Coronaviolence

Coronaviolence: Will Covid-19 provide an impetus for the Government to tackle domestic abuse?

17 April 2020

Bella Soames, Analyst at DRD, examines how the lockdown has led to an alarming increase in incidents of domestic abuse, and what a post-Covid 19 Government should do to ensure greater protections are enshrined in the law.

This week has seen two significant announcements in Westminster: the Government confirmed a minimum three-week extension of the lockdown, and the House of Commons finalised plans for a hybrid “virtual” Parliament to return when the Easter Recess ends on 21 April.

The immediate fall-out from the twin health and economic crises precipitated by the coronavirus is already painfully clear. But, the coronavirus is also a tale of indirect ramifications, chain reactions, and the unforeseen exacerbation of pre-existing social ills. For one, domestic abuse.

According to the Office of National Statistics, 1.6 million women and 786,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales last year. They report that two women are killed in England and Wales each week. Now, in the unprecedented environment of a UK-wide lockdown, there has been an alarming increase in the levels of domestic violence and abuse. The charity Refuge reported a 700 percent increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, and Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday (15 March) that there has been at least 16 suspected domestic abuse killings in the UK since the lockdown began.

Not only does the lockdown give abusers the opportunity to grow their system of control, the state’s ability to police domestic incidents is limited; police resources have been reduced and diverted to maintaining the emergency measures.

It is a troubling picture, and one which brings into sharp relief the failures and prevarications of multiple governments to bring into force new, tougher legislation which would extend protection to those suffering from domestic abuse. Existing legislation – dating back to the 1990s – covers domestic violence. However, there is currently no specific legislation on the statute book that criminalises domestic abuse – a different, if no less pernicious pattern of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including emotional abuse and sexual violence.

Enter the Domestic Abuse Bill, the idea for which dates back to David Cameron’s Government, where it was championed by the then Home Secretary Theresa May. However, even under her own premiership, progress was slow. Despite commitments in the 2017 Conservative Manifesto, a White Paper consultation only emerged in 2018, and it underwent pre-legislative scrutiny as a Draft Bill (the equivalent of a kick into the Parliamentary long-grass) by a Joint Committee of both the Commons and the Lords.

Finally, a Bill proper was introduced to Parliament in July 2019 and was in the midst of line-by-line scrutiny by a legislative Committee when it’s progress was halted (and reversed) by the dissolution of Parliament for the subsequent General Election. Nonetheless, a commitment to the Bill was included in the Conservative Manifesto, and it was formally reintroduced to Parliament on 3 March, where it has since sat in Parliamentary limbo-land – despite assurances from the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees Mogg, that progress would be made before Easter.

The Bill is vitally important: it creates a statutory definition of domestic abuse, provides for a new Domestic Abuse Protection Order to place restrictions on perpetrators (including through electronic monitoring), and establishes in the law a Domestic Abuse Commissioner. Inevitably, it has been criticised by charities, campaigners, and MPs that it does not go far enough in its provisions – not least by the outspoken MP for Birmingham Yardley and newly appointed Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding, Jess Philipps, who, as a member of – we hope – a newly functioning Opposition, is likely to push the Government for further commitments. Nevertheless, there exists clear cross-party consensus that the Bill is a step in the right direction; there will be strong impetus for it to be passed swiftly into an Act once the Government allows it Parliamentary time.

The House of Commons might be moving (crawling) toward the 21st Century by returning “virtually” next week, but the spotlight that Covid-19 has shone on domestic abuse highlights the importance that Parliament returns to its legislative role – not just a reduced “scrutinising” function (limited to PMQs, ministerial statements, urgent questions) – as soon as possible.

In a Brave New post-Covid World, it will become clear that the virus won’t just have struck to the core of health service, our economy, the way we work, or even our definitions of who is – and isn’t –  a “key worker.” It will have utterly entangled itself in our society, creating indirect victims (some, as yet, unseen) for whom a Government, most likely charting a policy agenda with new legislative priorities, will – hopefully – seek to ensure greater protections exist in the future.

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