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As we come out the other side of the Christmas festivities and look to the new year, it’s worth pausing. Today marks the three-year anniversary of coercive and controlling behaviour being established as a criminal offence in the Serious Crime Act 2015.The domestic abuse sector raised a glass to celebrate this landmark day – signalling that the criminal justice system had registered the impact and seriousness of this daily, insidious abuse, where one person seeks to control another, with or without the use of physical violence.  

Three years on, we’re still thankful for that decision. We’re seeing much more understanding and awareness of the term ‘coercive control’. However, we also see how challenging coercive control is to spot and understand without the right training and resources. Legislation on its own has not proved to be the answer.  

The daily abuse of individuals in supposedly loving relationships is the root cause of multiple problems faced by individuals, families and our wider society. Over two million people experience it each year and there is a growing body of evidence to show the strong co-relation between abuse and mental ill-health, insecure housing and financial position, and vulnerability to other crime types. Despite this, only 20% of victims feel able to report their situation to the police – the true scale therefore remains a ‘hidden’ epidemic, meaning multiple missed opportunities to stop all this personal and societal harm in its tracks.  

The impact of not taking the right action - on individuals, immediate and even extended family - is devastating. At the time children start school, at least one child in every classroom will have experienced domestic abuse since they were born. These early experiences of violence and control can lead to enduring mental health consequences such as eating disorders, difficulties sleeping, anxiety issues, and the increased risk of experiencing or using abuse themselves in later life.   

The legislation on coercive control was designed to help transform the response, but data from the ONS shows that the use of this law remains patchy and inconsistent. The police recorded a total of 9,053 offences of coercive control in the year ending March 2018, but only 960 offences resulted in prosecution being taken as far as the courts. 

The police and wider criminal justice system still need a much greater understanding of abusive uses of power and control if we are to hold perpetrators to account. We cannot simply put new legislation in place and hope for the best. It must be followed up with leadership, investment and culture change to make it effective.  

Our domestic abuse change programme for the police, Domestic Abuse Matters, offers long term attitudinal and behavioural change. It helps the police understand what is meant by the term coercive control by giving them ways to walk in the shoes of those experiencing it. It also prompts them to recognise the high levels of manipulation being used by those perpetrating it, including in interactions with law enforcement. After completing our programme, 94% of first responders felt they had greater knowledge of the tactics used. Many officers have felt able to talk for the first time about their own experiences; disclosures which can only improve their own access to support and their force’s understanding of there being no ‘them and us’ about who experiences abuse.  

To date, 30% of the police forces in England, Wales and Scotland have adopted Domestic Abuse Matters. We can't stop there.  

The police face an ongoing stretch on resources. Focusing on the dynamics of domestic abuse and the behaviour of its perpetrators is not about taking them away from core business. Quite the opposite, it is getting back to the heart of policing – tackling crime before further harm occurs, both further abuse and the multiple linked crimes and harms that flow from it. If policing is to look to the future with confidence, it must get behind closed doors to prevent the crime that pervades people’s lives there and then spills out onto the streets and pervades society in so many ways.  

SafeLives, alongside thousands of other organisations and survivors, are eagerly anticipating the new Domestic Abuse Bill from the Westminster Government, delayed but now expected in January, which will aim to keep transforming the response to domestic abuse. As the coercive control legislation has shown, well intentioned words on a page will not on their own be enough. 

As we enter the new year, let’s look at how we can work together to make those words on the page a reality – protecting all those experiencing abuse and preventing future harm. A new year is always filled with possibilities. If we work together, those possibilities can end an epidemic. Wouldn’t that truly be something to celebrate? 

About SafeLives 

We are a UK charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for good. We combine insight from services, survivors and statistics to support people to become safe, well and rebuild their lives.​ ​

Last year alone, over 70,000 adults and 120,000 children received dedicated support from interventions designed with partners in the sector.​ 

Domestic abuse affects us all; it thrives on being hidden behind closed doors. We must make it everybody’s business.  

For further information and interviews, contact Natalie Mantle, Senior Communications Officer, at natalie.mantle@safelives.org.uk  

About Domestic Abuse Matters 

SafeLives’ domestic abuse programme offers real, sustainable change that makes a difference to police practice, and provides an improved response to victims and whole families experiencing domestic abuse. The programme helps forces understand what is meant by the term ‘coercive control’ and how they can spot the signs using appropriate questions and communication techniques. It also looks at the tactics used by perpetrators to control whole families and manipulate first responders.  

To date, 30% of the police forces in England, Wales and Scotland have signed up to the programme.  

For more information, visit www.safelives.org.uk/training/police or contact Melani Morgan, Programme Lead, at melani.morgan@safelives.org.uk