Bernard Hogan-Howe’s plan to drop the presumption that victims are telling the truth risks taking us back to dark days of distrust
The Guardian, 11 February 2016
For many years, women and girls who told the police they had been raped faced an uncertain outcome. In Rotherham and other English towns, underage girls were not believed when they said they had been targeted by gangs, and the abuse continued for years. In London, serious flaws in the handling of allegations led to cases where extremely violent men remained free to commit further offences.
Now the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has suggested a controversial change to reforms that were introduced after a series of damning reports by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC found that John Worboys, the black-cab driver who is believed to have drugged and sexually assaulted at least 85 women in London, attacked seven more women after he was arrested and released in 2007. One victim said she had been “lied to and laughed at” when she reported the assault.
Another IPCC report into the conduct in south London of the Sapphire sex crimes unit found that an officer encouraged a woman to drop a rape accusation against a man called Jean Say, who went on to murder both his children in 2011. The report said the Southwark team’s wider failure to believe victims was “wholly inappropriate” and criticised a lack of resources, describing the team as “under-performing and over-stretched”.
It was scandals such as these that prompted the Met to declare that rape victims would be believed in the first instance. This was a turning point in the history of sex crime investigation, finally placing reports of serious sex crimes on the same footing as other offences. You wouldn’t expect a police officer to laugh in your face if you reported a burglary or to suggest, without evidence, that your car hadn’t really been stolen.
That’s why I disagree profoundly with Hogan-Howe’s suggestion that the policy of automatically believing victims could be reversed. Let’s be clear about this: an initial response of belief doesn’t mean that the allegation shouldn’t be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, as with any other crime, and terminated if it turns out not to be credible. Historical allegations present special difficulties, but the successful prosecutions of Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris show that these are not insurmountable.
The discovery of further victims is a key part of the process, which is why I’m also unconvinced by Hogan-Howe’s suggestion that men facing allegations of sexual offences should be offered anonymity until they are charged. Some suspects won’t even get to that stage unless other victims come forward.
Hogan-Howe’s intervention comes at a time when he is having to respond to fierce criticism of Operation Midland, his force’s inquiry into historical allegations about an alleged VIP paedophile ring. Headlines demanding an apology or his resignation have continued for days, and Hogan-Howe has announced a review of the investigation. But one apparently mishandled inquiry into historical allegations is no reason to reverse reforms that were intended to address a much wider issue.
My personal view is this: the most serious problem about rape in this country is that the overwhelming majority of rapists get away with it. A Home Office study published in 2009 estimated that between 75% and 95% of rape offences in England and Wales went unreported each year, mainly because victims were too afraid or ashamed to go to the police.
The number of reports has risen substantially since then, but most rapes never even appear in crime statistics. The Metropolitan police recorded 5,410 rapes in London last year, an implausibly low figure for a city with a population of 8.5 million. That’s an increase of 9% cent on 2014, but it’s happening at a time when police resources are being cut to the bone.
Attrition rates in rape cases in London are above the average for England and Wales, and there is little support for victims. Most will never get to meet an independent sexual violence adviser, whose role is to support women through the gruelling trial process. Senior officers complain to me that London has far too few – with estimates as low as 25.
Those of us who work in the field of sexual violence already fear that the criminal justice system won’t be able to cope with the rising number of rapes reported. The risk is huge: if police and prosecutors don’t manage to bring more cases to a successful conclusion, we’ll go back to the dark days of victims automatically distrusting the police.
And if Hogan-Howe is serious about reducing horrendous levels of sexual violence, he should be arguing for more resources for his officers, greater support for victims and compulsory education in schools about sexual predators.