Preventing violence against women and girls should be considered as much of a priority as counter-terrorism, county lines and organised crime, a police watchdog has suggested.
The comments came as a root-and-branch examination by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found “problems, unevenness and inconsistencies” in dealing with the “epidemic” of violence against female victims in the UK.
The watchdog said the police response to such offences and victims “has improved” in the last five years but said there remained concerns, including the “staggering variation” in the way domestic abuse was dealt with across police forces in England and Wales.
Asked whether violence against women and girls should be treated by police equally to counter-terrorism, Zoë Billingham, HM inspector of constabulary, said: “These are very different crime and the tactics for preventing and disrupting these crimes are very different.
“But it is undeniable if we look at what policing priorities are … those crimes you have mentioned, county lines, counter-terrorism, serious and organised crime, some forms of child abuse as well, those are priorities within the police’s strategic requirements.
“Violence against girls is not highlighted specifically as a priority within the strategic policing requirement, the only real signal the government has to state what its priorities are.
“We think it should be highlighted in there, so that translates to an understanding at local force level that the government really means business about this, that not only is there the expectation on forces that they will treat this as an utmost priority but the government itself will also review and consider progress the forces are making too.”
Pressed if this meant violence against women and girls should be treated on an equal footing to counter-terrorism, Billingham added: “They should be afforded a priority that is equivalent to those types of crime, although of course the way they would be dealt with would be different.”
The inspector pointed to data that shows approximately three out of four domestic abuse cases reported to the police are closed early without the suspect being charged.
Inspectors uncovered “huge” discrepancies in how they used the domestic violence disclosure scheme (DVDS), known as Clare’s Law, to provide confidential information about a person’s criminal history to someone deemed at risk of future abuse.
The inspectorate found that about half (52%) of “right to know” DVDS applications made proactively by police in England and Wales in the year ending March 2021 after concerns about a person’s criminal history resulted in disclosure to a potential victim.
And less than two in five (39%) of “right to ask” DVDS applications by concerned members of the public – such as partners of potential suspects – resulted in disclosure, although this can sometimes be attributed to the absence of any information to pass on.
The HMICFRS report was commissioned by the home secretary, Priti Patel, after the killing of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard near Clapham Common in south London in March.
Speaking to Sky News, the environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “Obviously Priti Patel will now look at these recommendations but I think this report does highlight some differences between police forces.
“I think in these sorts of situations, violence against women is a serious problem, domestic violence has also been a problem for some time now. What we really need to do is learn from those police forces that are addressing this well – and I think the report highlights that some of them are doing far better than others – and actually try and replicate those approaches that work in parts of the country.”
In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org.