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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 21 March 2006

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Rape Cases

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Coaker.]

9.30 am

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): In 1999, I wrote a pamphlet for the Society of Labour Lawyers called "Rape in Court"—that is a clever double entendre. If anyone wants a copy of the valuable first edition, an odd one is still available. In it I said that, in 1985, 25 per cent. of rape complaints brought a conviction, with no recorded assertion that the conviction rate was unjustly high. By the date of its writing, complaints had risen to an all-time high but the conviction rate for rape was just 9 per cent.

I set out the need to restrict the rules that allow cross-examination about previous sexual history, to encourage women who are afraid of such cross-examination, and to address the findings of a Canadian researcher called Calton that where jurors hear information about a rape complainant's previous sexual history it leads to a decrease in the perception of the accused's guilt, and that that varies directly with the amount of negative information put before a jury. A defendant was seen as most guilty where nothing was known about her. Calton also found that if all the material alleged against her was denied by the complainant, the perception of the defendant's guilt still decreased—a recipe, one may think, for unjust acquittals.

The change to restrict cross-examination about previous sexual history was brought about in section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, as far as its admissibility to show that she consented was concerned. It is subject to a number of exclusions, but basically it is excluded. However, that has not worked.

In "Rape in Court" I hesitated to recommend that the defence that the defendant believed that the woman was consenting even if she was not should be changed so that only a reasonable belief that she was consenting would do. Rape is having sex when the victim does not consent—and, in those days, when the attacker did not believe that she consented. I was wrong not to want to change that. A jury is told to decide whether she was consenting first, and simply to end the case if she might have been. Only if it is sure that she was not consenting should it go on to consider whether, even so, the defendant might have believed that she was. At that stage, in the jury's view she has had sex forced on her.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): On the question of whether a jury might believe that someone had consented to rape, what conclusions does my hon. and learned Friend draw from the Amnesty survey that showed that a third of people think that a woman is asking for it if she is drunk or dressed inappropriately? Does she think that such attitudes might influence a jury, and what can we do to change them?

Vera Baird : I agree that those findings were troubling, and one can only say thank goodness for the other two
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thirds. However, I venture to wonder whether those factors would carry the same force if the same people were not answering a question in a survey, but were in a jury confronted by the deep trauma of a rape complainant. Therefore, I am not totally pessimistic about those outcomes, but they are serious.

If, at the stage where the jury is told that it must consider consent, and that only if it is sure that the complainant has not consented should it go on, the jury finds that she has had sex forced upon her, it is told that next it must look into the question whether, even though it is satisfied that she was not consenting, the defendant might have thought that she was. In those days, if he said that that is what he thought, even if she said she was screaming her refusal, for whatever reason—perhaps because he is a man who thinks that all women who say no mean yes—the jury had to give him the benefit of the doubt and acquit him. Therefore, somebody who had had sex forced on them while screaming their refusal would get no justice because the man's state of mind carried the day—and her suffering meant very little. That was changed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and that was correct. A belief in her consent does not now count unless it is reasonable, so the jury not only looks at his state of mind, but asks itself that second question, probably testing his honesty through the prism of reasonableness, but also redressing the balance between him and her. Therefore, there have been two important changes in the law.

There have been many other changes. In 1999, special measures became available to allow a complainant an easier time in court; the public can be excluded, or she can give evidence from behind a screen. In 2002, the joint inspectors of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police found serious failings in investigations and prosecutions. Lobbyists from the women's movement were happy that at last authoritative sources—as it were—were supporting them. There was an action plan from the Government, which is being implemented. Consent has been redefined as agreement by choice, a model intended to show the need for active consent, and not to muddle it with passive submission. Where the complainant was unconscious or in a restraint situation there is a presumption that she was not consenting and he did not think so. Judges now have to go on a serious sexual offence training course. Also, sexual assault referral centres offer a very supportive model—a place of first resort—for complainants. All those changes have taken place; the Government have made those serious moves, and they are to be applauded for seeing the problem and helping.

However, what are the conviction rates? Seven years after the publication of my pamphlet and all those steps later, they are worse. Instead of the 9 per cent. that prevailed in 1999, 5.3 per cent. is the average nationwide conviction rate. The British crime survey, in which people are asked about their experiences of crime anonymously and for no other purpose but to record them, suggests that 47,000 women were raped in 2004 and that only about 15 per cent. reported that to the authorities. Rape crisis lines suggest that the figure is even higher. There is a myth that there are many false allegations of rape. Home Office research that I will refer to shortly found that 6 per cent. of those reported cases were probably false—that is small in comparison with the acquittal rate of 94.7 per cent.
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Let me explain the point that I am making. Those who talk to the British crime survey will be telling the truth, and those who phone rape report centres are doing so for help and are unlikely to be seeking help for something that did not happen. Therefore, those numbers—47,000 in a year of whom only 15 per cent. report—are likely, on first principles, to be accurate.

The conviction rate of 5.3 per cent. is 5.3 per cent. of the 15 per cent. who reported, which means a conviction rate in respect of those who suffer rape of less than 1 per cent. Of those acts of rape, 57 per cent. were perpetrated by men who were known to the assailant. All rape is deeply traumatising, but the trauma and long-term effects of being raped by someone who a person knows can be worse than those of being raped by a stranger; it calls into question not just the conduct of the assailant but the woman's judgment for ever being with that individual in the first place. Rape is a deeply traumatic event. The term for the fallout between the number of rapes and the number of convictions is attrition, and that is the subject of this debate.

What is happening and what can we do? There is no doubt that over the past decade we have succeeded in increasing the number of complaints—not necessarily because more rapes are taking place, but because women have been encouraged to come forward—but the number of convictions has been relatively static. The research—"A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases"—looks at 2004. Although some of the statutory changes that I have talked about were to do with the trial process, the biggest drop-out is right at the beginning of the case. We must look first at the large number who simply decide not to report at all—about 85 per cent.—and wonder why they do not report. A number of studies have looked into that.

It is true that, curiously, some people do not name the event that has befallen them as rape; they do not think that it is rape. A number of them do not want to report because they are afraid of their family and friends knowing, and feel some shame. However, the bulk of the reasons are to do with not thinking that the police or any other criminal justice agency will define what has happened as rape, fear of being disbelieved by those agencies, fear of being blamed or judged—in particular if they have a previous sexual history—by those agencies, distrust of the police, courts and legal process, and fear of further attack or intimidation. In other words, a large proportion of those who do not report have very low faith in the criminal justice system. That is why they do not report.

Attrition point 2, if I may call it that, is due to people who drop out almost straight away or do not get beyond reporting, and do not even give a statement. Some 34 per cent. of cases that are reported are lost at that very early stage. The import of the research is that the agencies were not pleasant and not supportive. Those respondents who did not even make a statement although they had gone with the intention of reporting cited as key factors being disbelieved or discouraged from proceeding by the police and fear of the criminal justice process. The availability of women police officers, women crisis workers and women forensic doctors was very important, and lack of those has also played a major role.
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A proportion of women chose not to proceed because they wanted to take back control of the issue, but a lot of those had no contact with the police for some time after their initial report, and no offender had been identified. There is a real suggestion that many felt that they were waiting too long, could not take it any longer and needed to put the event behind them. That amounted to 34 per cent. of the withdrawal rate.

The third point of attrition is called insufficient evidence, but to that must be added two related categories: cases in which no offender is identified, and cases in which there is no prospect of a conviction. Those are the categories of the documents surveyed, and they account for a further 36 per cent. of all reports. The pro formas that the researchers found related to a failure to trace a named assailant and assessments by the police of weak cases or cases with no prospect of conviction. Some cases in which the assailant was not identified are most interesting. Of 239 cases in which the police could not identify the assailant, they made DNA tests in 19 only. In five cases, samples were sent to, and got hits on, the national DNA database. In 30 cases, the situation was clear: there were no forensic findings at all, so there was no DNA to send. However, in all 190 other cases it is completely unclear why nothing was sent to the DNA database.

Judy Mallaber : My hon. and learned Friend mentioned sexual assault referral centres, one of which is in my area. Does she agree that if they were more widely available, and if all of them had access to forensic nurses and were widely publicised, it might both encourage women to come forward and to be prepared to go to court, and assist in gathering the evidence, including DNA, to enable convictions? Does she have any evidence of how those centres have worked so far to encourage women in those ways?

Vera Baird : My hon. Friend, in her characteristic way, puts her finger on a shining light of success. Although it is early days, the evidence running through the research is that women who go to sexual assault referral centres are more likely to stay and make a complaint, to stay the course of a prosecution and to end up with a conviction—although not, I think, by a huge margin. There is none the less powerful evidence that the step of introducing SARCs is correct.

SARCs make DNA available, but the question is what the police then do with it. Paralleling the facts that I gave about the few cases from the sample sent for DNA comparison, if one looks back to the 2002 report by the inspectors of the CPS and the police, one can see that when the woman knew her assailant and a sample was taken from her, a large number of detectives—I think that the figure was 82 per cent.—did not send the DNA sample to the database to look for a match. Okay, so there was no issue about the identity of the individual; but the point is, of course, that the assailant's DNA could have been found on another crime scene stain. Equally, the DNA could be that of a convicted rapist, or of someone against whom there had been one or more previous complaints, even if they had resulted in acquittal. In a majority of cases, that simply was not done when the woman knew her accuser.

That information confirms something that runs through the research, and which is pretty well established: the police have a view of what is "real" rape
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and what is not. When the assailant is a stranger in a mask in a dark alley, that is real rape, and the police then work very hard at identifying him; but when it is a person known to the woman, they do not seem to treat it as a proper crime, or they would have sent the samples off to the DNA database. The police seem to think that he is unlikely to be a criminal because he is the woman's boyfriend, and that the whole thing is the result of some confusion between the two.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What the hon. and learned Lady says may be perfectly true—I have no reason to dispute it—but does she agree that the attrition of rape cases to which she refers may be equally applicable to other crimes of assault? Does she agree that the police may regard those who hit people in the street as not being guilty of a real assault if both involved were drunk, or something of that sort? I am not trying to diminish her case, but I fear that the police are not as active as they might be in pursuing other crimes.

Vera Baird : The hon. Gentleman may well be right that if two people are drunk, the police do not put much effort into the case; I am not in a position to say. However, there is no doubt that all statistics show that the drop-out or attrition rate for rape is far higher than that for any other assault.

My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General looks after the CPS rather than the police, and of course the CPS has enormous influence and control over the police. It is clear that the 2002 inspection, just like the research of 2004, shows scepticism about whether rape is a real crime. The attitude is, "Don't send a sample off to see if he's a criminal; it's highly unlikely that he is if he knows her. He's her boyfriend and something's gone wrong."

So, many assailants are not identified in situations where the woman knows who he is but does not know his address or cannot put a proper name to him, because the police do not check that up. In at least eight instances from the sample, the identified defendant absconded. I have here a story in which when a woman complained, the assailant

I doubt that that would happen with many other kinds of crime.

In the remaining types of case in the sample—those in which the assailant was not identified—police decision making turned on evidential issues, all connected with the complainant. Largely, those were cases in which the woman's account was regarded with suspicion or was not supported by any other evidence; cases in which her credibility was explicitly referred to as questionable simply because there was no support for it; and cases where previous, unsuccessful allegations of rape cast doubt on current complaints. Inconsistencies, perhaps explicable by the trauma, were relied on in 27 cases, and in 26 cases the police and the CPS simply took the view that the sex was consensual, and that was the end of it. In all the cases in that group, about a quarter of which were "no prospect of conviction" cases, the decisions
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were made or advised by the CPS. Some of those "no prospect of conviction" cases involved women with learning difficulties or mental health problems and people who had made previous allegations.

Two earlier studies have shown the complete failure to make progress on cases involving women with learning difficulties and mental health problems. That is a really difficult problem. How can such a person sustain their account against cross-examination? Specific attention needs to be devoted to developing prosecution strategies that will help those vulnerable victims.

Having chronicled the rather poor history of the CPS seeking to drive investigation, I draw attention to the impact of previous allegations on decision making. Where it is mentioned that the complainant has complained before and been unsuccessful, the cases are dropped. The data on multiple attendees at some sexual assault referral centres suggest that there is a group of women who are subjected to repeated sexual victimisation by different assailants. Currently, that vulnerability functions as a cue to dismiss the allegations, but if one thinks rationally about this, it could be argued that the entire attrition process will produce thousands of complainants each year entering a group that, should they have the misfortune to be assaulted in future, will mean that their complaint will be treated with even greater scepticism. The sheer fact of the attrition rate means that there will be increasing numbers of women who have complained before whose accounts will, consequently, be disregarded on a subsequent occasion.

A perplexing aspect of this category of cases is the number of them in which the police and CPS thought that witnesses proved that the sexual encounter had been consensual. However, in no case was there an eye witness. One of the complainants said that she thought

the defendants in and


That is a prime example of the woman's case being reasonably clear. However, evidence that truly could not bear comparison with an individual's account was being used, exactly as the researchers' report says, to throw doubt on her account and say, "This is not worth taking forward."

All these examples seem to bear out the fears that characterise the decision of women not to make a report at all: that the matter would not be investigated and taken seriously, and that they would not be believed, but would be doubted if they had any previous sexual history. Such matters seem to show them that they were absolutely right not to take the case forward.

The last attrition point before trial is CPS decision making, which accounts for a relatively small group of cases that drop out at that stage, although it is correct to say that the CPS had offered opinions on large numbers of previous advice files, so it bears responsibility for many of
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the cases to which I have already referred. The researchers say that there is a shift in the CPS towards engagement with inter-agency processes and recognising the needs of victims. There is also a policy change towards the development of specialisations, which are new and welcome, although their implementation is inconsistent. However, they need to be linked to a focus on building cases, rather than doubting them.

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : The report, which I have looked at, did not say very much about the significant change that has taken place in relation to charging, which will mean that as far as rape cases are concerned, the CPS will make the decision to charge based on the evidence, whereas in previous circumstances it would have been the police who made that decision. Given that that will probably be quite a significant change, I would welcome my hon. and learned Friend's views on it.

Vera Baird : Most of this sample postdates that change. The researchers complained that the CPS has been involved in advising at an early stage, but it should have been saying to the police, "That is not good enough; you should send the DNA away and try to arrest this person. You shouldn't rely on those questionnaires. Go back and do it properly." The complaint is that the CPS is not driving the process. The researchers acknowledge readily the change towards a supportive approach from the CPS—my hon. and learned Friend has a good deal to be proud of—but, none the less, they make those comments on 2004 material, and it was 2004 when the change came into play, as I recall.

There is a further drop rate at trial. Cases involving people under 16 were twice as likely to result in a finding of guilt as those involving over-16s. The absence of alcohol or drugs was associated with conviction. External injuries, which act as corroboration of oppression or force, meant that there was twice as likely to be a conviction. Those who had been to SARCs held on and gave their evidence better, and there was a higher conviction rate from them.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware that the report is a decent-sized piece of research, which, although it is not quite as big as "War and Peace", is a lot bigger than I can fully give an account of here. I shall give a summary of it, which is always subjective. I suggest that the report is read. I hope that I am putting it fairly, but it needs deeper perusal. The researchers conclude:

They quote from another piece of research and acknowledge:

The researchers say:

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were taken as discouragement.

In terms of understanding early withdrawal, victim care and satisfaction are important. The researchers paid great credit to the CPS and the police for increasing and improving the level of victim care and satisfaction enormously, compared with studies conducted even in the 1990s. However, although they say that that has improved, far less attention has been given to improving investigation.

All this is pretty well as it was in 2002 and 1999, when I wrote the famous tome that I have referred to. So, what more can we do? I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a senior, experienced circuit judge, who has requested to remain anonymous, but was good enough to talk to me in my part of the country about how he saw rape, as it were, at the coal face. He said that juries just will not have it unless there is corroboration; they take a moral and, perhaps, practical view that a lot of young women have had far too much to drink and are out for a good time, which might include having sex on the dance floor or somewhere nearby. He said that most acquittals are pretty quick, even after a three or four-day fight. Corroboration, he said, is the most important thing and without it the case is pretty hopeless.

Looking back at all the criticisms of the police, who did not send the DNA and relied on questionnaires and did not investigate people to whom the person had complained—all those failures of investigation—the judge put his finger on what rape researchers know. It is an unusual confluence of views from women in the rape lobby and judges that it is failures of policing and the failure of the police to be driven by the CPS into better policing that account for a great deal of this problem.

The judge also told me that the police do not investigate day-to-day matters well at operational level; they throw resources at getting target criminals and when there is a murder, the sky's the limit on the investigation, but they take rape insufficiently seriously. He said, "There is not a keen enough mind at an early enough stage being applied to how corroboration can be obtained in these cases." He also referred to the admissibility of previous sexual history, which is covered by section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, and said, "It always goes on previous sexual history." The idea behind section 41 was that the application to put in previous sexual history should be heard in advance of the trial, but he said, "Well, that will never happen. There are so many rapes and judges are shuffled about a lot, so it is simply not practical to do the application ahead of time. The defence would simply retake the point at the beginning of the trial." However, he also said that the point was not major, because the application is mostly simply not made. But trying to make it ahead of the trial would have a limiting factor; "rightly or wrongly, we would want to hear what the victim said, to form a view of her evidence before deciding whether her previous sexual history was relevant".
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An academic called Neil Kibble was commissioned by the Criminal Bar Association to research the operation of section 41, and he concluded that it ought not to have been passed and that there was no point to it. Although it is an arrogant thing to say, I do not agree with his conclusions about his own research. A small number of judges found that the tests that section 41 made them apply to their own thinking made them focus more clearly than otherwise on the relevance of previous sexual history, and led to their excluding such evidence on occasions when they were confident that, but for those tests, they would have put the evidence in.

It is cheering rather than depressing that the section has made some difference. However, the limiting factor on section 41 exclusions is, and has always been, that it excludes previous sexual history only to cover consent. One could not put in previous sexual history to show that the victim was more likely to have consented because she had sex all over the place. However, such history could go in to show that the defendant believed that she was consenting. That is the second test, and showing such belief has never been, and cannot be, excluded.

If a defendant says in a trial that the victim was consenting, it is implicit that he is running both defences at once—first, that she was consenting and secondly that he believed that she was consenting. Whatever the merits of trying to exclude such evidence so that it cannot show consent, in any trial such evidence can come in around the legislation for the purposes of showing belief in consent. That, of course, is a problem.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I ask the following question out of ignorance; I have neither prosecuted nor defended in a rape case, although I have appeared in a similar case that I might talk about in a moment.

When the section 41 point is argued, does the defendant have to persuade the judge that he had some knowledge of the victim's sexual history? Clearly, if the defendant had no knowledge of that history, he could not argue that she must have consented, that she was likely to have consented or that he believed she had consented because of that previous sexual history.

Vera Baird : Yes, the hon. and learned Gentleman puts his finger on an important point. The difficulty is that to try to show that the victim had consented, such evidence could come in from anywhere—saying, in short, that she was a tart and very likely to have consented. That need not have been part of the defendant's knowledge. That area of evidence is narrower anyway, but it cannot be put in for that purpose now.

However, when the issue is about the defendant's state of mind, he can put in all sorts of rumour, chit chat and street-end gossip, because as long as such things were relevant to his belief, it would not matter where they came from, although such material would be utterly valueless. In his research, Calton stated that the more previous sexual history is put in—even if it is denied—the more likely it is that the defendant will be acquitted.

Is the time approaching when we have to look carefully at whether the only successful way to exclude previous sexual history is to exclude it for all purposes
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except in a narrow sector of cases, when it may be relevant to something separate from consent or belief in consent? That is the double-or-quits process with section 41 at this stage. On the front line, judges, rape complainants and campaigners agree that section 41 is not working.

A very interesting point, my next to last, is that there are—

The Solicitor-General : Before my hon. and learned Friend moves on, I should say that one of the section 41 issues that I have been considering is the application of rule 36, which is that prior notice needs to be given of questioning on previous sexual history. Some of that is being breached by the way that judges are reaching decisions. I am particularly considering how we can tighten that up so that women do not arrive at court expecting not to be questioned about their previous sexual history only to find out that they are. That area is key. If a woman knows that she is likely to be questioned on that, she may be prepared for it; if she does not know that she will be until the court makes that decision during the hearing, it will be far more traumatic for her to be cross-examined.

Vera Baird : What my hon. and learned Friend has said is absolutely right, and ties in a little with what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) was saying. As such evidence can come from any kind of rumour or gossip, the victim may not expect it, and throwing such things on a person in public has a very powerful effect. It is imperative that the issue should be tried earlier.

The judge whom I mentioned said that it would not be easy if the issue were tried earlier, because a new judge might have a different view from that of his predecessor and it would be open to the defendant to try again at trial. However, the ruling of the first judge could be made binding on the trial judge, so that it would not be possible to reopen the issue. I agree that it is important that the decision should be made early so that the victim knows about it and can decide not to go.

However, the more important point is that it is easy to get round the whole of section 41, because implicit in saying that the complainant was consenting is the defendant's belief that she was consenting. However tightly we draw the exclusion, if it does not apply to belief and consent, it will not protect her.

The national average conviction rate for rape is 5.3   per cent., but there are amazing differences between different areas of the country. I am poor at geography, but I think that the hon. and learned Member for      Harborough comes from somewhere near Northamptonshire, in which case he has cause to be pleased with his neighbours. Northamptonshire had a conviction success rate of 13.8 per cent. in 2004. The county prosecutes 25.25 per cent. of everybody arrested against whom there is a rape complaint, and convicts 53   per cent. of them. Compare and contrast Suffolk, where 11 per cent. of those complained against are prosecuted and only 14.25 per cent. of that 11 per cent. are convicted. Suffolk has a conviction rate of 1.6 per cent. of those complained against—compare 13.8 per cent. with 1.6 per cent!

My own police and CPS area of Cleveland prosecutes a fifth of people against whom there is a complaint and convicts 37 per cent. of them—a 7.76 per cent.
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conviction rate, higher than the national average, despite the negative views of the judge that I mentioned, who comes from that area. Cleveland has a very good CPS service. Lessons must be disseminated from good areas such as Northampton—south Wales is almost as good—to the poor areas that let everyone down.

Finally, great successes are being reported from specialist courts; the ones that we know of, although they are new, which are domestic violence specialist courts. Is there a lesson to be learned? In such courts, cases, having been investigated by a specialist prosecutor, are heard on the same day, in the same court, before magistrates who are trained specialists.

All the old-fashioned attitudes that permeated domestic violence—that it is a private matter, part and parcel of a relationship, and that we should not interfere—are simply ousted by much exposure and lots of training. Could we oust in the same way the poor attitudes that permeate the investigation and prosecution of rape? Is there scope for specialist sexual violence courts?

South Africa has specialist sexual violence courts. They are relatively new and I know little about them. As the theme that runs through my pamphlet, the 2002 inspectors' report and this research is that attitudinal difficulties, from the first reporting to the failure in the Crown court, are the problem, is further specialism, including specialism of the fact finders at court, the way forward?

All these five points should be considered seriously, because unless they are and unless we take more steps, on top of the good ones that have been taken, when, to public acclaim, I write the second edition of "Rape in Court" soon, I shall hardly have to change it at all.

10.10 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am always grateful that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) gives us regular opportunities to debate this issue, and it is important that we do so. I pay tribute to her consistent and well-informed work, including the writing of the pamphlet she mentioned, which I had not heard of and had not read. I would be happy to take, borrow or, if she is really desperate, buy a copy of it to put on my shelves.

I also pay tribute to the Solicitor-General. He has taken the issue extremely seriously. I detect a change of heart among Law Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service to try to address the fundamental failure of the criminal justice system in relation to violated and attacked women and to women in general who are victims of any offences of violence.

I pay a third tribute, to someone who is not present in the Chamber: my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who, after many years leading on women's issues for our party, has just stepped down to do other things. Just the other day she spoke in a debate to mark international women's day. It is important that there are doughty people in all parties who will ensure that these issues are always on the agenda. Such people, who take up the cudgels, must include men as well as women.
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I want to make a few short points, because I do not want to repeat the statistics or the evidence. Depending on the timing of this debate, I may seek Members' indulgence to leave just before the end if the debate runs for the full time allowed, Mr. Olner. I have duties elsewhere but I am keen to hear the responses of the Solicitor-General and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier).

First, it was good that four years ago the Government, having consulted all the agencies, came up with the rape action plan. I know that we are nearing the time when the audit of that will be published. I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General would tell us when that will be, because the statistics that we have heard, and which I knew, which show the very low average conviction rate, need to be evaluated against an objective assessment of what has been done since real effort has been made over the past five years across the criminal justice system.

In that context, I welcome the advertising campaign that is starting this month. It seeks to remind women of their rights and of their entitlement to be protected in every respect, unless they consent expressly to any activity. Indeed, by and large, even such consent would not protect somebody from prosecution if they acted illegally and assaulted someone.

I start with a fairly simple view about crime and criminality, which is that, in essence, there are two sorts of crimes: crimes against the person and crimes against property. Crimes against the person are always more serious. I start from the simple presumption that a crime against the person—a physical attack on somebody else—should result in the attacker losing their liberty. That should be the expectation. I have a simple view about that and the public expect that to happen as well.

Although I appreciate that it is early days, I hope that there will be a serious, informed and robust response when the Sentencing Guidelines Council produces its anticipated recommendations, because if the reports are correct, there appears to be a failure to understand that fundamental point, in relation to rape and other offences against women, and in relation to other offences.

I am not in any way being histrionic. Indeed, in the Chamber the other day I counselled against being histrionic. These things must be taken in a considered way and we have to await the report of the council. It is good that such a body is doing that job. That was the result of debates that we had in Committee and on the Floor of the House. There is now a better system for evaluating sentencing and the types of sentences, which I welcome.

I want to make a point that was raised not so long ago by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar in written questions to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs. One of the things that will bring confidence into the system—I appreciate that it is marginal—will be increasingly to have a gender balance in our magistrates and Crown courts, and in the judiciary as a whole. Of course, one cannot presume that just because a woman is chairing the bench, or because there is a woman district judge or a woman circuit judge, there will be a different attitude, but my perception is that, as yet, the British judicial system does not look like and reflect Britain, and therefore it does not command
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the confidence that it should. I hope that we continue to make the strides that the Government have been trying to make to broaden the diversity of those who judge these things. Juries are diverse but the judiciary currently is not. That is important.

My next point was touched on by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. There is always a dilemma in having a devolved system of justice—a devolved system of policing and so on; there is a great debate going on about policing—and complaining that the statistics vary in different parts of the country. However, there are some worrying differences in the statistics. Given all the efforts made to ensure that there are specialist advocates and specialists within the CPS, it would be helpful if the Solicitor-General would say why, in his opinion, such considerable variations exist between different CPS areas and different police areas. That such variations exist is more important in terms of the percentage of the allegations that are taken through to prosecution than in terms of the conviction rate. The conviction rate is obviously less explicable, but that first statistic should not involve such variation. There is a proper question to be asked and answered on that.

I want to endorse the point about corroboration, which will always be the most important issue. All our experience of criminal matters shows that an unsupported allegation, particularly in a personal relationship context, is far less likely to be believed.

I ask the Minister to examine one central point. I am interested to hear the responses of other colleagues on this matter. Over the years, there have been developments to make it easier, for women in particular, to go and tell somebody about an attack. I have visited the new centre that was set up for victims in the Camberwell magistrates court in my borough. However, it appears from the figures that only four of the 43 police services in England and Wales have specialist rape units. I appreciate that some groups of people who specialise in dealing with allegations of rape might not be called specialist rape units. It troubles me that so few forces appear to have a dedicated group of police officers dealing with such offences.

More important than having either a victims' suite at court, although that is important, or a specialist rape unit, although that might be important, is the fact that it is still not normally comfortable or convenient for women to report much of the crime against them. I have a strong sense that the reason why most women do not make a complaint is that there is nowhere that they can go, where they will feel confident, before they get there.

It is not easy to go into a police station, because members of the public do not know who they will meet in the porch on the way in and whether they will encounter the right sort of attitude when they speak to people inside. It is not necessarily easy for them to go to Victim Support, because to do so might give them a feeling that they are being stereotyped—or they might be self-stereotyping—and they do not want to be seen going in and out of such places.

I have a proposition. I have done a great deal of work with a co-operative police service and co-operative people in the CPS, Her Majesty's Courts Service and the local authority, and I still do not feel that we have received an adequate response in my part of the world, south of the river in London. Without being gimmicky
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in any way, it might be worth while for each local authority area, town and community to have something that I call, for the purposes of argument, a women's crime centre, where women can go and report a crime, whatever it is, in surroundings in which they feel comfortable.

My important point is that that would not be a place where women go to complain only about sexual offences; they could go there to complain about any crime. It could be a complaint about a handbag being stolen, or a mobile being taken on the bus, or about a parent in the playground. We need to make it much easier for women to go somewhere to make a formal complaint or discuss whether to make one.

A lot of the difficulty lies in the initial threshold of being willing to make the decision, for all the reasons given by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. Many people do not go from the trauma of an offence such as rape or sexual assault to telling anyone in officialdom because of the fear, the perceptions of their friends and family, and the potential publicity. The Solicitor-General and other hon. Members will understand that as well as I do.

I am very happy to follow up these discussions with the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, colleagues of all parties and Law Officers, but one of the ways that we could pull together much of the very good work being done around the country area by area, town by town and city by city, is by having somewhere that is accommodating, accepting and not intimidating and is competent to deal with any matters concerning criminality against women. I am not being tokenist about the matter in any way: I do not suggest that we go down a road where we have six other species of place, such as centres only for black people or for young people. It is a women's issue in particular. They are the majority of the population and we ought to accommodate that.

I shall be very happy to hear an initial, considered response from Ministers as to where that approach might have been tried or piloted elsewhere in the country. I know that it is done in other countries, and that there is some evidence of success. It might be that at the beginning of the system we should grant more people a realistic opportunity to make a considered judgment as to whether they want to proceed, and so provide them with the protection that they feel they need in order to go through the criminal justice system.

Of course, once we get past that stage there are the other issues that affect what the hon. and learned Lady calls the attrition rate; I understand and endorse those concerns. But I did not want simply to repeat them; I wanted to make a slightly different point. I should be grateful if in due course Ministers could consider—as could we—how to make the initial doorway through which people can go to complain of offences against women much easier to access and more likely to lead to a successful outcome. My view is that we could considerably improve the number of successful complaints that are followed through if we start in the right way, and if we do that, the rest of the criminal justice process may well follow.

10.23 am

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by congratulating the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing the debate, and I congratulate
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her on not being inhibited by a feeling that, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office, she should be silent on issues affecting the criminal justice system. She clearly has a high reputation in relation to this aspect of public policy; she mentioned her own pamphlet from 1999, and why should she not? If one looks through the search engines on the House of Commons website, one will find that she has been a continuous questioner of the Government on such matters since she came to Parliament. It is a matter for some congratulation that she has achieved an hour and a half's debate on the subject today.

During an intervention, I confessed that I have no experience as a member of the Bar in dealing with rape cases as a prosecutor or defence counsel. As a recorder, I am not sufficiently qualified: I have not got, as the jargon has it, my sex ticket to try serious sexual offences, including rape. The fact that I have not suggests to me that the Lord Chancellor's Department, as it used to be called, and those who arrange the way in which criminal judges try cases of this sort, have thought about the matter quite carefully. They require judges—the hon. and learned Lady implied this even if she did not say so expressly—to have specialist training in this area of the law before they are allowed to try such cases because they involve huge sensitivities.

By mentioning emotional trauma, I am by no means diminishing the physical injuries and trauma that a complainant will suffer. In parentheses, I add that it is understandable that many women who are attacked in this hideous way are not strong enough or confident enough to report it straight away and sometimes leave it for days, weeks or in some cases, particularly in relation to child abuse, for some years before bringing it to the attention of the authorities or even their parents. The emotional trauma that a complainant has to suffer in bringing a case, from the first reporting of it, is enormous. It affects those women's families and in many ways it wholly ruins their lives.

However, balanced against that, those of us who have the responsibility of making law and those who have the responsibility of applying the law—judges and others who have the duty of ensuring fairness in such cases—also have to consider the effect on the accused. Although it is sometimes difficult to believe, and it is not always attractive to say such things, those accused have rights, as complainants do. Although I fully endorse much of what the hon. and learned Member for Redcar had to say on this very difficult subject, we should be mindful when we are discussing changes in the criminal law and procedure not to forget the rights of the defendant, particularly in cases involving sexual assault and rape, because in such cases the defendant's reputation, whether he is acquitted justly or improperly, is likely to be tarnished for ever as a result of being connected with such allegations.

Clearly, all criminal defendants who are justly acquitted have some loss of reputation as a consequence of that process. Public policy says that the acquittal is the immediate answer to that concern. I think it is fair to say that an acquittal in a rape case does not always lead to that remedial effect.
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The Solicitor-General : The hon. and learned Gentleman is of course right that we need to strike a balance in any court proceedings. Defendants have rights and it is correct that those should be respected. However, when we are dealing with a conviction rate of just under 6 per cent., it is clear that the rights of the defendant are already being respected to a considerable extent. The problem is that the rights of the victim all too often seem to be going by the board.

Mr. Garnier : That is a perfectly reasonable comment to make on the figures presented to us by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. If the balance is in the wrong place, we do not have a balance. It seems to me that all of us who have discussed the matter today, apart from the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who are no longer present, are lawyers of one sort or another. It is difficult on these occasions to remember that we are also citizens, we represent members of the public and we have families who are not lawyers and do not necessarily treat such subjects in the desiccated way that we might in a legal seminar or continuous development course—which we are now required to go on if we wish to remain as practising lawyers.

I do not want to have an argument with the Solicitor-General. I agree with him. I do not want to have an argument with the hon. and learned Lady either. It is important that she has presented to us information about which the public ought to know more. It is not widely known, and it is certainly rarely reported widely in the media. If anybody reads the Hansard record of this debate, we can all congratulate ourselves on disseminating to a wider audience a bit more knowledge about a rather esoteric legal subject.

Taking into account all that the hon. and learned Lady said, we must bear it in mind that as public policy makers and law makers, we are in the business of providing justice, and certainly justice for complainants. It is clear from what she said that in reality, many complainants do not get justice. One need only consider the five reasons that she mentioned for the drop-out rate—the attrition rate, as she called it. The individual does not complain at all; they withdraw or do not pursue a complaint at an early stage; the complaint is discouraged because there is insufficient evidence, there is no identified defendant or accused, or there is no reliable prospect of prosecution; there is something wrong with the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service decides to progress cases, which, to be fair to the CPS, the hon. and learned Lady said formed the smallest cohort of cases; and finally, the individual is deterred by the prospect and actuality of trial.

All five matters are inhibiting factors that, in one way or another, prevent complainants from getting justice. We must be acutely aware of that. However, as I said, we must be acutely aware of balancing those concerns with concerns for those who are accused of these hideous crimes. I want to build in the public a sense that justice is being done as a consequence of what Parliament, the courts, the police, the CPS and all other agencies do between the offence and acquittal or sentencing. We must not forget that a just acquittal either on the direction of the judge or following a verdict from a jury on the facts is not a "failure" any more than a conviction
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is a "success". Justice cannot be measured in those terms; it should be wholly disinterested—albeit that for the people involved in the case, the individual who has been assaulted, her family, the defendant and his family, it is almost impossible to come to terms with the situation. For them, it is a personal attack of the most hideous nature either on their bodies or, if they are the falsely accused defendant, on their reputation and possibly their career.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar highlighted an extremely difficult issue. She presented her argument calmly and rationally, on which I congratulate her. I hope that I do not sound patronising. It is always difficult to deal with such issues in a public forum in a way that does not attract criticism for being too much on one side of the argument and too ignorant of the interests, rights and arguments of the other side. She managed to deal with this issue utterly properly.

I am not in a position to comment on why the acquittal rates in particular parts of the country are too high. It is interesting that the neighbouring county to mine, Northamptonshire, is one of the "better" counties for convictions, with a rate of 13.4 per cent. of cases tried. I could not hear whether it was Southampton or Southwark—

Vera Baird : Suffolk.

Mr. Garnier : I have no idea why Suffolk managed only a 1.6 per cent. conviction rate compared with the hon. and learned Lady's area of Cleveland, which had a rate of 7.76 per cent.

I shall finish with what I hope is not a light-hearted anecdote. It certainly was not a light-hearted moment at the time. It relates to the north-east. In 2000 when I was the shadow Attorney-General, I was able to carry on my private practice, being instructed to appear for a complainant in a defamation action at the Crown court in Newcastle upon Tyne, one river north of Redcar. My client was suing for slander, which was reduced to libel, over an allegation of serious sexual assault in the workplace which, by the time the complaint had been    developed through the company's personnel department, had taken written form on the pleadings in the action and had gone to trial, had been magnified from inappropriate sexual conduct in the staff restroom to the most hideous and disgusting rape. I shall not go into details, because it is simply not necessary.

The matter was tried before a jury of eight women and four men, with a male judge, myself a male barrister with a male junior, and a male defence counsel opposing us and acting for the woman who had made the accusation. The trial lasted two weeks, and it is the nearest that I have ever been to a rape trial. The jury, which as I said included eight women, were utterly disbelieving of the woman's account. At times, when I was watching the jury listening to the woman giving evidence, they were mouthing, "This is a pack of lies." They awarded the complainant in excess of £200,000. He could never recover it, of course, because the defendant did not have that sort of money.

If we present cases properly, if rape victims are taken through the hideous reporting process right the way to trial in the careful way that the hon. and learned Lady said was necessary to preserve the complaint and reduce
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the drop-out rate and high attrition rate, if the preparatory stages of the case are properly managed by the prosecuting authorities once the arrest and charge have been made, and if the trial judge is acutely sensitive of the issues—by and large they are—we have a greater expectation of achieving justice, not only in the disinterested sense, but in the personal, competition sense and in the necessary personal protection sense that the individuals in the case and the wider public require of our justice system.

That process is not impossible. It is difficult and it requires effort and resources, although it may require not more resources but simply the re-focusing of existing ones. It requires also determination within the prosecuting authorities, particularly within the police, although the modern police have changed considerably from the, "Well, she was wearing a short skirt so she deserved it" caricature, about which we so often hear.

There must be an understanding, which I think is growing, that becoming involved in such police work is not a Cinderella exercise. It is highly important, and it is essential for the civilisation of a country such as ours and for the greater confidence of those who—for whatever reason—sadly become involved in rape cases. I shall listen with great interest to what the Solicitor-General has to say.

10.40 am

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien) : It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr. Olner. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) not only on her success in securing the debate, but on her work over a considerable time in ensuring that issues relating to rape are put on the public agenda and addressed. I also pay tribute to my predecessor as Solicitor-General, who is now my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs. She helped to take through Parliament the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which significantly improved the law relating to rape.

Too many rapists are getting away with it, and some of them are repeat rapists. Parliament has strengthened the law on rape and the Government are taking steps to provide more help and support to victims. However, changing the law is not the only issue; we also need to change some people's attitude to rape. The "What did she expect, dressed like that?" mindset must be challenged. People should know that there is an absolute right to say no. That is partly why last week the Government initiated a public campaign emphasising that people have a right to say no.

Rape is an appalling crime that devastates the lives of victims and their families. However, rape will always be a difficult offence to prosecute and there is no sense in pretending otherwise. Most rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Often there is no independent witness, because of the nature of rape—it tends to happen when only two people are present—and often no forensic evidence is available. Particularly given the growth of DNA technology, we need to use the new opportunities that are available to ensure that forensic evidence is collected.

Like my hon. and learned Friend, I was struck by the Home Office report entitled "A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases". It is clear that in some
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areas the police have not always sought to bring forward DNA evidence. It is important that we ensure that all police forces adopt best practice. I will bring to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who deals with policing, the fact that we need to ensure that that happens. We need to get right the collection of evidence and the investigation, ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service takes the correct decision on prosecution and, as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, ensure that we have judges who are sensitive. Getting all those things right is the best way to ensure justice in rape cases.

Conviction rates in rape cases remain unacceptably low, with fewer than 6 per cent. of recorded rapes resulting in a conviction. Nevertheless, reporting rates are rising, which is a positive factor. In addition, the number of convictions for rape of a female rose in 2004. Of the 741 people tried at the Crown court for rape of a female in 2004—up from 666 in 2003—28 per cent. were convicted. That is a rise of 4 per cent. from the position in 2003.

In Cleveland in 2004, there were 129 reported rapes, 26 prosecutions and 10 convictions. The rate of conviction is still very low. I have explained partly why that is the case. We need to ensure that we deal with the factors involved. The Government have made a significant number of changes to the law on rape, but research shows that a victim's needs in the aftermath of rape are significant and wide ranging and failure to address those immediate and ongoing needs can have long-lasting implications for the victim's emotional well-being, mental and sexual health and relationships, creating a significant cost for society as a whole and for the health service, as well as for the individuals and their families.

Home Office research published last summer attempted to quantify the costs of sexual violence. There is the cost to the individual and their family in emotional terms, which can be harrowing enough, but the cost to society of each rape is estimated at £76,000. That figure covers all the various costs that society has to pay for one instance of this appalling crime. The research found that sexual offences, rather than just rape itself, account for approximately 23 per cent. of the cost of crime to households in England and Wales.

Sexual violence is sometimes dismissed as a crime that affects a very small minority of people, and a reading of the recorded crime statistics gives the impression that that might be the case. The number of recorded rapes is increasing year on year, but the total figure—14,002 in 2004–05—is still much smaller than the figures for many other violent crimes. However, the British crime survey indicates that the actual number of rapes is much higher than that. The 2001 interpersonal violence module estimated that there were 190,000 incidents of serious sexual assault against women, including 80,000 incidents of rape or attempted rape, in the year leading up to the research. It also estimated—we sometimes forget this issue in discussions such as this—that 0.2 per cent. of men had been subjected to sexual assault in the previous year. There is at least anecdotal evidence that rape of men is an increasing problem. We need to deal
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with that, which is why some of the Home Office's recent advertisement campaigns have involved gay magazines. It is right that that is the case.

Sexual violence can affect men and women of all backgrounds, regardless of age, race and religion. Certain groups, such as people with learning disabilities and people who work in prostitution, can be particularly vulnerable.

The Government have made a series of changes, but we are determined to do more to tackle the barriers to the successful prosecution of rape, while not tampering with the burden of proof. We can do things around the edges of the burden of proof without changing that fundamental core. I hope that we will be able to do many things in this respect in the coming months and years. I shall issue a consultation paper setting out some proposals shortly.

It is worth delineating a few of the changes that we have made. We have introduced specialist rape prosecutors in every CPS area; there are now 520 of them. We have overhauled the law on sexual offences through the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and previous legislation. That includes clarifying the law on consent to ensure that we give better protection to potential rape victims. Special measures are now available to enable victims to give evidence behind a screen or by televised link, which perhaps makes the experience of giving evidence in court, which will always be very difficult, somewhat less traumatic. We have limited the circumstances in which a victim's previous sexual history is admissible in court. I shall return in a moment to the point on section 41 made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. We have clarified and expanded the circumstances in which evidence of the defendant's bad character is admissible in court. That is particularly relevant when the bad character involves issues that are very similar to the offences of which he is accused.

We have worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers on producing guidance for the police on the investigation of serious sexual offences, and we are now working on developing training for the police. Through the "No witness, no justice" programme, we have introduced witness care units to keep victims informed of case progress and to provide information about support services. We have invested £4 million over the years from 2004 to 2006 in developing sexual assault referral centres—SARCs—and voluntary sector services for victims of sexual offences. We have funded the production of a handbook to help rape victims by explaining how the criminal justice process works—something that many of them fear.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to the research study, "A Gap or a Chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases", and it is worth emphasising that it was Home Office research. It was published in 2005 and I understand that the data that it reported were collected between October 2000 and 31 December 2002. A large part of the data arose before the changes that we have brought about, particularly since 2003. One of the biggest changes was the introduction of charging, which began in 2004 and is being rolled out throughout the country. It has not yet reached my area in Warwickshire, so it has not been fully introduced, but it will bring a significant change in the way in which rape cases in particular are dealt with.
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Vera Baird : I am cheered and glad to be corrected that the data predate the charging change, which has come to Cleveland. The CPS's leverage is important. It can, for example, tell the police to go back and look at something again and to investigate more thoroughly. That is how it has been used and I am pleased that I was wrong.

The Solicitor-General : I was not going to point that out.

The charging change is important. A specialist rape prosecutor who has been specially trained looks at the case and advises the police on how they can ensure that all the evidence is brought forward and that a full file is ready for a judgment to be made on whether there is a realistic prospect of the prosecution securing a conviction. We hope that as a result, cases that are prosecuted will be more likely to succeed. That remains to be seen as the statistics are rolled out during the next couple of years, but we hope that there will be a significant increase in the success rate of prosecutions.

We need to recognise that there are disparities between various areas. My hon. and learned Friend mentioned Suffolk and Northampton. I hope that those disparities will be addressed to some extent by the standard training given to specialist rape prosecutors who work with the CPS. That will enable them to work to standards that are broadly the same throughout the country, which should enable judgments on whether a case should be prosecuted to be broadly standard and even out some of the discrepancies. However, that does not mean that my hon. and learned Friend is wrong to suggest that there are other areas where we need to improve, particularly the investigation of some rape cases. Some areas are better than others and we need to ensure that we have appropriate standards and best practice in all areas.

Progress in making some of the changes has been important. There are some key challenges on which we must focus. It is important that the police are adequately resourced and trained, that we have high-quality rape investigation and that barristers work closely with CPS lawyers to ensure that we get convictions. I am pleased to say that the CPS has recently agreed with the Bar Council that all barristers who prosecute rape cases should have special training accredited by the CPS. That is an important change, in that not only will specialist lawyers make the judgment about the initial prosecution—the charging—but when the case comes to court the prosecuting barrister will also be specially trained to ensure that they know how a case should be properly handled.

We have reached agreement that barristers, who previously tended not to talk to witnesses and victims before a trial, will now do so in appropriate circumstances to ensure that a judgment can be made about the case and that some of the questions that need to be asked can be answered. I hope that those changes will be useful and important in the coming months and years.

My hon. and learned Friend raised a series of other issues. First, she referred to police attitudes, which are sometimes dismissive. The police have introduced training, some of which was led by the Metropolitan police who have undertaken substantial work on how to ensure that rape cases and sexual offences are better
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prosecuted. We are now developing a cadre of specialist officers who are better able to deal with such matters. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, there are only four units of sexual offence liaison officers, but there are many more sexual offence liaison officers who are not in units. Whether a special unit is established depends to some extent on the number of cases in an area and some forces may not need to establish one because, thankfully, numbers are much lower, but they will still have a sexual offence liaison officer who will be able to deal with cases.

The key change is the introduction of SARCs; there are now 14 of them. We need to focus our attention on such areas.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar referred to a judge who said that a key issue was to improve the way in which investigations are carried out. I certainly agree with him or her on that. I also agree that corroboration is important, which is why we must ensure that we have adequate forensic facilities.

My hon. and learned Friend also referred to section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and the fact that there are still too many cases in which previous sexual history is given. I have a great deal of sympathy with her point and will consider the issue further to see whether there is more work that we can do. Changes to rule 36—giving prior notice—will improve the situation somewhat, but there are other ways in which we can improve the legislation and I hope that we will be able to look at some of those.

My hon. and learned Friend suggested that we consider domestic violence courts and whether specialist courts might be helpful. We are developing a formulation with specialist police officers, specialist prosecutors and specialist barristers in court and we should see how that approach develops, but I am not dismissing my hon. and learned Friend's suggestion. I had a look at the South African model, which has much to recommend it, but I want to see how the data develop before we start to advocate it.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey raised a number of points. I agree that there should be more women judges and magistrates. The Government are seeking to increase numbers.

There is a two-stage process under way for the audit of the rape action plan. The first stage—a stocktake of progress and implementation of the rape action plan—took place in the summer and was based on self-report surveys. We found some excellent good practice, but we need to do more to ensure that that is replicated in all areas and a follow-up thematic inspection will report this summer. We look forward to the recommendations that will inform the new sexual violence action plan. I hope that we shall be able to ensure that we make improvements as a result of that. The hon. Gentleman also asked about variations between different attitudes and statistical differences between areas. To some extent, our standard training for rape prosecutors will address those issues.

I want to ensure that we have a better success rate in getting rapists off the street and into prison where they should be. I want to ensure that victims are better treated by the criminal justice system and that the Government's record on tackling these issues is at the top of the agenda.
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