What happened to Sarah Everard is a scandal – and the fall in rape convictions only makes things worse

As data show that rape reports are higher than ever and convictions at new lows, women still seem to be paying the price for sexual violence

Daily Telegraph, Friday 5 November 2021

In the eight months since the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, in spite of protests and promises that the police will do better to protect women, the number of rapes reported has soared to a record high. Meanwhile, the proportion being solved has fallen to a historic low.

In the 12 months ending in June this year, 61,158 offences were reported to the police in England and Wales – almost 1,200 every week, up 9.6 per cent on the previous year and the highest since records began in 2010. The scandal of Sarah’s killing at the hands of a serving officer has now been compounded by another, which illustrates what many already knew – that no case, even a highly public one, can be enough to fix the police’s rape conviction problem.

The rise in reports may have come from women so disturbed by Sarah’s case that they felt compelled to come forward about their own. But it’s also possible that sexual predators know that the arrest and imprisonment of her killer, Wayne Couzens, was a very rare event. The latest statistics show that only 1.4 per cent of reported rapes resulted in a charge or summons in the year to June – the lowest on record.

Let’s be clear about what this means. The vast majority of men who commit sexual offences will never be charged or convicted; on the contrary, they may be emboldened and attack more women. It is a colossal failure on the part of everyone involved – police, prosecutors and a whole series of government ministers.

The usual response is to call for a report; the most recent, an “end-to-end” rape review, was published in June this year. It was accompanied by a grovelling apology to rape victims, with ministers admitting they were “deeply ashamed” about the way women had been let down.

It all sounded good, but we have been here before. Ten years ago, the then-Home Secretary, Theresa May, welcomed an independent report carried out by Baroness Stern and promised it would “improve the way rape complaints are handled at every stage of the process”. It didn’t.

There is no mystery about why this has happened. The Government’s reviews are always unambitious, with the latest proposing only to restore the conviction rate back to what it was in 2016 when the system was already in crisis. It will take almost two decades to reach even that miserable target, if “improvements” continue at the present tortoise-like rate. There is without doubt a problem of resources, leading to delays that some victims find unbearable.

The central problem, however, is that the criminal justice system does not understand sexual violence. Since the abduction of Sarah Everard, the lengths women go to every day to protect themselves from assault have finally begun to emerge. We avoid certain areas, make arrangements with friends, carry keys in our hands – and what happened to Sarah is a reminder that these precautions are not always enough. We know that those 60,000 recorded rapes are nothing like the real total, if all the unreported attacks are taken into account.

 

Police, prosecutors and ministers don’t understand this – or they resist knowing it. They continue to treat rape – “real” rape as it’s sometimes called – as a rare and aberrant event committed by a handful of bad men. The entire criminal justice system is set up on the premise that women lie about rape, putting innocent men at risk of being convicted.

 

The focus of a rape investigation is flawed from the outset, often seemingly more concerned with undermining the credibility of complainants than catching out the lies of predatory men – even after the scandal of Jimmy Savile, who told barefaced lies to the police and got away with hundreds of sexual assaults.

 

There is a way to address this scandal. It requires police, prosecutors and the public to ditch the mindset which claims, without evidence, that women lie about rape. The focus of rape investigations needs to be where it belongs; on perpetrators, not victims. It’s all too evident that everything else – reports, reviews, ministerial apologies – has failed abysmally.

 

 

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