The Domestic Abuse Bill is back in parliament re-starting its journey to become law with its first reading on the 3rd March 2020. This is welcome news after last year’s delays due to Brexit, the election and the fall of the bill in November as parliament faced a period of prorogation. The Bill was introduced to the House of Commons; this is a formality and takes place without any debate. The second hearing where MP’s will consider the bill has not yet had a date announced.

 

This bill has the opportunity to make history as to how the Government responds to domestic abuse, making sure that survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and their families can access support services where they need, when and how they need too. Late last year the government promised to pass the bill in their manifesto which aims to ensure that victims feel confident to access support, report their experiences in the knowledge that they will be supported their families will be supported and that the abuser will be held accountable. Back in the spring of 2018, Safer Places responded to the public consultation on Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse, ours was one of 3,200 from the sector and those impacted. We are proud to say that the voices of survivors we support were heard, and are echoed in the government response which set out 123 legislative and non-legislative commitments.

 

Domestic abuse happens in every community, there are 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse a year aged 16-74 of which two thirds were women, and more than one in ten of all offences recorded by the police are domestic abuse related. Domestic homicides are the highest they have been in over 5 years, lives depend on the Bill to transform the response to domestic abuse and ensure that life-saving services are fully funded.

 

The Bill will, for the first time, create a statutory definition of domestic abuse, making it clear that domestic abuse is not just about physical violence, but emotional abuse and coercive or controlling behaviour. The definition also expands on the current cross-governmental definition to include economic abuse, this is a welcome revision and we hope that this will help to see survivors recognise this aspect of controlling behaviour and increase the options available to them.

 

The bill places a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other types of safe accommodation. At present, there is no requirement to provide these live-saving services. Some of our refuges are not funded at all, which contributes to the horrifying statistics of how many people are turned away each day due to lack of availability across the country as refuges are forced to close. The duty has the potential to provide sustainability for refuges and other types of accommodation for survivors and their families but without a commitment of funding, there is no telling what services will be commissioned and whether available funding will be consistent across the country or enough to meet local need and demand without adding to the existing post-code lottery of support services.

 

The bill also proposed to prohibit perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts in England and Wales. For far too long, abusers have exercised control in the court room making it so difficult for survivors to attend vital court hearings to ensure the safety of their children.

 

Like so many in the sector, Safer Places welcome the bill but to maximise this opportunity to truly transform the response to domestic abuse and safe lives we need more.

 

Firstly, we need funding that is sufficient to run safe services and funding that is sustainable and consistent across the country whilst meeting local need and demand. We need the bill to protect all survivors – domestic abuse does not discriminate and neither should routes to safety. At present, survivors without resource to public funding fall through the gaps in services and are left destitute facing heart-wrenching decisions and often staying in abusive relationships believing it is their only true choice. This bill has the power to amend immigration law so all migrant survivors can access financial support allowing them the same route to safety as those with recourse to funds. At Safer Places we have accommodation for women without recourse to funding, this is funded by ourselves out of our charitable funds. We strongly believe that lifesaving services such as ours should not have to rely on the generosity of our communities to survive.

 

It is not just women without recourse to public funding who struggle to access safe accommodation. Long term sustainable housing is difficult to find amid the current housing shortage crisis. For single women, accessing housing is a harder task. We are fortunate at Safer Places to work alongside some excellent local authorities and we have been awarded funding to work with our partners to help create homes for survivors. This bill has the power to add to current housing legislation and declare that every survivor of abuse can automatically qualify as being in priority need for assistance.

 

Safer Places provide the largest stalking advocacy service in the country and we know that abusers use technology and threaten to share intimate images and videos. We echo the voices of others in the sector and call for this to be made an offence as although it is an offence to share intimate images and videos, it is not a specific offence to threaten to do so, even though this is an act of coercive control which so often shuts down paths to safety for survivors.