Is domestic violence really decreasing? Hold on a minute

Daily Telegraph, Friday 24 November 2017

Domestic abuse is seldom out of the headlines these days. It is talked about more openly than ever before – yet the latest crime survey suggests that the number of victims is at a 10-year low.

That isn’t the experience of organisations that work with victims, who are facing unprecedented levels of demand at a moment when public funding is being slashed. So what is actually going on here? Has the increased publicity really coincided with a decline in the prevalence of abusive relationships?

The first thing to say is that the round figure is still jaw-dropping – 1.9m victims, according to figures published on Thursday. But it has been going down since a peak of 2.8m in 2005/6, and the gender gap between male and female victims appears to be closing.

One reason for the discrepancy is that the figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics are estimates. They’re based on answers to questions in the Crime Survey for England and Wales – and experts agree that domestic abuse is widely under-reported. Crucially, this year’s estimates do not include the new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, which came into effect in 2015.

New questions were introduced in April this year to reflect current definitions of what constitutes domestic abuse, but the responses won’t be reflected in the survey until next year – making an under-estimate of current levels of abuse highly likely.

Experts believe that the nature of domestic abuse is changing, possibly because there is now more overt disapproval of physical violence; relatives, friends and colleagues are more likely to ask about cuts and bruises than they were a few years ago.

At the same time, abusive men are now able to use technology to control their partners, using everything from tracking devices on mobile phones to the threat of publishing sexually explicit photos and videos. Other sophisticated forms of abuse, such as forcing the victim to have her salary paid direct into the abuser’s bank account, will only start to show up in the crime survey from next year.

There have been horrific instances of these kinds of abuse, including a recent court case where a woman discovered videos on her husband’s phone which showed him raping her while she was asleep. Anecdotal evidence suggests that men are more likely to use technology in this way, which will affect the gender gap between male and female victims.

Estimates of the number of male and female victims have narrowed in recent years – it currently stands at 713,000 men to 1.2m women – but inclusion of questions about coercive control are expected to reverse the trend. It is already out of step with crime statistics recorded by the country’s biggest police force, the Metropolitan police, which suggest that three out of four victims of domestic abuse are female.

National crime figures, as opposed to estimates, are hard to establish because they are recorded by 43 individual police forces in England and Wales. But the London figures are available and they don’t show a downward trend. Almost 145,000 incidents of domestic abuse were recorded by the police in the 12 months up to September this year, a modest increase of 1.6 per cent over the previous year. But the overall trend is dramatically upwards – back in 2012, the figure was just over 118,000.

Not all incidents of domestic abuse are recorded as crimes – the figure is about half nationally – but the same pattern emerges if we look at actual offences recorded by the police in London. They’ve risen from 46,393 four years ago to 76,297 – and almost a third involve physical injuries.

Growing awareness of the extent of domestic abuse has led to the police being given a raft of new laws and powers. New offences outlawing coercive control have been accompanied by domestic abuse prevention orders, which allow the police to protect victims by removing perpetrators from the home. But they are not being used as widely as expected, highlighting the contradiction that underlies government policy.

The prime minister, Theresa May, began introducing new laws to tackle domestic abuse when she was Home Secretary. No one doubts her commitment to victims but she has presided over the most dramatic cuts in police numbers in living memory.

Bringing in new laws is laudable. But they will only work if the police have sufficient numbers to investigate perpetrators’ bank accounts, mobile phones and social media platforms. Crime commissioners, including the Mayor of London, warn that resources are being stretched to breaking point.

Ministers often cite crime surveys to justify unpopular policies, but many experts are unconvinced that levels of domestic abuse are falling. New questions about coercive control may mean that next year’s crime survey looks very different – and that would be bad news for a prime minister with a very public commitment to tackling domestic abuse.

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