Victoria Atkins: “The domestic abuse bill will be a game-changer”
The Home Office has promised a ‘fundamental change’ in the way the country deals with domestic abuse. But does the political will exist to back up any change in the law with resources? James Millar talks to the minister in charge, Victoria Atkins, and MPs across the spectrum, about what needs to be done
Victoria Atkins is clearly seen as a safe pair of hands. Not only was she the first MP of the 2015 intake to land a ministerial job, she was handed two. She took on the role of Women’s Minister in the January reshuffle having joined the Home Office last year, where her title is officially Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability.
Her extensive remit runs to 20 topics, from gang violence to lap dancing via internet safety and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse. Her remit may be broad, but it also covers some of the most important tasks facing this government, including dealing with the knife crime epidemic, tackling modern slavery – a cause championed by Theresa May during her own time at the Home Office and in Downing Street – and leading on the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill.
The list is one shorter after she recused herself from the drugs policy on the basis that her husband runs a massive, and entirely legal, cannabis farm. That recent media hoo-ha might explain why she turns up to talk about the Domestic Abuse Bill flanked by no less than four Home Office flunkeys.
On International Women’s Day in March the government launched a three-month consultation on the bill, which closes at the end of this month. Atkins urges all colleagues across the House to participate and spread the message to their constituents, charities and networks. “What we’d like is to have a really detailed picture of what people think we should be doing both with the bill and with non-legislative measures, so that when we take this forward over the autumn we can be sure that we’re going to be introducing a piece of legislation that will make a real difference.”
Making a difference matters. One in four women will suffer domestic abuse over their lifetime; last year 1.2 million women were affected, according to the Office for National Statistics. Launching the consultation, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd promised a law that would “fundamentally change the way we as a country think about domestic abuse”. How will Atkins deliver that?
She points to a new cross-governmental definition of domestic abuse taking in things like economic abuse – where a partner uses the family’s finances to exert control or locks up a joint bank account after a split – for the first time. And there’ll be a new domestic abuse commissioner. “That person will be auditing services across the country to see where some areas are doing well and some areas are not doing well and drawing up the standards to ensure that every victim gets the attention they deserve,” Atkins explains.
The complex system of police notices and orders that can be put in place to stop perpetrators of domestic abuse is to be simplified into a Domestic Abuse Protection Order (DAPO).
Labour MP Jess Phillips chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence. She welcomes the new orders, with a caveat. “They are fine if they include genuine powers and, crucially, they are enforced. What happens when they are breached? Orders are only worthwhile if there are enough police to enforce them and there isn’t. We need more cops, specially trained ones.”
Sir Ed Davey, the Lib Dem lead on the Home Office, shares those concerns. “You can change all the laws you want but if there’s not the police there to enforce the law, if there aren’t the buildings there – the refuges – then it won’t make a difference,” he tells us. “Of course, any intervention should be aimed at prevention, but it’s unrealistic to look at only prevention. You’re going to need people on the front line to arrest perpetrators.”
But Atkins believes preventative steps can make the crucial difference, and insists the police can cope. “I think in a way if we’re involving the police we’ve got a lot further down the line than I would like. I would like for us to be preventing and intervening on domestic abuse almost before the police have to become involved” she explains.
“Of course, they play a vital part in this and of course they must ensure that victims are listened to and ensure justice is served when appropriate, but anyone who works with domestic abuse victims knows one shouldn’t jump to the assumption that investigation and prosecution is in the best interests and in the best safety of the survivor because it may be there are other measures that are more appropriate.
“I’ve been really impressed by the enthusiasm and willingness of police officers I’ve met to improve the response that the police give when victims do find the wherewithal to pursue a complaint. Officers are much more aware now of the terrible role that domestic abuse can play not just in the abusive relationship itself but the wider consequences.”
On this point it’s clear that the minister’s many responsibilities allow her to join dots. “I know from my work looking at the causes of gang crime and violence that domestic abuse is sadly a theme that runs through many of these young people’s lives,” she explains. “So, I believe if we can tackle domestic abuse it will have many, many knock-on consequences.”
So is she confident that when the bill comes forward it will be backed up by the necessary resources? “We’ve included it in the Queen’s Speech, there’s the political will there from that. There will be many, many debates ahead as to the shape of the bill and the legislative measures and I look forward to that but this is a clear intent on the part of the government.”
Intent and new laws can only carry you so far. Jess Phillips puts it succinctly: “Words on goatskin mean fuck all.” She wants to see a bill with teeth. For example, the government has pledged to tackle the postcode lottery in refuge provision, yet Phillips claims they are currently “trafficking” women in need around the country such is the patchy nature of provision. “All local authorities should have a duty to provide refuges on a headcount basis, like one bed per 10,000 people.
“They have a statutory requirement to collect the bins. At the moment councils regard bins as more important than women. There should be a statutory requirement for provision for women too but the government shouldn’t just make councils do it, they have to provide the money to pay for it.”
She’s concerned the bill will not address the concerns of the women that come to her with their stories. “I had a constituent who got beaten really badly by her partner – he got an 18-month suspended sentence. If he’d battered someone in the pub he’d have got much longer than that but it’s different because it took place in the home. It’s not taken seriously enough, there needs to be harsher sentencing.”
Ealing MP Rupa Huq also questions the Home Office’s commitment to the cause, and in particular has concerns about the impact of some of the department’s other policies on domestic abuse. The notorious ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration, she fears, has contributed to a situation where women without settled migration status are more reluctant to come forward and seek help for fear of being removed from the country.
“The government says it wants women to come forward but why would they if they could end up in one of these forced removal centres that are often worse than the torture people have fled from to come to Britain?” she says.
“Half of police forces have referred victims of crime or witnesses to the Home Office. The government is obsessed with this target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands. They’d rather hit that than deal with a woman’s rape or the violence she has to face.”
The Home Office says it’s considering the issue as part of the consultation process. In the consultation document it flags up a £250,000 grant to the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) group specifically awarded to pilot schemes aimed at women with no recourse to public funds.
However in a report by the APPG on Domestic Violence the SBS described immigration law as a “weapon of patriarchal control” and outlined the “profoundly discriminatory state response to migrant women – who are largely excluded from state protection and are at the mercy of husbands, in-laws and employers”.
Clearly the consultation, which closes on 31 May, is just the first step in pulling together a bill that addresses many serious concerns around domestic abuse.
Atkins seems confident that she’s piloting a genuinely transformative bill. Before dashing off to the launch of a new app to make it easier to report domestic abuse, she says: “I do truly think that if we can get a bill through the House, along with the non-legislative measures that we’re working on so hard, I do really believe that will be game-changing, and we’ll be protecting potential victims of domestic abuse in the years to come.”