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The Domestic Abuse Bill is now in its final stages of debate and expected to become law in England in April 2021, with some parts also applying in Wales.
The backdrop to the parliamentary debate has been what Women's Aid have called a "shadow pandemic" of violence against women and girls, with calls and online contact to domestic abuse services rocketing since March 2020.
While the bill introduces some positive changes in the response of the criminal justice and courts system to domestic abuse, it is silent on the many significant economic barriers that women in particular face when trying to escape an abusive partner: such as the benefit cap and the two-child limit on Universal Credit, access to affordable childcare and a genuine living wage.
Women whose immigration status doesn't allow them access to public funds are still left relying on charities or forced to remain with an abusive partner.
The right to paid leave for employees facing domestic abuse, which was part of Jeremy Corbyn's election manifesto, is also absent.
We can't rely on the Tory government or Starmer's Labour to grant us rights at work. The trade unions must fight to ensure that effective domestic abuse policies are implemented by employers.
A positive change in England (it's already the case in Wales and Scotland) is that anyone who is homeless because of fleeing domestic abuse and is eligible (under immigration laws) will be automatically classed as vulnerable.
The majority of people fleeing domestic abuse are women with children, who, because of the children, already have a priority need. This new duty, however, is important for single, childless adults and in itself is a positive step. However, without adequate funding, given current restrictions on help with rent for those under 35, it will leave local authorities struggling to meet the need, especially for younger people.
The commitment to 'like for like' tenancies for those fleeing secure tenancies is also welcome. But in the context of a chronic shortage of council housing and genuinely affordable housing association tenancies, and where councils often don't manage their own housing stock, this looks like an empty promise.
The wider statutory definition of domestic abuse, which includes emotional, coercive and controlling behaviour and economic abuse, is an important and overdue measure. Coercive control in particular has been inadequately recognised as a significant risk factor in escalating abuse, especially after the survivor ends a relationship.
Importantly, this bill will allow the charge of coercive control to apply when the abuser and victim don't live together.
The new right for survivors themselves, a family member or support worker to apply to the magistrates court for a Domestic Abuse Protection Order (DAPO) could be an important change given that the police often don't use the powers that they have in domestic abuse cases.
Other measures such as the Domestic Abuse Disclosure Scheme are not new, but formalised into law. Calls by organisations such as Paladin, the national stalking advocacy service, to implement a national 'stalkers and domestic abusers register' were initially rejected by the government, but it has come under increasing pressure over the issue since the murder of Sarah Everard.
It has agreed to accept an amendment on the issue of 'revenge porn' which expands the law to make threatening to disclose intimate images with the intention to cause distress a crime. The reasoning behind this is that such threats can be used as an aspect of coercive control to prevent someone leaving an abuser or disclosing domestic abuse.
It has also 'firmed up' existing case law by putting into the bill a confirmation that 'a person may not consent to the infliction of serious harm and, by extension, is unable to consent to their own death'.
This follows an 18-month campaign by the organisation We Can't Consent to This in response to recent murder/manslaughter trials where the accused claimed (in some cases successfully) that the victim died because of consensual 'rough sex' that 'went too far'.
Women's Aid has calculated that the government would need to commit £173.8 million per year on refuge services alone to provide a national network of sustainable and safe refuges that meets the needs of all survivors and their children.
Refuge providers hoped that this bill would result in longer-term funding, enabling them to plan based on need for specialist services, including refuges for black, Asian and minority ethnic women, LGBTQ people, disabled people, men and those with alcohol or drug addiction issues.
However, the government's impact assessment published with the bill costs the duty at nearly half the Women's Aid figure - £90 million a year, but with little clarity as to how this was calculated. It has also stated that domestic abuse funding to councils will go into the 'general funding pot' and be subject to comprehensive spending reviews (ie cuts).
In its response to consultation on the bill, the Local Government Association said: "There is unlikely to be any significant funding available for domestic abuse services, when councils will need up to four times the funding they have been allocated by government so far to cover the costs of Covid-19".
Our question to them is: 'What are you going to do about this?' Labour councils, which make up the majority in the country, have failed to use their reserves and borrowing powers to fund services, and their potential collective power to lead a fight for more funding from the Tory government. Instead, they have passed on cuts to the most vulnerable in their communities, including reducing or stopping refuge funding altogether, leading to an estimated one in six refuges closing since 2010.
If they are not prepared to defend their communities in the face of the latest round of cuts they should step aside. This is why Socialist Party members are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in the May elections on a platform of opposing all cuts (see 'A working-class, anti-cuts challenge for the elections in May').
The Domestic Abuse Disclosure Scheme 'Clare's Law' formally adopted in law giving a 'Right to Ask' the police about a partner/ex-partner's offending history. The police have a 'Right to Disclose' information if they think this is necessary to prevent a crime from taking place.
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Article dated 31 March 2021
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