Tackling domestic violence against women and girls

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Mehdi and I interviewed Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, on a wide range of issues yesterday afternoon. It is being written up and will feature in the magazine out on Thursday at most good newsagents.

But, before that, it is worth highlighting a campaign we were briefed on before the interview and discussed during it.

Johnson was preparing to launch the government's strategy, embargoed until midnight last night, to tackle violence against women and girls, including rape and domestic violence. There can be few areas of government action that are more important. Many of us know victims of these sorts of attacks, some of which last for years in home environments that all too often are shrouded in frightened secrecy.

Today's initiative includes -- boldly -- putting the issue on the schools curriculum and working with the National Health Service (some of the £30m set aside for the scheme has come from the health budget) to prevent such incidents occurring and to protect victims.

On rape, the Home Secretary agreed during the interview that the current disproportionate conviction rates are still deeply disappointing: according to some authoritative figures and reports, 6.5 per cent for rape cases compared to 34 per cent for general crimes. Asked about this, Johnson said yes, that's exactly why Baroness Stern has been asked to do a piece of work (ie, carry out her review). Asked if he thinks the criminal justice system is institutionally anti-women, he said: "Well, that's certainly a view that we've heard many times during this consultation, and is one of the reasons that Baroness Stern has been asked to look at this."

Asked if he himself agrees with that view, Johnson said: "I don't claim to have enough experience to say whether that's the case. I know that there's been a sea change in the way the whole criminal justice system has treated victims of crime. They were fairly unimportant in the scheme of things. You know, you came to court and you were there mixing with the perpetrator of crime and all their family. No one ever thought that there should be a system that keeps them separate, that they should have things such as victim support. It was unheard of 20 years ago."

Meanwhile one in every four women will be a victim of some sort of violence, and half of all women with mental health issues, according to the NHS, experience violence.

On domestic violence overall, however, Johnson points to a 64 per cent decrease under Labour.

Finally, one aim of the fresh strategy is to tackle the rise in prostitution. The 80,000 prostitutes in the UK are particularly vulnerable to sexual crime. And yet, not since the 1990 film Pretty Woman, starring the glamorous Julia Roberts as a call girl, has prostitution been as glamourised as it is today, with the emergence of "celebrity" and destigmatised figures such as "Belle de Jour", the blogger and novelist who "outed" herself as a high-class sex worker and claims to have entered the trade happily to fund her own higher education. Johnson admitted the move was "not helpful". Asked what he thinks of Belle de Jour, he said quickly: "I've never read it, never met her. In any capacity."

Reflecting on the situation across the country more generally, Johnson gave a glimpse of what he wants to see: "I was in Sunderland the other week, where you have a domestic violence separate court, domestic violence independent adviser who is an advocate for the woman who's been the victim of crime, and the whole system rather than the woman have to turn up and . . . it's all geared to ensuring that she gets justice and she gets protection and support through this difficult period.

"And just talking to the professionals -- this is the kind of thing that will not win any votes on the doorstep, because people don't know about it -- but the multi-agency risk assessment conference [Marac], which we're going to introduce everywhere now, [is] hugely successful in Sunderland because it brings all the different agencies in to look at this: why does this woman get knocked about, who's responsible, is it an alcohol problem, a drug problem? Because quite often the woman does not want to move away from the relationship."

This initiative may not be without flaws. It was not completely clear from the briefing how victims or relatives of victims of home abuse are to be encouraged proactively to come forward. But overall, it is clearly a step in the right direction.

 

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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