Caroline Flint: Anonymity is an enemy of justice

Rape trials

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Every 34 minutes a rape is reported to the police in the UK. Many more go unreported. Rape devastates women's lives. It destroys communities and damages society. And yet tens of thousands of rapists are getting away with it every year – going uncaught and unpunished, denying their victims dignity and justice.

So what does our coalition's programme for government plan to do about it? Its solution is to protect the identities of defendants in rape trials – a policy that appeared in neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat election manifesto. In just nine blunt words they exposed the true nature of their relentlessly vaunted modern, progressive credentials – no mention of increasing convictions rates, no plan of action for delivering justice for rape victims, just one short, sinister sentence about protecting the rights of those accused of rape.

Turning their back on the steady progress over the past decade, with more rapes being reported to the police, more rapists being brought to justice and better support for rape victims, the Government has pulled off a remarkable feat of assembling a new coalition of women's groups, police officers, criminal justice practitioners and the judiciary itself united in its opposition to these dangerous proposals.

What we know is that many rapists are serial offenders – their trail of victims often runs into double digits. It's often only the publicity about a rape charge that leads other victims to come forward. When the taxi driver John Worboys was arrested for a string of sex attacks in 2008, for instance, 85 other women came forward to say that they too had been attacked by him. Offering attackers the blanket of anonymity will prevent other victims from getting the justice they deserve and hinder the police from protecting the public.

More perniciously, singling out rape defendants carries the clear inference that rape victims are less reliable, less credible and less trustworthy than victims of other violent crimes, such as domestic violence or child abuse. It is a policy that reinforces the myth that women who report rape are lying and gives succour to those reactionary forces who peddle the same old lies about women being responsible for being raped.

No one doubts the damage that false allegations cause – innocent men find their lives turned upside down, police time is wasted, public money misused and the vast, overwhelming majority of genuine victims find it more difficult to convince juries of their case. But in the most recent and authoritative report, Baroness Stern could find no evidence that the incidence of false allegations was higher in rape cases than in any other crime.

In any case, the law already deals with those who lodge malicious complaints against others; making a false allegation is perverting the course of justice and those who do it can, and do, receive substantial prison sentences.

The only other possible justification is that the stigma associated with being accused of rape is of a different order to that associated with any other serious, violent or sexual offence. Why else would the Government distinguish those accused of rape from those accused of any other crime? But unless you seriously think that paedophiles and murderers are really better thought of than rapists, or consider it more socially acceptable to sexually abuse a child or kill a pensioner in cold blood, you can't have anonymity in rape cases without granting anonymity across the board – a principle totally alien to our system of open, transparent justice.

The newspapers might give more column inches to the tiny number of false allegations than to the plight of the thousands of women raped every year, but the real injustice here is not the rights of defendants but the scandalously low levels of convictions in rape cases. Our priority must be delivering justice for victims of rape and protecting the public from dangerous offenders. So come on, Mr Cameron, think again.

Caroline Flint is the Labour MP for Don Valley and has an adjournment debate in the House of Commons tonight, opposing the Government's plans to grant anonymity to defendants in rape trials.

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