Violence against women and girls should be treated with same priority as terrorism, says watchdog

Watchdog calls for ‘radical’ change in the way authorities prevent and respond to crimes including domestic violence and sex abuse

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 16 September 2021 18:53
<p>The report was commissioned following the murder of Sarah Everard </p>

The report was commissioned following the murder of Sarah Everard

“Radical” change is needed to stop an epidemic of violence against women and girls in Britain, a watchdog has found.

An inspection sparked by the killing of Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a serving police officer, said police must prioritise protecting women as highly as counter-terrorism.

HM Inspectorate of Constabulary called for “fundamental cross-system change”, including a “radical refocus” on crimes that disproportionately affect female victims including domestic abuse, rape, sexual grooming and stalking.

“We can’t just police our way out of this, these offences are deep rooted, pervasive and prevalent across our society and if that is to change a whole-system approach is needed,” inspector Zoë Billingham told a press conference.

“There will need to be more resources … this is not going to happen if there is not an increase in funding to enable it to happen.”

Ms Billingham called for the government to use “every lever at its disposal to shift the policing priority around violence against women and girls upward”.

The category is not included on a list of priorities in the government’s Strategic Policing Requirement, which includes terrorism, serious and organised crime, large protests, civil emergencies and child sexual abuse.

“[Women and girls] should be afforded a priority that is equivalent to those types of crime,” Ms Billingham said.

“Police have improved the way they respond over the last five years, but when you look at the priorities within police forces, violence against women and girls often does not feature. We think that given the scale of the epidemic it’s vital that it does.”

Ms Billingham called for chief constables to “get a grip” on cases, adding: “The reaction after the murder of Sarah Everard has made it absolutely clear that things need to change.”

The inspectorate made a series of recommendations for authorities including the police, health and education, and called for the government to consider creating a new statutory duty to protect women and girls, similar to the existing rules on child protection.

People protest in Parliament Square after Sarah Everard vigil

Surveys show that two-thirds of women aged between 16 and 34 report being sexually harassed in the past year, and half feel unsafe in public spaces.

Figures in the report indicate that on average, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK, and 1.6 million female victims of domestic abuse were recorded in the year to March 2020.

But three-quarters of investigations into domestic abuse-related crimes reported to the police are closed without a charge, often using a marker saying there were “evidential difficulties” or that victims “did not support action”.

“We understand that not every victim wants a [prosecution] but the proportion of cases closed is eye-wateringly high and varies between forces with no apparent explanation,” Ms Billingham told a press conference.

“The victims of domestic abuse should not be subject to a postcode lottery.”

The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Dame Vera Baird QC, said that “far too many cases are closed without charge”.

“We need to see the police relentlessly pursuing and disrupting perpetrators,” she added.

“But it’s also undeniable that we cannot simply police our way out of this crisis. This is a broader societal problem and that requires a whole-system approach spanning the police, justice agencies, health and social care, and education.”

The Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, said the horrific deaths of Ms Everard, sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry and “far too many others, we can no longer turn away from the reality of violence against women and girls on our streets and in our homes”.

She backed calls for a statutory duty on the issue, which she said could be introduced through amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

“Serious violence including domestic abuse, sexual violence and other crimes which disproportionately affect women and girls have been minimised and sidelined for too long,” she added. “There is no more time for delay.”

Harriet Wistrich, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the government should invest “significant funds” and address failings by the Crown Prosecution Service and probation.

“How many more reports must there be before there is change?” she asked. “The laws and the policies are largely in place to tackle the problem but the resources are not and the huge variations in practice identified in the report indicate there is not sufficient accountability.”

Andrea Simon, director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said the current system was “not working for victims and survivors and needs a complete overhaul”.

“Many victims of sexual violence and abuse are left completely unsupported at a critical time, and it’s just not good enough,” she added.

The inspectorate also found delays and unexplained gaps between requests and disclosures in the domestic violence disclosure scheme, known as Clare’s Law, where women can request information on a partner’s criminal history.

The government said it was already committed to a “whole-system approach” and was investing in initiatives including a “safer streets” fund, support for victims and communications campaigns.

The Domestic Abuse Act was passed earlier this year and new laws going through parliament include stricter bail conditions for perpetrators.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “Tackling violence against women and girls is a top priority for the government, which is why I commissioned this report from the inspectorate.

“Our Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, which commits to radically changing how we end abuse using a whole-system approach, focuses on working with key agencies including police, healthcare and education. We have already taken essential action including introducing a national police lead for tackling VAWG and making relationship education compulsory in all primary schools.

“I am grateful to the inspectorate for their work on this report. We will consider its findings and recommendations and expect police to also take necessary action.”

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