It’s not up to neighbours to look for signs of domestic abuse – the hidden coronavirus crisis

Daily Telegraph, Monday 30 March 2020

Staying at home for days on end is a new experience for many people. Some of us are getting to know neighbours for the first time, discovering a community spirit we’ve heard about from older generations – and now it appears we’re expected to police them as well. We’re being asked to look out for signs of domestic abuse, listen out for arguments and check for bruises when we glimpse neighbours over the garden all.

The call comes from a leading light in the Local Government Association, the organisation that represents councils in England, and is a response to fears that the coronavirus lockdown has already prompted an increase in incidents. It’s a well-known fact that reports of abuse shoot up over Christmas and the summer holidays when angry, impulsive men find themselves at home with their families. MPs and campaigners fear it will be much worse if women are shut up with abusive men for weeks because of COVID-19 but government ministers, who ordered the lockdown, has taken no steps to protect them.

Enter Cllr Simon Blackburn, who chairs the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board. ‘Tackling domestic abuse is an issue that councils take extremely seriously and we are all too aware that vulnerable people may be affected due to the impact of the coronavirus response,’ he says. He is asking neighbours to watch out for rows,  shouting and signs of controlling behaviour, always assuming they know what to look for.

No doubt his intervention is well-meant, but it’s fraught with problems. How many ordinary people could describe coercive control or know how to spot it, especially at a time when we’re supposed to be limiting contact with people outside our own households? Most police officers certainly don’t, judging by the low number of prosecutions that have been brought since it became a criminal offence in 2015.

Of course neighbours should call the police if they hear screams or sounds of violence from next door. But many people will already be consumed by their own problems, whether it’s how to pay the rent or having to isolate because someone in the family has symptoms of COVID-19. And if they do spot abuse and report it, no extra resources have been given either to the police or women’s refuges to deal with the expected surge in domestic violence.

Make no mistake about it, this is a growing scandal. A number of police forces are already reporting an increase in reported incidents, including in Somerset and Avon where there was a 20.9 per cent increase over the last couple of weeks. In South Wales, a man has been charged with murder after Ruth Williams, 67, was found unresponsive at her home in Cwmbran on Saturday morning. She later died in hospital.

It isn’t as though Boris Johnson’s all-male ‘war cabinet’ of ministers hasn’t been warned. A former home secretary, Amber Rudd, rightly complained about the exclusion of women from the inner circle of decision-makers, to no effect. Ministers know perfectly well what the risks are, admitting as much in a mealy-mouthed message at the weekend.

‘The government acknowledges that the order to stay at home can cause anxiety for those who are experiencing or feel at risk of domestic abuse,’ it says, before going on to direct victims to existing services, such as women’s refuges, which were unable to cope with demand before the pandemic. Advice that victims should dial 999 also raises questions about whether the police, whose numbers are rapidly being depleted by sickness and the need to self-isolate, have anything like the numbers needed to respond to a sharp increase in what is already an incredibly common crime.

Common but by no means universally condemned, as we were reminded at the weekend. What on earth possessed a boxer and self-professed Christian, Billy Joe Saunders, to make a video of himself showing men how to beat up female relatives during lockdown? The advice was to be used ‘if your old woman is giving you mouth’, Saunders said, invoking a deservedly forgotten era of Andy Capp cartoon strips. The WBO Super Middleweight Champion, who is clearly not so super after all, has now been suspended by the Boxing Board of Control until a future hearing.

The harsh truth is that women are paying the price for years of neglect of a serious and pervasive offence. It is frankly astonishing that a crime that affects 1.6m women each year, according to the Office of National Statistics, is so far back in the queue when it comes to attention, public outrage and resources.

Pleas to neighbours and people who work in shops like pharmacies to look out for signs of domestic abuse are little more than a sticking-plaster. They speak volumes about the government’s priorities – and what happens when women are excluded from life-or-death decisions during a national emergency.

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