Sandra Horley: Gimmicks like Jacqui Smith's won't help battered women

A 'perpetrator register' is pointless. Victims of abuse need protection
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The Independent Online

I have been working on the front line of domestic violence for three decades. I have seen the bruises, the black eyes and the broken bones. I have seen children who have lost their innocence because they have watched their mothers being beaten black and blue. I have seen the grief of the families of women who have been murdered by their violent partners.

I cannot claim that things haven't improved at all for abused women today, but they haven't improved nearly enough. And the latest Government initiative on domestic violence, launched by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith this week, really doesn't address the problem.

It is true that this Government has done more than any other. It has introduced specialist domestic violence courts and Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs) to identify high-risk women. And it has part-funded the National Domestic Violence Helpline, which Refuge runs with Women's Aid.

But the fact remains that, although the Government has made efforts to improve the criminal justice response to domestic violence, what we at Refuge hear from the women coming into our refuges is that they are still not getting the protection they need and deserve. Two women die at the hands of a current or former partner every week in England and Wales. Furthermore, 10 women kill themselves every week as a means of escaping domestic violence. That's a death toll of 12 women every week.

Two cases have recently hit the headlines, highlighting the devastating consequences of the failure of the police and the CPS to protect women. Sabina Akhtar begged the police for help after her husband beat her and repeatedly told her to prepare for her death.

Her first complaint was not recorded, and when her husband was finally arrested after a second complaint, he was let out on bail. Despite continuing to harass Sabina, the charges against him were dropped and he was set free. She died after he stabbed her through the heart. The CPS has apologised to her family, but that will be little consolation to the three-year-old son she left behind.

Katie Summers also asked the police for help. She made four separate reports to her local police station in the week leading up to her murder, but was not taken seriously. She received no protection and just days after her last visit to the police station, she was dead.

This is why I believe the Home Secretary's proposal to introduce a perpetrator register is a gimmick. If police can't help when a woman begs for protection, what difference would it make if her partner's name was on a register? Creating a register is pointless. Acting when a complaint is made is the real priority.

Before the Government pats itself on its back for the progress it has made, let us not forget that there is still an enormous gap in the provision of services for abused women and children. Since Refuge opened its doors in 1971, it has contributed to three successive Home Affairs Select Committees into domestic violence. All have recommended that providing refuge spaces should be top of the Government's priorities. Yet here we are, 33 years after the first enquiry, with demand for bed spaces still far outstripping the supply.

Equally, every select committee has highlighted the vital importance of preventative work through education and awareness-raising. But the Government has yet to fund a prevention strategy. I have seen select committee after select committee, responded to consultation after consultation and have watched guideline after guideline gather dust, but I am yet to see the Government acting decisively to provide sufficient funding for an infrastructure of services which is so desperately needed. We need action, not more talking.

Every day Refuge supports over 1,000 women and children through our refuges and community outreach schemes. We know what works: we have over 37 years of experience responding to the needs of abused women and children. They need safe housing, psychologists who understand their trauma, advocates who can help them pursue legal options and public education campaigns which teach them about the early warning signs of abuse. Women and children don't need another consultation. They need serious financial commitment.

Sandra Horley is the chief executive of Refuge www.refuge.org.uk

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