Since the General Election, crime across England and Wales has fallen by 10%. It is now at its lowest level since the official crime survey began over thirty years ago. This is important news, and as Minister for Crime Prevention, it is my job to scrutinise these trends and to help them continue.
But amidst this positive news we must not lose sight of those statistics and stories which show we have a long way still to go. Violence against women and girls is one of those areas.
This Sunday marked the thirteenth United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. It is a significant day which reminds us that, while great strides have been made towards gender equality, violence against women and girls has stubbornly persisted. A shocking and unacceptable number of women – two per week – are killed at the hands of their abuser in England and Wales alone. Across the globe, 1 in 3 women and girls will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetimes. It is distressing and uncomfortable to see these numbers in clear black and white and we must not brush these ‘hidden crimes’ under the carpet.
Liberal Democrats have always understood the importance of a woman’s right to live without fear of violence and we reiterated it again in 2011 at our Autumn Conference where the motion “Tackling Violence against Women” became official party policy.
The Coalition Government too is putting this issue front and centre with our ambitious Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls launched in 2010 and supporting action plan updated earlier this year. The plan commits the government to tackling violence against women across all Whitehall departments and focuses on prevention, the provision of services for victims and how to tackle these crimes in the criminal justice system.
Even in times of austerity we are putting substantial sums of money behind these efforts. We have ring-fenced £40 million of stable funding for specialist services to tackle violent and sexual abuse against women and girls. We are increasing the provision of rape crisis centres focusing on areas that lacked provision before.
We are also prioritising work on crimes which have been often overlooked in the past: criminalising forced marriage and breach of forced marriage protection orders, and undertaking new strategies, in conjunction with DFID, to end female genital mutilation. We must ensure that these appalling crimes are not ignored due to misguided cultural sensitivities. We have also introduced a new offence to tackle potentially life-destroying crime of stalking. And with new stories on the Jimmy Savile case, Rochdale grooming trials, and other similar cases coming to light with an alarming regularity, the Government is striving even harder to tackle abuse in our society at every level and especially in places where the State is supposed to be protecting the most vulnerable.
We Liberal Democrats have always understood that crime does not occur in a vacuum and that the prevention of a crime is not a singular process. It requires a co-ordinated and varied approach. From preventing violence happening in the first place through meaningful culture change, to protecting the victim and empowering women, there is much to be done. Our 2011 motion led the way in proposing a multi-faceted approach to tackle the issue. As part of the Coalition Government we have had the opportunity to make some of the policies in this motion a reality.
But we have more still to do. We should keep up the pressure on those local authorities that see women’s specialist services as an easier target for budget reductions. We must keep the profile of this issue high, so that the new Police and Crime Commissioners feel an obligation to prioritise it. And we must be determined and fearless in shining a light on abuse wherever it happens, no matter how uncomfortable for the Government or for society.
I am clear that crime against women is not a ‘women’s issue’ nor is it just an ‘equalities issue’. Violence against women and girls is a crime, pure and simple. And we are working hard to confront and reduce it.
* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and was previously a minister in both the Home and Foreign offices.