Make Sarah Everard’s death a ‘turning point’ for safety of women and girls, says Keir Starmer

Boris Johnson says UK needs ‘cultural and social  change in attitudes’ towards women

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
@andywoodcock
Wednesday 17 March 2021 14:10
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Everard death should be a watershed moment, says Starmer

Keir Starmer has offered cross-party cooperation to make the death of Sarah Everard a “turning point” for safety for women and girls.

At prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, the Labour leader said the 33-year-old marketing executive’s death should be a “watershed moment” leading to change as profound as that which followed the murders of Stephen Lawrence and James Bulger.

And he urged Boris Johnson to press ahead with swift legislation to deal with the “epidemic of violence” faced by women.

At prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson agreed that the UK needed a “cultural and social  change in attitudes” to ensure that women’s concerns are heard, and insisted the government was doing “everything we can” to protect them.

And the PM - who has himself been accused of sexism for comments on “hot totty” and Tory votes “causing your wife to have bigger breasts” - said that it was essential to “address casual everyday sexism”.

Mr Johnson launched an attack on Labour for voting against his Police Bill, which he said included measures to make the streets safer for women and girls.

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But Starmer retorted that the bill “said a lot more about protecting statues than protecting women”.

And he listed a string of rapists who received shorter jail sentences than the 10-year maximum proposed by Mr Johnson for people who damage monuments.

Sir Keir told the Commons: “Sometimes a tragedy is so shocking, it demands both justice and change.

“The Stephen Lawrence case showed the poison of structural and institutional racism. The James Bolger case made us question the nature of our society and the safety of our children.

“Now the awful events at the last week have lifted a veil on the epidemic of violence against women and girls.

“This must also be a watershed moment to change how we as a society treat women and girls, and how we prevent and end sexual violence and harassment.

“I believe that if we work together we can achieve that… Does the prime minister agree that this must be a turning point in how we tackle violence against women and girls?”

The PM replied: “Yes I do… I think that he is right, frankly, that unless and until we have a change in our culture that acknowledges and understands that women currently do not feel they are being heard, we will not fix this problem.

“And that is what we must do. We need a cultural and social change in attitudes to redress the balance, and that is what I believe all politicians must now work together to achieve.”

Sir Keir challenged the PM to back Labour’s 10-point plan to make women safer, including whole-life sentences for abduction and sexual assault leading to murder, longer jail time for stalking and rape, fast-tracking for sexual abuse cases, protection against street harassment and support for victims.

He said it was “shocking” that just 1.5 per cent of rapes reported to police resulted in a successful prosecution.

And he urged Mr Johnson to show the “political will” to legislate within six months for a new Victims Bill to deliver legally-enforceable rights for victims of crime.

“For 10 years, this government has been promising a victims’ law, it’s been in his party’s last three manifestos,” said Sir Keir. “It still hasn’t materialised. 

“We don’t need more reviews, consultations, strategies… we just need now to get on with it.”

Declaring that he would be ready to see Labour’s proposals put forward as Conservative legislation in order to make progress on the issue, Starmer asked Mr Johnson to meet him and his shadow ministers to “really and truly make this a turning point”.

The PM agreed that prosecution rates for rape were a “disgrace” and said he was “very happy” to look at ideas suggested by the opposition.

But he made no commitment to push ahead with any of Starmer’s proposals, instead repeatedly blaming Labour for its opposition to the controversial police bill, which imposes new restrictions on the right to protest alongside measures to tighten up laws on serious sexual violence.

“I think it would have been a good thing if last night, the whole House could have voted for tougher sentences for those who commit sexual and violence offences and stop from being released earlier,” he said.

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