We must combat serious sexual crime
To combat serious sexual crime, we must first understand it.
There has been an increase in serious sexual offences reported to police across the country. In our county, comparing the period from April 2014 to March 2015 with the same period in 2013-14, there has been an increase of 32 per cent in the number of serious sexual offences reported to Essex Police. This is an increase of 467 individual offences, with the total number rising in Essex from 1,446 offences to 1,913 crimes.
The 32 per cent increase in serious sexual offences in our county is in line with a national increase of 32 per cent of all sexual offences comparing calendar year 2014 with 2013, reported by the Office of National Statistics here.
Whatever is happening in Essex seems to be reflected across England and Wales.
At my request, Essex Police has produced a detailed breakdown of serious sexual offences which can be seen in the series of Tables here:
I’ve published this information as I believe it will help inform the debate, explain some of the underlying trends, and most crucially of all help bring offenders to justice and protect victims from harm. If together we are to address the problem, we need to understand precisely what is going on.
Firstly, I note that the number of serious sexual offences reported to Essex Police has nearly doubled, rising by 81 per cent in the past two years. In 2012-13, 1,059 serious sexual offences, including 451 rapes, were reported to the force; by 2014-15, there were 1,913 such offences reported, of which 879 were rapes. (Table 5)
Secondly, there has been an increase in the reporting of what are termed “historic” sexual offences – sometimes now referred to as non-recent. The use of the phrase “historic” does not mean that the crime is any less severe. However, there may be practical obstacles to investigation, such as the lack of forensic opportunities and difficulty in tracking down witnesses. In this context, the term historic is used to describe cases where the crime occurred more than a year before it was reported to police. In 2012-13, 246 serious sexual offences were reported to Essex Police which were categorised as historic. By 2014-15, this number had risen to 481 crimes. (Table 5A) The increased reporting of serious sexual offences during the same time period means that the proportion of reported serious sexual offences which were historic in nature was essentially stable, rising just a little from 23 per cent to 25 per cent. This means that around a quarter of sexual offences are reported to police more than a year after the crime occurred.
So, can any of this be explained by the so-called ‘Savile effect’? From 2012 onwards, statements by police forces, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the government have made it clear that Jimmy Savile was a prolific sexual predator, with many of his crimes being against children. It is believed that the publicity given to Savile’s crimes and those of other high profile sexual predators, and their investigation by the police and other authorities, has led to an increased confidence amongst members of the public in reporting sexual offences. This is what is meant by the ‘Savile effect’.
We cannot be certain, but my judgement is that the large increase in the number of serious sexual offences reported to police in the past two years, and the fact that a quarter of these reports are of “historic” offences, suggest that a ‘Savile effect” may well be a factor. I welcome this as in reporting these crimes for investigation by the police, victims may begin to find some relief from the torment and violence they have suffered.
The analysis of serious sexual offences in Essex also reveals that in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, there were more child victims than adult victims. (Table 1) On the face of it, this is a surprising and disturbing finding, and I’ve spoken further with specialist detectives. They have told me that national estimates suggest that up to 85 per cent of all sexual abuse has not been reported to police. In addition, detectives suspect that many adult victims of sexual abuse make a decision not to report the crime.
With children, the situation is different in that many serious sexual offences are disclosed to parents or various third party agencies. In such circumstances, parents generally make decisions on the child’s behalf in terms of reporting to police and, where appropriate, supporting prosecutions. All professional agencies have a legal and moral responsibility to share disclosures and concerns around crimes against a child with police. So, I am advised that the professional police view is that if all serious sexual crime was reported, it is probable that a larger proportion would relate to adult victims than the current reports suggest.
This analysis is important and must inform future investigative and safeguarding work. But the stark reality is that in 2014-15, there were 985 serious sexual offences against children reported to Essex Police, of which 361 were rapes. Under UK law, a child is defined as a person under the age of 18 so the recorded offences capture a wide range of age groups. However, this means that almost every single day, the rape of a child is being reported to Essex Police.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex:
“One child rape is one too many, but harm of this scale is highly distressing and has to be tackled. As a society, we must act to address this serious and shocking harm.”
The figures also show that charges have been brought in 19 per cent of serious sexual offences against children, and in around 15 per cent of crimes against adults. (Table 1) One factor in this difference in the solved rate is that the issue of consent does not provide any evidential challenges in a serious sexual offence against a child under the age of 13 years of age. A child under 13 cannot in law consent to a sexual act with an adult. With adult rape, a number of cases amount to “one person’s word against the other”, with the suspect claiming consent and the victim denying such consent. Essex Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are determined to overcome the challenges around the “consent issue” by supporting victims and focusing more on the offenders.
My judgement is that the proportion of serious sexual offences where a person is charged is still low, and I am particularly concerned that only around one in every five serious sexual offences against a child results in charges being brought. I am cognisant of the fact that a number of victims are not supportive of prosecutions and their wishes must always be at the centre of any investigation. Whilst I acknowledge and appreciate this is one factor which impacts on solved rates, we must do more work to understand the challenges and increase the number of serious sexual offenders brought to justice.
It is also clear from the analysis that a large proportion of serious sexual crime happens in a domestic context. Essex Police has renewed its focus on combatting domestic abuse, with a number of high profile media campaigns to encourage victims to report domestic violence. The figures show that 40 per cent of serious sexual offences reported by adults have occurred in a domestic abuse context. (Table 2)
In fact, in most serious sexual offences, the perpetrator is known to the victim, and assaults by a stranger are rare.
The national policing (formerly ACPO) definition of stranger rape is as follows:
Stranger rapes are offences in which the victim has no previous knowledge of the perpetrator and has not knowingly met them before the offence. They are, therefore, unable to name them or provide information about their identity. It also includes cases where there were brief or single encounters within a short period of time where the victim may be able to identify the offender but would not describe them as an acquaintance.
In Essex, in 2013-14, around 12 per cent of serious sexual offences reported to police were committed by a stranger, and in 2014-15, this proportion had dropped to 8 per cent. Sexual attacks by strangers remain uncommon.
The analysis also reveals that, with regard to adult victims, around half of all reported serious sexual offences are not committed by a stranger and neither do they take place in a domestic abuse context. Specialist detectives have told me that many of the remaining serious sexual offences are committed by a suspect who is in a position of trust towards the victim, or by a friend or general acquaintance of some kind.
This analysis is unsettling but if, together, we are going to act to combat serious sexual crime, it is essential that we understand who is committing these horrific crimes and who the victims are likely to be. I intend to commission further research to ensure we understand serious sexual crime in our county as completely as possible.
As Police and Crime Commissioner, I will continue to encourage anyone who has been the victim of a serious sexual offence to report this to police. This will enable officers to investigate the crime and to work with partner agencies to provide any safeguarding or support that may be necessary. I cannot say often enough: “if you have been the victim of crime, please tell Essex Police”. You can also report crime anonymously by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.
If you want support and access to safeguarding services, you can also use the Essex Victims Gateway to learn of specialist support services in your area with advisors trained in working with victims of serious sexual offences. The Essex Victims Gateway can be accessed at the following link:
Essex has outstanding specialist agencies such as the South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre (SERICC) who can be contacted on 01375 380609, the Southend-on-Sea Rape Crisis (SoSRC) contactable on 01702 667590, and the Centre for Action on Rape and Abuse (CARA), whose number is 01206 769795.
We must continue to act to combat serious sexual crime, to bring perpetrators to justice, and to support victims.
Nick Alston, Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex