Domestic violence is falling. Why aren’t people celebrating?
The UK’s director of public prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer, ought to be pleased with himself. After years of special attention from the authorities, the rate of conviction in domestic-violence cases is up for the second year running, to around 70 per cent of all cases brought to court. That is a big success. On top of that, the number of cases of domestic violence referred by the police to the DPP is way down. The pattern of a higher conviction rate from fewer cases is true not just of domestic violence cases, but also of rape, and also of child-sex abuse.
Any public servant with this sort of success ought to be celebrating. But not Keir Starmer.
On the contrary, the DPP says he does not believe that the incidence of domestic violence is falling. He wants an inquiry to find out why the numbers are not right. He thinks the police are losing cases of domestic violence.
The DPP is in the grip of a fixed idea. He is determined to show that the courts will punish wife batterers, rapists and child abusers.
Starmer has made many changes to make prosecution more likely; changes to the rules of evidence, changes to the instructions that judges give to juries, and changes in the way that the police follow up allegations. Clearly those changes have increased the conviction rate.
But Starmer’s fixed idea will not let him go. A man with a hammer sees a world full of nails, Buckminster Fuller said. Keir Starmer sees a world full of domestic violence, because he is out to stop it. He is not alone. The Home Office, the courts, parliament, the police and the press have all made domestic violence, rape and child abuse a priority for two decades now.
The policemen who would not get involved in a ‘domestic’; the judges who told juries to think about how the victim was dressed; the prosecutors who demanded to know about victims’ previous sexual history; the juries that believed women were ‘asking for it’: all of those are stereotypes of the way that the criminal-justice system used to deal with domestic violence and rape. The reason those images are so strong in our minds is that most people find them repugnant, not because they are commonplace today.
Starmer does not believe that the incidence of domestic violence is falling. Of course, it is true that crime statistics are open to all kinds of distortion. Still, the British Crime Survey finds that domestic violence has been on the decline since 1993, falling by around 40 per cent. That is a long-term trend that seems unlikely to be changed by statistical juggling.
We do not know why the rate of domestic violence is falling. One likely reason is that more women are earners in their own right. Since the 1990s, there have been as many women on the payroll as men (though men in aggregate work more hours). Women who earn are less likely to stay with men who beat them.
Another reason is that society’s attitudes towards domestic violence have changed. Wife beating was not acceptable in the 1970s, but there was a greater willingness to turn a blind eye to it. Nowadays, most people are horrified by it.
There is yet another clue to the fall in rates of domestic violence. And that is that all violence has been falling since the 1990s. This is not just a British phenomenon; it is reported in the US and Europe, too. It seems that contemporary society is just a lot more squeamish about violence.
Unfortunately, those who disapprove of domestic violence often hold an equally powerful belief that other people are wedded to it. Starmer’s outlook pulls together a strong desire to protect women, with an equally strong belief that men are prone to commit violence against women. Even though the number of men who do batter their wives and girlfriends is few, he believes it must be much greater; even though the number is falling, he does not believe it.
It is a good thing that crime stats are questioned. It is not such a good thing that the man with authority for these stats calls them into question on the basis of a prejudice. Starmer’s doubts about the stats will give many who share his prejudices licence to dismiss the evidence. Not for the first time, fear of crime, which is a nice way of saying hatred of other people, will be taken as real, while incidence of crime will be dismissed as illusion. It is all rather reminiscent of Chris Morris’s Brass Eye parody of crime fears, where a bullish commentator is made to say ‘so much for recorded crimes – but crimes we know nothing about are going up as well’.
James Heartfield is author most recently of The European Union and the End of Politics, published by ZER0 Books. Visit his website here.