Karin Smyth MP speaks remotely in Domestic Abuse Bill

Last week, I spoke via video link in an important parliamentary debate on domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Bill brings in some key changes to existing law – including strengthening support for victims and provisions prohibiting cross-examination in the courts. Another welcome change to the rules means that those fleeing domestic abuse and facing homelessness as a result will be automatically prioritised for social housing.  

The coronavirus emergency has shone a light on the inadequate protection and support for survivors of domestic abuse, and we cannot wait until this crisis is over to address this.  

While Avon and Somerset Police has not yet seen the sharp rise in domestic violence incidents it expected, we do know that a lot of domestic abuse goes unreported. And that calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline have risen by around 50 per cent since the social distancing measures were introduced. There were also 16 deaths reported of women and children linked to domestic abuse in the UK during the first two weeks of the lockdown – almost three times higher than the same period the previous year.  

Since becoming the MP for Bristol South in 2015, the impact of domestic violence has been one of the most heartbreaking and dominant parts of my casework.    

Statistics show that Hartcliffe, Filwood and Bishopsworth have significantly higher rates of domestic abuse than elsewhere in the city. The last Bristol Women’s Health report showed women in Hartcliffe were much more likely to be victims of domestic violence – at a rate of double the national average – with almost 600 incidents recorded in a year, the highest figure in the city.   

The figures also show that more people in the south of the constituency view domestic abuse as a ‘private matter’ – up to 14% of people in Filwood compared with less than 6% in most areas of the city. And it is important to remember that, particularly in light of this attitude to domestic violence, an estimated 1 in 5 cases go unreported.    

That said, my surgeries have been filled with women, mainly in their 20s, with children, who have been desperate to remain part of their community and have had family support but who have been seeking refuge from their perpetrator.  More often than not, it is they who have to leave their homes and their communities.  

Earlier this year, I held a surgery especially for women who had come through domestic violence—they were largely on the other side—and I asked them what services they would like to see changed. I am very grateful to them for sharing their experiences with me.     

Many of their suggestions centred on the justice system, others related to mental health support once people have managed to flee their abuse, because the trauma does not end when someone leaves.   

I heard examples of how the abuser can use the system to manipulate the victim from a distance; for example, childcare arrangements and child maintenance payments can all add to the psychological trauma once someone has left.   

We need to provide ongoing support to these families once they have escaped their abuser: help with furniture and white goods, financial and legal support and counselling.   

Ten years of austerity has had a terrible impact on the ability of local authorities to fund the specialist services for survivors of domestic abuse.  With the government now placing a statutory duty onto local authorities to provide much of this support, there must be adequate, long-term funding, that reaches diverse specialist services.    

Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens has been doing a lot of work locally around tackling domestic abuse, including commissioning a new victim support service. She recently wrote about her work in this area and urged victims to come forward – a plea I would echo. 

But the local authorities could not do such work without our excellent voluntary sector’s work with victims. I pay tribute to all those working with victims of domestic violence and abuse; organisations such as Next Link and Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS) – which recently highlighted the importing issue around the ‘hidden’ sexual violence against older women.    

The sector is coming particularly to the fore at this time, doing tremendous work to support women locally. If the Government is really serious about making an impact, it should provide funding for this work.    

I was pleased to see the Government followed Labour’s suggestion to dedicate £76 mililon from the £750 million charity support fund to support survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and modern slavery; and I hope that they also fast-track this to get the funding where it’s needed immediately.  

The impact is wide, and when in recent discussions with headteachers and local police we have been trying to address behavioural problems locally, we have often come back to a background of young men experiencing violence at home and then repeating it. We have to also consider the role of perpetrator programmes in putting the onus onto men to take responsibility for their actions. We can, and must, break this cycle.


Support for victims of domestic abuse

Victims of domestic abuse are not subject to the stay at home restrictions and can go out. They will be able to access safe spaces at Boots pharmacy consultation rooms across the country. More info, here.

If you are the victim of domestic abuse, or know someone who is then you can call the National helpline on 0808 2000247. In an immediate emergency, please call 999. If it is not possibly to speak the operator can guide you through some other response methods.

Bristol charity Next Link also runs a telephone helpline 10am-4pm Mon-Fri 0117 925 0680 for women and children who are the victims of domestic abuse and their website has more guidance too.

The Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Assault Support (SARSAS) helpline is open Mon 11am-2pm, Tue, Wed & Thu 12-2pm and 6-8pm and Fri 11am-2pm. Call: 0808 801 0456 or 0808 801 0464. Or see website, here.