The Domestic Abuse Bill: Making it work for children

Posted by Kate Maher / Wednesday 17 July 2019 / Law Public Affairs
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Yesterday, Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins introduced the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament.

Long promised by Prime Minister Theresa May, its publication has been seen as an attempt to ensure that whoever succeeds her commits the Bill’s passage into law.

Notably, although Ms Atkins confirmed she had had assurances from both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt’s campaign teams that the candidates would take the Bill forward, Johnson hasn’t made any promises publically.

But back to the Bill itself. Since the Government announced its initial plans to tackle domestic abuse more than a year ago, Action for Children and others have highlighted the gaps when it comes to children.

The impact of domestic abuse on children and young people is devastating and can last into adulthood. They can experience high levels of anxiety and depression as a result of living with domestic abuse, and their lives can be highly disrupted, with some having to move a number of times in order to be safe.[i]

Yet although Ms Atkins acknowledged the fact that the parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinising the Bill in its draft form had reiterated the need for children to be at the heart of the Government’s response, this is still not the case. 

"We still believe that the Bill may be weak when it comes to the impact of domestic abuse on children, both as victims and as witnesses. By not focusing enough on the impact, there will be a knock-on effect on the specialist support made available to them."

Carolyn Harris MP, Shadow Minister,

As we’ve looked at in previous blogs, the Government has made some efforts to take greater account of children. In its response to the Joint Committee’s scrutiny report, the Government further committed to undertaking work on how to address domestic abuse in the relationships of under-16s, assessing the need for a review in this area.

The Government will also be looking at whether there is a need to amend the definition of harm in the Children Act 1989, to ensure that children’s experiences of coercive and controlling behaviour are taken seriously. 

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However, this leads us back to the gaps in the Bill. The proposed statutory definition of domestic abuse in the Bill still does not cover children.

We know that there is an expectation that this definition will be adopted by public authorities and frontline practitioners like the police.

Research has highlighted that young people often feel that they are not provided with any explanations or information from the police, and that their perspective on domestic violence incidents isn’t listened to.[i]

We will continue to work with Government and others to ensure the Bill addresses the needs of children affected. It is promising that the Government has taken on some of the Joint Committee’s recommendations, and committed to giving others full consideration.

In particular, we are pleased to see that, in response to concerns about the independence of the proposed Domestic Abuse Commissioner, highlighted by the Joint Committee, Action for Children and others, the Commissioner will no longer be required to submit their strategic plans to the Home Secretary for approval.

A statutory framework document will also be created setting out in greater detail how the Commissioner and Home Secretary will work together. 

There is definitely still opportunity to enhance the scope and the effectiveness of this Bill. However, the Bill’s journey into law will also be dependent on the new Prime Minister. 

It needs to be understood that children experience domestic abuse and require support, and including children in the definition on the face of the Bill would make it absolutely clear. Although Action for Children welcomes the fact that the statutory guidance accompanying the Bill will recognise the devastating impact domestic abuse can have on children, this will not be strong enough to result in the change we need to see. 

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There is also concern that their absence from the definition could have a consequential impact in terms of the level and quality of provision available to those children affected who need dedicated and specialist support. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is consulting on a proposed duty on local authorities to deliver support to survivors and their children in accommodation-based services like refuges.

In her statement to the House of Commons, Ms Atkins promised that the Bill would be amended to make provision for this, dependent on the outcome of the consultation.

We would like to see this duty widened so that dedicated domestic abuse services for children are provided consistently across the country, whether they are living at home or in a refuge.

At the moment, the current state of service provision for children affected by domestic abuse appears confused and limited. Action for Children will be exploring this further in research being published in the autumn.

"The Prime Minister will be gone next week, but this Bill—her Bill—must go forward."

Harriet Harman MP,