The Government sparked cross-party anger yesterday by announcing it plans to press ahead with giving rape defendants pre-charge anonymity in the media.
Junior justice minister Crispin Blunt told MPs: “The Government is minded to strengthen anonymity up to the point of charge.”
But shadow minister Maria Eagle warned that by singling out one offence for anonymity, ministers were in “danger of sending a clear signal to victims: you will not be believed”.
Tory Louise Bagshawe (Corby) said there were concerns on all sides of the Commons that by “singling out rape in this way ministers are sending a negative signal about women and those who accuse men of rape”.
Blunt said the Government believed the move struck the “right balance” but promised further consultations before coming forward with concrete proposals.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has already said there should be a free vote on the issue, which featured as a coalition agreement pledge.
Critics claim it will deter rape victims from coming forward with complaints to the police.
Blunt denied that the number of false allegations made against men was behind the Government’s reasoning for change and dismissed suggestions that it would deter victims from coming forward.
“There is an argument that reducing publicity around rape investigations and trial should make it easier for complainants,” he said. “This would be an effect of protecting a defendant’s identity.”
But Eagle said: “One of the reasons people fear that introducing anonymity for defendants just in rape cases will deter reporting by victims is because one is singling out that particular crime for this treatment.
“If one were to suggest extending anonymity to all defendants it might not have that same impact. But by singling out this one particular offence, you are in danger of sending a clear signal to victims: you will not be believed.”
Blunt said this was a counter-argument but it came down to a matter of judgment and balance.
He said pre-trial anonymity was considered right by the last Government and the Opposition when the issue was considered in 2003.
“It is the position thought to strike the right balance by the Home Affairs Select Committee when it considered this matter in 2003.
“Therefore, unsurprisingly, it is the conclusion which the Government has come to.”
He promised a further announcement in the autumn after investigating areas that “still require further thought”, including whether anonymity might “frustrate” police investigations into rape, adding that there would be talks with police and the media before a final decision was made.
Eagle said rape “wrecks lives” and “causes many victims unending suffering”.
Britain’s system of “open justice” was “extremely valuable”, she said, adding: “It should be changed only with great thought and for very, very good reasons.”
She asked why rape had been “singled out” for defendant anonymity.
“I believe that there are many crimes of which one can be accused which can have an extremely deleterious effect on one’s reputation, on one’s life, on one’s family – very many crimes apart from just rape.
“This is one of them, indeed. So is murder. So is downloading child pornography. So is stealing when one has a position of trust.”
She added: “What surprises me about this proposal, therefore, is why it is simply this crime alone, not all sexual offences but just rape, that is singled out by this Government in this way for this treatment.
“I don’t believe that this will help bring rapists to justice.”
The proposal was not in either the Tory or Liberal Democrat manifesto during the election campaign but had been decided over a weekend of coalition talks, she said.
The proposal was “prejudice-based policy-making”, she told Blunt, adding: “To come to this conclusion without any consultation, to decide the policy first and then consult afterwards – when there is such an issue about the effectiveness and likelihood of this policy being successful – is not a sensible way of making policy or going forward.”
Granting rape defendants anonymity “suggests quite clearly that there’s widespread false accusation and that victims should be disbelieved by the criminal justice system, by investigators, by juries. This will deter reporting on rape, something you say you wouldn’t wish to do.
“In fact people accused of sexual crimes should not be treated any differently to other defendants. It’s only in that way that such signals will not be sent by the changes you’re making.”
Eagle said the Newspaper Society believed the law should remain unchanged, adding: “I don’t believe … that the downsides of granting anonymity just in respect of rape could possibly justify the impact on the very few instances of malicious reporting that there are.”
She also warned against granting anonymity to teachers subjected to accusations from pupils, saying it risked reverting to a time when children were not believed if they made allegations of abuse.
Vulnerable children were left unprotected – often for years – in such circumstances, Eagle said, describing it as “serious and retrograde step” that would not help safeguard children.
Tory Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham), making his maiden speech, said the publication of false rape allegations could have “long-term and far reaching disastrous and unintended consequences”.
He told of a taxi driver who had been falsely accused of rape by a woman who had made up her claims to avoid paying a fare.
“He and others like him in the future deserve some measure of protection as I believe we still have a system of justice in this country of which we are justly proud, in which the accused are innocent until proven guilty on conviction by his peers,” Chishti said.
“If safeguards are required to reinforce that in sexual offences cases until conviction in order to balance these competing interests, then they should be put in place as a matter of urgency.”