I’m sick of living in a culture that tolerates violence against women

The Guardian, Wednesday 7 September 2016

The level of denial about this epidemic is staggering. A society that genuinely valued female equality would acknowledge the hateful truth

It’s always there, isn’t it? Most of us don’t like it, but what can we actually do about gender-based violence? Sure, the figures are terrible – violent crimes against women in England and Wales reached record levels last year – but they’ve been going up for ages. Rape and domestic violence are the new poor, always with us no matter how much we wish it were otherwise.

If that sounds cynical, it’s because I’m sick of a glaring disconnect at the heart of our culture. The criminal justice system is struggling to cope with the number of women coming forward with terrible stories of rape, beatings and – a relatively new one, this – online forms of abuse such as revenge porn.

The annual report of the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, told exactly this story when it was published earlier this week. Offences against women, including domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, rose by almost 10% in 2015-16. Stalking prosecutions were up by 7.1%, child sex prosecutions by 15.4% and there were a record number (4,643) of rape prosecutions.

Cue a great deal of hand-wringing and a weary sense that perhaps violence against women, while regrettable, is inevitable. Just think of all the training, initiatives and public awareness work that’s been done in recent years, yet the picture just keeps on getting worse. Is there really anything that someone – police, prosecutors, legislators – hasn’t already thought of and tried?

There is, but it requires a dramatic shift in public attitudes. How many times have you heard people express sympathy with a man on trial for rape, asking why the victim had had so much to drink or agreed to go back to his hotel room? Public understanding of the law relating to consent is woefully lacking, and there is a persistent tendency to view women’s behaviour much more critically than that of the men who commit even violent assaults.

The same unthinking callousness is shown to victims of domestic abuse, who are often criticised for staying with violent partners even when they have nowhere else to live. There are nothing like enough safe places for victims, a situation that’s going to get even worse when a housing benefit cap hits refuges in 2018.

If we are to change the dire situation revealed in annual crime statistics, there has to be an end to a culture of suspicion, denial and victim-blaming. Sometimes I think we’re making progress but every apparent advance is quickly followed by a return to the status quo. Three months ago, after the horrific killing of the Labour MP Jo Cox, there was an outpouring of shock and sympathy. That consensus didn’t last long. When other female Labour MPs talked publicly about receiving rape and death threats, some people went on social networking sites to mock them. They even laughed at Jess Phillips when she posted photographs of a locksmith fixing stronger locks at the home she shares with her children.

The attitude that being threatened with sexual violence is just another hazard of the job seems to be widely held, with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, telling his female colleagues to ignore it. When even the leader of the opposition cannot correctly identify a gender-specific form of abuse, we have reached a startling level of denial.

But that is exactly where we are, as I was reminded on the Sunday morning after Cox’s killing. I was taking part in a BBC TV programme that began by discussing the attack on Cox and then moved on to a call by several public figures, including Sir Cliff Richard, for anonymity for men accused of serious sexual offences. Another of the guests immediately began to talk about false rape accusations, as though the biggest problem we face is the number of men being wrongly accused.

This claim was debunked by research published by Keir Starmer, Saunders’s predecessor as DPP. Yet in no time at all we had moved from talking about women as victims of horrendous violence to the idea that they make untrustworthy witnesses. There is nothing unusual about that, sadly, but such assumptions cannot be ignored when we look at the shockingly low rate of convictions in rape cases.

According to the DPP’s latest report, just over half of rape prosecutions ended in a conviction last year. That means that fewer than 3,000 men were found guilty in the whole of England and Wales, yet almost 6,000 women reported rapes to the police in London alone. The vast majority are telling the truth but few will ever see their attacker in a courtroom.

Violence against women is at epidemic proportions. Some of it is driven by technology but the biggest problem by far is tolerance. A society genuinely committed to gender equality wouldn’t put up with this situation for a moment.

Should Keith Vaz step down as chair of the home affairs committee?

The Guardian, Monday 5 September 2016

Joan Smith: ‘It’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest’

Public attitudes to prostitution are changing. In Sweden, where what’s known as the Nordic model of prostitution policy was first introduced, a majority of the public now regards paying for sex as a form of abuse. Women and men who sell sex no longer face criminal sanctions but, crucially, people who buy it do.

In this country, we still have out-of-date laws that criminalise vulnerable individuals who are in reality victims of a vast commercial sex industry. That’s one of the reasons why many of us would like to see a sex buyers’ law introduced in the UK, forcing men who drive this trade (and it is mostly men) to face up to their responsibilities.

The Labour MP Keith Vaz chairs a powerful House of Commons committee that has been holding an inquiry into this key area of public policy. It has heard evidence from a number of organisations that support the Nordic model, yet no one knew that a change in the law may – if the allegations in the Sunday Mirror are true – affect the committee’s chair directly.

That’s why these claims, no matter how luridly they have been presented, are in a different category from other stories exposing the private activities of well-known people. To take a recent example, the argument for publishing details of the sexual relationships of the former culture secretary, John Whittingdale, was undermined by the fact that there was no clear evidence they had affected the way he did his job.

Vaz’s situation is very different from Whittingdale’s. To put it bluntly, he appears to have chaired hearings where campaigners proposed a change in the law that could, in theory, turn his own private behaviour into a criminal offence. This is jaw-dropping stuff, and it’s hard to think of a more blatant conflict of interest.

Real-life Helen Archers aren’t getting the protection they need. It’s shameful

Daily Telegraph, 4 September 2016

It’s fictional, of course, but the trial of the year is about to begin. Millions of Radio 4 listeners will be glued to this week’s episodes of The Archers when Helen Titchener appears in court, charged with the attempted murder of her abusive husband, Rob. Helen’s liberty – and the future welfare of her two sons – depends on the verdict in the trial, which has created a lively national conversation about domestic abuse.

Back in April, fans of the series heard Rob taunt Helen as she tried to leave him. He was so confident he had destroyed every vestige of his wife’s independence and self-respect that he even put a knife in her hand, never believing she would use it. Helen’s barrister, Anna Tregorren, will argue that she stabbed Rob to defend herself and her young son, Henry, but the case hinges on the jury’s understanding of a specific and poorly-understood form of domestic abuse.

Coercive control became a criminal offence at the end of last year. Helen Titchener has shown the classic symptoms of a woman who’s been subjected to it, even while she’s been awaiting trial in a mother-and-baby unit. She has given every appearance of still being under her husband’s control, blaming herself for the breakdown of her marriage and displaying rock-bottom self-esteem. Listeners and members of The Archers cast have felt growing frustration as she refused to reveal the extent of what she suffered at Rob’s hands – including being raped – to her lawyer.

This is far from unusual in this form of abuse, which leaves few physical marks but has devastating effects on victims. It involves a sustained campaign to take away a woman’s autonomy, isolating her from friends and family; perpetrators control access to money, humiliate their victims with callous remarks, and may even go as far as putting tracking devices on mobile phones or cars. Sometimes, as in Helen’s case, it’s the prelude to actual violence, laying the ground so the victim is too cowed to seek help from outsiders.

The new law is based on a realisation that domestic abuse is usually a long series of incidents, not a single outburst of violence. It’s a belated recognition that police officers need to look at a pattern of behaviour if they’re going to identify and charge perpetrators.

Yet figures which have just been published suggest that real-life Helens are not getting the protection they need – or seeing their abusers taken to court. The law on coercive control was used only 62 times in the six months after it came into operation, with some police forces failing to charge a single individual with the offence.

Twenty-two forces in England and Wales responded to a Freedom of Information request from a law firm, and eight admitted that they had not brought a single prosecution. Nine, including Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, had used the law twice or less. A spokeswoman for Northamptonshire police, which has not prosecuted anyone, said its officers had undergone ‘comprehensive training’ in coercive control but “it will obviously take time to see successful prosecutions move through the system.”

Experts in the field say that coercive control is one of the most common forms of abuse. “Sadly, Helen’s experiences mirror what so many abused women feel and experience every day”, says Sandra Horley, chief executive of charity Refuge. “She has been manipulated and controlled by a violent perpetrator”.

The widespread failure to use the new law is all the more disappointing because we are in the midst of an epidemic of domestic abuse, with the Office for National Statistics estimating that 1.4m women became victims in the year 2013-14. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents in London alone last year, including 28 domestic murders.

In recent years, while Theresa May was Home Secretary, the police have been given significant new powers to deal with this shameful situation. In March 2014, domestic violence protection orders and notices were introduced, allowing senior police officers and magistrates to put in place measures (including evictions) to protect women in cases where there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Home Office data suggests they are not being used anything like often enough, with only 71 being authorised in the whole of London in the final two months of 2014.

In May this year, when she was still at the Home Office, May lambasted the police for continuing to fail victims of domestic violence. She said some things had improved since she ordered a review in 2013 but victims of abuse ‘are still being let down and reports are not being taken seriously enough’.

Clearly she’s right. In fact, it seems as though the producers of a BBC radio soap – and the thousands of people who have raised more than £150,000 for the charity Refuge in response to The Archers storyline – have a more sophisticated grasp of domestic abuse than some police forces.

Whatever happens next in Helen’s no doubt memorable fictional trial, we still have a very real problem on our hands. We can’t afford to forget it.

Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

Something rotten at the police academy

Sunday Times, 4 September 2016

The best-selling crime writer Louise Penny made her name with a series of novels set in the French-Canadian province of Quebec. Now her wise and popular detective, Chief Inspector Gamache, has decided to give up solving murder to train the next generation of investigators. It’s a desk job, but the opening chapters of A Great Reckoning (Sphere £19.99) hint that something is rotten at the Surete Academy on the South Shore of Montreal.

The older students are sullen and unreceptive. The first-years are already dividing into factions. When a controversial member of staff is murdered, Gamache wonders if his undercover mission to clean up the Academy has gone horribly wrong. One of the few clues left by the killer is an old map of the village where Gamache lives, which he handed out to a small group of students as an exercise in detection. Penny’s elliptical style works brilliantly in a novel that combines modern-day police corruption with a century-old tragedy.

Jo Spain’s second novel, Beneath The Surface (Quercus £12.99), opens with a murder in Leinster House, seat of the Irish parliament. The victim is Ryan Finnegan, an aide to a government minister, who has just returned to work after a serious car accident. The novel is a follow-up to With Our Blessings, Spain’s widely-praised debut which featured the notorious Magdalene laundries, but now her detectives have to deal with suspects at the highest level in government. She deftly mixes up political and personal motives, forcing her characters to look behind the public face of powerful people.

Chan Ho-Kei lives in Hong Kong, where The Borrowed (Head of Zeus £18.99), translated by Jeremy Tiang, is set. This unusual collection of linked stories spans more than four decades, each of them set at a significant date in Hong Kong’s history. The book opens with the main character, Inspector Kwan, on his death bed in hospital, surrounded by the suspects in a murder case; faced with a demonstration of the dying policeman’s apparently supernatural powers, one of the credulous onlookers is shocked into a confession. The rest of the book unravels some of his most significant cases, showing Kwan as an old-fashioned omniscient (and not entirely likeable) detective.

Lin Anderson’s None But The Dead (Macmillan £12.99) is the latest novel in her long-running series featuring forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. She is usually based in Glasgow but a macabre find – a woman’s skeleton buried under the old school playground – brings her to the Orkney island of Sanday. The remains date back to the Second World War but the discovery creates a conflict of loyalties on the island, where the local police force is compromised by family connections.

One of the pleasures of Anderson’s novels is a cast of characters who feel like old friends, including her long-time sidekick, DS Michael McNab. He manages to get himself despatched to Sanday, reuniting the old team, just as the discovery of the skeletal remains prompts more violence. The bleak landscape is beautifully described, giving this popular series a new lease of life.