Draft Domestic Abuse Bill Contents

5Migrant women

232.Migrant women with uncertain immigration status are particularly vulnerable when they are victims of domestic abuse. Fear of being deported may make them less likely to seek help, and their immigration status may mean that they have no entitlement to welfare support, or to other forms of support such as a place in a refuge. Some perpetrators use this insecurity as a further means to coerce and control.

233.Witnesses told us that the Bill offered no additional protection for these women, and that this was not compliant with the requirements of the Istanbul Convention (“the Convention”). The Convention304 sets international standards designed to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. It came into force on 1 August 2014. The UK signed the Convention on 8 June 2012 and the Government stated in the response to its domestic abuse consultation that it was committed to ratifying it as soon as possible.305 Until the UK ratifies, it is not bound by the Convention.306 Article 4 of the Convention requires that parties take the necessary legislative and other measures to promote and protect the rights of everyone, particularly women, to live free from violence in both the public and private sphere. It also requires that these measures are provided without discrimination on (among others) the grounds of migrant or refugee status.307

234.The Bill includes no specific provisions concerning migrant women, but we have considered this issue because of concerns that in practice some migrant women would not be protected by the proposed measures in the Bill.

Problems faced by migrant women

235.DCC Louisa Rolfe, NPCC lead on domestic abuse, told us that migrant women were sometimes unaware of the support that may be available to them and that manipulative perpetrators exploited that uncertainty.308 Zehrah Hasan of Liberty said that women in these circumstances faced an impossible situation where they were forced to choose between the risk of destitution, detention or deportation, or staying in a situation of violence.309

236.Amnesty International argued that the UK was not compliant with Article 4, paragraph 3 of the Convention. It said that there was “a wealth of evidence” demonstrating that women with insecure immigration status were unable to secure protection when they experienced domestic abuse and were deterred from reporting to the police and other agencies because of the fear of facing immigration enforcement. It stated that the Bill contained no new provisions to increase protection or support for these victims of abuse.310 Southall Black Sisters explained that:

Abused migrant women are at risk of the most serious and prolonged forms of abuse, slavery and harm but cannot access justice or protection if they have unsettled immigration status; they are effectively excluded from the few protective measures contained in the Bill. The Bill does nothing to remove immigration and other barriers, including providing safe reporting measures to encourage abused migrant women to access necessary protection.311

237.Lucila Granada, of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, explained that the women at risk included not only undocumented women (some of whom may have been forced to become undocumented by the perpetrator as a way of control), but also those with regular status but who were at risk of becoming undocumented, including EEA family members, asylum seekers, refugees, women on spousal visas and women with applications in process.312 The AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) is a legal charity which provides advice to individuals and their representatives on free movement rights under EU law. It has a specialist project which provides these advice services to victims of domestic abuse. The AIRE Centre drew attention to the vulnerability of some spouses of EEA nationals who had sought refuge after fleeing domestic abuse and were unable to provide documentary evidence of the abuser’s exercise of treaty rights in the UK; and EEA national spouses of British nationals who did not hold leave to remain in the UK as a spouse or partner under the Immigration Rules.313

238.Galop pointed out that LGBT survivors with uncertain immigration status might be faced with deportation to countries which criminalised same-sex relations or imposed the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships.314 Stay Safe East said that disabled victims risked being returned to a country of origin where there were no services for disabled people or where they might be institutionalised.315

239.The Children’s Society provided evidence on issues for children within migrant families where there was domestic abuse. It questioned the Government’s position that “some victims are best served by returning to their country of origin”, saying that over half of the estimated 120,000 undocumented migrant children living in the UK were born here, and that “thousands of children in this cohort may have been born British or be eligible to register as British citizens and so cannot be expected to leave.”316

240.Some women with insecure immigration status are faced with the choice of staying with a perpetrator of abuse or becoming homeless and destitute because they do not know how to get help or may not be entitled to support and may be at risk of detention and deportation. Because of this vulnerability, immigration status itself is used by perpetrators of domestic abuse as a means to coerce and control.

241.Witnesses told us that migrant women experiencing domestic abuse were effectively excluded from the few protective measures contained in the Bill and that this was not compliant with the requirements of Article 4, paragraph 3 of the Istanbul Convention which requires protection to be provided without discrimination on any ground, including migrant and refugee status.

Safe reporting mechanisms and firewalls

242.One particular issue is that victims of abuse may avoid contacting the police for help because of the risk that they will be referred to immigration authorities and then detained or deported to countries where they may face further harm.317 Women’s Aid stated that “over half (27) of police forces in England and Wales confirmed that they share victims’ details with the Home Office for immigration control”.318 Liberty and Southall Black Sisters have submitted a police super-complaint319 regarding data sharing between the police and immigration forces, which details a number of cases in which survivors have been subject to arrest and detention instead of having crimes committed against them properly investigated.320

243.In its 2018 report on Domestic Abuse, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that the Government ensure that the police service complies with its stated aim of ensuring that all vulnerable migrants, including those in the UK illegally, receive the support and assistance they need regardless of their immigration status.321 In December 2018, the NPCC announced that it had issued new national guidance regarding the sharing of information with Immigration Enforcement about victims of crime who were identified as being in the UK illegally. The NPCC stated that:

When someone reports a crime police will always, first and foremost, treat them as a victim. There are occasions when officers will need to carry out police database checks on people involved in reporting a crime. This can be for a number of reasons like informing officers on how best to protect a victim or to help progress an investigation. Police will never check a database only to establish a victim’s immigration status.

If an officer becomes aware that a victim of crime is suspected of being an illegal immigrant it is right that they should raise this with immigration enforcement officers and not take any immigration enforcement action themselves. Throughout the police should treat them as a victim of crime. The police priority is to protect victims and investigate crime, and we are extremely careful about doing anything to deter victims from reporting to us.322

244.The new NPCC guidance is challenged by Liberty and Southall Black Sisters in its police super-complaint:

The policy does state that the police will not take any enforcement action themselves. But of course by sharing the information with the Home Office, which is likely to include contact data for the victim of crime, the Home Office is facilitated in taking enforcement action. It is clear, therefore, that the guidance does not improve the position for victims or witnesses of crimes; at best it merely changes which State body will act on the information gathered as a result of a victim reporting a crime, and may delay enforcement action for a brief period. Indeed, it still implicates the police in immigration enforcement practices against victims and witnesses of crimes.323

Liberty went so far as to suggest that public service providers giving information to the Home Office breached the obligation under Article 7 of the Convention to place victims “at the centre of all measures”.324

245.Some witnesses suggested that there should be a policy of a firewall between public services and immigration authorities. This would enable all survivors of domestic abuse and violence to safely report abuse to the police, social services, health professionals and others without fear of immigration enforcement. The Step Up Migrant Women campaign, led by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, calls for secure, safe reporting mechanisms and recommends “the establishment of a firewall at the levels of policy and practice to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control”.325

246.Some witnesses argued that this firewall should be given statutory force through the Bill. The EHRC recommended that the Bill be amended to include a prohibition on police as well as providers of healthcare and other support services from sharing information about an individual’s immigration status for the purpose of immigration control.326 The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee also suggested that the new NPCC guidance be given statutory force through an additional provision in the Bill prohibiting the automatic transmission of information from the police to immigration officials in such cases.327

247.However, DCC Louisa Rolfe expressed concerns that a complete firewall between the police and Immigration Enforcement could be counterproductive. She said that many officers already worked with Immigration Enforcement services to help resolve the victim’s uncertainty about their immigration status and so remove the perpetrator’s ability to control or manipulate them because of that status.328 Government Ministers have stated that “the sharing of information is often the safest way to get [vulnerable migrants] the support they need, and the police are confident that current arrangements can do this”.329 The Home Office Minister explained that:

We are committed to ensuring that all victims of domestic abuse or crime are treated first and foremost as victims, regardless of their immigration status, but immigration enforcement is engaged with the National Police Chiefs Council to ensure that the police and immigration work collaboratively to recognise victims quickly and to ensure that immigration status is not used by perpetrators to coerce and control their victims. The police and the investigation inspectorate will share information and intelligence, but will not take enforcement action if the police are investigating a crime.330

248.The police service has a critical role in providing a first line of response to victims of abuse, particularly when there is a crisis. We know from our informal meetings with survivors of abuse that many of them do not know where else to turn in an emergency other than the police, especially when they live in rural areas, or when they need help at night.

249.We are particularly concerned to hear evidence that some police forces share details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control rather than helping the victim access appropriate support. We note that the NPCC updated its guidance in December 2018, to specify that when someone reports a crime, the police must always, first and foremost, treat them as a victim, and that police must never check a database only to establish a victim’s immigration status. However, it is clear that this guidance is not sufficient to prevent immigration authorities from taking enforcement action at a time when there is a duty on statutory authorities to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are provided with protection and support.

250.We note the concerns that a statutory bar on sharing information could in some cases prevent the police from helping victims of abuse who are uncertain of their immigration status. We welcome the new NPCC guidance but doubt whether it will be sufficient to change long-standing bad practice.

251.We recommend that a more robust Home Office policy is developed to determine the actions which may be taken by the immigration authorities with respect to victims of crime who have approached public authorities for protection and support. We support the recommendation of the Step Up Migrant Women campaign to establish a firewall at the levels of policy and practice to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control.

Economic support

252.Some residence permits that allow an individual to live in the UK may include the condition that they have no recourse to public funds (NRFP). This means that those individuals are not eligible to claim most benefits, tax credits or housing assistance that are paid by the state. Victims of domestic abuse who have NRPF status usually have been granted limited leave to enter the UK as a spouse or a fiancé of a person present and settled in the UK. Victims of domestic abuse with NRPF are at risk of homelessness and destitution because they cannot access mainstream housing, welfare benefits and employment, and support services can find it difficult to engage with NRPF clients because of the limited support options available to them. Many refuges are unable to provide places to victims of abuse with NRPF, because they cannot claim housing benefit to fund their place in the refuge.331

253.The domestic violence rule (DVR) was introduced in 2002. This allows people who were admitted to the UK on a partner’s visa to apply for indefinite leave to remain, if they are able to provide evidence that the relationship broke down permanently before the end of their limited leave as a result of domestic violence.332 The destitution domestic violence concession (DDVC)333 was introduced in 2012 to allow intending DVR applicants access to limited state benefits and housing whilst their application is being considered. The concession provides leave to remain, with access to benefits, for three months. If a survivor applies for indefinite leave to remain during that period, leave continues while the application is considered.334

254.Women’s Aid called for urgent reforms to end the insurmountable barriers facing survivors with NRPF. It explained that over a quarter of the women refused access to a refuge space supported by its No Woman Turned Away project in 2017 had NRPF, and that “many had to sleep rough, sofa surf or even return to the perpetrator while they waited for help”. Women’s Aid said that the DVR and DDVC could provide a life-line to support for those who are eligible, but that two-thirds of the women with NPRF supported by its No Woman Turned Away project in one year were not eligible for DDVC because they were not on a spousal visa. Women’s Aid called for eligibility for the DDVC and DVR to be expanded to include all migrant women, not only those on spousal visas, and for an extension, or removal of, the three-month time limit for the DDVC. It also argued for revised guidance about the type of evidence of domestic abuse required to access the DDVC.335

255.Southall Black Sisters agreed with these recommendations. It pointed out that women on student, work or other types of visas may also face abuse and violence but are not entitled to the DDVC.336 It stated that failure to provide adequate protections for abused migrant women was a violation of the UK’s obligations including under the European Convention on Human Rights, the Istanbul Convention and the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.337 Our witnesses were unable to give us an estimate of the number of women who might become eligible under the DDVC if it were no longer restricted to holders of spousal visas, Jane Gordon, Sisters for Change, said that it would be “very difficult” to provide such a statistic, not least because some victims of abuse with NRPF did not approach support services.338

256.Southall Black Sisters said that the existing three-month time limit for the DDVC was insufficient for several reasons. First, it could restrict access to accommodation because landlords were guaranteed funding for only three months. Secondly, DWP did not always recognise the ‘waiver’ granted by the Home Office to obtain the DDVC and it could take up to six weeks for a DDVC application to be processed. In addition, the process required benefit applicants to have a bank account but victims of abuse in temporary accommodation did not have the prescribed forms of address required by banks to open an account. Thirdly, three months was not long enough for migrant women to obtain legal advice and representation, or for a support service to help women gather the evidence to support their DVR applications and to navigate complex immigration rules.339 In its response to the domestic abuse consultation, the Home Office said that it had considered changing the time limit from three to six months but had concluded that this was unnecessary because “the vast majority of applications for [indefinite leave to remain] on the basis of suffering domestic abuse are resolved quickly and well within three months”.340

257.The Home Office Minister told us that she accepted there are concerns about the lack of support for migrant women. She said that the Government was looking carefully at Article 4, paragraph 3 and would take the Istanbul Convention’s provisions into account. She added that the Government was continuing to consult with stakeholders and was open to further suggestions. With regard to the specific recommendations made by witnesses, she said that the Government was “conscious of the pressures of the three-month time limit”341 and reiterated that it was “considering the argument for widening the cohort of individuals eligible under the concession”.342

258.The provisions barring individuals from having recourse to public funds can prevent some victims of domestic abuse with uncertain immigration status from accessing refuges and other support services. We recommend that Government explores ways to extend the temporary concessions available under the DVR and DDVC to support migrant survivors of abuse, to ensure that all of these vulnerable victims of crime can access protection and support whilst their application for indefinite leave to remain is considered by the Government. We recommend that the Government consult on the most effective criteria to ensure such a measure reaches the victims it is designed to support and that it should extend the three-month time limit to six months for the DDVC in the light of the specific difficulties for victims highlighted by Southall Black Sisters. We note that the Home Office already publishes guidance on the evidence of domestic violence which is required to support applications under the DVR, and we would expect these protocols to continue to be applied.

259.We recommend the inclusion of an additional clause in the Bill, imposing on public authorities dealing with a victim or alleged victim of domestic abuse, or making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise functions, a duty to have due regard to the need to protect the rights of victims without discrimination on any of the grounds prohibited by Article 4, paragraph 3 of the Istanbul Convention.

305 Home Office, Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse: Consultation Response and Draft Bill (January 2019), p 61

310 Amnesty International UK (DAB0336)

311 Southall Black Sisters (DAB0508)

313 The AIRE Centre (DAB0196)

316 The Children’s Society (DAB0533)

317 Southall Black Sisters (DAB0508)

318 Women’s Aid Federation of England (DAB0404)

319 Liberty and Southall Black Sisters, Police data sharing for immigration purposes: a super-complaint (December 2018)

320 Southall Black Sisters (DAB0508)

321 Home Affairs Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, Domestic Abuse, HC 1015, para 103

322 National Police Chiefs’ Council, ‘New guidance for officers on sharing information with Immigration Enforcement’, accessed 11 June 2019

323 Liberty and Southall Black Sisters, Super-complaint, para 14

324 Liberty (DAB0216)

325 Step Up Migrant Women, ‘About’, accessed 28 May 2019

326 Equality and Human Rights Commission (DAB0477)

327 Letter to the Chair from Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee (DAB0535)

329 Letter from Ministers to JCHR and copied to Chair of the Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, 20 May 2019

331 Women’s Aid’s ‘No Woman Turned Away’ project found that during 2016/17, only 5.4 per cent of vacancies for refuges on Routes to Support would consider applications from women with NRPF, 2018, p 23.

332 Immigration Rules, Appendix FM, section DVILR

335 Women’s Aid Federation of England (DAB0404)

336 Southall Black Sisters (DAB0508)

339 Southall Black Sisters (DAB0508)

340 Home Office, Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse: Consultation Response and Draft Bill (January 2019), pp 24–25

Published: 14 June 2019