Ryan Shorthouse and Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield: Domestic abuse is everyone’s business

12 Feb

Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue and Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield is a Researcher there, whose work focuses on the inequalities of remote work, and integration and immigration.

The necessary national response to the threat of Coronavirus has come at high cost in myriad different ways. However, among those paying the highest cost may be domestic abuse victims trapped with their abusers.

Evidence on the trends on domestic abuse during the pandemic is yet to completely emerge, but that which has tells a concerning story. Crime data reported by police forces and collated by the ONS shows an increase in domestic-abuse related offences during the pandemic — in the period of March to June 2020, the police recorded a seven per cent increase in such offences in comparison with the same period in 2019 and an 18 per cent increase in comparison with that period in 2018.

Such figures should be understood in the context that lockdowns have reduced opportunities for victims of domestic abuse to escape, seek help or go to the police, so likely show only a fraction of offences. This is reflected in survey data — after the first lockdown, Women’s Aid found that 78 per cent of survivors surveyed reported that Coronavirus had made it more difficult for them to leave their abusers. Seventy-two percent also said that their abusers had gained more control over their lives during lockdown, demonstrating the dangerous isolation wrought by such measures and the erosion of informal support structures for victims of domestic abuse.

There has also been some evidence that domestic abuse has intensified during Coronavirus restrictions. The first three weeks of the first lockdown saw murders of women reach a ten-year high. Points at which families spend more time together, such as Christmas, are already associated with significant rises in reported incidences of domestic abuse and well-established as a dangerous time for victims.

However, recent research from City University argues that the pandemic exposed rather than created Britain’s domestic abuse crisis, finding that long-term trends are largely responsible for increases in domestic abuse seen in the last year. However, these researchers agree that getting out of dangerous situations has become harder for victims in the context of restrictions, meaning domestic abuse is likely intensifying in severity.

The Domestic Abuse Bill, which has taken years to go through parliament as a result of political disruptions such as Brexit, promises to include the imposition of a legal duty upon local councils to provide safe accommodation for victims and their children, and an expansive statutory definition of domestic abuse. In the meantime, the Government is introducing new ways to reach domestic abuse victims, especially during lockdown. Recently, the Ask for ANI scheme was launched meaning that victims can use the ‘Ani’ code word to discreetly signal that they need help at pharmacies, which remain open as essential businesses.

But employers, not just government, have an important role, especially during this crisis. Indeed, employers – specifically, line managers – are perhaps uniquely placed to act as a vital contact point for victims at the moment, whether that be through a Zoom or phone call. They may be one of the very few points of contact an abuse victim has.

Some are doing lots already. For example, recently commended by Paul Scully, the Business Minister, Lloyds Banking Group has developed a domestic abuse policy for its workforce and launched an emergency assistance service for employees, covering the cost of a hotel and associated expenses in the event of someone from the company needing to flee their home and requiring a temporary place of safety.

There are some sensible first steps employers could take, as Scully points out in an open letter last month, including raising awareness of domestic abuse among staff, communicating clearly what help an employer can provide colleagues who are victims and fostering an inclusive environment where victims feel safe to speak up. Similarly, the TUC advocates that line managers be trained to recognise the signs of domestic abuse in their junior colleagues and peers. Furthermore, staff who deal directly with the public, such as those who work in retail, generally already receive training when they begin their jobs — there is no reason that basic information on spotting the signs of domestic abuse among colleagues and customers cannot be added to this training.

As Victoria Atkins, Safeguarding Minister, wrote for Bright Blue last year, domestic abuse is everyone’s business. Employers, especially at the moment, should realise that includes them.