Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

The Labour Women’s Safety Commission

Making women safe is something on which the Labour Government spent time and resources. Now, the well-known concern that the Coalition Government is hurting women disproportionately in the purse compared to the impact on the male wallet, has turned a more worrying corner. Because the cuts in public spending, legal aid, local government and the police – to mention just a few – appear not to be being assessed for their cumulative impact on women’s personal safety.

Street lights being turned off and poorer public transport make women anxious, whilst police cuts could lead to fewer specialist officers to support women who are raped or assaulted and will see 16000 less police on the beat. The closure of many domestic violence services and the end of legal aid for family law may mean that abused women have no way out of dangerous relationships. Job cuts in the public sector are turning the clock back and women who want to work may instead be caught in poverty and powerlessness at the kitchen sink.

This is not a scare story. Serious concerns are being voiced by innumerable women’s organisations as diverse as the Women’s Institute, which has produced a seminal paper on the impact of the legal aid cuts, and the Eaves/Poppy project, which has pointed to high numbers of women suffering stalking and so-called honour crimes with nowhere to turn for help. The overall true impact is hard to measure or even to grasp on the general information that is available nationally now.

It is unlikely that a responsible Government would deliberately expose half of the population to danger. But the last 18 months has shown with stunning clarity that this almost wholly male, boys’ public school-dominated Government has little cultural affinity with women’s issues and no understanding of the impact of their decisions on women’s lives.

Hence they attempted to give anonymity to rape defendants, 50 years after the Heilbron Review rejected it and when the real problem is that the trial system doesn’t give women the confidence to prosecute. Kenneth Clarke insinuated that ‘real’ rape was being attacked by a stranger, when 80% of cases are by partners, ex partners or acquaintances.

He proposed 50% sentence cuts for men who plead guilty practically on arrest, at the very time when the complaint to conviction rate – which improves as a case progresses – is just 7%. As it becomes ever more obvious to police and the courts that rape is frequently a serial offence, the government plans to delete 17000 rape suspects from the DNA database, removing any chance of a match in future cases.

Understanding the need to be sympathetic, the Government announced that victims of domestic violence will be exceptions to the ban on family legal aid. However the definition of domestic violence is tighter than the well-used ACPO one, and the evidence required to prove abuse is narrowed to exclude almost everybody who hasn’t got a court order already. When Parliament debated this move, the ConDems talked constantly about “false claims” of domestic abuse, not about safeguarding the vulnerable. Most estimates are that 80% of women who would currently get help through legal aid will be left to fend for themselves when they are trying to get out of a violent relationship, which is well-known to be the most dangerous time, as domestic violence escalates when the perpetrator tries desperately to regain control.

Equally worrying is that, by removing family law from the scope of legal aid, violent men will handle their own cases at court, getting a state-sponsored opportunity to abuse their victims further by cross-examining them face to face.

But recent spending and legislative decisions by the Government aren’t just impacting on women in abusive relationships. They also have worrying implications for the safety of a much wider group of women too.

Over half of local authorities who responded to a Labour Party survey last month were reducing their street lighting to save cash; 98 out of 133 councils approached by the Times were scaling back lighting or considering doing so. While Local Government and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles calls this“ a sensible decision” the Police Federation says:

“The lighter an area is the safer it is—the cuts could well mean that back streets and outer areas become a more fertile area for criminals to become more active in.”

All these potentially damaging changes are already in progress. There are additional worries about who will commission domestic abuse support services when Primary Care Trusts are scrapped; what priorities new Police Commissioners will set for spending after November 2012. As women’s incomes are squeezed and men also lose work, the links which exist between economic stress and domestic violence suggest that women will become more likely to be victimised, at a time when they are less resourced to get away- a potently poisonous combination.

Although some work has been done to audit the cumulative impact of these recent changes by False Economy and Voluntary Sector Cuts, there is not, as yet, a clear picture. Yvette Cooper has asked me to chair a Women’s Safety Commission, to go nationwide and to examine with speed and thoroughness the impact of spending and policy changes, as well as to consider legislative measures that could safeguard women’s safety, despite the downturn and the dearth of public funds. We will be coming shortly to a place near you, but in the meantime, click here to go to the website and send us your views. We need your help to find out whether these widely held concerns are better, or worse, than reality.