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Theresa May Is Playing A Smoke And Mirrors Game With Domestic Abuse Legislation

03/03/2017 17:22

If I hear one more person praising Theresa May as a champion of domestic violence survivors, I swear to God my head will fly clean off its axis.

Last week May's announcement that she was going to directly oversee new laws to tackle domestic abuse was met with applause from across the board. A flurry of articles were published listing May's many achievements for survivors, and figures from prominent domestic violence charities were quoted calling it a 'real step change', 'needed and overdue'. I was flummoxed.

To be fair I can understand how this confusion has arisen; May does talk an awful lot about domestic violence and her portfolio of abuse themed criminal offences is voluminous, but to suggest that she's actually making women and children safer? Pull the other one.

May has been playing this smoke and mirrors game with domestic abuse legislation since she was Home Secretary. First there was the criminalisation of forced marriage, then the introduction of domestic violence protection orders, followed by the offence of coercive control and some new additions to the existing FGM offence. On paper she has done a lot, but pointing at things and criminalising them is pretty pointless, and if you're simultaneously stripping away the resources people need to actually escape from abuse, I call it calculating and downright dangerous.

Nearly a quarter of women and children referred to domestic violence refuges are turned away due to lack of bed space. The police receive a call for domestic violence assistance every single minute; they are so ill equipped to deal with the scale of the problem that only a fifth of women using domestic abuse services see criminal proceedings brought against their perpetrators. This is a major resourcing failure, to which Theresa May's criminal offences are a wholly inappropriate response. But her punitive approach is not just ineffective, it's also harmful, as it gives people the impression that the problem is in hand and that domestic abuse is a priority, when in reality it is anything but.

So why does May continue to push this domestic abuse legislation through Parliament when she clearly has no real commitment to the cause? Well, the nice thing about creating criminal offences is that you get to identify and publicly condemn a particular form of abuse and 'take action' against it. It's a particularly helpful strategy if you're presiding over an agenda of spending cuts and you need to brandish a 'cause' to make yourself look a bit friendlier. Creating criminal offences requires absolutely no funding allocation, but gives your Government the cosmetic facelift it needs whilst leaving you free to slash through budgets for housing, refuges, health care, legal aid, welfare benefits, rape crisis centres, court services and the police force.

Whilst criminal law plays a vital role in the State's response to domestic violence, we already have a pretty comprehensive set of criminal offences in the UK and Theresa May's contributions have added very little. Her new laws have resulted in just one forced marriage conviction and not a single conviction for FGM. Her domestic violence protection orders are largely useless as the police don't have the resources to enforce them. Her offence of coercive control is essentially a duplicate of the existing offences of harassment and putting someone in fear of violence, which would be confusing, except that in reality the police aren't really using any of them anyway.

Inconveniently, May has now run out of things to criminalise, re-criminalise and super-duper-criminalise, but that hasn't stopped her. She is now working on a new 'Domestic Violence and Abuse Act'. She's unclear at this stage what the Act will actually do, but so far the plan is to consolidate all the existing legislation and get 'more convictions'.

So it seems May is now suggesting that the inadequacy of police response is because the legislation is too complex. She has pointed out the problem, and now she is going to take action. She has not indicated that she understands that the police are woefully under-resourced to deal with the scale of the crisis. She has not admitted that the reason women and children continue to live with their abusers is because they have nowhere else to go. She has not acknowledged that most victims feel financially trapped in abusive relationships and have no access to legal advice or representation.

Theresa May is the most powerful person in the country and when she says she's tackling domestic violence, people assume she's genuinely prioritising the issue. So whilst I'm glad the issue is being discussed, if she's not going to put her money where her mouth is, I wish she'd pipe down. The problem is, she won't pipe down, because championing domestic violence survivors is a pretty good look, and so far, everyone's falling for it. But for what it's worth, in my view May's total failure to acknowledge the funding issues at the heart of the crisis is a pretty clear indication that she stands to gain more from this latest campaign than survivors do.

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