Cameron pledges rape crackdown

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Conservative leader David Cameron pledged extra help for rape victims and stronger punishments for their attackers today as part of a bid to see more men jailed for the offence.

Unveiling figures showing England and Wales had the lowest rape conviction rate of any leading European country, he warned offenders now thought they could "get away with it".

And he said pupils should be taught that "no means no" in sex education lessons to help reverse a "moral collapse" fuelled by a growing sexualisation of society.

The party's figures showed the number of complaints leading to a conviction in England and Wales was up to 12 times lower than in other countries.

According to the most recent comparable statistics, the rate was 5.1%, in contrast with 59.3% in Ireland, 48.8% in Italy and 20.1% in the Netherlands - although it has now risen to 5.8%.

"How can any civilised country, that sees the sanctity of consent to sex as a vital right for every woman, accept these facts?" Mr Cameron asked.

"And what about when the perpetrator is convicted? The average custodial sentence handed to rapists in England and Wales has fallen over the last three years for which there is published data to around 80 months.

"Given all this, we have a situation where rapists think they can get away with it, while victims fear not being believed and wonder what's the point of pursuing the criminal process.

"This represents a real challenge to the British criminal justice system."

There were now just 45 rape crisis support centres left running, meaning victims faced waiting lists of up to seven months and travelling 100 miles or more, he said.

Mr Cameron also used his speech to renew his attack on a music industry and media he blames for fostering a culture that glorifies violence against women.

"Studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it's OK to force a woman to have sex. In my mind, this is an example of moral collapse.

"We have to be honest: the past decade or so has seen the growing sexualisation of our society, where sex is aimed at an ever younger audience and it's cool to treat women like sex objects.

"We need those that work in the media and music industry to exercise their responsibility in how they present female role models."

And he said the cultural change should start with making consent a compulsory element of sex education in schools - although parents would retain the right to opt their children out.

Sheila Coates, policy chair of National Rape Crisis (England and Wales) was among campaigners who endorsed Mr Cameron's call for action.

"It is important that we talk to children, so that years later when they become jurors, they no longer believe the myths of sexual assault - that women and girls are asking for it if they wear particular clothes, or are out late, or are drinking, that it's all their fault," she said.

"Juries tend to work on that premise, and rapists will use that too - they use that in court to help their case."

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker insisted the Government was taking action to tackle the issue, including providing new centres to provide medical care and counselling to victims, putting in place specialist police officers and prosecutors and trialling the use of "independent sexual violence advisors" in 38 areas.

Average sentences rose between 1996 and 2004, he said, with new rules on the detention of DNA also helping secure the conviction of 90 rapists since 2004.