My evidence as Shadow Victims Minister to the APPG on Domestic Violence

Thank you to Women’s Aid and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence for establishing an enquiry into this important issue, and the continued work that is done to tackle these appalling crimes.

Domestic violence is a horrific crime; it can cause long term physical and psychological damage.

1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic abuse at some point in their lives and on average, 2 women are killed a week by their former or current partner.

The statistics are simply unacceptable. I am concerned that the situation is getting worse. I am grateful that this enquiry will highlight how the government, the police, the courts and how we – as a society – can ensure that a long-lasting reduction in such traumatic crimes is achieved.

As Shadow Victims Minister, I want to address three of the main issues surrounding domestic abuse:

First, how we can encourage more victims of such abuse to come forward.

Second, how we can ensure that the criminal justice system is fit for immediate and longer term action once such a crime has been reported.

Third, how we can prevent such crimes being committed in the first place.

Labour’s Record in Government

Before detailing our work in the Opposition, I want to highlight the work of the last Labour Government in this area.

Domestic and sexual violence affects all communities. In my own constituency, the Barnsley Domestic Abuse and Support Group provides vital support for local women who have been victims of such crimes. 

We have come a long way from the times where domestic abuse was seen as a ‘private’ matter. But more needs to be done.

In government, Labour made tackling violence against women and girls a priority and measures such as specialist domestic violence courts, specialist police units and prosecutors, and partnerships with councils and housing to support victims all helped reduce incidents of domestic violence.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Domestic Violence cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service rose by 23%. Since 2010, this number has decreased by 13%.

Between 2011 and 2012, over 1.2 million women reported experiences of domestic abuse from partners or family members.

These figures demonstrate that prosecutions and convictions have fallen heavily even though more domestic abuse is being reported to the police. Bluntly, that means fewer criminals stopped and more potential victims at risk.

Action is needed now.

I am clear that in government Labour must adopt a comprehensive strategy to combat the continued high level of such crimes.  For people who do suffer from such violence, we need a criminal justice system which is robustly built to address their needs at what is already a traumatic time. It must provide greater protection, support and understanding.

The Criminal Justice System and Victims

We believe the criminal justice system should put victims at its heart.

Nowhere is this more needed than in the case of domestic violence.  Justice must always be about punishing the offenders; but it is also about ensuring victims can pursue legal action without fear and anxiety, and with the confidence that it will offer the opportunity for fair redress, punishment and protection.

Victims often feel that they are an afterthought, with confidence in the system falling to 10% after you have become a victim of crime. Financially, they are also an afterthought; less than 1p in every pound spent by the Ministry of Justice goes to support victims of crime.

We must do more to put victims first.

That is why the Shadow Justice team is committed to, and working towards, enshrining a Victims’ Code into law.

This will create greater accountability for victims at all stages of the criminal justice system, stringent complaint procedures, and security in the knowledge that victims’ rights are backed up by the full force of the law.

The Criminal Justice System and Domestic Violence

For all victims’ of crime, the thought of the criminal justice system causes anxiety, but for some types of crime the worry is much greater than others.

It is the traumatic and isolating nature of domestic and sexual violence, its complex causes and solutions, which makes the process of pursuing justice so difficult.
The challenges facing us are clear even before the crime is reported.

Underreporting

Domestic violence is often a hidden crime. For most of us, our homes are a safe place but for these victims home is often the scene of their abuse.

There is no escape from the perpetrator for women, or men, in these situations, and the isolation, stigma and feelings of blame that a victim may feel because of this may make it all the more difficult to approach the authorities and the criminal justice system.

Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes.  An estimated 70% of domestic abuse goes unreported every year.

The abuse is often multifaceted; physical violence is only one of many forms of abuse that can create additional barriers for victims. Other types include; psychological, sexual, financial and emotional.

When it comes to reporting abuse, the Government needs to understand that the threat of seeing your children go hungry or the uncertainty of having to leave your home can be just as strong as the threat that comes from physical violence.

On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times by her partner before reporting it to the police – a tragic indictment on our current criminal justice system.

Changes to Funding

Part of the way we can address underreporting is ensuring that the criminal justice system is fit for immediate action once a crime is reported. For this, practical help to remove victims from situations of abuse needs to be a priority.

The continued threat from an abusive partner or family member can mean that breaking the cycle of abuse, even after reporting such abuse to the police, is difficult. Whilst Domestic Violence Protection Orders can offer a means of protection, sometimes entering a refuge may be the only practical, and safe, option. Legal-aid changes have also made it harder for victims to take out injunctions against abusers.

The Refuge System has been under increasing pressure due to funding cuts and we must consider how we can guarantee the availability of a safe environment for any woman or man who is in need of protection. A recent Women’s Aid report found that close to 28,000 women were turned away from the first refuge they went to last year and a loss of specialist services and support may mean that more women will remain with abusive partners.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, has recently announced that, in Government, we would create a National Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence, recognising that the treatment of these crimes needs specialised and focused attention. The Commissioner would set national standards for training and provision of specialist services.

At a regional level we should be considering how Police and Crime Commissioners can publicise the issues and the support available for domestic and sexual violence victims. In addition they could be, and in some cases are, looking at ways to involve specialist units, partnerships with housing, local government, schools and support organisations to protect victims and prevent abuse.

Conviction Rates

Not only do victims of domestic abuse require protection, they also require action against the perpetrator of the crime.

In over 90% of incidents little or no further action is taken against the perpetrator and not enough is done to prevent repeat violence.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of Domestic Violence cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service rose by 23%. Since 2010, this number has decreased by 13%.

Most of the support for victims is targeted at the highest risk cases that have seen a conviction. Most of the action with perpetrators to prevent repeated violence and abuse is targeted at the small minority of people who go to court, are convicted and get sentences of over 12 months.

This means many people get away with it, the violence gets worse and their partners suffer more and more abuse. We know that if domestic violence is not tackled early it can escalate.

That is why I want to see far more action to identify violent partners at an earlier stage with stronger action to prevent violence even when cases don't reach court.

Wider and Earlier Prevention

The evidence received by the enquiry will, no doubt, outline the complexity that surrounds domestic and sexual violence and the challenges we face in finding the solutions to prevent such unacceptable crimes taking place.

As Shadow Victims’ minister, my responsibility is not only to look at ways in which we can improve how the Criminal Justice System responds to victims of domestic and sexual violence but primarily how we can reduce the number of cases that occur and the number of victims. We need to look at prevention as well as the “cure”.

Tackling the root causes of these crimes presents a significant challenge. We need not only a cross-party approach but a cross-departmental one.

We must consider how we can break the cycle of abuse, how we can prevent previous offenders reoffending, and how we can stop young people growing up thinking abusive relationships are the norm.

Domestic violence is all too often rooted in early upbringing and the family environment. Those who witness or are subject to abuse at a young age are much more likely to become victims or perpetrators later on in life. 

Graham Allen’s groundbreaking work in ‘Early Intervention’ helps to illustrate that by teaching children what a healthy family relationship should look like can be vital in improving outcomes later in life.

Educating young people about what is a healthy and non-abusive relationship is key to preventing domestic and sexual violence in the future. This means ensuring that sex and relationship education is provided to all young people. That is why a Labour government would legislate to make this education compulsory.

Overall a more integrated family approach to combating domestic and sexual violence is required.

Conclusion

A Labour government would introduce a Victims Law, make sex and relationship education compulsory, and introduce a National Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence, recognising the need for a cross-departmental approach for domestic violence prevention.

But this should only be the start.

I do want to recognise again the work of the organisations that combat this crime – it is vitally important and as Shadow Victim’s Minister, I want to work closely with you to achieve both my – and your aim – of reducing Domestic Violence.

My final point is that whilst the vast majority of people who suffer domestic violence are women, this is not a women’s’ issue – this is an issue for us all.

If we place the burden of solving this complex crime purely on the shoulders of women, it will not only increase the anxiety felt by victims, it will fail to tackle the root causes.
In order to develop successful and sustainable policy responses that help deal with the causes as well as the consequences of domestic violence we must work together.