THE NUMBER of domestic violence-related incidents reported to West Yorkshire Police increased at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, with one Bradford MP saying the figures are “alarming” but “sadly unsurprising.”

When we first went into lockdown, in March 2020, there was a 6.1 per cent rise in domestic violence reports made to the force, when compared with the previous month.

By July - four months into lockdown - reports had increased by 25.7 per cent from February.

July 2020 also saw the highest number of domestic violence incidents reported to West Yorkshire Police of any month in a three-year period - with the figure standing at 6,295.

The data was obtained after the Telegraph & Argus submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to West Yorkshire Police, in a bid to see if lockdown had impacted domestic violence.

Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, responded to the data by saying that we cannot allow people who have experienced domestic abuse to become “invisible”.

She added: “The Government’s messaging was to stay at home - for many of us, home is a safe place, but for those who experience domestic violence, home is only a safe place from the virus.

“The virus forced the nation into their homes and made vulnerable people invisible to key services who were likely to make an intervention.

“It is clear from the statistics that the pandemic provided perpetrators with further impetus to carry out their abuse with relative impunity, as various routes to safety were made unavailable.”

In our FOI request, we asked West Yorkshire Police for the number of domestic violence reports made every month from December 2017 to December 2020.

The force pre-faced its response by giving us its definition of domestic abuse, which reads: “Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.”

It added: “The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional”.

The figures show that the number of domestic violence incidents reported to West Yorkshire Police rose from 5,009 in February 2020 - the final month before lockdown began - to 5,312 in March 2020.

It increased to 5,403 by April 2020 and again to 5,726 by May 2020. The May figure represents an increase of 14.3 per cent from February’s figure, with 717 more cases being reported.

The number fell by 159 cases in June 2020 - perhaps coinciding with the easing of some restrictions - although this number was still up by 11.1 per cent on February’s figure.

July 2020’s figure was the highest of any month in the previous three years, and there were 499 more domestic violence incidents reported in July 2020 than there were in July 2019.

However, a June-July leap does appear to be a pattern in the data, with reported incidents increasing around this time every year.

In August 2020, there were 6,137 incidents reported to West Yorkshire Police, which represents the third-highest total for any month over the three-year period. This number had increased by 329 from the previous August, and by 506 from August 2018.

By September 2020 the numbers had dropped dramatically, with 5,394 reports made, which seemed to suggest a return to pre-pandemic levels - when compared with 5,312 reports in January 2020, for example.

But similar patterns were apparent between August and September in both 2018 and 2019, when the number of reports also decreased then.

The number dropped to 5,081 by November 2020, but rose again in December 2020, with 5,456 cases. But again, a noticeable increase between November and December was also evident in previous years, although this rise was actually at its lowest in 2020.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Naz Shah MP added that services in Bradford have worked “tirelessly” over the pandemic to ensure that those experiencing abuse have somewhere to turn to.

She said: “We cannot allow victims of abuse to become invisible, we must continue to reach out and to empower them to seek the support they need.

“There are various organisations people can reach out to, and useful information can be found on, which can be shared to those who may be in need.”

Ms Shah also spoke to the Telegraph & Argus in an interview over Zoom, where she added that more needs to be done in order to "shift the culture" of domestic abuse.

When asked for a response to the data, West Yorkshire Police said it recognised that lockdown would have been a time of “heightened worry” for people experiencing domestic abuse.

A spokesperson said: “West Yorkshire Police recognised that victims may have felt unable to escape from their abuser because of the restrictions placed on people’s movement over the lockdown period.

“The force specifically updated its advice to reassure victims that police and partners were there to help, and would remain so throughout this period of isolation.

"Similarly to other forces nationally, West Yorkshire Police has seen an increase over the last year in domestic abuse offences recorded. Much of this can be attributed to improvement in its crime recording practices and increased confidence by victims to come forward and report to police or partners."

Assistant Chief Constable Catherine Hankinson, of West Yorkshire Police, also said: “We have specially-trained officers working with partners across the force who investigate each report thoroughly and deal with it sensitively, to make sure victims feel supported.

“They have continued to provide valuable support throughout the pandemic and worked closely with our neighbourhood policing teams to make sure they remain vigilant and signpost potential victims to our services or those of our partner agencies, the contact details for which can be found on our website.

“I would urge victims to use these services to make sure they receive help and support to break the cycle of abuse, so they are not suffering in silence.”

Bradford domestic abuse charity Staying Put said that incidents increasing over the pandemic was a “trend which has been seen all over the world”, adding that the charity saw a rise in calls at the start of lockdown.

A spokesperson for the charity said: “Lockdown and everyone being stuck at home did, unfortunately, increase the risk of domestic abuse. The frequency or severity of abuse may have increased during lockdown, and people felt that they could not leave the house.

“However, we stress that even under the tightest lockdown restrictions, it is still okay to leave your home to escape abuse.

“We speak to an average of roughly 1,000 people every month, and refer between 400 to 600 people to further services. Staying Put’s services have been available throughout the pandemic, and we continue to help all in need, regardless of any restrictions.

“It can be really scary to leave an abusive relationship. Often people have had their confidence chipped away over a long period of time, and either don’t realise that this behaviour isn’t okay (because it’s been normalised), or they don’t feel like they could cope on their own (because that’s what they’ve been told).

“We try and say it as simply as, relationships shouldn’t hurt, and if yours does, that’s not right.

"Even if you don’t know if you’re in an ‘abusive relationship’ or not, just give us a call, chat through your experiences and we can let you know our thoughts, and let you know your options.

“Admitting there’s an issue is often the biggest and scariest step, but our team is fantastic and you’ll always get a friendly voice on the other end of the phone.

“Our phone lines are open from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday. We are closed at 1pm each day for half an hour’s lunch. We also have an online webchat, which you can access from 5pm to 8pm weekdays, and 11am to 2pm on Saturdays and Sundays via our website:”

Bradford Council was also shown the data, and agreed that lockdown had made things even harder for those who were suffering from domestic abuse.

A Council spokespersons said: "Because of lockdown, victims have been more isolated and have not been connected to people in the same way to create safe spaces to ask for help.

“Children have been at home more and therefore have witnessed more abuse. Some of the issues that lead to increased risk of domestic abuse have been happening, such as increased substance misuse, financial difficulties and mental health problems.

“We have a strong multi-agency partnership in Bradford focused on domestic abuse. We have been reviewing our data and have responded to it by increasing beds available to those fleeing abuse, a webchat to open up new ways of communication, introducing intense support to those with complex lives, started a befriending pilot, as well as providing extra staffing for teams as caseloads have increased.

“Bradford Council has been clear that people who are suffering abuse do not need to stay and that it is one of the exceptions to any lockdown restrictions.

"We had a local campaign aimed at ensuring victims sought advice, and we have also supported the national campaigns around doing this.

“All services are still available and offering support. More details can be found on the Bradford Council website.”

Bradford Council Leader, Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, added: “Domestic violence has a dreadful impact on people. All agencies have a duty to tackle it in every way possible to protect victims and their families.

“At Bradford Council, we work with our partners to do all we can to respond to the additional pressures faced by our domestic violence services brought on by the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We invested almost £1 million last July to support this work, anticipating the increase in demand for this service. Sadly and tragically, this has been realised.”

The former West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Mark Burns-Williamson OBE, was also shown the data.

He said that it is “widely acknowledged” that lockdown only exacerbated the risk of abuse and violence, but added that services have managed to adapt to the circumstances in order to support those in danger.

“It is widely acknowledged that the social ramifications of the various lockdown periods have increased the opportunity for domestic violence or abuse to occur, and we worked very hard in key partnerships to anticipate and address this within West Yorkshire”, he said.

“There exists a paradox in that the social confinement designed to protect us during the pandemic has, for some, exacerbated the risks to their personal safety in such circumstances.

“One particular project funded through our West Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit is a really good example of how we have adapted to the circumstances and sees a specialist advisor, contained within the police control room setting.

“They are dedicated to responding to domestic abuse-related calls and work to signpost people to the relevant support service. The data so far indicates that it is achieving real outcomes, routinely reviewing an average of 250 reports per month and assisting up to 40 victims over the phone or digitally.

“I would encourage anyone experiencing domestic abuse to report it to the police in an emergency via 999. If someone can’t talk because the perpetrator is nearby, they can press the numbers ‘55’ into their mobile phone, which will alert the operator of their circumstances.

"Likewise, you can use the non-emergency contact facilities both online and via 101, or through our locally-commissioned Victim Support service on 0300 303 1971, if they would prefer to seek advice in the first instance.

“It is also important that those who witness domestic abuse in either a personal or professional capacity inform the police or Victim Support, so that the necessary action can be taken by the appropriate agency.”

In terms of the national picture, research by the Counting Dead Women group claimed that 16 people died from domestic murder in the three weeks from 23 March to 12 April 2020 - at the very start of the first lockdown - across the UK.

This figure was more than double that of an average 21-day period over the last 10 years.

Lockdown also led to an increase in demand for domestic abuse services throughout the country, with the National Domestic Abuse Line seeing a 49 per cent increase in callers during the same three-week period, while Refuge said it saw a 700 per cent increase in calls just one day at the beginning of the pandemic.

Anyone who is suffering from domestic abuse is urged to contact the services mentioned in this article, with further support available online.