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'Time is up' for rapists and predatory men as 'progress made' says Justice Secretary

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (REUTERS)
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (REUTERS)

Rapists and other predatory men have been warned that “time is up” for their sexual offending as the Justice Secretary hit back over claims that not enough is being done to tackle violence against women.

Alex Chalk said an increase in the number of rapists being prosecuted and the length of their prison terms, coupled with a change in attitudes among police, prosecutors and juries, were a sign of “zero tolerance” approach to men who used their physical and sexual power to abuse women.

He said the same intolerance was also being displayed towards those who sought to exert coercive and financial control over their victims as part of “really important cultural shift” which was improving the chances of women obtaining justice.

Mr Chalk’s comments follow persistent criticism from campaigners about the large gap between the number of rapes and other sexual offences being reported to police and the volume of prosecutions and the impact of long court delays when charges are brought.

He admitted that cases needed to be sped up, saying that court sitting days were being increased to allow judges to go “at full throttle” with more money also being made available to boost the number of prosecutors able to take on rape cases.

But he told the Evening Standard that although he recognised that the “job isn’t done”, attitudes towards violence against women had been transformed and that predatory male behaviour and other forms of abuse were being treated more robustly than ever before.

“I have been clear throughout my life that people who seek to use their power, be it their physical power, their political power, or potentially even their sexual power, to exert control over others, that time is up, time has run out for that kind of behaviour,” Mr Chalk said.

“As men, we need to recognise that society has changed and moved on and that there is a zero tolerance approach not just to male violence towards women, but towards male coercive and controlling behaviour. If there was ever a time when people might have looked the other way, the state will not look the other way now.

“We can see as far as rape is concerned that more people are being prosecuted than before and the conviction rate is higher. That tells you that cases are being prepared strongly and that juries are convicting more of these people of these offences.

“I recognise that there is further to go and work to do, but it’s also important to recognise that real progress has been made.”

Mr Chalk, a former criminal barrister who prosecuted rape cases before entering Parliament, said that as well as more rapists being prosecuted than in 2010 when the Conservatives took power, those convicted were being given longer sentences.

He said that new legislation was also being introduced to ensure that rapists served their full term in prison, rather than being released part way through on licence, in a further recognition of the seriousness of the offence.

Other reforms include the expanded use of Independent Sexual Violence Advisers, who help victims as cases go through the criminal justice system, and measures to allow rape complainants to pre-record their court evidence rather testifying in person at the suspect’s trial.

Further changes included the introduction of new offences, including coercive and controlling behaviour, stalking, “image based violence” and non-fatal strangulation, as well as a change in sentencing which meant that a “domestic” murder committed during or following a relationship was now treated as an “aggravating” factor justify-ing a longer tariff, instead of being treated more leniently.

“In many ways it is night and day in terms of an improvement compared to 2010,” Mr Chalk added. “I accept that the area we need to improve is bringing down the length of time that cases are in the system.

“We recognise the job isn’t done, there’s no sense of complacency, but the inescapable facts are more people are being charged with rape than in 2010; the conviction rate is higher – it was mid-50s, it’s now mid-60s; the sentences are longer, around a third longer; and the proportion of those sentences spent in custody is higher.

“That is important because we need to ensure that we are sending a message. Yes, post-Covid the system is healing to some extent, but compared to 2010 more people are being prosecuted for this offence and they’re getting some very long sentences.

“There is also a better understanding now compared to 2010 of rape myths. Whereas in the past people might have said she delayed the complaint, does that undermine its credibility, people recognise that is a total myth.

“In the past there was a disturbing trend that the police investigating an allegation of rape might have been looking on CCTV about the way she was in that nightclub, how much had she had to drink, and asking how many rum and cokes did she have? Now the emphasis is on the suspect – let’s have a look at what he was doing on the CCTV, let’s have a look at his background, his circumstances, his previous convictions, as opposed to putting the victim on trial.

“That has been a really important cultural shift. We are resolutely focused on ensuring that it is the suspect who is being investigated, not the victim put on trial. From the state’s point of view, police and prosecution, attitudes have changed completely.”

Despite Mr Chalk’s positive assessment, campaigners continue to warn that victims are being let down by the low number of rapists brought to justice. The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, covering the 12 months to the end of June, show that 68,109 rapes were reported to police during that period.

That was slightly down on the 70,546 recorded by forces in the year to the end of June 2022 but still far above the totals registered by police a decade or more ago.

By contrast, Ministry of Justice figures show that there were 1,710 adult rape prosecutions in 2022 with a conviction rate for 2022/23 of 64 per cent. Both statistics are higher than the equivalent figures in 2010 but still mean that only a fraction of the rapes being reported to police end with a conviction.