‘I Met One Woman Who Was Forced To Eat Out Of A Dog Bowl On The Floor’ – Why Today’s Domestic Abuse Bill Covers Could Save Women’s Lives

Vicky Spratt speaks to Victoria Atkins, the Minister for Crime and for Women, about whether the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill goes far enough

Domestic Abuse Bill

by Vicky Spratt |
Updated on

Imagine living in fear of your partner in your own home. Imagine being denied access to your own bank account. Imagine being subjected to gaslighting or having access denied to your own bank account by the person you’re in a relationship with.

For Emma from Surrey (not her real name), this nightmare became reality. She escaped her abusive partner and fled with her two children to a Women’s Aid refuge in Surrey just before Christmas with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Last year alone there were an estimated 2 million victims of domestic abuse according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Many of them suffered multiple incidents or prolonged abuse and, of course, it goes without saying that many more will have gone unreported.

Domestic abuse kills. According to Women’s Aid 59% of all women murdered in 2017were killed inside their own homes. The charity say that in the same year, around 400 women were rejected from their refuges every week because there wasn’t enough space due to funding cuts

Today, a piece of legislation which Theresa Maystarted work on before Brexitaims to go some way to change this and is being cautiously welcomed by campaigners.

It’s hard to remember May before she became our BPM (Brexit Prime Minister) but, believe it or not, she did have a political life before. May was the longest serving Home Secretary since 1945, holding the position from May 2010 until July 2016. During her time at the Home Office she oversaw controversial immigration policies – the infamous ‘go home’ vans and what was popularly known as the Snooper’s Charter – but she also made domestic abuse one of her ‘flagship’ policies with coercive control being made a criminal offence in 2015.

With Brexit hogging all of the headlines and airtime, it feels like even the government’s most important policies have disappeared into a vacuum but, today, the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill will finally be published.

It is ground-breaking policy in many ways. It includes the first-ever statutory definition of domestic abuse which extends beyond physical to financial abuse, promises a review of whether the law on coercive control is working and suggests that domestic abusers may even face lie detector tests. It also announces £8 million for projects across the country to support children who have been affected by domestic abuse and includes additional funding for disabled, elderly, male and LGBTQ survivors.

More than this, the Domestic Abuse Bill will include new ‘domestic abuse protection notices’ and a ‘domestic abuse protection order’ which could require perpetrators to attend rehabilitation programmes or behaviour change programmes. There is also provision for survivors to be automatically eligible for ‘special measures’ in criminal courts to reduce the stress of giving evidence, this includes the announcement that perpetrators will no longer be able to cross-examine their victims in family courts.

The bill also announces the creation of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who will work to ensure that all services are provided effectively.

Charities such as Women’s Aid tell Grazia that they welcome this announcement but that they have concerns about funding. Indeed, there is a potential issue on the horizon for this particular flagship policy and it’s the fact that it’s on a collision course with another – Universal Credit.

This is where we come back to Emma for a moment. When she fled her abusive partner, Universal Credit had just been introduced in the area. Universal Credit payments are usually made into one account when the claimants are a couple. Once safely at the Women’s Aid refuge, Emma faced a 5-week wait until her first welfare payment as an individual in her own right. She had absolutely no money and was told that she would have to wait until 5tth January for her first payment.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, tells Grazia that the domestic abuse bill ‘must also bring about a change in attitudes in the welfare system in particular’. She adds that ‘Universal Credit was not designed with survivors’ safety in mind, it risks making financial abuse worse for survivors and puts an additional barrier in the way of them escaping domestic abuse’.

Women can apply for a split Universal Credit payment if they want to receive the money separately to their partner. However, this can present its own problems. As a report from Women’s Aid noted last year 85% of domestic abuse victims felt their abuse would worsen if their partner found out they had applied.

Last year, the Home Affairs Select Committee itself highlighted this contradiction between the government’s desire to tackle financial abuse as domestic abuse and the fact that couples on universal credit receive their payments automatically into one bank account. This, the committee said, ‘can reduce the autonomy of some women…[and] make them more vulnerable to abuse and make them more likely to stay with an abuser.’

So, will the Domestic Abuse Bill go far enough and, when it comes to Universal Credit, is the government giving with one hand and taking away with the other? Grazia put this question to Victoria Atkins. She is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and the Minister for Women who is fronting the bill for the Home Office.

‘We’re very alert to those concerns [about Universal Credit]’ Victoria says from her office in Westminster ‘Amber Rudd, did a great deal of work on domestic abuse when she was Home Secretary. Now she’s at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) she has absolutely focussed on this and the fact that DWP is looking at making a distinction in Universal Credit for primary carers is really significant. But, of course, victims who are on existing benefits will continue as before’.

I ask if it’s fair to say that the conversations about how Universal Credit affects women in abusive situations. Victoria says ‘very much so. Home Office and DWP ministers are talking about this regularly and we want to get it right.’

Victoria Atkins

Victoria then makes the point that we shouldn’t assume that domestic abuse only affects people from low-income backgrounds. ‘I think it’s also really important that we don’t just assume that domestic abuse only happens to a particular part of society. Domestic abuse knows no barriers – it doesn’t care about wealth or employment or position in society. It can happen to anyone. For instance, Grazia has recently spoken to Mel B about her experiences of abuse.’

Victoria is a 42-year-old former criminal barrister She was appointed to her Home Office role at the end of 2017, and says domestic abuse is a very personal issue for her.

‘I’ve had friends who have suffered domestic abuse and in my previous career before I was elected [as an MP] I prosecuted criminals in the criminal courts’ she explains.

‘When I was starting out in the magistrates’ court, I had cases where women had managed to report their partners’ cases the police, we would have the cases prepared and women would withdraw their complaints because the perpetrator would force them to.

‘I couldn’t help those women 15 years ago, but they are very much in my thoughts as I’m drawing this work together across government’ she tells us, ‘I want it to help survivors, but I also think the bill makes it clear to perpetrators that they shouldn’t be behaving in an abusive way.’ This is certainly significant and signals an attitude change which puts new emphasis on the perpetrator to stop behaving abusively as opposed to relying on victims to leave.

She hopes this bill will not only protect those who have suffered domestic abuse going forward but, with the statutory definition help people ‘to understand that they might have been a victim of abuse’.

“When I’ve met with survivors of economic abuse I have heard some really horrific stories” Victoria reflects. “I met one woman who was forced to eat her meals out of a dog bowl on the floor in the kitchen. These are absolutely stigmatising, and humiliating forms of control and the Government is determined to crack them [with this bill].”

But isn’t the Brexit chaos sucking up so much politicians’ time and attention that important legislation like this is in danger of being sidelined or forgotten?

‘Of course, Brexit is important’ Victoria says ‘but there are so many other really important pieces of work – like this - which are being done by the government that perhaps don’t get the attention that they would under ordinary circumstances. This bill is an absolutely central government policy and I’m really grateful to colleagues in other parties – there are a lot of female MPs from different parties, in particular, working together on this – I say that as Minister for Women – because we all want domestic abuse to stop and we all want to help victims and survivors.

“I hope the fact that we’re launching a bill like this in the midst of everything else that’s going on gives Grazia’s readers the assurance that we take domestic abuse really seriously”, Victoria adds.

These days, we often talk in broad brush terms about ‘feminism’ and ‘progress’ in the context of movements like #MeToo but, the truth is that without legislation behind them nothing actually changes.

I put this to Victoria and ask her what she thinks. “20 years ago, if someone talked about this issue, for example, it was always referred to as “domestic violence”. That brought to mind the image someone being hit, maybe once or twice, but we are now much clearer in our understanding of domestic abuse”.

Crucially, Victoria says, she hopes the bill will inform people that domestic abuse is “a pattern of behaviour, it can take many forms. This is why the definition in the bill is so important. It doesn’t just refer to physical violence, it refers to economic abuse and sexual abuse and coercive controlling behaviour. We want the police, we want judges, we want juries and we want social workers, doctors and of course survivors themselves to understand what abuse behaviour is and get help if they need it.”

Victoria also wants people to think differently about domestic abuse, beyond its immediate impact start talking about how it affects society as a whole. According to Government analysis, domestic abuse had an estimated social and economic cost of £66 billion for domestic abuse victims in 2016/2017 - or £34,015 per victims. This includes the costs of physical and emotional harms to victims, loss of earnings and costs to the justice and health systems.

“The impact on the victim is terrible but I also want people to think about the impact of domestic abuse on the life chances children growing up in households where there is abuse,” Victoria says. “We know that girls who grow up in abusive households are much more likely to be in abusive relationships when they grow up. Meanwhile, boys sadly learn that this is how to treat people close to you”.

“We’re doing a lot of work on serious violence at the moment as well” she adds, “when I talk to former male gang members and girls who have also been drawn into them, domestic abuse is a really common theme in the experiences of these young people. And so, this bill and all of the non-legislative work we’re doing will have a real impact not just on the immediate victims and survivors but, I hope, on generations of children to come as well.’

Ultimately, says Victoria, “this is about having a conversation with people and saying, ‘if anyone reading this Grazia article is suffering from any sort of abuse at home we want this bill to help them understand that they don’t have to live like this and offer them support so that they can have a much safer and brighter future’. The purpose of this bill is to give confidence to victims and survivors. We want them to know that they will be listened to and we will help them”.

The draft bill will now be scrutinised and go to the House of Lords before it can become law. Kate Ghose of Women’s Aid concluded by telling Grazia that “now is the time to bring domestic abuse out into the spotlight and tackle it properly once and for all”. She thinks that “the domestic abuse bill does have the potential to create a step change in the national response to domestic abuse” but only if it is matched in resources can it truly help people like Emma.

“It is clear that it is not just a criminal justice issue” Ghose added, “we know from our work with survivors that they need support, whether it’s with housing, health or their finances, to rebuild a life free from domestic abuse”.

All that remains to be seen now is whether the bill will become law – if Parliament is dissolved for a snap general election before it receives royal ascent, it cannot be carried over. Equally, it remains to be seen whether two government departments, the Home Office and the Department for Work And Pensions, can continue to work together on policy and not scupper each other’s efforts. But in a(nother) week of politican infighting and chaos, the Domestic Abuse Bill actually, for once, feels like a step in the right direction.

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