Rape: the truth

Observations on criminal justice - the shocking failure when it comes to rape prosecutions

Shocking evidence is circling the desks of the police and the Home Office showing that many men reported to the police for rape are not investigated, and their crimes do not appear in police records - even though they have previous records of violent offences and sexual attacks on women. Men rape with impunity and immunity, and they can do it again and again. Furthermore, as long as men target women who have been drinking or young women under 18, there is a good chance that the police won't bother to interview or investigate, and the allegations won't appear "on the books".

New research commissioned by the Metropolitan Police delved into the Met's own case files: it not only analysed the victims' fates in the criminal justice system, but for the first time checked out the histories of the suspects. No one had carried out an offender profile of alleged rapists before. No one had correlated the victims' stories with the records of the accused. The results are shattering.

Researchers reviewed the files on 677 rapes reported to the London Metropolitan Police in two months in 2005, and followed up by tracing the suspects. A third of the reported rapes were "not crimed" - that is, they were not investigated or recorded as crimes, because they were not thought to involve an offence. But many of the suspects had "previous". More than half of the men accused of raping women who had been drinking, where the cases were "not crimed", had a history of sexual offences against women.

A third of suspects whose victims were under 18 were not investigated, but had histories of violent offending. Among those cases that were crimed, but didn't get past the police investigation stage, were some with known histories of offending who were not prosecuted, "in the public interest".

This is sorely embarrassing for the macho (and besieged) Home Office. The evidence shows that the police directed their gaze at the wrong people. "We concentrated on services for victims," comments Richard Sumray, a magistrate member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, "but we did not concentrate on offender profiles."

One of the country's pre-eminent researchers into sexual crimes against women, Professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University, says the new findings are unprecedented. "This is unadulterated data that we've never had access to before." It was Kelly's research - based on the experiences of 3,500 victims - that in 2005 exposed the alarming collapse of the conviction rate. What was not apparent earlier (because it had not been correlated) was that men who like raping women do it over and over; they target their quarry.

It is the not-crimed category that is particularly sinister, officers giving up on cases without even checking up on the suspect. This is evidence that officials will want to keep out of the public domain, but which also vindicates reformers in the police service. The Met's review - the largest of its kind - vindicates Kelly's celebrated study that showed an unbroken increase in the numbers of women (and a few men) reporting rape in the past 20 years but a static number of convictions.

"The attrition rate [the rate of cases being not-crimed, not detected, or not pursued by the victim] is abominable," comments Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who, as well as heading the Met's cash-for-peerages inquiry, is also lead spokesman on rape for the Association of Chief Police Officers. "Rape is regarded as second only to murder, because of the violence and the violation, but most attrition takes place with us in the police," he says. "My aim is to take best practice in scene management and forensics in cases like murder, and apply it to rape."

The crisis comes from what Kelly calls a "culture of scepticism". "The police are often quite willing to interview people who don't support an account," she says, "and they seldom follow up what supports it."

If the not-crimed and attrition findings weren't bad enough, the picture becomes even more disturbing when correlated with patterns of vulnerability among victims. The overwhelming majority of rape reports on the Met's files - 87 per cent - are made by women whose characteristics make them vulnerable. Most are known to the perpetrators: acquaintances, partners and ex-partners; they are young; they consume alcohol or drugs; they suffer from mental illness. These categories attract police pessimism and a preoccupation with the virtues or vulnerabilities of the victim rather than the propensities of the perpetrators. This correlation appears to be decisive.

Pioneering research by Vanessa Munro at King's College London transcended the ban on talking to British jury members by assembling jurors from the electoral register for mock trials. She found that although the law on consent was radically reformed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003 - requiring defendants to show that they had taken steps to ascertain consent, and requiring that the alleged victims had the capacity, choice and freedom to give consent - it still didn't help them greatly. Some jurors felt that, however intoxicated, "as long as a woman was conscious she'd have the capacity to consent or resist".

Sumray reckons that the crisis is multidimensional: cultural and political, as well as a policing problem. The political arena, he says, has "to begin to influence how people think about this".

There is good news: the promotion of specialists in the Met's dedicated Project Sapphire, and greater respect and care extended to victims by sexual assault referral centres. The Met's response to research is already palpable; it reduced the number of rape reports dismissed as false allegations from 10 per cent in 2005 to 4 per cent in 2006, in line with Kelly's estimate.

According to Kelly, however, given the sexism of the culture and British institutions: "Yes, a woman can get better care, but she still can't get justice."