Imagine there was a piece of legislation that politicians from different parties had worked on together during a period of huge political turbulence which had seen our country torn apart by a referendum before it was besieged by a global pandemic. Imagine that, while drafting it, politicians had actually listened to real people and experts. Imagine that, after listening to them, they’d actually turned their feedback into policy.
It’s a sad sign of our times that this sounds like utopian daydreaming. Fortunately I am talking about the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returned to parliament this week for its second reading because it remains urgent, not despite but because of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
The Domestic Abuse Bill ought already to be law right now, in place to protect victims and survivors during this crisis. But it’s not. Last year, parliament was unlawfully prorogued and this urgently needed bill was put on hold. Domestic abuse victims and survivors were, once again, collateral damage in the politicking that surrounds Brexit.
Thankfully, the government has now brought it back in the midst of this crisis in an attempt to right this wrong. For the first time, it will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse and legally establish a dedicated domestic abuse commissioner.
It’s not perfect. It's still severely lacking in some areas, including housing, funding and provisions for women who have no recourse to public funds. Here are some of the ways that the Domestic Abuse Bill could – if the government gets it right – change the lives of those affected by domestic abuse for good:
Somewhere to go
One of the biggest problems domestic abuse victims and survivors face is that often there isn’t anywhere for them to go. Refuge spaces in the UK are almost a third lower than the number recommended by the Council of Europe and, as a result, they find themselves turning people away.
At the same time, rents remain too expensive for many people to afford and social housing waiting lists continue to grow. As the Women’s Budget Group recently noted in its "A Home Of Her Own" report, there is no region in England – that’s right, none – where private rented housing is affordable based on women’s average earnings. This means that those looking to flee abuse often can’t afford to find somewhere safe to live.
In light of this, campaigners and charities are calling on the government to make sure that the bill includes an amendment which would require local councils to find suitable housing for those who have been affected by domestic abuse as a matter of urgency.
Hannah Gousy, head of policy and campaigns at Crisis, explained to Refinery29: "Lives are at risk without a guarantee of a safe home. Currently, anyone who flees domestic abuse and tries to access housing from their council must prove how vulnerable they are – and in some cases, councils have asked for a letter from the abuser as proof. For many they are left either facing homelessness or returning to an abuser."
"The rising numbers of domestic abuse reports throughout the coronavirus outbreak has laid bare the extreme dangers that people fleeing domestic abuse face. Now more than ever, it is imperative that survivors are automatically guaranteed a legal right to safe, settled housing through the APPG’s amendment to the bill. We know there is widespread support across parliament from all parties – the government must take action."
An end to the “rough sex” defence
Ever since the tragic murder of Grace Millane shone a light on the "rough sex" or "sex act gone wrong" defence used by perpetrators in court, campaigners at We Can’t Consent To This, Labour MP Harriet Harman and the lawyer Harriet Wistrich, who heads up the Centre for Women’s Justice, have been calling for an amendment to be added to the Domestic Abuse Bill to outlaw it.
At the bill’s second reading in parliament on Tuesday, the justice secretary noted: "There is no such thing as a ‘rough sex’ defence and we are looking at the best way to address this complex area of criminal law." It's a bit of a legal grey area.
Refinery29 asked the government about this. The minister for safeguarding, Victoria Atkins said: "The Domestic Abuse Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to end the horrific cycle of abuse that too many women in this country face."
"It will create a new legal definition to tackle all forms of abuse, including controlling behaviour, and ensure survivors have the support they need to rebuild their lives."
"Any attempt to use a ‘rough sex defence’ is utterly unacceptable, and as a government, we are looking at ways to make the law as clear as possible in this respect."
Help for those who can’t access it
The Women’s Budget Group is working to highlight that migrant women are not supported in Britain. In a report due to be published next week, it notes that these women are disproportionately represented in ‘key worker’ occupations, working in roles that put their own lives at risk to deliver crucial care.
At the same time, they are impacted by immigration and social security policies aimed at creating a ‘hostile environment’, which means migrants can be left with no rights to social security or vital services. This is known as 'no recourse to public funds' such as universal credit, housing benefit or homelessness support.
If one of these women is impacted by domestic abuse, she will struggle to get help that could save her life because migrant victims/survivors of abuse cannot access women’s refuges, as refuges are dependent on housing benefit for funding.
The Women’s Budget Group told Refinery29: "Financial constraints and finding alternative accommodation feature heavily in a woman’s decision to leave the abuser. For migrant women, both weigh more heavily because most cannot access welfare or public housing. Migrant women with no recourse to public funds cannot access a refuge because refuges depend on housing benefit for their funding. Without the welfare safety net to fall on, many migrant women cannot afford to leave an abusive husband. Their stay in the UK may also be compromised if they are on a family or dependant visa."
"The new Domestic Abuse Bill should include provisions to suspend no recourse to public funds for victims of domestic abuse and their children, to ensure no woman is left unprotected. But we can only eradicate domestic abuse for all women with a cross-sector strategy – alongside the DA Bill we need to be reforming our immigration system and ensuring our social security is a true safety net."
The government itself is calling the Domestic Abuse Bill "a once in a generation opportunity to end the horrific cycle of abuse that too many women in this country face". Now, can they listen to campaigners and make sure they make the best of it?