Don’t tell us to flag down buses – vet your police officers properly

·4-min read
Floral tributes left at the bandstand on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard (PA)
Floral tributes left at the bandstand on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard (PA)

It is officially boots and scarf weather. As the autumn nights draw in, I have found myself walking home, or to see friends, or to work on darkening roads and in dwindling light. In the last few days, I have thought about Sarah and Sabina with each step. I don’t imagine there will be a woman in the UK that hasn’t been doing the same. My heart breaks for them and the 78 other women in between their killings whose lives have been stolen through violence.

Surely the scale and severity of violence against women and girls is undeniable now? This year we have been bombarded with relentless statistics, heart-breaking reports, infuriating reviews and devastating personal tragedies that have highlighted and documented women frightened, threatened and dying. We have seen, heard and felt failure after failure when it comes to protecting women and girls from gendered violence. This is a crisis.

You wouldn’t know that from the government’s response, as they repeatedly fail to act with the urgency needed. Why have they failed to introduce a register for repeat offenders of serious domestic violence and stalking? Why have they not introduced a duty on all public services to protect women and girls? All we get are half-hearted pilot schemes, or policies that sound like someone came up with them in the car five minutes before they were announced. Remember the government’s idea to have plainclothes policemen in bars? Well, now we are being told to be wary of plainclothes police officers. What a mess.

In rejecting my call for violence against women and girls to be recognised as a “serious crime” in the new Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the minister Kit Malthouse, on Radio 4 this morning and also in the commons chamber just a few weeks ago, suggested that it should be up to local councils to decide how important ending violence against women and girls is.

He said: “If there are areas that particularly want to focus on violence against women and girls and feel they have a systemic problem, then the duty allows them to do that.” Take it or leave it guys. Like a side salad. Imagine him saying this about terrorism, “hey you can worry about terrorism if you want, up to you, no biggie”. Why don’t our lives matter?

The government should not be passing the buck and saying it’s up to cash-strapped local councils or police forces to decide whether violence against women and girls is a systemic problem that needs addressing. It is, and it is the government’s responsibility to tackle it. They knew that this verdict was coming, they knew that the reaction would be a howl from the women of the country, so why on earth has the government got nothing of substance to say?

It is unbelievable that we have a police force giving out the advice to flag down a bus if you are not sure if a police officer is a risk to you. How about the Met gets on with the job of telling us how they are going to improve their vetting, monitoring, training and disciplinary processes, rather than telling women to deal with the problem for them? How about the government tells us how they are going to ensure this is standard across every police force?

Rebuilding trust in the police isn’t just about ensuring women and girls feel safe when interacting with officers on the streets, as important as that is. To truly rebuild trust, all women must know that if they go to the police as a victim of rape, domestic abuse or harassment, their case will be investigated and dealt with the seriousness it deserves.

There can be no trust in the police while three in every four domestic abuse-related cases are dropped without charge. There can be no trust in the criminal justice system when, as the latest Victims’ Commissioner’s annual report stated, rape prosecution rates are so low that “what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape”.

I spent my afternoon with a rape victim and the parents of a woman who was murdered and who West Midlands Police have had to apologise to for their many failings in her case. If I printed out the various new reviews and strategies for them, it would provide them with literally no comfort. It wouldn’t speed up their cases. It wouldn’t make any difference.

I don’t know how many times I’ve said or written the words “this must, finally, be a long overdue pivotal moment”. Maybe 10? 20? It feels like a million. But I say it again. This must be a pivotal moment. We must turn anger into action and grief into policy change. There are things the government can and must do to end violence against women and girls, and they must do them today.

When will the government do what is necessary to protect all the women and girls still walking the streets beside me? At the moment, I think I would get a better answer by flagging down a passing bus and asking the driver for their views.

Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

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