In April 2007, the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council published definitive guidelines on the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That included a guideline on the offence of rape, including when it is carried out by more than one offender and including multiple offences carried out by the same offender. The Sentencing Guidelines Council took the Sentencing Advisory Panel's advice into consideration when it formulated the guidance.
Two weeks ago, six men were sentenced for multiple rape. They gang-raped a 16-year-old girl with learning difficulties and for that they received between six and nine years—of course, they will serve only half that time. I notice that the Minister did not give me a straightforward answer. As far as I can ascertain from the SAP guidelines, the starting point for multiple rape is eight years in prison. Why, then, were those men given six, seven or eight years, and why were the aggravating factors, which are clearly shown in the SAP guidance, not taken into account? I am thinking of the age of the victim, the fact that she was raped on several occasions and the grievous attack with caustic soda that was carried out on her afterwards. Will the Minister support my recent letter to the Solicitor-General asking that the case be reviewed so that those men are given the sentence that they deserve?
As the hon. Gentleman suggests in a roundabout way, the Attorney-General has the power to refer back to the courts sentences that she believes to be overly lenient. She is considering this at present. I cannot say more to him about this case, although I accept what he said about its seriousness.
But is not the problem for many victims of rape the fact that in the UK we still have an average conviction rate of 6 per cent. and that many victims of this heinous crime do not see their offender brought to justice? What action are my hon. Friend's Department and other Departments taking to ensure that offenders in the crime of rape are brought to justice?
My hon. Friend is correct to suggest that the number of complaints to the police about rape that result in prosecution is quite small. However, that is often because those who have been victimised do not feel able to go through with the prosecution. The current statistics are that 37 per cent. of all cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape, that 59 per cent. of cases prosecuted as rape result in a conviction for rape or another offence, and that 97 per cent. of those so convicted have a custodial sentence imposed. This is the highest conviction rate for 10 years.
I accept, however, that we need to do more in supporting victims and those who complain of these terrible crimes through what can be the terrible ordeal of going through the criminal justice system. We have extended the support available to women—and men, of course, who can also be subjected to this terrible offence—by providing sexual assault referral centres across England and Wales, more access to support, and a better understanding among prosecutors and police about how to deal with the victims of these offences. That is showing an increase in conviction rates, as indicated in the statistics.
The provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill include replacing the Sentencing Advisory Panel with a sentencing council that will have mandatory powers. However, the circumstances and levels of criminality vary enormously from case to case, and judges use their discretion to ensure that the appropriate sentence is given in the light of their experience and knowledge. Do the Justice Secretary and the Minister agree that the independence of the judiciary is an important part of our constitution and that it should not be eroded by a quango?
I agree with that absolutely. That is in fact Government policy. The new sentencing council will not in any way fetter the individual decisions of sentencers, whether they be judges or magistrates, in the work that they do in our courts. It will have a judicial majority and will be chaired by a judge. I believe that that independence, vital to our system, will be guaranteed; it is certainly Government policy that it ought to be.