Helen’s story needs to resonate in the real world too

I was the member of parliament for Ambridge. For those of you who are not fans of the Archers, I know it is a Radio 4 drama series (can’t bring myself to say ‘soap’) and therefore not real, but nevertheless the village of Inkberrow with its pub called the Bull is widely recognised to be at least one of the villages on which Ambridge is based. I am sure some of you youthful, metropolitan elite are now zoning out. However, let me remind you that without a Labour MP in Ambridge, there is no Labour government – let the Archers be a lesson to those of you wanting to languish in the comfort of a heartlands, urban vote (if that even exists any more!)

To be fair, most of the time the Archers storyline focuses on the foibles and personalities of the village and surrounding areas and there is not much of deep political significance to be analysed. However, recent weeks have seen the development of a major storyline which has echoed way beyond the usual Archers listeners and prompted an important debate about the nature of domestic abuse. Helen, one of the main characters, has been the victim of the most insidious and awful abuse from her husband, Rob. This story has developed over more than a year and is an excellent example of the offence of coercive control and behaviour which has always been a form of domestic abuse but which was properly codified in the 2015 Serious Crime Act. In Section 76, this act creates a new offence closing the gap in the law around patterns of controlling or coercive behaviour in an ongoing relationship between intimate partners or family members.

We have made enormous progress in recognising the violence that can exist in domestic relationships. However, coercive control (while often having the threat or reality of violence as part of it) exists where one partner systematically imposes control over another. In the Archers, Rob started by undermining Helen’s ability to do her job and then stepped in to take over; began to isolate her from her friends including by monitoring her mobile phone and removing numbers; used her pregnancy to suggest she was not capable of driving and undermined her through constant reference to her inability to cope, even forcing her to get psychiatric assessment and medication. Sickeningly, this was all cloaked in a supposed concern to ‘take care’ of her and he managed to persuade her family that he was genuinely interested in her welfare so that she became even more isolated. Anybody who has been listening over past months has experienced the utter frustration of seeing this control develop – in my house, there has often been shouting at the radio – while those around Helen have been hoodwinked into thinking all is OK.

Even Helen, the victim, has taken time to realise the true extent and motive of what was happening to her. Last weekend she finally decided to leave Rob. As many working in the area of domestic abuse understand, the point at which a woman decides to leave is often the most dangerous for her. He appeared to threaten both her and her young son, and at that point Helen stabbed him. She is now in custody and charged for his attempted murder. Once again, the scriptwriters are cleverly identifying the issues around coercive control. ‘But you would not say he was a violent man … ’ asks one of the police officers investigating the attack. In doing this, she demonstrates a lack of understanding of coercive control. Rob has also hit and raped Helen during recent months, but coercive control is as much about the non-violent undermining and isolating of the victim as about the threat of violence.

The BBC has worked with organisations such as Women’s Aid in getting the details of this storyline right. It has done an enormously important job in bringing this issue to a wider audience and I know that police forces are working to implement the new offence introduced just last year. However, as a listener, I suspect that we will be faced with months more uncertainty about Helen’s fate and frustration about how the police and criminal justice system misunderstand her situation. The Archers has given many of us a window onto Helen’s experience. In reality, however, there will be thousands of victims who are continuing to suffer behind closed doors or to experience the lack of understanding from some police officers, other professionals and even their families. We cannot depend on only the BBC to spread the word – cuts to domestic abuse support services mean that many other victims go unsupported. Helen’s story needs to resonate in the real world too – more training for professionals, more support for victims and more recognition of this insidious crime must follow.

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Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary and former chief whip. She writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1

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Photo: BBC

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