David Cameron urged to sack Kenneth Clarke over rape comments

Ed Miliband urges prime minister to sack justice secretary for suggesting 'date rape' is not as serious as other kinds of rape

Kenneth Clarke has become embroiled in a major row over sentences for rape after appearing to suggest that "date rape" did not count as a serious offence, prompting calls from Ed Miliband for David Cameron to sack his justice secretary.

Clarke took to the airwaves on Wednesday morning in the face of a fierce reaction to the disclosure on Tuesday that he intends to increase the maximum discount for an early guilty plea for rapists from 33% to 50%.

But instead of calming the row, the justice secretary's media appearances and explanations have only served to fuel the controversy.

A rape victim broke down in tears after confronting Clarke when he appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live, telling him his sentence discount plan was a disaster.

During other television interviews, Clarke appeared to claim campaigners had only singled out rape because it injected a degree of "sexual excitement" into the argument over discounts for early guilty pleas for all offences.

But it was his statement that no one convicted of a "serious rape" would be released as quickly as those guilty of some "date rapes" that sparked a political furore as Labour leader Miliband challenged Cameron over the matter at prime minister's questions.

Miliband said: "The prime minister, when he leaves this chamber, should go and look at the comments of the justice secretary and then he should say to him very clearly the justice secretary should not be in his post at the end of today."

But immediately after question time, the prime minister's spokesman said Clarke was not going to be sacked but would have to clarify his remarks.

Cameron sought to distance himself from Clarke's comments and underlined the government's commitment to increasing the rate of rape cases ending up in court. Downing Street said Clarke was under pressure from Cameron to clarify his comments.

The prime minister faced down calls to sack the justice secretary, telling MPs that he had not heard the interview and insisting the proposal to extend a reduction in sentence as a result of plea bargaining from one-third to half was merely out for consultation.

"We have not yet decided which offences it should apply to or how it should be brought in. This is a consultation," he said.

Behind the scenes, Cameron told Clarke to clarify his comments to set straight any misinterpretation, according to a Downing Street spokeswoman.

There was also concern among Liberal Democrats, with one senior source saying the justice secretary had struck the wrong "tone". The Downing Street spokeswoman said the government regarded all rape as heinous and not tolerable. Cameron believed Clarke was a very good justice secretary, but had not known about his remarks in advance, she added.

Downing Street aides also insisted the domestic affairs cabinet committee had not yet finally cleared the sentencing green paper, and said there would be no relaxation of the penalty for rape.

The cabinet committee met on Tuesday to clear the green paper, and Clarke told MPs that proposals to cut potential sentences for rape through plea bargaining were likely to be retained. Downing Street suggested this was not the case and that no decision had been taken.

Miliband told Clarke at prime minister's questions: "The role of the justice secretary is to speak for the nation on matters of justice and crime. This morning, the justice secretary was on the radio suggesting that there were serious rapes and other categories of rapes.

"The justice secretary cannot speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that."

Cameron told the Commons he had not heard the BBC 5 Live interview, but said a decision on the seriousness of the offence and the sentence that should be passed should be a matter for the courts.

He reminded Miliband that the issue of whether there should be a differentiation between categories of rape was debated during the sexual offences bill passed by the last government. The decision at the time was not to make that distinction.

He said the aim of plea bargaining was to make sure more people were prosecuted and convicted, and added: "Rape is one of the most serious crimes that there is, and it should be met with proper punishment.

"Anyone who has ever met a rape victim and talked to them about what that experience means to them and how it stays with them for the rest of their life can only want to have the most serious punishment possible.

"The real disgrace in our country is that only 6% of rapes reported to a police station end in a conviction. That is what we have to sort out. I have not heard the justice secretary's interview, but the position of the government is very clear that there is an offence called rape and anyone who commits it should be prosecuted, convicted and punished very severely."

Cameron said there was "merit" in having a plea bargaining system which should be "discretionary".

Rounding on Labour's record on justice, he said: "What we had under the last government was a mandatory release of all prisoners." Miliband "sat in a cabinet that let 80,000 criminals out of prison - that wasn't a discretionary policy, it was a mandatory policy and it was a disgraceful policy".

The Labour leader said Cameron had made promises on crime but was now "breaking them one by one" and was out of touch with public opinion.

"Why doesn't he go back to the drawing board on crime and get rid of his justice secretary?" he asked.

Cameron told him: "I remember the leader of the opposition saying at his party conference about Ken Clarke, 'I'm not going to say he is soft on crime'.

"Well that pledge didn't last very long. One of these days the party opposite is going to realise opposition is more than just jumping on a bandwagon, picking up an issue - it's about putting forward a serious alternative and making some serious point."

Asked by the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, after question time whether he was going to apologise, Clarke said he did not say anything that was factually incorrect but claimed people were "spinning" his remarks.

He said: "What is happening is what always happens in politics, I'm not surprised by this, people are slightly spinning, loading what I said in order to get what I regard as false indignation.

"I think rape is a serious crime. Always gets a long sentence. It should do. I'm not proposing to reduce the penalty for rape in any way. The proposal I'm making, a discount for an early plea, applies to every criminal offence in the book. It has good reason for it."

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, told the BBC: "You cannot have a justice secretary who takes this kind of attitude to rape, this kind of attitude to rape victims and this kind of attitude to women across the country."

The rape victim who confronted Clarke on the radio said his plans were "a disaster".

She said she had fought the criminal justice system for 688 days, only for the rapist to have his sentence reduced for pleading guilty and then go on to commit another offence.

"I wouldn't wish what I went through, fighting the criminal justice system for 688 days, on my worst enemy," she said.

"I'd gone through the trauma of it for the 688 days, and then on that 688th day he pleads guilty and gets out early."

But Clarke said an extra discount for an early guilty plea could avoid her being dragging through the further ordeal of a trial.

"People who save you the 600 days of going to the police station, preparing to give evidence ... we're saying a 50% discount saves trauma," he added.

"The reason for giving a discount for pleading guilty is so the victim doesn't have to be put through the ordeal again. "If it was the case that I was saying rapists should be out in a year, I would vote for somebody else myself."

Clarke said no one convicted of a "serious rape" would be released as quickly as those guilty of some "date rapes".

Asked why rape sentences were, on average, only five years, he said: "That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds.

"A serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman, the tariff is much longer than that. I don't think many judges give five years for a forcible rape frankly."

Asked whether he thought "date rape" did not count as a "serious" offence, he said: "Date rape can be as serious as the worst rapes, but date rapes, in my very old experience of being in trials, vary extraordinarily one from another and in the end the judge has to decide on the circumstances."


Alan Travis, Patrick Wintour and Hélène Mulholland

The GuardianTramp

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