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

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.