Police teams that specialise in investigating rape must be set up across England and Wales and independent legal advice must be offered to victims and survivors facing demands for their digital devices, a parliamentary committee has concluded.
In an examination of why rape prosecutions are falling, the home affairs select committee found that the unacceptably low numbers of prosecutions for rape and sexual offences would continue without major reforms to the criminal justice system.
Reforms should include setting up police rape teams in each force, which have been shown to speed up inquiries and improve communication with victims, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The government should also make the provision of independent legal advice a higher priority, particularly for victims facing “unnecessary, excessive requests” for information on their mobile phones, the MPs said.
This latest report comes weeks after a joint inspection by two government watchdogs identified multiple failings in the process from the reporting of a rape through to the potential trial and conviction of an assailant.
In the year to September 2021, there were 63,136 rape offences recorded – an all-time high – yet only 1.3% of recorded rape offences assigned an outcome resulted in a charge or summons. The number of completed rape prosecutions dropped from 5,190 in 2016-17 to 1,557 in 2020-21, the report said.
Diana Johnson MP, the chair of the committee, said the collapse in the number of prosecutions for rape and sexual offences over the past five years was “truly shocking and completely unacceptable”.
“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. The fact that even now nearly two-thirds of cases collapse because a victim may not be able to bear going forward is unimaginable.
“Specialist support needs to guide victims throughout the process and improved counselling to deal with the long-term effects. We strongly urge the government to further pilot the provision of independent legal advice to victims and survivors grappling with requests from the police to access data from their phones or third-party material,” she said.
The report called for the government to work with policing bodies to ensure specialist police rape teams could be put in place across all police forces.
“Despite the difference these teams make – including more timely investigations and improved communication both with victims and the CPS – a recent freedom of information request submitted by the Guardian found that at least two-fifths of police forces in England and Wales do not have them set up,” the report said.
Victims and survivors faced demands for their data, which could lead to some cases collapsing, the report said, and they should be offered independent legal advice.
“A number of organisations highlighted their concerns that the police and the CPS can make what appear to be unnecessary, excessive requests for such data, almost as a matter of course. This can cause delays and the intrusion of privacy that even result in complainants dropping their cases,” the report said.
MPs said that reforms must focus on the experience of victims attempting to get justice. Lengthy delays in cases reaching court, harmful evidence-gathering processes and poor provision of support services were turning people away from seeking justice, they said. Programmes intended to improve performance in each of these areas are still at the pilot stage and will require improved funding to be expanded nationally.
Counselling needed to be accessible to all victims and survivors, the report concluded. While increased funding for Independent Sexual Violence Advisers was welcomed, the report said there was not enough support in place for counselling and therapy in the long term.
Jayne Butler, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, said the report emphasised that the criminal justice system was categorically failing rape victims and survivors, and that steps from the government to rectify the situation lacked ambition and funds.
“We are encouraged by the recognition from the committee of the importance of specialist sexual violence and abuse support services as we know that criminal justice is only part of the survivor journey,” she said.
“Long-term and specialist support is crucial in ensuring victim and survivor welfare, and this specialist support provision must be available whether a victim or survivor chooses to report or not.”
A government spokesperson said: “We’re recruiting more sexual violence advisers, rolling out pre-recorded evidence faster, improving collaboration between the police and Crown Prosecution Service and boosting funding for victim support services to a minimum £440m over the next three years.
“The most recent data shows that there has been a modest increase in the number of charges for rape and our reforms will drive this progress further.”