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I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on convicting rapists and protecting victims, which follows the publication yesterday of our response to a consultation paper of the same name.

Rape is one of the most feared and most damaging crimes in our society—5 per cent. of women and 0.4 per cent. of men have been raped as adults—and it devastates the lives of victims, often some of the most vulnerable people there are. The harm caused can be severe and long-lasting, affecting the sexual, physical and mental health of the victim. It takes enormous courage for a victim of sexual violence to report such a crime and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and to see justice done. Our new public service agreements will, for the first time, make it clear that tackling sexual violence must be a priority across England and Wales.

Contrary to the popular view—it cannot be said too often—rape is not usually perpetrated by a stranger: a man in a mask on an isolated footpath hitting someone over the head and grievously injuring them. According to the British crime survey, 54 per cent. of rapists are current or former partners of the victim and only about 17 per cent. could be called strangers. With non-stranger rape, there is often no independent witness present and little or no forensic evidence.

The Government have already made a number of changes to the law and to how police and the Crown Prosecution Service work together to try to tackle rape. In particular, we have excluded much previous sexual history evidence from trials. That used to undermine victims and make it frightening for them to countenance coming to court. We have strengthened the law on rape through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, improving the definition of consent and requiring that any belief that the complainant was consenting has to be reasonable before it can operate as a defence. We have updated the law on bad character and hearsay to ensure that all relevant evidence is considered by a jury.

We are determined to take all measures necessary to improve the conviction rate in rape cases. Ministers have said many times that the conviction rate is unacceptably low. Increasing the conviction rate is vital in order not only to deliver justice for victims but to send a deterrent message to potential offenders, prevent rapists from committing further offences and secure the confidence of victims and the wider public in the criminal justice system. It is also important for the criminal justice system, as a low conviction rate can deter the application of the rigour and thoroughness that it is appropriate to apply to inquiries into serious sexual offending behaviour.

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Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. and learned Friend will want to congratulate the CPS in Wolverhampton on securing a conviction rate of about 80 per cent. The difficulties to which she referred are particularly hard when cases involve children. Will she make that a feature of the consultation? There is an unfortunate case in my constituency with which the CPS has been unable to proceed simply because it involves a child’s word against an adult’s, even though more than one alleged offence against the same person is involved. Will my hon. and learned Friend pay particular attention in the consultation to that difficult and sensitive area?

The Solicitor-General: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the interest that he has taken in such issues, which are extremely difficult. Measures have been put in place to try to support children so that they can come forward and give appropriate evidence, but it is not always practical or appropriate for cases to be continued in every circumstance. If I can assist my hon. Friend with any particular element of the case that is troubling him, I would be pleased to meet him about it.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to gather any evidence on the degree to which sexual assault referral centres such as Millfield house in my constituency, with their counselling sessions and sympathetic medical examinations, have been able to assist in encouraging and enabling women to pursue rape cases? Does she share my hope that with the belated awareness of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) about the importance of the matter, the Opposition will vote in favour of measures that will enable us to increase conviction rates, rather than oppose them as they have sometimes done in the past?

The Solicitor-General: Since a good deal of the fall-out for people who complain about rape happens at the start of the process, it is common sense that sexual assault referral centres, which support complainants as if they were patients and look after their needs, are bound to encourage them to have the confidence to remain in the prosecuting process. Although no concrete research shows that that is the case, it is counter-intuitive to suggest anything else. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) knows, we have multiplied the number of sexual assault referral centres as fast as possible in the past few years. There are approximately 19 and there should be one in every criminal justice area in two years.

Yes, I welcome the Opposition’s new interest in the topic of rape and hope that they can now support our measures.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I am obviously pleased about the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on the subject, but to suggest that it is a new interest, when the Solicitor-General knows that we both served on several Bill Committees in which we scrutinised those matters closely—and, indeed, agreed on many things that needed to done—is perhaps not the best way to start such a debate.

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The Solicitor-General: Unfortunately, my last recollection of a Conservative attitude to rape is the suggestion of anonymity for male defendants, to—as it was put in Committee—“level the playing field”. I am therefore sorry to say that I cannot accept for a moment the contention that the Tories have systematically supported the things that we tried to do to improve the conviction rate. Indeed, I have already said that we excluded previous sexual history, which was done nearly over the dead bodies of Conservative Members. Many years ago, before we were in government, I drafted amendments for a Back Bencher who presented them in a Committee on a much earlier criminal justice measure. We begged the Conservative Government to introduce limits on the admissibility of previous sexual history. That was rejected out of hand. I am afraid that we are considering a fairly new road to Damascus conversion for some Opposition Members.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will the Solicitor-General give way?

The Solicitor-General: I shall carry on because I have given way at least three times in the past five minutes and there is much to say.

Let us consider the conviction rate, which stands at 5.7 per cent. for reported rapes. We do not know how many rapes are reported but we believe that the figure is approximately 15 per cent. That is an increase on the historic number. The figure of 5.7 per cent. represents a decrease in the conviction rate, which has been falling since the 1970s. In the past decade, especially in the past five years, there has been a significant increase in reporting rape, and it is important to put the conviction rate in that context. Overall, since 1997 when 6,500 rapes were reported, the figure has increased substantially so that 14,500 rapes were reported in 2005-07.

That rise in reporting is important because it demonstrates that victims increasingly have the confidence to come forward, and that the steps that we have taken in the past decade expressly to give them confidence of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley described, are starting to work. More victims have the confidence to come forward and complain. There are greater numbers of convictions for rape and the overall percentage is moving in the right direction. In the past year, 863 individuals were convicted of rape, whereas 618 individuals were convicted of rape in 1997. Approximately 250 more rapists are convicted every year as a consequence of enhancing people’s confidence to come forward.

I am happy to say that conviction rates on complaint are beginning gradually to turn the corner. I do not pretend that 5.7 per cent. is much to write home about, but it is an increase of 0.5% per cent. in the past two years. Although that sounds small, the figures together represent a 10 per cent. rise in the past two years. We have increased by a third the number of people who are convicted annually of rape. The conviction rate is starting to increase, so there is hope that the measures that we have put in place are starting to bear fruit. However, it is clear that there is more to do.

We put out a consultation paper in 2006 on four issues that we thought could strengthen the existing legal framework. They related to the consent element in rape, evidence or information about the psychological
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reactions of rape victims, the use of video evidence and the law relating to the admissibility of evidence. Let me go through each of them quickly.

Under the current law, the statement that a victim of a sexual offence makes to someone else can be heard by a jury only if it is made as soon as it could reasonably have been made after the offence. It is now pretty well known that victims of rape or other sexual offences may delay making their complaint for a variety of reasons, the trauma being one of them, the humiliation and embarrassment being others. We believe that juries should be allowed to hear and take account of as much relevant evidence as possible, so we shall legislate to make statements from victims about a rape automatically admissible, whenever they were made. We have decided, too, that it is right that the new legislation will apply to every offence. We will include evidence of all complaints and all offences, subject always to the judge’s discretion to exclude evidence that it is unjust to admit.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): My hon. and learned Friend will know from the discussions that we have had that I spent most of the summer recess serving as a juror on two complicated rape cases. I am intrigued by what she just said, because—I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of this—jurors receive a transcript of the defendant’s statement to the police, but not one of the complainant’s. The victim’s statement is not taken into the jury’s retiring room, so jurors just have one version of events. Is my hon. and learned Friend saying that such evidence will be admissible and that jurors will be able to read the victim’s statement?

The Solicitor-General: No, that is not quite my point. My hon. Friend has raised the issue with me and I understand her concern. She is saying that when a defendant is interviewed by the police the answers to the questions are always given to the jury when it retires, but not the complainant’s statement. I am talking about a different point, although when I talk about videoed evidence my hon. Friend will find it helpful that we have made a different step from the one that I have just set out.

We are determined to ensure that rape complainants receive the fullest protection that they can. Since video recorded evidence can be accurate and compelling, we intend to extend the video recording special measure to adult complainants in cases involving sexual offences. We shall vary the legal test, so that such recordings are automatically admissible. Prosecutors will also have a broader discretion to ask supplementary questions of a witness. That means that when the police first feel able to interview a complainant, they will not do so by writing down a statement; rather, they will video what she has to say. That video will stand as her evidence in chief in court, although the prosecutor will be able to ask supplementary questions if he wishes and cross-examination will of course follow thereafter. That will help to address the problem that my hon. Friend raised and ought to shorten the period that the complainant has to spend in the witness box, reliving the intimate details of the trauma. The new procedure should also give the jury a good, fresh impression of her evidence.

Jeremy Wright rose—

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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con) rose—

The Solicitor-General: I am going to carry on, because I have got a lot to say and I am conscious that others wish to speak. No doubt Opposition Members will take their chances to do so.

Capacity to consent has been a difficult area. Problems occur where a person is intoxicated. A person can be intoxicated to the extent that they do not have the capacity to consent. That can be exploited in order to have sex and if it is, that is rape. We have asked whether the law in that area needs changing. Contrary to some assertions in the press, we were never contemplating a grid system, whereby a person’s capacity could be judged against what they had drunk, but the problem was highlighted when the Crown withdrew a case in Swansea because the complainant could not say that she had said no, as it were, because she was very drunk. The question whether she was so drunk that she did not have the capacity to decide either way was not left to the jury, but now we have a judgment from the Court of Appeal, in the case of R v. Bree last March, saying that that is how the law should operate. A person’s capacity to consent through the drink or drugs is what matters, and that capacity can evaporate well before she becomes unconscious. That is the issue to be left to the jury now. It is not a question of asking, “Was she so drunk that she can’t remember whether she consented or not?” Rather, the jury must ask whether she was so drunk that she could not have had the capacity to say yes or no.

We do not feel that we have to do any more, because that case has clarified the law. It is notable, however, that as recently as July, there was another case on almost exactly the same facts, in which the judge at first instance behaved in almost exactly the same way. That case has come to the Court of Appeal and been put right, and the law has now been set out with even greater clarity. The Judicial Studies Board has issued guidance on this matter for judges, and it is imperative that they take it on board. I know that the board will make greater efforts to spread the judgment if it needs to. It is obviously a matter for concern that, having had a clear judgment in March, the same issue had to go to the Court of Appeal following a case in July. We have already put this into guidance for our police and prosecutors on sexual offences.

We also looked at whether evidence on the psychological impact of sexual offending on victims should be presented in court by experts, and whether there were other ways of presenting juries with the information about victims in general, rather than about the behaviour of a specific individual. A lot of myths surround the crime of rape. An Amnesty International document produced in 2005 identifies a blame culture against victims of rape. Similar research in the US suggests that that is an important feature in many acquittals. Every report from the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and from the inspectorate of constabulary has talked about the scepticism about rape complainants that is borne of myths, and about the misunderstandings about how complainants will behave after they have been raped.

It has been practical to train those myths away from professionals. Lawyers and prosecutors have been trained, and judges go on serious sexual offence courses. Barristers will now have to go on a course
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before they can prosecute rape cases. Juries, however, have so far been out of reach. We now consider it desirable for juries to receive information about the psychological reactions of rape victims, in order to dispel these myths. However, rather than have the prosecution present evidence, we are going to set up a group of academics, doctors and—I am happy to say—judges to help us with this proposition.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I commend my hon. and learned Friend for the extensive training throughout the criminal justice system that she has outlined. Is she aware, however, that there is a huge variation in the performance of the various police authorities? My own police authority in Bedfordshire is, sadly, among the worst for tackling domestic violence and rape. Will she ensure that there is greater scrutiny of police forces, as well as greater training, so that we can be assured that there is not a postcode lottery when it comes to the effectiveness of the police’s prosecution of these cases?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is right. She makes a very good point, and I will return to it in more detail later. Happily, my own police authority, Cleveland, is somewhere in the middle.

We shall ask the group of academics, doctors and experienced judges who have dealt with a lot of sexual offending—with the blessing of the senior judiciary—to decide what even-handed material could helpfully be put together to give to juries. They will do that job quickly; they have already met once in the course of the consultation, and they will meet again in December. We are seeking to get on with this. Justice must not be defeated by myths and stereotypes.

Mrs. Laing: I should like to ask, for the sake of clarity, whether this new system will operate in a way similar to that in which expert evidence is brought before a court in any other kind of case. Expert evidence can be given on the psychological effect of rape. If it were a motoring offence, the expert evidence could be on the state of the tyres, or something like that. I do not mean to draw a parallel between the two; I am merely asking for clarification on how this will work in court. I am very much in favour of it, and I wonder whether it will work along similar lines to expert evidence.

The Solicitor-General: I am glad to have the hon. Lady’s support. The experts, particularly the psychiatrists’ expert, feel confident that there is a broad understanding among experts of what might be called typical—that may not be the right word—responses from rape complainants, so I am hopeful that there could be a consensus in respect of what information could usefully be put before juries. Unless they have some specialist knowledge or unless they have been exposed to rape themselves, jurors will not follow it, as it is quite counter-intuitive. We hope that this will not need to be expert evidence in the sense of being partisan on either side and that it could be put before the jury in some neutral way in order to dispel these myths so that the jury’s minds will remain open in a way that we hope all British jury’s minds are open. That is how I hope it will work.

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I must say that I feel reasonably optimistic about this and I am particularly pleased to have the judiciary so fully on board in respect of it. A member of the senior judiciary told me this week that when he had been on the serious sexual offence training course and had heard from psychiatrists what reactions are or are not typical of rape complainants, he said that it was like scales falling from his eyes. He felt that it could be hugely helpful for jurors as well, which is very cheering.

There is a bigger job than just for juries, as awareness raising is a serious issue and it is a responsibility of all of us—politicians, experts and victims themselves, if they can manage it—to help change public opinion. There is also the media. It was quite by accident—I do not usually have this invidious habit—that I listened to “The Archers” last Sunday. It is running a storyline at the moment about a young woman— [Interruption.]—youngish, is she? She was raped some time ago, but had not complained and was helping the man out. She failed to report it, but I think that she has now. The programme showed how traumatised she was and how difficult she was finding the whole process. I think that that is quite helpful—depending, I suppose, on how the storyline develops from there.

Let me move away a little from the criminal justice system and speak about the broader work being done to tackle rape and other sexual violence. Consultation is very important and we believe that reforming the law will improve outcomes, but is not enough in itself. We have a cross-governmental action plan to prevent sexual violence, to increase access to support for victims and to improve the way in which cases are investigated and prosecuted.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Has the Minister had the chance to read the End Violence Against Women report “Map of Gaps”, which was published this week? In particular, what does she make of the finding that most women in the UK do not have access to a local rape crisis centre? Do the Government intend to address that problem?

The Solicitor-General: I have read “Map of Gaps” and I have enormous respect for End Violence Against Women. I shall come on to that in due course, if I may.

It must be our ultimate aim to prevent sexual violence, challenge the culture that tolerates it and support those at risk of victimisation across the board. Attitudes need to be addressed very early. As days go by, we are educating the next generation of jurors, so we must start with education. All secondary schools deliver sex and relationship education and by the end of 2009 we expect them all to meet specific standards in relation to personal, social and health education, including sex, relationships, emotional health and well-being.

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