The long-awaited Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill is inching nearer to full legislation and certainly holds some high hopes in regards to fresh court reforms and safeguarding measures.
However, before the ink dries on the Bills’ stamp of approval in the House of Lords, there are several omissions present within its final blueprint which must be addressed, namely in regards to migrant and disabled survivors of abuse.
Numerous reports have illuminated the disproportionate burden disabled people have carried during this era of global crisis – an outcome which is all too common for vulnerable individuals in the UK who have suffered immensely under years of austerity, budget cuts and overzealous benefits assessors.
Now, they are vulnerable to redundancy and income losses as well as a life-threatening virus.
However, with many still being caged inside the confines of their own homes to shield from COVID-19, disabled people face a heightened risk of domestic abuse and isolation as their dependency on an individual for their care increases.
Lockdown measures rolled across the country in March saw domestic abuse services flooded with calls – from both disabled and non-disabled victims.
Yet even before the pandemic, domestic abuse committed against disabled people was already rising.
In 2018, one survey showed a shocking 91 out of 92 care homes had documented instances of abuse. Neglect was quoted as the most common form with patients being left waiting for care and/or given insufficient time to eat, but verbal and physical abuse was also noted in the report.
The charity, Age UK, called for a “zero-tolerance approach” last year after “deeply distressing” figures by NHS Digital showed yet more incidents relating to abuse or neglect with 415,000 instances documented.
Section 42 inquiries – the process through which an individual is marked as ‘at risk’ of abuse – also rose by 8.7%, involving 116,230 individuals. Despite abuse being documented in care homes, it most commonly took place it the victim’s own home.
Other research illuminates how disabled women are two to three times more likely to be abused and four times more likely to be victims of sexual violence compared to non-disabled women. SafeLives note that many female survivors have been raped, assaulted or subjected to demands for sex in exchange for basic care.
Yet due to the largely hidden nature of domestic abuse and given the narrow window of opportunity a disabled person might be granted to disclose their ordeal, disabled victims experience abuse for far longer – on average 3.3 years compared to 2.3 for non-disabled abuse victims.
Escaping an abuser is difficult for any survivor, but for disabled victims they may fear losing their independence and their home that could have been modified to cater to their caring needs – that and the fact less than 2% of refuges in England and Wales are wheelchair friendly.
If the victim has an insecure immigration status, there are yet more obstacles in their path: only those with a UK Spouse Visa can seek temporary financial support while many shelters struggle to find the capacity and funds to house a survivor who doesn’t have citizenship or recourse to public funds.
As a result, charities working on the frontline claim the official figures are just the tip of the iceberg. However, the DA Bill makes little effort in breaking down these barriers.
One of the many ways the Bill falls short is in its narrow depiction of an abuser: the Bill only identifies immediate family members and spouses to be capable of abuse, yet disabled people can be subjected to coercive control, exploitation, economic abuse and physical and sexual abuse by people whom they are not related to by blood or linked to by marriage or partnership.
According to Stay Safe East’s report, this can be by unpaid care workers, extended family members, personal assistants, friends, neighbours and other close contacts.
However, the most troublesome aspect of the Bill is found in its contradictory approach to coercive control and in its inability to recognise how domestic abuse and hostility towards disabled people intertwine.
Disabled victims are frequently abused and controlled in relation to their impairment. For example, their abuser could manipulate their medication, deny them access to mobility equipment or communication with others and/or refuse to give care, food and transport.
Since Universal Credit is frequently awarded to a household rather than per each individual, an abusive carer can also easily steal their disabled partner’s benefits.
The control a perpetrator has over their victim is the same as any other abuse case: the victim may feel isolated, humiliated, unable to speak to friends and family and scared that their children may get taken into care.
Yet the so-called ‘carer’s defence’ clause within the DA Bill effectively endorses this behaviour.
Evidence compiled by academics at the Dewis Choice Initiative found how disabled abuse against older people is often “ignored, invisible and overlooked” due to the wrong assumption that care givers always act with compassion to the one in need of care – and it is here where the DA Bill perpetuates the myth: abusive carers are granted a backdoor exit during prosecution by claiming that any act of harm was in the victim’s “best interests”.
Worryingly, during the Committee Stage of the Bill, the Government gave examples where such a defence might be applicable, such as forcing medication or imprisoning someone – which Disability Rights UK said in its letter to MPs could be interpreted as “coercive control”.
Disability campaigners and charities alike all across the UK now want to see the DA Bill strengthened and the “carer’s defence” abolished so that perpetrators are prosecuted proportionately.
Indeed, in 21st century Britain, it cannot be that the UK remains committed to human rights and equality while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the harm inflicted upon the most vulnerable.
At the most basic level, the very least the Bill should do is to protect all victims of abuse. And until disabled voices are heard, the DA Bill will remain a sorely missed opportunity.
This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who works for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of Manchester immigration lawyers.