Beating domestic violence needs more than Clare’s Law

Read the next sentence slowly and carefully please, because it’s important you understand my position on this subject.

Domestic violence – of any sort – is inexcusable, wrong and should not be tolerated.

At a time when charities are struggling to provide real practical help to women who have been the victims of domestic abuse, the government is introducing a piece of legislation which, in my opinion, will never achieve its aim of helping women avoid abusive relationships in the first place.  At least, not in meaningful numbers.

Furthermore, it does nothing to shift the focus and responsibility away from women and on to men, who make up the majority of abusers.

The introduction of the so-called Clare’s Law will be done via four 12 month pilot schemes in Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Gwent and Greater Manchester.

For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is an idea predicated very much on the existing sex-offenders’ register – only relating to crimes of domestic violence.  The idea being that a woman can check if the man she is about to start a relationship with has a criminal conviction for domestic violence.

But I see a number of flaws in what I am quite sure started out as a laudable attempt to do something to help women who are suffering domestic abuse. Maybe that’s because I think that doing something is not at all the same as doing the right thing.

Perhaps the biggest flaw I can see is this – no crime = no criminal record.

You can be bullied into psychological submission, ground down, have your self-worth and self-esteem eroded, live in fear that the threats and sinister atmosphere will one day become a painful, life-threatening physical reality, all (and more) of these things can take place in your home without anyone ever laying so much as a finger on you in anger, or breaking any laws.

Leave morality to one side – if you can – because the law is not a function of morality, and Clare’s Law is indeed a law.  While I’m no lawyer, I don’t think you’ll find many people have been convicted of bullying behaviour toward their spouse.

Similarly, you can avoid a criminal record by not getting caught or not being reported in the first place.

Over the course of my adult life, I think I’ve known two close female friends who had been physically assaulted by their male partners.  Or perhaps what I mean is I’ve known two women who felt able to talk about it.  In both cases it was after the fact, not during.

The 2010/11 British Crime Survey revealed that at least one-in-four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life.  According to other estimates, there may be around 40,000 incidents of domestic violence in the UK every year.  These are sickening statistics.

I know a serving police officer who works in the Met’s domestic violence unit.  The biggest problem she faces, she says, is convincing the victims to see their abuser arrested, charged, and tried.  Far too many will back down at the point of having to commit to a statement or giving evidence, leaving a prosecution impossible. The police can now prosecute without the partner’s direct involvement, but if the victim won’t cooperate this means the possible omission from a case of the only witness and a great deal of evidence.

The cases that have made it to court and secured a conviction are, sadly, the minority.  The Liberal Democrat Party undertook research in 2009 that showed only 6.4% of reported incidents of domestic violence resulted in acriminal conviction.

That’s a lot of people (men, in the overwhelming majority) not picking up a criminal record for domestic abuse.  A lot.

Clare’s Law might be able to tell a woman that the guy she might be about to fall in love with doesn’t have a record for domestic abuse.  But it’ll never be able to tell her the reason might be because he’s one of the 93.6% of cases that evaded a successful prosecution.

However, something Clare’s Law does achieve effectively is to create the impression that we have a government committed to helping the victims of domestic abuse.  It’s a very visible thing to do and legislation is a great way of demonstrating to the country that you take a matter very seriously.

Let me be clear here… if it helps just one woman avoid falling into the clutches of one of the 6.4% that will, of course, be a good thing.

But it doesn’t address the causes, only the symptoms of the problem, and will never offer real help and real hope to the overwhelming majority of women, many of whom find their only lifeline to be charities and support groups.

Local authority funding to charities working with the victims of domestic violence fell from £7.8 million in 2010/11 to £5.4 million this year, according to the Guardian.

In fact, the decline in government-funding of this vitally important sector is such that some campaigners (again, according to the Guardian) claim as many as 230 women seeking help are turned away from shelters and refuges every day.

One of the leading charities looking after these women (and their children) is Refuge.  It has had its funding slashed by 50% and may have to close.  Clearly, that would be catastrophic for the 1,600 or so women and children it currently supports, not to mention all those who will never be able to turn to it for help in the future.

(The above points can be referred back to here.)

Sometimes having a safe place to turn to can literally mean the difference between life and death.  Sometimes it can mean getting the right support to be able to find the courage to press charges and cooperate with a prosecution.  Sometimes it is the first step toward rebuilding your life, regaining a sense of self-worth and everything that comes with it.

On one hand I see charities that save lives, and that provide shelter and support, having to turn women away now and possibly facing closure in the future.

On the other hand, there is a piece of legislation that will record the past crimes of the fewer-than-10% of men convicted of domestic violence and make that information available to those who request it. And let’s not forget, there’s nothing anyone can do to make it compulsory for women to CRB check all their future partners, so even some of those will slip through the net.

This is another key flaw in the make up of Clare’s Law in my opinion.  It puts the responsibility on women to conduct background checks on men they may be starting relationships with.  From a practical point of view, I can’t help but wonder how likely it is that this will actually happen? This means every woman having to request a background check on every potential partner, anything less is a failure of the system.

Human nature will be the undoing of that, I fear. I think we’ve probably all rushed into a relationship half-blinded by love and optimism at some point in our lives. How many of us would stop to carry out some sort of background check on someone we were already starting to feel attached to?

There is, of course, also a role for men to play in tackling the problem of domestic violence.  I’d like to see the government do something more inclusive and more sustainable that involves men (the whole of society even) in an attempt at breaking down the taboos that still surround so many of the issues connected with domestic abuse, something that engenders a real deep-rooted sense of the unacceptable.

If you’ve read this far, thank you.  If you’ve read this far and are thinking “you’re a man, you could never understand” you’re a bit of an idiot.  Domestic violence can, and does, affect everyone.

I will offer this hesitant apology though.  This is a very serious topic.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  Nor do I claim to be the most eloquent of writers.  So, reader, I implore you to forgive any rough-hewn turns of phrase or arguments that don’t quite go as deep as they could.

Frankly I could have written several thousand words on this, decorating it with anecdotes and more research. I haven’t even touched on the countless cases where women had lodged complaints with the police about their partner (or former partner) only to end up being murdered before the police had done anything meaningful to intervene. In fact, Clare’s Law is named after one such woman.

But that isn’t what this piece is for.

This is my opinion on things my government is doing that will ultimately allow tragic loss of life to occur by reducing access to life-saving refuge, while blithely seeking to appease us with a piece of no doubt well-intentioned legislation that will never do more than warm the tip of the iceberg.


In praise of the front page corpse shot

The Roman poet Horace said: “pale death beats equally at the poor man’s gate and at the palaces of kings.”

And so it goes today, as it did more than 2,000 years ago when those words were written.

I was reminded of those words yesterday, upon hearing of the death of Muammar “Colonel” Gaddafi. A man who’s lowly start in life belied what was to come in later years – as he installed himself as the self-styled brother leader of Libya; autocratic king in all but name.

Like most tyrants, he got the end he probably deserved. Found cowering in a drainage tunnel, he was dragged out, beaten and shot. His corpse was dragged through the street for all to see. But not, from what I’ve read, hung upside down outside a petrol station, as the Italians did when they fell out of love with Mussolini in 1945.

It is said that it’s not enough for justice to be done. It must be seen to be done. That’s a viewpoint I have a great deal of sympathy with. But while I’m not a proponent of censorship per se, I do think that there needs to be some judgement exercised when it comes to broadcasting the image of a blood-stained corpse across the world via the mass media.

My colleague Julian Moore summed up one of the things that bothers me about the image of the dead Gaddafi, which currently adorns many of the UK national papers’ front pages: “Kids need to be brought up not thinking that violence is an acceptable part of everyday life. This doesn’t help do that.”