BISHOPS in the House of Lords have urged the Government to address problems over the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill (News, 8 January).
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, co-sponsored an amendment that would forbid the police from sharing any information about a victim’s immigration status with the Home Office.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the crime of domestic abuse, which affects more than two million people a year in the United Kingdom,” Bishop Mullally said during the Committee Stage on Monday.
“However, the Bill continues to overlook one of the most vulnerable groups affected by this form of violence against women and girls: migrant women.”
Many victims of domestic abuse felt unable to report their ordeals to the police for fear that this would lead to their being deported or separated from their children, she warned. This fear was used by abusers to establish further coercive control over victims, perpetuating what could be years of violence and threats.
There must be a clear delineation in law between enforcing immigration rules and protecting victims of domestic abuse, Bishop Mullally said. “I fear that this blind spot enables offenders and abusers to use police involvement as a threat to their victims rather than the source of protection that it should be.”
Other peers endorsed the amendment, arguing that it would begin to repair trust that had been affected by the Windrush scandal by rebuilding a “firewall” between domestic abuse and immigration concerns.
The amendment was resisted, however, by the Home Office Minister Baroness Williams of Trafford. She argued that guidance for police forces already told them to treat victims as victims first and not potential immigration offenders.
Furthermore, she asked peers to not tie the Government’s hands while a review was conducted, which was due to be finished by June.
The sponsors of the amendment agreed to withdraw it, although not without insisting that the issue had to be dealt with through primary legislation, and pledging to return to the matter at the Report Stage of the Bill.
Later in the debate, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, co-sponsored another amendment to create a statutory duty on public authorities to provide not only accommodation-based services for victims, but also community support for victims who stayed in their homes.
She was concerned that an unintended consequence of the current Bill, which created a duty to provide accommodation support, would be the undermining of funding and provision for community-based services, of which 70 per cent of victims were currently using.
“Community-based specialist services allow people to remain in their homes and retain the local, family, and faith support networks that are often essential to recovery and resilience,” she said; the most vulnerable victims — migrant women and children — would be particularly harmed if community services were de-prioritised.
This amendment also found almost unanimous backing from peers who spoke in the debate, but, again, was not supported by Baroness Williams.
She warned that the language of the amendment was imprecise and could create confusion between different local authorities, police bodies, and clinical commissioning groups about who was responsible for the execution of the duty.
Furthermore, the Government had already funded “significant community-based support services”, at a cost of £68 million in 2019-20, she said. She asked peers to wait until a mapping exercise and pilot had been completed by the end of the year, and the affected public bodies had been consulted.
“I put it to noble lords that Amendment 176 is putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “We cannot and should not legislate before fully understanding the current landscape of provision, knowing where the gaps are, how best to fill those gaps, and what it is going to cost.”
The amendment was withdrawn to consider the question further, although it may be brought back should the House deem it necessary.