I've written before about Clare's Law. First in the Guardian, and subsequently on Pink Tape. The latter was just as the pilot scheme was being consulted on, in November 2011. So you might think it rather odd, and I might think it rather rude, that the Telegraph would extensively quote my 2011 blog post some two years later when the situation is rather different. Had they asked I would have told them that my views then were my views then and should not be taken as a comment on the success of the pilot or the roll out of the scheme more broadly. But they didn't ask. That irks a bit.
But it has prompted me to look at what I said then against the information now available - to see if I was right to be a bit skeptical about the potential of Clare's Law to make a meaningful dent in the domestic violence epidemic.
Looking back, the things I was worried about in 2011 were broadly these:
- that women* who were told there was nothing to disclose might be lulled into a false sense of security
- that resources might be overstretched due to demand and proper support for victims or potential victims might not be available
- that the cost might be disproportionate to the benefit
- that disclosing information in itself would not make women less vulnerable to patterns of abusive relationships in future
- that there might be inconsistency of approach as between forces
Since then a couple of important things have happened. Legal aid has gone for private family disputes, except those where there is evidence of dv. Funding for domestic violence organisations and rape crisis centres has been slashed in many areas. And the pilot has been run for a year (in some ares a bit longer) in four areas of the country.
I don't know, but I think it's safe to assume, that the four pilot areas were areas where there was the will and interest to make this work (or at any rate where someone near the top was keen on the idea). Certainly this is true of Wiltshire, where the ACPO lead on DV Brian Moore hails from - and Clare's Law is his baby. Wiltshire were doing Clare's Law informally before the pilot even began.
Six months into the pilot this article appeared in the Graun. I have to say I find rather concerning the remarks about how "Until six months ago, women in Ellen's position have had to rely on their own judgement." Don't we need to make their judgment better rather than making them dependent on this scheme? Undoubtedly the woman in the article was assisted in making a good decision about a specific relationship. But she was a victim of more than one violent relationship. The partner in question had already been violent (Just Like Clare Woods as it happens). For someone making good judgments one incident is quite enough information to base a decision on. Safer in the short term perhaps...
However the scheme has been in its own terms, I still think that educating women about how to spot the signs of an abuser is a better investment of money than disclosing information about a specific perpetrator (teach a woman to fish etc).
So, what does the pilot report tell us? Irritatingly, you will not find it linked to by any of the news reports that cover this story - why they think it is informative to link to a 2 year old blog post rather than the actual core document I don't know but here it is. You're grown ups. I think you can manage it.
Well, on the value for money point it tells us that each request costs on average £680 to process (extrapolating from the figures this cost about £300k over the pilot period (this cost from only 386 applications in the whole pilot period). I don't know the figures but I wonder how this compares to the cost of the Freedom Programme or how many support workers could have been funded instead.
Another point raised in the pilot report is the danger that risk to applicants might in fact be raised as a consequence of the disclosure, particularly following a judgment handed down in the course of the pilot which raises the prospect of the police having to consult with perpetrators prior to making a disclosure. That is dealt with in a sentence or two but it seems to me a pretty big issue (and one I haven't had time to really look at properly today).
Only one application was made by a man in the course of the pilot. I suspect this arises from a combination of differences in need and awareness, most probably predominantly the latter.
The majority of applications were right to know applications rather than right to ask applications - that is to say applications made by agencies who felt an individual needed to be given information for their own safety rather than for individuals seeking out information themselves. There were 380 applications, of which an average of 29% resulted in disclosures, i.e. only 111 individuals have benefitted. I think that is pretty paltry, and it is notable that a disproportionately high number of disclosures were made in the Manchester pilot area (61%). The disclosure rates in the other three pilot areas they are closer to 20% on average. This not only confirms my earlier concern about inconsistency of approach - it also raises a question about the cost-benefit of a scheme of this sort.
Of the 270 odd to whom no disclosure was made, it is apparent that at least some were cases where applications were prompted by hearsay evidence of domestic abuse i.e. gossip, but where there was no police intelligence to back it up. Those who work in this field are well aware of the myriad reasons for not reporting domestic incidents to the police. I still worry that women who feel they've checked out their concern, will relax and invest further into a relationship that they might otherwise have been appropriately cautious about. People will readily accept an answer which appears to confirm what they want to be true.
Support services raised concern in the course of the pilot about the potential for risk to be increased in the process of disclosing information to the applicant, and there appears to have been inconsistency in the follow up support offered to applicants (both those who did and did not receive a disclosure). For all the reasons I've outlined I would think this is pretty fundamental. Now that there has been a major press splash about the roll out of this scheme (one I might add that has totally failed to dispel the myth this is a system available for women only) awareness and hence uptake is likely to increase. How will already overburdened domestic abuse support services and other statutory agencies manage and absorb this additional burden?
There are three recommendations in the assessment report:
- Work with the police to embed routine training on the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme for front-line and specialist domestic abuse police officers and staff (to include consistency of approach when disclosing information).
- Work with voluntary and community sector to develop a standard package of support that can be given to individuals who applied for a disclosure via the Right to Ask route where there is no information to disclose.
- Develop ways to raise awareness of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme locally that balances public safety and local agency resources.
Unfortunately, the Minister's statement on the roll out doesn't tell us much about how (or if) the recommendations contained in the assessment report will be implemented.
So where does this leave my 2011 comments? On the whole I'm pretty unswayed. I'm not saying Clare's Law (or the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme as it is more properly named) is a bad thing. But I do think it brings it's own risks and I'm not so sure of the benefits when one looks at the bigger picture. I think that it is is policy which illustrates the tendency to oversimplify domestic violence as something that can be solved by information, when in fact it is a far more deep rooted problem that is often interconnected with the emotional and psychological vulnerability of the victims. A strategy to reduce the ill effects of domestic violence must focus on helping individuals to break cycles of behaviour (that is the behaviour of both victim AND perpetrator) rather than simply averting specific incidents.
In the unlikely event that the Telegraph fancy sending me a fee for use of my material (har har) I will donate it to Survive.
*edit : I've used "women" all the way through this post to refer to both men and women (as I often do for ease on this blog) - I'm mainly but not exclusively talking about women. I've already noted that the scheme is open equally to both sexes.