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Rosie Duffield: “I just felt like I needed to say something and it all just came out"

The Labour MP for Canterbury reflects on her historic speech on the Domestic Abuse Bill, and why that landmark legislation matters.

On 2 October 2019, Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, rose in the House of Commons to make a contribution to the debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill: one of many backbenchers delivering one of hundreds of speeches that are made in parliament in any given week. But when she sat down, colleagues were in tears. It received international news coverage. It is widely considered one of the greatest parliamentary speeches of all time. 

“Domestic violence has many faces and the faces of those who survive it are varied too. Sometimes there are no bruises,” she began. But as she spoke, it became clearer that this was an account from personal experience  indeed, of a recent experience of domestic abuse as a sitting MP. 

“In a strange city his face changes in a way you are starting to know and dread. In a way that tells you, you need to stay calm, silent and very careful. You read a city guide… mentally packing a day full of fun. But he seems to have another agenda.

“He doesn’t want you to leave the room. He’s paid a lot of money and you need to pay him your full attention. You are expected to do as you are told. You know for certain what that means, so you do, exactly what you are told.

“Those patterns continue: reward, punishment, promises of happy ever after, alternating with abject rage, menace, silent treatment and coercive control.”

Charting her relationship through its exciting beginnings, to initial warning signs (“the top you wore in the chamber was too low-cut”), to abuse becoming visible when out in public, to gaining the courage to lock him out of their house, she spoke — always in the second person, “you”  about the reality of domestic abuse.

“I think I kept enough back to not make it too personal,” she reflects, over seven months later, on a speech that has changed her life. “I sort of hinted at things, but there are things that I’ll never talk about in public or anything.” 

She deliberated about whether to deliver it at all. “I did speak to my boys first,” to ask if they were happy “with me talking about something quite personal in the chamber".

“I said, ‘It’s not very nice and it might get a bit of local coverage and it might embarrass you, are you alright with that?’ And they were both ok with it.”

She spoke with friends, and spoke to the then Speaker, John Bercow, asking if she could speak early on in the debate. “I said, ‘This is going to be really difficult for me, so do you mind if you call me reasonably early, because I think I might chicken out?”

I note that the speech is beautifully written, and she says it actually took only 25 minutes to write, over sushi at the house of her close friend and fellow Labour MP, Anna McMorrin. “I just felt like I needed to say something and it all just came out.”  

The style, she explains, gave her the option of never revealing she was speaking about her own experience if she changed her mind mid-speech. “There are bits where I could have stopped and not gone on to the next bit and not made it about me. Then I thought, ‘Ok’, I took a deep breath and said something that made it kind of obvious that it was about me.”

After that leap, she decided to keep going. “Then I thought, ‘No one will notice, and then Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper and people can speak afterwards. All the focus will be on them, and I’ll have done it and it’s fine.’ Actually, I got a lot more attention than I imagined.” 

One of the most moving aspects of the speech is the visible support from colleagues afterwards. I ask if these colleagues had been aware of her story before she stood up in parliament.

“Certainly there were colleagues who’d picked up on things, a couple that had sort of been through similar things, and there were a couple of colleagues who knew me and got to know my partner a bit and recognised things that they were really uncomfortable with: the way I’d jump when I got a message on my phone,” she adds. “Or the way I would turn down invitations to even go for a drink after we’d had a key vote.

“They were trying to tell me, for quite a while, actually, while I was in the middle of it all, that they were really uncomfortable.” 

Her speech concluded by imploring people to reach out to her or one of her fellow MPs. “If anyone is watching and needs a friend, please reach out if it is safe to do so and please talk to any of us. We will be there and we will hold your hand,” she said, her voice breaking on the final words. 

“I just felt it was really important to say, ‘You’re not alone’,” she says. “Just to someone who had happened upon the Parliament Channel, or knew someone in that situation. You have this rare opportunity to speak directly to people, and I felt that really strongly, that I needed to say to them, ‘You’re not on your own: we’re here and we understand.’”

In the days that followed, she would hear from several thousand people who were suffering from, or who had suffered, from domestic abuse themselves.

“There are people saying they want to leave or people saying they’re in a really difficult situation. And they weren’t just people from my constituency; they were people from all over.” It was “overwhelming” but “lovely”.

She and her team were supported by her local refuge and domestic abuse charities to respond to the huge numbers of messages from people in abusive situations. “I still get them every single day, actually.” 

The speech propelled her to a level of public prominence she hadn’t experienced before. “I got asked on every single daytime television programme, every news programme, and got invited to speak in New York and all kinds of things. It was really overwhelming at first, and I said no to everything!” 

Duffield made the speech in support of the Domestic Abuse Bill, a landmark piece of legislation that creates a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence, but can also be emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse. 

She says the most important aspect of the bill is the message it sends: “This is a valid crime and we’re trying to legislate for it not to happen to you, so you are protected. That’s the key thing about making legislation: you’re recognising something that affects lots of people’s lives, and you’re saying, ‘This is important enough and big enough of an issue to make it a set of laws.'

“Like I mentioned in my speech, we imagine [that domestic violence] is just a drunk guy coming home from the pub and smacking his wife. Actually there’s so much more to it. It’s these little bits of behaviour that can build up and build up, and there may not be any physical abuse. It’s saying that we recognise it’s much more complex than that.”  

The domestic abuse charity SafeLives recently conducted research that showed 70 per cent of survivors of abuse said that their abuser had used money as a means of controlling them or causing them harm. But financial abuse is often unreported and poorly understood. The Domestic Abuse Bill seeks to change that, while banks including NatWest and Lloyds are working with domestic abuse charities to train their staff to spot the signs of financial abuse and support customers affected.  

It is an aspect of abuse that Duffield suffered from first-hand. She didn’t realise, she tells me, the extent to which “misuse of joint accounts or joint bills or joint credit cards can really cause massive problems to a person”.

In her case, she and her ex were each responsible for paying different bills. “The ones that were my partner’s responsibility, he simply wasn’t dealing with. It was another way of being angry at me or making problems for me, because, especially in the sort of position that I’m in [as an MP], you don’t want to have unpaid bills. You don’t want to have issues with council tax, for example. He was defaulting on those kinds of payments or just sporadically making them… Then you realise you’ve got terribly bad credit, or you’ve got problems and outstanding bills that you have to suddenly pay, and it can cause so many problems.”

In some cases, it can take survivors decades to pay back the debts racked up due to abuse. 

She repeats several times how “frightening” she finds the continued scope for coercive control though financial abuse. “You might be, for example, at home with your children and taking a career break or not working, and your partner essentially has an awful lot of control there. If they’re the main breadwinner or they’re conducting the finances while you get on with everything else, you’re really dependent on them being an upstanding, honest person. All of that control that they just have, it’s really frightening.” 

The Domestic Abuse Bill enshrines financial abuse into law as a legally recognised aspect of domestic abuse, and tightens up the effectiveness of the justice system in providing protection for victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. But the legislation has not come into law yet: it didn’t have time to pass through parliament in 2019 due to time lost during Boris Johnson’s attempted prorogation of parliament. Parliament’s subsequent dissolution for a general election meant that the bill “fell”, and had to be reintroduced after the election. 

The bill is now making its passage through parliament for a second time, and is unlikely to come into effect before late June: too late, campaigners have argued, to protect the increasing number of victims of domestic violence who have found themselves trapped with their abusers during the coronavirus lockdown, in what has been described as the “other pandemic”.

Multiple support services have reported a surge in calls to helplines, while the Metropolitan Police has made 4,093 arrests for domestic abuse offences – an average of about 100 a day – since 9 March, when people with coronavirus symptoms were asked to self-isolate. 

I ask Duffield what her advice would be for those who are not affected by this issue but who are worried by the huge surge, and who would like to do something to help. 

“If you’ve got any kind of gut feeling or instinct that things aren’t right, don’t go in there assuming, I mean, don’t go in all guns blazing, but very gently, you can hint to a friend or a neighbour that you’re there for them if they need anything. 

“I think that’s the safest way of doing it, because what you don’t want to do is suggest that someone leaves, if they’re not ready or if they haven’t got a safety net, because just leaving can make things very, very dangerous. But if someone knows that you’re there for them and that you might be OK to talk to and that you’re not going to push them, just gently sort of hinting that you recognise that they might need a friend I think is the key thing.”

For those in this situation themselves, she says to “just tell somebody” if you “possibly, possibly can”.

“As soon as you tell someone, you’re unburdening yourself, but also, almost immediately, that person will confirm that you’re not going mad, it’s not in your head, you’re not imagining it, not making a fuss unnecessarily and that it is a recognisable place that you’re in that they can possibly help you with. 

“There are lots of helplines, but if you can’t, if it isn’t safe, I’d just say, hang on in there, know that you’re not alone, and that when it is safe, you can take advantage of the helplines and the information out there, you can reach out to anyone, anyone that makes you feel safe.”

For those she reached with her speech, and those in this situation right now, the new legislation can’t come quickly enough. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman