Huffington Post Article: More needs to be done to tackle Domestic Violence

Last week, on the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Government announced a new initiative in "Clare's Law".

In 2009, Clare Wood made a desperate 999 call to the police as her violent ex-partner, George Appleton, threatened to kill her before he eventually broke in and strangled her. After a dedicated campaign, "Clare's Law" now seeks to ensure that women are able to go to the police and find out if their partner has an abusive past.

Ensuring that women can access information about who they are sharing their lives with is welcome, but the government must do more to reduce this appalling crime.

Last year, 1.2million women and 800,000 men reported domestic abuse, up 10% in the past three years. In the same time frame, the number of cases the police referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) fell by 13%. In essence, fewer perpetrators were stopped and more victims remain at risk.

To improve this situation the Government needs to look carefully and holistically at the nature of domestic violence and continue the work of the last Labour government. What is crucial, is that victims are made to feel that if they report abuse; they will be taken seriously and that it will result in both protection for themselves, and conviction for the perpetrator.

A failure to provide both protection and conviction means that victims of this type of abuse will inevitably be cautious about coming forward. Already, it is estimated that 70% of abuse goes unreported and on average, a woman will be abused 35 times before she makes contact with the police. These are simply appalling statistics.

But why are these figures so high? For most of us, our homes are a safe place but for victims of domestic violence home is often the scene of abuse which can take many forms; physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional. When it comes to tackling domestic violence, the Government and all the relevant agencies needs to understand that the threat of seeing your children go hungry or the uncertainty of having to leave your home can be just as strong as the threat that comes from physical violence in the first place.

The continued threat from an abusive partner or family member can mean that breaking the cycle of abuse, even after reporting it to the police, is difficult, and the promise of protection is vital. Whilst Domestic Violence Protection Orders can offer a means of protection, sometimes entering a refuge may be the only practical, and safe, option. A recent report by Women's Aid found that close to 28,000 women were turned away from the first refuge they went to last year. The Government needs to urgently address this shortfall if they are serious about protecting victims from abuse.

I believe our criminal justice system needs to put the victim first - the CJS must be focused better around the needs of the victim. That's why I am working with Sadiq Khan on a Victims Law which would enshrine the rights of victims into statute. Rights such as being kept informed by the police as an investigation proceeds, or finding out at least 28 days in advance of a perpetrator being released.

It's why Yvette Cooper has announced that Labour would introduce a National Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence who would set national standards for training and provision of specialist services. These are initiatives which would make a real difference in tackling these appalling crimes and provide the protection which is required.

Victims of domestic abuse not only require protection, they also require action against the perpetrator of the crime. Under the last Labour Government, the number of domestic abuse cases being referred to the CPS rose by 23%. Since 2010, it has decreased by 13%. This is a damning indictment on the government and one which, again, needs to be urgently addressed. If we are serious about tackling domestic violence, we need to punish the perpetrators.

Finally, I believe we must consider how we can break the cycle of abuse and stop young people who are subjected to and witness domestic violence during their upbringing, and where they can grow up thinking abusive relationships are the norm. Domestic violence is all too often rooted in early upbringing and the family environment. Those who are subject to or witness abuse at a young age are much more likely to become victims or perpetrators later on in life.

Educating young people about what is a healthy and non-abusive relationship is key to preventing domestic and sexual violence in the future. This means ensuring that sex and relationship education is provided to all young people. That is why a Labour government would legislate to make this education compulsory.

Any initiative which protects victims from domestic abuse is welcome. Thanks to the commitment of a dedicated group of campaigners, "Clare's Law" will seek to ensure that women can check the background of their partner. But as the amount of abuse rises, and the rate of convictions decrease, the government needs to carefully look again at their priorities. If they are serious about tackling this isolating and obscene crime, they will need to do much more. (This article was first published in the Huffington Post on 2nd December 2013).

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