A new Domestic Violence Bill: what difference will this make?     

Eleri Butler reflects on the General Election and Queens Speech and what this might mean for those affected by violence and abuse in Wales

Irrespective of political affiliations, the General Election in June was a time to cautiously celebrate the news that 45 MPs openly identifying as lesbian, gay, bi or trans, were joined by 52 MPs from Black and minority ethnic communities and 208 women MPs. Despite the relatively low numbers, this makes the 2017 parliament, with its one in three women MPs, the most diverse parliament ever.

But this slow but steady progress in the representativeness of the UK Government was overshadowed by the Conservatives forming a minority government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a party that actively champions their opposition to women’s right to abortion and to gay marriage. Deeply concerned about what this might mean for human rights, we supported the open letter to Theresa May seeking assurances that women’s rights would not be compromised further.

So the Queens Speech provided some welcome, though limited, assurance. The UK Government promised survivors of abuse they will see criminal and family justice protective measures strengthened by the introduction of a new Courts Bill and Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill during this parliament.

Commitments included ending the direct cross examination of domestic abuse victims by alleged perpetrators in the family courts, and to allow more victims to participate in trials without having to meet their alleged abuser face to face.

Women have told us that cross examination can feel like they are being abused all over again and has a detrimental impact on their feeling safe and secure. So we welcome the intention to ensure no survivor is faced with the harrowing, traumatic and difficult experience of being questioned by their abuser in court.

There were also commitments to introduce more robust court orders, and a Domestic Violence Commissioner to champion the rights of victims for England and Wales, raise public awareness, and hold the justice system to account in tackling domestic abuse. These too are welcome attempts to reduce and prevent domestic abuse and improve the support available for survivors.  

As the Bill develops, Westminster would do well to learn lessons from our experience in Wales. In 2015 Welsh Government led the way in the UK with the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. This Act aims to improve prevention, protection and support for survivors of abuse. A duty on local authorities, health and other devolved public services to prevent violence against women, was accompanied in the Act by statutory responsibilities to adopt a strategic approach to prevention, protection and the provision of support.

Welsh legislation requires national delivery and standards of training to create a consistent standard of care. Public service employees now have a duty to ‘Ask and Act’ to earlier identify abuse and provide help. Wales has also already appointed an independent National Adviser to ensure a joined up approach so that survivors receive appropriate and effective protection and support.

Legislation requires strong leadership and commitment from all agencies to make it work. When local strategies are rolled out from 2018, these initiatives have the potential to transform public service responses to violence against women in Wales. However for many the pace of change is slow, and a report by The National Assembly for Wales earlier this year made several recommendations for improving the impact of the new Act.

We know from experience that legislation is also only as good as the systems that surround it. For the Act in Wales to be effective, sufficient investment is also needed into specialist services in the third sector to make sure they are sustainable and can drive the change needed locally and nationally. The impact of new legislation in Wales is inevitably hampered by austerity measures and by UK policy and welfare reforms that between them have already created additional barriers for survivors of abuse to access help and support.

As a minimum we need the following additional reforms if legislation on domestic abuse, sexual violence and all forms of violence against women is to succeed in Wales and in England:

A reversal of discriminatory welfare policies

We welcome the recent High Court Judicial Review ruling on the Government’s benefit cap being unlawful due to its failure to exempt lone parents with children under two.

Along with women’s organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, we have strongly opposed the so-called tax credit ‘rape clause’ exception, where women have to disclose their experience of rape in order to avoid losing money through tax credit restrictions.

We now urge the UK Government to drop its appeal and ensure a consistent approach to tackling domestic abuse and to supporting families across legislative and social policy areas.  

These policies are discriminatory and an abhorrent means by which economic coercion is introduced to control low-income women’s reproductive rights, to compel women to disclose sexual violence under threat of financial penalties. These are being implemented against a backdrop of austerity measures that have a disproportionate impact on women’s access to security, safety and the resources they need to live free from violence and abuse. They also contradict other UK and devolved Government commitments to advance gender equality and to eradicate violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Ratifying the Istanbul Convention

We welcome the UK Government’s recent announcement to extend legislation to protect women and their children from crimes committed overseas in its Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. This would allow certain offences committed by British citizens anywhere in the world to be prosecuted in UK courts.

In doing so, this would also finally allow the UK to ratify the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women, known as the Istanbul Convention, which we have campaigned for along with other women’s organisations.

Ratifying the Convention will set legal standards for tackling most forms of violence against women – physical, sexual, emotional or financial – as well as stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It will introduce minimum standards for investment into specialist services for survivors of abuse. So we urge the UK Government to ratify this immediately once the Bill has passed.

Securing rights to access specialist services

We continue to call for secure and sustainable funding for specialist violence against women services in the third sector. We know that while demand is increasing, funding for specialist violence against women services in Wales has decreased. With specialist services already stretched to the bone, further cuts could quite simply mean the difference between life and death for those who need safety and support. We urgently need Governments in Wales and the UK to prioritise protecting survivors by requiring joint investment into sustaining specialist services like women’s refuge services, rape crisis centres, specialist BME services, advocacy, groupwork and therapeutic support for survivors.

Protecting women’s rights post-Brexit

The EU has been a driving force to address violence against women and girls across Europe, ensuring that restraining orders apply across the whole of the EU. It has also been central to tackling cross border human trafficking as well as providing funding for violence against women and girls interventions. We want these priorities to be secure after the UK leaves the EU.  

The EU Directive on Victims’ Rights established minimum standards and obligations on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime in the UK.  It provided guarantees for victims of violence against women crime types to respectful treatment and recognition within the justice system and wider society, to protection, support, access to justice and compensation and restoration. We now urge the UK Government to safeguard the rights enhanced by the EU following withdrawal, and to advance women’s human rights without the guidance of the EU.

Ultimately we know from experience that any legislation to address violence against women is only as good as its implementation. Which itself is only effective if survivors and specialist services are at the heart of its delivery. Survivors’ experiences and recommendations for action, and specialist services in Wales, must continue to be involved in the development of any proposed improvements in law and in practice in Wales and at the UK level.

Everyone should have the right to live fear free from violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence and only by placing survivors and specialist services central can we ever hope to achieve this goal.

The Wales Live Fear Free helpline provides 24-hour, confidential help and support to adults and children in Wales who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual violence or any other form of violence against women. Contact the Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800 or via its webchat. The Helpline is available every day of the year and can put people in touch with local specialist services where this is needed.   

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Eleri Butler is Chief Executive of Welsh Women’s Aid

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