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Clearly, we need to challenge the behaviour and attitudes of the minority of men who think that it is okay to have sex without consent. Last year, the Government ran a pretty effective and very hard-hitting campaign stressing the importance of active consent to sex. My colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), has helped to launch the men’s coalition. I am very pleased about it, as it is a group of
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leading men’s organisations that aims to provide a male voice to challenge exactly that culture—any male culture that colludes with any kind of violence against women. The men’s coalition will challenge that and we will continue to see what else we can do to support it and spread its work.

Those who commit sexual offences receive tough sentences. The average length of a sentence for rape has doubled since the 1980s—it is now about seven years, whereas at that time it was three years and four months—and we have introduced indeterminate sentences for people convicted of rape who pose a danger. Fifty-seven people are serving life sentences for rape. On release, serious sex offenders are managed through multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—by the police and offender management services. MAPPA appears to work: in 2006-07, only 0.08% of high-risk offenders managed within MAPPA were charged with a further offence.

Increasing access to health and support services is very important. We have a duty to help those affected by sexual violence to deal with the consequences of their ordeal, and I am pleased that we have been able to invest around £10 million in services.

5.5 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to debate the Government’s response to the report, and the responses that the report received, on what is an extremely important topic. I also welcome the opportunity to examine more widely issues relating to what is acknowledged in all parts of the House to be not only a very serious offence, but a serious problem.

This is not a new topic. The Solicitor-General and I had the pleasure of debating it during consideration of the Bills that became the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003. On the whole, in my experience, there is cross-party agreement on the issues. Indeed, the changes that we brought about as a result of the Sexual Offences Act, involving definitions of rape and issues concerning capacity, were welcomed throughout the House, and that is exactly as it should be.

I am slightly sorry that at times the Solicitor-General appears to consider this an area in which she alone, or her party, enjoys a monopoly of wisdom or, indeed, caring. I do not think that that is fair to the Conservative party, or indeed to other right hon. and hon. Members. But I want to enter into the debate in a good spirit. If I highlight issues about which I have some concerns, as I shall do shortly, it is not because I do not wish to support the Government’s intention of ensuring that more of those who have committed rape are convicted, but because we must be careful not to undermine the basis of the criminal justice system in a way that would lead to miscarriages of justice, thus ultimately doing nothing at all to ensure that more rapists are brought to justice.

Shona McIsaac: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: I will in a moment.

I remind the Solicitor-General that when we passed the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Government expressed the hope that it would make a substantial difference to
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conviction rates in rape cases. There is no escaping that: it was why the Government introduced the Bill, and it was one of our reasons for supporting measures that we considered fair, reasonable and proportionate.

As the Solicitor-General said, although the Act has gone some way towards improving conviction rates, it has had nothing like the impact for which the Government hoped. I venture to suggest that that is because of the increase in the number of rape allegations in the last 30 years, caused partly—and very properly—by the right to complain about rape in marriage and partly by the rise of what is colloquially known as date rape, involving persons who have had an intimate relationship that may have ended recently or may still be ongoing at the time of the rape.

Shona McIsaac: That is not date rape.

Mr. Grieve: Rather than speaking from a sedentary position, the hon. Lady should listen to what I have to say. She can intervene in a moment.

I accept that the term “date rape” is sometimes used in the context of people who are raped during a date with someone whom they do not know very well, but I have also heard the term used in the sense in which I am using it, to denote rape involving individuals who are known to each other.

Shona McIsaac rose—

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am not going to get involved in an exercise in semantics as that would not be helpful.

I think there might be agreement that, as the hon. and learned Lady said, the rise in rape is not a result of stranger rape, or people being dragged into the bushes or knocked over the head in a darkened lane at night, but in large measure results from the fact that people are properly coming forward and complaining about rape in the context of a relationship where they know their assailant. As the hon. and learned Lady acknowledged in her speech, that presents a real challenge, and we in this House must address it. First, we must ask how we can ensure that women who have been raped come forward and make allegations when we know—this is a telling fact—that many such women are in some uncertainty as to whether the allegation they wish to make constitutes rape. In many cases it almost certainly does—that point was picked up in Government statistics. We must also address how to ensure that that happens while also ensuring that there is fairness for the accused, and how to get such cases through the courts so as to ensure the conviction of those who are guilty.

That is a very real challenge because all the evidence suggests that there are two major reasons why conviction rates are so low. First, a substantial number of the cases complained of never reach court at all. It is worth running through the statistics on why that is the case: one sixth of the complaints initially made are not investigated because the police conclude—one hopes they are right in this—that they are false; a quarter are dropped because of insufficient evidence; and one third are withdrawn, often because the victim will not co-operate further, which presents another challenge that should cause us a great deal of anxiety. We also
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know that once such cases get into court, the nature of the allegations presents juries with enormous difficulties. They must decide whether a very serious offence has been committed, and if the person accused is of previous good character and the consequence of conviction is a long period of imprisonment—as it should be—if there is any doubt, the defendant is entitled to the benefit of it. We have seen over and over again that such cases present real problems. It is worth noting that the conviction rate in such trials is now 44 per cent., and although that is too low, as the hon. and learned Lady has said, it is substantially higher than the initial statistics would suggest.

I must also say that it is not my professional experience that jurors treat rape allegations lightly. Rape is viewed in our society as a very serious matter, although I agree with the hon. and learned Lady that there might be issues about young people’s attitudes as to whether certain sorts of behaviour may render a subsequent complaint by a victim in some way wrong—I think we are in agreement that we would not wish to countenance that.

What should we do? My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made the point, which has been picked up, that greater support for rape victims is needed. It is worth pointing out that there were 68 rape crisis support centres in 1984 and there are only 45 today. There are funding issues in respect of whether the centres can survive in the long term when they tend to have a hand-to-mouth existence. I very much hope that the Government will be able to address that. As the hon. and learned Lady will be aware, we have said that the three-year funding cycles are unsatisfactory.

I think that there is also complete common ground between the hon. and learned Lady and me on wider educational issues. It is vital that there is an understanding within the sex education context of people’s rights in intimate relationships. That should be inculcated and fully understood at a young age, because in the long term that might do more to reduce the incidence of rape than almost anything else. I hope that the Government will have the opportunity to look—we will support them in doing so—at ways in which to take that forward.

We also need to consider whether we are getting the right sentences, although I acknowledge that the Solicitor-General says that some of the statistics show a continuing rise in sentences in rape cases. That is also a difficult area, but if the Government make any suggestions, we will consider them creatively.

I turn to the issues raised in the report. I note that the first recommendation is that the Government take the view that there is no need at present to interfere further with the law on capacity, and they are right. We carried out a major change in the 2003 legislation and, while I share the Solicitor-General’s disquiet about the problems with several cases in which the judiciary and, sometimes, prosecuting counsel did not seem to understand the new rules, any form of legislative change takes time to be transmitted down the chain. I am pleased to hear about special training for those prosecuting such cases.

I am sure that the Solicitor-General will agree that the case of R v. Bree has laid down clear parameters on the issue of capacity. I hope that those are properly understood and that, as a result, we will have no
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further instances of trials being abandoned even though the issue of capacity could be resolved in the jury’s mind. I endorse the judiciary’s assertion in R v. Bree that it was certainly not Parliament’s intention to say that a person lacked capacity only when they became unconscious, and I am pleased that that has been made clear.

I find the second issue, that of expert witnesses, more difficult, and I shall explain why. I was struck by the Solicitor-General’s comments, because her language about a desire to see expert evidence admitted or special training for juries was much stronger in tone than the contents of the Government’s response in the report. I do not know whether that indicates some difference of view between the Solicitor-General and others in the Law Officers’ Department or the Home Office about how to approach the issue, or whether it is her personal view. In any case, one does not match the other, and I detected considerable hesitation in the report, insofar as it made it clear that there were potential problems with getting expert evidence admitted, which the Government fully recognised. I share those concerns.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but he appeared to be eliding what I took to be two separate issues. One is training for juries, and the other is expert evidence on a particular offence. Those appear to be separate to me, but the hon. Gentleman appeared to elide them.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Perhaps in eliding those issues I am reflecting in part a slight uncertainty about the Government’s aim. There are different ideas. One would involve giving jurors a pack before they start a rape trial, giving the background statistical issues on rape and the problems of post-traumatic disorder leading to victims complaining only a long time after the event. The other would bring experts into court to explain those issues to juries in the course of the trial.

Both present difficulties. If we were to do that, the defence would have to be entitled to do the same thing. The Solicitor-General shakes her head, but on the basis of equality of arms and fairness of trial, it would be difficult to avoid that. The problem, as those of us in the legal profession know, is that some experts are tremendous individuals who act neutrally, and others can be hired guns who will say virtually anything in court that anybody wants them to say. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) says, “Most of them”.

There is plenty of material that I can imagine defence counsel wanting to put before juries about, for example, the claimed incidence rates of false allegations, that I would not particularly want handed out. I am by no means clear in my mind as to how that problem can be overcome. From reading the Government’s report, I detected that although they intended to consult further, they had not made up their mind, which is why I was struck by the far greater note of certainty given by the Solicitor-General at the Dispatch Box. I shall take it that the Government’s position is as set out in the paper,
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in which case I unreservedly welcome it. If there is a sensible way forward that meets the needs of fairness to defendant and victim, and the prosecution—it is an advantage to the prosecution—we shall look at it sympathetically, but there are real issues and problems about bringing in experts. I cannot conceive of a circumstance where an expert could be brought in for one side without allowing the other side to have their pennyworth-say on the matter.

The Solicitor-General: I know that the hon. Gentleman has not had long to read the document, and that as the concept is relatively new it is not easy to grasp. We are not talking about expert evidence now, as I thought I had set out reasonably lucidly for the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), although expert evidence was certainly within our contemplation when we launched the consultation, and most of the senior judiciary who responded were in favour of expert evidence and did not see the problems the hon. Gentleman has found with it. As he has not had much opportunity to read the document, let me make it clear that the idea is to try to find something consensual that can be put before a jury as a piece of public service information, not related to this or that defendant or this or that complainant, and I am enthusiastic about the prospect. It could be a key piece of public education material for jurors and other people, and I am sure he accepts that is long overdue. I am so pleased that the judiciary are joining in with that effort.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for her remarks, but I shall simply quote the Government’s position:

The document goes on to refer to general evidence, but the high point is:

To which I say hooray, but I inferred from the Solicitor-General’s comments that there was much stronger certainty of a particular outcome than I read in the report. That is all I wanted to say on the matter.

The Solicitor-General: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is either nit-picking or trying to count the number of angels on the head of a pin. Does he support the endeavour of seeking to dispel the myths and stereotypes that impede successful convictions in rape cases or is he against it, as the Tories have repeatedly been against attempts to improve conviction in rape cases?

Mr. Grieve: Again, I quote from the Government’s report, which states that if there is

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That is our position, too, but it is not what the Solicitor-General has told the House in the course of the debate. It is slightly regrettable that the Solicitor-General’s views in the debate appear to be at variance with what the Government said.

The Solicitor-General: It is my document.

Mr. Grieve: In that case, the Solicitor-General did not read it before she came to the Dispatch Box.

I want to turn to the other points that arise about research, but before I do I want to say one more thing. A point was made about whether there should be more research into juries’ attitudes. I suggest to the hon. and learned Lady that that might be quite sensible. The point has been made that there is a problem in relation to general societal attitudes, perhaps particularly among young people, when it comes to whether rape is really rape if somebody has worn provocative clothing or if it has taken place in particular circumstances. I wonder whether that is in fact the attitude that gets taken into the jury box. It might be worth looking at whether those are the key problems in rape cases.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I think the hon. Gentleman may have misspoken slightly. The existing evidence shows that myths about rape and attitudinal problems are mainly held by the older part of the population, rather than the younger part.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I may have done so. I simply make the point that we do not have jury research in this area, as far as I am aware. It would be possible to carry out such research. If the Solicitor-General would like to promote that, either herself or through the Ministry of Justice, it would be worth while. Such research might also clear up the question whether it is mainly older people or younger people who hold such attitudes. My point is that to take general societal attitudes and then say that jurors will invariably hold those attitudes at the end of a trial, when they have heard the evidence, is not necessarily borne out by my experience as a practitioner. My experience is that people may come into the jury box with prejudices, but if cases are properly presented on all sides, they often do not have them by the time the trial has come to an end. Equally, sometimes, they may do. It is an issue that we just do not know about.

On special measures, the proposals in respect of video recording appear to us to merit careful consideration. I can certainly see that there are some powerful arguments for extending the rules on video recording to make it of general application, as long as that can be done in a way that ensures that the defence is still in a position to put its case. We already allow that in a number of categories. The Solicitor-General did not have time fully to develop her arguments, but we would certainly be willing to support the proposal, as long as we were satisfied that fairness in the trial process could be maintained.

I am strongly of the opinion that it must always be the choice of the victim whether they wish to have that process in place. To deny a person the right to go into the witness box in court and to explain in front of a jury what happened to them is something that should not be undertaken lightly. It would be contrary to all normal principles of justice—if the person wanted to go into the witness box. However, these are areas where better protection needs to be provided.

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