The Home Office has confirmed that it will publish the Domestic Abuse Bill tomorrow as Theresa May tries to secure her legacy at the very end of her premiership. Victims’ Minister Vicky Atkins told Home Office questions this afternoon that the legislation will move from draft form to legislation for scrutiny on the floor of the Commons.
The reason there is this rush is that May fears her successor wouldn’t pick up the Bill of their own accord. As I’ve blogged before, this is partly her fault because she delayed publication of the draft document for so long. But it is also because the legislation as proposed isn’t to everyone’s taste. It includes the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, and this goes far beyond the stereotype of a man beating his wife. You can read that full definition here (p.5 of the document), but the first paragraph gives a reasonable flavour:
‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, economic and emotional forms of abuse.’
Coercive and controlling behaviour has been a criminal offence since 2015, and that law had its opponents. One of them, Claire Fox (now a Brexit MEP) wrote a piece for the magazine in 2016 about her misgivings about the civil liberty implications of this legislation – and the way The Archers had been used to promote it through the storyline of Helen and Rob. Some argue that it is so hard to police this law that it will end up including people who are merely in bad relationships, rather than ones with a criminal dynamic. They think it will extend the state’s involvement in people’s private life in a dangerous way, rather than helping ‘true’ victims of abuse.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to get a word out of Boris Johnson’s campaign team about whether he will commit to taking the legislation through the Commons in its current form. I have asked his aides for comment on this repeatedly, but have had no response. Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, has said that it may well be that there are figures on the Conservative – and DUP – benches who are uncomfortable with the definition on the grounds set out above.
Of course, it may well also be the case that the Johnson campaign – not famously interested in detail – hasn’t really gone through the legislation properly and so can’t say either way what they think of it. Or that they are warier than Jeremy Hunt of making promises about what they will and won’t do once in power for the simple reason that they expect to be in power very soon. Some of Johnson’s senior supporters tell me privately that they don’t anticipate there being any problems with the legislation, but then again some of those involved in the legislation also point specifically to him as a potential obstacle. There is also the possibility that his campaign doesn’t want to go near the issue during the campaign, following the row over whether the neighbours of Johnson’s girlfriend Carrie Symonds should have called the police when they heard the pair arguing loudly.
It is unlikely that any politician would oppose the legislation outright. This would have terrible optics, as it would be interpreted as not caring about the victims of a horrendous intimate crime. What is more likely is that a lack of support allows the legislation to wander, not progressing through all of its Commons stages at a normal pace, and changing significantly at Committee Stage, when ministers are able to table swathes of amendments without anyone else really noticing. Of course, this would partly be Theresa May’s fault for not getting a move on, as she has left it so late that she simply cannot guarantee that what was supposed to be her flagship legislation will ever really set sail.