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Evolution in treatment of domestic abuse

Marital coercion is the issue at the heart of the case against Vicky Pryce, accused of perverting the course of justice by agreeing to take penalty points for speeding on behalf of her then husband, Chris Huhne.

Despite the quaint term the jury's task was clear: to decide whether Ms Pryce was bullied by her husband into taking the points.

Its failure to reach a verdict yesterday illustrates the wider difficulty which has long plagued cases of domestic abuse: whose story is to be believed? It seems clear enough when there are bruises and broken bones but as defence counsel for Ms Pryce said: "Bullies, domineers don't just use their fists, they don't have to." That is true. Relentless criticism and control is just as damaging. But it is much more difficult to report abuse if there are no signs of violence or witnesses to shouting.

That the vindictive fall-out between a former Cabinet Minister and an economist should result in a public examination of power and coercion within their marriage is a significant milestone in the evolution of how domestic abuse is dealt with in Britain.

This year will see the 40th anniversary of Women's Aid groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh opening the first refuges in Scotland. Way back then it could be difficult to persuade male editors to give space to an issue they found distasteful. In the four decades since, headlines about battered women have thankfully given way to more factual reports and analysis of the effectiveness of policy. But the figures – and the wealth of reliable statistics is the best indication of how seriously the issue is now taken – show incidents of domestic violence in Scotland have increased by 66% in the past 10 years.

That instantly dashes hopes that openness about the issue, education of young people and innovative schemes to help offenders manage anger and change attitudes are leading to more enlightened attitudes.

It is particularly disappointing that, between the beginning of December 2012 and January 31 this year, Scottish police forces recorded 10,159 incidents of domestic violence, an increase of 261 on the previous year. It was hardly a time of festive family fun and for the thousands of victims, there is little prospect of the year ahead being a happy one. A recent study found abuse can last for decades.

Yet closer examination suggests the overall figures conceal significant changes. In Strathclyde, the number of domestic crimes dropped by almost 2000 between 2011 and 2012, largely due to proactive policing such as targeting previous offenders on Old Firm match days. Chief Constable Stephen House has already indicated that domestic abuse will be high on the agenda of the new national police force by announcing a scheme which enables victims to report abuse in places other than police stations is to be extended across the country. That is likely to result in an initial increase in numbers but it is an important recognition of two factors which prevent people seeking help. One is fear and the other is stigma. Both can prevent victims from going to the police.

Yesterday's child poverty statistics revealed that one in five children in the UK are living below the poverty line. We should also be aware that 750,000 children in Britain witness acts of domestic violence every year. Many single parents dependent on benefits, often to boost a low wage, have decided that scraping by is better than living in fear of the next beating. A culture that criticises claimants also helps to conceal abuse by making it even harder to leave. It is equally unthinking to assume better-off, better-educated women are able to escape abuse when they feel their children will suffer if they break up the family home.

Whatever the outcome, the dispute over whether Vicky Pryce chose to take Chris Huhne's speeding points, or was coerced into taking them, is a reminder that abuse can take many forms. We must ensure young people not only know it is wrong but understand they should never tolerate it.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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