Written evidence submitted by UNISON (COR0047)
UNISON is the UK's largest public service trade union with 1.3 million members, around 1 million of them women.
The Government’s research shows that there are 2.4 million victims of domestic violence between the ages of 16 and 74, the vast majority of whom are women, and that 1 in 4 women experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime. This already horrific statistic has only increased in recent weeks following the ‘stay at home’ guidance issued by the Government in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, with the National Domestic Abuse helpline seeing a 25% increase in calls to its service and the Police recording an increase of similar orders of magnitude of domestic violence reports since the lockdown was announced.
Whilst UNISON understands the public health need for the measures implemented, victims of domestic abuse have been forgotten and thousands of people have become unsafe with no way to escape their abusers.
This is a response to the Inquiry’s call for evidence on the prevalence of domestic abuse since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, what can be done to support victims of domestic abuse; what can be done to avert domestic abuse; and the effectiveness of Government advice and response.
THE PREVALENCE OF DOMESTIC ABUSE SINCE THE GOVERNMENT ISSUED ‘STAY AT HOME’ GUIDANCE ON 23 MARCH
1. UNISON considers domestic abuse to be a trade union and workplace issue as much as any other form of discrimination affecting workers’ employment conditions and income. Home and work issues cannot always be neatly separated, especially for women. This is even more the case now that Covid-19 social-distancing restrictions mean the majority of people who can, are working at home. Now that schools are also shut, millions of children and young people are now also at home.
2. Even in the most harmonious of relationships, living in a confined space can cause every-day tensions. Add working in the same confined space to the mix, together with severely limited opportunities to leave the home and there are likely to be challenges. For people with children, the closure of schools is an added stress-factor. The restrictions also mean that women are cut off from support networks, friends and or family, with children and young people no longer having contact with teachers who serve as a reporting and safety valve. This combination of factors has trapped hundreds of thousands of vulnerable women in unsafe situations and increased their risk of experiencing domestic abuse.
3. On 6 April 2020, the charity Refuge reported that the National Domestic Abuse helpline had seen a 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since social distancing restrictions were introduced to assist the fight against the Covid-19 virus. Visits to the UK-wide National Domestic Abuse helpline website were 150% higher than during the last week in February.
4. It is important that employers recognise the role they have in encouraging and supporting employees to address violent and abusive behaviour of all kinds and are clear that abuse is always unacceptable – even in a situation when remote working is the norm.
5. UNISON branch officials and reps are reporting unprecedented contact from members about domestic abuse. A member of UNISON’s National Women’s Committee said, “I am raising this very issue here in my trust as we have one the highest areas for these calls. I shouldn’t be amazed by the fact calls are 25% up since lockdown but even during the World Cup calls didn’t reach these levels”.
6. There has also been a marked increase in traffic to UNISON’s learning pages by reps searching specifically for resources and materials to help address domestic abuse and UNISON also believes that some visitors are members looking for help for themselves on a site they can readily hide or explain.
7. UNISON considers it of utmost importance that domestic abuse is understood in the context of the Covid-19 restrictions as a serious, recognisable and preventable issue and that the Government takes steps to help everyone, including employers, to spot signs, provide support and help stop domestic abuse. Both employers and trade unions have a role to prevent abuse.
MEASURES OR PROPOSALS TO HELP SUPPORT VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC ABUSE AND CHILD ABUSE AT THIS TIME
8. Many employers express a willingness to support those experiencing domestic abuse but do not have specific policies in place to protect and assist victims in the workplace. UNISON supports some organisations such as Vodafone, and EY who are already implementing paid leave for victims of domestic abuse on a voluntary basis. In our lobbying on the Domestic Abuse Bill before the lock-down, UNISON called for the introduction of paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. Expanding such provision may assist victims to manage challenging situations at home now.
9. The United Nations has released a report exploring the gendered nature of Covid-19 including gender-based violence. The UNFPA report recommends that referral pathways must be updated to reflect changes in available care facilities, while key community and service providers must be informed about those updated pathways.
10. Having accurate, up to date information about where and how to get help is important to those signposting – employers and trade unions - as much as it is to victims. The Government has a vital role to play in ensuring referral pathways are updated, are clearly presented and are accessible. This would be relatively easy to implement but would give much needed assistance to those who are unsure of where to turn right now.
MEASURES OR PROPOSALS TO REDUCE OR AVERT DOMESTIC ABUSE AND CHILD ABUSE AT THIS TIME
11. One of the primary reasons why women do not leave an abusive partner is because they simply do not have an alternative place to stay. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a shortage of places in women’s refuges as many were shut due to cuts in funding. Alternatives that might have been an option before the crisis, for example a parental home or a friend’s spare room, are no longer options.
12. UNISON supports the call on 31 March from the Public Interest Law Centre and Solace Women’s Aid, together with more than 30 civil society organisations and lawyers including the Refugee Council and Doughty Street Chambers, for a separate emergency fund for local authorities to ensure they are able to adequately house survivors of domestic abuse in appropriate locations. UNISON also supports the new Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding’s suggestion that hotels could provide a place of safety for women and children at this time.
13. Too often fears around the safety of refuges stop women from coming forward and believing something can be done to make abuse stop. UNISON supports the inclusion of Clause 53 into the Domestic Abuse Bill, which places a duty on local authorities to provide support and a safe place for victims and their children to stay. UNISON believes this new clause would provide victims, who are primarily women, with time and space to decide how to move forward in a safe and calm environment. We believe it would help more victims come forward and feel that “something can be done”.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT ADVICE, CO-ORDINATION AND SUPPORT FOR RESPONDERS AND SERVICE PROVIDERS
14. Having a safe place is incredibly important for people’s safety and wellbeing. It is especially important for victims of domestic abuse who need physical access to the courts, for protection orders to be granted and safety to be provided. Due to Covid-19, domestic abuse victims are unable to access courts. As a result, the Government published guidance which allowed for the publishing of emergency injunctions.
15. However, the guidance presumes victims can find a safe space away from their abuser, fill in an application, provide a valid witness statement and attend a telephone hearing. This is unrealistic and unhelpful: an alternative to this system must be created, which takes these issues into account. Updated guidance should also offer further support for those who have disabilities or face language barriers when access to advice services and physical courts is limited.
16. In our lobbying on the Domestic Abuse Bill, UNISON also set out a belief that there need to be new conditions on domestic abuse perpetrators, for example:
17. Clearly, the Covid-19 crisis limits the possibilities for tough new conditions on perpetrators. However, UNISON’s view is that the Government need to plan for when lock-down is lifted, as well as providing better support for victims in the immediate situation in the short term. UNISON supports bail conditions which provide victims with protections to maintain their freedom of movement extended to include the workplace. Current CPS guidance is limited to travel to at home, on the way to work, school or college, regular social venues, extended family homes, when taking children to school, or when socialising with friends.
18. We believe these measures would reassure all victims that “something can be done” and they can be protected in refuges and other safe accommodation.
 Local Government Association
 United Nations Population Fund UNFPA Covid-19: A Gender Lens