HC Deb 28 June 1988 vol 136 cc275-8
Ms. Gordon

I beg to move amendment No. 216, in page 22, line 13, leave out sub-paragraph (a).

Clause 32 deals with assaults, sexual offences and offences against children. It relates to proceedings in the magistrates courts and the evidence of children in committal proceedings. It provides that any statement made by or taken from a child should be admissible in testimony of any matter on which the child's oral evidence would be admissible. However, subsection (3)(a), which my amendment seeks to delete, would allow the defence to object to such an admission, in which case the child would have to come to court.

Last week, the Home Secretary said that he would set up a committee to consider using video links to give evidence. That is to be welcomed, and I hope that the remit of the committee will be extended to look into other forms of giving evidence. We all want to make it easier for children who have been attacked to come forward and give evidence against their attackers. The scope of the problem is only beginning to be realised. The first reactions of horror, followed in many cases by denial and by a feeling of impotence—not knowing how to deal with the problem on such a massive scale—is fairly new and something with which we must come to terms.

We all want to stop adults who repeatedly attack one child or many children but who are free to continue because no child can be found who could face a court appearance. Equally, we want a fair trial for defendants. But that does not mean that children and young people should be put through the trauma of facing their attackers. To a person who has never been in one, any court can be intimidating. That is even more true in the case of children.

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A child has no status in society. A child's word is often given far less weight than the word of the defendant, who may be a man of substance. The child or young person knows that and feels that he or she will not be believed —for very good reason. A defence lawyer who is doing his job on behalf of his client must try to discredit the child if that child is in court. Those are all good reasons why we should not allow the defence to force a child to come to court. Often when children come into court they whisper and cannot get the words out. For every child who whispers in a court there are dozens who never come forward. We must try to make it easier for children and young people under the age of 16 to come forward.

In the north of England there is an organisation called Childwatch run by a woman who was herself assaulted as a child. She receives about 500 calls a week, and she says that she knows rapists who have attacked child after child. The police often know the identity of a man who has made repeated attacks, but because they cannot find a child who will stand up in court, or whose parents will allow their child to come to court, the police are powerless.

Even when cases come to court, all is not plain sailing. Magistrates have been known to let out on bail rapists who have repeated their attacks. Judges have been known to talk of children's naughty habits. In 1982, a 17-year-old hitch-hiker—a very tender age, even if it is above the age of childhood—was told by a judge that she was guilty of contributory negligence, and the rapist, who was a business man, was not gaoled but fined £2,000.

In my local paper this week there is a report of a girl aged eight who was terrorised into silence by a child molester who threatened to kill her mother and sister. But after months of being subjected to sex attacks, the youngster plucked up the courage to tell. If children know that they will not have to face their attacker across a court room, more will have the courage to come forward and abuse will be prevented.

Mothers often face a dilemma. Their natural feeling is that their child's well-being comes first and that the child has been through enough already, but that leads to offenders remaining on the loose and repeat offences are high. Only a tiny percentage of offenders are apprehended, let alone brought to court.

An independent survey was carried out by Women Against Rape in 1985, to which 1,236 women responded, with 62 per cent. of 2,000 questionnaires being returned. The women were asked about their childhood. One in five had been raped or had suffered some sexual assault as a child or teenager. Some had told an adult, only to be told that they were imagining things or that they should not talk dirty. Less than one third of those who had been raped or sexually assaulted before they had reached the age of 11 had told anybody about it at the time of the attack. Some had never told anybody before replying to the survey.

To appreciate the difficulties that children face when going to court, we must consider who the defendants are likely to be. Many people assume that the defendant will be a stranger, but three quarters of rapists are known to their victims.

The Women Against Rape survey showed that one in five of all children or teenagers had been raped or sexually assaulted, and that one out of five of them—one in 25 of all children—had been assaulted by a member of their own family. To make the position more graphic, we should think of a typical classroom in which six of the children have been or soon will be assaulted and, in some cases, have been repeatedly assaulted over a period of years. This often happens as a result of the abuse of power by an adult who has control over a child or young person.

Mr. John Patten

The hon. Lady's speech is extremely interesting, but I am finding it hard to relate her remarks to committal proceedings, with which amendment No. 216 is concerned.

Ms. Gordon

I am speaking about a child having to go to court. During the committal proceedings the defence can demand that a child comes into court. The purpose of my argument, which I thought was clear, was to show that if a child knows that he will have to go to court he will be afraid to speak up, or the parent will not allow the child to go to court. Thus, attackers go unpunished and are free to continue attacks. That is the purpose of my argument, and I should like to continue it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am bound to say that I share the Minister's confusion. Perhaps the hon. Lady has misdirected her amendment or perhaps she does not appreciate that the argument that she is addressing does not clearly relate to the matter before the House.

Ms. Gordon

I thought that it did. I did not think that it was out of order to argue against children having to go to court but in favour of them being able to give evidence in other ways. I am seeking to delete a provision that says that the defence can demand that a child comes to court, which would lead to the child being face to face with the defendant.

The defendant is often a person who is known to or has control over the child, such as the head of a children's home or a stepfather. We should imagine the fear of a 15-year-old facing a stepfather in court, who is often aware that the family is financially dependent on him or is afraid of him.

In other European countries evidence can be taken without a child coming into court. In some states in the United States video recordings are used, as has been suggested here. In West Germany, judges usually question children alone in a private room. In Belgium, the judge questions children with two lawyers present, one for the prosecution and one for the defence. In Holland, children are questioned by a woman police officer on a written statement to the judge.

I hope that the committee that is to be set up will consider all those examples for magistrates and Crown courts here, and that the statements of several children can be taken together where the written evidence of one child is not enough to commit a defendant for trial if he has attacked several children. I hope that evidence can be taken in that way.

The state has an absolute responsibility to make it possible for children to speak out at all stages of proceedings but without wrongfully convicting anybody. The younger the child, the harder it is to say anything. The only way that we can reduce the terrible suffering of children who have to withstand sexual assaults is by investigating and introducing ways of making it possible for them to speak out without having to face their attackers.

Mr. John Patten

I have listened with care to the points made by the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon)—both her general points, which, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not address, and the specific point about committal. Removing the right of the defence to object to the use of an earlier statement would, as a matter of principle, be a major step.

I can appreciate the hon. Lady's concern. The future of committal proceedings, including the place of oral evidence at the committal stage, is in the melting pot. The Home Office hopes shortly to publish a consultation document inviting public and professional comments on the possible shape of reform for committal proceedings overall.

I do not find the argument of principle overwhelming, but it would be a mistake to make a significant procedural change affecting committal proceedings, which is what the hon. Lady is suggesting in amendment No. 216, with all the implications for the defence, before we are clear about the future of committal proceedings.

I hope that the hon. Lady will take some encouragement from what I have said tonight. We shall not lose sight of the clear points that she has made about committal. I am grateful to her for raising them in the spirit in which she has, but I cannot advise the House to accept amendment No. 216 in advance of the much wider review of committal proceedings which many recognise is much needed.

Amendment negatived.

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