Coercive and controlling behaviour towards a partner could become a criminal offence under Home Office proposals outlined today to strengthen protections against domestic abuse.

Domestic violence is already covered by a range of criminal offences, while non-violent coercive and controlling behaviour is captured by stalking and harassment legislation.

But none of the offences specifically apply to behaviour within an intimate relationship or indicate that such behaviour is criminal.

The consultation highlights findings by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary that the police response to domestic abuse is inadequate. The report found that police fail to see domestic abuse, particularly in its non-violent form, as a serious crime.

The move to expand the law is in line with the government’s widened non-statutory definition of domestic abuse.

Any new law would apply to offences committed by either men or women and could result in jail. Latest statistics reported in the Crime Survey for England and Wales suggested that 30% of women and 16.3% of men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes.

The Home Office acknowledges there are arguments for and against the proposal. Some experts, it notes, have suggested the current law is ambiguous and means perpetrators of domestic abuse are getting away it.

But the consultation notes fears that victims may have of coming forward and reporting the offence, especially if they remain emotionally involved with the perpetrator.

Home secretary Theresa May said tackling domestic violence is one of the government’s ‘top priorities’.

She said: ‘Domestic abuse happens every day in homes across England and Wales. Within every community there are people living in fear of those closest to them.

‘The terrifying reality is that for the most part these appalling crimes happen behind closed doors. I am clear that this must stop. We must bring domestic abuse out into the open and send a clear message that it is wrong to put your partner or your family in fear.’

May added: ‘There is now a widespread understanding that domestic abuse is not just about violence. Coercive and controlling behaviour can be harder to recognise but can have an equally devastating impact on its victims.’

The eight-week consultation, which closes in October, can be read here.