HC Deb 25 April 2002 vol 384 cc461-3
34. Vera Baird (Redcar)

What steps the Government are taking to implement the recommendations of the report by the inspectorate of constabulary and the inspectorate for the Crown Prosecution Service published on 8 April. [50380]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

My hon. and learned Friend refers to the CPS and police inspectorates' report on the investigation and prosecution of rape. I wholly agree with her concern that we must ensure that women can have confidence that the criminal justice system will take rape allegations seriously and prosecute them effectively, and that offenders and potential offenders must know that they cannot get away with it. The CPS will take action on the report's recommendations, including extending the areas of good practice commended in the report; establishing a national network of specialist rape prosecutors, based in each of the 42 CPS areas; and reviewing the CPS guidance for prosecuting rape. My hon. and learned Friend will know that the offence is difficult to prosecute, but we must do better and I am sure that we can.

Vera Baird

I am very grateful indeed for that reply and for the indications that my right hon. and learned Friend well understands the difficulties involved in such prosecutions. Given that at each stage the decision as to whether to further a rape prosecution is inevitably influenced by the possible outcome at trial, and granted that, even in cases that get to trial, there is an extremely low conviction rate, will my right hon. and learned Friend use her best endeavours in every step that she takes to involve the judiciary, whose attitude to rape complainants needs urgent updating?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. and learned Friend raises a point about the attitude of the judiciary. I have two things to say about that. First, the Lord Chancellor is well aware of the important role of the Judicial Studies Board in that regard, and of the need constantly to update the work of involving judges in discussion of this important matter.

Secondly, it is important, as I am sure my hon. and learned Friend will agree, that we have more women judges. We need to train all judges, but it is unlikely that women victims alleging rape will have confidence in a criminal justice system in which nearly all the banisters and nearly all the judges in the higher courts are men. We need action on that, too.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I pay tribute to the report and to the work of Her Majesty's inspectorates of both the Crown Prosecution Service and the constabulary. I note that the Solicitor-General says that she will act on the report. She will need the assistance of other Departments of State to do so and I hope that she will give us an assurance about that.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the Government do not intend to introduce different rules governing disclosure of defendants' previous convictions in sexual offence cases from those that govern other cases?

The Solicitor-General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to the CPS and police inspectorates which worked jointly on the report. I join him in congratulating them on their work.

In respect of the involvement of other Departments, the hon. Gentleman is right. The whole criminal justice system—police, prosecutors and courts—needs to work together to ensure that those criminal offences are properly dealt with. At the suggestion of the Attorney-General, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and our own Department will work together on those issues and will issue a full report in July as to how we can take them forward across the criminal justice system.

The hon. Gentleman asked about disclosure of previous convictions. He will know that the Law Commission drew up a well-considered report on disclosure of previous misconduct; that includes looking at all the evidence of the effect of disclosure of previous criminal convictions in sex cases. He will also know that that was considered by Lord Justice Auld in his report on the criminal justice system. The question of the admissibility of evidence will be covered in the response to the Auld report in our White Paper, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question as to whether the Government's response will be to treat admissibility as different in sexual offence cases. He will of course be aware that separate rules govern admissibility in respect of section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which is also an issue.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am very pleased to hear that the Government will act on the recommendations of the report.

In a recent survey undertaken by the women's safety unit in Cardiff, which works with the victims of domestic violence, 30 per cent. of women disclosed forced sexual activity that they had never reported, mainly because of the belief that rape in marriage does not exist. What does my right hon. and learned Friend think can be done to make women more aware of their rights in that situation?

The Solicitor-General

One of the important things that we can do is to back up the efforts of organisations such as that led by my hon. Friend in Cardiff. That will involve police, prosecutors and the voluntary sector working together to ensure that women who have been subjected to rape by strangers or within marriage know that the criminal justice system will support them and will work with the voluntary sector. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is often a link between under-reporting and the fact that women think that the man will get away with it because the criminal justice system will not take their complaint seriously. Sadly, there is clear evidence that that is so. We have to build up that confidence at all level.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will the Solicitor-General be good enough to tell me exactly how the 18 recommendations in the report will be implemented, and whether we will be given a full report? The recommendations are clearly set out, but the mechanics of achieving them will require a lot of administrative work.

In the light of this highly critical report, will the Solicitor-General tell me how we can give rape victims the confidence to approach the police? The report says: The training available to police personnel does not conform to a common minimum standard. It also notes that there was late decision-making— by the Crown Prosecution Service— which, in some instances, led to cases proceeding to the Crown Court on the wrong charges.

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to some of the serious criticisms in the report, which we shall deal with as follows. The Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and our Department will work together. A working party will be formed to deal with cross-criminal justice issues, and it will report back to the House in July.

The Crown Prosecution Service is working on the issues that relate directly to it, and it will continue to do so. I undertake to keep the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) informed at all stages. We have to build confidence and to do better than we are doing at the moment.