This new bill on domestic abuse is a step in the right direction – but big gaps remain

Support services are stretched to the limit - and too many people are likely to fall through the cracks, writes Natalie Bennett.

This Tuesday, the House of Lords has its first debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. It is a huge victory for campaigners – something that mustn’t be forgotten.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised such a bill, bringing into law a non-statutory recognition of “domestic abuse” adopted by the government in 2013, as well as broadening the understanding of abuse beyond the physical, to also include psychological, financial, and emotional abuse, and controlling and coercive behaviour.

That a rightwing government should be planning an acknowledgement of the many ways in which abuse can occur within the family – not just physical violence – is, when you think about it, radical progress.

Recognition of the reality and seriousness of physical violence within the family little predates the start of this century. As the hashtag sums it up: #CampaigningWorks.

Right direction – but…

Women are the majority of victims of domestic abuse (something the Bill needs to do more to acknowledge in its text). The Bill arrives in a positive international environment that also sees the recent huge victory on access to legal, safe abortion in Argentina, and rapid development of a broad feminist movement that has spread across South America from there. (And there’s good news today from Pakistan about a ban on virginity tests.)

Victories inspire and encourage. Despite everything else that is going on, I’ve seen my inbox fill up quicker with briefings and proposals for amendments to this Bill than any other. Which is where I get to the inevitable “but” after my positivity: this crucial Bill should, and can, be much stronger, to address the many issues of inequality, poverty and powerlessness that Covid-19 has exposed and amplified.

Top of my list, because of its screaming urgency, is “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF), the immigration status that can effectively trap victims in abusive relationships, unable even to access crucial public services. Only 5% of refuge places are available to women with NRPF status.

Taking advantage

The Step Up Migrant Women campaign makes many important points about how abusers can use immigration status and the threat of deportation against their victims. The law (and the government’s hostile environment) must not be a collaborator in the abuse. All services must be available without discrimination or danger: that’s a fundamental principle of the Istanbul Convention.

The entire immigration system, including the availability of asylum and support for refugees, has to be far more sensitive to the impacts and risk of domestic abuse – including acknowledging, as Green Party policy has long noted, that some victims need asylum because their home state cannot or will not protect them from it.

Another familiar theme is the discriminatory nature of Universal Credit. Its household basis is profoundly dangerous – and of course its levels inadequate – but at a minimum the bill should ensure that separate payments are made by default and advances paid as grants to survivors of domestic abuse. All welfare changes – and the current system – should be assessed for their impact on abuse victims to escape  and the obvious problems presented by the benefits cap ended.

Employers too – as the TUC is stressing – need to have a statutory duty to support staff affected by abuse – including a period of paid leave.

Refuge shortfall

When we talk about services for those affected by domestic abuse, refuges are often the first topic that comes up. But it is crucial that a focus on the provision of residential services for victims who need to flee to a safe place does not detract from the resources available to in-community support. Both need to be boosted.

As Women’s Aid notes, there is a 30% shortfall in the number of refuge spaces, measured against need, and 64% of people referred had to be turned away in 2018-19. Funding for specialist, dedicated services – both residential and in-community – needs to be long term and secure. And the commercial, market approach, of making effective, in-place services bid for contracts is enormously wasteful and destructive.

Gaps galore

What’s also lacking from the bill is a duty – as backed by the Greens – for publicly funded-services to ensure that training is provided at all levels of public services, across services, so every contact is an opportunity for reporting, signposting, for action that could save a life.

And far more needs to be done in this Bill to ensure Family Courts are fully aware of, and acting on, the risk and dangers domestic abusers present – and legal aid support fully restored. In the New Year’s Honours List, I am pleased that the government acknowledged the brave, stalwart campaigning of Claire Throssell, whose two sons were killed by their father after he was granted access to them. But we need urgent action to ensure no one faces a similar scenario in future.

As a mother told that inquiry, “It is not correct to assume, before investigation, that somebody will further a child’s welfare just because they share his/her genes.”

The debate on the bill will be wide-ranging, the suggestions many. And I’m confident that the House will have the determination to get some of them into law.

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer and a Contributing Editor to Left Foot Forward.

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