The Joint Pre-Legislative Domestic Abuse Bill Committee Report Overview
The Joint Pre-Legislative Domestic Abuse Bill Committee, a group of MPs and peers who are responsible for scrutinising the draft Domestic Abuse Bill published by the Government earlier this year, today published its report and recommendations to the Government. We are delighted that the Committee has listened to Refuge, and has made some strong recommendations to the Government.
Gendered definition of domestic abuse
The draft domestic abuse Bill will define domestic abuse in law for the first time. As this will be an important awareness and understanding raising tool, the Committee took lots of evidence on this issue and debated it extensively, Refuge is firmly of the view that unless the definition of domestic abuse reflects the reality of this crime – that violence against women and girls is a cause and consequence of gender inequality – society cannot hope to tackle the scourge of domestic abuse.
Ultimately, the Committee agreed with Refuge that failing to account for the gendered nature of domestic abuse assumes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach which fails to meet the needs of survivors. The Committee therefore recommended:
- The Government introduce a new clause into the draft Domestic Abuse Bill: when applying the definition of domestic abuse public authorities providing services must have regard for the gendered nature of abuse and how gender intersects with race, age, disability, and other protected characteristics of service users in the provision of services.
- Public authorities must be required to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of domestic abuse on women and girls when developing strategies and policies in this area.
Refuge welcomes that the draft domestic abuse Bill defines economic abuse as domestic abuse for the first time. However, Refuge and other organisations were concerned that the draft Bill did not go further and by seeking to reform aspects of the social security system, which can facilitate economic abuse. Refuge has consistently argued for the issues around single Universal Credit payments and advance payments to be addressed so the Bill can help reduce economic abuse and dependence on perpetrators. Fortunately, the Committee picked out Universal Credit as a particular issue addressing it right at the beginning of the report. The Committee made the following recommendations which Refuge urges the Government to adopt:
- Ministers should consider whether advance payments should be converted into grants that are not repayable, so as not to impoverish women and children who flee abuse.
- The Government reviews the impact of its welfare reform programme on victims of domestic abuse. Specifically, this review should examine how different approaches to splitting the Universal Credit single household payment might mitigate against the effects of domestic abuse, given that single payments facilitate and exacerbate economic abuse.
The MHCLG announcement on their refuge funding proposals and consultation came out as the Committee was taking evidence. The Committee welcomed the new proposed legal duty and additional funding, but said they shared the concerns of Refuge and others that the duty needed to make sure specialist refuges and not generic accommodation-based provision are provided, that refuges need to be able to operate as a national network without imposing local connection restrictions, and that specific services, including by-and-for services are funded. They also noted the concern Refuge raised on the statutory duty possibly leading to a rationing of services depending on whether women are assessed as ‘high risk’. The Committee made the following recommendations:
- The Government to work closely with refuge providers, local authorities, and other stakeholders to ensure that refuges can operate as a national network.
- The Government needs to provide clarity on how non-accommodation based support services such as community-based advocacy, IDVA services helpline and counselling support services will be provided and funded under the new statutory duty proposed by MHCLG. Also recommended that the Government works closely with refuge providers, local authorities and other stakeholders to ensure that these essential services are included in future service commissioning plans in order to ensure full compliance with the Istanbul Convention.
In Refuge’s written evidence, along with many other women’s organisations and campaigns such as Southall Black Sisters and Step Up Migrant Women, we highlighted the particular vulnerability of migrant women, including how fear of deportation can make women reluctant to seek support, and perpetrators’ weaponisation of their partners’ insecure immigration status. The Committee recommended:
- Establish a firewall at the levels of policy and practice to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control.
- The Government explores ways to support migrant survivors of abuse, to ensure all these vulnerable victims of crime can access protection and support whilst their application for indefinite leave to remain is considered by the Government.
- The Government should extend the three-month time limit for support for migrant women with no recourse to public funds to six months in light of the specific difficulties for victims highlighted by specialist services.
- To include a non-discrimination clause in the Bill, to reflect Article 4, paragraph 3 of the Istanbul Convention.
Other key recommendations
- Children: the Bill to be amended so that the status of children as victims of domestic abuse that occurs in their household is recognised; the Government consider amending the Children Act definition of harm to include the trauma caused to children by witnessing coercive control between adults in the household
- Police bail: the Government to bring forward legislation to increase the length of time suspects can be released on pre-charge bail in domestic abuse cases; re-balance the test for allowing extensions to pre-charge bail to give full weight to the protection of the victim from the risk of adverse behaviour by the suspect; amend the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to create a presumption that suspects under investigation for domestic abuse, sexual assault, or other significant safeguarding issues only be released from police custody on bail, unless it is clearly not necessary for the protection of the victim
- Special measures: victims of domestic abuse appearing in the family courts should have automatic eligibility for special measures
- Cross-examination: the ban is extended so that it applies wherever there are other forms of evidence of domestic abuse, as in the legal aid regime threshold
What happens next?
The report is submitted to the Government. Ministers and civil servants will consider the recommendations in the report and determine what changes they will make to the draft domestic abuse Bill. When this process concludes, the Government will introduce a domestic abuse Bill into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, where it will be debated by both MPs and Peers, who will be able to argue for amendments to the Bill. Refuge will continue to work closely with all politicians and officials involved in the progress of the Bill, so that we can achieve a piece of legislation which protects survivors.