Domestic abuse is a gross leveller within our society – it does not matter where you come from, what you look like, whether you work or don’t work, whether you have children or not, whether you have settled immigration status or were born in a palace – domestic abuse can impact on you.
The announcement on Monday 3rd March that the Domestic Abuse Bill was returning to Parliament was met with both enthusiasm but also concern from our sector that it still will not go far enough to protect the millions of people living in abusive relationships across England and Wales. The sector has been lobbying for a statutory approach to domestic abuse for many years and the introduction of a Bill was thought to herald a shift in the approach to survivors of abuse.
There are very welcome additions within the Bill, including the inclusion of economic abuse within a statutory definition for the first time; introductions within the family court around stopping cross-examination and access to special measures as well as the announcements about the provision of safe accommodation. However, the Bill still falls short of protecting every woman affected by domestic abuse and, for the most vulnerable, they are still not a focus.
Solace is committed to ensuring every woman and child can live free from abuse and fear – as it currently stands the bill fails to protect migrant women and not enough is being done for children and young people who experience abuse in their homes. This is a gap that we, and others across the sector, have been highlighting as the Bill has made its fragmented journey through the legislative system.
The Bill must go further to ensure every woman fleeing abuse has safe, suitable and stable housing. We know from our research that housing is the number one barrier for survivors fleeing abuse. Our Safe as Houses research, launched in October last year, found that 30% of women seeking shelter are turned away six or more times and that 53% of women lose their secure tenancy if they go into a refuge. These are the women who have access to refuges – for women with no recourse to public funds, they are even more trapped within abusive contexts. The average time that women have lived with abuse before coming into our services is 6 years and 6 months; for women with no recourse to public funds, that figure is even higher. Women often tell us that they have faced insensitivity and even hostility when approaching services including: being told to go back to the perpetrator(s); being told to go back to their own countries; being interviewed in public spaces; being prevented from making homelessness applications and facing extreme racism and unsafe practices including having perpetrators and abusive family members being used as interpreters.
The Government announced last year that there was going to be a statutory duty on Tier 1 Local Authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children within refuges and other safe accommodation. This addition is contained within the Bill but the details of the approach have not yet been shared widely. For London, it is likely that our Tier 1 Authority will be the Greater London Authority (GLA) but again we do not know what that will look like in practice. We hope that it will provide a comprehensive programme of support to all women (and men) and their children who are living with abuse and not a continued focus on refuge accommodation, which is vital but must be followed with sustainable, suitable and long term accommodation and support. Our ask is that there is an automatic assumption that women fleeing abuse are in priority need, removing the need for the ‘vulnerability’ element; that all women accepted for re-housing are granted the highest possible banding/points and that all women moving boroughs are able to maintain their housing priority status. We also believe there needs to be a specific support element for women with no recourse to public funds and for any women with insecure immigration status.
The provisions around support also need to be underpinned by a comprehensive Perpetrator Programme as for too long the focus has been on women survivors to change their lives, to uproot their families, leave their jobs and leave friends and family behind. A combined approach of tailored, holistic support, accompanied by robust measures for perpetrators to change their behaviour, is the only way for the UK to ensure the rights of all those living in abusive relationships.
Of course, the Bill needs to be accompanied by a robust funding mechanism. Local Authority funding has been cut by over 60% in many cases and this has meant that commissioners have either had to scale back domestic abuse funding or to make difficult decisions about funding. The cost of domestic abuse, removing the far higher human costs, is roughly £66 billion per year and yet funding barely scratches the surface of the scale of the problem. Women’s Aid’s research, based on the information from their member services, has highlighted that the Government needs to spend £393 million a year – roughly 1/7th of the cost of the Trident programme per annum to provide support to survivors of abuse.
We are cautiously optimistic about the reintroduction of Domestic Abuse Bill and we will continue to work with partners to influence the Bill to ensure all women can live lives free from abuse and can rebuild their lives with a safe, secure place to live and the specialist support they need to recover.