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2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing a second debate on this general issue so soon after the first.

Rape in all its forms is a serious and abhorrent crime. The enormity of the effect on victims and the fear of crime that it engenders among women is very damaging. Society needs to recognise that rape is a serious crime, and that there can be no qualification or lessening of that.

As my hon. and learned Friend acknowledged, the law is clear about the use of any substance to assist in the commission of this crime by incapacitating the victim, which is a particularly sinister and repellent act. When it takes place in a social context, such as a pub or a club and when the victim knows or is acquainted with the perpetrator, the betrayal of trust that that involves further impacts upon the victim.

Owing to the relative infrequency of this type of crime and the difficulty of obtaining specific data, it is hard to assess whether it is on the increase. Current police recording methods do not routinely identify that specific sexual offence. In common with other sexual offences, it would be reasonable to assume that any count of incidents significantly underestimates the size of the problem.

I am pleased to say that the Home Office has taken steps to address the problem of insufficient data. The latest British crime survey will attempt to measure the involvement of drugs in serious sexual offences. The results will be known when the next survey is published later in the year. However, as with all rape and sexual offences, we need more incidents to be reported to the police.

As my hon. and learned Friend knows, we have taken steps in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to ensure that victims of rape can be provided with protection if cases reach court. Section 41 of the Act was the subject of an Adjournment debate on 24 April. The provisions of the section limit the questions that rape victims can be asked under cross-examination about their previous sexual history so that they do not have to go through that distressing and unnecessary ordeal. I have taken on board what my hon. and learned Friend says about the way in which that is effectively being circumvented, and will come back to her as soon as I can with further thoughts on whether we can protect against that happening.

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The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), in replying to my hon. and learned Friend's previous Adjournment debate, said that we were planning a research project to evaluate the impact of section 41, particularly in the light of the recent House of Lords decision. We are also aware of the need to improve the conviction rate in rape offences generally.

A working group on rape is being established by the Home Office. It will work with the police and other Government Departments to devise a plan to implement the recommendations of the recent joint inspectorate review. These include using specialist lawyers for rape cases, ensuring that offensive and seemingly irrelevant questioning of victims is challenged and issuing guidance to prosecutors on the review and handling of cases. The report also recommends the improvement of existing training for lawyers and police officers.

Among the existing good practice identified in the report is the provision in some areas of specialist medical examination facilities and the equipping of first response staff with sample kits to prevent loss of evidence. My hon. and learned Friend commended one institution; I would like to mention the Haven in south London, which is another good example of a specialist medical resource for victims of sexual offences. It is jointly funded by the Metropolitan police and the national health service. The service deals with approximately 10 per cent. of all rape referrals in England and Wales.

There is little firm evidence to indicate how often drugs are used to facilitate rape, or which drugs are being used. The forensic science service analyses samples from victims in suspected drug rape cases and has been collating data on possible drug-facilitated rape and sexual assault. It investigates about 450 cases of alleged drug-assisted rape each year, and positive drug identifications—those where the presence of an unexplained sedative drug has been detected—are made in only 1 to 2 per cent. of such cases.

Benzodiazepine drugs are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as class C drugs but, until recently, were exempted from controls on their possession. Following advice from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Government have introduced additional controls on their import, export and possession. Those further controls should help to reduce the availability of the benzodiazepine drugs on the illicit drugs market and their use in cases of rape.

As my hon. and learned Friend said, there have been media reports that the drug GHB—gamma hydroxybutyrate—is often used in drug rape. We take that very seriously and have been monitoring the situation to see whether further controls are needed, based on the scientific and medical evidence. Last year, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs decided to control GHB under the UN convention on psychotropic substances.

At its meeting last November, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that GHB should be controlled as a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Government have accepted that recommendation in principle, in view of the drug's misuse. Under that classification, possession of the drug

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would be illegal but, as my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, its precursors are easily available, so there are great difficulties in dealing with that issue and they will have to be explored further.

I think that my hon. and learned Friend is also aware that the Government are working to develop a practical device to enable the detection of a range of different drugs in drinks. Only last week, I met representatives of the drinks industry and we were given a presentation on the latest developments in that project. There is much potential, but we are still a long way off. There are public health difficulties and the research has revealed major problems.

The cost of a workable device would have to be represented as a multiple in the value of the drinks themselves. To make progress in devising an effective and suitable product the costs would have to be reduced, so that the device could be supplied with drinks on all occasions. The public health considerations would also have to be taken into account.

I was encouraged—as were the people who were undertaking the research on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry—by the reaction of some of the trade representatives. They readily said that they were prepared to assist in the trials of the devices to try to further the research so that we could develop a usable product as quickly as possible.

It is also important that we have laws that provide clear and coherent offences to protect all victims of sexual offences, with penalties that enable the appropriate punishment of offenders. To that end, the Government set up the sex offences review in January 1999.

On drug rape, my hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the Sexual Offences Act 1956 includes an offence of administering drugs to obtain or facilitate intercourse, and the review proposes an increase in the sentence for that crime from two years to seven years. When the review's recommendations have been considered, we intend to introduce a coherent package of new and amended sexual offences as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I assure my hon. and learned Friend and the rest of the House that we are determined further to improve the support offered to victims by both the criminal justice system and the community as a whole. Since last October, we have given many victims the opportunity to make a personal statement about how the crime has affected their lives. That will ensure that they can be offered the right level of protection and support, and that their needs are taken into account at every stage in the process. Later this year, we shall announce detailed plans for a Bill of Rights for victims and for a victims commissioner, who I am sure would have a great impact in this area of criminality.

I hope that I have been able to assure my hon. and learned Friend that we are actively considering rape in its wider context and the various ways in which we can help, and that drug rape is being taken seriously. I am sure that she will continue to monitor the situation and to push for an effective framework in all the different areas necessary to deal with the problem.

Question put and agreed to.

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