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House of Commons Hansard

Sexual Offences (Amendment)

08 February 2017
Volume 621

    Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

  • I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the circumstances in which the sexual history of a victim of rape or attempted rape may be introduced at a trial; to prohibit in certain circumstances the disclosure by the police of a victim’s identity to an alleged perpetrator of a serious sexual crime; to extend the range of serious offences which may be referred to the Court of Appeal on the grounds of undue leniency of the sentence; to amend the requirements for ground rules hearings; to make provision for the issuing in certain circumstances of guidance on safeguarding to schools; to make provision for training about serious sexual offences; to place a duty on the Secretary of State to provide guidelines for the courts in dealing with cases of serious sexual offences; to require the Secretary of State to report annually on the operation of the Act; and for connected purposes.

    I appreciate that today’s business is calling so I will not take 10 minutes of the House’s time. I therefore hope that Government Ministers will agree to meet me and others to discuss in detail how the matters raised might be resolved.

    The Bill was drafted following discussions with senior North Wales Police officers and the force’s Amethyst sexual support centre and also victims’ support groups in Wales. The subject has been the focus of wide consultation by Harry Fletcher and Claire Waxman of Voice4Victims, who have collected a dossier of victims’ harrowing experiences.

    Currently, victims of sexual abuse face the possibility of being humiliated and their credibility undermined by defence lawyers asking questions about their sexual partners, clothing and appearance. Clause 1 of this Bill would prevent such intrusive and damaging questioning, and replicate the law that protects victims in Australia, Canada and most of the United States. This rape shield ensures that a complainant’s irrelevant sexual history in relation to the issue of consent is not wrongfully used as an indicator of the victim’s truthfulness. This rape shield is a necessary legal guard against the twin myths peddled by some defence teams: first, that a woman who has sex with one man is more likely to consent to have sex with another; and that the evidence of a promiscuous woman is less credible.

    A recent high-profile case in Wales has no doubt had an impact on victims’ confidence to come forward. Dame Vera Baird QC, Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner, has said: “The case is likely to encourage other defendants who claim consent to try to call evidence of their complainants’ sexual behaviour with other men.” She also said: “Fear that complainants will be accused of sexual behaviour with other men has historically been a major deterrent to women reporting rape.”

    Fear to report is compounded by the failure to prosecute. During 2015-16, there were 35,798 complaints of rape to the police, but just 2,689—7.5%—resulted in convictions. Some 90% of rape victims are female, and 10% are male.

    Ivy, a rape victim, was told at a ground rules hearing that her sexual history would not be used, but in court she faced questions and allegations that she was promiscuous. There was no judicial intervention.

    Emma was followed by a stranger who attacked and tried to rape her. Her screams were met with the threat that she stop or be killed. Fortunately, two off-duty police officers heard her screams. The trial fixated on why Emma chose to wear a red dress on that summer evening.

    Last year, 36% of rape trials overseen by the Northumbria court observers panel included questioning about prior sexual conduct of the complainant. In over 10% of these trials, in disregard of the present rules, applications were made on the morning of the trial, or after it had started, to allow such questioning. The humiliation of victims of sexual assault by reference to matters irrelevant to the case cannot be allowed to continue. The present law—section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999—was intended to do this, but it is no longer serving its original purpose effectively.

    The second major step forward in this Bill would be to stop the disclosure of the name of a victim of rape or attempted rape to an alleged perpetrator by the police. This happened in Máire’s case. She was terrified that her attacker would find her via social media. She changed her name, moved house and withdrew from the electoral register. Another victim told Voice4Victims: “I am scared every day that he might find me. I would have been much safer had I not reported.” Máire was correctly told by the police that there was neither policy nor legislation on disclosure of a victim’s name when the parties were strangers; it is left to officer discretion. This clause would rightly ensure that names are not given by the police unless a Crown court judge makes an order on application from the suspect.

    Clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to ensure that pupils are safeguarded in schools when there has been a serious sexual assault on one pupil by another. It follows a referral to Voice4Victims on Christmas eve. A teenage girl was raped by a fellow student at a party. He was arrested, charged and then bailed with a condition of no contact with the girl. To the family’s shock, and the victim’s distress, on returning to school she was placed in the same class as the attacker.

    The Bill would also allow the Attorney General to refer unduly lenient sentences for stalking and coercive control to the Court of Appeal, introduce safeguards for rape victims in ground rule hearings and provide for guidance for criminal justice and educational staff. These much needed reforms will have limited impact, unless they are accompanied by proper training. The Secretary of State will therefore have a duty to publish and implement a strategy to provide high-quality training and advice for all relevant staff.

    The provisions in the Bill are all based on the distressing experiences of victims of serious sexual crimes. These measures will help to restore victims’ faith in the criminal justice system and allow the criminal justice system to function more effectively. Who could argue that victims of rape should be re-victimised by the very system through which they seek redress? I commend the Bill to the House.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Ordered,

    That Liz Saville Roberts, Jess Phillips, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Sir Edward Garnier, Mr Graham Allen, Carolyn Harris, Tracy Brabin, Alison Thewliss, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Tim Loughton, Dr Eilidh Whiteford and Mr Alistair Carmichael present the Bill.

    Liz Saville Roberts accordingly presented the Bill.

    Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 137).