Safety of women and girls needs to be at the top of the agenda - Jayne Dowle

Whilst other politicians posture and talk platitudes, West Yorkshire MP and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper is making no secret of her ambition to put the safety of women and girls at the top of the agenda.

Nothing has changed, she says, since Peter Sutcliffe stalked West Yorkshire in the 1970s and early 1980s, hunting down his victims and terrorising a generation of women who became too fearful to leave their homes at night.

Strong stuff, but she’s right. A shocking 97 per cent of more than 1,000 women surveyed in 2021 by campaign group Women Friendly Leeds said that simply ‘being a woman’ affects their personal safety in the city. The main priority, the women agreed, was to tackle the attitudes and behaviour which underpin violence against women and girls.

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As a mother of two daughters and a son herself, and a politician who has been at Westminster longer than most - taking her seat in 1997 – Ms Cooper clearly has conviction, staying power and a great deal of compassion. I met her once, when I was about six months pregnant with my daughter, who turned 18 a few weeks ago.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper  speaking during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA WireShadow home secretary Yvette Cooper  speaking during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper speaking during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

I was reporting on new homes being built at Allerton Bywater on the site of a former pit, and as the MP for what was then the Pontefract and Castleford constituency (it became Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in 2010), Ms Cooper was there in an official ribbon-cutting capacity.

What struck me was her immediate warmth; noticing my sizable bump, she came straight over and started chatting, mum to mum.

Turned out we were at university around the same time, and I knew her husband, Ed Balls; she took a first in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at Balliol College, Oxford, and met Balls, who in 2005 was newly elected at the as MP for Normanton, and later become Education Secretary.

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Over the years, I’ve only heard positive things about this really quite remarkable woman, who came into Parliament at the age of 28 as one of Tony Blair’s youngest MPs, and is now one of Labour’s longest-serving members, with vast ministerial experience, a failed shot at party leadership behind her, and a role on Keir Starmer’s front bench as Shadow Home Secretary.

In a world dominated by self-seeking politicians who too often seem more interested in their own power trip than anyone else’s concerns, we should listen to her, and never more so on the subject of women’s safety.

In an emotive speech at the Labour conference in Liverpool earlier this month, and a recent interview with this newspaper, she talks with passion about the desperate need for women and girls to feel safe, and what Labour will do to make this happen.

Her party would commit to a 10-year programme to halve the number of violent crimes against women and girls.

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Under a Labour government, police would be told to use counter-terrorism tactics such as surveillance to bring the 100 or so most dangerous perpetrators of violence against women and girls to justice.

Halving the number of such crimes will be a tough task, Ms Cooper acknowledges, but as well as hardball policing, she wants to encourage more reporting from victims, through setting up dedicated rape investigation units in all police forces and putting domestic abuse specialists in all 999 centres.

Ms Cooper’s concerns are nationwide, but especially pertinent to our own region, where the menacing shadow of Peter Sutcliffe, who murdered 13 women and attempted to kill seven more between 1975 and 1980, still falls.

“The first women's safety marches in the country were in Leeds nearly 50 years ago, when women were told to stay off the streets because they weren't safe,” Ms Cooper says. “Women feel just really sick and tired of the fact that nothing changes. We've been talking about this for a long time.”

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She’s absolutely right too when she says that our daughters shouldn’t have to face the same threats of risks of abuse our grandmothers did. In a civilised society, really, there is no excusing a man who uses his physical power to attack women and girls.

The recent deaths of Zara Aleena, sexually assaulted and murdered as she was walking home, Sarah Everard, lured to her death by a serving Metropolitan police officer, and Sabina Nessa, a primary school teacher whose body was found in a London park, and so many other women who have lost their lives at the hands of violent men remind us of the real and present danger we face.