From new sentencing guidelines to funding cuts, here’s your cheat sheet to understanding how the government, courts and campaigners are addressing domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a serious problem in the UK. In England and Wales alone, an estimated 1.9 million adults – including 1.2 million women – were abused by a partner in the year ending March 2017. Women make up 70% of domestic homicide victims, and two women are killed each week by a current or former partner. In recent years, we have also become more aware of the insidious, subtle ways abusers exert dominance over a partner, from coercive control to financial abuse.
Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly stated her commitment to supporting survivors of domestic abuse and punishing offenders, and there have been some welcome changes to government policy in recent months and years. In January, the government began providing more legal aid to survivors, to support them in taking abusive former partners to court. Ministers are currently working on plans to allow anonymous voter registration for women at risk of domestic violence (to prevent ex-partners from obtaining their new address), and new sentencing guidelines announced on 22 February encouraged judges to crack down on emotional and psychological abusers.
However, the fact remains that more than 75% of local authorities in England have had to slash spending on domestic violence refuges as a result of government cuts since 2010 – and many campaigners and charities have expressed concerns about the government’s approach to reducing domestic abuse.
Below, you’ll find the key issues surrounding how domestic violence is being tackled in the UK.
New sentencing guidelines crack down on domestic abusers
Under new guidelines, perpetrators of domestic abuse – including emotional, psychological or online abuse – will be more likely to go to prison.
Previously, the guidelines had only recommended jail time for abusers who seriously physically injured their victim. But updated advice released for judges by the Sentencing Council of England and Wales says that convicted domestic abusers should be given “a custodial sentence in the majority of cases” if they have been seriously physically violent and/or caused severe “emotional/psychological harm”.
The advice is expected to have a significant effect on how domestic violence cases are treated in court, and recommends that domestic violence and threats be treated more seriously than if the same violence occurred outside of an intimate relationship (e.g. in a fight on the street).
“The domestic context … makes the offending more serious because it represents a violation of the trust and security that normally exists between people in an intimate or family relationship,” the council states.
Domestic violence charities have backed the updated guidelines. Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, said: “These new sentencing guidelines are a huge step forward for women escaping domestic violence… I am glad that the courts will be encouraged to recognise that everybody has the right to feel safe in their own home.”
Proposed changes to refuge funding could put more women and children at risk
In November 2016, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a £20m funding boost for women’s refuges, the first half of a total £40m promised in 2015. But one year later, the government quietly released plans to end housing benefit entitlement for women living in refuges. If these proposals go ahead, domestic abuse survivors will not be able to pay for their stay in a refuge using housing benefit from 2020.
On average, housing benefit now makes up 53% of refuges’ income. More than a third (39%) will have to close permanently if the government proceeds with its plans, according to research by Women’s Aid.
The government has said that housing benefit money would instead be transferred to local authorities, which would be responsible for distributing funding for “short-term supported accommodation”. But since this funding would also have to pay for other supported housing (including accommodation for the elderly, homeless people and people with mental illnesses), there are concerns that domestic violence services will not be prioritised.
A petition of almost 169,000 signatures was delivered to 10 Downing Street in January to ask the government to halt the “dangerous” proposals. The government is expected to respond to concerns about the new funding model in the next few months.
The forthcoming Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill has received mixed reviews
Domestic abuse activist group Sisters Uncut drew attention to the government’s proposed Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill on 18 February, when they stormed the BAFTAs red carpet chanting “the DV Bill’s a cover-up, Theresa May your time is up”. But what does the forthcoming bill actually involve, and why has it been criticised so fiercely?
In a nutshell, the bill – which is still under consultation in parliament – is expected to introduce much tougher domestic violence legislation in the UK. The Prime Minister has said that she wants it to “deliver more convictions” for domestic violence, and last year’s Queen’s speech outlined some of its aims, including defining domestic abuse in law and allowing courts to impose harsher sentences on people whose abuse affects children.
However, critics say the bill fails to address the impact of funding cuts to domestic violence services and risks criminalising survivors. In a statement after the BAFTAs, Sisters Uncut described it as “a dangerous distraction from the austerity cuts that have decimated the domestic violence sector since 2010”. The group also noted that similar policies to the domestic violence bill have led to an increase in the number of survivors being arrested in the US, particularly black and minority ethnic and poorer survivors.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, tells Stylist.co.uk that the charity wants the bill to extend beyond the criminal justice system and include policies relating to “housing, education, health, immigration and the welfare system to name but a few”.
She adds: “The landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure survivors and their children get the support they need to escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives, but the government’s plans for supported housing funding risk undermining the Bill’s good intentions.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 21 February, Theresa May suggested the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill would be introduced later than originally planned, indicating that home secretary Amber Rudd had not yet consulting on the legislation.
“We want to ensure that we listen to all those who’ve been affected, so that we are dealing with all the aspects of this particular issue,” May said, adding: “This government is committed to working to support the victims of domestic violence, but also to working to end violence against women and girls.”
If you are experiencing domestic violence or know someone who is, help is available. Contact the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline on 0808 2000 247 for advice and support, or visit the Women’s Aid or Refuge websites.
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