Sexual violence and abuse survivors offered legal right to specialist support under new bill

Exclusive: Victims left vulnerable due to 'completely inadequate' funding for crisis centres and refuges, warns Lib Dem MP

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
@LizzyBuchan
Monday 09 March 2020 10:58
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Liberal Democrats table bill to make specialist support for sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors a legal right
Liberal Democrats table bill to make specialist support for sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors a legal right

Survivors of sexual violence and abuse would be given a legal right to specialist support under a new bill tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

Munira Wilson, the party's health spokesperson, will warn that victims are being left vulnerable due to "completely inadequate" funding for crisis centres and refuges, and accuse the Tories of showing "callous disregard" for those affected by sexual, violent and domestic abuse.

To mark International Women's Day, the Liberal Democrats are also urging the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European agreement to tackle violence against women, which was signed in 2012 but remains in limbo.

Campaigners have sounded the alarm over pressures on refuges for women fleeing abuse, which have been hit hard by austerity amid cuts to local authority spending.

One in six refuges has closed since 2010, with council spending cut from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017.

Rape crisis centres are funded by the government but the organisation has warned in the past that it is struggling to deliver services because resources have not risen in line with demand.

Fern Champion has been campaigning for better services after struggling to get support in London when she returned home after being raped in Malaysia in 2016.

Ms Champion, who waived her right to anonymity, said: "Survivors of sexual violence have been let down time and time again by a series of governments who have failed to take the under-funding of rape support services seriously.

"Two years ago I found myself unable to get onto a rape crisis waiting list and it is utterly shameful that there are still women in that position today.

“In a civil society it should simply be a given that victims of abuse are able to access the specialist support they need as and when they ask for it. It is deplorable that years of systemic failings mean that we now have to turn to legislation to promote what should already exist.

“Nobody should have to fight this hard to live a life free from the devastating effects of sexual and domestic violence."

(Picture supplied by Fern Champion

Ms Wilson, the MP for Twickenham, will table the bill in the Commons on Tuesday.

She told The Independent: “No survivor of sexual abuse or domestic violence should be left without access to specialist support. This is non-negotiable and this bill would make it a right, not a privilege.

“Cases like that of Fern Champion show the shocking reality: the level of funding for rape crisis centres and refuges is completely inadequate, leaving survivors vulnerable.

"The Tories' failure to act to improve the system shows callous disregard for those people affected by domestic violence and abuse."

The move is part of a package of legislation by the Liberal Democrats to bolster services for women including bills to make a misogyny an aggravating factor in criminal sentencing and to ban gender-based pricing.

These types of bills are unlikely to become law unless they win government support - as in the case of the upskirting legislation, which started life as a private member's bill.

New domestic abuse legislation was laid in the Commons last week after the bill failed to clear parliament before the election in December.

The bill remain broadly the same as before and still include plans for a pilot to force domestic abusers to take polygraph tests — similar to ideas mooted for monitoring terrorists.

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