Could domestic abuse be the latest policy area to fall foul of the government’s inability to get anything done? It certainly seemed so yesterday when Theresa May told MPs at PMQs that the planned Domestic Violence Bill would not be published in draft form in the next few weeks, as ministers had previously suggested, but that there would be a consultation first. I say in the Sun today that this means we won’t see even the draft legislation until the autumn, and so the full bill will come still later.
On one level, announcing a full public consultation on the new legislation before going to a draft bill before legislating for real is a very admirable thing to do. Governments can really botch policy when they rush legislation on complex issues through Parliament without first working out what it is that they want to do, and then finding out how they can actually do it. The Home Office insists that they had always intended to consult on the legislation first anyway, and that they have made this clear throughout: though ministers haven’t been very clear on that front: Sarah Newton told the Domestic Abuse All-Party Parliamentary Group last year that there would be draft legislation this spring. I understand that this is actually because the consultation was supposed to be in the autumn, and indeed has already been written, but Brexit has taken up so much time and energy that despite the Home Office’s commitment, the timetable has slipped massively.
Anyway, of greater importance than the timing is what’s happening alongside the Bill, which will totally undermine its work. The Communities and Local Government department is currently consulting on changes to the funding model for refuges, which campaigners warn would mean many of them would have to close and women find themselves either turned away, or housed in deeply unsuitable and insecure bed and breakfast accommodation.
Ministers are aware of these concerns, and have told MPs that ‘nothing is off the table’, but to introduce a bill promising to tackle domestic violence while taking away the only safe place many women have to flee to would seem rather contradictory.
Theresa May has shown admirable commitment to tackling abuse. She introduced the offence of Coercive and Controlling Behaviour when Home Secretary, and made the Domestic Violence Bill one of the flagship pieces of legislation in last year’s Queen’s Speech. And no-one involved in discussions about the bill has detected any signs of government enthusiasm for it waning. But it’s worth remembering the longer into a parliament you get before introducing a bill, the harder it is for you to get everything you originally wanted past MPs. Not all of the measures in the bill will seem like the sort of things that everyone can agree on: emotional abuse in particular can be difficult to define and abusers are sufficiently manipulative and devious to be able to present controlling behaviour as ‘just caring’.
As an aside, when the Bill does eventually turn up, it should probably be called the ‘Domestic Abuse Bill’ rather than merely referring to ‘Domestic Violence’. The legislation promises the first statutory definition of abuse, and this will include emotional and financial abuse alongside the better-known physical violence.
Violence is only one of the weapons that abusers use in their campaign to control someone, and many of them use it very sparingly if at all. Recognising that violence is part of abuse, rather than the only form, is important for the way government thinks about services to support survivors, as many of them will not need refuges but will be so badly traumatised by the level of control that their abuser subjected them to that freedom can seem utterly terrifying. One survivor I met had not been able to buy groceries without her husband for a decade, and still panics whenever she goes into a supermarket. Her mental health needs are massive, yet the support for women once they’re trying to rebuild themselves is almost non-existent, despite the high rates of suicide among this group.
The semantic change would also help society a little, nudging everyone along from assuming that all abusers are cavemen who punch their wives, to realising that most of them seem respectable but are secretly constructing a glass prison around their victim.
So the government may well remain as committed as ever to its domestic abuse legislation. But there are a fair few things it could do in the intervening months between now and the draft bill finally emerging to reassure the sector – and survivors – that it’s still very much on their side.