Why Domestic Abuse is Everybody’s Issue

The following article appears on Progress Online

As Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said to the Association of Chief Police Officers conference yesterday, tackling violence against women will be a priority for Labour Police & Crime Commissioners.

Of course, when we talk about whether women feel safe or mention murderers and rapists the usual reaction is to be scared of strangers and to think about improving security to keep “them” out. But 54% of rapes in the UK are committed by a woman’s current or former partner. In 1988 Tracy Chapman sang Behind the Wall at the Freedom at 70 party for Nelson Mandela:

It won’t do no good to call the Police…
the Police always come late if they come at all.
And when they arrive, they say they can’t interfere in domestic affairs between a man and his wife. And as they walk out the door, the tears well up in her eyes.

Although Tracy Chapman is American, it was a reasonably accurate picture of the UK at the time – after all, it was not until 1991 that it became a crime for a man to rape his wife. Of course there are men who suffer violence too – 45% of women and 26% of men experience at least one incident of inter-personal violence in their lifetimes. It is a complex issue and things aren’t necessarily how they seem when the police arrive – indeed almost a third of men who initially present as victims are actually the perpetrators of abuse.

But the days of the police treating “domestic affairs” as being outside their sphere of influence are behind us. Risk management is an important part of modern policing and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that today’s minor assault may end up with a major assault or even a murder. Two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner in England & Wales. So when the police are called, it is absolutely important that they arrive promptly, that they take statements, collect evidence and take any appropriate action.

But the recent Ched Evans case showed a disturbing number of people wanting to blame the victim and troubling underlying attitudes within society. Research shows that one in five young men and one in ten in young women think that abuse or violence against women is acceptable.

Vera Baird QC, former Solicitor General and Labour’s candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner in Northumbria has researched the case of a woman who was prosecuted for ‘falsely retracting’ charges of rape against her then husband. What a terrible message to send to the public about what might happen to you if you contact the police. Less than a quarter of women who have experienced domestic abuse report the crime to the police. We need to do everything we can to ensure that victims are supported.

Even with the promise of anonymity, a rape trial is harrowing experience and many victims don’t want to go through with it. Most people who are bullied just want the bullying to stop rather than wanting revenge or the perpetrator to be punished – especially if it is someone whom they loved or even still love. In 75% to 90% of incidents of domestic violence, children are in the same or the next room. Making it stop has to be the priority which means ensuring victims know they will be supported if they ask for help.

Welsh Women’s Aid has seized the initiative and in consultation with their 29 member organisations presented a set of priorities for Police & Crime Commissioners:

  1. Take concerted action to tackle domestic abuse against women and their children locally;
  2. Allocate adequate resources to local specialist services for women and children affected by domestic abuse, including women-only service provision;
  3. Work with our member organisations to cut the crime associated with domestic abuse;
  4. Consult with domestic abuse victims when setting local policing priorities.

I am very happy to sign up to this agenda – and I am pleased that a women’s organisation is taking the lead. But men need to take responsibility too – particularly when it comes to prevention and changing attitudes. Men and women need to work together on this issue to make the world a safer place.  Violence has no place in relationships. We need to work on the one in five young men and one in ten young women who don’t accept this. We need to educate young men about what is acceptable behaviour: if someone is fall-down drunk, help them rather than taking advantage of them. “She didn’t put up much of a fight so I thought it was ok” or “She didn’t seem to mind” simply aren’t good enough as excuses. Catspaw Theatre Company has done some excellent work with young people in North Wales, bringing the issues to life through the medium of theatre. But even more powerful was a project at Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan in Abergele – where teenagers studied the issues and then developed their own production to share their thoughts with contemporaries. What a brilliant way of ensuring they really understand the message. I would like to see this happening at every school. Of course that’s not something a Police Commissioner can decide, but it reinforces the point that solutions require a joined up approach across agencies.

The Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan pupils were invited to present their performance at the launch of the Amethyst Sexual Assault Referral Centre, which brings me to the second key issue: providing support to victims. The starting point for Amethyst is to support the victim, not to secure a conviction. By working with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and voluntary groups, victims can receive help, advice and support before they decide whether to talk to the police about what has happened to them. It is even possible in appropriate circumstances to have a forensic medical examination to save possible evidence, while the victim is still considering their options. Someone wishing to access this service should call 0808 156 3658 to talk to a crisis worker.

If a victim does decide to report an incident to the police, it is essential that they are dealt with in a supportive way. Specially Trained Officers (STOs) are assigned to each case. The police will work to collect all the evidence to support a criminal prosecution. Interviews are video-taped in comfortable surroundings to reduce the stress on the victim and reduce the need for them to be forced to relive their experience again and again.  The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will then decide whether a person will be charged with a criminal offence and prosecuted at court.

There can sometimes be a tendency for the Police and CPS to blame each other when a decision is taken not to prosecute or a prosecution fails. In North Wales, the police and CPS regularly sit down with representatives of the police authority to go through cases and learn the lessons. Sometimes there just isn’t enough evidence for a prosecution to be in the public interest and the focus needs to be on supporting the victim. Nor should we assume that because someone is found not guilty at court that the prosecution should not have been brought. There will be many cases where the evidence shows it is very likely that an offence took place but a jury is not convinced beyond reasonable doubt that it did. These cases need to be tested in court.

As Police & Crime Commissioner, I would want to see joint scrutiny of cases continue. With one Commissioner replacing seventeen police authority members, it isn’t practical or healthy to be going through all such cases personally and I will want to recruit suitable volunteers to be involved in this process and to report to me and to the Police & Crime Panel on what they find. Of course the public report won’t go into detail about individual cases – but it is one of a number of mechanisms we can use to ensure that the police and CPS are accountable and to reassure the public that their concerns are being addressed. I will also want to pay close attention to what victims are saying – both individually through “customer satisfaction” surveys and through the voluntary organisations that represent them and work to address the issues. I have already said that if I am selected as Labour candidate I will want to meet with local organisations to discuss these issues. I hope that other candidates will do the same – and that all candidates in Wales will sign up to Welsh Women’s Aid’s manifesto. After November’s election, it will be important for the four Commissioners in Wales to work together on these issues – and to work with the Welsh Government on publicity campaigns and sharing best practice and discussing the issues with Welsh Women’s Aid and other interested organisations on an all-Wales basis.

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