In a debate on Monday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, unwittingly demonstrated how utterly disconnected from reality political thinking on domestic violence has become. The short debate, between her and Garry Shewan, assistant chief constable for Greater Manchester, showed perfectly how policy on domestic violence is currently being made on the hoof, using incomplete and misleadingly presented information, in order to cynically get political mileage out of a sensitive and complex societal problem.
The debate concerned the question of whether too many ‘community resolutions’ were being used to deal with domestic-abuse cases. The term ‘community resolution’ refers to the peculiar disposal of a case in which the police basically engineer an apology or some other ‘action between parties’, bringing the case to a close without a prosecution. Cooper said that the number of cases in which community resolutions were being applied had tripled in recent years. This now meant, she said, that ‘thousands of domestic abusers’ were being let off criminal charges ‘by saying sorry’.
But this is a severely incomplete and distorted picture. Before Cooper spoke, Shewan pointed out that, yes, there were nearly 7,000 instances last year when community resolutions were used to settle domestic abuse cases. But, he continued, given that there are approximately one million incidents of domestic violence every year, community resolutions are actually being used in less than one per cent of total cases. He then justified the use of community resolutions on the grounds that it would be absurd to prosectute the cases to which community resolutions were applied, like snapping off a wing mirror in a moment of anger – especially if the victim did not wish to pursue it. He pointed out that there were ample safeguards in place to ensure that community resolutions were not used in cases of serious violence.
All Cooper could do was repeat the go-to statistic, which is wheeled out whenever one politician wants to say that another politician is failing to deal with domestic violence, which is that two women a week die at the hands of their partners or an ex. This is, tragically, true, but when Cooper was pushed to provide evidence that cases involving violence were being resolved using community resolutions, Cooper couldn’t. When asked whether there was any evidence that cases involving serious violence were not being dealt with seriously, she couldn’t. Her argument, which she had come on the programme to defend, was quickly shown up to be nothing more than completely shameless scaremongering.
But what of Cooper’s claim that the use of these disposals had trebled in recent years? Such an increase would make sense, given that the definition of what constitutes ‘abuse’, and therefore grounds for police interference, has expanded beyond recognition. As well as snapping off a wing mirror, many even less serious offences could potentially be recorded as ‘domestic abuse’ today. These include ‘harassment’, which can often be prosecuted on the basis of name-calling and raised voices, depending on how the complainant experienced the behaviour. In a context in which the police are allowed to intervene in a very broad range of behaviour, it makes sense that those involved in these ‘offences’ may well respond by discontinuing police involvement as soon as possible. The fact that the use of these disposals has increased may say more about our very broad notion of what constitutes ‘abuse’ today than it does about the police’s lackadaisical approach to serious violent offences.