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Mr. Blunt: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for the record to show that it was the Government Whips who objected to my Bill? I happen to know that the Bill has cross-party support, and it is a great pity that the issues with which it deals cannot be debated in Committee following its Second Reading. Do the procedures of the House allow it to be made plain that it was the Government Whips who prevented further progress?
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You may or may not be aware of breaking news that there has been a serious rail crash just outside London in Hertfordshire. It appears that there may have been serious injuries and I am sure that the House would wish to express its sympathies with the victims and their families and the hope that the crash is not as serious as is being indicated on the wires.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): If matters are as the hon. Gentleman says they are, it is a matter of seriousness and sadness for the whole House. All I can say at the moment is that we hope that things are not too bad.
The only comprehensive research into drug rape is the Sturman report of 2000 by Chief Inspector Peter Sturman of the Metropolitan police. That year, 1,002 people contacted the Drug Rape Trust, the support trust set up by Mr. Sturman. I should declare an interest as a patron of that trust. It is, of course, an unpaid position.
Eighteen types of drugs have been used in the UK. The most frequently used is GHB, which is recognisable in some of the symptoms reported by the victims in my stories. Like ecstasy, it is a rave drug, and because it is dangerous rather than because of its use in rape, it is now a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, so its possession is unlawful.
Roche, the company that manufactures it has also asked me to make that clear. I do so in particular because with impressive responsibility since the association was made between the drug and drug rape, Roche has reconstituted the tablet so that it floats and fizzes and gives off an indigo dye as it dissolves, so it is useless for spiking a drink. I commend that excellent precedent to the Government, which they should impose on commercial manufacturers of other drugs. However, GHB is easily made domestically from simple substances, and many internet websites give recipes for it.
Only seven people have been convicted of drug rape in this country. The law is clear: rape is an offence, and section 4 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 makes it an offence to administer a drug in order to stupefy, or to overpower, a person to enable sex. The offence incurs a two-year maximum sentence, which should perhaps be increased. I shall discuss later some possible legal changes, but the problem is not so much the law as the evidence required to prove drug rape.
The drugs pass through the system quicklytaking between two and eight hoursand leave the victim confused. She will hesitate to tell anyone, and by the time she overcomes the after-effects, the drugs are gone, leaving no evidential trace. The confusion that they cause is itself a barrier to complaining, let alone to giving evidence. What can she say? What can she be sure of? Often, she will have been drinking. She may feel guilt at having had too much, or fear that having had any amount will make the authorities judgmental. Traumatised, she may not want to be treated as if she brought this horrible experience on herself. She may just stay at home.
The perpetrators we know little about. Self-evidently, this is an evil, premeditated, predatory offence that is recklessly dangerous. It can be the utter ruin of the victim, for presumably transient pleasure. However, according to the Rape Crisis Federation, in the main the offence is perpetrated by professional gangs, and the things done to the victims are filmed, to be sold on as pornography.
This is not a new issue; Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Observer, andnearer home, in RedcarThe Northern Echo, have all run recent features on it, but it has not attracted sufficient Government attention. Given that only seven convictions have been secured, the problem must look tiny, but numerically it is far bigger than that. The potentially catastrophic damage to individuals makes the offence important beyond the numbers affected, as does the fear that it casts over the lives of sociable people.
I have seen a letter from the Government suggesting that the incidence of drug rape is exaggerated, and by implication that, because information about it is available on websites and it is against the law, nothing else needs to be done. I hope that the Minister is not of that point of view. What kind of Government attention should drug rape attract? The Government should fund wider publicity. Of course, it is completely inappropriate to generate panicI repeat that the numbers involved are smallbut that is not a reason to avoid publicising the risk. That would allow the risk to continue, and add to the isolation of drug rape victims. It is for professional public relations experts to plan how best to make the message clear without frightening people.
The same awareness-raising campaign ought to set out simple preventive or protective steps that people can take without spoiling their pleasure. The task is to incorporate them into people's ordinary behaviourjust as people lock their car and switch on the alarm. Such behaviour does not mean that people live in fear of car theft; it is a simple and obvious precaution, and a fairly successful crime prevention measure that is simply part of what people now do.
The Drug Rape Trust has launched a campaign"Be aware and take care"that features a pocket-sized plastic card, containing tips such as "Don't leave your drink unattended." The theme is that it could happen to anyone, and that we must all watch out for each other. That is rather clever, as it does not put the onus wholly on to the potential victim, who might otherwise feel oppressed. However, a small charity cannot propagate its campaign widely enough, and the Government ought to take the lead.
The Drug Rape Trust has been working with the Department of Trade and Industry and Government chemists for two years to develop a swizzle stick that indicates when a rape drug is in a drink, and a prototype has been tested. The plan is that a swizzle stick will automatically be put into any drink served by bar staff. Soliciting the support of breweries, pub owners and club owners will obviously require Government help. The plan does contain elements of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but given the grave consequences of drug rape, it would be a simple step to take. It is not possible simply to issue swizzle sticks to people. There is nothing funny about this issue, but accepting a drink from an amiable companion, only to test it for drugs with a swizzle stick, is hardly the way to progress a new relationship. That is simply not practical.
I should emphasise that no such product is available yet. Certain products claim to be able to test comprehensively for such drugs, which is another reason why the Government must get involved. They must exclude the inevitable profit-chasing charlatans by taking responsibility themselves for verifying preventive products.
The offence is of course one of rape. The publication on 10 April of the thematic report by the inspectorates of constabulary and of the Crown Prosecution Service on how rape is investigated and prosecuted shows that standards are very low. One criticism raised there and brought into sharper focus by drug rape is the need for specialist medical facilities for the care of rape complainants. Often they are examined in the police station doctor's room, which is used for a range of other purposes. The doctor will be a forensic medical examiner
Not everybody wants to make a complaint to the police but they might want to be treated and to give samples to keep their options open. It is important, therefore, that facilities be at hospitals and not at police stations. There are centres of excellence, notably the St. Mary's centre in Manchester, which has existed for 14 years and was praised by the inspectors. The doctors there have specific expertise. They have dealt with hundreds of thousands of upset and traumatised men and women at all times of the day and night. They are sympathetic and detached, and knowledgeable enough often to be able to give expert evidence that is capable of being supporting evidence. As the inspectors found, complainants who are supported and given good care from the start are more likely to find the resources to sustain a complaint through the criminal justice system. In order to try to improve the all-time low 7.3 per cent conviction rate for rape, such facilities are urgently needed.
In July 2000, the Home Office sex offences review recommended changes to the law, in particular the legal redefinition of rape as having sex without free agreement rather than having sex without consent. The review also suggested a non-exhaustive list of examples of when a person does not give free agreement. One item on the list was if a person was too affected by drink or drugs to give free agreement. As with most rape in which the parties are known to each other, however fleetingly, the defence of a drug rape perpetrator, if prosecuted, will be consent. If there is evidence of drug use, a consent defence will have to be accompanied by an assertion that she took the drug herself. In that case, having excess drugs or drink on a list of factors that vitiate consent could be helpful.
Drug rape is rape. The defence of consent is almost invariably coupled with the defence that if the woman did not consent, the perpetrator thought she had. Rape is having sex knowing, or being reckless as to whether, a woman consented. So if a man genuinely thinks the woman consented, even if in fact she did not, he will not be guilty. I say briefly now what I said at greater length a week agobecause I have been fortunate enough to have two Adjournment debates on aspects of rape in the last fortnight. The defence that the man believed that the woman was consenting is usually accompanied by an application to cross-examine her about her sexual conduct in the pasther previous sexual history. Its relevance is often difficult to see. It is highly prejudicial. It is also cross-examination so intimate that it can undermine a witness's confidence. It plays a well known and massive role in discouraging women from making and sustaining complaints.
The Government legislated in 1999 to prevent the use of previous sexual history to support a defence of consent. However, that did not exclude the use of previous sexual history for the defence that the man believed that the woman was consenting. Because the defences are run together in the same trial, when previous sexual history is admitted for that defence it has those undesirable effects on the defence of consent as well, despite the Government's intentions. There are contentious issues around how the law should be recast to deal with that
Returning to the specific offence of drug rape, I can think of no complete solution, but I hope that the Minister will take to heart the fact that drug rape engenders widespread fear and has profound consequences for its victims. Will my hon. Friend take action now to raise awareness and to prescribe measures of self-protection so that women and men can be as safe as possible when enjoying their social lives? The two examples that I gave at the beginning of my speech have both happened since the Sturman report made those recommendations two years ago.