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House of Commons Hansard
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Rape Defendants (Anonymity)
07 June 2010
Volume 511

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

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I am grateful for the opportunity this evening to question the Government’s proposals to give anonymity to defendants in rape trials.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), to his new position. He is a reasonable man and I know he realises that this issue has caused much concern to many Members. I am grateful to my hon. Friends who have stayed in the Chamber this evening and I am also grateful to Members on the Government Benches. I hope the hon. Gentleman will hear the points that are made tonight.

Rape devastates women’s lives. Every 34 minutes a rape is reported to the police in the UK. Many more go unreported. The Fawcett Society suggests that 47,000 women are raped every year. Much has been done in the past decade. More rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, although the conviction rate is still too low. More rapists are brought to justice, and across the criminal justice system rape victims can expect to find greater compassion, respect and sensitivity.

That is welcome progress, and I pay tribute in particular to Vera Baird, not just for her work as Solicitor-General, but also for the campaigns she led for victims of rape and sexual abuse long before she was a Minister or an MP, and for her advice to me in preparing for this debate.

Let us be in no doubt, though, that justice still eludes too many rape victims in too many parts of the country. Only one in 20 rapes reported to the police results in a conviction. On whatever measure we choose to use, most rapists are never held to account for their actions and most victims never see their attacker brought to justice. So what does the coalition plan to do about it?

In its programme for government, the coalition set out its solution in just one short sentence proposing anonymity for defendants in rape trials. Those proposals, if implemented, would deter victims from coming forward and make it far more difficult for the police to charge offenders and convict rapists. We know that many rapists are serial offenders; their trail of victims often runs into double digits. Many women—for a variety of reasons—do not come forward straight away. They are afraid; they want to pretend it never happened. They are embarrassed; they feel as though they did something wrong. They are ashamed; they believe that what happened was their fault. They feel alone.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why young women who may be in a dependent relationship with someone when they are raped do not come forward is that they feel that in some way it was their fault? Only subsequently, perhaps when they hear that the person has done the same thing elsewhere, do they gain the courage to speak up?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often only publicity about a rape charge that leads other victims to come forward. It is only at that point that they understand that they are not alone—that it is not their fault and they can do something about it.

Let us consider the case of the black-cab driver, John Worboys. When he was arrested for a string of sex attacks in 2008, 85 women came forward to say that they, too, had been attacked by him. Offering attackers the blanket of anonymity will prevent victims from getting the justice they deserve and hinder the police in protecting the public.

However, the real question is this: on what basis do we distinguish rape defendants from those accused of any other serious, violent or sexual offence? What singling out rape defendants says is that rape victims are less reliable, less credible and less trustworthy—that they are to be believed less—than the victims of any other crime. It reinforces the myth that women who report rape are lying, and gives succour to those who peddle the same old lies about women being responsible for being raped.

Let me be clear that no one doubts the damage that false allegations cause—innocent men find their lives turned upside down, police time is wasted and public money is misused, and they insult genuine victims, belittle their suffering and make juries more sceptical than they would otherwise be—but in the most recent and authoritative report, Baroness Stern could find no evidence that the incidence of false allegations was higher in rape cases than in any other crime. A report by the Home Office in 2005 came to the same conclusion. International research in 2007 showed that, even of the very small number of false allegations, in most cases no offender was named—malice was not the motive; it was a cry for help from a distressed woman. Moreover, the law already deals with those who make malicious complaints against others, because making a false allegation perverts the course of justice and those who do it can, and do, receive substantial prison sentences.

Rape is, by its nature, an extremely difficult crime to prove. Most victims are raped by people whom they know. It takes people a tremendous amount of courage—more courage than anyone who has never been raped can ever understand—to tell someone, anyone, let alone the police, that they have been raped.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are particular issues in relation to young people who have been in the care system in cases of historical abuse and that the Government’s proposal would have a very negative effect on the opportunity for young people to come forward, perhaps at a later date?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend her for all the work in this area that she has done in Scotland. I very much welcomed the time when, as a Home Office Minister, I worked with her. She is right: more and more these days, we hear of people coming forward later, when they have developed the confidence to do so and to talk to others about the crimes that have been committed against them. Again, the serial nature of the crime that we are talking about is important, because when a crime is reported and people hear the name of the person who has been charged, they feel confident to come forward and stand by the victims in the modern day, rather than just in the past.

If we understand what the evidence actually shows—that women are no more likely falsely to report allegations of rape than any other crime—what possible justification is there for giving those accused of rape anonymity? The only other possible explanation is that the stigma associated with being accused of rape is of an entirely different order to that associated with any other serious, violent or sexual offence, but unless we seriously think that there is less stigma attached to being a paedophile, wife beater or murderer than to a rapist, or that society is more understanding of those who sexually abuse children or kill in cold blood, we cannot have anonymity in rape cases without granting anonymity across the board. That principle is totally alien to our system of open, transparent justice, where anonymity is granted only when there are overwhelming, compelling reasons to do so.

I understand that the coalition may be shifting on this matter—I would welcome that—and that it is perhaps considering limiting anonymity to defendants between arrest and charge. That may be worth looking at, but only if the same rule is applied to defendants in all violent crimes, not just rape.

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Is it not true that it is very often between arrest and charge, when people hear that someone has been arrested for something, that other people come forward with similar patterns to create the weight of evidence that enables the prosecuting authorities successfully to proceed with the charge.

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Again, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. Where do we draw the line in establishing someone’s identity—whether on arrest or charge—and then allowing other victims the time to present their experiences? We are meddling in something that should not be meddled in. Plenty of other parts of the justice system need to be attended to, and this is not one of them.

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I share my right hon. Friend’s relief that the Government seem to be showing signs of back-pedalling or U-turning, or at least having a serious rethink on the issue, but does she share my concern that the proposal was not in either of the other two parties’ manifestos, yet it suddenly appeared in the coalition agreement? Does she share my hope that the Minister will explain why the proposal ended up in the coalition agreement and who was responsible for pushing the idea forward?

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Yes, it was in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the general election, although I would have thought that that was the platform from which to make such a proposal. I really think that it was nine short words that conveyed this policy in that coalition agreement, and those nine short words developed a policy that has not been thought through, but is very dangerous.

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I have been participating in these late-night Adjournment debates for 16 years and I have never seen so many Government Members paying such attention as they are paying to what my right hon. Friend is saying. I pray and hope that what she is arguing tonight will be well received and that we can have a change of policy. Without making a great party claim of victory, the coalition Government have got it wrong, and they should be man and woman enough to accept that tonight.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that we can end this proposal tonight, because the real issue—the real injustice—is not the rights of defendants, but the plight of tens of thousands of women who are raped but never see their attacker brought to justice. Our priority must be delivering justice for victims of rape and protecting the public from dangerous offenders.

The last time a Government made proposals to grant those accused of rape anonymity was 1975. Despite making much of their parties’ modern, progressive credentials during the 2010 election campaign, the coalition Government’s proposals would take us back to a time when there was a residual doubt about rape victims built into the criminal justice system, which denied thousands of victims justice.

When victims of rape are afraid—afraid of what has happened, afraid to come forward, afraid that no one will believe them—we must show them that we will believe them. When rapists believe that they can attack with impunity, and go on and on wrecking women’s lives and never face the consequences of their actions, we must show them that we will bring them to justice.

When proposals such as this are made—dangerous proposals, I am afraid to say, that insult victims of rape and inhibit the ability of the police to catch dangerous criminals—in this House we must show, through the strength of our case and the passion of our arguments, that we will speak up for those without a voice.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for welcoming me to my new responsibilities and for her kind remarks about my reasonableness. I sincerely hope that she still holds that view when I have concluded my reply to her debate. I congratulate her on raising the issue and on securing the time to discuss it. It is a matter of importance, as the exchanges at Prime Minister’s Question Time last week showed, and it merits very careful consideration if we are to be fair to all sides of the argument.

I would like to remind the House that, long before acquiring my current responsibilities, I took an interest in these issues. In 1999, I introduced the Sexual Offences (Anonymity of Defendants) Bill to protect teachers from the consequences of accusations by children who have anonymity and the subsequent reporting by a sometimes salacious media. My Bill was prompted by the suicide of a constituent, Nick Drewett, a popular and committed teacher who took his own life after being accused of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. The accusations fell very far short of any suggestion of rape, but the combination of the way in which the accusations were investigated by the police and their reporting led to his death. His headmaster, who was charged with him but tried alone, was acquitted.

My experience means that I come to this subject with a predisposition to protect victims, which can sometimes include those who are accused. We are in the business of reducing the number of future victims of crime, not inadvertently creating more.

Rape is a very serious crime. The rights and welfare of the victim are vital, and we are committed to ensuring that every victim of rape has access to appropriate support. In particular, we are looking to establish new rape crisis centres where there are gaps in provision and to put funding for such centres on a stable and long-term footing. There are 39 such centres and we are looking at the possibility of a further 15.

The Prime Minister has already made clear in the House his view that the low conviction rate in this country is a scandal. It is not good enough and we need to improve it. That means, as he has said, working with the police and also doing more to help rape victims, including backing rape crisis centres. Our overriding aim must be to reduce the incidence of the offence, not least by increasing the number of successful rape prosecutions.

The very last thing we want is investigative failures. We believe that they can be countered by more intelligence-led policing. We will carefully consider how we can support agencies’ joint working to share intelligence and good practice, and to ensure that there is an effective response to rape and victims of sexual violence. Introducing anonymity would not prevent the identities of those suspected and accused of rape from being shared among criminal justice practitioners.

As the Deputy Prime Minister made clear this afternoon, our policy on defendant anonymity in rape cases is sensitive—

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Will the Minister give way?

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No, if the hon. Lady will forgive me. Let me get to the conclusion of my remarks. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s sedentary comments. It is the debate of the right hon. Member for Don Valley. I am certain that she and the House will want to hear my remarks—

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The Home Office wrote them.

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Plainly, the remarks have been carefully prepared in conjunction with other Government Departments—[Interruption.]but not entirely, I am delighted to say. I have already made clear—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is not behaving in a way that does credit to the subject. It is not one that lends itself to barrack-room style interventions from a sedentary position. I would be grateful if right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches would do me the courtesy of listening carefully to these remarks. If they continue to intervene from a sedentary position—

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Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. There are certain right hon. and hon. Members who are not serving the dignity of the House particularly well at the present time. This is a deeply serious subject. It is the subject of a half-hour Adjournment debate. I do not believe that this will be the last time that the subject is likely to be discussed in the House. At all times we should discuss things in a calm and reasonable manner, particularly, I suggest to the House, a subject of this nature.

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I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As the Deputy Prime Minister made clear this afternoon, our policy on defendant anonymity in rape cases is sensitive and we will consider all the options carefully before bringing proposals to Parliament. This evening’s debate and the comments of the right hon. Member for Don Valley have been an early opportunity to listen to views, as promised by the Deputy Prime Minister this afternoon.

We will bring a policy to the House setting out our preferred option after we have considered each one with the care that this subject merits. In doing so, we will of course take into account potential implications for victims and for the conviction rate, as well as the reporting issues. There are sound reasons for our approach. Rape is such a serious and emotive crime that it attracts both a high degree of stigma for the defendant and a disproportionate degree of media interest. The combination of those factors distinguishes rape from other crimes. The reality is that sex in all its guises continues to fascinate the media. Reducing the level of prurient interest can only be in the interests of victims.

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Will the Minister give way?

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Giving evidence as a complainant is both difficult and stressful, and there are already policies in place to try to make this easier. Anything that can be done to reduce the pressure on witnesses in these circumstances is surely something we should contemplate. Equally, defendants accused of rape and not convicted are entitled to some protection. Anybody accused of rape is likely to be subject to minute scrutiny, often raising matters detrimental to the individual’s reputation that, in any other circumstances, would be regarded as trivial or irrelevant.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he really, seriously suggesting that the stigma associated with being accused of rape is no less than that associated with being accused of child abuse, assault, murder or wife beating? Why does rape stand out? Is it really about the fact that you just believe—[Hon. Members: “You?”] Sorry, is it really about the fact that the hon. Gentleman just believes that women who come forward to accuse someone of rape must be putting forward false allegations and are not to be believed, when the evidence shows that that occurs in a complete minority of cases?

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No, and no. I should be grateful if the right hon. Lady would, as we ought to in handling such cases, try to take the temperature out of the debate and turn to evidence rather than supposition. Let me continue with my remarks.

If the defendant is acquitted, quite apart from the lingering suspicion of guilt that might remain, there might be a range of adverse material about that individual in the public domain which would otherwise have remained private and which cannot even be expunged by an acquittal. Our approach to defendants who are accused of rape but not convicted will be based on what is just. There are a number of possible options on the timing and scope of anonymity. On timing, it could extend from the point of the accusation until the time the defendant is charged; or to the beginning of the trial; or to the point of conviction.

Further options relate to the scope of the anonymity in so far as the offences are concerned. It could cover anonymity in rape cases, but it could go wider. There are reasons why it might also be applied to other offences. I remind the House that our coalition agreement also states that we will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and take other measures to protect against false accusations. The principle is linked to anonymity in rape cases, as the tragic case of Nick Drewett showed. It was the reputational damage that caused him to take his own life, and, although we recognise the difficulties in any extension to particular professions or classes of offence, anonymity for those in positions of trust could apply more widely than to sexual offences. We have not yet discounted any options.

Whatever our conclusions, I can make it absolutely clear that we have no intention of extending similar protections to rape defendants once convicted. The media will be able to report the cases of convicted defendants in the usual way. A reason in principle for bringing forward the proposals is to help to restore the balance in rape cases with the anonymity given to complainants. It has often been said that the justification for complainant anonymity does not apply to defendants, on the basis that the purpose of complainant anonymity is to encourage more complainants to come forward—a factor that does not apply to defendants.

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Go on, get someone else in that job.

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Order. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) is behaving disgracefully and not assisting a debate of this kind. Now he really has enough experience of this House, as a Minister and as a Back Bencher, to realise that what he is doing is out of tune with how we should conduct our business in this House. I hope that I will not hear from him again.

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I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Complainant anonymity was introduced against a background of public concern about the lurid reporting of the cross-examination of complainants in rape trials. Of course, the protection from reporting provides the inducement to complainants to come forward. The underlying problem of exposure to publicity applies to defendants and complainants alike, and I want to make it clear that we have no plans to withdraw in any way the rights of complainants to anonymity. Our proposals are based on sound precedents. Defendant anonymity was the norm in rape cases for many years, and, of course, defendant anonymity continues to be the rule in all criminal proceedings in the youth court.

Let me address some of the points that the right hon. Lady made. She said this morning on the radio, in The Independent and repeated this evening that we know from the evidence that many rapists are serial offenders. I feel this to be true, but when I asked for evidence of how many rapists were serial offenders, and what proportion of convicted or charged rapists might fall into that category, there appeared to be insufficient data to form a reliable evidential picture.

Furthermore, in trying to acquire accurate detail on the number of times that convictions have been obtained because the identity of the defendant was known and further complainants came forward who were crucial to securing a conviction, I have again been unable to get a reliable picture or—

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Let me continue.

I have again been unable to get a reliable picture or, indeed, any firm evidence at all in the time available. I would welcome help from the right hon. Member for Don Valley, and those of her right hon. and hon. Friends who are supporting her this evening, in identifying serious analysis that can help us to discuss these issues on the basis of evidence rather than supposition.

The right hon. Lady referred this morning on the radio, in her article in The Independent and again this evening to the Worboys case. The facts of that case are that it was the police who finally identified a mode of behaviour from several different complainants, identifying 12 offences. It was that mode of behaviour which led to the charging and subsequent conviction of John Worboys on 19 counts. The police were criticised for the length of time it took them to identify Worboys, but that name would have meant no more to the complainants than it did to the police. It was the manner of the offences that led to his conviction.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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No.

Shortly before John Worboys’ trial, the police appealed, with the assistance of the media, for further victims to come forward. The appeal identified 70 to 85 further complainants—to use the right hon. Lady’s numbers; it is 81 according to the briefing that I have received—who recognised his modus operandi. However, none of those was central to his conviction as the police already had sufficient evidence, and had he been granted anonymity until conviction, it would still have been possible to identify those further complainants, and he would still have been convicted. So to understand the issues as perfectly as possible, if the right hon. Lady, and all those who have helped her to prepare, can identify cases where anonymity until conviction would have prevented an initial conviction being secured, I would be anxious to learn of them.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

If the right hon. Lady and others have further examples, it will come down to a question of balance. That is why we have said that we intend to reflect on the provisions carefully before we bring forward legislation.

Probably the most commonly encountered criticism is that defendant anonymity inhibits the reporting of criminal trials, but one might say the same of any anonymity for the parties to criminal proceedings, including complainant anonymity in rape cases and cases involving other sexual offences. The question is where the balance properly lies. We have no difficulty with full and robust reporting of defendants convicted of rape. That is entirely proper. But we believe that because the possibility of pre-emptive vilification of those accused of rape is so great, the stronger arguments are in favour of anonymity.

The related argument is sometimes made that defendants suspected of, or charged with, a wide range of offences may experience discomfort even if acquitted. For example, people working in the City—the right hon. Lady alluded to some of these points—and charged with fraud could also argue that they are likely to suffer fundamental reputational damage. That is true, but it overlooks the particular vulnerability of rape defendants to vilification to which I have already referred. It is that vulnerability, and the unique statutory anonymity for complainants, that distinguishes rape from other crimes.

Some people argue that defendant anonymity in rape cases would imply that the Government, and perhaps by extension the criminal justice system as a whole, felt that complainants were unreliable and so deter complainants from coming forward. I absolutely and robustly reject that argument, as did my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during Prime Minister’s questions last week. The justification for defendant anonymity in rape cases is the stigma attached to an accusation of rape. It has nothing to do with the likelihood or otherwise of acquittal. There is no implied view in our proposals of the prevalence or otherwise of false allegations in rape cases.

In conclusion—

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way before he concludes?

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In conclusion, the Government want informed contributions on the basis of evidence which will help us to bring forward proposals that will command the confidence of the House. The right hon. Lady has contributed to that process today; I rather regret that one or two of her right hon. and hon. Friends have not conducted themselves in the manner that this subject merits. [Interruption.] I am inviting the right hon. Lady, and other right hon. and hon. Members, to contribute evidence properly and sensibly rather than simply proceed on the basis of supposition. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady has contributed to that process, and I am grateful to her. The Government have the interests both of victims and of unconvicted defendants fully at heart, and the Government will proceed upon the evidence.

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The Question is that this House do now adjourn—[Interruption.] Order. The House must not behave in this manner. This was a half-hour Adjournment debate, which was perhaps too short a time to contain all the opinions that, understandably, hon. Members have on this matter. It would be a pity, however, to ruin the reputation of the House by bawling from a sedentary position.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.