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13 Jan 2003 : Column 452—continued

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. and learned Member give way?

Vera Baird: I will in a moment.

Change has since been enacted, and it is having an effect. Since 1999 no previous sexual history has been admissible to show consent. I suggest that when the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) stands up, he should apologise to those rape complainants who had to be cross-examined needlessly about their sexual past during the intervening three years between the Conservative failure to act and our acceptance of responsibility. Will he consider doing that?

Mr. Grieve: I will not. I have two things to say. First, notwithstanding the amendment to which the hon. and learned Lady refers, the rate of conviction remains very low, as she is aware. Secondly, I am sure that a legitimate point was made at the time about concern that any change in the law should still ensure that a fair trial could take place, and I am sure that she was alive to that.

Vera Baird: The reason given for rejecting the amendment at that time was that existing provision was perfectly adequate. In other words, the old law, which had repeatedly since the 1970s allowed previous sexual history to go into court, was considered perfectly sufficient and women's complaints were put at naught. There was little mention then of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman now raises.

In addition to making an important change, the Labour Government have conducted a sex offences review, XSetting the Boundaries", they have produced a White Paper, XProtecting the Public", and they propose legislation. In addition, specialist prosecutors for rape now exist so that proper concentration may be placed on the issues in the case. Did the Tories take any of those fairly obvious measures, which are bound to be effective? They did not.

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Codes of practice are in place for how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service should deal with rape. Did the Tories introduce any such thing? Not at all. There is a power for the Attorney-General to challenge unduly lenient sentences, which were a further reason why women did not come forward. Small sentences were insufficient satisfaction for women who managed to sustain their complaints. Did the Tory Government try systematically to use that power in the aid of rape victims? No, they did not.

Mr. Cameron: I know that I am going back into ancient history, but the hon. and learned Lady will find that the power to challenge lenient sentences was introduced by the Conservatives and opposed by Labour.

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman will find that the Tory Government made no attempt at any stage to use that power to come to the assistance of women rape complainants in the way that the current Attorney-General has systematically done over the past few months. His action has resulted in clear and helpful decisions for women: for example, in sentencing for culpability, no distinction should be made between a rape carried out by a stranger and a rape carried out by an intimate. That important principle could have been established 10 years ago if the Tory Government had had the slightest interest in an issue of high concern to women.

I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said about the conviction rate still being poor. It takes a long time for crime figures to come into the system and I have been trying, preparatory to consultation on sex offences, to carry out as best I can a survey to see what is happening. Chief Inspector Walton from Project Sapphire, the highly successful Metropolitan police unit at the forefront of dealing with rape, is pretty sure that conviction figures are improving. He told me last Wednesday that it is still too early to prove that, but that he knows more cases are coming to court. I had a meeting at the University of Teesside last Friday with people from my local rape crisis centre and women's support network. The women I met also know that more cases are coming to court and that more convictions are being sustained because the Government, unlike their predecessor, are tackling that aspect of criminal justice.

Another aspect of the criminal justice system that received not a mention among the screams from the Opposition Front Bench was domestic violence. One quarter of all violent crime is domestic violence. One woman in four will experience it in her lifetime. The police receive a 999 call every minute about domestic violence. Between one quarter and one third of homicide victims are killed by a partner or former partner. The impact on children is monumental. The last domestic violence legislation was introduced in 1976, in the dying days of the Wilson Government by the then hon. Member for Barking, Jo Richardson. For 18 years was anything significant done by the Tories about domestic violence? I suggest that there was nothing whatsoever.

When Labour came into office, there was a White Paper within months. There is now a ministerial group, and a specialist cross-departmental domestic violence unit that is recruiting an experienced head. It intends to

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increase safe accommodation choices for victims of domestic violence, and that is in progress, and it is getting health care initiatives under way and improving the interface between civil and criminal law so that one court knows what another court is doing about domestic violence. It is ensuring that the police and the CPS, who are committed to best practice, play a supportive role. Now domestic violence cases can be prosecuted without the need for a victim to give evidence. A national network of domestic violence specialists co-ordinates prosecution policies. Did the Tories do any of that? They did not.

Every domestic violence murder is now the subject of an inquiry to try to ascertain just where the risk factors should have been picked up to stop the case from escalating to its appalling conclusion. The Government have gone out to consultation and there will be domestic violence legislation, a free-standing Bill that will allow scope for amendments and expansion. That Bill has been announced well ahead of its passage, and there will be consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny with every prospect of significant steps forward in solving the epidemic of domestic violence crime that is not even mentioned by Conservative Members when they call a debate about the criminal justice system.

I hope that the Conservatives will not, as they did with changes to rape law, oppose changes in domestic violence law. I have some hope. Domestic violence was not even debated at a Conservative party conference until this year, and I am pleased that a debate has happened. I hope that the Tories are turning the corner and will come along with us.

To the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches who were rash enough to summon this debate, I must say that women are in no doubt about who failed to deliver on rape and on domestic violence. They are in no doubt about who is trying to assist them now.

I have spoken of specific items and shall widen my speech for one minute. I shall go to Eston in Redcar two weeks on Friday to talk about crime and community safety. When I walk in, people will say to me that more needs to be done. They will add, however, that they are glad to talk to me rather than to a representative of the previous Government, during whose period in office recorded crime doubled—including that in my constituency—and the number of criminals convicted by the courts fell by a third. During that time, the chance of being a victim of violent crime trebled—including in my constituency—and crime increased faster than it did in any other western country. I can return to the source of the debate by saying that the chances of being a victim of burglary increased from one in 32 to one in 13 over the Conservative period in office. They criticise us, but we may ask whether they were generally effective on crime. The answer is no.

The two gender hate crimes of high concern to women were not even on the field of play during those years. Thank goodness that the Labour Government are not only on the field, but scoring good goals.

6.20 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I rise to speak in my role as a Back-Bench Member on a matter of intense importance not only to my constituents, but to the public at large.

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When the Lord Chancellor was interviewed on the XToday" programme a week ago, I was astonished to hear him say that first-time offenders should be sent to prison only as a last resort. As I pointed out in this place, it had apparently been agreed between him, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General that, in general, that methodology would be employed even for serious offences.

Having criticised the tabloid newspapers for presuming to comment on such questions, the Lord Chancellor went on to assert that the people of this country were not so unworldly as to disagree with what he had to say. However, a west midlands newspaper, the Express & Star, held a poll a few days after the Lord Chancellor made his comments and I was asked to comment on the fact that no less than 98 per cent. of the respondents disagreed with his analysis and thus, by implication, that of the Lord Chief Justice as well. Furthermore, in a poll taken by The People on 12 January, 93 per cent. of people said that they want burglars to be locked up for a second or third offence rather than being given community sentences.

One of the lessons to be learned from all that is that it is extremely important that our senior Law Officers and judges should have regard—as politicians do—to public opinion. Those extraordinary percentages suggest that the Lord Chancellor was entirely wrong, not only in what he said but in the way that he said it. I suspect that the publication of newspaper reports about the guidelines has, in effect, suggested to burglars that they have been given a green signal.

One cannot draw criminological or academic conclusions about the construction of such guidelines because no one reads them, except to extract a few bits and pieces—as I shall do myself. I am extremely sceptical as to their value. When I was asked for my comments on them last week, I said that it would be better to put much greater emphasis on the judge's discretion—as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) also suggested. Furthermore, there should be much more parliamentary supervision or surveillance of such things. The law and political developments in the law should be kept in kilter with the needs of the times in which we live and with public opinion.

I have read the guidelines with great care and I am deeply concerned about the emphasis in interviews with Law Officers and in the guidelines themselves that the reason for what is being done is to deal with overcrowding in prisons. There is a severe danger that judicial guidelines, which should be dealing with questions of justice, are actually being used for political purposes. The Lord Chief Justice may not have realised that, but the unelected Lord Chancellor should certainly have done so and should not have associated himself with the tendency to focus on the question of prison populations.

It is part of my job to read the guidelines, but I would not criticise hon. Members for not having done so. However, if they have, they will have been astonished to note that paragraph 10 states:

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That is an extraordinary comment of great complacency. Indeed, it is somewhat contemptuous of the public at large—to return to the point that I made earlier about the mismatch between public opinion and sentencing policy, especially on burglary.

The guidelines send out hugely confused and contradictory messages, but there is a bottom line. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary suggested, it relates to the fact that, in the last resort, judges should be allowed to make their own decisions. Paragraph 19 states:

To put it simply, that means that after considering all the facts of the case—as I hope any judge would—the sentencer considers the law and uses their discretion in reaching a verdict.

There are serious questions as to the value of the guidelines. They create a theatre in which we shall see judicial dancing on the head of a pin, whereas I should be happier if much more emphasis was put on the discretion of the judge. I have faith in our judiciary, if it is given an opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) referred to a judge who felt constrained by the guidelines. One could enlarge on that example, although I do not intend to do so this evening.

In a burglary, the most important fact is that of entry—no one knows what is going to happen after that. For example, in the Tony Martin case, with which I am not familiar in detail, things happened as a result of the burglary. We have heard ideas such as the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the burglar being able to guess that someone was in the house. However, the burglar does not, and cannot, know about that and we have to deal with the physical reaction that might result.

It is wrong for the guidelines to suggest that there should be a presumption against prison. There should be a presumption in favour of prison, but extenuating circumstances should be taken into account and it should be left to our judges to form their own judgment in the courts. That would be a sensible way to proceed and I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset for his suggestion that such matters should be properly discussed in Parliament. They should already have been considered in this place and most people are astonished that that was not the case.

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