Unusually for the past 15 months, the pandemic featured very little in Prime Minister’s Questions today. Instead, the Labour leader challenged Johnson over the recently published end-to-end rape review. Highlighting that 98.4% of reported rape cases do not end in charges, Starmer pointed out that this figure has fallen since 2016 in tandem with “significant” cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service, a 25% slash to funding for the Ministry of Justice and the closure of half the courts in England and Wales. “This wasn’t inevitable,” he told the PM. “It’s the cost of a decade of Conservative cuts.”
Johnson and Starmer debated at cross purposes throughout the session. While the Labour leader asked for an explanation on why prosecutions and convictions “plummeted” over the past five years, the PM remained determined to talk about sentencing. With only passing reference to the review, he directed MPs to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which Labour voted against, and he repeatedly accused the opposition of failing to back tougher sentences. The Labour leader reminded Johnson that his party refused to back the legislation because it “does more to protect statues than women”.
The Labour leader asked Johnson to apologise – which Starmer doesn’t often do – for the failure of rape victims by the government, as found by the report last week. “The Justice Secretary has done the rarest of things for this government and apologised,” he told MPs. “But I note the PM hasn’t done that today. It’s time he did, that he took some responsibility and backed it up with action. Will he do so?” Johnson offered a muted apology for the “trauma they have been through, the frustration that they go through because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system” and told those watching: “We are fixing that.”
How the government would back it up with action was, in particular, where the PM fell down. He was weak on the detail and the session made for depressing watching. Johnson wilfully refused to engage with the question of why, despite increased reporting of rape, the number resulting in charges is so low and falling. Referring briefly to recommendations from the review, which the government’s own victims’ commissioner has described as “underwhelming”, he instead focused on tougher sentences and more police officers. As the Labour leader pointed out, crucially, when 98.4% of reported rapes do not result in charges “the question of sentence never arises in those cases”. The PM is missing the point.
Starmer was on home territory today, showing a solid understanding borne of his five years as the director of public prosecutions. The Labour leader should focus on crime more often, and maybe he will get the chance to more as the pandemic retreats. Johnson had nothing substantive to offer, best demonstrated by his repeated attempts to deflect – he even somehow shoehorned in a reference to the vaccine in closing: “We are helping them by getting our courts moving again,” he said. “We are getting on with the job. They jabber, we jab.” If we are being charitable, characterisation of the debate as jabber just shows the perils of using ready-made lines. But, more likely, this crass sign-off in a debate on rape and sexual violence simply betrays the seriousness with which Johnson takes the issue.