HC Deb 08 July 2002 vol 388 cc593-5
3. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

What plans he has to propose reforms to the law on rape; and if he will make a statement. 164747]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

We all accept that rape is a particularly heinous crime. The legislative framework must enable us to take firm action wherever and whenever we can. We intend to publish our proposals for strengthening legislation on sex offences and sex offenders in the autumn, and to legislate as soon after that as parliamentary time allows.

A working group has been formed with representatives from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the court service, in response to the joint report published on 8 April on the investigation and prosecution of rape. We recognise that there is a great deal more to do and I am very pleased that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General are giving us their full support in dealing with the present very low prosecution and conviction rates.

Mr. Clapham

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and am pleased to hear that a working party has been set up. However, as he is aware, only between 2 and 5 per cent. of rape cases result in a conviction. Research shows that as many as 80 per cent. of people who suffer this crime do not report it to the police. That is not good enough. Just last week I spoke to staff at the Rape Crisis offices in Barnsley and in Yorkshire, and was told that three factors really worry them—cross-examination procedures; the use of past histories to denigrate the character of the victim and make it appear that she encouraged the rape; and the increase in the date rape drug. Will my right hon. Friend consider referring these matters to the Sentencing Advisory Panel with a view to making progress and ensuring protection for rape victims?

Mr. Blunkett

The figure for reported rapes resulting in conviction to which my hon. Friend referred is 7 per cent. The number of those taken to court is staggering: in 1977, 68 per cent. of defendants were found guilty; by 2000, the figure had dropped to 29 per cent. There are clearly serious issues: first, encouraging people to report; secondly, the way that they are handled; and, importantly, finding the right balance for both the male and female involved.

My hon. Friend's question was partly dealt with by the Sentencing Advisory Panel when, earlier this year, it came down firmly on avoiding differentials between one type of rape and another, and we accept the panel's judgment. The proposed sentencing guidelines council will assist us in taking a broader look at both crime and sentences so that, we hope, we can get things right.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the Home Secretary accept that recent high profile cases have made it clear that both the alleged victim and the person accused should remain anonymous throughout a trial, otherwise there is dreadful adverse publicity for people who are often found innocent? That cannot be right.

Mr. Blunkett

It would be a great mistake if we made a judgment on the back of one case. In the case of Mr. Hann, we should be prepared to think a little during the summer and, when we make our proposals on the revision of sex offences, we should do so in the light of all the evidence. I do not think that there is disagreement about the fact that victims should remain anonymous; the real issue for all of us is whether, in the transparent society where the media expect us to be honest and open about what is taking place in relation to criminality, it would be acceptable for a particular type of perpetrator to remain anonymous when that was not the case for others. In the light of the campaign for a free society, I shall be interested to hear from Opposition spokesmen whether they feel that is the case.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

The cross-departmental inquiry reporting on the thematic investigation into rape was announced in April and it was said that it would report at the end of June or the beginning of July. Can my right hon. Friend give any indication of when there will be a report as to how the three relevant departments intend to take forward the recommendations made by the inspectors? Can he tell us what input the Lord Chancellor's Department had in that cross-departmental inquiry, given that the report was highly critical of the judiciary, especially its excessive readiness to include previous sexual history?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. and learned Friend is right: the report announcing the inquiry was published on 8 April. The action plan has been completed and we will shortly be able to publish it. I am convinced of the commitment of the Lord Chancellor and his Ministers to join the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and me in ensuring that we get this right. Given that the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and I are males, we should keep the lack of understanding of many men strongly in mind when addressing this critical issue.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the most tragic and awful rapes are those affecting children, and that we need to reconsider the operation of the court process, since it delivers an even lower conviction rate for those accused of those even more terrible offences? May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that there should be more training for judges and, in particular, that they should be discouraged from allowing defence barristers to bully and confuse already extremely frightened children and from using points of order to get the case deferred from day to day and hour to hour in order to break down a frightened and demoralised child?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman and I are in entire agreement: we should and will address the need to avoid the adversarial judicial system being applied to juveniles, and I look forward to all-party support.