This week the Guardian reported that non-fatal strangulation is to carry a five year prison sentence as an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. This news comes after Jenny and Natalie have both worked hard to propose and support improvements to the Bill.
The Domestic Abuse Bill was the one positive Bill in this awful Parliamentary session, but it still needed a few friendly amendments to make it a perfect Bill. Over 190 amendments were tabled at Committee Stage in the House of Lords, covering areas like police training, revenge porn, the links with drug abuse and the inclusion of statutory duties. Perhaps the key set of amendments was the creation of a specific crime of non-lethal strangulation in recognition of how this is employed in numerous relationships as a means of control.
The legislation itself establishes in law the Office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and places a duty on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and safe accommodation. Giving the survivors of abuse priority for accommodation provides a safety net for the estimated 2.4m adults aged 16-74 years who experienced domestic abuse in the last year. The range of amendments in the Lords shows how this area of law has been neglected by many agencies, including the police.
When I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority, I saw the mis-match between how the police dealt with murder and with domestic abuse. The former was a priority, while the later was often dismissed as a ‘domestic’. There was a gulf between the two sets of crime, but the truth is that some years a fifth of murders are ‘domestics’. Murder and severe assaults often come at the end of a history of domestic abuse. While the headlines might be grabbed by street crime, or drive by shootings, 15% of violent crimes are regularly going on behind closed doors. The point myself and others made to the police is that if you deal with “minor domestics” properly, then the level of more severe crimes will drop. It is an opportunity for the police to really change things for the better.
I was told that 24 out of 43 police authorities have adopted a system of training on domestic abuse. Training means more officers will understand when abuse is happening and is especially important because not all crimes result in physical injury.
More than half the victims of recurrent domestic abuse experience strangulation. This is covered by existing common assault laws, but as it often leaves no marks on the body, the police may not pursue it. Many of us in the Lords wanted a specific crime created to help the police to protect an estimated 20,000 women per year – or 55 women every day – who have been assessed as high risk and suffer physical abuse have experienced strangulation or attempted strangulation.
I also spoke in support of amendments that aim to minimise the harms caused by problem drug use. The Green Party recognises that in the majority of cases the limited use of drugs for recreational purposes is not harmful and has the potential to enhance human relationships and human creativity. But harmful drug use, which is often alcohol abuse, can be both a cause and effect of domestic abuse. These amendments focus on both abusers and survivors, so that we can address the issues in a holistic and comprehensive way. Most harmful drug use is underpinned by poverty, isolation, mental illness, physical illness and psychological trauma. But then the harmful drug use can cause a vicious cycle.
This legislation also creates a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, coercive or controlling, as well as economic abuse.