Priti Patel insisted on Monday that the UK government was committed to preventing violence against women as she tried to dispel concerns that proposed legislation will fail to tackle the issue adequately.
In a statement to MPs, the home secretary said the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard had “rightly ignited anger” among the public and served as a stark reminder of the everyday harassment faced by women.
“Too many of us have pretended to be on the phone to a friend to scare someone off,” she said. “Too many of us have clutched our keys in our fist in case we need to defend ourselves — and that is not OK.”
Patel’s attempts to reassure the public follow a flurry of criticism directed towards Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, after a vigil for Everard held on Saturday on Clapham Common, south London, ended in violent clashes between officers and mourners.
The police made four arrests but images of female participants being restrained on the ground by officers sparked widespread condemnation.
This government is failing to address violence against women and girls and ministers even want to curtail their right to protest about it
Although HM Inspectorate of Constabulary has launched an independent investigation into the actions taken by the police, the prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed on Monday that Boris Johnson had “full confidence” in Dick’s leadership of the Metropolitan police.
The events over the weekend have intensified public anger and concern over violence against women, with additional questions raised regarding police conduct and the handling of sexual assault cases by the criminal justice system.
On Monday afternoon, hundreds of protesters gathered for a third consecutive day — this time outside parliament — to voice concerns over the actions of the Metropolitan police and to call for tougher laws to protect women.
In the latest development in the investigation of Everard’s death, the Metropolitan police announced on Monday it was referring an officer to the Independent Office for Police Conduct over his behaviour while guarding the area where the woman’s remains were found.
The force said the officer — a junior officer still on probation — had shared an “inappropriate graphic” with some colleagues. The referral is the sixth by the force to the IOPC on issues relating to Everard’s death
Speaking in the House of Commons, Patel said the government’s flagship domestic abuse bill was “on track” to come into force by the end of April and would transform the “collective response” to violence against women.
A cross-party amendment to the bill, requiring domestic abusers alongside stalkers to be put on a national registry, was passed by 327 to 232 votes in the House of Lords late on Monday evening.
Separate measures including preventive tools and powers to tackle crimes such as stalking, female genital mutilation and upskirting have also been introduced by the government, Patel said.
Since Friday, the government has received 78,000 responses to its nationwide consultation on tackling violence against women, the aim of which is to inform the “Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy” due to be published later in the year.
In an attempt to show his commitment to supporting women, the prime minister chaired a meeting of the government’s crime and justice task force on Monday evening and agreed a series of initiatives.
The government will roll out pilots of Project Vigilant, a Thames Valley police scheme, in which uniformed and non-uniformed officers carry out increased patrols to identify predatory behaviour, particularly around nightclubs and pubs.
Cash for the Safer Streets Fund will also be doubled to £45m, allowing local authorities to invest in improved street lighting and CCTV cameras in areas of concern such as alleyways and parks.
“We must do everything we can to ensure our streets are safe, and we are bringing in landmark legislation to toughen sentences and put more police on the streets,” Johnson said following the meeting.
“Ultimately, we must drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to better protect and defend them.”
Meanwhile, MPs debated the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill on Monday evening, which, if passed, would enable police officers to impose stringent measures on protests, including start and finish times and limits on noise levels.
The home secretary said the bill would also toughen sentencing for rapists by ending “the halfway release for those convicted of sexual offences”.
However, Labour, which is expected to vote against the legislation, has argued that it does little to protect women and imposes harsh restrictions on the right to protest.
“The truth is this government is failing to address violence against women and girls and ministers even want to curtail their right to protest about it,” Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, said.
“Unless there’s action on homicide, unless there’s action on street harassment, unless there’s action on stalking, this bill will risk becoming an abusers’ charter that just allows violence and injustice in our streets and in our homes to continue,” he added.
Campaign groups have also criticised the policing bill. Sisters Uncut, a feminist organisation and one of the co-ordinators of Sunday’s New Scotland Yard protest, said: “As the actions of police at peaceful vigils this weekend show, police abuse the powers that they already have — and yet the government plans to give them more powers.”
End Violence Against Women, whose legal challenge against the Crown Prosecution Service’s handling of sexual offences, was dismissed by the High Court on Monday, have also criticised the legislation.
“This bill allows politicians to look like they are being very tough on crime by increasing sentences but what it ignores is the fact the vast majority of cases of violence against women goes unreported,” Andrea Simon, director of EVAW, added.
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