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Alarming signs of rising domestic abuse require urgent Government response

27 April 2020

The Government must make tackling domestic violence and abuse a central pillar of the broader strategy to combat the Covid-19 epidemic, a report by the Home Affairs Committee has found. Calls and contacts to the national domestic abuse helpline run by the charity Refuge were 49% higher in the week prior to 15 April than the average prior to the pandemic.

The Committee calls for a comprehensive cross-governmental Covid-19 strategy on domestic abuse, both for lockdown and the period afterwards when needs may be high. The strategy should combine awareness, prevention, victim support, housing and a criminal justice response, backed by dedicated funding and ministerial leadership.

The Committee also calls for new schemes to ensure that victims can access urgent help during lockdown when they may be unable to use the phone at home or talk to friends, including by expanding the Safe Spaces model piloted in pharmacies to include supermarkets and other retailers.

Domestic abuse can have devastating, long-term impacts on the lives of victims and children who experience abuse in the home. The Committee warns that without urgent action to prevent and address the increase in domestic abuse incidents during the Covid-19 lockdown period, we will be dealing with serious consequences for a generation.

Chair's comments

Launching the report, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee Yvette Cooper said:

“Staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn't safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse.
“There are already alarming signs of the rise in domestic abuse. Our cross-party Committee is calling for an urgent action plan from Government setting out practical measures to tackle domestic abuse as an integrated part of the fight against Covid-19.

“We are calling for new emergency funding for support services, new ways for victims to access help through supermarkets and pharmacies, outreach visits to known vulnerable households, support for children and a new guarantee of safe housing for anyone needing to leave their home during lockdown because of abuse. The national public information campaign is welcome, but the Government now needs to go much further and set out a full cross-Government Covid-19 action plan on domestic abuse.

“Things are particularly hard for vulnerable children. We can't abandon them in the middle of this crisis. Local authorities, schools, the police and other professionals involved in child welfare need to ensure they are working together to contact and visit homes where children are at risk.

“This isn't just about supporting victims in periods of lockdown. When restrictions are eased and victims try to leave or to return to normal life the threat to them could be even greater and the need for support will be acute.

“The emotional, physical and social scars from domestic abuse can last a lifetime. If we don't act to tackle it now, we will feel the consequences of rising abuse during the Coronavirus crisis for many years to come”. 

Surge in domestic abuse

The Committee previously raised concerns about Government support for victims of domestic abuse in its report of 2018. These concerns have been heightened by evidence that Covid-19, and the measures taken to prevent its spread, have led to a significant increase in cases of domestic abuse.

Calls to Refuge increased by 49% in the week prior to 15 April compared to the average, Chayn reported that visits to its website had trebled in March 2020 compared to the same month the previous year, and the Men's Advice Line saw an increase in calls of 16.6%. Research by Counting Dead Women calculated that at least 16 domestic abuse killings of women and children had taken place between 23 March and 12 April, double that of an average 21 day period in the last decade.

Measures designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 have also made some services harder to access. Some services have reported drops in calls where social distancing has reduced face to face contact, and where victims are scared to make calls in case they are overheard by their abuser.

A Government response to match the scale of the crisis

The Committee calls for the Home Secretary to take the lead in establishing a formal cross-government working group, tasked with producing and implementing a co-ordinated action plan that deals with the period of lockdown and immediately after, when many victims may be newly able to seek help and the need for support is likely to be acute. Ministers from across Government should be involved alongside the Domestic Abuse, Victims' and Children's Commissioners, as well as consulting frontline providers. The action plan should be a core part of Government emergency planning led by COBR.

The strategy should include specific measures to improve outreach and prevention, provide adequate funding for support services, include provision for housing and refuge accommodation, and set out a criminal justice response. It must understand the need for tailored approaches and provide help for specialist services and BAME communities. The national strategy should be backed up by action plans produced by local councils as part of their emergency planning to prevent and address domestic abuse at a local level.

Helping victims be heard

New strategies are needed to ensure that victims can access urgent help and overcome new barriers that the Covid-19 crisis has created. Many support services have responded to lockdown by increasing support through helplines, websites and online live chat. A Safe Spaces model has been piloted which offers help through pharmacies for victims who may be unable to use the phone at home or talk to friends.

The Committee calls on the Government to sponsor the expansion of Safe Spaces to supermarkets and other retailers. They should also support the development of other creative ways to offer access to support and highlight best practice to ensure it is used more widely.

Local authorities should ensure that local services are pursuing proactive outreach during lockdown, visiting families and households where there have been domestic abuse incidents in the past or where there are vulnerable children.

Funding frontline services

Support services for domestic abuse victims and vulnerable children need urgent and direct funding support or victims will be put at far greater risk of harm. Charities have seen their funding drop at the same time as urgent demand is increasing. The Committee calls for immediate and targeted assistance to fund support services and address the wider needs of victims of abuse, including but not limited to refuge, food security and culturally specific support.

There should be a ring-fenced allocation for organisations dedicated to supporting those at risk of domestic abuse and vulnerable children within the £750 million funding announced to support frontline charities. The Government should also set out arrangements for timely, fair and equitable distribution of the fund, guaranteeing access to organisations regardless of size.

Strengthening the criminal justice response

Police forces are struggling to secure Domestic Violence Prevention Orders, that prevent an abuser from returning home and having contact with a victim for up to 28 days, due to the requirement to provide an alternative address. Local authorities need to ensure there is provision for alternative temporary accommodation during lockdown. The police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts need to work together to ensure that DVPO cases are heard quickly. Legal aid should be granted automatically to domestic abuse victims in respect of any application for protection during lockdown.

Many victims may also be unable to report the abuse they have experienced until lockdown ends. Section 127 of the Magistrates Court Act 1980 places a six month time limit on some offences that may occur in domestic abuse, including harassment, common assault and battery. The Government should legislate to extend this limit following the lockdown and remove a potential barrier to justice.

Increasing refuge capacity and a guarantee of safe housing

The Committee highlighted the desperate lack of refuge capacity in its 2018 report. England has 30% less than the recommended bed spaces and in 2018-19 64% of referrals were declined. Covid-19 has simply increased the existing pressure, reducing staff availability and preventing any refuge with a suspected case from accepting new residents.

Anyone needing to leave their home during lockdown because of abuse should be guaranteed a safe place to stay. The Government must work with local authorities, providers and stakeholders to increase the availability of refuge and move-on accommodation. Clear Government leadership should be brought to the task of securing hotel and hostel accommodation for victims in all parts of the country. The Government must also ensure that the existing network of refuges remains sustainable for the long term by providing ring-fenced support for the additional costs, and loss of income, incurred by these services as a result of coronavirus.

Government funding for support services and refuge accommodation must include specialist provision and must ensure that BAME services can continue and expand to meet any increased need.

Protecting vulnerable children

The Committee heard that two thirds of women in refuge have children with them, and around 800,000 children experienced domestic abuse in the past year. Data from Childline indicated that, as well as being concerned about coronavirus, children and young people are very concerned about abuse now that they are unable to leave the house to get support at schools, clubs, friends' or relatives' houses.

In order to safeguard the most vulnerable children, face to face contact remains the most effective approach. The coronavirus crisis has created new challenges in doing that and therefore we would urge local authorities, schools, police and other professionals involved in child welfare to work collaboratively to find smarter ways to enable face to face contact to happen and to make sure these children remain firmly on their radar.

The Committee calls for children's support services to be sustained by direct Government funding where there are shortfalls because of falling charitable donations to ensure that children have access to the help and support they need.

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