Will this be the Parliament to enact a domestic abuse bill?

When Parliament was dissolved in November the Domestic Abuse Bill fell. The bill had attracted cross-party support and was hailed by campaigners as an historic opportunity to transform support for survivors. There is a consensus that domestic abuse legislation is needed, and all the main parties committed in their manifestos to legislate. Here we examine what the legislation might look like and how far the previous Parliament got with the bill.

What do domestic abuse statistics tell us?

According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, some 7.5% of women and 3.8% of men aged 16 to 74 were estimated to have experienced domestic abuse in 2018-19. This is equivalent to an estimated 1.6 million female and 800,000 male victims. 28% of women and 14% of men aged 16 to 74 had experienced some form of domestic abuse after reaching the age of 16. These figures are equivalent to an estimated 6 million female and 2.9 million male victims.

The number of people estimated to have been victims of domestic violence in the past year has been roughly the same for the past 10 years, with a slight rise around 2011 and a slight fall around 2015.
Source: ONS, Domestic abuse prevalence and trends, England and Wales: year ending March 2019, table 5b

Since 2016, policies to address domestic abuse have formed part of an overarching strategy – the Home Office’s Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy 2016-20. The strategy sets out a framework based on early intervention. This includes locally commissioned services assessed against a national standard, multi-disciplinary partnership working, and an improved criminal justice response. It aims to achieve “a significant reduction” in the number of victims of violence against women and girls by 2020. As part of this strategy, in the 2017 Queen’s Speech the May Government committed to introduce domestic abuse legislation.

Draft Domestic Abuse Bill: Content and reaction

The Government consulted on its legislative proposals in 2018 and produced a draft Domestic Abuse Bill in January 2019.

The draft bill proposed, amongst other things, a new definition of domestic abuse, the creation of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, a new system of police-issued domestic abuse protection notices and court-issued orders, and various changes to court processes, including prohibiting the accused from cross-examining the complainant.

The proposed legislation attracted considerable select committee interest. Prior to the bill’s publication, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published a report on domestic abuse, identifying issues it believed the Government should address in the bill. These included explicitly recognising the gender inequality underlying domestic abuse and reflecting this in the definition used in the bill.

The draft bill then underwent pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both Houses, which reported in June 2019. Following that, the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote to the Government to express that committee’s views.

By and large, the committees supported the bill. They nonetheless recommended significant changes, including using a gendered definition of domestic abuse and making the Domestic Abuse Commissioner independent of the Home Office.

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19

The final product of this extensive consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny was the Domestic Abuse Bill 2017-19, introduced to Parliament in July 2019. While the text of the bill departed from the draft, largely in response to the committees’ recommendations, it retained its headline features. It arrived in the House of Commons to a cross-party consensus that the legislation was needed. MPs and campaigners were hopeful that, through amendment and debate, the bill would justify its description as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the response to” domestic abuse.

How far did Parliament get with the bill?

Not very. Before it received its second reading, Parliament was ‘prorogued’ on 10 September and the bill fell. This is the normal consequence of prorogation: all unfinished bills, not subject to ‘carry over motions’, fall. Yet this was not a normal prorogation. The Supreme Court declared it unlawful and of no effect, which meant the bill had not fallen. While the bill went on to receive its second reading on 2 October, and was carried over prior to the subsequent 8 October prorogation, it made no further progress before Parliament was dissolved.

A long path to the statute book

If – as indicated in party manifestos – a domestic abuse bill is to be introduced in the new Parliament, that bill will have survived consultation, extensive pre-legislative scrutiny, unlawful prorogation, lawful prorogation and dissolution. While the proceedings to date have exasperated campaigners, such as the charity group Women’s Aid, it seems likely that a bill will eventually reach the statute book. While it is impossible to predict what shape it will take, there are already calls to amend it from the text introduced in July – including from the Victims’ Commissioner and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence and Abuse.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.