After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task
When Keir Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) between 2008 and 2013 he did more to combat male violence against women and girls, including FGM, than any other DPP in history. When I launched my 2014 report on FGM for the New Culture Forum (An Unpunished Crime: The lack of prosecutions for female genital mutilation in the UK) Starmer spoke at the event, and it was clear he knew exactly what this terrible crime was about. Not only did he understand FGM as a crime as opposed to a religious or cultural practice, he was firmly committed to combating it.
Starmer is far from perfect: he has been cowardly and mealy-mouthed on the issue of the campaign to introduce self-identification for men who wish to be recognised as women that has recently dogged the Labour leadership campaign, but on FGM he showed bravery.
More generally, on the issue of sexual and other forms of violence against women and girls Starmer has a sterling record. Before he was DPP he represented Emma Humphreys, a woman who had killed her violent pimp/boyfriend and, mainly because she was represented by a lawyer who gave her all the wrong advice and had no understanding of sexual violence whatsoever, was convicted of murder. Seven years into her sentence, in 1992, Justice for Women began to campaign for her release, and, at the same time, asked Starmer to represent Emma in suing her solicitor for negligence. I spent an afternoon with Emma and Starmer after her release from prison in 1995 and saw how he immediately put Emma at her ease. He clearly understood the effects of sexual abuse on women, and that she had been badly let down by her previous legal team.
Starmer’s legacy is his determination to implement the law against FGM. Carrying out or facilitating FGM became a criminal offence in 1985. The law was made tougher in 2003 with the passing of the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which makes it an offence for UK citizens to take a child abroad for FGM, even where the practice is legal. The maximum penalty is 14 years’ imprisonment.
In 2012 Starmer announced plans to crack down on the perpetrators of FGM. At that time, despite it having been an offence for nearly 30 years, there had never been a successful prosecution. Starmer published an action plan in an attempt to shift perceptions of the crime, saying at the time, “It’s critical that everything possible is done to ensure we bring the people who commit these offences against young girls and women to justice and this action plan is a major step in the right direction.”
Two years later, at the launch of my report on FGM, Starmer joined me and other anti-FGM campaigners and told the audience, “FGM is child abuse. Everyone can play a part in preventing FGM and, if it is perpetrated on girls, punishing those responsible.” Despite his efforts, there has been only one successful prosecution of FGM in the UK to date, but his leadership and tenacity regarding this and other forms of violence against women and girls did bring about a change in attitude within the Crown Prosecution Service and beyond.
Conversely, his successor Alison Saunders was by far the worst DPP when it came to such issues. During her tenure, the conviction rate for rape in the UK was in the region of 6.5 per cent, the lowest out of 33 European countries. Today, this figure has dropped to 1.4 per cent, which effectively means rape has been all but decriminalised.
Look at the tragic case of Eleanor de Freitas, a 23-year-old woman who took her own life in 2013 when the man she alleged had raped her pursued a private prosecution against her. The case was taken over by the CPS. Saunders vigorously defended her decision to prosecute Eleanor, despite her suffering from bipolar disorder. This case demanded a detailed analysis of why such a vulnerable woman came to face trial, taking her life rather than undergo the ordeal of a trial at which she would be publicly named. At the inquest in 2015, the coroner Chinyere Inyama recorded a verdict of suicide and noted that the impending trial had been a “significant stressor” on Eleanor.
It is my view that Saunders was more concerned with appeasing the misogynistic men’s rights movement, with its drive to convince legislators that prisons are bursting at the seams with innocent men falsely accused of rape, than she was of doing something to increase the dismally low conviction rate.
I can’t help being disappointed that Saunders did not carry on the good work that Starmer began in dealing with violence against women and girls in Britain.
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