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If e verything goes according to plan, and not a lot has done since March, Nicole Jacobs will soon be the first domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales. On Tuesday, the domestic abuse bill, which includes the creation of her role, will reach its final stages in the House of Lords. After a three-year delay, caused by two general elections and the coronavirus pandemic, can this new legislation tackle an epidemic of abuse?
“This is a window of opportunity,” Jacobs says. “We have a postcode lottery for victims of domestic abuse. We’ve had refuges for over 50 yearsand greater awareness, but the public is always surprised to learn that progress in a range of areas including health, housing and policing isn’t where it should be. We have a lot to do.”
As soon as the first lockdown began in March, Jacobs organised weekly online meetings, now fortnightly, with representatives of all the national helplines, websites and organisations working in domestic abuse, to chart what was happening behind closed doors, conveying the information back to ministers, and national and local government and police.
“For months, use of helplines, chatlines and websites has increased by hundreds of percentage points,” Jacobs says. “They are the quiet ways to seek help when you can’t leave the home so easily. It’s been a horrendous year for victims of abuse.”
In response, the government provided £30m in emergency funding and launched an awareness campaign #YouAreNotAlone but frontline work is still desperately overstretched and underfunded. So what happens when the bill becomes law?
For the first time, it will create a statutory definition of domestic abuse that encompasses emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse as well as physical violence. Other measures include a statutory duty on local authorities to provide safe accommodation to victims and their children, an end to the defence of “rough sex” when a woman is killed and the recognition that children can be victims of abuse in their own right.
In addition, the bill gives the commissioner, appointed as designate in September 2019, duties to: map services (vital for pitching to the Treasury for funding); encourage good practice; raise public awareness; and hold statutory agencies and local and national government to account by publishing reports and making recommendations that require a response within 56 days.
Jacobs grew up in Alabama and came to Britain in 1998, and now has an English husband and two children. Southern charm married to steely determination have been honed by two decades’ working on the frontline of domestic abuse. In her final year at university studying politics, she worked as an intern at a rape crisis centre and her first job was in the field of domestic abuse and that’s where she has stayed.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything else. My frustration is knowing there is good practice out there but it’s patchy and there’s no reason for that. It’s time to make good practice common practice. I’m hard-headed. I’m persistent and assertive in a typically nice southern way because I know these are the right things to do.”
Jacobs intends to knock hard on doors rather than take a softer route that could lead to honours for her but little real change. “My view of the role is to advise government but never step back from applying pressure. My job is to bring things to light.”
A signal of her intent is her support for more than half-a-dozen amendments to the bill that she and an army of campaigners including MPs, peers and organisations such as the Centre for Women’s Justice, the Prison Reform Trust and Southall Black Sisters have been able to refine since the bill went to the Commons last year.
“People say this is a landmark piece of legislation and it’s been a long time coming,” Jacob says. “But the fact is, without these improvements you can’t truly call it a landmark.”
These include the extension to community-based services of the statutory duty on local authorities to provide secure accommodation to survivors and their children. “Without that, these services will be exposed to further cuts,” says Jacobs. “We’d go a long way to addressing the postcode lottery if we can secure their funding.”
Currently, migrant women with no recourse to public funds are excluded from the bill. “Unless they are included, their options are brutal,” Jacobs says.Another amendment addresses the need to make non-fatal strangulation a separate offence, as it is in New Zealand. At present, if recognised at all, it is treated as common assault. Yet, strangulation occurs in a third of killings of women by men.
A recognition of the effect of sustained abuse on women who go on to kill or offend, such as drug offences on behalf of an abuse perpetrator, is in two other amendments. “Early in my career I volunteered at a women’s prison,” Jacobs says. “A lot of offending was linked to domestic abuse. Those are the people who have stayed with me, the wasted potential and the injustice.”
Another amendment addresses the need to make post-separation control an offence. A perpetrator, for instance, may continue for years to rack up debts in an ex-partner’s name. “The government’s reaction is that legislation on stalking or harassment covers this issue but it really doesn’t,” Jacobs says. “That has to be remedied. These amendments are the just thing to do.”
The number of people aged between 16 and 74 who were abused in the year ending March 2019 – 1.6 million women and 786,000 men
The increase in the number of calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline in March-May 2020 reported by Refuge
The increase in the number of calls to the Women’s Aid chat line service in first two weeks of lockdown in March 2020
The increase from May 2019 to May 2020 in the number of people phoning the Respect phoneline who were concerned about their own behaviour
Number of women recorded by Counting Dead Women as killed by men in the first three weeks of lockdown from 23 March – the highest rate for 11 years
Statistics: government and the Domestic Abuse Commissioner
National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247; nationaldahelpline.org.uk
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Tough new domestic abuse tsar prepares to shape laws to protect threatened women | Domestic violence