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29 Nov 2007 : Column 534

There have been a number of statements about the impact of such evidence. It is quite right that, if one is looking at a small video screen in a jury box, the impact may not be very significant at all. Equally, if one puts a big plasma screen up on the wall, it may be argued that the impact is disproportionate. These are quite difficult areas. One of the reasons why we have always tended to require people to come to court to give evidence is that it is a controlled and quite neutral environment. There are always risks that if one moves outside such an environment, that can be exploited. That does not necessarily follow and there are powerful reasons for arguing that video evidence may become the norm in most rape cases, but there are issues that need to be guarded against. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be able to respond positively to those points.

I want to bring my remarks to a conclusion, because I am conscious that others wish to participate in the debate. I repeat what I said at the outset: we need to ensure that justice can be done for victims of rape. It is a difficult area. We need also to recognise that it is difficult possibly because of societal attitudes that need to be changed, but also because jurors, who in my experience try to do their best, are often confronted with impossible questions to answer in rape cases. We need to do our utmost to ensure that those questions are presented simply and in a way that does full justice to victims’ problems. However, we need to ensure that the rights of defendants to a fair trial are recognised, too. We cannot escape that, and I say to the Solicitor-General that that is as important an aspect of justice as the rights of the victim. We need to ensure that both are protected.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

There is approximately half an hour left for the debate. I make a further plea that the remaining Front Bencher and Back Benchers impose on themselves even tighter discipline than the five-minute limit that I originally suggested for Back Benchers.

5.30 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): It is a shame that there is so little time for this important debate, especially given the wide interest in the House.

I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s decisions on the consultation. They have made the right choices. I have one small quibble on the matter of expert evidence, but I have a suggestion that I hope might be helpful.

The high 95 per cent. attrition rate in rape cases is a matter of deep concern. Other crimes have similar attrition rates, but they are not as serious as rape. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is right that there are inherent difficulties involving evidence in the vast majority of rape cases—some 80 per cent.—in which the victim knows the defendant. However, such a high attrition rate requires not just an explanation, but correction.

The attrition rate itself must be seen in the light of the whole process, not just the events at trial, although there is, of course, feedback between several parts of the system. There are at least seven points determining
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when cases drop out of the system: whether they are reported by the victim in the first place; whether they are recorded by the police; whether they are pressed by the victim; whether the Crown Prosecution Service charges; whether evidence is offered by the prosecution in court; whether the case is put to the jury by the judge; and whether the jury finds the defendant guilty. There are problems at each stage, although I do not have time to go into all of them. There are worrying aspects of what happens in rape cases, which justify further action.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that a sixth of cases drop out because they are not recorded by the police as rapes. “Without Consent”, a report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that was published in January, shows that a third of those cases have been “no crimed”, to use the jargon, mistakenly. The fact that the Home Office’s counting rules are not being complied with in one third of those cases is a matter of deep concern.

The vast bulk of cases drop out of the system at the CPS charging stage. Why is that going on? For the most part, the CPS says that there is insufficient evidence, but that covers a vast variety of circumstances. The key is case building and co-operation between the police and the CPS—and bringing in the victim as well—to ensure that cases are as strong as possible. There are several purely practical problems at that stage: the quality of the interview; who is doing the interview; what they know about the law; and what they know about what will be required at trial.

The question of the quality of videos often comes up when one speaks to practitioners on the bench and at the Bar. Expanding the use and availability of video evidence is a good idea, but a video makes little difference—in fact, it can harm a case—if it shows the tops of people’s heads and if what they are saying cannot be heard.

Moving on to the central point—jury acquittals in cases in which it is suspected that the jury has borne in mind myths and stereotypes about rape—research indicates that, unfortunately, it is not just juries who hold incorrect or objectionable views. Such views can also be held by the police and, dare I say it, prosecutors and even judges. The only comment that I shall make about the myths is that there is a difference between the factual errors to which people are prone, and the attitudinal problems. There are factual errors about what rape is—about whether it has to do with strangers or acquaintances, whether there is resistance, whether the person who is raped has reported it early, and even the extent of false allegation. There is very little objective evidence that there are significantly more false allegations of rape than false allegations of other crimes. One need only think of thefts reported for the purposes of insurance to see how the usually suspected differences are not always accurate.

There is a distinction between factual errors and attitudinal problems such as the belief that there is such a thing as contributory negligence—that is, that victims are to blame for the crimes committed against them. It will be easier to overcome the factual errors than to overcome the attitudinal errors. I differ slightly
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from the Government on one point—the question of expert evidence, and how one gets across the point about myths and stereotypes. I urge the Government to leave open the possibility of using expert evidence. The document seems to rule that out, but I urge them not to do so.

Mr. Grieve: I find it difficult to see that presenting a pack to a jury beforehand is not a form of giving them some expert evidence before they start. I find that distinction rather blurred.

David Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but juries currently receive some training on the general functions of juries in the form of a film, or short TV programme. I am attracted to the suggestion that the myth-busting document be delivered not as a booklet, which will have a rather limited impact, but as a film or TV programme. However, I add that the possibility of oral expert evidence should be left open. As I understand it, the Government’s objection to that—the hon. Gentleman reflected this point—is that it would lead to a battle of experts. There would be an expert on one side and an expert on the other, and then a whole day would be spent in bickering.

Under rule 35 of the civil procedure rules—I must admit that I am more familiar with them than with the criminal procedure rules—the court has a power to order the parties to produce a single expert, agreed on by a panel. That might be a way forward that allows the possibility of an oral general expert witness system.

I want to make one further point about what happens at trial. It concerns sexual history evidence. I ask the Government to reflect further on a long-standing problem. A great deal of work has gone into the question of whether the former practice of regularly cross-examining women on their sexual history deters people from reporting rape, and it clearly does. The law has been reformed, but a report for the Government by Kelly, Temkin and Griffiths showed a need for further reform, further clarity in the law, and further care to be taken over the extent to which that evidence is allowed. It is true that for the most part, that evidence is now handled far more sensitively than it was before—partly, I suspect, because defence lawyers who go over the top with that sort of evidence know that what they are doing may be taken into account by the judge on sentence. Nevertheless, there is research on that point which indicates that a further look should be taken at such evidence.

The Government are on the right track and I congratulate them on the document that they have produced, but there is a very long way to go before we get justice for the victims of rape.

5.40 pm

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): I am sure that Members in all parts of the House can agree that forcing someone to have sexual intercourse without consent is an appalling crime, and that the trauma of rape is one of society’s most pressing problems. It has profound immediate and long-term consequences for women’s physical and mental health, yet rape is shrouded in a cloak of secrecy and the problems that it creates are rarely acknowledged. So I welcome the Government’s measures to help jurors and others
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working in the criminal justice system, such as the police and judges, to understand the reality of rape and to try to dispel the myths and stereotypes that we have been discussing this evening, which contribute to the extremely low conviction rate for this offence.

My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has said:

and she is rightly determined that all parts of the criminal justice system should work together to ensure that the cases that come to court are as strong as possible.

An Amnesty International opinion poll in 2005 showed that one third of the UK public believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she behaves “in a flirtatious manner”, is “drunk” or is wearing “sexy or revealing” clothing. These attitudes, parading as common sense, appear to pervade the criminal justice system and many jury rooms. The reality of rape is that at least 47,000 women in England and Wales are raped each year, and the majority of those rapes are committed by someone whom the victim knows, often a partner or an ex-partner.

The Government’s progress on rape since 1997 is commendable. Strengthening the existing legal framework further will not only improve the outcomes of rape cases in the UK, but send a strong message to the rest of the world that rape is an appalling crime, that it devastates the lives of victims and their families, and that rapists must and will be penalised accordingly. As well as strengthening the legal framework, it is important to improve care for victims and witnesses. I commend the Government on that area of work, too.

In my constituency, Calder Valley, the sexual assault referral centre has given much needed support to both victims and witnesses in a safe, women-only environment. The extension of this network will ensure that victims receive appropriate medical care and counselling, and will assist the police in their investigations through forensic evidence.

In the Government’s action plan on sexual violence published last April, reference is made to the funding of the distribution of a legal handbook entitled “From Report to Court”. That is for adult survivors of sexual violence and will help to demystify the criminal justice system and help victims to make an informed choice about whether to pursue a criminal justice resolution. I hope the Minister will be able to announce financial support to revise and reprint that valuable report.

In conclusion, I am delighted that there is to be more support for survivors of rape and other sexual offences, and strategies to improve the conviction rate. These are important strands of the Government’s goal to end all forms of violence against women in the UK. I hope that parliamentary time will be found to debate the relevant legislation as a matter of urgency.

5.44 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): In view of the time and the number of hon. Members who want to speak, I will not go over ground that has already been covered, except to underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that over hundreds of years in this
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country we have deliberately constructed a system of criminal justice where there is a chance that the guilty will go free, to avoid the prospect of the innocent being convicted. I do not believe that the Government intend to undermine that principle, but we should address the issue, like all others within the criminal justice system, with that in mind.

I shall turn to what the Government want to do about what I accept is a real problem. The concept of general expert evidence causes me particular concern—I declare an interest as a non-practising criminal barrister. If the evidence is agreed between the parties, it seems to me that it must be equivocal—it must be the sort of evidence that will not tremendously assist the jury. If it is a question of two separate experts giving evidence on the likely behaviour of a rape victim, neither of those experts will be dealing with the specific set of circumstances that the jury is confronting in the case.

That the evidence may not be of particular assistance to the jury in deciding the specific circumstances of the case is not the only issue, because the situation may be worse than that. If the expert or experts provide a list of the types of behaviour in which a genuine rape victim may engage, the danger is that if a particular genuine rape victim, who is the prosecution’s main witness, has not demonstrated any of those types of behaviour, the jury might conclude that that person is not therefore a genuine rape victim. That is a real concern about the Government’s proposal.

It would be wrong to conclude that the problem is necessarily within the trial process. Other hon. Members have already referred to the fact that the attrition rate is most severe in cases of rape before the case gets anywhere near a jury. I shall make one quick remark about videotaped evidence in chief, which, broadly speaking, I support—it seems sensible to extend that measure. My only caveat is that it seems equally sensible that the judge should make it clear to the jury that that option is available to every complainant in a rape case, so the jury does not have the sense that videotaped evidence marks out that particular case as distinctive, which might be prejudicial to the defendant. It seems to me that that would be a sensible safeguard.

The other half of the argument is just as important, if not more so. It concerns how one assists those who complain of rape, through every stage of the process. I accept the Solicitor-General’s statement that it is helpful to have sexual assault referral centres. However, I wonder whether, in parts of the country where there are already very successful voluntary sector agencies providing just that type of support, it is really necessary to reinvent the wheel.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The Solicitor-General opened the debate by criticising the Conservative Government, but over the past 11 years we have seen the end of the yearly funding cycle for rape crisis centres. The number of centres has fallen from 68 to 45, and support for victims is now worse under this Government than it ever was before.

Jeremy Wright: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not helpful to approach such serious matters in a partisan manner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has said, it is regrettable that the Solicitor-General engaged in doing that earlier.

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I want to conclude by discussing the crucial question of the voluntary sector. In my constituency there is an organisation called Rugby ROSA—the Rugby rape or sexual abuse support project. That organisation provides first-class support to precisely the people whom we have been discussing throughout this debate. It will run out of money and shut down entirely in March, unless something substantial is done. I do not see why it is sensible for the Government to invest money in a new organisation when they could invest in existing voluntary sector bodies that do the same work just as well, if not better.

It is worth noting that that organisation in my constituency is the only organisation in Warwickshire that offers support not only at the time of a criminal proceeding, but for a long time thereafter, and not only to women, but to men, too. It is important to remember that the victims of rape or sexual abuse are male as well as female, and it is important to make sure that the provision of support and services is across the board and for both sexes. I hope very much that the Solicitor-General can help me with that.

I also hope that there is not a situation in which Government funding is allocated for the sexual assault referral centres, but money that could go to the voluntary sector to support the type of services that I have described is diverted into other services that simply replicate—or perhaps do not do as well as—the work that the organisations in my constituency and elsewhere do exceptionally well.

I hope that in pursuing what I understand are well-meant efforts to deal with what I accept is a serious problem, the Solicitor-General does not throw the baby out with the bathwater and damage the best aspects of the British justice system or reinvent the wheel by making the state an inadequate substitute for what the voluntary sector already does well.

5.50 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): As I said earlier, while many Members were enjoying their summer holidays I spent most of my time ensconced in a court room, dealing with just these types of cases. What I want to say is based not only on my experience as a juror on rape cases, but on my work experience before entering the House, when I worked on many mass-market women’s magazines and on teenage magazines. In addition, I represent Cleethorpes, whose neighbouring constituency is Great Grimsby. Ian Huntley committed many sexual offences in those two towns before going on to murder the two little girls in Soham. Nobody believed the young women who kept coming forward to say that Huntley had sexually assaulted or raped them.

First, I want to praise the Government, who have done a lot, although we can do more to increase the conviction rate.

Mrs. Dorries: Done what?

Shona McIsaac: The hon. Lady asks what the Government have done. She does not know her subject. The Government have done a great deal to assist rape victims.

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