The new domestic violence bill has finally been passed – but there's a disappointing reason it took so long

The current attitude towards victim support reveals much about societal attitudes towards domestic abuse, which does not see dignity as something abuse survivors are entitled to as a fundamental and inalienable human right, but rather as an additional extra for which they must work, opt in to, convince society that they have earned

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The Independent Online

Today the UK took one step closer to enshrining robust support for domestic violence survivors in law. MPs have voted to back legislation which would increase the availability of support services for people who experience domestic and sexual abuse.

While the bill was brought forward, a common question kept recurring: do we really need this? Coupled with: surely we must already have proper domestic violence laws in place? But despite what many believe, the UK’s legislation on domestic violence is woefully inadequate and this bill is desperately needed.

While the UK has relatively functional laws in criminalising abuse when it occurs, the same cannot be said of laws to prevent abuse in the first place and support victims in the aftermath of such crimes. If we are serious about protecting women, girls, boys, men, and non-binary people, we must take a holistic, comprehensive and strategic approach.

Current legal entitlements for domestic violence survivors are sloppy and piecemeal, a chaotic mix of human rights law and case law recently assembled out of a misogynistic legal system which only recognised women as human beings rather than property a mere century ago. Domestic violence survivors are in principle entitled to receive emotional support and refuge, under general laws stipulating that local councils have a “duty of care” for all residents’ welfare. However, as domestic violence isn’t specifically mentioned in any of these laws and councils are open to interpret what a “duty of care” actually means (for some it could mean merely handing out leaflets), some victims have been denied access to services they desperately need.

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This has never been more the case than under austerity, where local authority cuts have slashed refuge places, counselling services and other support for victims. But passing legislation to specifically outline, once and for all, the rights which abuse survivors are entitled to receive and governments are legally bound to deliver ensures this cannot happen.

That we have thus far failed to pass separate and specific legislation for domestic violence support services says a lot about the disinterest with which the issue of abuse is treated. It reveals how domestic violence is considered an afterthought, rather than a serious epidemic which affects 7 per cent of women and 4 per cent of men.

At the moment, when local authorities or judges hearing civil claims against them consider the rights of abuse survivors, they are asked to wade through rights and welfare afforded to other crimes. Just last month, a woman took a case to the Supreme Court after she faced losing her specially adapted home due to the bedroom tax. It was fitted with panic alarms and CCTV, which the woman requires as her ex-partner had made a number of serious and credible threats to her life.

After one of her children moved out of the family home, a bedroom was empty and the council threatened to apply the spare bedroom tax, despite her protestations she could not afford to stay there with the tax and arguments that the property was essential for her safety. The case she took against the council was complex, due to vague, piecemeal and inadequate legislation about the rights survivors should have. A specialist victims’ bill stipulates and clarifies these duties, making it harder for governments to shirk them.

The current attitude towards victim support reveals much about societal attitudes towards domestic abuse, which does not see dignity as something abuse survivors are entitled to as a fundamental and inalienable human right, but rather as an additional extra for which they must work, opt in to, convince society that they have earned. Those who have survived abuse deserve nothing but respect and support – they should never have to beg for human rights which common decency owes them.

Today, MPs voted to force the Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty which affords these rights. In 2012, the Government agreed to sign it but has failed to do so in the four years since then. MPs have voted for a bill to compel the Government to now live up to that overdue commitment.

After today, we still have a long way to go, and MPs will consider it at committee stage, before it again returns to Parliament for a third vote and can be officially approved. There are many more hurdles here to still overcome. However, today’s vote marks a remarkable step forward in addressing the fundamentally flawed way this country treats domestic violence survivors and is sorely needed.

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