7 April 2022

The Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal Assent

Ruth Davison, Refuge’s Chief Executive, on the Domestic Abuse Bill becoming law as the Domestic Abuse Act.

It is just two weeks since I took the reins at Refuge, the largest single provider of domestic abuse services in the country. As committed feminist and activist, joining a charity which is committed to driving forward a progressive agenda, with supporters and survivors at its core, is hugely exciting.

Refuge has been supporting survivors of domestic abuse since 1971 and has won many battles over that time, with another being won today as the Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal Assent.

I’m so proud of my colleagues – and our allies across the sector – for all their work in bringing this Bill to fruition.

The Bill could really transform the response to domestic abuse and contains some vital provisions which Refuge congratulates the government on introducing. But sadly, it has also fallen short on some key areas – as an organisation that supports upwards of 7000 women and children on any given day, it is incumbent on Refuge to spell out those omissions and recommit our efforts to campaigning for swift solutions.

A mother and child sit on a sofa.

Refuge, along with sector allies, survivors and supporters, have held the government’s feet to the fire throughout this process and pressed for the Bill to be bold and robust. And it is; in part. Refuge successfully campaigned for the Bill to make threats to share intimate images a crime – a campaign which was won in less than a year. Now the Bill has become law, women will be protected from threats to share intimate image with the intent to cause distress and we are working with the Law Commission to see how the law can be even further strengthened in this area. The Naked Threat campaign success is a huge win and must be celebrated.

For the first time, the Bill also explicitly recognises economic abuse as a form of domestic abuse.

Refuge and our colleagues at Surviving Economic Abuse have long argued for better support for survivors of economic abuse both via specialist support service provision as well as directly from banks and other institutions across the financial sector. Refuge’s work with The Cooperative Bank and Surviving Economic Abuse led to the establishment of the UK Finance first eve Financial Abuse Code of Conduct. Refuge’s recent report showed that nearly 2 out of 5 adults in the UK – approximately 20 million people – have experienced economically abusive behaviour, but only 16% of the population identify it as such. Recognising economically abusive behaviours as domestic abuse is central to ensuring the banking sector can better support women and girls.

The Bill also criminalises non-fatal strangulation and abolishes the ‘rough sex’ defence to murder and cause serious harm. For too long, perpetrators have been able to claim that women’s lives have been lost to ‘rough sex gone wrong’. Women’s lives being lost to male violence must stop, now, and the ability for men to avoid murder charges for the deaths of women must be halted. Activists, including the campaign group ‘we can’t consent to this’ should rightly be proud of this victory.

Refuge is also delighted that the Bill recognises the housing needs of women fleeing abusive partners. Until now, survivors of domestic abuse needed to prove an ‘additional vulnerability’ before being recognised as being in priority need for homelessness support. We are proud of our work with Crisis and others across the sector to change homelessness law so that all survivors will be automatically considered in priority need. Refuge hopes this will ensure that women experiencing domestic abuse will no longer be faced with the impossible choice of remaining with an abusive partner or facing homelessness.

We are also pleased that the Government has committed to a legal duty to assess need for and commission domestic abuse safe accommodation

This is a welcome provision and one which could lead to the much-needed increase in emergency refuge spaces. But the government has committed only £125 million for this purpose – falling way short of the estimated £174 million necessary to ensure provision matches need. If the government is serious about ensuring no woman or child is turned away from accessing specialist services, then it must ensure the duty is fully funded.

Regretfully, the funding shortfall is not the only shortcoming of the Bill. While this was a chance to ensure all women experiencing domestic abuse are afforded protection, the government has fallen short of doing this in practice. By failing to adopt the amendment to the Bill which would protect all migrant women, the government has effectively said that not all women are worthy of protection. Refuge knows only too well that migrant women are often locked out of accessing specialist refuge accommodation because they cannot access financial support from the state to support their stay. Insecure immigration status should never be a barrier to accessing support, and the failure to adopt this amendment sends a concerning message to women with no recourse to public funds and insecure or irregular immigration status. Does this mean their lives are less important, their experiences less valid? Refuge calls on the government to quickly right this wrong and ensure migrant survivors can access the services they need easily and quickly. The work of Southall Black Sisters, the Latin American Womens Rights Service and the step up for migrant women campaign should be celebrated in bringing this issue to the fore – and we hope the government will work with them and us to find solutions.

The Bill also represented a unique opportunity to change the way Universal Credit is paid. Universal Credit is paid by default into a single account when being claimed with a partner, meaning perpetrators have been able to use this to gain total control of the household income overnight and economically abuse women. Refuge hoped that the government would take this opportunity to reverse this default position and pay this benefit into separate accounts by default for all joint claims. By doing this, and by ensuring advance payments of Universal Credit were paid to survivors of abuse as grants and not loans, the government could have ensured that women fleeing abusive partners did not risk being thrown into abject poverty. Sadly, this opportunity was not taken. We hope that the government will recognise this omission and ensure women who flee abuse are able to do so without the added burden of facing economic insecurity. We will not stop until these vital amendments are made.

So, while Refuge and survivors of domestic abuse are rightly delighted to finally see this legislation come to fruition, we cannot help but also feel disappointed. What had the potential to be truly transformational has taken one step forward – but it needs to go much further.

The activist in me means that I, and my colleagues at Refuge, won’t stop campaigning until we are assured that all women will be protected, and that the government has done all it can. Until then, you can expect us to keep holding the government to account- that is our job, and one which I’m delighted to be leading. Women’s rights and gender equality should never be a compromise – and our response to it must be bold and radical, if we are going to achieve our aim of ending domestic abuse in our society today.