On 29 December 2015, the government introduced the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) report annually on crime statistics, including domestic abuse – the crime surveys for England and Wales (CSEW). Existing surveys include questions relating to non-physical domestic abuse but these do not align with the definition of coercive control as legislated in December 2015. Indeed, how coercive control consistent with the legal definition is to be measured is an open question. Accordingly, the ONS has carried out research into possible measures of coercive control, trialling new survey questions starting in April 2017. On 18th April 2019, the ONS published the results of their research based on survey responses obtained in the period April 2017 to March 2018. This blog piece discusses their findings and actions.
The ONS findings are of considerable interest in at least two aspects: (a) the relative prevalence of this type of domestic abuse experienced by men and women, and, (b) the significance of preventing contact with children being classified as a form of coercive control. The actions taken by the ONS in the context of these two issues is of some concern.
Legal Definition of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour
The ONS research report quotes definitions of controlling or coercive behaviour from statutory guidance and from the cross-government definition of domestic violence and abuse. Here I quote from the Serious Crime Act (2015) clause 76,
“Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship
(1) A person (A) commits an offence if—
(a) A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive, (b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected, (c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and (d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.
(2) A and B are “personally connected” if—
(a) A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or (b) A and B live together and – (i) they are members of the same family, or (ii) they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.
(4) A’s behaviour has a “serious effect” on B if—
(a) it causes B to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against B, or (b) it causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day-to-day activities.”
An important issue which this legal definition makes clear is that the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour requires that the parties in question are, at the time of incidents, either in an intimate relationship or live together. Thus, incidents occurring only post-separation cannot be counted as controlling or coercive offences. This contrasts markedly with other forms of partner abuse for which status as an ex-partner is sufficient. Indeed, the overwhelming bulk of partner abuse recorded by the CSEWs relates to separated or divorced couples or single people (see Figure 4.10 here). It is therefore a bald anomaly to define controlling or coercive behaviour differently. The effect is that controlling or coercive behaviour occurring post-separation, and hence whilst child contact or other family court disputes are proceeding, do not meet the legal definition. The significance of this to the ONS’s research will be brought out below.
ONS/CSEW Existing Measure of Non-Physical Domestic Abuse
The CSEWs already contain questions relating to Non-Physical Domestic Abuse, namely, respondents are asked whether they have been,
- prevented from having their fair share of the household money
- stopped from seeing friends and relatives
- repeatedly belittled to the extent that they felt worthless
The question is asked both in the context of a partner, and separately in the context of any other family member. Whilst there is some overlap between these questions and Controlling or Coercive behaviour, they do not conform to the required definition. This fact has motivated the ONS’s research into a measure which conforms better to the legal definition.
ONS’s Trial of a Measure of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour
The measures of controlling or coercive behaviour trialled from April 2017 consists of two parts: behaviours and impacts. A key issue is that at least one controlling or coercive behaviour had to be reported in order for the questions about impact to be addressed. In the abstract this may seem only sensible, but there is an important issue lurking therein, as we shall see.
Trial Behaviour Questions
“In the last 12 months, has a partner or ex-partner ever repeatedly or continuously done any of the things listed below? By partner we mean a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or civil partner. Please select all that apply.
- Unfairly controlled how much money you could have or how you spent it
- Isolated you from your friends and family
- Monitored your letters, phone calls, emails, texts or social media
- Enforced rules or activities which humiliated you
- Controlled how household work or childcare is done
- Kept track of where you went or how you spent your time
- Bullied or intimidated you, for example by punching walls or destroying property
- Forced you to engage in sex or certain sexual acts against your will
- Threatened to harm children in the household”
A welcome aspect of this is that the ONS trial does not restrict controlling or coercive behaviours to people living together at the time (and hence, in this respect, it is more inclusive than the legal definition).
If a respondent reports at least one of the controlling or coercive behaviours applies, they were asked to respond to the following impact questions,
“Thinking about these actions you experienced in the last 12 months, to what extent did you suffer any of the following as a result?
- Fear that violence would be used against you
- Feeling unable to leave the relationship/household due to fear of coming to harm
- Constantly living in fear which affected your day-to-day activities
- Significant changes in routine, behaviour, or appearance to try to avoid the abuse
- Forced to give up work, education, or volunteering due to fear of coming to harm
- Fear that you would lose contact with your children”
For each impact category the respondent indicates if they suffered it very much, quite a lot, a little or not at all.
It is in respect of Impact F, “fear that you would lose contact with your children” that the plot thickens. More on this key issue below.
ONS Research Results
For half of respondents (chosen at random), the new controlling or coercive behaviour questions replaced the original non-physical abuse questions at the same point in the CSEW survey. The other half of respondents received the original non-physical abuse questions. This permitted a comparison of the two measures.
The trial controlling or coercive behaviour questions indicated significantly lower prevalence than the existing non-physical abuse questions (see Table 1).
Table 1: Comparison of Trial Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Questions with Existing Non-Physical Abuse Questions
|Controlling or Coercive
|These behaviours (partner)
|These behaviours (family)
|All domestic abuse
Of even greater interest is that the sex difference in partner victimisation prevalence rates is substantially reduced by the trial controlling or coercive behaviour measure (Table 2).
Table 2: Sex Differences in Victimisation using the Trial Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Questions and the Existing Non-Physical Abuse Questions
|Abuse by partner, current non-physical measure
|Abuse by partner, trial controlling or coercive measure
|Family abuse, current non-physical measure
|Family abuse, trial controlling or coercive measure
ONS Reaction to the Research Results
The ONS research direction is being guided by a Domestic Abuse Statistics Steering Group. This group is chaired by ONS and includes representatives from across government, academia, the voluntary sector and Kantar Public who run the CSEW. The membership is given in Annex A of their report. It is heavily biased towards the usual culprits, i.e., those of feminist sympathies, e.g., Women’s Aid, Respect, Safe Lives, Home Office, and well known strongly feminist academics. The Group is well placed to block any changes to ONS domestic abuse measures which would reduce its apparent prevalence or reduce the sex difference in its prevalence, such outcomes being contrary to the prevailing narrative. The trialled controlling and coercive questions, if used in place of the existing non-physical abuse questions, would do both. It is therefore unsurprising that the ONS conclude that, “the questions require further development before we can be confident that they are fit for purpose. To allow for this, the questions tested in the split-sample experiment were removed from the survey in April 2019”. They are explicit about the reason,
- The considerable extent of the difference in domestic abuse prevalence estimates generated by the two questions requires more in-depth research and exploration.
- The difference between men and women in the prevalence of domestic abuse changed with the introduction of the controlling or coercive behaviour questions – the extent of this difference and the reasons why such a change occurred needs further investigation.
- The wording and other aspects of the questions may be drawing in people who are not victims, or be missing those who are.
- Therefore, we have agreed that further development is needed and have removed the trial questions from the CSEW from April 2019 whilst further research is conducted.
Contact with Children
Despite the presence of “fear that you would lose contact with your children” in the trialled Impact categories, the issue of child contact was minimised by the trial. The reason is that none of the “Behaviour” questions related to “prevented you from having contact with your children”. Recall that the trial required at least one “Behaviour” to apply in order for the Impact questions to be asked. The absence of a Behaviour question relating to child contact will therefore have minimised responses to the Impact question “fear that you would lose contact with your children” because it would be addressed only to people who happened to suffer one of the other Behavioural abuses.
In view of this, it is not so surprising that ONS write,
“Two impacts elicited a higher proportion of ‘does not apply’ responses than others, for behaviours experienced both by a partner or ex-partner and by a family member:
- ‘Forced to give up work, education or volunteering due to fear of coming to harm’
- ‘Fear that you would lose contact with your children’
From this, we concluded that these two impacts should be removed from the definition of a victim for this initial stage of the research.”
One wonders what the response to this Impact category would have been had the Behaviour question “prevented you from having contact with your children” been included.
However, even putting this aside, the reasoning is spurious. It is not the frequency of “does not apply” for different questions that matters, but the frequency with which it was reported as being suffered. As regards the question “fear that you would lose contact with your children”, and in reference to partners/ex-partners, more than twice as many men answered this question with “suffered to some extent”, than the number who stated “does not apply”.
Furthermore, according to Tables 4a and 4b of the ONS’s results, this was the only impact category in which more men than women suffered to some extent. Moreover, this category is precisely that for which men report suffering most (both as regards partners/ex-partners and other family members) – despite the absence of an appropriate Behaviour question. Therefore, by omitting this impact category the impact results will be seriously gender-skewed, and one cannot escape the feeling that this is what lies behind its exclusion.
Loss of Contact with Your Children is Not a Harm and Fear of it is Not a Real Fear
But it gets worse. The ONS (or, probably, their advisors) are guilty of an enormous and insupportable value judgment which explicitly minimises men’s suffering. The ONS write,
“Responses to ‘Fear that you would lose contact with your children’ impacting the respondent ‘to some extent’ were marginally higher in relation to behaviours experienced among men by a partner or ex-partner. There was concern among some members of the Domestic Abuse Statistics Steering Group that this impact was likely to illicit a relatively high response among men, which may not truly reflect controlling or coercive behaviour but rather a relatively common outcome in dissolved relationships. As such, at this early stage of the research, we took the decision not to include this impact in the definition of a victim. This is something we will investigate in later stages of the research.”
This is logically incoherent. The intention is to measure impact. How can an impact be ruled as less significant on the grounds that it is more common? Feminist Steering Group influence is all too apparent.
Nor, in as far as the impact is the fear of the harm in question being realised, is it reasonable to regard the fear as being reduced because the realisation of the harm is more common. The opposite surely applies. That the loss of contact of a non-resident parent, usually the father, with his children is a common outcome only makes fear of it more reasonable.
The ONS position appears to have been badly skewed by a value judgment which is insupportable, and, in fact, easily refuted. It relates to whether losing contact with one’s children constitutes a harm. The answer is already available because the ONS note that the statutory guidance “states that any level of fear experienced would be considered serious under the offence”. But it seems that the feminist advisers, always ready with some verbal legerdemain, have provided a slippery get-out. In Note 3 the ONS claim that,
“The word ‘fear’ is used differently in ‘fear that you would lose contact with your children’ in that it is not connected to a fear of violence or a fear of coming to harm, therefore this consideration (i.e., that the guidance would indicate that this constitutes a harm) does not apply. Future research will consider careful use of the word ‘fear’”.
This asserts that losing contact with one’s children does not constitute a harm, unlike physical violence which, of course, does. This is a remarkable position to adopt and easily refuted. Consider asking any parent if they would prefer being punched in the face or never seeing their children again. How many parents would choose the latter? But recourse to such analogies is unnecessary. The legal definition of Controlling or Coercive Behaviour, quoted above, states that the “serious effect” criterion is met if the behaviour, “causes B serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on B’s usual day-to-day activities”. Being forcibly estranged from one’s children certain does just that.
In fact, losing contact with one’s children is a harm of a particularly high order. Removing this as an impact is insupportable. And that is before consideration is given to the fact that, alone of the putative impact questions, this one involves a third party, namely the child. The interests of the child are paramount in family law, and yet the one category of impact which involves the child was dismissed.
The discussion relating to the definition of a victim of coercive control is also disconcerting. Having rejected two impact categories which contain the word “fear”, the ONS then propose that the word “fear” is made the basis of accepting any degree of harm, including only “a little”, as sufficient evidence of impact. In contrast, the one impact category which does not include the word “ fear”, namely “significant changes in routine, behaviour, or appearance to try to avoid the abuse”, is required to be reported at the level “very much affected” in order to qualify.
This is again a strange value judgment which appears to elevate fear of an outcome above an actually realised outcome. Thus, for example, if “constantly living in fear which affected your day-to-day activities” is reported to apply “a little”, then the impact criterion is satisfied regardless of whether there is actually any effect on your daily activities. In contrast, for a real change in your daily activities due to coercive control to qualify as evidence of victimhood the change would have to be at the “very much affected” level.
The elevates to a higher level of significance a subjective hypothetical of X which may never have happened over an objective actual occurrence of X. It is difficult not to see this as an attempt to cook the books. By focussing on fear, and only fear of certain possibilities and not others, the recommended definition of coercive control would be gender-skewed from the start, and the research results show that this would be the case.
In view of this, perhaps it is best that the trial coercive-control measure has been suspended for the present. But there is a suggestion in the research results that, if proper prominence were given to the controlling behaviour of preventing child contact, domestic abuse statistics would move much closer to gender-parity. One can expect firm resistance from the feminist lobby to a change of this kind for that very reason. Where we go from here is unclear, but there remains the unsolved issue of how to measure coercive-control.