Jess Phillips: Tackling domestic violence requires action, not just warm words
Without financial commitments to councils, police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, legal aid and local schools, the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill will provide little more than a lovely new bookend for a minister’s office, writes Jess Phillips
The Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill is pretty much one of the only pieces of domestic legislation that will go through parliament in this two-year session. It seems odd for me to think this, but it will present a light relief to the Brexit black hole that has pretty much put the kibosh on us doing anything other than row about Brexit for the next two years.
I didn’t come to parliament to basically negotiate a divorce bill or speak for hours in tiny minutiae about what the UK will not do any more. I came here to talk about what we will do. What we can do to change lives. I’m sure he’s a nice fella, but I don’t want to talk about Michel Barnier. I want to talk about Michelle in Birmingham and how I can help keep her and her family safe, well and thriving.
I’m not one to praise the government but the domestic violence and abuse bill is surely a good thing, and we should all do our level best to make it a groundbreaking and lifesaving bill. What will actually be in it is still up for grabs.
The government has said that new measures to protect women and girls from crimes committed overseas will be in it, allowing for offences committed by British citizens anywhere in the world to be prosecuted in UK courts.
They have also said that if abusive behaviour involves a child, the courts will be able to impose a sentence that reflects the devastating life-long impact that abuse can have on him or her.
The shiny new minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, Victoria Atkins MP, announced that the bill will also include a new domestic abuse order that will clear up the current confusing situation of different restraining orders and non-molestation orders that victims can access through the civil courts.
Taking the lead from the Labour manifesto in 2015, the government has also said it will create a domestic abuse commissioner to oversee some of this stuff. All good suggestions.
At the moment, I fear that the regulation will focus too heavily on changing laws and tinkering with tools used by the Home Office. The bill is being led by the Home Office and drawn up by Home Office officials, but if it fails to include legislation to affect how councils operate when providing, for example, refuge accommodation, or how the NHS provides specialist support for victims presenting at A&E departments, it will have failed to do the very thing the government wants to achieve.
I don’t mean to sound like Jessie J, our similarities begin and end with our name, but I’m afraid it is all about the money, money, money.
I can hear the government response to this already: “Labour always spending money, blah blah blah.” I’ll wear it because yes, I think we should pay for specialist services to protect victims of domestic abuse. It saves us money in the long term.
Bear in mind that a murder costs the state £2m. Thanks to domestic abuse, there are two of those every week in England and Wales.
The trouble is the same as always – without financial commitments to local councils, local police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, the legal aid budget and to our local schools, it will all be just lovely words on goatskin, wound up tightly and placed on a shelf in a palace.
Take the new idea for a specific domestic abuse civil order that will offer protection to victims of domestic violence to stop their violent ex-partners from contacting them. Great idea, right? Talk to any victim of domestic abuse who has had one of these orders and they will tell you that they only work if the police respond when their perpetrator breaches the court order.
The Independent reported last week that there is a worrying trend of police forces failing to respond to call-outs of domestic abuse. Their report stated that, “Last year, at least 39,686 incidents went unattended, while it took police more than 24 hours to get to the scenes of a further 32,007 reported crimes.” This is a perfect example of where a lovely bit of legislation means precious little to victims, and to the agencies who want to support them if they simply don’t have the resources to do it.
The new domestic abuse commissioner cannot go the way of the victims commissioner who, through no fault of her own, has little power and her position has no teeth or resources to actually change things. The domestic abuse commissioner must do exactly that – commission.
The new role must have an audit element to make sure that all the things that are going wrong in the system start to go right. Every domestic homicide review which takes place after another murder tells us how social services, police, specialist agencies and many others could have done better. The new commissioner needs to make sure that happens, not just make nice speeches and launch projects.
The government must flex its muscles and make laws that lead to action. They must not shy away from making statutory requirements on the number of refuge beds a council has to offer at a particular standard, including a requirement for specialist BME services where demographics of an area demand it.
They must reaffirm their commitment to compulsory relationship education and actually get on with it.
They should use their big powerful boots to force agencies who handle domestic violence cases in multi-agency risk assessment conferences to do what they say by giving the conferences a statutory power.
I want the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to be brilliant. It has a chance to be, but there is also a risk it will fill parliamentary time and make a lovely new bookend in the office of a minister.
Changing lives is why we came here – this is our chance.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, chair of the Domestic Violence APPG and Associate Editor of The House magazine