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10 Nov 2009 : Column 44WH—continued

10 Nov 2009 : Column 45WH

It is crucial to bear in mind that we are not talking about just two communities. We are talking about a wide diversity, and the more we can embrace that in the eventual solution, whatever it may be, the better. Obviously, it is essential that any final settlement should include the freedom to express and enjoy one's religion and to worship, a right guaranteed within the EU.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) mentioned the importance of bicommunal links. Notwithstanding the point that I just made about the fact that there are more than two communities, he is right that it is vital to provide support for any confidence-building measures. We are keen to do so, and the British high commission wants to take every possible opportunity to do so. We continue to support financially the Committee on Missing Persons, about which I will say more later, through the European Union. We also support the UN mine action centre, and I will also say more about that.

It was encouraging to see Elsi Christofias and Oya Talat speaking together at an event in Pyla. It is good that the chambers of commerce, and commerce and industry, co-operate across Cyprus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, we are encouraged by the fact that the founder of easyJet is producing a bicommunal business initiative. In many ways, it is economic opportunity that will take us forward into the future, rather than leaving us languishing with the problems of the past.

Mr. Love: One of the greatest confidence-building measures that the Minister could undertake would be to visit the island. Does he have any plans to do so?

Chris Bryant: I would not overestimate the value of my visiting anywhere, but I am grateful for my hon. Friend's confidence. I intend to visit Cyprus at the end of the month.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) asked whether I have met people who are on different sides of the argument. I do not take any side in the argument; I am on the side of those who want to see a settlement. I am happy to meet people from a wide range of views when I visit Cyprus. The Foreign Secretary would also like to visit Cyprus. We will play as significant a role as possible, but, to echo the hon. Member for Rayleigh, there must be a Cypriot settlement. Although we can encourage people to talk, enforcing a solution would be counter-productive.

Mr. Francois: Since the Turkish invasion in 1974, there have been a range of complex issues on the island. One confidence-building measure that encouraged both sides was the opening of the Ledra street crossing in Nicosia. Both sides acknowledged that as a positive development. Does the Minister agree that the opening of other crossings, particularly in the near future, would build confidence on both sides and encourage momentum?

Chris Bryant: The more that the two communities are able to commune, the better. For that to happen, people must be able to travel between the two communities. I shall reserve my view on how many crossings there should be until I have visited the island; the hon. Member for Rayleigh has the advantage over me on that point. As all hon. Members will acknowledge,
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physically seeing and experiencing the situation is more significant than reading any number of articles, even in such illustrious a publication as the Financial Times.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) referred to missing persons. I lived in Argentina briefly in the 1980s. From speaking to the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are named after the big square where they used to demonstrate, I know of the profound feelings of loss that are multiplied by not knowing what might have happened to the person concerned. That can be enormously toxic not only for the individual, but for the body politic. The hon. Lady is right that this issue is one of the most important things to get right so that history can be closed before moving forward. We have long supported the Committee on Missing Persons and I will meet with representatives of it when I visit Cyprus. Of the 562 sets of remains that have been exhumed, the remains of 128 Greek Cypriots and 44 Turkish Cypriots have been identified and returned to their families.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire referred to the Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey. That is an abstruse group. She seemed to develop a certain paranoia-not uncommon among Liberal Democrats-about the Prime Minister meeting Mr. Christofias tomorrow. There is no connection between the dates. There is a legal process and a political process. We do not take a side in either, except that we are in favour of a settlement. I am glad that the Prime Minister will see Mr. Christofias tomorrow and I look forward to meeting him in a couple of weeks.

The hon. Lady asked about the UN mine action centre. We were delighted to give €50,000 of bridging finance this year and are delighted that the EU has given a commitment on the issue. I am sure that all hon. Members would acknowledge the contribution that the action centre has made and the tragic loss of one of its members of staff last week. By demilitarising and demining the island, it is playing a vital part in the process of reaching a settlement.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh mentioned UK residents in Cyprus and I hope to meet representatives when I arrive there. He is right that there is a significant property issue, as there is in Spain. Many people raised such issues with me when I visited Spain earlier this year. Yesterday, I met with the Spanish Minister with responsibility for the matter and we are trying to find solutions. The issue is complicated in Spain because different autonomous regions have different powers.

The British high commissioner has raised the issue with the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Cyprus and we have received assurances that the Government intend to introduce a Bill to address future cases. The issue affects a large number of people, as is stated on the Foreign Office website to which the hon. Gentleman referred. When British people buy property in other countries, they may come up against property and land laws completely different from those in the UK. It is an important element of the Foreign Office's "Know before you go" campaign that we ensure that British citizens have as much information as possible before undertaking such property transactions.

Several hon. Members asked whether we should be optimistic. I confess to being a natural optimist, so I am optimistic about the situation in Cyprus. There are reasons to be cheerful: in Mr. Talat and Mr. Christofias, we have two leaders who are committed to negotiation,
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and in Greece and Turkey, we have two Governments who are committed to a settlement. We can all point to issues on which individuals from those four parties have not implemented fully what we would have liked. However, we must take at face value that they are committed to a settlement. Regular meetings are going on.

Why is this issue so important? First, there is a natural interest for Britain as we approach the 50th anniversary of independence. Secondly, it will not be possible for Cyprus to achieve its full economic potential-in both communities-until a lasting settlement is accepted throughout the island. Not only tourism, but a range of industries, could move forward dramatically if there was a lasting settlement. Thirdly, security in the eastern Mediterranean can be enhanced for the EU and the region only if there is a settlement in Cyprus.

Several hon. Members have referred to Turkey's accession to the EU. I am a passionate supporter of Turkey's accession. I believe that it would be good for Turkey to enter the EU as a secular Islamic state, that it would enhance our energy security and that it will be the Asian tiger of the European economy in the next 25 years. However, it is inconceivable that it will accede until there is a full and lasting settlement in Cyprus. People argue against Turkey's accession for many reasons, not least on the basis of migration. However, I believe that we must pursue Turkey's accession and, at the same time, a full and lasting settlement in Cyprus.

We believe that Turkey must comply with its commitment to implement fully the customs union. Last week in Ankara, the Foreign Secretary made it clear that we believe that the ports should be open. We believe that the UN resolution calling on Turkey to give back Varosha should be fulfilled. At the heart of the issue is the fact that political will is needed to make that happen. As in "Othello", which was largely set in Cyprus-

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Rape Crisis Centres

12.30 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): While preparing to speak in this debate, I was approached by several charities, lobbyists and politicians, who represent a wide range of opinion and interest in the subject. What unites them is a desire to see the issue of funding for rape crisis centres given the greatest possible prominence-both for the public and the Government-and although they may differ in opinion on the means, the end of achieving sustainable funding for rape crisis is the same for them all.

The way in which victims of rape and sexual assault are dealt with by the voluntary and statutory sector has a huge impact upon the victims themselves and upon the services and volunteers who support them. Every year, 3 million women across the UK experience incidents of rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, human trafficking or other forms of sexual violence. In financial terms, the cost of that is estimated to be around £40 billion. Quantifying that huge figure is extremely difficult, but it is near impossible to measure the long-term impact of the horrific sexual crimes that many women, men and children are subjected to each year. Out of an estimated 80,000 annual incidents of rape, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary believes that up to 95 per cent. go unreported. Of those that do get reported, there is an 80 per cent. attrition rate of victims from the criminal justice system. We in this place must continue to ask ourselves why that remains the case.

In common with many people around the UK, in my Stourbridge constituency, people who wish to report a rape or a sexual assault must go to the police in the first instance. People reporting a sexual crime that has just happened almost inevitably require examination by a forensic medical examiner. For people in Stourbridge, that can mean a wait for a police car to take them on the journey of up to 20 miles to the Sandwell sexual assault referral centre-SARC-which is the closest one to Stourbridge. Alternatively, the person concerned has to remain in what is often a busy police station, where it is difficult to find the privacy that is particularly needed after a horrific crime such as rape.

The victim is then treated as forensically hot, which often means they are unable to wash or drink, and sometimes they have to sit on blotting paper to preserve evidence of the assault. There is usually a protracted wait to see a doctor and, bearing in mind that 99 per cent. of sexual crimes are committed by men, it is possible that women victims of sexual assault may not be able to see a female doctor at all. That is particularly the case in the west midlands, where 85 per cent. of FMEs are male.

The police officers who are involved in these cases are clearly managing the needs of victims of rape and sexual assault alongside their own immense work load. However, they are not necessarily mandated to have special training in how to deal sensitively with these victims. Through experience, many police officers are extremely adept at assisting people who find themselves the victim of rape, but it is not guaranteed that someone who is brave enough to come forward as a victim of a recent or historic sexual crime will have such a police officer dealing with their case.

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Police officers do not always know that a victim of sexual crime can be told that they can have the assistance of one of the excellent, but all too rare independent sexual violence advisers-ISVAs-who provide victims and survivors with emotional support through counselling. They also provide practical support, such as by finding safe accommodation if it is needed, or assisting on the long route through the criminal justice system.

Inevitably, a victim's first encounter with the criminal justice system will be affected by the reception that they get. That in turn provides them with a perception of how the system will deal with their case and informs their decision and the further decisions they need to make about seeking an all too rare prosecution. Without specific training, it is possible that police might not have the skills, through no fault of their own, to recognise the particular sensitivity needed when assisting victims of rape at the initial stage. That is the case for people who have just been assaulted, as well as for people who may have been assaulted a long time ago, which requires a particular form of bravery to come forward and even more careful assistance as they enter the criminal justice process. The Home Office says that each rape costs £76,000, but it is not uncommon for rape crisis centres in the west midlands to get just £100 per victim in funding.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): The hon. Lady is returning to the issue of funding and costs, which she mentioned at the start of her speech. We are fortunate in Croydon because we have a rape crisis centre, which has recently benefited from an additional grant of more than £250,000 from the London Mayor. Croydon is unusual in that respect because there are really only two such centres in London. Does that not underline the need for additional resources, whether from Government, regional government or, indeed, some match funding from local government?

Lynda Waltho: It does indeed. The matter is not just about one-off amounts of money, which are obviously very useful; it is about sustainability. Often people who should be counselling and supporting victims are filling in forms, chasing money and effectively finding their wages for the next year. Sustainability is the key to dealing with the issue.

In common with those around England and Wales, rape crisis centres in the west midlands face a constant struggle to achieve funding, whether from Government bodies or charities. Recently, in 2008-08, a rape crisis centre in the west midlands was given £40,000 from the Home Office to provide services in that financial year. In 2009-10, as an emergency measure, similar to the previous year it was awarded £50,000. However, to cope with an expanding work load, it had needed and had asked for nearly £90,000. That could not be provided because funding had been capped.

When someone is accused of a sexual crime, from investigation to courtroom, funding is assured to see that the case is dealt with fairly. In comparison, funding for the provision of services to victims and survivors of sexual crime is not assured and varies by area. Of course, securing investigation and, where appropriate, conviction is in the public interest, but surely, the welfare of the victims of these horrific crimes is equally so.

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What confidence can victims of sexual assault have in a system that offers them no guarantees about getting their case in front of a court? That problem speaks to an inherent distrust in people who make an allegation of rape or sexual assault. Demolishing that tendency requires institutional change, as does the process by which rape crisis centres, police, the health service and prosecutors work together to provide positive outcomes for victims of sexual crime. Local and national Government must take their place in limiting the bureaucracy imposed on rape and sexual violence support organisations.

This is a Herculean task, but we should not shirk from it. What would certainly make it easier is putting enough money into the process that victims go through to see their attackers brought to justice and ensuring that they are given help in recovering from the trauma of horrific attacks. The Rape Crisis network is the umbrella organisation for 38 groups in England and Wales that provide support to victims of rape and sexual assault. In doing so, they do an amazing job. The centres that are supported by the RCN have many things in common. They work tirelessly to support victims of sexual crimes, they rely on the good will of volunteers and they are under constant financial pressure to make ends meet.

Rape crisis centres and similar organisations form the backbone of support for victims of sexual crime. They support people who have had the bravery to come forward and ask for help after a traumatic experience. However, for the past two years they have been forced to apply for emergency funding because no sustainable funding exists to allow them to do their vital and admirable work. We all know of the pressures to reduce public sector spending, but we should increase funding for rape crisis centres, if possible. At the very least, we should sustain for a number of years the money that supports them.

When someone who has been sexually assaulted approaches the police, a doctor or a counsellor, they fear, among other things, a lack of dignity. But rape crisis centres that support them, such as Sandwell in my constituency and others like it, step in to help them through emotional trauma and through the criminal justice system, which is improving but could always do more. It is crucial that police, health care providers, prosecutors and rape and sexual violence organisations have enough confidence in each other's place in the system to give the assurance needed for victims of sexual assault to keep coming forward. That will happen only when rape crisis centres are recognised for their ability to support victims and survivors as well as for their skills in working, as part of the third sector, hand in hand with the statutory sector.

I am sure that many who work across local government, the police, charities and health services to support victims of rape will welcome the Government's moves to improve the way that we handle this issue. There has been a 46 per cent. increase in convictions for rape since 1997, and the criminal justice system has been ever more responsive. There has been extra funding of £1 million for rape crisis centres in the past 12 months, and there is now a team of advisers to help areas that do not have dedicated sexual assault referral centres to set one up. Those changes are all creditable and historic, because no previous Government have sought to provide them.
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I hope that the Government will demonstrate how those groundbreaking measures can be extended to provide long-term, sustainable support for rape crisis centres.

Sexual violence and assault can, among other things, strip victims of their dignity. The Government have gone a considerable way towards helping to restore it, but it is essential that they also dignify the organisations and professionals who support and care for rape victims with the sustainable funding that they need to continue their vital role, rather than commit them to a constant merry-go-round of short-term funding applications.

12.42 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) on obtaining the debate and thereby allowing us to consider the serious and important issue of sexual violence. I pay tribute to the work of the third sector on sexual violence. Such organisations do vital work across the country to support those who have been subjected to what is one of the most horrible crimes. Rape and sexual violence involve violation of the most personal and intimate kind, and the situation is often made worse by the fact that the victim knows their attacker. The impact of those crimes can be devastating to victims and very difficult to deal with. Some people can and do recover, but many need or want support. Sometimes the impact emerges later-in some cases, years later. As my hon. Friend has said, voluntary rape crisis organisations play a crucial role in providing a range of services such as counselling, therapeutic support and advocacy services. They work closely with victims, the majority of whom are women.

Far more rapes and incidents of sexual violence are not reported than are. British crime survey figures have indicated that only 15 per cent. of such crimes come to the attention of the police because so many victims do not tell anyone about their experiences. As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, however, there was a 50 per cent. increase in the number of convictions for rape in 2007 compared with the number in 1997. Reporting of rape has more than doubled since 1997. That increase is partly due to the systemic improvements that the Government have tried to make in the criminal justice system to facilitate victims of sexual violence and rape in feeling able to come forward to report to the police what has happened to them. In respect of sexual violence, improvements include the appointment of specialist officers and specialist rape prosecutors across the country, supported by much improved guidance and training for police, the Crown Prosecution Service and barristers. Other measures include supporting police forces in developing plans to improve the investigation of rapes, and ensuring that all forces are supported by a specialist team in implementing the plans.

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