Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Yes, this is exactly a "Rapist's Charter"

Yesterday's Justice debate in the Commons, as predicted, had a lot of questions for the government on their proposal to give rape suspects anonymity.

There were many speeches, all now linked to in the updated parliamentary timeline and several written questions.

For now, though, I just want to concentrate on an answer given by Kenneth Clarke QC MP (Conservative, Rushcliffe) near the end of the debate.

[trigger warning]

Barbara Keeley MP (Labour, Worsley & Eccles South) asks:

In a recent case, a Salford man had committed a rape and was bailed, but then committed a further rape, and the police believe that there are further victims of this man. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have committed in their coalition agreement to extending anonymity to such defendants before all the evidence is heard? Can he also say who will now be consulted for that evidence?

It's a reasonable question, but after all the other reasonable questions he's already been asked during the debate, it finally provokes him into saying what he's actually thinking. I'll break this into a few separate bits.

With great respect, I find it very surprising that so many questions are being raised about a proposition that has been before the House, on and off, for the past 20 years and is not easily resolved.

I'm entirely sure that the Conservative and Lib Dem MPs supporting this proposal were somewhat taken by surprise by the breadth and depth of opposition it rapidly attracted. This is because they're a bunch of mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-otherwise-default people with very little sense of their own privilege and very little empathy for people who aren't like them.

Mr Clarke previously in the debate was offering some unconvincing denials that the proposal only made it into the programme for government because of the all-male negotiating teams.

We will, of course, look at all arguments, including the experience of the case to which the hon. Lady has referred, but that is only one of the considerations to be taken into account. There will undoubtedly sometimes be cases where the publication of the name of the accused person gives rise to other people coming forward with well-founded complaints against that person. We will have to see whether there is any evidence that such cases are a significant proportion of the total cases of rape.

This is something I don't know whether there have been any studies done (though I'd be surprised if not) - and if the government is going to fund some more, great.

However, this is not the only reason for which suspected rapists' anonymity is undesirable.

We shall also have to consider the arguments on the other side, where a woman can make an anonymous complaint, the man can eventually be convicted, after going through a long and probably rather destructive ordeal, and the woman retains her anonymity as she walks away, with her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband left to live with the consequences.

My initial reaction mirrored that of several of the MPs present, recorded in Hansard:


I'll say it again. What?

Mr Clarke, let us remember, is the Justice Secretary. Responsible for Justice, and crime and punishment and law and order and other such things.

He has just described someone who has been convicted, in the courts of this land, of one of the most severe crimes we recognise, and he is complaining that this convicted criminal has to live with the consequences? That is the entire point of having a justice system, and criminal law, and punishing people who break it, that criminals have consequences for their actions that they have to live with.

I know there are good arguments for reform of the justice system and the prison system, that justice is often racist and classist, that prison conditions can be needlessly unpleasant, and that people are often given prison sentences for minor crimes that would be better dealt with in some other way. Saying "Oh, poor rapists. How terrible that they're imprisoned." is not, however, the sort of reform that the system needs, and not the sort of reform I expected a "tough on crime" Conservative to suggest.

Back when this proposal was first released in the programme for government, it was called "a rapist's charter". People calling it that were told that they were over-reacting - it was "for suspects", "innocent until proven guilty", that was "all". But now and again, the mask slips, and its real purpose becomes clearer.

Congratulations to all the Labour MPs involved in keeping up the scrutiny of the government here. It sounds like some more will be needed.

Meanwhile, in other "sexual predators getting light sentences" news, a police officer who coerced women into sexual activity in exchange for overlooking minor traffic offences has been jailed for the derisory term of three and a half years on charges of "misconduct in public office".