Jess Phillips: The Domestic Abuse Bill takes us a step forward. But there is much further to go
The Domestic Abuse Bill is a bold piece of legislation, but it needs less ‘we will review’ and more ‘we will do’ if it’s to make a real difference, writes Jess Phillips
The long-awaited domestic abuse bill came last week. It is with some pleasure to see that domestic legislation and issues affecting millions of our citizens do still matter, so I and colleagues from across the house welcome the release of this draft bill.
I have no doubt that the prime minister and the government care deeply about tackling domestic abuse. There was a time when this ‘women’s issue’ would not have been driven by a Conservative administration. Tory women now proudly announce their feminism and their commitment to women’s rights. It is to be welcomed and applauded. That said, it is my job and has been the job largely of Labour women over the years to make sure that the steps forward are not lip service and that, when groundbreaking legislation is on the table, it actually breaks ground.
The document is ambitious in tone. The country knows it has a problem and it knows it should tackle it. My concern at this early stage of the bill’s life is that it can appear a bit conservative in its actions. There is a lot of “we will review” and “we will work with organisations to see”. I want to see some much firmer “we will do”.
The bill does have some decisive actions in it. Myself and others have campaigned long and hard to see a change in the law which stops perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse being able to cross-examine their victims in the family courts; that is in there.
Similarly, the Labour party in 2015, following the voices of women in the sector, made a manifesto pledge to create the role of a commissioner with responsibility for tackling violence against women and girls. That is also in there, although is toned down to just focus on domestic abuse.
Tackling the family courts and ensuring clear oversight of services for vulnerable victims are bold moves, but the bill needs to be much more robust on this. It is not only the practice of perpetrators cross-examining that is wrong with our family courts. Women have over and over again told of how they were unsafe in these courts, how the lack of oversight and scrutiny of what is going on puts them and their children in danger. The lack of special measures for victims and the presumption of rights for violent fathers, for example, are things we have this one legislative chance to improve. We must take it.
The role of the commissioner is to be welcomed and celebrated, but the government must be brave and make sure that the role is completely independent and can ensure that wherever a victim presents, there are safe specialist services to help them. We need a commissioner to have a set of standards that must be adhered to, about the number of bed spaces in refuge or specialist service standards, for example. The commissioner must have the teeth to bite when service standards are not met.
The area that I and many other campaigners will be pushing during the pre-legislative scrutiny phase will be around the access to services and the treatment of migrant women. The bill does not go far enough in this regard. Until I can be certain that, no matter what your immigration status, if you need a safe place to escape or to contact the police because you are scared for your life you will have equal access to services, I will be restrained in my praise and the government ambitions will never be met.
The domestic abuse bill is a bold piece of legislation; it recognises coercion and economic abuse properly for the first time. It takes us a step forward. But I don’t want to take steps. I want to leap. I look forward to working with ministers to make that leap, and maybe next year I won’t get to trot out the statistic that two women are killed every week in England by a partner or ex-partner.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham, Yardley, a member of the Women and Equalities Committee and associate editor of The House magazine