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Domestic Abuse Bill: much more action needed

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Home Affairs Committee, report, domestic abuse bill, violence against women and girls, universal credit, refuges, immigration control, reportReport says government should take a wider range of actions to tackle domestic abuse and violence against women and girls.

On 17 February 2017 the Prime Minister announced a programme of work leading towards the introduction of a Domestic Abuse Bill.

In the Queen’s Speech in June 2017, the government subsequently committed to bring forward a draft bill that proposes to: enshrine a definition of domestic abuse in law; introduce a new protection order to better protect victims from their abusers; recognise the harm domestic abuse inflicts on a child; create a Domestic Abuse Commissioner; and demonstrate commitment to ratifying the Istanbul Convention by extending extraterritorial jurisdiction over Violence against Women and Girls-related offences.

And in March 2018, the government published a consultation paper setting out its proposed strategy for responding to domestic abuse.

The Home Affairs Committee then held an inquiry aiming to help inform the government’s draft bill which the Committee expected would be published this autumn.

In order to meet the anticipated timetable for the draft bill, the Committee took only a small amount of oral evidence, and has focused its ensuing report on specific issues which were highlighted extensively in both the oral and written evidence it received.

So the report is organised according to the themes in the government’s consultation paper, but has not attempted to respond to every issue raised in that paper.

In the report, published earlier this week, the Committee urges the government to widen its bill to be a Violence against Women and Girls and Domestic Abuse Bill and that national refuge funding, a new stalkers register, and an end to single Universal Credit Payments should be included.

The report has identified persistent problems with the lack of refuges and advice support for victims, weaknesses in the police and court responses and inadequate action to prevent abuse of all kinds.

And it calls for stronger action.

Unpredictable and short-term funding streams have led to a serious lack of bed-space in safe accommodation for victims of domestic abuse; according to Women’s Aid, for example, 60 per cent of referrals to their refuges are refused due to lack of bed spaces.

It is not acceptable for women fleeing violence and other forms of abuse to be turned away from safety.

In the short term, funding must be provided to fill the gap that means that 90 women and 94 children are turned away from refuges every day.

The government needs to review current funding levels, and develop a sustainable model that ensures the level of provision meets demand.

This should be backed up by legislation that places a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide emergency refuge places.

And the Committee welcomed the government’s plans to include economic abuse in the statutory definition of domestic abuse; economic abuse is associated with an increased risk of homicide as it removes the financial means for a victim to leave an abusive partner.

But the Committee concluded that some of the government’s welfare reforms were making it even more difficult for women to leave their abusers or to establish financial independence and avoid economic abuse.

The default single household payment for Universal Credit, for exlampe, should not be paid just to one person in the household, as is the current plan, but should instead be split between all couples in England and Wales, in line with the approach in Scotland.

The government has said it was committed to developing a domestic abuse strategy and preparing a draft bill on domestic abuse and has said this will be framed within its current strategy on violence against women.

But the Committee has recommended that the government’s forthcoming bill should be a Violence Against Women and Domestic Abuse Bill, to ensure that it can both support all victims of domestic abuse and also reflect the gender inequality underlying domestic abuse and its links to wider aspects of violence against women and girls.

This joined-up strategy should guide education programmes, funding, service provision and criminal justice, the Committee said.

And given that stalking can have a devastating impact on the lives of victims and existing criminal justice responses are often ineffective in stopping perpetrators, the Committee has  also recommended that a national register of serial stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators is introduced.

Individuals placed on such a register should, like registered sex offenders, be managed through multi-agency public protection arrangements.

The Committee also recommended that the government should investigate the potential impact of domestic abuse leave, recently introduced in New Zealand, and consult on options for introducing domestic abuse leave in the UK.

Paid leave for victims of domestic abuse would help victims to keep their jobs and maintain economic independence while escaping their abuser. This too has the potential to save lives.

In addition, the Commitee heard evidence that – still – indicates that, although it is improving, there are still instances where victims’ reports of abuse are not taken seriously.

These failings have a catastrophic impact on those who suffer abuse and must end.

And the Committee said it was concerned by reports that police forces have provided the Home Office with details of victims of abuse who have contacted them to assist in immigration control. Immigration status, the Committee said, must not bar victims from seeking justice, or make them fear reporting cases of abuse to the police.

And the Committee has been told how navigating the justice system can be as distressing for some victims as the abusive behaviour which they are seeking to escape, and that children may be placed in danger because of a lack of coherence between different parts of the justice system.

So the Committee is recommending that the new Commissioner post the government is proposing should as a priority review the impact upon children of the interaction between the family courts, children’s services, CAFCASS and the police, with particular reference to contact arrangements in domestic violence cases.

And it recommends that the government must also, without further delay, make provision in the draft bill to prohibit the cross-examination of a victim by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in the family court.

To read the full report, click here.

Please forward it to your MP and ask them to support the recommendations.

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