With the much-anticipated Domestic Abuse Bill due for a Second Reading in the House of Lords, Jess Asato, Head of Public Affairs and Policy for SafeLives, shares some thoughts on the future of the violence against women and girls (VAWG) agenda.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which is due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords this Autumn, has had a long gestation. Announced by Prime Minister Theresa May in early 2017, the Bill got going in July 2019, was presumed lost through proroguing in the autumn, only to be reinstated and then finally scuppered by the election in November. Many of us felt like the Grand Old Duke of York’s troops marching up the hill and back down again!
Billed as a way to “transform” the way we tackle domestic abuse and underpinned by over 3000 responses to the initial consultation, there is a lot riding on this legislation. At its heart is a new cross-government statutory definition of domestic abuse which for the first time includes economic abuse - defined as behaviours that interfere with an individual’s ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources such as money, transportation and utilities. Statutory guidance will be issued alongside the new definition in a bid to increase the focus statutory agencies give to this endemic problem with 2.4 million people reporting experiencing domestic abuse in year ending March 2019.
Following intensive advocacy by the women’s and children’s sectors, the Government accepted in the House of Commons stages of the Bill that children should be treated as victims of domestic abuse in their own right. Our research In Plain Sight demonstrates the huge impact that experiencing domestic abuse has on children, both physically and mentally. The report found that out of those children who had experienced domestic abuse 52% had behavioural problems, 60% felt responsible for the negative events, 52% had problems with social development and relationships, and 39% had difficulties adjusting at school.
The Bill also introduces a new Domestic Abuse Protection Order, fixing the current Domestic Violence Protection Order by making its breach criminal and enabling it to be in place for a flexible amount of time. Courts will also have the opportunity to impose positive requirements on the perpetrator including attending a behaviour change programme, an alcohol or substance misuse programme or a mental health assessment. A new statutory duty to provide support for victims in safe accommodation (predominantly refuge) will be introduced in April 2021 on tier 1 local authorities alongside Local Domestic Abuse Partnership Boards, which will coordinate local needs assessment and strategies.
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner is also established within this Bill, and other welcome measures include prohibiting perpetrators of domestic abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family and civil courts (and preventing victims from having to cross-examine their abusers) as well as the creation of a statutory presumption that domestic abuse complainants are eligible for special measures in the criminal and civil courts. All of these measures mark a step forward for victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
There remains so much more that could be achieved with this legislation however. In recognising the principle that local authorities should have a duty to provide services to domestic abuse victims, we think the Government could go much further than accommodation-based provision which only covers 20-30% of victims. We agree that creating a secure footing for such services is welcome, but may have unintended consequences, creating a hierarchy in domestic abuse provision between refuge and community-based services which doesn’t match the reality of what happens on the ground. In the last year 65,000 adult victims and 85,000 child victims at the highest risk of serious harm or murder received support through community-based Independent Domestic Violence Advisor services.
This provision in the Bill could undermine many years of work trying to change the narrative from “why doesn’t she leave” to “why doesn’t he stop” by making accommodation-based services the default for adult and child victims. No one wants to leave their home, their possessions, their pets, and uproot their children from school to go into hiding - particularly when it is the perpetrator who ought to be expected to move to the other side of the country. We are also concerned that the £90m earmarked in the Impact Assessment as the amount required to address the new accommodation based duty is half of what Women’s Aid calculate is needed across England and Wales (£183m) which could lead already cash strapped local authorities to look at which other budgets they could raid to meet their new legal obligations. This is why we hope that the Government will look again at Barnardo’s amendment to extend a statutory duty to secure sufficient services for the whole family – adult and child victims, and the person who causes the harm – when it gets to Committee Stage in the Lords.
This would also have the benefit of ensuring those children now listed in their own right as victims of abuse have the specialist services they need to overcome the impact of the trauma they have experienced, alongside providing support for those young people experiencing abuse in their own romantic relationships who aren’t covered in the Bill definition which only applies to over 16s – a real omission given how important it is to stop abuse early in life.
Other gaps in the Bill include a lack of provisions to ensure those victims with No Recourse to Public Funds can fully access specialist services and to protect migrants who report their abuse from facing immigration enforcement. Alongside a ‘non-discrimination’ principle, these measures are essential to ensure those victims with protected characteristics (BME, disabled, LGBT+, older) are able to get the life-saving support they need. An ‘Ask and Take Action’ duty on frontline public sector professionals, backed by significant cultural change training such as DA Matters for the Police, would help to truly transform the response to domestic abuse victims and perpetrators, many of whom are in contact with health, children’s social care, housing and other practitioners, but who often don’t receive the response which ends their abuse.
Finally, apart from the new orders, there are no measures to increase the provision of accredited perpetrator programmes or quality assure perpetrator those which are delivered so that they reduce rather than increase risk for the victim. We are a signatory to the Drive ‘Call to Action’ which among many things proposes the government introduce a perpetrator strategy – something which wouldn’t cost much money, but could really shift our focus onto preventing harm from occurring in the first place. If this is a once in a generation opportunity to change our system, let’s make it count.
You can contact Jess Asato, Head of Public Affairs and Policy for SafeLives via Jessica.asato@Safelives.org.uk.
Find out more at the Tackling Domestic Abuse and Violence Forum 2021.
Read more insights from sector specialists via the IG Crime Blog.