The draft Domestic Abuse Bill has been published- so what happens now?
Dods Monitoring's Roisin Buckley says although a Domestic Abuse Bill is still not a guarantee, Ministers are hard pressed to honour the 2017 Conservative manifesto commitment to legislate on domestic violence.
In 2016-17 the crime of domestic abuse cost England and Wales combined £66 billion, according to recently released Home Office statistics.
Clearly, domestic abuse is an extreme drain on society in terms of both cash and lives lost.
Government plans to confront this pressing issue are contained in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which appeared in January after a much-criticised two-year delay. The Bill has been trailed as a historic piece of legislation, and Theresa May has called it a key personal priority.
However, we have not had the Bill yet - we have only had a draft version.
So, what does this mean? And, with Brexit still dominating Parliamentary time, when can we expect to see a Domestic Abuse Act?
What does the Bill cover?
The announcement of the draft Bill certainly delivered where there was broad consensus change is needed. Encouragingly, around 120 commitments were published alongside the draft Bill, which contains the policies that primary legislation will be needed to introduce.
The inclusion of economic abuse in the proposed statutory definition will be a relief to many women who feel non-violent coercion is not taken seriously enough by the police. The creation of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner and a ban on perpetrators cross-examining victims in family court have also been cautiously welcomed by campaigners.
The new Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPO’s) also made it in to the draft. These have long been lobbied for by women’s charities and will place much needed restrictions on the actions of offenders.
Perhaps more surprisingly, some steps to better support migrant women were in the announcement, a credit to the successes lobbying can achieve. Often falling through the cracks, women with insecure immigration status can recoil from interaction with the police; the posited new crisis support system for those with no recourse to public funds may go some way to address this.
Why was there a delay?
With high-profile backing, and clear issues that needed to be addressed, the two-year delay to this Bill was hard for Ministers to justify. The clue to this delay may lie in the complex progress departments must go through to bid for slots in the legislative programme and (of course) the engulfing effect Brexit has had on Government.
All bids for legislation must be approved by the Parliamentary Business and Legislation (PBL) Committee of the Cabinet, which consists of senior cabinet members and ministers.
Competition for legislative slots is fierce and Government departments must bid a year in advance for a place.
Why publish in draft?
The Government is committed to publishing more Bills in draft form, so they can be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. Pre-legislative scrutiny allows for changes to proposed laws while a Bill is in a more easily amendable form. Theoretically, getting opposition MPs involved in a draft Bill also means it should have a smoother journey through the House.
Having been published in draft can also bump a draft Bill up the priority list when the PBL Committee come to allocate the next round of legislative slots – which is good news for this draft law.
When will we see a Domestic Abuse Act?
However, the introduction of a Domestic Abuse Bill is still not a guarantee. Publication in draft does not automatically mean introduction as a full Bill. Pre-Legislative scrutiny takes time - time during which political priorities often shift.
The ad-hoc committee to consider the draft Bill has a deadline of May to report their findings and the Government get two months to respond to their report. Scrutiny will then be complete and the Bill ready for introduction – or not, depending on how political expedient the situation is.
Encouragingly, it will be hard to shelve this Bill. A commitment to legislate on domestic violence was in the 2017 Conservative manifesto and reiterated in the Queens Speech; Ministers will be held accountable for those promises.
It is possible the Bill will be introduced at the start of the new Parliament this year, but more probable the current Government (if still in power) will look to bring it forward in May 2020.
Assuming the Bill then has a trouble-free journey through the House, the new legislation is looking at around Spring 2021 for the Bill to become law. Clearly, not a moment too soon.
Campaigners like Women’s Aid have done an extraordinary amount to push this up the political agenda and it is unlikely pressure will drop even in the event of an extended delay.
Minority Governments do not last long historically, and campaigners may well have to brace themselves for the Bill to fall if a snap election is called. However, the legislation has cross-party support, the consensus is there and the will for change is certainly gaining momentum.
Now a draft Bill is out there it will be hard for any subsequent Government to put it back in a box, even if shifting priorities mean this draft is guillotined.
As this legislation is keenly associated with Theresa May herself, political events over the next few months may well be critical in determining if the Domestic Abuse Bill tracks a path to the statute book or finds itself permanently consigned to draft form.
Roisin Buckley is the Dods monitoring Consultant responsible for the London, Housing, Communities and Local Government portfolios. For more information around Home Affair policies related to violent crime, including domestic abuse policy, click here to download our look ahead for April & May.