Nigel Hawkes: Is our rape conviction rate really so poor?

The Government's decision to cancel a review of the conviction rate for rape to save money has loosed a chorus of lamentation. The UK, we are told, has the lowest conviction rate for rape in Europe – 6 per cent.

In fact, the UK convicts, proportionately, as many rapists as most comparable European countries. The European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics shows that in 2007 (the most recent year covered) the median conviction rate in Europe for rape was 1.8 per 100,000. In England and Wales that year, the rate was 1.6 per 100,000 – higher than Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, lower than Sweden or France.

So what's the problem? Rape is a terrible crime and those guilty of it should be convicted and jailed. The figures suggest we're doing only marginally worse than average.

What does differ hugely is the level of reported rapes. The UK and Sweden are well ahead of most other countries in the number of rapes reported to the police. In the UK, the number rose by a factor of 10 in the 20 years between 1981 and 2001. It's hard to believe men became 10 times more violent: it's also hard to believe Swedish and British men are 10 to 20 times more likely to commit rape than those in, say, Portugal or Hungary, which is what the figures for reported rape imply.

Countries with high reported rape figures have low conviction rates, measured as the proportion of the reports that end in convictions. Sweden convicts three to four times as many men per head of population as the European average, but still has almost as low a conviction rate as we do when measured as a proportion of rapes reported to the police. So are many of these reports false?

Many rape claims fail at the first hurdle, when women withdraw the charge or refuse to give evidence. Others fail when police are unconvinced, more when the CPS looks at a case. It is almost impossible to calculate the number of false claims, but it is far more than the 2 per cent cited in the CPS's Rape Manual. The source for the figure almost certainly comes from a 1970s book by Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will. The source of the data is untraceable. The real level of false accusations is higher. Nobody knows and views on the subject are irreconcilable.

Most alleged rapes are by acquaintances. Proving a lack of acquiescence in such cases is extraordinarily difficult. When cases come before a jury, the conviction rate, 55 per cent, is roughly the same as for other serious crimes. That suggests the justice system is getting it about right in the choice of cases it sends to trial.

* The Lancet's Ombudsman, Dr Charles Warlow, has ruled that criticisms made in this column and on the Straight Statistics website of a WHO study of the risks of elective Caesareans raise "considerable concern". The study, carried out in Asia, claimed that women who choose to have a Caesarean without medical reasons are nearly three times as likely to die or suffer complications as those who have a normal vaginal delivery.

The result depends entirely on a statistical correction for "confounding factors" – differing baseline risks of the individual women – since the raw data show elective Caesareans are actually safer.

Nigel Hawkes is Director of Straight Statistics (