Is Theresa May serious about tackling domestic abuse? We’re about to find out

 Daily Telegraph, Friday 9 March 2018

This is Theresa May’s big chance. It might seem a bit early to talk about her legacy, but will she go down in history as the Prime Minister who finally took domestic violence seriously - and did something about it? Many of the signs are promising. This week, May chose International Women’s Day to launch her long-awaited public consultation on domestic abuse. It is wide-ranging, seeking evidence from a range of experts and survivors, and will feed into what is promised to be a flagship domestic abuse bill.

Not just that: in a signal of how seriously the government takes the issue, May was flanked by two Cabinet colleagues, the Home Amber Rudd and the Justice Secretary David Gauke, when she outlined her proposals. For a habitually cautious politician, she made a very significant promise, insisting that her proposals ‘have the potential to completely transform the way we tackle domestic abuse, providing better protection to victims and bringing more perpetrators to justice’.

This is the kind of commitment campaigners have hoped to hear for years. One of May’s most striking proposals is that economic abuse will be recognised for the first time, acknowledging the extent to which some women are forced to surrender control of their finances by dominating partners.

We have known for a long time that victims are being denied access to jobs and transport, kept so short of money that they can’t even leave the house without pleading for cash, and in some cases forced to take out loans. Few people realise that this kind of abuse is actually easier to prove – using evidence such as bank statements – than other forms of coercive control.

May has promised greater protection for victims, including tough new Domestic Violence Protection Orders. These will give the courts powers to place conditions on perpetrators, including compulsory alcohol treatment or programmes to address underlying addictions and abusive behaviour. Breaching an order will become a criminal offence.

She also wants to create a statutory aggravating factor in sentencing, similar to those that already exist for hate crimes, to toughen sentences in cases where domestic abuse affects a child. All of this is good news and consistent with her insistence, going back to when she was first appointed Home Secretary in 2010, that tacking domestic violence is of central importance to her.

Unlike many of her predecessors, May appears to understand that domestic abuse is widespread, encompasses a range of behaviours and causes tremendous damage – to society as a whole as well as individuals. This is not just about physical violence, although that is bad enough for those experiencing it, but relationships that affect every aspect of victims’ lives. Women (and the smaller number of male victims) can’t reach their full potential while they are living in fear, and the impact on children is far-reaching.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that this is not just a matter for the criminal law. New offences and tougher sentences have their place but May needs to answer hard questions before her domestic violence bill is seen as a defining feminist moment in her premiership. Her consultation promises small amounts of public money for specific projects – £2m to support female offenders who have been victims of domestic abuse, for instance – but ducks the big issue of resources. For women in the most dangerous relationships, the most urgent need is a place of safety for themselves and their children – and in many cases that means a refuge.

In the period during which May has been Home Secretary and prime minister, refuge provision has been cut to the bone in this country as a direct result of government policy. Most women’s refuges are funded by local authorities. Savage spending cuts imposed by central government have made them vulnerable – an easy target when cash-strapped councillors are deciding, however reluctantly, where to make savings. The result is desperate women sleeping on friends’ sofas or, in the worst case scenario, staying with a violent man because there is nowhere else to go.

This is happening now, and May is a key member of the governments that created the crisis. Her consultation document says ‘we have heard the need for sustainable funding for refuges’ – and asks for charities and frontlines organisations to come up with ideas on how to deliver it.

They will tell her that what is needed is secure long-term funding, whether it comes from central or local government – and some will ask whether the police will get the resources they need to put new laws into effect.

The government’s proposed domestic violence bill could be a milestone for women,. But the big question is which Theresa May will win out – the feminist or the fiscal conservative?

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