Nickie Aiken is MP for Cities of London and Westminster.
This week, the Government will deliver on another major manifesto commitment as the Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal Assent. It has the potential to be a significant piece of legislation, laying as it does the foundations we need as a society to dramatically change not only how we think about domestic abuse, but how we respond to it.
The Domestic Abuse Act will do many things, but perhaps none greater than offering significantly improved protection to children and recognising them as victims in their own right. Domestic abuse can have a devastating impact on young people, resulting in emotional, social, psychological and behavioural difficulties that have long-term implications.
The Bill joins a long list of reforms to protect the vulnerable that successive Conservative governments have introduced over the past 30 years – the Children Act 1989; the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which created the offence of harassment; the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which created the offence of stalking; and the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which Theresa May took through the House before becoming a driving force behind this Bill.
I was honoured to sit on the Domestic Abuse Bill committee – my first as a Member of Parliament. As a former children’s services lead at Westminster Council, I and others across the sector were keen to strengthen the Bill’s provisions for children. We knew well the evidence about the long-term impact domestic abuse has on children – nearly 800,000 in England alone – and what the right support can mean to their lives.
Home is meant to be a place of safety, where we are loved and cherished the most. But for some children home becomes a place of fear. They wake up every morning not knowing whether something they do will lead to violence and the type of abuse that most of us could never imagine. This nightmare has only worsened during the coronavirus crisis, which has shone a dark light on domestic abuse. For some families, things have been incredibly hard, trapped at home for most, if not all, of the day, creating the perfect storm that could make domestic abuse more likely.
Every day, children’s services teams up and down the country see the devastating effects that witnessing such abuse can have on a child’s development, educational attainment and long-term mental health. Yet the vast majority of young people across England and Wales do not receive any of the specialist support they need to help them recover from the trauma. Children exposed to domestic abuse need expert help to process and recover from their experiences and develop an understanding of healthy relationships and behaviours.
This is what drove me to push for their inclusion in the statutory definition within the Bill, and I’m grateful that ministers have been prepared to listen and agree amendments that make improvements. Working closely with charities like Action for Children and Women’s Aid, we were all able to change the conversation so the needs of children are not overlooked, and it is significant that the Bill now specifically includes children within households where domestic abuse takes place, recognising them for what they are – victims, and not just witnesses.
By identifying children in the statutory definition, we are helping to put them at the heart of how society deals with domestic abuse. Now their perspectives, their experiences, and their need for support will have to be taken into account by the frontline professionals working with their families.
As big a step as it is, the Act is only the first step. It’s not enough to think about helping children. We need to ensure every child who needs specialist help to overcome domestic abuse is able to receive it but, as Action for Children found, provision of domestic abuse services around the country is currently ‘patchy, piecemeal and precarious’.
At an early stage of its passage through Parliament, the Domestic Abuse Bill only required councils to provide specialist help if a child or young person was already in a domestic abuse refuge, not elsewhere. But, of course, most child victims live in homes, not refuges.
So, I’m pleased the Government has promised to consult on extending this duty to cover all child victims of abuse, wherever they live, as part of its work for the upcoming Victims’ Bill. That’s a testament to the hard work of the minister Victoria Atkins, who has impressed so many colleagues and campaigners with her willingness to listen and her quiet effectiveness.
I’m proud that it is a Conservative government that’s delivered a Domestic Abuse Act. It has the potential to change how society protects and supports our most vulnerable children.
Our job now, in national and local government, is to seize the opportunity and ensure every child who needs help to overcome domestic abuse is able to get it.