course speaks from his professional insight and great experience in investigating and superintending police officers working on this. I am aware that there is objective data about jury responses to crimes available which is the result of meticulous study in England and Wales. I can also assure the noble Lord and the House that we as a Government are working with the Law Commissions in relation to that.

My Lords, protection for victims is a key part of how we will see improvements here, and the Government’s end-to-end rape review action plan committed to reducing unnecessary and disproportionate requests for personal information. Can my noble and learned friend the Minister update me on progress in this area?

Once again, my noble friend makes an exceptionally important point. Progress on the implementation of Operation Soteria has touched on matters such as the essential aspect of possession and use of a mobile phone. People nowadays are entirely dependent on their phones in all sorts of ways. As the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have contributed will appreciate, mobile phones are often pivotal in the investigation and accumulation of sufficient evidence with which to bring a charge. We are taking steps, and the Soteria principles set out, so that phones will be away from people for one day at the most.

My Lords, Operation Soteria has been widely welcomed and it is positive to see the encouraging outcomes in the pilot areas, as the noble and learned Lord has outlined. But we know that, to improve rape prosecution, there needs to be meaningful action to transform policing culture, in which institutional misogyny, racism and other forms of discrimination are harming survivors. What further action is being taken to tackle this corrosive culture of abuse? Police abuse of power for sexual purposes is now the biggest form of corruption dealt with by the police complaints body, and we need to tackle this.

The Government have established a unit in the Home Office which will work in conjunction with police chief constables in order to attempt to shape police responses, attitudes and—for want of a better expression—the general culture within the police force. Beyond that, I hope I can give the noble Baroness some assurance that, from now, all new recruits and first responders will be trained and acquainted with the Soteria principles.

A number of years ago, a very interesting initiative that was put in train was the creation of something called SARCs—sexual assault referral centres. Women could go to these special centres, where they would be examined by doctors and nurses who were specially trained, there would be people who could counsel and it was not about policing at that stage. It allowed young women who had been raped to have the swabs and the forensic evidence taken and put into a place of safety and kept if there was going to be a prosecution. But the women were not forced initially to make a decision—

The question is, and it is an important one: what has happened to those SARCs? How many are there in the country? They seem to have disappeared off the radar, and young women do not even know that they exist.

My Lords, I do not have to hand the information that the noble Baroness seeks, but I undertake to write to her. I am aware of the existence of SARCs. They came in and were located within hospitals so that people did not face the daunting prospect of immediate engagement with the criminal justice system but were brought in gradually. I share the noble Baroness’s concern about this matter and, with her leave, will write to her.

My Lords, the Minister will understand that my experience in relation to prosecuting and defending rape is, to put it mildly, dated. He will, of course, be aware of the proposals now being made north of the border. To what extent are these being taken into account in the other jurisdiction in which he has responsibility?

My Lords, I am happy to say that my professional arc and that of the noble Lord have coincided, so he and I share experiences in this field. The point the noble Lord makes is—as the noble Lord is—an evergreen one. Certain essentials in relation to these matters exist and will always exist. On the specific matter the noble Lord raises, in my ministerial post I am very conscious of developments in Scotland and assure the noble Lord that, together with the England and Wales law officers—with whom I am in regular contact: we have a meeting once a week—we share with one another data and experiences and the work that we carry out in the field in order best to improve practices in all jurisdictions.

My Lords, of course, we all welcome any reversal of the catastrophic collapse of rape prosecutions since 2017. However, conviction rates seem to be flatlining. I know that the press release from the MoJ says that more rapists were put behind bars, but if you dig into those figures, that 3% increase meant 12 convictions—I think that is fewer than any year from 2010 to 2018. Will the noble and learned Lord the Minister tell the House when the backlog which leads to two-year waits—which are so corrosive with rape issues and the lack of making progress on rape—is going to be reduced and how?

My Lords, the Operation Soteria principles in relation to this field are directed to improving every aspect of rape prosecution and the management of people complaining of those serious crimes. I can give the noble Baroness some assurance, but she will appreciate that the data that I give is, in essence, at an early stage, because the reforms that Soteria introduced will take time to bear fruit—she is good enough to nod in assent that she appreciates the difficulties. The outcomes have varied between the participating forces thus far. The joint council between the Home Office and police officers that I mentioned earlier will examine quite why that should be. We have seen encouraging results in Avon and Somerset, in Durham and in the West Midlands. In the last example, the number of cases referred has doubled—I appreciate that that is not the matter with which the noble Baroness is specifically concerned, but referrals have risen by 108%. In that area, I think that the House can take some comfort and think that Soteria’s workings-out are bearing fruit in policing practice.