I wanted to take the chance to speak about the events of the last week following the tragic death of Sarah Everard. I know the country feels a sense of collective grief and trauma, at the loss of this young woman who was simply walking home and alarm at the fact it is a police officer who has been charged.
Stories have poured out over the last week of the steps women and girls take on a daily basis, as a matter of course, to protect themselves. The fact is that women do not feel safe in public, we have normalised that fear and accepted it; that must change.
Seeing the scenes on Saturday evening on Clapham Common was very alarming. As a long-time campaigner for women’s rights and survivors of sexual violence this issue felt very close to my heart, complicated yet further by the fact that I used to be a Special Constable in the Brixton/Clapham area. Policing public order is always extremely sensitive but the point is that Saturday’s vigil should never have been treated as a public order issue. The women who simply wanted to come and pay their respects and show solidarity in their grief should have been able to do so within the Covid restrictions and the police should have allowed that, just as they did here in Sheffield without incident.
Many constituents have contacted me over this weekend to express their frustrations and to discuss the ramifications for upcoming legislation like the Police bill and Domestic Abuse bill.
Last week began with International Women’s Day which is a day to celebrate the progress we have made in the pursuit of women’s equality, including through the Equality Act and the Equal Pay Act 1970. However, as Sarah’s death has shown, while we have come a long way, progress towards meaningful change for women is still too slow.
Firstly, in terms of action on domestic abuse, we must ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently before Parliament, works for all victims. Sadly, domestic abuse significantly increased during COVID-19. In May 2020, the domestic abuse charity Refuge said that during the initial stages of the pandemic, it had experienced an increase of around 50% in demand to its Helpline, and an increase of over 300% in visits to its National Domestic Abuse Helpline website.
The Conservatives are repeatedly letting down victims of domestic abuse on every front, with falls in prosecution rates, trial delays and domestic violence victims being denied legal aid. This government must ensure that we have a criminal justice system that will be there to support domestic victims throughout.
A number of constituents have also asked for my thoughts on treating misogyny as a hate crime. We have a long way to go to make our public spaces, both online and offline, safe for women. I firmly believe there is a need for a long overdue change in the law so that misogynistic acts are treated as the serious hate crimes they are. It is very concerning that data published by the Fawcett Society showed there had been 67,000 gender hate incidents in England and Wales in 2018, with 57,000 of these targeted at women. The scale of misogyny in our society must no longer be tolerated and Labour will be pushing for this to be made law.
Finally, ahead of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill coming to the House of Commons, it is important that we take this opportunity to tackle violence against women and girls in the round. I believe my colleague David Lammy MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice has put this very well:
“In the 20 schedules, 176 clauses and 296 pages of the Conservatives’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, “women” are not mentioned even once. This is a missed opportunity to tackle violence against women and girls that has become endemic in the UK. Under the Conservatives, rape convictions have fallen to an all-time low, delays in the Crown Courts are at an all-time high, and justice is not being served for thousands of women and girls. After a decade of inaction, the Government must now work with Labour to legislate to tackle violence against women.”
Labour will be voting against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on this basis. We are calling on the government to drop its poorly thought-out proposals and instead work with Labour to legislate to tackle violence against women which is forcing so many across the country to live in fear. As well as to deliver the important areas that are long promised, like tougher sentences for attacks on frontline workers and increased sentences for terrorists.
There are good and important reforms in the bill. Some of the best measures come from campaigns by Labour MPs: Stephanie Peacock on dangerous driving, Christ Bryant and Holly Lynch on protect the protectors, John Spellar on reform of the DBS scheme and Sarah Champion on sexual abuse by people in positions of trust. Labour supports these measures, alongside others taken from the Lammy Review.
Labour has outlined a package of measures that it argues should be included in the “once in a generation” chance for sweeping reforms to sentencing and protections for women and girls. The measures Labour proposes include increasing the minimum sentences for rapists and stalkers, creating a new street harassment law, introducing a Whole Life Tariff for anyone found guilty of abduction and sexual assault and murder of a stranger, announcing a Review to toughen up sentences for domestic murderers and making misogyny a hate crime.
If you have any concerns about your safety, or that of anyone you know, please contact the police on 999 in an emergency or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (run between Women’s Aid and Refuge): 0808 2000 247.