The police crime sentencing and courts bill had its 3rd reading in the House of Commons on 5 July and will return to the House of Lords for its 2nd reading in September. In the debate both Conservatives and Labour made a point of advocating for harsher sentences for sex offending. Yet, both parties know that the sentencing proposals will have no impact on rape and are courting a punitive vote at the expense of women’s safety.
Rape sentencing: proposals and amendments
The bill seeks to ensure that anyone sentenced to more than four years in prison for a violent or sexual offence will spend two-thirds of their sentence in prison. Labour opposed the bill in its entirety, leading to the Conservatives posting the following on social media:
Labour proposed an amendment which, had it been passed, would have increased the minimum sentence for rape from four to seven years. Labour also proposed to increase minimum sentences for rapists, stalkers, domestic abusers and those who made public the names of rape survivors as well as introduce offences of street sexual harassment and misogyny.
The Conservatives rejected the amendments, with Labour posted:
Both parties voted on party lines and both positioned themselves as tough on rapists and pro women.
Rape is rarely reported to the police
The Crime Survey for England and Wales is the most authoritative guide to the prevalence of rape in the UK. It is not without its limitations but is more reliable than police statistics.
In the year ending March 2020 it estimated that 1.6 million people in the UK between 16 and 74 years had experienced rape or sexual assault by penetration (or attempts). Of these, only 16 percent reported the matter to the police.
Almost 44 percent were victimised by a partner or ex-partner, with a further 37 percent assaulted by someone they knew. Over a third (37 percent) were abused in their own homes and or in their partner’s home (26 percent). Only 15 percent of women reported being attacked by a stranger. The figure was 43 percent for men.
Overwhelmingly then, those who raped or sexually assaulted others did so within a relationship and while 72 percent of victims understood that what happened to them was rape, they did not want to involve the police.
Lack of trust in the criminal justice system
Of those who didn’t report the assault, 40 percent said this was because of embarrassment, 38.8 percent thought the police wouldn’t help and 34 percent thought it would be humiliating.
The nature of intimate relationships and the scrutiny these will endure during investigation and evidence giving is a considerable deterrent to reporting, and impacts more on women. More men reported the assault to the police than women and more men reported the assault as having been committed by a stranger.
Failing criminal justice system – offenders are not charged
In spite of their fears, many victims did report the assault – primarily to prevent it happening to others, or because they believe it to be the right thing to do. Only 43 percent wanted the offender to be punished. The older the victim, the more likely they were to report it.
The annual report of police effectiveness, the Crime Outcomes in England and Wales, was published on 22 July. It showed that only 3.5 percent of sexual offences reported to the police in the year ending 31 March 2021 got as far as a charge or summons. Bearing in mind, as the figures above show, that to report the matter to the police takes considerable courage and as it is likely that ‘stranger’ rapes are more likely to be reported than those by a partner, this is astonishingly low.
The crime survey figures indicate that, of the sexual assaults reported to the police, 21 percent of offenders were charged although it appears that only half of those charged went to court (about 1.6 percent of self-report assaults).
Some 40 percent of cases were closed due to ‘evidential difficulties’, in other words the evidence the police had collated was unlikely to be strong enough to secure a conviction. This percentage was only 17 in in 2015 and has grown exponentially since then, due to delays in investigations and, more recently, problems associated with covid.
Failing criminal justice system – delay
The median delay from reporting an offence to a charge (or a court summons in the magistrates’ court) is 465 days. As most serious offences and not-guilty pleas will be heard in the Crown Court where a further delay of a year or two is likely, victims (and offenders) can face four or five years with a case hanging over them.
Harsher sentences – misleading the public
Members of the public may support the government’s proposals (and Labour’s rejected amendments) unaware that they would have almost no impact on length of time served.
The government proposes that those serving over four years imprisonment for sexual offences would serve two-thirds of their sentence in prison, rather than the current half, before being released under supervision. Under current sentencing guidelines, the minimum recommended sentencing starting point for rape is four years. The average length of sentence for rape is nine years and nine months and the two-thirds rule already applies to those serving over seven years. So the proposed measure will impact on only a handful of offenders.
Similarly, if the majority of rape offenders are already serving over nine years, increasing the minimum sentence to seven years (as Labour proposed) would impact on very few offenders.
Those that will be caught up in the new punitive measures will be those who the courts consider to be at the least ‘serious’ end of the rape spectrum but for whom a sentence below four years has already been ruled out by the sentencing guidelines.
Government rape review
The government published the end-to-end rape review report on findings and actions on 18 June 2021. The report sets out the measures the government and criminal justice agencies intend to take to improve the criminal justice system for victims.
Strengthening expertise and giving better and more focused attention at every stage of the criminal justice process must be welcomed. However, the measures are superficial and unlikely to make an impression on the woefully low conviction rates that currently stand at 0.7 percent of (self-report) rapes or 1.3 percent of those reported to the police.
The plan (and the new sentencing proposals) totally ignores the needs of the 84 percent of women who do not report rapes, the majority of whom are raped within an intimate relationship. It offers no protection for them or even an understanding of the impact a relationship has on a woman’s capacity to report rape. Nor are any resources provided for other organisations that might be more appropriate or better meet their needs.
Victimising the victim
Harsher sentences risk requiring a greater burden of proof and cases will be more aggressively contested, leading to further delays and more not-guilty pleas. Perhaps juries will be unlikely to convict except in the most violent and clear-cut cases. Women too, may be reluctant to come forward with allegations of rape if the consequences of doing so for them – or their assailant – are so severe. A number of those convicted would be the fathers of the victim’s children or people they have loved and perhaps still do.
The proposals for harsher sentences are not designed to support women or victims of sexual assault. They will have a negligible impact on sentencing length and no impact on offending. They are intended to strengthen Conservative and Labour’s hardline credentials. Their promotion is virtue signalling at it most cynical.