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FactCheck: rape conviction rates

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 November 2007

Does, as David Cameron claims, the UK have the lowest rape conviction rate of any leading European country?

The claim

"New analysis commissioned by the Conservative Party shows [that] England and Wales have the lowest rape conviction rate of any leading European country."
David Cameron

The background

Rape leaves victims feeling terrified, violated and humiliated.

Reporting an attack is a further ordeal. The perpetrator is often known to the attacker, and there are usually no witnesses to the act itself.

Prosecuting rape is difficult, and gathering accurate statistics about it is also very tough.

As a result, the caption on the front page of today's Daily Mail is especially surprising. David Cameron is quoted as saying that Britain has "the worst conviction rate in Europe".

Can there really be statistical evidence to support this claim? And if there is, does it mean that rape victims in Britain receive the worst treatment in Europe?

The analysis

The analysis behind Cameron's claim has been prepared by the impartial and respected researchers from the House of Commons Library.

In that sense it's new, but the sources they draw from are much older.

The numbers come from the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, and date back to 2003. The Commons researcher has taken the number for offences per 100,000 population (page 43), and divided them by the number of convictions per 100,000 population (page 104).

This analysis shows that the UK has the lowest rate of convictions for rape in the whole of Europe - or at least close to it. We're level with Sweden.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. If you look at the number of convictions for rape per head of population, the UK is about in the middle. Spain has by far the lowest, and Ireland by far the most.

So why is our conviction rate (the number of convictions divided by the number of recorded crime) so low?

It's partly because we record more crime. The UK records a much higher number of rape offences than most other countries. We're fourth behind Belgium, Iceland and Sweden.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Britons commit more rape, though that could be a factor. It might mean that British victims are more confident about reporting rape, and British police are more likely to record and investigate those allegations.

However, if the police are recording more cases of alleged rape, including difficult, marginal cases which rarely result in a conviction, then the statistics for conviction rates will fall.

So Sweden and the UK both have low conviction rates. But that doesn't necessarily mean that rape victims in those countries have less chance of finding justice - instead, it could mean the reverse.

Jennifer Temkin, professor of law at Sussex University and an expert in the study of sexual violence, said: "Many of these countries have a very difficult definition of rape to ours. The statistical evidence has to be treated with great caution."

The verdict

It's clear that there are large numbers of rape victims who are denied justice - and both the government and opposition agree that the number is too low.

But comparisons across Europe are not particularly instructive. Legal systems in different countries have different legal definitions of rape, different ways of caring for victims and investigating allegations, and different patterns of offending.

So this latest claim may have generated an easy headline - but it doesn't tell you very much about rape victims' experience of justice.

FactCheck rating: 3.5

How ratings work

Every time a FactCheck article is published we'll give it a rating from zero to five.

The lower end of the scale indicates that the claim in question largerly checks out, while the upper end of the scale suggests misrepresentation, exaggeration, a massaging of statistics and/or language.

In the unlikely event that we award a 5 out of 5, our factcheckers have concluded that the claim under examination has absolutely no basis in fact.

The sources

European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, 2006 (pdf)See especially tables on pages 43 and 104
Rape convictions as a proportion of recorded rape offences: House of Commons Library
The need to end sexual violence against women. David Cameron speech, 12 November 2007

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