Boris Johnson has said the police’s failure to take sexual violence against women seriously was “infuriating”, pointing in particular to long delays in the criminal justice system that can result in people waiting years for their case to be heard.
The prime minister and senior ministers joined widespread criticism of the police over their handling of violence against women and girls in the wake of the Sarah Everard case.
Speaking to the Times, Johnson said: “There’s [a] problem, which is partly caused by the failure of the criminal justice system to dispose of these [cases]. Are the police taking this issue seriously enough? It’s infuriating. I think the public feel that they aren’t and they’re not wrong.”
He suggested the police were responsible for the long delays that victims face and issues such as people who report being raped having their own phones taken away.
He said: “Can you trust the police? Yes you can. But there is an issue about how we handle sexual violence, domestic violence, the sensitivity, the diligence, the time, the delay, the confusion about your mobile phone. That’s the thing we need to fix.”
Lawyers and police unions have been warning over the past year of the damage done by cuts to police and courts. Waits for hearings have lengthened as courts closed during the pandemic and unions have said thousands of officers have been lost to the police because of cuts made by the Conservative government.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, told the Telegraph that the police needed to “raise the bar” in responding to all violent crimes against women, including those that are sometimes seen as low level.
She said: “I would say to all women – give voice to these issues, please. There is something so corrosive in society if people think that it’s OK to harass women verbally, physically, and in an abusive way on the street, and all that kind of stuff.
“I want women to have the confidence to call it out. I don’t see all of this as low level. Where I am on this is parity of treatment of anyone that reports a crime. I don’t want to see postcode lotteries around the country.
“This is a very clear message to police to raise the bar. Make sure that when these crimes or concerns are reported, people are treated with respect, dignity and seriously.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, also called for changes to the way the police work on cases of violence against women.
He told the BBC: “There definitely needs to be reform to rebuild that confidence [in the police]. At this stage I couldn’t jump to what is the best way to do that reform. I think it is right to take a bit of time rather than some kind of kneejerk reaction. I do think there needs to be reform and that clearly needs to be the police themselves but there is also a role for government.”
But Lady Helena Kennedy QC, who chairs the working group on misogyny and criminal justice in Scotland, said lessons could have been learned a long time ago.
Kennedy said often things started with incidents such as flashing, being abusive to women in public spaces, and men feeling they could get away with it.
“The police certainly have to be taking women’s complaints more seriously than they have done. This has been going on for many, many years and I’m rather tired of hearing police forces saying we’re going to learn lessons from some tragedy.
“The lessons don’t seem to be learned, and the lessons are that women’s suffering of this kind of stuff has to stop, and women up and down the country are saying that. And you have to listen, and police forces are not doing that.”
She said this would require more resourcing, more police, more money put into policing and the court system, and better processes of training police and those in the justice system.
There have been strong reactions to police comments on Friday that women should flag down a bus or learn more about the law to avoid being abused by an officer who stops them in the street.
Philip Allott, who oversees North Yorkshire police and the region’s fire service, is facing calls to resign for saying women “need to be streetwise” about powers of arrest in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder. The police commissioner was accused of victim-blaming after saying women should “just learn a bit about that legal process” in case they were falsely arrested.
Javid refused to join calls for Allott to resign, telling BBC News that while what Allott said was wrong, he did not know enough about his track record to call for him to be sacked.