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Rape and Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions and Convictions

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

11. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve the prosecution and conviction rates of those charged with rape. (904099)

The Government are providing £150 million this year for victims and witnesses and the support services relating to all types of crime. Of that, more than £50 million has been ringfenced specifically for rape and domestic abuse victims.

In Bath we are fortunate to have the charity Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support, which empowers survivors to tell their stories. With just 2.4% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction, too many women do not come forward for fear that they will have to relive their trauma, and they do not get justice. Will the Secretary of State commit to mandatory training in the Crown Prosecution Service on understanding the impact of trauma and supporting victims, so that all victims of rape come forward in the knowledge that justice is being served?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this very important issue in the forensic way that she does. The funding that I referred to includes funding for 700 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, precisely to give victims the support, advice and confidence to see their cases through. We have to bear down on the attrition rate—as it is called in the criminal justice system—of victims falling out of the system because of lack of confidence.

To respond directly to the hon. Lady’s point, before Christmas we will publish criminal justice scorecards not only for general crime but specifically for rape, so we will be able to see the performance at every step in the system. That will help to spur an increase in performance, which will give victims the confidence to come forward and get prosecutions to court.

When it comes to this issue, I would hope that all Members from all parts of the House speak with one voice, but the Secretary of State will know that recorded rape offences have hit the highest number on record at 61,000, with just 1.4% leading to a suspect being charged. There were only 1,333 convictions, and yet the Government could not even agree to the target on improving prosecutions in their own review. Will the Secretary of State, who I know wants to get on top of this issue, commit to getting conviction and prosecution levels back to those last seen in 2016 by the end of this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to this as a problem, a challenge—and a systemic one at that. It is of course good news that a number of victims have been willing to come forward, talk to the police and report that crime, but it cannot stop there. That is why we are publishing the score cards that I mentioned to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). We are looking at every stage of the system, including improving phone technology and digital disclosure. We are making sure that victims can access an online or telephone device 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He will know about Operation Soteria, which is shifting the focus of investigations from the victim to the suspect so that they are suspect-centric, and that we are also trialling section 28 pre-recorded cross-examinations so that vulnerable types of victim do not have to go through the added trauma of giving evidence in front of an assailant.

Women and girls do not seem to be safe from sexual predators whether they are alive or dead. David Fuller violated 100 bodies at a Kent hospital. Many of my constituents are impacted by these crimes. At present, necrophilia is illegal under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with a maximum sentence of just two years. Can my right hon. Friend consider reviewing that to ensure that the maximum sentence is extended so that the punishment reflects the gravity of the crime?

I share my hon. Friend’s total disgust at what we have learned about those hospitals in Kent, and, indeed, in relation to the David Fuller case more broadly. Although I have already said this, as has, I think, the Health and Social Care Secretary, I am very happy to repeat that I am willing to look at those sentences again. Incidents of this kind of event are rare, but they are abhorrent and the sentence must match the level of outrage, the trauma and the renewed trauma that it will put the victims’ families through.

Women and girls who are victims of human trafficking suffer extreme violence, yet, last year, there were only 91 prosecutions and 13 convictions for specific modern slavery offences. However, there is some good news: the charity Justice and Care has been working with the Government to provide victim navigators to help in prosecuting these evil gangs. In nine out of 10 instances where the victim navigator is involved, we get the evidence to prosecute. Will the Government look at extending their support for that charity?

I am very happy to look at that. We have a record-breaking amount from the spending review, certainly the largest in the past 10 years, for justice issues, and I will be looking very carefully at the support that we can provide for victims. My hon. Friend referred to the work of the charity in question, and it dovetails with what I have already mentioned to the House about the independent sexual violence advisers. We know that, if the victims who have gone through these awful crimes get the support they need, they are less likely to fall out of the justice system. That is one of the important ways that we will secure more prosecutions.

On the Home Affairs Committee, we recently heard from Sir John Gillen, Baroness Stern and Lady Dorrian, all of whom have conducted independent reviews into rape or serious sexual violence in some part of the United Kingdom recently. They were unanimous in saying that the single most important factor in preventing a rape victim from withdrawing from the criminal process is the ability to give evidence early under section 28 procedures. I know that my right hon. Friend shares my view on this. Will he tell the House when he expects this procedure to be rolled out across the nation?

That is incredibly important not only for the victims of rape, but for other vulnerable victims. The evidence so far from the pilots and the trials needs to be gleaned and carefully evaluated, but I can tell my hon. Friend that this is something that I want to look at very carefully not just because of the ability to secure a more effective prosecution, but to deter defence lawyers from perhaps not the universal practice, but certainly the widespread practice of encouraging the accused to wait until the moment in court before they take the decision on whether to plead guilty.

Whether victims of sinister spiking, rape or sexual assault, women and girls are being retraumatised by the system. They are cross-examined, disbelieved and made to feel like they are on trial, despite having had their own bodies used against them. No wonder 80% of rape victims do not report it. Last night, Channel 4’s “Dispatches” exposed the ugly truth behind women’s experiences and about a system that is letting victims down. As one woman put it:

“It’s soul destroying not to be believed when you’ve been through so much. They discredit and they destroy you.”

Will the Secretary of State tell us who is on trial here, and explain to women and girls what he will do to put this right and restore their faith in a broken justice system?

I totally share the hon. Lady’s sense of frustration on behalf of victims up and down the country. There is no single silver bullet, precisely because it is a system-wide failure. As has already been mentioned, more victims are reporting to police stations than before; that is positive. We have Operation Soteria, the whole purpose of which is to shift the way in which investigations address these crimes to make them suspect-centric, rather than focusing on the behaviour of victims.

There are a number of technical things that we can do: section 28 has been mentioned; and improving phone technology and digital disclosure is another aspect. It will be important when we publish the criminal justice scorecards for rape that we can see not just at a national level, but—in due course, following that—at a local level, which areas are getting it right and why those other places are not following best practice, and that we ensure we can correct the gaps.