Domestic Abuse Bill

Written evidence submitted by Changing Lives (DAB11)

Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19

House of Commons Committee Stage

1 Summary

1.1 Changing Lives is pleased to submit evidence to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee for the Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19. We strongly welcome the introduction of the Bill, which we believe has the potential to create a step change in the availability and quality of support for victims of domestic abuse.

1.2 We share the commitment that has been expressed by many others to safeguarding all victims of domestic abuse through the legislation. However, our expertise is in supporting people with multiple and complex needs. Our priority is to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Bill works for these individuals, so we focus on a number of key areas where we feel there is potential to make a difference.

1.3 We focus primarily on the experiences of women in our response as they are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse. However, we recognise that domestic abuse is also experienced by men and the transgender community, some of whom we support through our services.

1.4 We propose the following changes to the Bill:

Statutory definition of domestic abuse

· The gendered nature of domestic abuse should be included within the statutory definition, to reflect its disproportionate impact on women.

· The definition of "abusive" behaviour set out in Section 1(3) should be extended to include culturally specific forms of domestic abuse.

· The phrase that it "does not matter if the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct" in Section 1(3) should be expanded to read that it "does not matter if the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct, and may include one or more of the behaviours listed above".

· The statutory definition should be amended to distinguish between intimate partner abuse and other forms of family abuse.

Domestic Abuse Commissioner

· Section 6 (2d) should be expanded upon to ensure the powers of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner include the ability to introduce mandatory training across the full range of services who may come into contact with people who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Powers for dealing with domestic abuse

· Section 35 of the Bill should be amended to state that the while a DAPO will have a flexible duration, it must not replace criminal proceedings and it is expected that a full investigation will commence within an agreed timeframe.

· Sections 36 and 37 of the Bill should be amended to state that the preferences of victims must be considered in responding to breach of an order.

Special measures directions in cases involving domestic abuse

· Section 53 (1-3) should be amended to specify that the measures are applicable to both the criminal and family court systems.

· The range of special measures set out in Section 53 (1-3) should be expanded to include access to a court advocate or specialist court to advocate for the victim at every stage.

Secure tenancies in cases of domestic abuse

· Section 56 of the Bill should be amended to ensure that everyone fleeing domestic abuse who is homeless is automatically considered in priority need for settled housing.

· The legislation should be strengthened to include a statutory ban on local authorities imposing ‘local connection restrictions’ on refuge services.

2 About Changing Lives

2.1 Changing Lives is a national charity, helping over 17,000 people change their lives for the better each year. We aim to tackle the causes of social exclusion and have around 100 projects in England, supporting people with the most complex needs including domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, homelessness, addictions, long-term unemployment and more.

2.2 We provide a range of intensive support for victims of domestic abuse across the North East and North West of England, including safe temporary accommodation, independent advocacy for domestic abuse and sexual violence, and outreach to support women with a range of complex needs.

2.3 We also support female offenders across the North and the Midlands, including contracts with four Community Rehabilitation Centres and in five women’s prisons. We have direct experience of the number of women whose onset of offending is linked to domestic abuse.

2.4 In 2018, we commissioned research, ‘Too Complex for "Complex Needs"?’ [1] , that interviewed 106 women to learn from work with victims of domestic abuse, who also have multiple and complex needs. We draw on their experiences throughout our evidence.

3 Multiple and complex needs in the context of domestic abuse

3.1 In mainstream domestic abuse services, ‘complex needs’ is often used to refer to individuals who, in addition to their experience of domestic abuse, have mental health problems or problematic substance use which cause additional difficulties when dealing with their abuse. However, for the women we support, their experience of domestic abuse (whilst often very serious and high risk) can be less concerning to them than many of the other issues they face. Many are dealing with mental ill health, substance misuse and homelessness, whilst coping with current and historic traumatic experiences, which may include experience of sexual violence and/or child sexual abuse, the loss of custody of one or more child, involvement in selling sex and/or sexual exploitation, or experience of domestic abuse in childhood.

3.2 Women experiencing domestic abuse who have multiple and complex needs can find it incredibly difficult to access both support and safety. The reasons for this include:

· They may find services difficult to navigate or ill-suited to their needs. For example, there is a wealth of evidence to highlight that women in drug and alcohol services experience domestic abuse disproportionately, yet their range of needs prevent them from engaging with a structured support system.

· Some statutory services (e.g. police, health, social work) lack understanding of women experiencing domestic abuse who have multiple and complex needs, in particular the impact of trauma. This can lead to victim-blaming and create additional barriers for them when they attempt to seek help.

· Sexual violence, exploitation and abuse, both current and historic, is prevalent in women’s lives. Often, they do not even perceive it as a problem but just ‘the way things are’. This normalisation of violence and abuse (not only by the women but also by other people around them) means they are even less likely to disclose or to seek support.

3.3 Specialist resources are required to bridge the gap in service provision for those clients who present with multiple and complex needs, to offer person-centred, trauma-informed support to those who find it difficult to engage with mainstream services.

4 Definition of "domestic abuse" (Chapter 1)

4.1 We welcome the introduction of a statutory definition of domestic abuse. We believe this is a positive step towards an inclusive understanding of the complexity and diversity of domestic abuse.

Gender

4.2 Domestic abuse is an issue that can affect anyone, regardless of their age, background or gender. However, domestic abuse affects many more women than men, and it is women who are most likely to be exposed to significant harm and repeat victimisation as a result of domestic abuse.

4.3 We welcome the Government’s proposal to recognise the gendered nature of domestic abuse within statutory guidance to accompany the legislation, but would like to see this strengthened further through inclusion in the statutory definition.

Definition of abusive behaviour

Culturally specific forms of abuse

4.4 We broadly support the definition of "abusive" behaviour set out in Section 1(3). However, we would like this list of behaviours to be more inclusive and take into account culturally specific forms of domestic abuse. For example, this may include forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation.

4.5 This is significant because women from BAME communities frequently struggle to access support and justice in relation to domestic abuse. Migrant women in particular are disadvantaged by a lack of recourse to public funds at the point of fleeing abuse, compounded by an inflexible immigration system that may mean their right to live in the UK at risk by leaving an abusive relationship, or that visa rules are used by perpetrators to separate women from their children.

4.6 More broadly, language barriers can make it more challenging for women from BAME backgrounds to access support, and pressures within certain minority communities for women to submit to male authority and not bring shame upon families, with coercion and control compounded by wider family and community network, and the need for both legal provisions and access to support for victims in these scenarios.

Behaviours exhibited

4.7 We agree with the statement in Section 1(3) that it "does not matter if the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct". However, it is also important to recognise that abuse involve multiple behaviours and take place over an extended period of time.

4.8 Therefore, we would like to see the phrase that it "does not matter if the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct" in Section 1(3) be expanded to read that it "does not matter if the behaviour consists of a single incident or a course of conduct, and may include one or more of the behaviours listed above".

4.9 This would help to safeguard individuals from the risk of abuse in multiple forms, and place a statutory footing the responsibility of services to be vigilant to this.

5 Domestic Abuse Commissioner (Chapter 2, Sections 3-18)

5.1 We are encouraged that a designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner has already been appointed and support the proposal to create this role in statute. The Commissioner has a substantial remit, and we share the view expressed by others that they should have sufficient powers, resources and independence to carry out their duties effectively.

5.2 We feel that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner is uniquely placed to reach out mainstream services who may come into contact with people experiencing domestic abuse, but do not directly provide domestic abuse services. For many of those we support, their first interaction with a professional may not be in relation to domestic abuse, but instead, for example, in relation to health, housing, addiction services or the police. A better understanding among professionals about the dynamics and risks around domestic abuse would help provide a safer, more accessible and appropriate service for women.

5.3 We would like to see Section 6 (2d) be expanded upon to ensure the powers of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner include the ability to enforce mandatory training across the full range of services who may come into contact with people who are experiencing domestic abuse.

5.4 We recommend such training could include:

· Trauma-informed training for all professionals working in mainstream settings to understand the impact of childhood trauma and the development of unhealthy attachments as an adult, also known as ‘trauma bonding’. In particular, this would be helpful within the courts to help the jury understand the psychological responses to trauma and abuse and why some women gravitate back towards the people who abuse them.

· Awareness raising of the particular challenges experienced by victims with multiple and complex needs, to promote a joined-up approach and positive attitudes towards individuals accessing support

· Mandatory training for the Crown Prosecution Service, magistrates and the police relating to the specific provisions of the Bill, for example, relating to the new civil protection orders, to ensure they are applied consistently nationally.

6 Powers for Dealing with Domestic Abuse (Chapter 3, Sections 19-52)

6.1 We welcome the introduction of a new Domestic Abuse Protection Notice (DAPN) and Domestic Abuse Protection Order (DAPO) to replace the existing Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO). It is our view that in principle, that the new arrangements will ensure that victims of domestic abuse are better protected in law.

6.2 The people we support are frequently disadvantaged by current DVPO arrangements, which has limited effectiveness due to its maximum duration of just 14-28 days. Some victims are left without any form of protection whilst the case remains ‘under investigation’ and after a DVPO has ended, placing an undue onus on them to pursue civil remedies. Due to their existing vulnerabilities, the people we support may find the civil process difficult or unaffordable to navigate, making them less likely to engage and placing them at greater risk of harm.

6.3 Therefore, we particularly support the following aspects of the Bill:

· Section 35, which sets out that the proposed DAPO will have a have flexible duration so that longer-term protection can be provided where necessary. However, it is vital that the new DAPO is used as an early intervention to complement criminal proceedings, and never to replace a full investigation that can lead to a criminal conviction and long-term protection for a survivor. Under the current DVPO arrangements, we see instances of insufficient action being taken while the order is active, leaving victims exposed to further harm once it has expired.

We recommend this section of the Bill be amended to state that the while a DAPO will have a flexible duration, it is expected that a full investigation will commence within an agreed timeframe.

· Sections 36 and 37, which deem the breach of an order a criminal offence that is enforceable through the courts. This is vital to keep victims safe and to demonstrate that their experiences of abuse are being taken seriously. However, we would advocate for a flexible approach, particularly where a criminal conviction is not in the best interests of the victim.

We recommend these sections of the Bill be amended to state that the preferences of victims must be considered in responding to breach of an order.

7 Special measures directions in cases involving domestic abuse (Chapter 4, Section 53)

7.1 We welcome Section 53 (1-3) of the Bill, which will extend eligibility for special measures for giving of evidence or information for purposes of criminal proceedings relating to offences that involve domestic abuse. In our experience, the way victims are asked to give evidence in court is often counterproductive. Victims who experience controlling or coercive behaviour often experience ongoing symptoms of trauma, particularly when faced with their abuser in court. If implemented effectively, we believe this approach will be more sensitive towards victims and their needs.

7.2 In our experience, the experiences of victims are particularly poor within the family courts. We would like to see Section 53 (1-3) amended to specify that the measures are applicable to both the criminal and family court systems.

7.3 Another particular challenge is that the voices of victims are frequently not heard in court proceedings until if and when there is a guilty plea. We would like to see victims represented at every stage of court proceedings. We would like the range of special measures set out in Section 53 (1-3) be expanded to include access to a court advocate or specialist court to advocate for the victim at every stage.

8 Secure tenancies in cases of domestic abuse, Chapter 4 (Section 56)

8.1 We are members of the Advisory Group for the APPG for Ending Homelessness (APPGEH) and share their view that domestic abuse is inextricably linked with housing. Abuse most often occurs at home, and homelessness can be a very real prospect for people leaving an abusive situation.

Automatic priority need

8.2 We welcome the proposal to introduce secure tenancies in cases of domestic abuse, but are concerned that victims of domestic abuse in England are not automatically considered in priority need of accommodation if they become homeless. Instead, they are required to prove their vulnerability over and above that of other people experiencing homelessness. This places an undue onus on the victim to provide evidence of their abuse, which is both re-traumatising and potentially puts them at greater risk of harm. The APPGEH has highlighted that in 2017, only two per cent of people were found to be in priority need and made an offer of settled housing because they were vulnerable as a result of domestic abuse.

8.3 We would like to see Section 56 of the Bill be amended to ensure that everyone fleeing domestic abuse who is homeless is automatically considered in priority need for settled housing.

Local connection restrictions

8.4 Government guidance makes clear that local connection restrictions (the practice of placing individuals who are homeless in the area that they live, or may have family) should not be applied within domestic abuse contracts. This is significant as victims of domestic abuse may need to flee their local area to access refuge, and require flexibility in their housing options once they are in a different local authority area. However, in our experience this is not applied consistently. Others, including Women’s Aid and Safe Lives, have talked about a postcode lottery of access to refuge services and housing options.

8.5 We would like to see the legislation strengthened to include a statutory ban on local authorities imposing ‘local connection restrictions’ on refuge services.

October 2019

 

Prepared 31st October 2019