1. Recognising the need to tackle violence against women and girls

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is an umbrella term used to cover a wide variety of abuses against women and girls, including:

  • domestic homicide
  • domestic abuse
  • sexual assault
  • honour-based abuse (HBA)
  • stalking

Abusive treatment can be hidden and is not limited to physical violence. For example, it includes behaviour that is coercive and controlling.

VAWG is a term adopted from the UN 1993 declaration on the elimination of violence against women. It defines violence against women as:

[…] any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

The UN General Assembly officially designated 25 November each year as an international day for the elimination of violence against women and girls in February 2000. The date was chosen as women’s rights activists had marked that date since at least 1981 in honour of three politically active sisters from the Dominican Republic who were murdered on that day in 1960.

Research conducted by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that VAWG can have “significant and long lasting” impacts, such as mental health issues and homelessness. Key findings in a release published in November 2021 included:

  • Rape or assault by penetration (including attempts) since the age of 16 years: 63% of victims in England and Wales reported mental or emotional problems and 10% reported they had tried to kill themselves. In addition, 21% reported taking time off work and 5% reported losing their job or giving up work. These figures were combined estimates from the ‘Crime survey for England and Wales (CSEW)’ year ending March 2017 and year ending March 2020.
  • Homelessness: 7% of households in England who were homeless or threatened with homelessness recorded domestic abuse as the main reason according to the ‘Statutory homelessness annual report 2019–20’. The charity St Mungo’s reported that 35% of women they worked with had slept rough to escape violence.
  • Safety in the dark in public places: 89% of women in Great Britain who had experienced harassment said they felt “very or fairly unsafe” walking on their own in the dark in a park or other open space, according to the ONS’s 2021 ‘Opinions and lifestyle survey (OPN)’.

ONS analysis of this data and the consequences of abusive treatment on women and girls can be found in its article ‘The lasting impact of violence against women and girls’ (24 November 2021).

2. Data on the extent of violence against women and girls in the UK

The ONS published a prototype ‘violence against women and girls dashboard’ in September 2022, on the UK government website. The dashboard provides data on domestic abuse, sexual offences, harassment and child abuse. It currently contains ONS data from the CSEW and the OPN. However, CSEW data for the year ending March 2022 is based on six months of data collection between October 2021 and March 2022.

The latest figures on the dashboard show that in England and Wales in the year ending March 2022:

  • 9% of women aged 16 and over were victims of domestic abuse in the last year
  • 3% of women aged 16 and over were victims of sexual assault in the last year
  • 9% of women aged 16 and over were victims of stalking in the last year
  • 8% of women aged 18 to 74 experienced abuse before the age of 16
  • 2,887 cases of HBA related offences were recorded by the police in the last year

There were also 1,194 sexual exploitation referrals to the national referral mechanism in the UK in the year ending December 2018.

The ONS is still receiving stakeholder feedback on how the dashboard can be improved, such as including further demographic breakdowns and additional information on helplines. The next version is scheduled to be released later in 2023. The prototype dashboard is part of the ONS’s work to improve data collection and analysis of VAWG. Other projects include a ‘data landscape’ that brings together links to evidence and statistics from across government, support agencies, charities and academia. Its most recent ‘Violence against women and girls: Data landscape’ was published in November 2022.

The ONS also publishes statistical releases on violent crime, including bulletins on domestic abuse and sexual offences. These releases bring together data from the CSEW, police recorded crime, and from the Home Office. Its most recent publications cover the year ending March 2022.

In addition to the figures published on the VAWG dashboard, these releases showed that in data recorded by the police:

  • The victim was female in 74.1% of domestic abuse-related crimes in the year ending March 2022.
  • Between the year ending March 2019 and the year ending March 2021, 72.1% of victims of domestic homicide were female compared with 12.3% of victims of non-domestic homicide.
  • In the year ending March 2022, the victim was female in 86% of sexual offences. Similarly, more victims of rape offences recorded by the police were female (91%) than male (9%).
  • For female victims of rape the perpetrator was most likely to be an intimate partner (46%) and for male victims of rape the perpetrator was most likely to be an acquaintance (38%), in the year ending March 2022.

In 2021, Ofsted published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges in England. It found that “sexual harassment occurred so frequently that it had become ‘commonplace’”.

The girls who responded to Ofsted’s review indicated that, in order of prevalence, the following types of harmful sexual behaviours happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between young people their age:

  • sexist name-calling (92%)
  • rumours about their sexual activity (81%)
  • unwanted or inappropriate comments of a sexual nature (80%)
  • being sent pictures or videos they did not want to see (88%)
  • being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves (80%)
  • having pictures or videos that they sent being shared more widely without their knowledge or consent (73%)
  • being photographed or videoed without their knowledge or consent (59%)
  • having pictures or videos of themselves that they did not know about being circulated (51%)
  • sexual assault of any kind (79%)
  • feeling pressured to do sexual things that they did not want to (68%)
  • unwanted touching (64%)

Ofsted found that boys were much less likely to think these things happened, particularly contact forms of harmful sexual behaviour.

3. Government action to tackle violence against women and girls

The UK government has introduced a number of measures in recent years to tackle VAWG and to help protect them from harm. Actions taken by the government include:

  • overseeing the passage of legislation such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Health and Care Act 2022, and the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 (the latter was introduced as a private member’s bill)
  • introducing legislation on online safety and supporting a private member’s bill on protection against sex-based harassment
  • publishing strategies and reviews to tackle VAWG, and seeking to improve evidence and data collation to help drive policy

3.1 Domestic Abuse Act 2021

In March 2020, the government introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill in the House of Commons. The bill sought to increase awareness of domestic abuse, strengthen support for victims and improve the effectiveness of the justice system. The bill received royal assent on 29 April 2021 to become the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The act is supported by statutory guidance aimed at organisations working with victims, perpetrators and commissioning services.

Measures in the act included:

  • a statutory definition of domestic abuse that incorporated a range of abuses beyond physical violence, such as emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour and economic abuse
  • new powers for the police, including a new domestic abuse protection notice (DAPN) and domestic abuse order (DAPO)
  • statutory powers for the office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner (DAC) established in law
  • expanding the controlling or coercive behaviour offence to cover post-separation abuse, and extending the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress so it covers threats to disclose such material
  • a new offence of non-fatal strangulation or suffocation of another person
  • new protections and support for victims to ensure abusers would no longer be allowed to directly cross-examine their victims in the family and civil courts, and better access to special measures in the courtroom such as protection screens and video evidence
  • statutory guidance for the domestic violence disclosure scheme (DVDS) (published in April 2023; see section 4.1 of this briefing for further information) and a statutory code of practice relating to the processing of domestic abuse data for immigration purposes

The provisions of the 2021 act are being commenced in phases. The government’s Domestic Abuse Act 2021 commencement schedule provides an overview of which provisions are in force and the planned commencement dates for the remaining measures.

Further information on the act’s provisions, and the policy background to the legislation, can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Domestic Abuse Bill’ (17 December 2020) and the Home Office factsheet ‘Domestic Abuse Act 2021: Overarching factsheet’ (11 July 2022)

3.2 Tackling violence against women and girls strategy

Between December 2020 and March 2021 the government ran a call for evidence to help inform the development of its tackling violence against women and girls strategy for 2021 to 2024.

The ‘Tackling violence against women and girls strategy’ was published in July 2021. It set out three ambitions:

  • to increase support for victims and survivors, ensuring they have access to quality support
  • to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice, including an increase in the number of crimes reported to the police and increased victim engagement with the police and wider public service response
  • to reduce the prevalence of violence against women and girls

The key areas for action included prioritising prevention, supporting victims and survivors, pursuing perpetrators and ensuring there was a ‘whole system’ approach, with police, the education sector, local authorities, prisons and probation services and other organisations working together effectively.

The government made over 50 new commitments in the strategy. These included:

  • A national communications campaign focused on raising awareness of violence against women and girls and creating behaviour change. The campaign ‘Enough’ was launched in March 2022.
  • An investment of £3mn by the Home Office to better understand what prevention measures work.
  • The creation of a £5mn safety of women at night fund focused on the prevention of violence against women and girls in public spaces at night.
  • A pilot tool called Streetsafe that would enable the public to anonymously report areas where they felt unsafe and identify what made them feel that way to inform local decision planning.
  • The Department for Education to support teachers to deliver the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum.
  • The Department for Education and the Office for Students to collaborate to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in higher education and a review of the use of non-disclosure agreements.
  • The introduction of a national policing lead for tackling violence against women and girls.
  • The Department of Health and Social Care to develop measures to criminalise ‘virginity testing’. This was implemented through the Health and Care Act 2022.
  • The production of new advice to better enable police officers to respond to street harassment effectively and to ensure that proper use is consistently made of tools such as stalking protection orders (SPOs).
  • Consideration of the Law Commission’s review of abusive and harmful online communications, which recommended a range of new offences, including a new threatening communications offence and new offence of cyberflashing. The government intends to introduce these new offences through the Online Safety Bill, which is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords. Further information on the bill can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Online Safety Bill’ (25 January 2023).

The strategy also highlighted measures the government was introducing through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In particular, provisions to end the halfway release of offenders sentenced to between four and seven years in prison for serious violent and sexual offences, and measures to strengthen the regime for managing registered sex offenders and those who pose a risk of sexual harm. The bill received royal assent in April 2022 and is now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Further information on the act can be found in the following documents:

3.3 Progress update on the ‘Tackling violence against women and girls strategy’

In March 2022, the Home Office published a progress update on the tackling violence against women and girls strategy. The document highlighted key areas where the government had acted. It said the government had:

  • Launched the Streetsafe tool so that police and local authorities could take practical steps, such as improved CCTV and street lighting. Around 12,000 reports had been made which had “allowed the police to make more targeted patrols, increase presence and identify new hotspots”.
  • Funded 79 local projects and initiatives across England and Wales, totalling more than £27.7mn, to improve safety of women in public spaces.
  • Put in place support for teachers to improve the quality of education on sensitive topics such as domestic abuse.
  • Increased funding for support services to increase the number of specialist advisors.
  • Asked universities to sign a pledge not to use non-disclosure agreements. The update said that 34 universities had signed up at the time of reporting.
  • Invested £11.3mn in domestic abuse perpetrator programmes across the country to “deepen” its understanding of who commits domestic abuse, why they do so, and how it can be prevented.
  • Supported the introduction of the new national police lead for VAWG, Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth.
  • Established the Angiolini inquiry to investigate the issues raised by the conviction of Sarah Everard’s murderer, Wayne Couzens, who was a serving policeman at the time of his offences.
  • Commissioned the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) inspection of vetting, misconduct and misogyny in the police service.

The update also reported that the government had launched a consultation on a new victims’ law to “guarantee greater consultation with them during the criminal justice process to ensure their voices are properly heard, and hold relevant bodies to account”. The government then published the draft Victims Bill in May 2022. The draft bill underwent pre-legislative scrutiny by the House of Commons Justice Committee, and the government’s response to the committee’s report was published on 19 January 2023.

On 29 March 2023, the government introduced the Victims and Prisoners Bill in the House of Commons. The bill includes several proposals contained in the earlier draft bill intended to hold criminal justice agencies more strongly to account for the service they provide to victims and to improve support for victims. For example, the bill would place the key principles of the victims’ code in primary legislation and detail the services that should be provided to victims. The bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Commons. Further information on the bill, including reaction to its approach to victims, can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘The Victims and Prisoners Bill’ (10 May 2023).

The progress update on the tackling VAWG strategy also recognised that the government needed to go further and highlighted several priority next steps. These included:

  • publishing the “UK’s first ever standalone domestic abuse plan” to complement the tackling VAWG strategy
  • establishing an independent review of the management of registered sex offenders in the community
  • continuing to implement the ‘Rape review action plan’

Sections 3.5 to 3.7 of this briefing look at these three areas. Information on other measures and initiatives taken by the government, as well as commentary on the government’s policies, can be found in the following briefings:

Information on the Angiolini inquiry, HMICFRS review, and other reviews of police conduct and culture, set up in response to several high-profile cases of gross misconduct and illegal behaviour by police officers towards women, can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Police standards and culture: Restoring public trust’ (27 April 2023).

3.4 Tackling domestic abuse plan

In March 2022, the government published the ‘Tackling domestic abuse plan’, which it said was “fully aligned” with the November 2021 tackling violence against women and girls strategy. The government explained that the plan was developed using the responses from the call for evidence on tackling VAWG, relevant data and academic research. The plan is based on four pillars:

  • Prioritising prevention. The plan seeks to improve understanding of what prevention measures work best and which risk factors cause an increased incidence of domestic abuse. It made several commitments under this pillar, including a package of support for teachers to deliver the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum, and a review of the guidance on the domestic violence disclosure scheme to make it easier for individuals to access information on a partner’s or ex-partner’s previous abusive or violent offending.
  • Supporting victims. The plan seeks to improve the outcomes for victims and survivors. It committed to reviewing current statutory leave provision to see if it does enough to support victims escaping domestic abuse, a multi-year funding package for delivering community-based support services, funding for the rollout of ‘Domestic abuse matters’ training to those police forces that are yet to deliver specific domestic abuse training, and reviewing the police response to children experiencing domestic abuse.
  • Pursuing perpetrators. The plan aims to drive down the prevalence of domestic abuse and domestic homicide through measures such as increasing the tagging of those leaving custody, including around 3,500 individuals at risk of perpetrating domestic abuse, considering options for management of domestic abuse, including a register of domestic abusers, and investing £75mn over three years into tackling abusers. This would include funding for interventions that directly addressed domestic abusers’ behaviours.
  • A stronger system. The plan seeks to improve coordination and collaboration between agencies and to improve data on and knowledge of domestic abuse. The plan committed to investing £7.5mn over three years to improve collaboration within healthcare settings and to deliver packages to upskill healthcare professionals. To identify more cases, the government pledged to trial the ‘Ask for ANI’ codeword scheme in several Jobcentre Plus offices (this has now happened, see section 4.1 of this briefing). When first introduced, the scheme provided a way for victims to signal that they needed immediate help using a codeword in participating pharmacies. If successful, the government said it would consider a national rollout across Jobcentre Plus offices. In addition, to improve data on domestic homicides and suicides following domestic abuse, the Home Office committed to reform the domestic homicide review (DHR) process. This would include working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) to identify best practice in referring suicides that followed domestic abuse for a DHR and launching an online database of all DHRs.

3.5 Independent review of management of registered sex offenders

In April 2023, the Home Office published a report outlining the findings and recommendations of the independent review of the police’s management of registered sex offenders. The review was carried out by the former chief constable of Derbyshire Constabulary, Mick Creedon. The review was a commitment set out in the government’s VAWG strategy.

The review considered evidence on several factors, including:

  • police resourcing
  • the consistency of offender management
  • information sharing
  • risk management tools and orders
  • risk assessment and prioritisation
  • training

Mr Creedon commented on multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA), stating they were “fundamentally a good thing” and “generally worked well”. However, he argued their current use was “not sustainable nor efficient”. MAPPA is a set of arrangements through which the police, probation and prison services work together to manage the risk posed by violent and sexual offenders living in the community. In addition, registered sex offenders are subject to notification requirements. Mr Creedon argued that the “concept of public sector criminal justice agencies” working together in a “joined-up manner” and with the use of a “wider partnership network” was “exactly what the public would expect to happen”.

Outlining his issues with MAPPA, Mr Creedon stated that a new “modernised business process model” was needed. He said this was necessary because of the “inevitable” growth in the number of sex offenders managed under the system, coupled with the agencies’ “ever-widening mission in an increasingly global and digital world, with new offences and reduced resources”.

Mr Creedon said many of the recommendations in the review were “simply suggestions” for process improvements to create a model that more effectively and efficiently managed risk to better protect the public. The review’s recommendations included:

  • Investment in a mobile and flexible IT system that could adapt to legal and operational change. For instance, the review recommended the system allow for relevant registered sex offender data to be received remotely. The review also said the system should be able to interface with the police national computer and database, local intelligence platforms and tools such as the HM Passport Office watchlist.
  • Review of the notification requirements for registered sex offenders to see if they are fit for purpose, including whether to include new details such as email addresses.
  • Discretion to be incorporated into the notification requirement regime to allow the assessment and management plan to vary. It recommended that police forces be allowed to assess which details to collect and how individuals should notify, allowing opportunity for online or remote notification where appropriate.
  • A review to explore whether courts should be allowed discretion over the application of notification requirements.
  • Reduction of the period after which a request can be made to remove an offender’s notification requirements from 15 years to 10 years.
  • Central repositories for collating serious case reviews and internal reviews. The review recommended the government create a mechanism for the national sharing of emerging patterns and national recommendations.
  • Review of training programmes. For instance, the review recommended the College of Policing ensure there was sufficient digital media training available and that it should develop a programme for polygraph testing in offender management.

Going forward, Mr Creedon argued there should be a greater focus on prevention and desistence in sex offender management. He recommended that training and induction for HMICFRS staff include an understanding of risk and effective management of risk relating to sex offenders in the community, with a particular focus on desistance or stopping certain behaviours.

While recognising it was out of scope of the review, Mr Creedon considered the question of registering other cohorts of dangerous offenders, such as perpetrators of domestic abuse and non-sexual child cruelty. Mr Creedon said it was important to recognise the impact additional registers would have on policing. He argued that by increasing police workload the “clear risk is a dilution of the resources and response to each offender”. He recommended that no further cohorts of offenders be made subject to sex offender-style registration or notification requirements. Instead, where significant risk was identified and all available options had been considered, including the use of civil orders, the focus should be placed on utilising existing MAPPA processes to manage the risk.

Responding to the review in a statement to the House of Commons, Sarah Dines, parliamentary under secretary of state for safeguarding, thanked Mr Creedon for his work. Miss Dines flagged the proposed changes to the notification requirement system as among the most significant of Mr Creedon’s recommendations. She said that notification requirements were a “valuable tool” in the risk management of registered sex offenders, and that any changes would “require careful consideration”. Miss Dines stated that the government had met with criminal justice agencies to discuss Mr Creedon’s recommendations and that further consideration would take place.

3.6 Rape review

In June 2021, the government published its ‘End-to-end rape review report on findings and actions’. The report concluded that the criminal justice system was “failing” rape and sexual assault victims. It highlighted that while figures for prosecuting rape cases had “always been worryingly low”, there had been “a sharp decrease” in the number of prosecutions since 2016/17. The government said this situation was “totally unacceptable” and set out in the action plan its aim to deliver the following outcomes:

  • return volumes of cases referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), charged by the CPS, and reaching court to 2016 levels by the end of the parliament
  • publish regular scorecards to show how the system was performing to provide transparency and accountability
  • increase the number of early guilty pleas by improving the quality of investigations and processes
  • improve timeliness of cases at each stage of the criminal justice process
  • increase victim engagement at every stage
  • make sure victims had access to quality support, including therapeutic and clinical and emotional and practical support, and had access to legal advice to understand and challenge disclosure decisions
  • limit requests for information from victims
  • maintain a defendant’s right to a fair trial through quality case building and robust and appropriate disclosure

The review said the police and CPS’s ambition was to establish a “culture of effective joint working” so that they could better support victims and build better cases.

In December 2022, the government published a progress update on the action plan. The update argued that the government was on track to meet its ambition to return the number of cases being dealt with to 2016 levels. Other key areas of progress it highlighted included that it had:

The next formal progress update is scheduled to be in June 2023. However, in May 2023, in response to a parliamentary question, the government provided information on recent progress:

  • The government was “more than quadrupling funding for victim and witness support services by 2024/5, up from £41mn in 2009/10”.
  • Pre-recorded cross-examination for victims of sexual and modern slavery offences had been rolled out in all crown courts in England and Wales. According to the government, it was being used in 150 cases per month.
  • Operation Soteria had been rolled out across 19 police forces, with a national rollout planned to start from June 2023.

The government said it continued to make “steady and sustained progress” towards its key ambition to return cases going through the criminal justice system to 2016 levels by the end of the current parliament.

Data accessed from the government’s rape review progress dashboard on 19 June 2023 shows the following:

  • Cases referred by the police to the CPS for either early advice or a charging decision: in the year ending December 2016 there were 3,063 cases, and in the year ending December 2022 there were 3,852.
  • Number of suspects authorised to be charged by the CPS: in the year ending December 2016 there were 2,150 suspects, and in the year ending December 2022 there were 1,748.
  • Number of adult rape cases that have been entered on the Crown Court administrative system: in the year ending December 2016 there were 2,212 receipts, and in the year ending December 2022 there were 1,873.

In March 2022, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee criticised the ambition of the government’s aim to return the number of cases being dealt with to 2016 levels. The committee argued that while that would be “a step in the right direction”, it would not be “a success in and of itself” because, “even in 2016, criminal justice outcomes for rape were viewed as poor”. Data presented in the committee’s report showed that 8.9% of the recorded rape offences that had been assigned an outcome had resulted in a charge or summons in 2016/17. According to the committee’s report, this figure had dropped to 1.5% in 2020/21. The data was taken from House of Commons Library estimates, which were based on Home Office ‘Outcomes open data year ending March 2021’.

The committee currently has an open inquiry looking at how VAWG is being addressed.

4. Recent government policy to tackle violence against women and girls

4.1 Home secretary’s statement in February 2023

In a statement to the House of Commons on 20 February 2023, Home Secretary Suella Braverman set out a package of measures the government was pursuing to tackle VAWG. They included:

  • Management of the most dangerous offenders. The government would legislate for those with convictions for controlling or coercive behaviour who received a sentence of 12 months or longer imprisonment or a suspended sentence to be automatically eligible to be managed under MAPPA. They would also be added to the violent and sex offender register going forward.
  • Strategic policing requirement. VAWG was introduced as a national threat in the revised strategic policing requirement (SPR) document, published in February 2023. The document set out “clear expectations” about how the threat should be tackled by police forces.
  • Expansion of the ‘Ask for ANI’ codeword scheme. The scheme had been extended to 18 pilot jobcentre sites. If the scheme proved to be successful, the home secretary said the government would consider a national rollout. An online postcode checker for the nearest ‘Ask for ANI’ provider was also launched, including both pharmacies and jobcentres.
  • Domestic protection notices and orders. Notices and orders legislated for in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 would be piloted from June 2024 for two years in Gwent, Manchester and the London boroughs of Croydon, Bromley and Sutton with the Metropolitan Police, the British Transport Police and other partners. The pilot is to be independently evaluated.
  • Digital domestic abuse harm risk assessment tool. The government plans to develop a tool that uses police data to identify individuals who are high risk and likely to commit domestic abuse offences. It will include perpetrators without a conviction. It is scheduled to be piloted in 2024.
  • Domestic violence disclosure scheme. The government had published statutory guidance on the scheme ahead of its commencement in April 2023 under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The scheme allows the police to disclose information about an individual’s previous violent or abusive offending. Under the new guidance, police would have 28 days to disclose the information.
  • Funding interventions for domestic abuse perpetrators. The Home Office had committed up to £36mn over two years to fund more domestic abuse perpetrator interventions. The home secretary said the next round of funding would start in April 2023. Ms Braverman said this brought the total funding “committed to tackling domestic abuse perpetrators to over £79mn since 2020”.
  • Funding support services for victims. The Home Office had allocated up to £8.4mn over two years for victims’ services. This would be targeted to fund between 17 and 33 projects or programmes, which would start on 1 April 2023.

4.2 Wade review

In 2021, the government commissioned Clare Wade KC to review sentencing in domestic homicide cases to see whether the current law and sentencing guidelines were fit for purpose and to identify options for reform.

The ‘Domestic homicide sentencing review’ was published in March 2023. It recommended a package of proposed reforms to “change the law so that sentencing reflected the seriousness of domestic homicides”.

The government said it would publish a full response to the review in summer 2023. However, in a written statement following the review’s publication, the then lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice, Dominic Raab, said he was announcing a series of measures to demonstrate the government’s commitment to “delivering tougher sentences for the perpetrators of these horrific crimes and allow for necessary legislation to be introduced as soon as possible”. The measures included:

  • Increase sentences for murderers with a history of controlling or coercive behaviour against the victim. The review recommended that a history of coercive or controlling behaviour should be added to the statutory aggravating factors to murder. The government said it would introduce legislation to “make this change as soon as possible”. An aggravating factor is something that makes a crime ‘more serious’ and can therefore attract a higher sentence. In contrast, a mitigating factor would make a crime ‘less serious’.
  • Launch a consultation in summer 2023 to consider whether the starting point should be 25 years for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour.
  • Make ‘overkill’ a statutory aggravating factor in the sentencing framework for murder, as recommended by the review. Overkill is defined in the Wade review as the use of excessive or gratuitous violence, beyond that necessary to kill. This would mean that a judge must consider increasing an offender’s minimum custodial term where overkill had occurred. The government said it would introduce legislation to make the change.
  • Request that the sentencing council update their guidelines to reflect the Wade review’s recommendations on sentencing for perpetrators of so-called ‘rough sex’ manslaughter. The review recommended the guidelines should be amended to consider the offender highly culpable in cases of manslaughter where there was alleged consent to so-called rough sex. This would mean imposing a higher sentence. The government said it would keep the need for legislation under review.

However, the government said it would not accept the review’s recommendation on the starting point for sentencing in domestic murder cases where knives have been brought to the scene. Currently, there is a starting point of 25 years for murders where a weapon used had been taken to the scene with intent. The review argued this starting point should be disapplied in cases of domestic murder because it did not give any consideration of “the vulnerability of the victim”. However, the government argued the sentencing framework “must recognise the seriousness of anyone who walks onto our streets with a knife, intending to use it to cause harm”. In his statement, Mr Raab said the government’s consultation would “ensure all reform options have been fully explored”.

Clare Wade said she looked forward to the government’s full response and welcomed its plans to make ‘overkill’ a statutory aggravating factor. However, she stressed that if controlling and coercive behaviour was to be made a statutory aggravating factor then it should also be a statutory mitigating factor for those who have suffered abuse, as she recommended. For example, she argued it should be a mitigating factor considered when domestic abuse victims kill their abusers. She explained that “ultimately it is a way of ascribing seriousness to the individual offence”. She expressed a “fear” that making overkill a statutory aggravating factor in the “absence of adopting the other recommendations […] will lead to injustice”. In addition, commenting on the government’s stance to consider options on the 25 years starting point for domestic murders, Clare Wade said she was against the idea of introducing more starting points into the sentencing framework for murder.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs agreed with several of Clare Wade’s concerns about the government’s initial response. Nicole Jacobs cautioned against piecemeal implementation of the review’s recommendations, arguing that they were designed as a package, with “each intended to work in conjunction with the other”. She said the government’s approach could have “harmful” and “unintended” consequences. Nicole Jacobs also argued that before looking at a new 25 years starting point, the government should address the broader measures designed to establish a wider understanding of coercive behaviour and domestic abuse. She argued:

What we need is a specialist consideration of domestic murders within the sentencing framework, not more rigid sentencing which does not get to the heart of the issues.

4.3 Private member’s bill on sex-based harassment in public

The government has also recently given its support to the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill. This is a private member’s bill introduced in the House of Commons by Greg Clark (Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells). The bill would introduce a new offence of causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress to a person in public because of that person’s sex or presumed sex. The bill has completed its stages in the House of Commons and received its second reading in the House of Lords on 16 June 2023. It is sponsored in the Lords by Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Conservative).

Further information on the bill can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill’ (6 June 2023).

5. Commentary on the government’s approach to tackling violence against women and girls

A variety of stakeholders have welcomed the government’s policies to tackle VAWG. For instance, the recent move to add VAWG to the SPR was welcomed by both police agencies and organisations in the domestic abuse sector. The NPCC welcomed the prioritisation from the government. It said placing violence against women and girls on the same level of priority as terrorism and child abuse was putting it “where it belong[ed]”. Respect, an organisation that develops “best practice” on work with domestic abuse perpetrators, said the SPR could have a “major impact” on the policing response to perpetrators if it was implemented and resourced properly.

However, some stakeholders have expressed concern that the government’s approach is disjointed and not properly resourced. Following the publication of the domestic abuse strategy, the charity Refuge argued the decision to publish a strategy separate from the wider VAWG strategy could “spell disaster for ensuring a cohesive response” to domestic abuse and other forms of violence and lead to a “piecemeal approach” with “reduced impact”. Refuge welcomed the statement made by the home secretary on 20 February 2023. However, it said the measures did not go far enough and would “fall short” of tackling the root causes of domestic abuse.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition has also called for a “holistic, comprehensive approach”. It suggested that a public health response was needed, rather than the government’s focus on the criminal justice system and the creation of “new criminal offences as the best solution”. The coalition argued in its January 2023 snapshot report (which looked at trends affecting VAWG) that “greater strategic investment” was “urgently needed”. The coalition said this was because of issues such as the cost of living crisis, underfunding of the VAWG sector, and women’s income inequality. It said VAWG organisations needed “long-term, sustainable funding”, including “ring-fenced funding for specialist, independent services, as well as guaranteed 3–5-year contracts with inflationary uplifts from public commission bodies”.

The coalition also argued that the government had failed to “adequately” deliver on the commitments of the 2021 rape review. The coalition, along with the Centre for Women’s Justice, Imkaan and Rape Crisis, published a report in June 2023 evaluating the government’s progress. It recognised that there had been “green shoots” of positive change in several areas, such as the establishment of a 24/7 rape and sexual abuse support line. However, it said the “reality remains dire for far too many women and girls”. It argued that charge rates were low, support services underfunded, and cases faced lengthy backlogs in the courts system.

Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.