Labour MPs attack anonymity plan for rape defendants

Image caption,
David Cameron has said he backs a "limited extension" of anonymity

Plans to allow people accused of rape to remain anonymous until conviction have come under attack from Labour MPs.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was asked to explain why it was brought forward, with one MP suggesting he had "little personal enthusiasm" for it.

But he said it was a "serious issue" and dismissed Labour suggestions it was a decision made by male ministers.

Labour MPs argued that publishing a defendant's name encourages other victims to come forward.

'Mystery' of policy

In its coalition deal, the government backed keeping the identity of defendants in rape cases in England and Wales secret until after conviction.

But Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested he favoured a "limited extension" to cover the period between arrest and charges.

Mr Clarke was repeatedly quizzed about the plans in the Commons - where shadow minister Maria Eagle suggested it had been a "mystery" where the policy came from, as it was in neither the Tory nor the Lib Dem manifestos.

She asked about the coalition negotiations in the days after the general election, adding: "Can he tell us, please, how many women were involved in those negotiations?"

Mr Clarke said the policy was included in the coalition agreement as it had been "adopted as party policy by the Liberal Democrat party while in opposition".

But he added that it had also been recommended by the all-party Home Affairs committee of MPs and there had been "considerable debate" on the issue for years.

"The idea that this is some male decision to the exclusion of female sensitivities is frankly, slightly wide of the mark," he added.

"Nobody in this House denies that rape is a serious offence. Nobody in this House wants to reduce the protection given to women who are threatened with it or experience it."

Multiple offenders

Labour MP Meg Munn said it was "extremely unusual" for someone to offend only once - and publishing names encouraged other victims to come forward.

And her colleague Emma Reynolds raised the case of black cab driver John Worboys - convicted of sexually assaulting a string of female passengers - where more than 80 women came forward when he was charged.

"Anonymity for rape defendants would have prevented this from happening," she said.

Mr Clarke said the government was "looking at evidence" - including the Worboys case - and at how many cases were "multiple offenders" where publishing the accused's name might have led to more complaints.

But he added: "For serious rape cases, 53% of those accused are known to the person making the accusation. They are usually ex-partners or ex-husbands."

He said there seemed to be "no reason" why a victim would be deterred from coming forward because the accused would remain anonymous.

But he said the government would consider all the evidence adding: "We're not likely to have early legislation on this."

'Reasonable debate'

Former Labour minister Caroline Flint said a minister had suggested the reason for allowing defendants to stay anonymous was because of the "stigma" attached to rape - yet evidence suggested the public were "far more hostile" to paedophiles and murderers.

Mr Clarke said it was right to have a "reasonable debate" on the issue and he said there was a case for extending anonymity to defendants where victims were granted it - including rape cases or children's allegations against teachers.

The issue divided all the main parties, he said, adding: "I don't think this is a matter actually for party political ideology, it's a question the House as a whole should consider with care."

Labour were "looking for new policies" after losing power, he suggested.

But he also indicated all the parties would prefer MPs to have a "free vote" on the issue, while stressing that was not a decision for him.

Labour MP Katy Clark said she was pleased to hear there may be a free vote and that "the secretary of state has so little personal enthusiasm for this policy".

And Labour's Kevin Brennan challenged Mr Clarke to admit he had been "sold a pup" - but Mr Clarke said he was "not averse to the House looking at it again" as "there are people who want us to do so."

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