HC Deb 10 May 2002 vol 385 cc478-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

2.35 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar)

It was a few days before Christmas in a local pub that Natalie aged 21 first set eyes on the man who probably raped her. She will never know for sure. She said: I was out with a friend … We'd noticed this man in a couple of pubs and later he showed up in the club. He kept offering us drinks and I said no. When a friend gave her a vodka and coke, Natalie drank it without suspicion. Only afterwards did she learn that the drink had come from the persistent stranger. Twenty minutes later she was unconscious: At first it felt like I was drunk, even though I hadn't had much alcohol. I couldn't find my friends, and went outside to look for them. It was freaky. Everything was distorted. The traffic was really loud and I felt as if everyone was shouting at me. Then I remember feeling my legs go and someone was taking my arm and started walking me saying that everything would be OK. I was grateful … The next thing I remember I was in a filthy bedsit with the man lying on top of me. I couldn't move. Everything was unreal. Later I woke again. I had my hair pinned up … my head banged against the headboard and the pin pierced my skin. The pain shot through me and this gave me a surge of power. This enabled her to push him off, pick up her clothes and flee. She felt violated, confused and uncertain, unable to remember his face, where she had been and what had happened during those lost hours. She wondered whether the attack had really taken place. You think you've been raped; you know something has happened to you, but you don't quite remember. Pat, a 49-year-old secretary, comes from much nearer my constituency of Redcar. She does not remember being raped. The drug that had been used to spike her drink eventually caused her to black out. It was only the following morning when she woke up in her underwear with bruises round her waist and thighs that she realised that something terrible had happened. She believed that her boyfriend spiked her drink at the firm's Christmas party and with her boss took her upstairs and raped her.

There are about two hours I just can't account for. She said: The room went very dark. I had the most horrendous tunnel vision; people who were standing just a few feet away from me seemed like they were only five inches tall. I couldn't hear people's conversations properly. It was as if I was going deaf. Even if I'd known what was going on, I couldn't have done anything about it. I was totally powerless. These stories are so horrible that I should say at once that the numbers to whom this happens are small, though apparently increasing.

The only comprehensive research into drug rape is the Sturman report of 2000 by Chief Inspector Peter Sturman of the Metropolitan police. That year, 1,002 people contacted the Drug Rape Trust, the support trust set up by Mr. Sturman. I should declare an interest as a patron of that trust. It is, of course, an unpaid position.

Last year., 2,016 similar people contacted the trust—twice as many as in the previous year. Although I shall describe victims as "she", I should say that 11 per cent. of complainants are men. The Belfast Rape Crisis Centre reported eight drug rapes in 1998 and there are now 350 each year. This is due in part to an increase in offending and in part to increased awareness.

Eighteen types of drugs have been used in the UK. The most frequently used is GHB, which is recognisable in some of the symptoms reported by the victims in my stories. Like ecstasy, it is a rave drug, and because it is dangerous rather than because of its use in rape, it is now a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, so its possession is unlawful.

The drug Rohypnol has been associated by the media with drug rape, but it has never been found in the UK. The Sturman view is that it is not a hazard.

Roche, the company that manufactures it has also asked me to make that clear. I do so in particular because with impressive responsibility since the association was made between the drug and drug rape, Roche has reconstituted the tablet so that it floats and fizzes and gives off an indigo dye as it dissolves, so it is useless for spiking a drink. I commend that excellent precedent to the Government, which they should impose on commercial manufacturers of other drugs. However, GHB is easily made domestically from simple substances, and many internet websites give recipes for it.

Only seven people have been convicted of drug rape in this country. The law is clear: rape is an offence, and section 4 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 makes it an offence to administer a drug in order to stupefy, or to overpower, a person to enable sex. The offence incurs a two-year maximum sentence, which should perhaps be increased. I shall discuss later some possible legal changes, but the problem is not so much the law as the evidence required to prove drug rape.

The drugs pass through the system quickly—taking between two and eight hours—and leave the victim confused. She will hesitate to tell anyone, and by the time she overcomes the after-effects, the drugs are gone, leaving no evidential trace. The confusion that they cause is itself a barrier to complaining, let alone to giving evidence. What can she say? What can she be sure of? Often, she will have been drinking. She may feel guilt at having had too much, or fear that having had any amount will make the authorities judgmental. Traumatised, she may not want to be treated as if she brought this horrible experience on herself. She may just stay at home.

The perpetrators we know little about. Self-evidently, this is an evil, premeditated, predatory offence that is recklessly dangerous. It can be the utter ruin of the victim, for presumably transient pleasure. However, according to the Rape Crisis Federation, in the main the offence is perpetrated by professional gangs, and the things done to the victims are filmed, to be sold on as pornography.

This is not a new issue; Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Observer, and—nearer home, in Redcar—The Northern Echo, have all run recent features on it, but it has not attracted sufficient Government attention. Given that only seven convictions have been secured, the problem must look tiny, but numerically it is far bigger than that. The potentially catastrophic damage to individuals makes the offence important beyond the numbers affected, as does the fear that it casts over the lives of sociable people.

I have seen a letter from the Government suggesting that the incidence of drug rape is exaggerated, and by implication that, because information about it is available on websites and it is against the law, nothing else needs to be done. I hope that the Minister is not of that point of view. What kind of Government attention should drug rape attract? The Government should fund wider publicity. Of course, it is completely inappropriate to generate panic—I repeat that the numbers involved are small—but that is not a reason to avoid publicising the risk. That would allow the risk to continue, and add to the isolation of drug rape victims. It is for professional public relations experts to plan how best to make the message clear without frightening people.

The same awareness-raising campaign ought to set out simple preventive or protective steps that people can take without spoiling their pleasure. The task is to incorporate them into people's ordinary behaviour—just as people lock their car and switch on the alarm. Such behaviour does not mean that people live in fear of car theft; it is a simple and obvious precaution, and a fairly successful crime prevention measure that is simply part of what people now do.

The Drug Rape Trust has launched a campaign—"Be aware and take care"—that features a pocket-sized plastic card, containing tips such as "Don't leave your drink unattended." The theme is that it could happen to anyone, and that we must all watch out for each other. That is rather clever, as it does not put the onus wholly on to the potential victim, who might otherwise feel oppressed. However, a small charity cannot propagate its campaign widely enough, and the Government ought to take the lead.

The Drug Rape Trust has been working with the Department of Trade and Industry and Government chemists for two years to develop a swizzle stick that indicates when a rape drug is in a drink, and a prototype has been tested. The plan is that a swizzle stick will automatically be put into any drink served by bar staff. Soliciting the support of breweries, pub owners and club owners will obviously require Government help. The plan does contain elements of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but given the grave consequences of drug rape, it would be a simple step to take. It is not possible simply to issue swizzle sticks to people. There is nothing funny about this issue, but accepting a drink from an amiable companion, only to test it for drugs with a swizzle stick, is hardly the way to progress a new relationship. That is simply not practical.

I should emphasise that no such product is available yet. Certain products claim to be able to test comprehensively for such drugs, which is another reason why the Government must get involved. They must exclude the inevitable profit-chasing charlatans by taking responsibility themselves for verifying preventive products.

The offence is of course one of rape. The publication on 10 April of the thematic report by the inspectorates of constabulary and of the Crown Prosecution Service on how rape is investigated and prosecuted shows that standards are very low. One criticism raised there and brought into sharper focus by drug rape is the need for specialist medical facilities for the care of rape complainants. Often they are examined in the police station doctor's room, which is used for a range of other purposes. The doctor will be a forensic medical examiner unconnected with the complainant. Such doctors vary in sympathy. As the inspectors found out, both men and women rape complainants prefer to be examined by a female. Although 35 per cent. of GPs are women, only 18 per cent. of forensic medical examiners are women, making the prospect of getting what one wants a poor one.

Not everybody wants to make a complaint to the police but they might want to be treated and to give samples to keep their options open. It is important, therefore, that facilities be at hospitals and not at police stations. There are centres of excellence, notably the St. Mary's centre in Manchester, which has existed for 14 years and was praised by the inspectors. The doctors there have specific expertise. They have dealt with hundreds of thousands of upset and traumatised men and women at all times of the day and night. They are sympathetic and detached, and knowledgeable enough often to be able to give expert evidence that is capable of being supporting evidence. As the inspectors found, complainants who are supported and given good care from the start are more likely to find the resources to sustain a complaint through the criminal justice system. In order to try to improve the all-time low 7.3 per cent conviction rate for rape, such facilities are urgently needed.

In July 2000, the Home Office sex offences review recommended changes to the law, in particular the legal redefinition of rape as having sex without free agreement rather than having sex without consent. The review also suggested a non-exhaustive list of examples of when a person does not give free agreement. One item on the list was if a person was too affected by drink or drugs to give free agreement. As with most rape in which the parties are known to each other, however fleetingly, the defence of a drug rape perpetrator, if prosecuted, will be consent. If there is evidence of drug use, a consent defence will have to be accompanied by an assertion that she took the drug herself. In that case, having excess drugs or drink on a list of factors that vitiate consent could be helpful.

Drug rape is rape. The defence of consent is almost invariably coupled with the defence that if the woman did not consent, the perpetrator thought she had. Rape is having sex knowing, or being reckless as to whether, a woman consented. So if a man genuinely thinks the woman consented, even if in fact she did not, he will not be guilty. I say briefly now what I said at greater length a week ago—because I have been fortunate enough to have two Adjournment debates on aspects of rape in the last fortnight. The defence that the man believed that the woman was consenting is usually accompanied by an application to cross-examine her about her sexual conduct in the past—her previous sexual history. Its relevance is often difficult to see. It is highly prejudicial. It is also cross-examination so intimate that it can undermine a witness's confidence. It plays a well known and massive role in discouraging women from making and sustaining complaints.

The Government legislated in 1999 to prevent the use of previous sexual history to support a defence of consent. However, that did not exclude the use of previous sexual history for the defence that the man believed that the woman was consenting. Because the defences are run together in the same trial, when previous sexual history is admitted for that defence it has those undesirable effects on the defence of consent as well, despite the Government's intentions. There are contentious issues around how the law should be recast to deal with that issue, and I do not raise them now. However, I ask the Minister when we may discuss them. That is to say, when will the Government bring forward legislation based on the sex offences review and will it cover the two aspects to which I have referred today?

Returning to the specific offence of drug rape, I can think of no complete solution, but I hope that the Minister will take to heart the fact that drug rape engenders widespread fear and has profound consequences for its victims. Will my hon. Friend take action now to raise awareness and to prescribe measures of self-protection so that women and men can be as safe as possible when enjoying their social lives? The two examples that I gave at the beginning of my speech have both happened since the Sturman report made those recommendations two years ago.

2.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing a second debate on this general issue so soon after the first.

Rape in all its forms is a serious and abhorrent crime. The enormity of the effect on victims and the fear of crime that it engenders among women is very damaging. Society needs to recognise that rape is a serious crime, and that there can be no qualification or lessening of that.

As my hon. and learned Friend acknowledged, the law is clear about the use of any substance to assist in the commission of this crime by incapacitating the victim, which is a particularly sinister and repellent act. When it takes place in a social context, such as a pub or a club and when the victim knows or is acquainted with the perpetrator, the betrayal of trust that that involves further impacts upon the victim.

Owing to the relative infrequency of this type of crime and the difficulty of obtaining specific data, it is hard to assess whether it is on the increase. Current police recording methods do not routinely identify that specific sexual offence. In common with other sexual offences, it would be reasonable to assume that any count of incidents significantly underestimates the size of the problem.

I am pleased to say that the Home Office has taken steps to address the problem of insufficient data. The latest British crime survey will attempt to measure the involvement of drugs in serious sexual offences. The results will be known when the next survey is published later in the year. However, as with all rape and sexual offences, we need more incidents to be reported to the police.

As my hon. and learned Friend knows, we have taken steps in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to ensure that victims of rape can be provided with protection if cases reach court. Section 41 of the Act was the subject of an Adjournment debate on 24 April. The provisions of the section limit the questions that rape victims can be asked under cross-examination about their previous sexual history so that they do not have to go through that distressing and unnecessary ordeal. I have taken on board what my hon. and learned Friend says about the way in which that is effectively being circumvented, and will come back to her as soon as I can with further thoughts on whether we can protect against that happening. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), in replying to my hon. and learned Friend's previous Adjournment debate, said that we were planning a research project to evaluate the impact of section 41, particularly in the light of the recent House of Lords decision. We are also aware of the need to improve the conviction rate in rape offences generally.

A working group on rape is being established by the Home Office. It will work with the police and other Government Departments to devise a plan to implement the recommendations of the recent joint inspectorate review. These include using specialist lawyers for rape cases, ensuring that offensive and seemingly irrelevant questioning of victims is challenged and issuing guidance to prosecutors on the review and handling of cases. The report also recommends the improvement of existing training for lawyers and police officers.

Among the existing good practice identified in the report is the provision in some areas of specialist medical examination facilities and the equipping of first response staff with sample kits to prevent loss of evidence. My hon. and learned Friend commended one institution; I would like to mention the Haven in south London, which is another good example of a specialist medical resource for victims of sexual offences. It is jointly funded by the Metropolitan police and the national health service. The service deals with approximately 10 per cent. of all rape referrals in England and Wales.

There is little firm evidence to indicate how often drugs are used to facilitate rape, or which drugs are being used. The forensic science service analyses samples from victims in suspected drug rape cases and has been collating data on possible drug-facilitated rape and sexual assault. It investigates about 450 cases of alleged drug-assisted rape each year, and positive drug identifications—those where the presence of an unexplained sedative drug has been detected—are made in only 1 to 2 per cent. of such cases.

Benzodiazepine drugs are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as class C drugs but, until recently, were exempted from controls on their possession. Following advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government have introduced additional controls on their import, export and possession. Those further controls should help to reduce the availability of the benzodiazepine drugs on the illicit drugs market and their use in cases of rape.

As my hon. and learned Friend said, there have been media reports that the drug GHB—gamma hydroxybutyrate—is often used in drug rape. We take that very seriously and have been monitoring the situation to see whether further controls are needed, based on the scientific and medical evidence. Last year, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs decided to control GHB under the UN convention on psychotropic substances.

At its meeting last November, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that GHB should be controlled as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Government have accepted that recommendation in principle, in view of the drug's misuse. Under that classification, possession of the drug would be illegal but, as my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, its precursors are easily available, so there are great difficulties in dealing with that issue and they will have to be explored further.

I think that my hon. and learned Friend is also aware that the Government are working to develop a practical device to enable the detection of a range of different drugs in drinks. Only last week, I met representatives of the drinks industry and we were given a presentation on the latest developments in that project. There is much potential, but we are still a long way off. There are public health difficulties and the research has revealed major problems.

The cost of a workable device would have to be represented as a multiple in the value of the drinks themselves. To make progress in devising an effective and suitable product the costs would have to be reduced, so that the device could be supplied with drinks on all occasions. The public health considerations would also have to be taken into account.

I was encouraged—as were the people who were undertaking the research on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry—by the reaction of some of the trade representatives. They readily said that they were prepared to assist in the trials of the devices to try to further the research so that we could develop a usable product as quickly as possible.

It is also important that we have laws that provide clear and coherent offences to protect all victims of sexual offences, with penalties that enable the appropriate punishment of offenders. To that end, the Government set up the sex offences review in January 1999.

On drug rape, my hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the Sexual Offences Act 1956 includes an offence of administering drugs to obtain or facilitate intercourse, and the review proposes an increase in the sentence for that crime from two years to seven years. When the review's recommendations have been considered, we intend to introduce a coherent package of new and amended sexual offences as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I assure my hon. and learned Friend and the rest of the House that we are determined further to improve the support offered to victims by both the criminal justice system and the community as a whole. Since last October, we have given many victims the opportunity to make a personal statement about how the crime has affected their lives. That will ensure that they can be offered the right level of protection and support, and that their needs are taken into account at every stage in the process. Later this year, we shall announce detailed plans for a Bill of Rights for victims and for a victims commissioner, who I am sure would have a great impact in this area of criminality.

I hope that I have been able to assure my hon. and learned Friend that we are actively considering rape in its wider context and the various ways in which we can help, and that drug rape is being taken seriously. I am sure that she will continue to monitor the situation and to push for an effective framework in all the different areas necessary to deal with the problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Three o'clock.