In a first for Parliament, an MP has spoken openly and in detail about her experience of being abused emotionally and sexually by her partner. In an incredibly emotional speech, Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, told the Chamber about a relationship which started so promisingly but which was in fact a controlling one, full of rage and fear. She spoke of how her partner continued to tell her that he adored her, that she was all his, even as she was trying to work out how to leave, timing his morning showers so that she could quietly steal his keys and get him locked out of their home. Her hands shook and a doughnut of colleagues sat around her – as they so often do on all sides of the House when they know a member is about to tell their own traumatic story – to support her.
Back in 2012, a group of MPs changed the way parliament discussed mental health by standing up and speaking for the first time about their own illnesses. The experiences of Charles Walker and Kevan Jones in particular meant politicians went from talking about people with mental health problems as a distant ‘they’ to realising that these illnesses affect their highly-functional and popular colleagues. Back then, even common illnesses like depression weren’t so well understood, to the extent that I recall a fellow journalist asking me if depression ‘really is an illness’. I doubt this person would need to ask this question now.
Domestic abuse is probably a decade behind mental health when it comes to wider public understanding. The stereotype of a caveman beating his wife means that many victims – and perpetrators – who do not fit this description are overlooked. It is still little understood that violence is merely one of the tools of control, and that emotional, financial and sexual abuse are other methods by which an abuser gains dominance over the person who loves them. Women in particular are blamed for not leaving, for somehow needing their partner to be ‘caring’, and for not recognising the signs of abuse, which always creep along and never start with a slap on the first date.
That’s why Duffield’s speech is so important: it took us from the start to the end of her relationship, from the showers of gifts that abusers so often use to persuade their victims, to the excuses those victims use as friends and family become more and more worried. It showed those listening that an abused woman isn’t only to be found out of work and living on a council estate, but in politics, in journalism, in medicine, in sport. There is no typical abuse victim, and there is no easily-identifiable perpetrator.
Often commentators use the phrase ‘it was parliament at its best’. Too often, they use this when the Commons is paying tribute to someone who has died, which is damning with faint praise, given even pretty mean families can put on a good show at a funeral. But today has seen the Commons at its best, not just for the pin-drop silence and then sincere applause which greeted Duffield’s speech, but for the conduct of other MPs in the Chamber too. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland took many interventions during his opening speech, and actually listened to all of them, responding thoughtfully to points of criticism. Once again, this sounds like the very least a minister should do, but so often when the government is introducing legislation with very good intentions, those involved in piloting it can end up getting dreadfully defensive with those who dare raise concerns. The MPs speaking across the House were well-informed, not just on the importance of tackling abuse, but on the specifics of the legislation – as well as some of its weaknesses. There was a particularly good speech from one Theresa May, who spoke passionately about why she had spent so long working on this policy area, and why she had bothered to introduce this legislation in the first place. She too talked of the need to go beyond legislation to ensure that people knew what a good relationship was, so that women didn’t think it was normal to be hit by their husbands, or controlled by their partners. There was, she said, a ‘sadness in our society of so many people who do not know what a good relationship is’.
There are many changes needed not just to the Domestic Abuse Bill but also to the funding landscape around it, and the way the police respond to incidents. But today’s debate has set us on a better path, thanks to the bravery of one woman in talking about the darkest time of her life.
"When they ask you out, they don't present their rage… they don't threaten, criticise, control, yell"
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 2, 2019