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Defendant Anonymity Debate

8th July 2010

Jonathan Djanogly winds up a debate on the Government's proposals to introduce defendant anonymity up to the point of charge in cases of rape.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I agree with the shadow Minister that we have had a good, informed debate, with tremendous contributions from many informed people. It was excellent to hear so many good contributions from new Members on both sides of the House. Generally, the debate has been non-partisan, which, given the subject matter, is healthy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on an excellent and thoughtful maiden speech, which let us in on the lasting effect of his having had a single-sex education. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) made an eloquent maiden speech, and his proposals to beat the fear of crime through a community-led approach were well put. We will forgive him the Simply Red concert last weekend.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) made a strong opening speech, but it was sometimes based on proposals that are simply not the Government's position. She said that we were not saying what the Government's position is. In response to her, and to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) who made the same point, I say that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), made our position clear in his opening remarks. Let me repeat what he said: we intend to strengthen and formalise the current arrangements for anonymity up to the point of charge in rape cases. We will publish an independent report of existing research on rape before the summer recess, and following the request of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, we will consider whether new research is required to supplement it. Obviously, we will make a further announcement in the autumn.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) questioned the independence of the report commissioned. I assure him that the report will be peer-reviewed by two independent, external experts, that their comments will be addressed by the report authors, and that the process will be rigorous.

To be fair, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood noted, we set aside a whole day in Government time for this debate. I trust that that leaves the House under no illusions from the outset about the importance with which we regard this issue, our desire to give direction on what is required, and how we will move the issue forward. Hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made many helpful general points on dealing with rape, which were slightly off the specific topic of the debate but none the less helpful.

Caroline Flint: I appreciate the time and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. Am I right in thinking that the Government intend to look at the issue of anonymity with regard to rape only? Clearly, most Members, in all parts of the House, did not want such exclusivity.

Mr Djanogly: It will be in regard to rape, pre-charge-that is correct.

Meg Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Djanogly: I will not, because I have little time and I have a lot to do.

I share my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary's view that our proposal has been somewhat misrepresented. Our position is not anti-women in any way, shape or form. It does not imply any view of the prevalence or otherwise of false allegations. There is no evidence that our position will reduce the likelihood of women reporting rape, as has been suggested. There is considerable evidence that rape is under-reported and that most attrition happens in the pre-charge stages where victims or the police decide not to proceed. The difficulties involved for victims were well explained by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). They advised that we must be careful not to create barriers preventing victims from coming forward. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) drew attention to the dangers that would result if we got that wrong.

Many Members explained why rape is often not reported to the police. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, victims may think that the police will not see what happened as rape, they may have a general distrust of the police and criminal justice agencies, or there may be language or communication difficulties. Sometimes there is a fear of disbelief, blame, judgment or further attack, or a fear that friends or family will come to know about the incident. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) noted that rape is not a gender issue. The issue normally comes down to the lack of consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) elaborated very well on that point, as did the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah).

Let me make it clear to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) that the Government are not complacent about rape. As she will know, 18% of respondents to a recent London survey of 1,061 people aged 18 to 50 agreed with the statement that most claims of rape are probably not true. That is obviously a matter of great concern, which is why it is so important for the Government to continue to work hard, in partnership with other agencies, to engender a more civilised 21st-century view.

Glenda Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: I am afraid I cannot.

Let me say to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and the hon. Member for Walthamstow that, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State told the House earlier, there is no evidence that defendant anonymity would have an adverse impact on reporting. Victims may well be encouraged to come forward by the understanding that the criminal justice system is likely to deal with their complaint effectively and anonymously, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to understand how a suspect's or even a charged defendant's anonymity can have an impact.

A more interesting suggestion relates to anonymity and previous offending by a defendant. Many people claim that defendant anonymity would prevent other victims from coming forward. Research conducted by Feist and others in 2007 suggests that being able to link an assault to another sexual assault against another victim is likely to help to secure a conviction, so the point is important.

There is some anecdotal evidence that publicity surrounding a case has allowed more victims to come forward. The case of John Worboys is most commonly cited in that context, and was indeed cited today by my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). It is not clear, however, whether the defendant's name or the release of other characteristics, such as a suspect's distinctive modus operandi, is the most important factor. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon and by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, although I think the latter reached a different conclusion. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary spoke in detail about the point during an Adjournment debate on 7 June, and I know that he was grateful for the information he subsequently received from the right hon. Member for Don Valley, who spoke today with knowledge about an issue about which she cares very much.

More generally, the overriding impression given by many Members was of the sheer complexity of the subject matter that we have been debating. We heard about the history of anonymity for defendants in rape cases, which goes back well over 30 years. During that period, the legislation has fluctuated between diametrically opposed policy positions, and it has been a talking point over a number of changes of Administration.

As for the scope of anonymity, some Members have said that our proposals are not specific enough, while others-and, in some instances, the same ones-have said that we are wrong to include only rape, and to exclude other offences. What we are doing is delivering on coalition Government promises. The Opposition may not like that, but this is what we promised, and this is what we are going to do. I note that the Home Affairs Committee may now wish to consider the wider issues. We shall be pleased to see its report, and to engage with it and the House on those wider issues.

Anonymity in rape cases is clearly precedented. If other offences are now to be included, we will need to review which ones. We will need to do that very carefully, not least because of the impact the arguments for press freedom will have on the scope. We will want the scope to be as narrow as possible. This is a big area and we will remain open to discussion, but it needs to be put in that context.

The issue of anonymity for rape defendants has been bound up by some with our other coalition commitment that we will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils. That also has a long and complex history, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, but we do not necessarily see the two situations as the same. The two commitments we have made will need to be reviewed as stand-alone issues even if their remedy may have certain similar aspects.

I have pointed to the complexity of the historical background, but anonymity also raises some complex legal issues. In the particular context of rape, it is clear that anonymity cannot be invariable and absolute, because there may well be situations in which it should be waived. The obvious example is where a suspect needs to be apprehended, but there are others. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made a strong case for judicial involvement in waiving anonymity where relevant, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) also made some wise observations on publicity. Their experience in this area came to the fore in their valuable contributions.

Another issue was mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General during the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. He asked about the situation in which the media want to publicise the fact that public authorities are reluctant to act in a case where action appears justified. Another example could be that where suspects wanted to waive their own anonymity, for example in order to establish an alibi. That would itself generate issues. Should the suspect's right of waiver be absolute, even if it could result in identifying the complainant in a case? Taking all the above into account, I hope the House understands why we have consistently made it clear that we need to address this subject carefully, keeping our options open until the time is right to made our detailed position known. That approach was clearly right, and remains so.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood criticised the coalition Government commitment for containing only a broad statement of principle, but that is what it was-a broad statement of principle. We have now refined it without losing the principle, and we have always been clear that there are various ways in which the commitment could be implemented.

My hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), for Cannock Chase, for Gillingham and Rainham, for Broxtowe, for Hexham and for Oxford West and Abingdon all in their different ways powerfully and appropriately described the real and damaging consequences of false accusation and the importance of presumption of innocence in our law. The theme of false accusation was elaborated on very eloquently by the right hon. Member for Leicester East, who asked if the Government will be carrying out research into false allegations, as called for by Baroness Stern. I can advise him that that is under consideration by the relevant Departments as part of our overall response to Baroness Stern's review.

The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood mentioned aspects of the previous Government's record on assisting rape victim support, many of which were very worthy achievements which we hope to develop. She was less forthcoming, however, about the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark noted, after a decade of Labour Government the situation for victims is still very far from what anyone in this Chamber would wish it to be. In that context, I think the Opposition may wish to consider working with us on a consensual basis, rather than adopting an aggressive approach to this serious issue. That is what the public will wish to see, I dare to say. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said earlier, we will continue to investigate those areas that still require further thought, including whether anonymity might frustrate investigations, and any other gaps.

I can assure the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood that we will consult and seek views. However, we do not, as my hon. Friend said, see any case for holding a formal public consultation as we believe that the detailed arguments on the specific issue of rape are very well established.

Let me conclude by saying that the Government-

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