What can Theresa May put in the Queen’s Speech next week? The Prime Minister was always a cautious sort who wouldn’t put anything before Parliament that didn’t have a sure chance of passing – and that was when she had a majority. Now, she firstly needs to propose a set of bills that the DUP will back her on in the Queen’s Speech vote and then again in the Commons when each individual bill goes through – or that Labour will support her on. And her party isn’t in the greatest mood at the moment, which will make for difficult internal battles over the detail of legislation, too. So there’s not much room for May to be ambitious – not that she gave much of an impression during the election campaign that she wanted to do anything with the stonking majority she thought she would win, other than have a quiet life as she negotiated Brexit.
One of the bills that May promised during the election was a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, and I understand that this will be in next week’s Queen’s Speech. The Prime Minister does have a track record of taking domestic abuse seriously: she was the Home Secretary who introduced legislation on coercive and controlling behaviour in 2015. Amber Rudd also named domestic abuse as one of her priorities in one of her first interviews upon being appointed the new Home Secretary. Fiona Hill, recently departed as the Prime Minister’s top aide, was interested in tackling this area in the same way as she did with modern slavery.
The question is what will be in this bill and whether May even has enough authority to push through a proper piece of legislation that makes a real difference to women and children caught up in domestic abuse, or whether it will be a gesture bill: one that sends a message that the government cares but does nothing. The charities working in this area, such as Refuge, are excited that there is going to be a bill, but they are also trying to fight endless reductions to funding that are closing refuges and ending specialist support for the women and children escaping abuse: many experience serious mental health problems as a result of the trauma they have fled, and many return to their abusers repeatedly because of the power that these offenders have over their victims.
Since 2010, 17 per cent of specialist refuges have closed, and councils are continuing to cut funding for local domestic abuse services. Many charities and local authorities have closed their waiting lists for specialist support for domestic abuse victims. Women die on those waiting lists as it is. Now they’re dying off the lists. It’s not as though the need for refuges and other support is decreasing. It’s just that the funding is.
Jess Phillips, the Labour MP who formerly worked with victims of domestic abuse, says: ‘Theresa May needs to wake up and realise council funding not goat’s skin is what protects people.’
May has already talked about a domestic violence commissioner and introducing a statutory definition for domestic violence. Both sound like the sort of thing that no party could disagree with. The Commissioner in particular is supposed to ensure that the existing offences in law are enforced: there have only been a handful of prosecutions for the new offence of coercive control, and police understanding of domestic abuse generally varies greatly from force to force. Without specialist police officers and properly funded support workers, it is difficult to see how a Commissioner could make much difference.
And that’s where this gets tricky. It involves spending more money. Even though May has suggested to her MPs that austerity is over, domestic abuse has very little political salience. In terms of public understanding and stigma, it is about a decade behind mental health, with only a few hopeful signs that people are starting to understand that this can affect any woman, and that it doesn’t just involve a caveman giving his wife black eyes. Domestic abuse is about a man using whatever methods he feels he needs to control a woman, whether they be violence, financial abuse, or emotional terrorism.
Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, says: ‘We believe that the new legislation should be underpinned by a new statutory definition of domestic violence and abuse, and we are working with the Government to ensure that this new Act will bring the sea change that is needed to give victims the protection they need and deserve, and end domestic violence once and for all.’
The definition of domestic abuse is even trickier because of the lack of understanding detailed above. There will be MPs in May’s party and potentially the DUP who worry that this involves the state policing unhealthy but non-violent relationships where it has no business sticking its nose in. No matter that those non-violent relationships might involve a women having no control over her own salary, groceries or clothes and effectively living as a prisoner of her partner: the patterns of domestic abuse are very difficult to spot and define, and if there is to be a proper definition of it that acknowledges that its root is control, not violence, then there are likely to be some difficult battles ahead.
This is a battle that is worth fighting, though. Two women a week are killed by their partner or ex-partner, a statistic that shames our society. Far more are trapped in lives where they cannot exercise choice over anything, whether it be their bodies or the food they eat. Legislation won’t stop all these cases, of course. But a well-thought-through bill and proper funding could save lives. It’s just that those two things are never a given, especially not in our febrile political environment.