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The best way to commemorate Sarah Everard is with action

Monday 15 March 2021

Reports, reviews, inquiries – this is a government trying to kick a crisis into touch. Cressida Dick’s replacement is only the first of many steps that must be taken urgently

It is shaming, is it not, that Boris Johnson has had to convene a meeting of his Crime and Justice Taskforce today in order to persuade the women of this country that his government takes their physical safety seriously? 

How grim that we have reached a point where the prime minister and his colleagues think that a hastily-choreographed Whitehall gathering of this sort will reassure 51 per cent of the population that they matter. “This is only the beginning,” I am told by one Downing Street source.

The beginning? Of what, exactly? The PM set up this taskforce in January 2020 principally in response to public alarm over “county lines” drug-related crime, and – as was heavily briefed at the time – as a get-tough unit to reinstate the Conservatives as the party of law and order. 

Now he is repackaging it as the appropriate body to deal with the national surge of anger and emotion that has followed the killing of Sarah Everard and, on Saturday, the heavy-handed police handling of the Clapham Common vigil. 

It will doubtless produce a plan of sorts and declare, in robust language, the government’s commitment – as the PM put it on Sunday – “to drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to protect and defend them.” But (forgive my cynicism) I know a stalling tactic when I see one.

If you are wondering why Cressida Dick, the embattled Met Commissioner, is still in post today, ask yourself this: if she goes, who’s next? “There is a fear of dominoes falling,” says one minister. “If Cressida goes then Priti [Patel] is exposed. And Priti helps to protect Boris’s right flank.” 

If, hypothetically, Patel had to step down as home secretary, who would the PM get to threaten refugees in dinghies with military action? Never forget: when Sir Alex Allan, the PM’s adviser on ministerial standards, ruled in November that Patel had breached the ministerial code over allegations of bullying, Johnson stood by the home secretary – effectively forcing Sir Alex to quit.

It is absolutely true that Dame Cressida’s resignation would not be a sufficient response to what has happened; but it is certainly necessary. Even before Wayne Couzens, a serving constable, was charged on Friday evening with kidnap and murder, the Met was facing serious criticism over its handling of the case.

On Saturday, vigils in Ms Everard’s memory held in cities such as Glasgow and Nottingham proceeded peacefully. What a contrast with the gathering on Clapham Common, south London, which – live-streamed on YouTube channels – visibly degenerated from an act of remembrance into a confrontation in which the police appeared all too hasty to resort to strong-arm tactics.

Yesterday, Dame Cressida was all defiance. Her officers, she said, “have to make these really difficult calls, and I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair, and saying, “Well, that was done badly” or “I would’ve done it differently” without actually understanding what was going through their minds.”

Was she considering her position? No, she was not: “What has happened makes me more determined, not less, to lead my organisation.”

But leadership is precisely what was lacking in the days leading up to the Clapham Common gathering. After the Met’s initial decision on Thursday to ban the event, a highly intelligent ruling by Mr Justice Holgate in the High Court the following day steered the vigil organisers and the police towards continued negotiation: “There may well be further communication between the claimants [the #ReclaimTheseStreets group] and the police to deal with the application of the [Covid] regulations and the [right to protest]. But that is not a matter on which the court should comment”.

In other words: keep talking. Instead, the Met stuck its feet in the mud and its head in the sand – with awful consequences. The image of 28-year-old Patsy Stevenson, on the ground, being pinned down by two much larger male officers, captured a horrible irony: that a vigil prompted by an unspeakable act of violence against a woman should end with more women being roughly man-handled. It says nothing good about Dame Cressida that she scorns those appalled by these scenes as “armchair” critics.

For now, the matter has been kicked firmly into touch. After an initial report by the Met Commissioner, Patel has asked Sir Thomas Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, to conduct a “lessons learned” review (concurrent with the review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct requested by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan). For what it’s worth, I cannot imagine any recent Home Secretary – Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, Theresa May, Alan Johnson, Jacqui Smith – being so indecisive. 

As it is, Patel already faces a nightmare of political timing this week as she launches the second reading in the Commons of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Amongst the many measures it proposes is further serious restrictions upon the right to protest – including, extraordinarily, if the noise caused by the protesters “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. 

When did a significant march or rally not cause such noise, and which of them would not have been vulnerable to a decibel-related ban? Cheques do not come much blanker than this. Or (to put it another way) we get to keep Magna Carta as long as we don’t read it out too loudly.

Not for the first time, it has fallen to Labour’s Jess Phillips to import some political sense to the matter. This government, the Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding said on Sky News yesterday, has a hefty Commons majority. “They can turn their rhetoric into action,” she said. “I don’t want platitudes, I don’t want nice words, I don’t want clapping, I don’t even want candles, I want action to change this.”

In July, for instance, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that rape convictions in England and Wales had fallen to a record low and promised, rather forlornly, that it was “working hard to reverse the trend”. The PM’s Crime and Justice Taskforce is supposed to be reviewing this deplorable failure. After eight months, where are its findings? 

It is welcome that the bill proposes tougher penal measures – whereby those sentenced for sexual and violent offences would have to serve at least two-thirds of the allotted time (rather than half, as presently directed). But the principal failure of deterrence is that so few rape and domestic cases are prosecuted in the first place. Men who are violent towards women are not sufficiently scared of jail time because they calculate – not unreasonably – that they will probably get away with it.

There is a logic, meanwhile, in making misogyny a hate crime, as proposed in Amendment 87B to the Domestic Abuse Bill, due to be debated today in the House of Lords. But it is important to grasp what this does and does not mean.

Hate crime is a much-misunderstood legal concept. It refers to an offence – that is to say, an offence already defined by law – that is additionally perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice. 

At present, the forms of prejudice captured by this definition are bigotry against the five protected characteristics of disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity. Yesterday, the exclusion of sex from this list was defended by Victoria Atkins, the minister for safeguarding, on the grounds that the hate crime was a legal category designed to protect minorities. But this is an arbitrary distinction – as though hatred is somehow defined by numbers.

If the amendment became law, it would not be a criminal offence to voice misogynistic opinions, or to express loathing of women. But judges would be able to impose stiffer sentences in cases where a crime was aggravated or inspired by hatred of women. No less important: the police would be able to log a new category of hate incidents – non-criminal cases of misogyny – which would provide legislators, policy makers and campaign groups with a significant new data resource.

Of more immediate use would be the new offence of public sexual harassment championed by – amongst many others – Nimco Ali, adviser to the Home Office on violence against women and girls. According to polls, 90 percent of women have experienced such intimidation in the streets. Yet loopholes in the Public Order Act 1986 and Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 make prosecution difficult. This would be an easy failure for Parliament to correct.

Besieged as it has been, the government has made much of its Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy and reopened its consultation exercise on Friday – already receiving an additional 53,000 submissions in a matter of hours. But this strategy should be judged by action, and action alone.

In the past few days, I have heard the word “moment” used countless times, and have used it often enough myself. There is no doubt that the killing of Sarah Everard has broken a seal, prompting not only a surge of emotion and anger but an extraordinary and humbling bearing of witness by many thousands of women about their daily experience of sexism, harassment and violence.

But a “moment” is as fleeting as tears in rain if it is not converted into measures, policy, a perceptible shift in practice and culture. It is now four years since the #MeToo “moment”. How much has really changed? Almost ten months have passed since the killing of George Floyd compelled a global outpouring of anger and a near-universal commitment to take all necessary steps to rid the world of structural racial injustice.

I am reminded, however, of the words of David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, on the BBC’s Today programme in June last year:

I made 35 specific recommendations in the Lammy review [into the treatment of ethnic minorities]. Implement them. There are 110 recommendations in the Angiolini review into deaths in police custody. Implement them. There are 30 recommendations in the Home Office review into the Windrush scandal. Implement them. There are 26 in Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review into workplace discrimination. Implement them.

Instead, the PM appointed yet another commission – this time, on race and ethnic disparities. Reports, reviews, task forces….this is a government that bares its teeth only to reveal loose dentures.

Let me say it again: populists are useless at getting stuff done. Johnson and his colleagues have “taken back control”. But to do what? To what end? 

This week, they must show what, precisely, they are going to do in response to a crisis of trust and a sky lit up with justified anger. And if not now – when?