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Domestic Abuse: Ninth Report of Session 2017–19

Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report

Nearly 2 million people a year in England and Wales experience domestic abuse, and many endure long-term harm from their experiences. Domestic abuse is traumatising for victims and their children and is unacceptable in our society. It requires legislative change and a comprehensive strategy, effective across the country, that confronts one of this country’s most common and most serious crimes. Earlier this year the Government set out its strategy for tackling domestic abuse, and it has committed to bringing forward a draft Domestic Abuse Bill later this year. We decided to hold a short inquiry into the Government’s proposed strategy, and to identify issues which it must address in the draft bill and in its future policies.

It is very welcome that the Government has committed to developing a domestic abuse strategy and preparing a draft bill on domestic abuse, which we hope will be informed by this report. The bill has the potential to deliver measures which will provide real benefits for all victims. But we urge the Government to go further as part of its commitment to end domestic abuse. To have confined the proposed scope of the draft bill to domestic abuse rather than all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) represents a missed opportunity. We therefore recommend that the Government publishes a Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Abuse Bill which would facilitate a more effective, joined-up and cross-Government strategy to tackle both domestic abuse and VAWG and would better demonstrate the UK’s commitment to comply with international VAWG conventions. We also recommend that the bill explicitly recognises the gender inequality underlying domestic abuse, and that the disproportionate impact of domestic abuse on women and girls is explicitly highlighted in the text of the bill and the statutory guidance.

We welcome the inclusion of economic abuse in the Government’s proposed statutory definition of domestic abuse. Economic abuse is associated with an increased risk of homicide because victims tend to stay with abusive partners for longer when they do not have the financial means to leave. We are concerned that some of the Government’s welfare reform policies are making it even more difficult for victims to leave their abusers and establish financial independence and there is evidence that the default single household payment for Universal Credit can reduce the autonomy of some women. We recommend that the UK Government should make split payments standard for all couples in England and Wales claiming Universal Credit, in line with the approach taken in Scotland. In addition the Government should analyse the potential impact of domestic abuse leave and consult on options for introducing domestic abuse leave in the UK.

We heard that there is a desperate shortage of refuge accommodation available for victims and their children seeking safety and access to support services. According to Women’s Aid, 60% of referrals to their refuges are refused due to a lack of bed spaces. This huge gap in capacity must be filled and the spaces required must be available. It is unacceptable that women fleeing violence and other forms of abuse are often unable to access any form of emergency accommodation, and it is clear that a sustainable model for the long-term funding of refuge services is urgently required. Given the interdependency of network provision we recommend the Government analyses the operation of refuges as a national network. We recommend a new statutory responsibility upon local authorities for refuge places to be available, supported by ring-fenced funding for local authorities from central Government at a level which meets demand and fills the capacity gap.

We also recommend that the Government facilitates a comprehensive review of funding across all aspects of support for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, to be carried out by the proposed new Commissioner. The Government should commit to the introduction of a new national funding mechanism, informed by the outcomes of a comprehensive review, to provide sufficient and sustainable funding for all necessary support services. We are particularly concerned about the provision of specialist domestic abuse services for protected, vulnerable or minority groups, and for people with additional needs such as debts or drug or alcohol dependency. We recommend that the Government’s review of refuge and other domestic abuse support services should document and report what specialist provision is currently available, and where there are gaps which need to be addressed.

We are concerned that the Government’s proposed strategy makes no explicit additional provision for children who have experienced domestic abuse, as abuse within a family can cause children and young people to suffer a range of long-term negative consequences as a result of their experiences. We recommend that the devastating effect of domestic abuse on children is explicitly recognised in the legislation and that the Government develops a clear strategy to ensure that children experiencing domestic abuse are protected and given the support necessary to help them recover.

Despite efforts to introduce national guidance for all police forces on responding to reports of domestic abuse, there continue to be instances where victims’ claims are not taken seriously or where there is an inadequate police response. These failings can have catastrophic consequences for victims of abuse. We are particularly concerned to hear that many police forces continue to share details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control. This practice is contrary to national police guidance, makes it harder for particularly vulnerable victims to seek protection and access justice, and conflicts with the Government’s stated objective that all vulnerable migrants, including those in the UK illegally, receive the support and assistance they need regardless of their immigration status.

Witnesses described family court proceedings for victims of domestic abuse as traumatising and harrowing. It is unacceptable that 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. We recommend that the new Commissioner should have, as a priority in the first year of office, to 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. The Government must, 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.

We support the creation of a new Commissioner but recommend that this new post is established as a Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Abuse Commissioner and that the remit of the new Commissioner reflects the scope of both the domestic abuse and the VAWG strategies. Confining the scope of the new Commissioner to domestic abuse would fail to recognise the gendered nature of domestic abuse, and its links to other forms of gender-based abuse in the lives of many women and girls. Recognising the challenges highlighted by the first holder of the role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, we also recommend that the Government review its proposals with a view to strengthening the remit and increasing the resources of the proposed Commissioner. It is essential that the Commissioner is fully independent, reports directly to Parliament rather than to Government, and is independently accommodated and resourced.