Britain's Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke faced continued pressure today after sparking uproar by suggesting some rapes are more serious than others.
Under pressure from 10 Downing Street, Mr Clarke was forced to tour the television studios to explain his remarks and insist that he regarded all rape as a serious crime.
Last night he also said “sorry” to a sexual assault victim who broke down in tears as she challenged him during a radio phone-in about his plans to halve jail terms in return for early guilty pleas.
But the apology failed to draw a line under the affair, with Labour continuing to question how he could remain in charge of justice policy for the coalition.
He is due to face his critics tonight when he is scheduled to appear on the BBC’s Question Time – to be broadcast from Wormwood Scrubs prison with inmates in the audience.
The row came as he sought to defend Government plea-bargaining proposals to offer a 50% reduction in sentences in return for an early guilty plea for offences including rape.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday morning, Mr Clarke appeared to draw a distinction between date rape and “serious rape, with violence and an unwilling woman”. Put to him that “rape is rape”, he said: “No, it is not.”
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.”
Mr Clarke was confronted on the radio by Gabrielle Browne, the victim of an attempted rape, who broke down in tears as she denounced the 50% discount proposal as “a disaster”.
The mother-of-two, 45, said she had fought for 688 days to have her attacker brought to justice, only for him to have his sentence reduced for a guilty plea. She told Mr Clarke: “It happened to me. It’s a disaster, especially with sex offenders.”
In an excerpt of the letter he last night sent to Mrs Browne, the Justice Secretary said: “I have always believed that all rape is extremely serious, and must be treated as such.
“I am sorry if my comments gave you any other impression or upset you.”
Speaking to The Sun after waiving her right to anonymity, Mrs Browne called for the under-fire Justice Secretary to resign, claiming he is “endangering women”.
She said: “We cannot have British women fearing for their safety. Women are not safe in his hands. I honestly do not believe he can continue in his position.
“He absolutely should not be in control of criminal justice policy if his policy is to endanger the public.
“I was horrified to hear him say one rape is not as serious as another. I though generally in justice circles it was fully accepted that rape was rape, end of story.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband also seized on Mr Clarke’s radio comments and called on David Cameron to sack the veteran Cabinet minister.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper sought to maintain pressure on Mr Clarke last night, saying that “weasel words” were not enough and that he did not “get the seriousness of his remarks”.
“The Government still seems to have a blind spot on serious issues affecting women,” she said.
“Ken Clarke needs to go much further than his weasel words this afternoon – he needs to show urgently that he understands why rape victims are so disturbed by his approach and drop his sentencing plan. Or how can he do a job which is supposed to deliver justice on rape?”
In a hastily-organised second round of interviews yesterday, the Justice Secretary insisted he had not intended to cause offence.
He told Sky News: “Obviously, I don’t intend to give the impression and didn’t intend to choose words which gave the impression that all rape is not serious.
“Every rape is serious. That’s always been my view and that’s why I haven’t the faintest intention of changing the sentence for rape.”
Mr Clarke said he would look back at the transcripts of his interviews, adding: “Obviously it’s a mistake if I gave the impression I have any other views.”
But asked if he was apologising, he told the BBC: “I haven’t apologised, as far as I’m aware.”
Downing Street said later that Mr Clarke had the Prime Minister’s confidence but refused to confirm whether Mr Cameron had personally ordered him to go back onto the airwaves to explain himself.
Challenged over whether the PM thought an apology was called for, Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: “I think the Prime Minister would say that if people have been offended by these comments, then that is clearly regrettable.
“He thinks it was important – as does the Justice Secretary – that the Justice Secretary went out and clarified the position.”
The spokesman stressed that no final decision had yet been taken on whether to increase the maximum discount for a guilty plea from the current 33% to 50%, saying: “We are not setting out the policy imminently and clearly we continue to listen to people’s views.”
Liz Kelly, co-chairwoman of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said Mr Clarke’s comments “appear to trivialise the seriousness of rape”.
“He seems to be relying on an outdated understanding that only rape of strangers is ’real rape’ and harmful,” she said.
And the chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, Vivienne Hayes, said the comments “smack not only of ignorance but of outright misogyny”.
“Attempting to apply a ’sliding scale’ to so-called types of rape such as date rape further denigrates victims and lets off perpetrators too lightly,” she said.