I have frequent discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a range of issues, including cases of rape and other sexual offences. May I take this opportunity to update the House on one aspect of trials of this kind of offending?
Earlier this year, the then Justice Secretary and I asked the Crown Prosecution Service to review a sample of case files to ascertain the frequency of applications to introduce evidence relating to the previous sexual history of a complainant, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Section 41 provides for a presumption against the inclusion of evidence based on previous sexual history, but allows that evidence to be heard only in restricted circumstances. I am grateful to the Director of Public Prosecutions for her findings, which show that in only 13% of the cases looked at was an application under section 41 made, and that in just 8% of those cases was an application granted by the judge. That indicates that the overwhelming majority of rape cases see no evidence submitted of a complainant’s previous sexual history, but the Government are looking carefully at the detailed findings to assess the operation of the law in practice, and we will set out our conclusions shortly.
I welcome the Attorney General’s comments, but does he accept that low conviction rates for rape and sexual offences can deter victims from reporting those incidents to the police—an issue that was recently brought to my attention by a constituent? If so, will he work with the Director of Public Prosecutions to improve confidence in our ability to prosecute such cases and ensure that victims are able to come forward?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and the answer to her last question is certainly yes—that is what we are doing. She is right: there are a number of factors that might deter those who should come forward to report crimes of this nature from doing so, and of course deter them from pursuing those cases throughout trial. We must not only do what we can to ensure that conviction rates are where they should be, but make sure that complainants are properly supported throughout the case. We do that through independent sexual violence advisers and special measures. She will know that, in relation to vulnerable witnesses in particular, we are beginning to roll out pre-recorded cross-examination so that people can give their evidence outside a courtroom and get it done before the trial begins. All those things will help, but there is more to do.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is important for two reasons. First, as I have indicated, for those people it means that their part in the case can be over before the rest of the trial takes place, meaning that they are not subject to any delays from which the case may suffer. Secondly, they are of course giving evidence outside the courtroom, without having to confront the defendant in the case. It is of huge benefit and, as I have said, I look forward to its further roll-out.
In his capacity as ex officio Advocate General for Northern Ireland, what advice has the Attorney General given to his colleagues in government about the implications of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 on cases of rape in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the non-consensual sex exemption form?
As the hon. Lady may anticipate, I obviously do not discuss the advice that I have given within government. However, she can take it for granted that in relation to Northern Ireland, as in relation to all other parts of the United Kingdom, we take these offences extremely seriously, and we wish them to be prosecuted effectively.