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10.55 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and congratulate him on securing this important debate. I also thank him for his generosity in allowing me to make a few brief remarks.

I draw the House’s attention to the valuable work of the Peterborough rape crisis centre, which is a registered charity that has helped thousands of women and girls in the Greater Peterborough area since its inception in 1983. It costs around £40,000 a year to run, and the staff and I are grateful for the funding of some £20,000 that it has received from the victims fund in the last financial year. Unfortunately, it has failed in a bid for further funding in the future, and we are fighting hard to secure funding for it for the next couple of years.

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I also welcome the work that the Government have done on a bipartisan basis through the sexual violence action plan published in April last year. The funding has enabled the employment of a development worker, and 15 key volunteers have also helped to deliver an important service for my constituents.

We need to think about three-year funding for such work. A funding regime that lasts for only 12 months breeds instability and does not allow worthwhile organisations the opportunity to plan ahead for the work that they need to do. My hon. Friend is right to say that this issue is not about the financial aspects, but we need to ensure cost-effectiveness in the collaborative work between different agencies, whether it be the police or primary care trusts. If we boil the issue down and take the emotional aspect away, rape costs society. It has an emotional cost, but it also costs society in mental health problems and substance abuse, and other burdens on the criminal justice system and primary care.

We need to review and refresh local area agreements, and I hope that the Minister will address that point when he winds up. We also need to look afresh at public service agreements in respect of this issue, especially PSA23 on making communities safer and PSA24 on criminal justice.

I thank the Minister who will respond to the debate and the Minister for Equality, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is also in her place and who has been sympathetic to my case, as has the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). We are grateful, but we need funding, as well as a commitment to prevent any further closures of these vital facilities, especially in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government recognise the importance of the work of such centres, and that the funding will follow.

10.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I thank the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) for the considered way in which they have put their case on this important issue. It is as well to reflect also on the presence of the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) for the debate. The Minister for Equality, my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), is also in her place. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who cannot speak in the debate, are also interested in the subject.

It is important when we discuss such issues and challenges for our society that we do so in a measured and responsible way, as we can then make progress. There will sometimes be arguments and debate between us on various issues, not only across the Chamber but within parties. However, this is a hugely important issue that affects society. Those who watch our debates from the outside will see that, reflect on it and see that Parliament is at its best, in many respects, when dealing with such an important issue.

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Rape is about violence. The hon. Member for Broxbourne mentioned the fact that men who speak out on these issues somehow get the reaction, “Why would you speak about that?” I often mention the subject as the Minister with responsibility for tackling sexual and domestic violence, as well as the associated issues of forced marriage and honour-based violence. More men are speaking out on the subject rather than leaving it to be seen as a women’s issue, with the hon. Member for Epping Forest or my hon. Friend the Minister for Equality being left to speak out. We all need to speak out. Frankly, the more men who speak up and speak out, the better. It will offer a way forward and accelerate our progress. The hon. Gentleman made an extremely important point, which will, I hope, enable us to move forward.

Let me set out some of the things that the Government are trying to do and some of the progress that we have made. The messages that are given out about reporting rape are often negative: the conviction rate is low, or support services are seen to be failing victims. I agree that we need to make it clear that more needs to be done. Indeed, both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have pointed out some of the areas where that needs to happen. However, it is important to make it clear that we are making progress in tackling rape and supporting victims. It has been given a priority like never before. An extensive programme of work is under way to improve the situation.

The Government have set out three main actions to tackle rape and sexual violence, which were included in the cross-Government action plan on sexual violence and abuse that was published last year. Those actions are: to increase access to health and support services for victims, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Peterborough; to improve the response of the criminal justice system so that victims are sufficiently confident to come forward and report an offence and see it through to conviction, which were all mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxbourne; and to prevent sexual violence in the first place. I know that the hon. Member for Epping Forest and my hon. Friend the Minister for Equality have often talked about that subject at great length. It is not only about doing something when rape has occurred but about trying to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

We have, we believe, made some progress. As I have said, on 18 February the Home Secretary published a three-year action plan for tackling violence. It identified priority areas of work, one of which was sexual violence. In addition, the Government’s public service agreements for 2008 to 2011 on making communities safer and justice for all set out our commitment to prioritise action to tackle the most serious violent and sexual offences at a local and national level. As many hon. Members will know, progress is being made.

If the hon. Members for Broxbourne and for Peterborough want to discuss the issues about PSAs, local area agreements and how to make progress on the subject, I am willing to meet them. I am happy for us to meet and discuss the subject in more detail in the Home Office. If the hon. Member for Epping Forest or any other hon. Members want to meet to discuss the matter, I am perfectly happy to do so.

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Over the past four years, the Government have spent more than £10 million on supporting the victims of sexual violence, in addition to funding provided locally. Over the past year alone, we have spent £3 million to extend the network of sexual assault referral centres to ensure that victims receive medical care and counselling and can assist the police investigation through a forensic examination. There are currently 19 SARCs, and a further 17 are in development. That is a hugely important reform, and I am sure that Opposition Members have visited some of those centres—indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Equality has done so—to see the outstanding work that goes on in them. We have also piloted independent sexual violence advisers in 38 areas to provide advocacy and support for victims. We have also provided funding to voluntary organisations that support the victims of sexual violence.

I want also to mention rape crisis centres. Many people are concerned about the current situation whereby some rape crisis centres are facing closure. The Government are working closely with rape crisis centres to identify what more can be done to assist in increasing their stability. A stakeholder working group, which includes members of Rape Crisis England and Wales, has been set up to look specifically at the issue and will report very soon. We will consider its recommendations urgently. In the meantime, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality announced on 18 March an emergency fund of over £1 million to prevent immediate closures.

Mr. Walker: I thank the Minister for his kind offer of a meeting, and many Opposition Members would very much like to attend.

Rape crisis centres are aware of that £1 million, but I understand that there are still some issues with accessing it. I wonder whether the Minister will look at that to see whether their ability to access that money can be accelerated.

Mr. Coaker: I will have a look at that issue. I give that undertaking to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Minister for Equality has heard that as well, and if there is a problem, we will try to resolve the issue. However, the Government believe that support services for victims are not solely the responsibility of the voluntary sector and that statutory agencies have a responsibility to provide adequate services.

We have therefore given a commitment to channel substantial resources into sexual assault referral centres and independent sexual violence advisers and have core funded the umbrella organisations—Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Survivors Trust—to help to build the capacity and sustainability of their member organisations. We are also working with the sector to develop commissioning guidance for primary care trusts and local authorities, as well as service standards for the sexual violence sector. Establishing a set of agreed standards for services is key to encouraging local funders to support local sexual violence services.

Supporting victims, however, is not just about ensuring that they can access support services. It is also important to demonstrate to victims that work is being done to ensure that offenders cannot get away with it. At present, the conviction rate for rape is still too low. As hon. Members know, 5.7 per cent. of all rapes reported to
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the police result in conviction. So the message that victims hear at the moment may still be, “Is it worth reporting a rape?” I want to change that. That is not easy. The biggest problem that we face is that rape is still under-reported.

The British crime survey for 2005-06 said that more than a third of those who reported being a victim of a serious sexual assault told no one. However, we are working to increase the likelihood that a person who is raped will report it to the police. Some 6,628 rapes were reported in 1997, and 14,443 rapes were reported in 2006-07. That is therefore an improvement, but too many of those reported cases still drop out before getting to court. That is part of the reason for the low conviction rate, and we are working extremely hard on it.

The real problem in many respects is that the attrition rate from reporting to getting a case to court is very high, and all of us need to work to improve that. Of those reported, 2,567 cases did make it to court, and 34 per cent. of them resulted in a conviction. That figure is still far too low, but it is the highest conviction rate for 10 years. The more we get that message across, the greater the confidence a rape victim will have in coming forward. In other words, it is important to say that for those cases that get to court, the conviction rate is increasing. The problem is in moving from a report to a trial. That is the issue that we need to address; we need improvements in that respect, as well as in relation to the reporting of rape.

We have made changes to the criminal justice system, so that when a victim does come forward, he or she—it is sometimes a he, but generally a she—will be supported. I have already mentioned sexual assault referral centres and independent sexual violence advisers; we have also introduced specially trained officers and specialist rape prosecutors, and we have improved training and guidance for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and barristers.

We have supported police forces in developing action plans to implement the recommendations of “Without Consent”, a report on the investigation and prosecution of rape, published in January 2007. We have established a specialist rape prosecutions delivery unit within the Crown Prosecution Service. We have established a rape performance group to manage local performance on tackling rape. Concerns about performance are raised with the relevant chief constable and chief Crown prosecutor, and operational support is provided to areas by a joint team of experts from the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers. The group
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reports quarterly to the National Criminal Justice Board. The rape champion at ACPO level is the assistant commissioner, John Yates, who has done an excellent job in trying to push that work forward.

We have introduced a range of special measures in court to assist victims in giving evidence, including the use of screens and live links. We have also introduced a statutory code of practice for victims of rape, entitling them to an enhanced service from the criminal justice system. We are pushing in each of those areas to try to improve performance. In a few weeks’ time, there is to be a conference on the performance of the criminal justice system with respect to rape, which will enable us to see what more we can do on the issue.

Finally, I would like to mention the work that we are doing to prevent rape and sexual violence. Many hon. Members will be aware of a survey published in 2005 by Amnesty International that showed that a third of people in the UK believe that a woman is partially or totally responsible for being raped if she has been flirting or drinking, or has worn revealing clothing. Recent research entitled “Sexual Assault and the Justice Gap” indicates that little has changed. Addressing those attitudes must start in the education system, and here in the Chamber, with me. I know that all hon. Members present will agree that that statistic is an absolute disgrace; we have to challenge that attitude and get it changed.

As I say, addressing such attitudes must start in the education system. All secondary schools are required to deliver sex and relationship education, and by the end of 2009 we expect all schools to qualify as “healthy schools”, meaning that specific standards must be met for personal, social and health education. We must also continue to challenge the behaviour of the minority of men who think that it is acceptable to have sex without consent.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxbourne for initiating the debate, and to all hon. Members who played a part in it, either through their presence or by making a contribution. We are talking about an extremely important area of work. The Government have made considerable progress in many respects, but we know that there is much more to be done; we will rise to the challenge and will do it—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes pastEleven o’clock.

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