The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 11th, 2006

Our mealy-mouthed muddle over rape

In the dog days of this government there seems to be a mood in the air not just of incompetence but of confusion. It cannot entirely be new Labour’s fault — we probably get the Establishment we deserve — and it probably isn’t entirely new, but there is a feeling of moral muddle that seems more intense than in the days of cool Britannia.

There are countless examples of it. Three from last week have to do with the lurid subject of rape and they show all too clearly the sort of doubt and dither I mean.

It must be obvious to most people that rape — sex without consent — is always wrong. It ought to be obvious, too, that some rapes are worse than others. The degree of guilt must depend on the circumstances and so must the degree of punishment. To have confidence in British justice the public needs to feel that the punishment fits the crime, and fits the criminal, and consistently so. But we are beginning to feel that less and less. Last week’s rape cases — baby rape, wife rape and bride rape — were a strange medley of contradictions.

In the case of the baby rapist, Alan Webster had raped a girl of only 12 weeks old. He had also indecently assaulted a teenager and downloaded more than 7,000 pornographic pictures involving the rape and sexual abuse of children, including pictures of the rape of the baby. He was given a life sentence with a minimum of six years in jail, but last week, following understandable public outrage, the Court of Appeal increased that minimum to eight years.

That means that eight years from now, if the Parole Board sees fit, this man of “horrifying depravity” could be living in the community again. Meanwhile the Home Office is considering proposals to classify as dealers people possessing enough cannabis for just 10 joints, and make them liable to up to 14 years in prison. Where is the moral consistency in all this?

Admittedly the Parole Board might not see fit to let the baby rapist loose after eight years. As the appeal court said, it is “questionable” whether Webster will ever be released. On the other hand we know from recent and bitter experience that the Parole Board and the probation service have made terrible mistakes with obviously dangerous prisoners, who have been let out to kill again. Besides, the idea that eight years means anything one way or another with a man like Webster is absurd. Quite clearly this man is either so mad or so bad that there should be no “question” of letting him out at all, unless and until there is some future revolution in psychiatric medicine.

For now the evidence that serious sex offenders can redeem themselves and control their dreadful appetites is at best weak and controversial. In extreme cases, like the Moors murders, life should mean life, or at least that should be the presumption, rather than the current presumption that it doesn’t.

So here was the revolting rape of a baby being leniently treated, on the face of it. But in the same week new draft sentencing guidelines were announced that recommended rape in marriage should be treated as seriously as, or more seriously than, rape by a stranger: a husband convicted of raping his wife might face the same punishment as rapists who abduct their victims or attack them in a gang. According to the guidelines, the seriousness of rape is “always aggravated when the offender is in a position of trust in relation to the victim”.

Aggravated means made more serious; according to the draft guidelines, a rape by a male partner is more serious than a typical rape by a stranger. I suppose there may be cases when that is so, but mostly speaking it is plainly daft. I know which I would find more traumatic and more criminal.

There is one case, however, of rape in marriage that is obviously shocking and wrong — bride rape. When British women of Asian origin are forced into marriage against their consent, they are, one can only assume, forced into sex against their consent, or in plain English raped. It is bad enough that it happens all over the underdeveloped world; it is unacceptable that it happens here.

Forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage. It is the horrible practice of forcing a young British girl (or boy) to marry someone of his or her parents’ choice, often so the spouse can acquire British nationality and its benefits. And it is all too common. About 300 are reported every year and there are probably many others that go unreported, along with some suspected cases of honour killings in Britain and a high rate of suicide among young Asian females here, at three times the national average.

If ever there were a case for protecting vulnerable young women from institutionalised rape, this must be it. For some time the government has been contemplating laws specifically against forced marriage, and though new Labour regularly proposes quite unnecessary laws to make political points when there are plenty of adequate laws in existence (as with incitement to religious hatred), this time for once I thought there was good reason to make forced marriage an offence. It would send a clear message that it goes against British values and is unacceptable no matter how multicultural anyone might feel.

However, despite some ambitious proposals and consultations, last week the government did one of its many U-turns and announced that a specific law to ban forced marriage was “not needed”. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that this was yet again done for political advantage — either to hang on to ethnic minority votes, or to appease the multicultural lobby.

This is not an end to the inconsistencies. Although the guidelines advise that “date rape” and “acquaintance rape” are as serious as “stranger rape”, they also say that where both parties have indulged in some consensual intimacy before the rape, that “must have some relevance for sentencing purposes”. As you were then: acquaintance rape is not necessarily so serious.

It so happens that I agree with that, but I remain puzzled about the inconsistencies. As Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape promptly said: “The Sentencing Guidelines Council is talking out of both sides of its mouth.” That’s what you do when you are confused, of course, and confusion does seem to have taken over, among lawyers just as much as among the rest of us.