I went along to the ‘launch’ of the Wandsworth Domestic Violence Strategy and Action Plan this morning. I was down as the closing speaker, and while I had been given a few notes by officers to guide me I ended up ignoring them. The session was thought-provoking, challenging and inspirational in equal measure – and left me at the end using my session to make a few observations and share my reflections. It was a good turnout at the event, I guess a couple of hundred where there, and they were kind enough to indulge me. And I’m lucky enough to have a blog so I’m going to repeat them here too!

My first observation was my total ignorance about the subject. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment without domestic violence. As far as I’m aware it did not impinge on my life at all, and while I’m sure it happened, it never happened anywhere that I saw any evidence.

I think the first time I saw it as a problem and not a rarity was in 2000. As a parliamentary candidate I spent the evening on patrol with the police, and being quite gung-ho I decided to spend the Saturday evening shift with them; I expected to spend the evening visiting pubs and clubs, seeing the aftermath of fights and the police having to wade in.

I actually spent the evening going from house to house while the police dealt with domestic violence (the exception being a quick visit to check someone was abiding by bail conditions at the beginning of their shift). I might well have seen the after effects of the alcohol drunk, or the arguments started, in those pubs and clubs – but the violence took place in homes, not streets and bars.

And this, I was told, was fairly typical. Not only did they spend their Saturdays dealing with domestic violence, they spent a lot of them at the same homes.

The statistics
One of the statistics shocked me: 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some stage in their lives. An easy thought experiment is to apply that to my life. I have a wife, sister and two sisters-in-law. Four women.

A more sobering thought is that between them they have four husbands, one of them being me.

Using the one-in-four statistic would suggest that one is likely have perpetrated, and another suffered, domestic violence.

Of course, statistics don’t work that way, I can’t cherry pick four women and assume with any confidence one has experienced domestic violence. But then you start thinking.

Think about all the people in your life – family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, the people you meet on holiday, or at your local.

Think about all the relationships you know, from the married couples to co-habitees, heterosexual or same-sex, whether formalised by a ceremony or joint names on a gas bill.

For most of us the list will include dozens, if not hundreds, of people and then, statistically, it becomes highly improbable that you don’t know someone who has survived or perpetrated domestic violence.

This isn’t something that happens to ‘other people’.

My role… and our role
Before I went this morning I had some difficulty trying to think what I would say. It’s hard being the politician in a room full of practitioners. I can talk about the priority we place on an issue. And I did talk with some pride that the council’s domestic violence co-ordinator will soon be part of the council’s community safety team, meaning I will be the political champion for it. But it occurred to me that I’m not just the politician, I’m also one of the practitioners.

I hesitated to raise it, but this is somewhere the Big Society has a role to play. I’m conscious I might be adopting a ‘hammer mentality’ (when all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail), but this is one of those areas that needs a collective responsibility. It isn’t just for the council to give housing to domestic violence survivors, or just for the police to prosecute the perpetrators, nor for Victim Support to offer and co-ordinate services.

Instead it’s incumbent on everyone not to be ignorant of a problem, not to think it happens to ‘other people’. And it’s for everyone to know there are solutions to the problem.

It’s an example of the Big Society being a civic society, which doesn’t tolerate domestic violence. I don’t expect everyone to carry the details of the one-stop shop in their head, or know about the Stay Put, Stay Safe scheme. But the more people who know about the problem, and who know that there are options available to those suffering as a result, the more the message spreads. And that can only lead to more escaping the violence and more perpetrators being brought to justice.

Yet more democracy in action last night at the Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC.

I was there for the community safety and town centre parts of the meeting which come under my portfolio. In many ways it was a relatively straightforward meeting. There wasn’t anything particularly contentious on the agenda, although as the deficit is addressed I’m sure that is to come. The full agenda is on the council’s website (which does work from time to time, I promise you) but to give a few selected highlights.

10-646 Domestic Violence Strategy
Domestic violence is woefully under-reported and, unlike most crimes, almost all victims are repeat victims. The problem is that domestic violence and abuse often take place in situations that are hard to leave, perhaps because they are in the home, and the victim has nowhere else to go, or it might be that children are involved. In many cases there is a feeling of shame or embarrassment, particularly where the situation doesn’t fit the stereotypical man abusing woman scenario (one of the specific areas of focus are abuse in LGBT relationships).

10-647 Community Safety Division – Annual Quality and Performance Review
This is one of those monster reports that covers everything (each service produces one of these a year), but worth dipping into if you are interested in the sorts of things the council does to make Wandsworth safer.

This prompted a lot of discussion on Neighbourhood Watch (NW), which is one of my pet subjects because I think NW has such great potential and is one of the policy priorities for the coming years. We’re trying to see how we can expand the benefits of NW into hard-to-reach areas, for example council estates have traditionally had much poorer coverage, but also to see how we can create networks of watches and whether we can help in strengthening communities.

Of course, one of the problems with this is that it is uncharted territory. Wandsworth is something of a leader in this field and it’s difficult to know what will and won’t work. It’s a subject that I’ve touched on before, that to develop and improve you often have to accept that your experiments may end in failure, which is not something that sits well in politics. While exciting, I won’t pretend that I don’t have the occasional worry!

10-649 Policing in the 21st Century
This is the council’s response to the government’s white paper. It is generally supportive, although one of the biggest parts of the proposed reforms, directly elected police commissioners, will not affect London as the Mayor would take on that role.

The Labour group voted against this, disagreeing with the abolition of the Metropolitan Police Authority (a better reason than disliking the title of a white paper which they said they largely agreed) and I’m wondering if there’s a degree of oppositional politics starting to return. It is an unusual time for all tiers of government – national, London and Wandsworth to be (largely) politically aligned. It hasn’t happened for 13 years, and then probably only because there was no London government!

10-651 Petition – request for CCTV installation in the area of Leverson Street
This was the council’s response to a petition asking for CCTV to be installed in what is seen as a trouble black spot.

The council rejected this. For me there is a big issue about installing CCTV in primarily residential areas. As a matter of principal it feels wrong to me to have these areas surveilled. However, there are also practical concerns.

CCTV works well in areas where the problem is ‘contained’. So, for example, CCTV in town centre areas can help deter problems (or justify prosecutions, about half of all cases the local police bring use CCTV evidence) that are specific to that sort of area, for example issues around disorder or theft. When dealing with anti-social behaviour problems these can easily relocate, there is little difference between street-corners. In effect the problem is moved, not solved.

And that is the second problem, very often these problems are much better tackled by joint work between the police, council and (frequently) social landlords. Together they are able to tackle those who create problems and divert those on the fringes. Temporary, mobile, CCTV can be effective in gathering evidence for this. Personally I think we’re much better off going for a solution than seeing CCTV as a panacea – it never has been.

10-655 Town Centre Management – Annual review
The council’s approach to town centres has been one of the real success stories of Wandsworth, and has helped the borough avoid the problems faced by so many of having a single, fairly soulless, shopping destination and then nothing but residential areas with little focus.

The paper details some of the activity that has been taking place in each town centre to support, enhance and promote the businesses that are there. It’s split into sections of the five town centres so worth having a browse to see what’s been happening in your local centre.

Labour voted against this (disappointingly, I have to say). They felt that we should be putting equal support in for all shopping areas. The problem with that approach is that if you focus on everything you actually focus on nothing.

It’s also the case that we put a lot of support in to the ‘secondary’ shopping areas. Indeed, I’m meeting with a collection of the business associations representing them tonight to talk about how they and the council can work together. But increasingly we are seeing these areas, along with their local residents, developing their own initiatives (with some support from the council), Southfields and Battersea Square both being success stories of combined resident/business associations. It’s that sort of work we need to support and not applying a one-size fits all town centre management everywhere.

While is hasn’t quite got the recognition of the red ribbon or the red poppy today was white ribbon day – when men are asked to wear a white ribbon as a symbol of their pledge not to cause, threaten or condone harm to women.

These hands are not for hurtingAlong with several other councillors I attended an awareness event organised by Wandsworth Victim Support to promote the day and highlight the problems that still exist with domestic violence.

Of course, domestic violence is not purely a problem of men harming women, but can exist within any home, with both men and women suffering as victims at the hands of partners and other family members.  Wandsworth has always had a comparatively low incidence of domestic violence, but that always carries the fear that there is under-reporting.

The council and Victim Support run a one stop shop every Monday at Battersea Arts Centre. ¬†More information can be found via the council’s website at wandsworth.gov.uk/domesticviolence