Exclusive:The lesser crimes secretly included in Home Office rape charge rates - including common assault and harassment

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Our exclusive investigation reveals how official statistics mislead the public by claiming rape and sex assault suspects have been charged when they were actually charged with lesser and even non-sexual crimes, including common assault and public order offences.

Harassment. Common assault. Exposure. Breaching a restraining order. Coercive and controlling behaviour. Using threatening language. Public order offences.

These are just some of the crimes NationalWorld can reveal suspected rapists and sex assaulters have actually been charged with, when police had previously led us to believe they had been charged with rape or sexual assault.

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For the past several months, we have been working to expose how misleading crime recording practices across police forces in England and Wales have been painting a false picture of the criminal justice system’s already bleak record on violent sexual offences. 

Despite assurances from the Attorney General that suspected rapists could only be charged with other “very serious” sexual offences, we have uncovered evidence that police and prosecutors are charging suspects with lesser and in some cases non-sexual crimes instead. 

The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) said our investigation revealed “a worrying lack of consistency and transparency” in the statistics being used to measure improvements in criminal justice agencies’ response to sexual violence, while Labour's Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry accused the government of leaving the figures “shrouded in doubt and complexity”. “That is an unacceptable and inexplicable way to treat this issue, and we urge them to think again,” she added.

In April we revealed through a Freedom of Information request how the Home Office had been sitting on data for more than six years that showed how many crime suspects are charged with an ‘alternative’ offence to the one that police recorded as having taken place. The department introduced this outcome – one of over 20 different options officers have to choose from when recording the end result of the crimes they investigate – in 2016, and its use was made mandatory in 2017. 

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Misleading crime recording practices across police forces in England and Wales have been painting a false picture of the criminal justice system’s already bleak record on violent sexual offences. Composite image: Mark Hall/Adobe Stock/NationalWorld.Misleading crime recording practices across police forces in England and Wales have been painting a false picture of the criminal justice system’s already bleak record on violent sexual offences. Composite image: Mark Hall/Adobe Stock/NationalWorld.
Misleading crime recording practices across police forces in England and Wales have been painting a false picture of the criminal justice system’s already bleak record on violent sexual offences. Composite image: Mark Hall/Adobe Stock/NationalWorld. | Mark Hall/Adobe Stock/NationalWorld.

But the Home Office has never published the new figures in its official crime statistics, instead continuing to group these outcomes under an umbrella ‘charged’ category – so they are included when calculating what proportion of crimes result in a suspect being charged, otherwise known as the charge rate. It has now agreed to begin publishing the data later this year, following a campaign by NationalWorld

The data we obtained from the Home Office showed that over 1,600 suspected rapists purportedly ‘charged’ between April 2017 and September 2022 had actually been charged with non-rape crimes. There were also almost 2,000 sexual assault cases affected. 

The Home Office has always insisted that officers can only record an alternative charge outcome if the facts of the case are very similar. One reason could be that a historical offence has been reported which would today constitute rape, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has had to pursue the case using old legislation. 

Attorney General Victoria Prentis consulted the Home Office after Emily Thornberry raised our investigation in Parliament in May. In a letter to Thornberry, Prentis said she had been assured crime counting rules meant there was only a “limited and specific” list of charges that could justify officers recording ‘alternative charge’ outcomes in rape cases. These are all other sexual offences, and are also “very serious”, she said. 

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But what the Home Office and the Attorney General did not know is that we had also submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to every police force in England and Wales, and were slowly building up a picture of just what these alternative charges actually were. 

And some of the results have been truly shocking. 

Rape charge rates have been plummeting 

There has been intense scrutiny of the criminal justice system’s response to rape in recent years, with women’s groups, campaigners and politicians raising the alarm over the plummeting charge rate. 

Home Office figures show the charge rate for rape fell from 22% in the 2014/15 financial year to a low of just 4.2% in 2018/19. Between April 2017 and September 2022, after the ‘alternative offence’ outcome had been introduced, police wrapped up 314,500 rape cases. The official figures published by the Home Office put the charge rate at only 5.4% during that time, with 17,018 ending in a charge or summons. 

Despite this bleak picture, we now know that hundreds of those ‘charged’ were actually charged with alternative offences rather than rape itself. 

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Suspected rapists and sexual assaulters charged with non-sexual offences

While the Home Office holds the data on what crimes end in a ‘charged with alternative offence’ outcome, it could not tell us what charges suspects accused of rape or sexual assault actually faced instead of the crime police recorded. 

So we put in FOI requests to all 44 police forces in England and Wales, to find out. Only 16 have been able to provide us with data, with the vast majority arguing it would be too expensive to respond, as they would have to manually review too many individual crime records to find the answers. 

A further two forces (Durham and Gloucestershire) confirmed their officers had no way of recording an alternative charge outcome, despite it having been mandatory to do so since 2017. NationalWorld understands a third force has also not been recording this data, but the Home Office has offered no explanation as to why it has allowed these forces to escape scrutiny. 

We have been able to examine records for over 660 offences from among the 16 forces that could supply data, including over 300 rape reports. There were another 100 recorded crimes where the details of the alternative charge had not been logged, so we are unable to see whether the suspects were charged with lesser offences. 

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Among these 660 cases, we have identified at least 200 where we consider the suspects to have been charged with significantly lesser offences, or in which the detail provided by the police forces raised questions about why the original offence was not charged. Many of the charges were not sexual in nature. You can find all of the data we obtained in this public spreadsheet

We have excluded from this 61 rape cases where a suspect was charged with sexual assault by penetration (a charge the CPS may pursue if they cannot prove a victim was penetrated with a penis) or otherwise sexual assault of an unspecified nature. We also did not include more than 70 cases where a recorded rape offence resulted in a charge of ‘sexual activity with a child’. The CPS says it may often bring this charge in cases in which another child or young person has sex with a child who is too young to lawfully consent, if it is felt it is not in the public interest to pursue a rape prosecution – but we identified almost 50 cases where the offender was over 18.

Among the group of 200 questionable cases were almost 100 in which an offender was charged with a simple common assault or battery – 91 times for alleged sexual assaults and three times for alleged rapes. Common assault only carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, whereas rape and sexual assault by penetration can both result in a life sentence, and sexual assault without penetration in a 10 year prison spell. 

Many of the rape cases we examined did involve historical offences, in which police recorded a rape but the offender had to be prosecuted using legislation that existed at the time of the offence instead. But we still found dozens of cases in which suspects had been charged with modern non-rape crimes. 

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Among them were over a dozen rape cases where a suspect was charged with sexual assault by touching. Another twelve suspected rapists were charged with non-sexual crimes, while 11 were charged with less serious sexual offences including incest, revenge porn, commiting an offence with the intention of committing a sexual offence, paying for the sexual services of a child, sexual communication with a child, and making or possessing indecent images of children. 

There was also one case in which a suspect was charged with attempted rape of a child under 13 instead of actual rape, as the CPS decided there was only “partial penetration”. In other cases the FOI data indicated the CPS would not take forward a charge for the crime recorded due to the victims’ state of intoxication, or because they had not clearly communicated that they did not consent. Other non-rape charges faced by rape suspects included grievous bodily harm, controlling and coercive behaviour, false imprisonment, harassment, and attempted suffocation. 

While officers are supposed to follow specific rules restricting what charges can justify an ‘alternative charge’ outcome for rape (the “limited” list described by Victoria Prentis) there are no dedicated rules for sexual assault – although general rules are in place for all crimes. Of the approximately 360 sexual assault cases we examined, we identified 152 (42%) in which the ‘charge’ outcome could be described as misleading. 

Alongside almost 100 cases where suspects were charged with common assault, battery or assaulting an emergency worker, suspects were also charged with crimes including:

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  • stalking
  • causing actual bodily harm
  • controlling or coercive behaviour
  • observing a private act/voyeurism
  • using threatening/abusive or insulting words or behaviour,
  • breaking bail conditions
  • public order offences and racial abuse
  • obscene publications
  • child cruelty
  • outraging public decency
  • obscene publications
  • malicious communications
  • drug offences
  • criminal damage.
  • exposure
  • breach of a sexual risk order or sexual harm prevention order

All together, 135 cases ended with non-sexual charges while 18 ended with less serious  or non-violent sexual charges. All were nonetheless included when calculating what proportion of sexual assaulters are charged, given the Home Office’s failure to differentiate ‘charged with alternative offence’ outcomes in official data.

Labour's Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry has called on the government and CPS to “get their heads out of the sand” and treat the issue of data transparency “with the seriousness it deserves”. 

“Given the scale of concern over violence against women in our country, there is an overwhelming public interest in establishing the correct charge rates for rape and sexual assault dating as far back as the data allows, and the correct conviction rates for ministers to use when addressing these issues in the media and in Parliament,” she said. 

“The government cannot hide behind excuses of compliance costs and long-term statistical comparisons when we are simply asking them to clarify what percentage of rape cases have led to a rape charge in recent years, and what percentage of those charges have led to a conviction. 

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“Those should be the most basic and definitive of statistics available to the public – the baselines from which all other progress in this area can be measured – and yet ministers seem determined to leave them shrouded in doubt and complexity. That is an unacceptable and inexplicable way to treat this issue, and we urge them to think again."

Andrea Simon, director of the EVAW charity agreed the government needed to ensure greater transparency and accountability. “This investigation shows there is a worrying lack of consistency and transparency in how justice agencies are recording the charging outcomes of rape cases,” she said. 

“Two years ago, the government committed to action to reverse the dramatic decline in rape prosecutions. Crime statistics are one way to help us understand if access to justice is improving for rape survivors, so it is very important that the data gives a clear and accurate picture of what's happening. 

His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) is responsible for inspecting “data integrity” at police forces in England and Wales. When we approached it for comment on our investigation, it said its inspectors focus only on police investigations “and not the alternate offence rule”.

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When approached for comment, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Sexual offences can have a devastating impact on victims. We are committed to ensuring that the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes are brought to justice. 

“The Home Office have a clear expectation that police forces must follow the rules laid out when charging an individual with an alternative crime to the one that has been recorded, which has been the case for several years. There must be similar facts and evidence and these must be related to the victim’s circumstances.”

The Home Office did not ask to see the data we obtained from police forces, or say anything about examining further how officers are recording rape and sexual assault crime outcomes.