Humiliation isn’t the real reason why ex-Cameron aide Patrick Rock walked free from court

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 2 June 2016

In the last few years, we have discovered the grim truth that too many adult men have an unhealthy interest in children. They like looking at picture of girls who are still at school and too young to have sex, and the internet has made it easier than ever to get hold of such images. One of those men, it turns out, is called Patrick Rock, and until he was arrested a couple of years ago he worked for David Cameron.

Rock, who is 65, has now been found guilty of downloading indecent images of girls as young as 10 after a trial at Southwark Crown Court. He was convicted in relation to five images of girls aged between 10 and 14 in sexual poses, after denying child porn offences. They were among 20 images he downloaded onto his iPad over several days in August 2013 – this was no momentary lapse, in other words. Rock was acquitted of three other counts and the jury was discharged after being unable to agree on a further 12, which will lie on file.

The judge, Alistair McCreath, told Rock he was complicit in the sexual exploitation of the girls – and gave him a two-year conditional discharge on each count, to run concurrently. He must also register as a sex offender.

Have I missed something here? Rock was brought into Downing Street five years ago by Cameron, who appointed him deputy director of policy. He had previously been an advisor to the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, where one of his tasks was working on policy to protect children from sexual abuse on the internet.

Let’s be clear about what this means: a man once trusted by Government ministers to think about how to protect children on the internet – and who is therefore more aware than most of the damage it inflicts – decided to download pictures of under-age girls in bikinis and hot pants. The judge in the case was in no doubt that Rock posed a threat to such young girls, imposing a sexual harm prevention order for two years.

This means that Rock is prohibited from using any device capable of accessing the internet, unless it also has the capacity to retain and display the user history, while any device he uses must also be available for inspection on request by a police officer. That doesn’t suggest McCreath believes Rock can be trusted.

What’s even more extraordinary about this case is that Rock will have to register as sex offender for two years, which hardly suggests his offences are trivial enough to deserve no more than a slap on the wrist. “The punishment for you is the loss of your reputation and your very public humiliation,” the judge told Rock. “It is a punishment which you brought on yourself but it is nonetheless a very real one.”

But is it? Loss of reputation is something many convicted offenders suffer but it is usually regarded as a side-effect, not a punishment in itself. As well as being unduly lenient, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sentence was influenced by his former public position, and the notion that high-flyers have more to lose. What would have happened to a regular civilian who downloaded sexualised pictures of young girls? Would they have got away with a non-custodial sentence?

What this case is really about is the willingness of adult men to exploit children, regardless of the damage it does. The youngest of the girls in the pictures was aged 10 years and four months when Rock downloaded her picture, which meant she was even younger when it was taken.

Indecent images exist because men like Rock create a demand for them, and the judge’s argument that the girls were not actually naked doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the offences. It is treating under-age girls as sex objects that does the damage, regardless of what they are wearing.

The case raises questions about how seriously some elements of the criminal justice system regard the sexual abuse of children. Child sexual exploitation is a growing problem and even if Rock’s offences were at the lower end of the spectrum, they risk sending a message to other men that such behaviour – ‘just’ looking at under-age girls in sexual poses – is acceptable.

Not so long ago, Rock was entrusted by ministers with the job of trying to put a stop to other men doing exactly what he has now been convicted of. It is hard to imagine a greater breach of trust, either towards the government or the vulnerable children he was supposed to protect. It is simply inexplicable that this man – now a convicted sex offender – won’t spend a single night in prison.


The Goddard inquiry shows we need a public inquiry into rape

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 19 May 2016

At first sight, the figures are jaw-dropping: police in England and Wales are preparing to deal with 30,000 new cases of child sexual abuse. Reports are being passed to the police at a rate of 100 a month by the Goddard inquiry, which was set up after the exposure of Jimmy Savile. One senior officer told the Guardian he predicts that police will be investigating 200,000 cases across the country by 2020.

Some critics will regard these figures with scepticism, pointing to the botched inquiry into allegations of historical sexual abuse against a number of public figures, which has now been wound up. But the mishandling of that investigation does not mean we can ignore a mounting body of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse is much greater than most people ever suspected.

The figure of 30,000 comes from Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and head of the national coordinating unit, Operation Hydrant, which is handling reports passed on by the Goddard inquiry. Justice Lowell Goddard is in charge of 13 investigations involving a number of institutions, including the Church, Westminster, the borough of Lambeth and a detention centre in Durham, along with allegations of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Devon, Cornwall, Oxford and Rotherham.

Two thousand victims have already contacted the Goddard inquiry and 600 have said they are willing to speak to its ‘truth project’, which was set up hear detailed testimony of childhood abuse. Bailey says he is surprised and shocked by the extent of the abuse being exposed. He’s right – we should never lose our capacity to be shocked by crimes against the most vulnerable individuals in society. But this is not the first indication that the scale of child sexual abuse has been hidden from sight for decades.

In November last year, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, published a report which estimated there were between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England between April 2012 and March 2014. The NSPCC estimates that for every child known to be in need of protection from abuse, another eight are suffering in silence.

This is a very dark picture of childhood and it is not surprising that some people are reluctant to acknowledge it. But two things have come together to tear away the veil of secrecy. Operation Yewtree, the inquiry which uncovered the staggering extent of Savile’s crimes, concluded that he had targeted 450 victims and committed more than 30 rapes.

At the same times, the activities of gangs of men who sexually exploited under-age girls have been exposed in Rotherham, Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns. None of these problems was even on the radar 10 years ago, and a handful of people who told the police they had been assaulted by Savile or tried to expose ‘grooming’ gangs were ignored.

The idea that there is a pool of thousands of victims of child sexual abuse up and down the country is all too plausible, I’m afraid. In London, senior officers are already contemplating the possibility that they may have to handle as many as 15,000 new cases as a direct result of the Goddard inquiry.

But the implications for victims and the criminal justice system are even wider. Child sexual abuse is not the only crime that has been vastly under-reported for decades; senior police officers believe that only one in five rapes is ever reported, and the same is likely to be true of serious sexual assaults. More women are going to the police than ever before, but low conviction rates and lack of confidence in the prosecution process still deter many victims.

They are more likely to contact a rape crisis line to ask for advice and support, and organisations that work with victims see many more women and girls than the police. They have argued for years that most rapists get away with their crimes, creating a pool of women who never see their attackers punished.

In London, almost 16,000 sexual offences were reported to the police last year, along with 5,410 rapes. If those figures represent only a fifth of the total, the true picture is likely to be very different: more like 80,000 sexual assaults and 27,000 rapes. The true number of rape victims in London alone each year is probably around the size of a small town, while a staggering number of perpetrators are walking around, free to commit further offences.

Like the failure over many years to properly investigate child sexual abuse, this is nothing short of a scandal. The Goddard inquiry is finally beginning to make amends to children for years of neglect, but what it is uncovering applies just as much to adult victims of rape and sexual assault. The time for a public inquiry into how those cases are investigated is long overdue.


My mother’s treatment in hospital opened my eyes to a policy of shameful neglect

No one consulted me when my 89-year-old mother was discharged from hospital. The NHS ombudsman’s report shows this is happening all over Britain

The Guardian, Thursday 12 May 2016

The first shock came when I found out my mother was dying. The second was when I discovered that she had been discharged from hospital without my knowledge. My mother was 89, and had dementia, lung cancer and secondary tumours on the brain. I had pleaded with the hospital not to take any decisions without first speaking to me, but they ignored me, as they had done since she was admitted as an emergency six days earlier.

What happened to my mother is far from unusual, I’m sorry to say. Elderly people are being discharged from hospital too soon, according to an excoriating report from Dame Julie Mellor, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman. It describes the experience of nine patients and their families in harrowing detail, including the case of a woman in her 90s who collapsed and died in her granddaughter’s arms after doctors failed to diagnose an infection and sent her home. Dame Julie says these cases represent only a fraction of the total number.

Last year the ombudsman investigated 221 complaints about patients being discharged too early. I am one of the people who complained. The ombudsman upheld several of my complaints against the NHS trust that runs the hospital, listing a series of failures in communication with my family. The report on my mother’s care, which was written jointly with the local government ombudsman, also criticised social services for failing to ensure that proper care plans were drawn up when my mother was admitted to a care home, seven months before her death.

I was relieved when I read the ombudsman’s conclusions, hoping the recommendations might protect other elderly people from the catalogue of errors that affected my mother in the final weeks of her life. A key finding was that hospital records incorrectly recorded that she lived in a nursing home that had the facilities to look after her. She did not, and the staff of the care home were alarmed when she arrived back from hospital without a proper discharge letter. The paramedic who pushed her into the home in a wheelchair – she was too frail to walk – said that in his opinion she should not have been discharged from hospital.

If you have not been through the gruelling process of trying to get proper care for an elderly relative, the errors around my mother’s discharge might not sound significant. But they go to the heart of the problem identified in Dame Julie’s report, which is that hospitals are sending people home without establishing what kind of care and support is available. Sometimes that results in someone who is confused and frightened being left in a flat or house entirely on their own. That is what happened to an 85-year-old woman with dementia who was sent home at 11pm and then discovered by her daughter the following morning with no food, drink or bedding.

In my mother’s case, her complex medical needs meant that her discharge should have been planned by the hospital, social services and the care home, after discussion with the family. None of that happened, even though my mother was at high risk of malnutrition and dehydration. She should have been assessed and referred to a dietitian as soon as she was returned to the care home, but nothing was done for another week. When she was finally weighed, it became apparent that she had lost almost 12kg over the previous six months; she had lost another 5kg by the time she died the following month. I know that from reading the report of her postmortem, a chore I would not wish on my worst enemy.

Coping with an elderly person who has dementia or cancer is difficult and upsetting, but I’m not convinced that the agencies involved are very good at taking the feelings of relatives (or indeed patients) into account. In my case, the situation was complicated by the fact that my mother lived at the other end of the country. She had moved to the north-east to be close to her sisters and brother after my father died, but it made everything immeasurably more difficult when her health began to fail.

I can’t be the only relative who has had to deal with social services and doctors at a distance, but just getting anyone to return a phone call was a gargantuan task. This was a recurring problem but it became more acute when I found out from my aunt that my mother was in hospital in January 2014. I immediately called the hospital to find out what was wrong, and was asked to come to an urgent meeting that afternoon. I explained that was physically impossible – it is a drive of seven hours – and I was assured that a consultant would call me back. When I was given a code word that I would need to repeat to the doctor to establish my identity, I realised that something was seriously wrong. I waited hours for a phone call. Nothing happened. In a state of some agitation, I called the hospital again and managed to track down the consultant.

Even now, it is painful to remember the shock I felt when he told me that my mother had late-stage lung cancer. I tried to gather my wits, asking about palliative care, and he promised that someone would call me before any decisions about moving her were taken.

I never heard from him or the hospital again. It was left to me to make phone calls, find someone who knew about my mother’s case – not always an easy task – and establish how she was. I had no idea she was about to be discharged, and no one told me that a doctor had completed a “do not attempt to resuscitate” form, another failure that was criticised by the ombudsman.

Now that people are living longer, many of us will go through the grim experience of witnessing the decline of a close relative. Until my mother’s health failed, I had a naive belief that we lived in a society where relatives could work collaboratively with professionals to get decent care for the elderly.

Two years ago, my faith in that system was shaken to the core. Now Dame Julie’s report suggests that not much has changed.

Police reaction to revenge porn is playing into predators’ hands

The use of cautions against sexual predators appears to confirm fears that police are unclear how to define revenge porn and when to use harassment legislation

The Guardian, Tuesday 10 May 2016

A few years ago the idea of someone publishing explicit photographs of a former lover, out of spite or as a form of blackmail, was still in the realms of fiction. But advances in technology have created fresh opportunities for sexual predators, and the criminal justice system is finding it difficult to cope with new forms of aggressive and controlling behaviour.

Revenge porn – the sharing of explicit or sexual images without consent – became a specific criminal offence in the UK just over a year ago, and it seems that some police forces are struggling to understand how to use the new law. In the latest example to make headlines, Sussex police have been criticised for merely handing out a caution to a man who targeted four women and a 15-year-old girl. They arrested the 36-year-old last week after receiving complaints, from three of the women and the girl, that images had been posted without their consent on a pornography site.

One of the women said she discovered two pictures of herself on the porn site along with the comment: “Do your absolute worst guys and abuse her as much as you like, all I ask it that you show me it all.” In the case of the 15-year-old girl, explicit sexual images were superimposed on to pictures taken from her Facebook account. Given that the photographs were doctored, and not taken during a relationship, it is more akin to harassment than what we normally understand as revenge porn.

The use of cautions in cases involving sexual and domestic abuse is controversial. Women have complained for decades that reports of rape and sexual assault are not taken seriously and that few cases come to court. There were 1,160 reports of revenge porn between April and December last year, involving 31 police forces in England and Wales. Three of the victims were 11 years old. So far few of these complaints – only 11% – have resulted in charges. In 40% no action was taken, with lack of evidence or the victims withdrawing support given as the reason. The Sussex case appears to confirm anxieties that some police forces are unclear about the definition of revenge porn and reluctant to use other, more appropriate laws.

In this particular case, although the suspect admitted committing offences over a period of five months, he was merely cautioned for one offence of revenge porn and three of sending an offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing message. Sussex police are currently reviewing a complaint by a fifth woman whose allegations against the same man were recorded as not a crime. The use of cautions in a case involving so many victims, and a range of offences as serious as incitement to violence and harassment, is troubling, especially if there’s a risk of someone committing further offences.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, has tried to make sure that the revenge porn law is used appropriately, telling police and prosecutors that a charge of harassment should be considered when there is more than one incident, or a pattern of behaviour. She has also said that if a victim is under 18, a charge under the Protection of Children Act 1978 should be considered. In effect Saunders is reminding the police that the revenge porn law is just one way to approach a range of unfamiliar behaviours that cause great distress to victims, some well under the age of consent.

That is not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about revenge porn. Senior police officers have told me they are worried about teenage boys using explicit pictures to control sexual partners, threatening to post them online when girls try to leave abusive relationships. They believe schools need to warn young people about the risks involved, not for reasons of prudery but so they know how to stay safe.

There has seldom been a moment in history when the criminal justice system has faced so many new challenges. It is constantly playing catch-up with technology, trying to ensure that perpetrators are called to account without criminalising the behaviour of consenting adults. It is not an easy moment for the police, but they have a wider range of sanctions than ever before and should not be reluctant to use them.

Murder on the colonial front line

Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Calcutta in 1919 is a city of extremes of wealth and poverty, and colonial rule is threatened by a growing nationalist movement. When a senior civil servant is found dead in a gutter, with a message warning the British to leave India stuffed in his mouth, the authorities assume it is a political assassination. But the detective assigned to the case in Abir Mukherjee’s terrific first novel, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker £12.99), listens to local people and thinks that the motive is more likely to be personal.

Captain Sam Wyndham used to work for Scotland Yard and is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. He survived the conflict more or less unscathed, only to discover that his wife had died in a flu epidemic, and he has come to India in search of a new life. Mukherjee’s descriptions of Calcutta under the Raj are vivid and evocative, while Wyndham’s position as a newcomer with fresh eyes works brilliantly. The plot moves at breakneck pace but Mukherjee’s real subject is the underlying corruption of a society divided by class and race.

Melanie Raabe is a journalist based in Cologne and another first-time novelist. The Trap (Mantle £12.99), translated by Imogen Taylor, is a twisty revenge drama in which a reclusive author writes a crime novel to trap a man she believes guilty of murder. Twelve years ago, Linda Conrads walked into a flat to find her sister stabbed to death and the killer making his escape. Her health collapsed and she withdrew into self-imposed isolation, relying on her publisher and a couple of trusted staff to manage her contact with the outside world.

Linda has not left her house for 11 years when she spots the killer on a TV programme. He is now a successful journalist and she’s certain no one will believe her, so she comes up with a hare-brained plan to base her next book on the murder and offer him an exclusive interview at her home. What happens next is a chilling battle of wits in which Linda tests the limits of crime fiction and risks her own life in the process.

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame (Little, Brown £18.99), presents his detectives with an unusual and frustrating case. A group of recovering addicts has been meeting weekly at the north London home of an unconventional therapist, Tony De Silva, who encourages them to socialise outside the group. There are explosive conflicts between some of the members, especially when a morbidly obese woman joins the circle and disrupts its dynamics. When a young woman is murdered, it is clear that one of the group is responsible.

De Silva refuses to cooperate with the police, citing professional confidentiality, and the surviving members take their cue from him. This is an intriguing set-up, involving a cast of suspects where everyone has something to hide, and Billingham shares suspicion around pretty even-handedly. But it is hard to sympathise with characters who are so self-obsessed, and the ending feels artificial.

Elizabeth Brundage’s haunting novel All Things Cease To Appear (Quercus £16.99) unfolds at a leisurely pace, despite a gruesome opening. The novel begins in upstate New York in the 1980s, when an art history professor arrives home to find his wife has been savagely murdered at their isolated farmhouse. George Clare’s immediate concern is the couple’s daughter, who is the only witness but too young to understand what she may have seen. The case remains unsolved for decades, allowing Brundage to expose the unravelling of the mind of the killer in slow and forensic detail.



The Queen and a reign of abject failure

Institutions have changed to reflect the modern world, but not the monarchy. And she is to blame

The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Queen is scheduled to take a short walk from Windsor Castle tomorrow, meeting the public and unveiling a plaque as she celebrates her 90th birthday. Such events are carefully orchestrated, evoking the history of the institution she represents, so it is unfortunate that her stroll will begin at the Henry VIII gate, named after a notorious uxoricide and probable psychopath.

Elizabeth II is not a direct descendant of her monstrous predecessor and the modern monarchy is very different from its Tudor counterpart. After more than six decades on the throne, the Queen has come to occupy a special role in the national psyche, if such a thing exists. She has come to represent continuity at a moment when the world seems more dangerous than ever.

These days she is a grandmotherly figure, and it is regarded as churlish to ask questions about how she has conducted herself as head of state. I am a republican, and I don’t believe in the monarchy but if you strip away the stardust, as royalists like to call it, it is hard to see her reign as a resounding success even on its own terms. Her personal popularity has fluctuated wildly: in the autumn of 1997, after the death of Princess Diana, the Daily Mail published a memorable front page, demanding: Time for the Queen to go? At that low point, an opinion poll suggested that “seven in 10 Britons” wanted her to consider abdicating.

The monarchy’s foundations are less secure than is often assumed, which is why royalists should be worried that the Queen will leave behind an institution as unreformed as it is undemocratic. There is a chasm between the UK’s constitutional arrangements and its commitment to equality: viewed from abroad, the royals are a strange bunch of people with little connection to the diverse country the family is supposed to represent on the world stage. Its inextricable connection to the archaic principle of primogeniture means that the next three heads of state will be stolidly monocultural: white, male and Anglican.

More to the point, the royal family has entrenched its position in a way that flies in the face of the dramatic changes other elements of the establishment have had to cope with in recent years. As elected politicians learn to exist in a much more open and critical society – the prime minister, chancellor and leader of the opposition have just published details of their tax affairs – the Queen and her immediate relatives are less open than ever to democratic scrutiny.

Senior royals now enjoy total exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Press releases crowing about how little the monarchy costs leave out the huge cost of security, even though taxpayers fund it. The office of an elected head of state would be cheaper to run – it is preposterous that there are something like 18 “working” royals on the public payroll. But that isn’t even the most significant objection to the monarchy’s opaque finances. The royals’ habitual secrecy makes a mockery of the accountability we expect of people who receive public money.

Their exemption from freedom of information requests came about because they had a moment of staring into the abyss, caused by the Guardian’s attempt to see some of the “black spider” memos from the Prince of Wales to politicians. The fact that he privately bombarded ministers with wheedling letters, contrary to his constitutional position, was an open secret but the government fought to keep the details under wraps. Understandably, because the man they eventually revealed is a nightmare: credulous, reactionary and gripped by the illusion that he is a radical thinker. In 2004 he wrote to the then education secretary, fishing for public funds for one of his pet projects that would challenge “fashionable” ideas about education. “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!” he boasted.

Dangerous, yes, but not in the way he intended. From a variety of sources, we know that Prince Charles has character flaws that imperil the future of the entire operation. For the second time in less than a century, the throne is about to pass to someone entirely unsuited to it. If you are a monarchist, this is surely one of the Queen’s greatest failures: she was in charge of the prince’s education and upbringing, yet she has been singularly ineffectual as a brake on his excesses.

What makes this so astonishing is that the Queen has more reason than anyone to be aware of the historical precedent. She was nine in 1936 when her uncle David, another manifestly unsuitable Prince of Wales, succeeded his father George V and lasted less than a year as Edward VIII. That near-disaster for the monarchy has always cheered republicans, and the parallels between then and now are striking.

Edward was in his early 40s when he inherited the throne but Charles is approaching 70 and likely to be a king in a hurry. He has let it be known that he does not intend to stop making what he calls “heartfelt interventions” – otherwise known as unconstitutional political interference – in national life.

For republicans, the prospect of this foolish, not-very-bright man ascending the throne is a dream come true. The present Queen’s legacy may look very different once the future of the monarchy is in the inept hands of her eldest son.

We are blind to an epidemic of domestic abuse

The Archers storyline is melodrama. The reality of an issue inflamed by political neglect is far worse

The Guardian, Friday 8 April 2016

When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.

The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.

According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.

Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the  public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.

Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls panel, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.

Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it.

The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.

Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?

Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.

Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.

According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.

Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.

I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.

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

The chillingly dark underside of celebrity

Sunday Times, 3 April 2016

It is rare for ordinary people to be invited into the hothouse world of celebrity. Oliver Harris’s detective Nick Belsey gets there by accident in The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape £12.99), when a pop star’s entourage mistake him for a new security guard and invite him into her palatial home. Belsey is suspended from Hampstead CID and facing disciplinary charges, so he decides he has nothing to lose by playing along.

Harris enjoys himself writing about this surreal world, creating vignettes of the stylists, publicists and hangers-on who surround Amber Knight. But the book is heading somewhere darker, sending Belsey to a Mayfair club where he is one of the last people to speak to a waif-like young woman who is murdered shortly afterwards. Harris has a terrific sense of place, hurtling between the wealthiest and most-run-down areas of London. But the cleverest thing about his third Belsey novel is the way the plot unfolds in a chilling and totally unexpected direction.

Isabelle Grey has already distinguished herself with a series of police procedurals that combine attention to detail with a compassionate intelligence. Shot Through The Heart (Quercus £19.99) opens with the kind of mass shooting that’s more often reported in the US than rural Essex. Six people are dead and the first victim was a serving police officer, who had recently begun a relationship with the killer’s ex-wife.

DI Grace Fisher has little sympathy for the murderer but she wonders why what began as a domestic homicide escalated into mass murder. When she asks questions about where he got his arsenal of weapons, her colleagues close ranks and she begins to suspect a cover-up. Female detectives often feel isolated in crime fiction but Grey’s latest novel looks beyond sexism to a toxic male culture that’s existed for decades.

Kate Medina’s Fire Damage (Harper Collins £12.99) is set in the UK but the aftermath of war looms large over the characters. An army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, is back home after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. She is treating a four-year-old boy who is deeply traumatised following an incident which has left his father, an officer in the Intelligence Corps, with severe and disfiguring injuries.

Flynn is still trying to win the boy’s confidence when a previous patient, a captain in the military police, asks for her help with an investigation into the suspicious death of a sergeant based at Kandahar airfield. Flynn’s approach is very different from that of a conventional detective and it is fascinating to watch her use her skills in these two cases, which have unexpected connections. Medina is a former Territorial Army officer and she writes about the horrifying consequences of war from the standpoint of a clear-eyed but sympathetic insider.

The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker £16.99) by Erik Axl Sund, translated by Neil Smith, is the latest international best-seller to come out of Sweden. Sund is the pseudonym of two writers, Jerker Eriksson and Haken Axlander Sundquist, who have both worked in the Swedish music industry. The novel is a one-off, taking readers on a break-neck journey through a plot of labyrinthine complexity.

The main characters are two very different women, a detective and a psychotherapist. They are thrown together when the corpses of severely abused boys begin to appear in Stockholm, but it isn’t clear whether their complex relationship is going to help or hinder the investigation. Sund boldly places dissociative identity disorder – a psychological state in which different personalities emerge in the same individual – at the heart of this very disturbing novel.

The Archers stabbing: making Helen the perpetrator is cheap and wrong

Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2016

Fiction always involves a negotiation between keeping the audience interested and what would happen in real life. If the balance goes wrong, the result is not just melodrama but an angry response from readers – or listeners, in the case of last night’s episode of The Archers on Radio 4. It was the culmination of a storyline about domestic abuse which has been running for months, ending with a cliff-hanger about whether Helen Titchener has really killed her horrible husband, Rob.

We will find out this evening whether he is dead or seriously injured. Either way, it is Helen who is now in serious trouble, with almost unthinkable consequences for her young son Henry and her unborn child. An arrest seems inevitable, and listeners know that Rob has already planted the idea that Helen is frighteningly unstable in the minds of her friends and relatives.

That aspect of the storyline has been both chilling and convincing, drawn out in a way that reflects the carefully-planned isolation of a victim by a manipulative man. But last night’s episode detached itself from real life, where Helen would have been at much greater risk of being seriously injured or killed than her abusive husband. The Office for National Statistics says that women are far more likely to be killed by current or former partners than men, and the figures support that conclusion. Almost half of female homicide victims fall into this category, compared with only seven per cent of male victims.

What is so disappointing about this decision is that the storyline had until then realistically demonstrated the mechanics of ‘coercive control’, a form of domestic abuse which became a criminal offence last year. To the outside world, Rob seemed like a caring if over-protective husband, but at home he changed moods so rapidly that Helen lived in fear of his outbursts. One of the few people to see through him was her best friend, Kirsty, who managed to persuade Helen to speak to a domestic abuse helpline and, crucially, Rob’s first wife, Jess.

That conversation provided Helen with confirmation that Rob had subjected another woman to an identical form of control. But it also did something else, forcing her to recognise that she was a victim of marital rape, a criminal assault women often find hard to name, even to themselves. Helen’s discovery that Rob had done the same thing to Jess was a turning-point, finally making her acknowledge the physical and mental danger she was in.

Having got to that point, it defies belief that Helen would voluntarily spend a final evening with her abuser, even making him a meal as a prelude to announcing her decision to leave. It’s plausible that a victim might not be aware of statistics showing she is at greatest risk of death or injury when she tries to escape, but the storyline had just revealed to Helen that she was dealing with a serial abuser and rapist.

Everything about the episode seemed wrong. Why didn’t Helen just pack her and Henry’s bags and leave with Kirsty, who had come to check on her in Rob’s absence? Leaving the bags half-packed upstairs, where he was likely to find them, felt like a device to ratchet up tension. Rob’s rant about never letting Helen go was pitch-perfect but what really jarred was the moment when he offered her a knife and told her to kill herself. Children are incredibly important to manipulative men and it’s highly unlikely that Rob would put his unborn baby – or himself – at risk of physical harm. The whole thing felt artificial, a clunky device to put a weapon in the hand of someone who would never have thought of picking it up on her own.

A much more realistic scenario would have been Helen leaving while Rob was at work and struggling to explain why she’d left an apparently loving husband. That would have been pretty difficult, given the amount of time he has spent grooming her friends and family, and it would have reflected one of the most distressing experiences victims go through. Not being believed is a nightmare, especially when someone has already suffered months of self-doubt, and that storyline would have helped real-life victims.

Instead, Helen has been transformed from a victim into a perpetrator. There have been a small number of cases where a woman has killed a violent partner, after years of abuse, but they are exceptional enough to become something of a cause celebre. We will find out tonight whether Helen is going to face a murder charge, something which would be unprecedented in the history of Ambridge. But it already feels like a missed opportunity, a swerve into melodrama when the series could have shown us the slow, delicate process of a woman freeing herself and trying to repair a badly damaged psyche.

Adam Johnson’s historic sentence shows our victim-blaming culture is decades out of date

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 24 March 2016

Thousands of people appear in court every day and many of them go to prison. But few trials get reported so widely as that of Adam Johnson, the former England footballer who has just been sentenced to six years in jail.

For once the massive coverage is completely justified. Not because of who Johnson is, but because his case is a landmark in this country’s treatment of sexual offences against children.

Earlier this month, when Johnson was convicted of carrying out a sex act on a 15-year-old girl, he was warned by the judge that he faced a sentence of between four and ten years. Even so, I’m sure his six-year tariff for that offence and two others, which he admitted on the first day of his trial, is now causing shock waves.

So it should. For far too long, people have defended people like Johnson, trotting out hoary old excuses for adult men who use their fame and status to target vulnerable victims. ‘She looked older than 15,’ they say, even though it is clear that Johnson knew the girl’s age and even made online searches about the age of consent. ‘It’s not his fault if girls chase him,’ they say, as though a man of 28 is entitled to be excused the standard of moral responsibility required of less famous mortals.

Well, that’s all over now.

The law doesn’t make excuses for fame or wealth; when someone is convicted, it looks at the damage that’s been caused and reflects it in the sentence. In this instance, the damage suffered by Johnson’s victim was set out in court in painful, forensic detail, and should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how she continues to suffer.

That message needs to be seen by all those people who have abused the girl online, blamed her for what happened or broken the law by revealing her identity. It also needs to be heard by those Sunderland fans who responded to news of Johnson’s arrest last year by pumping their fists in the air and singing, ‘Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants’. They were crass, callous and above all wrong, as his conviction demonstrates.

A great deal has been said and written about the role of professional football in all this, and it’s certainly the case that the country’s leading clubs need to think about how they treat their pampered stars. Football is a very lucrative business and clubs put up with dreadful behaviour off the pitch, as long as their celebrity players bring home the trophies. Most of those players are working-class lads, often without much in the way of education, who suddenly find themselves earning jaw-dropping sums of money and being treated as minor deities.

All of that is true but the significance of this case goes way beyond football. At its core, it is about attitudes towards men and sex – assumptions of male entitlement, in a nutshell – which are years out of date. In a society based on equality, it is simply not acceptable for men to groom under-age girls, gaining their confidence in order to persuade them to perform sexual acts when they are not mature enough to understand the consequences.

More to the point, it is against the law, which is sometimes ahead of public opinion and exists in part to protect vulnerable individuals from predators. This is a landmark case precisely because it has done what the law is supposed to do - which is put aside fame and the other excuses made for men who believe they can do what they like.

They can’t, and this sentence speaks volumes about the importance our society now places on the protection of children.