Cristina Odone: We must do more to protect the thousands who suffer domestic abuse, but have no recourse to justice

14 Dec

Cristina Odone is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice.

Kate Griffiths MP’s husband raped her in her sleep, physically assaulted when she was pregnant, and exercised coercive control even post their separation. He was a Government Minister at the time.

Andrew Griffiths denies these allegations – but their exposure has driven home the crucial point about domestic abuse: it happens behind closed doors, and it happens to anyone, perpetrated by anyone. And it happens frequently – far more than we would like to think: according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) an estimated 1.6 million women aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2020.

Griffiths, who succeeded her husband as (Conservative) MP for Burton, agreed that her abuse should become public knowledge because, according to her lawyer Charlotte Proudman on yesterday’s Woman’s Hour, she felt that “as a powerful woman and an MP, she wanted to give voice” to women who live with this abuse.

I do not mean in any way to detract from Griffiths’s trauma by saying that she was one of the luckier survivors of this heinous crime. Thousands of women (and men) suffer her same plight, but have no recourse to justice or indeed to support to recover from their experience because of their “insecure” immigration status. They came into this country with a limited right to remain, and their abuser knows it. If the victim dares to blow the whistle, their abuser will have her deported. And she is not only their victim, she has No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). No access to counselling for her trauma, or medical attention, or safe housing.

The risk of deportation for these victims – and the NRPF condition can apply to modern slaves too — is all too real. Currently essential public services (e.g. DHSC, DfE, DVLA, DWP, HMRC) and even homelessness outreach services collect information and share it with Home Office immigration enforcement teams, all too often without the victim’s knowledge or permission.

The NRPF status turns police, GPs, teachers even social workers – the very group who should be supporting these vulnerable victims — into informants.

We hope to shed light on the plight of the thousands of victims of NRPF with our new report, Out from the Shadows. Co-authored with the charity Justice and Care, our report addresses the disparities in the treatment of victims of domestic abuse as well as modern slavery whose shared experiences expose a system that allows some women (and men) to languish at the bottom of a hierarchy of victims.

What can we do to right this wrong? In Out from the Shadows we recommend the establishment of an information fire wall between immigration authorities and police, social workers, GPs, and other services to end the data-sharing that makes victims with insecure immigration status so scared of reporting their abuse.

Victims are more likely to cooperate with the police and report crime when they do not risk deportation. In this way, more perpetrators and traffickers would be apprehended, reducing costs as well as the number of potential victims; and fewer survivors would develop serious needs or slip back into exploitation and trafficking.

Research carried out by the CSJ and Justice and Care found that in pilot projects where victims of modern slavery enjoyed Government protection, they all assisted a criminal investigation. Surely, supporting the victims of these crimes so that they feel able to expose criminals and their gangs is in our enlightened self-interest?

We also recommend that the Chancellor establish an annual central NRPF safeguarding fund for local authorities to bid into, based on the need in their area. The fund would cover safe and appropriate accommodation, basic subsistence, advice regarding individual entitlements and rights, specialist support and advocacy, children’s free school meals, and secondary health services. This fund would support data-gathering too, prompting LAs to conduct better/more comprehensive mapping exercises.

At a round table hosted by the CSJ which drew together Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, and specialist groups and local charities in the sector, we heard that funding should reach directly front-line services. These crucial services routinely are disadvantaged by local commissioning structures. In order to bypass these structures, the fund could be held or administered by PCCs or Mayors rather than local authorities; or distributed directly by the Ministry of Justice, which has extensive experience of commissioning victim support services.

Last week Rachel Maclean, the Home Office Minister, went some way to assure victims of modern slavery who receive a positive conclusive grounds decision and are in need of tailored support will receive appropriate individualised support for a minimum of 12 months.” This is a step in the right direction. We hope Government will take another one, supporting victims of domestic abuse as well as modern slaves. Kate Griffiths, MP: here is a cause to champion.