Rape and Sexual Violence

– in the House of Commons at 5:21 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice) 5:21 pm, 8th March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
commemorates International Women’s Day;
regrets that under this Government conviction rates for rape have reached a historic low and that the typical delay between reporting an offence of rape and the completion of the resulting criminal case is over 1,000 days;
calls on the Government to introduce minimum sentences for stalking and rape, to raise minimum sentencing for spiking and to implement Labour’s survivors’ package for victims of rape and serious sexual violence to restore trust in the criminal justice system;
and further calls on the Government to begin an immediate assessment of the impact of setting up specialist rape offence courts on the significant Crown Court backlog of rape cases, as recommended by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.

Today is International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate the achievements and progress of women. On the day President Zelensky addressed Parliament, I start by paying tribute to the brave women and girls of Ukraine—those who have left their loved ones behind as they flee war, those who have had to endure childbirth in bunkers and those who remain in the country facing Russia’s aggression. I know hon. Members on both sides of this House want to offer them our full solidarity.

International Women’s Day is also a time to reflect on some of the challenges we still face at home, among the gravest of which is rape and sexual violence. Tackling and preventing violence against women must be a national priority. Women and girls must feel safe to walk home at night, feel able to have a drink in a pub or nightclub and live free from the fear of an abusive partner. When women report a rape, they must feel that the criminal justice system is working for them, not against them. Yet, due to the problems of our justice system in ensuring that victims of rape and sexual violence receive justice, the sad truth is that we have seen the effective decriminalisation of rape.

The latest Office for National Statistics crime figures for 2021 show that sexual offences recorded by the police are at record highs. Rape accounted for 37% of those offences, and the latest Home Office data shows that just 2.9% of reported sexual offences and 1.3% of recorded rapes result in a charge or summons. Let that sink in: only in just over one in 100 reported rapes is someone charged. Those are record lows. Not only that, but in the tiny minority of cases that are prosecuted, victims now face more than 1,000 days’ delay from the report of the offence to completion at court—an unacceptably long wait for a survivor to access justice.

Meanwhile, Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate found that in cases involving rape and serious sexual offences, nearly half of CPS letters lacked basic empathy, and only 19% of letters were of the right quality. The Victims’ Commissioner found that only one in seven victims believed that they would receive justice by reporting the crime to the police. That is a sign that victims are losing faith in the system. Inadequate support, along with delays, means that 41% of rape cases now end with the victim’s withdrawing their support. No wonder many survivors feel the system is working against them, not for them. That is completely the wrong way around.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and hope the Minister is able to respond to this point as well. I have previously mentioned that women who are subjected to rape are not entitled to criminal injuries compensation if they have had a prior conviction, whatever that conviction might be. That means that if they are then a victim of rape they are entitled to no compensation. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is completely unfair, and that just because someone may have a committed a crime in the past, that does not mean that when they are raped they should not have some compensation for the suffering they faced?

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point so passionately. She is absolutely right, and of course this needs to be looked at and changed.

The impact of these failings in the criminal justice system is all too real for many of those with lived experience of it. One survivor at a recent roundtable I held along with my hon. Friend Jess Phillips told us that while they had come to terms with what had happened to them, they could not come to terms with how they had been treated by the criminal justice system. Survivors continually tell us that they often feel as though they are the ones being investigated or standing trial, and that lengthy court delays compound and extend their trauma. One survivor said:

“I still have flashbacks to the whole process and ask myself what I could have done differently. The defendant had help on what to expect in court, but all I had was someone saying ‘if you tell the truth then that’s enough’—well I did tell the truth but it wasn’t enough.”

Another said:

“It was my belief that all of this extra pain and suffering being endured by myself in order to go through the investigation with only a slight chance of it going to court wasn’t worth it in my opinion. Especially since I would have had to face my perpetrator in court and I was told it most likely wouldn’t end up with a prosecution anyway.”

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent comments she is making in emphasising the importance of hearing the voices of survivors of sexual assault. Will she join me in congratulating my constituent Anna Robinson, who has written a play about her experience of sexual assault and going through the criminal justice system with the many failings and delays in it? The play, which is touching and moving, and also funny, is playing at the Alphabetti theatre in Newcastle right now and is a marvellous example of the victim finding a voice.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and the tribute that she pays to her constituent Anna Robinson. It sounds like a fantastic play, and I am sure she has shown great bravery and courage in using her experience to shine a light on the difficulties that women face.

The cases that I referred to are not unique. The recent criminal justice joint inspectorate report said that the criminal justice system is failing victims of rape and that widespread reform is needed. Despite all this, action from the Government has been lukewarm and lacks urgency. We welcomed the end-to-end rape review, but it took over two years to publish it, and we are now one year on from that with little noticeable change. The review’s commitment to developing a better understanding of the impacts of trauma on rape victims and survivors across the criminal justice system, and the important commitment to taking a more suspect-focused approach to rape investigations, was encouraging and welcome. Yet even so, the review’s proposals were just piecemeal ideas without the funding and real accountability to make the change needed, and there was a concerning lack of urgency in the timescales put forward. The scorecards, which are a useful tool for transparency, completely lacked an equalities analysis, meaning that there is a blind spot in understanding justice outcomes for rape victims and survivors who are black and minoritised, deaf and disabled, or LGBT+. As long as this information remains missing it will show a fundamental lack of commitment to making our justice system work for everyone.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I want to speak on the point of making the justice system work for everyone. My constituent Michelle recently wrote to me because she has a stalker who is the father of her child. He has abused her, threatened her, and turned up on her doorstep and her mother’s doorstep. She spoke to the police, who said that she should apply for a non-molestation order, but she does not qualify for legal aid because she works full time and, as a single parent, she cannot pay solicitors’ fees. Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that there are women like Michelle falling through the cracks in the justice system, and something needs to be done to help them?

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point and shining a light on the dreadful situation her constituent is facing. Stalking is a really serious crime, and later in my speech, I will say a little bit about what Labour would do to be tougher on stalkers.

One of the commitments made by the Government in the rape review was to return to 2016 charging levels for rape cases, but at the current rate of progress it will take 29 years to reach that target, and even then it is not a particularly ambitious target. In the absence of effective leadership, the Labour party has put forward a plan to reverse the trend of falling prosecutions, to ensure victims can once again have faith in the system that is supposed to protect them. Our survivors support plan would fast-track rape and serious sexual assault cases through the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts; establish a pre and post-trial survivors support package, including a full legal advocacy scheme for victims and better training for professionals about myths and stereotypes; and appoint a Minister for survivors of rape and sexual violence to investigate and tackle the root causes of delays in the system and act as a champion for victims. We would also end lenient sentences for rape and stalking by introducing new statutory minimum sentences, as well as toughening up sentences for spiking.

It is unacceptable that rape victims are waiting years post-charge for a court date, especially given the comparatively small number of cases that are going through the system. Rape survivors are often the most vulnerable and traumatised, but waiting for trial means they cannot move on with their lives and cannot access counselling for fear that their counselling notes will be disclosed at trial.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

The hon. Lady is making a good speech. There is an important point about judicial listing that we as a House have never really addressed, which is dealt with in the inspectorates’ report. Out of something like 52 cases they looked at, 34 were relisted at least once during the process, so the victim, having waited one or two years, then waited again while the case was kicked out of the list and put in at a later date. We never talk about that in Parliament because it is seen as a judicial function, but does the hon. Lady think it is time we did?

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention the joint inspectorates’ report and what it said about this issue. The inspectorates looked at 54 rape cases, 32 of which were adjourned more than once; one was adjourned 21 times, often at 24 hours’ notice. In their report, the inspectorates recommended that the Ministry of Justice immediately group adult rape cases into specialist rape offence courts, which called on the Government to look at implementing a year ago. It is not difficult to imagine how those courts could be set up using the existing court capacity, with a few courtrooms in every Crown court centre allocated to dealing with rape cases and existing ticketed judges hearing the claims. Best practice around separate entrances and exits for accuser and accused could be enforced, and safe space rooms could be available. Today, we ask the Government to begin an immediate review into setting up specialist rape offence courts to help clear the significant Crown court backlog, so that rape victims are not waiting nearly three years for their cases to get to court. I hope the Minister will back this call.

Allowing victims to give their evidence and be cross-examined pre-recorded, known as section 28, also has an important role to play in speeding up cases. It has applied to child and vulnerable witnesses for some time, and the equipment to hear evidence in this way is available in every Crown court in the country. Labour has long called for section 28 to be rolled out to victims of rape and serious sexual violence. It would mean victims could give their evidence as soon as possible, improving the accuracy of their testimony, relieving some of the stress and anxiety while waiting for trial and allowing them to pursue pre-trial counselling, yet in the Government’s end-to-end rape review, all they offered was an extension of the existing section 28 pilot from three Crown courts to a further four. The Government finally said in December last year that they were committed to rolling out section 28 for intimidated witnesses, yet we are still waiting for that to happen. Even in the pilot areas, the inspectorate’s report found that section 28 is not being used consistently by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

We are three years on from the Government announcing their end-to-end rape review, yet section 28 is being used for rape victims in only a handful of Crown courts, and even then the necessary training and awareness are not fully in place. Warm words and promises are all very well, but without the political will to make things happen, the pace of change will be far too slow for thousands of victims.

One of the things that survivors tell us time and time again is that they feel the criminal justice system is working against them. With no right to their own legal support, they can find themselves trying to navigate a complex and opaque system on their own. One victim said of their journey through the criminal justice system:

“I felt unsupported by the prosecution lawyer. I did not know his name or how he was going to advocate for me. I had only met him 10 minutes before going into court. The whole experience is traumatising. I completely understand why people do not report rape to the police.”

Other victims have told me that the demands to disclose all the data on their mobile phones going back years made them feel like they were the ones on trial, and that they were unsure of their rights when it came to the digital strip search. That is why under Labour, rape victims would have a legal advocate from the moment they reported their case to the police station, right through to trial. That advocate would be there for them every step of the way, driving up standards in the criminal justice system and reducing attrition rates, but the idea is nothing new. A pilot of that scheme was trialled in Northumbria in 2020, and it found that legal advocates substantially improved best practice in the police and CPS and led to an overall improved victim experience. It would cost just £3.9 million annually to replicate this scheme across England and Wales. If the Government were truly serious about this issue, they would roll it out in a heartbeat.

As well as fixing these problems with the criminal justice system, we need to see sentences that deter potential offenders and send a strong signal that violence against women and girls will never be tolerated, but the public are losing confidence in the Government on this, with polling showing that seven in 10 women consider action to stop sexual harassment, rape and domestic abuse to be inadequate. That is why we are announcing that a Labour Government would toughen sentences for spiking and introduce minimum sentences for rape and stalking.

There is currently no statutory minimum sentence for rape, only a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. While the starting tariff in the sentencing guidelines is five years, that can be reduced. In 2021 alone, seven rape convictions were referred to the Attorney General’s Office through the unduly lenient sentences scheme. They had initial sentences ranging from two to five years. Despite that, none of the cases was referred to the Court of Appeal. Truly appalling crimes are receiving lenient sentences, yet the Government are not doing anything to tackle it. Labour would introduce a new statutory minimum sentence of seven years, which better reflects the seriousness of the crime and the lives it destroys.

Sentences for stalking and harassment do not reflect the fear and distress they create for the victims of these crimes, who are very often women and girls. Despite a record number of convictions for stalking in 2019, more than half of those convicted got community or suspended sentences. Labour would create a new minimum custodial sentence of five months for stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress. A court would have to impose at least the statutory minimum, unless there were exceptional circumstances.

Despite a surge in reports of spiking to the police in recent years, there have been no more than 66 prosecutions in any year since 2010, and only 512 in total between 2010 and 2020. Conviction rates have also plummeted, with just 0.56 convictions per prosecution over that time period. Under pressure from Labour, the Government have agreed to a review into spiking, which we welcome, to find out how widespread it is and who is being targeted, but the review does not explicitly cover sentencing, and it must. We need tougher spiking laws to deter people from committing this awful crime, and a Labour Government would seek to introduce tougher sentences by referring the issue to the Sentencing Council for new guidance. I hope the Government will agree to do that.

Under the Conservatives, rape prosecutions are at a record low, so perpetrators are left on the streets and can reoffend, which leaves women and girls less safe. The Conservatives call themselves the party of law and order, but how can they say that when they have effectively allowed rape to be decriminalised on their watch? Until we have a Government who are ready and willing to commit to the actions needed to drive up rape prosecutions, victims will continue to be failed by the system. The Opposition have a plan to put things right. Is it not about time that the Government backed it?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

As colleagues will appreciate, time is pretty short, so it is likely that I will introduce a time limit of five minutes once the Minister has sat down.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement 5:40 pm, 8th March 2022

I have had the privilege of debating International Women’s Day for several years, but never has one been set in such an atmosphere or against such an international backdrop as the horrific invasion of Ukraine. We are incredibly honoured to have heard moments ago from President Zelensky, who is facing enormous threats to his personal safety and that of his country and fellow citizens. I will address the debate in the same spirit of international unity on this great day when we celebrate and mark our hopes and aspirations for women around the world.

The last 13 days have shown how precious democracy is across the world. We in the United Kingdom have a long and proud history of democracy, but it is something that we must protect, cherish and nurture. We in this Chamber are the personification of the importance of democracy in our country. It is through contributions made here, and through the work of Back-Bench MPs and Ministers, that we deliver change through democratic processes in our great country.

We are already hearing of terrifying incidents of violence against women and girls in Ukraine. Of course, we have seen the absolutely heart-rending experiences of women and girls fleeing their home and their country to seek safety and sanctuary elsewhere in Europe. We stand with them and with all women and girls who are living through conflict in this terrible time. I take in genuine spirit the tone in which the debate has been raised and I invite, as we have as a Government, scrutiny of the measures that we are taking to address violence against women and girls.

We have taken a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape and serious sexual violence. We have acknowledged that in too many instances, it has simply not been good enough. Since the publication of the rape review last year, however, we have learned lessons and we have brought and are bringing measures into place to build change.

When these devastating crimes happen, we want victims to come forward and feel confident to report them and to seek justice. That involves many stages of the criminal justice process from the moment a report is made to the police to the conclusion of the case. On the global stage and on British streets, we are working tirelessly every day to ensure that women and girls feel safe and that they know that they can trust the criminal justice system to punish perpetrators. We are breaking biases, supporting victims and making the changes that the public expect.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle

As I raised with my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves, when rape convictions are completed and somebody is found guilty, the victim is sometimes unable to get criminal injuries compensation because she may have prior convictions that are unrelated to sexual assault, as happened to my constituent. I have raised that in Parliament before and I was promised a meeting with a Minister, which has not yet been forthcoming. In the spirit of co-operation, I hope that on the issue of sexual violence, the Minister will look again at eligibility for criminal injuries compensation.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

The hon. Lady has raised an important point and I undertake myself to meet her to discuss this—very much so.

This Government have taken decisive and measurable action in the last 12 months to make our system stronger. I stress the word “measurable” because this is how we are going to drive change across agencies over the coming months and years to address the issues highlighted in today’s debate. We are focusing on preventing these horrendous crimes from taking place in the first place. We published the tackling violence against women and girls strategy last year very much in response to the 180,000 accounts that we received from women and girls, and men, who wanted to share their thoughts and experiences of violence against women and girls.

We have already put a range of practical steps in place, including, only last week, the public communications campaign “Enough”, which I encourage all Members across the House to share on their social media channels and networks to get the message out about the unacceptable attitudes that we do not want to see in our country in the 2020s.

We have also funded local projects and initiatives across England and Wales to the tune of more than £27 million to improve the safety of women in public spaces through the safer streets fund. I know this is a matter of interest to various colleagues. We, of course, have the roll-out of statutory relationships, sex and health education in schools, because we understand that we need to ensure that children and young people are taught at the earliest age possible and in an age-appropriate way what healthy and respectful love looks like.

In the last year, we have also published the end-to-end rape review report and action plan and we have looked at every stage of the criminal justice system. Ellie Reeves, understandably, says it took a long time. It did, because this is such a complex area, and everybody in the House will appreciate that we do not want to suffer unintended consequences, no matter how well meaning measures may be in the first place. With that approach, we outlined in the action plan a robust and ambitious programme of work.

In December, precisely because we are determined to have an attitude of non-defensive transparency about what is happening at various stages across the criminal justice system, we published our first six-monthly progress report and quarterly scorecard for adult rape cases. I am never very sure about that precise word, but it is the word we have come up with for the time being. It is about increasing public transparency of performance across the criminal justice system at every stage by grabbing data from the system from the moment a crime is recorded by the police to the completion of a case in court. The metrics have been selected to cover priority areas such as victim engagement, timeliness and the volume of cases reaching court.

The hon. Lady raised the point about equalities. Believe you me, this is something we are very conscious of. She will, I hope, understand—I do not say this by way of complaint; it is just a fact—that, because different parts of the CJS collect their data in different ways and measure different things, we have had to group together. She will have seen from the scorecards how carefully we have had to use the measures in various parts, because there is not a single line of measurement that runs through every stage of the CJS. We will get there, but at the moment it is taking a bit of time to collect that data. On the point about equalities, it is one of those measurements that we do not have yet. That is not for want of attention or effort, but it is taking a bit of time to try to address some of the very real equalities measurements. She will know, I hope, that, as part of the scorecard process, I personally not just chair meetings with leaders across the CJS, but listen to survivors groups, because they are the people who can very much guide us on some of this work.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Could the Minister explain whether there are any plans with any of the scorecards or process of monitoring to look at the data around constant and repeat offenders? One of the main problems in the system is that nobody is monitoring repeat offenders or doing any real offender management. What we see again and again is the same people committing the same crimes. Will anything be found in the data to deal with that particular issue?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

May I correct the hon. Lady on that point about repeat offenders? People are managing it and monitoring it, albeit not through the scorecard. She will know of the offender management systems in place and the ViSOR—violent and sex offender register—system. She will also know, because we discussed it at great length during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, of our programme to revolutionise the way the current system, MAPPA—the multi-agency public protection arrangements—works into MAPPS—the multi-agency public protection system—which will be able to track the most dangerous offenders in the ways both she and I want. We are offering these metrics precisely so that there can be scrutiny of the stages at which things are going right, or indeed wrong. Having produced national scorecards, we will soon produce local scorecards so we can look locally to see where good practice is happening and where other areas need to follow suit.

On the criminal justice system, we have recruited, as I hope the House knows, more than 11,000 police officers as part of our commitment to recruit 20,000 officers, and more than 100 prosecutors in the Crown Prosecution Service have already undertaken induction training on rape and serious sexual offences. On the point raised about mobile phones and the data strip search, again, having listened to victims, charities that support survivors and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Victims’ Commissioner, we have in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill set out the legal framework for digital data downloads. We understand how that can be so terribly difficult for victims and their willingness, frankly, to go along with a case.

The issue of specialism has been raised. That is why we are supporting Operation Soteria, a joint police and CPS programme of work whereby they turn the investigation on its head, from looking at the victim to looking at the suspect. That is clearly the way forward and we have committed to expanding the initial work from five areas to, in the next tranche, 14. We will be rolling this out nationally, but we have to do it through the staged approach because one can imagine, I hope, the differences between a huge metropolitan force and a much smaller, more rural force in terms of economies of scale and ways of working. We are doing it in an iterative, careful way so that when we make change we make effective change that has meaningful and positive consequences for victims.

We are focusing even more on victim support, too. We are putting victims at the heart of the system so that they get the support they need to continue with such cases. We are providing an unprecedented £150 million to victims support services this year, an increase of over £100 million on the budget in 2010-11, and we have committed to increasing funding for all victims support services to £185 million by 2024-25, including increasing the number of independent sexual and domestic violence advisers, because we know that victims who have access to IDVAs and ISVAs are nearly 50% more likely to stay engaged with the criminal justice process.

We are also commissioning a new national helpline and online services for victims of rape and sexual violence, which will be available 24/7. This is a real step forward. We want victims to be able to get help when they need it. We have seen the huge successes of the national domestic abuse helpline and I want to replicate that for victims of sexual violence.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the Minister agree that many police forces no longer have RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—units? Does she think they should have them?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

We have different agencies involved in the criminal justice system. Sometimes, there is an understandable wish in the Chamber for us to be able to control everything from the Dispatch Box, but we have a strong tradition of chief constables directing their personnel, training and so on. I have to say that the reaction of the police to Operation Soteria has been truly committed. They want to make the sort of changes we are already beginning to see with Op Soteria. I genuinely believe that, through Soteria, we will begin to see real change in policing. With the roll-out of that in the pilot areas, national learning is already being shared and that will roll through forces—even those not in the next tranche of 14.

I am conscious about giving Back Benchers time, so I will pick up just a couple more points. I hope that the House supports our decision to include violence against women and girls in the strategic policing requirement, which means that it must be prioritised as other serious crimes such as homicide, serious and organised crime and terrorism are prioritised. Of course, through the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and previous measures, this place has strengthened the law on things such as the so-called rough sex defence and the new offence of non-fatal strangulation. Indeed, the police Bill, which is in the other place, will increase the time that sexual offenders serving sentences for offences of particular concern must spend in prison from half their custodial term to two thirds.

We have heard about the roll-out of section 28, which, in fairness, I think the Opposition welcome. That is one of the levers by which we will really make progress on the timing of cases. If we can persuade the CPS and judges to permit victims to give their pre-recorded evidence at a very early stage in a case after investigation, that will help with timeliness. There is hope and expectation that that will increase guilty pleas, but also it will help victims to give their best evidence in a timely fashion, and juries will, in due course, be able to consider it. We will roll that out as soon as is practicable.

My hon. Friend Laura Farris highlighted the issue of cases being knocked off the list, floaters and so on. Again, we expect that section 28 will be able to deal with some of listing issues that she rightly raised..

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

I of course endorse and support everything the Minister said on section 28. Everyone who has given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee’s review on rape has spoken about how important that is. There have been one or two dissenting voices, but the power of section 28 procedures has basically been advocated across the board. The one thing that was said to the Justice Committee this afternoon that I must make the Minister aware of is that at the moment it is very patchy whether police forces across the country are even aware of section 28, or whether they are making victims aware of it. With the national roll-out, will she pledge to ensure that the police are applying it?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Of course, that communication programme is part of our work in rolling it out. That is why we are working as fast as we can, but we do need to take the police and others with us.

In terms of minimum and maximum sentences, the average sentence for an offence of rape in 2020 was more than 10 years. We very much respect the right of courts to retain all available sentencing options in these cases, but we understand from the figures that we see that the courts are mindful of the enormous impact that these terrible offences can have on victims and the wider community.

I gently remind the Opposition that they called for a single Minister. Well, we have two for the price of one here on the Government Benches. We all understand that the criminal justice system has many facets. We have two Ministers solely focused on violence against women and girls. Finally, I thank every single woman—and every person—working across the criminal justice system to help support victims of rape and sexual violence. That includes those offering a hand to hold in a sexual assault referral centre, independent sexual violence advisers as well as our team of officers and Crown court and other litigators. Every single one of them is helping us to deliver justice and I thank them sincerely for it.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We will start with a six-minute time limit, although that may well have to go down. I call Jess Phillips.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 6:00 pm, 8th March 2022

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was not expecting to be called so quickly, so this is a delight, and Happy International Women’s Day to you. I want to talk over a few things. Obviously, along with the shadow Justice Minister, my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves, I spend a huge amount of time with victims and setting out what we think the Labour party policy needs to be, and I endorse absolutely everything that she said.

There are a number of things that I feel the Government are not currently addressing and on which there does not seem to be any direction of travel. The first thing—it would be remiss of me not to mention that this has come from almost every victim of sexual violence that I have ever met, and certainly in the past few weeks—is the commissioning strategy around health provision for victims of violence and abuse. In my view, and I tried to get everybody to vote for this during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, there should be a statutory duty on every public commissioning body that runs people-based services to have to commission specialist support for victims of violence and abuse. It is inexcusable that in the vast majority of mental health services across our country, there is absolutely nothing in the way of specialist support. I have never met somebody, male or female, suffering from substance misuses, who was heroin-dependent or who had their lives blighted by substance misuse, who had not suffered some form of sexual violence as a child or adult. The reality is that we should put in those specialist services and insist that every public health commissioner and every mental health commissioner in the country provides this as part of their sexual health and substance misuse strategies.

The Minister has talked about chief constables and the fact that they get to decide, and that local areas will pick. There is not a local area in the country where people are not being raped. There is not one; it is not one of those crimes. There are crimes that happen in my constituency every single day that likely are not happening so much in the Minister’s constituency. We have very different seats, but this is not a crime that discriminates in any area. All our constituencies are full of people who are being raped and abused.

The situation at the moment is that, unlike what we have done in making refuge a statutory duty, we do not say that local decision makers and local commissioners have to provide specialist EMDR—eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing—trauma-based support. We sit back in this building and delegate responsibility to local decision makers. Personally, I think that if there is a chief constable in the country who thinks that they should not have specialist support and specialist officers for sexual violence, they should not be a chief constable in our country—the end. I am absolutely certain that the Minister agrees with me.

I wish to raise another very important point regarding healthcare. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Maggie Throup, answered a parliamentary question this week about ending telemedical abortions. She said that the Government had taken advice with regard to vulnerable women and how they use the service and that has resulted in the decision to end telemedical abortions. I would like Ministers to tell me which experts they spoke to, because there is not a women’s organisation in the land that fights for women who have been victims of sexual violence or domestic abuse that would agree with the Government’s current stance on telemedical abortions.

It does not begin and end with the criminal justice system—thank goodness, because there would be literally no hope for rape victims if that were the case. There is not a rape victim in the country who would say that they have had a good time in the criminal justice system. I have heard rape victims describe themselves as the lucky ones because they were raped by a stranger—and their phone was still taken off them. What on earth for? My phone is not taken off me when my car gets broken into. Why are we taking phones off them?

The Under-Secretary of State, Rachel Maclean, told me last week that there is never a time when she would not want to brief this House on Operation Soteria. I ask Ministers: when the people running Operation Soteria arranged with me to brief Members in this House about the findings of the Metropolitan police that in some cases three quarters of police officers think women routinely lie about their sexual violence experiences, why were we not allowed to hold that briefing? Why were the people who work on Operation Soteria not allowed to come to Parliament to brief Members?

The Government say that Operation Soteria is something that they are doing, but it is not just a check box—“Oh, we’ve done Operation Soteria.” We have to know what people are saying, so we can scrutinise it. What they have said so far is that the system needs an entire overhaul. That is what I will be looking for.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 6:06 pm, 8th March 2022

I wish we did not have to debate a topic like this on International Women’s Day, but given how the system has been failing victims of rape, it is right that we do. I do not think that the country has ever had a good enough approach to the victims of violence and sexual violence towards women and girls—not successive Governments, not the police, not the Crown Prosecution Service and not wider society. I will return to that point.

I looked at the figures yesterday. In the year ending 2003, there were 11,445 rapes against females in this country. In 2020, there were close to 53,000 rapes against females in this country. I accept that, as with all crime, people will say that that is partly a result of better systems for reporting and recording, but that can only be part of it. In only two of the years between 2003 and 2020 was there a downward trend; in every other year the figures were up on the year before. They have gone up further still, and our conviction rate is much lower.

While preparing for this debate, I went back to some of the very powerful cases that I have heard about from constituents. Unfortunately, such is the nature of these crimes that there are too many for me to cite, but I have picked three. For one constituent, it was three years before their case reached court. During that time, they were told not to have therapy; they were then told that they could have therapy, as long as the therapist’s notes were made available for the defence lawyer of the person who had raped them. They were told that they should not apply for compensation; they were told that they should not talk about the trial; they were told that they might not be able to watch the trial.

I just cannot imagine going through that sort of process after having had this done to you—having justice denied for so long and all these obstacles put in your way. I can imagine why it is easier to let it go and think, “I don’t want to carry on with this, because it feels like the system works for the perpetrator rather than for the victim.”

I had another constituent who was raped by someone who had already had six “no further action” notices for six separate assaults against six different women. I had a third constituent who summed up the system pretty well: she said that the police do not feel that they can put forward a case that the CPS will not go for, and the CPS will not put forward a case that it thinks a jury will not go for. She felt strongly that when a case gets to the jury, it is in the hands of people’s prejudices. She quoted statistics from the findings of a 2018 attitudes survey. One in three people had said that they did not think rape as a result of coercion was actually rape, one in four had said that rape in a long-term relationship was not rape, and one in 10 had not been sure whether raping someone who was drunk or asleep constituted rape.

The system is undoubtedly failing victims, and I therefore welcome a number of measures that the Government are taking. I welcome the scorecards, because I think that the data will really help. I welcome the funding for rape support services, and—it is ridiculous even to have to say this—I welcome the increased emphasis that will be placed on the suspect’s behaviour rather than the victim’s credibility. I note what has been said about the proposal for a seven-year minimum sentence, and I note that in 2020 68% of people received sentences longer than seven years and the average was 10 years. I also think it right that the Government are considering the introduction of specialist rape offence courts.

We rightly talk about how to fix the system to ensure that perpetrators are given the punishment that they deserve, that this is a quick process, and that we have a high conviction rate. However, this is another area in which we should spend more time talking about prevention. It seems to me, as I am sure it does to everyone else, that a boy who grows up respecting girls and is taught about healthy relationships is unlikely to become a man who rapes women and keeps them in toxic relationships. When Ofsted conducted a review of sexual abuse in schools, it found that many children and young people did not bother to report such abuse because it was so common that they did not see the point of doing so.

I think that as well as dealing with the people who have committed these crimes, we should focus much more on how we control what children and young people can access on the internet, what they can see in video games, and how they observe men behaving in both private and public spheres. Teaching boys how to behave in the right way will give us the best chance of securing the society with zero tolerance for rape that the Government rightly say they want.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:12 pm, 8th March 2022

I am glad to be able to speak about this Labour motion in support of victims of rape and sexual violence on International Women’s Day, although it is ironic that on a day when we celebrate the role and importance of women in society, we also hear that women and girls continue to suffer rape and sexual violence.

This Government are not doing enough to tackle this issue. The response to a freedom of information request submitted by the South Wales Argus, my local newspaper, to Gwent police revealed that in 2021, 587 incidents of rape were reported, only five of which resulted in charges, and 436 are still under investigation. That is completely unacceptable. If the crime were murder, there would be a public outcry at those appalling figures, but crimes of rape and sexual violence can be as devastating as murder for the victims and their families, and can leave mental and physical scars that will take years to heal, if they ever do.

However, those figures represent only a small fraction of the real problem. Rape Crisis, an umbrella charity for rape crisis centres across England and Wales, has stated:

“More than 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have experienced rape or sexual assault as adults.”

This is an epidemic, in which not enough is being done. It needs to be treated seriously, and Labour in power will do that. Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ record speaks, loudly, for itself. Rape prosecutions and convictions have reached historic lows, and the typical delay between an offence of rape and the completion of the resulting criminal case exceeded 1,000 days for the first time in 2021, under this Tory Government. Make no mistake, Madam Deputy Speaker: the Government's actions so far, and their continuing inaction, speak more clearly and loudly than any words spoken from the Conservative Benches today. Labour will guarantee 33,000 extra sitting days to get case loads down, and the creation of a Minister for rape and sexual violence survivors. We will also remove the legal barriers that prevent victims of domestic abuse from receiving the help that they need through legal aid. Labour will fast-track rape cases to ensure that people are not waiting years for their day in court, because justice delayed is justice denied. We cannot allow on any level a culture of obstruction and delay to prevent that justice from being delivered.

At the moment, rapists and perpetrators of sexual violence are walking free as victims are dropping court cases because of delays, a lack of confidence in the system and the threat of being confronted in their local area by their attacker. Victims of rape face having their phones taken from them by the police and not returned for many months. This leads to further anxiety and to another avenue of communication and comfort being closed off to the victim. Again, this is simply unacceptable, as the victim is made to feel vulnerable and alone at a time when they should be supported and reassured to know that their attacker is being brought to justice swiftly and punished accordingly.

My constituents in Newport West want to know that they are safe. They want to know that if something terrible happens to them they will be supported and that they will have justice. Under the current Government, that justice is lacking, and people’s faith in our justice system has been eroded. Max Hill QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has described how the criminal justice system that deals with rape and sexual assault is creating a “crisis of public trust”. The Conservative Government have hit a historic low and I urge them to raise their game for the sake of all women and girls across the UK. We must protect and support them all.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 6:16 pm, 8th March 2022

This is an appropriate day on which to have this important debate because as we celebrate International Women’s Day we also need to recognise the particular challenges and threats that women and girls sadly face in our society. We all want the experience of victims of rape and serious sexual offences in the criminal justice system to improve. We also want to ensure that the guilty are convicted of these offences. That has to be done in a way, which, in our criminal system, safeguards the rights of an accused person, who is of course innocent until the offence is proved against them. That is always a difficult balancing act, and particularly difficult in sensitive cases such as these. I say that as someone who has probably prosecuted and defended more rape and serious sexual offences than most people currently in this House. This requires investment in resource, in training and in sensitivity.

The best way we can increase the level of rape convictions in this country is to improve the quality of the evidence gathering, so that when the files go to the Crown Prosecution Service to take a decision to charge, more cases meet the threshold. We cannot lower the threshold in any criminal case. The threshold for prosecution is the same for any criminal case, and so it must remain. In other words: is there sufficient legally admissible evidence for a reasonable prospect of conviction? The key problem is that not enough cases so far are reaching that threshold.

Interestingly, when cases of rape and serious sexual offences are charged and get to trial, the conviction rate when they go before a jury is broadly similar to that for other serious offences of violence. A positive thing about our jury system is that, whatever polling there is about the misconceptions about rape that allegedly exist in general society, once the jurors have been empanelled, sworn their oath, heard the evidence and listened to the directions of the judge, they take their responsibilities very seriously indeed and generally set those misconceptions aside. We must ensure that we keep the Judicial Studies Board’s model guidance to judges up to date, and that the judiciary take that seriously themselves.

The problem is getting these cases to the Crown court in the first place. It is appropriate that the chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service and the senior inspector of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary gave evidence to the Justice Committee today, as my hon. Friend Laura Farris said earlier. They gave compelling evidence about the challenges that we face. There is much being done. The end-to-end rape review is important, Operation Soteria is important and they said that there was a willingness for there to be greater collaboration across the system, but there are still issues.

I want to highlight one issue in particular, which is the question of delays. We have talked about the significant amount of delay, with an average of 706 days from the reporting of the offence to the start of the trial. It is interesting when we break that figure down, because the evidence we heard from the chief inspectors was that there is an average of 218 days from the start of investigation to sending the file to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision. From receipt of the papers by the Crown Prosecution Service to a decision to charge: 21 days. From the decision to charge to the first appearance in court: 13 days. From the decision to charge to the first pre-trial and preparation hearing: 30 days. A plea is entered and directions are given, but it is another 320-odd days before the final disposal at trial.

That shows us where the problems are. On that evidence, it is not within the CPS. I pay tribute to the priority that the current Director of Public Prosecutions has given to rape and serious sexual offences, but the evidence is very clear that the biggest attrition rate, the biggest drop-out rate, among complainants comes in the period between reporting a case to the police and it going to the CPS for charge.

That means the police need to handle these cases much more sensitively. Good chief constables recognise that, and I also find it inexplicable why on earth any force would not have a RASSO unit. There are proper obligations to disclose unused material as part of the checks and balances in our system, but there is no reason why it should not be done speedily and sensitively. We need to make sure that happens, and we also need better training on proper evidence gathering, asking the right questions, probing intelligently to find supporting evidence and working with specialist Crown prosecutors to build a case.

That will get more cases over the charging line, and then we need to look at the delays in bringing cases to trial, which is where there is merit in exploring specialist courts and making sure we have enough ticketed judges and recorders to do it, as well as enough experienced advocates both prosecuting and defending—that is important to the experience of complainants, to just outcomes in such cases and to confidence in the system.

These are important matters that we need to address, and I hope the chief inspectors will come back to our Committee once the Government have responded to their joint thematic report, which raises important points and is obviously something this House will want to consider again in the future.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:22 pm, 8th March 2022

I pay tribute to Labour Front Benchers for calling this important debate on International Women’s Day. On a day when women and girls across the world have much to celebrate, it is a tragedy that we are talking about something so horrific, but it is right to do so given that we are where we are.

The awesome, inspiring and very moving address from President Zelensky is a reminder that sexual violence against women and girls is always a huge risk in war. Where a power ignores UN conventions and bombs the routes that refugees are taking out of cities, I am afraid we cannot expect that power to behave any better when it comes to respecting women and girls.

It is reckoned that 5 million people in England and Wales, principally women, have been victims of sexual assault. A third of girls aged 16 to 18 say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. We have heard many Members say how the justice system lets down women and girls, too. There were an estimated 139,000 rapes in 2019-20, with fewer than 59,000 reported and only 2.4% resulting in a conviction. Every one of those statistics is a woman, a girl, an individual, a victim, and almost every one of those statistics is a woman, a girl, an individual, a victim who got no justice, which is an utter outrage.

Men often do not think about the impact of sexual violence on how women and girls think about the mundane things of everyday life. It feels like spring today but, when autumn comes around and the nights draw in, it is a mundane, perfunctory decision for women and girls to change their routes and practices of where they go, when they go and who they go with. That is somehow a normal way of managing their time and their life to cope with such utter wickedness. It fills me with shame, as a man, that we live in that kind of society, where it is not safe for women and girls to go about their normal daily lives. If we are not safe, we are not free.

What makes me, and women and girls, angry is that we see precious little action. I am trying to be sensitive in what I say here. In my time as a Member of Parliament, we have lost two precious colleagues in Jo Cox and David Amess, and we grieve them and miss them. The response of the authorities, the security services and the police to those horrific murders was to strengthen our security; we see police turning up at our surgeries, and I am grateful for that and it is welcome. The response to well-publicised appalling acts against women—rapes and murders—is what? It is the Metropolitan police taking action against the women who protest. It is this Government choosing not to make misogyny a hate crime when they had the option to do so. It is the failure of us all to tackle the attitudes among boys and men towards women—David Johnston mentioned that—and the objectification of women, through films, TV and the internet. When some outrage happens and a woman is raped or murdered, people on the internet will say, “Oh, it is not all men.” Stuff that, every man has responsibility. Every man has a responsibility to check their own attitudes, reflect upon them and make sure that we seek—for ourselves and the young men we raise in this society—to be respectful towards women and see them as equal in every way.

On International Women’s Day, I want to take a moment to refer to the reality of our need to focus on the plight of girls around the world who are subject to, or at risk of, forced child marriage and the violence associated with that. It was my privilege earlier today to speak to Evi Gosden and Sheiba Aigiomawu from Compassion UK, whose work in educating girls and their families in countries such as Uganda so that girls are kept safe from the cruel practice of forced child marriage is so utterly important. I encourage Members and indeed anyone paying attention to this speech to support Compassion UK’s work, which is done via sponsorship of girls and their communities, and is hugely effective.

I will make a final, related comment. In many developing countries, women die in childbirth in greater numbers and more children do not make it past infancy. The child survival work of Compassion UK, supported by the UK Government through international aid—hooray!—runs the risk of not being renewed after December. Why is that? It is because of the cuts in international aid. It is no good us, on International Women’s Day, speaking up in favour of protecting women and girls here in this country or overseas if we will not match those words with actions that sometimes bear a financial cost.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 6:27 pm, 8th March 2022

I rise to speak in favour of this motion, on International Women’s Day. I recently held a summit on this issue, and the public made it clear to me that the Conservative Government are failing women. The consequence of this failure is felt on a personal level by women and girls. It erodes their confidence to be alone in public, in the dark, and it instils a fear that I find it hard to imagine many men would be able to comprehend.

Last autumn, I conducted a survey in my constituency on rape and sexual violence. Several hundred people responded and I was shocked to learn that 69% of respondents carried their keys in their hands on their way home; that 45% sent their current location to a friend or loved one; and that 66% would call someone while walking along. Although small in scale, these acts are, unfortunately, increasingly necessary, due to a rise in violence against women and girls; this is not helped by the flattening of rape prosecution rates, high-profile murders such as that of Sarah Everard and the cuts that have decimated our public services.

On a local level, Warwickshire police abolished their specialist RASSO unit nine years ago, in 2013. On a national level, the number of staff at the Crown Prosecution Service fell by a third between 2010 and 2019. Successive Conservative Governments have presided over a series of cuts at both ends of the national-local spectrum, which has eroded this country’s ability to counter VAWG. With two out of five police forces lacking a RASSO unit—I referred to that in my point to the Minister—these cuts have made securing justice for gender-based violence and sexual assault, in effect, a postcode lottery.

The results of the cuts make for grim reading. As we have heard, a mere 1.3% of rape cases are prosecuted, despite the number of rapes reported to the police being at record highs. I am appalled to confirm that Warwickshire is reported as having the lowest rape conviction rate of any county in England and Wales, with only seven of just 15 cases pursued by Warwickshire police resulting in conviction. It is no surprise that we see a strong correlative link between cuts to local services and stark decreases in prosecution and conviction rates. It has led to what the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird QC, has described as the “effective decriminalisation of rape.” That is a shameful record by any standard.

With a policing culture now accustomed to the effective decriminalisation of rape, it is particularly grotesque to see the ways in which certain elements in police forces perceive themselves to be above the law. A year after the tragic murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of the Met police officer Wayne Couzens, we are reminded of it by the revelations at Charing Cross police station and others. Indeed, a Warwickshire police officer currently faces allegations of inappropriate contact with a domestic abuse victim.

This matter needs to be treated with the urgency it deserves. It is unfathomable that the Government are preparing to close down the Nightingale courts, including the one in my constituency, when the average time taken in the courts to deal with a crime rose by 15% in the three months up to September 2021, to 620 days. This matter needs to be addressed through the education of boys and young men, but I do not have the time to develop that theme now. The Minister may well justify the backlog because of the temporary closure of many courts during the covid-19 pandemic, but the Government’s savage cuts between 2010 and 2019, when half of all courts in England and Wales were closed, allowed for 27,000 fewer sitting days than there were in 2016. The blame lies clearly at the door of successive Conservative Governments.

Labour would extend the use of Nightingale courts beyond April 2022, to begin to reduce the court delays and guarantee 33,000 extra sitting days to get the case loads down. To spur this initiative on, we would appoint a specific Minister for rape and sexual violence survivors. If victims have a specific voice in Government, fighting for their interests and turbocharging the required reforms, they will hopefully begin to feel that the law and the state are on their side.

In a victims-led approach to reform, we would introduce a victims Bill to establish the victims code in law. We would increase sentences for rapists and stalkers and create specific new offences for street sexual harassment and sex for rent. Making legal aid available to victims and fast-tracking rape and serious sexual assault cases through the court system would bring about much-needed justice—and fast. These are the elements for which the public are calling and the points that were fed back to me at my recent summit.

Having promised to introduce a victims Bill in 2016, the Government seem to have lost their grip on law and order, and in particular on violence against women and girls, which is increasingly endemic. The Government have had more than six years to bring a Bill forward, but it seems clear that only Labour has the drive, ambition and impetus to deliver justice for the victims of sexual assault and violence against women.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 6:33 pm, 8th March 2022

I rise to speak in this important debate on behalf of women and girls in Dulwich and West Norwood who have little confidence that the Government, the police and the courts are there to protect them. The shocking failure to prosecute the horrific offence of rape is one of the clearest manifestations of the ways in which this Government are failing women and girls. A woman can be raped, and in less than 2% of cases will the perpetrator face any consequences. It might as well be legal.

Women and girls see a terrible continuum from the casual, everyday street harassment that they experience, to the culture of sexual harassment in schools exposed so clearly by the Everyone’s Invited campaign, to the horrific murders that have reached the headlines in recent months: of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sabina Nessa, and of the many more whose names we do not know—women going about their daily lives, walking home, celebrating a birthday or meeting a friend for a drink on a Friday night.

Again and again, the Government have responded with warm words but the action has fallen short. They have said that they will create a new offence of sexual harassment in a public place if there is evidence that it is needed. I am not sure what additional evidence the Government need than the millions of women up and down the country who rose up a year ago to say that street harassment blights their lives and makes them feel unsafe in their own neighbourhoods and town centres. The promised legislation to criminalise curb crawling has failed to materialise. There has been no meaningful follow up response to the Everyone’s Invited revelations.

Women look at the reality of the framework of protection on which they should be able to rely, and they see story after story of police officers behaving in ways that are as bad as the offenders whom they are supposed to apprehend—sharing pictures of murdered women on a WhatsApp group, making advances as they report sexual harassment, being charged with and convicted of rape, and, most shockingly of all, using a warrant card to facilitate rape and murder. Yet there is still no statutory inquiry into the culture of misogyny in the police, and no commitment to culture change.

The courts are no better. I spoke recently with a constituent who is the victim of horrific domestic abuse. She told me that the central London family court is so clogged up that no one ever answers the phone. The Government must urgently act to give women and girls confidence that they are safe at home, on our streets and in public spaces; that if they are the victim of any type of misogyny, from curb crawling to street harassment to rape, they will be listened to and believed; and that the offence will be investigated, evidence gathered and everything possible done to bring a successful prosecution so that perpetrators are always held to account.

Delivering this change requires much more than simply a change of management approach at the Crown Prosecution Service. It requires a wholesale change in the culture of policing and the practices of the criminal justice system. It also requires a much greater commitment to prevention, particularly in educating boys and young men on respect and consent.

Finally, today is International Women’s Day, and as we debate the shamefully poor rape prosecution rate in this country, we must also stand in solidarity with women and girls in other parts of the world. I want to mention in particular women in Ethiopia, who over the past 18 months have been subjected to an horrific conflict, which has seen the routine and systematic use of rape as a weapon of war. The British Government must do everything possible to end the use of sexual violence in conflict, working through the UN and providing humanitarian and trauma support to victims. They can do that most effectively from a position of strength at home. The Government must show that rape is a heinous offence and that perpetrators must always be held to account by getting their own house in order and leading by example.

As a mother of two teenage girls, I reflect on how I always tell them as they leave home in the morning to “stay safe” as if that is somehow solely their responsibility. It is not. We cannot tolerate any longer a society in which women and girls are subjected to harassment on a daily basis, far too often escalating into abuse and rape, and in which the institutions and systems that should be there to protect them fail so dismally to do so.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice) 6:38 pm, 8th March 2022

I thank all those who have spoken today, exposing the real challenges that women face in the justice system and the challenges that women face everywhere. Today, on International Women’s Day, I want to pay particular tribute to the women and girls of Ukraine, particularly after that heartfelt and emotional address from President Zelensky—the women staying behind to take up arms and the women fleeing for their lives, often with young children or elderly parents. Our hearts and support go out to them at this difficult time.

We have heard some powerful speeches in this debate. We have heard how the justice system lets women and girls down. My hon. Friend Jess Phillips pointed out the complete lack of specialist health services for victims of serious sexual assault. It was a passionate speech emphasising, as ever, her wealth of knowledge, but also the need for a complete overhaul of the justice system. My hon. Friend Ruth Jones drew a comparison with the victims of murder; the victims of serious sexual assault and rape can be left with long-held scars of a different kind, yet it is viewed so differently and not taken as seriously.

I welcome the comments of Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, who spoke strongly about the impact of delays on victims and the need for specialist courts, something that Labour is firmly behind and pushing the Government on. The hon. Members for Wantage (David Johnston) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised the critical issue of men’s responsibility to change behaviours and of shifting our culture and society. My hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) both spoke powerfully about startling statistics and how action from Government falls woefully short.

“You’re safer staying in that abusive relationship than you are trying to get out. The aftermath is 100 per cent worse.”

Those are the words of a survivor of attempted murder, rape and domestic abuse. Rachel shared her 16-year living nightmare with me, the flashbacks and nightmares of which are so traumatic that she has tried to take her own life several times. A survivor of the most abhorrent crimes anyone could face believes that staying in her abusive relationship was better than facing our criminal justice system. I ask hon. Members to think about that for a few minutes.

Today, on this International Women’s Day, we are breaking the bias of inequality that overwhelmingly costs women their lives, their hopes and their futures. That must begin with our justice system—a system that discredits and destroys, treating victims like criminals despite having had their own bodies used against them, a system that is now punishing victims and excusing criminals. We see victims cross-examined and left feeling ashamed as they report the atrocities that have happened to them.

That happened to a woman I met earlier this year, who was raped at just 19 years old. Eight years after the incident, Sophie bravely reported it to the police. It took the CPS 11 months to decide to charge and another two and half years to get to court. Then, following the poor advice of a court attendant, Sophie was told she should attend court and take the stand. She was there for two hours, sitting behind a screen to protect herself from seeing the perpetrator, whom she had not seen for nearly ten years.

The first thing Sophie was asked to do by the defence was to open an evidence booklet placed in front of her to a particular page. There in front of her was the picture of the man who had violently abused her. It was a barbaric scare tactic used to throw her off. The re-traumatisation meant she was unable to recall important details of the incident. He was found not guilty. Sophie’s case very disturbingly demonstrates the systemic failures at every level of our criminal justice system, from the police to the CPS to the court witness assistant.

Just over a week ago, the criminal justice joint inspection report on rape was released. It identified that most victims feel as if they are the ones being investigated or standing trial, rather than the focus being on the behaviour of the accused. The courts are complicit in the abuse that women face. That needs to change, and it needs to change now.

Today we are breaking the bias that sees victims subject to vengeful stereotypes. My own constituent was portrayed as a scornful, resentful wife in court when her husband committed fraud, forging her signature countless times. Helen lost everything: her home, her friends, her career. Her father died and her mother was sectioned, both broken by watching their daughter go through such an ordeal. Her husband was found not guilty. She tells me she is still living with the shame she was made to feel—the humiliation, being called a liar, and tainted by someone else’s dirt. Helen is just one of the survivors I speak to every day as shadow victims Minister: women faced with unimaginable circumstances. I am always in awe of their bravery in speaking out about their experiences.

It is these women who gave me the courage to speak out about what I went through. So today I want to break not only the bias but the stigma. This abuse really can happen to anyone. I recently gave a very personal interview about my own experience in a controlling, emotionally abusive and coercive relationship. I consider myself a strong, independent women with a thick skin, having to navigate the brutal reality of being a woman in politics, yet it still happened to me. I still felt trapped, trying also to navigate the lying, the cheating, the gaslighting and the controlling behaviour—living in a permanent state of anxiety, unable to function at times, and not knowing what was real or what was not. It took all my strength to leave the relationship I was in. I left one evening last year with just a single bag under my arm.

Many will not understand what it takes to leave that kind of relationship or why you stay so long. Being able to talk about it now without fear and without shame is as important as it is liberating. But that is not to understate the constant trauma both during and after, and its impact on the people around you. I want to thank my friends, my family and my brilliant team for being there.

All the women I have spoken to have one thing in common: they are determined to speak out about the injustice that they face to drive positive change. Deep-rooted inequality that makes society unsafe for women and girls is not just a problem for women and girls to resolve. We must remember that; it is everyone’s problem. Our culture must change so that we are able to talk about these relationships and the many women still feeling trapped, abused and controlled can see that there is hope, however small, that there is strength in exposing their vulnerability and pain, and that they will get to the other side. That is what breaks down stigmas.

I stand here on International Women’s Day proud of what I have achieved—that I can stand here as a shadow Minister and advocate on behalf of Rachel, Sophie and Helen. They are just a few of so many thousands of women who need this Government to step up to address the fundamental and institutionalised flaws in the justice system, to toughen sentences for spiking and introduce minimum sentences for rape and stalking, to implement Labour’s survivors’ package for victims of rape and serious sexual violence, and to begin an immediate review into setting up specialist rape offence courts to help to clear the significant Crown Court backlog of rape cases. There is no breaking the bias without first breaking the stigmas. Only then can we even begin to restore trust in the justice system.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 6:48 pm, 8th March 2022

It is real privilege to be able to close this debate and, in particular, to follow the speech by Anna McMorrin. It is the first time that I have heard her story, but I am sure that she will have made an enormous difference by speaking out today in the way she has, and I commend her courage. She is absolutely right to say that she will be changing attitudes by addressing the stigma and breaking the bias, so I want to thank her, as will, I am sure, every Member of the House.

It is a real privilege to close the debate on International Women’s Day, and I associate myself with all the remarks that have been made paying tribute to President Zelensky and the incredible women and girls of that amazing country, Ukraine. We stand with them. I never thought when I entered Parliament that I would be addressing the House after a speech such as the one I heard today. None of us has been left unmoved by it.

It is right that we focus on how we support victims and bring perpetrators to justice. I thank everybody who has brought before us the experiences of their constituents and told their stories. Listening to those victims and their experiences is how we drive the change across the justice system that all of us in this House are passionate to achieve, in order to build a fairer society for women and make our streets safer.

Yesterday, many of us attended an event run by Women’s Aid—it was a pleasure to see so many Members there. The comments made at that event chimed with me and many others. One of the Spice Girls, Mel B, stood up and said that she had no problem at all standing on a stage at Wembley stadium, singing and performing in front of hundreds of thousands of people, but that was nothing compared with the trauma of having to tell her story about her abusive marriage and everything she has gone through. Continuing to allow these victims and these incredible survivors to come forward, supporting them, and working to achieve the change we all want is how we will change the system.

I thank all Members who have spoken in this debate. They have raised a number of points. Time does not allow me to address all of them in detail, but I will start with the issue of stalking, which has been mentioned by many Members. Stalking is a very serious matter that has a broad spectrum of manifestations. We are, of course, looking at this issue in the context of domestic abuse, and also of harassment. That is why we awarded £11.3 million to police and crime commissioners to fund programmes for domestic abuse perpetrators and perpetrators of stalking, whether or not it takes place in a domestic abuse context. A wide range of sentences are currently imposed for stalking offences, reflecting the broad spectrum of manifestations of this behaviour. The most serious offences could result in a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment.

We have discussed extensively in this Chamber the issue of stalking protection orders. As hon. Members know, I recently wrote to all police forces making clear where they are not using those tools appropriately, and that they need to use the levers at their disposal in order to properly keep women and girls safe. The grant rate for those orders is very high, and where they are being granted, the police feel they are a very useful measure, but there is more we can do.

We have also discussed the issue of spiking. We have all become familiar with these new and concerning reports of needle spiking, which is a terrifying experience—something that I think we all find appalling, frightening and disgusting. It is a reasonably new phenomenon, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working with the police to better understand the exact nature of spiking; what is actually happening with that crime? We are working to make sure we record these incidents through the crime recording framework, and are also urgently considering the case for a criminal offence targeting spiking directly. There are already a range of offences on the statute book that the police can use to prosecute this behaviour, but we are all concerned with making sure that those offences are used and we will not hesitate to legislate if necessary.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

My constituent Sharon Gaffka is involved in a campaign on spiking, having been spiked twice herself. She now has more than 1,000 testimonies from people ranging from the age of 14 to 65. It is not always a sexual offence—sometimes friends do it to each other because they think it is a bit of a laugh to get a reaction—but I wonder whether I can get my constituent to share those testimonies with my hon. Friend to help inform the Government’s understanding of what is going on here.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Of course. I thank my hon. Friend very much and I would be delighted to do that. I am working across Government with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and so on to have a cross-Government response to this matter.

Members have raised the issue of sentencing in a range of contexts. It is important to note that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is passing through the House, will ensure that serious sexual and violent offenders serve two thirds of their sentence in prison, instead of half. Indeed, a number of other measures in that Bill strengthen the management of sex offenders, including by enabling electronic monitoring requirements to be imposed on those who pose a risk through sexual harm prevention orders and sexual risk orders, if necessary.

It is important that our criminal justice system catches up from the impacts of the pandemic. Our decisive action in the courts has kept justice moving. That is why we invested a quarter of a billion pounds to support recovery in the last financial year, and 30 Nightingale courtrooms are to be extended until March next year as we work across Government to continue our efforts to tackle the impact of covid-19 on the justice system. The new victims Bill, which we are introducing as quickly as possible, will bring about a cultural shift so that victims’ experiences are central to how our society thinks about and responds to crime. We want to ensure that the Bill tackles the things that victims most care about.

Members have referenced health, which is a vital component of our strategy to provide the tailored support that victims of rape and other serious sexual offences need. Through the work being carried out by my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, the victims Bill consultation is looking closely at the commissioning of community-based services, including the role of health bodies. That consultation is now being analysed and we will bring forward a draft Bill as soon as possible.

I will reference an important piece of work from my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care through the women’s health strategy. The Department will appoint our first ever women’s health ambassador for England, whose role will be to focus on raising the profile of women’s health, increasing awareness and bringing in a range of collaborative voices. Members will know that I work closely with Women’s Aid, which is campaigning on better mental health support for victims of trauma and sexual offences. That forms another important component of the domestic abuse plan that we are bringing forward.

It is important to reference that we on the Government Benches fully accept that the current data shows that the system is not working as well as it could be. We have consistently been honest and transparent about that. It is only by doing that that we will be able to bring about the change that is desperately needed.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I am glad that my hon. Friend references data. Will she take on board the fact that the joint thematic report from the two inspectorates specifically references the need to do more on data in this field and ensure that that is in the Government’s response?

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We are reviewing those reports and others to ensure we have that data at our fingertips and bring forward the response that is required for victims. We are not complacent. We know there is more to do. This is the third time in the space of a week that I have personally stood in this Chamber discussing these very important issues. I am happy to continue to do so, because the work we are doing through Operation Soteria and some of the other workstreams is groundbreaking. I am proud to be associated with it, but we will not rest until we get the result that we need.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
commemorates International Women’s Day;
regrets that under this Government conviction rates for rape have reached a historic low and that the typical delay between reporting an offence of rape and the completion of the resulting criminal case is over 1,000 days;
calls on the Government to introduce minimum sentences for stalking and rape, to raise minimum sentencing for spiking and to implement Labour’s survivors’ package for victims of rape and serious sexual violence to restore trust in the criminal justice system;
and further calls on the Government to begin an immediate assessment of the impact of setting up specialist rape offence courts on the significant Crown Court backlog of rape cases, as recommended by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate.