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As a new national lockdown comes into force in England, organisations working with people facing domestic abuse are making renewed calls for long-term funding, and pushing for further amendments to the domestic abuse bill, as it makes its way through the Lords.
The impact of the pandemic on those facing domestic abuse was evident almost immediately during the national lockdown in March. The Counting Dead Women project told MPs that between 23 March and 12 April, at least 16 domestic abuse killings had taken place – much higher than the average for the time of year – while calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline were running at 49% higher than normal three weeks after lockdown was introduced.
A recent survey of survivors and services by the charity SafeLives found that 61% of survivors were unable to reach out for support during lockdowns “partly because they weren’t able to access phone or online support, or their perpetrator was with them all the time”. In August, the charity released data showing that even with these continuing difficulties, 38% of services reported increases in demand during the previous month.
Sarah Davidge, research and evaluation manager at Women’s Aid, says that people were facing extended time with their abusers at home while valuable lifelines are cut off, including to friends and family. And walk-in centres shuttering – as local services shifted from in-person to telephone or online support – have created additional barriers. “If you think about the women who don’t even have access to phones or the internet, speak another language, or they’re being prevented from access by their abuser, then we’re really just scratching the surface.”
In Wales, where a 17-day “firebreak” lockdown came into operation on 23 October, fresh concerns have been raised about the impact on those facing domestic abuse. “Our immediate fear with regards to the firebreak lockdown is that survivors will be isolated from their normal support system and will not be aware of the support that is available for them,” says a Welsh Women’s Aid spokeswoman.
Frontline organisations throughout the UK, including smaller specialist services catering for women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and refugees and asylum seekers are under greater strain too. The government’s initial response to the pandemic was a funding injection of £2m early on but this was criticised as vastly insufficient.
In many way,s Covid-19 has thrown into sharp focus numerous issues surrounding the protection of people facing domestic abuse that long predate the pandemic. During a decade of austerity the sector has suffered drastic funding cuts, including £7m slashed by councils for women’s refuges in England, Wales and Scotland between 2010 and 2018. The 2020 Domestic Abuse Report from Women’s Aid estimated that more than 23,000 referrals to refuges were declined in 2018-19.
Meanwhile, domestic violence-related murders reached a five-year high in the UK in 2018, according to data compiled from 43 police forces. In addition, falls in prosecutions of perpetrators have set off alarm bells, with trial delays and other problems with the justice system, including cuts to legal aid, heightening concerns around access to justice for victims. In London alone, reports of rape and sexual offences increased by 25% between 2015 and 2020, but convictions dropped by almost a quarter, and the time it takes to bring charges of rape almost tripled.
One glimmer of light is the long-awaited domestic abuse bill, due to become law in early 2021. Framed as a “landmark” piece of legislation by the government, it will usher in significant reforms in England and Wales. Among the new measures is the recognition for the first time of children as victims, a ban on “consenting” to rough sex being used as a defence in murder cases, and an acknowledgment of economic abuse in the statutory definition.
The inclusion of a statutory duty on councils in England to provide support for victims in refuges and “other safe accommodation” has been welcomed, along with the statutory appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner.
Nevertheless, many in the sector are warning that as it stands, the law is far from a panacea. Despite the government giving English councils a further £6m to help them prepare for their new legal duties to provide domestic abuse services, concerns remain about funding shortfalls. Ellie Butt, head of policy and public affairs at Refuge, said that “as a matter of urgency, the government needs to commit to providing at least £174m per year so that councils can commission the refuge accommodation that women and children fleeing domestic abuse so desperately need.” Women’s Aid estimates that to fund the sector in England and meet demand across services requires £393m annually.
There is also widespread frustration that despite concerted efforts the law will not guarantee protection for migrant women who, because of their uncertain immigration status, have no recourse to public funds, leaving them unable to access statutory support.
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, coordinator at the Step Up Migrant Women Campaign, says: “Even before the pandemic, four out of five women with no recourse to public funds were turned away by refuge accommodation”.
A Home Office spokesman said ministers realised the pandemic had “created new challenges for victims of domestic abuse”, pointing to the “package of support” made available in response, including £2m for helplines and online services and “£76m for charities supporting survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery, as well as vulnerable children”, as well as its public awareness campaign, #YouAreNotAlone.
On the bill, he said. “This is a truly game-changing piece of legislation and will transform our response to victims in every region in England and Wales and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.”
But most people working in the sector don’t feel it goes far enough. As Sophie Francis-Cansfield, senior campaigns and policy officer at Women’s Aid, says: “It would be really tough to argue ‘job done’ once this bill passes because there is so much more to address. There is so much more to a survivor’s needs than what is currently within this bill.”
While the sector awaits confirmation of the domestic violence bill’s second reading in the Lords, the issue of adequate funding for services looms large. In Wales, now into the second week of its firebreak, Welsh Women’s Aid says: “We know that the abuse survivors face during this lockdown and the wider Covid-19 pandemic will have lasting impacts and we need reassurance that services will be sustainably funded and resourced beyond March 2021.”
The Welsh deputy minister and chief whip, Jane Hutt, who was the first national coordinator for Women’s Aid in Wales, says ministers are “working hard to make sure that victims know what support is available to them”.
But she adds: “I fear that victims will think that this firebreak period means they have to stay at home and suffer when abuse is happening. That is not the case at all.”
In England, similar fears are being expressed.
“We are concerned that another national lockdown will again make it harder for survivors to escape to safety,” says Francis-Cransfield. “We continue to urge for a long-term sustainable funding solution for the violence against women and girls’ sector if it is to survive.”
Source: The Guardian
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