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9 July 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:17am

Female MPs attack anonymity for rape defendants

Objections from within the coalition as government presses ahead with divisive reform.

By Samira Shackle

So, the coalition is to press ahead with its plan to grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases, prompting anger from female MPs across the board.

Today the Times claims that Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for equality, “resisted attempts to make her defend the plans in parliament yesterday”. Although she blamed a diary clash for her absence, she has previously expressed reservations about the policy (without condemning it outright) on her blog:

. . . there’s one hell of a gap between what is happening out there — compared with the ability to bring these cases to justice.

Louise Bagshawe, the novelist and newly elected Conservative MP for Corby, has publicly criticised the policy, saying:

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Singling out rape in this way, ministers are sending a negative signal about women and those who accuse men of rape.

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She is not the only one. Two other new Tory MPs, Dr Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, have also voiced concerns. The latter, a criminal barrister, said that it was “absolutely the case” that making a defendant’s name public encourages other victims to come forward.

They add their voices to those of women from the Labour Party. Harriet Harman, acting leader, has been a vocal critic of the policy, as has Caroline Flint. And Yvette Cooper, the shadow minister for women and equalities, said:

The government has failed to give any reason why rape should be treated differently to any other crime — and chose, instead, to send out the very strong signal that women are not to be believed.

As Cooper points out, the problem here isn’t with anonymity; it’s with singling out rape. Yes, a false allegation of rape is hugely damaging — even life-destroying. But isn’t that also true of a false allegation of murder, downloading child pornography, or sexual assault? Between 6 and 8 per cent of rape allegations are false — exactly the same number as for all other crimes. Granting anonymity for the accused in one crime alone sets a tone of disbelief and sends out a clear message of scepticism to victims and potential jurors alike.

Another mystery is how and why this policy — hardly a hot election topic — made it into the coalition agreement at all, as it was not contained in either party’s manifesto. The Liberal Democrats adopted the policy in 2006, but it’s not clear why they would have brought such a divisive issue to the negotiating table, given that it does not enjoy full support even within the party.

Kenneth Clarke has advocated a free vote on the matter because there is “no consensus”. This is a regressive policy that is literally a throwback to the 1970s (defendant anonymity was introduced in 1976 and removed — by a Conservative government — in 1988). Let’s hope that those internal critics of the policy keep up their resistance.

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