Thursday, 6 December 2012

Domestic Violence White Paper

I was going to post something on yesterday's council tax benefit ruckus from the Senedd. The Welsh Government cover themselves in brown, pongy glory once again.  I'm pretty sure Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid, Carmarthen E & Dinefwr) warned of this happening a good 8-9 months ago. As there's very little to work off other than some strongly-worded statements, finger pointing and incompetence, I decided against.

He's got himself into another fine mess on that, but Local Government and Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), recently launched a white paper drawing up proposals for a new law on domestic violence and violence against women. He's asking for consultation responses – some representations from major domestic violence groups have already been submitted, I believe – which are due by February 22nd 2013.

The Problem

Domestic violence – defined as "patterns of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse" - is said to cost Wales up to £800million a year. That figure presumably covers costs of social services, healthcare and perhaps even extending into the economy if domestic violence victims are too intimidated to go out and work.

The Welsh Government have also make the (more than welcome) decision to make the domestic violence provisions gender neutral. If this had been women only – even though women make up the majority of victims - it would've neglected victims of domestic violence in same sex couples and male victims.

"Violence against women" – another core/specific part of the proposed legislation – is defined by the United Nations as "actions....likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women." This would include, presumably, things like stalking and harassment.

The Welsh Government believe that people have a "right to feel safe" and believe that legislation in this area will go some way to improve the services provided to victims.

Specific Proposals

Leadership & Accountability

The approach by the public sector in Wales to domestic violence is said to be "innovative". However, the Task & Finish Group preceding this white paper said there needed to be improvements to "leadership and accountability". They also want to improve consistency across Wales, as these issues are – in the main – the responsibility of local authority-run social services.

There are early proposals for a Welsh Government appointed adviser on the issue, but that falls short of the Commissioners for Children, Older People and the Welsh language, for example. The adviser would have the power to carry out investigations and contribute to funding decisions taken by the Welsh Government. Some of these powers will link in with those outlined in the proposed Social Services Bill from earlier this year (details here).

Our old friend - local authority collaboration – makes an appearance, again tying in with the Social Services Bill.

Education & Awareness

The white paper cites studies showing that between a quarter and a third of young women have been victims of some sort of unwanted sexual attention or harassment at some point. The Welsh Government want people to "engage" with the proposed Bill. They want to ensure that relationship education is on the school curriculum.

The Welsh Government want to dispel myths amongst the public about domestic violence and even rape victims – for example, the belief that revealing clothing makes a woman partially or wholly responsible for being sexually assaulted.

The aim, through education, is to reduce victim-blaming, make violence unacceptable and reduce "damaging gender stereotypes". The Welsh Government want to set national standards to ensure services relating to domestic violence aren't as varied as currently, by placing more statutory duties on education/prevention on local authorities.

To address inconsistencies in training to deal with abuse, there are proposals for a new national advice framework (groan!) for everyone ranging from the public to public leaders. The Welsh public sector will also have a statutory obligation to have a domestic & sexual violence policy.

Strengthening Services

The Welsh Government want to improve information sharing between relevant public bodies and groups so they can improve safety of victims at a much earlier stage, and help identify perpetrators sooner.

Welsh public bodies – like the NHS - will also be expected to "act and ask" by disclosing information to relevant agencies, and increasing referrals to relevant bodies dealing with abuse. They also want to provide safer accommodation for victims, so they don't feel obliged to stay at home with an abuser.

It's hinted more than once that the capital and resource costs of this might be difficult for local authorities and the NHS to meet. So, one more, "regional collaboration" crops up.

Conclusions

The broad aims are welcome – domestic violence is a particularly vicious crime because, more often than not, it traps the victims emotionally – but I do have some issues with a few of the proposals.

I might be open to accusations of hypocrisy considering what I said about replicating Scotland's Sexual Offences Act in Wales (if criminal justice powers are devolved), but I imagine most outward examples of domestic violence would be covered by current assault and harassment laws. The psychological abuse would be hard to define or (in some cases) prove.

It's a tricky thing to tackle by legislation alone. I think the Welsh Government realise this, and that's why they've focused on attitudes and services, but I fear this is going to get bogged down in public sector buzzwords and policy wonk talk.

The UN definition of "violence against women", as cited in the white paper, might refer to violence in specific circumstances – for example, in warzones, or using rape as a weapon. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I don't think that definition's entirely applicable to Wales, but obviously some aspects (i.e human trafficking) would be.

Like housing, I fear that local authorities elsewhere in the UK might see the more aggressive approach taken to tackle domestic abuse here - by a "progressive, caring" Welsh Government - as a way to pass problems onto us that they should be addressing themselves.

A proper course of relationship education in schools as part of PSE lessons would be wholeheartedly welcome, and I've mentioned that before. I just hope it's genuine and well-planned so it doesn't become another box-ticking exercise. It's this public education and awareness aspect that would make the big difference, seeing prevention as the best cure.

But let's not go over the top. Men still make up – by some significant margin – the perpetrators and victims of general violence. You would think that a "Violence Against Men" Bill, under the same benchmarks, would probably be laughed out of any legislature in the world. Once you take into account things like the 1995 Srebrenica massacre - Bosniak  men and boys were specifically targeted - the concept of gender-based violence against men might not be so laughable.

On the other hand, I can see why a "Violence Against Women" Bill makes sense, as it's usually (but not always) a symptom of something else, or a way to exert control rather than spontaneous.

However, the title of the white paper and (presumably) any future Bill might give the mistaken impression that it'll clamp down on the violence itself. Sadly, I don't think it would.

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