Domestic Abuse Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 28th April 2020.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 3:52 pm, 28th April 2020

I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this important and over-subscribed debate. As a nation, we are experiencing an extended period of living at home. It is a shared experience, but not an equal one. It has highlighted how different isolation is in a shared house, or with limited access to technology, or without access to green space. That is brought into sharp relief when we consider the lives of those living with supposed loved ones, but living in danger of abuse or of losing their lives. In general, the Bill might not be considered core covid business, but for a great deal of people hidden and scared, it could not be more important.

To an extent, I feel as though I am completing a set today. I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee that considered the draft Bill, the pre-legislative Committee for the Bill, the original Second Reading debate, and even the nascent stages of the original Bill Committee. I have been part of the process throughout, as has the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Victoria Atkins, whose leadership has been welcome.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris for her outstanding leadership during the process, which has been so good that she has now been sent to sort out the parliamentary Labour party. We are well served on the Opposition Front Bench by my hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips). In the case of the latter, we have all been following her anyway—the act has simply been formalised.

What I remember most is not the important parliamentary elements or conversations with parliamentary colleagues, but the afternoon I spent with an experts by experience group convened by Women’s Aid. Over a series of sessions, they developed a Bill for survivors—essentially what they think should be in the Bill—so I will use my privileged platform in this place today today to give them a voice. I would love to cover the whole of their Bill, and I recommend that colleagues read it, as I know the Minister has, but I will pick on a few elements in the short time I have available.

First, we should establish a long-term sustainable model of funding for specialist services. It seems a long time since we fought off the Government’s plans for changes to supported housing, which would have lead to generic and dangerous commissioning, but we have not finished the job. Refuges are a precious national asset. A survivor in Nottingham is just as likely to need a refuge in Birmingham. They should not be at the mercy of a patchwork quilt of commissioning decisions and funding availability. We know that there is currently a 30% shortfall in places. Last year, nearly two thirds of referrals were turned away. It is time to move to a national, nationally funded universal offer.

Secondly, we should remove local connection rules for survivors who move across local authority boundaries to access housing. That speaks for itself. It is easy to do and we should do it now. We should ensure that those people are given priority needs status when they access housing. That is critical at the moment given the experiences we know survivors are having in the covid context.

Thirdly, it is time to guarantee support for women who have no recourse to public funds due to their migration status by ensuring access to specialist support services, enabling access to the domestic violence concession and stopping public services sharing details of survivors with immigration control. Essentially that asks the Government to enshrine a simple principle: protection from harm is more important than a person’s immigration status. Otherwise, that individual will not leave when they are at risk of being hurt. In this place, we have 650 people with, I suspect, 650 different views on migration, but surely that is one element we can agree on.

Fourthly, there should be a duty on the Government to engage meaningfully with survivors about the Bill, any future review and the non-legislative guidance. Ministers know how frustrated I and other hon. Members have been about how much the Government have been unwilling to put on the face of the Bill, instead asking us to rely on the guidance. That is a big risk for us to take. One way to make us feel better about it is providing that when that guidance is being developed, survivors will be listened to and help shape it.

Finally, we should gender the Bill. It is a failing to have a Domestic Abuse Bill that does not once mention women or girls. Men are victims too, and should be supported, but the overwhelming proportion of victims are women and the overwhelming proportion of perpetrators are men. Sanitising the Bill of gender stops us as a society confronting the ugly truth that culturally, we condition young men, whether through music, sport, media or popular culture, to see women as lesser. That is where abusive behaviour stems from. A gendered Bill in Wales has been effective for men and women and we are missing a generational opportunity to do something important. It is striking that both the Home Affairs Committee and the prelegislative Committee, which are cross-party bodies, reached that conclusion, having examined the evidence properly. It is time the Government caught up.

I may have spoken the words, but they are those of survivors. It is time to meet their expectations.