The outgoing prime minister clearly hopes her work on domestic abuse will be a shining highlight of her legacy. But has she done enough? Stylist’s Moya Crockett looks at the evidence.
With days until she departs No 10, it’s natural that Theresa May is thinking about her legacy. It’s painfully obvious that the UK’s second female prime minister won’t be remembered as the leader who solved Brexit. But in the absence of that headline achievement, what other victories can she legitimately claim?
It’s clear that May hopes to claim at least one mantle as her own: that of being the first Conservative prime minister to take domestic abuse seriously. On Tuesday 16 July, she heralded the introduction of her long-awaited, landmark domestic abuse bill to parliament. It’s usually hard to guess what emotions are bubbling under May’s mechanical exterior, but in her statement announcing the bill, she sounded genuinely moved.
The bill “represents a true step-change” in the government’s approach to domestic abuse, May said, adding that “we have a duty not only to bring the perpetrators of these vile crimes to justice, but to support victims as they rebuild their lives”.
She went on to thank “the victims, charities, campaign groups and frontline agencies” who helped develop the domestic abuse bill. “Domestic abuse can take many forms, from horrific physical violence to coercive behaviour that robs people of their self-esteem, their freedom and their right to feel safe in their own homes, but the immense bravery I’ve seen demonstrated by survivors is consistent throughout.”
The bill, which has been in the works for over two years, must be approved by MPs before it becomes law. But if it does, it contains measures that are all but certain to improve the lives of some domestic abuse survivors in the UK. The traumatic, dangerous practice of allowing abusers to cross-examine their victims in family courts will finally be banned. A statutory government definition of domestic abuse will also be introduced for the first time, one that includes economic abuse – a devastating but under-discussed form of coercive control.
The criminalisation of coercive control will be extended to Northern Ireland, the latest sign – following MPs’ backing of an amendment to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage in the country – that politicians in Westminster are taking responsibility for empowering vulnerable and marginalised people there. The bill will also boost the powers available to courts to block perpetrators from contacting those they abused, place a legal duty on councils to provide victims and their children with a secure home, and see high-risk offenders forced to take lie detector tests when released from prison.
It all sounds very impressive – and in many ways, it is. Domestic abuse remains a colossal problem in the UK, one that affects an estimated 1.2 million women and some 713,000 men a year in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, over 31,000 incidents of domestic abuse are reported every year; that figure rises to between 58,000 and 60,000 in Scotland, with women making up 82% of victims.
Physical violence and psychological abuse within a ‘romantic’ setting was widely seen as a private, shameful matter until relatively recently, and still is in many families and communities. So we mustn’t underestimate the importance of seeing a political leader talking openly about the issue, and taking decisive action to tackle it.
But we can’t – unfortunately – wave May off into the sunset, cheering her for doing everything she could to stamp out domestic abuse in the UK. That’s not to paint her as responsible for the problem: that burden will always rest on the shoulders of perpetrators. But we do need to recognise that her approach to tackling domestic violence has had serious holes.
For starters, there’s the question of funding. Introducing new laws to criminalise certain behaviours and punish or monitor abusers are vital steps, but domestic violence is not just a criminal justice issue, and these changes won’t immediately help a woman who needs to flee her home in the middle of the night. Refuges will help that woman. Yet more than three-quarters of local authorities in England cut their refuge funding between 2010 and 2017, by at least £7m overall, according to Freedom of Information requests by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
A recent report by Women’s Aid, meanwhile, shows that more than 21,000 referrals to all refuges in England were refused in 2017-18 due to a lack of funding or space. And a spokeswoman for Refuge told Stylist that while the charity welcomes the domestic abuse bill, 80% of its services have experienced funding cuts in recent years, with many being cut by up to 50%.
“If the domestic abuse bill is to transform the response to domestic abuse, it is essential the bill includes a duty to provide sustained adequate funding for specialist services, in particular refuges,” the spokeswoman said. “Reforming the criminal justice system is essential; but so is providing emergency accommodation.”
To be fair to May, many of these cuts were presided over by David Cameron (something else we can thank him for), and she has made some attempts to mitigate them. The government allocated £20m for new bed spaces in refuges between 2016 and 2018, and last summer it launched an £18.8m Domestic Abuse Fund to provide accommodation-based services for domestic abuse survivors.
But local authorities aren’t automatically entitled to this funding; they have to apply for it on a one-off basis. It’s not the sustainable income that they desperately need. And when domestic abuse funding is stripped to the bone, it’s often specialist services – notably those developed specifically to support BAME women – that are pared back or scrapped in favour of more generic options.
In April, Waterloo Community Counselling – which provides vital services in multiple languages to domestic abuse survivors from across London – had its local authority funding cut by two-thirds. Earlier this month, meanwhile, The Independent reported that the London Black Women’s Project (LBWP), which houses domestic violence survivors from across the UK in five east London refuges, was set to close all of its accommodation after having its funding cut.
For women who can’t access generic domestic abuse resources because of language or cultural barriers, services like these aren’t a luxury; they’re a lifeline. Yet they haven’t been protected under May’s watch.
That brings us to another gap in the domestic abuse bill: its failure to make any specific provisions for migrant women, despite the clear recommendations of a cross-party committee. While the government has pledged to review its response to migrant domestic abuse survivors, it hasn’t made any clear-cut commitments, something that’s been fiercely criticised by the Step Up Migrant Women coalition. Chiara Caparo, Amnesty International’s women’s rights programme manager, says that the review “should have happened well in advance of the bill being laid” to ensure that women fleeing domestic abuse can access support in the UK regardless of their immigration status.
“Theresa May has sacrificed migrant women’s human rights and safety at the altar of her legacy,” says Zehrah Hasan, policy and campaigns assistant at Liberty. “By failing to make concrete changes to the domestic abuse bill before introducing it into parliament, May is perpetuating a discriminatory system which leaves migrant survivors behind.”
Fortunately, the bill isn’t yet signed, sealed and delivered. There is still time for migrant survivors’ needs to be recognised before it is made law. But when it comes to Theresa May’s record on tackling domestic abuse, the clock has all but run out. And the legacy she leaves behind is strong in some places – but woefully weak in too many others.
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