Covid-19: The impact on victims of domestic abuse

The impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on victims of domestic abuse is the focus of an upcoming oral question on 29 June 2020:

Baroness Gale (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to support victims of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This blog provides a brief introduction to the subject to assist Members in preparing for the question.

What is the definition of domestic abuse?

At present, there is no statutory definition of domestic violence and abuse. The term domestic abuse covers different types of abuse, which can fall under a range of criminal offences. However, since 2013 the Government has defined domestic violence and 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

As part of this definition, the Government describes controlling behaviour as a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by:

  • isolating them from sources of support;
  • exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain;
  • depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape; and
  • regulating their everyday behaviour.

In addition, it describes coercive behaviour as an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

How has Covid-19 impacted domestic abuse cases?

On 23 March 2020, the Government announced measures requiring people to stay at home to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The domestic abuse charity Refuge has warned that although the lockdown itself “does not cause domestic abuse”, the measures can “aggravate pre-existing behaviours in an abusive partner”. On 27 May 2020, the charity reported an increase of:

  • 66 percent in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline over the previous consecutive three weeks; and
  • 957 percent in web traffic in the previous two weeks.

Similarly, the Men’s Advice Line for male victims of domestic abuse had recorded an increase of:

  • 16.6 percent in calls in the week of 30 March 2020; and 
  • 42 percent in traffic to its website.

In addition, data gathered by the organisation Counting Dead Women suggests that the number of domestic abuse killings has increased during lockdown. It found that in the first three weeks of lockdown (23 March to 12 April 2020), the number of women killed by men was 14. This is the highest rate for at least eleven years and “double that of a hypothetical average 21 days over the last 10 years”.  

What has the Government been doing to tackle domestic abuse?

Domestic Abuse Bill 2019–21

Following a commitment in the Conservative Party’s manifesto to “support all victims of domestic abuse and pass the Domestic Abuse Bill”, the Government introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill 201921 in the House of Commons in March 2020. The bill would make several provisions relating to tackling domestic abuse, including the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner. As part of this role, the Commissioner is tasked with the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of domestic abuse-related offences.

The Bill is currently in its committee stage in the House of Commons.  

Guidance

In April 2020, the Government published guidance on support for victims of domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic. The guidance stated that for anyone at risk, the household isolation instruction “does not apply” if they need to leave their home to escape abuse. It also provided information on support services for those being abused or worried that they may commit abuse.

Funding to support services

In the same month, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced several measures to provide “further support” for those at risk of domestic abuse. This included launching a new communications campaign to “reach out” to victims of abuse and highlight that they can leave their homes to access help. In addition, Ms Patel announced that the Government would be providing up to £2 million to “enhance” online services and helplines for victims of domestic abuse.

In May 2020, the Government allocated £76 million extra funding to support the “most vulnerable in society during the pandemic”. This included £28 million to help survivors of domestic abuse and their children by providing safe spaces, accommodation and access to support services.

Previously, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee had published a report calling on the Government to introduce an emergency package of funding for support services for victims of such crimes.

In response to the Government providing funds to support the “most vulnerable” in society, Refuge welcomed the news and stated that funding would help support frontline services “at a time when they are needed more than ever”.   

What next? 

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the impact that Covid-19 and the measures to tackle it are having on people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. This includes examining the “increased risk and severity of domestic abuse when there is a requirement to stay home”.

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