On 27 October 2020, Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government “what steps they are taking to protect victims of domestic abuse”. This article examines the issue of domestic violence, including action taken by the Government to date and further measures planned in the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019–21.

What is domestic abuse?

Since 2013, the Government has defined domestic abuse as:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological; physical; sexual; financial; emotional.

It says that domestic abuse can be recognised by signs such as having finances controlled, being repeatedly belittled or having bruises, burns or bite marks. The definition of domestic abuse was changed in 2012 to include those aged 16–18 for the first time.

What are the statistics on domestic abuse in the UK?

Women’s Aid, a charity working to prevent domestic abuse in the UK, has said that there are no reliable prevalence data on domestic abuse as “domestic abuse is largely a hidden crime”. However, some data is available from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, and from other charities working in this area.

  • The latest report from the Office for National Statistics found that approximately 5.7% of adults (2.4 million) experienced domestic abuse between March 2018 and March 2019. This was approximately 1.6 million women and 786,000 men.
  • A survey conducted by the charity Refuge in February and June 2020 found that 16% of respondents (8.7 million adults) said they had experienced economic abuse from a current or former partner. However, the report stated that 39% of respondents reported experiencing economic abusive behaviours such as a partner creating debt in their name, suggesting that more adults had experienced economic abuse but had not identified it as such.

Domestic abuse and Covid-19

Research conducted by domestic violence charities has shown that in the early months of the coronavirus lockdown demand for their services increased and the abuse suffered by victims worsened. For example, during the month of June, the BBC reported that calls to the National Abuse Helpline were “nearly 80% higher than usual”. In addition, a survey carried out by Women’s Aid in June 2020 found that 50% of those surveyed who were already experiencing domestic abuse said that during the pandemic “the violence/abuse has got worse”.

How has the Government supported victims of domestic abuse?

The Government has published guidance on its website to assist victims of domestic abuse. It includes information on recognising the signs of domestic abuse and provides links to access help and support.

In March 2020, the Government also updated its guidance on domestic abuse to state that “household isolation instructions as a result of coronavirus do not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse”.

In light of new local restrictions coming into force across the country in September 2020, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, reaffirmed that victims of domestic abuse can leave their homes to seek help in areas where local restrictions are in place.

Domestic Abuse Bill 2019–21

The Domestic Abuse Bill completed its stages in the House of Commons on 6 July 2020 and is awaiting a date for second reading in the House of Lords. As currently drafted, the bill would:

  • Create a statutory definition of domestic abuse.
  • Establish in law the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and set out its functions and powers.
  • Place a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.
  • Provide that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse automatically have ‘priority need’ for homelessness assistance.

The bill received cross-party support in the House of Commons. However, it has been criticised by the campaign group Step Up Migrant Women, who say that the bill does not help some migrant women who “find it virtually impossible to access safety and protection if they experience domestic abuse” due to their immigration status. The group is calling for the bill to include a provision that allows all women, regardless of their immigration status, access to public funds to access support and routes to safety.

Funding for local authorities

Alongside the bill, on 5 October 2020, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rough Sleeping and Housing, Kelly Tolhurst, announced a £6 million Domestic Abuse Capacity Building Fund. The fund is intended to enable local authorities to rapidly commission support for victims of domestic abuse. Commenting, the minister said:

This new funding will help ensure that local authorities are resourced to prepare for implementation of the new duty. It will promote more effective delivery on commencement, meaning local authorities will be more quickly able to commission much needed support for those victims of domestic abuse and their children who are currently turned away from refuges and other safe accommodation because their needs cannot be met.

In addition to the funding announcement, Ms Tolhurst also launched a consultation for views on the proposed methodology for allocating funding to areas in England once the Domestic Abuse Bill has been enacted. The consultation is open until 13 November 2020 and is particularly relevant to local authorities in England.

Responding to this new funding commitment, charity Refuge said it was an “important first step”. However, they added the Government needed to commit “at least £174 million per year so that councils can commission the refuge accommodation that women and children fleeing domestic abuse so desperately need”.

Additional funding announced during Covid-19

Alongside money already promised to local authorities, on 2 May 2020, the Government announced £76 million in extra funding to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, vulnerable children and their families, and victims of modern slavery during the Covid-19 pandemic. The funding is split across different government departments:

  • The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) will provide £10 million for safe accommodation services in England, of which £8.1 million will be given directly to charities.
  • The Ministry of Justice will provide £25 million to fund domestic abuse and sexual violence support services in local areas.
  • The Home Office will provide £3.8 million in funding for community-based services, of which £2 million will be for charities supporting victims of domestic abuse.

The Local Government Association said that the direct funding from MHCLG “is really good news for numerous charities”. However, they added that “there needs to be a greater focus on prevention and early intervention measures to tackle the root causes, support and reduce the number of victims, ease pressures on the NHS and other public services, and stop domestic abuse occurring in the first place”.

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