More and more people, mainly women, have become victims of domestic abuse under lockdown. Now survivors are being told that they must testify in person to provide evidence to a parliamentary committee, which charity groups say would put their health at risk.
Domestic abuse survivors must physically attend parliament this Thursday to give evidence to the Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee, the government says. But 18 organisations that campaign against domestic violence and in aid of women’s rights, including Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis England and Wales, have objected to the requirement.
In a letter addressed to MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the signatories said that survivors will be “detailing the most traumatic experiences of their lives”. That means family members, friends and representatives of charity organisations would need to accompany them as support, which would entail “unnecessary journeys” that could put the health of many at risk, it said.
Lucy Hadley, Women’s Aid Policy and campaigns manager, told The London Economic that it is vital that MPs hear directly from women who have experienced domestic abuse but that it is “fundamentally wrong” to require them to give evidence in person rather than by video link.
“They are experts, and their voices must be heard,” she said, but “forcing survivors to attend parliament in person is unsafe, especially for women from BAME communities and those with disabilities.
“It will put survivors and staff supporting them at risk and force them to breach current government guidance. We are calling on the government to urgently reconsider this requirement and put the health and safety of survivors first.”
Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters, echoed this on the Women’s Aid website, saying the attendance requirement was “unacceptable” and “only serves to jeopardise the safety of survivors and their key workers, as well as flout the rule on non-essential travel. In a context where facilities exist for participants to give evidence remotely, there is no justification for the requirement,” she said.
“Given that BME groups are amongst those disproportionately affected by Covid-19, BME survivors and the staff who support them will be placed at unnecessary risk. We urge the Government to reconsider,” Patel said.
Bill to be scrutinised “line by line”
The Domestic Abuse Bill was debated in parliament at a second reading on April 28th, and has now been sent to a Public Bill Committee, which will scrutinise it “line by line” and report back on June 25th.
A summary of the Bill on the Parliament website reads that it exists to “make provision in relation to domestic abuse; to make provision for and in connection with the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner; to prohibit cross-examination in person in family proceedings in certain circumstances; to make provision about certain violent or sexual offences, and offences involving other abusive behaviour, committed outside the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes”.
The Bill has the “potential to deliver a “transformation in the response to domestic abuse” and that the pandemic shows why change is needed more than ever, Hadley said.
“The Bill must go beyond criminal justice and deliver the changes that survivors need – equal protection for migrant women, a safe family court system, housing, and support for their children,” she said.
A domestic abuse helpline worker, who asked that her name not be used, said that evidence could easily be given by video link. Giving evidence in person “risks further traumatising the women, putting their health at risk and there seems to be no proper provision for their support and aftercare in place”, she told The London Economic.
“All too often the survivor’s needs and wellbeing are put last.”
Domestic abuse rising
The debate is coming at a time when isolation, combined with the pressures of dwindling finances, is making domestic violence more prevalent, medical professionals wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Mike Hancock last week.
Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, is one of a group of signatories who signed the letter, which asked for support for health professionals so they can better spot victims of abuse, and be better prepared to help them. He warned that without this support the lockdown could lead to “tragic consequences”.
The letter, which was compiled by the charity SafeLives in advance of the June 4 meeting, was signed by representatives from the British Medical Association and seven Royal Colleges.
“It is essential that health professionals are given adequate support to properly spot the signs and deal with the impact of domestic abuse,” the letter read.
Reports of domestic abuse have risen exponentially since lockdown, although many say the reported numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.
The Marie Stopes UK helpline received a 33 percent rise in calls pertaining to domestic abuse in the first two months of lockdown, while The Counting Dead Women project said that 16 women and three children were killed in the first three weeks of lockdown – a rise of more than 200 percent.
In April, the United Nations warned of an additional 31 million more incidents of domestic violence worldwide if lockdown was extended for six months.
Lena Haskins, 55, was married for 14 years to a man who eventually became abusive, both physically and emotionally. She doesn’t understand the rationale of making survivors of domestic abuse attend parliament to testify – due to both the health risks and the fact that it would make vulnerable people feel even more traumatised.
“I think it’s absolutely pointless. It would be much better by video,” she said. “The government has been telling us that if you are able to conduct business by internet, using modern technology, then you should. There is absolutely no justification for making survivors testify in person,” she told The London Economic.
Haskins, a psychiatric nurse from Bromley in Kent, said her relationship with her then husband started to go bad after their son was born. “Before that he was very nice,” she said. “Then the romance period ended and I started seeing him for what he was.
“He had a lot of responsibilities as a father, and a lot of stress. He came from a very violent background – his dad used to beat his mum in front of him – and he didn’t think twice about hitting me. He was very remorseful afterwards but then they all are.”