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Rape Trials: Treatment of Victims

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 15th May 2019.

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Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Solicitor-General 11:14 am, 15th May 2019

I have already had the honour of liaising with Vera Baird, and I very much look forward to discussing this issue with her. The issue of consistency across police forces and the CPS, and within local authorities that deal with rape victims, is very important. We will be discussing these issues, and I am sure she will have considerable insight into them.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for raising this issue. I am very pleased to see Ms Harman in the Chamber. I look forward to hearing about her expertise in this very important area.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that it is important that we treat victims sensitively and with respect. I agree. I am pleased to have the opportunity today, in my first debate in my new role, to discuss how we can improve the system and what we are already doing. My right hon. Friend mentioned many issues thoroughly, and I want to respond to them. He said that the sentences for rape and attempted rape start similarly. Rape carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and he is right that attempted rape has the same maximum penalty. A judge will have regard to the sentencing guidelines for the substantive offence, but he then selects a starting point based on harm and culpability as if he were sentencing for the full offence. He will then reduce the starting point at the lower end of the category range to reflect the fact that it was an attempted rape, not a rape. The amount of the reduction will depend on how close the offence was to being completed, and a judgment will be made on a case-by-case basis.

I realise that victims of rape and attempted rape will be extremely traumatised, but they should know that, regardless of the sentence imposed by the court, anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence is automatically made subject to notification requirements—in other words, they are placed on the sexual offenders register. The court can also make a sexual harm prevention order on anyone convicted or cautioned for a relevant sexual offence, which can prohibit the individual from doing anything described within it, as long as the court has determined it to be proportionate and necessary.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned the lack of clarity in the statistics. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of data. I assure him that the Ministry of Justice is conscious of the importance of data and transparency. During my time there, we worked with the media to improve public transparency. When we build a common platform for taking cases in the criminal justice process through a digital system, we will use it to improve the collection of data, which can then be shared. My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between the statistics collected on rape and attempted rape. I will pass that on to the Ministry of Justice so it can address the collection of its data as the common platform develops. With better data, we can have better scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the treatment of victims and how they feel treated. He is right to say that the figures for reporting and for convictions could be better. That is not a new issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly pointed out, but we have some positive news. According to the most recent figures in the year ending June 2018, there was an 18% increase in reporting of sexual offences. The CPS has also doubled the number of specialist prosecutors in its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences units.

We need to improve the care of those brave enough to come forward. The CPS is working with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to revise the victims’ code, to improve the support and care offered to victims. As Jim Shannon mentioned, cross-Department and cross-agency work is important. The CPS is also working with the police to ensure that we improve the process of the criminal justice system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned mental health, which is very important. I cannot begin to imagine the consequences of such an ordeal for someone’s mental health. We are launching a new toolkit for therapists and prosecutors on the support that an individual who suffers from a mental health condition will require.

My right hon. Friend mentioned his constituents’ use of a screen, which is an important part of the special provisions in court. We are trying to improve access to special measures, and the Ministry of Justice has committed to recording and monitoring applications for special measures, to ensure that everyone who is entitled to them can access them.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the role of sexual assault referral centres, or SARCS, and the significant funds invested in them. NHS England investment in SARC services increased from £8 million in 2013 to £31 million in 2018-19. As he mentioned, that funding has risen this year and will rise further next year. He is right, however, to say that, as with all public services, funding alone is not sufficient; it needs to be well spent. I say to him that, locally, police and NHS England commissioners have meetings with providers to review their performance. Nationally, NHS England undertakes internal assurance to look at cost, performance and quality, as well as areas of emergent risk.

I am deeply sorry that my right hon. Friend’s constituent had to wait a long time in a SARC. I understand that long waits in SARCs are unusual, as a referral is usually immediate for adults, and an out-of-hours policy states that a SARC can be opened for a referral, which can take up to two hours. I am sorry about her experience. The police, police and crime commissioners and the NHS should all hold SARCs to account. The Care Quality Commission has also started to inspect SARCs and publish the findings on its website. It is extremely important that we ensure that SARCs, which receive public funding, work well.

My right hon. Friend mentioned delays and the time that it takes not only for a case to come to court, but to go through court. It is true that sexual offence cases take longer to go through the criminal justice system than other cases. That is because sexual offences, especially rape, are some of the most challenging and complex cases with which the CPS deals. Yesterday, I met the Director of Public Prosecutions and I raised the issue of delays when such cases go through the system. He made the same point that I have about the difficulty in evidencing those types of cases. He stressed the importance of ensuring that when such traumatic cases are reported, sufficient work is done to ensure a fair trial and that, at the end of the day, if the perpetrator is guilty, he or she is brought to justice.

Unfortunately, successful prosecutions take time. We want to speed up the court process and ensure that cases are heard effectively. I know, through my time at the MOJ, that in both Crown court and magistrates court we are trying to reform the process to ensure that cases are heard more efficiently, through transforming summary justice and better case management systems in both jurisdictions.

This is a terribly important area because people who suffer from serious violent sexual offences—or attempted serious violent sexual offences—may deal with the consequences for life, as we heard from my right hon. Friend. It is therefore important that, as a Government, we continue to look at how we can improve the criminal justice system when dealing with such offences.