Monday, 7 July 2014

Domestic Violence Bill introduced to National Assembly

There were estimated to be more than 420,000 victims of domestic
violence (both genders combined) in Wales during 2011-12.
(Pic : South Wales Evening Post)
Today's legislative news is dominated by the "flagship" Future Generations Bill, which I'll hopefully come back to at the end of the week.

In other Welsh law news you might've noticed, after an extensive and lengthy consultation which garnered some 150 responses, last week, Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) introduced the Gender-based Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Bill to the National Assembly.

You know the drill. Bill here (pdf), explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

Gender-based violence : The need for a new law

According to the 2011-12 EnglandandWales Crime Survey, in Wales alone :

  • 11.7% of women and 5.1% of men say they've been victims of any kind of domestic abuse.
  • 3.2% of women and 0.7% of men say they've been victims of sexual assault.
  • 7.8% of women and 3.5% of men say they've been victims of stalking.
All of this has an economic impact too; in terms of public spending, sickness rates and police investigations. Based on figures produced in a 2009 report from Lancaster University's Prof. Sylvia Walby (pdf), the cumulative cost (economic, public service and emotional) of domestic violence could be as high as £826.4million in Wales (on a population share figure). That figure doesn't including gender-based violence like female genital mutilation and sexual assaults.

At present, the Welsh Government say that domestic and gender-based violence is a complex issue, with many public sector bodies involved in dealing with it. Indeed, the devolution settlement itself only partially covers it.

The main aims of the Bill – in shorthand – are to : provide leadership from the top through a national strategy, place duties on public sector organisations to correctly report and work together when it comes to possible cases of domestic or gender-based violence, and take preventative measures to prevent such violence from happening in the first place.

What does the Bill propose?

Public bodies - like the fire service and local health boards - will be required under the
proposed law to develop strategies to improve responses to suspected cases of abuse.
(Pic : Eric Jones via BBC Wales)
Strategies & Guidance

The Act will :
  • Place a duty on the Welsh Government to :
    • Produce a national strategy for domestic and gender-based violence sometime in the second half of 2016, setting out their objectives and timescales for achieving them.
    • Set out a number of measurable indicators to determine if they're meeting the goals of their national strategy or the Act in general.
    • Submit an annual report on their progress to the National Assembly.
  • Place a duty on local government and local health boards to produce their own joint local strategies - along the same lines as the national one - within one year of the next local authority elections (scheduled for May 2017). They'll also have to produce an annual report each financial year.
  • Grant Welsh Ministers the power to issue guidance to relevant authorities (local government, fire service, local health boards etc.) - which they must follow - setting out what they should do in terms of preventing domestic and gender-based violence, training staff, sharing information between each other and co-operation. This guidance will need to be approved by the National Assembly.
  • Grants Welsh Ministers the power to issue directions to authorities in order for them to comply with the Act if they are failing to do so.

Ministerial Adviser

The Act will :
  • Create the post of Ministerial Adviser on Gender-based Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence, paid for directly by the Welsh Government.
  • Set out the adviser's role as (broadly-speaking) undertaking research and advising ministers (or other individuals/organisations) on issues falling under the Act. They'll also have to produce and publish an annual plan setting out what they intend to do.

The scope of Gender-based Violence, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence

The Act broadly covers :
  • "Abuse" – defined as physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse (property theft, fraud, pressure to spend/misuse money).
  • "Domestic Abuse""abuse" where the victim is associated with the abuser via : marriage, engagement, civil partnership, live-in relationship, relatives (presumably including step-relatives), boyfriend/girlfriend or through joint parental responsibility.
  • "Female genital mutilation (FGM)" – as outlined in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
  • "Harassment" – Speech or other action that a reasonable person would consider to be harassment. The Crown Prosecution Service have more specific definitions of harassment and stalking.
  • "Sexual exploitation" – as outlined in Part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

So what's important here isn't the Bill/future Act itself but the proposed national strategy. This could include (based on the content of the explanatory memorandum) :
  • "Ask & Act" – Professionals (hinted as meaning NHS workers, social workers, teachers, police and firefighters) will be encouraged to ask people they suspect of being abused if they are being abused, and then – through training and guidance – encouraged to act on that in order to prevent any suspected abuse from continuing.
  • Multi-agency forums – Collaboration to ensure there's a consistent approach across the public sector.
  • A National Training Framework – New training guidelines will ensure a consistent approach to care of suspected victims of abuse, split into 6 levels. Level 1 training is the basic level that would cover all public service staff, Level 3 covers professionals and specialists who work directly with victims, while Level 6 covers high-level strategy.
  • Public information campaigns and education programmes – Compulsory relationship lessons in schools have been dropped from the Bill itself, but that doesn't mean they can't be included in the national strategy, part of training for teachers (under the new training framework) or included as part of the current review of the national curriculum.

How much will this cost?

The new National Training Framework will cost a total of £2.8million over the next four years, with just under £440,000 being spent directly by the Welsh Government, and the rest picked up jointly by public service organisations.

Introducing the training and guidance for "Ask and Act" will cost another £2.8million over four years, with the Welsh Government spending £374,000 directly.

The multi-agency forums will cost £7,000 (to pay a specialist to establish them). The cost of the government adviser will be £244,000 in total over the next four years, including the £11,000 cost of recruiting them. I'm sure there are plenty of "insiders" eying up the job.

The cost of establishing a Commissioner (similar to that for Older People, Children etc.) - which was considered as an option - would've been somewhere between £585,000 and £630,000 per year. This was rejected in favour of the cheaper government adviser post instead.

So the total cost of the legislation – if passed – from 2014-15 to 2018-19 will be £5.61million (~£1.4million per year), mostly borne by the Welsh public sector at large. Based on the statistics given (16.8% of over 16s, or 424,578 people), it works out at around £3.36 per victim of domestic violence per year.

The explanatory memorandum says that it's "not possible" to quantify the financial benefits, but it's worth again pointing towards the estimated total £826.4million impact of such violence and behaviour on the Welsh purse.

The Relationship Lessons, Gender & Smacking Issues


The first big change from the original proposal was that, as aforementioned, compulsory relationship education lessons for schoolchildren have been dropped from the Bill.

You would expect this sort of thing to be covered in PSE lessons anyway under the National Curriculum – which, as said, is currently under review. I don't think it's ever been made clear precisely what "relationship education" means in practice, and I suspect the Welsh Government are trying to prevent - what I've called before – a "curriculum by statute" developing where the curriculum is set inflexibly through laws. I wouldn't be surprised though if this ends up back in the Bill after it's gone through committee. It's too valuable as a preventative measure to ignore completely.

The Bill also drew complaints from Wales Violence Against Women Action Group's Dr Mwenya Chimba for not specifically focusing on women - whether titular or in the content of the Bill itself. This law was, of course, originally touted as a "Violence against Women Bill".

The only specific reference to women and girls relates to female genital mutilation (aka. FGM, female circumcision); an issue which I explored in a bit more graphic detail last year (Life, Ethics & Independence III – Circumcision).

It's a matter of cold hard fact that gender-based and domestic violence disproportionately affects women and girls, and the Welsh Government acknowledge that in the explanatory memorandum.

The Welsh Government would've been negligent though if a Bill that focuses on domestic and gender-based violence ignored male victims. I'm not just referring to heterosexual men. The law would've been on shaky ground from the start if, for example, a lesbian couple falls under the Bill's provisions, but a gay couple doesn't. That's before adding transgenders into the mix. This sort of violence and emotional entrapment is wrong regardless of who's on the receiving end or who's dishing it out.

The Welsh Government were, therefore, absolutely right to make this Bill gender neutral, and get a thumbs up from me for doing so, as I'm sure they will from organisations that work with male victims of domestic violence.

I just hope AMs maintain the law's gender neutrality and don't cave in to pressure from the third sector to change it. Also, the strategies themselves should remain gender neutral too - though they could include measures specifically aimed at either gender where appropriate.

Unfortunately, and less complimentary to the Welsh Government, we have this law trying to protect adults from domestic abuse, yet the Welsh Government seem to be fine with hitting children as a form of punishment. This could provide a perfect opportunity for AMs to revisit a smacking ban if they so wish.

A (potentially) good law with no bite

In the absence of any control over the criminal justice side of this
kind of abuse, the outlined measures look limp - but still welcome.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
It's worth saying from the outset that this is the absolute maximum the Welsh Government can do to address the issues under the devolution settlement.

As criminal justice isn't devolved, this doesn't update/alter criminal law or create any new offences relating to domestic or gender-based violence. That's probably the Bill's biggest weakness, and so it reads like a highly technical administrative law that's unlikely to generate much in the way of headlines or public interest.

It looks like it's been stripped down compared to what was originally proposed during the drafting and white paper phases too. I
t gives the impression of being another "Enabling Act" that gives a lot of power to ministers (via setting the strategy) without clearly outlining within the Bill itself what they're going to do with said powers.

It's also unclear if the perpetrators of violence are going to get the help they need. Supporting victims has to be the priority, but some perpetrators might have undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, or grew up in an environment where domestic or gender-based violence was the norm.

Despite all that, at least the Welsh Government are doing something about it, and it genuinely could go some way to helping victims and their families over the next few years. It's often attitudes within key public services that lets victims down – whether it's because abuse has gone unreported or it's not taken seriously enough - and that's the law's focus.

It still needs some work though.


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