A visible force for change.

Introduction:

The Women’s Resource and Development Agency welcomes the proposed legislative changes regarding domestic abuse and violence both within the Northern Ireland Assembly and in Westminster Parliament. Activists, women’s organisations and support providers have spent many years calling for adequate domestic abuse legislation in Northern Ireland. In the current global pandemic, domestic abuse and violence has sharply increased as many are put at greater risk due to the ongoing government-issued social distancing and lockdown measures. Creating adequate domestic abuse and violence legislation could not be more pertinent than it is right now. Whilst the quick action to introduce Northern Ireland-specific legislation is to be welcomed, this legislation is now over three years old and it is essential that we learn from the lessons in other jurisdictions and ensure that the women’s sector are included in the application and implementation of relevant legislation moving forward.

Where are we now?

COVID-19 and Domestic Abuse:

Refuge have reported a 25% increase in calls to their 24-hour national domestic abuse helpline1 since the lockdown began, while hits to the national domestic abuse website increased by 150% during the initial stages of Covid-19 lockdown. Some further concerns highlighted by Refuge include:

  • Ordinarily, the window for women to seek help is extremely limited. During periods of isolation with their perpetrators, this window narrows further,

  • Isolation is often used as a tool to abuse – and while the current lockdown has the potential to exacerbate abuse – it is not the reason for it,

  • Domestic abuse is a crime and is ultimately rooted in power and control. It is crucial that every woman who needs support knows where and how to access it.

Women’s Aid have also shared similar concerns and have stressed that they are still here and still open. Services might look and operate a bit differently at the minute because of COVID but they are still available through different methods of communication.

Women’s Aid is here for all women and children experiencing abuse across Northern Ireland. If you need support or information around domestic abuse you can find your local Women’s Aid Group contact information at this link https://www.womensaidni.org/get-help/local-groups/

You can also contact the 24hr Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline (managed by NEXUS) on 0808 802 1414. If you are like you are in immediate danger contact the PSNI on 999. If you need to contact the police but are not able to speak you can diall 999 and then 55 and the police will be alerted.”

Northern Ireland Assembly – Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Legislation

We welcome the fast action by Minister Long to re-introduce domestic abuse legislation in Northern Ireland on 31st March 2020 (now due for a second reading before the end of April 2020). However, as the proposed legislation is now over three years old, we strongly support calls made by Women’s Aid Northern Ireland for the following key issues to be addressed:

  • Introduction of Coercive Control and Stalking legislation

  • Non-fatal and fatal strangulation legislation

  • Recognition of Violence against Women and Girls and gender-based violence

  • Grant of Secure tenancies in cases of domestic violence and abuse

  • Review of the court systems in NI including criminal, civil and family courts

  • Introduce a Domestic Abuse Commissioner

  • Secure funding for specialised services and a review of tendering and procurement in relation to domestic violence and abuse services

WRDA also supports the removal of the caveat of “reasonable defence”, as we are concerned with such measures being used as a justification of abuse by defendants through portraying victims of abuse as mentally unstable. Further, victims may suffer from mental health issues caused by abuse, and disabled women, who are already more likely to be victims of domestic abuse, could find themselves being disproportionately impacted by the implications of a “reasonable defence”.

WRDA calls for a cross-departmental approach to implementing this legislation, as certain aspects, such as refuge and secure tenancies, will fall under the remit of other Ministers and NICS departments. Detailed information must also be outlined on the resourcing available to the PSNI, social services, legal professional, PPS etc. to ensure adequate implementation of the legislation. WRDA also calls for the full involvement of the women’s sector, particularly in the drafting and implementation of any future Miscellaneous Bill to address issues not covered in the above legislation.

In order to make domestic violence legislation operational and reflective of the needs and realities of women in Northern Ireland, full consultation and communication with the sector is essential. As a regional organisation representing a wide range of the women’s sector and women in NI, we look forward to working with public representatives, department officials and ministers in the coming months on both the above legislation and any related legislation to follow.

House of Commons – Domestic Abuse Bill

The second reading of the Westminster Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 is due to take place on Tuesday 28th April 2020. In light if this, there are several issues that need to be addressed relating the bill and to Northern Ireland. WRDA supports the views of Women’s Aid and other organisations that the proposed Domestic Abuse Bill has the potential to create major change nationally in relation to domestic violence and abuse2. This bill was introduced with the intention of creating stronger provisions for challenging domestic violence and abuse in England and Wales. In doing this, the aim of the bill is to fulfil the UK’s international obligations to combat violence against women and domestic violence as a signatory of the Istanbul Convention.

There are some gaps between this bill and the Northern Ireland bill, as certain protections afforded elsewhere in the UK through the bill do not apply to women in Northern Ireland.

These gaps include:

  • Provide guidelines to employers on recognising the signs of abusive behaviour

  • Introduction of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner (already in post for England and Wales)
  • Powers to deal with domestic abuse:

  • Grant of secure tenancies in cases of domestic violence

  • Safer family court and child contact system

WRDA support the view of the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland that ‘women experiencing domestic violence and abuse should have equal protections across the UK, their geographic location should not impact their recourse to justice3’. We ask that all elected representatives and political parties in Northern Ireland make themselves aware of the provisions in each bill to ensure women in Northern Ireland have the equivalency of services and do not have less rights than their mainland-UK counterparts.

We welcome these movements to create stronger domestic abuse bills across the UK, however, the Northern Ireland legislation should not be a diluted version of the GB bill, nor can the UK government leave Northern Ireland out of their effort to comply with the Istanbul Convention. We need the equal protection of victims and survivors across all of the UK.

Domestic Violence as a Workplace Issue

Domestic abuse affects job performance, and therefore, job prospects and financial security. This can be heightened when both the victim and perpetrator work in the same organisation. Many organisations over the years have expressed a willingness to support victims in the workplace, however, government support is needed to ensure this can happen. We support calls from Unison and other Trade Unions to have measures introduced to also see domestic violence as work issue. We support calls from unison to:

  • Provide guidelines to employers on recognising the signs of abusive behaviour

  • Guidance on identifying links between abusive behaviour and a perpetrator’s role at work

  • Create workplace policies on domestic violence

  • Consider domestic abuse as a form of discrimination affecting workers’ employment conditions and income

  • Introduce paid leave for those experiencing domestic abuse

Safe Housing – Housing Selection Scheme Review

Given the current lockdown, and the shortage in safe housing and refuge for victims, WRDA supports the call for greater funding to be allocated to Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland in providing refuge to victims. It is also worth considering the 2017 Housing Selection Scheme (HSS) review. Many recommendations were made around the controversial ‘intimidation points’ mechanism, although the Executive collapsed and this review has not since been acted on.

WRDA believes it is worth considering recommendations made by Housing Rights in the HSS review in 2017 in relation to intimidation points and domestic violence. Specifically, Housing Rights partly agreed with the removal of intimidation points from the HSS, but only if alternative safeguards were put in place4. The existing points system does not adequately account for victims of domestic violence as victims received a low number of intimidation points compared to other crimes such as sectarian hate crimes. We support the view of Housing Rights that it would be appropriate to consider a separate award of “trauma” that would encompass domestic violence.

In summary, the support services provided by Women’s Aid Federation NI to victims of domestic violence are invaluable. Further funding should be provided to deal with the rise in domestic violence throughout this pandemic to ensure women who are victims of domestic violence can access refuge. In the longer-term, it is crucial that a cross-departmental approach is taken, in consultation with the women’s sector, to ensure the trauma victims have faced is recognised and that women are able to access safe housing.

ENDS

For questions or queries, please contact Rachel Powell, Women’s Sector Lobbyist, Women’s Resource and Development Agency rachel.powell@wrda.net

3 Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland: https://www.womensaidni.org/call-to-action-the-domestic-abuse-bill/