By Robert Whiston FRSA
An abbreviated version of this article was published in “Straight Statistics” on Wednesday, 02/09/2009.
For years the Home Office and the former Lord Chancellor’s Department have misled the media about rape statistics – and allowed the media to misinform the public.
Anxiety has grown as a result of the apparent increase in rape offences and the inability to successfully prosecute offenders. Women have been needlessly alarmed for their safety, when the actual threat is much smaller than has been pretended.
Congratulations, therefore, to the Radio 4 programme More or Less and its reporter Ruth Alexander, who have put into the public domain what some advisers engaged by Whitehall committees have known for some time.
This official misinformation, one suspects, was a deliberate policy choice (beginning somewhere around 1988) to ensure that no matter what the cost, rape and sex crimes would climb remorselessly up the political agenda.
Since 1999 the Home Office has known that its methods for calculating rape convictions are wrong. The real conviction rate is not the publicly broadcast 10 per cent but closer to 50 per cent (it varies slightly from year to year). In a Minority Report (1) which I wrote for a Home Office committee in 2000 but which advisers refused to forward to ministers who were then actively considering new rape legislation, the HO were told that they were confusing ‘attrition’ rates with ‘conviction’ rates.
The attrition rate refers to the number of convictions secured compared with the number of that particular crime reported to the police (it must be noted that a crime that is ‘reported’ does not automatically imply that the crime actually took place). The conviction rate refers to the number of convictions secured against the number of persons brought to trial for that given offence.
Rape is the only crime judged by the attrition rate. All others – murder, assault, robbery, and so on – are assessed by their conviction rates. Why? The question is best addressed to Betty Moxon who, in 2000, was head of the Sex Offenders Review Team (SORT) for whom I wrote the minority report.
In the most recent edition of More or Less, broadcast last Friday and still available as a podcast, Ruth Alexander questioned why rape has been made an exception. Referring to a new report soon to be published by London Metropolitan University she said it claimed that Britain had the worst record in Europe for rape convictions. Over recent years, she said, the report showed that the conviction rate had fallen from 10 per cent to 6.5 per cent.
But this is based on the misleading attrition rate. When real conviction rates are calculated on a common basis with other crimes, her report endorses our findings of 2000 (and subsequent years), namely that it is more commonly in the 48-52 per cent bracket. Her latest figure, for 2007, was 47 per cent.
But how are we to judge if that is good or bad ? Comparable figures show that the conviction rate, for instance, for Violence Against the Person was 71 per cent.
In the past the Home Office used to publish annual “Criminal Statistics for England and Wales” which were very accessible. Its present embodiment, published by the Ministry of Justice does not helpfully list murder rates or conviction rates. Nonetheless, Ruth Alexander quoted comparable ‘attrition rates’for other crimes, listed below:
Each year, several million crimes are reported to the police. Most of those listed above can be measured in the tens if not the hundreds of thousands. Sex offences, by contrast, are only 2 per cent to 3 per cent of all reported crime, according to Home Office statistics.
The tables below offer an insight into the official version of events and the truthful version. The range of years encompassed has necessitated 2 tables, A and B. Some figures have been omitted, e.g. from 1975 to 1984 because they cannot be corroborated or are found to deviate where there are two sources, e.g. the UN versus the Home Office.
Both Table A and Table B. show how many allegations of rape actually come to trial and how many offenders are subsequently found guilty. This is the true conviction rate.
Transformed into a graph the conviction rate (for 1985 to 1997) begins with a very high figure of more than 400 convictions in less than 600 cases. Although the gap has widened by 1997, the two lines nevertheless shadow one another.
This is not the version distributed by the Home Office, to the media and thence to the public Instead, a more unbalanced picture is portrayed – one where unsubstantiated claims of rape are reported as fact and then compared with factual cases that have enough evidence to enable them to come to trial. This gives rise to what can be termed the “Credibility Gap” (see graph below). The upper trend line shows the ever increasing number of reported rapes.
Since 1997 the ‘credibility gap’ has continued to increase year by year to the present day. There are many reasons for the continued rise in the number of claims of rape but few can be related to the way trials are conducted.
Since the 1980s certain of the standard defence options normally available to a person deemed innocent until proven guilty are no longer available in rape cases. The requirement of corroborating evidence, so essential in ordinary criminal cases has been waived for rape cases and is no longer available to the defendant.
Ruth Alexander made the point that reported rapes have not doubled in the last 20 years, as one might suppose as being a reasonable trend, but have increased some 700 per cent. This rate of increase is perhaps the world’s fastest. No other advanced industrialised country appears able to match this rate of increase so it is no wonder, if we accept that all rape claims made to the police are genuine, that our conviction rate is so low. The graph below shows the rise in rape allegations made to the Metropolitan Police.
This must leave a question mark over whether the figures for reported rapes can be relied upon. From New Zealand to Canada to Holland the trend lines for rape are more or less horizontal (ie steady) and vary little from one year to another.
By contrast, the Met Police figures for reported rape show a curve which is surely unsustainable. The experience of New Zealand, which at one point ceased paying compensation to rape victims, is instructive. After a corresponding fall in claims the re-introduction of compensation for rape was followed by a recovery in the number of reported rapes.
As if to acknowledge the discrepancy the Home Office Research Dept has published more than two papers on how this gap between rape claims and rape convictions arises. In essence, their paper, HORS 196, (2) lists over 50 per cent of reported rapes as being without credible evidence to take them to trial.
This is where the ‘attrition rate’ saga begins. Of the initial 483 cases reviewed 25 per cent were ‘no-crime’ and 31 per cent were listed as ‘no further action’ (NFA). Both categories signify a suspicion that the claimed crime did not occur, or did not occur in the way first explained, and requires that the claimant make a retraction before the police can categorise them as ‘no-crime’ or NFA.
(Robert Whiston has served on several Whitehall committees attached to the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the Ministry of Justice since 1999. He has written several briefing papers on the level of sexual offending and rape sentencing tariffs both in the UK and abroad.)
 “When Justice Collide with Science” by Robert Whiston, June 2000.
 See HORS 196, & HORS 293, page 28. http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs05/hors293.pdf