Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive
Wednesday 29 March 2023
As part of our ongoing series of blog posts Crest Advisory is posing some of the big policy questions around crime and justice. Following his blog on the key issues facing the criminal justice system, CEO Harvey Redgrave explores violence against women and girls in the wake of the Casey Review.
Will the Casey Review lead to real change?
Goodness knows we’ve talked about the problem of violence against women and girls (VAWG) for long enough - there are no shortage of strategy documents, mission statements and action plans pledging to ‘tackle’ (although never ‘reduce’) violence against women and girls. However, we have learnt to our cost that the amount of time devoted to talking about problems is not necessarily an indicator of the seriousness with which those problems are treated. The conviction of a serving Metropolitan Police officer for kidnap, rape and murder triggered a crisis in confidence in the service, and led to Baroness Louise Casey’s review into the culture and standards of the force.
The Review is arguably one of the most damning reports regarding a major public sector institution to have ever been published (declaration of interest: several members of the Crest team worked on the Review team). Whilst much of the commentary around Casey’s review focused on problems relating to the vetting and misconduct systems, a no-less-damning revelation was the failure to treat violence against women and girls as an operational priority, despite repeated public pronouncements to the contrary.
In particular, Casey demonstrates how the degrading of ‘public protection’ as a specialist capability, in areas like domestic abuse, rape and other sexual offences, has put women at greater risk than necessary and helps explain the miserably low clear-up rates for those offences. Casey is surely right to draw a contrast between the way knife crime is prioritised by the Met - via well-staffed knife crime suppression task forces - and the treatment of domestic abuse, which is often passed down to inexperienced and over-stretched officers working in Basic Command Units that have been left to wrack and ruin. It reveals a complacency at the heart of the country’s biggest police force when it comes to keeping women safe.
The headlines generated by Casey’s report potentially make this one of those rare moments of consensus, like the Macpherson Report or Windrush, where change starts to feel inevitable. Two days after her report landed, the Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper pledged to halve violence against women and girls - putting action on the issue at the centre of their mission for government. It is to be hoped that this signals a shift, not just in ambition, but in action.
How big a problem are we talking about?
What makes the failure to prioritise VAWG so troubling is that we are not talking about a niche concern, but a problem that impacts millions of victims. The latest data we have available on the prevalence of sexual violence (up to March 2022) suggest that around 7 million women have been the victim of sexual assault (including attempts) since the age of 16 and 2 million women have been the victim of rape - nearly 8 per cent of women in this country.
The figures on domestic abuse (up to November 2022) are equally stark, showing that an estimated 10.4 million adults had experienced DA since the age of 16 - equivalent to 22 per cent of adults. The ONS calculate that domestic abuse now accounts for nearly two fifths (17 per cent) of total recorded crime. Whilst domestic abuse is not exclusively perpetrated by men, the overwhelming majority of victims are female - and these offences can be a predictor of more serious offending: ‘domestic homicides’ represent around a fifth of total murders in England and Wales.
Perhaps most worrying of all is what we know about women’s willingness to report these crimes. Fewer than one in six victims of sexual offences (16 per cent) say they had reported assaults to the police. For those that told someone about the abuse, but did not report it to the police, the most common reasons given were: ‘embarrassment’, ‘did not think they could help’, or ‘thought it would be humiliating’. Shockingly, a quarter of victims thought the police would not believe them. Perhaps, given Casey’s findings, we ought to be surprised that this figure isn’t even higher.
The challenge is clear: violence against women and girls is a quality of life issue.
What needs to be done to stop it?
Nobody ought to pretend that reducing violence against women and girls will be easy. Sexual assaults, in particular, are more complicated and time-consuming to investigate than some other offences. The initial stage of an investigation, when the police have to gather enough evidence to refer a case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), has become more complex, with an increase in the amount of evidence to consider, often from mobile phones. Between 2012 and 2022 the time taken by police in England and Wales to investigate a rape case and for prosecutors to decide whether to prosecute more than doubled.
In the end, what can make or break a case is the degree to which victims of sexual assault feel inclined to stay engaged with the process in order to secure a conviction. Often victims withdraw their complaints because they dread the intrusion into their privacy that comes with a routine investigation and are treated by the different agencies responsible as an afterthought.
Proportion of crimes not proceeding due to evidential difficulties (victim does not support action)
However, the complexities involved should not be used as an excuse for inaction. We know there are practical reforms that would make a difference to reducing violence against women and girls, from the way initial calls are handled, the quality of victim liaison services, through to further limiting the CPS’ ability to make disproportionate demands for rape complainants’ phone contents. The roll-out of Operation Soteria, which will put the focus of investigation back on suspects, rather than victims, is likely to have a significant impact.
The same applies at court too, where the tools exist to support vulnerable victims but are neither consistently nor robustly used. Court staff must properly utilise special measures to help witnesses give evidence. Prosecutors should make greater use of technology to allow Section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses. And victims’ should be supported to exercise their rights under the Victims Code of Practice (shortly to become law) to give a Victim Personal Statement to help the court understand the impact of the offence on them.
For these reforms to add up to more than the sum of their parts, they need to be underpinned by a fundamental change in mindset from the top of government, right across policing and the criminal justice system, which no longer treats violence against women as just another type of crime. If the government are serious about this being a national emergency, they will need to ensure the same resources, infrastructure and tools are in place to support domestic abuse and rape investigators as exists for other policing priorities, such as organised crime and terrorism.