Ken Clarke is wrong on rape – but many seem to agree with him

The Justice Secretary’s latest comments on rape reveal a depressingly common prejudice.

Kenneth Clarke has become the latest public figure to make some rather odious remarks about rape. During an interview on Radio 5 Live, discussing the coalition's plans to reduce sentences for those who plead guilty to rape, the Justice Secretary said:

Serious rape, I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape – frankly, the tariff is longer for that – and a serious rape where there's violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff's much longer than that. [Emphasis added]

When the show's presenter, Victoria Derbyshire, challenged Clarke, saying that "rape is rape", he responded: "No, it's not."

Clarke compounded his error a few minutes later when he appeared on Sky and talked about "classic rape, where someone jumps out from behind a bush". Before, finally, mentioning the phrase "serious, proper rape".

Following these comments, Ed Miliband called during Prime Minister's Questions for the Justice Secretary to resign. Clarke is certainly guilty of using extremely sloppy language in discussing a very sensitive issue. He is also guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding many of the problems that surround attitudes to rape in the UK.

Many people think that there is, as he seems to contend, a scale of rape – with random attacks in parks at the top and date rape at the bottom. A significant proportion of the population agrees with him. In one study, 30 per cent of those surveyed said that a woman was partly or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

This attitude is completely wrong – and when it comes from the mouth of the Justice Secretary it is unhelpful, to say the least. The fact is that most rapes are not what Clarke calls "classic rapes". More than half of all rapes are committed by people known to the victim, according to the Fawcett Society.

As Justice Secretary, he should know this. A rape is a rape is a rape. Whether the attacker is known to the victim and where it takes place are both irrelevent. At the very least, Clarke should apologise for his offensive, stupid remarks.

UPDATE: Listen to the full interview below.

UPDATE #2: Ken Clarke has attempted to clarify his comments below:

He said: "What is happening is what always happens in politics, I'm not surprised by this, people are slightly spinning, loading what I said in order to get what I regard as false indignation.

"I think rape is a serious crime. Always gets a long sentence. It should do. I'm not proposing to reduce the penalty for rape in any way. The proposal I'm making, a discount for an early plea, applies to every criminal offence in the book. It has good reason for it."

Update #3: My colleague David Allen Green has blogged on the legal issues of Clarke's comments.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.