Men who bully or abuse their partners in a “controlling” fashion could face criminal charges under a shake-up of domestic violence laws being planned by ministers.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, will launch a major new consultation within days which will examine how abuse of spouses and partners should be legally defined.
Ministers will also unveil a separate consultation on making forced marriage a criminal offence in a major U-turn after such a move was ruled out earlier this year.
Both are priority policy areas for the Liberal Democrats.
The changes to domestic violence law which are being proposed would be far-reaching.
Currently there is no specific criminal offence of domestic violence – although there is a government-backed definition agreed in 2004 which refers to “any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality”.
Ministers are concerned that the police and other agencies are not applying this rigorously enough and will consult on whether there should be a new legal definition and how it should be phrased.
In particular, they will consider including a reference to “coercive control” – which can include emotional abuse, a pattern of threatening behaviour, “economic control”, and manipulation, including the manipulation of children.
Such behaviour, which is not necessarily accompanied by physical violence, is said to be a feature of many abusive relationships.
The consultation will also, The Sunday Telegraph understands, look at specifically extending the definition of domestic violence to include those under 18 for the first time. There is concern that teenage girls are the victims of abuse within relationships with boyfriends.
Any changes will be mainly be aimed at men who abuse women and girls. Ministers already have an “action plan” aimed at tackling violence towards females which includes 88 separate initiatives.
Last year, according to the Home Office, there were more than one million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales. In the UK, more than a quarter of all women are likely to experience domestic abuse.
However, men suffer too. While domestic violence accounts for 18 per cent of all violent incidents, 7 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men reported that they had experienced domestic violence in recent Home Office statistics.
Any new definition of domestic violence would also cover women who bully and abuse their male partners.
Earlier this year, ministers gave new powers to police in a pilot scheme allowing them to prevent suspected domestic abusers from returning to a victim’s home.
Three police forces began year-long trials of new Domestic Violence Prevention Orders, which give officers the power to stop alleged offenders contacting victims or returning to their homes for up to 28 days.
The separate consultation on forced marriage – which is understood to be under the control of the Home Office – is expected to focus on the implications of introducing a specific criminal offence.
Last year the government’s Forced Marriage Unit received 1,735 reports of possible forced marriage.
The all-party Home Affairs Select Committee called earlier this year for forced marriage to be criminalised. However, ministers rejected the move for fear that it would discourage women – particularly from Asian communities – from coming forward.
In a speech in October, David Cameron described the practice as “little more than slavery”.
The Prime Minister at the time announced he was making it a criminal offence to breach a court order to prevent a forced marriage.
Mr Cameron also asked Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to rethink the decision, claiming: “To force someone into marriage is completely wrong.
“And I strongly believe this is a problem we should not shy away from addressing. But I know that there is a worry that criminalisation could make it less likely that those at risk will come forward.”
A leaked Downing Street memo which emerged in September warned that the government was losing support among women voters and recommended a U-turn on making forced marriage a crime.
The document recommended that ministers should “reconsider our decision not to criminalise forced marriage.
This is risky territory and there would be issues about reporting if we went for criminalisation – because the signal sent by opting not to criminalise is a bad one.”