MPs want specialist rape team in all police forces

By Joseph Lee & Charley Adams
BBC News

  • Published
Women protesting against violence at the Million Women Rise march in LondonImage source, Getty Images

Specialist rape investigation teams should be installed in every police force in England and Wales to tackle the "shocking" collapse in rape prosecutions, a report by MPs says.

Reported rapes are at an all-time high, while prosecutions fell by 70% in the past four years, MPs said.

A government review said investigations should be focussed on suspects as opposed to victims.

At least 40% of forces do not currently have these dedicated teams.

Data concerning the number of specialised officers and wider dedicated services is poor and needs improving if the criminal justice response is to get better, the report said.

The Home Affairs Select Committee said the government should go "much further, much faster" in changing how rape and sexual offences were handled by the police, Crown Prosecution Service and the courts.

It said the reforms needed to focus on the experience of victims seeking justice, because lengthy delays in reaching court, "harmful" evidence-gathering processes and poor provision of support were turning people away.

Between July and September last year, 63% of adult rape investigations were closed because the victim no longer wished to continue.

The review said the justice system should return to 2016 prosecution levels by 2024, but MPs said this would still be a poor performance and there was little confidence it would be achieved.

It does not apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland as both nations have separate legal systems.

Among the recommendations in the MPs' report were that:

  • The government should make it clear that every police force should have a specialist rape investigation team, as at least 40% of forces in England and Wales currently do not
  • Ministers should consider creating a dedicated commissioner to represent the interests of victims of sexual violence, or expanding the role of an existing commissioner
  • More victims should be given independent legal advocates to support them with requests for personal data, applications to refer to their sexual history in court or applications to access records of their counselling or therapy sessions
  • There should be greater support for long-term counselling and therapy
  • Police must be given the funding to get the equipment and skills to ensure rape victims do not have their phones removed for evidence-gathering for more than 24 hours

Dame Diana Johnson, the Labour chair of the committee, said the collapse in prosecutions was "truly shocking and completely unacceptable" and while there was significant effort being put in to reverse the decline, there was much further to go.

"From now on the focus must be on supporting the victims. Reporting an incident should be the beginning of getting justice but instead has become a source of further pain," she said.

"The fact that even now nearly two thirds of cases collapse because a victim may not be able to bear going forward is unimaginable."

The review said a joint programme between the police and CPS was being launched to focus investigations on suspects rather than victims and understanding behavioural patterns that lead to repeat offending.

Thus, investigations would focus less on the victim's credibility.

Natasha Saunders, who has been through the system, told the Today programme she initially had no intention of telling the police "primarily because I knew then just how low rape convictions were".

"It took three years to actually get it to court and in those three years I don't know how many times I said to my now husband... 'You know if I knew then what I know now, I don't know if I'd do this'."

Ms Saunders, who is an ambassador for domestic abuse charity Refuge, said during the trial she was cross examined for five and a half hours "for an entire court day".

"The process in a way has to be very clinical, I understand that" but "I don't feel the people [prosecutors and police] are being educated enough", she said.

"Especially from people like myself with actual lived experience of what it's like to just go through those proceedings."

Listening to Ms Saunders' story, Ms Johnson said hearing the lived experiences of survivors had "been really important... and has helped us to shape the recommendations".

She said the committee heard a number of times from people who had gone through the system and explained if they had known how long it would take and what would happen to them, they would not have "brought the case to the police's attention in the first place".

The committee said it was "deeply concerned" by reports victims were avoiding accessing mental health support because they feared records of their therapy sessions could be disclosed to the defence and used to undermine their case.

It said new guidance on pre-trial therapy should be published as soon as possible.

The Crown Prosecution Service said it recognised many victims felt let down by the criminal justice process.

"It is paramount victims know they can access therapy at any time and that doing so is entirely their decision," a spokesman said.

New "fundamental principles" on pre-trial therapy published by the CPS say police must request specific information when requesting therapy notes for an investigation, not make "unfocused requests".

And they say therapy notes must only be disclosed to the defence when they might be considered to undermine the prosecution case or help the defence.

A government spokesman said it was recruiting more sexual violence advisers, rolling out the use of pre-recorded evidence faster and boosting funding for victim support by £440m over the next three years.

It said the most recent data showed a "modest" increase in the number of charges for rape and "our reforms will drive this progress further".