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3.26 pm

Asked By Baroness Scotland of Asthal

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, rape is a crime of the utmost seriousness, and the Government are committed to ensuring that all agencies across the criminal justice system work together to bring offenders to justice. We are keen to find ways of improving the way in which offences of rape are investigated and prosecuted, and how victims of rape are treated. We are therefore carefully considering the recommendations made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, in her review of how rape complaints are handled by public authorities, which was published earlier this year.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General to his place on the Front Bench. As the shadow of the shadow of my former self, I look forward to questions with him. Bearing in mind the trenchant criticism of the provision in relation to anonymity that came from the judiciary, prosecutors and the police, do the Government intend to pursue that as an issue? Further, if they do, how will they deal with questions in relation to multiple offenders?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her kind words of welcome, which I appreciate very much. I pay tribute to work that she did in her high office of Attorney-General. In the short period that I was in the House, any dealings I had with her across the Chamber or in Committee were always conducted with great clarity and, particularly, great courtesy. As a law officer, I will do well if I aspire to the standards that she set.

Anonymity is an issue that has been around and debated over many years. Indeed, anonymity for defendants was the case between 1976 and 1988. The Select Committee on Home Affairs in the other place during the passage of the Sexual Offences Bill made a recommendation for anonymity in the period between arrest and charge. We are willing for this issue to be given a full airing. People with expertise should be able to present evidence on this. On the specific point that the noble and learned Baroness makes about multiple rapes, I have certainly seen arguments around this; they have been well aired, even in the past two or three weeks, in the other place. We would want more assurances and evidence that that is the case. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. In the specific case of Worboys, which is often referred to, it was not necessarily the name that encouraged other women to come forward but the modus operandi of a particularly despicable and villainous crime.

Baroness Kingsmill: Will the Minister confirm that, whatever changes are made to the law in relation to the prosecution of rape, priority will be given to increasing the appallingly low level of convictions?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I can give the noble Baroness assurances on that. Our priority, which was shared with the previous Administration, is very much that those who are guilty of this particularly serious and heinous offence should be brought to justice and convicted. There are a number of ways in which that

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should be taken forward, not only with regard to the prosecution system but as regards the police and, indeed, reassurances which can be given to victims of rape who want to come forward. It is our objective to raise the conviction rate.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, the Minister spoke of talking to experts. Does he accept that the greatest experts in this field are those who have been victims of rape? Will he ensure that their views are taken carefully into consideration and that he listens to the groups representing them?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am certainly prepared to give that assurance. Those people have a very regrettable but very real experience. It is because of the importance that we attach to the way in which we as a society deal with victims that the coalition Government are committed to trying our best to increase the number of rape crisis centres and to put those which exist on a more stable financial footing.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, evidence has shown that the two-tier offence arrangements that exist in New Zealand lead to far higher levels of successful prosecutions. Would the Government consider changing the law in the United Kingdom to mirror the arrangements in New Zealand?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I must confess that I am not overfamiliar with the law in New Zealand. However, as I indicated in an earlier answer, there is a concern, which I am sure is shared on all sides of your Lordships' House, that we should do more. We ought to find ways to do more to raise the conviction rate. If there is relevant evidence from another jurisdiction that has many similarities to our own, we would be prepared to look at that.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: I congratulate my noble and learned friend on his appointment and wish him every success in it. Will he confirm that methods have been developed in recent years to make the procedures much more sympathetic to women victims, who perhaps have not been treated as well as they should have been in the past, and that every attempt will be made to make sure that they do not have to go through an ordeal which to their mind is almost as bad as what originally happened to them?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am very grateful to my noble friend for his kind remarks. Advances have been made. Indeed, in the report to which I referred, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, stated that attitudes, policies and practice have changed fundamentally and for the better. She reflected on the fact that in England and Wales there is a specialised system for dealing with rape at police, prosecution and judicial levels. However, she also found that practice was not uniformly good across the country. She recommended that there should be more encouragement for those who are displaying good practice, and that, where it is not good, there is certainly considerable room for improvement. Steps are in place to try to ensure that that happens.

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Lord Woolf: My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on his new office. In the consideration which is being given to this very delicate and difficult issue of rape, will attention be given to the age at which an offender can properly be prosecuted for this offence?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his kind remarks. I had much pleasure working with him on your Lordships' Constitution Committee over the past 18 months. I understand his point and perhaps the implied reference to a recent case. We have indicated that the most immediate issue we are considering relates to anonymity. However, rape is never far away from the consideration of both Houses of Parliament. I have no doubt that the point about age, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, will recur in our debates.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble and learned Lord on his appointment. Will he ensure that any changes to the criminal law are evidence-based and that no change in the anonymity rules is brought into effect until there is an opportunity to get statistics from police forces all round the country on whether the anonymity of the defendant would result in fewer women coming forward with their complaints?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am grateful to my noble friend for his welcome. I certainly share the view, which is not specific to this case, that evidence-based legislation, particularly in relation to criminal matters, is almost invariably the best way forward. That is why we have said we will consider options and that any option we bring forward will be based on considerable debate and, I hope, evidence. Indeed, in another place Ministers have called for and welcomed evidence that will be given by people with expertise in this matter. I very much hope that in this House noble Lords who have expertise will be willing to share their views and any evidence which would help us to arrive at a proper option.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord explain exactly why those accused of rape should be entitled to greater protection than those accused of other serious crimes?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: That question is sometimes raised. As I indicated earlier, the issue has been debated for some considerable time. It is a realisation of the severity of the stigma that is attached to rape. It is a unique crime, inasmuch as the victim has anonymity. In terms of its apparent uniqueness, perhaps I may draw attention to the fact that in the coalition Government's programme for government we are also considering proposals that would give anonymity to teachers who are falsely accused by pupils. Where professional and personal reputation is at stake, we want to look at these issues with a proper degree of sensitivity.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, given that the Minister told the House that securing more prosecutions in rape cases is a priority as regards this

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range of offences, in what way do he or the Government believe that securing the anonymity of defendants will assist in that?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am not sure that there is necessarily a direct link. There are many other approaches we want to consider whereby we can raise the conviction rate. It is also important to remember that the 6 per cent figure that is sometimes used represents the percentage of cases that are initially reported to the police. In fact, the figure, in terms of convictions in cases that are taken to court, including those convicted of lesser but nevertheless serious sexual offences, is approaching 59 per cent. There is always room for improvement. The report of the review of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, made many recommendations for public authorities-the police, prosecution and judiciary-to improve their service. There are ways to raise the percentage of convictions, an objective shared by all parts of this House.

Liaison Committee: First Report

Motion to Agree

3.38 pm

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, the report sets out the conclusions of a review we have conducted of the activity of the main policy committees of your Lordships' House. We are committed to such a review at the beginning of every Parliament.

Our report considers the main criteria which we have set out for such committees-in particular, that they should be complementary to the work of other committees in this House and in the House of Commons, and that they should add value to the process of political debate and decision. We also considered whether the overall scale of committee activity was appropriate and whether the balance between ad hoc and longer-term committees was right. Finally, we looked at the specific committees which we established in the previous Parliament and at some suggestions for new activity.

Our overall conclusion was strongly to endorse the principle that policy committees of your Lordships' House should be complementary to the work of other scrutiny bodies. We also thought that the overall scale of our activity was about right-although some of us were attracted in principle to having more and shorter-term ad hoc inquiries, if the right sort of subjects could be identified.

We thought carefully about the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for a new committee on international affairs, something we have considered on three previous occasions. We also considered a suggestion from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, for a committee on British identity. We decided to recommend neither to your Lordships, although we will be happy to consider any focused suggestions for ad hoc inquiries on foreign affairs matters.

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As a result, we were able to recommend the reappointment of all the policy committees which existed at the end of the previous Parliament, with some minor recommendations intended to clarify their remits and their working methods. I beg to move.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, before the House agrees the recommendation of the Liaison Committee, perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a few moments and ask the Chairman of Committees a question. As the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, has just said, this request was placed before his committee by me and by a number of other noble Lords from all sides of the House.

One of the great strengths of this House is the expertise and wealth of experience that one finds here: former Chiefs of Staff, former Permanent Secretaries, former ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps-people with huge experience. Thirteen years ago at the time of my appointment here, I was surprised that there was no Select Committee overseeing foreign affairs. Indeed, in my experience and, I am sure, that of other noble Lords, that fact is often greeted with incredulity when we talk about the work of your Lordships' House. However, given the wealth of experience and knowledge that exists here, such a committee has been proposed many times to the Liaison Committee, as the noble Lord said, but on every occasion the suggestion has been rejected. Therefore, I sought to raise this issue again, enjoying the support of people such as my noble friends Lord Hannay, Lord Sandwich, Lady Cox and Lord Wright, and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert-that is, people from all sides of your Lordships' House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, is in Romania and gives her apologies but she e-mailed me yesterday to say that she would like to be associated with these remarks. She wrote to the Liaison Committee in these terms:

"I returned to The House from ten years in the European Parliament ... where I served for seven and a half years as a Vice-Chairman of the Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and subsequently as a member. This committee is considered the senior committee of that institution, with the considerable range of expertise that it contains. It was therefore with a little surprise that I learnt that we do not make use of the far greater expanse of knowledge and experience that we possess in this House".

At the end of the letter she said:

"I join with the growing body of highly valuable colleagues across the floor who would very much welcome the opportunity to discuss with your Committee the establishment of a committee on the lines I have set out".

My understanding was that, before a decision was made about this matter, there would be a chance for the noble Baroness, myself and others who hold this view to have a discussion with the committee, and I am disappointed that that did not occur. One of my questions to the noble Lord is: will there be an opportunity for such a discussion in the future? Also, will he take the wide-ranging views of your Lordships into account, and not simply have a consultation with the chairmen of the existing committees, who I notice at paragraph 16 of the report argue for the status quo? The submissions from the chairmen all argued for the reappointment of

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their committees in this Parliament in the same form. That came as no great surprise to me and I suspect that it will not have come as a surprise to most of your Lordships as well. There are real questions about, for example, resources, which I fully accept, but I think that this is an area to which we should give further consideration.

I was particularly struck by the force of the representations made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who, after all, is a former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in another place. In a letter written as recently as 1 April to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said:

"This note is just to express my strong hope that this proposal will indeed be very seriously (and I trust favourably) examined at the outset of the new Parliament. In my view (and that of several peers in all parties and on the crossbenches) such an initiative is long overdue and much needed so as to allow Parliament to cover the very wide issues of international policy concerns which lie, understandably, beyond the reach of the EU Committee structure and beyond the areas which the excellent Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Commons (of which I have some experience) has the time or resources to handle".

Again, we should not dismiss with disdain the views of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who now speaks on foreign affairs issues in your Lordships' House. These views-I can see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who has listened to them carefully-should be taken into account.

I do not want to detain the House at length, but we should not show timidity about these things. At a moment when another place has just reappointed Select Committees and for the first time allowed the election of their chairmen, for us simply to make do with occasional ad hoc committees is not the right way to proceed. This is a significantly missed opportunity.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, perhaps I may add briefly to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with which I wholeheartedly agree. We have no committee in either House which looks at international instruments, to which this country becomes party. We look at European instruments because they will become our law, and in the same way, I submit, we should look at international instruments. There is a democratic deficit in the fact that we have no such committee.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I wish to speak in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said. If the people who decide what committees we have are the people who chair those committees, there is a democratic deficit within this House. Surely that cannot be right. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will agree to give further thought to this very important matter.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, in contradiction to my noble friend, the people who decide are your Lordships. A recommendation comes from the committee but the final decision rests with your Lordships. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He makes a very good case: undoubtedly there is considerable expertise in your Lordships' House on matters of foreign affairs, as there is on the law. If we were to choose subjects on the basis of the expertise that exists in your Lordships' House, we could have a Select Committee on home

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affairs and a Select Committee on medicine and hospitals. We do not have departmental Select Committees in this House and I think it would be a mistake to move away from that position.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, I, too, find it strange that in your Lordships' House we do not have a foreign affairs committee, particularly at the moment when the new coalition Government are talking about a major defence review. It would be strange if there were not some firm, strategic foreign and Commonwealth affairs statements on which this defence review could be based. For that reason I feel that your Lordships have a need to take an interest in, to participate in and to debate those very views which, we hope, will come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The need is urgent and we should consider this very carefully.

Lord Jopling: My Lords, I speak in support of those who feel that there should be a foreign affairs committee in this House. I add these words because, for three years, I was chairman of Sub-Committee C, which covered foreign affairs and defence in the EU sense. Many times I was extremely irritated to be told that we could not investigate what I wanted to investigate because it was outside our remit in terms of its connection with European Union affairs.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am not surprised that this decision by the Liaison Committee has caused some disappointment, notably to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but also to others. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has looked at the membership of the Liaison Committee, which can be seen in the front cover of its report. The decision has nothing to do with the chairmen of other committees. The Liaison Committee is comprised of a number of noble Lords without any vested interests.

This is the fourth time that we have looked at the suggestion and, over that time, the committee has had different members on it. It has always come to the same conclusion that a permanent foreign or international affairs committee would end up duplicating the role of Commons committees, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. We also noted that there was potential duplication with the sub-committee of the EU Committee on foreign affairs, defence and development policy. Although I noted the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, in that respect, I do not think it alters the decision of the Liaison Committee this time around.

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