May urges MPs seize ‘once in generation’ chance to pass domestic abuse laws
Theresa May has urged MPs to seize a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to help domestic abuse survivors by passing “landmark” new laws.
The former prime minister used her Commons first speech since returning to the Tory backbenches to champion the Domestic Abuse Bill, seen as a key part of her legacy from her time in Number 10.
Mrs May insisted the legislation is about “changing the attitude” people take to domestic abuse and also “challenge” MPs, the Government and society to take the issue “as seriously” as those contributing in the chamber.
She also recalled stories of people, particularly women, who have been hit by their partners, adding it is “the sadness in our society” that so many people “don’t know what a good relationship is” and who “suffer in silence”.
Mrs May’s contribution came after Justice Secretary Robert Buckland acknowledged there is a “heck of a way to go” to help domestic abuse survivors and committed to abide by changes approved by MPs.
Several MPs urged the Government to address the issue of stalking in the Bill, with support for migrant women and giving domestic abuse survivors priority need status for housing among the other proposals.
The Bill seeks to give better protection to those fleeing violence by placing a new legal duty on councils to provide secure homes for them and their children.
It would also introduce the first legal Government definition of domestic abuse, which would include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical behaviour.
A domestic abuse commissioner to champion survivors is also proposed.
Speaking at second reading, Conservative MP Mrs May said: “Domestic abuse blights lives, it can destroy lives, and not just the life of the immediate victim, but of those children and other family members as well.”
She added: “I believe this is a landmark piece of legislation.”
Mrs May went on: “It’s been described by Government and indeed by charities and others involved with working with the victims of domestic abuse as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make sure we take a step change in the approach we take to supporting victims and to dealing with domestic abuse.”
Mrs May recalled launching a campaign of advertisements about “what a good relationship was” during her time as home secretary, noting: “The saddest thing was reading some of the comments that the young people, particularly young women, made when they had seen those adverts in cinemas and elsewhere.
“Comments like ‘I didn’t know it was wrong for him to hit me’.
“This is the sadness in our society, of so many people who don’t know what a good relationship is and who suffer from their bad relationship, and who suffer in silence for too many – as we’ve heard – for many years before any action is taken.”
She also recalled being told how one woman had been locked in a cupboard by a perpetrator so she could not physically get to court to give evidence.
Turning to the police, Mrs May spoke about helpful developments such as body-worn video cameras to ensure footage was taken on arrival at a reported incident.
She said: “Police forces need to look at how they deal with domestic violence and domestic abuse within the force where police officers themselves are subject to such domestic abuse and if they turn a blind eye, then that gives a message to their officers as how they should treat people outside the force who are reporting abuse.”
Opening the debate, Mr Buckland said: “I do believe the days of the courts approaching abuses as ‘just a domestic’ have happily gone, but my goodness me we still have a heck of a way to go.”
He added: “In the year ending March 2018, some two million adults between 16 and 59 years of age experienced domestic abuse – two million people whose everyday lives are blighted by abuse and who live with those effects, be they physical or be they emotional.
“So you can see the high degree of duty we have to them by passing this legislation.”
For Labour, shadow women and equalities minister Carolyn Harris welcomed the “long-awaited” Bill and called for it to have “greater scope”, including the role of domestic abuse commissioner to be a full-time position.
She said: “If the commissioner is going to successfully deliver a whole-society response and radically improve the UK’s approach to domestic violence then a part-time position is just not viable.”
Ms Harris also said: “I have very real concerns about migrant victims when we eventually leave the EU. Under the EU settlement scheme, European citizens and their families will need to apply to secure their status in the UK.
“Survivors of domestic abuse are at a particular risk of being left out of this by abusive partners in a bid to control and isolate them.
“The Government must ensure that legislation is in place to support these victims, allowing them to apply even after the deadline has passed in order to prevent a situation where survivors are forced to choose between staying with their abuser or being illegally resident in the UK.”
MP SHARES WITH COMMONS HER OWN EXPERIENCE OF DOMESTIC ABUSE
An MP has urged others to come forward if it is safe for them to do so after sharing during a Commons debate her own experience of coercive control.
Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield received a standing ovation after she gave an emotional speech about a relationship she was involved in as the Domestic Abuse Bill was debated.
The Labour MP said: “So what is domestic violence or abuse and where do we get our ideas about it from?
“Often we see the same images and stereotypes on TV. Housing estates, working-class families, drunk men coming home from the pub, women surrounded by children and a sequence of shouting followed by immediate physical violence or assault.
“But the soap opera scenes only tend to focus on one or two aspects of a much bigger and more complex picture.
“Domestic violence has many faces and the faces of those who survive are varied too.”
She added: “Abuse isn’t just about those noticeable physical signs, sometimes there are no bruises.
“Abuse is very often all about control and power, it’s about making themselves feel big or biggest, but that’s not how abusers present themselves.”
Ms Duffield described how the signs of coercive control are not apparent at the start of a relationship, but gradually start to build up and develop.
She told MPs: “It’s not how they win your heart. It’s not how they persuade you to meet them for a coffee, then go to a gig, then spend an evening snuggled up in front of a movie at their place.
“When they ask you out they don’t present their rage and they don’t tell you that they like the idea of strong, independent, successful women, but not the reality.
“They don’t threaten, criticise, control, yell or exert their physical strength in increasingly frightening ways. Not yet. Not at the start.”
She added: “Every day is emotionally exhausting, working in a job that you love but putting on a brave face and pretending all is good, fine, wonderful in fact.
“Then the pretence and the public face start to drop completely. Being yelled at in the car with the windows down, no attempt to hide behaviour during constituency engagements. Humiliation and embarrassment now added to permanent trepidation and constant hurt.”
She added: “Impossible to comprehend that this is the person who tells his family how much he loves you and longs to make you his wife.
“But the mask has slipped for good and questions are starting. Excuses are given to worried friends, concerned family, colleagues who started to notice.
“So one night after more crying and being constantly verbally abused because you suggest that he help pay a bit towards your new sofa, you realise you’ve reached the end and you simply cannot endure this for another day, or week and certainly not for the rest of your life.
“Having listened intently for two whole weeks to the sound of his morning shower, timing the routine until you know it off by heart, you summon up the courage to take his front door keys from his bag.
“You’ve tried everything else on earth and know for certain 100%, what awaits you that night if you don’t act today.
“Heart-banging, you hide them carefully and creep back into bed, praying he won’t discover what you have done. You know for certain what will happen if he does.
“You know an apology will not follow. You know for sure it’ll be because of what you’ve done and that it is all your fault.”
Ms Duffield continued: “He tells you to remember that you will always be his. He kisses you lovingly as though there has never been months of verbal abuse, threats and incidents he knows you will never disclose.
“He tells you he will bring something nice home for dinner. And sure enough, the next few days and weeks are a total hell.
“Texts and calls, yelling that ‘you’ve locked me out like a dog. Nobody treats me that way. This is the last thing you will ever do’.
“You cry, you grieve for your destroyed dreams, you try to heal, you ignore the emails from wedding companies but it’s like withdrawal and it take six months.
“But one day you notice that you’re smiling, that it’s OK to laugh.”
Ms Duffield urged others to come forward if they are suffering coercive control or other forms of abuse.
She said: “You realise that you’ve survived. That the brightest and most precious thing of all is to realise that you are loved and believed by friends, family and colleagues who believe in you and support you.
“So if anyone is watching and needs a friend, please reach out if it is safe to do so and please talk to any of us because we will be there and we will hold your hand.”
Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Aaron Chown / PA Wire.