Keir Starmer's report on rape allegations tells us more about their nature than their number

The CPS review of false rape allegations doesn't offer any clear answers.

 

The Director of Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer, is understandably keen to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes which are associated with rape cases. “One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife," he says.

It is probably true that the prevalence of such cases is often overestimated. Most credible research places false allegations at between about two and ten per cent of all complaints, the difference between a small minority and a tiny minority. However, the new review does not, and indeed cannot contribute any kind of estimate of the extent of false allegations, its methodology does not allow it.        

The CPS research reviewed 132 suspected false rape allegations where the evidence of fabrication was strong enough to require a decision on pressing charges, either for perverting the course of justice or wasting police time. (There were also 27 cases relating to non-sexual domestic violence - for simplicity, I’m excluding them from this discussion). Only 35 suspected false rape allegations proceeded to court. The 132 cases represent less than one per cent of reported rapes.  

Despite headline claims that false allegations are “few and far between,” these are only the cases where the evidence of falsification is strong. There were more than 16,000 reported rapes last year, of which 82 per cent did not go to trial. Proving a rape allegation to be false is no easier than proving one to be true, and for every case where there is enough evidence of fabrication to justify possible prosecution, there must be others where the allegation is false, but there is little or no evidence to prove that. How many such cases might there be? It is impossible to know for sure and this study makes no attempt to find out. Anyone who states confidently what the total number might be is speaking from faith, not evidence.

So the CPS review provides no clean, simple answers about the extent of false rape allegations. It is nonetheless valuable for the light it shines on the gruesome complexities. The case studies do not portray spiteful, malicious characters bent on blackmail or revenge, but a ragged bag of sorry stories. Around half are under 21, many have mental health issues or learning difficulties. False reports from over a third of the younger suspects were made by parents or partners, after a domestic lie spiralled out of control.

The cases echo a messy reality described in a recent paper in the British Journal of Criminology which observed that there is not even consensus on what is meant by a false allegation. Drawing upon interviews with police and prosecutors, Dr Candida Saunders distinguished between reports of rapes which had not occurred (false complaints) and reports of rape which contain falsehoods (false accounts).

False complaints, her interviewees suggested, are actually very rare, but reports which contain falsehoods are described as being common. A typical example might be a complainant who told police that she had only had one or two vodkas before tests revealed her to be eight times over the driving limit. Others lie as to the extent of their prior relationship with the alleged attacker, or the circumstances by which they came to be alone together. Such false accounts do not mean the complainant has not been raped, in most cases the assumption is that s/he has been, but they do damage the credibility of a witness and undermine prospects of successful prosecution. Saunders argues that many presumed false reports may actually be false accounts. If there is to be better understanding of the nature of false allegations among police, prosecutors and the public, this is the area where it should begin.

What do we know for sure about false allegations? Very little, beyond the fact that they do sometimes occur. In a judicial system that requires conviction beyond all reasonable doubt it is almost academic whether the proportion is one in a hundred or one in ten - each case must be judged on its merits. It is important to note that 84 per cent of the cases studied by CPS involved a specific, named individual as the alleged assailant. Each could be expected to suffer great distress as a result, and false allegations can and do destroy lives. The CPS is right, I believe, to ignore pleas from some feminist groups to end all prosecutions for false rape allegations which would leave victims of a serious crime without protection or justice. The CPS is also right to tend against prosecution in all but the most egregious cases, given the complexities and possibilities for miscarriage of justice involved.            

There is another sense in which this debate is academic. Recent IPCC investigations into the Met’s Sapphire Unit revealed an appalling record of incompetence, inadequacy and occasional outright corruption in the investigation of rape complaints, and it would be dangerous to assume this is restricted to London. The significance of false allegations must be marginal when so many reports were barely investigated at all, where evidence wasn’t collected or was actively destroyed. Ensuring that our police forces are willing and able to investigate the cases before them with honesty, competence and commitment would be the best protection for victims of rape and of false allegations alike. 

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions. Photograph: Getty Images
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The far right rises as the Nordic welfare model is tested to breaking point by immigration

Writing from Stockholm, the New Statesman’s editor observes how mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism.

In the summer of 1999 I was commissioned by a Scandinavian magazine to write about the completion of the longest road-and-rail link in Europe, connecting Denmark and Sweden across the Øresund strait at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. I was a guest at the ceremony, along with assorted Swedish and Danish royalty, at which the final girder of the concrete and steel-cable-stayed bridge was fitted into place.

It was a cold day but the mood was joyful. The Øresund Fixed Link symbolised the new Europe of open borders and free movement of people. There was much excitement about the creation of an economic zone centred on Copenhagen but incorporating Malmö and the university town of Lund in Sweden. The Øresund Bridge has since become an icon of Scandinavian culture, in part because of the success of the noirish television crime series The Bridge, starring the blank-eyed Sofia Helin as the Swedish police detective Saga Norén, which fetishises the structure in its brilliantly stylised opening credits.

Emergency measures

Last autumn, after Angela Merkel declared that Germany’s borders were open to Syrian refugees, it was across the Øresund that tens of thousands of desperate people began arriving in Sweden, straining the country’s habitual openness to incomers. They were arriving not just from Syria but from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa – sometimes as many as 10,000 a week. In 2015, 163,000 people registered for asylum in Sweden, including 36,000 unaccompanied children. Many others are presumed to have entered the country illegally. (The comparative figure registering for asylum in Germany was 1.2 million and in Denmark 25,000. David Cameron has pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in Britain by 2020.)

There was a sense last November that Stefan Löfven’s minority Social Democratic government was losing control of the situation. As a result, Sweden was forced to introduce emergency border controls, as well as security checks for those arriving across the bridge from Denmark. The rules of the Schengen passport-free area allow for such measures to be enacted in a crisis. Denmark responded by tightening border controls with Germany as fences and barriers were erected across Europe in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees heading north along the so-called western Balkan route.

Sweden’s Blair

To the outsider, Sweden no longer seems to be a country at ease with itself. Mass immigration has tested the old Scandinavian model of welfare capitalism to near breaking point and resentment is festering. “Immigration is now the number one issue facing our country,” Johan Forssell told me when we met at the Riksdag in Stockholm. He is a former chief of staff for Fredrik Reinfeldt, prime minister from 2006-14. As a former leader of the Moderate Party, Reinfeldt is a conservative, but, in his commitment to free markets and open borders, the politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. I was a guest at a lunch for Reinfeldt in London last autumn, and, as he defended his immigration policies, I was struck above all by his liberalism.

In August 2014, in a celebrated speech, he called on his fellow Swedes to “open their hearts” and “show tolerance” to immigrants and asylum-seekers. The speech was received with derision. It surely contributed to the defeat of the Moderate-led centre-right coalition in the general election in which the far-right Sweden Democrats, led by Jimmie Åkesson, recorded their best ever performance, winning 49 out of 349 parliamentary seats. “It was a brave speech, but Freddie didn’t prepare the people for it,” one senior Swedish politician said to me.

Editorial positions

One afternoon I visited Peter Wolodarski, the 38-year-old editor-in-chief of Sweden’s leading quality daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter (“Today’s News”), at his office in Stockholm. The son of a Polish-Jewish architect who came to Sweden in the 1960s, Wolodarski is highly influential: editor, columnist and television commentator, and an unapologetic liberal internationalist. He likened his politics to David Miliband’s. In the past, Dagens Nyheter, which is privately owned by the Bonnier family, supported the then-hegemonic Social Democrats but, reflecting the fluidity and shifting alliances of Swedish politics, it now pursues what it describes as an “independently liberal” editorial position.

Wolodarski, who used to edit the comment pages, is slim and energetic and speaks perfect English. We discussed the EU referendum in Britain, which alarmed and mystified him, and Islamist terror as well as the rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. Security at the Dagens Nyheter offices has been tightened considerably since the Charlie Hebdo massacre – Wolodarski’s paper as well as others in the group republished Charlie cartoons – and it has been reported that as many as 300 Swedish nationals are fighting for Isis in Syria. One Swede, Osama Krayem, is suspected of being part of the group that carried out the Brussels attacks in March. The Sweden Democrats have seized on this as further evidence of the failures of Nordic multiculturalism.

A refugee’s story

One morning I visited a refugee registration centre in Märsta in the northern suburbs. The people there were fleeing war or persecution. Each was waiting to discover where next they would be moved while their asylum application was processed.

One young, secular Muslim woman from Gambia told me she was escaping an arranged marriage (to her mother’s polygamous brother, who was in his sixties) and the horror of female genital mutilation. Articulate and frustrated, she wept as we talked. The next day, I received an email from her. She was now in a small town in the far north. “It is remote here and cold,” she wrote. And then she wished me a “safe return journey” to London.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred