At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition adopted a sombre, less partisan tone when discussing the fall-out from Sarah Everard’s murder. Boris Johnson agreed with Keir Starmer that this ‘must be a watershed moment to change how we as a society treat women and girls’ and promised ‘cultural change’.
But while the commitment to work towards lasting change was welcome, the lack of policy substance was striking. Keir Starmer made the case for tougher sentences for rapists. Very few people (least of all me) will argue with that, but with less than 2 per cent of rape cases recorded by the police leading to a charge, and even fewer making it to court, are tougher sentences really the number one priority for reform?
The government’s contribution was even more sparse, amounting to a hurriedly briefed package of measures late on Tuesday evening, including the frankly bizarre proposal to place plain clothes officers in pubs. And the government’s flagship Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently going through parliament, is all but silent on the issue of tackling violence against women.
The urgent need for reform was laid bare on Thursday, with the publication of new ONS figures on the nature and scale of sexual violence, taken from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. These figures suggest a total of 1.6 million people have been the victim of rape, sexual assault by penetration or an attempted offence since the age of 16. That’s 7.1 per cent of women.
The majority of these crimes involve ‘intimate partner violence’ – with nearly half (44 per cent) of victims who experienced sexual assault by rape or penetration since the age of 16 victimised by their partner or ex-partner, and over a third (37 per cent) by someone who was known to them. By comparison, 15 per cent reported being assaulted by a stranger.
Sexual assault also tends to be experienced more than once. Nearly half of victims aged 16 to 59 years who experienced rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16, had been a victim at least twice (49 per cent). Over one-fifth of victims reported experiencing this type of assault more than three times since they were 16 (22 per cent).
However, perhaps most worrying of all, is what the data says about women’s willingness to report these crimes when they occur. Fewer than one in six victims (16 per cent) said that they had reported the assault to the police. For those that told someone about the abuse, but did not report it to the police, the most common reasons given were: ‘embarrassment’, ‘did not think they could help’, or ‘thought it would be humiliating’. Shockingly, a quarter of victims thought the police would not believe them.
Given the extreme nature of these crimes, the scale of these figures is shocking and an indictment on our criminal justice system.
None of which is to say solving the problem will be easy. Sexual assaults are complicated and time-consuming to investigate. In particular, the initial stage of an investigation - when police have to gather enough evidence to refer a case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) - has arguably become more complex, with an increase in the amount of evidence to consider, often from phones and social media. Between 2012 and 2018 the time taken by police in England and Wales to investigate a rape case and for prosecutors to decide whether to prosecute more than doubled to over a year.
In recent years, the suspicion has grown that CJS agencies may actually have been discouraged from bringing rape prosecutions. In November 2019 it was revealed that the CPS previously had a secret conviction rape target, introduced in 2016 - that 60 per cent of rape cases should end in conviction. This may have caused prosecutors to drop weaker or more challenging cases though this has been denied by the CPS.
In the end, what can make a break a case is the degree to which victims of sexual assault feel inclined to stay engaged with the process in order to secure a conviction. Often victims withdraw their complaints because they cannot face the intrusion into their privacy that comes with a routine investigation. This is because many will be required to hand over their mobile phones, so that the data can be downloaded to see if it has any bearing on a possible criminal prosecution. In July 2020 the CPS and police agreed to scrap the controversial digital consent form that people alleging rape had previously been asked to sign, which had required them to divulge all their mobile phone data.
However, the complexities involved should not be used as an excuse for inaction. We know there are practical reforms that would make a difference, such as strengthening sex and relationship education in schools, improving victim liaison services within policing, further limiting the CPS’ ability to make disproportionate and intrusive demands for rape complainants’ phone contents, and improving the court experience for victims, for example, by allowing them to give evidence via video link.
There are signs that the government may be, belatedly, waking up to the urgency of doing more. On Wednesday, ministers announced their intention to begin recording misogyny as a hate crime - a key ask of campaigners. But, as Thursday’s figures show, there is a lot more to do. Vague pledges to bring about ‘culture change’ won’t cut it.