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I talked earlier about the importance of home affairs policy, and I am delighted to speak in a debate that, to me, represents one of the continuing running sores of
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our criminal justice system-the continued lack of anonymity to men who are accused of rape. Let us not beat about the bush here: a false allegation of rape can ruin a man's life. Even if he is tried in a court of law and found not guilty, he will still remain suspect in many people's eyes. It is human nature to say that there is no smoke without fire, especially, it would seem, when it comes to the thorny issue of rape. It is virtually impossible for a man to survive an accusation of rape without a stain remaining on his character. There will always be whispers and rumours and slurs.

To me, what this debate is about is very simple: it is about avoiding punishment before, and sometimes without, trial. That is why I welcome this debate on the Government's proposals to grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases. For me, anonymity only until trial is not enough, because the principle of no smoke without fire still applies. Surely all hon. Members will accept the principles of equality before the law and equality between men and women. Surely all hon. Members also believe that people are innocent until they are proven guilty.

The legal situation that exists now protects women in rape trials, but it does not protect men. It gives women anonymity, but not men. A special legal exemption has been made in the case of rape, but why has it been made just for those making the accusation? Why does that same protection not apply to those who are being accused? If we are singling out this particular area of the criminal justice system for special treatment, why should it not apply equally to both men and women? Male defendants should be afforded the same protections as women making the accusations because every man is innocent until he is proven guilty. If women need anonymity for this particular type of case, so do men.

We would all agree that men who are convicted of rape should have their names made public. Convicted rapists should be known and should face the consequences of their actions in respect of public opinion towards them. All that the Government's proposals mean is simply that a man will face those social penalties after he has been convicted of the offence rather than facing advanced trial by others who will always think that there is no smoke without fire. In high-profile cases, this will also avoid trial by media in advance of trial by court.

I have listened to all the arguments made today, but I still do not understand why some Labour Members oppose this simple reform. I have heard that if men are given anonymity, it might somehow discourage other women from coming forward, but let us not forget that guilty men will still be exposed when convicted. If anything, the change should encourage more women to come forward because they will have seen that a conviction has been successful.

There is, of course, a strong argument for having no anonymity at all in any legal case. Anyone who believes in a completely open system of justice would agree with that, but the reality is that exceptions have already been made in cases involving children or women making accusations of rape. Surely if a male defendant in rape cases is innocent, he is just as vulnerable as they are. Why are women and children vulnerable, but not men? No one on the Opposition Benches has answered that today. The law is the law, and it should treat men and women equally dispassionately or equally protectively. That is why we should either remove the right of anonymity
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for women, which no one is suggesting, or we should extend that right to men under precisely the same principle that extends it to women. In this, the mother of all Parliaments, we should do everything that we can to avoid punishment before, and sometimes without, trial.

3.15 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). I must say that during his speech I found myself wishing that we could go back in time and see Cannock Chase in the days that he described. I regularly travel from Birmingham northwards, as my husband comes from Birmingham, and I have never thought of Cannock Chase in those terms, but I will do so in future. The hon. Gentleman paid a full and correct tribute to Tony Wright, whom we all miss, and who, as he rightly said, has left us with an important legacy. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his pursuit of home affairs, but, unusually, following a maiden speech, I will be disagreeing with him on several issues, although I will do so in the customary fashion in this House.

I want to make a few points in this enormously important debate. I am worried that the Government's policy is ill thought out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) dealt well with the issue. The Government should think again, and carefully, about the matter. No one in this Chamber underestimates the impact on a person of a false accusation of rape or any other crime. In my many years in social work, I worked not only with many victims of sex offenders but with sex offenders themselves, and on a few rare occasions witnessed first hand the impact of what subsequently turned out to be an unproven accusation.

Over the years, I have watched the situation for those complaining of rape improve, fortunately. Some Members of a similar age will recall-some Members, happily, are younger and will not-that back in the 1980s some television programmes were made in the Thames valley about police interviewing rape complainants. Many people were rightly horrified to see the general attitude of disbelief, which was one reason for the low reporting of cases. Fortunately, much has changed since that time, although not as much as we might like. However, the successful prosecution rate for rape continues to be of significant concern. In such situations, to protect people from false allegations, we must expect good investigation and evidence gathering. In a number of cases of false allegations of which I have heard, that has not been the case. Adopting a general position of belief, which is essential, does not mean ignoring the importance of good investigation and evidence gathering.

Let us be clear: this crime is not only heinous, but enormously difficult, for many reasons, to investigate. It is difficult for victims to talk about. None of us would welcome having to talk about sexual matters-even those on a consensual basis-but talking about an attack or crime of such a nature to people one does not know, and to have to go into intimate details, is very difficult. Rightly, we have talked about children being involved, and I dealt with that on a professional basis for many years. How do children explain what has happened to them when they might not even have the necessary words? How do they talk about it when they might feel that people are looking at them as if they have done something wrong themselves? We must take that into account.

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Even when adults are involved, we are talking about a situation in which perhaps only two people were present and there were no other witnesses. We are talking about one person's word against another's. Even when, according to any objective judgment, a woman has done nothing wrong, she will still be asking herself, "Did I do something wrong? Did I invite this in some way?" We as a society must say, "No means no. Rape is not acceptable. Sexual relationships without consent constitute rape, and should be subject to prosecution." However, the difficulties involved cannot be underestimated, and the situation must therefore be approached very carefully.

It is important that we adopt a position of belief, because, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, too many people have not been believed in the past. If it is felt that the first thing victims must do is prove that something has happened to them, even fewer women will come forward, and children will not summon up what is an almost impossible level of courage to speak up and say, "Something happened to me." I have watched people who have been abused trying to give evidence in court. I shall never forget seeing a young woman who had been abused while in a children's home, standing there petrified and trembling, almost unable to give evidence. In such circumstances, the position of victims is very difficult.

The issue of offending behaviour involves a great many myths. We talk about rape as if it suddenly appears out of nowhere, but someone who commits rape may well have previously committed other, lesser, sexual offences. I use the word "lesser" in relation to the criminal process, not in relation to the impact on the victim. The offender may have tested a situation, or fantasised about it, before committing the offence. In many cases, a pattern of behaviour has been formed.

That is one reason why those of us who oppose anonymity after charge-anonymity before charge is a different matter-consider it important to do so. Someone who comes forward and says "This happened to me too" provides corroboration of that pattern of behaviour, and leads people to feel that they can believe what is being said. As I said earlier, if just two people are involved it is one person's word against another's. If a pattern of behaviour has been established and people provide detailed corroboration, it becomes possible to proceed with a prosecution.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady is always listened to seriously and with respect. May I ask whether she has reflected on my earlier suggestion to her hon. Friend the. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that what leads to more women coming forward is not necessarily the information that an individual lives at a certain address, is a certain height or has hair of a certain kind, but may be a pattern of behaviour? That is information that can be shared immediately, and the police often do share it just to get people to come forward, as indeed they should.

Meg Munn: I agree. In my experience, it is possible during the investigative process-in which, as I have said, I have been involved on the social work side-to question people who may have been in contact with the person concerned, without necessarily naming that person. For example, it is possible to contact previous residents
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of a children's home and ask, "Did anything ever happen to you that gave you cause for concern?" Conducting the investigative process properly protects against false charges, or charges that turn out to be false.

We must look at this situation in the round, and we have to say, "This is too important not to have a formal consultation." I have been encouraged by the fact that the Government have been prepared to discuss this more, and to accept that the nine words that were in the coalition document are not sufficient, but I plead with them to have a formal consultation. This is a matter that deserves to be addressed with that level of seriousness.

I gently say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that this is not a gender issue. Many victims are men and boys. Indeed, one concern is that boys who were abused as children find it particularly difficult to come forward and say they have been abused, because there is still the stigma that means they might be called gay. Sometimes-but not always by any means, as this is not a direct correlation-victims who have had something terrible done to them as children go on to become perpetrators because they do not know the rightful place of sexual relationships in adult situations. We talk about the lifelong effects of sexual abuse-that is one of them, and we should take it very seriously.

That points to another reason why it is enormously important that people have the confidence to come forward early and say they have been abused. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) mentioned the impact on families. If people come forward early, it stops there being future victims. We must constantly bear down on this issue to stop there being future victims and to stop the cycle of sexual abuse continuing.

I ask Ministers to answer the following questions again and in greater detail. Why rape? Why not all sexual offences? Also, why has this proposal been put forward at all if not because of the issue of false allegations? The Minister said very clearly that it was not based on the issue of false allegations, but he did not tell us what it was based on.

This debate deserves greater clarity, not more confusion, which is what we got from the Minister today. The matter under discussion is complex and important, and we need to take time over it. We need the Select Committees to take a look at it, and we need a proper public consultation so that everybody who has a story to tell and every agency that has worked with people affected by this can respond and put forward their views.

I understand how the proposal may have emerged. It might, perhaps, have happened without enough thought and late at night when people had not had any sleep during the period when the coalition agreement was put together fast. That does not have to bind us to carrying the proposal through, however, and to making a decision that would be detrimental to the people we should be caring about, whether victims or offenders. I ask Ministers to think again.

3.28 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): May I begin by thanking the Minister, as I know he has listened to many of us who do not support all of the Government's proposals in this matter? I know that he has made movement, too, and I am very grateful for that, and I
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am also sure that he will continue to listen to all that is said on this topic. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) has had to leave the Chamber, because I also want to say, with great respect to her, that I think she is living in the past.

I pay tribute to the last Government for the great strides they took in ensuring that justice was done for all those who make a complaint of either rape or sexual assault. I work as a criminal barrister-I say I work as one, because I like to think I can still do the occasional case-and I have been in practice for some 16 years. I very rarely prosecute as I have a defence practice, and I have defended many men who have been accused of rape or sexual assault. On one occasion, I defended a woman who was accused of rape. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), this is not a gender argument-that has been identified by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). We know the statistics and they are poor-we wish they were a lot better. However, as I have said in an intervention, we know that 60% of the people who make a complaint of rape are females over the age of 16, and that 40% are children-that includes males.

I echo what the hon. Lady said about young men making complaints about rape. I was involved in a case where I defended a man who was accused of the persistent and long-term buggery of a young man whom he had adopted. That young man did not make his complaint until he had run away from home-understandably. At the age of 18 he came forward to complain about this dreadful abuse, and my client was convicted. There is no way that that young man would have come forward to make his complaint if he had thought for one moment that his name would ever appear in the newspapers.

It is important that we all understand that there is no such thing as anonymity in a criminal justice system, save with one very rare exception; there are certain cases where the prosecution, with great care and after a lot of thought, applies to a learned judge that a witness in a particular case should have complete, true anonymity, so that their name is not known to the defendant or, indeed, to anybody else in the court. It is a bit of a myth that there is a long queue of women who somehow enjoy complete anonymity and can make up false allegations, knowing that their name will never be known. As all of us who have practised in the criminal justice system know, on an indictment the name of the complainant is there. It is a sad moment in court when one sits there, an indictment is put to a defendant and the name of the child is read out-the name is given as "a child under the age of 13" or "a child under the age of seven". So there is no such thing as the anonymity of complainants.

There is also no such thing-I would hope-as the anonymity of defendants. As has been said, we are talking about a prohibition on the publication of a name. I know that I am of some age, but when I worked as a journalist many years ago the name of somebody who had been arrested was never publicised. What has happened, in reality, is that too many police officers have decided that it would be in their interests-I say no more than that-to release the name of somebody who has been arrested, especially somebody in the public eye.

I want to nail a bit of a myth that suggests that it is only the accusation of rape which casts such a terrible slur on someone's reputation. I am not diminishing, for
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one moment, the appalling trauma involved, especially for young men-I am talking about those whom I have defended, who were often not the brightest or the most resourced-of often waiting for more than a year before the Crown rightly and properly decides not to proceed. We should never underestimate the trauma for those young men and their families when they are facing that charge. I believe that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said that the sentencing guidelines say that if someone has been convicted of rape and they express some remorse, they would not get a custodial sentence, but with respect, that is not right. My understanding of the sentencing guidelines is that the starting point, even on a guilty plea, is a sentence of some four to five years. It is that very knowledge that adds to the great trauma of young men, notably, who face an allegation of rape, but many other people who face other allegations are also traumatised by that and by the criminal process.

For example, I am told that two city councillors in Nottingham were arrested on charges of fraud or some other misdemeanour. The fact that they were never charged never appeared on the front page of the Nottingham Evening Post-I think it was slipped away on page 6 or in some such place. That allegation was hugely damaging to their reputation. I can think of all other sorts of examples-dentists or doctors might be accused of something and arrested, their names could be published and again their reputations would be sullied.

As so many others have said, I urge the Minister to consider with great care why he is singling out rape. I know the point is not lost on him that the accusation could be made that, for some reason, we on this side of the House do not believe in the proper prosecution of people who rape women, who rape young men and who rape children, whereas we all know that we take it seriously. I am grateful to have heard all the proposals that have been put forward by the Minister about the need to support people when they make allegations of rape.

Rape, like all criminal offences, falls into many different categories. I have touched on the fact that a significant number of the people who complain about rape are children. We also know that a significant number of the 60% of complainants who are females over 16 must be making complaints about what happened to them when they were children-that is, historic allegations of abuse. It is unfortunate that we do not have those figures; we should.

We know that there is a big difference between somebody walking along a street or a road who is attacked by a complete stranger and the other category of rape complaint, which relates to two people who are known to each other. Again, it is not as simple as it is often portrayed. They might be known to each other because they work together, so there is some sort of relationship, or because they have met in a public house and exchanged words. They might be known to each other because they have been married to each other for a considerable length of time or because they have been in some sort of relationship. They might be known to each other because they have gone out for the first time on a date and because something has occurred that has caused that woman to make a complaint of rape. It is a fiendishly complicated issue and we cannot take a broad-brush approach and say that all allegations of rape fall into the same category. They profoundly do not.

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In the little time I have left, I want to touch on one issue that concerns me. Again, I know from what I am told that there is a real problem with a lack of good sound evidence. I am afraid that the Minister will have to rely on a lot of anecdotal evidence, but I have no doubt from my practice and from talking to other members of the Bar and to members of the judiciary that when a name is put into the public domain, other complainants come forward. There are many instances of it. I know from my practice that when the name of a priest who was arrested went into the local newspaper, other women came forward who had been to him and to whom he had been their minister. When they knew that others had made a complaint, they came forward. That tendency should not be underestimated.

As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have had the good fortune to be drawn in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I know that in addressing this Chamber I must not touch too much on what I hope to say when we discuss the Bill, but I ask the Minister to consider allowing anybody who is arrested to enjoy the privilege, almost, of not having his or her name published in the press. I believe that we can do that effectively and efficiently while still allowing the prosecution to apply to a judge, depending on the particular circumstances of an offence, for the name to be published. We must allow our judges to exercise their discretion, which they usually do, when they are allowed to do their jobs, particularly well.

The last Government did a great deal to redress what was clearly the wrong balance, with women not being believed, best evidence not being gathered and so on. However, I am bound to say that I think that in some respects the balance has been tipped too far. Those of us who practise at the criminal Bar are concerned about the number of prosecutions that continue when we know that, if the allegation was not of rape or sexual assault, they would not proceed. We have to make sure that when the police investigate an allegation, they do not involve themselves. With great respect to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, it is not a question of the police officer who investigates the allegation believing the complainant. That is not their role or job.

Meg Munn: This is a very important point. I was saying not that the police officer had to believe the complainant, but that their initial approach when someone comes to the police station should be to adopt an attitude from the outset that that person has something relevant to say that is likely to be true. That does not mean that they should put aside all the issues of evidence.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. The correct word, which I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for supplying, is "empathy". I have no trouble at all with police officers who are not involved with the investigation, and all the support services, giving support to the complainant, but it is absolutely imperative that the police officer or officers involved in the case should be of the right rank. I have seen too many cases involving someone who has probably just become a police constable-other learned hon. Members are saying, "Hear, hear!", because we barristers have had almost daily experience of this. It is also imperative
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that the police should apply the same standards to complainants in rape and sexual assault cases as in any other case. Some of us have been greatly disturbed by changes in policy codes that seem to suggest that there should be a different standard and test when deciding whether to prosecute in rape and sexual assault cases, because there should not be. If we do all that, there is a good chance that the rape conviction rate, although it is very good-we should get those figures sorted out; perhaps other hon. Members will enlighten us-will rise. I urge the Minister to continue consulting, and perhaps my private Member's Bill could, with the backing of both sides of the House, be the perfect solution.

3.42 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I feel that it might not be too long before she is elevated to the Front Bench. In addressing the debate, she demonstrated what she brings from her experience, as well as her thoughtfulness.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) on making their maiden speeches. They chose an interesting debate in which to do so. May I suggest that the debate could, as they start their apprenticeships in the House, be seen as a master class in how not to develop Government policy? I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) forensically took apart the Minister's opening statement. As the debate is entitled "Defendant Anonymity", I had hoped that the opening statement would allow discussions to go in a different direction. I thought that the Minister might say, "We've thought about this and we may have been wrong to single out rape defendants, so today gives us scope to talk about this on a wider basis." Unfortunately, however, the Minister has reaffirmed the determination to focus on anonymity for defendants in rape trials, and that is regrettable.

We have had many debates in the House since the general election, including heated and passionate debates on how to cut the deficit, on electoral reform and on the number of MPs we should have, and only this week we have had the statement about which schools will go ahead in the Building Schools for the Future programme-or not, as the case may be. However, few of those issues have provoked the reaction that greeted the proposal to extend anonymity to defendants in rape cases. Little did right hon. Members who are now in government know, all those weeks ago when they were holed up in meetings in the Cabinet Office thrashing out the details of the coalition agreement, the maelstrom that nine words on page 24 would cause. I am afraid that the policy of singling out rape has little evidence to justify it, and that has been confirmed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The policy, in isolation, really does not help the justice system or victims, and Ministers have been saying different things about it from one day to the next.

When the law on giving anonymity to defendants in rape cases last applied, it created a legal quagmire. It was a mess, where those accused of inciting rape were given anonymity but not those who conspired to it. The names of defendants charged with aiding and abetting rape were known, but not the names of those charged with burglary with intent to commit rape. The public
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knew the names of those who had planned to rape but failed, but did not know the names of those who had succeeded. It is an incredibly complicated area, not only for rape but for other offences, should we go down that route-I have sympathy with the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe on expanding that aspect. Let us be in no doubt, however: any movement on the issue, in any direction, will create a lot of controversy. We must be careful about unforeseen consequences.

No one seems able to explain why we need to give rape suspects anonymity in the first place. As has been said, singling out rape defendants sends a devastating message to the victims of rape-that, uniquely, among all other complainants, they are not to be believed, even when Home Office research shows that false allegation rates are no higher for rape than for any other crime.

The proposal touches on what is meant by false allegation. Philip Rumney, of Sheffield Hallam university, provides the best definition I have come across. He says that


Those two elements-the fact that the complainant knows that what she or he is alleging never actually happened and the malicious motive-distinguish genuine false allegations from other cases when the complaint is withdrawn rather than retracted, when there is insufficient evidence, or when as we know, sadly, that owing to mental health problems the complainant genuinely believes that they have been attacked.

We have not even talked about other vulnerable victims, who often face cynicism about their complaint. Many people with learning disabilities have not been believed. Elderly people suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia may find it hard to convey what has happened to them and-I am sorry to say-may be dismissed when they come forward or talk to family and friends about what they have experienced.

There is already evidence that too many cases are wrongly classified as false allegation. That is a problem and we need research to make sure that recording is clear, not only for rape but for other crimes too. I think that the police and prosecutors have made huge progress in that area, particularly when they have specialist training, so I do not want the House to misinterpret what I am saying. However, Home Office research in 2005 found that the police displayed

thereby feeding a damaging culture of scepticism, which deters victims from coming forward to seek justice. The proposal is likely only to harden such attitudes, when we should be challenging them.

The only other possible justification for the proposal is that the damage associated with being accused of rape is of a completely different order to every other crime. Members have cited other crimes when a person who was falsely accused felt justly aggrieved and distressed, and the result was suicide or other action that caused distress to their family. It is not credible to suggest that being accused of rape is uniquely devastating, in a way that being accused of domestic violence, murder, sexually abusing children, or even defrauding a popular charity are not.

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We have witnessed the rather bizarre spectacle of Ministers coming to the House, or writing to Members, asking them to provide evidence to support the Government's policies. I know that times are hard and Departments are facing cuts of up to 40%, but if the Government are not able to find evidence to support their own policies, it is not our job to do so. Indeed, a month ago the Minister wrote to me requesting evidence and asked me to provide it within a week. I am pleased to tell the House that I was able to meet his deadline, but I am less pleased to have to inform the House that I have yet to receive a reply. Perhaps I should have insisted on a deadline for comments from the Minister.

In response to my Adjournment debate, the Minister said that the Government would proceed on the evidence, and no one doubts the need for more and better research. Baroness Stern made that point very eloquently in her review earlier this year; but she said that the evidence needed to be looked at before the policy is decided. The coalition has committed itself to granting anonymity to rape defendants before even looking at the evidence. That suggests to me that the Government are proceeding not on the evidence, but on the basis of a misconception.

Mr Blunt: If I have not formally thanked the right hon. Lady for the letter, let me put that on the record now. I assure her that I was not anticipating evidence from her in support of the Government's position; it was really a challenge for her to come forward with evidence, on the basis of the issues that I raised in the Adjournment debate and have repeated today. If there is evidence that would cause us to rethink, let us have it. We are looking for it and we will publish our analysis by 28 July.

Caroline Flint: I certainly was not seeking to provide evidence to support the Government's position. I was providing evidence to explain why the Government's position was wrong. What I have failed to receive is evidence from the Government as to why they are pursuing this singular policy of anonymity for rape defendants.

In one of Baroness Stern's 23 recommendations-I hope that the Government will give the other 22 equal time and priority-she asks that there should be research, and

She was saying that the matter should be looked at in the round.

As I said earlier, I am sad today that the opportunity was not taken by the Government to knock this coalition proposal on the head and move us into an area where we could find some consensus and agreement across all parts of the House.

Simon Hughes: In that context, if the evidence that Baroness Stern and others have asked for is forthcoming, in the form of further research, would the right hon. Lady be prepared to look at an idea that goes more broadly than rape? Is she willing to accept, at least in principle, that there may be a case for anonymity in other categories, not single-offence categories?

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Caroline Flint: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I actually made that point in my contribution to the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, and I am open to that. What I am not prepared to accept is moving in that direction until the coalition Government have clearly stated that it was wrong to focus on rape, and that they have learned from the contributions and the pressure and the lobbying from Members in all parts of the House to change that viewpoint. That is because I think that it is really important to send a message to the country that when someone gets something wrong, they should say that they have got it wrong. A lot of organisations, which are listening to this debate, are very concerned about the message that was sent from that coalition agreement about the attitudes to victims when reporting rape, and the assumption that they, more than for any other crime, might be guilty of making false allegations.

An issue has been raised in this debate about equality between defendants and complainants. In a report in The People on 27 June, it was stated that the Government planned to extend anonymity to defendants in all cases where the victim is not named, under the cover of ensuring "equality before the law." Equality before the law does not and cannot mean identical treatment for defendant and complainant. There is a vast array of ways in which the criminal justice system already, and rightly, treats defendants and complainants differently. Both should be treated fairly, but that does not mean identically; if that were the case, presumably we would no longer afford the defendant the advantage of the burden of proof, and complainants would have to be held on bail or in custody before their case came to court. The suggestion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of why victims of rape are given anonymity in the first place, and that has been expressed very eloquently by colleagues in today's debate.

It is not credible to suggest either, as the Lord Chancellor has done, that protecting the identity of the defendant protects the identity of the complainant. Just because most attackers are known to the victim does not mean that the victim would be immediately identifiable from the attacker's name being known. It could be a boss at work; it could be someone they meet on the bus every day; it could be someone they know in the nightclub, or a friend of a friend.

It is in the public interest that the victims of rape come forward and report their crimes, so that rapists do not escape prosecution and are prevented from attacking other victims. There is no equivalent public interest in allowing defendants to remain anonymous. That does not mean that I do not understand the damage that false allegations can cause. We have already heard during today's debate about a case where someone was tried for making a false allegation and-I think that I heard correctly-got two years in prison. That is a serious sentence for a serious crime.

As I have said, there may well be a case for looking at whether all defendants-not just those in rape cases, or even in cases that involve sexual offences-should be afforded anonymity until they are charged, but I am afraid that that was not the coalition's proposal. I am still not clear whether the Government will pursue that proposal. Certainly, one thing is clear: if we wanted to consider that wider debate, the way to start it was not to focus on rape at the outset. That has been completely
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unproductive. The only way that we could start such a debate is for the Government to make a clear statement-today offered the ideal opportunity to do so-accepting that they were wrong to single out rape defendants and acknowledging the damage that that has done.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said earlier, there have been very real improvements in the way that victims of rape can expect to be treated in the criminal justice system, but there is some way to go. As Dave Whatton, the chief constable of Cheshire constabulary and the senior police officers' lead on this matter said at the all-party meeting yesterday, the single biggest challenge that the police face is still the lack of confidence among victims, which stops them reporting their attack and prevents rapists from being brought to justice.

The Government must surely now realise that their proposals would make women less likely to come forward and, I am afraid, embed a dangerous culture of scepticism, when so much has been done to improve trust between the victims of rape and the criminal justice system. We need an informed debate. There should be at least a Green Paper, so that we can discuss the issue in detail, and I hope that the Minister will deal with that in summing up.

3.56 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on her speech and on the passion with which she spoke during the Adjournment debate that she initiated. Many right hon. and hon. Members have brought special expertise to the debate, either as barristers or from a background in social work. My background is that I am a doctor. For five years, I was a forensic medical examiner for Devon and Cornwall police and spent many long nights with women and some men who had been the victims of horrendous sexual and physical violence. I have also been a family doctor for many years and have been a practitioner for 24 years in total.

I have lost count of the number of women-they are mostly women-whom I have seen who have not made an allegation of rape. The reasons are many and complex. I can testify that the vast majority of those crimes go unreported, because of misplaced feelings of guilt, real fear of reprisals, a belief that the victims will not be believed and, in many cases, just a sense that they want to put something so horrible in a box on the shelf and never visit it. That is the truth of the matter.

I pay tribute to the many women who have the courage to go forward and make a complaint. I want to point out something that the women I saw had in common. Many of them told me that the reason they were going through what is, quite frankly, a very unpleasant examination after a horrendous experience was not for themselves, but because they believed that it would protect other women. I ask the Minister to consider why those women would report a rape if they thought that there was no possibility that other women might benefit.

I completely understand the many arguments made in favour of protecting the innocent who are subject to false allegations, but we need to remember that the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. For every 100 women I saw-I believed the vast majority of them-I can
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count on the fingers of one hand the number who had their day in court and saw a conviction. We need to be clear that the scales are already tipped in favour of the defendant in a rape case. We need to be very careful that we do not add a further barrier to women coming forward and making allegations.

The second point I should like to make is on the difficulty in this country with serial offenders. Many hon. Members have referred to John Worboys, who drugged his victims in the back of his taxi, but let us be clear that the No. 1 date rape drug remains alcohol. Many rape offenders are serial offenders-they are frequent fliers. When I examined women in the presence of police, it became clear that many of those whom the women named as the person who had attacked them were known to the police and had form. We need to be careful that we do not put further barriers in the way of identifying such people so that others can come forward with their experiences.

Those were the two main points that I wanted to make today. Many hon. Members have said that this is not a gender issue, and I agree. However, we need to be careful that we do not make it a political issue. I have some reservations about the way in which some Members have tried to make it so. I would like the Minister to consider free votes, because that is the best way to take the political heat out of the argument and to focus on the real issue of who we want to protect. I request that he look carefully at my suggestion.

4.1 pm

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to this debate, which is on an important and sensitive subject. I am very honoured to take part in a debate in which so many hon. Members have so much experience to contribute to our thinking. My desire to speak reflects my personal concern that the current proposals are both unworkable and, more importantly, counter-productive to our shared stated aim of achieving better outcomes for rape victims and justice for our society as a result.

This is a difficult debate to participate in, not least because it is still not clear what measures the Government intend to introduce. What has been published on the proposed legislation poses a number of questions. For example, what does anonymity actually mean? Are we talking about printed or public or local knowledge of a case? How could that be secured at any level? Inevitably, as hon. Members have said, people in the criminal and legal system will know, or will be able to secure access to, the identity of an accused person, as part of the day-to-day functioning of our court systems. Given the concerns about the relationship between our courts, our media and our criminal system, which were admirably outlined by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the difficulty of enforcing anonymity is a clear challenge to the proposals.

Moreover, how far would the anonymity have to go to be sustainable? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) pointed out, what if somebody is accused of a number of interrelated offences? Would co-defendants be covered? They might be accused of less serious crimes, such as aiding and abetting, but would they be given anonymity to protect another defendant? What would it mean for a case if the name
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of a defendant or co-defendant became public? Those questions go alongside more important ones that we need to tease out. Would anonymity apply at arrest, charge or trial? It is clear that the nine words in the coalition document have stirred up a hornets' nest, and I am grateful that we are having this debate to try to tease those things out. I hope that the Minister will answer the many questions that right hon. and hon. Members have asked.

It has been said that the measure needs to be introduced because the offences in question are so distinct that to accuse people of them falsely is to destroy lives. As others have asked today, why only rape? Why are teachers accused of such offences in a category alone? The inclusion of teachers reflects the fluidity of the thinking and its inconsistency. If anonymity throughout a criminal case were possible and desirable, could we define and measure the social penalty of being accused of a crime, or being exonerated, including before charges were made, in a manner that was satisfactory to all concerned? Anthropologists will tell us how shame, as a concept, contributed to many different accusations. It can be argued, as many in the debate have, that false accusations of paedophilia, murder, serious violence, hate crimes or domestic violence can just as easily destroy somebody's life and those of their loved ones. Indeed, why are teachers alone in our public services afforded such protection? Why not doctors or care workers?

The debate is about more than legal semantics, and Members on both sides of the House who are concerned about the proposals care for more than intellectual consistency. It is clear that they are also worried that giving those accused of rape anonymity and not those accused of any other crime sends the message that rape is different and separate. In doing so, the proposals take us backwards as a society in addressing rape rather than help us to make progress. Furthermore, the proposal flies in the face of the evidence available to us about the nature of rape and how it is prosecuted. We do not have enough data on false accusations.

Many hon. Members have already referred to the excellent report on this issue by Baroness Stern, which identifies many of the challenges that we face with this crime. Above all, her report tells us that if victims do have the courage to come forward, and are willing to go through the criminal justice system, conviction rates are improving and justice is possible. But her report also highlights the fundamental problem of the high level of attrition of cases, and that is why we should be extremely cautious about doing anything that could make the process even harder. It also makes the case for looking again at how rape is handled by the criminal justice system.

The test for this proposal must be whether the intended benefits it could offer outweigh the risks that it poses to the detection and prosecution of rape. The benefits of the proposal could be strong only if we could prove that the false reporting of rape is systematic and widespread above and beyond that of any other crime in our criminal justice system. As Baroness Stern herself argues, we simply do not know that, and we do not have enough evidence about the false reporting of rape to make such a judgment. She rightly argues-and many hon. Members have agreed-that we need more research on that issue. Crucially, she also asks for more research into the false reporting of all offences instead of singling
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out rape. I hope that Ministers will address that point in the research that they are conducting, so that we have a greater understanding of the incidence of false reporting across the criminal justice system.

The lack of evidence is partly due to the difficulty of defining a false accusation, as many hon. Members have pointed out, and whether such accusations are malicious. Another issue is how incidents are marked as "not crimed" in the system and the danger of using that as a proxy for evidence of false allegations of rape.

If we do not have the evidence, and the Government claim that this proposal is not about dealing with false allegations, where has it come from? We are all aware of the media coverage that this topic has generated-much heat but not much light. The coverage is selective. I have recently made representations on behalf of a constituent who was tried for making a false allegation only to be acquitted, and now finally charges are being brought against the attacker. That case raises many serious concerns about the ability of our justice system to deal with rape, and the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in addressing complaints about how such crimes are investigated. I am continuing to pursue those complaints, but to have struggled for justice for so long in such a context must have been extremely difficult. To ask victims to come forward and report rape in an environment in which the law enshrines the notion that some victims will lie would be even harder.

No one suggests that being accused of rape is not a serious matter, but to presume that-unlike in any other crime-an allegation could be based on lies, the Government are on dangerous ground if they do not have the evidence to support the policy. It also stands in contrast to the evidence that publicising the report of a rape can be vital in the prosecution of cases. Several hon. Members have already highlighted the shocking statistics on the reporting of rape and the concerns that that will be adversely affected by giving those accused of the crime anonymity. Whether in the cases already mentioned of Worboys and Reid, or those involving individuals who knew their attackers, there is strong evidence that public accusations can give other victims the confidence to come forward and report their experiences.

The question of how cases are put together is not incidental but integral to the debate and the danger of these proposals. As investigations in the difficult area of proving a lack of consent can often involve very vulnerable people, we must be sensitive to what can be done to support them.

An interesting study by the Metropolitan police from 2005 found that 87% of those reporting rape had at least one of four vulnerabilities-being under 18, having mental health problems, having ingested alcohol before being raped and of having been or being in a relationship with their attacker. As the report points out, those add to the considerable complexities of prosecution and increase the chances of the withdrawal of a case early in the process. As I have said, I am concerned about the way in which cases are handled by our criminal justice system, something that the police have also put on the record in their conversations with the Eaves Partnership in London. The police acknowledge that

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To add into that mix a presumption of dishonesty could only make it harder for all concerned to take the journey towards justice. Indeed, if research is to be done, it should, in order to flesh out fully the challenges we are talking about, take into account not simply the concept of rape, but the outcomes and causes behind the complaint, whether the police felt that the victim would not be able to go to trial, whether evidence was gathered well enough to stand up in court, whether the victim withdrew their complaint, and whether the individual was tried. I suspect that, if we are able to gather such data, the picture would be very different from that being painted in the reporting of rape allegations and in the language used by some when talking about the subject.

Given that this proposal could deter victims from coming forward, we should work harder to explore other options that do not make a presumption about the likelihood that a complainant has lied about such a crime. Yesterday, Baroness Stern called for more work to be done to establish whether the existing guidance on anonymity in rape cases from the Association of Chief Police Officers has been followed, and if not, why not. I hope the Minister will also take up that point. Above all, I urge the House to search its soul in this debate. The question is not whether it is feasible to give some rape defendants anonymity and not others; we must ask why we are still struggling to bring those who commit such offences to justice and how we can address this problem. If we do that, we will see that proposals for anonymity are not part of the solution.

The problems are complex, but there are several indications of where action could be taken. I come to this debate as a London MP faced with extremely troubling statistics on the prosecution of rape in the capital which show that our conviction rate is well below the success rate in other metropolitan areas. That is why I welcome the move to Sapphire units and co-ordination across London. The reality is that staffing such units is especially hard in outer London, in areas such as mine, where officers receive little recognition for taking on such work, in contrast with other roles within our police force.

We should also learn from the Payne review and George Alberti's research, and offer more support for victims. I would favour the extension of the role of independent sexual violence advisers as distinct from police or other criminal justice officers. We must also be mindful of the funding for rape crisis centres, which face a struggle for existence under the new Administration. Indeed, I fear, under the new Government's public services spending freeze, that it will be harder, not easier, for specialised units for rape and sexual assault victims to improve conviction rates and bring rapists to justice, given that they are already under-staffed, under-resourced and lacking specialised rape lawyers. I hope that Ministers will today make a commitment, given their interest in this subject, to ensure that those services are properly funded and protected.

In conclusion, I urge the Government to turn their attention from the tabloid headlines, and instead focus on addressing these challenges. The Government's proposal would give credence, without any evidentiary foundation,
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to the idea that lying is an aspect of this crime and not any other. I can see that others across the House agree with me, and I appeal to them to work with us to raise these concerns. As legislators, we must not send out the message, however unintended, that we think that those who come forward to report rape are more likely to mislead than any other alleged victim of crime. As members of society, we must work together to protect the vulnerable and hear the voices of victims with an open mind. A public consultation would guarantee and encourage that. I urge the Minister to change his mind and ensure that we hear those voices in this debate.

4.13 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): It is a great honour to make a contribution to a debate that has been singularly well informed, not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who made a particularly useful contribution, but by the very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who has an almost unique perspective on these matters. It is a perspective slightly different from mine: I spent many years slightly further down the food chain, dealing with both the prosecution and defence of serious sexual crimes in the Crown court, including the abuse of children, rape and other offences of a sexual nature, involving both males and females.

It is perhaps inevitable that a debate about defendant anonymity has been dominated by the issue of the treatment of the victims of rape and the investigation of that very serious crime. That is not a criticism-in fact, it is a rather welcome development. It is inevitable because the focus of the proposal in the coalition document was centred on rape. That was a mistake. The points made about broadening the ambit of the anonymity question are right. Perhaps the most important point made today, however, was the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe: the word "anonymity" is causing us a problem. It is taking us away from the real issue, which is the coverage and reporting of such cases, an issue that has been thrown into particular relief in recent years by the power of the electronic media and the internet.

For generations, local newspapers were, with the greatest of respect to them, the chip paper of tomorrow. They were easily forgotten-trashed, buried. However, the internet is not just for Christmas; it is for life. I am sure that we have all had constituents who were the victims of false allegations years and years ago, but who are haunted by the spectre of a Google search linking their name for ever with that false allegation. I am sure that we have all had cases of people pleading for help-some of them have mental health problems as a result of what happened to them. Let us not forget that none of the proposed changes to the law will help those people, which is why the point made some time ago by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)-that this issue not only covers home affairs or justice, but is a media matter, for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport-is so important.

The more I think about the issue, the more I come to the conclusion that we should be grappling with the equally difficult-indeed, perhaps somewhat more difficult-question of the power of the internet, and how to regulate it and seek in some way to expunge the
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names of those innocent individuals from that awful spectre of a Google search when, for example, they apply for jobs and find that their names are for ever besmirched. That is the problem that so many innocent people have to face, and it is a problem that we need to start talking about, and seeking to address and in some way solve.

I return to where we are in this debate. Recognising the problem that I have outlined, I think that reporting restrictions should surely not be confined to rape or sexual allegations generally. There are many scandalous allegations made against individuals-they have been well discussed today, but I shall not repeat them for fear of overstepping my time allocation. However, the point has been powerfully and simply made by many colleagues in all parts of the House that to try artificially to restrict the proposal to one category of crime not only poses the kind of problems that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) identified in her powerful contribution, but risks taking us back to the naturally emotive issues that surround the crime of rape.

I should like to digress for a moment and talk in support of the many speeches that have been made today about the need for better investigation of rape crimes. Let me tell the House that my experience of the prosecution of rape is that juries always look for that extra bit of reassurance-particularly where consent is the issue-that they can often get from powerful scientific evidence. "Why scientific evidence," one might ask, "if the issue is consent? How on earth can that be relevant?" The answer is that trials can take peculiar twists and turns. Issues that might not have seemed important to investigating officers at the outset of the investigation can suddenly loom rather large in the consideration of the jury when one goes through the evidence with a fine-toothed comb.

I will give the House a simple example. Where the act took place can often be a powerful indicator of whether consent or the lack of it can be proved. For example, if the act took place on a floor or an area that would not be consistent with consent, scientific evidence can often help to prove a case, particularly if the defendant and the complainant disagree about where the particular act of intercourse or sexual misconduct took place. I know that that might sound like arguing with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, but the truth is this: the scene of a crime of rape should be treated as seriously as the scene of a crime of murder or any other alleged act of serious violence. Far too often, scenes of crime are not sterilised, preserved or properly protected by investigating officers, with the result that valuable sources of evidence are lost. I accept that that is a question of resources, and I know that senior police officers will have a very difficult round in the year ahead, but time and again police officers have told me that this is a problem that they face. There is no lack of will or empathy involved; there is simply a lack of resources for conducting proper investigations of rape allegations.

The attrition rate has been mentioned. That is perhaps rather an inelegant phrase to use when we are talking about such a sensitive crime, but we must not forget this. The rate will be increased if prosecutors make decisions to pursue cases that fail the test of a reasonable prospect of conviction. That should be a cast-iron test to be applied to every case, irrespective of the type of allegation. I do not say that in a cold-hearted way; I believe that such a test serves the public interest.

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Let us put the questions of attrition and investigations out of our minds for the moment and return to the question of reporting restrictions. I believe that there is a case for the creation of a discretionary power for judges to impose reporting restrictions in whatever cases they see fit, subject to a simple test-namely, that of the interest of justice. That is a wide test that is applied by the judiciary up and down the land every day of our working lives. At a stroke, it would cut through all the sensitivities that have been quite properly expressed today, and all the problems that come with identifying particular professions and particular types of offence. We must trust the judiciary to do the job that they are trained to do.

In that regard, the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe-I nearly called her my learned friend-was an extremely important one. She proposes discretion up to charge. I would go further and propose discretion throughout the course of the trial. That could cover a range of different allegations. It would also allow a properly informed judge, faced with an unmeritorious application from a defendant who perhaps did not deserve the protection of reporting restrictions as much as someone of good character, to make a decision based on all the information before them. That would remove the quite natural emotion that we hear in debates such as this one, and allow us to avoid the natural collision of views over the investigation of the serious crime of rape, as well as the more general issues about journalism, reporting and reputation.

For that reason, I urge the Government to think again about their current position and to widen the ambit of the measure to include a wide range of offences. Furthermore, the word "anonymity" might be relevant in the case of an undercover police officer, who can now give evidence while being protected by statute-following the problems of two or three years ago when the European Court ruled that the current common law position was inadequate-but we should stop using the word in relation to this debate. We should be talking about reporting restrictions. If we do introduce legislation on this subject, I want that term to be used. On that note, I hope that I have in some way contributed towards this excellent and well-informed debate.

4.24 pm

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): At the nub of this debate is the question of whether the police should be allowed the discretion to release the identity of people who they believe are serial rapists, with a view to getting more victims and more witnesses to come forward and provide more evidence to facilitate prosecution. That point was touched on in an excellent speech by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who obviously has a great deal of experience in this area. We have heard good debating points, but we really need to get to the nub of the issue, because I fear that if the anonymity proposal for rape defendants goes through, we will end up tying the hands of the police.

We are not talking about allowing all the names of all the people ever accused of rape to go out to the media before charge. Rather, we are talking about whether in certain instances, where people are known to be serial offenders but have not been successfully prosecuted, the
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police should be allowed-given the statistical background we have discussed-to facilitate the process of getting more people to come forward. I believe that if the anonymity proposal is pushed through, we will simply end up with more rape-particularly by serial rapists-less reporting and fewer convictions.

In my area of Swansea West, as elsewhere, there is serious and widespread concern about this issue. I know that some Members have said that it is not political, but I have encountered people saying, "Look, I voted Liberal Democrat, and I did not vote for hiding the identity of prospective rapists and increasing the number of rape victims. I did not vote for that." This policy emerged, of course, from a Liberal Democrat conference resolution in 2006. To be fair to the Conservatives, in 1988 the veil was pulled and hidden identity was thrown away under pressure from the police, who said that anonymity was preventing women from reporting. That remains the case, so I hope that the Conservatives will go back to their previous position. I realise that some sort of deal has been done on VAT and everything else, but let us not allow it to get in the way of the rights of women and their protection. Disclosure generates confidence-confidence to stand up and be counted against serial offenders.

Most crime generally is serial crime. We all know that the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by just a few people-and that is certainly the case with rape. Like other Members who have spoken, I have had the great pleasure of witnessing a presentation by the chief constable of Cheshire, Dave Whatton, who showed evidentially the relationship between disclosure, witnesses coming forward and subsequent convictions. The reality is that a person comes up for a rape trial, often on their own, but with disclosure, others might come forward. As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, in some cases, evidence from the first victim might not be sufficient for conviction, but it might be with the collaborative evidence of others. Without that additional evidence, the case is likely to fall and more serial rape is likely to be the result.

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunity for the press to publish information about defendants, which could strengthen the case if more women come forward. Their cases might not get on the charge sheet, but even if it is the first time that they have come forward, it would help to give them closure, in that they would know who their attacker was and their additional evidence would hopefully contribute to a successful conviction and their attacker going to jail.

Geraint Davies: That is absolutely right. We talked earlier about the problem of putting things in boxes and isolated cases. Some women go through thinking that they have contributed to the incident or even that it is somehow their fault, but if they knew that the person had a consistent pattern of behaviour in raping women, they would no longer think like that. Sometimes a woman-or a man-does not want to stand in front of a court; a difficult case might fail completely because no one else comes forward and the evidence is insufficient. In those circumstances, the victim could end up being branded as a woman-sometimes a man-who makes false accusations. They have told the truth, but on the
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balance of evidence available from only one witness, the accused is found not guilty, and the woman then becomes "a liar". What signal does that send when we want to encourage more witnesses to come forward?

I appreciate that the point was made seriously, but I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee-the point about Google raised by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) was well made-that there is an equivalence between the psychological and reputational difficulties of the accused, although they certainly exist, and a lot more women being raped. There is no qualitative equivalence between them. Quantitatively, the number of malicious, false allegations is minute, whereas the number of unreported-certainly unconvicted-rapes is massive. On the balance of the argument, qualitatively and quantitatively, the case for anonymity is not made.

Mr Buckland: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Geraint Davies: Briefly, as I mentioned Google.

Mr Buckland: The hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there is a trade-off between the effect on an innocent person and rape being undetected and victims not being served by the system, is he?

Geraint Davies: We must maximise our impact on injustice against victims and the wrongly accused. Ultimately, however, there is a trade-off, because if we push forward with anonymity, there will be more rape, more rapists and more rape victims. A few innocent people might get accused because of the culture and environment we create, but it is obvious where I stand in that trade-off.

The chief constable of Cheshire gave the example of a vicar who used to be a teacher. There was a media revelation about him being accused, and immediately eight more victims came forward, as a result of which he was convicted. We have heard about the 12 women who came forward about the black-cab driver; suddenly, after photos were published, 81 more women came forward. In the case of the paedophile running a teenage football team, publicity led to 14 more victims coming forward. Under the anonymity proposal, that would not have happened, and we would not be protecting the victims, including children.

There is a prisoner's dilemma whereby we rely on the brave victim coming forward and encouraging other people to have the confidence to do so. With anonymity, the risk is that that person will stand alone, and that in the time between the accusation and the court case, she will be open to harassment through texting and phone calls saying, "You haven't got a chance. You know you're going to lose." Then, when she does lose, other people will look at her and say, "I'm not ending up like Mary. She was harassed for ages, and now she is regarded as a liar." Anonymity changes fundamentally the power relationship between victim and accused. The accused will realise that, it will reduce the risk to serial rapists who use drugs or alcohol to carry out their crimes, and it will increase rapist confidence.

Under the proposal, the balance could tip even further against the victim. The statistics already suggest that 0.5% of women are raped each year-about 140,000 women a year. Of those, about 100,000 do not report
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the rape. Why is that? Obviously, there is a systemic problem with the justice system. About 5% of women in the population-1.4 million-have been raped. Despite that horrendous figure, we are discussing measures to deter people from coming forward.

The chief constable of Cheshire gave a snapshot of statistics in the year to March 2010. He reported that 155 crimes had been recorded as rape, 33 of which were prosecuted, with 23 convictions. Nobody was found to have put forward a malicious, false accusation, although 13 cases were regarded as non-criminal. His evidence suggested that, occasionally, accusations are dismissed. I do not pretend that there are not malicious, false allegations, but there are few of them. Obviously, false allegations are serious, because when people are found to have made them they are punished by, for instance, as has been mentioned, two years in jail, which is fair enough. However, we should not change legislation because of a small number of people, when a large number of people are suffering very serious consequences, against a backdrop of a massive amount of rape. We should not rush a change through before the summer recess as has been suggested.

Women, in particular, will see the proposal in the wider context of a new Government suggesting that there should be less closed circuit television and less use of DNA, and now they are suggesting that there should be anonymity. Plus they are cutting £125 million from the police grant. When all that is put together, it does not look good to the victim, or suspected victim, of rape. To those watching this debate, I point out that 1.4 million women have been raped. Again, that is against a long-term cultural backdrop of endemic sexism in the judicial system. I see men on the Government Benches raising their eyebrows, but we have all heard about contributory negligence: "She was drunk"; "She had a short skirt on"; "He couldn't help himself"; "He was a former boyfriend"; "And what about her sexual history?"; "What about his military career?"-all irrelevant, erroneous considerations. Consent is consent.

Anna Soubry rose-

Geraint Davies: I consent to the intervention.

Anna Soubry: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those days are long past? Raising the sexual history of a complainant is specifically prohibited, apart from in extremely rare circumstances, under section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. Does he agree that that is a long time ago? We have moved on greatly in the past 15 to 20 years.

Geraint Davies: No, I would not agree. I heard of a recent case where such suggestions were made about clothing and all the rest of it by the barrister in putting the defendant's case. That is still the backdrop. We can all pretend that we do not live in the environment in which we do. The environmental context is pulled in when such cases are considered, and that is another reason why people do not want to come forward. They say, "Oh no, I was out on a Saturday night and I'd had a few drinks, so it's an I-was-asking-for-it type of thing."

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): To be fair, in the past 13 years, the hon. Gentleman's own Government made immense efforts with the judiciary to change
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previous judicial thinking, however misinformed it may have been, as the judiciary would tell him. The previous Government did a huge amount; does he not agree with that?

Geraint Davies: I must agree with that. A huge amount was done by the previous Government in this direction; that is completely true. My simple point is that the statistical backdrop is horrendous, the direction of travel of the proposal is regressive, and the cultural backdrop is sexist. As was said, the previous Government did a lot to move in the other direction. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the sort of arguments that I mentioned are frowned on, but what about the image of the system held by the people whom it serves? We have a situation where 100,000 people are not coming forward into that system because they have no confidence in it. At the same time, a dog whistle is being blown, as regards defendant anonymity. I genuinely think that such anonymity will protect more serial rapists and lead to more rape.

This is a key moment for the Government, with regard to the future of justice in cases of sexual violence. I very much hope that they pull back from what I regard as a retrograde, regressive, sexist and backward position.

4.38 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Like many people in this debate, I have specific experience of the problems, having served as a prosecution barrister on behalf of the Attorney-General for many years and, more specifically, having run a free representation unit that provided criminal injuries compensation assistance, and having worked with Victim Support. In fact, the previous Government gave me an award for the work that we did for Victim Support; I accept that that will not happen ever again, but I pray in aid the fact that that award was for the work that we were trying to do on behalf of those who were so grievously affected by the issue that we are discussing.

I would like to think that we have grasped an important, serious issue, but we have done it improperly. The coalition agreement says:

when ideally it should say, "We will consult on the issue." If it had said that, many things would have been a lot easier, as they also would have been if it had followed the Select Committee on Home Affairs 2003 report in respect of sexual offences. We all understand that mistakes may have been made in the drafting of the coalition agreement, and I see no difficulty in these matters being reconsidered and handled in a better way upon reasoned conclusion over the coming months and years.

All of us must accept that the conviction rate is too low, and all of us must also accept-as I attempted to explain in my intervention on the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies)-that much was done by the police and the previous Government, following on from work done down through the years, to provide greater assistance on this issue, and it continues to be done.

I comprehensively reject the idea that the judiciary are fundamentally biased against individual persons. That is not the experience of those of us who have spent
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a lot of time in the courts. Whatever may have happened in the past, my experience is that it does not happen in the present day and age.

I support the broad principle that we should consult on, and review, this issue. There is rightly considerable concern that people who are acquitted of certain offences should not have their lives ruined-and in some cases their lives are comprehensively ruined. It is accepted that in some types of cases, particularly serial rapist and sex offender cases, the widespread publication of certain details makes a difference to the conviction. That is one of the inherent flaws in the argument for going down the proposed route, but it is patently possible-this is done in a variety of other scenarios in judicial contexts-for these situations to be dealt with in a way that allows judicial flexibility. Also, the police can in certain limited instances apply to publicise such details precisely because they wish to go down what we might call the Warboys route as they think there are other related sexual offences and they want them to come to light. That similar fact evidence is already inherent in the system and followable in the system.

However, I have represented someone who was wrongly convicted of a criminal offence. I have absolutely no doubt of his innocence, but that gentleman was convicted and it took me one year and about two weeks to get the Court of Appeal to overturn the decision. That young man was desperately affected, and I do not think he will ever be the same again. It was no comfort thereafter that the individuals involved were subsequently prosecuted. That is but one example of many. Plenty of other people, such as Peter Bacon and Matthew Kelly, have been in similar situations where these matters coming to light makes life very difficult.

We should look back at the best evidence. For me, that comes at present from the Home Affairs Committee 2003 report. It is worth while contemplating the fact that some sensible and very serious luminaries were serving on the Committee at the time: Janet Dean, Chris Mullin, Bridget Prentice, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), Gwyn Prosser, the hon. Members for Bradford West (Mr Singh) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), Ann Widdecombe, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), the current Prime Minister. Those are the names listed on the Home Affairs Committee 2003 report, and their proposals were clear. As was explained by the current Select Committee Chairman, there were good reasons why on balance they came down in favour of anonymity not for rape specifically, but for sexual offences. As is well known, they had the support of the Metropolitan police, which is relevant because the police have been often mentioned today. They had that support because the Metropolitan police made the point in relation to sexual offences, particularly sexual offences involving children, that the publicity was damaging for everyone involved, not just the defendant.

So I submit that the favouring of the move is based on the current evidence that is best before us, and that evidence comes from the Home Affairs Committee. I endorse, however, the proposals of the Chairman of that Committee and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) that this is patently something that should proceed by way of proper
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consultation, ideally by both that Committee and the Select Committee on Justice working together and addressing all the evidence as they progress. I am certain that if they did that, a productive and useful process would be engaged in and the matter would move forward.

I wish briefly to discuss the issue of teachers and doctors, because I endorse entirely the proposals in respect of them, having also represented teachers who have been affected and been subject to allegations. This is a question that this House has to grasp, because although schools are not being paralysed, they are being considerably affected by the way in which teachers are struggling to cope with these issues. I finish by saying that I support the proposal in broad terms, but it is capable of great improvement.

4.46 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, but I am concerned and saddened that the coalition Government have proposed to give anonymity to rape defendants. I do not wish to repeat many of the excellent points made by my hon. Friends, and by the hon. Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who have brought their professional expertise to bear on this subject, but this is a serious issue.

Being falsely accused of any serious crime can have devastating effects on a person's life. However, experts in the field confirm that false accusations of rape are very rare. The Association of Chief Police Officers rape lead, Chief Constable Whatton, has said:

Likewise, Baroness Stern's "review into how rape complaints are handled by public authorities in England and Wales" states that

So giving anonymity only to rape defendants sends out a very clear message to rape victims that they alone are not to be believed. It tells them that they alone are not to be taken seriously. It suggests to them that there is no point in coming forward because nobody will believe them and, worse than that, as they will not be believed there is no chance that the rapist will be convicted and so there is no point in reporting rape. This would be a very backward step. Rape has a devastating effect on the victim, with the after-effects lasting for years. It is a particularly difficult crime to report and it can occur in a wide range of circumstances; it is far more widespread than is commonly known, with some 2,000 women raped every week and some 10,000 women sexually abused.

Victims of rape naturally find it very difficult to come forward, because they are often very embarrassed about what has happened, and manipulative rapists can often make the victim somehow feel partially responsible for the assault that has taken place. Victims are very worried about having to describe to complete strangers what has happened. They are also very worried about what they know will be a very long and complicated process and about being cross-examined about intimate details. Over
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the years, those difficulties have been recognised and efforts have been made to improve facilities and to increase the availability of specialised professionals, but it is still a big step for a victim to come forward to report rape.

One major deterrent to rape victims coming forward is the worry that they will not be believed. Giving rape defendants, and only rape defendants, anonymity sends a very clear message to rape victims, more than 90% of whom are women, that they are unlikely to be believed. It reinforces many of the insidious myths about rape-for example, that somehow the victim was asking for it or was somehow responsible for it happening.

Victims are very worried about the attitudes they will encounter if they report rape. Unfortunately, in a report produced in 2007, Her Majesty's Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has shown that a key problem in the investigation of rape cases is "a culture of scepticism" among many police officers and prosecutors. Giving anonymity only to rape defendants will serve merely to reinforce that culture of scepticism, and although the culture might be slowly changing, the perception of many women is that it still exists. The fact that women perceive that to be the culture is making them reluctant to come forward and giving anonymity to rape defendants will only reinforce their concerns.

The proposal is like giving some sort of charter to serial rapists. Whereas now when a defendant is named, other victims are given the courage to come forward and provide additional evidence that can help to secure a conviction-many such cases have been cited this afternoon-what is proposed will do the opposite. It will hamper police investigations and make it much easier for serial offenders to avoid detection and to reoffend again and again. We all know that it is well documented how such people try to get themselves into a position of trust or a position in which they know they will have the opportunity to repeat their crime again and again.

Do the Government recognise that giving rape defendants greater protection could reduce conviction rates, particularly for serial rapists? Do they realise what a negative message they are sending to victims of rape-that they, and they alone, are not to be believed?

Enormous efforts have been made to improve the treatment of rape survivors in the criminal justice system, but no matter what is done reporting rape will always be traumatic. I implore the Minister not to proceed to accord anonymity to rape defendants because it would be an immense backward step and would undo a lot of the good work that has been done in this area.

4.52 pm

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Several Members have asked the rhetorical question, "Why treat rape differently?" The reality is-I say this having had 16 years of experience at the criminal Bar in England and Wales-that it would not be treated differently by the law in several respects. The identity of defendants is withheld every day in hundreds of cases in our criminal justice system in cases in youth courts, or those with persons under the age of 16 who are involved in proceedings. That has been so since the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, so there are plenty of such examples every day. I accept that that relates to young people, but the principle exists.

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That principle was reinforced by the previous Labour Government and applied to adults in relation to certain terrorist offences. Thanks to Labour legislation, the anonymity of defendants was applied in those cases, which is why one reads in the media about the cases of N or A. When Labour Members refer to the uniqueness of this proposition, I submit that they are wrong for those reasons.

Rape is also different from other offences. Often it is one person's word against that of another, particularly as regards allegations when consent is an issue. Of course, in cases when consent is not an issue, the same principle does not apply. A situation in which the evidence is the word of one person against that of another-I do not exclude males here, because males can be victims of rape, as we have discussed-can never be the case in allegations of sexual offences against children. Consent will never be the issue there. When consent is an issue among adults in a rape case, there is often no supporting evidence for a jury to get a grip of that can corroborate a complainant's account. That makes rape different from many other offences that are prosecuted in our courts and it might partly account for the exceptionally low conviction rate for rape-assuming that one accepts there is an unusually low conviction rate, because that is not universally accepted within the profession.

In every case, jurors have to be sure of a defendant's guilt beyond reasonable doubt before they convict. When it is one person's word against another's, my experience, and no doubt that of others who have practised in the criminal courts, is that juries may be unconvinced that they can be sure enough to convict someone of such a serious offence. In almost every other case nowadays, before a court prosecution is launched, the Crown Prosecution Service will require corroborative inculpatory evidence against the defendant, such as forensic, CCTV or eye-witness evidence. The prosecution would be very unlikely to proceed in cases of murder, grievous bodily harm or similar offences without some evidence other than one person saying, "This is what happened."

No doubt, hon. Members will know that in every case the CPS has to satisfy itself regarding two criteria-first, that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and secondly, that it is in the public interest to proceed. To satisfy the first test, supporting evidence would invariably be needed. It has been my experience, and that of others from the Bar who have spoken in the debate, that that test seems not to have been applied by prosecutors in rape cases. It seems that prosecutors are much more robust about telling the police that they are disinclined to prosecute grievous bodily harm or actual bodily harm cases to court because there is not enough evidence, whereas that decision seems to be left more to jurors in rape cases. I urge that prosecutors should think carefully about applying a proper test to rape, because nothing in law separates rape cases from the requirement that there should be a realistic prospect of conviction. Rape has those unique characteristics, so it stands apart from most other offences in the criminal lexicon.

A second reason that I offer for the low conviction rate is the fact that the law makes no differentiation between a stranger rape, as they are sometimes called, and another type of rape in which the accused is known to the victim. I am not calling for the law to make that
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differentiation, but jurors invariably do make a distinction. Many members of the Bar have found that jurors are reluctant to convict of rape when there have been historical sexual relations of a consensual sort many times, because they know that the sentence will be particularly severe.

Labour Members often ask what makes rape different, but their Government made it different legally. One more example of that is that the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 recognised sexual offences as different, and section 41 placed restrictions on the cross-examination of rape complainants, creating a presumption against asking questions about previous sexual history. I do not argue that that is inappropriate, but it does restrict barristers from asking questions in court in a way that simply does not apply to other types of offence.

Glenda Jackson: Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the previous Government changed the law in that way? Surely it was because of the kind of severe cross-examination of rape victims that had taken place previously in which victims were reduced to tears in the witness box, which had clear implications. One point that we have been arguing all afternoon is that that reduced the likelihood of a woman who had experienced rape from coming forward and making such allegations.

Michael Ellis: Nothing I say is designed to make it more difficult for women to make a complaint of rape. I accept and understand from my professional knowledge that it is an extremely difficult thing for women and men to do. However, my example showed how that offence is treated differently by the law. When Opposition Members ask why I say that such cases are different from all others, I fear that their argument is weakened by the provisions in their 1999 Act.

We are not talking about false allegations of rape as such, but it is right to bear it in mind that we have a system that we must cherish: a person is innocent until proven guilty. I accept that there must be no barrier to people making a complaint, because it is already extremely difficult for them to do so; but Her Majesty's Government are not trying to do that in this proposal. Rape is uniquely stigmatising, so much so that if one goes to prison, as I have done-obviously to see clients-one can see what happens there. Prisoners charged with rape-never mind convicted-are treated differently from other prisoners. The sad reality is that a person charged or convicted of murder or a serious offence of violence can actually be respected in the prisoner context, but those accused of rape have to be segregated. There is a unique stigma.

Rape is uniquely stigmatising and it is already treated differently by the law. I give an example, from my legal knowledge. A 17-year-old military recruit and a younger girl, aged 16, made contact via the internet. He travelled to meet her and they had sexual relations. He drove her home, by which time her father was out looking for her; indeed, she saw him in the car. At her doorstep, the mother asked, "What has he made you do?" The girl had some psychological problems and it was clear from computer conversations with friends that she was very frightened, but it was also apparent that the case was prosecuted wholly partially, with officers repeatedly reassuring her at interview that she had done the right
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thing. Of course, they wanted to do the right thing for her, but one has to ask whether it was doing the right thing by a complainant to reassure her repeatedly and not put her, or him, to the test on the quality of their evidence. It will be explored in court proceedings, which puts the complainant under even more pressure.

In the case I am describing, the young man was remanded, released on bail and remanded again. The case came before a Crown Court judge and when counsel-not me-asked the first question, "He didn't rape you, did he?", the answer was "No", and the case was dismissed. I regret to inform Members that such cases happen on a regular basis.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman suggests that such cases happen on a regular basis, but there is no evidence for that-it is anecdotal. One of the things Baroness Stern was asking for was better evidence of false allegation in all crimes, including rape. We need to get the data and evidence right, because such phrases do not help the debate at all.

Michael Ellis: In the absence of statistics, one can only go by one's anecdotal experience, and it is reasonable for barristers who have worked in the Crown Court daily for many years to draw on that experience. I differ from what the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said about the number of cases prosecuted as perversions of the course of justice or malicious reporting of rape. That number will be very much lower than the average. That is because it is very difficult to prove a negative, and one would normally have to ascertain that the complaint was made in wholly and probably dishonest circumstances-for example, it might later transpire that the complainant and the victim were in two different locations. But it is illogical for the hon. Lady to draw the conclusion that because there are X prosecutions for perverting the course of justice, there are not that many false accusations. The two are totally different.

Nia Griffith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I was quoting the professionals who have been involved for many, many years in such cases? I was not quoting the number of actual cases that might have been brought. I was quoting what the professionals had said, and they said that the number of false accusations being made anywhere in the process was extremely low.

Michael Ellis: Nothing that I have said is designed to protect the guilty. I accept what the hon. Lady says. As far as I am concerned-I emphasise this-anyone convicted of this sort of crime deserves the full wrath of the law and society. I am motivated here-I am sure that all Members would sympathise with this-by the protection of the innocent, and the ancient principle that all in this country are innocent unless or until they are proven guilty is a principle that we should never derogate.

5.6 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I will not speak for long, as many of the arguments that I wanted to make against the coalition's proposals have already been made very eloquently and forcefully by fellow Members on the Opposition Benches-and also, on occasion, by those on the other side of the House. With some exceptions, the level of debate on this very
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sensitive subject has been such as to make me feel very privileged to take part in it, although I still regret absolutely the necessity for me to do so.

I want to share with the House the experience of one of my constituents, to illustrate the distress that the coalition's proposals are already causing to many people in my constituency. I should say that the family concerned asked me specifically to share this information when they heard of the coalition's proposals.

I will be keeping the identity of my constituent private. When we hon. Members make reference to victims of other crimes, such as murder or stabbings, we often name them. We do so because we think that brings honour on them. But not in the case of rape. The stigma of rape still contaminates the victim, even in the 21st century. I know that we all believe that that is wrong, and that many Members on both sides of the House, and indeed people across the country, have worked for years to eliminate that stigma, and huge progress has been made. But the coalition's plans risk endangering much of that progress. That is because giving rape defendants anonymity is a unique fashion of saying to the public, to the jury and to the victim him or herself, that victims are not to be trusted.

My constituent was raped many years ago now, but her experience still impacts on her life and that of her family. Her attacker drove into her, causing her a minor injury. He then apologised profusely and offered to give her a lift home. En route he parked and forced her into a disused building, where he raped her after repeatedly punching her in the face. She was held hostage for many hours. She feared for her life, and indeed her life was in the gift of her attacker. Fortunately, she managed to escape, and fortunately also the police were able to trace the attacker. But even after arrest, my constituent's attacker viewed his crime with little seriousness. He intended to plead not guilty. He said the victim wanted it all along. After all, she had got into the car with him; she must be in the habit of having such encounters with strangers on the street. And it was only her word against his. One can only imagine how distressing that was not only for the victim, but for her family.

I want to emphasise that the reporting of rape is always a distressing experience for the victim and those who are around him or her. By introducing these proposals, the coalition is now making my constituent and her family relive that experience. In her case, only when another of her attacker's victims came forward, owing to the publicity and the naming of the attacker, did the case become strong enough that the defendant decided to plead guilty, thereby saving her from the trauma of having to give evidence. That ended the prospect of my constituent having to relive her pain in a court case, but she is still reliving her pain now when she thinks that, if the coalition's proposals had been in place, her attacker may never have been convicted.

The Government's main argument, as we can understand it, for giving rape defendants anonymity seems to rest on the possibility of false allegations. It is true that false allegations of any serious crime can ruin lives. It is terribly distressing to be falsely accused of any crime, and we must do all that we can in the justice system to minimise the likelihood of that happening. However, as I believe the Minister acknowledged, there is no greater likelihood of false allegations being made in cases of rape than in cases of other crimes, whereas we all
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know-we have the statistics to show it-that the under-reporting of rape is far greater than that of other crimes of a similarly serious nature. So why does it make sense to introduce these proposals to give anonymity to defendants when we need to do all that we can to encourage rape victims to come forward?

Hon. Members have discussed the principle that anonymity is awarded in relation to vulnerability, such as that of children. Children, the victims of organised crime and rape victims are given anonymity, but rape defendants do not fit into that mould of vulnerability. Indeed, the Minister said that one reason for giving anonymity was to create-I think that this was his phrase-a balance of arms. I hope that he did not mean to imply that the objective of our criminal justice system is somehow to clear the ground, so that the defendant and the claimant can fight it out like some sort of mediaeval tournament. That would be a regressive step.

I hope that the coalition will understand that these proposals will take our criminal justice backwards and that, if we want to live in a society, as I am sure that we all do, where respect for law and belief in justice are given to all, male or female, defendants and accused, awarding anonymity to defendants will be a most regressive step.

5.14 pm

Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): I am glad to have the chance to contribute however briefly to the debate. I must start by apologising to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the whole House for the fact that I cannot be present for the winding-up speeches since I have an urgent appointment in my constituency with the fine young men and women who serve in the Corby air cadets. I hope that Ministers will forgive me. I will therefore be very brief, because everything that needs to be said has already been said. We have seen-have we not?-politics at its best in the debate, which has been non-partisan, sober, well judged and rational.

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman). I am also most encouraged by what the Minister said today, because the coalition Government are proceeding in the proper way. It is clear that they intend to consult and to listen. I am not persuaded that a long, formal consultation is necessary as long as the informal consultation is wide and genuine.

I urge Ministers to take account of the views of no less a personage than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who referred in a reply to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to the 2003 report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. We heard today from the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) exactly what the Committee's proposals were. If the House will forgive a little repetition, they were that we should consider extending anonymity to those accused of all kinds of sexual crimes, including sexual crimes against children.

Surely the main concern-it has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House-is the exceptional nature of rape that is implied in the current proposals. However, I suggest that the Minister look at the wording
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of the phrase in the coalition document. It says that we will introduce anonymity for rape defendants, not that we will bring forward anonymity only for rape defendants. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, in her very fine speech, offered a good compromise that Ministers might like to consider. She suggested that there is a case for looking at the trauma of people who are wrongly accused of crimes of all stripes, and for considering widening anonymity to those accused of sexual crimes or crimes of extreme violence. They might also consider giving discretion to judges and the police. Surely that is one way forward.

As I said, I am encouraged that the Government wish to consult. Clearly, as we have seen from the tenor of the debate, this is not and cannot be a party political issue. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor suggested that there could be a free vote, and I associate myself with the plea that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes made for that. However, if that is not the case, we might look at expanding the application of anonymity. That would provide a way forward that could command support and respect on both sides of the House. I am very encouraged by the way in which the Government are seeking to consult properly and to listen to Members on all sides of this very important issue.

5.17 pm

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): May I begin by paying tribute to the excellent maiden speakers? In that, I single out the astute comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who mentioned all his local newspapers. It made me wish that I had mentioned during my maiden speech what fantastic publications we have in the Oxford Mail, the Oxford Times, the Abingdon Herald, and the Oxford Journal.

From the outset, I must declare that I have great sympathy with some of the objections that I heard today. Just last week, there was an attempt to abduct a young girl in my constituency from outside a primary school just five minutes from my home in Oxford. I would not want to support any action that would make it harder to find that man and bring him to justice, or action that would make it harder to prevent him from actually succeeding on a future occasion.

I have spent some time investigating sexual violence in conflicts for the Conservatives' human rights commission and as a volunteer for the local domestic abuse group. I have met, and heard the testimony of, victims of some of the worst crimes imaginable. Those testimonies are seared on my memory, and it is difficult for me to remain completely objective on this issue. As a result, the suggestion of granting anonymity to rape defendants made me very nervous. I am worried that the proposal will send the wrong message to rape victims at a time when we have managed to turn around the culture of disbelief and the poor treatment of rape victims by police and the courts. Credit must go to the previous Labour Government and some of my hon. Friends for the impressive work they did in the past decade to achieve that.

I am also concerned that anonymity will prevent women who find out that their rapist is charged with another offence from coming forward. At the same
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time, we must accept that in this country, innocent until proven guilty is the fundamental tenet of our law, and we must defend it fiercely. The imperative to protect ourselves, our families and our communities is one of the strongest that we experience, but we must ensure that in trying to do that, we do not give away the very life we want to protect. The rule of law shields us in our innocence and punishes us only in guilt.

I must disagree with some of the comments made today. On the moral spectrum of our culture, sexual offences-especially rape and paedophilia-rank higher in public disgust than many other offences. It is for that reason that if we heard that a teacher at our child's school or a local GP had been accused of rape, we would find it very difficult not to take action to protect our children on the basis of that suspicion, but if we found out that one of the governors had been accused of theft, we would wait to test the veracity of the allegation before taking action.

Maria Eagle: The Government's proposal is not to give anonymity to those accused of paedophilia. Rumours abound in schools when things go wrong, and if someone were protected by anonymity and another child were to be hurt by that perpetrator, what kind of signal would that send to society?

Nicola Blackwood: I am merely trying to make the point that our culture ascribes greater disapprobation to sexual offences than it does to other offences-as some in this Chamber have claimed.

I have a constituent who was wrongly recorded as being a sex offender for 15 years before he discovered the error, and the distress that he has experienced has been extreme. Ironically, the very fact that conviction rates for rape are so very low and reoffending rates so famously high perpetuates this culture. When so many defendants are acquitted, there is a sense that it is not because they are innocent but because the system is so poor that it is letting off the guilty. There is a sense that even if they got off that time, the likelihood is that they will do it again and probably do something worse. That means that acquittal in sexual offence trials accords the defendant legal innocence, but does not necessarily accord them innocence in the court of public opinion-they may have lost that for ever.

Meg Munn: I apologise to the hon. Lady for not being in my place at the very start of her speech. Unfortunately, the situation she has just described reflects the fact that it is difficult to achieve a conviction in sexual offence cases. Some of those who have committed offences will be found not guilty because the case has not been proven.

Nicola Blackwood: I accept that, which is why we are in such a difficult position and why this debate is important.

In an age of tabloid journalism, the internet and social networking, the potential damage that such an allegation can cause has increased exponentially and it has become dramatically more difficult to contain. Let us not pretend that we always respond moderately to such allegations. Recently, a paediatrician was targeted because it was thought that she was a paedophile. I am unsure whether the granting of anonymity would be
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able to contain gossip-mongering and I would like to see that taken into consideration in the inquiry and the expert evidence over the summer. It is worth considering whether there is a way to provide some workable form of anonymity to those accused of all sexual offences in limited circumstances and for limited periods of time. As I say that, I am very conscious that we have heard some very learned contributions from many lawyers today. I am not a lawyer and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I try to articulate some of the areas that concern me.

Few of us on either side of this House would be comfortable with the suggestion that automatic anonymity should be granted for any point beyond charge. If proposals were to be made, I would be keen to see a framework that required judicial oversight after charge and a set of criteria that limited eligibility to exceptional circumstances, for example where the police do not consider the defendant a risk to others or if his ability to continue working or living in his community would be catastrophically affected. As has been mentioned, in 2003 the Home Affairs Committee recommended anonymity between allegation and charge, but I would point out that that was for all sexual offences, not just rape. It seems reasonable to offer anonymity for the first period, but I am not necessarily convinced about any period beyond that.

I am also concerned about the impact anonymity might have through additional bureaucracy, if individuals will have to fill in extra forms and go to court for a judgment, about a time lapse in charging, and about whether that will have an effect on fairness and conviction rates. I would welcome more specialised evidence, and I would feel reassured if the inquiry to which the Minister referred were to include significant, if not formal, consultation with those who work on the front line of support services for sexual offences victims. A great deal of concern has been expressed by some in my constituency, and it would be appreciated if they could be consulted.

I do not want to continue much longer, because there has been much debate already and most of the points have already been made. However, before being satisfied that defendant anonymity will be workable, I would want to know that other options for bringing multiple victims forward, such as publicising the modus operandi, would be just as effective as publicising identity. I would want to know that this anonymity would not prevent police from using artistic impressions or closed circuit television shots to hunt suspected criminals where appropriate. I would also want to know that in the labyrinth that is the prosecution of sexual offences, it is possible to produce workable legislation, the bureaucratic burden of which does not outweigh its value.

Most of all, however, I just want to be convinced of one thing: that introducing anonymity for these defendants will not make it harder to convict those who are guilty. I will not close my mind to the possibility that anonymity for sexual offence defendants might be a useful tool in our justice system, but it is wrong that those wrongly accused of rape should have their lives permanently destroyed. However, let us ensure that, in offering anonymity, we are not creating another wrong and setting back sexual offence legislation. Two wrongs do not make a right, and the road this far has been a long and hard one.

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5.27 pm

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): We have had an extremely good debate across the Chamber on this thorny issue. I welcome the debate, and thank the Leader of the House for listening to the entreaties for one, and the Government for finding the time to provide it. It might have something to do with the lack of legislation at present, but none the less we are grateful to the Government for finding the time to have it.

I congratulate all those who have spoken on both sides of the House, because the debate has been of an exceptionally high quality. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), who is no longer in his place, but who earlier made his maiden speech. Although I did not agree with absolutely everything he said, Labour Members were grateful for his kind remarks about his predecessor, Paul Clark, who is a friend of mine. I noticed that the hon. Gentleman was a bit of a rebel, because he said he believed in anonymity for all sexual offences until conviction, rather than just until charge, which the Minister argued for.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), who is in his place, on his maiden speech. He conjured up a picture of his constituency that I think we all enjoyed. However, he conjured up more of a picture of his family, which we all enjoyed possibly even more. I would have liked to have met his grandmother-I wonder what she would have thought about him sitting on the Tory Benches. [Interruption.] He does not have to answer that. She would no doubt have been proud in one way. The hon. Gentleman admitted to seeing Simply Red with his mother and girlfriend, which was a risky thing to do, but none the less I am sure he will prove an assiduous Member of the House. He paid generous tribute to his predecessor, Tony Wright, to whom we on both sides of the House have reason to be grateful-I have more reason than most because I inherited his office. From my point of view, therefore, it is particularly good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place-if he understands my point!

I want also to congratulate Members from both sides of the House. Perhaps more so than in most debates, we have heard contributions informed by the professional experience of those Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was a criminal barrister before he came to this place, and he spoke from his experience in that respect. He also set out-in some detail and quite illuminatingly-the source of the policy that the hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench are having to front up, which is a policy that probably did not appear in the coalition programme for government at their suggestion. He set out in detail the policy that the Liberal Democrats adopted, which appeared to be a minor part of an extensive debate at their conference. Indeed, the suggestion appears to have been made that there should be anonymity to conviction, and in a much wider range of offences too.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) also has experience as a criminal barrister, as do the hon. Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). One of the things that struck me about many-although not all-of the contributions that we heard was a deep scepticism about the possible consequences
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of the policy, if it is proceeded with in the way that it is set out at present, for ensuring that rape victims come forward to report rape and can be supported all the way through to trial, and that justice is served and those guilty of rape are found guilty of it and dealt with appropriately by society.

All those speakers had helpful points to make about their experience and suggestions for how the policy-wherever it came from and whatever its provenance-might be improved. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxtowe and others for the tributes that they paid to the strides taken by the previous Government. The hon. Lady said that she had a private Member's Bill, and we look forward to seeing her take it forward. I am not quite sure what number she came in at, but- [ Interruption. ] I gather that she will get a chance for a Second Reading, in which some of us will no doubt take part.

Like many Members, the hon. Lady also questioned why the coalition had decided that rape was the only offence where the defendant ought to be protected in the way proposed, and I do not think that we have yet heard a satisfactory answer to that. Many Members have suggested that even if one accepts the unique difficulty of dealing with the offence of rape, there are other sexual offences that have similar difficulties. With respect, I do not think that the explanation that the hon. Member for Northampton North gave convinced all of us on this side of the House. He referred to the youth courts, but defendants in the youth courts are granted anonymity because of their youth across the entire range of offences. Therefore, the argument about singling out defendants in rape cases as uniquely needing such protection is not dealt with by his point.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who I had not realised was a forensic medical examiner. She brought to her speech the clarity and succinctness of her scientific background, speaking briefly but making some extremely salient points. She said that, from her experience of dealing with victims at that sensitive time shortly after they have been attacked and reported the incident, she knows that the majority of such crimes are not reported and that fewer than 5% of the women she saw ended up securing a conviction.

Perhaps most importantly, the hon. Lady made it clear that it was her impression, from her professional experience, that many women have the courage to come forward and report an incident-thereby setting out on that long and difficult road-only because they think that they are helping other women. If any policy, well intentioned or otherwise, prevents women at that sensitive time from thinking that they will help other women by reporting, we will be doing them a disservice by proceeding with it. What will happen is less reporting; consequently, there will be more scepticism and more rapists will get away with it. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), among others, made the important point that serial rapists would get away with it, which would equate to there being more victims. The speech of the hon. Member for Totnes was brief, but it was extremely salient.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) made an extremely good speech, as we have come to expect from her. She took up this issue at an early stage and pressed the Government on it, and, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) knows well, she does
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not let go once she gets started. Her speech was not only powerful but extremely salient. She said that the Government had today spurned the opportunity to retreat a little further, having thought about the matter in more detail. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) would do us all a favour-including, I dare say, his colleague, the hon. Member for Reigate-if he were to tell us at the end of the debate that the Government would be willing to listen a little more than they have so far, and would be willing to go away and do a number of things, which I shall come to in a moment.

Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) brought to her speech her experience as a social worker of dealing with some of these issues. Her speech was also extremely powerful. It helps the House, when we are considering these matters, to have such a professional perspective from Members. She said that this was an ill-thought-out policy, and as many people have done she urged the Government to think again. She brought great insight to her remarks, based on her professional experience, and said that we should never underestimate the difficulties involved in prosecuting rape.

Importantly, my hon. Friend said that we had to proceed from a position of believing people. We do not necessarily need to say a complainant, "I'm going to believe you 100%, regardless of the evidence arising out of the investigation", but when a woman, man or child comes forward to report a rape, we must not start by giving them the impression that we probably do not believe that it happened. There was far too much of that from the statutory services in the past, but we have moved away from that now. The barristers on the Government Benches who have spoken today made it clear that things have improved, and I agree with them. We must not do anything that takes us back to those bad old days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West urged the Government to think again, describing the anonymity proposal as a dog whistle, and saying that it would protect serial rapists, resulting in more people getting away with rape and fewer victims coming forward. It ill behoves the Government to ignore those warnings; they really should bear those concerns in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) pointed out the inconsistencies and complications of the policy, as well as some of the unintended consequences that might follow if it is introduced very quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) tackled the issue of false allegations, and set out the argument why, in her opinion, the measure would represent a retrograde and undesirable step. She made her arguments very strongly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) powerfully described the experience of one of her constituents, illustrating how publicity can be important in certain instances. Other hon. Members have also set out the experiences of those who have been wrongly accused, which were different from that described by my hon. Friend. Of course, one case alone cannot change the law, and we must look across the board at the impact of all these factors on this particularly sensitive issue.

The Government should be asking themselves a number of questions when they go away to consider these
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matters further, as I-and Members across the House-urge them to do. What will be the impact of anonymity at whatever level-for charge, for conviction, for rape or for a wider range of offences-on the ability of victims to report attacks and on the likelihood of them being believed? It is important for Ministers to consider that question. Also, what impact will it have on the ability of the police to investigate and catch rapists? What impact will the proposed reporting restrictions have on our free press and the concept of open justice? We must remember that the wider we extend such a provision, the greater the impact on the very basis of our justice system, according to which allegations are made, cases are heard and dealt with in public, so that justice can be seen to be done as well as be done. These are important concepts and the wider we range across breaching that system, the more fundamental the risk to it.

Will these proposals really make it easier to catch and convict rapists? Why, oh why, single out rape as a crime for different treatment? We should look at the impact-not just the intentional impact, which one accepts is obviously not to make things worse-of doing so. What will be the practical impact on the victims who might otherwise have come forward? Let us have the research done on the level of malicious false reporting. Baroness Stern has called for it, and a number of Members have said that the evidence base is not extensive enough for us to be clear. That is true, so let us have that report.

Finally, how does anonymity for defendants improve the conviction rate for rape? At the end of the day, it is the conviction rate that we all want to see improved. That is what will send out the signal from society that this crime will not be tolerated and that we fully intend to crack down on it.

Let me ask the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon three things before he replies. Can this new research on attrition and the level of false reporting that Baroness Stern has called for be carried out before the policy is finalised, implemented and legislated for? Will he give us an assurance that the research will not simply be a review from a senior civil servant-all of whom in the Ministry of Justice I greatly respect, by the way? We do not want just a survey of the existing evidence base, which would be helpful but would not take us forward. We could all go to one place to read it, but it would not add to our knowledge. Can we have real research, as Baroness Stern has suggested, into the real level of malicious false reporting? That is the important issue here.

Secondly, can we have a proper and full public consultation? The call for it from across the Chamber has been widespread, including from some Members who have supported the proposals and others who have expressed grave doubts about them. I was concerned when the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate promised "a consultation", but only a short, limited and restricted one. For a subject as sensitive and important as this one, such a low and restrictive level of consultation is insufficient, especially when the change could have a big impact on our capacity to deal with this crime. There is no argument against having a proper and full public consultation, particularly if it is true that the Government do not intend early legislation on this issue. I want the Minister who is about to reply to commit himself and his Government to giving us the consultation that we want.

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Finally, I have been struck by the high level of dissent expressed by those on the Government Benches behind the Minister. It has been gently and politely put and has rightly been couched in professional terms, but it is dissent none the less. A great deal of concern has been expressed by Government Members, while for Labour Members the concern is universal. The policy that the Minister who opened the debate seemed determined to pursue is wrong. It is not thought through; it is not based on evidence; and it will have deleterious, and possibly devastating, effects on women victims of rape and on those who seek to improve the outcomes that society wants in dealing with this horrendous crime.

Will the Minister who just about to reply do this for us? Will he withdraw the proposals, admit that they were not properly thought through, go away, think again, get the evidence in order, and then come back to the House with fully thought-through proposals that are evidence-based and convincing, having consulted widely? Were he to do that, he would get a cheer at the end of his speech. Let us see what he will get.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I agree with the shadow Minister that we have had a good, informed debate, with tremendous contributions from many informed people. It was excellent to hear so many good contributions from new Members on both sides of the House. Generally, the debate has been non-partisan, which, given the subject matter, is healthy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on an excellent and thoughtful maiden speech, which let us in on the lasting effect of his having had a single-sex education. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) made an eloquent maiden speech, and his proposals to beat the fear of crime through a community-led approach were well put. We will forgive him the Simply Red concert last weekend.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made a strong opening speech, but it was sometimes based on proposals that are simply not the Government's position. She said that we were not saying what the Government's position is. In response to her, and to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) who made the same point, I say that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), made our position clear in his opening remarks. Let me repeat what he said: we intend to strengthen and formalise the current arrangements for anonymity up to the point of charge in rape cases. We will publish an independent report of existing research on rape before the summer recess, and following the request of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, we will consider whether new research is required to supplement it. Obviously, we will make a further announcement in the autumn.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) questioned the independence of the report commissioned. I assure him that the report will be peer-reviewed by two independent, external experts, that their comments will be addressed by the report authors, and that the process will be rigorous.

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To be fair, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood noted, we set aside a whole day in Government time for this debate. I trust that that leaves the House under no illusions from the outset about the importance with which we regard this issue, our desire to give direction on what is required, and how we will move the issue forward. Hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made many helpful general points on dealing with rape, which were slightly off the specific topic of the debate but none the less helpful.

Caroline Flint: I appreciate the time and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. Am I right in thinking that the Government intend to look at the issue of anonymity with regard to rape only? Clearly, most Members, in all parts of the House, did not want such exclusivity.

Mr Djanogly: It will be in regard to rape, pre-charge-that is correct.

Meg Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Djanogly: I will not, because I have little time and I have a lot to do.

I share my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's view that our proposal has been somewhat misrepresented. Our position is not anti-women in any way, shape or form. It does not imply any view of the prevalence or otherwise of false allegations. There is no evidence that our position will reduce the likelihood of women reporting rape, as has been suggested. There is considerable evidence that rape is under-reported and that most attrition happens in the pre-charge stages where victims or the police decide not to proceed. The difficulties involved for victims were well explained by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). They advised that we must be careful not to create barriers preventing victims from coming forward. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) drew attention to the dangers that would result if we got that wrong.

Many Members explained why rape is often not reported to the police. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, victims may think that the police will not see what happened as rape, they may have a general distrust of the police and criminal justice agencies, or there may be language or communication difficulties. Sometimes there is a fear of disbelief, blame, judgment or further attack, or a fear that friends or family will come to know about the incident. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) noted that rape is not a gender issue. The issue normally comes down to the lack of consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) elaborated very well on that point, as did the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah).

Let me make it clear to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) that the Government are not complacent about rape. As she will know, 18% of respondents to a recent London survey of 1,061 people
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aged 18 to 50 agreed with the statement that most claims of rape are probably not true. That is obviously a matter of great concern, which is why it is so important for the Government to continue to work hard, in partnership with other agencies, to engender a more civilised 21st-century view.

Glenda Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: I am afraid I cannot.

Let me say to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State told the House earlier, there is no evidence that defendant anonymity would have an adverse impact on reporting. Victims may well be encouraged to come forward by the understanding that the criminal justice system is likely to deal with their complaint effectively and anonymously, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to understand how a suspect's or even a charged defendant's anonymity can have an impact.

A more interesting suggestion relates to anonymity and previous offending by a defendant. Many people claim that defendant anonymity would prevent other victims from coming forward. Research conducted by Feist and others in 2007 suggests that being able to link an assault to another sexual assault against another victim is likely to help to secure a conviction, so the point is important.

There is some anecdotal evidence that publicity surrounding a case has allowed more victims to come forward. The case of John Worboys is most commonly cited in that context, and was indeed cited today by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). It is not clear, however, whether the defendant's name or the release of other characteristics, such as a suspect's distinctive modus operandi, is the most important factor. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, although I think the latter reached a different conclusion. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary spoke in detail about the point during an Adjournment debate on 7 June, and I know that he was grateful for the information he subsequently received from the right hon. Member for Don Valley, who spoke today with knowledge about an issue about which she cares very much.

More generally, the overriding impression given by many Members was of the sheer complexity of the subject matter that we have been debating. We heard about the history of anonymity for defendants in rape cases, which goes back well over 30 years. During that period, the legislation has fluctuated between diametrically opposed policy positions, and it has been a talking point over a number of changes of Administration.

As for the scope of anonymity, some Members have said that our proposals are not specific enough, while others-and, in some instances, the same ones-have said that we are wrong to include only rape, and to exclude other offences. What we are doing is delivering on coalition Government promises. The Opposition may not like that, but this is what we promised, and this is what we are going to do. I note that the Home Affairs Committee may now wish to consider the wider issues. We shall be pleased to see its report, and to engage with it and the House on those wider issues.

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Anonymity in rape cases is clearly precedented. If other offences are now to be included, we will need to review which ones. We will need to do that very carefully, not least because of the impact the arguments for press freedom will have on the scope. We will want the scope to be as narrow as possible. This is a big area and we will remain open to discussion, but it needs to be put in that context.

The issue of anonymity for rape defendants has been bound up by some with our other coalition commitment that we will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils. That also has a long and complex history, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, but we do not necessarily see the two situations as the same. The two commitments we have made will need to be reviewed as stand-alone issues even if their remedy may have certain similar aspects.

I have pointed to the complexity of the historical background, but anonymity also raises some complex legal issues. In the particular context of rape, it is clear that anonymity cannot be invariable and absolute, because there may well be situations in which it should be waived. The obvious example is where a suspect needs to be apprehended, but there are others. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made a strong case for judicial involvement in waiving anonymity where relevant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) also made some wise observations on publicity. Their experience in this area came to the fore in their valuable contributions.

Another issue was mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He asked about the situation in which the media want to publicise the fact that public authorities are reluctant to act in a case where action appears justified. Another example could be that where suspects wanted to waive their own anonymity, for example in order to establish an alibi. That would itself generate issues. Should the suspect's right of waiver be absolute, even if it could result in identifying the complainant in a case? Taking all the above into account, I hope the House understands why we have consistently made it clear that we need to address this subject carefully, keeping our options open until the time is right to made our detailed position known. That approach was clearly right, and remains so.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood criticised the coalition Government commitment for containing only a broad statement of principle, but that is what it was-a broad statement of principle. We have now refined it without losing the principle, and we have always been clear that there are various ways in which the commitment could be implemented.

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