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27 January 2015

Labour will focus on tackling domestic violence – new research could help

A Police and Crime Commissioner is making the case for domestic violence perpetrator programmes.

By Vera Baird

Historically, there has been doubt over whether Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPPs) aimed at changing the behaviour of aggressors, are effective, but now there is solid research to suggest they can get results.

Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes: Steps To Change, a study by Professors Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland, is based on interviews with men who attend programmes aimed at re-educating them about their coercive and violent behaviour. It also draws on the experiences of their partners, children and staff who run the programmes.

The charity Respect has been developing and accrediting these programmes for 20 years. This five-year evaluation is the most extensive ever done in the UK and its headline findings are strong:

• The vast majority of men who abuse their partners stop physical and sexual violence if they attend a Respect-accredited DVPP.

• Before attending a programme, a third of men made women do something sexual they did not want to do, but none of them did so after taking part in the programme.

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• Cases of men using a weapon against their partner reduced from 29 per cent to zero.

• Far fewer women reported being physically injured after the programme, from 61 per cent to 2 per cent.

• Over half of the women reported feeling “very safe” after the programme, compared to less than one in ten before (51 per cent compared to 8 per cent), with those feeling “not safe at all” down from 32 per cent to 6 per cent.

These improvements were found to last, but were only achieved after significant time within the programmes. It emerged that one of the reasons perpetrators are abusive is because they hold particular ideas about masculinity and gender roles, which take consistent, time-consuming effort to challenge. As Labour’s Women’s Safety Commission acknowledges, domestic abuse is not about a black eye or a drink problem. It is about control imposed through coercion.

One of the men interviewed said:

It’s never like this light bulb moment. It’s like this little coin that you drop in and it bounces around for ages and it sort of argues with yourself and all of a sudden – Dink! –  it’s in the bottom before you know it.

Some of the results around changing non-violent coercive behaviour were weaker, though still an improvement. There was only a 2% increase in women who answered positively when asked whether their partner now “behaved in a considerate manner”. Using money or finances to control a partner was still a feature, although trying to prevent partners from seeing friends or family – another typical aspect of controlling behaviour – went down from 65 per cent to 15 per cent, with the same reduction in partners telling women how to dress. This new analysis of the less effective parts of programmes opens the way to further improving them.

These results are not, as some critics allege, an excuse to decriminalise domestic abuse and put men onto perpetrator programmes instead of in jail. On the contrary, coercive control, the very course of conduct these programmes can tackle, is becoming a criminal offence, backed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper. This will redouble the efforts of campaigners to make the criminal justice system understand the nature of domestic abuse and take it seriously. For too long police have not done so and Crown Court Judges have treated it as a second order crime, forgetting that someone attacked in the street may be able to run home, whilst a domestic victim will have nowhere to go. 

If the police and the courts start to tackle the issue more effectively, more women will prosecute but it is well known that currently only between a quarter and a fifth of victims ever complain and even fewer want a criminal outcome. In Northumbria, we have a scheme where refuge outreach workers attend domestic abuse 999 calls with the police. An encouraging 55 per cent of victims contact the refuge for help at some point afterwards, but few want to re-engage with the justice agencies.

So there is a large cohort of perpetrators who abuse partners but are never taken to court. Now that we have evidence suggesting the effectiveness of Respect-accredited DVPPs to make changes with such men, it is imperative to make them more widely available.

Article 16 of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women requires signatories to, “set up or support programmes aimed at teaching perpetrators of domestic violence to adopt non-violent behaviours” and prevent reoffending. Labour supports ratification of this. Involvement in the Women’s Safety Commission and in assembling a Victims Law has convinced us, too, that Respect’s position that DVPPs are most effective when co-ordinated with specialist victims’ services is correct.

The Mirabal researchers say that they began this work sceptical about whether men would choose to change, but now relate that: “After spending time with thousands of pages of transcripts of men and women talking about their use/experience of violence and abuse, we are convinced that our data shows steps towards change do start to happen for most.” The next Labour government must work with that conclusion to bring a wholesale change from coercive behaviour in order to protect the next generation of women.

Vera Baird is the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria