A domestic abuse strategy for St Helens Council that was approved by St Helens Council’s cabinet was never adopted, a senior councillor has revealed.
‘Tackling Domestic Abuse, St Helens Strategy 2018-2023’ was developed specifically for St Helens and was intended to be the framework for all agencies to respond effectively to domestic abuse.
The strategy was approved by cabinet in February 2018 and by the People’s Board in June that year.
It was due to be scrutinised by the council’s safer communities overview and scrutiny panel before making its way back to cabinet for final approval – but this never happened.
In May it was revealed that Coun Jeanie Bell had instructed officers to develop a fresh strategy after taking over the community safety portfolio.
This week Coun Bell told the safer communities overview and scrutiny panel that she was surprised to find out the strategy had not actually been adopted.
Coun Bell said: “The current strategy that I think myself and a lot of members assumed was in place, what had actually happened was, it had come to cabinet in 2018, and that was in the February.
“That strategy was approved by cabinet subject to appearing at scrutiny and partnership engagement via the People’s Board and then return to cabinet for approval.
“What actually happened was that the process didn’t work as planned. It did indeed go to the People’s Board.
“It didn’t go to scrutiny and it didn’t go back to cabinet for approval.”
The previous strategy was led by Coun Lisa Preston, who left cabinet in May 2018 following the election of Derek Long as leader of the council.
From May 2018, community safety fell under the portfolio of Coun Anthony Burns, the current cabinet member for public health, leisure and libraries.
The recent cabinet reshuffle following the election of David Baines as leader of the council saw Coun Bell take over the portfolio.
This week, Coun Bell told the cross-party scrutiny panel she wanted to work as “closely as possible” with councillors on the new strategy.
The Labour councillor said the “direction of travel” with the new-look cabinet has been around “transparency” and focusing on the future.
This includes, she said, openly discussing things that could have done better in the past.
One of her first actions Coun Bell took after taking over the portfolio was to postpone a planned domestic abuse summit following concerns over its effectiveness.
Coun Bell said the conference will take place on Tuesday, October 1, and said a draft version of the strategy will be shared with partners for feedback.
She felt there was not enough representation of the voluntary sector and said the department spent the summer engaging with numerous voluntary groups.
Coun Bell said one of the main focuses of the strategy is around getting people in the community to report abuse and to reinforce the message “it’s not your fault”.
Stephen Tracey, the council’s senior assistant director for housing and safer communities, said enforcement will be another key focus.
Mr Tracey said: “Often the perpetrator is allowed to walk away and they go on to form relationships, new relationships and repeat the same patterns of behaviour.
“One of the things we have stressed in the draft strategy is that we have to take a much stronger enforcement approach against perpetrators.
“And it’s about how we look to work together with police, with the courts and the housing providers to strengthen and enforce that approach against perpetrators.”
In 2018-19, there were 2,921 domestic abuse crimes reported in St Helens – but the actual number is believed to be much higher.
Ben Ryder, group manager for Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service with responsibility for community safety, said domestic abuse is a “real area of concern” across the city region.
“We work intensely with police, housing providers and other partners to try and deal with this particularly insidious issue,” he said.
Mr Ryder said the fire service will give the council its “full support” and offered to work with the local authority on the strategy.
Coun Bell said the strategy will focus on all forms of abuse, including coercive control and financial abuse, which she described as a “can of worms”.
She said domestic abuse is a cultural issue in St Helens and is something that has never really been challenged from a community perspective.
“I grew up in St Helens,” Coun Bell said. “Seven generations of my family have and do live here and it is unfortunately an ingrained, cultural issue within St Helens.
“And if we do not put our hands up and say this is a problem, we won’t ever start to address it.”
Labour’s Michelle Sweeney, chairman of the panel, said there is a “culture of shame” on domestic abuse victims in the borough.
She said abusive patterns of behaviour have become “normalised” and said it is “damaging” all aspects of our communities.
Coun Sweeney said: “It’s damaging our children, it’s damaging women and it’s damaging men who are criminalised and are being sentenced, who are following patterns of behaviour that has been handed down to them.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I watched my father do it. I thought that was the way you treated women. I thought that it was quite acceptable if my mum didn’t do something, that my dad smacked her round the head’.
“That’s normalised and I think just bringing it out and speaking about it and making it public stops it being able to be hid behind those doors and in them secret corners.
“And it comes back to what Coun Bell says – this is not your fault.”