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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Defendant Anonymity

Thursday, July 15, 2010

During a debate in the House of Commons on the possibility of giving defendants in rape cases anonymity Meg gave the following speech.


Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). I must say that during his speech I found myself wishing that we could go back in time and see Cannock Chase in the days that he described. I regularly travel from Birmingham northwards, as my husband comes from Birmingham, and I have never thought of Cannock Chase in those terms, but I will do so in future. The hon. Gentleman paid a full and correct tribute to Tony Wright, whom we all miss, and who, as he rightly said, has left us with an important legacy. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his pursuit of home affairs, but, unusually, following a maiden speech, I will be disagreeing with him on several issues, although I will do so in the customary fashion in this House.


I want to make a few points in this enormously important debate. I am worried that the Government’s policy is ill thought out. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) dealt well with the issue. The Government should think again, and carefully, about the matter. No one in this Chamber underestimates the impact on a person of a false accusation of rape or any other crime. In my many years in social work, I worked not only with many victims of sex offenders but with sex offenders themselves, and on a few rare occasions witnessed first hand the impact of what subsequently turned out to be an unproven accusation.


Over the years, I have watched the situation for those complaining of rape improve, fortunately. Some Members of a similar age will recall - some Members, happily, are younger and will not - that back in the 1980s some television programmes were made in the Thames valley about police interviewing rape complainants. Many people were rightly horrified to see the general attitude of disbelief, which was one reason for the low reporting of cases.


Fortunately, much has changed since that time, although not as much as we might like. However, the successful prosecution rate for rape continues to be of significant concern. In such situations, to protect people from false allegations, we must expect good investigation and evidence gathering. In a number of cases of false allegations of which I have heard, that has not been the case. Adopting a general position of belief, which is essential, does not mean ignoring the importance of good investigation and evidence gathering.


Let us be clear: this crime is not only heinous, but enormously difficult, for many reasons, to investigate. It is difficult for victims to talk about. None of us would welcome having to talk about sexual matters - even those on a consensual basis - but talking about an attack or crime of such a nature to people one does not know, and to have to go into intimate details is very difficult.


Rightly, we have talked about children being involved, and I dealt with that on a professional basis for many years. How do children explain what has happened to them when they might not even have the necessary words? How do they talk about it when they might feel that people are looking at them as if they have done something wrong themselves? We must take that into account.

Even when adults are involved, we are talking about a situation in which perhaps only two people were present and there were no other witnesses. We are talking about one person’s word against another’s. Even when, according to any objective judgment, a woman has done nothing wrong, she will still be asking herself, "Did I do something wrong? Did I invite this in some way?" We as a society must say, "No means no. Rape is not acceptable. Sexual relationships without consent constitute rape, and should be subject to prosecution." However, the difficulties involved cannot be underestimated, and the situation must therefore be approached very carefully.


It is important that we adopt a position of belief, because, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out, too many people have not been believed in the past. If it is felt that the first thing victims must do is prove that something has happened to them, even fewer women will come forward, and children will not summon up what is an almost impossible level of courage to speak up and say, "Something happened to me." I have watched people who have been abused trying to give evidence in court. I shall never forget seeing a young woman who had been abused while in a children’s home, standing there petrified and trembling, almost unable to give evidence. In such circumstances, the position of victims is very difficult.


The issue of offending behaviour involves a great many myths. We talk about rape as if it suddenly appears out of nowhere, but someone who commits rape may well have previously committed other, lesser, sexual offences. I use the word "lesser" in relation to the criminal process, not in relation to the impact on the victim. The offender may have tested a situation, or fantasised about it, before committing the offence. In many cases, a pattern of behaviour has been formed.


That is one reason why those of us who oppose anonymity after charge - anonymity before charge is a different matter - consider it important to do so. Someone who comes forward and says "This happened to me too" provides corroboration of that pattern of behaviour, and leads people to feel that they can believe what is being said. As I said earlier, if just two people are involved it is one person’s word against another’s. If a pattern of behaviour has been established and people provide detailed corroboration, it becomes possible to proceed with a prosecution.


Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady is always listened to seriously and with respect. May I ask whether she has reflected on my earlier suggestion to her hon. Friend the. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) that what leads to more women coming forward is not necessarily the information that an individual lives at a certain address, is a certain height or has hair of a certain kind, but may be a pattern of behaviour? That is information that can be shared immediately, and the police often do share it just to get people to come forward, as indeed they should.


Meg Munn: I agree. In my experience, it is possible during the investigative process - in which, as I have said, I have been involved on the social work side - to question people who may have been in contact with the person concerned, without necessarily naming that person. For example, it is possible to contact previous residents of a children’s home and ask, "Did anything ever happen to you that gave you cause for concern?" Conducting the investigative process properly protects against false charges or charges that turn out to be false.


We must look at this situation in the round, and we have to say, "This is too important not to have a formal consultation." I have been encouraged by the fact that the Government have been prepared to discuss this more, and to accept that the nine words that were in the coalition document are not sufficient, but I plead with them to have a formal consultation. This is a matter that deserves to be addressed with that level of seriousness.


I gently say to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase that this is not a gender issue. Many victims are men and boys. Indeed, one concern is that boys who were abused as children find it particularly difficult to come forward and say they have been abused, because there is still the stigma that means they might be called gay. Sometimes - but not always by any means, as this is not a direct correlation - victims who have had something terrible done to them as children go on to become perpetrators because they do not know the rightful place of sexual relationships in adult situations. We talk about the lifelong effects of sexual abuse - that is one of them, and we should take it very seriously.


That points to another reason why it is enormously important that people have the confidence to come forward early and say they have been abused. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) mentioned the impact on families. If people come forward early, it stops there being future victims. We must constantly bear down on this issue to stop there being future victims and to stop the cycle of sexual abuse continuing.


I ask Ministers to answer the following questions again and in greater detail. Why rape? Why not all sexual offences? Also, why has this proposal been put forward at all if not because of the issue of false allegations? The Minister said very clearly that it was not based on the issue of false allegations, but he did not tell us what it was based on.


This debate deserves greater clarity, not more confusion, which is what we got from the Minister today. The matter under discussion is complex and important, and we need to take time over it. We need the Select Committees to take a look at it, and we need a proper public consultation so that everybody who has a story to tell and every agency that has worked with people affected by this can respond and put forward their views.


I understand how the proposal may have emerged. It might, perhaps, have happened without enough thought and late at night when people had not had any sleep during the period when the coalition agreement was put together fast. That does not have to bind us to carrying the proposal through, however, and to making a decision that would be detrimental to the people we should be caring about, whether victims or offenders. I ask Ministers to think again.


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