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That the following new Standing Order be made, until the end of the current Parliament:-
(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to consider political and constitutional reform.
(2) The committee shall consist of eleven members.
(3) The committee shall have power-
(4) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.
(5) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(6) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
(1) That Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs) be amended by inserting, after line 6:
'(aa) the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee;'
(2) That the Order of 26 May relating to Select Committees (Allocation of Chairs) be amended by inserting at the appropriate place in the Table:
(3) That, notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (7) of Standing Order No. 122B, the ballot for the election of the chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee shall take place on Wednesday 9 June. -(Mr Francois.)
That this House expresses the opinion that the Resolution of the House of 30 October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairs of Select Committees (No. 2), should be further amended by inserting after "the Committee on Members' Allowances", "the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee". -(Mr Francois.)
That the Resolution of the House of 30 October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairs of Select Committees (No. 2), be further amended by inserting after "the Committee on Members' Allowances", "the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee". - ( Mr Francois.)
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), to his new position. He is a reasonable man and I know he realises that this issue has caused much concern to many Members. I am grateful to my hon. Friends who have stayed in the Chamber this evening and I am also grateful to Members on the Government Benches. I hope the hon. Gentleman will hear the points that are made tonight.
Rape devastates women's lives. Every 34 minutes a rape is reported to the police in the UK. Many more go unreported. The Fawcett Society suggests that 47,000 women are raped every year. Much has been done in the past decade. More rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police, although the conviction rate is still too low. More rapists are brought to justice, and across the criminal justice system rape victims can expect to find greater compassion, respect and sensitivity.
That is welcome progress, and I pay tribute in particular to Vera Baird, not just for her work as Solicitor-General, but also for the campaigns she led for victims of rape and sexual abuse long before she was a Minister or an MP, and for her advice to me in preparing for this debate.
Let us be in no doubt, though, that justice still eludes too many rape victims in too many parts of the country. Only one in 20 rapes reported to the police results in a conviction. On whatever measure we choose to use, most rapists are never held to account for their actions and most victims never see their attacker brought to justice. So what does the coalition plan to do about it?
In its programme for government, the coalition set out its solution in just one short sentence proposing anonymity for defendants in rape trials. Those proposals, if implemented, would deter victims from coming forward and make it far more difficult for the police to charge offenders and convict rapists. We know that many rapists are serial offenders; their trail of victims often runs into double digits. Many women-for a variety of reasons-do not come forward straight away. They are afraid; they want to pretend it never happened. They are embarrassed; they feel as though they did something wrong. They are ashamed; they believe that what happened was their fault. They feel alone.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why young women who may be in a dependent relationship with someone when they are raped do not come forward is that they feel that in some way it was their fault? Only subsequently, perhaps when they hear that the person has done the same thing elsewhere, do they gain the courage to speak up?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often only publicity about a rape charge that leads other victims to come forward. It is only at that point
that they understand that they are not alone-that it is not their fault and they can do something about it.
Let us consider the case of the black-cab driver, John Worboys. When he was arrested for a string of sex attacks in 2008, 85 women came forward to say that they, too, had been attacked by him. Offering attackers the blanket of anonymity will prevent victims from getting the justice they deserve and hinder the police in protecting the public.
However, the real question is this: on what basis do we distinguish rape defendants from those accused of any other serious, violent or sexual offence? What singling out rape defendants says is that rape victims are less reliable, less credible and less trustworthy-that they are to be believed less-than the victims of any other crime. It reinforces the myth that women who report rape are lying, and gives succour to those who peddle the same old lies about women being responsible for being raped.
Let me be clear that no one doubts the damage that false allegations cause-innocent men find their lives turned upside down, police time is wasted and public money is misused, and they insult genuine victims, belittle their suffering and make juries more sceptical than they would otherwise be-but in the most recent and authoritative report, Baroness Stern could find no evidence that the incidence of false allegations was higher in rape cases than in any other crime. A report by the Home Office in 2005 came to the same conclusion. International research in 2007 showed that, even of the very small number of false allegations, in most cases no offender was named-malice was not the motive; it was a cry for help from a distressed woman. Moreover, the law already deals with those who make malicious complaints against others, because making a false allegation perverts the course of justice and those who do it can, and do, receive substantial prison sentences.
Rape is, by its nature, an extremely difficult crime to prove. Most victims are raped by people whom they know. It takes people a tremendous amount of courage-more courage than anyone who has never been raped can ever understand-to tell someone, anyone, let alone the police, that they have been raped.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are particular issues in relation to young people who have been in the care system in cases of historical abuse and that the Government's proposal would have a very negative effect on the opportunity for young people to come forward, perhaps at a later date?
Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend her for all the work in this area that she has done in Scotland. I very much welcomed the time when, as a Home Office Minister, I worked with her. She is right: more and more these days, we hear of people coming forward later, when they have developed the confidence to do so and to talk to others about the crimes that have been committed against them. Again, the serial nature of the crime that we are talking about is important, because when a crime is reported and people hear the name of the person who has been charged, they feel confident to come forward and stand by the victims in the modern day, rather than just in the past.
If we understand what the evidence actually shows-that women are no more likely falsely to report allegations of rape than any other crime-what possible justification is there for giving those accused of rape anonymity? The only other possible explanation is that the stigma associated with being accused of rape is of an entirely different order to that associated with any other serious, violent or sexual offence, but unless we seriously think that there is less stigma attached to being a paedophile, wife beater or murderer than to a rapist, or that society is more understanding of those who sexually abuse children or kill in cold blood, we cannot have anonymity in rape cases without granting anonymity across the board. That principle is totally alien to our system of open, transparent justice, where anonymity is granted only when there are overwhelming, compelling reasons to do so.
I understand that the coalition may be shifting on this matter-I would welcome that-and that it is perhaps considering limiting anonymity to defendants between arrest and charge. That may be worth looking at, but only if the same rule is applied to defendants in all violent crimes, not just rape.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Is it not true that it is very often between arrest and charge, when people hear that someone has been arrested for something, that other people come forward with similar patterns to create the weight of evidence that enables the prosecuting authorities successfully to proceed with the charge.
Caroline Flint: Again, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. Where do we draw the line in establishing someone's identity-whether on arrest or charge-and then allowing other victims the time to present their experiences? We are meddling in something that should not be meddled in. Plenty of other parts of the justice system need to be attended to, and this is not one of them.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I share my right hon. Friend's relief that the Government seem to be showing signs of back-pedalling or U-turning, or at least having a serious rethink on the issue, but does she share my concern that the proposal was not in either of the other two parties' manifestos, yet it suddenly appeared in the coalition agreement? Does she share my hope that the Minister will explain why the proposal ended up in the coalition agreement and who was responsible for pushing the idea forward?
Caroline Flint: Yes, it was in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the general election, although I would have thought that that was the platform from which to make such a proposal. I really think that it was nine short words that conveyed this policy in that coalition agreement, and those nine short words developed a policy that has not been thought through, but is very dangerous.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab):
I have been participating in these late-night Adjournment debates for 16 years and I have never seen so many Government Members paying such attention as they are paying to what my right hon. Friend is saying. I pray and hope that what she is arguing tonight will be well received
and that we can have a change of policy. Without making a great party claim of victory, the coalition Government have got it wrong, and they should be man and woman enough to accept that tonight.
Caroline Flint: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that we can end this proposal tonight, because the real issue-the real injustice-is not the rights of defendants, but the plight of tens of thousands of women who are raped but never see their attacker brought to justice. Our priority must be delivering justice for victims of rape and protecting the public from dangerous offenders.
The last time a Government made proposals to grant those accused of rape anonymity was 1975. Despite making much of their parties' modern, progressive credentials during the 2010 election campaign, the coalition Government's proposals would take us back to a time when there was a residual doubt about rape victims built into the criminal justice system, which denied thousands of victims justice.
When victims of rape are afraid-afraid of what has happened, afraid to come forward, afraid that no one will believe them-we must show them that we will believe them. When rapists believe that they can attack with impunity, and go on and on wrecking women's lives and never face the consequences of their actions, we must show them that we will bring them to justice.
When proposals such as this are made-dangerous proposals, I am afraid to say, that insult victims of rape and inhibit the ability of the police to catch dangerous criminals-in this House we must show, through the strength of our case and the passion of our arguments, that we will speak up for those without a voice.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) for welcoming me to my new responsibilities and for her kind remarks about my reasonableness. I sincerely hope that she still holds that view when I have concluded my reply to her debate. I congratulate her on raising the issue and on securing the time to discuss it. It is a matter of importance, as the exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time last week showed, and it merits very careful consideration if we are to be fair to all sides of the argument.
I would like to remind the House that, long before acquiring my current responsibilities, I took an interest in these issues. In 1999, I introduced the Sexual Offences (Anonymity of Defendants) Bill to protect teachers from the consequences of accusations by children who have anonymity and the subsequent reporting by a sometimes salacious media. My Bill was prompted by the suicide of a constituent, Nick Drewett, a popular and committed teacher who took his own life after being accused of behaving improperly with pupils in his care. The accusations fell very far short of any suggestion of rape, but the combination of the way in which the accusations were investigated by the police and their reporting led to his death. His headmaster, who was charged with him but tried alone, was acquitted.
My experience means that I come to this subject with a predisposition to protect victims, which can sometimes include those who are accused. We are in the business of
reducing the number of future victims of crime, not inadvertently creating more.
Rape is a very serious crime. The rights and welfare of the victim are vital, and we are committed to ensuring that every victim of rape has access to appropriate support. In particular, we are looking to establish new rape crisis centres where there are gaps in provision and to put funding for such centres on a stable and long-term footing. There are 39 such centres and we are looking at the possibility of a further 15.
The Prime Minister has already made clear in the House his view that the low conviction rate in this country is a scandal. It is not good enough and we need to improve it. That means, as he has said, working with the police and also doing more to help rape victims, including backing rape crisis centres. Our overriding aim must be to reduce the incidence of the offence, not least by increasing the number of successful rape prosecutions.
The very last thing we want is investigative failures. We believe that they can be countered by more intelligence-led policing. We will carefully consider how we can support agencies' joint working to share intelligence and good practice, and to ensure that there is an effective response to rape and victims of sexual violence. Introducing anonymity would not prevent the identities of those suspected and accused of rape from being shared among criminal justice practitioners.
Mr Blunt: No, if the hon. Lady will forgive me. Let me get to the conclusion of my remarks. [Interruption.] I am grateful for the hon. Lady's sedentary comments. It is the debate of the right hon. Member for Don Valley. I am certain that she and the House will want to hear my remarks-
Mr Blunt: Plainly, the remarks have been carefully prepared in conjunction with other Government Departments- [Interruption . ] -but not entirely, I am delighted to say. I have already made clear- [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is not behaving in a way that does credit to the subject. It is not one that lends itself to barrack-room style interventions from a sedentary position. I would be grateful if right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches would do me the courtesy of listening carefully to these remarks. If they continue to intervene from a sedentary position-
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