Is Government policy on rape law baseless?

3rd Jun 2010

The Government has controversially committed to introducing a new law ensuring anonymity for those accused of rape.     It was a surprised inclusion in the coalition agreement considering the proposal did not figure in either Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos.   Opponents are calling on the Government to rethink the move. A motion by Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart has already attracted the support of over 60 MPs.   The motion attacks the Government for putting forward the proposals "without any research, evidence or examination of the issues". In this highly sensitive area, is it accurate for opponents to suggest that the proposal is without basis?

Analysis

Between 1976 and 1988 the law did grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases. This was repealed following advice from a legal committee on sexual offences and that has remained the position since.   In Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, David Cameron was pressed by Harriet Harman on the Government's effort to change the status quo. Mr Cameron said that limited extension was appropriate, citing the argument that rape victims also have anonymity in such cases.   He explained that during his time as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee they examined the issue of anonymity in rape cases closely and concluded that it should be extended to defendants.   The 2003 report stated:   "On balance, we are persuaded by the arguments in favour of extending anonymity to the accused. Although there are valid concerns about the implications for the free reporting of criminal proceedings, we believe that sex crimes do fall 'within an entirely different order' to most other crimes. In our view, the stigma that attaches to sexual offences—particularly those involving children—is enormous and the accusation alone can be devastating."   As the evidence of the witnesses called in the committee makes clear, the issue is contentious. The Metropolitan Police were in favour of extending anonymity to defendants in sex cases involving children.   The Criminal Bar Association said that the allegation of rape causes severe damage to reputation and "there should be a balanced response that protects the defendant up to the point when the allegation is proved."   At the same time, opponents, including Liberty and Victim Support, argued that people accused of sexual crimes should not be treated differently to other crimes, including murder and that the principle of free and open reporting of proceedings in criminal courts must be maintained.   While opponents may not agree with the proposal it is not accurate for the EDM to suggest that the change has not been examined. The Prime Minister was part of a committee that looked into the issue and came down in favour of a change in the law.  

Since the Committee

Those opposed could legitimately point out that a seven year old select committee analysis is not a sufficient base for such a significant change in the law, as a spokesperson for Ms MacTaggart did to Full Fact.   There has not been any substantial work reviewing the law in this area since 2003. The Labour Government at the time flatly rejected the committee's recommendation and parliamentary questions confirm it has not been considered further.   Full Fact contacted the Ministry of Justice to establish if the new Government had conducted work in this area. A spokesperson was unable to confirm this telling us only that: "This is a sensitive area and careful analysis of the options and implications will be undertaken."

Conclusion

It seems clear that the origin of the proposal to extend anonymity lies in the work of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2003, of which the current Prime Minister was a member.   It is not accurate therefore for opponents to suggest that proposals come without any research, evidence or examination of the issues.   This sensitive area of law has been looked at since anonymity for rape complainants was considered and introduced in the 1970s.   Mr Cameron said yesterday that once the Government publish proposals they would be fully debated by Parliament.  

By Tim Swain