The Justice Secretary has rejected calls to resign if he cannot reverse a fall in the number of sex offenders being brought to justice.
Labour on Sunday accused Robert Buckland of a U-turn on his promise to reverse a slide in prosecution and conviction rates for rape – after he said it would be inappropriate for him to intervene.
The minister apologised earlier this week after a government report found that in 2019-20 just 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in England and Wales – the lowest level since records began.
The figure, which the Justice Secretary said he was "deeply ashamed" of, was down from 1,925 on the previous year, despite reports of adult rape to police almost doubling since 2015-16.
There were an estimated 128,000 victims of rape and attempted rape a year, but only 1.6 per cent of reported cases resulted in a charge.
Following the release of the figures, the government committed to returning the prosecution rate to 2016 levels by the end of the parliament.
Labour says the fall in prosecutions is partly due to government cuts to the courts system, a claim Mr Buckland has accepted. The government has closed half of all courts in England and Wales in the last decade under its austerity programme and backlogs are reaching record levels.
But despite his earlier commitment to raise the numbers of alleged rapists facing justice, on Sunday the Justice Secretary said it would be wrong for him to get involved in pushing for more prosecutions.
"Decisions made to investigate and prosecute are made by the independent police and their operational work and the CPS, which is independent," he told Sky's Trevor Phillips On Sunday.
"If there was any suggestion that prosecutions were being brought about because of political pressure on me frankly that would make convictions unsafe – it's a ridiculous argument."
Pushed on whether he would resign if he did not meet a target, Mr Buckland added: "The idea that somehow a resignation or political pressure should be brought to bear on independent prosecutorial decisions is not only bad politics but it's actually dangerous. I'm not going to engage in that level of debate."
Responding to the comments later on Sunday, shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: “After a decade of Conservative incompetence and cuts has led to record-low conviction and prosecution rates for rape, the last thing victims need from the Justice Secretary is a U-turn.
“The Conservatives must urgently clarify whether or not they intend to stick to the target of increasing the number of rapists who are charged and end up in court.”
A government report this week recommended measures to raise prosecution and conviction rates including faster extraction of data from victims’ phones, putting greater emphasis in investigations on understanding a suspect’s behaviour rather than a victim’s credibility, and sparing victims the trauma of attending courtroom trials by allowing them to record their statements on video.