Boris Johnson has hit back at Labour claims that rape has “effectively been decriminalised” under the Conservative government.
On Tuesday, a tweet from the Labour Party made the assertion alongside figures showing how many charges of rape were brought in 2019-20 in England and Wales compared with the number of allegations made.
The tweet, which infuriated Tory MPs, read: “Under the Tories, rape has effectively been decriminalised. We need to do so much more to end violence against women and girls.”
When questioned about the tweet at Wednesday’s Prime Minister's Questions, Johnson called Labour's claim “a regrettable mistake”.
The tweet came months after similar comments made by the government’s own victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird.
In a report published in July last year, Baird said rape had effectively been decriminalised because of a collapse in prosecutions, allowing many offenders to escape justice.
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Johnson said of Labour's tweet: “I think it was certainly a mistake, and a regrettable mistake, for anybody to suggest that rape had been decriminalised in this country, because we must do everything we can to reassure victims of rape and sexual violence and get them to come forward and that is what we’re doing.
“And I also think it would be a good thing if together we could vote for some of the tougher sentences that we’ve put forward in this bill.”
Tory MPs were quick to condemn Labour’s tweet on Tuesday evening, branding it “incredibly irresponsible” and “dangerous”.
Dehenna Davison, MP for Bishop Auckland, said: “This is not just fake news – this is dangerous.
“Has any thought been given to the fact this messaging in itself could discourage women from reporting rape and sexual assault?”
Tory party chair Amanda Milling added: “This is simply not true – and a disgusting thing to tweet.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible to spread this misinformation on such a sensitive topic.”
Nick Timothy, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff when she was prime minister, tweeted: “A grown-up party of government has a duty to engage in debate responsibly.”
However, Labour MPs defended the content of the tweet, with several highlighting how the words came from the government-appointed victims’ commissioner.
In her report, Baird criticised the 3% charge rate for rape allegations made in 2019.
She wrote: “In effect, what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape. In doing so, we are failing to give justice to thousands of complainants.
“In some cases, we are enabling persistent predatory sex offenders to go on to reoffend in the knowledge that they are highly unlikely to be held to account.
“This is likely to mean we are creating more victims as a result of our failure to act.”
The row over the tweet came as MPs voted in favour of the government's Policing Bill, which Labour says does not satisfactorily tackle the issue of violence against women.
The tweet was posted just minutes before the bill was voted on, with Labour voting against.
Labour tabled an amendment intended to block the bill from being considered further, although this was defeated by 359 votes to 225.
The motion from Labour was based on support for some sections – such as tougher sentences for serious crimes including child murder – alongside warnings that the legislation “rushes” changes to protest law and “fails” to take action to protect women.
MPs debated the bill as hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Parliament Square to protest against it, in the latest public display of anger following the Metropolitan Police’s much-criticised handling of the vigil for Sarah Everard at Clapham Common on Saturday.
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