Ken Clarke and rape sentencing

Ken Clarke, the UK Justice Minister, has given several interviews today, in the first of which he appeared to downplay the seriousness of rape. Here’s a full transcript.

Recently I’ve been lamenting not writing enough on feminist issues (there are only so many times you can say “yeah, the patriarchy’s shit”), and this is quite a good opportunity. Unfortunately I find myself, to a small extent, having to defend Ken Clarke. A lot of the coverage and criticism so far has concentrated on the fact that he said date rape wasn’t as serious as ‘proper rape’ or ‘classic rape’ as he apparently later went on to describe it on Sky News. But actually, I don’t think he said that at all, and there’s certainly a compelling case that some of his more vocal critics are fully aware of that fact. I would argue that his comments are bad enough in the first place that there’s no need to overplay it.

So for example, I’ve just watched BBC News at 10, and they played this part of the interview:

Derbyshire: So is date rape not as serious?

Clarke: Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes. But date rapes, as you are quite right to say very old experience, of being in trials, they do vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances.

which gives the impression that he’s saying date rape isn’t serious. That would be an absolutely shocking thing to say, not least because I’m pretty sure that’s the most common form of rape. But actually this earlier part of the interview is very important:

Derbyshire: Under your plans that woman could find… that woman could find the rapist back on her street in a year and a bit. It’s an insult to her isn’t it?

Clarke: The rapist is going to be….very light sentence for a…a year and a bit?

Derbyshire: Yes. A rapist gets five years.

Clarke: Rapists don’t get… rapists get more than that.

Derbyshire: Hang on a minute. Five years on average, yes they do Mr Clarke, yes they do.

Clarke: That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

which makes clear that when he’s talking about ‘date rape’, he actually means statutory rape. Now I don’t think it’s a hugely controversial thing to say that when an under-16 has willing sex, that’s not as serious as what most people would colloquially refer to as rape, but that’s the comment that was twisted and used against him. That’s a bit unfair.

But he’s not getting off this altogether. There are lots of other things wrong with what he said, and I’m not particularly familiar with the way statutory rape is classified so I’m sure there are other things wrong with it that I won’t have picked up on. But there are lots of people, and I’m ashamed to say it’s mostly men, and amongst my friends it’s the usual suspects, who seem to think that all he’s said is that there’s a difference between a young couple having sex when one of them’s underage, and a rapist hiding behind a bush, and that therefore his comments were fine. That’s not true.

Fairly superficially, it is eye-opening, to say the least, to discover that our Justice Secretary apparently isn’t familiar with the difference between date rape and statutory rape, to the extent that he doesn’t correct himself despite using the term ‘date rape’ several times. As I say, when he’d had that mistake pointed out to him later in the day, he went on Sky News and talked about ‘proper rape’ and ‘classic rape’. That is mindnumbingly stupid, it’s like he’s begging for the media to rip into him.

He also fumbled considerably when he was confronted with the sentencing guidelines for rape which say the minimum sentence is 5 years (page 25), and the sentencing range is 4-8 years. He then repeated again what he had said earlier about ’18 year old boyfriends’ which isn’t at all what the interviewer was talking about. That indicates to me that our Justice Secretary also isn’t familiar with the sentencing for rape.

And that’s not to mention that, when confronted with the short sentences actually given for rape – the figure of the 5 year average sentence which Victoria Derbyshire says comes from the Council of Circuit Judges – I couldn’t tell you if it’s accurate, but when confronted with that figure, Clarke’s first instinct is to downplay the seriousness of the offence that it refers to by saying that it also includes the 18 year old boyfriends that he keeps going on about. That is indefensible, for several reasons. It’s not even true for a start, because it’s unusual for a case like that to result in a prosecution, so it doesn’t have a significant skewing effect on the figures. Additionally those cases of statutory rape which do get to court quite often involve other factors like coercion and peer pressure, for example, so they’re still serious crimes. Just because it’s statutory rape doesn’t mean it’s not serious.

In all this criticism of his comments, there has been one part that’s been largely skipped over. In his comments on Sky, he said:

“Newspapers are using rape to add some sexual excitement”.

Are you fucking kidding me?! Again even on a superficial level, what kind of a moron uses the phrase ‘sexual excitement’ and ‘rape’ in the same sentence? That is so insensitive! He could have said so many other things, he could have said that the newspapers were using rape to make the story more emotive, or to distract from the fact that this sentence reduction plan affects all crimes, or countless other things that would have been less offensive that what he said.

In addition to that, he completely misses the point of the criticism that’s been made, and this criticism actually deals with the policy itself rather than just his comments. The people focussing on rape aren’t doing so as a way to get press headlines. The objection is that in his plan to halve sentences for a guilty plea, an exception should be made for rape because the sentence for rape is already so pitifully low.

Now I actually hope that Ken Clarke isn’t fired, because if he were then I’m afraid we’d get someone worse. Clarke doesn’t believe in just banging people up, he takes an approach to law and order that’s refreshing to see from the Tories, he’s very vocally opposed to the war in Iraq, and of course he’s pro-Europe, which means he’s a counterforce to the xenophobes in the government. Ultimately, however, a justice minister should know that when you’re in an interview and the subject of rape comes up, your first concern should be encouraging victims to come forward and getting the conviction rate up. Today’s comments will only do the opposite.

One Response to Ken Clarke and rape sentencing

  1. Ned Auckland says:

    Yep. Agree entirely.

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