Diary note

This week, Tuesday 6 February 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of British women (those over 30 at least) getting the vote. I talked about the anniversary and the tactics of the suffragettes on Jeremy Vine’s lunchtime programme on Radio 2. I still find it hard to read about how brutally the state treated women who were demanding a fundamental civic right – and it was great to see the anniversary celebrated so widely.

 

In a dark and dangerous forest

Sunday Times, 28 January 2018

Force of Nature, Jane Harper (Little, Brown £12.99)

A woman vanishes in the bush in the impressive second novel from the author of The Dry

It is only a year since Jane Harper’s first crime novel, The Dry, was published in the UK to instant acclaim. The story, of an apparent murder-suicide in an isolated Australian community ravaged by drought, was a reminder of how harsh life can be outside the country’s cosmopolitan cities. It was my Sunday Times book of the month and went on to become a bestseller, winning the CWA Gold Dagger in addition to the awards Harper had already won in Australia.

For her second novel, Force of Nature, she has returned to the severe, unforgiving territory of the bush — and it is even more impressive than The Dry. Where the first novel presented a landscape desiccated by years without rain, the new book has too much of it, and Harper handles several plot lines with apparently effortless confidence.

It is set in a fictional nature reserve outside Melbourne, popular with executives in search of a corporate bonding experience. Five women set out on a camping trip, but only four of them emerge from the reserve, bruised and traumatised. The fifth woman, Alice Russell, is missing and a huge search begins.

It is a clever twist on the traditional locked-room mystery, set in a forest as alien and hostile as anything in a fairy tale. But it is done in a thoroughly modern manner, with alternating chapters documenting the increasingly frantic search and the women’s accident-prone trek. Harper makes it look easy, but she has to pace two narratives without giving too much away, creating an almost unbearable level of suspense.

Her success has taken Australia by storm, all the more so because even hugely popular Australian crime writers, such as Peter Temple, Kathryn Fox and Garry Disher, have struggled to make an impression beyond their home country. So it’s ironic that Harper, who is being hailed as the next big thing in Australian crime fiction, isn’t even a local.

She was born in Manchester and moved to Melbourne, where she now lives, at the age of eight. Her family returned to England when Harper was a teenager and she trained as a journalist, landing a job in Hull. She didn’t return to Australia until 2008, arriving at the Geelong Advertiser at the end of a prolonged drought, where the fire-ravaged landscape planted the seeds of The Dry.

There is a precedent for English authors finding themes and inspiration in Australia. Nevil Shute, the British aeronautical engineer who wrote some of the most quintessential “Australian” novels of the mid-20th century, didn’t move to his adopted country until he was in his early fifties. Many readers formed their impression of the continent through Shute novels such as A Town Like Alice and On the Beach.

Harper is a more sophisticated writer than Shute, and Force of Nature showcases her ear for dialogue, exposing hierarchies of class through speech. It is also more character-driven than The Dry, pulling no punches as the veneer of civilised behaviour is stripped from the women, who bicker among themselves as they wander through the dense, dripping trees.

Harper has wisely brought back Aaron Falk, the detective who almost lost his life in The Dry, but this time he is involved in an official capacity. In the earlier book, Falk returned to his home town for a funeral and was drawn into an unofficial investigation in an attempt to clear the name of a childhood friend. This time, he has a professional interest in the missing woman, Alice, who has been secretly passing him documents exposing money-laundering at the accountancy firm where she works.

Falk rushes from Melbourne to join the search, gripped by the fear that his investigation has put her in danger. Her fellow-hikers include the CEO’s sister, who has everything to lose if the company goes under, and the only clue to Alice’s fate is a faint voicemail left on his mobile phone in the early hours of the morning. But it is also clear that the little group was woefully unprepared for the trip.

Harper’s work has been compared to that of Disher, whose acclaimed Bitter Wash Road (2013) is set in an inward-looking community not unlike the fictional Kiewarra in The Dry. But Harper is enough of an outsider to realise that the Australia she is writing about is unfamiliar even to many Australians, a point underscored by the reaction of her female characters when they have to spend a couple of nights in the bush.

They are descendants of European settlers, cocooned in coastal cities that protect them from the extremes of climate that lie a few miles inland. Nature is a hostile, unpredictable force in both of Harper’s novels, but her brilliance lies in making it into a test of horribly fallible human nature.

Theresa May should order an urgent inquiry into the Worboys case

Daily Telegraph, Friday 19 January 2018

For many women, the UK’s criminal justice system is now on trial. The government’s decision not to challenge the release of one of the country’s most prolific sex attackers, the black-cab rapist John Worboys, has added insult to an already simmering sense of injury.

Today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, means it has been left to two of Worboys’ victims to make a last-ditch effort to prevent his release from Wakefield high security prison in a matter of weeks.

Gauke said he owed it to the victims to pursue all the options available to him – but told the House of Commons he could not reveal the detailed reasons behind his decision not to seek a judicial review.

The Worboys case is unusual in many respects, not least because the number of his victims is so high. He is believed to have assaulted more than a hundred women, picking them up in his black cab and drugging them in a series of pre-meditated attacks.

But Worboys isn’t just a predator who has repeatedly shown himself to be dangerous to women. Among many special features of this awful case, he is a former taxi driver who knows where some of his victims live. That alone is reason to ask whether it can ever be safe to release him – or is every single one of his victims expected to move?

Two of his victims, identified only by initials to protect their identity, are hoping to crowd-fund a judicial review of the parole board’s decision. Judicial reviews are expensive, which is why many people hoped and expected that ministers would challenge the parole board’s decision.

The sense of outrage from victims, their lawyers and the general public, is palpable. ‘It is crucial that the decision to release this manipulative, calculating and dangerous man can be considered by the courts as soon as possible,’ said Richard Scorer, a lawyer at the firm which represented 11 of Worboys’ victims.

He is absolutely right, but why should it be left to individual women, who have already been let down by blunders going back years, to protect themselves and other women?

The mistakes started a long time ago, when police officers in London didn’t believe women who said they’d been drugged and attacked by the driver of a black cab. When Worboys was finally caught, many more women came forward with similar stories – but the crown prosecution service decided to proceed with only a dozen cases.

That decision seems to have been based on the fact that Worboys drugged his victims, making their cases more difficult to prosecute, but it has had unforeseen – and disastrous – consequences. Victims who wanted to give evidence were told there was no need because Worboys was going to prison for a very long time – an assurance that now turns out to have been misguided.

Worboys was convicted of 19 offences against 12 victims and jailed indefinitely in 2009, with a minimum sentence of eight years. Earlier this month the parole board, basing its decision on Worboys’s relatively small number of convictions, decided it was safe to recommend his release. He has served less than ten years, which amounts to only a month for each of his alleged victims.

Scorer says it is ‘imperative’ that the failure to prosecute more cases against Worboys is re-examined. Some of his victims, whose lives were shattered by his violence and who remain in fear of him to this day, learned about his impending release from the news headlines.

This catalogue of errors would be bad enough in almost any area of the criminal law. In the case of an offender as persistent and devious as Worboys, it almost beggars belief. The decision to release him became public just days after it emerged that a man who pleaded guilty to the murder of his former partner had previously killed two other women. No one should be surprised if public confidence in the ability of the law to protect women from manifestly dangerous men is at an all-time low.

It is now clear that something has gone badly wrong at every stage of the Worboys case, from the botched initial investigation to the behind-closed-doors deliberations of the parole board. We are not allowed to know why the board thinks Worboys no longer poses a threat to women – and his victims will have to rely on assurances about his licence conditions. In the case of such a persistent, systematic predator, it is hard to see how they can ever feel safe.

After initially appearing sympathetic to public outrage, the government has held up its hands and left victims on their own to fight against Worboys’ release. They have raised more than £17,000 so far, with more cash likely to be promised now that ministers have walked away from the case. We should be grateful to these brave women for taking action, since the government won’t.

But the prime minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly spoken about her commitment to reducing violence against women. If she means what she says, she should immediately order a public inquiry into every aspect of this truly appalling case.

 

Why don’t the police do more to assess risk – and save women’s lives?

Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018

Katrina O’Hara and Angela Best did not know each other. They lived in different parts of England and had nothing in common, except for this dreadful fact: both women were murdered by former partners. And each of them, as we’ve learned in the last few days,  was let down by a system that keeps on failing to protect women from dangerous men.

Ms O’Hara, 44, reported her ex-boyfriend, Stuart Thomas, to the police after he harassed her, including an incident when he climbed into her bedroom through a window. Thomas was arrested and freed on bail but, astonishingly, the police took away Ms O’Hara’s mobile phone to check for threatening messages and didn’t offer her any alternative means of contacting them.

A week later, in January 2016, Thomas lay in wait outside the hairdressers in Dorset where Ms O’Hara worked and stabbed her twice in the chest.

Ms Best, 51, lived in north London and had a long-term relationship with a man called Theodore Johnson. When she met him in the 1990s, she was unaware of a crucial fact – that Johnson had twice been convicted of manslaughter after killing two previous partners. Ms Best eventually found out that he had killed one woman but Johnson was abusive and controlling, making it difficult for her to leave. When she did, Johnson lured her to his flat a couple of months later in December 2016 and strangled her, just as he had done to his second victim.

So many things went wrong in these two cases that it is hard to know where to start. A review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct has acknowledged that Ms O’Hara was left feeling ‘afraid and vulnerable’ without her phone. It has recommended that all victims of domestic abuse should ‘immediately’ be provided with alternative means of communication.

But the really disturbing thing about both cases is that both men had a history of abuse in previous relationships. Thomas was already the subject of a restraining order in relation to another woman, while Johnson’s record of extreme violence was known to both the police and mental health authorities. The latter were supposed to monitor him on his release from a secure hospital after he killed for a second time, but it emerged at his murder trial last week that he managed to conceal his relationship with Ms Best from them.

Something has gone very wrong here, and it goes to the heart of how the criminal justice system regards domestic abuse. The phrase covers a huge range of behaviour, from verbal threats to physical violence, and it’s still too easy for over-worked police officers to under-estimate the level of risk in individual cases. In some instances, this happens even when they have access to information about a man’s history which isn’t known to his latest victim, leaving her unaware of how much danger she is in.

‘I tell my officers to think about their job as homicide prevention,’ a senior police officer in charge of domestic abuse cases told me a couple of years ago. But that attitude is taking too long to filter down to the level of everyday policing, where the days of talking about violence in the home as ‘just a domestic’ cast a long shadow.

Since 2014, police have been able to apply for a domestic violence prevention order (DVPO), which means a man accused of violence against a partner can be excluded from the home and contact with the victim for up to 28 days. But DVPOs are not being widely used and neither is Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police if a new partner has a history of domestic abuse. Even abusive men are smart enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and women feel guilty about asking questions about a man who hasn’t given any reason for suspicion.

That’s why we urgently need a domestic violence offenders’ register, along the lines of the one that already exists for sex offenders. A new law would give the police a legal duty to keep track of convicted abusers like Theodore Johnson, investigate whether they have formed new relationships and warn the women concerned. If Ms Best had known about Johnson’s terrible past when she met him in the 1990s, she might still be alive today.

What these dreadful cases show is that we are still not treating domestic abuse with the seriousness it deserves. Existing laws aren’t working or aren’t being used, and that’s because of a problem with underlying attitudes. No one, including police officers, can know for certain which women are at risk of being killed by current or former partners. But the risk is there, and it should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when women seek protection from abusive men.