The Domestic Abuse Bill has finally passed through the House of Commons and is now in the House of Lords. Never has a Bill, which everyone claimed to support so wholeheartedly, suffered so many delays and distractions — general elections, the unlawful shutting down of Parliament, and changing governments have all played their part in its delay.
The Bill looks nothing like it did when it was originally drafted. It was quite thin, promising only to create a new type of restraining order, specifically for domestic abuse victims, to create the role of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner for oversight and, for the first time, outline a legal definition of domestic abuse.
The many years of delay have allowed for some benefits, however. Campaigners, Labour voices and cross-party pressure groups have had the opportunity to improve it; and improve it we have.
Today the Bill includes a statutory duty on local authorities to provide accommodation for those who need to escape abuse. It bans the cross-examination of victims by their perpetrators in the family courts. A brilliant joint campaign by the All Party Parliamentary Groups for homelessness and domestic abuse led to the Bill promising “priority need” — top-of-the-queue status — to victims of abuse on local housing lists.
During the Bill’s progress in the Commons, we managed to ensure that children were included in the definition as victims rather than just witnesses, and brilliant campaigns headed up by survivors such as Sammy Woodhouse (one of the Rotherham child sexual exploitation victims) means the Bill includes some wide-ranging changes to the way victims are treated in the family and civil courts. But are these changes enough? Some might roll their eyes and say that I will never be happy, and that might be true. Years working on the front line with adults and children who have been beaten, controlled, groomed and raped does that to you, I suppose. I am only too aware that no amount of well-written parliamentary words changes the slightest thing on the ground if it isn’t matched with practical action, resources and political will to improve things.
No amount of well-written parliamentary words changes the slightest thing if there aren’t resources
No one in the refuge where I worked ever said: “Jess, do you know what I really need to help save me and my kids? A legal definition of domestic abuse.” What they needed was support workers; a safe place to go when they had to escape; a police force ready and able to properly protect them; a court system that didn’t silence; homes; school places; immediate and sensitive medical interventions.
I noticed a tweet from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, this week about the Bill. It said: “I am really pleased that the Domestic Abuse Bill has been passed. This Bill will protect approximately 2.4 million victims.” But the passing of the Bill alone will do no such thing. It’s simply a Bill with the name of a crime written on the front. Legal definitions alone do little to change the reality on the ground, without properly targeted action and support. The Covid-19 crisis has laid bare for all to see what it would be like to have your liberty removed and to be a prisoner in your own home. The national conversation about what this has meant for domestic abuse victims has been loud and we can only hope that will change things
Labour, during the height of the lockdown, called for urgent funding of £75 million to help those suffering with domestic abuse. Soon after, the Government announced a £76 million package. However, none of those I have spoken to in the field have yet received a penny of extra support and are seeing the cases coming forward increasing in both number and complexity.
In late June, three months after lockdown began, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, asked Home Secretary Priti Patel how much of the Government’s £76 million promised to vulnerable people’s charities had been allocated and she stated it was only £1.2 million. If we use Matt Hancock’s figures as the benchmark, that’s 50p per victim. I am sure that has been lifesaving.
Labour and domestic abuse charities will keep campaigning for the Bill to be better during its passage through the Lords. We want to ensure it protects and supports migrant victims of domestic abuse and that it supports community-based domestic abuse services. We will keep on pushing the Government to protect all victims no matter where they live, where they work and which country they were born in. But make no mistake, the Bill in and of itself will not change the lives of the 2.4 million victims. There is much more work to do.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley