What do survivors of domestic abuse need to see from the King’s Speech?
The King’s Speech on Tuesday, November 7 will set out the government’s vision for the year ahead. It’s a key opportunity for the government to announce many vital and long overdue measures to tackle violence against women and girls. Here’s what we want to see announced.
This year’s King’s Speech is Rishi Sunak’s first opportunity to set out a legislative agenda and quite possibly the last before a general election, it is the Prime Minister’s opportunity to show what the Government’s priorities will be for the coming year. Whilst the government has repeatedly said that ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a priority, VAWG continues at epidemic proportions, with an estimated 1.7 million women experiencing domestic abuse (DA) and 798,000 women experiencing sexual assault (including attempts) in the year ending March 2022 in England and Wales. ¹ ²
To truly transform society’s response to VAWG and to end DA, a radical and wide-ranging package of reforms is needed.
As we learnt from campaigning to protect women and girls from online abuse as part of the Online Safety Act, all too often the promises of tackling VAWG are not met by equal action. There are vitally important issues we need to see tackled in the King’s Speech, but beyond this, survivors of DA must see their needs prioritised by the government.
Here’s what we want to see announced on 7th November:
A Policing Reform Bill to make policing safer for women
There is no doubt that VAWG perpetrated by police officers and staff is a problem in police forces across England and Wales. Earlier in the year Baroness Casey published her shocking review of the standards of behaviour and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police Service which found evidence of institutional racism, sexism and homophobia.³ However, this problem extends far beyond the Met Police and into policing across England and Wales, as a recent Freedom of Information investigation that we undertook showed. We are yet to see the government take meaningful action for change and while we wait, more horrendous cases continue to emerge.
We urgently need a Policing Reform Bill to ensure perpetrators of VAWG cannot join or remain in policing. Police officers and staff have access to a role, equipment and systems that can be used to threaten, coerce and control women and girls – even after they are accused of VAWG. The lack of consistent, enforceable policies around suspension, vetting and misconduct and a culture of misogyny within policing mean survivors experience patchwork responses to police-perpetrated VAWG. To read more about this, check out our blog on police reform. For too long, survivors have been let down by the response to police-perpetrated VAWG, and VAWG more generally. The police response must improve so that survivors feel confident to report abuse and that they will be believed, and action will be taken when they do so.
This is what we need to see in a Policing Reform Bill:
- The immediate suspension of all police officers and staff accused of VAWG pending the outcome of an investigation.
- Further changes to vetting and misconduct processes, including a duty for police forces to adequately record rationales for vetting decisions and for improvements in information sharing between vetting and professional standards departments, safe reporting routes for survivors and including patterns of behaviours and misconduct to include repeated and escalating misconduct in the definition of misconduct and gross misconduct.
- The introduction of mandatory trauma-informed, culturally competent VAWG training to all police officers and staff in England and Wales.
A Victims and Prisoner’s Bill that puts survivors first
The Victims and Prisoners Bill was introduced to parliament on 29th March 2023. First announced in the Queen’s Speech of 2019, this piece of legislation aims to bolster victims’ rights in the criminal justice system and improve access to victim support services.
Survivors currently face overwhelming barriers to justice and a postcode lottery in service provision.⁴ The Victims and Prisoners Bill presents a vital opportunity to change this; to reform the criminal justice system and safeguard specialist domestic abuse services. Yet, in its current form, the Bill will fail to deliver meaningful change for women and girls.
For some survivors of DA, fleeing to a refuge will be the only safe option. But the vast majority seek tailored support in their own home or a safe place in their community. Community-based services provide this lifeline. They provide tailored, specialist support on a broad range of needs, including safety planning, legal remedies, housing, the welfare benefits system, and the dynamics of domestic abuse.
The vast majority (95%) of the survivors Refuge supports rely on community-based services. Yet, these services are often chronically underfunded, leaving more than half of survivors who want to access community-based services unable to.⁵ Staff shortages, short-term contracts and uncertainty over future funding are creating further instability for community-based services and the women and children that rely upon them.
The Victims and Prisoners Bill introduces a new duty on statutory agencies to collaborate in the commissioning of community-based services. Yet, the government have offered no new funding to plug the gaps in specialist support across the country. Without new funding for specialist support services, very little will change for survivors who want community-based services at a time when referrals are increasing, and survivors’ mistrust of police and criminal justice agencies is rising.
We urge the government to use the King’s Speech to renew its commitments to the founding aims of the Victim and Prisoners Bill – bolstering victims’ rights in the criminal justice system and improving access to victim support services. It needs to come back with three key changes:
- Introduce adequate, sustainable funding for domestic abuse community-based services, estimated to cost at least £238 million per year.⁶
- Require all community-based services to be commissioned on sustainable contract terms of at least three years.
- Introduce a separate, national ‘by and for’ funding pot to provide long overdue investment for specialist services for D/deaf and disabled, LGBTIQ+, Black, minoritised, and migrant women, including those with no recourse to public funds.
Reforms to prisons that don’t put survivors of DA at risk
The government recently announced plans to bring forward legislation for prison reform in response to severe overcrowding in the prison estate. Refuge is concerned that the government will legislate a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months and that the prison service will have the ability to move ‘lower level’ offenders out of prison on to licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date.⁷ This is deeply concerning as perpetrators of DA will be sentenced for less than 12 months for crimes such as common assault, sharing intimate images and harassment.⁸ These sentences are not commensurate with the danger these perpetrators present to their current and former partners as well as their children.
We want the government to ensure that the presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months never applies to perpetrators sentenced for crimes related to VAWG. Under the changes, judges and magistrates would still be able to send offenders to prison for less than 12 months if deemed appropriate – so it must be made clear that this should always include VAWG perpetrators.
Prison reform must happen alongside a dramatic improvement to the probation service’s supervision of domestic abuse perpetrators. There have been many recent failures by the probation service to safeguard DA survivors. In one horrendous case, the coroner on the inquest into the Killamarsh murders where in 2022 Terri Harris and her children John Bennett, Lacey Bennett and their friend Connie Gent, were murdered by her partner Damien Bendall who was on licence at the time found a series of “very stark” failures by the probation service contributed to the murders.⁹ Bendall had a history of DA and other forms of VAWG. We are concerned that without these improvements, perpetrators will avoid a prison sentence or leave prison without proper supervision, monitoring and risk assessment.
Action on technology-facilitated (‘tech’) abuse
Whilst the Online Safety Act has now become law – including much-needed amendments on VAWG guidance for tech companies after campaigning by Refuge and others – this cannot be the end of government action to protect women online. Abuse and harassment on social media is one of the more commonly reported forms of technology-facilitated abuse seen by Refuge’s expert and specialist tech abuse team. But perpetrators will use any form of technology to abuse. Tech-facilitated abuse is a growing form of DA, and the response to this threat must be prioritised by the government.10 We need to see the King’s Speech show the government’s intention to legislate to ensure technology is safe by design and to address the threat that artificial intelligence (AI) poses to survivors. For more information on AI and domestic abuse, see our blog.
The Prime Minister has made promises over the last year to tackle Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) and labelled it a national threat with a requirement on police to tackle this as a strategic priority. A willingness to acknowledge the seriousness of these crimes is promising however very little has been done to restore women’s faith in the police and judicial system. The King’s Speech provides an opportunity for the government to turn their words into action – we look to them now to act, implement necessary reforms and make sure that the services women and their children need are properly funded.
5 Domestic Abuse Commissioner (2023) A patchwork of provision.
6 Women’s Aid Federation England (2023) Investing to Save: the economic case for funding specialist domestic abuse support, Bristol