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While I believe that it is so important to do everything possible to achieve a better conviction rate, I also believe that efforts should be made to try to reduce the number of incidents of rape. In January, Dr Katherine Rake, the director of the Fawcett Society, said:

For example, an Amnesty International opinion poll showed that a third of people believe that the woman who is raped is partially or totally responsible if she behaves in a flirtatious manner or is drunk or wearing “sexy or revealing clothes”. It is an amazing assumption: when a woman is raped, she and not the man is to blame.

How can we change the culture of our society and give a clear indication that violence against women in all its forms is totally unacceptable? One method would be an education programme which starts at an early age and teaches children about respect, including respect, certainly, for girls and women. Good programmes already exist, such as those that have been promoted by WOMANKIND, which has for past three years led research into the prevalence of violence against young women in UK schools and the accompanying attitudes and beliefs. WOMANKIND will tonight be launching its findings and recommendations, and those have important implications for the Government, local authorities and teachers. I look forward to reading the conclusions of that research.

I should like to say a few words about the White Ribbon Campaign. I knew very little about this campaign until recently when, on 25 November, to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I was invited to a service in Llandaff Cathedral, where I wore my white ribbon for the first time. The campaign was started by men whose aim is to end violence against women, and the wearing of a white ribbon signifies a commitment never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women. Men and boys are asked to wear a white ribbon to show their support, and the campaign encourages men to talk in schools, workplaces and places of worship about the problem of violence. It deserves our support. When men show other men that violence against women is unacceptable, it is a step forward in changing perceptions and attitudes.

I wish to put a suggestion to my noble and learned friend, and I ask her to comment on it in her response. Does she agree that there should be a long-term and sustained campaign to highlight the fact that violence against women in all its forms is totally unacceptable? I am aware that it takes a very long time to change a culture—but let us consider other campaigns, such as the one to highlight the dangers of drink-driving. That long-term and sustained campaign brought home

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the dangers of drink-driving to both drivers and victims and people now regard such behaviour as unacceptable. It was the same with the campaign highlighting the dangers of smoking, and there is now a smoking ban everywhere in the UK; but it took many years of campaigning, highlighting the health dangers to smoker and passive smoker alike, to achieve it. One can think of other campaigns that have changed attitudes—on the wearing of seat belts, for motorcyclists to wear crash helmets, and the recent ban on the use of mobile phones while driving. Those were evidence-based campaigns in which Governments have undertaken over the years to persuade the public that a behaviour is unacceptable because it harms people or damages their health.

The same sort of campaign targeting violence against women could be carried out by central government, the devolved nations and local authorities, and through education at school. It is government, passing laws, who can help change the culture. The Government have a great record on supporting women who suffer sexual and domestic violence: passing laws and setting up institutions to assist and support women victims; ensuring better training for the police and a better understanding of the nature of violence against women. Women have benefited from the Government’s actions in the past 10 years, and changes are occurring in society as a result. Although we are still some way from addressing the present culture and attitude towards women and from bringing about a society where all are treated equally, I believe that we are starting to get there. I beg to move for Papers.

11.54 am

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for initiating this debate. She is a most doughty fighter on a practical and theoretical level for equality of rights for women and is universally admired in this House on that basis. I particularly welcome the comments that she made in the last part of her speech about the need to educate the public about the evil of violence against women. I join her in asking the Government whether they will consider conducting a campaign of the sort that she suggested.

My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford will wind up on behalf of these Benches. His knowledge of the management and prosecution of offences is incomparably greater than mine, so I shall not trespass on what I consider to be his territory. Equally, new measures to be taken with respect to reforms of the criminal justice system for the benefit of complainants, announced yesterday by the Attorney-General’s Office, will no doubt inform the Minister’s response to this debate. I therefore propose to speak on a rather broader range of topics than might seem to be encompassed by a narrow interpretation of the title of this debate.

A report entitled Map of Gaps: The Postcode Lottery of Violence against Women Support Services was published yesterday. The work was carried out by the Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit, published by End Violence Against Women and endorsed at its launch in a speech by Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. It highlights the patchy and

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inadequate provision of support services for the 3 million women who experience violence each year in the United Kingdom. Is not that in itself a rather frightening piece of information? Headline conclusions are that most women in the UK have no access to a rape crisis centre and that fewer than 25 per cent of local authorities have any sexual violence support service at all. Fewer than 10 per cent of local authorities across the UK provide services for black and minority ethnic women suffering from forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called honour crimes. I am sure that reference will be made to that later in the debate. London and the south-east are among the areas that are particularly ill served in this respect and, given the weight of population in those two regions, that is rather disgraceful.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scotland is singled out in the report for taking a strategic view of the problems of violence against women and for allocating core funding for specialised services to deal with it. Can the Minister tell the House to what extent the recently announced government measures to change court practice and to provide more support services to victims of violence at a local level are in response to the information collected in this report? Do these court reforms, inasmuch as they affect court practice, have the support of the judiciary? Is legislation required to implement them, and will the Government take note of the strategic and practical approach of the Scottish authorities?

Turning briefly to the issue of women in prison, which has been much discussed in the House in recent months, I simply remind the Minister that women are sent to prison for relatively minor and non-violent crimes, that they are far more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners and that it is very widely held that the imprisonment of women is particularly damaging both to them and to their families. Furthermore, women committed to prison are apparently more likely than the general female population to have been sexually abused at a young age. Do the Government have any plans to address these apparent differences in sentencing practices?

The trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes has recently been described as a worldwide crisis constituting the highest ever level of worldwide slavery. It is plain that this phenomenon is proving extremely hard to tackle. It is controlled by criminal gangs aided by electronic communication, which is difficult to intercept. Trafficked women are, as the Minister for Women in the other place pointed out in a speech last July, openly advertised in personal ads in local newspapers. The women are appallingly badly treated by what I am tempted to call their criminal gangmasters. They do not hold their own papers or passports, they do not earn their money directly and they do not even get the financial rewards of their activities. If they escape, they are likely to find themselves put into detention while decisions are taken about their return to their country of origin as illegal immigrants.

Trafficked children are in an even worse position. Their detention has been condemned by United Nation officials as being incompatible with current UN

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declarations on these matters. Will the Minister say what the Government propose to do about these women and children who are the victims of crime rather than criminals themselves? Are the Government concerned about the criticism from United Nations authorities of the United Kingdom’s manner of dealing with these people? Is there any hope that the Government will start to treat trafficked children as children in care rather than as children awaiting punishment for crimes that are not their own?

My speech has been brief because I have looked at the list of speakers and have guessed—I hope correctly—that they will cover virtually every topic that could be covered under this title. I look forward to the rest of the debate and to the Minister’s answers to all our questions.

12.01 pm

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Gale not only on initiating the debate but on the timing of it, coinciding as it does with the White Ribbon Campaign on violence against women. I also congratulate her on her persistence in pursuing this subject and on her opening address today.

The report published yesterday mapping out the services across the country for victims of violence, to which both noble Baronesses have referred, shows that only one-third of local authorities have any specialist support services for violence against women, even though one in 10 women in the country suffers from some form of violence each year. The End Violence Against Women coalition and the Equality and Human Rights Commission deserve great credit for instigating this important study. I hope that we might have time to have a full debate on the report in your Lordships’ House.

The Government’s recent announcement of the new public service agreement and the fact that national indicators will for the first time include violence targets should pave the way for improved and increased support by local authorities for women and child victims of violence. Today I will concentrate on two aspects of sexual offences: rape and offences against children. However, as has been said, they are only parts of the whole area of violence against women and children. Sexual offences are serious crimes against the person—crimes that deeply affect the lives of victims and their families. A number of pieces of legislation, particularly the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and supportive non-legislative initiatives have attempted to lay down acceptable standards of behaviour and outline the penalties if those standards are breached.

The crime of rape is an offence that is almost always carried out by men, mainly against women and girls and to a lesser extent by men against other men and boys. It is the ultimate expression of the power of one person over another. As my noble friend said, in the past five years the number of recorded rapes has nearly doubled from 8,593 in 2001 to 14,409 in 2005-06. Up to 95 per cent of rapes are never reported to the police. It is estimated that the total number is something like 47,000.

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There are many reasons why victims decide not to go to the police, principally because they are uncertain of how the criminal justice system will treat them. Of the relatively few cases that are brought to trial, the 5.7 per cent conviction rate is lower than that for other sexual and violent offences. Eighty per cent of cases do not pass the investigation stage, with the CPS deciding that there is insufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. Many cases also get withdrawn because people have little confidence in the system, as well as being concerned about going through what can be a humiliating and traumatic experience.

Measures to help jurors to understand the reality of rape will certainly help. The Solicitor-General’s announcement this week that every rape complainant will have the opportunity to have their final statement videoed and automatically admitted in court will help to reduce the amount of time during which she will have to relive her ordeal in court. More than that, the provision of advocacy and support is crucial. The introduction of specially trained officers, specialist prosecutors and the new sexual violence advisers should provide better support for victims before trial, as should the need for all police forces to develop action plans to implement improvements to rape investigations, as recommended in the guidelines Without Consent published in January this year.

However, the mainstay of support for victims of rape is rape crisis centres, many of which are facing financial difficulties resulting in closures and many women not having access to crucial support. In a recent press release, Rape Crisis says that it believes that part of its problems have arisen from the lack of local targets for dealing with sexual violence. The new PSA determined by the Government could, and I hope will, resolve the financial problems and ensure the continuity of these vital services.

Support also comes from the sexual assault referral centres, to which my noble friend referred. The first was established in 1986 and it is hoped that there will be up to 40 in about two years’ time. SARCs can be excellent in providing comprehensive care and multidisciplinary services, covering forensic examinations, counselling and working with the police. Few investigations into rape do not require some form of medical or forensic input, yet there is currently no formal specialist recognition within the medical establishment for forensic physicians who examine rape victims. Some police forces now outsource these services to commercial companies that employ doctors without the specialist knowledge, skills and attitudes to gather evidence objectively.

Well run SARCs can have a dramatic effect on conviction rates. The first SARC, St Mary’s in Manchester, is a centre of excellence and shows a local conviction rate for rape of 10 per cent, almost twice the national average. I ask my noble and learned friend whether there is not a case for speeding up the development of these referral centres, ensuring that they have the resources to be of a high standard, with fully trained forensic physicians and other staff working closely with the police to provide objective evidence for the courts.

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A worrying trend is that the question of lesser sentences for so-called date rape is back on the agenda. Men must not be able to rape with impunity women and men with whom they have previously had sexual relations. Accepting a lift believing it to be the safest way to get home, or being invited in for coffee, is not consent or an invitation to sexual activity. The Government were right to resist pressure to distinguish differing types of rape, as they do not exist: rape is rape. The focus in a rape trial must be the legality of the conduct of the defendant, not the propriety of the complainant’s actions.

All sex crimes are abhorrent, none more so than those committed against children. Sexual health work with young people is complex and presents many challenges. I recently chaired a meeting for the FPA and the NSPCC on the subject of consent, power and coercion in relation to young people. We looked at the effect of the Sexual Offences Act and the 2006 revision of Working Together to Safeguard Children, which provide the legal and procedural framework for professionals working with young people. In spite of these and other guidance, the professionals present had a number of recurring concerns. For example, there is a lack of basic knowledge and understanding among young people about sex; some of them do not even know whether they actually had sex. That brings me once again to the need for statutory PSHE and SRE in schools, but that is another debate.

The major concern was around confidentiality. Concerns about confidentiality can deter young people from using sexual health services and can have a significant impact on the most vulnerable young people. Although a young person’s right to confidentiality is not absolute, protecting it can enable a young person to seek advice from a trained professional. However, some police forces are requiring professionals in their local area to report all young people under the age of 16 who are sexually active, regardless of whether the professionals think that they are at risk or whether both participants were of the same age and the sex was consensual. Whether we agree with it or not, it is a fact of life that young adolescents will engage in sexual behaviour. These police forces intend to keep a record of their investigations, even if they do not intend to take legal action. That can have an effect on those youngsters in their future life. I ask my noble and learned friend for a re-examination of the development of protocols in order to ensure confidentiality, as appropriate, and to provide greater safety for young people.

The Government have seriously attempted to reduce the level of sexual offences by a programme of legislation and guidance and they must be congratulated on doing so, but I end by asking my noble and learned friend whether that could not be taken one stage further by the development of a strategy and the suggestion of a campaign to bring together all strands of violence against women and children, whatever its form.

12.10 pm

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, like, I am sure, every Member of the House, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, on her initiative in relation to

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this debate and on the measured and moderate way in which she presented her case.

I shall concentrate my remarks on rape. The field is so wide ranging that I am sure it is not inappropriate to do that. I agree completely with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said in her most effective contribution. Rape is one of the vilest offences in the criminal calendar. It has the effect of shattering and destroying a life and a personality. In the courts, I have often felt that of the two evils, in relation to women, rape is probably a far more dreadful experience than the worst case of attempted murder.

Like everyone else, I looked with disquiet at the statistics published by the Fawcett Society earlier this month. I appreciate that the figures are extremely distressing. In 2005-06, 14,449 rapes were recorded in England and Wales and there were 728 convictions. Whether the exact figure is 5.4 per cent or 5.5 per cent matters not. There is a huge gap between the totality of the problem and the small number of convictions. Having said that, the number of cases reported is a very different figure from the number of cases presented in court. I have no figures after 2004—no doubt the noble and learned Baroness the Attorney-General will assist—but I understand that the figure for convictions, which must have included pleas of guilty, for 2004 was 28 per cent. That is not very far away from the figure for other very serious offences, most of which go to trial. On the other hand, one appreciates that of the thousands of reported cases, many are withdrawn by the complainant herself, very often out of terror of reprisals, or a feeling of inadequacy to face the embarrassment of a trial with all the protections that exist at the moment, or an inability to face what is regarded as the crudity, with the best will in the world, of the system of investigation and preparation for trial.

One appreciates that special, if not unique, circumstances apply to the offence of rape. In nearly all cases, only the complainant and the defendant will be present. In many cases, they will have known each other. Those are the difficult cases, not the cases in which the rapist hides behind a bush or in a dark alley. They may very well have cohabited with each other. They may even be married to each other.

The situation is further complicated by the element of drink. If drink has been taken in such a volume as to make it impossible for consent to be given, one appreciates that the reality of that consent is vitiated. Drink can affect a person’s memory of what exactly happened. It is also a great disinhibiter. There must be very many women who have consented to intercourse on account of drink when they would not have so consented without it. That does not make their consent invalid. That is a grey area, on which the jury must decide.

In my experience at the Bar, in most cases one was greatly impressed by the capacity of a jury to decide a case on the evidence, but rape juries were very often an exception. I do not know exactly why. I suspect that it may have had something to do with men who hated and despised women, women who hated and despised men, older women who did not like younger women, and so on. I suspect that it had much to do

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with a whole package of subliminal prejudices than it had to do, in some cases, with the evidence. One cannot change human nature in that way, but one can sometimes attempt to educate the community in that regard.

What are we to do? I suggest first what we should not do. There is no case at all for changing the legal definition of rape in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That legislation was preceded by a great deal of consultation and study, and it is as clean-cut a series of issues to be put to the jury as one can have in any criminal legislation. Secondly, we should not for a moment contemplate having different levels of punishment. A wise judge looking at the facts as proven and as they appear to him or her in trying that case will be able to adjust the penalty properly in any conviction. Thirdly, I am somewhat horrified by the idea that the prosecution should be allowed to call expert evidence on the proclivities of men and women in this connection. If the prosecution is entitled to call such evidence, so must the defence. Before you know it, the jury will be cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty, dealing with all manner of irrelevant theorisations. Let us avoid that.

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