Last week, the Home Secretary announced a new strategy for tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG).
Within this was a raft of commitments including a new national policing lead on VAWG, a £5 million ‘Safety of Women at Night’ Fund, the criminalisation of virginity testing, additional support for helplines, and a communications campaign targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes.
Some of these proposed interventions are welcome, if not long overdue. Criminalising virginity tests is an important adjustment, although this should extend to opening old cases and prosecuting where the victim did not consent to this – it is an act of sexual assault.
Others, such as a funded 24/7 helpline for survivors of rape and sexual assault, look good at face value. But, thanks to the work of Rape Crisis and others, such helplines already exist. For the most part, there are several existing avenues for a victim to report a crime or reach a support helpline. The issue is often not that a victim cannot report a crime (I am very aware that there are many cases, particularly those involving domestic violence or victims with limited access to phones/internet, where this is not true). The problem is what happens when they report to the authorities.
On this, there is remarkably little in the new strategy. The Home Secretary claims that this announcement marks “the start of a radical programme of change in the whole system’s response to these crimes.” In truth, it falls well short. VAWG is an insidious ill that requires the deconstruction of our processes and institutions to allow for true, system-wide overhaul. This strategy, heavy on politispeak and light on action, is papering over cracks. We have been here before. We have been waking up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for some time now.
In June 2010, David Cameron addressed the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions where he described the current conviction rate for sexual assault as a “scandal” and declared that he wanted to increase the number of successful rape prosecutions and send more perpetrators to jail. Then, the conviction rate was around 6%. Now, official figures have it as being 1% of all reported rapes. Per Victims' Commissioner Dame Vera Baird, “the level of prosecutions has got so low that what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape".
On International Women’s Day in 2011, the then Home Secretary Theresa May outlined an action plan to end Violence Against Women and Girls. This included a suite of training programmes and communications campaigns, additional funding for frontline services including rape crisis centres, and continued funding for the National Domestic Violence Helpline. “We are challenging, and where necessary working to change, attitudes and behaviours,” she said.
This promise aligned with a 20% real-term cut in Whitehall funding for police budgets during May’s tenure. Further, between 2009-10 and 2018-19, the Institute for Government estimated that the budget of the CPS was cut by 28% (after adjusting for inflation). An £85m funding boost in 2019 did little to reverse the crippling impact of reduced funding on our ability to properly assess cases and achieve justice.
The 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto spoke of a renewed commitment. “We have made protecting women and girls from violence and supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence a key priority,” it said, previewing the introduction of their Ending violence against women and girls strategy: 2016 to 2020.
The Rt Hon Member of Parliament for Maidenhead explained that “It is by listening and learning from those who know what is needed on the frontline – the victims and survivors, and those who provide them with support – that we will achieve sustainable and lasting change.”
At the point (2016-17) at which said strategy was launched, 2,991 suspects in cases where a rape had been alleged were convicted of rape or another crime. By 2019-20, this was more than halved to 1,439. In the same period, the percentage of victims (in England and Wales) withdrawing their support for cases rose from 42% to 57%.
In June of this year, the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, confessed that he was “deeply sorry” many victims had been denied justice “as a result of systemic failings” after years of austerity. The admission was long overdue, but not news to those of us who have pushed for meaningful action for years. We warned about the impact of cuts, and we pushed for wholesale reform. We got lip service. We got the disgustingly ill-advised – and now, mercifully, abandoned - ‘digital strip search’ of victims’ communications devices.
This is far from a one party failing, mind. Our appalling record on properly combatting VAWG at a cultural, societal and judicial level predates Cameron. It falls at the feet of successive governments. Though #MeToo and high-profile cases have sparked an urgent new wave of activism, the demands being made echo those of the Reclaim the Night protests in the 1970s.
Granted, there are those in Westminster, of all political hues, who have campaigned for more robust and survivor-centred change: Labour MPs like Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper and Conservative counterparts Maria Miller and Caroline Nokes. Some positive strides have been made by political outliers and activists, but these are in spite of wider political inaction and indifference. Gina Martin, for example, campaigned tirelessly for the introduction of the Voyeurism Act – commonly known as the ‘upskirting’ law. It need not have been so difficult.
There is an undeniable parallel between the lethargic and ineffective response of our policy maker and shapers, and how victims, and their cases, are handled by our justice system.
We are peppered with repeated platitudes and commitments of support, but then we continue to see a lack of proper consideration of victims in our approach. What does a good outcome look like for a victim of sexual harassment or violence?
We know that achieving formal justice by prosecuting perpetrators plays a part in this – but a 1% conviction rate does not provide much hope of resolution. Being believed in police interviews matters.
Having testimony heard in court swiftly matters. Seeing similar cases progress to court and conviction matters. Victims withdraw their support for cases because the process itself is so deeply flawed and the new strategy does little to rectify this.
Hope does exist. 180,000 people responded to the Home Office’s call for evidence to inform their VAWG strategy. Innovative law enforcement tools, such as crime linkage analysis, offer new pathways to better identify repeat offenders. Research continues to provide a robust evidence base for reforming how we handle memory evidence in our investigations.
But much of this is overlooked by another piecemeal approach that is anything but ‘radical’. I would love to be proven wrong, but fear this is just another in a litany of false dawns.