Over the past ten years, mental health has gone from being one of those problems that no-one liked to talk about to something politicians tussle over to show they are the most committed. There is still a stigma floating around certain conditions, and people are still struggling to access the basic treatment that they need. But it is clear that society is growing better at understanding these illnesses – and is becoming angrier that there is not better provision for caring for them.
That same slow shift is now starting with domestic abuse. Like mental illness, its victims have often been dismissed as either being flawed or in some way bringing the crime upon themselves. There was a narrow understanding of what abuse meant, and what both perpetrators and victims might look like. ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ is still far more common a saying than ‘why doesn’t he stop?’ But one of the clearest signs of the way things are improving is that government is taking the matter very seriously.
Today Amber Rudd has announced a consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which will include the first ever statutory definition of what domestic abuse actually is. It will recognise that abuse isn’t just about violence, but also about psychological, sexual, economic and emotional abuse too. This is the first time that economic abuse is recognised as a type of domestic abuse, and already this has raised some questions about whether the government should be interfering in couple’s financial affairs when everyone does things differently. The response Rudd gave on the Today programme when asked about this shows how good the Home Secretary’s understanding of abuse is:
‘What we mean is real abuse where partners have to take out loans to support their partners, but they are obliged to do it, where their bank accounts are just being regularly raided by their partners without their permission: the type of abuse that we all know if we actually confront ourselves with, is a type of abuse but which still goes on. We need to have it labelled as illegal to make sure it forms part of any prosecution.’
This isn’t an old school marriage where the man arranges the finances and the woman arranges the house: it’s someone stealing their partner’s money without their consent and preventing them from buying anything without permission. Women in these situations are often paid a pitiful ‘allowance’ to cover everything from toiletries to groceries. One survivor I met was earning six figures yet handed a £100 monthly sum for clothing including tights, seeing friends, presents for friends, travelling anywhere other than work, books, cosmetics and groceries that her husband disapproved of like tinned fish. Another could not afford to leave her partner: where would she be able to stay with their children when he had taken all her money?
Economic abuse is a means of controlling someone, which is at the heart of all abuse. The Conservatives have long understood this, which is why they introduced the offence of coercive and controlling behaviour. That politicians even understand what abuse is marks a major step forward: it isn’t so much about what the perpetrator does to their partner, but what they want to achieve with it, which is curtailing someone’s (usually a woman) freedom by terrifying her, by stealing her money, and by running down their sense of self until they believe that they have no alternative but to depend on their abuser. Don’t forget that this intimate terrorism takes place in relationships: this is a woman hoping that she might eventually be enough for the man she loves to love her back. It is difficult to understand the effects of this without meeting survivors of abuse, and without talking to the charities who help those survivors: ministers in the Home Office, including Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, have done both and are very well-respected in the sector as a result. They get it.
Now, just as with mental health, there will be a lull between this leap of understanding and there being anywhere like the necessary funding available to ensure the women and men affected by abuse get even the very basic help they deserve, not to mention the long-term support many need to be able to adjust to freedom, which can be totally terrifying in and of itself when you’ve spent a decade being told you would not cope without your partner. This lack of funding is the one thing that charities campaigning on domestic abuse have been complaining about today, even though they are clearly very anxious to praise the Home Office for being so committed and constructive. At the top of the pile of money problems is the proposed change to refuge funding which is the responsibility of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Rudd and her colleagues have been veery pointedly saying that they are ‘alive’ to this, though it clearly isn’t in their gift to take the proposal off the table while MHCLG is consulting on it. But beyond this battle over refuge funding is the fact that refuges are already struggling to stay open, that support services for the many women who do not need refuge beds but whose lives and mental health remain in total turmoil have been cut, and that there is very little free legal advice available.
Hopefully now that the tide is turning, domestic abuse will start to see the same funding pledges as are coming to mental health. But given how far mental health has to go in order to be on an equal footing with physical health, ministers who understand domestic abuse are going to have to stay very committed to it for a very long time.