Campaigners against domestic abuse. Photo: Getty
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From surviving to leading: the women changing how we look at domestic abuse

How women as community leaders can combat domestic abuse.

The past week has seen action from all parties on the issue of violence against women and girls. Yesterday the Liberal Democrats announced that sex and relationship education should be compulsory for all children from age seven and Labour appointed Seema Malhotra MP to focus on tackling violence against women and girls. Last week, the government described its plans to reopen the debate around making domestic abuse a crime.  All of this at the very least provokes welcome discourse on an issue which service providers, communities and politicians continue to struggle to address.

As Movement for Change Community Organiser for the North West of England, my work revolves largely around health and social care. In February this year, the women of Barrow-in-Furness came together to turn their anger about the acceptance of domestic abuse within our community into action to change this. Six local women took a lead. Some have experienced domestic abuse, others have seen the effects of this on loved ones.

They set about asking questions that it seems had not been asked of local citizens before; “What do you think is acceptable in a relationship?” “What constitutes a happy and positive relationship?” “What is not acceptable?” “Why?” The outcomes suggested that people do know what they want to see in their own relationships, in their children’s relationships, in the people around them.  Trust was the most common answer.  Laughter, equality, respect, friendship all featured high in the over 200 responses. Violence was felt to be unacceptable, with people expressing this quite strongly in their responses.

Why then does Cumbria – along with many other parts of the UK – continue to experience high rates of domestic abuse?  A report commissioned by the Cumbria Police and Crime Commissioner earlier this year makes sensible recommendations on this.  However, what the women found in many of their conversations, was a much less black and white response.

It seemed that where violence as a physical manifestation of abuse was widely agreed to be unacceptable, many people, male and female, had no recognition of what constituted other forms of abuse. Similarly if an example of abusive behaviour, as defined by the Home Office, was provided by means of explanation, people were reluctant to describe that behaviour as abusive or wrong. What it did do, in many interactions, was render people silent and thoughtful – it created a tension in the conversation which couldn’t be filled with a “right” or “wrong” answer.  It created space for this to be thought about, discussed and considered.

I listened to two young women disagree with each other as to whether the scenario they had watched – a young man taking control of his partner’s mobile phone and issuing her with a warning about texting people he disapproves of – was acceptable or not.  On the whole, the conclusion they came to was probably not – but, they agreed, there was something about the situation which made them uncomfortable. They wanted to talk about it more with their friends.

Abuse can reduce a person to fearing for their lives, even without anyone ever having laid a finger on them. It cost Cumbria £1.76m in 2011 in treatment for mental health problems. And it can manifest itself on children in a similarly invisible on the surface but devastating way. 

The week’s events show all party recognition that domestic abuse needs to be higher on the social agenda than it has been to date. It is interesting that the actions of each of the parties this week mirrors to a great extent the actions of the women working with Movement for Change. These women are community leaders. Their courage in stepping up to represent others and addressing the issue head on led the wider community to take action. Together they negotiated with the local Police and Crime Commissioner to fund the pilot of a £5000 evidence based package of education on what positive relationships look like in a local junior school. They won the support and accolade of local politicians, councillors, Action for Children and the Youth Offending Team as well as many other service providers and the police. 

Perhaps most strikingly, they built a local movement of over a hundred people from across the community on a sunny Friday night in May. They sat them around tables with people they didn’t know, talked openly and without apology about domestic abuse in all its horrible forms, recreating that tension, that uncertainty – and then let people fill that space through talking and listening.   The women leading the project describe themselves as ordinary, local women.  In many ways, they are some of the most extraordinary individuals. Through their refusal to accept a community where domestic abuse remains unchallenged, they have demonstrated that it is experience, determination, anger about an issue, collective action and  a belief that things can be different which transforms the people you might least expect, these unlikely leaders, from  being “survivors” into pioneers.

Charlotte Smith is a Movement for Change community organiser in northwest England. Click here for information about the Movement for Change Showcase at Labour party conference.

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As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.