They say a week is a long time in politics.
But a week can feel like an eternity if you are a survivor of domestic abuse trying to flee an abusive partner – and this week has presented us with yet more devastating reminders of the scale of domestic abuse in the UK, the way it can be normalised and trivialised, and the need for both radical and urgent solutions.
At Refuge, we work with women fleeing domestic abuse every single day. Right now we are supporting more than 6,500 women and children. We don’t need stark reminders of why we do the work we do – but if we did, we wouldn’t need to look much further than the news this week.
Right now, with parliament having been suspended, we are focusing on sustaining pressure to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill sees the light of day. It absolutely must be enshrined in law if we are to take the bold steps needed to address violence against women and girls. We were delighted that the Prime Minister tweeted his commitment to the bill this week but we know that actions speak louder than words, and we won’t be taking our eyes off this particular ball.
We know that actions speak louder than words, and we won’t be taking our eyes off this particular ball
While we know that the government is committed to addressing violence against women and girls, recent news has left us feeling concerned. Just this week, Geoffrey Boycott, a man with a conviction for domestic abuse, was given a knighthood. What sort of message does this send to women and girls? That they will not be believed? That their experiences are not valid? That domestic abuse perpetrators are celebrated and rewarded? We are calling for this knighthood to be revoked, and for the government to make sure things like this don’t happen again.
We’ve also seen startling statistics this week which show that prosecutions and convictions for rape have taken a steep decline, despite the numbers of women reporting rape increasing. This again sends a very worrying message that the criminal justice system is failing women. We need women to feel empowered to report crimes against them, to have faith that the system will treat them fairly, that their alleged perpetrators will face the full extent of the law, and that justice will be served. These statistics make for difficult reading, and we need to see a renewed commitment to addressing violence against women and girls and making sure that the criminal justice system is fit for purpose.
Another issue in the news this week which directly impacts survivors fleeing domestic violence is access to housing. As current housing law stands, fleeing domestic violence doesn’t automatically mean you qualify for priority housing status. This means that survivors, particularly those without children, can often find themselves having to choose between fleeing an abusive partner and finding themselves without a home.
No survivor must have to make this choice – and there is a simple way that the government can ensure that they don’t. They can increase statutory funding for refuges, meaning that survivors can easily access safety and shelter while they are piecing together their next steps, and they can ensure that those fleeing domestic abuse are recognised as being in priority need for safe, stable housing.
Both of these remedies can become reality when the Domestic Abuse Bill becomes law. But with the Brexit chaos currently sweeping through Parliament, there is a real risk that women’s rights and remedies to address violence against women are being pushed to one side. The Bill was on its way to becoming law – it was due its second reading in Parliament in the Autumn, and had cross party support – meaning it would likely see a smooth passage through Parliament.
But by failing to carry the bill over by ‘standing order’ (a simple parliamentary procedure), it means that the bill will be delayed – by how much is unclear. It must now be reintroduced in the Queen’s Speech and action taken by the government to make sure adequate parliamentary time is allocated to it and that the bill becomes law with minimal delay. Survivors are counting on this happening.
Of course we hope that the Prime Minister’s commitment to the bill, expressed this week, will come to fruition – but the proof of the pudding will be firmly in the eating, and our eyes are firmly fixed on the Queen’s Speech. We cannot allow real solutions to addressing violence against women and girls to be lost in the parliamentary long grass. The Bill could transform the way society responds to domestic abuse, so it must not be lost. Women’s lives depend on it, and we won’t give up.
Sandra Horley is chief executive of Refuge