Boris Johnson has been accused of insensitivity towards rape victims when he dismissed as “jabber” a series of questions from Keir Starmer about the low level of rape prosecutions.
Labour’s domestic violence spokesperson Jess Phillips branded the comment at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons “disgraceful” and demanded an apology.
But the PM’s press secretary insisted that Mr Johnson’s remark was “absolutely not” a mark of insensitivity to victims, saying he had been trying to highlight Labour’s failure to support a bill to implement tougher sentences.
After Sir Keir demanded an explanation for the “appalling” 1.6 per cent prosecuction rates for rape complaints, the prime minister offered an apology to victims of rape and sexual violence for the “frustration” they experience from the handling of complaints by the criminal justice system.
But he blamed low prosecution rates on delays in extracting records from victims’ mobile phone, as well as police and lawyers presenting cases which are “not in a fit state” to secure a conviction.
And he said that the quickest way to clear a backlog of cases in the courts was to ensure a rapid rollout of vaccinations against Covid-19, telling MPs: “We are getting on the with the job. They jabber, we jab. They dither, we deliver.”
Ms Phillips raised a point of order in the Commons to demand an apology, telling MPs: “When questioned about the falling rape conviction rate, (Mr Johnson) asserted that this was merely ‘jabber’ and not something that sees, for every 60 people who come forward to say they have been raped, one charge.”
In response, deputy speaker Eleanor Laing issued a call for MPs to observe the requirement for “good temper and moderation” when discussing sensitive subjects.
Sir Keir told PMQs: “On the Prime Minister’s watch rape prosecution convictions are at a record low, court backlogs are at a record high, victims are waiting longer for justice and criminals are getting away with it.
“This wasn’t inevitable, it’s the cost of a decade of Conservative cuts and even now the government isn’t showing the urgency and ambition that’s needed.”
But Mr Johnson insisted that he had invested in independent sexual and domestic violence advisers and the Crown Prosecution Service and ordered an end-to-end review of the handling of rape complaints - whose report prompted an apology to victims from ministers last week.
“Of course to all the victims of rape and sexual violence, all the victims and survivors, of course I say sorry for the trauma they have been through, the frustration that they go through because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Challenged by Starmer over why rape convictions had “plummeted” on his watch, he replied: “There are considerable evidential problems, particularly in recovering data from mobile phones and that has been an obstacle to the speedy preparation of cases and too often … cases go from the police to the CPS not in a fit state, and too often those cases are not in a fit state when they come to court.
“There is not a good enough join-up across the criminal justice system … and that is exactly what we are addressing now by our investments and with our end-to-end rape review.”
But the deputy director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Deniz Ugur, told The Independent: “To answer the question of why the number of rape convictions and prosecutions have fallen to record lows cannot be boiled down to how quickly information is collected from victim’s mobile phones. The government’s own end-to-end rape review highlighted that the requirement to hand over personal and sensitive data is one of the principal reasons for victims withdrawing from the process. This is one small part of a broken justice system.
“Fundamentally, we know that the justice system isn’t set up to centre the needs to victims and survivors of rape and that this results in women being let down time and again. We need to see commitment and ambition translated into actions which reflect the urgent transformation needed to deliver justice for women”
Reports of rape have almost doubled in the past five years, but the proportion of recorded rapes prosecuted has plummeted to 1.6 per cent.
CPS figures for 2019-20 show 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in England and Wales last year - the lowest level since records began, and down from 1,925 the previous year.
Following the publication of the rape review, the home secretary, justice secretary and attorney general said they were “deeply ashamed” and admitted that thousands of victims have gone without justice.
Survivors whose cases were not charged by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) called for the decisions to be reviewed in light of the findings but the government has refused.
It has unveiled a suite of reforms that aim to increase the level of prosecutions to those seen before a steep drop-off in 2016.
Campaigners and experts told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that the target should only be considered a “first step”.
Giving evidence earlier on Wednesday, Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, said it had taken “a long time” for ministers to apologise for failings across the criminal justice process.
She said prosecutions started plummeting when the CPS “took a deliberate decision to increase the conviction rate” and became concerned about taking “weak” cases forward.
The decline happened after years of funding cuts to police and the CPS, but the government’s review only contained two glancing mentions of “reduced resources”.
Emily Hunt, a survivor and independent advisor to the government, said it was “not the time for a pat on the back” and warned that rapists who are not prosecuted may strike again.
“I think we need to do better and prosecute rapists,” she added. “I’m also aware we can’t just flip a switch, the culture needs to change in the police and the CPS.”