I can’t help but wonder whether there were any women in the room when Boris Johnson decided the way to stop rape, assault and harassment was to send undercover police officers into nightclubs.
News last week of the killing of Sarah Everard has prompted women across the country to share their own experiences of sexual violence, describing what it’s like to feel unsafe walking in the street, taking public transport, being in bars and clubs and, indeed, in their own homes.
While the stories shared – of stalking, groping, date rape, abuse – are exhaustingly familiar for women, this outpouring of fury appears to have come as a shock to members of the government. A woman has been killed, women are scared and outraged, so clearly something has to be done.
The solution, announced as the government pushes forward a policing bill that mentions statues but not women, is for plain-clothes police to patrol venues to “protect” women from “predatory and suspicious offenders”.
It is positive that the government appears to be doing more to tackle violence against women. News of an extra £20m or so for better street lighting and CCTV is also welcome. But aside from clearing that quite low bar, the policy announcement is an insult.
It should not need spelling out that the presence of extra police is not guaranteed to make women feel safer. The actions of the Met at the vigil last Saturday, which was broken up with a degree of force that even Priti Patel has questioned, has done little to reassure women that police will always support them when they need it; nor has the report of another Met officer, involved in the search for Sarah Everard, who has been taken off public duties after allegedly sending an “inappropriate graphic” to colleagues.
But even if the police did have women’s unequivocal trust, it’s hard to see how this policy would have any meaningful impact. Rape, assault, harassment and other forms of sexual violence are already crimes – they just often don’t get investigated and prosecuted. Home Office figures show that last year just 3.6 per cent of reported sexual offences resulted in prosecution. When it comes to rape specifically, that falls to 1.5 per cent. That’s 98.5 per cent of victims whose cases don’t even get to court.
And this only refers to incidents that get reported. It is difficult, by definition, to determine exactly how many rapes go unreported, but the charity Rape Crisis estimates just 15 per cent of victims of sexual violence go to the police. Social stigma and anxiety about how seriously police will take complaints (not to mention a culture of victim blaming, in which a woman’s clothes, attitude or sexual history can be used against her) no doubt contribute to that low figure.
Whichever way you crunch those numbers, they mean the vast majority of women who experience some form of harassment, assault or rape do not get the peace of mind of knowing the perpetrator is behind bars.
This is not a problem that can be fixed overnight, but a good start would be properly funding the justice system. Owing to sweeping cuts dating back to the Cameron era, cases take an average of 525 days to come to trial – and that was before the pandemic further exacerbated delays. Sexual violence cases are complex, often involving evidence such as mobile phone records or emails that can take months for police and prosecutors to process. Underfunding across the system has led to backlogs and delays that leave victims in legal limbo for months – often years. It is no wonder so many cases are dropped, either by police who lack the resources to properly investigate, or by victims themselves who can no longer bear the psychological strain.
Women who have suffered sexual assault know there is a minute chance of the perpetrator being convicted. They also know the process will be long, traumatic, and could potentially put them at further risk. All of that contributes to the atmosphere of fear that women have been trying to express over the past week.
Ensuring the police and the courts have the resources to process cases as swiftly and compassionately as possible would not only result in fewer dangerous men on the streets, but would give women more confidence that the justice system can protect them.
The government could also invest in legal aid to help domestic violence victims escape abusive partners, and increase funding for women’s refuges. It is worth noting that, while the recent conversations revolve around street-based violence, the vast majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, most likely a partner or ex-partner.
None of that is particularly flashy or exciting. “More funding for courts” is far less likely to make the front pages than “plain-clothes police will patrol bars and clubs”. But unlike undercover pub police, this funding would actually help protect women from sexual violence, ensuring victims get the justice they deserve and that perpetrators are not free to harm others. It would show the government isn’t just looking for plaudits in the aftermath of a high-profile case, but is serious about understanding why women feel unsafe and what needs to happen to make the world less dangerous for them.
When Johnson announced the policy, he said: “We must drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work better to protect and defend them.” Given what he’s actually intending to do, it looks a lot like the Prime Minister either doesn’t understand how broken the justice system is, or cares more about optics than he does about women.