Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
From the moment that a survivor of sexual assault or rape makes that vital call to the police (arguably, even earlier than this), so often, we are failing them.
We fail them if they are met by male police officers to give their statement. And then, as they are made to wait in distress and discomfort, unable to wash, for as long as three days (assuming the “Best Practice” target is met) before they can be forensically probed, examined and questioned at a sexual assault referral centre (SARC).
We let them down again as they wait for months for just a few sessions of counselling. Then again, as they are unrelentlessly trolled on social media or by their friends or family, accused of lying.
Should they not have already decided to drop the charges because they cannot bear to continue, at trial, we offer no real legal protection – no lawyer on their side. Instead, judges sometimes fail to intervene when the defence barrister’s cross-examination becomes intrusive; drags up irrelevant, personal material; or rests on rape myths to convince the jury of the victim’s “lies”.
But even after this, we prolong their suffering well beyond the assault. Should there be that rare piece of gold dust – the sufficient evidence to find a guilty verdict – we fail them at the stage of sentencing. At the moment these survivors are supposed to finally secure justice for themselves, their family and their community – their attackers are given a light sentence: a few years behind bars, perhaps.
I write all this because it represents the accounts of thousands of sexual assault survivors in this country. Recently, I had the privilege of meeting met a Harlow constituent at one of my surgeries. She confided in me that after a night out spent with friends, a man violently attempted to rape her on her way home. Had it not been for her sheer physical strength or the intervention of a security guard after he overheard her screams for help, the perpetrator’s attempts may have been undeterred.
Despite having the intention to commit the full offence, her attacker received just six years (now, reduced to three). Whilst he was given a few years in prison (only thanks to clear CCTV evidence) – a short sentence – my Harlow constituent described her life as having been served a “lifetime sentence” of psychological and emotional torment.
Is it any wonder, then, that statistics around reporting of sexual assault, rape and attempted rape are so devastatingly low? Victim Support have estimated that only 15 per cent of sexual assault ever come to the attention of the police.
It is true, some progress has been made. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and high-profile sexual offence cases, including Operation Yewtree and Jimmy Saville, we are starting to see “an increased willingness of survivors to come forward and report these crimes to the police” (ONS). At the end of 2018, the number of reported rapes rose by 16 per cent and sexual offences by 14 per cent. Since 2010, the volume of recorded sexual offences has risen threefold, from 53,006 to 158,162.
But, just as we are starting to see a cultural change in attitudes, the Government and Crown Prosecution Service are not doing enough to support these extraordinarily brave survivors.
In the year 2017-18, the number of rape referrals from the police to the CPS fell by nine per cent. The number of suspects charged for rape declined by eight per cent and the number of rape prosecutions fell by 13 per cent. The volume of sexual offence prosecutions, excluding rape, also decreased by 11 per cent.
The Guardian’s 2018 whistleblower exposé uncovered attempts by the CPS to improve prosecution figures by sifting “weak cases out of the system”. But, other than vague targets to “review policies” and “provide regular oversight” of the CPS’ response, set out in the Government’s Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy and Refresh, where is the real, substantive action taken by the Government?
Not only this, but significant underfunding of SARCs and support services is making the process of seeking justice unbearable for survivors.
I understand that the Government’s VAWG Strategy puts more funding into support services, with a promise of £80 million, and I welcome this commitment. But the starting point for this funding was already detrimentally low, and this additional investment does not match the threefold increase we are seeing in reporting.
Moreover, though £80 million is a lot of money, it is largely being spent on domestic abuse prevention and support. Indeed, the VAWG Strategy sets aside £40 million to be directly channelled into domestic abuse services, whilst rape support funding is “continued… at current levels in 2016-17”.
Although it is essential that domestic abuse services are properly funded, sexual violence and rape services all too often take a backseat in Government priorities: it should not be a simple case of ‘one or the other’.
As a result, support services cannot cope under the strain, and we are risking evidence being lost. My constituent waited in the SARC for over eight hours for nurses, officers and detectives to tend to her, due to a lack of readily available, qualified staff.
I recognise that resources are limited, and this is a particularly sensitive area of law, but we cannot sit by and ignore the problems. Not when my Harlow constituent suffered because of the lenient justice system, suffered in the reporting of the attempted rape, suffered in the context of the aftermath. This is just wrong. My constituent has suffered enough. Every rape and sexual assault survivor has suffered enough.