RAPISTS will be handed a "licence" to attack under plans to cut their jail terms, outraged campaigners declared yesterday.

The independent Sentencing Guidelines Council is to recommend that rapists' sentences are slashed by up to 15 per cent because prison is tougher.

It is also expected to call for men who beat their partners to go on education courses in the community instead of being jailed.

Appalled MPs and charities fear the moves will deter women victims from coming forward.

The plans also fly in the face of Government attempts to clamp down on violence against women.

Refuge charity said: "These proposals will give licence to men to rape and batter women. They put more women at risk.

"It would be a travesty if the Government accepts the plans. We shall fight them all the way.

A source close to Home Secretary Charles Clarke hinted at Government concern by saying: "One of the most important things Charles has been trying to do is to encourage the reporting of rape and domestic violence offences."  The insider said the guidelines would be studied "very closely".

But though ministers can comment on SGC recommendations they cannot block them.

Embarrassingly, the proposals emerged on the eve of a Government anti-rape campaign.

Tomorrow an advertising blitz will warn young men they risk being charged with rape if they have sex with women too drunk to consent to it.

The SGC is made up mainly of judges but also of police and probation experts. It issues guidelines to courts to help encourage consistent sentencing "supported by information on effectiveness of sentences and on the most effective use of resources".

The council, which is paid for by the Home Office, says rape sentences should be cut because the overcrowded prison regime is "more demanding". The average sentence is seven years.

The SGC is also expected to say that domestic violence offenders could be better dealt with in the community if they were capable of changing their behaviour.

Yesterday no SGC spokesman was available for comment.

But a representative earlier reportedly said that as prisoners now spent at least half of their sentence behind bars, and were freed under supervision, shorter sentences could be justified.

Charities were stunned. They pointed out that domestic violence accounts for up to 25 per cent of all recorded violent crime, kills two women a week and costs the state ?23billion a year.

Refuge said: "We're horrified that after 35 years' campaigning for Government and the courts to take rape and domestic violence seriously such proposals have been put forward.

"The idea that sending domestic violence perpetrators on courses instead of jail is ludicrous and would put more lives at risk.

"The suggestion trivialises domestic violence which is as serious, if not more serious, than any other violent crime."

Refuge pointed out that police receive a call a minute from victims of domestic violence, many alleging rape.

The charity raged: "It's the No1 priority for police, so how can we talk about reducing the powers of the courts to help them tackle it?

"These proposals are a backward step and will make a mockery of Government's commitments to address domestic violence.

"We know that rigorous arrest, charging and sentences in custody for these crimes act as an effective deterrent." Rape Crisis said: "With so many current problems about low conviction rates and reported rapes rising year on year, this is really terrible timing.

"To reduce sentences sends out completely the wrong message to future offenders."

Labour MP Julie Morgan, chairman of the all-party group on sex equality, was horrified.

She said: "It's a terrible struggle for women to bring these cases to court. I don't think we ought to send the message that we think these crimes should be dealt with in a lighter way."

Tory spokesman David Davis stormed: "This proposal is wrong both in the effect it will have and the logic behind it.

"To suggest that today's prison regime is tougher than that of, say, 20 years ago is simply at odds with the facts.

"At a time when there is serious concern about the record of catching and convicting rapists to reduce the deterrent can only make the problem worse."

A Home Office spokeswoman said decisions on guidelines were a matter for the SGC whose plans will be finalised later this year.

But she pointed out that new laws had been introduced to ensure dangerous sex offenders were not released from jail.

She said: "The public must be protected from dangerous criminals. New public protection sentences are aimed specifically at sexual and violent offenders.

"These new sentences will ensure that these offenders are subject to an assessment by the parole board before they are released.

"Serious offenders will not be freed from prison unless their level of risk to the public is assessed as manageable in the community."

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