The Domestic Abuse Bill returning to Parliament – what you need to know

 
On the 5th January, the Domestic Abuse Bill will return to the House of Lords for its Second Reading.

This is a hugely important time. This Bill has the potential to be truly transformational, but there is still work to do before that is a reality.

Refuge believes that for the Bill to be as bold and effective as it needs to be, in order to better support women and girls, that there are some significant changes that still need to be made.

Covid-19 really has pulled into sharp focus the level of domestic abuse across the country and the sheer numbers of women who need the specialist, confidential support that Refuge provides. We hope that this wakeup call will push the government to do everything it can to ensure the Bill is as strong as it can be.

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

What’s in the Bill? 
A statutory definition of domestic abuse: 

For the first time, there will be a statutory definition of domestic abuse, which also includes economic abuse. Recent research by Refuge and the Co-operative Bank showed that around 16% of all UK adults have identified as having experienced this form of abuse in a current of former relationship – but this same research showed that the numbers may in fact be higher as more than twice this number describe experiences which are economically abusive.

Changes to the experiences of survivors in court:

The Bill will also prohibit abusers cross-examining survivors in the family courts – something that Refuge, along with our colleagues in the VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) sector, has been campaigning for for many years.

A legal duty to support survivors: 

Most significantly, the Bill will include a legal duty on local authorities to assess need for and commission refuge services. This legal duty could safeguard the existence of refuges, but without sustainable and ring-fenced funding, which ensures there are enough refuge spaces to meet demand, the future of refuges is insecure and unsustainable.

While the Government itself estimates domestic abuse to cost society £66 billion a year, and despite the fact that investing in specialist domestic abuse services has been shown to lead to long-term savings, over recent years Refuge has seen funding cuts to 80% of our services, with our refuge services cut by an average of 50%.

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. However, the Government disappointingly only committed to £125 million – falling far short of what is needed. Refuge hopes the government will reflect on this need and increase the amount of funding it has committed to, and ensure refuges are able to move away from the funding cliff-edge many find themselves on year after year. Only by securing this long term, sustainable funding, can refuges hire staff and plan for the longer term.

What’s missing?

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

Protection for image-based abuse: 

Our key campaign ask for the next stage of the Bill is for the government to make a very small and swift legal change which will better protect the many thousands of women and girls that Refuge supports every day.

Currently, while the sharing of intimate images or films without consent (also known as ‘revenge porn’’) is illegal, threatening to share them is not.

Refuge’s specialist tech team identified these threats to share as being an issue faced by many survivors of domestic abuse. Refuge research found that 1 in 14 adults in England and Wales have experienced threats to share intimate images or videos – equivalent to 4.4 million.

These threats are most prevalent amongst young people (aged 18-34), with 1 in 7 young women experiencing such threats. 72% of women who received these threats experienced the threat from a current of former partner – with 83% of this group also experiencing other forms of abuse, making this clearly a domestic abuse issue. The Bill gives the government a legislative vehicle by which to swiftly enact the change to the law that survivors need and Refuge is calling on the Government to do just that.

Join our campaign and email the government about ending the naked threat here – it takes less than a minute.

Changes to Universal Credit (UC): 

Women are also at increased risk of economic abuse due to aspects of Universal Credit (UC).

UC is paid as one monthly payment, into a single bank account – even if the payment is for a joint UC claim made by two individuals together. For survivors claiming Universal Credit with their abuser, this means that their perpetrator can gain complete control over the entire household income overnight. 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, or when the payment goes down.

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 and few possessions.

Refuge wants the Bill to include provision for making separate payments of Universal Credit by default, rather than women having to make a specific application and also for any advance payments (ordinarily given as loans) to women fleeing abusive partners to be given as grants, which do not need to be repaid. We need to ensure that women are able to safely flee abusive partners without added concerns about economic stability.

A gendered definition: 

Refuge also hopes that the government will ensure the Domestic Abuse Bill carries a true ‘gendered definition’ of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is, at its core, a gendered crime which stems from patriarchy, gender inequality and power and control over women. The overwhelming majority of victims of domestic abuse are women, while the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. The definition of domestic abuse must be grounded in this reality so we are calling for the Government to amend the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill to do this.

Protection for migrant survivors:

The Bill also fails to protect migrant survivors. Large numbers of migrant women are not entitled to housing benefit because of their immigration status, and therefore unable to use this entitlement to financially support a stay in refuge.

Many charities, including Refuge, 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. Women who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ must not be prevented from accessing the support that they need. It is vital that this is addressed via the Domestic Abuse Bill.

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
  • Threats to share intimate images being made a criminal offence
  • Recognition of the reality of domestic abuse through a gendered definition of domestic abuse
  • Women to be able to access the money they need to be as safe as possible in relationships and when they are ready to leave perpetrators by implementing separate Universal Credit payments by default and to exempt survivors of domestic abuse from repaying Universal Credit advances. These advances must be given as grants and not loans.
  • Make this a Bill for all survivors, regardless of their immigration status by amending immigration law so that all migrant survivors can access financial support and other benefits, regardless of immigration status or visa type. Women with ‘no recourse to public funds’ must be able to access the specialist support they need.
  • A commitment to ensure the legal duty to fund refuges provides adequate ring fenced and sustainable funding, to ensure that refuges can be placed on a secure financial footing, able to make longer term plans and ultimately increase the number of bed space available so that all women seeking safety and support can access it. This is crucial to ensure that refuges are able to move away from the funding cliff edge that many of them find themselves each financial year. Austerity cuts have decimated specialist services and this must be addressed via the Domestic Abuse Bill.