11 March 2020

Domestic Abuse Bill 2020

Last Tuesday, the Domestic Abuse Bill re-started its journey in Parliament to become law.

After significant delays due to Brexit, the prorogation of Parliament and the general election at the end of last year, the Bill is back. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Government to transform its response to domestic abuse and make sure that survivors and their children have access to the vital support they need.

On average, two women a week are killed at the hands of their current or ex-partners in England and Wales. Women and children’s lives depend on the Government seizing this opportunity and making the Bill the best it can be.

For the first time, there will be a statutory definition of domestic abuse, which also includes economic abuse. Research by Refuge and the Co-Operative Bank showed that 1 in 5 people have experienced this type of abuse, and we are pleased that the definition will reflect this dangerous aspect of coercive and controlling behaviour.

The Bill will also prohibit abusers cross-examining survivors in the family courts – something that Refuge, along with our colleagues in the VAWG sector, has been committed to addressing for years.

Most importantly, the Bill will include a legal duty on local authorities to assess need for and commission refuge services. At present, there is no requirement to provide this life-saving provision, which has ultimately led to the situation we find ourselves in now – with 64% of refuge referrals being declined last year, many due to lack of space. This duty could safeguard the existence of refuges, but without sustainable funding, the future of refuges will not be secure.

The Government estimates that domestic abuse costs society £66 billion a year. Over recent years, Refuge has seen funding cuts to 80% of our services, with our refuge services cut by an average of 50%. It is essential that the Government commits enough funding to ensure that the number of refuge spaces increases.

Research suggests that around £173 million per year is needed to increase the number of refuge spaces available so that no woman or child is turned away. Refuge will be fighting for this funding and we will be calling on our supporters to help us do this.

There are still many essential measures missing from the Bill, and Refuge feels that in its current form, the Domestic Abuse Bill does not do enough to allow survivors to access the safety and support they need.

Almost one in three women aged 16-59 in England and Wales will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime and survivors face inordinate difficulties in securing appropriate, affordable, long-term housing after fleeing abuse.

For survivors who do not have children, the problem is particularly acute as they frequently do not qualify as being in priority need, meaning local authorities have no legal duty to house them.

Women are also at increased risk of economic abuse due to aspects of Universal Credit. UC is paid in arrears, as one monthly payment, into a single bank account – even if the payment is for a joint UC claim made by two individuals together. Survivors can request to split payments between themselves and the perpetrator, but this puts them at serious risk of further abuse, as perpetrators will always know the request has been made via their online account.

When making a new claim for UC, there is a minimum five-week delay between applying for and receiving payment. This leaves survivors who have fled abuse in extreme poverty while they await their first UC payment, having already left their homes with little money or possessions.

Refuge has also observed how modern technology is giving perpetrators ever-increasing ways to stalk, isolate and control women.

Our specialist tech abuse team works with survivors that are experiencing abuse facilitated through the use of technology, with numerous women reporting that their partner or ex-partner has threatened to disclose intimate images.

This is a currently a gap in the law. Whilst actually disclosing an intimate image or film without consent is a crime, more commonly known as the ‘revenge porn’ offence, threatening to do so isn’t in England and Wales – although it already is in Scotland and many other countries.

In Refuge’s experience, threats to share intimate images of survivors can have devastating, long-term consequences. Until sharing intimate images without consent is explicitly outlawed, these threats will continue to be used by abusers as a tool of coercive control.

The Bill also fails to protect migrant survivors. Large numbers of migrant women are not entitled to housing benefit, and therefore unable to financially support a stay in refuge. Many charities do all they can to support migrant survivors, but a lack of funding sadly means too many women are left without support. We are calling for strengthened legislation which supports all women and children affected by domestic abuse – regardless of their immigration status.

Refuge wants the Domestic Abuse Bill to be truly transformative and ultimately to save women’s lives. In order to do this, we are calling for:

• Increased, sustained funding for refuges – at least £170 million is needed each year to prevent women and children being turned away

• Protect survivors of tech abuse by making threats to share intimate images a criminal offence.

• Recognise the reality of domestic abuse through a gendered definition of domestic abuse.

• Protect women made homeless due to domestic abuse by making all survivors of domestic abuse automatically qualify as being in priority need for housing assistance.

• Reduce economic abuse and ensure women can access the money they need to leave perpetrators by implementing separate Universal Credit payments by default and to exempt survivors of domestic abuse from repaying Universal Credit advances.

• Make this a Bill for all survivors, regardless of their immigration status by amending t immigration law so that all migrant survivors can access financial support and other benefits, regardless of immigration status or visa type.