The Justice Secretary has criticised Labour’s call for his resignation if he does not reverse plunging levels of rape prosecutions and convictions in a year as “dangerous”.
Robert Buckland accused his shadow David Lammy of “low politics” after the Labour MP accused him of shedding “crocodile tears” this week when apologising for the downward trends in bringing sexual offenders to justice.
Ministers set out plans for a “system and culture change” after convictions for rape and lesser offences in England and Wales hit a record low.
Mr Buckland said sorry over the dire situation and accepted Government cuts to the legal system played a part in plunging conviction rates following the publication of an official review.
But Mr Lammy said: “The Justice Secretary’s crocodile tears will mean nothing if the Government fails to reverse its disastrous failure of rape victims.
“The Conservatives’ decade of cuts to the justice system has let rapists and other violent criminals off the hook while denying victims justice.
“Rape convictions and prosecutions have more than halved in three years. If he cannot reverse these figures within a year of his apology, the Justice Secretary should do the honourable thing and resign.”
Mr Buckland struck back on Sunday, refusing to say whether he would resign if he fails to meet a target to rectify the issue, and describing the call as “constitutionally illiterate”.
“Decisions made to investigate and prosecute are made by the independent police and their operational work and the CPS, which is independent,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips On Sunday.
“If there was any suggestion that prosecutions were being brought about because of political pressure on me frankly that would make convictions unsafe – it’s a ridiculous argument.”
Pressed again if he would resign if he did not meet a target, Mr Buckland said: “The idea that somehow a resignation or political pressure should be brought to bear on independent prosecutorial decisions is not only bad politics but it’s actually dangerous. I’m not going to engage in that level of debate.”
The claim that the demand was “constitutionally illiterate” led Labour to call for clarity over whether the Government would stand by its target of ensuring the amount of cases reaching court return to 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament.
Mr Lammy said: “After a decade of Conservative incompetence and cuts has led to record-low conviction and prosecution rates for rape, the last thing victims need from the Justice Secretary is a U-turn.
“The Conservatives must urgently clarify whether or not they intend to stick to the target of increasing the number of rapists who are charged and end up in court.”
The latest CPS figures for 2019-20 show 1,439 suspects were convicted of rape or lesser offences in England and Wales last year – the lowest level since records began.
That figure was down from 1,925 the previous year, despite reports of adult rape to police almost doubling since 2015-16.
There are an estimated 128,000 victims of rape and attempted rape a year, but only 1.6% of reported cases results in a charge.
Earlier this week, Mr Buckland said he was “deeply ashamed” by the downward trends and cited a raft of measures aimed at increasing the number of allegations to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Measures include a pilot scheme aimed at reducing cross-examination of victims in court by conducting pre-recorded interviews and a nationwide recognition that only evidence about the complainant that is pertinent to the case should be used.
A new approach to investigations which ensures that there is an “early and robust assessment of suspect behaviour and offending patterns” is also planned.