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Rape Trials: Treatment of Victims

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 11:00 am, 15th May 2019

As so often, the hon. Gentleman gets it in one. From what I am about to say, he will see that I agree with him. I am sure the Minister is listening to what he and my hon. Friend John Howell are saying.

First, I want to raise the issues of sentencing for attempted rape and the lack of transparency in published statistics. Secondly, I want to turn to the treatment of victims who report their assault, and call for Government action to make this process easier. We must strive to ensure that justice is served and that there is always compassion and support for the victim.

Section 1(4) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 sets out that the maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Under the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, a person who attempts to commit the full offence of rape shall also be liable for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In the case of my Harlow constituent, her attacker had the intention, or mens rea, to commit the full offence. Had it not been for the fact that she had the sheer physical strength to fight him off until a security guard heard her screaming for help and intervened, his attempt might have been undeterred.

In their legislative form, the offences of attempted rape and rape are considered punishable by equal measure. However, by taking into account the circumstances of the case under the Sentencing Council’s guidelines, the court often imposes a lesser sentence on perpetrators of attempted rape because they have not committed the actus reus of rape. For my Harlow constituent, she feels let down by the justice system—robbed of the possibility of a longer sentence for the perpetrator because she fought so hard to fend him off. Will the Minister clarify the Sentencing Council’s guidelines for attempted rape and the basis on which their effectiveness as a means of securing justice is tested?

Another key problem on the subject of sentencing for sexual offences is the lack of clarity in the statistics. I welcome the Justice Secretary’s response to my letter on sentencing for attempted rape, but I was shocked by his acknowledgement that

“The Ministry of Justice does not disaggregate attempted rape from rape offences by sentence length in published figures.”

Can the Minister tell us whether the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice will commit to transparency in sentencing figures for rape and attempted rape, so that we have a much clearer basis on which to assess the suitability of existing law? Will she ensure that this is clearly published, rather than buried in spreadsheets and data tools?

Only 15% of sexual violence cases are reported to the police, and only 7.5% of rape charges result in conviction. These statistics are devastating and demand urgent Government attention. A whole host of factors might well be to blame for these figures: a high threshold for sufficient evidence; the CPS’s continuous demand for more intrusive personal data, including from mobile phones; and the myths surrounding what constitutes rape, to name but a few. However, some responsibility must be borne by the treatment of victims before, during and after trial. We are discouraging people from reporting their assault or forcing them to drop charges, because they cannot bear to continue.

After making the courageous decision to give her statement to the police, the process of my Harlow constituent’s fight for justice has been arduous and often extremely uncomfortable. It is important that I go through some of her experiences in detail—sadly, my constituent’s account is not unique. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, she waited eight hours in discomfort, exhaustion and emotional trauma to have forensic evidence collected at the sexual assault referral centre, or SARC. She was not permitted to wash and was asked to strip down before being swabbed from head to toe and photographed. She was then interviewed and asked intrusive personal questions. At the time, she was constantly waiting for nurses, police and support staff to attend to her.

As they are often the first port of call after an assault, SARCs play a crucial role in the victim’s ability to secure justice. It is possibly the most critical part of the process in obtaining forensic evidence that can be used by the prosecution at trial. However, we make victims wait in distress and discomfort, because otherwise they risk evidence being lost due to a lack of qualified staff. The rape support fund has been a cornerstone for support services, and I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s commitment under the victims strategy to increase spending from £31 million in 2016-17 to £39 million in 2020-21. The solution is not necessarily throwing more money at the problem, although more money will always be welcome; it is essential that money is being used wisely and efficiently to maximise reach.

NHS England says that SARCs delivered services to 20,000 people in 2017-18. In the same year, Rape Crisis supported 78,000 individuals on £10 million less funding. What measure will the Minister take to ensure that the £39 million is used to staff SARCs properly? While they are not staffed properly, we are not only adding to the distress and anguish of victims, but potentially risking the successful prosecution of people who commit such horrific acts. Additionally, the all-party parliamentary group on sexual violence, together with Rape Crisis, has identified concerns about increased competition for this extra money and whether there will be any significant changes to individual sentences.

The consequences, of course, are felt by the end user—the victim. As my constituent’s experience shows, the Government’s commitment to strengthen victim support, although wholly admirable, does not always trickle down to the people using the services. For example, sexual assault victims do not get the psychological support that they need. Waiting times for counselling are as long as one year, and the counselling sessions that individuals are offered may be just for a few weeks.

My constituent realised that she needed much more counselling. She actively pressed for more, and was given it. On top of her emotional trauma, she felt guilty that she may have been depriving someone else of vital support. People who have already been through an emotional and horrific ordeal should not be concerned about that. Will the Minister ensure that the additional funding outlined in the Government’s victims strategy will be channelled to staff support services properly, minimise waiting times and allow survivors to start getting on with their lives?

In the months leading up to the trial, my constituent was contacted regularly by the police, who asked more questions and wanted more statements, interviews and photographs of the bruising. The trial took more than a week and a half. She had to express her discomfort at the idea that her attacker would be in the same room as her before a screen was put up. She described the trial and cross-examination as:

“A torturous experience of being asked the most vulgar questions...based on the attacker’s recall of the event, which made me feel so uncomfortable and emotional, whilst being forced under pressure by the lawyer”.

Even after a guilty verdict has been reached, victims are still not free to get on with their lives. My constituent had to wait months before her attacker was sentenced to six years.

Survivors of assault put themselves through that not because they want to, but because it is their only hope of building a case, and yet we jeopardise it by making the process so difficult. Minister, what can be done to speed up the process from reporting to the police to sentencing, so we do not prolong the suffering for longer than is wholly necessary?

Since the perpetrator’s imprisonment, my constituent has been asked by her attacker’s parole board to fill in reams of paperwork to put in place measures not only for her, but for him. Although he got six years—now reduced to just three—my constituent feels like she has been served with a life sentence. She is reeling from the anguish and suffering she experienced. Why on earth should she—the innocent party and victim—face a never ending struggle to keep the perpetrator in prison and feel some sense of safety?

I recognise that resources are limited, and that this is a particularly sensitive area of the law, but we cannot sit by and ignore the problems. The statistics relating to this area of justice are dire, as has been highlighted, and they are not getting any better. In 2017-18, the number of rape referrals from the police to the CPS fell by 9%, the number of suspects charged for rape fell by 8% and the number of rape prosecutions fell by 13%. The volume of sexual offence prosecutions excluding rape also fell by 11%.

My constituent suffered because of the lenient justice system. She suffered in the reporting of the attempted rape and suffered again in the aftermath. That is just wrong. She, like every rape and sexual assault survivor, has suffered enough. The Government must review all these areas and ensure that no one feels let down by the justice system again.