Rift emerges as govt fails to publish rape conviction review

By Ian Dunt

The government has shelved plans to publish a review of rape convictions, despite promises earlier in the week it would be published this morning.

Instead, the Home Office has pledged £3.2 million of government funding to help victims of sexual violence.

But activists and campaigners are angry that solid policy is still not forthcoming from the government.

This morning, sources indicated that the delay was due to an 11th-hour intervention from women’s minister Harriet Harman, whose other role as deputy Labour leader means she stands in for the prime minister while he is away on holiday.

Ms Harman is understood to think the review did not address women’s concerns, and pushed for a widening of its remit.

Home secretary Alan Johnson and justice secretary Jack Straw are thought to oppose the move, but she has support from Vera Baird, the solicitor general.

Ms Baird tired to play down talk of a rift today, describing it as “silly season reporting”.

“I really have been aware of no friction,” she said.

“It’s simply about getting the right terms of reference together … that task will be accomplished very soon.

“There is no split, no friction and it’s just I’m afraid a piece of silly season reporting.”

The Home Office continues to release conviction figures as and when it chooses, an approach which angers campaigners.

The most up to date information on rape convictions comes from Freedom of Information requests, primarily from women’s rights group the Fawcett Society.

A government spokesperson said: “There will be a review later this year looking at the treatment of rape victims in the criminal justice system. The exact scope of the study is being finalised and details will be set out in the autumn.

“Findings of the review will feed in to the wider Violence against Women and Girls strategy.”

But policing minister David Hanson was more frank when he visited St Mary’s sexual assault referral centre in Manchester todAY.

“Sometimes Government has discussions that the public are not aware of,” he said.

“We are looking at a whole range of issues. Government is sometimes about discussing issues. We have more work to do and will be announcing later this year the next steps forward about tackling these issues across government.

“I am hopeful we will be making an announcement in September or October on a whole range of measures in terms of rape legislation.”

The government has been under constant pressure to improve the number of convictions for rape, with the current level standing at just seven per cent in England and Wales – although that data comes from 2006.

Campaigners also criticise the ‘lottery’ aspect to conviction rates, with chances of a woman seeing her assailant convicted 11 times higher in some areas than others.

In an effort to make up for the lack of figures today, Mr Hanson announced £3.2 million of government funding to help victims of sexual violence today.

A total of £1.67m will help establish eight new sexual assault referral centres, in addition to the 43 centres currently available. The money will also help fund 43 independent sexual violence advisers to offer practical support for victims of sexual violence.

The remaining £1.6m has been allocated today to 39 members of Rape Crisis England & Wales and the Survivors’ Trust by the Government Equalities Office. The charities provide specialist services, such as counselling and advocacy, to women and men who have been raped or experienced sexual violence.

Announcing the funding allocations, solicitor general Vera Baird said: “Rape is a devastating crime that traumatises victims and shatters lives. We can only continue to tackle it strongly as we are determined to do with the help of the experienced and well-trained voluntary sector.”

The Liberal Democrats used the absence of a review to publicise their own policies on rape today, along with the publication of a parliamentary answer showing the conviction rate falling to less than one in 16.

“The low conviction rates across the country in rape cases are nothing short of a national disgrace,” Liberal Democrat women’s spokesperson, Lynne Featherstone, said.

“We the worst rape conviction record in Europe. More worryingly, these figures show that an even smaller percentage of rapists are being locked up than a decade ago.

“The system for dealing with rape is rotten at every level. It is little wonder that women have so little confidence that their attacker will ever be punished.”

The Lib Dems called for up to 15 more Rape Crisis Centres to be opened across the country, and for more money to be invested in centres that provide medical care and counselling to the victims of sexual assaults.

Meanwhile, in the capital, Mayor Boris Johnson announced the doubling of rape crisis provision with proposals to open a new rape crisis centre and additional funding for the existing rape and sexual abuse support centre in Croydon.

The Greater London Authority has agreed to make £375,000 available over the next three years to part-fund a new rape crisis centre in West London and is in talks with Ealing Council about the possibility of locating the new centre in the borough.

The announcement comes after women’s groups voiced anger at the news that Mr Johnson was backing down on his commitment – made during the election campaign – to improve the provision of rape crisis centres in London.