Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sneaking out of public view again?

[trigger warning]

Parliament discusses rape quite a bit more often than makes the news - since the latter only seems to happen if one side or another can see advantage in drawing journalist's attention to something their opposition said.

Yesterday had a debate in the Lords with Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat), the Minister of State for Justice in the Lords, answering questions on sentencing in rape cases.

(There was also a debate in the Commons on Monday - Cath Elliott at Too much to say for myself has more on that, and particularly commends Fiona Mactaggart MP's (Labour, Slough) speech - to that I'd add that the speeches made by Helen Grant MP (Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald) and Jenny Chapman MP (Labour, Darlington) are also well worth a read.)

A few of the exchanges in the Lords debate are interesting in themselves.

The first, from Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour). If you've been lurking here a while, you know what's coming next.

My Lords, would it not be quite wrong for the Government to duck legislating in the area of rape, given the problem we had this last week? In particular, the argument over whether men should have anonymity in rape cases remains outstanding, as does the question of whether women who make false allegations should enjoy the anonymity that they currently enjoy.

Lord McNally's reply is:

I know that the noble Lord has raised these matters on a number of occasions. The Government's sentencing and legal aid Bill will shortly come before the House-or, rather, before Parliament, as it will go to the Commons first-and it will give us a chance to consider again the issues that he has raised consistently. However, his assertion that there are large numbers of false claims for rape is not, as far as I am concerned, borne out by research.

I had hoped that issue was done with for this Parliament, but of course while the Government might no longer want to pursue it, that's not to say they'll stand in the way of a backbench amendment. The Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill isn't yet on the list of bills, but it seems like it will need watching.

On the positive side, Baroness Gale (Labour) asks:

My Lords, all incidents of rape are serious and to indicate otherwise sends the wrong message to victims of rape. Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that there is a public awareness campaign about the laws on rape and consent so that we make it absolutely clear that non-consensual sex is a serious offence? I believe that this would clear up any misunderstandings that have happened over the past week.

Lord McNally replies:

I do not think that there are misunderstandings from over the past week. There has been no doubt that this Government take rape very seriously, and the Secretary of State takes rape very seriously. The amount of money, even at a time of difficulty in overall spending, has been maintained and the number of rape advice centres has been extended. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time to publicise the seriousness of rape, and I think that that could be started in the schools and by looking at some of the worrying things in advertising, in pop music and in some of the newspapers, which have been so quick in their editorial pages to condemn my right honourable friend. Some of those should look at where they put the position of women in society and whether they encourage young men to give women the respect that they should have. That might be a start.

Effective government initiatives designed to directly oppose rape culture, and especially to stop men from picking up the attitudes that lead to far too many of them becoming rapists, would be extremely welcome. Prevention is far more important than detection and punishment, where rapists are concerned.

It seems to me to be worthwhile to try to get that bandwagon rolling by contacting the various departments and Ministers who might be most involved with this.

It would of course be essential for the government to actually consult with rape victims and survivors, support organisations, and so on, to make sure that it was effective and to prevent a repeat of some of the disastrous victim-blaming campaigns that have come out in the past.

Edit: Given that one of the key areas would be Sex and Relationships Education in schools, this is going to be an uphill struggle.