Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to continue just for a second.
We requested that the Home Office commission a new study of why there is such a low conviction rate in England and Wales. We suggested a public information campaign to close the gap between the perception and the reality of rape. Only lastly did we suggest a change in the law—agreed after debate, discussion and a vote by a majority—to prohibit the media from identifying anyone directly or indirectly about whom a complaint of rape has been made, and until such time as they have been convicted.
It was therefore not surprising that the Government have looked at the issue, even though I accept that it was in neither the Liberal Democrat nor the Conservative manifesto. The public did not, therefore, become engaged on the matter in the election campaign. I am not defending the fact that the proposals are in the coalition agreement, but saying clearly that I am sure that if the outcome of this deliberation and the response to the Government’s policy proposal, which came from the Liberal Democrats, is a consensus in the House and around the country not to proceed, both parties are open to persuasion along that line.
I want us to go deliberatively, because there is a strong case for changing the law, but it is not a cut-and-dried, open-and-shut case. I hope that the rest of the debate is much less partisan than the beginning of it, because this is not a party political issue—[Interruption.] It is absolutely not a party political issue. People outside would not understand if we took partisan positions, and I absolutely encourage the Government to think like the Lord Chancellor, who was right that a non-whipped vote would be entirely appropriate. I am in favour of many more such votes on such matters, which are not proprietarily the view of one ideological group or the next.
Let me make my other comments. If I have time to give way to the hon. Lady at the end, I will do so very willingly.
I want to address succinctly two wider issues that have been touched on. We must deal with the objective of maximising the number of people brought to justice for both rape and other serious sexual offences, but we must also achieve the second objective of avoiding the harmful stigma of such allegations, which can often lead to suicide, attempted suicide and the like, for which there is evidence. There are therefore two big criminal justice issues for our country—this is an England and Wales issue. We need first to decide whether open justice—the principle that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said should be our starting point, as it should—should be circumscribed at all. At the moment, we have done that for complainants in certain offences, but should we circumscribe open justice at all in relation to defendants? We could either do that for the category that I would call sexual offences against other people, by which I mean violent sexual assaults, which are not all rapes, or we could propose anonymity for other types of assault. I do not believe that there would be a case for inclusion for any other violent offences, and I am also not persuaded that child pornography or other such offences should be included. However, there may be a case for anonymity in cases involving sexual offences—of any type—against another.
The second question is on the limitation of the period of anonymity. Should we have a very limited period of anonymity, for example, up until charge, a longer period, which could last to the beginning of the trial, or the longest period, which would be up to the end of the trial and conviction?
I should like us to look very carefully and deliberatively at those two sets of options. Are we talking only about rape or about a wider set of sexual, serious, violent offences? Should anonymity last only for the period between arrest and charge or for longer? My hon. Friend the Minister and the Government want to listen to the voices and hear about the research. I hope that the House can do its duty properly and ensure that we come to the right conclusion. That will need a bit of time, but let us please not be overly partisan about it.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) hopes that this will be a non-partisan debate. The speeches that we have listened to this afternoon have been non-partisan in a party political sense. However, in relation to the policy that his Government are presenting, there is a marked lack of evidence that the proposed change is necessary, or that it would bring about any kind of improvement in convictions for rape, which, if I understood him, was at the centre of his argument.
The hon. Gentleman also hoped that given the amount of time the Government are affording to the debate, decisions would come about by consensus in the House and the country. How can there possibly be any consensus in the country if his Government do not enter into the widest, deepest and most detailed consultation? The question remains: why have his Government selected the offence of rape? Why should alleged perpetrators of rape alone, among alleged perpetrators of other crimes of violence, be afforded anonymity? Answer has come there none.
As we heard in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the implications of that proposal are wider if we go down that road. She touched on the issue of affording anonymity to teachers, and the hon. Gentleman’s Government have again come up with no detail of the alleged offence that a teacher might have committed. She gave the graphic example—and we all know about this—of children who had been abused not only by teachers, but by members of their family or other people in authority, and the automatic response of society at the time had been to disbelieve the children, with the result that the abuse continued in an ever wider circle. I refer to the past, but from contemporary reports we know that this still goes on. The scandal of what has happened in the Catholic Church continues to reverberate. The central essential there was the idea that secrecy was all, and so the imbalance of power between the abused and the abuser was reinforced. That is my fear about this proposal and the selection of rape as the only violent act that is afforded this kind of anonymity.
In his opening remarks, the Minister said—forgive me for paraphrasing, but I cannot remember his exact words—that it is now an accepted absolute that acts of violence against women are anathema, and that everybody in this country, this House, the criminal justice system and the police service are automatically appalled by acts of violence against women and, as a result, are immediately on the front foot, exercising all their abilities, talents and resources to track down whomsoever commits such heinous acts. We all know that that is absolute fantasy. We are witnessing at the moment one of the largest manhunts that this country has ever seen to try to track down a man who, it is alleged, has murdered one individual and shot at and injured two others. He boasted before he left prison of what he planned to do. I have no doubt that prison officials were very busy, but I am equally sure that it went into that little pocket—although it is getting bigger and bigger in my view—of something called “a domestic” in the criminal justice and police system. All it needed was for those officials in the prison to take the threats seriously, to ring the alleged perpetrator’s local police station so that the police there could take those threats seriously themselves, and perhaps the largest manhunt in British history would never have needed to take place.
There is still, as I said in an earlier intervention, a prevailing view in this country that incidents of rape, for example, are the fault of the victim—[Interruption.] Members opposite may groan and moan, but it is not so long ago— I remember it distinctly—that a judge who summed up in a rape case advised the victim of the rape that she should perhaps have worn a longer skirt. I am sure that that would never happen now, but I think that people still have similar thought processes.
We all agree that there should be more argument based on evidence. Where is the hon. Lady’s evidence for the assertion that people still have those views of those who make complaints of rape?
I am sorry, but I did not catch the end of the hon. Lady’s question. I will give her direct evidence of a constituency case of mine, in which a woman had been systematically abused by her partner. The law acted and an injunction was laid, meaning that the perpetrator of the offences was not allowed within a certain distance of their home. What happened? His brothers took over. It is a fantasy to think that everyone in this country regards acts of violence against women as totally beyond the pale. Let us take honour killings, for instance. Does she seriously think that people who are genuinely opposed to acts of violence against women would enter into an honour killing?
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con)
Does the hon. Lady not accept that there is a huge danger, in this debate and any consultation process, of this becoming a battle of the sexes and a gender issue, when clearly it is not? Defendant anonymity and surrounding issues are about trying to impose fairness for all in the criminal justice system.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, the evidence presented in the Chamber—obviously he is not the only person on the Conservative Benches obsessed with evidence-based decisions—shows that rape is exercised almost exclusively against women, so there is a gender base.
Some 40% of all rape complainants are either male or children, and of the 60% who are aged over 16 and female, we do not know—we do not have the statistics—how many made a complaint about something that happened to them when they were children. It is unfortunate that we do not have those statistics after 13 years of a Labour Government.
We have already established that, as far as children are concerned, we are all in absolute agreement. That is why the question has been asked: why has an alleged rapist been afforded the privilege of anonymity, but someone who, for example, has been downloading child pornography has not? It has not been explained to me why rape is the act being afforded this particular privilege. I would argue that, if the Government go down this road, they will deeply undermine the concept of the unacceptability of rape and general acts of violence against women. Far too often, we hear of cases in which, for example, a woman has laid before the police the serious threats she is facing daily from an ex-partner. We then read that the police did absolutely nothing about it. We know of terrible incidents—one cannot say it is more terrible than when children are killed—in which such women and their children have then been killed by those partners. I have already given the example of honour killings.
In a recent, highly publicised case of the most heinous crimes, every report began not with “Three women were murdered”, but with “Three prostitutes were murdered”. I return to what I believe is still a central issue here, and a reason I am so opposed to the Government’s proposal: there is still the belief that attacks on women are engendered by the women themselves.
It is no use the hon. Lady shaking her head. We both know of incidents in which people have not reported an incident of rape because they were drunk at the time, and they know that they would be castigated for it. Equally she knows that when women do come forward claiming to have been raped, the initial response in quite a wide circle is that they are making it up, which is why we have to be exceedingly careful about going down this road of putting rape in this special category that other violent crimes are not granted. If the Government were arguing that all violent and violent sexual crimes should be afforded anonymity, and if there were sufficiently wide consultation on the proposal—not just in the House, but in the country at large—I would be prepared to consider the Government’s central argument, which is that a false accusation can damage an individual’s life, their family’s life, and, in some instances, their professional life. However, I entirely agree with the point that if we go down that road, we will be undermining one of the basic concepts of our criminal justice system, which is that accusation and argument in criminal cases should take place in public. I would be extremely chary of moving away from that position, but what the Government are proposing and their lack of commitment to wide consultation cause me grave concern.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, made a salient point when she raised the issue of freedom of the press. That is another issue that we must consider deeply before we make any changes. However, I return to the point that I made slightly earlier, and which reinforces my contention that we are still insufficiently adamant or active and that insufficient resources are put into tackling the broader issue of acts of violence against women. I gave the example of the recent incident where three women were brutally murdered and every single news outlet began its report of the event with the words, “Three prostitutes”.
I also think that Dr Shipman would perhaps not have got away with his mass murder if his victims had been young women, as opposed to middle-aged or elderly women, because there would undoubtedly have been a desire on the part of the press—well, perhaps “desire” is an extreme word—to present the case as though these particular acts against women had a sexual undertone. In my view there is still this prevailing attitude—it might not be directly acknowledged, but it permeates so many aspects of the criminal justice system and law enforcement—when it comes to acts of violence against women, for the immediate reaction is to say, “We have to be careful about this.”
Hon. Members will know the argument about malicious accusation, but I have seen too many constituency cases and too many women and their children who have been brutalised because not enough people have taken what has been said to them sufficiently seriously, often ignoring the evidence before their eyes. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) made a salient point in his maiden speech when he talked about the different approaches to such crimes in Europe, where there are special courts that are properly financed, with support for victims. That is a lesson that we should be learning in this country far more quickly than we are. I absolutely admit that we have made strides in that direction, but we need to make bigger strides and more of them.
Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con)
I am grateful to you for allowing me to make my maiden speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am especially glad to be doing so in front of your good self.
In the past few weeks I have listened to, and had the opportunity to contribute in, some excellent debates about foreign affairs, international development and the nation’s finances, but I have waited to make my maiden speech in a home affairs debate. Home affairs is often not seen as a glamorous policy area. It is often overlooked and undervalued, but it is a policy area that affects everybody, all the time. We tend to notice home affairs only when things are not working properly; and let me assure the House that after 13 years of the previous Government, people in Cannock Chase have been noticing it more and more. Uncontrolled immigration, police filling in forms rather than being out on the streets, an explosion in knife crime, burglars being given more rights than the owners of the homes that they are breaking into, and a general culture of petty lawlessness and lack of responsibility have all combined to make local people feel less safe and less secure. If we are to do anything with our time in office, I sincerely hope that we will restore a sense of confidence and pride in our communities that brings with it a sense of order and security.
Let me turn first to Cannock Chase and its predecessors. Traditionally a bell-wether seat, Cannock Chase has a long history. Cannock—or Chenet, as it was called then—was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, and is thought to mean “hillock”. Over the years, it has been home to kings and to coal miners. In the reign of Henry VIII, the oak-filled forest of Cannock Chase was frequented by the king and the gentry for hunting. Then came the industrial revolution and it became the petrol station of the country, with coal from its mines fuelling the factories and the nation’s industries. In 1958, the Chase—the largest surviving area of lowland heath in the midlands—was designated an area of outstanding natural beauty because of its beautiful landscape, its wildlife and its history. The Chase is still home to some 800 wild fallow deer, which are descended from the original herd introduced in Norman times for hunting purposes.
Let us fast-forward to 2010. The Chase is now famous for its mountain biking trails and its musical concerts. Since 2006, the forest has been used as an open-air music venue, hosting stars such as Jools Holland and Status Quo. In fact, I was there just two weeks ago when I took my mum and my girlfriend to see Simply Red. The constituency comprises three main towns: Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley. Each has its own character, history and traditions. Increasingly, however, each also has its own problems. Our challenge in Cannock Chase is to restore those towns to their former glory, with shops opening rather than closing, people moving to them rather than from them, and businesses and families thriving and staying. I very much hope to be a catalyst in that regeneration.
Cannock Chase is fortunate to have been served by hard-working and dedicated Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)—never shy about coming forward, and always first to defend the nation’s interests—began his political career there in 1983, eventually rising to become Margaret Thatcher’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Although he now finds himself representing the people of Aldershot, he is still remembered fondly by many of the constituents I spoke to during the election campaign. It is a great pleasure to see him continuing to serve the nation in his new Front-Bench role.
More recently, the seat was in the capable hands of my predecessor, Dr Tony Wright, from 1992 until his retirement in 2010. Dr Wright was well respected on both sides of the House. He was independent minded and not afraid to stand up and criticise his own Government when he felt it right to do so. He also had a keen interest in the political process, and his most significant contribution to the House was his chairmanship of the Wright Committee. In the light of the expenses scandal, the country and the Commons cried out for real and lasting reform, and, in a calm and measured way, Tony Wright and his Committee delivered this. The recommendations in his report, which are now being implemented in full by the coalition Government, have ensured that the role and relevance of Parliament as an institution have increased, as have those of Back Benchers. In my view, he was simply one of the best parliamentarians of recent times. It is therefore no wonder that he never got to serve as a Secretary of State—only the Labour party could ignore such talent, and put its spin above his substance. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him a happy and healthy retirement.
I should also like to make a brief mention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), the Government Chief Whip, known in a former life as Cannock Chase District Councillor McLoughlin. He is a former miner at Littleton colliery, and Cannock is very proud to call him one of its own.
Cannock Chase is sometimes called the forgotten part of the west midlands. Often dismissed as a former mining town, it was ignored by the Conservatives for too long as a no-hoper, and taken for granted by Labour. People locally told me that they felt let down by Labour. One day, when I was campaigning with my great friend, ally and supporter, my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—who was key to my success in the election—an elderly lady came up to me and said, “Young man, there’s only one thing worse than being let down, and that is being taken for granted.” As a Conservative representing a former mining seat, I will not and cannot ever take my constituents’ votes for granted.
Before coming back to home affairs, I want briefly to mention my family. I do not come from an especially political family, but my great-grandmother was one of the first ever female councillors in Birmingham—admittedly for the Labour party—in the early 1950s. She fought one parliamentary election and eight municipal ones, and my mother and my grandmother still live in the Moseley and King’s Heath wards that she stood for on three occasions before finally being elected in Longbridge. A successful café owner, in 1950, when the House of Commons kitchens were reported in the national press as running at a loss, she publicly offered to supervise the catering right here, to pay £1,000 for the privilege of doing so and still make a profit. History does not record why her offer was never taken up—[Hon. Members: “Shame.”] I have with me the newspaper article that reported this incident.
My parents both ran small businesses in manufacturing and public relations and instilled in me those small-business values of hard work and self-reliance—values that many in this country would do well to follow. Because of their hard work and success, they were able to send me to the best secondary independent school in Birmingham, King Edward’s in Edgbaston. At the time, more than a third of the school comprised pupils with some form of an assisted place, which engendered an incredible atmosphere of competitive learning. I very much hope that during my time in this House, the education debates will return to the subject of selection by ability, whereby the brightest pupils are taught with their peers in exactly the same way as the best young sportsmen are intensively coached in academies to become the stars and Olympians of tomorrow.
I talked earlier about the importance of home affairs policy, and I am delighted to speak in a debate that, to me, represents one of the continuing running sores of our criminal justice system—the continued lack of anonymity to men who are accused of rape. Let us not beat about the bush here: a false allegation of rape can ruin a man’s life. Even if he is tried in a court of law and found not guilty, he will still remain suspect in many people’s eyes. It is human nature to say that there is no smoke without fire, especially, it would seem, when it comes to the thorny issue of rape. It is virtually impossible for a man to survive an accusation of rape without a stain remaining on his character. There will always be whispers and rumours and slurs.
To me, what this debate is about is very simple: it is about avoiding punishment before, and sometimes without, trial. That is why I welcome this debate on the Government’s proposals to grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases. For me, anonymity only until trial is not enough, because the principle of no smoke without fire still applies. Surely all hon. Members will accept the principles of equality before the law and equality between men and women. Surely all hon. Members also believe that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.
The legal situation that exists now protects women in rape trials, but it does not protect men. It gives women anonymity, but not men. A special legal exemption has been made in the case of rape, but why has it been made just for those making the accusation? Why does that same protection not apply to those who are being accused? If we are singling out this particular area of the criminal justice system for special treatment, why should it not apply equally to both men and women? Male defendants should be afforded the same protections as women making the accusations because every man is innocent until he is proven guilty. If women need anonymity for this particular type of case, so do men.
We would all agree that men who are convicted of rape should have their names made public. Convicted rapists should be known and should face the consequences of their actions in respect of public opinion towards them. All that the Government’s proposals mean is simply that a man will face those social penalties after he has been convicted of the offence rather than facing advanced trial by others who will always think that there is no smoke without fire. In high-profile cases, this will also avoid trial by media in advance of trial by court.
I have listened to all the arguments made today, but I still do not understand why some Labour Members oppose this simple reform. I have heard that if men are given anonymity, it might somehow discourage other women from coming forward, but let us not forget that guilty men will still be exposed when convicted. If anything, the change should encourage more women to come forward because they will have seen that a conviction has been successful.
There is, of course, a strong argument for having no anonymity at all in any legal case. Anyone who believes in a completely open system of justice would agree with that, but the reality is that exceptions have already been made in cases involving children or women making accusations of rape. Surely if a male defendant in rape cases is innocent, he is just as vulnerable as they are. Why are women and children vulnerable, but not men? No one on the Opposition Benches has answered that today. The law is the law, and it should treat men and women equally dispassionately or equally protectively. That is why we should either remove the right of anonymity for women, which no one is suggesting, or we should extend that right to men under precisely the same principle that extends it to women. In this, the mother of all Parliaments, we should do everything that we can to avoid punishment before, and sometimes without, trial.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). I must say that during his speech I found myself wishing that we could go back in time and see Cannock Chase in the days that he described. I regularly travel from Birmingham northwards, as my husband comes from Birmingham, and I have never thought of Cannock Chase in those terms, but I will do so in future. The hon. Gentleman paid a full and correct tribute to Tony Wright, whom we all miss, and who, as he rightly said, has left us with an important legacy. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his pursuit of home affairs, but, unusually, following a maiden speech, I will be disagreeing with him on several issues, although I will do so in the customary fashion in this House.
I want to make a few points in this enormously important debate. I am worried that the Government’s policy is ill thought out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) dealt well with the issue. The Government should think again, and carefully, about the matter. No one in this Chamber underestimates the impact on a person of a false accusation of rape or any other crime. In my many years in social work, I worked not only with many victims of sex offenders but with sex offenders themselves, and on a few rare occasions witnessed first hand the impact of what subsequently turned out to be an unproven accusation.
Over the years, I have watched the situation for those complaining of rape improve, fortunately. Some Members of a similar age will recall—some Members, happily, are younger and will not—that back in the 1980s some television programmes were made in the Thames valley about police interviewing rape complainants. Many people were rightly horrified to see the general attitude of disbelief, which was one reason for the low reporting of cases. Fortunately, much has changed since that time, although not as much as we might like. However, the successful prosecution rate for rape continues to be of significant concern. In such situations, to protect people from false allegations, we must expect good investigation and evidence gathering. In a number of cases of false allegations of which I have heard, that has not been the case. Adopting a general position of belief, which is essential, does not mean ignoring the importance of good investigation and evidence gathering.
Let us be clear: this crime is not only heinous, but enormously difficult, for many reasons, to investigate. It is difficult for victims to talk about. None of us would welcome having to talk about sexual matters—even those on a consensual basis—but talking about an attack or crime of such a nature to people one does not know, and to have to go into intimate details, is very difficult. Rightly, we have talked about children being involved, and I dealt with that on a professional basis for many years. How do children explain what has happened to them when they might not even have the necessary words? How do they talk about it when they might feel that people are looking at them as if they have done something wrong themselves? We must take that into account.
Even when adults are involved, we are talking about a situation in which perhaps only two people were present and there were no other witnesses. We are talking about one person’s word against another’s. Even when, according to any objective judgment, a woman has done nothing wrong, she will still be asking herself, “Did I do something wrong? Did I invite this in some way?” We as a society must say, “No means no. Rape is not acceptable. Sexual relationships without consent constitute rape, and should be subject to prosecution.” However, the difficulties involved cannot be underestimated, and the situation must therefore be approached very carefully.
It is important that we adopt a position of belief, because, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, too many people have not been believed in the past. If it is felt that the first thing victims must do is prove that something has happened to them, even fewer women will come forward, and children will not summon up what is an almost impossible level of courage to speak up and say, “Something happened to me.” I have watched people who have been abused trying to give evidence in court. I shall never forget seeing a young woman who had been abused while in a children’s home, standing there petrified and trembling, almost unable to give evidence. In such circumstances, the position of victims is very difficult.
The issue of offending behaviour involves a great many myths. We talk about rape as if it suddenly appears out of nowhere, but someone who commits rape may well have previously committed other, lesser, sexual offences. I use the word “lesser” in relation to the criminal process, not in relation to the impact on the victim. The offender may have tested a situation, or fantasised about it, before committing the offence. In many cases, a pattern of behaviour has been formed.
That is one reason why those of us who oppose anonymity after charge—anonymity before charge is a different matter—consider it important to do so. Someone who comes forward and says “This happened to me too” provides corroboration of that pattern of behaviour, and leads people to feel that they can believe what is being said. As I said earlier, if just two people are involved it is one person’s word against another’s. If a pattern of behaviour has been established and people provide detailed corroboration, it becomes possible to proceed with a prosecution.
The hon. Lady is always listened to seriously and with respect. May I ask whether she has reflected on my earlier suggestion to her hon. Friend the. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that what leads to more women coming forward is not necessarily the information that an individual lives at a certain address, is a certain height or has hair of a certain kind, but may be a pattern of behaviour? That is information that can be shared immediately, and the police often do share it just to get people to come forward, as indeed they should.
I agree. In my experience, it is possible during the investigative process—in which, as I have said, I have been involved on the social work side—to question people who may have been in contact with the person concerned, without necessarily naming that person. For example, it is possible to contact previous residents of a children’s home and ask, “Did anything ever happen to you that gave you cause for concern?” Conducting the investigative process properly protects against false charges, or charges that turn out to be false.
We must look at this situation in the round, and we have to say, “This is too important not to have a formal consultation.” I have been encouraged by the fact that the Government have been prepared to discuss this more, and to accept that the nine words that were in the coalition document are not sufficient, but I plead with them to have a formal consultation. This is a matter that deserves to be addressed with that level of seriousness.
I gently say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that this is not a gender issue. Many victims are men and boys. Indeed, one concern is that boys who were abused as children find it particularly difficult to come forward and say they have been abused, because there is still the stigma that means they might be called gay. Sometimes—but not always by any means, as this is not a direct correlation—victims who have had something terrible done to them as children go on to become perpetrators because they do not know the rightful place of sexual relationships in adult situations. We talk about the lifelong effects of sexual abuse—that is one of them, and we should take it very seriously.
That points to another reason why it is enormously important that people have the confidence to come forward early and say they have been abused. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) mentioned the impact on families. If people come forward early, it stops there being future victims. We must constantly bear down on this issue to stop there being future victims and to stop the cycle of sexual abuse continuing.
I ask Ministers to answer the following questions again and in greater detail. Why rape? Why not all sexual offences? Also, why has this proposal been put forward at all if not because of the issue of false allegations? The Minister said very clearly that it was not based on the issue of false allegations, but he did not tell us what it was based on.
This debate deserves greater clarity, not more confusion, which is what we got from the Minister today. The matter under discussion is complex and important, and we need to take time over it. We need the Select Committees to take a look at it, and we need a proper public consultation so that everybody who has a story to tell and every agency that has worked with people affected by this can respond and put forward their views.
I understand how the proposal may have emerged. It might, perhaps, have happened without enough thought and late at night when people had not had any sleep during the period when the coalition agreement was put together fast. That does not have to bind us to carrying the proposal through, however, and to making a decision that would be detrimental to the people we should be caring about, whether victims or offenders. I ask Ministers to think again.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
May I begin by thanking the Minister, as I know he has listened to many of us who do not support all of the Government’s proposals in this matter? I know that he has made movement, too, and I am very grateful for that, and I am also sure that he will continue to listen to all that is said on this topic. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) has had to leave the Chamber, because I also want to say, with great respect to her, that I think she is living in the past.
I pay tribute to the last Government for the great strides they took in ensuring that justice was done for all those who make a complaint of either rape or sexual assault. I work as a criminal barrister—I say I work as one, because I like to think I can still do the occasional case—and I have been in practice for some 16 years. I very rarely prosecute as I have a defence practice, and I have defended many men who have been accused of rape or sexual assault. On one occasion, I defended a woman who was accused of rape. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), this is not a gender argument—that has been identified by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). We know the statistics and they are poor—we wish they were a lot better. However, as I have said in an intervention, we know that 60% of the people who make a complaint of rape are females over the age of 16, and that 40% are children—that includes males.
I echo what the hon. Lady said about young men making complaints about rape. I was involved in a case where I defended a man who was accused of the persistent and long-term buggery of a young man whom he had adopted. That young man did not make his complaint until he had run away from home—understandably. At the age of 18 he came forward to complain about this dreadful abuse, and my client was convicted. There is no way that that young man would have come forward to make his complaint if he had thought for one moment that his name would ever appear in the newspapers.
It is important that we all understand that there is no such thing as anonymity in a criminal justice system, save with one very rare exception; there are certain cases where the prosecution, with great care and after a lot of thought, applies to a learned judge that a witness in a particular case should have complete, true anonymity, so that their name is not known to the defendant or, indeed, to anybody else in the court. It is a bit of a myth that there is a long queue of women who somehow enjoy complete anonymity and can make up false allegations, knowing that their name will never be known. As all of us who have practised in the criminal justice system know, on an indictment the name of the complainant is there. It is a sad moment in court when one sits there, an indictment is put to a defendant and the name of the child is read out—the name is given as “a child under the age of 13” or “a child under the age of seven”. So there is no such thing as the anonymity of complainants.
There is also no such thing—I would hope—as the anonymity of defendants. As has been said, we are talking about a prohibition on the publication of a name. I know that I am of some age, but when I worked as a journalist many years ago the name of somebody who had been arrested was never publicised. What has happened, in reality, is that too many police officers have decided that it would be in their interests—I say no more than that—to release the name of somebody who has been arrested, especially somebody in the public eye.
I want to nail a bit of a myth that suggests that it is only the accusation of rape which casts such a terrible slur on someone’s reputation. I am not diminishing, for one moment, the appalling trauma involved, especially for young men—I am talking about those whom I have defended, who were often not the brightest or the most resourced—of often waiting for more than a year before the Crown rightly and properly decides not to proceed. We should never underestimate the trauma for those young men and their families when they are facing that charge. I believe that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said that the sentencing guidelines say that if someone has been convicted of rape and they express some remorse, they would not get a custodial sentence, but with respect, that is not right. My understanding of the sentencing guidelines is that the starting point, even on a guilty plea, is a sentence of some four to five years. It is that very knowledge that adds to the great trauma of young men, notably, who face an allegation of rape, but many other people who face other allegations are also traumatised by that and by the criminal process.
For example, I am told that two city councillors in Nottingham were arrested on charges of fraud or some other misdemeanour. The fact that they were never charged never appeared on the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post—I think it was slipped away on page 6 or in some such place. That allegation was hugely damaging to their reputation. I can think of all other sorts of examples—dentists or doctors might be accused of something and arrested, their names could be published and again their reputations would be sullied.
As so many others have said, I urge the Minister to consider with great care why he is singling out rape. I know the point is not lost on him that the accusation could be made that, for some reason, we on this side of the House do not believe in the proper prosecution of people who rape women, who rape young men and who rape children, whereas we all know that we take it seriously. I am grateful to have heard all the proposals that have been put forward by the Minister about the need to support people when they make allegations of rape.
Rape, like all criminal offences, falls into many different categories. I have touched on the fact that a significant number of the people who complain about rape are children. We also know that a significant number of the 60% of complainants who are females over 16 must be making complaints about what happened to them when they were children—that is, historic allegations of abuse. It is unfortunate that we do not have those figures; we should.
We know that there is a big difference between somebody walking along a street or a road who is attacked by a complete stranger and the other category of rape complaint, which relates to two people who are known to each other. Again, it is not as simple as it is often portrayed. They might be known to each other because they work together, so there is some sort of relationship, or because they have met in a public house and exchanged words. They might be known to each other because they have been married to each other for a considerable length of time or because they have been in some sort of relationship. They might be known to each other because they have gone out for the first time on a date and because something has occurred that has caused that woman to make a complaint of rape. It is a fiendishly complicated issue and we cannot take a broad-brush approach and say that all allegations of rape fall into the same category. They profoundly do not.
In the little time I have left, I want to touch on one issue that concerns me. Again, I know from what I am told that there is a real problem with a lack of good sound evidence. I am afraid that the Minister will have to rely on a lot of anecdotal evidence, but I have no doubt from my practice and from talking to other members of the Bar and to members of the judiciary that when a name is put into the public domain, other complainants come forward. There are many instances of it. I know from my practice that when the name of a priest who was arrested went into the local newspaper, other women came forward who had been to him and to whom he had been their minister. When they knew that others had made a complaint, they came forward. That tendency should not be underestimated.
As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have had the good fortune to be drawn in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. I know that in addressing this Chamber I must not touch too much on what I hope to say when we discuss the Bill, but I ask the Minister to consider allowing anybody who is arrested to enjoy the privilege, almost, of not having his or her name published in the press. I believe that we can do that effectively and efficiently while still allowing the prosecution to apply to a judge, depending on the particular circumstances of an offence, for the name to be published. We must allow our judges to exercise their discretion, which they usually do, when they are allowed to do their jobs, particularly well.
The last Government did a great deal to redress what was clearly the wrong balance, with women not being believed, best evidence not being gathered and so on. However, I am bound to say that I think that in some respects the balance has been tipped too far. Those of us who practise at the criminal Bar are concerned about the number of prosecutions that continue when we know that, if the allegation was not of rape or sexual assault, they would not proceed. We have to make sure that when the police investigate an allegation, they do not involve themselves. With great respect to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, it is not a question of the police officer who investigates the allegation believing the complainant. That is not their role or job.
This is a very important point. I was saying not that the police officer had to believe the complainant, but that their initial approach when someone comes to the police station should be to adopt an attitude from the outset that that person has something relevant to say that is likely to be true. That does not mean that they should put aside all the issues of evidence.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. The correct word, which I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for supplying, is “empathy”. I have no trouble at all with police officers who are not involved with the investigation, and all the support services, giving support to the complainant, but it is absolutely imperative that the police officer or officers involved in the case should be of the right rank. I have seen too many cases involving someone who has probably just become a police constable—other learned hon. Members are saying, “Hear, hear!”, because we barristers have had almost daily experience of this. It is also imperative that the police should apply the same standards to complainants in rape and sexual assault cases as in any other case. Some of us have been greatly disturbed by changes in policy codes that seem to suggest that there should be a different standard and test when deciding whether to prosecute in rape and sexual assault cases, because there should not be. If we do all that, there is a good chance that the rape conviction rate, although it is very good—we should get those figures sorted out; perhaps other hon. Members will enlighten us—will rise. I urge the Minister to continue consulting, and perhaps my private Member’s Bill could, with the backing of both sides of the House, be the perfect solution.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab)
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I feel that it might not be too long before she is elevated to the Front Bench. In addressing the debate, she demonstrated what she brings from her experience, as well as her thoughtfulness.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) on making their maiden speeches. They chose an interesting debate in which to do so. May I suggest that the debate could, as they start their apprenticeships in the House, be seen as a master class in how not to develop Government policy? I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) forensically took apart the Minister’s opening statement. As the debate is entitled “Defendant Anonymity”, I had hoped that the opening statement would allow discussions to go in a different direction. I thought that the Minister might say, “We’ve thought about this and we may have been wrong to single out rape defendants, so today gives us scope to talk about this on a wider basis.” Unfortunately, however, the Minister has reaffirmed the determination to focus on anonymity for defendants in rape trials, and that is regrettable.
We have had many debates in the House since the general election, including heated and passionate debates on how to cut the deficit, on electoral reform and on the number of MPs we should have, and only this week we have had the statement about which schools will go ahead in the Building Schools for the Future programme—or not, as the case may be. However, few of those issues have provoked the reaction that greeted the proposal to extend anonymity to defendants in rape cases. Little did right hon. Members who are now in government know, all those weeks ago when they were holed up in meetings in the Cabinet Office thrashing out the details of the coalition agreement, the maelstrom that nine words on page 24 would cause. I am afraid that the policy of singling out rape has little evidence to justify it, and that has been confirmed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The policy, in isolation, really does not help the justice system or victims, and Ministers have been saying different things about it from one day to the next.
When the law on giving anonymity to defendants in rape cases last applied, it created a legal quagmire. It was a mess, where those accused of inciting rape were given anonymity but not those who conspired to it. The names of defendants charged with aiding and abetting rape were known, but not the names of those charged with burglary with intent to commit rape. The public knew the names of those who had planned to rape but failed, but did not know the names of those who had succeeded. It is an incredibly complicated area, not only for rape but for other offences, should we go down that route—I have sympathy with the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe on expanding that aspect. Let us be in no doubt, however: any movement on the issue, in any direction, will create a lot of controversy. We must be careful about unforeseen consequences.
No one seems able to explain why we need to give rape suspects anonymity in the first place. As has been said, singling out rape defendants sends a devastating message to the victims of rape—that, uniquely, among all other complainants, they are not to be believed, even when Home Office research shows that false allegation rates are no higher for rape than for any other crime.
The proposal touches on what is meant by false allegation. Philip Rumney, of Sheffield Hallam university, provides the best definition I have come across. He says that
“a false allegation can be defined as the description of an event that the complainant knows never actually occurred”
“a conscious or malicious motive on the part of the complainant.”
Those two elements—the fact that the complainant knows that what she or he is alleging never actually happened and the malicious motive—distinguish genuine false allegations from other cases when the complaint is withdrawn rather than retracted, when there is insufficient evidence, or when as we know, sadly, that owing to mental health problems the complainant genuinely believes that they have been attacked.
We have not even talked about other vulnerable victims, who often face cynicism about their complaint. Many people with learning disabilities have not been believed. Elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia may find it hard to convey what has happened to them and—I am sorry to say—may be dismissed when they come forward or talk to family and friends about what they have experienced.
There is already evidence that too many cases are wrongly classified as false allegation. That is a problem and we need research to make sure that recording is clear, not only for rape but for other crimes too. I think that the police and prosecutors have made huge progress in that area, particularly when they have specialist training, so I do not want the House to misinterpret what I am saying. However, Home Office research in 2005 found that the police displayed
“a tendency to conflate false allegations with retractions and withdrawals,”
thereby feeding a damaging culture of scepticism, which deters victims from coming forward to seek justice. The proposal is likely only to harden such attitudes, when we should be challenging them.
The only other possible justification for the proposal is that the damage associated with being accused of rape is of a completely different order to every other crime. Members have cited other crimes when a person who was falsely accused felt justly aggrieved and distressed, and the result was suicide or other action that caused distress to their family. It is not credible to suggest that being accused of rape is uniquely devastating, in a way that being accused of domestic violence, murder, sexually abusing children, or even defrauding a popular charity are not.
We have witnessed the rather bizarre spectacle of Ministers coming to the House, or writing to Members, asking them to provide evidence to support the Government’s policies. I know that times are hard and Departments are facing cuts of up to 40%, but if the Government are not able to find evidence to support their own policies, it is not our job to do so. Indeed, a month ago the Minister wrote to me requesting evidence and asked me to provide it within a week. I am pleased to tell the House that I was able to meet his deadline, but I am less pleased to have to inform the House that I have yet to receive a reply. Perhaps I should have insisted on a deadline for comments from the Minister.
In response to my Adjournment debate, the Minister said that the Government would proceed on the evidence, and no one doubts the need for more and better research. Baroness Stern made that point very eloquently in her review earlier this year; but she said that the evidence needed to be looked at before the policy is decided. The coalition has committed itself to granting anonymity to rape defendants before even looking at the evidence. That suggests to me that the Government are proceeding not on the evidence, but on the basis of a misconception.
If I have not formally thanked the right hon. Lady for the letter, let me put that on the record now. I assure her that I was not anticipating evidence from her in support of the Government’s position; it was really a challenge for her to come forward with evidence, on the basis of the issues that I raised in the Adjournment debate and have repeated today. If there is evidence that would cause us to rethink, let us have it. We are looking for it and we will publish our analysis by 28 July.
I certainly was not seeking to provide evidence to support the Government’s position. I was providing evidence to explain why the Government’s position was wrong. What I have failed to receive is evidence from the Government as to why they are pursuing this singular policy of anonymity for rape defendants.
In one of Baroness Stern’s 23 recommendations—I hope that the Government will give the other 22 equal time and priority—she asks that there should be research, and
“that the Ministry of Justice commissions and publishes an independent research report to study the frequency of false allegations of rape compared with other offences, and the nature of such allegations.”
She was saying that the matter should be looked at in the round.
As I said earlier, I am sad today that the opportunity was not taken by the Government to knock this coalition proposal on the head and move us into an area where we could find some consensus and agreement across all parts of the House.
In that context, if the evidence that Baroness Stern and others have asked for is forthcoming, in the form of further research, would the right hon. Lady be prepared to look at an idea that goes more broadly than rape? Is she willing to accept, at least in principle, that there may be a case for anonymity in other categories, not single-offence categories?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I actually made that point in my contribution to the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, and I am open to that. What I am not prepared to accept is moving in that direction until the coalition Government have clearly stated that it was wrong to focus on rape, and that they have learned from the contributions and the pressure and the lobbying from Members in all parts of the House to change that viewpoint. That is because I think that it is really important to send a message to the country that when someone gets something wrong, they should say that they have got it wrong. A lot of organisations, which are listening to this debate, are very concerned about the message that was sent from that coalition agreement about the attitudes to victims when reporting rape, and the assumption that they, more than for any other crime, might be guilty of making false allegations.
An issue has been raised in this debate about equality between defendants and complainants. In a report in The People on 27 June, it was stated that the Government planned to extend anonymity to defendants in all cases where the victim is not named, under the cover of ensuring “equality before the law.” Equality before the law does not and cannot mean identical treatment for defendant and complainant. There is a vast array of ways in which the criminal justice system already, and rightly, treats defendants and complainants differently. Both should be treated fairly, but that does not mean identically; if that were the case, presumably we would no longer afford the defendant the advantage of the burden of proof, and complainants would have to be held on bail or in custody before their case came to court. The suggestion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why victims of rape are given anonymity in the first place, and that has been expressed very eloquently by colleagues in today’s debate.
It is not credible to suggest either, as the Lord Chancellor has done, that protecting the identity of the defendant protects the identity of the complainant. Just because most attackers are known to the victim does not mean that the victim would be immediately identifiable from the attacker’s name being known. It could be a boss at work; it could be someone they meet on the bus every day; it could be someone they know in the nightclub, or a friend of a friend.
It is in the public interest that the victims of rape come forward and report their crimes, so that rapists do not escape prosecution and are prevented from attacking other victims. There is no equivalent public interest in allowing defendants to remain anonymous. That does not mean that I do not understand the damage that false allegations can cause. We have already heard during today’s debate about a case where someone was tried for making a false allegation and—I think that I heard correctly—got two years in prison. That is a serious sentence for a serious crime.
As I have said, there may well be a case for looking at whether all defendants—not just those in rape cases, or even in cases that involve sexual offences—should be afforded anonymity until they are charged, but I am afraid that that was not the coalition’s proposal. I am still not clear whether the Government will pursue that proposal. Certainly, one thing is clear: if we wanted to consider that wider debate, the way to start it was not to focus on rape at the outset. That has been completely unproductive. The only way that we could start such a debate is for the Government to make a clear statement—today offered the ideal opportunity to do so—accepting that they were wrong to single out rape defendants and acknowledging the damage that that has done.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said earlier, there have been very real improvements in the way that victims of rape can expect to be treated in the criminal justice system, but there is some way to go. As Dave Whatton, the chief constable of Cheshire constabulary and the senior police officers’ lead on this matter said at the all-party meeting yesterday, the single biggest challenge that the police face is still the lack of confidence among victims, which stops them reporting their attack and prevents rapists from being brought to justice.
The Government must surely now realise that their proposals would make women less likely to come forward and, I am afraid, embed a dangerous culture of scepticism, when so much has been done to improve trust between the victims of rape and the criminal justice system. We need an informed debate. There should be at least a Green Paper, so that we can discuss the issue in detail, and I hope that the Minister will deal with that in summing up.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on her speech and on the passion with which she spoke during the Adjournment debate that she initiated. Many right hon. and hon. Members have brought special expertise to the debate, either as barristers or from a background in social work. My background is that I am a doctor. For five years, I was a forensic medical examiner for Devon and Cornwall police and spent many long nights with women and some men who had been the victims of horrendous sexual and physical violence. I have also been a family doctor for many years and have been a practitioner for 24 years in total.
I have lost count of the number of women—they are mostly women—whom I have seen who have not made an allegation of rape. The reasons are many and complex. I can testify that the vast majority of those crimes go unreported, because of misplaced feelings of guilt, real fear of reprisals, a belief that the victims will not be believed and, in many cases, just a sense that they want to put something so horrible in a box on the shelf and never visit it. That is the truth of the matter.
I pay tribute to the many women who have the courage to go forward and make a complaint. I want to point out something that the women I saw had in common. Many of them told me that the reason they were going through what is, quite frankly, a very unpleasant examination after a horrendous experience was not for themselves, but because they believed that it would protect other women. I ask the Minister to consider why those women would report a rape if they thought that there was no possibility that other women might benefit.
I completely understand the many arguments made in favour of protecting the innocent who are subject to false allegations, but we need to remember that the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. For every 100 women I saw—I believed the vast majority of them—I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who had their day in court and saw a conviction. We need to be clear that the scales are already tipped in favour of the defendant in a rape case. We need to be very careful that we do not add a further barrier to women coming forward and making allegations.
The second point I should like to make is on the difficulty in this country with serial offenders. Many hon. Members have referred to John Worboys, who drugged his victims in the back of his taxi, but let us be clear that the No. 1 date rape drug remains alcohol. Many rape offenders are serial offenders—they are frequent fliers. When I examined women in the presence of police, it became clear that many of those whom the women named as the person who had attacked them were known to the police and had form. We need to be careful that we do not put further barriers in the way of identifying such people so that others can come forward with their experiences.
Those were the two main points that I wanted to make today. Many hon. Members have said that this is not a gender issue, and I agree. However, we need to be careful that we do not make it a political issue. I have some reservations about the way in which some Members have tried to make it so. I would like the Minister to consider free votes, because that is the best way to take the political heat out of the argument and to focus on the real issue of who we want to protect. I request that he look carefully at my suggestion.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to this debate, which is on an important and sensitive subject. I am very honoured to take part in a debate in which so many hon. Members have so much experience to contribute to our thinking. My desire to speak reflects my personal concern that the current proposals are both unworkable and, more importantly, counter-productive to our shared stated aim of achieving better outcomes for rape victims and justice for our society as a result.
This is a difficult debate to participate in, not least because it is still not clear what measures the Government intend to introduce. What has been published on the proposed legislation poses a number of questions. For example, what does anonymity actually mean? Are we talking about printed or public or local knowledge of a case? How could that be secured at any level? Inevitably, as hon. Members have said, people in the criminal and legal system will know, or will be able to secure access to, the identity of an accused person, as part of the day-to-day functioning of our court systems. Given the concerns about the relationship between our courts, our media and our criminal system, which were admirably outlined by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the difficulty of enforcing anonymity is a clear challenge to the proposals.
Moreover, how far would the anonymity have to go to be sustainable? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) pointed out, what if somebody is accused of a number of interrelated offences? Would co-defendants be covered? They might be accused of less serious crimes, such as aiding and abetting, but would they be given anonymity to protect another defendant? What would it mean for a case if the name of a defendant or co-defendant became public? Those questions go alongside more important ones that we need to tease out. Would anonymity apply at arrest, charge or trial? It is clear that the nine words in the coalition document have stirred up a hornets’ nest, and I am grateful that we are having this debate to try to tease those things out. I hope that the Minister will answer the many questions that right hon. and hon. Members have asked.
It has been said that the measure needs to be introduced because the offences in question are so distinct that to accuse people of them falsely is to destroy lives. As others have asked today, why only rape? Why are teachers accused of such offences in a category alone? The inclusion of teachers reflects the fluidity of the thinking and its inconsistency. If anonymity throughout a criminal case were possible and desirable, could we define and measure the social penalty of being accused of a crime, or being exonerated, including before charges were made, in a manner that was satisfactory to all concerned? Anthropologists will tell us how shame, as a concept, contributed to many different accusations. It can be argued, as many in the debate have, that false accusations of paedophilia, murder, serious violence, hate crimes or domestic violence can just as easily destroy somebody’s life and those of their loved ones. Indeed, why are teachers alone in our public services afforded such protection? Why not doctors or care workers?
The debate is about more than legal semantics, and Members on both sides of the House who are concerned about the proposals care for more than intellectual consistency. It is clear that they are also worried that giving those accused of rape anonymity and not those accused of any other crime sends the message that rape is different and separate. In doing so, the proposals take us backwards as a society in addressing rape rather than help us to make progress. Furthermore, the proposal flies in the face of the evidence available to us about the nature of rape and how it is prosecuted. We do not have enough data on false accusations.
Many hon. Members have already referred to the excellent report on this issue by Baroness Stern, which identifies many of the challenges that we face with this crime. Above all, her report tells us that if victims do have the courage to come forward, and are willing to go through the criminal justice system, conviction rates are improving and justice is possible. But her report also highlights the fundamental problem of the high level of attrition of cases, and that is why we should be extremely cautious about doing anything that could make the process even harder. It also makes the case for looking again at how rape is handled by the criminal justice system.
The test for this proposal must be whether the intended benefits it could offer outweigh the risks that it poses to the detection and prosecution of rape. The benefits of the proposal could be strong only if we could prove that the false reporting of rape is systematic and widespread above and beyond that of any other crime in our criminal justice system. As Baroness Stern herself argues, we simply do not know that, and we do not have enough evidence about the false reporting of rape to make such a judgment. She rightly argues—and many hon. Members have agreed—that we need more research on that issue. Crucially, she also asks for more research into the false reporting of all offences instead of singling out rape. I hope that Ministers will address that point in the research that they are conducting, so that we have a greater understanding of the incidence of false reporting across the criminal justice system.
The lack of evidence is partly due to the difficulty of defining a false accusation, as many hon. Members have pointed out, and whether such accusations are malicious. Another issue is how incidents are marked as “not crimed” in the system and the danger of using that as a proxy for evidence of false allegations of rape.
If we do not have the evidence, and the Government claim that this proposal is not about dealing with false allegations, where has it come from? We are all aware of the media coverage that this topic has generated—much heat but not much light. The coverage is selective. I have recently made representations on behalf of a constituent who was tried for making a false allegation only to be acquitted, and now finally charges are being brought against the attacker. That case raises many serious concerns about the ability of our justice system to deal with rape, and the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in addressing complaints about how such crimes are investigated. I am continuing to pursue those complaints, but to have struggled for justice for so long in such a context must have been extremely difficult. To ask victims to come forward and report rape in an environment in which the law enshrines the notion that some victims will lie would be even harder.
No one suggests that being accused of rape is not a serious matter, but to presume that—unlike in any other crime—an allegation could be based on lies, the Government are on dangerous ground if they do not have the evidence to support the policy. It also stands in contrast to the evidence that publicising the report of a rape can be vital in the prosecution of cases. Several hon. Members have already highlighted the shocking statistics on the reporting of rape and the concerns that that will be adversely affected by giving those accused of the crime anonymity. Whether in the cases already mentioned of Worboys and Reid, or those involving individuals who knew their attackers, there is strong evidence that public accusations can give other victims the confidence to come forward and report their experiences.
The question of how cases are put together is not incidental but integral to the debate and the danger of these proposals. As investigations in the difficult area of proving a lack of consent can often involve very vulnerable people, we must be sensitive to what can be done to support them.
An interesting study by the Metropolitan police from 2005 found that 87% of those reporting rape had at least one of four vulnerabilities—being under 18, having mental health problems, having ingested alcohol before being raped and of having been or being in a relationship with their attacker. As the report points out, those add to the considerable complexities of prosecution and increase the chances of the withdrawal of a case early in the process. As I have said, I am concerned about the way in which cases are handled by our criminal justice system, something that the police have also put on the record in their conversations with the Eaves Partnership in London. The police acknowledge that
“the majority of cases are lost during the investigation process for a number of reasons including victims’ loss of faith in the process, the length of time the investigation takes, lack of communication between police and victims.”
To add into that mix a presumption of dishonesty could only make it harder for all concerned to take the journey towards justice. Indeed, if research is to be done, it should, in order to flesh out fully the challenges we are talking about, take into account not simply the concept of rape, but the outcomes and causes behind the complaint, whether the police felt that the victim would not be able to go to trial, whether evidence was gathered well enough to stand up in court, whether the victim withdrew their complaint, and whether the individual was tried. I suspect that, if we are able to gather such data, the picture would be very different from that being painted in the reporting of rape allegations and in the language used by some when talking about the subject.
Given that this proposal could deter victims from coming forward, we should work harder to explore other options that do not make a presumption about the likelihood that a complainant has lied about such a crime. Yesterday, Baroness Stern called for more work to be done to establish whether the existing guidance on anonymity in rape cases from the Association of Chief Police Officers has been followed, and if not, why not. I hope the Minister will also take up that point. Above all, I urge the House to search its soul in this debate. The question is not whether it is feasible to give some rape defendants anonymity and not others; we must ask why we are still struggling to bring those who commit such offences to justice and how we can address this problem. If we do that, we will see that proposals for anonymity are not part of the solution.
The problems are complex, but there are several indications of where action could be taken. I come to this debate as a London MP faced with extremely troubling statistics on the prosecution of rape in the capital which show that our conviction rate is well below the success rate in other metropolitan areas. That is why I welcome the move to Sapphire units and co-ordination across London. The reality is that staffing such units is especially hard in outer London, in areas such as mine, where officers receive little recognition for taking on such work, in contrast with other roles within our police force.
We should also learn from the Payne review and George Alberti’s research, and offer more support for victims. I would favour the extension of the role of independent sexual violence advisers as distinct from police or other criminal justice officers. We must also be mindful of the funding for rape crisis centres, which face a struggle for existence under the new Administration. Indeed, I fear, under the new Government’s public services spending freeze, that it will be harder, not easier, for specialised units for rape and sexual assault victims to improve conviction rates and bring rapists to justice, given that they are already under-staffed, under-resourced and lacking specialised rape lawyers. I hope that Ministers will today make a commitment, given their interest in this subject, to ensure that those services are properly funded and protected.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to turn their attention from the tabloid headlines, and instead focus on addressing these challenges. The Government’s proposal would give credence, without any evidentiary foundation, to the idea that lying is an aspect of this crime and not any other. I can see that others across the House agree with me, and I appeal to them to work with us to raise these concerns. As legislators, we must not send out the message, however unintended, that we think that those who come forward to report rape are more likely to mislead than any other alleged victim of crime. As members of society, we must work together to protect the vulnerable and hear the voices of victims with an open mind. A public consultation would guarantee and encourage that. I urge the Minister to change his mind and ensure that we hear those voices in this debate.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
It is a great honour to make a contribution to a debate that has been singularly well informed, not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who made a particularly useful contribution, but by the very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has an almost unique perspective on these matters. It is a perspective slightly different from mine: I spent many years slightly further down the food chain, dealing with both the prosecution and defence of serious sexual crimes in the Crown court, including the abuse of children, rape and other offences of a sexual nature, involving both males and females.
It is perhaps inevitable that a debate about defendant anonymity has been dominated by the issue of the treatment of the victims of rape and the investigation of that very serious crime. That is not a criticism—in fact, it is a rather welcome development. It is inevitable because the focus of the proposal in the coalition document was centred on rape. That was a mistake. The points made about broadening the ambit of the anonymity question are right. Perhaps the most important point made today, however, was the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe: the word “anonymity” is causing us a problem. It is taking us away from the real issue, which is the coverage and reporting of such cases, an issue that has been thrown into particular relief in recent years by the power of the electronic media and the internet.
For generations, local newspapers were, with the greatest of respect to them, the chip paper of tomorrow. They were easily forgotten—trashed, buried. However, the internet is not just for Christmas; it is for life. I am sure that we have all had constituents who were the victims of false allegations years and years ago, but who are haunted by the spectre of a Google search linking their name for ever with that false allegation. I am sure that we have all had cases of people pleading for help—some of them have mental health problems as a result of what happened to them. Let us not forget that none of the proposed changes to the law will help those people, which is why the point made some time ago by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—that this issue not only covers home affairs or justice, but is a media matter, for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—is so important.
The more I think about the issue, the more I come to the conclusion that we should be grappling with the equally difficult—indeed, perhaps somewhat more difficult—question of the power of the internet, and how to regulate it and seek in some way to expunge the names of those innocent individuals from that awful spectre of a Google search when, for example, they apply for jobs and find that their names are for ever besmirched. That is the problem that so many innocent people have to face, and it is a problem that we need to start talking about, and seeking to address and in some way solve.
I return to where we are in this debate. Recognising the problem that I have outlined, I think that reporting restrictions should surely not be confined to rape or sexual allegations generally. There are many scandalous allegations made against individuals—they have been well discussed today, but I shall not repeat them for fear of overstepping my time allocation. However, the point has been powerfully and simply made by many colleagues in all parts of the House that to try artificially to restrict the proposal to one category of crime not only poses the kind of problems that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) identified in her powerful contribution, but risks taking us back to the naturally emotive issues that surround the crime of rape.
I should like to digress for a moment and talk in support of the many speeches that have been made today about the need for better investigation of rape crimes. Let me tell the House that my experience of the prosecution of rape is that juries always look for that extra bit of reassurance—particularly where consent is the issue—that they can often get from powerful scientific evidence. “Why scientific evidence,” one might ask, “if the issue is consent? How on earth can that be relevant?” The answer is that trials can take peculiar twists and turns. Issues that might not have seemed important to investigating officers at the outset of the investigation can suddenly loom rather large in the consideration of the jury when one goes through the evidence with a fine-toothed comb.
I will give the House a simple example. Where the act took place can often be a powerful indicator of whether consent or the lack of it can be proved. For example, if the act took place on a floor or an area that would not be consistent with consent, scientific evidence can often help to prove a case, particularly if the defendant and the complainant disagree about where the particular act of intercourse or sexual misconduct took place. I know that that might sound like arguing with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, but the truth is this: the scene of a crime of rape should be treated as seriously as the scene of a crime of murder or any other alleged act of serious violence. Far too often, scenes of crime are not sterilised, preserved or properly protected by investigating officers, with the result that valuable sources of evidence are lost. I accept that that is a question of resources, and I know that senior police officers will have a very difficult round in the year ahead, but time and again police officers have told me that this is a problem that they face. There is no lack of will or empathy involved; there is simply a lack of resources for conducting proper investigations of rape allegations.
The attrition rate has been mentioned. That is perhaps rather an inelegant phrase to use when we are talking about such a sensitive crime, but we must not forget this. The rate will be increased if prosecutors make decisions to pursue cases that fail the test of a reasonable prospect of conviction. That should be a cast-iron test to be applied to every case, irrespective of the type of allegation. I do not say that in a cold-hearted way; I believe that such a test serves the public interest.
Let us put the questions of attrition and investigations out of our minds for the moment and return to the question of reporting restrictions. I believe that there is a case for the creation of a discretionary power for judges to impose reporting restrictions in whatever cases they see fit, subject to a simple test—namely, that of the interest of justice. That is a wide test that is applied by the judiciary up and down the land every day of our working lives. At a stroke, it would cut through all the sensitivities that have been quite properly expressed today, and all the problems that come with identifying particular professions and particular types of offence. We must trust the judiciary to do the job that they are trained to do.
In that regard, the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe—I nearly called her my learned friend—was an extremely important one. She proposes discretion up to charge. I would go further and propose discretion throughout the course of the trial. That could cover a range of different allegations. It would also allow a properly informed judge, faced with an unmeritorious application from a defendant who perhaps did not deserve the protection of reporting restrictions as much as someone of good character, to make a decision based on all the information before them. That would remove the quite natural emotion that we hear in debates such as this one, and allow us to avoid the natural collision of views over the investigation of the serious crime of rape, as well as the more general issues about journalism, reporting and reputation.
For that reason, I urge the Government to think again about their current position and to widen the ambit of the measure to include a wide range of offences. Furthermore, the word “anonymity” might be relevant in the case of an undercover police officer, who can now give evidence while being protected by statute—following the problems of two or three years ago when the European Court ruled that the current common law position was inadequate—but we should stop using the word in relation to this debate. We should be talking about reporting restrictions. If we do introduce legislation on this subject, I want that term to be used. On that note, I hope that I have in some way contributed towards this excellent and well-informed debate.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
At the nub of this debate is the question of whether the police should be allowed the discretion to release the identity of people who they believe are serial rapists, with a view to getting more victims and more witnesses to come forward and provide more evidence to facilitate prosecution. That point was touched on in an excellent speech by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who obviously has a great deal of experience in this area. We have heard good debating points, but we really need to get to the nub of the issue, because I fear that if the anonymity proposal for rape defendants goes through, we will end up tying the hands of the police.
We are not talking about allowing all the names of all the people ever accused of rape to go out to the media before charge. Rather, we are talking about whether in certain instances, where people are known to be serial offenders but have not been successfully prosecuted, the police should be allowed—given the statistical background we have discussed—to facilitate the process of getting more people to come forward. I believe that if the anonymity proposal is pushed through, we will simply end up with more rape—particularly by serial rapists—less reporting and fewer convictions.
In my area of Swansea West, as elsewhere, there is serious and widespread concern about this issue. I know that some Members have said that it is not political, but I have encountered people saying, “Look, I voted Liberal Democrat, and I did not vote for hiding the identity of prospective rapists and increasing the number of rape victims. I did not vote for that.” This policy emerged, of course, from a Liberal Democrat conference resolution in 2006. To be fair to the Conservatives, in 1988 the veil was pulled and hidden identity was thrown away under pressure from the police, who said that anonymity was preventing women from reporting. That remains the case, so I hope that the Conservatives will go back to their previous position. I realise that some sort of deal has been done on VAT and everything else, but let us not allow it to get in the way of the rights of women and their protection. Disclosure generates confidence—confidence to stand up and be counted against serial offenders.
Most crime generally is serial crime. We all know that the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by just a few people—and that is certainly the case with rape. Like other Members who have spoken, I have had the great pleasure of witnessing a presentation by the chief constable of Cheshire, Dave Whatton, who showed evidentially the relationship between disclosure, witnesses coming forward and subsequent convictions. The reality is that a person comes up for a rape trial, often on their own, but with disclosure, others might come forward. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, in some cases, evidence from the first victim might not be sufficient for conviction, but it might be with the collaborative evidence of others. Without that additional evidence, the case is likely to fall and more serial rape is likely to be the result.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunity for the press to publish information about defendants, which could strengthen the case if more women come forward. Their cases might not get on the charge sheet, but even if it is the first time that they have come forward, it would help to give them closure, in that they would know who their attacker was and their additional evidence would hopefully contribute to a successful conviction and their attacker going to jail.
That is absolutely right. We talked earlier about the problem of putting things in boxes and isolated cases. Some women go through thinking that they have contributed to the incident or even that it is somehow their fault, but if they knew that the person had a consistent pattern of behaviour in raping women, they would no longer think like that. Sometimes a woman—or a man—does not want to stand in front of a court; a difficult case might fail completely because no one else comes forward and the evidence is insufficient. In those circumstances, the victim could end up being branded as a woman—sometimes a man—who makes false accusations. They have told the truth, but on the balance of evidence available from only one witness, the accused is found not guilty, and the woman then becomes “a liar”. What signal does that send when we want to encourage more witnesses to come forward?
I appreciate that the point was made seriously, but I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee—the point about Google raised by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) was well made—that there is an equivalence between the psychological and reputational difficulties of the accused, although they certainly exist, and a lot more women being raped. There is no qualitative equivalence between them. Quantitatively, the number of malicious, false allegations is minute, whereas the number of unreported—certainly unconvicted—rapes is massive. On the balance of the argument, qualitatively and quantitatively, the case for anonymity is not made.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Briefly, as I mentioned Google.
The hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there is a trade-off between the effect on an innocent person and rape being undetected and victims not being served by the system, is he?
We must maximise our impact on injustice against victims and the wrongly accused. Ultimately, however, there is a trade-off, because if we push forward with anonymity, there will be more rape, more rapists and more rape victims. A few innocent people might get accused because of the culture and environment we create, but it is obvious where I stand in that trade-off.
The chief constable of Cheshire gave the example of a vicar who used to be a teacher. There was a media revelation about him being accused, and immediately eight more victims came forward, as a result of which he was convicted. We have heard about the 12 women who came forward about the black-cab driver; suddenly, after photos were published, 81 more women came forward. In the case of the paedophile running a teenage football team, publicity led to 14 more victims coming forward. Under the anonymity proposal, that would not have happened, and we would not be protecting the victims, including children.
There is a prisoner’s dilemma whereby we rely on the brave victim coming forward and encouraging other people to have the confidence to do so. With anonymity, the risk is that that person will stand alone, and that in the time between the accusation and the court case, she will be open to harassment through texting and phone calls saying, “You haven’t got a chance. You know you’re going to lose.” Then, when she does lose, other people will look at her and say, “I’m not ending up like Mary. She was harassed for ages, and now she is regarded as a liar.” Anonymity changes fundamentally the power relationship between victim and accused. The accused will realise that, it will reduce the risk to serial rapists who use drugs or alcohol to carry out their crimes, and it will increase rapist confidence.
Under the proposal, the balance could tip even further against the victim. The statistics already suggest that 0.5% of women are raped each year—about 140,000 women a year. Of those, about 100,000 do not report the rape. Why is that? Obviously, there is a systemic problem with the justice system. About 5% of women in the population—1.4 million—have been raped. Despite that horrendous figure, we are discussing measures to deter people from coming forward.
The chief constable of Cheshire gave a snapshot of statistics in the year to March 2010. He reported that 155 crimes had been recorded as rape, 33 of which were prosecuted, with 23 convictions. Nobody was found to have put forward a malicious, false accusation, although 13 cases were regarded as non-criminal. His evidence suggested that, occasionally, accusations are dismissed. I do not pretend that there are not malicious, false allegations, but there are few of them. Obviously, false allegations are serious, because when people are found to have made them they are punished by, for instance, as has been mentioned, two years in jail, which is fair enough. However, we should not change legislation because of a small number of people, when a large number of people are suffering very serious consequences, against a backdrop of a massive amount of rape. We should not rush a change through before the summer recess as has been suggested.
Women, in particular, will see the proposal in the wider context of a new Government suggesting that there should be less closed circuit television and less use of DNA, and now they are suggesting that there should be anonymity. Plus they are cutting £125 million from the police grant. When all that is put together, it does not look good to the victim, or suspected victim, of rape. To those watching this debate, I point out that 1.4 million women have been raped. Again, that is against a long-term cultural backdrop of endemic sexism in the judicial system. I see men on the Government Benches raising their eyebrows, but we have all heard about contributory negligence: “She was drunk”; “She had a short skirt on”; “He couldn’t help himself”; “He was a former boyfriend”; “And what about her sexual history?”; “What about his military career?”—all irrelevant, erroneous considerations. Consent is consent.
I consent to the intervention.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those days are long past? Raising the sexual history of a complainant is specifically prohibited, apart from in extremely rare circumstances, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Does he agree that that is a long time ago? We have moved on greatly in the past 15 to 20 years.
No, I would not agree. I heard of a recent case where such suggestions were made about clothing and all the rest of it by the barrister in putting the defendant’s case. That is still the backdrop. We can all pretend that we do not live in the environment in which we do. The environmental context is pulled in when such cases are considered, and that is another reason why people do not want to come forward. They say, “Oh no, I was out on a Saturday night and I’d had a few drinks, so it’s an I-was-asking-for-it type of thing.”