Isabel Hardman

Domestic abuse support needs more than tick-box politics

Domestic abuse support needs more than tick-box politics
Picture by Andrew Parsons / No. 10 Downing Street
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One of the problems with the political news cycle, whether in normal times or now, is that politicians believe that making an announcement about a policy problem is all they need to do to tick it off their to-do list. The more complex the problem, the more tempting it is to make an announcement that sounds as though you are taking it seriously, but which doesn't do anything to address even one aspect of what's really going on.

One of the classic long-term examples of this is social care, which no political party in the past two decades has done enough to address, beyond making announcements about what they might do. Another is 'skills', which few politicians really understand, but which they know is in some vague sense important to those who haven't been to university. In recent years, we have heard plenty of announcements on how seriously the government takes mental illness, which then amounts to little more than someone as powerful as the Prime Minister saying 'it's okay not to be okay', without doing the sorts of things that powerful people like prime ministers can do, like increasing the amount of support available for those who aren't okay rather than leaving them on a year-long waiting list.

The latest policy area that keeps popping up on political to-do lists without any real resolution is domestic abuse. It was an epidemic before the coronavirus lockdown, with two women a week being killed by their current or ex-partner. Whatsmore, 90 women and the same number of children are turned away from refuges on any given night. In the latest Spectator, I explain how the lockdown has made things so much worse.

So far, ministers have conformed to type. They've ticked domestic abuse off as an issue by making an announcement that is in no way commensurate with the scale of the problems facing the sector now or after the lockdown. At the weekend, Home Secretary Priti Patel unveiled £2 million for domestic violence helplines and launched an awareness campaign called #YouAreNotAlone.

Neither of these things are bad. Public awareness of domestic abuse is very low and demand for helplines has indeed soared since the lockdown. But given how overstretched the sector was before the lockdown, it is extraordinary that ministers thought it sufficient to lob a tiny sum of money and a hashtag at charities and then describe this, as Matt Hancock did at Wednesday's coronavirus briefing, as a 'strong package'. It's not all that helpful to tell someone it's okay to reach out about the abuse they are suffering, only for them to discover – as many victims did on a daily basis before the lockdown – that there isn't really any help available. People with mental illnesses will recognise this all too well. 

I was able to ask the Health Secretary about the government's planning for the impact of the lockdown on abuse victims. On whether Patel had really announced a 'strong package' when there was no more funding for refuges, he said:

The most important thing especially during a lockdown is to make sure that we give channels of communication for people who aren't able to cry for help because the sorts of places like at school where you might be able to get out of your home and be able to have the confidence to come forward... to make sure that there are alternative provision to that.

I think that was the urgent thing that needed doing and of course when it comes to supporting refuges we are and all of the supporting infrastructure we are of course willing to look at that and make sure it is as strong as it possibly can be.

It's good that Hancock has said the government is willing to look at supporting refuges, given the problem is likely to get worse once the lockdown lifts. If ministers really want to look seriously at this, rather than just doing another tick-box announcement, though, they are going to have to fork out a substantial sum of money.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

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