Right to refuge: Stewart holds the starte to account for its duty to protect those most at risk in their own home. Photo: Gary Carlton/Eyevine
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Patrick Stewart: There’s no such thing as “just a domestic”

Domestic violence takes an enormous death toll. Every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales.

Several years ago, I met an extraordinary woman named Sharon de Souza. In 2008, Sharon witnessed the murder of her 24-year-old daughter, Cassie. Cassie was stabbed to death by her estranged husband in front of their two young sons as she attempted to flee to the safety of a women’s shelter.

With the help of Refuge, a charity that supports women and children experiencing domestic violence, Sharon secured an inquest that would shed light on the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s death. It was a long battle, but in February this year the inquest finally took place.

After hearing from a number of police officers and other professionals who had been in contact with Cassie in the months and weeks leading up to that day in July 2008, a jury concluded that two separate police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) all failed to take appropriate steps to safeguard Cassie’s life. They also found that, had the CPS and Sussex Police taken these steps, there is a substantial chance that her life could have been saved.

The sad truth is that Cassie’s story is not unusual. Domestic violence takes an enormous death toll. Every week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales. And so, up and down the country, there are thousands of bereaved families struggling to come to terms with the loss of a beloved mother, daughter or sister. In too many of these cases, the police – and other state agencies – have failed to protect women and children at their moment of greatest need.

My own mother experienced violence at the hands of my father. I remember the police being called to our house on many occasions. As a child, I heard police officers standing in our small living room saying things like, “She must have provoked him,” or, “Well, Mrs Stewart, it takes two to make a fight.”

They had no idea. As a child I didn’t have the words to explain, but as an adult I can tell the truth.

The police had a duty to protect me and my mother, and they failed in that duty. They left us powerless and vulnerable. It shocks me that, decades later, women and children are still being let down by those agencies and by professionals who have a legal duty to protect them.

Of course, much has changed since my childhood. Many police officers do take domestic violence seriously. Yet the negative attitudes that I encountered as a small boy are still embedded in our culture and in our institutions. I have heard alarming comments from women using Refuge’s services about the poor response they still receive from police officers.

One woman was told that she should “just make up” with her ex-boyfriend though he’d assaulted her – an incident that the police officer involved referred to as “just a domestic”. Another woman reported that her partner was let off with a caution after he held a knife against her throat. These comments show how little we have progressed as a society in taking a stand against domestic violence.

It takes extraordinary courage for a frightened, abused woman to report her abuser to the police. When women make that brave step, it is vital that they be believed, supported and protected. They must have the full force of the law behind them.

Cassie’s story also proves that it is not just the police who fail victims of domestic violence. The inquest into her death found that the CPS was responsible for a number of failings. In 2012, Refuge gave expert evidence at the inquest into the death of another woman, Sabina Akhtar, which found Greater Manchester Police, Manchester social services and the CPS accountable for serious and significant failings that possibly contributed to Sabina’s death.

Our system is broken. Women and children continue to die in large numbers because they are not given the support and protection they deserve. Refuge is calling on the Home Secretary to open a public inquiry into the response by the police and other state agencies to victims of domestic violence. In my mother’s name – and in the name of women like Cassie – I support this call. We need a bold shift in the way we, as a society, view domestic violence – and in the way our public services and state institutions respond to victims. Those negative attitudes I encountered as a small boy – attitudes that allowed the violence to continue – must be banished once and for all. 

Patrick Stewart is a patron of Refuge. For more information and to sign Refuge’s petition calling for a public inquiry, visit: refuge.org.uk/publicinquiry

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.