Rape is one of those semi-taboo subjects, hedged around with embarrassment and in some cases shame, into which a mostly male political class understandably treads gingerly. Among the ordinary public, meanwhile, many people know little beyond an oft-quoted fact that a mere 6 per cent of reported rapes end in a conviction.
But as a thoughtful government review, published today, points out, constant repetition of this figure – usually for the purpose of indicting an allegedly failing police and criminal justice system – is unhelpful to victims and society alike. It is a good example of a "fact" that generates more heat than light.
As Baroness Stern's report explains, this low figure refers only to the percentage of complaints received by the police that end in a conviction. About 60 per cent of those actually charged with rape are indeed convicted by the courts. This latter figure radically changes the standard portrayal of a justice system that is routinely failing women and all too often treating the victims as if they had "asked for it".
The Stern report is not a whitewash of the way that the police or courts handle rape claims, and is anything but complacent. But it does not pull any punches about saying that we need to look beyond isolated statistics on conviction rates, and that we should not use such figures, whatever they may be, as the only test of society's success or failure in tackling this evil. The report says that care and support for victims should be as high a priority as the conviction rate – which Baroness Stern suggests has "taken over the debate".
Use of the figure of 6 per cent, while intended to increase pressure on police to treat rape more seriously, may be counter-productive. This is because women may well feel demoralised and deterred from reporting rape if they feel – incorrectly, it turns out – that neither police nor the courts take rape allegations seriously, so that even if they get the case to court, they are unlikely to secure a conviction.
The report makes it clear this is untrue. Indeed, it praises some police authorities for offering examples of "best practice" in the field, which suggests that the challenge is to make sure these good standards among the front- runner authorities are emulated throughout the country, for example by the further rolling-out of specialist rape investigation units.
As the report says, "much has changed for the better for rape victims in recent years".
Significantly, the report suggests that what can get in the way of a more general attainment of best practice is not so much systemic failings on the part of police or courts but interference from Whitehall in the shape of targets. The target culture has inevitably tended to distort the handling of rape claims, it says, by encouraging the police to concentrate on what some officers call "runners" – easy cases that will lead to quick convictions – while declining to handle more complex cases that are possibly more serious but which demand more leg work and for which evidence may be less easily obtainable.
The call for the Government to report annually to Parliament on the treatment of rape victims should be acted on. It is to be hoped that ministers and police give due attention to the review's other conclusions as well. A fog of ignorance and rumour still surrounds this highly sensitive issue and if that is preventing some victims of this appalling crime from coming forward, it is time it was dispelled.