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HRW submission to the Home Office of the Government of the UK

Open Consultation on Domestic Abuse Act statutory guidance

Comments on Chapter 2 (‘Understanding Domestic Abuse’) 

We write to note concerns regarding Chapter 2 of the draft Statutory Guidance, particularly regarding response to Black, Asian, migrant and other women in marginalized groups who experience domestic abuse.

The guidance acknowledges that “those from ethnic minority backgrounds may experience additional barriers to identifying, disclosing, seeking help or reporting abuse” and that specialist services operated by and for women from such marginalized groups (“by-and-for” services) are necessary to ensure that women from “minority backgrounds” access essential help in cases of domestic abuse.[1] However, the guidance lacks explanation of what constitutes specialist “by-and-for” services or a minimum standard for what such services and their availability should entail.

As detailed in a joint briefing by Imkaan and the End Violence against Women Coalition, “by-and-for” services are “specialist services that are designed and delivered by and for the users and communities they aim to serve…. ‘By and for’ expert services are trusted by local communities and the women they support due to their recognition and understanding of intersectionality and the multiple forms of discrimination and additional barriers faced by women from marginalised groups.”[2] The briefing goes on to note that “by-and-for” services are critical due to the “importance of women ‘seeing themselves’ in the services they accessed.”[3] The Statutory Guidance should include a clear definition of “by-and-for” services that draws from this and other definitions by expert organizations and incorporates these essential aspects of their nature.

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention), which the UK has signed and indicated a commitment to ratify, calls on states to ensure “an adequate geographical distribution, immediate, short- and long-term specialist support services.”[4] Its explanatory report goes on to clarify that “[i]t is important to ensure these services are sufficiently spread throughout the country and accessible for all victims” and that “the types of support that such dedicated services need to offer include providing shelter and safe accommodation, immediate medical support, the collection of forensic medical evidence in cases of rape and sexual assault, short and long-term psychological counselling, trauma care, legal counselling, advocacy and outreach services, telephone helplines to direct victims to the right type of service and specific services for children as victims or witnesses.”[5] The Statutory Guidance should include similar specifics with regards to service provision.

As written, the draft Statutory Guidance also fails to acknowledge historic underfunding of and lack of support for “by-and-for” services, nor does it point to any clear means of ensuring their adequate availability. Research by Imkaan, an organization run “by-and-for” Black and other minority ethnic (BME) women, found that incoming resources for 25 specialist services for BME women and girls in 2017 was £10 million (averaging £400,000 per organisation) while that of 10 general violence against women and girls services was £25 million (averaging £2.5 million per organisation).[6] Leading violence against women organizations in the UK have repeatedly called for ring-fenced funding for specialist “by-and-for” BME services, which are often excluded or overlooked in current funding streams.[7] The government should urgently address this gap to ensure implementation of the Equality Act and Public Sector Equality Duty, the Domestic Abuse Act, the Violence against Women Strategy, and this Statutory Guidance. 

In addition, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and the draft Statutory Guidance do not adequately ensure protection and support for migrant women experiencing domestic abuse. The Statutory Guidance asserts that the Support for Migrant Victims Scheme as “a safety net of support” for “those who fall through the gaps of other support mechanisms” while also “building the evidence base required to inform subsequent policy decisions.”[8] This characterisation ignores extensive existing evidence showing the urgent need for policy change in England and Wales that will allow migrant women and girls full access to statutory services and justice in cases of domestic and other gender-based violence, including those currently classified as having No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).[9]

Research by civil society organisations in the UK has already demonstrated that migrant women on non-spousal visas are often ineligible for, or are otherwise refused, shelter and other urgent services in cases of domestic abuse, as is also noted in the draft Statutory Guidance itself.[10] Frontline specialist service providers have outlined in detail why the Support for Migrant Victims Scheme is an inadequate response to the unmet needs of migrant women survivors of domestic abuse, including why the scheme’s allotted funding is insufficient and will leave specialist services struggling to either cover costs for women with NRPF or refuse them refuge.[11] The Statutory Guidance should be amended to remove the incorrect suggestion that this scheme offers the much-needed “safety net” for migrant women deemed ineligible for services.

Furthermore, we have serious concerns that benefits such as the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession are, as stated in the draft Statutory Guidance, “only available to those on spousal visas because they have a clear, legitimate expectation of settlement” and that exclusion of “those on other immigration routes” is permissible on grounds that “they would not necessarily have had a legitimate expectation of staying in the UK permanently had their relationship not broken down as a result of domestic abuse, as their ability to do so was contingent upon more than simply staying in their relationship.”[12] This ignores the reality for women who are not on spousal visas but who may have reasonable expectations of settlement in the UK, including those who expect to marry to whose routes to settlement may have been restricted or undermined by their abusers.[13] By deterring or preventing these women from accessing support and services in the UK, it also risks trapping them in abusive relationships and situations in way that may cause irreparable harm to them and their children.

Given the unjustified difference in treatment, this also contravenes international human rights law, including protection of the rights to life, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, and non-discrimination under the European Convention on Human Rights[14], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[15], the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[16], and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).[17]

The committee that oversees implementation of CEDAW, to which the UK is a party, has clarified that all protection and support measures, including services, for survivors of violence “should be accessible to all women, in particular those affected by intersecting forms of discrimination… and be provided irrespective of residency status….”[18] The UN Handbook on Legislation on Violence Against Women specifically calls on states to allow migrant survivors of violence to “confidentially apply for legal immigration status independent of their perpetrator.”[19]

Exclusion of survivors of domestic abuse from access to services also contravenes the Istanbul Convention, which as noted above the UK government has signed and indicated a commitment to ratify. The Istanbul Convention mandates non-discrimination, including on grounds of residency or migration status, and calls on state parties to offer the possibility of autonomous residence permits to all migrant survivors of violence.[20] All survivors have the right to access life-saving protection and essential services in cases of domestic abuse, regardless of immigration status or whether the government deems them to have a reasonable expectation of settlement in the UK.

Finally, the draft Statutory Guidance notes that some domestic abuse victims may be reluctant to seek help or report to police due to fear of information sharing between police and the Home Office.[21] It goes on to suggest that guidance for police from the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) in cases “where a victim or witness of a crime is a suspected immigration offender” ensures a “victim-first approach” and that “Immigration Enforcement will carefully consider an individual’s personal circumstances when considering appropriate action following a referral from police.”[22]

The draft guidance fails to mention, however, that a joint investigation report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the College of Policing, and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), in response to a “super-complaint” filed by Liberty and Southall Black Sisters under the Police Reform Act 2002, found that not only is NPCC guidance implemented inconsistently across police forces, but that at times police prioritise immigration enforcement over investigation of crimes and protection of victims and witnesses.[23] With regards to migrant victims, it says that “[p]olice have adopted at best an inconsistent and at worst a discriminatory approach.”[24] The investigation report also states that there is risk of harm to both victims of crime and to the public because some people, including domestic abuse victims, may be deterred from reporting crimes due both to risks related to insecure immigration status and lack of confidence that their reports will lead to investigations.[25]

The agencies recommend in the investigation report a full review of policies and establishment of safe reporting mechanisms for all migrant victims and witnesses of crime, as well as development and implementation of a safeguarding protocol between the police and Home Office on response to migrant victims and witnesses of crime. The investigation report calls for such a protocol to make explicit that “sharing information on victims of domestic abuse with Immigration Enforcement does not constitute safeguarding.”[26] In the meantime, the agencies recommend that, in cases where police have doubts about a crime victim’s immigration status but there is no evidence that an immigration offense has been committed, police should “immediately stop sharing information on domestic abuse victims with Immigration Enforcement” and instead “link the victim to a third party that can provide advice and assistance.”[27]

Rather than suggest that the current NPCC guidance ensures protection of migrant domestic abuse victims and resolves concerns about information sharing, the Statutory Guidance should reflect ongoing concerns – including those expressed by official oversight bodies in the investigation report – about lack of clear and implemented protocols for response to migrant victims and witnesses of crime and the risks and deterrents this creates for domestic abuse victims who may wish to come forward. The draft Statutory Guidance notes that professionals “can refer victims with insecure immigration status to specialist 'by-and-for' ethnic minority and migrant organisations as best practice.”[28] This text should be replaced to call specifically for police and immigration officials to refer migrant domestic abuse victims immediately to specialist service providers for advice and support in all cases, as recommended by the HMICFRS et al. It should also be noted that referrals to such services require that specialist “by-and-for” services are available and accessible to domestic abuse victims throughout the territory and that this requires sustained resourcing, as discussed above.

We urge you to revise Chapter 2 of the Statutory Guidance to:

  • clarify the meaning of “by-and-for services,” what should be included in essential services for all survivors of domestic abuse, and how specialist services including “by-and-for services” are to be made accessible to women and girls across England and Wales;
  • ensure the guidance reflects the longstanding and significant operational and funding challenges such “by-and-for” services face, and notes the need for government support in order to fully implement the Domestic Abuse Act and its Statutory Guidance;
  • eliminate language suggesting that only migrant victims of domestic abuse who are on spousal visas should be eligible for protection and essential services and replace with language based on international human rights law that ensures protections for all, regardless of immigration status;
  • reflect ongoing concerns regarding response to migrant victims and witnesses of crime and the risks and deterrents this creates for domestic abuse victims who may wish to come forward or seek help;
  • call specifically for police and immigration officials to refer migrant domestic abuse victims immediately to specialist service providers for advice and support in all cases, as recommended in the HMICFRS, College of Policing and IOPC investigation report.

Comments on Chapter 4 (‘Agency Response to Domestic Abuse’) 

We have additional concerns regarding the content of Chapter 4 on Agency Response to Domestic Abuse, specifically with regards to insufficient clarification of the particular challenges Black, Asian, migrant and other marginalized women victims of domestic abuse may face and appropriate measures needed to mitigate barriers to services, protection and justice for women in these groups.

The draft Statutory Guidance notes that women from “minority communities” may face particular challenges in accessing refuge or other housing services, and that “research has identified issues such as re-victimisation, institutional failures and discrimination in the way cases are handled.”  It goes on to suggest that “commissioners and providers should take an intersectional approach that is mindful of multiple barriers and layers of discrimination faced by these groups when planning and delivering services.”[29] While this is a welcome acknowledgment of additional difficulties women victims of violence from marginalized communities often face in accessing support, it should be clarified that this pertains not only to access to shelter but to all services for victims of violence. Moreover, additional clarification about what is meant by an “intersectional approach” and how such an approach should be implemented would add significantly to effectiveness of the guidance in steering police and service providers towards best practice. A blueprint may be found in CEDAW General Recommendation No. 28, which states that intersectionality is “a basic concept for understanding the scope of the general obligations of States” with regards to upholding CEDAW, and goes on to explain:

The discrimination of women based on sex and gender is inextricably linked with other factors that affect women, such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief, health, status, age, class, caste and sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination on the basis of sex or gender may affect women belonging to such groups to a different degree or in different ways to men. States parties must legally recognize such intersecting forms of discrimination and their compounded negative impact on the women concerned and prohibit them.[30]

Clarification in the Statutory Guidance should draw from such existing explanations, including those based on international human rights law and should incorporate precision on practical application of an intersectional approach. This should include, for example, ensuring that survivors have access to specialist service providers with understanding and experience of the specific needs of women victims of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, and immigration status, as well as Deaf women and women with disabilities, older women, and adolescent girls.   

The draft Statutory Guidance also notes that signs of domestic abuse may be mischaracterized as anti-social behavior or other offences, hindering appropriate police response and referral to necessary services.[31] However, the guidance does not recognize that Black and other minority ethnic women may be particularly at risk from such incorrect assessments of their situation by police – sometimes fed by stereotypes and assumptions based on race, ethnicity, or other characteristics -- as well as criminalization of their behavior and incarceration.[32] Moreover, both victims of domestic abuse and Black, Asian and other minority ethnic women are overrepresented amongst the female population in UK prisons.[33]

Revisions to the Statutory Guidance should clarify that women victims of domestic abuse from these marginalized groups are most likely to be misidentified as offenders themselves or to have their cases wrongly categorized, and that such errors prevent them from accessing protection and justice while also leading to their potential criminalization. The guidance should also specify how such mischaracterization of domestic abuse can be avoided, including through targeted training of and accountability mechanisms for police and service providers and data collection and analysis of police reports and response on violence against women, anti-social behavior, and crimes against property.

The draft Statutory Guidance notes that “police should adopt a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive approach” in working with domestic violence victims and should account for how protected characteristics (as defined by the Equalities Act 2010) “may impact on the victim and how they seek support, avoiding making assumptions based on stereotypes.”[34] However, it does not define what is meant by “trauma-informed” or “trauma-responsive” approaches, or how such approaches should be implemented in practice, nor does it call for specific steps to address stereotyping and bias, whether conscious or unconscious. This lack of specificity may hinder efforts to ensure adequate preparation of police and service providers when they encounter domestic violence victims, and to combat stereotypes and misconceptions that may contribute to poor or discriminatory response to some women domestic abuse victims.

Finally, we note that the concerns pointed out above highlight once again the need for the UK government to follow through on its commitment to ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention.

We urge you to revise Chapter 4 of the Statutory Guidance to:

  • clarify that women victims of domestic abuse may face barriers to accessing all forms of protection and services due to race, ethnicity, religion, age, ability, immigration status, or other characteristics;
  • elaborate, including through examples and informed by evidence-based research and best practice standards, what is meant by an “intersectional approach,” a “trauma-informed approach,” and a “trauma-responsive approach” in responding to domestic abuse and what this should entail for both police and service providers, including access to specialist services, and how such approaches should be implemented throughout the law enforcement and service provision sectors;
  • recognize that mischaracterization of domestic abuse as anti-social behavior or other offenses is a particular risk for Black, Asian and other minority ethnic women, and that these women are also at greater risk of being prosecuted for such offenses;
  • specify steps to combat mischaracterization of domestic abuse, including through targeted training of and accountability mechanisms for police and service providers and data collection and analysis of police reports and response on violence against women, anti-social behavior, and crimes against property.

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[1] Draft statutory guidance framework, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1007814/draft-da-statutory-guidance-2021-final.pdf, paras. 115-117.

[2] Joint Briefing by Imkaan and the End Violence against Women Coalition (EVAW), Adjournment Debate: Black Women and Domestic Abuse, 30 June 2020, https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Joint-Briefing-for-Meg-Hillier-MP-Debate-EVAW-Imkaan.pdf, p. 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Istanbul Convention Art. 22.1, https://rm.coe.int/168008482e

[5] Explanatory note to Istanbul Convention, para 132, https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=09000016800d383a.

[6] Imkaan, “From Survival to Sustainability: critical issues for the black and ‘minority ethnic’ ending violence against women and girls sector in the UK,” December 2018, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2f475d_9cab044d7d25404d85da289b70978237.pdf, p. 19.

[7] End Violence Against Women, “Joint VAWG Sector Emergency Funding Statement,” April 2020, https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FINAL-JOINT-VAWG-SECTOR-EMERGENCY-FUNDING-STATEMENT.pdf (also available via: https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/joint-statement-on-emergency-funding-from-violence-against-women-girls-sector/ ); https://www.womensaid.org.uk/womens-aid-responds-to-the-governments-funding-announcement/ ; https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Joint-Briefing-for-Meg-Hillier-MP-Debate-EVAW-Imkaan.pdf ; https://www.ashiana.org.uk/letter-to-prime-minister-vawg/.

[8] Statutory Guidance, paras. 122, 135.

[9] Latin American Women's Rights Services et al., “The Right to Be Believed: Migrant women facing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) in the ‘hostile immigration environment’ in London,” 2019, https://stepupmigrantwomenuk.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/the-right-to-be-believed-full-version-updated.pdf; https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/SBS-briefing-Pilot-Project-1.pdf; https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmpublic/DomesticAbuse/memo/DAB32.pdf; https://www.sistersforchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/121-LAWRS_SUMW-2nd-Briefing-updated-final.pdf; Bates, L., Gangoli, G., Hester, M. and Justice Project Team (2018), Policy Evidence Summary 1: Migrant Women. University of Bristol, Bristol, https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/188884552/Policy_evidence_summary_1_Migrant_women.pdf.

[10] Southall Black Sisters, “A Briefing Paper on the Government’s pilot project to support abused migrant women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF),” 2021, https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/SBS-briefing-Pilot-Project-1.pdf; Latin American Women’s Rights Service et al., “The Right to Be Believed: Migrant women facing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) in the ‘hostile immigration environment’ in London,” 2019, https://stepupmigrantwomenuk.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/the-right-to-be-believed-full-version-updated.pdf; Women’s Aid, “Nowhere To Turn 2021,” 2021, https://www.womensaid.org.uk/no-woman-turned-away/; Women’s Aid, “Nowhere To Turn 2018,” 2018, https://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/NWTA-2018-FINAL.pdf; Coalition of Latin American Organisations in the

UK (CLAUK) and Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), “Written evidence submitted by the CLAUK and LAWRS (CVB0040),” July 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/8642/pdf/; Draft Statutory Guidance, para. 120.

[11] Southall Black Sisters, “A Briefing Paper on the Government’s pilot project to support abused migrant women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF),” 2021, https://southallblacksisters.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/SBS-briefing-Pilot-Project-1.pdf

[12] Draft Statutory Guidance, para 124.

[13] Southall Black Sisters and LAWRS, “Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse Findings: A Response by the Southall Black Sisters and the Latin American Women’s Rights Service,” September 2020, https://drive.google.com/file/d/16dMZwV8bWZ56viyhA0icKuxIhbVAHIzu/view, paras. 53-54.

[14] ECHR, Arts. 2, 3, 14.

[15] ICCPR, Arts. 2, 3, 6, 7.

[16] ICESCR, Arts. 2, 3, 12,

[17] Arts. 2, 3, 5,

[18] CEDAW General Recommendation 35, para 31(b).

[19] UN Handbook on Legislation on Violence against Women, section 3.71, https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2012/12/unw_legislation-handbook%20pdf.pdf?la=en&vs=1502, pp. 32-33.

[20] Istanbul Convention, Arts. 4, 7, 59, https://rm.coe.int/168008482e; see also, Explanatory Report to the Istanbul Convention.

[21] Statutory Guidance, para. 125.

[22] Statutory Guidance, para. 125.

[23] Safe to share? Report on Liberty and Southall Black Sisters’ super-complaint on policing and immigration status, 17 Dec 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/945314/safe-to-share-liberty-southall-black-sisters-super-complaint-policing-immigration-status.pdf, pp. 10, 11, 49, 50, 56, 73, 74, 77.

[24] Ibid, p. 50.

[25] College of Policing, HMICFRS and IOPS, “Safe to share? Report on Liberty and Southall Black Sisters’ super-complaint on policing and immigration status,” December 17, 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/945314/safe-to-share-liberty-southall-black-sisters-super-complaint-policing-immigration-status.pdf, pp. 62, 78

[26] Ibid, pp. 87-88.

[27] Ibid, p. 86.

[28] Statutory Guidance, para. 126.

[29] Statutory Guidance, para. 290.

[30] CEDAW General Recommendation 28, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/472/60/PDF/G1047260.pdf?OpenElement, para. 18.

[31] Statutory Guidance, para. 275.

[32] Sisters for Change, “Unequal Regard, Unequal Protection: Public Authority Responses to Violence Against BME Women in England,” 2019, https://www.sistersforchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/83-SistersForChange_UnequalRegardUnequalProtection_Nov2017-1.pdf; “Valerie’s Law,” Sistah Space, https://www.sistahspace.org/valerieslaw; Prison Reform Trust, “Counted Out: Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in the criminal justice system,” 2017, http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Counted%20Out.pdf; Maya Oppenheim, “BME women in criminal justice system share harrowing stories as campaigners warn they suffer systemic racism,” Independent, June 23, 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/black-and-minority-ethnic-women-criminal-justice-system-bme-a9581956.html;

[33] Ministry of Justice, “Female Offender Strategy,” June 2018, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/719819/female-offender-strategy.pdf.

[34] Para. 306

 

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