Violence Against Women

Questions to the Mayor of London – answered on 29th July 2019.

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Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Do you support End Violence Against Women Coalition’s calls to resist a ‘campaign’ calling for anonymity of suspects in sexual offences cases?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Thank you, Chair. In my Police and Crime Plan and Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy I have committed to ensuring that survivors of rape and sexual violence are supported to come forward and report it to the police. Over 20,000 sexual offences were recorded in London in the last year [2018]. Sadly, I know that the scale of this horrific offence is likely to be much higher.

The British justice system is based on the principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty and this is something that the media must respect in their reporting. We know that media coverage can be important and has been pivotal in encouraging people to come forward and seek justice in high‑profile cases. For example, more victims came forward following the Jimmy Savile coverage and Lancashire Police also reported more victims coming forward from the Stuart Hall case. We have also had other examples like Rolf Harris and John Worboys [convicted sexual offenders].

We have also seen where media reporting has got it wrong, such as what happened in Cliff Richards’ case. Clearly this was deeply distressing and had a massive impact on an innocent man, his family and friends. It is concerning there is a belief that wrongful or false allegations are being made to damage reputations of suspects. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published guidance confirms that false allegations are rare. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) also confirms there is no evidence suggesting a greater prevalence of false rape allegations than false allegations of other offences. The London Victims’ Commissioner Claire Waxman had conducted an extensive review into rape cases across London. Preliminary findings highlight a huge imbalance in the way victims are treated by the justice system.

While there are protections and compensation available to those who have been falsely accused, the Victims’ Commissioner and I are working to improve the support for survivors to allow them to receive justice. Some of the ways we are doing this is through support for rape crisis centres, independent sexual violence advocates and improved supported for victims of crime. Blanket anonymity will further increase this imbalance against the survivor. The Victims Commissioner [Dame Vera Baird] and I have also repeatedly highlighted concerns about the impact that excessive disclosure can have on victims’ confidence to engage with the justice system. We need to work together to remove these barriers rather than put more in the way.

Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Thank you, Mr Mayor, and thank you for the way you answered that because the campaign started by Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini, both of whom were found innocent of charges against them, simply based on a misunderstanding that there is a false allegation crisis in relation to sexual offences, as they put it. I am glad that you have said that is a myth. There is no evidence of any greater false allegation in sexual offences and rape than in any other allegation.

The call for anonymity of rape and sexual offences suspects seems to me to be the start of a slippery slope where you start to say that these defendants are worthy of anonymity but those defendants who are guilty of murder or child abuse, for example, child negligence, are not. It also gives the impression that those who are making allegations are or should be less likely to be believed. What do you think would be the likely effects of granting anonymity if this campaign was to succeed?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Thanks for the points you made in the question, which were serious and important points to be made. We know that there is an imbalance in relation to attrition and successful convictions of those involved in some of these sexual offences cases and victims and complainants coming forward. A number of victims come forward and then withdraw their statement and do not want to co‑operate with the prosecution.

The downsides of giving anonymity to those accused of these crimes are not only fewer people coming forward and being the victims of this same person because they do not know because it is kept anonymous, but also a further imbalance between a complainant/victim and the defendant and the whole criminal justice system. We have to make it easier for victims and complainants to have confidence.

I accept, by the way, that there are some victims and complainants who may make vexatious complaints. I accept there are some examples in this area where there have been allegations made that are wrong. That does not necessitate us giving anonymity to everyone accused of these offences. That is why it is important to understand the principle but also to realise ‑ and you have raised this before ‑ that issues around disclosure are making it less likely for victims to stay with it once they have reported it than would otherwise be the case. Issues like the cuts made to services for victims makes it less likely for them to stay involved as well. We should make it easier for victims to stay in the process rather than making it more difficult.

Photo of Joanne McCartney Joanne McCartney Labour

Thank you. One of the things that could help those charged but also survivors would be to reduce the length of time it takes for a trial to come to court. What are you, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) and the MPS doing to work with the CPS to ensure that that time is reduced?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

This is an important point. Firstly, in very exceptional cases will somebody arrested but not yet charged be named by the police. It happens very, very exceptionally. Once somebody is charged, it is a matter of public record. From the moment somebody is arrested and even when they are charged and then from when they are charged to the trial, there are issues about the time, a huge amount of time. There is a cloud hanging over a potentially innocent offender’s head, and also the trauma, stress and anxiety of a victim and a complainant. The Victims’ Commissioner [Dame Vera Baird] and Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, are speaking to the police, CPS, the courts and the MoJ about how we can have swifter justice and accelerate the process of these trials.

Often one of the reasons why a victim will withdraw her statement is because of the time it has taken. They want to get on with their life. It is traumatic to relive this experience. It brings back flashbacks and all the rest of it.  If we can speed this up, it will lead to less anxiety, less trauma and be better for everyone all around. There is no downside to it.