After dropping Theresa May’s landmark domestic abuse bill, the government has now promised to bring it back in the Queen’s Speech – but survivors, campaigners and MPs are still unsure what will happen next. Stylist investigates.
Sallie Barnes, 28, has worked with survivors of domestic abuse for two and a half years. As a service manager for Solace Women’s Aid in Islington, north London, she helps oversee the running of women’s refuges, manages advocacy work being done with survivors in the community, and provides advice around immigration to non-UK citizens facing domestic abuse in London. It’s a difficult, draining job. But she does it because she knows she and her colleagues can change women’s lives.
“We see the difference we can make,” she says. “The other day I gave advice to a woman who was feeling trapped, because her husband was using the fact she was a migrant to make her think she couldn’t [leave]. To see her realise that actually, she does have options – that was really satisfying. What keeps me motivated is seeing the day-to-day injustices that people who are oppressed face in our society, and my personal desire to combat that.”
This summer, it looked as though the day-to-day injustice of domestic abuse might finally be tackled by parliament. In one of her last actions as prime minister, Theresa May introduced her long-awaited domestic abuse bill to the Commons in July, proclaiming it a landmark piece of legislation. The bill, which took over two years to craft and had widespread support from MPs from across the political spectrum, featured many important legislative changes – from placing a new duty on councils to provide secure homes for people fleeing violence and their children, to banning alleged domestic abusers from cross-examining survivors in family courts.
May’s domestic abuse bill was not a perfect piece of legislation. It conspicuously failed to address the millions of pounds in funding cuts that that domestic abuse sector has suffered since 2010, and many campaign groups (including Amnesty International, Step Up Migrant Women, Imkaan and the End Violence Against Women coalition) expressed concern that it ignored the plight of migrant women trapped in abusive relationships. Neither was it set in stone. As May left office, the bill had only had its second reading in parliament, and still needed to be approved by MPs before it could become law.
Despite its flaws, however, campaigners were hopeful that the important measures contained in the domestic abuse bill would eventually get passed – and that the legislation could even be improved as it progressed through parliament.
How prorogation threatened the domestic abuse bill
Then Boris Johnson happened. A little over a month after taking office, the new prime minister sent three of his cabinet ministers to ask the Queen for permission to prorogue parliament, a hugely controversial move that meant MPs would not sit in the Commons for over a month. By law, all bills passing through the Commons and Lords are lost when parliament is prorogued, unless the government expressly decides to carry them over to the next session. Much of the furore around prorogation centred on whether Johnson was proroguing parliament to get MPs out of the way while he ran down the clock on a no-deal Brexit. But it also caused alarm that important legislation in its early stages – including the domestic abuse bill – would be scrapped.
When morning dawned on a suspended parliament on 10 September, it seemed the worst had happened. The government had chosen to carry just three bills over to its next session before prorogation came into force: one concerning arrangements for the 2022 Commonwealth Games; one related to preparing for the next stage of HS2 between the West Midlands and Crewe; and one consolidating sentencing laws. Thirteen other significant pieces of legislation were lost – the domestic abuse bill among them – despite Johnson previously promising Labour MP Jess Phillips that he would “ensure” it was “rolled over”.
It was a maddeningly frustrating moment for domestic abuse campaigners, frontline service staff and MPs who had worked for years on this issue, and sparked an outcry on social media. Christine Jardine, the MP for Edinburgh West and the Liberal Democrat women and justice spokesperson, tells Stylist she was “appalled” to hear that the domestic abuse bill had been dropped.
“This is a vital piece of legislation which would change the lives of the estimated 2 million people a year who are subjected to domestic abuse,” she says. “It cannot be lost, or further delayed, due to the prorogation of parliament.”
“For years now this government has been promising us a domestic abuse bill which would be a ‘landmark moment’ for victim-survivors of domestic abuse,” says Labour MP Stella Creasy, who helped work on the domestic abuse bill. “That’s why many of us worked on a cross-party basis to draft legislation – yet Boris Johnson saw fit to abandon all that work and kill the bill when he became prime minister.”
Public outcry and a change of course
In response to the bill being allowed to fall, campaigners got to work behind the scenes – lobbying MPs to do what they could to ensure that domestic abuse legislation was reintroduced in the Queen’s Speech in October. This wouldn’t counteract the scrapping of May’s bill; any new legislation would still have to start its progress through parliament from the beginning. But it was the only hope left.
Gratifyingly, the combination of public criticism and backstage pressure seems to have made an impact. On 12 September, Johnson announced that the government would be resurrecting the domestic abuse bill in the Queen’s Speech, writing on Twitter that he was “fully committed to tackling this horrific crime”. It is highly unusual for a prime minister to preview the contents of a Queen’s Speech in advance, giving some indication as to how significant this issue has become. The apparent volte-face – from letting the bill fall to loudly promising to bring it back – indicates the government may have been caught off-guard by the backlash.
Johnson didn’t stop there. On 17 September, the government rolled out a scheme giving anyone power to ask the attorney general for longer sentences for perpetrators of certain crimes, including domestic abusers who engage in coercive or controlling behaviour. A day later, the government announced the appointment of Nicole Jacobs – a well-regarded former chief executive at the charity Standing Together Against Domestic Violence – as England and Wales’s first domestic abuse commissioner.
In a statement, home secretary Priti Patel said she was “determined to do all I can to protect victims and their families and ensure perpetrators face tough action”, adding that Jacobs would be “acting as a voice for those who need it most”.
So what happens now?
It is fair to wonder whether the government would have acted so decisively to bring back the domestic abuse bill without public pressure. It is also undeniably heartening that Johnson has affirmed his commitment to tackling the issue.
But those who have pushed for new domestic abuse legislation for years are wary of celebrating too soon. Adina Claire, acting co-chief executive of Women’s Aid, has said that while the charity is “delighted” by Jacobs’ appointment, it is concerned that her role is only part-time. Others, including the Labour MP Diana Johnson, have questioned what powers Jacobs will actually hold, given that – thanks to prorogation – her role doesn’t technically exist in law yet.
Big questions also remain about what the domestic abuse bill will look like when it is resuscitated in the Queen’s Speech. Under parliamentary law, there is no obligation for Johnson to bring back the legislation in exactly the same form as it was first introduced. You could look at this optimistically: it means that the government could theoretically create an even better version of the bill, one that establishes secure, sustainable funding for frontline services and protects migrant women (hey, it could happen!).
But there are fears that it also means some of the most crucial elements of May’s bill could be scrapped. During a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the government’s safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins refused to confirm whether key provisions – notably the ban on alleged perpetrators cross-examining their victims in court – would still be included when the bill is returned. (Creasy observes that while Johnson has “had to promise to resurrect the bill, he won’t pledge not to dilute it”.) It also remains to be seen how quickly the government will start actually pushing the legislation through parliament once prorogation is over.
“We’re really concerned that we’ve not had confirmation from the government of what exactly will be included in the legislation, given the thousands of survivors that have contributed their expertise and experience to the process since 2017,” says Lucy Hadley, campaigns and public affairs manager at Women’s Aid.
“As an organisation we were calling for the bill to be a lot more expansive, and it would be great if some of the changes we’ve been pushing for were included when it’s brought back. But we’d be really, really shocked and disappointed if some of its key elements – particularly the ban on cross-examination of victims of domestic abuse in family courts, the ratification of the Istanbul convention and securing lifetime tenancies for survivors – were not there.”
Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge, tells Stylist that the charity welcomes the government’s commitment to reintroducing the domestic abuse bill in the Queen’s Speech, and is “looking forward to working with them to bring about the change needed for survivors of domestic abuse”.
But Horley emphasises that the government needs to publicly commit to retaining key measures in the bill, such as the law preventing the cross-examination of survivors by their perpetrators. “This is an urgent reform which we know survivors of domestic abuse are counting on,” she says. “This bill has the ability to transform the response to domestic abuse, and we are hopeful that a clear timetable will be laid out so the bill will become law with minimal delay.”
We might not yet know what Johnson’s version of the bill will look like. But we do know that domestic abuse is a major issue in the UK – one that costs the economy at least £66 billion per year, and is getting steadily worse over time. Two women a week across England and Wales are killed by their current or former partners, and data from police forces in England and Wales shows that 173 people were killed in domestic violence-related homicides in 2018 – an increase of 32 on the previous year. Around three-quarters of victims killed by a partner, ex-partner or family member in England and Wales are women, while most of the suspects are male. And data from the Crown Prosecution Service shows that domestic abuse prosecutions and convictions fell by just under 12% in England and Wales between 2017-18 and 2018-19.
If we are to reverse this horrifying trend, we need the government – any government, regardless of their political ideology – to take domestic abuse seriously. Johnson has promised to prioritise the issue. But as ever in politics, it will be his government’s actions, not the prime minister’s words, that really count.
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