After being controversially dropped last autumn, a new version of the domestic abuse bill is now making its way back through parliament. But what will it really mean for women? Stylist investigates.
The domestic abuse bill has been a long time coming. In the works for almost three years, it was first introduced by Theresa May’s government last July. But in August, shortly after taking office, Boris Johnson controversially suspended parliament – and the landmark piece of legislation was dropped.
Quite rightly, outcry ensued. Domestic abuse is a major problem in the UK: two women are killed by a current or former partner across England and Wales every week, and almost one in three women aged between 16 and 59 will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives. So it was a welcome relief in September when the prime minister announced that he’d be reintroducing the legislation.
And then… Johnson called a snap election. (There are many criticisms that can legitimately be levelled at modern British politics, but ‘boring’ is not one of them.) Amid the high drama and antipathy of Brexit, it seemed as though the long-awaited, potentially life-saving domestic abuse bill – which has a striking amount of cross-party support – could be allowed to fall by the wayside once more.
Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. At a moment when the problem of domestic abuse is being highlighted – and exacerbated – by the coronavirus crisis, the bill is now making its way back through parliament. It was reintroduced to parliament for a third time at the beginning of March, and passed its second reading on 28 April.
“Domestic abuse has never been higher on the public agenda and if ever there was a time for a bold government response, that time is surely now,” Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic abuse charity Refuge, tells Stylist. She points to figures showing that Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 120% increase in calls on one day alone, while the charity’s website saw a 700% increase when compared to the previous day.
That’s not the only evidence of a disturbing correlation between the lockdown and domestic abuse. A shocking 67% of survivors currently experiencing domestic abuse say it has got worse since Covid-19 reached the UK and 72% say their abuser now has more control over their life, according to a new survey by Women’s Aid. The chilling but necessary Counting Dead Women project reports at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children since lockdown began on 23 March. And the Metropolitan police say they have made an average of about 100 domestic abuse arrests a day since 9 March, when people with Covid-19 symptoms were asked to self-isolate.
“Refuge hopes that funding for specialist services will be given the priority they so desperately need – cuts over the last decade have had a horrific impact,” Horley continues. “We stand ready to work with the government to ensure no woman or child is ever turned away from seeking support.”
Below, Stylist unpacks everything you need to know about the domestic abuse bill.
What does the new domestic abuse bill promise?
Lots of positive things. Under the new measures, county councils in England (and larger unitary authorities) will be legally required to provide support and ensure safe accommodation for domestic abuse victims and their children.
The new bill has been designed to be futureproof from any new ways perpetrators may try to manipulate or coerce their victims, such as ‘tech abuse’ – where abusers use personal and home devices and smart gadgets to maintain control over an abused person.
Economic (or “financial”) abuse, which limits access to a victim’s fundamental economic resources such as money, food, transport, clothing, utilities, employment and housing, will be specifically referenced in the definition of domestic abuse. The bill will also improve on a previous pledge to ban abusers from cross-examining their victims in family courts.
This all sounds good. So what’s wrong with the bill?
The government has failed to make many hard promises when it comes to funding domestic abuse services. Refuge has seen more than 80% of its services experience cuts in real terms, and Women’s Aid estimates that funding support for a safe and sustainable national network of refuges requires £173 million annually – a fraction of the £66 billion domestic abuse costs society every year.
There is widespread public support for more funding for domestic abuse services: according to a survey conducted by Amnesty International in April, 72% of UK adults think the government should do more to ensure all victims of domestic abuse are protected. But there were no announcements on domestic abuse specialist services in the government’s new budget in March (it did, however, find £500m to fund pothole repairs). And without long-term, sustainable funding for frontline services, including refuges, survivors will continue to suffer.
“The funding made available is simply a drop in the ocean compared to the funds needed,” says Horley, Refuge’s chief executive. “Only by doing this can we hope to end violence against women and girls.”
The domestic abuse bill has also been criticised for not going far enough in certain areas. While the Home Office has said the government is considering how it could curb use of the “rough sex defence”, the bill does not contain any detailed wording on how this would be achieved. And under the current plans, councils would not be required to fund specialist women’s services as part of their duty to provide accommodation for domestic abuse victims.
This “could see funding going to generic, unsafe housing services which don’t have the expertise women and children need to escape their abuser and begin to recover,” says Adina Claire, acting co-CEO of Women’s Aid.
Migrant women experiencing domestic abuse have no protections under the bill, and children’s charity Barnado’s has called the legislation “disappointing” for its failure to guarantee access to support for all child victims of domestic abuse.
So what happens next?
Now that the domestic abuse bill has passed its second reading, it will progress to what’s known as the ‘committee stage’. This is where legislation is scrutinised, with MPs getting the chance to propose and vote on new amendments – so there’s still time for some of the issues outlined above to be addressed. Conservative safeguarding secretary Victoria Atkins will lead the committee stage, shadowed by Labour’s Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding.
However, the committee stage could take some time, and there are also two independent reviews that may need to conclude before it can commence. Either way, it’s likely to be some time before the domestic abuse bill is finally enacted.
OK – so what’s being done to tackle domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis?
The day before the domestic abuse bill had its second reading in parliament, a cross-party committee of MPs published a report calling on the government to produce an urgent plan for how to tackle rising levels of domestic abuse during the lockdown, warning that “society will be dealing with the devastating consequences for a generation” if action is not taken.
“We are calling for new emergency funding for support services, new ways for victims to access help through supermarkets and pharmacies, outreach visits to known vulnerable households, support for children and a new guarantee of safe housing for anyone needing to leave their home during lockdown because of abuse,” says Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
The Women’s Equality (WE) Party is also calling for an emergency domestic abuse bill to protect survivors during lockdown.
“It took parliament three years to get the domestic abuse bill to a second reading. The time that has been wasted has literally cost some women their lives. Others, stuck in lockdown with abusive partners, cannot afford to wait any longer,” says Serena Laidley, WE party candidate and abuse survivor. “The government passed the Coronavirus Act in a couple of days to protect people from a disease. Why can’t they do the same to keep people safe from violence?”
The prime minister has yet to respond publicly to these demands. But tellingly, Amnesty International’s survey reveals that two-thirds of UK adults believe the government should provide more funding to protect and support all victims of domestic abuse during the coronavirus crisis.
Is there anything I can do to help?
Yes. “Refuge hopes every Stylist reader will remember this number – 0808 2000 247. Save it, share it, and if you need it, use it,” says Horley, Refuge’s chief executive.
“Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is here for you, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and provides life-saving and life-changing support. Every woman needs to know this number. Women’s lives depend on it.”
You can also donate to domestic abuse charities including Refuge and Women’s Aid, as well as smaller organisations working with domestic abuse survivors such as Solace or Southall Black Sisters. Finally, consider writing to your MP to voice your support for the domestic abuse bill and express any amendments you believe should be made to it: you can find their contact details here.
There are many questions about whether or not the bill goes far enough to protect victims of domestic abuse. But ensuring that discussions around it are finally prioritised is a vital first step.
The National Centre for Domestic Violence offers a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation. Text NCDV to 60777, call 0800 9702070, or visit ncdv.org.uk