Joan Smith: Domestic violence is a crime society ignores

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The figures are horrifying: almost 60 murders so far this year, and on average a victim calls the police every single minute. Families are devastated, children orphaned, and the damage continues into the next generation; it's an epidemic of crime, in the jargon of the day, but you'll rarely read about it or see the victims' photographs.

I'm talking about domestic violence, which affects one woman in four, according to the Home Office, which also says that two women a week are killed by their current or former male partner. Why don't we see their pictures? Why isn't there a public outcry about our fractured society which is so signally failing to protect vulnerable women and children?

If we care about young men being stabbed on the streets of Manchester or London, as of course we should, why aren't we also up in arms about a crime which accounts for 15 per cent – around one in seven – of all violent incidents and leaves hundreds of thousands of women in fear of their lives?

I'm not saying it doesn't happen to men as well, but the Home Office says quite categorically that this type of crime "consists mainly of violence by men against women". Children who witness their mothers being beaten or murdered are severely traumatised, and there is a strong connection between domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse.

You'd think this was a meaty subject for David Cameron's Tories and the press to get their teeth into, yet for the most part they're strangely silent. They'd much rather focus on knife crime, which one Conservative MP, David Ruffley, seems to hold the Government directly responsible for. "Between Labour coming to power and the end of 2007, the number killed by sharp instruments was up by 29 per cent," he declared earlier this week. "No wonder public anxiety is as high as it is."

He is right about the level of public anxiety, but it isn't simply a consequence of inexorably rising levels of crime. As the annual crime report for England and Wales revealed yesterday, recorded crime actually fell by 9 per cent in the 12 months to March, and the risk of becoming a victim is at its lowest-ever level.

If he felt so inclined, Mr Ruffley could even claim some credit on behalf of John Major's government, given that the trend began in 1995. But then he might also have to congratulate Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for presiding over a dramatic decrease in crime during their premierships.

We could have a discussion about the reliability of figures, which may reflect lack of confidence in the police and people's reluctance to report certain types of crime. But the Tories and their cheerleaders in the press are happy to use official crime statistics as a stick to beat the Government with, and they can't have it both ways.

Yesterday they were up in arms about the number of knife crimes in 2007-2008, which certainly looks alarming on the face of it; police in England and Wales recorded 22,151 offences involving knives, but it's the first time they've been recorded separately from other violent crime, and that makes comparison with previous years tricky.

Just over a third of murders involve knives, but the numbers remain relatively low: 258 out of a total of 734 in 2006-2007. What is clear is that there are hot spots for knife crime, which means that the risk is concentrated in half a dozen geographical areas. As you'd expect, London is at the top with 7,409 knife offences, but the next two places on the list don't even come close; police in the West Midlands recorded 2,303 knife crimes, and Greater Manchester 2,294.

It is clear that the fatal stabbings which have dominated the headlines in recent months are an urban phenomenon, mainly involving teenage boys and young men from deprived backgrounds. In that sense, it's a very specific problem and doesn't bear out the Tory "broken society" rhetoric which is helping to create a climate of moral panic. It also requires a degree of public investment in education, housing and drug rehabilitation programmes which Mr Cameron, in other circumstances, would be quick to denounce as a manifestation of the nanny state.

Knife crime is a frightening phenomenon, and we should be worried by the fact that some indicators suggest it is increasing. But it's important not to get it out of proportion, or to give victims' families the impression that it's being cynically used to add to the woes of an unpopular Government. Most of us are still more likely to die in a traffic accident than at the hands of a knife-wielding thug, so perhaps politicians would like to start highlighting the dreadful weekly tally of road deaths to provide some balance.