“We are deeply ashamed”: the government admits to failing rape survivors

In a landmark report, the government has admitted to failing rape victims in England and Wales – and laid out how it plans to turn plummeting prosecution rates around.

Unreserved apologies are not something we often hear in politics. MPs and government ministers, particularly those who’ve been in power for a long time, often try to wriggle out of publicly accepting responsibility for failures – even when the evidence of those failures is undeniable.

Which is why the language in the government’s long-awaited rape review report is so striking. Published after several delays, the report sees the government promise to overhaul the criminal justice system to create a fairer landscape for rape survivors in England and Wales.

Ministers have pledged to boost the number of cases making it to trial; provide better support for victims; and hold the police, prosecutors and courts to account for any mistakes.

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Notably, the government has also explicitly acknowledged that the criminal justice system has been failing rape survivors on a catastrophic level for years – and said sorry. In the report, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Attorney General Michael Ellis say they are “deeply ashamed” of how rape cases are currently handled in England and Wales.

“Victims of rape are being failed. Thousands of victims have gone without justice,” reads a foreword signed by Patel, Buckland and Ellis. “But this isn’t just about numbers – every instance involves a real person who has suffered a truly terrible crime.”

The mission of the rape review, ministers say, “is to understand why we are letting down rape victims, and to right this wrong”.

The report continues: “The current situation is totally unacceptable and the government is determined to change it: we owe this to every victim and are extremely sorry that the system has reached this point.”

Rape review report: the government’s action plan contains measures to hold police to account on how rape cases are handled

What is the rape review report?

The ‘end to end’ rape review was launched in March 2019 to look at survivors’ experiences of the criminal justice system from one ‘end’ to another, starting with alleged crimes being reported to the police and ending with what happens in court.

Originally set to be published last spring, it was commissioned against a backdrop of plummeting prosecution rates for rape cases in England and Wales. Over the last five years, the number of charges, prosecutions and convictions for rape cases has fallen dramatically – despite there being very little change in the overall prevalence of rape and sexual violence crimes.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of rape allegations don’t result in a trial. There are an estimated 128,000 victims of rape a year, with women significantly more likely to be affected (98% of perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, meanwhile, are male). Less than 20% of victims of rape report to the police, and in the year to December 2020, just 1.6% of reported rapes resulted in someone being charged.

These dire statistics prompted Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner, to warn that we have effectively witnessed “the decriminalisation of rape” in England and Wales.

Rape review report: victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird has warned that rape is effectively decriminalised in England and Wales

How is the government promising to improve rape prosecution rates in England and Wales?

The rape review report contains an extensive action plan, laying out how the government hopes to reform the criminal justice system and bring more rape cases to court.

These measures include instructing police to focus more on suspects’ behaviour than victims’ actions; ensuring that rape victims aren’t left without a phone for longer than 24 hours; and recommending that police should only request access to victims’ digital devices when it’s strictly “necessary and proportionate”.

As part of a pilot project, some rape victims will be able to pre-record their testimony before trial, rather than having to endure the trauma of being cross-examined in front of their alleged attacker.

There will be regular reviews of how the entire criminal justice system handles rape cases, with ‘performance scorecards’ published every six months from December.

And the Law Commission will launch a review into ‘rape myths’ to ensure courts are tackling these stereotypes properly, while examining whether victims’ sexual history should be used as evidence in court.

Rape review report: the government says rape victims should not be left without a phone for longer than 24 hours

Does the rape review report focus too much on punishment?

Stylist’s #AFearlessFuture initiative calls on the government to invest in changing the culture that underpins male violence against women, rather than focusing solely on punishing violence that has already happened. 

Before the rape review report was published, some charities and campaigners expressed concern that it wouldn’t prioritise prevention – and it’s undeniable that the final action plan is largely concerned with convicting more perpetrators, rather than stopping people perpetrating these crimes in the first place.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, Rape Crisis, Centre for Women’s Justice and Imkaan have all argued that the government does not pay enough attention to measures that would stop rape and sexual assault happening. 

“It is hard to overstate how absent this question and approach is in current public policy making,” said the charities in a report published in November.

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Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins tells Stylist that she recognises the importance of preventative measures when it comes to dealing with rape in England and Wales.

“A major part of this review is around changing the approach to investigations – focusing more on a suspect’s behaviour and less on the victim’s,” she says. “But we are looking at prevention and perpetrator behaviour across every aspect of tackling violence against women.”

Atkins points to the government’s £25 million Safer Streets Fund, part of which goes to “projects which could include an emphasis on changing attitudes and behaviours in local communities”.

She adds that the action plan will be supported by the government’s updated violence against women and girls strategy, due to be published later this summer. The strategy will be shaped by the 180,000 responses the government received to a call for evidence on violence against women, which was reopened after the disappearance of marketing executive Sarah Everard in March. A Met Police officer has since pleaded guilty to Everard’s kidnap and rape. 

“We are clear that we can only tackle the root causes of violence against women and girls and sexual violence if we look at offender behaviour and attitudes across society,” says Atkins.

If you, or anyone you know, needs help and support, you can call the Rape Crisis national helpline on 0808 802 9999 (open 12pm – 2.30pm and 7pm – 9.30pm daily). You can also find your nearest centre or visit the website for more information

Images: Getty Images

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