The government is publishing its draft domestic abuse bill today, over a year and a half after it announced plans to do so in the Queen’s Speech. Like so many pieces of domestic policy, this legislation has suffered greatly from the lack of government bandwidth for anything else other than Brexit, and it has been delayed repeatedly.
The bill itself is something campaigners are very keen on: it will include the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse, set up a domestic abuse commissioner, and prevent alleged perpetrators of abuse from being able to cross-examine victims in the courts. The first and last changes show that ministers understand what domestic abuse really is: it’s about control, not the methods of achieving that, which include but are not limited to violence. To that end, the new definition will make clear that controlling someone’s finances is a criminal offence.
Economic abuse is a shockingly prevalent form of domestic abuse. It’s a very easy and subtle way for a perpetrator to control their partner because it makes it much harder for the victim to escape the relationship or to feel they have any agency over their own life. But because economic abuse can be incredibly subtle, MPs do need to ensure that this new piece of legislation actually defines it clearly, so that it is not open to yet more questioning in the courts. Abusers are highly manipulative, often leading their victims to believe that having their salary and access to basic items controlled is in their best interests, or that this is merely an ‘old-fashioned’ relationship. MPs need to ensure that the new law is not dismissed as unnecessary policing of relationships that are merely messy.
But frankly, the bigger struggle is to ensure that this new law really does end up becoming law. After so many delays, it is being published at a time when the government is barely governing. This is only a draft bill, and so there are many months before ministers will even think about royal assent – if those ministers are still in place, that is. That there’s any sort of domestic policy being announced comes as a jolt. If this bill does turn into an act, that will be still more of a surprise, given the way the odds are stacked against it.