Leading article: Welcome reversal on the rape laws

Britain needs to do much more to tackle the scourge of sexual violence against women – not merely the incidence of this vile crime but the shocking low level of convictions in court, which hovers around the level of 5 or 6 per cent of allegations.

A country in which juries let men off the hook for rape on the grounds that the victim appeared to "ask for it" has little right to call itself civilised.

Yet the Coalition Government threatened to make matters still worse in May when it unveiled an ill-thought proposal to extend the anonymity granted in court to rape victims to those charged with rape as well. Fortunately, ministers have withdrawn this wrong-headed proposal, a U-turn that we welcome wholeheartedly. As women's groups and some Labour MPs rightly pointed out, one of the most likely results of this change would have been to deter more rape victims from going to court.

The Government's reasoning for its initial thoughts on the subject was that too many men were being falsely accused of rape and finding their lives ruined by the surrounding publicity, even when they were found innocent. Such men deserve everyone's sympathy. But the problem here is Britain's culture of trial, or rather witch-hunt, by media – without waiting for the verdict.

Moreover, the Government's planned response to the furore over false accusations was disproportionate. Figures of "one in 10" are bandied around in a casual manner but there is no hard evidence for this. Police believe the number of false claims is small. What should concern everyone about the way we handle rape is not the high number of false accusations but the low number of cases reaching court – as well as the disappointing rate of convictions emerging from such trials as do take place.

These two last phenomena, are, of course, closely linked. While the conviction rate remains so low, victims will continue to feel there is little point in trying to seek justice. This is the problem surrounding rape that the Government needs to turn its attention to.

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