I will confine my remarks to Government new clause 20, which concerns the rough sex defence. Those on the Front Bench should feel proud of the new clause. The first question that any Government have to answer when they bring new legislation before the House is why the legislation is needed. It has been said, “If the common law already says that someone cannot consent to serious injury or death, does Parliament need to legislate?” The answer is emphatically yes, and here is why. R v. Brown, the authority for this issue, which is nearly 30 years old, does not cover consent in all forms of sexual harm. There are other cases—contradictory cases—that can be applied, and we saw that pretty starkly in the case of Natalie Connolly, where R v. Brown was applied, but only in part. When it came to her internal injuries—the ones that were the most savagely inflicted, the most serious and the most proximate cause of death—the court applied a completely different case and concluded that the violence in that context was lawful. That could not happen under new clause 20, because it rules out the possibility of consenting to any serious harm for sexual gratification, and the inconsistency goes.
The second problem with Brown is that it answered one specific question: whether the defence of consent should apply to the infliction of bodily harm in the course of sadomasochistic encounters. I have heard it described as a case about consensual torture. That has always created the risk of conflating violent sex in a domestic abuse context with BDSM, as we saw in Natalie Connolly’s case and those of others. Sadomasochism becomes a prism through which the violence on the night is interpreted, because Brown invites that.
Not only does that traduce the reputation of the victim, but it offends one of the most fundamental principles of justice, that he who asserts must prove. In those serious cases, it was not proven in a way that a member of the public would understand. All we know is that it was violent and it was sexual and that she is dead. New clause 20 reduces the risk of the courts being drawn into such considerations by drawing a line through consent in the first place.
Above all, codifying the defence sends a powerful message about what we as a society say about sexual violence and degrading behaviour in a way that the common law never could. In fact, new clause 20 is not didactic—it does not try to tell people how to live their private lives—but it sends a powerful message to the perpetrator that they will be responsible for all the consequences of their actions, which is a game changer when rape convictions are at an all-time low.
The most affecting feature of the last two weeks has been other countries’ reactions to the Government’s decision. In New Zealand, where they were as appalled by the Grace Millane case as we were, Ireland, Hungary, Germany, France and Canada, people are writing about what the British Government are doing in the context of similar cases that have been before their courts and with reference to Members of their own Parliaments who are working to achieve the same thing. The Ministers involved should feel proud of the leadership that they have shown.
Finally, the most powerful message of new clause 20 is a tacit one about the dignity of the women who have been killed in this way. It is not the perpetrator in the dock who gets to define her, or the judge in his sentencing remarks, but we in Parliament who draw a line in the sand and say, in effect, what the victims and their families never could: that she could not consent to that.