Jess Phillips MP: The Domestic Abuse Bill is to be welcomed, but there is still work to be done
The long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill contains some good measures – but there is still a way to go to ensure proper protection for victims, writes Jess Phillips MP
The Domestic Abuse Bill is to be welcomed. I have for the past three years felt like a 5-year-old in the back of the car who asks as every mile of a journey passes, “are we nearly there yet?”. The assurance that, “we expect the second reading of the bill to be before Easter” has been said to me for two years and I am only kicking myself that I didn’t ask ministers which year or even which decade they meant. I really hope that all the false starts, prorogations and, “it just needs a bit more work” days are done, and we will see this bill in front of the House and scrutinised properly and in public at last.
The bill has some good stuff in it, placing domestic abuse secure accommodation and refuge on a statutory footing, and demanding that all tier one local authorities (county councils and unitary authorities) must provide it. It appears to be coming with money to do it too. Big tick. Of course, only a very small percentage of victims and their children ever go into a refuge and the majority of support provided for domestic abuse victims is in the community and relies on the availability of social housing. These are less well catered for in the bill currently and so it will need some work on this.
“The Government is going to have to decide do they want to help victims of violence and abuse more than they want to look tough on migrants”
Another big tick in the bill is that it finally is banning the cross examination of perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse of their victims in the family court. This ban is only needed because the Conservative government’s decimation of legal aid has led to the rise of litigants in person in civil courts across the land. But hey, I have been campaigning for this particular sticking plaster for a long time and it has fallen more times than the Domestic Abuse Bill itself, as it was originally in the Prisons and Courts Bill which fell when Theresa May was trigger happy with elections.
Unfortunately, the bill in its current form does not yet truly transform the experience of victims of abuse in our family courts. We will have to wait until a review of this part of our justice system concludes before we see it reflected in legislation. For me, the bill will fail to protect in the area of family law unless there is a very clear change in legislation regarding the presumption of contact with a violent partner. Anyone who has read the Nineteen Child Homicides report authored by Women’s Aid will know that that presumption has cost children their lives and women their children. Ministers have assured us that they will have their review done before report stage of the Bill and, hey they have never been wrong about timelines before! Oh.
The biggest area of contention which has been raised again and again throughout the build up to the bill is how it handles migrant women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, especially those with no recourse to public funds. Pretty much every specialist charity has called for changes to the law for this vulnerable group, the APPG on Domestic Abuse undertook a review which concluded that the bill must address this issue, and the Joint Committee chaired by Maria Miller recommended the same. However, the bill is still failing to address the very real concerns about how migrant victims suffer destitution and barriers to support, which is in some cases killing them. This is undoubtedly the Government’s blind spot, and as the bill goes through parliament they are going to have to decide, do they want to help victims of violence and abuse more than they want to look tough on migrants. I hope it is the former. I am near certain it will be the latter.
The Domestic Abuse Bill could be ground-breaking or it could just move the ground a little. The Government’s majority means that they will ultimately get to decide which it is – I hope they choose wisely.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and associate editor of The House
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