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20 March 2008

Protection as well as support

Stronger deterrents - such as longer sentences and better conviction rates - are needed to protect w

By Barbara Follett

Rape is a horrific crime and has a devastating effect on its victims. It violates the basic rights of women, men and children to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have control over their own bodies.

That is why we have announced new funding of up to £1 million, aimed at keeping a number of Rape Crisis Centres open. This should enable centres to stay open and provide vital support services to rape victims while work is undertaken to develop a longer term solution.

Tackling violence against women is a priority for this Government. It is absolutely crucial that victims are offered support and counselling and that offenders are caught and brought to justice.

We are investing more money than ever before to help the victims of sexual violence report the crimes committed against them and to provide the counselling they need in order to come to terms with the ordeals they have gone through.

Over the past four years the Government has invested £10 million to support victims of sexual violence. In the last twelve months alone we have put in £3 million, along with another £1.25 million from the Victims Fund, to assist voluntary and community efforts. The Government has also allocated £150,000 to the umbrella organisations, Rape Crisis England and Wales and the Survivors Trust. We have already made a commitment to match this £1.4 million package in the next financial year.

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We are determined to continue to improve victim’s access to health and support services; enhance the criminal justice system’s response to sexual offences and strengthen measures to prevent these awful crimes from being committed in the first place. Work on these areas is being done across Government and we published an Action Plan last April setting out exactly how we are doing it.

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We recognise that some sexual violence and abuse organisations still face challenges. That is why we are working closely with them to see what more can be done to improve the long term sustainability and stability of the sector.

Last month I saw an excellent example of partnership working when I visited the South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre. Their local authority, Thurrock Council, knows what an important service the Centre provides and, along with the South West Essex Primary Care Trust, is helping to fund its crucial work. These two bodies deserve applause for their partnership approach and for their recognition of the importance of ensuring that victims get the support they need. They provide an example of best practice which I hope other local areas will emulate.

But, despite these improvements, many victims still hesitate to report rape and even more drop their complaints before they get to court. Better support is the key to increasing both the report and the conviction rate. That is why the Government has spent about £3million on extending the network of Sexual Assault Referral Centres, or SARCs, where victims can get medical care and counselling, as well as legal advice and other support. We currently have 20 of these centres and plan to have 19 more by the end of this year.

The Government is also piloting a programme of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs) in 38 areas across the country. These are professionally trained specialists who provide advice and support to victims from the time the crime is first reported, through the legal process that follows, and beyond.

However, support alone is not enough. We must also have strong deterrents. That is why the Government has introduced tougher sentences. In 2005 the average sentence for the rape of a woman was just under seven years or 82.4 months. In 1984 it was less than half this, at only 40 months. Progress has been made.

DNA is also helping us to catch and punish rapists. In 2003 the Criminal Justice Act gave police the power to take and retain DNA from those they arrest, which has led to hundreds of convictions, including 37 murderers and 90 rapists.

Conviction is one of the greatest deterrents. That is why I am pleased that they are 26 percent higher today than they were in 1997. But, this is still not nearly good enough and the Government is working hard with specially trained police officers, specialist rape prosecutors, and Independent Sexual Violence Advisors to do more. No one should have to suffer in silence and no rapist should escape justice.

Barbara Follett is the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality.