For two years we have been eagerly awaiting the Domestic Abuse Bill, legislation the government itself described as landmark. Yet when it was finally published last week the only milestone moment it offered was a new low. Instead of making domestic violence a priority, it makes pleasing the DUP its main concern – to the detriment of all concerned.
The government has explicitly drafted this bill in such a way to focus on devolved matters. Its primary offer involves reform in family courts and creating a commissioner with responsibility for tackling violence against women and girls, both of which are to be welcomed.
The need for action addressing how immigration status can leave migrant women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence is also well-known. The current legal system means that migrants who are victims of domestic abuse feel they are categorised as ‘illegal immigrants’ rather than ‘victims’. Police forces have guidance about supporting domestic violence victims, but often then share data with the Home Office, and so the fear of deportation or arrest acts as a deterrent for reporting domestic abuse. Research by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service shows that on average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police, but this figure rises to 60 with the undocumented women they help.
Without changes to this bill to clarify the status of these victims under immigration law, we face a wasted opportunity to ensure every woman in the UK is protected from violence. Similarly, this bill also does nothing to address how the welfare system traps women in abusive relationships through a lack of financial means.
Neither will be addressed with this bill – not because the Government doesn’t recognise the case for helping immigrant women or issues around financial coercion but because they have bigger political woes to address. The decision to restrict the scope of this bill is not accidental or indeed out of deference to our devolved institutions. It is to try to prevent this bill also being used to address the concerns about the human rights of women in Northern Ireland who are currently denied access to abortion.
The UN are clear that that the UK is in breach of human rights obligations to our own citizens whilst we deny them their right to choose not to continue an unwanted pregnancy. In 2018, it the UN stated that “the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. Furthermore, it said that devolution is not an excuse by highlighting Westminster’s ‘direct responsibility’ for compliance across the UK.
We know that across Parliament and in Northern Ireland itself there is support for reform, with MPs voting to repeal the outdated legislation that means a woman who is raped in Northern Ireland and seeks a termination as a result faces a longer sentence than her attacker. Yet we also know the DUP rigidly oppose change – and with 10 precious votes to offer a Government who only won a no confidence vote because of them, it is clear they are more important to the Home Secretary than getting the legislation we need.
It is clear that the intent of the bill did not start out this way. The original consultation recognised “insecure immigration status may also impact on a victim’s decision to seek help” and that it would consult with the Northern Ireland executive. However, these comments were made back in 2017 – before the call for this bill to the vehicle by which parliament could address concerns about the denial of access to abortion to women in Northern Ireland.
This weekend a Cabinet Office source told The Sunday Times that they “foresaw the potential for the legislation to cause problems for the DUP” and had redrafted a bill such that any amendments to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland could be blocked. By DUP-proofing this bill, the Home Secretary is not only letting down the 28 women a week who travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion, but also victims of domestic violence across the UK who need UK-wide legislation to protect them.
The confidence and supply arrangement makes no mention of the right of the DUP to barter away action to protect vulnerable victims of domestic violence or deny the human rights of the women of Northern Ireland. This is not about devolution, this is about dignity and the damage a government so desperate to cling onto power can do.
This bill will go through pre-legislative scrutiny where every parliamentarian must challenge this decision so that we can have domestic abuse legislation that works for every UK citizen.
Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow