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Domestic abuse should be ‘central pillar’ to COVID-19 strategy

Tackling domestic abuse should be a central pillar of the broader strategy to combat the Covid-19 epidemic, according to the Home Affairs Committee.

The committee calls for a comprehensive cross-governmental Covid-19 strategy on domestic abuse during lockdown and the period afterwards, when needs may be high, after Calls and contacts to the national domestic abuse helpline run by the charity Refuge were 49% higher in the week prior to 15 April than the average prior to the pandemic.

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee Yvette Cooper said: “Staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn’t safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse.

“There are already alarming signs of the rise in domestic abuse. Our cross-party committee is calling for an urgent action plan from government setting out practical measures to tackle domestic abuse as an integrated part of the fight against Covid-19,” she added.

While the committee previously raised concerns about government support for victims of domestic abuse in 2018, these concerns have been exacerbated by evidence that Covid-19, and the measures taken to prevent its spread, have led to a significant increase in cases of domestic abuse.

- Calls to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse helpline increased by 49% in the week prior to 15 April compared to the average.

- Chayn, a project helping women experiencing abuse through resources on online safety, mental well being, law and finance reported that visits to its website had trebled in March 2020 compared to the same month the previous year.

- The Men’s Advice Line for male victims of domestic abuse saw an increase in calls of 16.6%.

- Research by Counting Dead Women calculated that at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children had taken place between 23 March and 12 April, double that of an average 21 day period in the last decade.

Measures designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 have also made some services harder to access. Some services have reported drops in calls where social distancing has reduced face to face contact, and where victims are scared to make calls in case they are overheard by their abuser.

The committee calls for the Home Secretary to take the lead in establishing a formal cross-government working group, which should produce and implement a co-ordinated action plan that deals with the period of lockdown and immediately after, when many victims may then be able to seek help and the need for support is likely to be acute.

The strategy should include specific measures to improve outreach and prevention, provide adequate funding for support services, include provision for housing and refuge accommodation, and set out a criminal justice response. It must understand the need for tailored approaches and provide help for specialist services and BAME communities.

A Safe Spaces model has been piloted whereby pharmacies can offer help to victims who may be unable to use the phone at home or talk to friends. The committee urges this model to be expanded to supermarkets.

Furthermore, local authorities should ensure that local services are pursuing proactive outreach during lockdown, visiting families and households where there have been previous domestic abuse incidents or where there are vulnerable children.

Support services for domestic abuse victims and vulnerable children need urgent and direct funding support or victims will be put at far greater risk of harm. There should be a ring-fenced allocation for domestic abuse organisations and those supporting vulnerable children within the £750 million funding announced to support frontline charities.

Police forces are struggling to secure Domestic Violence Prevention Orders, that prevent an abuser from returning home and having contact with a victim for up to 28 days, due to the requirement to provide an alternative address. The committee says that local authorities need to ensure there is alternative temporary accommodation during lockdown. The police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts need to work together to ensure that DVPO cases are heard quickly. Legal aid should be granted automatically to domestic abuse victims in respect of any application for protection during lockdown.

Anyone needing to leave their home during lockdown as a result of domestic abuse should be guaranteed a safe place to stay. The government must work with local authorities, providers and stakeholders to increase the availability of refuge and move-on accommodation.

The committee heard that two thirds of women in refuge have children with them, and around 800,000 children experienced domestic abuse in the past year.
Face to face contact remains the most effective approach in order to safeguard the most vulnerable children, the committee said. The coronavirus crisis has created new challenges in doing that and therefore local authorities, schools, police and other professionals involved in child welfare need to work collaboratively to find smarter ways to enable face to face contact to happen and to make sure these children remain firmly on their radar.

Yvette Cooper said: “Things are particularly hard for vulnerable children. We can’t abandon them in the middle of this crisis. Local authorities, schools, the police and other professionals involved in child welfare need to ensure they are working together to contact and visit homes where children are at risk.

“This isn’t just about supporting victims in periods of lockdown. When restrictions are eased and victims try to leave or to return to normal life the threat to them could be even greater and the need for support will be acute.

“The emotional, physical and social scars from domestic abuse can last a lifetime. If we don’t act to tackle it now, we will feel the consequences of rising abuse during the Coronavirus crisis for many years to come,” she concluded.

Lucy Hadley, Campaigns and Policy Manager at Women’s Aid said: “The Home Affairs Committee have concluded that without decisive action to tackle domestic abuse and protect and support survivors during Covid-19, ‘ society will be dealing with the devastating consequences for a generation.’ We welcome this important report, which backs recommendations made by Women’s Aid and other experts for coordinated government leadership and strategy, clear public communications on domestic abuse which speak to all communities and equal protection for all survivors – including those with insecure immigration status. Critically, the committee have listened to our calls for emergency funding for specialist domestic abuse services to ensure they can cope with Covid-19, and a sustainable future for the life-saving national network of refuges to ensure no survivor is turned away. As the domestic abuse bill returns to parliament tomorrow, these recommendations could not be more urgent.”

Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 (Coronavirus): domestic abuse and
risks of harm within the home
https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmselect/cmhaff/321/321.pdf

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