The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill has today published its report on the Bill and called for it to be amended to give greater protection to victims of domestic abuse.
The recommended changes to the Bill are to ensure that all those affected by domestic abuse receive protection and a tailored response to their differing needs. The Committee welcomed the proposed measures in the Bill, but was concerned with ensuring their effectiveness in practice.
The Committee was particularly concerned to ensure that children who experience domestic abuse, either as witnesses to it or in intimate relationships, are treated as victims and their needs responded to appropriately. In recognition of the fact that survivors of abuse require different support services, the Committee recommended that the Bill should require public authorities to have regard to the gendered nature of abuse and provide suitable services accordingly.
The Bill would establish the role of Domestic Abuse Commissioner to promote best practice in providing services to survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Because of concerns that the Commissioner would not be sufficiently independent of the Home Office and would not have power to enforce recommendations on those providing public services, the Committee put forward several changes to the Bill to increase independence, concluded that government departments should be included among the bodies which would have a duty to co-operate with the Commissioner.
The Committee recommended that the lead Minister on implementing the strategy on domestic abuse should be based in the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office. This was to encourage cross-departmental and multi-agency working and to support the independence and reach of the Commissioner. The Committee considered that overall there should be a complete review of the approach taken to establishing Commissioners offices with independence built into each by using the Cabinet Office as the sponsor department.
Other recommendations for changes to the draft Bill before it is brought back to Parliament include:
• In relation to courts, the Committee strongly supported the proposal to require the provision of special measures such as videolinks and separate waiting rooms to protect witnesses in criminal proceedings from coming into contact with their abusers, but recommended that these measures should be extended to family and other civil courts.
•At present survivors of abuse may be subjected to cross-examination by the perpetrators in the course of family and other civil proceedings. The Committee called for a mandatory ban on this where there is evidence of domestic abuse.
• The Committee welcomed the Government’s announcement that it plans to introduce a statutory requirement for accommodation support services in England to be provided for survivors of domestic abuse, but said the Government needs to provide clarity on how other support services (such as advice and counselling) would be provided and funded under the new statutory duty proposed and what arrangements will be made for the national provision of specialist services to groups such as BAME women and those with disabilities.
• The draft Bill would introduce a new type of Order to protect victims, a Domestic Abuse Prevention Order. The Committee welcomed a number of aspects of these orders but was concerned about the potential for inconsistent application between civil and criminal courts and that the courts would be reluctant to impose the orders in all but the most exceptional of circumstances.
• The Committee called on the Government to urgently bring forward legislation to increase the length of time suspects can be released on pre-charge bail in domestic abuse cases, and to create a presumption that suspects under investigation for domestic abuse, sexual assault or other significant safeguarding issues only be released from police custody on bail, unless it is clearly not necessary for the protection
The Committee supported the idea of establishing a firewall to separate reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control.
• Currently, none of the proposed changes to the law on domestic abuse would apply to Northern Ireland, and the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly means that this situation would not change. (Scotland has its own Legislation.) The Committee recommends that that the provisions of the draft Bill be extended to Northern Ireland unless and until Northern Ireland enacts its own legislation in this area. The draft Bill should be amended to include a ‘sunset clause’ to this effect.
Commenting, Mrs Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Joint Committee, said:
“The Government’s draft bill on Domestic Abuse has been widely welcomed by organisations representing survivors of Domestic Abuse and those providing support services. The Bill is the culmination of many months of work and consultation and has been said by the sector to be a ‘once in a generation opportunity to address domestic violence’ and having ‘the potential to create a step change in the national response’.
“The committee has made detailed and wide-ranging recommendations that affect many aspects of the Bill, drawing from the excellent evidence we have received including oral evidence from those who have survived domestic abuse themselves. These include important recommendation relating to the treatment of children and migrant women, the importance of cross-departmental working in prevention and early intervention and the need for Commissioners to be fully independent and have the powers they need to enforce improvements in the provision of services.”