THE fate of Liz Saville Roberts’s Bill to restrict the introduction of evidence about a woman’s sexual history in rape cases lies in the government’s hands.
Her Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill is due to have a second reading on March 24 but will require parliamentary time to progress further.
The Plaid Cymru MP’s concerns are shared across Parliament and have become more acute since the Ched Evans case when he was acquitted after the judge allowed testimony from two other men claiming to have had sex with the complainant.
But while the Evans case was widely reported because of his recognition as an international footballer, anti-rape campaigners believe that other judges are also allowing women to be cross-examined about their sexual history and choice of clothing.
The intention behind Section 41 of the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act was to restrict such defence ploys. It was weakened when the law lords decided that the defence should be entitled to raise previous consensual sexual activity between defendant and complainant prior to the alleged rape.
Lord Slynn noted during that judgement that it was well-established that a rape complainant should not be challenged about sexual relationships with other men, insisting: “The need to protect women from harassment in the witness box is fundamental.”
Unfortunately, that fundamental need was weakened by the Lords ruling. It opened the possibility of men accused of rape making up a previous consensual relationship and it offered the trial judge further latitude than allowed for in the Act in deciding what evidence and cross-examination could be permitted.
This contravened the clear intention of Parliament of saving a rape victim from undergoing an experience that many women describe as more gruelling than the rape itself.
The 1999 Act was meant to introduce a measure of reassurance to rape victims and to encourage them to take the daunting step of moving from reporting an attack to agreeing to give evidence in a criminal process.
Saville Roberts revealed in the House that just 2,689 convictions resulted from 33,798 complaints of rape to the police in 2015/16, indicating how far from that goal society has progressed.
When women believe that they are likely to be put through an ordeal of interrogation over their sexual history or why they chose to dress in a particular way, they will reject prosecution of their assailant.
Women’s rights to exercise their sexuality freely and to dress as they please must not be undermined in this way.
Saville Roberts is surely correct to observe that someone’s honesty cannot be assessed by knowledge of their “irrelevant sexual history.”
Most female MPs have already signified their backing for the principle behind her Bill.
The government should work with her to make parliamentary time available for it to be fully debated and passed into law.
Surrey is the richest county council in Britain, so its alarm call suggesting that it might hold a referendum to increase council tax by 15 per cent to fund social care speaks volumes for the scale of the problem.
Theresa May’s determination to dodge the questions posed by Jeremy Corbyn over a possible government sweetheart deal with Surrey, allowing the councils to drop the referendum plan, has an odour of duplicity about it.
Tory grandees claim that there has been no special deal and that every council can do what Surrey has done. If that’s so, come clean and provide all the documentation requested by shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth without delay. Let the people decide.