Victims' Commissioner's opinon piece on new legislation published today by The Telegraph
Imagine living your life in fear of your partner, treading on eggshells, not allowed money, unable to speak to your family.
Now consider what it would be like if you were trapped with your abuser 24-hours a day due to measures intended to protect you but which actually increase your exposure to abuse.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline have increased significantly as has online contact. In reality, these increases will exclude many victims who are unable or too frightened to report their abuse.
We know that, sadly, domestic abuse goes up exponentially when families are confined together, such as at Christmas. But Christmas is only a few days, whereas we are facing a prolonged lockdown with extended families and friends all social distancing.
Domestic Abuse charities tell me they are already struggling to cope with the extra demand, and the emergency cash announced by the Home Secretary on Easter Saturday – which will be welcome when it arrives – can only provide a partial answer.
I am also told that across the country, refuges are full, because during a lockdown, there is no access to move-on accommodation.
Worst of all, the number of women killed by violent partners a month into the lockdown was 16.
These shocking statistics highlight the need for the government to act. By this I do not mean a series of initiatives and announcements, but a cross-government strategy overseen by ministers and accountable to Parliament.
We need safe contact points for victims to scared to pick up the phone or switch on a laptop in front of their abuser. These could be at supermarkets, pharmacies or building societies.
We need to engage with hotel chains and universities to consider how empty rooms might be turned into safe places for victims needing to flee. We need to be sure our courts are prioritising Domestic Violence Protection Orders and the prosecution of offenders, not only to protect victims, but to send a clear message to perpetrators.
Amidst all of these pressing issues, and whilst the domestic abuse sector is being stretched to the limit, we have had the second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
In one sense, Parliament debating the pressing issue of domestic abuse could not be more appropriate, but on the other, is this the best time to be having a national conversation about what the Bill should look like?
The Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs and I feel the passage of the Bill should be delayed to a time when those in the domestic abuse sector – the experts – are able to give it the focus it deserves.
We know there are many problems in the way the Family Courts are operating and reform is long overdue, such as preventing abusers from cross-examining their victims in court and giving victims the protection of special measures when they give their evidence.
The government has set up a much welcomed Family Courts Panel to review the way they work and to make recommendations for change. The Bill is the obvious vehicle for such changes. And yet the Panel has yet to present its findings and we do not know when this happen.
We need to use the Bill to ensure migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse have the same support as any other woman. Many such victims find themselves trapped with their abuser as they have no recourse to public funds. The Home Office are reviewing how these women might be supported but again, the outcome of this review is not known.
This piece of legislation is a once in a generation opportunity. Our message is we need to get it right, and not just get it through.
But these are not the only issues I want to see included in this crucial piece of legislation. I want to see children who witness abuse in their own family recognised as victims of a crime. I want it to become a criminal offence to threaten to publish intimate photographs.
Non-fatal strangulation, needs to be made into a specific crime. Also, the defence of ‘rough sex’ – so publicly exploited in the tragic case of Grace Millane in New Zealand – which relies on deploying reprehensible stereotypes about women’s sexuality and bare-faced misogyny in an attempt to sway a jury must be abolished.
At this difficult time, when all the evidence points to rising levels of domestic abuse and severely stretched support services, we need the government to act swiftly and effectively, so that victims have safe places to go and report their abuse and safe refuge from their abusers.
Looking ahead, we need this long-awaited and much needed Bill to redefine how we as a society respond to domestic abuse, by protecting victims and sending a clear message to perpetrators.
Now is the time to act. We must not stand idly by.