There have been 2 exchanges between Lucy Frazer and Attorney General
|Wed 22nd May 2019||Information Disclosure: Pre-trial Abuse of Process Hearings (Westminster Hall)||8 interactions (1,596 words)|
|Wed 15th May 2019||Rape Trials: Treatment of Victims (Westminster Hall)||6 interactions (1,676 words)|
I would like to make progress.
The abiding concern of those complainants, however, is that to their knowledge nothing has been done to prevent the distressing situation in which they found themselves recurring in other cases, concerning other abused children. The men involved feel rightly aggrieved about the wrongfulness of the Law Society and the Bar, and their respective regulators, holding out to the public the existence of certain published professional standards intended for the protection of the public, while at the same time appearing in this case to have had no intention of taking any action at all, even when the published professional standards were found unarguably to have been breached. Throughout this case, those men have felt that they have been stonewalled. They have now lost faith in the so-called professional standards.
Such matters are the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General. That can be seen clearly in the “Protocol between the Attorney General and the Prosecuting Departments”, at page 7, under the heading “4(d) Superintendence of casework”:
“The Attorney General’s responsibilities for superintendence and accountability to Parliament mean that he or she, acting in the wider public interest, needs occasionally to engage with a Director”—
the Director of Public Prosecutions—
“about a case because it…has implications for prosecution or criminal justice policy or practice; and/or reveals some systemic issues for the framework of the law, or the operation of the criminal justice system.”
In the Minister’s response, I trust that she will provide the reassurance that is sought by my constituent, together with many of his former school colleagues, who were the subject of such appalling abuse at Caldicott School. I trust that she will now agree to include in her review the dual problem: first, non-disclosure of relevant facts and matters by the defence in criminal proceedings in situations in which a duty of disclosure rests on the defendant and his legal team; and, secondly, the apparent impossibility my constituent faced in attempting to procure corrections of the records of the court to solicitors and counsel, and the refusal of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board to assist him in any way.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on those failures to disclose and on the misleading of the court consequent to the erroneous submissions made to it. The formal confirmation of the Minister is needed to reassure my constituent that solicitors and counsel are professionally obligated to make such corrections as soon as possible, and that in future, where necessary, robust and firm action will be taken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board in order to prevent the possibility of any court being misled in that way in the future.
I hope that the Minister, in responding, will bear in mind that I have known my constituent, Mr Perry, for 20 years. I have been dealing with his case and other matters pertaining to him for a long time. He is a man of great honour and integrity, and he has come forward to speak out in public about some horrendous abuse he suffered in childhood, thereby hoping to prevent something similar happening to other children in the future. This is just part of that pattern. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response in this debate.
The Minister is quite properly setting out the duties on the prosecution entirely accurately and fairly. Does she agree that there is a duty, however, on all parties to ensure that what they submit does not in any way mislead the court, and that applies to the defence just as it does to the Crown?
I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she is responding. She mentioned that it is important to maintain trust in the regulatory bodies. In the light of the circumstances of this case, does she agreed that trust has been shaken? I will provide her with those details once my constituent provides them, so she may pass them on to the relevant authorities or look at them herself, because it is from her office that I believe my constituent wishes to have a response.
I agree with the Minister that victims should have priority in our criminal justice system—that is most important. She mentioned at the beginning of her response that she is working on new guidelines that will come out shortly. Could she give us a greater indication of when we can expect those new guidelines? Would there be any possibility of looking at the draft guidelines before they are finalised and published?
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 the Member for Henley (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.
Does the Minister think there is an opportunity to refer this matter to the Victims’ Commissioner? We have just appointed a new Victims’ Commissioner, Vera Baird, and I wonder whether it would be useful to report this. She is responsible for ensuring equal performance across the whole gamut of the justice system.
I join the Minister in thanking the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing this case forward. I am sure that he will have given his constituent enormous moral support and made her feel that, after a traumatic offence has been committed against her and she feels that the criminal justice system has failed her, she has at least had his full support as he has brought her case to the House. The points arising from her case are so important.
I warmly congratulate the Minister, who I am delighted to see in her new post as Solicitor General. She will take all of these issues forward. I know that her appointment, as well as her support for those in the criminal justice system who want and strive to improve it—particularly in the Crown Prosecution Service—will be welcomed. For my part, I will certainly do everything that I can to help her work.