Tackling violence against women and girls should be as much of a priority as countering terrorism, a police watchdog has said.
It has identified major inconsistencies between police forces in how they tackle the issue.
A report was commissioned by Home Secretary Priti Patel after the murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year.
Police say they need more investment to help bring offenders more quickly to justice.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) called for “fundamental cross-system change” after identifying continuing failings.
Three-quarters of domestic abuse cases are closed early without the suspect being charged, its report said.
According to official statistics, in the year ending March 2020 there were:
- An estimated 1.6 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales
- 618,000 female victims of sexual assault
- 892,000 female victims of stalking
The HMICFRS said that the police have made “vast improvements” over a decade in dealing with this “epidemic” of violence – but there were still staggering variations between police forces.
It said a police power which allows officers to tell women that a partner has a history of abuse, known as Clare’s Law, was used so differently by individual forces it amounted to a postcode lottery.
And too often, said the inspectors, police were neither working closely enough with colleagues from other agencies nor giving the threat of violence the resources it deserved.
That response sharply contrasted to how police dealt with terrorism and, more recently, county lines drugs gangs.
These major crimes, said inspectors, were treated as national priorities, benefiting from a “clearer focus, better funding and relentless pursuit” of offenders.
‘I feared what the next step in the abuse might be’
One woman, whose identity we are protecting, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the “restrictive and aggressive” domestic abuse she faced.
“I was very frightened, and had all my civil liberties curbed – where I went, what I did, who I met with, how I spent my money.
“I was very much in fear about what the next step what be.”
On the occasions she did call the police, she says it was out of concern for her abuser – who made her feel “responsible” for his “bad moods and angry outbursts”.
Police did not understand that this “was the nature of the abusive relationship” she says, and officers initially treated the case as mental health-related.
She says her abuser threatened to burn the house down and to kill himself, before physically assaulting her.
He was arrested, but then released without charge, she explains, adding that a police officer told her that it was a matter of “he-said-she-said” and that there was “no substantial evidence”.
It takes a “huge amount of courage” to report abuse, she says, and “the point when someone is released without charge really signifies to the victim that it’s not worth ringing the police because they won’t do anything.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said police forces must “learn” from each other to improve their approach to dealing with violence against women.
He told Sky News: “Obviously Priti Patel will now look at these recommendations but I think this report does highlight some differences between police forces.
“What we really need to do is learn from those police forces that are addressing this well – and I think the report highlights that some of them are doing far better than others – and actually try and replicate those approaches that work in parts of the country.”
Sarah Everard was snatched by Met Police officer Wayne Couzens as she walked home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, on 3 March, and was then raped and strangled.
Zoe Billingham, HM Inspector of Constabulary, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that police had “vastly improved” their response to tackling violence against women and girls in the last seven years.
But she warned we would not be able to “police our way out of the the breadth and depth of crimes being inflicted on women, day in, day out”.
There needs to be an “uplift in the prioritisation” of violence against women and girls, with a “bold and radical whole system approach”, she added.
She said that councils, courts, teachers and the NHS – among others – should be expected to treat violence against women and girls “as their business” and work together to prevent it.
When HMICFRS carried out fieldwork with four forces – Avon and Somerset, Cheshire, Surrey and Humberside – it asked them to each identify 10 serious local offenders who posed an ongoing risk to women.
Of the 40 individuals identified, 34 had not actually been flagged within the force’s intelligence systems as being prolifically dangerous individuals.
Labour’s Harriet Harman, chairwoman of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, urged the government to enact the report’s recommendations and ensure it doesn’t just “gather dust on the shelf”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We need the government to implement this report, to actually put in place the structures that this report proposes, and give it the prioritisation and we also need them to ensure that the resources are there.”
Refuge, a charity providing support for women and children experiencing domestic violence, said for too long there had been a failure to implement recommendations that would improve how violence against women and girls (VAWG) is tackled.
Ruth Davison, Refuge’s chief executive, said: “This must change. The report rightly calls for ‘radical action’ and we hope that the home secretary, who has commissioned this report, will look at the recommendations carefully and respond accordingly.”
Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, the National Police Chiefs’ Council leader on violence, said the report set out a “clear way forward” for change and that there was “no lack of commitment” for this work.
She insisted that forces were recognising violence against women and girls as a “significant priority”, adding that chief constables were signing up to a national violence against women and girls strategy and a co-ordinator would be employed to to ensure the report’s recommendations were implemented.
Responding to the report, Home Secretary Priti Patel said tackling violence against women and girls was a top priority for the government.
She said: “Our VAWG Strategy, which commits to radically changing how we end abuse using a whole system approach, focuses on working with key agencies including police, healthcare and education.
“We have already taken essential action including introducing a national police lead for tackling VAWG and making Relationship Education compulsory in all primary schools.”
The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners said the way police responded to violence against and girls had improved in recent years, but consistency and improvements were still needed.
Sophie Linden, London’s deputy mayor for policing and crime and joint victims’ lead for the APCC, added: “The numbers of cases closed without a suspect being charged – either because of evidential difficulties or because the victim does not support a prosecution – shows that too many victims are still being let down.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues in this article, information and support is available via the BBC Action Line.
Additional reporting by Mary O’Connor.