We have all been moved by the tragic death of Sarah Everard, and the discovery of her body in woods near Ashford. Given that a man has now been charged with her murder and will stand trial later in the year, it would not be appropriate now to discuss the specifics of this case. However, it causes us to reflect on the safety of women in our society, both in domestic settings and out in the community. We should not regard it as a normal state of affairs for women to have to take extra precautions to protect their safety, measures that most men would not even have to consider. As a husband, and the father of a fourteen-year-old daughter, I am not prepared to accept this is a fact of life.
I share as well the deep concerns expressed by the Prime Minister about the policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham last Saturday evening, and it’s right that the Home Secretary has announced a full independent review of the Police response. Whilst the coronavirus legislation prohibits large public gatherings, it has always been the responsibility of the Police to use their judgment in how they go about enforcing the law. Given the nature of the event, and its focus on the serious issue of violence against women in our society, I would question whether using force to arrest people attending the vigil was the right response. The Police have used their discretion at other public gatherings and not responded with force, and that would have been a more appropriate response on this occasion.
The Government is also reviewing its policies to address the issue of violence against women. As an immediate measure, an additional £25million has been made available to improve street lighting and CCTV coverage. There will also be a pilot scheme to have more plain-clothes police officers working in pubs and clubs when they re-open. I believe we also need to look at the way information is recorded about men who have had previous convictions for domestic abuse and violence against women.
However, we may need to look wider than that. I have long been concerned about the impact of harmful content and hate speech on social media. Women MPs, for example, face far more abuse on Facebook and Twitter than men do. Content that is allowed to circulate freely on the internet, which uses dehumanising language to attack other people, is not only hurtful to the victim, but also more likely than not to encourage others to do the same. When Parliament debates the Online Safety Bill later this year, we have to remind ourselves about the real world consequences of abuse on social media. Also, when we look at other important issues, although not ones directly connected with the death of Sarah Everard, we see for example that there have been significant increases in recorded hate crimes over the last ten years, suicide rates are at a twenty year high, and over the last six years the number of hospital admissions because of the self-injury of pre-teens, aged between 9 and 12 years old, has doubled. Academic studies in the United States have shown that social media usage can increase feelings of depression and loneliness. It’s time we also understood the wider impact that this could be having on our society.