Violence against women 'should be prioritised as much as terrorism'

17 September 2021, 00:03 | Updated: 17 September 2021, 09:36

The report was commissioned after the killing of Sarah Everard, which prompted an outpouring of grief and protests to make the streets safer for women
The report was commissioned after the killing of Sarah Everard, which prompted an outpouring of grief and protests to make the streets safer for women. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Preventing violence against women and girls should be considered as much of a priority as counter-terrorism, a police watchdog has said.

The report, commissioned by Home Secretary Priti Patel in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard found "problems, unevenness and inconsistencies" in dealing with the "epidemic" of violence against female victims in the UK.

"When you look at the hierarchy of priorities within police forces, very often violence against women and girls doesn't actually feature as the top three," said Zoe Billingham, Inspector for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), which carried out the report.

"Given the scale of the epidemic... it's vital that it does."

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Among other things, the report found "staggering variation" across police forces in England and Wales with regards to dealing with domestic abuse.

It also noted in the foreword that inspectors "struggled" to keep that section of the report up to date because of the speed at which data and findings about the scale of the problem came to light, saying: "Every week brought new data or surveys on the crimes committed against women and girls."

The report noted a number of concerning statistics, such as the fact that three out of four domestic abuse cases reported to the police are closed early without the suspect being charged.

It also found "huge" discrepancies in the use of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) - also known as Clare's Law, which allows the police to disclose a person's history of abusive behaviour to those who might be at risk from them.

It found that less than two in five of these "right to ask" applications made by members of the public resulted in information being shared, although the report noted that in some cases this could be because there was no information to pass on.

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The report did say that "vast improvements" had been made in the last 10 years to the way in which the police dealt with violence against women and girls.

But Dr Charlotte Proudman, Barrister at Goldsmith Chambers, said this did not mean much.

"If you're setting the bar so incredibly low at what we're saying on 10 years ago and then looking at the situation now I think it's hardly something that they can be given a pat on the back or a round of applause for," she said.

"It was so pitiful and it still is today."

The report made a number of recommendations, with the first two related to police forces prioritising cases involving violence against women and girls.

Ms Billingham said they "should be afforded a priority that is equivalent to [counter-terrorism]".

Dr Proudman agreed, saying: "[Domestic abuse] to me is an epidemic, it is terrorism on a mass scale."

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But the report raised the question of why such cases are not already being prioritised.

"I think it goes into the so-called 'too difficult' box," said Dr Proudman.

She said that these perceived difficulties, combined with the fact that many domestic abuse incidents take place behind closed doors, meant "a lot of police officers potentially just don't give it the time that it requires".

The report has been welcomed in part, with physics student and women's rights activist Patsy Stevenson - who was famously photographed being arrested at a vigil for Ms Everard on Clapham Common - saying: "The report has a lot of good points and I'm really glad that they are talking about it, and actively trying to change it."

She also added that she was pleased the report seemed to note that violence against women and girls is an issue that involves "the Government, the police and other institutions that are there to help victims".

But she also raised concerns about a glaring omission - the failure to look at violence against women and girls committed by police officers themselves.

"It's like they've taken off part of the blindfold but there's still a bit there," said Ms Stevenson.

"I look forward to a day where the police actually look within themselves and take accountability for the issues that they are perpetuating themselves."

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Dr Proudman also said the report was "welcomed" and that it "makes some important points", but she raised concerns about the lack of meaningful action to tackle the root of the problem.

"It's yet another report," she said.

"We've had so many reports on policing failures and dealing with violence against women and girls, and no doubt more money has been spent on this when really... we already know what the issues are.

"We need to go into actually making sure that police tackle this abuse by men against women."

Dr Proudman also said violence committed by police officers may be a large part of the problem.

She described it as "really worrying" that the report did not mention what was happening "internally and systemically" in the police.

"If these people are being entrusted with bringing others to justice and they themselves are doing this behind closed doors at home, I think that’s one of the most significant issues of why domestic abuse maybe isn’t being taken as seriously as it should," she said.

The report was based on just over 5,000 responses to surveys by - and interviews with - victims, members of the public, police forces and practitioners.

It was commissioned by the Home Secretary following the killing of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard near Clapham Common in South London in March.

Her rape and murder, by off-duty Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, prompted widespread outpouring of grief and anger, as well as demonstrations over concern for women's safety.

Couzens, now sacked by the Met, is due to be sentenced later this month.

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Ms Stevenson said that the streets were not going to get safer for women until the issues within the police were tackled, and that any measures giving the police more power would "just mean more violence against women".

"Until they fix the systemic issues within the police force itself… we can’t have a full picture of what’s going on and how to combat it in its entirety," she said.

"How else are we going to make the streets safer?"