HL Deb 21 November 1996 vol 575 cc1344-6

3.12 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why there has been a fall in convictions for rape from the reported 450 in 1985 to 425 in 1994 despite a trebling in the number of allegations of rape in the same period.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government recognise and share the concern about the low proportion of successful prosecutions in rape cases. My right honourable friend the Minister of State announced in another place on 12th June that the Government are to conduct their own research in this area.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I appreciate that reply. As we all know, special cases make bad law. However, is the Minister aware that the figures indicate very clearly that we are failing to secure justice for both women and men in relation to this difficult issue? Does she agree that the real reason is that it is impossible to achieve justice by slotting cases of rape into normal criminal proceedings? It is a unique crime and requires special rules. Instead of conducting their own investigations, will the Government ask the Law Commission to hold an independent inquiry into the whole issue, with special reference to three problems: the redefinition of the crime of rape; rules of evidence in the court; and legal representation for the alleged victim?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I began by saying that we share the concern of the noble Lord in regard to the statistics that led him to table this Question. We have no plans to ask the Law Commission to carry out that work. However, we believe that it is a very important prerequisite to any further work to have a piece of research which will examine the figures, update the research from 1985 and ask the very questions that the noble Lord asks. We know that there is a massive fall-out of cases at a number of stages in the process. We need to examine, for example, the role of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police in the process, the role of the initial recording of crime and the ways in which police record a crime or a no-crime. All those questions need to be researched. It is very important that we establish that scientific database before deciding whether further work needs to be done.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, who will conduct the research?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it will be the research and statistics department of the Home Office. It will examine cases across five police areas and five Crown Prosecution areas. It intends to examine 500 completed cases and at the same time examine in more depth cases that are already in progress. There will also be some sessions observing cases in court. The research started in September and is expected to take 18 months. It will be a very thorough piece of research and there will be an interim report in nine months.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, what the Minister has just told the House is very encouraging. In the light of that, will the Government also study cases where it has been proved beyond peradventure that villainous activity has taken place and there is no doubt whatever as to the rape involved? Would not such an examination be able to assist the Government in formulating legislation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, where cases are proven beyond peradventure, I expect the courts to arrive at a conviction. Where they do not, it is a matter for the courts. There is a great fall-out: some 5,000 cases are presently being recorded, and only 9 per cent. of those end in conviction. We are examining ways to find out why, at various stages in the process, a number of cases fall out.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister think that there is a change in the pattern of rape? There have been some very horrific cases involving very elderly and very young people.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that will be one of the questions posed by the researchers. We are examining the pattern of rape and the nature of the cases that are reported. That aspect will be subsumed in the research.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House whether there are now special provisions for people who come to report allegations of rape? It is a most upsetting time for them. Will she say whether that is taken into account and whether special help is given to people?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as I hope my noble friend knows, the police have done a great deal. We have given guidance to the police as to the treatment of victims of any offence but particularly rape. They have gone to great lengths to make it easier for people to record such crimes.

The figures are interesting: 5,000 cases are being reported now, as against some 1,000 cases five years ago. So people are coming forward to report such incidents. The conundrum is: why are those cases falling out of the system as they go through the process?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the Government's concern as she expressed it and the research that she described are both very welcome? However, is it not the case that during the passage of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act the Government resisted amendments that could have helped the situation in advance of a full-scale investigation relating to the video-recording of evidence both before and during trials for rape? Will the Government think again about whether they should proceed with reforms which are self-evidently worth while, even before the research is concluded?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is a general principle of our legal system that evidence should be provided in court. The Government decided that in the case of children, for example, their special needs warranted a departure from that principle. However, we should be very cautious about extending the principle further.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, will the Minister ask the inquiry being conducted by the Government to take account of the fundamental fact that the nature of rape is unique, and the need for special provision? Will it also examine the possibility of at least half the judges being women? Sex equality and justice on this issue is profoundly important.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, on the first point, we shall take that into account. It will be part of the research. As to what action to take, that will follow the research when we have seen the results.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, is it possible that an increasing number of the allegations are ill-founded?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the result of the inquiries may well be that some of the allegations are not founded. Two new areas have been introduced into the issue of rape: there is male rape, which is a new feature in rape cases; and there is rape within marriage. We know that in a very large majority of cases rape is committed between people who know each other—for example, date rape. Evidence is very difficult to secure. All those aspects will be investigated during the course of the research.