The new domestic abuse bill is a nice idea. It’s a shame it won’t work

Britain isn’t financially ready for the demands of the bill, so this is about to become another ineffective piece of legislation. That’s great for Tory PR and terrible for the women who will suffer

Harriet Hall
Thursday 18 July 2019 10:50 BST
Jealous man ‘threatened ex-girlfriend before getting family to help him murder her new boyfriend'

Charlotte Huggins, 33, stabbed. Leanne Unsworth, 40, head injuries. Christy Walshe, 40, shot. Alison Hunt, 42, stabbed. Rosie Derbyshire, 27, head injuries. Laureline Garcia-Bertaux, 34, strangled. Allison Marimon-Herrera, 15, strangled. Rachel Evans, 46, beaten. Paula Meadows, 83, found dead.

These are the names of just a handful of the women killed by men in the UK in 2019. What do you think their jobs were? How do you think they spent their spare time? Did they binge on your favourite Netflix shows? Was one of them in that yoga class you took?

The 2018 femicide census showed that in 2017, 139 women died as a result of male violence. In 2018, domestic abuse-related offences accounted for around 17 per cent of all prosecutions in England and Wales – a decrease of 4.8 per cent (although convictions are at their highest level since 2010).

The numbers are staggering. One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Two are killed a week by a current or former partner. Women have been systematically let down by the very structures that are supposed to protect them. These figures and the names of the women behind them, should be on our minds constantly. We should be sickened by the knowledge that this continues to happen, day in, day out. But the conversation ebbs and flows and – too often – it moves on.

Today will see the government’s landmark bill on domestic abuse begin its passage through parliament following significant delay, marking a major – and long overdue – step forward in how the crime is responded to. The bill provides the first-ever legal definition of what constitutes domestic abuse and includes coercive control, financial, emotional and sexual abuse under this umbrella for the first time. It proposes a domestic abuse commissioner, will prevent abusers from cross-examining victims and comprises greater support for victims.

It sounds momentous, so why are charities damning it with faint praise?

For starters, it could have saved the lives of hundreds of women if it had been introduced years go. It has taken far too long to get to this point.

The reality is, that without adequate funding the bill will become just another piece of legislation that cannot be fully realised – and this country will continue to see women coerced, beaten and killed.

SafeLives tells The Independent that although the bill is a positive step forward, it “must be backed up by a full range of funding to support the needs of all victims”. Ending the postcode lottery on victims by increasing the number of independent domestic violence advisors to 300 and providing specialist support for young people are among their suggestions of support. Refuge has echoed this, with chief exec Sandra Horley asking for “sustainable funding for life-saving specialist domestic violence services”.

Cuts to domestic violence services and lacklustre funding is blamed by many women’s organisations for being the reason the UK has failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention some seven years after signing up to it in 2012. Covering domestic violence, rape, FGM and forced marriage, the convention could protect countless women but the UK continues to drag its feet.

The convention requires a sufficient number of shelters, adequate referral centres and counselling services from member countries as well as financial assistance. But with thousands of women across the UK on waiting lists for services, we aren’t ready for it – despite Home Office protestation. End Violence Against Women has told The Independent previously that the UK fails to meet the requirements set out in the convention for long term support.

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Other charities believe the abuse bill falls short of what is required from the UK to ratify because it will fail to protect migrant and black and minority ethnic women. The convention requires protection for all women, regardless of citizenship status. A coalition of 30 organisations called Step Up Migrant Women is urging the government to add safeguards for these women in the bill. Currently, two in three migrant women don’t report abuse for fear of detention or deportation. Studies also show that Bame women remain in abusive relationships one and a half times longer than white British women.

With an estimated two million victims of domestic abuse a year, 1.3 million of whom are women, this simply isn’t good enough. Domestic abuse doesn’t discriminate – women of all ages, financial backgrounds, physical abilities, races and ages are affected – and neither should the law.

Will the bill even survive Hunt or Johnson? Victoria Atkins MP told the Today programme that both leadership candidates have confirmed their support and say they will proceed with it in the autumn, but will they put their money where their mouths are and cough up the funding so desperately needed to make it happen? The Conservative Party track record suggests otherwise.

Domestic abuse is one of the most pressing human rights concerns of our time, it must be made a priority. This sorry inaction cannot continue – we need more than just lip service.

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