Labour attack ad fact check: did 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children escape prison?

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Verdict: 4,500 people convicted of child sex offences did escape prison, but the vast majority were not convicted of sexual assault.

Last week, the Labour Party’s Twitter account blared out the message: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

This immediately caused a political storm, with cross-party politicians and commentators accusing Labour of losing the moral high ground. However the party has doubled down, briefing out that with more than 22 million views the advert has been a success and party sources saying it plans to “fight fire with fire”.

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The claim

The advert in question claimed that the Prime Minister doesn’t think child sex offenders should go to prison, and was backed up by the message: “Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time.”

Our verdict

The vast majority of the 4,500 adults (3,728 instances) who received suspended or community sentences were actually convicted of a lesser crime - sexual activity with a child - as opposed to sexual assault (772 instances). This carries a lesser minimum sentence of a community order, guidelines Keir Starmer may have helped draw up when he was Director of Public Prosecutions and a member of the Sentencing Council of England and Wales. While further down the advert, Labour refers to these people as "child abusers" which is correct, the initial claim of "under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time" is misleading.

As NationalWorld had previously found Angela Rayner had made slightly misleading claims about rape charge rates, we decided to have a dig into this figure.

When we approached the Labour Party, it told us it had gathered data for people given suspended or community sentences for two categories of crime: sexual assault of a child under 13, and sexual activity with a child under 16 (published figures do not distinguish sexual assault victims aged 13 to 15 from adult victims). Note sexual activity with a child - a lesser offences - was not what the attack advert said.

The figures come from a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) database, and count defendants where these crimes were their most serious offence or most harshly punished, if they were convicted on more than one charge.

NationalWorld has analysed the MoJ data and found there were indeed 4,500 adult or young adult (aged 18 to 20) defendants given a suspended or community sentence for these crimes between January 2010 and the latest update in June 2022.

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However, the vast majority of them were convicted of sexual activity with a child rather than sexual assault. Only 772 involved actual sexual assault. The category of sexual activity with a child encompasses a wide range of offences, some of which could not accurately be described as assault, as Labour’s advert did. This includes causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, causing a child to watch sexual activity, and engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child.

While still serious child sex offences, some of these crimes carry lower maximum sentences in law than assault, with sentencing guidelines for judges – guidelines Keir Starmer may have helped draw up when he was Director of Public Prosecutions and a member of the Sentencing Council of England and Wales – indicating the usual range of punishment would begin with a community sentence at a minimum, rising to between six and 10 years for the more serious cases. The maximum sentence for some is still life imprisonment. The minimum recommended sentence for those who commit sexual assault against a child is two years in prison, for cases more serious than “by touching”.

Labour’s attack advert on Rishi Sunak has come under fire. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/AdobeLabour’s attack advert on Rishi Sunak has come under fire. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/Adobe
Labour’s attack advert on Rishi Sunak has come under fire. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty/Adobe | Kim Mogg/Getty/Adobe

For the years 2017 onwards, it is possible to drill down into the offences in more detail, to see what the specific crimes were in the ‘sexual activity with a child’ category – something the figures the Labour Party provided us with do not do.

Between 2017 and 2022, there would have been 1,904 adults escaping prison after ‘sexually assaulting children’, based on Labour’s interpretation of the figures. In reality, more than 1,600 of these were convicted of sexual activity with a child rather than sexual assault, and at least 969 of those were convicted of crimes where the minimum sentence begins at a community punishment, some of which will have involved no physical contact between the perpetrator and the child victim.

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When contacted for comment, Labour pointed NationalWorld to an opinion piece by Starmer, where he said he “stands by every word” of the attack advert. Writing in the Daily Mail, he backed his party’s position "no matter how squeamish it might make some feel".

He said: “As a former director of public prosecutions, my life’s work has been about making our country safer and more secure, building a better Britain for families everywhere. But over the last decade, we have become a country where thugs, gangs and monsters mock our justice system and make decent people’s lives a misery. Rishi Sunak and successive Tory governments have let criminals get away with it because they don’t get it.”

However, NationalWorld’s research also found that a slightly higher proportion of adults convicted of these child sex offences only received community or suspended sentences from 2006 to 2009 (28%), under the previous Labour government, than from 2010 onwards (26%). Previous years’ data was not directly comparable.

Starmer added: “When 4,500 child abusers avoid prison, people don’t want more excuses from politicians – they want answers. My answer has been to make Labour the party of law and order once again. We will choose a different path to the Tories, reforming police contracting so we can have 13,000 more police and PCSOs on our streets and removing bureaucracy so we have more prosecutors working to clear the backlog in our courts.”

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