The crimes of Britain’s ‘first controlling girlfriend’ tell us so much

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 18 April 2018

It isn’t easy to break the silence about domestic abuse, even if you have been a victim over a long period. Some people will be amazed to read that 22-year-old Alex Skeel was said to be ’10 days away from death’ when he finally got help from police and paramedics last summer – and even then it was a neighbour who called for help after hearing shouts from the couple’s home in Bedfordshire.

Skeel was too scared of his former partner, Jordan Worth, also aged 22, to go to the police, even when his injuries were so bad that he feared his limbs might have to be amputated. Earlier this week, Worth pleaded guilty to grievous bodily harm, wounding with intent and coercive control. The seriousness of her offences was reflected in the sentencing, when she was given seven-and-a-half years in prison.

It is believed to be the first time a woman has been convicted of coercive and controlling behaviour, which became a criminal offence only at the end of 2015. The new law has been in operation for just over two years and so far the number of convictions has been disappointingly low. It is easier to prosecute in cases like Worth’s where physical violence is present as well.

But Skeel’s terrible experience at the hands of his former partner tells us a number of things, and not just that women can be abusers as well as men. The fact that Worth was a personable young woman, a graduate who did voluntary work, seems to have deflected attention from her behaviour towards Skeel – she just didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an abuser. So, perhaps, did the fact that the couple were so young, only 16 when they met at college in 2012.

Abusers are often thought of as men in their 20s and 30s but research shows that teenagers are just as likely to become perpetrators. The abuse started behind closed doors when Worth and Skeel began living together and she embarked on what appears to have been a successful attempt to take control of his life.

In a classic pattern of escalating abuse, Worth told Skeel what he could wear and isolated him from family and friends. She broke his mobile phones and took over his Facebook page, creating a situation where he was afraid to seek help when – three years into the relationship – she became physically violent towards him.

Bullies seek out vulnerable victims and Worth turned on Skeel when he developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. Among a horrific catalogue of injuries, she blacked his eyes, stabbed him and scalded his arms and legs with boiling water, leaving him to cover the burns with clingfilm.

Skeel was often seen limping or with an arm in a sling, while neighbours heard arguments and the sound of objects being thrown inside the couple’s house. When one of them called the police in June last year, after hearing shouting in the early hours, the ambulance crew discovered that Skeel had second and third degree burns on his arms and legs.

‘I had open burns,’ Skeel said after the case. ‘I lost three stones in weight. I went from ten stones down to seven. It was awful. It was three years of mental abuse and then it turned physical.’

Outsiders may wonder why Skeel or any other victim of such severe abuse wouldn’t seek help on their own behalf. But this awful case demonstrates how perpetrators succeed in isolating their victims, turning themselves into the only conduit to the outside world. On one occasion, when Worth tormented Skeel by falsely telling him his grandfather had died, he believed her – and was too cut off from his family to discover the truth until Worth revealed she had lied.

This is how coercive control works, weakening victims and cutting their ties with the world until they are too terrified to tell anyone what is going on. It’s such a new offence that many people don’t know what it means and don’t understand, either, that it’s more likely to be a pattern of behaviour than a one-off incident.

Domestic abuse is more common than people realise and about a third of offences reported to the police involve physical injury. That poses a dilemma for the rest of us – friends, family, neighbours – who may suspect abuse is going on in a relationship but feel nervous about getting involved. Skeel’s experience is extreme – but the fact that his physical injuries were overlooked for so long should act as a wake-up call.

 

The police have a duty to believe rape victims – have we learned nothing?

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 3 April 2018

Imagine coming home to find you’ve been burgled. You’re shocked, upset, and you may well feel violated. Naturally you contact the police, who are sympathetic – but say they’re keeping an open mind about whether a crime has actually been committed.

Sorry?

Of course, that’s very unlikely to happen, whether you’re reporting a burglary, a stolen car or a mugging. But it is the position now facing women (and men) who report a rape in London, following a major shift in policy by the Metropolitan Police.

In a move that will cause enormous concern among victims and organisations that support them, the force appears to have abandoned its policy of automatically believing people who report rape. Instead of a starting point of ‘I believe you’, officers will now have to approach rape victims with an ‘open mind’, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick.

‘You start with a completely open mind, absolutely,’ she is reported to have said. ‘It is very important to victims to feel that they are going to be believed. Our default position is we are, of course, likely to believe you but we are investigators and we have to investigate.’ She says victims can expect dignity, respect and a hearing – but no more than that. ‘We should record what they say. From that moment on we are investigators.’

Dick’s remarks are confusing, to say the least, but many people who work with rape victims will fear a return to the bad old days when women reporting rape were treated differently. Everyone knows that insurance fraud exists but people reporting a stolen car have never faced the scepticism – and outright disbelief – which all too often confronted women who said they’d been raped (and deterred others even from going to the police).

The consequence was a long-running failure, highlighted by the case of Jimmy Savile – now exposed as one of the country’s most prolific paedophiles – to investigate allegations properly and protect future victims. The fact is that the vast majority of rapes in this country are never reported to the police, and fear of not being believed remains a significant obstacle to bringing rapists to justice.

Despite causing an outcry in some quarters, the Met’s ‘I believe you’ policy – adopted in 2011 – simply placed rape complainants on the same footing as anyone else walking into a police station. It put right a long-standing injustice and had the support of senior officers.

The policy never implied that allegations wouldn’t be investigated, and dismissed if officers found reasons to doubt the complainant’s account. But it did mean that some women who wouldn’t have had the confidence to report a rape in the past now felt able to go to the police. Its success can be judged by crime statistics, which show a 19 per cent increase in rape reports to the Metropolitan Police last year.

The most likely reason for the apparent change of heart is the failure of Operation Midland, an investigation into an alleged male paedophile ring in the heart of the establishment. It was severely criticised by a retired High Court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, who singled out the ‘I believe you’ policy for particular criticism.

Yet it is clear that detectives went far beyond that initial step, appearing on television to declare their confidence in a witness known as ‘Nick’ – now discredited – at an early stage in the investigation. The Crown Prosecution Service is considering whether to charge ‘Nick’ with perverting the course of justice – but that isn’t a reason to doubt the word of individual women in very different cases.

There will always be occasions where a witness is shown to have lied, but that isn’t a reason for treating anyone who reports a crime as potentially dishonest. The idea of keeping an ‘open mind’ in cases of rape and sexual assault is especially worrying, harking back to the days when women and children were regarded as unreliable witnesses. The myth of high levels of false accusation is just that, a myth, and it certainly shouldn’t have an impact on policy.

The policy change couldn’t come at a worse moment. New ways of handling disclosure have tipped the whole system of reporting and investigating rape into crisis, with victims having to hand over massive amounts of personal data – mobile phones, tablets, work computers, medical and school records – to the police.

Some lawyers believe that the demands placed on victims are now so onerous that they breach the right to a private life under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are no corresponding requirements on defendants to hand over personal material, which means that the system is already skewed against rape victims.

We are talking here about some of the most vulnerable people who will ever go to the police – and they are entitled to be believed until a thorough and unbiased investigation has shown otherwise. Rape is a terrible crime, and there can be no justification for arbitrarily withdrawing belief from victims who have already suffered dreadfully.

 

Worboys’ victims were left to stop his imminent release – the government failed to protect them

Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 28 March 2018  

One of the UK’s worst sex offenders, the black cab rapist John Worboys, is to stay behind bars for the foreseeable future – but only because two of his victims had the courage to challenge his release at the High Court. They have won a ruling that overturns the Parole Board’s decision to release Worboys, who will now remain in prison while the board looks at the case again. This is a huge victory for the victims, who pointed out that Worboys had made notes of their addresses and knew where they lived, and women more widely.


This is a huge victory for the victims, who pointed out that Worboys had made notes of their addresses and knew where they lived, and women more widely. The fact that the Parole Board had agreed to release the multiple rapist, who preyed on women as he drove round London in his black cab, caused shock and outrage when it became public in January.

Now three High Court judges have ruled in favour of the two women who brought the case (along with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan), after listening to their lawyers’ argument that the Parole Board’s decision was ‘irrational’. That is the good news from this sorry episode, and it may affect the way the Parole Board makes decisions in other controversial cases involving defendants convicted in cases of serial rape or child abuse.

Offenders who may become eligible for release over the next two years include Vanessa George, who was convicted of abusing children in her care at a nursery in Plymouth, and Mohammed Liaqat, leader of a child-grooming ring in Derby. Like Worboys, they are both serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, a type of prison sentence (now abolished) that set a minimum tariff and left decisions about release up to the Parole Board. Vanessa George was refused parole last year after serving seven years, but it is believed that she will soon be eligible to apply again.

Today’s decision, however, raises huge questions about the capacity of the Parole Board to balance the competing rights of prisoners serving an IPP sentence, thejr victims and the wider public. Lawyers for Worboys’s victims pointed out that he had continued to deny his guilt as recently as 2015, eventually making only a limited admission of the offences for which he was convicted.

Worboys was found guilty of 19 charges involving 12 victims in 2009, but many more women told the police he had attacked them. He is believed to have assaulted more than a hundred women, many of whom are angry because their cases were never prosecuted in court.

The victims’ lawyers said that the full extent of his offending should have been taken into account when assessing the risk Worboys poses to the public. One of the judges, Sir Brian Leveson, agreed, saying that the Parole Board should have looked further into ‘the circumstances of [Worboys's] offending’ and considered whether his limited admission of guilt might ‘undermine his overall credibility’.

Today’s decision does not mean that Worboys will remain in prison indefinitely, but the judges ordered the Parole Board to hold a fresh hearing before a different panel. They could come to a different decision, but in the meantime no one should be in any doubt that this case has been a catastrophe for the Parole Board.

As well as ordering a new hearing, the judges upheld a challenge to the secrecy surroundings the Parole Board’s decisions, ruling in favour of open justice. Its chair, Nick Hardwick, was forced to resign earlier today, shortly before the High Court ruling, after the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, told him his position was untenable.

That isn’t to say that government ministers should emerge unscathed from this appalling sequence of events. May often speaks about her personal commitment to ending violence against women – but she did nothing when Gauke announced that he wouldn’t seek a judicial review of the decision to release a man who had used his job to sexually assault hundreds of unsuspecting women.

It was left to two of his victims and the Mayor, who joined the action on behalf of Londoners, to go to the High Court and get that decision reviewed. We owe them huge thanks but this is an extraordinary case in which victims – and the public, who have the right to expect protection from a calculating serial rapist – have been let down from first to last.

 

No wonder so few people report rape. They are hung out to dry in court

Fear of intrusive investigations and total loss of privacy make sexual assault victims less likely to make a complaint

Joan Smith and Claire Waxman

The Guardian, Wednesday 21 Mar 2018

The process of investigating and prosecuting rape cases in England and Wales is in crisis – but not for the reasons you might think. In January, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright QC, asked the crown prosecution service to review all live rape and serious sexual assault cases following the collapse of four high-profile cases in a matter of weeks. In London, the Metropolitan police is carrying out a similar review of 600 current cases.

The nationwide review was announced after a public outcry over the case of the student Liam Allan, whose trial was dropped after three days when evidence from the alleged victim’s mobile phone showed she had asked him for “casual sex”. The Met apologised to Allan, saying that problems with disclosure in the case were caused by a “lack of knowledge”. Wright believes there is a “substantial problem” with the way in which the disclosure protocol is being carried out.

It goes without saying that no one wants innocent men to go to prison. But there is another side to this story, which has hardly been heard because of the focus on defendants. The number of prosecutions for rape and serious sexual assault in this country is low, compared with the number of actual offences: an estimated 510,000 women and 138,000 men experienced a serious sexual assault in the year to March 2017, according to the crime survey for England and Wales.

Five out of six victims did not go to the police, according to the survey, largely because they fear a lengthy and intrusive investigation, followed by the ordeal of giving evidence in court. But police, prosecutors and campaigners say that a strict new interpretation of the rules on disclosure, prompted by a review published last summer, has made that situation much worse.

Complainants now face a complete loss of privacy, having to hand over their mobile phones, tablets and even work computers, containing a mass of personal material such as text messages, photographs and even medical records. Few people realise that even deleted material will be examined, including pictures that may have been taken while the victim was in an abusive relationship. Some of this material is bound to result in challenging cross-examination in court, even though it might have nothing to do with the alleged assault at the heart of the case.

We have already heard of a case where the complainant decided not to go ahead because she didn’t want to be questioned about her history of anorexia, and another in which the alleged victim did not want the fact that she had had an abortion to be discussed in open court. We also know of a case in which a rape victim was asked to take her mobile phone to a meeting at a police station where her Facebook account could be accessed by police and the defence.

Astonishingly, there is no equivalent obligation on defendants to hand over phones and computers in a rape investigation. Detectives have to obtain consent from a superintendent to access even minimal electronic information about a suspect, such as the phone numbers he called just before and after an alleged attack.

Imagine that you are a rape victim. Maybe you once sent drunken texts to a friend about your favourite sexual positions or exchanged nude photos with a previous boyfriend. If it’s on your mobile, the police will look at it. If they think there’s a remote chance that it might be relevant, they will have to show it to prosecutors and disclose it to the defence – and there’s every chance you will be questioned about it in court.

What if the defendant was your boyfriend at the time and you were too frightened of him to go straight to the police? There might be photos of you with him taken after the alleged rape, just as there are pictures of famous women with Harvey Weinstein who would one day – many years later – accuse the producer of sexual assault.

The existence of such photos doesn’t disprove your allegation, but that is how it will be presented in court. The same problem arises in domestic violence cases where delayed reporting – and staying with the defendant – is often treated as undermining the prosecution case.

Experienced police officers are said to be “utterly furious” about having to investigate complainants so much more thoroughly than suspects. They point out the difficulty of interpreting all this material and deciding what might constitute evidence that undermines the prosecution case.

There are other problems caused by the way disclosure is now being handled. With so much material stored on computers – it is estimated that the average smartphone contains data equivalent to around 30,000 A4 pages – police say that the process of examining it could add a year or 18 months to a rape investigation, at a time when inquiries are already taking two years in some parts of the country. [As Victims' Commissioner for London, Claire Waxman is currently investigating the reason for long delays in getting rape cases to court.]

Then there is the impact on a woman’s life of having to hand over a mobile phone for months, if not longer. For most of us, losing access to a phone for so long would be hugely inconvenient, but for victims of domestic and sexual violence it could mean the difference between life and death.

In January this year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct criticised Dorset police following the murder of Katrina O’Hara, 44, by an ex-boyfriend, Stuart Thomas. O’Hara went to the police after Thomas harassed her, and officers took her phone to look for evidence, leaving her “afraid and vulnerable”. She was unable to call for help when Thomas attacked her outside the hairdressing salon where she worked just over a week later, stabbing her to death.

Few of these problems have been acknowledged, let alone addressed, in the furore over the impact of disclosure failures on defendants. Nor is the problem limited to information stored on electronic devices, given that the police are also required to gather material about complainants from a long list of third parties, including healthcare providers, social services, educational establishments and family court proceedings.

But it’s clear that a law that predates the existence of modern methods of storing data is seriously out of date. Politicians urgently need to define what information is relevant, reasonable and proportionate to disclose to the defence; they also need to restore a degree of balance between the defendant’s right to a fair trial under article 6 of the European convention on human rights and the victim’s right (article 8) to a private life.

In the meantime, women’s organisations share the fears of police officers, who believe that the prospect of a massive loss of privacy will deter victims from coming forward. The stark truth is that very few rapists end up in court – and unless something is done to protect complainants, that situation is bound to get worse.

• Joan Smith is Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. Claire Waxman is Victims’ Commissioner for London

 

New Sleuth on the Block

Sunday Times, 18 March 2018

Iceland is famously one of the best places to be a woman, with an enviable record on gender equality. Ragnar Jonasson’s superb new novel, The Darkness, translated by Victoria Cribb (M Joseph £12.99), presents a very different picture. Hulda Hermannsdottir is a hugely experienced detective but her insights aren’t valued by her male colleagues, and she’s being forced into early retirement against her will.

Acutely sensitive to loneliness, Hulda is troubled by the death of a young Russian asylum seeker in an isolated cove on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The woman drowned in salt water and a lazy detective wrote it off as an accident or suicide, but Hulda isn’t so sure. When her boss fobs her off by telling her she can spend her final two weeks on any case she likes, she reopens the file and becomes convinced that Elena was murdered.

Her inquiries create turmoil at police headquarters in Reykjavik, precipitating a chilling sequence of events. This is the first volume in Jonasson’s Hidden Iceland trilogy, which tells Hulda’s story in reverse chronological order and establishes her as one of the great tragic heroines of contemporary detective fiction.

Camilla Lackberg is one of the biggest names in Swedish crime writing, and her new novel, The Girl in the Woods, translated by Tiina Nunnally (HarperCollins £20), is a real blockbuster. Set in the west coast fishing village of Fjallbacka, where Lackberg was born, it brings together a cast of larger-than-life characters including a capricious Hollywood star, traumatised Syrian refugees and an unpleasant bunch of teenagers. The star, Marie Wall, grew up in the village and she has now come back to shoot a biopic about another of its famous residents, the actress Ingrid Bergman.

As teenagers, Marie and another girl were convicted of the murder of a child, based on a confession that was later withdrawn. She has barely arrived when a four-year-old girl goes missing in the same stretch of woodland, reviving traumatic memories from 30 years earlier. The plot is dizzyingly ambitious but Lackberg just about pulls it off, and her point about the long-term effects of domestic violence is well made.

Walter Mosley is best known for his series of crime novels featuring Easy Rawlins, an African-American private detective played by Denzel Washington in the film adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress. Unlike the Rawlins books, which are set in Los Angeles between the 1940s and 1960s, Mosley’s latest novel takes place on the East Coast in the present day.

Down the River Unto the Sea (Weidenfeld £20) is a suitably biblical title for a novel about revenge and redemption. A disgraced NYPD cop, Joe King Oliver, was thrown out of the force years ago after being wrongly accused of sexual assault. Now working as a private detective, he suddenly gets the chance to clear his name and save the life of a radical black journalist who stands accused of killing two corrupt cops. Mosley’s prose is as fluent as ever but the novel suffers from an accident of timing: a plot involving what used to be called a “honey trap” reads uncomfortably in the era of Time’s Up.

The Devil’s Dice (HQ £12.99) is a fascinating debut by Roz Watkins. A patent attorney is found dead in the Peak District, in a network of caves with a reputation for supernatural goings-on. The cause of death is cyanide poisoning, but DI Meg Dalton has to pick her way through legends about witchcraft and family curses to identify the killer. Watkins brilliantly balances superstition and scepticism in this clever first novel.

Is Theresa May serious about tackling domestic abuse? We’re about to find out

 Daily Telegraph, Friday 9 March 2018

This is Theresa May’s big chance. It might seem a bit early to talk about her legacy, but will she go down in history as the Prime Minister who finally took domestic violence seriously - and did something about it? Many of the signs are promising. This week, May chose International Women’s Day to launch her long-awaited public consultation on domestic abuse. It is wide-ranging, seeking evidence from a range of experts and survivors, and will feed into what is promised to be a flagship domestic abuse bill.

Not just that: in a signal of how seriously the government takes the issue, May was flanked by two Cabinet colleagues, the Home Amber Rudd and the Justice Secretary David Gauke, when she outlined her proposals. For a habitually cautious politician, she made a very significant promise, insisting that her proposals ‘have the potential to completely transform the way we tackle domestic abuse, providing better protection to victims and bringing more perpetrators to justice’.

This is the kind of commitment campaigners have hoped to hear for years. One of May’s most striking proposals is that economic abuse will be recognised for the first time, acknowledging the extent to which some women are forced to surrender control of their finances by dominating partners.

We have known for a long time that victims are being denied access to jobs and transport, kept so short of money that they can’t even leave the house without pleading for cash, and in some cases forced to take out loans. Few people realise that this kind of abuse is actually easier to prove – using evidence such as bank statements – than other forms of coercive control.

May has promised greater protection for victims, including tough new Domestic Violence Protection Orders. These will give the courts powers to place conditions on perpetrators, including compulsory alcohol treatment or programmes to address underlying addictions and abusive behaviour. Breaching an order will become a criminal offence.

She also wants to create a statutory aggravating factor in sentencing, similar to those that already exist for hate crimes, to toughen sentences in cases where domestic abuse affects a child. All of this is good news and consistent with her insistence, going back to when she was first appointed Home Secretary in 2010, that tacking domestic violence is of central importance to her.

Unlike many of her predecessors, May appears to understand that domestic abuse is widespread, encompasses a range of behaviours and causes tremendous damage – to society as a whole as well as individuals. This is not just about physical violence, although that is bad enough for those experiencing it, but relationships that affect every aspect of victims’ lives. Women (and the smaller number of male victims) can’t reach their full potential while they are living in fear, and the impact on children is far-reaching.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that this is not just a matter for the criminal law. New offences and tougher sentences have their place but May needs to answer hard questions before her domestic violence bill is seen as a defining feminist moment in her premiership. Her consultation promises small amounts of public money for specific projects – £2m to support female offenders who have been victims of domestic abuse, for instance – but ducks the big issue of resources. For women in the most dangerous relationships, the most urgent need is a place of safety for themselves and their children – and in many cases that means a refuge.

In the period during which May has been Home Secretary and prime minister, refuge provision has been cut to the bone in this country as a direct result of government policy. Most women’s refuges are funded by local authorities. Savage spending cuts imposed by central government have made them vulnerable – an easy target when cash-strapped councillors are deciding, however reluctantly, where to make savings. The result is desperate women sleeping on friends’ sofas or, in the worst case scenario, staying with a violent man because there is nowhere else to go.

This is happening now, and May is a key member of the governments that created the crisis. Her consultation document says ‘we have heard the need for sustainable funding for refuges’ – and asks for charities and frontlines organisations to come up with ideas on how to deliver it.

They will tell her that what is needed is secure long-term funding, whether it comes from central or local government – and some will ask whether the police will get the resources they need to put new laws into effect.

The government’s proposed domestic violence bill could be a milestone for women,. But the big question is which Theresa May will win out – the feminist or the fiscal conservative?

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.