IoS investigation: Britain's record on rape shows shocking new failures

As the number of sex crimes rises, police procedures mean victims of assault do not get justice – and their attackers go free

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Revelations about Jimmy Savile's paedophile tendencies have stunned Britain. Some of the reaction, though, suggests that this terrible behaviour is consigned to the past, when men in power preyed on the vulnerable and the young and no one told, and that we do things differently now. Thirty years ago, Britain was shocked by a controversial documentary in which detectives from Thames Valley Police brutally questioned a rape victim. It prompted a radical overhaul of the way sex crimes are dealt with in Britain. This weekend, there are growing fears that the way the criminal justice system deals with sex crimes may be "going backwards".

Claims that sex-grooming rings have operated with impunity in several British cities, the low numbers listed in the sex crime prosecution statistics, and cases such as that of the so-called black cab rapist – John Worboys, the London cabby believed to be Britain's most prolific sex attacker, jailed in 2009 – have fuelled fears that advances made since the Thames Valley scandal are being lost.

As many as 400,000 women are sexually assaulted and 80,000 women raped each year, according to the authoritative British Crime Survey, yet only 11 per cent of victims report crimes to the police. While numbers of rapes recorded by police rose by 3, 261 (26 per cent) in the past three years, police insist the increase is not because of a rise in offences, but rather that victims have more confidence that police and prosecutors will deal with cases sensitively and professionally, as well as there being better links between police and outside agencies to which rape victims turn. The Home Office acknowledges the rise is a "real cause for concern", but insists that improvements are being made.

The issue comes under a harsh spotlight on Friday, when Ryan Coleman-Farrow, 30, a former officer in the Metropolitan Police's Sapphire Unit, which investigates rape and other serious sexual assault – lauded as the "gold-standard" of sex crime investigation – will be sentenced at London's Southwark Crown Court after admitting to failing to investigate rape cases properly and falsifying records. Eleven suspected sex attackers are said to have escaped justice because Coleman-Farrow, described in court as a "rogue officer", ignored allegations and then covered up his inaction. One woman involved in a case dealt with by the disgraced officer later committed suicide.

The Crown Prosecution Service is examining similar charges against a second officer from Sapphire Unit, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission has launched an inquiry into its operation.

Vera Baird, QC, a former solicitor general, said yesterday: "Savile, Rochdale, and, in a secondary way, the Assange/Galloway devaluing of rape all make clear that there are counter winds blowing all the time on these issues. Now that nobody is driving it forward, the whole sex crime agenda in government is going backwards at a rapid rate."

Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist at Gloucestershire University, said: "I absolutely do despair that the police haven't learnt more lessons. The biggest reason is our incredible reluctance to believe women who come forward. It's all down to culpability. The more culpable the women is perceived to be, the less she is believed."

Dr Monckton-Smith, a former police officer, added: "We've got the wrong picture of what a rapist looks like in our collective imagination. We think they're monsters, but they're not. They're ordinary people. We haven't got rid of the idea that most people are suspicious of a woman making a claim of rape if she doesn't present as extremely traumatised. If she's not screaming and crying, it makes her less believable. We look for a stereotypical jump-out-of-the-bushes rapist to substantiate a story. If it's just some guy in a suit, then people can't see it as a straightforward case.

"The Worboys case shows that some things haven't changed. There is still that macho canteen culture, which affects policewomen as well. It runs through society in general."

The criminologist and film-maker Roger Graef, who made the 1982 Thames Valley Police documentary, said the major problem is that rape and other sex crimes "do not fit" the stereotype of what the police deem a real crime. "There's a suspicion built into the investigation of sex crimes that women ask for it. Juries also feel that," he said. The Worboys case was "just bad policing", he said. "There's no excuse. It is indicative of the default sexism that is built into the ordinary policing culture."

Dr Kate Cook, a senior law lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the Savile allegations would "upset a lot of abused young women". "It's incredibly hard to know that this man may have been protected until he died. How many men in the public eye are doing the same?" According to Dr Cook, one in four girls is hurt by a man before the age of 16.

"Police are continually revealed as just not taking this seriously enough," she said. "We need specialist officers who are allowed to stay in that position for a long period of time and develop skills and expertise. They often get moved on, so no one really develops the kind of skills that you need to deal with victims of abuse."

Advances in investigating sex crimes and the treatment of victims since the mid-1980s amounted to a "beginning", but were still "not enough", she added.

"There are still a lot of improvements to come. Repeat rapists have not been adequately investigated. Police officers have to learn to listen in a different way," she said.

The reality of this is illustrated disturbingly in a case investigated by The Independent on Sunday. A high-flying female banker who reported being drugged and sexually assaulted by a colleague in a London wine bar later discovered widespread failures in the initial police investigation. The failures included many highlighted in the IPCC investigation into the Worboys case, which the Metropolitan Police said they had rectified only months earlier.

Vera Baird described the case as "horrifying". "This case is shocking because the Met have been so recently criticised over Worboys, who used the same rape drug and yet still they didn't respond well. It is amazing that even when the police had a highly articulate woman fully prepared to stand the strain of being a witness, they treated her in this dismissive way. I worry about how more vulnerable women are treated."

Expert view

By Dr Nicole Westmarland, senior lecturer in criminology at Durham University and former chair of Rape Crisis

Anyone thinking that the Jimmy Savile case is a one-off product of another era should think again. Look at the recent cases in Rochdale and you see that abuse is still swept under the carpet. People don't want to see the possibility of abuse happening on their doorstep by their friends, their family and colleagues.

We are still failing victims of rape and we need to make it easier for people to come forward. When the Savile story broke, the first questions asked on radio phone-ins were "are the women lying?" and "why didn't they come forward before?" We're not starting from a position of believing victims.

If you report a rape today to the police you will get a better response than before, but it still needs to improve. There's this "real rape" stereotype, where not just members of the jury but victims, too, feel as if certain acts are rape and others are just "something else". Things like getting drunk and not knowing what happened, being pressured into having sex when they didn't want it, or being taken advantage of. There has to be more effort put into targeting men who are continually preying on young girls and women who aren't able to consent. I think that if a famous person today in a powerful position was having sex with 14- or 15-year-olds and openly targeting them, they probably would be reported. But if those girls were 16 and 17 and drunk or taking drugs, it would still happen and get swept under the carpet. And the victims would blame themselves.

We know that about nine out of 10 victims who ring Rape Crisis never report to the police. I've just finished a study on why victims don't come forward, and many said it was a lack of trust in the police.

A recent report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission showed many cases where police officers used their position to make vulnerable women have sex with them. Society is just catching up to the idea that that is called rape.

There needs to be more awareness about what rape is. If someone doesn't want to have sex they shouldn't have to, regardless of how much alcohol they've had, how much power someone has over them – or if their abuser is famous.