18 May 2011 3:32 PM

A blind spot on rape?

The Government should have seen today's outcry around plans to cut rape sentences in half coming from a mile away.

After all, its first big row was about plans to give anonymity to men accused of rape.

The pledge to extend pre-charge anonymity to suspects, contained in the Coalition Agreement, provoked fury from female MPs and pressure groups last year.

After a vocal campaign (led in Parliament by Caroline Flint), ministers performed a U-turn and vowed to find a "non-statutory solution" - asking the media for self restraint - instead.

All of which raises the question: why has today's genie been let out of the bottle?

Ken Clarke is already suffering from perceptions that he is soft on crime, and the Tories are in danger of conceding traditional political territory to Labour. Ignoring the controversy over his claims that rape is not rape, proposals on plea bargaining - giving shorter sentences to criminals who admit guilt early  - hardly look tough on crime despite any benefits they could bring to conviction rates and the ordeal for victims.

Critics will also question how it fits in with David Cameron's assertion - in this 2007 speech to the Conservative's Women's Organisation - that falling sentence lengths to an average of 80 months are contributing to a situation where "rapists think they can get away with it".

To be fair, he also cited the six per cent conviction rate - which he also held up as a reason for today's reform proposals - as a motive for a review of sentencing by now Home Office minister Nick Herbert.

Here's the full extract:

According to the British Crime Survey, one in twenty adult women in the UK have been the victim of a rape, and a recent Government report estimated that at least 75 percent of these are never reported to the police. Of those that are reported, just 5.7 percent result in a conviction – down from 33 percent in 1977. Of course, comparative statistics must be treated with care and more work needs to be done to understand discrepancies, but in Italy, it’s almost 50 percent, and as new analysis commissioned by the Conservative Party shows, England and Wales have the lowest rape conviction rate of any leading European country. Taken together, this means just fifteen in every thousand women who get raped in England and Wales see justice done.

How can any civilised country, that sees the sanctity of consent to sex as a vital right for every woman, accept these facts? And what about when the perpetrator is convicted? The average custodial sentence handed to rapists in England and Wales has fallen over the last three years for which there is published data to around 80 months.

Given all this, we have a situation where.. rapists think they can get away with it, while victims fear not being believed and wonder what’s the point of pursuing the criminal process. This represents a real challenge to the British criminal justices system. Of course, this means doing all we can to help the police catch criminals. That’s why we’ve laid out extensive plans for reform of our police. It means doing all we can to help victims, by understanding the harrowing circumstances so they don’t feel intimidated when presenting their evidence. And it means making sure the length of sentence is proportionate to the crime.

All of which makes today's blind spot even stranger.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse


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