The list of things Ken Clarke got wrong today, in his proposed legislation and in his discussion of it in the media, is enormous.
He was discussing the proposed increase in the ‘discount’ in sentencing, if the defendant pleads guilty, from one third to one half. He told Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live that rape cases are the strongest example of the reason for this, because:
“somebody who stops messing about, stops accusing the people accusing him of being liars, stops a great long trial, relieves the victim and the witness of going through the whole ordeal again and being called a liar…that’s why we give a discount….We’ll give you credit if you put your hands up, stop messing about and don’t make things worse for the victim”.
That’s the Justice Secretary, twice referring to rape defendants who lie in court as ‘messing about’. The ordeal that rape survivors go through in court is horrendous; the low conviction rate is well-documented. But a solution which sees rapists rewarded for doing their victims the favour of owning up to raping them is not justice.
Victoria Derbyshire asked him if he’d met women who’d been raped; Clarke pointed out that as a lawyer he’d taken part in rape trials. Derbyshire pointed out that that had been a long time ago, to which Clarke briskly replied “I don’t think rape’s changed all that much.”
Wrong again, Ken: in the eyes of the justice system, rape has changed a lot since you were in court. For example, in 1991 (when Clarke was secretary of state for education, and therefore presumably no longer taking part in rape trials, although do correct me if I’m wrong), it became illegal to rape your wife. Clarke’s attempts, in his interview with Sky News, to draw a distinction between ‘classic rape, where someone leaps out on an unsuspecting woman and forces her to have sex’ and other, apparently less ‘serious’, rape cases, suggest he hasn’t quite got up to speed in the last twenty years.
Clarke went on, in his Sky News interview, to point out that the changes in sentencing would apply to all crimes – and suggested that the press were focusing on the effect on rape cases to “add some sexual excitement to the headlines”. Do people buy newspapers because they find rape sexy? Is a headline about the potential for rapists to be let out of jail in under two years sexually exciting in the same way as a front-page picture of Pippa Middleton’s arse?
Back to 5 Live, where Clarke took Victoria Derbyshire to task for claiming what I suggested above, that a rapist could be back on the victim’s street in ‘a year and a bit’: when she pointed out that it is possible for a convicted rapist to get a five-year sentence, Clarke said dismissively, “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.” Personally I don’t believe, as some people have suggested, that the justice secretary was simply confusing date rape with statutory rape – although while he spelt out what is meant by statutory rape, he doesn’t seem to have clarified what he understands ‘date rape’ to mean (but again, correct me if I’m wrong).
Nevertheless, what is clear is that the justice secretary does not consider a rape in which the rapist is known to the victim to be as serious as what he called “rape in the ordinary conversational sense”, which he defined by muttering vaguely about “some man has forcibly…violence…unwilling woman”, demonstrating his apparent ignorance of the fact that rape, any rape, date rape, stranger rape or otherwise, involves both of those things by definition.
When Victoria Derbyshire protested “Rape is rape,” Clarke retorted “No, it’s not.” And that’s really all we need to know. The man responsible within this government for ensuring that perpetrators of crime in this country are brought to justice does not believe that being raped by someone you know – which is what happens to at least half of the victims of rape, according to the Fawcett Society - is as bad as being raped by a stranger. Ignore all the rest of his blustering. That’s all we need to know, and that should be enough for him to be sacked.
The thing is, I’ve usually agreed with Clarke more than I have most members of this government (although there were warning signs last year regarding his views on rape). Ed Miliband said in his speech to Labour’s annual conference last year, “when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime”, and I agreed with him. I know, furthermore, that there would be few tears shed on the Tory front benches if Clarke was to go.
But a line has been crossed here. It’s one thing for Cameron to witlessly patronise female MPs; it is a much bigger thing for him to tolerate Nadine ‘children should say no to sexual abuse‘ Dorries, but she will never be a front-bencher and her ridiculous ‘abstinence-only sex ed for girls’ bill will never actually become law. Because she is not the justice secretary. Clarke is. With today’s comments, the government’s approach to women appears to have gone from ridiculously outdated to openly hostile.
In PMQs today, Cameron claimed not to have heard the justice secretary’s comments, and he said “the position of the government is very clear: that there is an offence called rape, and anyone who commits it [my emphasis] should be prosecuted, convicted and punished very severely.” If the Prime Minister truly believes this, then he needs to sack Ken Clarke. Forcibly sack him, classically sack him, seriously sack him, I don’t care. Just sack him.