Comment: Labour transformed the way domestic violence was dealt with in Britain

For a new generation the ‘just a domestic’ approach taken by police for much of the 1980s and 1990s would be unrecognisable


It can be easy to forget just how absent the issue of violence against women and girls (or VAWG) was from the mainstream political agenda before the last Labour government.

Previous decades  had seen issues of domestic violence, sexual abuse and other forms of violence that disproportionately affect women gradually  driven up the agenda by feminist activists in the voluntary sector, who set up the first refuges and rape crisis centres in the 1970s, and had been gathering the evidence and campaigning for change ever since. Yet responses from government and Parliament had been slow, and inadequate.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between then and now, and hence Labour’s greatest impact in this area, is in the acknowledgement and prioritisation of domestic violence in particular. A generation has grown up in the interim for whom the ‘just a domestic’ approach taken by police for much of the 1980s and 1990s would be unrecognisable.

The Crown Prosecution Service did not even start monitoring domestic violence offences until 2004. The only site of relative progress was the courts, where survivors like Sara Thornton, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, and Zoora Shah had long sentences for killing the men who had abused them for years overturned. But the rest of the criminal justice system continued largely unchanged.

At the political level, the relative lack of interest is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that, even in Labour’s own 1997 manifesto, domestic violence receives just one non-specific mention  of ‘action to tackle’ it, alongside much more detailed pledges on drugs and anti-social behaviour.

The manifesto of the outgoing Conservative government does not mention it at all. This is in 1996 when, according to the British Crime Survey, there were three million incidents of domestic violence, which accounted for between nearly a quarter of all violent crime.

Once in government, Labour signalled its intention to pursue a pro-arrest, pro-prosecution approach when responsibility for VAWG was handed to the Home Office from the Women’s Unit at the Cabinet Office in 1999.

Following extensive research and consultation with survivors and practitioners, the Justice for All White Paper and Safety and Justice Green Paper outlined the key measures of Labour’s legislative approach, made law by the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.

Among other provisions targeting perpetrators, this made common assault an arrestable offence for the first time, meaning the police could step in before domestic violence escalated to greater levels of brutality. If a perpetrator breached a civil order that a victim had obtained against them through the family courts, this was now a criminal offence punishable by up to a five year custodial sentence.

The scope of civil orders was expanded to include same-sex and cohabiting couples, in recognition that domestic violence was not limited to married people, and did not exclusively take place between men and women. Restraining orders could now be applied upon conviction for any offence, and not only where an offender had been found to have harassed the victim already.

Yet crucially, alongside the focus on tackling perpetrators, the Labour government also introduced or expanded various forms of support for victims, all of which remain core parts of the service landscape in domestic violence today.

Many of these were non-legislative, and almost all recognised the significant expertise that the voluntary sector had been developing in this area while government was doing little.

Rolled out from 2003, Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs) bring the key statutory and voluntary agencies together once a month to discuss the needs of those victims judged to be at the highest risk from their violent partners or ex-partners.

Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs), introduced in 2005 and primarily employed by the key domestic violence charities, guide and advocate for victims at all stages of the process, making them the only criminal justice professionals whose role is solely focused on the welfare of victims, and not the success of prosecutions.

Special Domestic Violence Courts (SDVCs), the first of which were accredited in 2005, see magistrates and staff who are specially trained in dealing with domestic violence work with police, probation and voluntary sector support workers to manage cases and share information in a more coordinated way.

Even in its last years, the Labour government was developing new additions to the police armoury such as Domestic Violence Protection Orders, or ‘Go’ Orders. Enabling the police to remove a suspected perpetrator from the home temporarily, these were designed to give victims a chance to access support and consider whether and how to leave, these were legislated for in 2009-10.

After pilots showed that they were associated with a reduced level of repeat victimisation, these were rolled out  by the Coalition Government in 2014. Labour’s legacy of forcing the system to take domestic violence seriously hence stretches even beyond its time in government.

There have been positive further steps taken by successive governments, such as the pioneering ‘This is Abuse’ awareness campaign on abusive relationships between teenagers.

It’s also true, as with all governments, that Labour missed some opportunities which the party now rightly campaigns on in opposition, such as preventing violence by putting mandatory sex and healthy relationships on the national curriculum.

No political party has yet tackled the problems faced by women with insecure immigration status trapped in abusive situations.

But it is not possible to escape the fact that the significant progress that has been made on domestic violence over the last twenty years has been built on the foundation laid down by Labour’s thirteen in government.

It is imperative that Labour never forgets the scale of this achievement when, even in 2016, too many women in our communities are relying on us to protect it, and to go even further.

Ellie Cumbo is a researcher who works in the voluntary sector with a particular emphasis on criminal justice and violence against women. She is also on the Fabian Women’s Network Executive Committee.

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