Wera Hobhouse: We need to do more to tackle violence against women and girls

This week, Lib Dem Women and Equalities Spokesperson Wera Hobhouse spoke in a parliamentary debate on preventing violence against women and girls. She spoke about the need for age appropriate sex education to help tackle sexual harassment in schools, the need for local authorities to be given sufficient funding to help victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, the failure of the criminal justice system in this area and the need to make misogyny a hate crime.

She said:

It is a real pleasure and privilege to speak in this debate. We have talked about this issue many times, and I could not agree more with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that the time for talking should be over and we need to see a lot more action.

I want to praise the organisations in Bath that are working on tackling violence against women and girls: the Southside project, which supports families affected by domestic violence and abuse; Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support, or SARSAS, a specialist support service for women and girls who have experienced any form of sexual violence at any point in their lives; and Voices, a survivor-led charity supporting those living with and beyond domestic abuse to recover from their trauma, which redoubled its efforts during the pandemic to make sure that no one was forgotten. I was delighted to recognise Voices with the first Best of Bath award last year.

But we should not leave it to charities to tackle violence against women and girls. We must do a lot more not only to support survivors but to prevent the terrible violence from occurring in the first place. We absolutely need to improve police training so that victims and survivors are properly supported. Many crimes do not even enter the criminal justice system. Over 600,000 women are sexually assaulted each year, but only one in six of those assaults is reported to the police. We must give women and girls the reassurance that their concerns are taken seriously whenever they report crimes of assault or domestic abuse.

I would like to add something to the motion before us today. Supporting victims of violence and sexual abuse begins at a local level. The Government must support local authorities to perform this vital task by giving them the duty and funding to provide accommodation for survivors of abuse. Our criminal justice system is failing women. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to not only report sexual abuse but then to relive that trauma in the courts. To add insult to injury, 1.6% of reported rapes lead to a charge. I need to repeat that: 1.6% of reported rapes lead to a charge. We are letting survivors down; it is shocking. We absolutely need better training and more resources for prosecutors and judges to punish perpetrators and deliver the justice that victims and survivors so desperately need.

We are still waiting for the Government to ratify the Istanbul convention, 10 years after signing it. We are one of only 13 countries that are dragging their feet. The Istanbul convention enshrines rights of survivors of sexual violence, including the right to access crisis counselling and mental health support. The Government have yet to give a good reason for that delay. This is really about the number of support centres that the Government should support and fund, and I think that is the reason they are dragging their feet: it is simply about money. I hope that the Minister can give her commitment to ratifying the convention without delay, and do so today. I ask the Government: please sign the Istanbul convention.

Violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. If we are serious about tackling it, then we need a dramatic culture change. We in Parliament, and Government, have to lead that change: it is our duty. It starts with better age-appropriate sex and relationship education in schools. I welcome the Minister’s announcement today that something will be done, as I was a teacher six years ago. It was just not good enough for tired teachers to give some relationship training in the afternoon after all the lessons had finished.

This specialist advice and to talk to young people, whose formative years are the most important, about relationship forming. I completely agree that specialist services are needed in schools.

Once again, it is simply a matter of resources. Schools must be given extra resource to have specialists who guide young people into proper relationships. It will probably save us a lot of money if we get this right, but we need to spend the money in the first place.

To back this up, a 2021 Ofsted report highlighted just how early sexual harassment begins, to the point where it becomes “commonplace”. According to the report, 92% of girls said that sexist name calling happens a lot or sometimes; and 80% of girls—80%—reported being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves. These figures speak for themselves and say that we need urgent action.

It is hugely disappointing that the Government continue to rule out making misogyny a hate crime. Yes, we discussed this at the beginning of the week, but I need to repeat what I said just two days ago: we have to get to the root causes of violence against women and girls. We must send a powerful message that negative attitudes towards women that lead to hate and lead to offences—from harassment all the way to very serious sexual assault—are not acceptable, and that is what making misogyny a hate crime would do. Hate crime legislation, as we have established, does not add to an offence, but it has made a clear difference to crimes based on racial or religious hate. Why do women not deserve the same treatment? I still cannot understand why the Government are not supporting this. Making misogyny a hate crime is not a silver bullet, but existing hate crime legislation has made a clear difference. So let us get on with it and make misogyny a hate crime.

None of the steps that I have pointed to will make violence against women and girls stop overnight, but the time of inaction and making excuses is up—we owe it to all women and girls who suffer violence and harassment on a daily basis.

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  • Brad Barrows 6th Mar '22 - 3:30pm

    It is totally shocking and unacceptable that only 1.6% of allegations of rape lead to charges when repeated studies have shown that the prevalence of false/malicious allegations is no more than 3% to 5% of all allegations. In other words, 98% of rape allegations that are not proved false or malicious still do not result in charges! How can that be? In England and Wales, which does not require corroboration of evidence to secure conviction, one statement by someone claiming to have been raped could be enough to secure conviction, so why is such a low percentages of cases finding their way to court? This is a disgrace.

  • Helen Dudden 6th Mar '22 - 5:39pm

    It’s important that we make it clear in Great Britain we don’t have grooming or gang rapes.
    I’m sorry if this sound’s harsh, but let’s have a better, quicker outcome on the subject.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th Mar '22 - 12:27pm

    A good and detailed contribution from Wera.

    One aspect that Liberal Democrats as with others too, are not getting to grips with, is the prevalence of violence in the sexual depictions in the media. It is correct to oppose unworkable online controls. But it is foolish to ignore the online harm of some connections with pornographic simulation, involving violent scenarios. A common, internet approach, perhaps involving the providers of such sites, rather than a unilateral uk effort, is needed. It is dangerously complacent to assume no harm from sexual violence, fake or not, depicted, viewed, at the click of a few keys, on computers.

    This, as well as non sexual, non sexist violence, in computer games and even adult oriented mainstream films, must be considered. Liberalism, as this party knows, is not, should not therefore be considered as, Libertarianism. We had absurd cencorship years ago. Now we have little decorum. Somewhere in there is a missing balance.

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