The Home Affairs Committee is urging national refuge funding and a new stalkers register to be included in the new government Bill on Domestic Abuse.
A report by the comittee also calls for the government to widen the Bill to be a Violence against Women and Girls and Domestic Abuse Bill.
Chair of the Committee, Rt. Hon. Yvette Cooper MP, said: "Domestic abuse is one of the most dangerous and the most common crimes there is. Millions of people are affected each year, and two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex. The government is rightly proposing new legislation and a new strategy, but our inquiry found much stronger action is needed across the board."
Nearly 2 million people a year in England and Wales experience domestic abuse, and many endure long-term harm from their experiences.
The home affairs committee says that the government's proposed bill has the potential to deliver measures which will provide real benefits for all victims. However, the report urges the government to go further as part of its commitment to end domestic abuse. To have confined the proposed scope of the draft bill to domestic abuse rather than all forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG) represents a missed opportunity.
"We therefore recommend that the government publishes a Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Abuse Bill which would facilitate a more effective, joined-up and cross-Government strategy to tackle both domestic abuse and VAWG and would better demonstrate the UK’s commitment to comply with international VAWG conventions," said the report.
The proposed new Commissioner should cover both Domestic Abuse and Violence against Women and Girls; the strategy should cover all victims of domestic abuse but must reflect the gender inequality underlying domestic abuse.
The report also recommends that the government facilitates a comprehensive review of funding across all aspects of support for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, to be carried out by the proposed new Commissioner. The government should commit to the introduction of a new national funding mechanism, informed by the outcomes of a comprehensive review, to provide sufficient and sustainable funding for all necessary support services.
"We are particularly concerned about the provision of specialist domestic abuse services for protected, vulnerable or minority groups, and for people with additional needs such as debts or drug or alcohol dependency. We recommend that the government’s review of refuge and other domestic abuse support services should document and report what specialist provision is currently available, and where there are gaps which need to be addressed," said the report.
The government should investigate the potential impact of domestic abuse leave, recently introduced in New Zealand, and consult on options for introducing domestic abuse leave within the UK. Paid leave for victims of domestic abuse would help victims to keep their jobs and maintain economic independence whilst escaping abuse. This has the potential to save lives, it adds.
The committee adds that it is "concerned" that the government’s proposed strategy makes no explicit additional provision for children who have experienced domestic abuse, as abuse within a family can cause children and young people to suffer a range of long-term negative consequences as a result of their experiences. The report recommends that the devastating effect of domestic abuse on children is explicitly recognised in the legislation and that the government develops a clear strategy to ensure that children experiencing domestic abuse are protected and given the support necessary to help them recover.
It also highlights a desperate shortage of refuge accommodation available for victims and their children seeking safety and access to support services. It cites Women’s Aid which said 60% of referrals to their refuges are refused due to a lack of bed spaces.
"This huge gap in capacity must be filled and the spaces required must be available. It is unacceptable that women fleeing violence and other forms of abuse are often unable to access any form of emergency accommodation, and it is clear that a sustainable model for the long-term funding of refuge services is urgently required," said the report which recommends a new statutory responsibility upon local authorities for refuge places to be available, supported by ring-fenced funding for local authorities from central government at a level which meets demand and fills the capacity gap.
The committee warns that some of the government’s welfare reform policies are making it harder for victims to leave or to avoid economic abuse and control. Single household payments under Universal Credit are a "retrograde and backward step" and split payments for couples should be the standard instead.
However, the committee welcomes the inclusion of economic abuse in the government’s proposed statutory definition of domestic abuse, adding that economic abuse is associated with an increased risk of homicide because victims tend to stay with abusive partners for longer when they do not have the financial means to leave.
Highlighting that stalking can have a devastating impact on the lives of victims, the report says that existing criminal justice responses are often ineffective in stopping perpetrators. The Committee recommends that a national register of serial stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators is introduced.
Individuals placed on the register should, like registered sex offenders, be managed through multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA).
The committee was told that navigating the justice system can be as distressing for some victims as the abusive behaviour which they are seeking to escape, and that children may be placed in danger because of a lack of coherence between different parts of the justice system.
"It is unacceptable that navigating the justice system can be as distressing for some victims as the abusive behaviour which they are seeking to escape, and that children may be placed in danger because of a lack of coherence between different parts of the justice system. We recommend that the new Commissioner should have, as a priority in the first year of office, to review the impact upon children of the interaction between the family courts, children’s services, CAFCASS and the police, with particular reference to contact arrangements in domestic violence cases. The government must, without further delay, make provision in the draft bill to prohibit the cross-examination of a victim by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in the family court," said the report.
Furthermore, despite efforts to introduce national guidance for all police forces on responding to reports of domestic abuse, there continue to be instances where victims’ claims are not taken seriously or where there is an inadequate police response. The report says that these failings have "a catastrophic impact on those who suffer abuse and must end". The report highlights that the Committee is concerned by reports that police forces have provided the Home Office with details of victims for the purposes of immigration control. Immigration status must not bar victims from seeking justice, or make them fear reporting cases of abuse to the police.
Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: "The domestic abuse bill is a golden opportunity to transform the lives of survivors and tackle the root causes of domestic abuse once and for all. To achieve this, the bill must reflect the reality of survivors’ experiences. We welcome the Home Affairs Committee’s call for the forthcoming bill to explicitly recognise the gendered-nature of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is overwhelming experienced by women and perpetrated by men, the underlying cause of which is gender inequality. This must be clearly recognised throughout the bill and reflected in the role of the commissioner who must be granted robust powers and resources to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls if we want to make a real difference to survivors’ lives.
“The government listened to our SOS: Save Our Services campaign by deciding to keep refuges’ housing costs in the welfare system; however, we know that domestic abuse services are still operating on uncertain, shoestring budgets. We need a sustainable funding model with national oversight to ensure that no specialist services are forced to reduce their provision or close their doors forever. We look forward to working with the government and our member services to deliver a robust system of national oversight for these life-saving services so that every survivor and her children can get the help they need, where and when they need it, to rebuild their life free from abuse.
“It is a matter of urgency that the government bans the unacceptable practice of the cross-examination of victims by abusers in the family courts. Survivors have been waiting over a year and a half since the government committed to bring this legislation forward; we need urgent legislation to address this. We welcome the report’s recommendation that all judges, magistrates and professionals involved in child contact cases in the family courts must receive training on domestic abuse, including coercive control, co-delivered by specialists like Women’s Aid. We want a family court system where survivors can access justice free from abuse and for children’s safety to be put at the heart of all decisions made by the family court.
“The domestic abuse bill has the power to create a step change in how we respond to domestic abuse by having survivors’ voices and lived experiences at its heart. By working together, government, specialist services and organisations and survivors – we can make tackling domestic abuse everyone’s business," she concluded.