Karin Smyth – 2020 Speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Karin Smyth, the Labour MP for Bristol South, in the House of Commons on 28 April 2020.

I, too, welcome this long overdue Bill and many of its provisions. Since becoming the Member for Bristol South in 2015, the impact of domestic violence has been one of the most heartbreaking and dominant parts of my casework. My surgeries have been filled with women, mainly in their 20s, with children, who have been desperate to remain part of their community and have had family support but who have been seeking refuge from their perpetrator. The impact is wide, and when in recent discussions with headteachers and local police we have been trying to identify behavioural problems locally, we have often come back to a background of young men experiencing violence at home and then repeating it.

This Bill is crucial for many of my constituents, because our area has some of the highest rates in the city. In 2018-19, police figures for Bristol showed more ​than 10,000 domestic violence and abuse incidents, but there is a shocking disparity between levels of violence across the city. A 2017 report on women’s health showed that the rate of domestic violence against women in some wards in my constituency was double the national average. There has been a problem for some time, and one that I raised with the UN rapporteur on human rights in 2018. In some of our communities it is embedded, normalised and long-term, and often not discussed. A significant part of the problem is that cases are not reported, which presents huge difficulties for people supporting the victims. Some 14% of the population in one of our wards think that abuse is a private matter—compared with a figure of 7% across Bristol as a whole. Sometimes a reluctance to speak out against abuse is related to the amount of time it has been going on. A report by the south-west rape crisis centre partnership entitled “The chilling silence” identified sexual abuse among older women in particular, and often not much publicity is given to those women. I would like to see that issue addressed in this Bill.

In February, I held a surgery especially for women who had come through domestic violence—they were largely on the other side—and I asked them what services they would like to see changed. I am grateful to them for sharing their experiences and being brave. Most of the suggested changes centred on the justice system, but many related to mental health support once a victim has managed to flee their abuse, because the trauma does not end when someone leaves. I heard many examples of how the state apparatus is then used to manipulate the victim from a distance; for example, childcare arrangements and child maintenance payments can all add to the psychological trauma once someone has left.

I wish to focus my comments on part 4 of the Bill. Bristol City Council is doing some excellent work in this area, alongside some brilliant partner organisations, but I am deeply concerned that the duty placed on local authorities to support and protect victims is not sustainable without the Government providing the necessary funding. After the past 10 years of cuts locally, this is an unrealistic ask, and funding must accompany duty and responsibility. Housing is also key. Having enough accessible and appropriate housing to accommodate victims quickly is essential, but far too often I have seen women and their children forced to move out of local areas, away from support networks and their families, while the perpetrator remains in the house. Where it is safe and appropriate to effect change, I hope that measures will be taken forward in this Bill.

The Justice Secretary, in his opening remarks, identified a complex landscape locally, and the role of local authorities and police and crime commissioners. He said that the new commissioner would seek to understand that. I hope that she works closely with those in Bristol, as people there are doing a remarkable job. I wish to highlight the work being done by Avon and Somerset police, and I pay tribute to the police and crime commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, who over eight years has led tremendous work in this area, working with voluntary organisations.

The police could not do such work without our excellent voluntary sector’s work with victims. The sector is coming particularly to the fore at this time, doing tremendous work to support women locally. However, if the Government are really serious about making an impact, they should support the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) ​for a duty to provide funding for this work, and particularly to ensure that good, quality-assured perpetrator programmes are in place.