A favourite saying of politicians is: “The first responsibility of any government is to protect the safety of its citizens.” When some politicians say this, particularly those leading our government today, I think maybe they are imagining men in uniforms on battlefields, or at our borders protecting citizens from villainy and invasion.
When Boris Johnson talks about the safety and security of our nation, he is never talking about the estimated 1.6 million female victims of domestic abuse who are not safe at home. His government is not thinking about the 20 per cent of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lives; they are not thinking about all the women being sexually harassed at work or on the streets.
Often the most important part of my role is just putting up my hand and reminding ministers that women exist. We get forgotten when people discuss economic policy. We get forgotten when people think about infrastructure. And we get forgotten when prime ministers and secretaries of state stand up and say that their first responsibility is to protect the security and safety of its citizens.
The Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, which is being introduced in parliament this week, forgot women. It forgot that one fifth of all offences recorded by the police were flagged as domestic abuse-related during the summer lockdown. There is nothing in the bill that will help to deal with the worrying rates of domestic abuse charging and conviction. Oh well, it’s only women.
There is nothing in the bill that will deal with rape conviction rates falling to a record low under this government. Nothing. No strategy for improving how our courts deal with cases of rape and sexual violence, nothing about minimum sentences for rape. Nothing.
In the wake of the horrendous killing of Sarah Everard there has been a national outpouring from women in the country about how unsafe they feel on the streets. Women have found their voice to speak up about all the ways we risk assess every movement of our lives because all of us have a story to tell about being flashed at, followed, harassed, kerb-crawled. I have a story for every one of these.
This isn’t new. The MeToo movement has exposed these things before. Parliament has discussed these issues a lot in the last two years. So you would think in a bill about crime and policing something might be in there, right? Wrong! Nothing, not a dicky bird. Nothing to deal with street harassment.
How can the government dare to put out a bill called the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill and not have tried to do something about their terrible record on violence against women and girls in our justice system?
More people are coming forward to report rape but fewer of them are getting justice. It is estimated that in the UK, 233 people are raped every day, and at current rates three of those cases would see a prosecution. This often gets represented, rightly, as a failure for victims, but it is not just that. It is also leaving sexual predators on our streets. It makes us less safe.
These figures should have been enough for the government to include something in this bill. Seeing these figures, a team of us at the Labour Party devised a Survivors’ Support Plan to improve victims experience of the criminal justice system and the outcomes in rape cases. Our Survivors’ Support Plan sets out some clear policy recommendations, including legal advocacy for victims and fast-track rape cases in our courts and in the CPS.
More needs to be done so that victims are not left waiting years while their rapists are likely free to be offending while they await trial. Labour’s plan would allow victims to give their evidence before trial rather than waiting for many years after to give their evidence in court; this helps with both witnesses giving accurate testimony and also means the victim can then have pre-trial counselling – so they aren’t left waiting years to give evidence and living with the horrendous crime that has happened to them.
Everything that we have been working on to improve rape convictions should have been in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill. None of it was. The government did remember to put in an offence for obstructing vehicle access to parliament. Don’t worry about sex offenders as long as ministers can get their chauffeur-driven cars in and out of Westminster. I wish I was making this up.
The government really hoped that this bill would give them a chance to stand in parliament and look as if they were being tough on crime. They were so looking forward to talking about statues and protests, all that stuff they love. The women of this country have demanded otherwise, because if you want to say you are tough on crime, we’re here to remind you to remember us, too.
The bill is tougher on attacking statues than it is on rape. The government needs to listen, act, and work cross party to bring about the vital changes this bill needs. The bill is tougher on crimes against statues of dead men than it is for dying women.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding