Priti Patel has announced £25m in funding to projects designed to make public spaces safer for women and girls, as the government struggled to get onto the front foot after a wave of public anger over the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer.
But Labour said the move came “nowhere near” meeting the need for systemic change in the way violence against women is dealt with.
Boris Johnson was initially supportive of Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick, despite opinion polls suggesting strong support for her resignation in the wake of the whole-life sentence for Wayne Couzens on Thursday.
But the prime minister on Friday issued a rebuke to police, saying he found their failure to tackle harassment and other forms of violence against women was “infuriating”.
And Ms Patel was also critical, insisting that forces must “raise the bar” by taking flashing and harassment of women more seriously.
The home secretary condemned a “postcode lottery” which saw some police forces in England and Wales treat these offences as “low level”.
The government’s Safer Streets Fund was originally established to target acquisitive crimes like car theft and burglary.
But Ms Patel said that the latest round of funding will be aimed at increasing the safety of public places, with a focus on tackling violence and harassment of women and girls.
She said: “We have made good progress in tackling violence against women and girls, but these crimes are still all too prevalent in our society.
“That is why earlier this year we launched the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, informed by the largest ever public survey of women and girls on this issue. As part of this, the £25m Safer Streets Fund will invest in crime prevention initiatives across the country where women and girls say they feel most unsafe.
“The tragic cases of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman touched us all. As we build back safer from the pandemic, tackling violence against women and girls is my priority.”
However, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “An additional £25m comes nowhere near meeting the demand for systemic change to address violence against women and girls.
“We need tougher laws on street harassment, misogyny to be made a hate crime, longer sentences for stalkers and rapists and the fast-tracking of rape and sexual assault cases through the courts – all things Labour has proposed but the government has rejected.
“With 98 in every 100 reported rapes not even resulting in a charge, the government needs to understand the scale of the change that is needed and show the leadership required to achieve it.”
Ms Patel earlier told the Daily Telegraph that it was “corrosive” to society if men felt able to harass women verbally and physically in the streets and urged all women to “have the confidence to call it out”.
“This is a very clear message to police to raise the bar: treat everybody in the right way,” she said. “Make sure that when these crimes or concerns are reported, people are treated with respect, dignity and seriously.”
Speaking to The Times, Mr Johnson said: “Are the police taking this issue seriously enough? It’s infuriating. I think the public feel that they aren’t and they’re not wrong.”
He added: “Do I fundamentally believe the police are on our side? Yes, absolutely they are. Can you trust the police? Yes you can. But there is an issue about how we handle sexual violence, domestic violence – the sensitivity, the diligence, the time, the delay, the confusion about your mobile phone. That’s the thing we need to fix.”
The PM said police were realising that when they made arrests in such cases “they’re not getting through the system fast enough” and that this “may well be one of the reasons why they’re not doing enough to help the victims that report”.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said that there “definitely needs to be reform to rebuild confidence” in the police.
“At this stage I couldn’t jump to what is the best way to do that reform,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I think it is right to take a bit of time rather than some kind of kneejerk reaction and call for an inquiry because that’s what people do.
“I do think there needs to be reform and that clearly needs to be the police themselves but there is also a role for government.”
The chair of the Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, said officers must not treat incidents of harassment or flashing as trivial.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Lady Kennedy said: “We have to be looking at male behaviour more generally, but the police certainly have to be taking women’s complaints more seriously than they have done.
“This has been going on for many, many years and I’m rather tired of hearing police forces saying we’re going to learn lessons from some tragedy.
“The lessons don’t seem to be learned, and the lessons are that women’s suffering of this kind of stuff has to stop, and women up and down the country are saying that. And you have to listen, and police forces are not doing that.”
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has previously said that Couzens was linked to a flashing incident in 2015 and two more just days before he killed Ms Everard. Lady Kennedy urged police forces to act more quickly following reports of predatory behaviour.
“None of it’s acceptable,” she added. “What we know is that institutions often will put their own reputations first. They also have come together to protect each other. That’s got to end.”
It comes as a new YouGov survey found 38 per cent of adults in the UK think Dame Cressida should quit as Met chief, while 27 per cent said she should stay and 35 per cent did not know.