Labour’s Emily Thornberry has asked the government to investigate whether suspected rapists charged with non-rape crimes are being counted towards the official rape charge rate following an investigation by NationalWorld.
It follows an exchange in the House of Commons today (25 May) in which the Shadow Attorney General urged her government counterpoint to confirm whether suspects who are never actually charged with rape are being included in official figures tracking the number of complaints that are taken forward by police and prosecutors in England and Wales.
The Attorney General, Victoria Prentis, confirmed in Parliament that she had asked officials for clarity about the matter after reading NationalWorld’s investigation last month. While welcoming the “careful consideration” Prentis had given the matter, Thornberry said the response had failed to address the central concern of possible inflation of the official charge rate – both for rape and other serious offences.
“Given the grave and widespread concern that already exists over the abysmally low charge rate for rape, you will appreciate how incredibly serious and disturbing it would be if it emerges that the percentage of rape offences leading to an actual rape charge is even lower than we currently think,” the letter reads.
“I sincerely hope that is not the case, but I would be grateful if you could consult the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] and clarify the position as a matter of urgency. And if [NationalWorld.com’s] analysis is accurate, I hope that immediate steps will be taken both to publish corrected figures for rape charges over the period in question, and to ensure that the accurate data is published up front in the future.”
Between April 2017 and September 2022, police forces across England and Wales told the Home Office – which maintains the official crime outcomes database – that they had successfully brought charges against suspects in 17,018 rape cases.
But a Freedom of Information request by NationalWorld last month revealed that in 1,645 of these (10%), the suspects had actually been charged with ‘alternative offences’ other than rape.
In some of these, the suspects will have been charged with historic offences that pre-date current rape legislation, though the crime described appeared initially to be rape and was therefore recorded as one. But in other cases, suspects will have been charged with lesser offences, such as sexual assaults, perhaps if the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) believe there was insufficient evidence for a rape conviction.
All are however grouped within the overall ‘charged’ category, according to Home Office guidance on the statistics, meaning they are counted when calculating the rape charge rate – that is the proportion of rape crimes that result in a charge. There were also 1,978 sexual assault cases in which suspects had been charged with alternative offences between April 2017 and September 2022.
The rape charge rate has been the subject of intense public and government scrutiny in recent years, having dropped significantly since 2015.
Speaking in Parliament today (25 May), Thornberry asked Prentis to comment on NationalWorld’s findings that suspects accused of rape and investigated for rape, but charged with a lesser offence, had been counted towards the rape charge rate.
“Can the Attorney General tell us whether that is true and if so does that mean that the charge rate for rape is even lower than we currently think?” she said.
Prentis told the House of Commons that she had sought further clarification after reading NationalWorld’s report, and had been told that for police to say they had charged for an alternative offence “the facts and the evidence must be extremely similar and must relate to the victim and the circumstances”.
NationalWorld received a similar statement from the Home Office last month. Prentis added: “I have also been told – but I have not dug into every single one of those cases – that some of the reporting that she refers to may relate to historic sexual abuse and that may explain some of the figures.”
In her letter, Thornberry warned that our investigation could also indicate that prosecutions for lesser crimes may be being counted towards charge rates for other serious offences with “unacceptably low charge rates”, from knife crime to theft.
“If that is the case, then I believe a much more systematic account would be required from the CPS about the real current charge rates across all major categories of crime, along with a statement of how they propose to ensure greater accuracy and transparency in their future publications,” she concluded.
NationalWorld’s investigation had prompted alarm from the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), who feared the official rape outcomes data that had in part prompted a report by it and other charities into the ‘decriminalisation of rape’ were even worse than feared.
In recent years the Centre for Women’s Justice and EVAW also took the CPS to court over what they described as “a catastrophic collapse in rape justice”, also in part motivated by Home Office crime outcomes data. The case was ultimately unsuccessful, with the Court of Appeal dismissing it in 2021.
The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) also called for greater transparency in the wake of our investigation, saying: “The data should be published in full, so we have a clear picture of what proportion of suspects are charged for that specific crime. Given charge rates for rape cases are already low, it is concerning that the actual figures may be even lower.”
The Home Office has so far refused to say whether it will begin to publish data on ‘charged with alternative offence’ outcomes. It has been collecting the data from police forces on a mandatory basis for the last six years.
The Attorney General’s Office was approached for further comment following her remarks in Parliament today.
If you reported a rape to the police and a suspect was charged with a different offence, and you would be willing to talk about it, please email [email protected]
You can contact the Rape Crisis helpline for rape and sexual abuse support for free 24/7 at 0808 500 2222 for England and Wales, and 08088 01 03 02 for Scotland. In Northern Ireland you can contact the helpline Monday to Thursday from 6pm to 8pm on 0800 0246 991