Jess Phillips

Jess Phillips, the Shadow Secretary for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding talks about the shocking UK statistics for aggression towards women and children

The Shadow Secretary for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding talks to Rowan Pelling about the shocking UK statistics for aggression towards women and children
Jess Phillips has been campaigning to prevent domestic violence against women since 2015

The House of Commons is not renowned for holding a respectful, sombre silence as one of its women members speaks. But since March 2016 this rare phenomenon has been observed on a yearly basis as Jess Phillips MP rises to her feet for the International Women’s Day Debate. Everyone present now knows that on 8 March the Shadow Secretary for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding will read aloud a list of all the women in the UK who have been killed by men over the previous year. The exact, heartbreaking figure may go up or down a little on the previous year, but the rough tally stays steady: one woman dies every three days at the hands of a man. That male will almost always be well known to her (61 per cent of the killers in 2018 were current or former partners of the murdered women), whether that be her husband, son, father, stepfather, uncle or “family friend”.

“Women are just being failed by our criminal justice system”

Last month the topic was pushed to the top of the news agenda with the slaying of Epsom College headmistress Emma Pattison and her seven-year-old daughter Lettie by their husband and father, George Pattison. Meanwhile, the long, grim hunt for Nicola Bulley could not but remind the nation of the search for Sarah Everard (despite very different outcomes), while the police’s release of both dead women’s private details felt unforgivable. And let us not forget that, for every high-profile death, there are scores of missing women and femicides that don’t hit the headlines because the woman involved was too poor, too old, too unsympathetic (perhaps she took drugs, or was a sex worker) or from the sort of ethnic background that doesn’t excite many editors in a largely white media.

So, when I sit down towards the end of February to talk to 41-year-old Phillips on Zoom about what’s come to be known as the “femicide list”, I’m prepared for the grimmest of conversations. Except that Phillips maintains the kind of robust, dark humour that you tend to observe in pathologists and paramedics – which means you can find yourself laughing as you skirt along the verge of tears. Phillips kickstarts the conversation by apologising for the bleak, bare walls of her constituency office, which makes it look “like I’ve been kidnapped in Beirut in 1981.” She’s not wrong, but I imagine plush fittings aren’t high on the priority list for a politician who’s been campaigning to prevent domestic violence since her years working for Women’s Aid – where she managed refuges in the West Midlands, before being elected as MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015.

Have things got worse or better for women over twenty years of campaigning? Phillips says she’ll start with the more upbeat tidings: that awareness of domestic violence and aggression against women and children has never been higher. This means the issue is far higher up the agenda than two decades ago. She senses a positive “tipping point”, meaning many will take women’s safety into consideration at the ballot box: “I think the country is wanting and ready for total reformation in how we deal with this.” Adding with a grin, “I like a revolutionary public. They’re my favourite.”

With greater awareness has come another development: far greater reporting of domestic violence, rape and assault against women (according to government figures 2.4 million people in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the past year, with one in five homicides related to it – almost all women). However – and here comes the not-so-great news – “We’ve seen convictions for these crimes go down.” But these two factors combined are helping drive the revolutionary fervour, as the public increasingly understands that “women are just being failed by our criminal justice system and something has to change.” Phillips says that in her own specialist area of femicide there’s a drive to look at the preventable nature of those deaths. Whereas before people thought, “there’s this problem in society, men are violent towards women and sometimes they die,” now the public realises “sometimes women die after nineteen times of calling the police and no one coming.” She compares the new level of awareness to the moment people across the UK fully recognised the widespread nature of child abuse and neglect following the horrific death of Baby P in 2007. What really registered was the fact multiple agencies had failed to intervene in a case where a child was clearly at high risk.

The cost of violence towards women is huge in more ways than one. Phillips tells me that in 2017 the Government published figures saying the total bill to the state of domestic abuse alone – in terms of direct costs like policing and healthcare, battered women’s lost earnings and the knock-on effects to children in those homes – was £66 billion. I gawp at her and she repeats the figure, then continues, “And £13 billion of that is just lost productivity from women being insecure.” Her point is crucial in policy terms: if we divert £10 billion of resources towards safeguarding women, the state will be better off. Or, as she so persuasively puts it, “There is a windfall to be had.”

Not that any of this will be easy: “It’s going to take huge political commitment beyond just announcing a few little programmes every year, or a pilot here and there. It’s got to be mainlined into the substance of our political institutions. It’s got to become a fourth pillar of every single government department.” I ask about Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent announcement that the worst perpetrators of domestic abuse will be added to the “violent and sex offender register”. Phillips looks world-weary and says that in her view “it is headline, not frontline.” She explains it will apply to those who have been convicted to at least twelve months in prison for coercive control, which will be “around 500 men at best”. Put that in context of the Government’s own figures of 2.4 million victims, most of them women and children, and it really does look insufficient.

Phillips points out that if men are put on the register their movements will be overseen by probation officers and police, which is already the practice with dangerous offenders. She sighs and says that in the last six weeks alone she’s “sat through statement after statement about probation failings or police failings.” There’s the murder of 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa by Koci Selamaj, who should have been recalled to court. And the slaughter of pregnant Terri Harris, her children John and Lacey Bennett, and eleven-year-old Connie Gent who was staying overnight, all because probation officers deemed her new partner Damian Bendall suitable to live with her, despite multiple red flags, including convictions for violence. As Phillips says, “it happens again and again.” She’s not against new measures, but asks: “What does good offender management look like?” She compares the issue to terrorism, where early intervention and prevention are the best measures.

When I ask what she’d do if she was in government, Phillips says she’s already on the case, sending letters to various bodies, asking what kind of resources they’re prepared to allocate. Just as well, since when I checked to see who Rishi Sunak had appointed as minister for safeguarding, the post seemed to have been abandoned. The last holder, Victoria Atkins, moved to Justice in 2021 and then resigned from the front bench in 2022 citing concerns over “integrity, decency and respect” within government. It’s no wonder Phillips says “I’d be so bold as to say I… already have this job.” Even so, if she takes on the post as a member of a Labour administration she knows it will prove bolstering to the women and charities she’s worked with for so long. She describes the prospect as “an untightening of the chest”. And she’d ensure on day one that all abused women “regardless of their immigration status” had access to women’s refuges. But the big issues need “decades of reformation: a ten-year, if not a twenty-year plan.”

It’s only in researching this article that I read about White Ribbon UK, a charity devoted to engaging men and boys in the cause of ending violence against women and girls. Their website says their aim “is to change long established and harmful attitudes, systems and behaviours around masculinity that perpetuate gender inequality and men’s violence against women.” It sounds great, but I have two teenage sons at state schools and they and I have never heard of it. Phillips says the current range of preventative schemes for young men is “ad hoc”, although she has been part of the task force that helped change legislation so that all children “had to have healthy relationship education from the age of four to eighteen”.

What of the thorny issue of abuse against women within the police force? Wayne Couzens may have been the worst case to date, but plenty of other unsavoury examples have hit the headlines, including the rapist David Carrick. It’s so bad that the headmistress of Wimbledon High School has said she actually warns schoolgirls to be wary of approaching lone policemen. Much of the fallout of rogue policemen’s behaviour is dealt with by women officers who are, in Phillips’ words, “trying to push water uphill”. How to best support them is an issue that preoccupies the MP. She says there’s “no police force I haven’t had an 8am briefing meeting with before the shit hits the fan on a violence-against-women-and-girls case. And it’s always these senior women they send out to talk to us about it.”

She makes clear how much respect she has for women police officers taking the brunt of people’s outrage, even as she’s appalled at institutional failings. She mimes a typical scene of her withering disbelief in such scenarios: “OK, say that again, what you just said about how David Carrick was, after being accused of rape, given his firearms licence back on the day that Wayne Couzens was sentenced. Just repeat that again for me?” The net result is that she’s never known such an “exhausted and available” police force. Phillips says it’s easy now for her to access any commissioner: “They invite me in to shout at them.”

Even so, victim blaming is still a real, live issue, although Phillips says the accusations now tend not to be “as direct as, ‘Well, she was a hooker and she was out on the street, she deserved it.’” I confess I am still reeling from the media’s subtle insinuations that Emma Pattison’s highflying career in some way provoked her spouse to murder – which feels only a footstep away from dignifying it as some form of rationale. Phillips says the blaming has almost become more pernicious as it’s expressed less openly. She says many of the cases she handles leave victims “feeling they are doing the labour of the investigation.”

People gather to leave flowers and tributes for Sarah Everard at a vigil in March 2021, despite it being banned by the police under covid regulations. GUY BELL/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

It’s easy to see why Phillips’ reading aloud of the femicide list proves so cathartic – not just for the families of the murdered women but also for the listening public. On that list every woman’s name has equal weight, equal solemnity. It’s hard to believe this annual event came about almost accidentally, back in 2016. The newly-elected Phillips and fellow MP Sue Hayman wanted to raise awareness of femicide and their first idea was to mount a display of empty shoes in Parliament’s Great Hall, representing all the dead women. But the space had to be booked months ahead, and with International Women’s Day looming, simpler measures were called for. Phillips already knew Karen Ingala Smith of Counting Dead Women and The Femicide Census, who’s made it her life’s mission to track down the identities of all the women in the UK who meet their deaths at the hands of men. They hatched a plan for Phillips to smuggle that year’s list into her speech – ensuring all the dead women’s names and ages would be kept in the public domain by Hansard stenographers. Phillips knew Commons rules forbade MPs from reading out lists and that speakers were limited to seven minutes each; but she guessed, correctly, that the then Speaker of the House of Commons –John Bercow – would not stop an MP mid-flow when the subject was so sensitive.

As a result, the word “femicide” entered the public consciousness and a decision was taken to roll back the House of Commons’ debating rules for Phillips once a year, so the list could become a fixture. She no longer reads out the women’s ages, as that considerably extends the time needed. But there’s regret in her voice as she explains she wanted to steer people away from the false stereotype of domestic abuse victims: aged between 25 and 40, “a benefit-dependent woman with a couple of kids in a refuge.” The harsh reality is that victims come in all ages from all backgrounds: “The first year I read the list there was a woman who was 99.”

Phillips maintains the robust, dark humour you see in pathologists and paramedics

What many don’t realise is that the list is never complete when it’s read out, because new victims accumulate almost daily. Generally, Ingala Smith sends Phillips the names three days before the debate and the latest femicides are added right up to the wire: “Every single year, without fail, I have to write [extra] women’s names in pencil,” she says. There’s no police or national network to identify femicide so Ingala Smith has to carry out detailed research via local newspapers and appeals for information from families and supporters. And because many of the cases take a while to come to court, or are unresolved, or sub judice, the count is always a work in progress.

“Sarah Everard is the famous example of this,” Phillips tells me. In March 2021 “Wayne Couzens was charged with the murder of Sarah Everard while I was reading the list. At the same moment. So, her name was not on the list because I wouldn’t have been allowed to put it on, even though we all knew that…”…her voice trails away, and in my mind I finish the sentence for her: even though we all knew that her body had been found the day before the debate. Though after reading out the list, Phillips defiantly added: “Obviously, we are all hoping and praying for the family of Sarah Everard.”

Some relatives don’t want their beloved’s name on the list, while others sit in the Commons’ public gallery as she reads and say they feel acknowledgement in the public naming of their loss and grief. Phillips gets pleas on behalf of women who committed suicide after suffering years of domestic abuse, what she terms “hidden homicides”. But she has to exercise judgement calls and aims to recognise the constraints of the framework: “It’s an academic piece of research. I can’t just willy-nilly be going and changing the remit of it… I feel terribly indebted to the women who do that work for free.”

I leave the conversation feeling hugely indebted too – to Ingala Smith, Phillips and all those who work tirelessly to try and prevent domestic violence and the social scourge of femicide. While conducting my own research to see how many women had already been killed by men in 2023, I was chastened to find the first death listed – on New Year’s Day – was that of 75-year-old Gabriella Rudin who lived three miles from my front door in Cambridge. A death that I, like millions of others, had simply not registered. The local police website reports her 81-year-old husband’s arrest for murder, but regional news outlets don’t appear to have picked up the story for at least a week. It seems there’s nothing to interest them in the domestic killing of an older woman.

No wonder Jess Phillips’ words from the 2021 debate are still ringing in my ears: “Killed women are not vanishingly rare, killed women are common.”

Rowan Pelling is co-editor of Perspective and former editor of the Erotic Review

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March 2023, People

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