Christine Jardine: We need to change the Domestic Abuse Bill

The Liberal Democrats are supporting a series of amendments to protect migrant women, no matter what their immigration status.

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Imagine this. You’ve moved halfway across the world with two children, leaving behind everyone you know and love, to be with your partner in a different country. But instead of starting a new life, he starts to abuse you emotionally, financially and physically. That’s what happened to one of the women who now campaigns for others like her to have better rights and protections.

Eight months after she moved to the UK, her partner turned violent. She fled from the house with her eldest child. But when she went to the Home Office for help to return to Brazil because her visa had run out, she was told she would have to wait for seven days. She was given no financial support or accommodation and had no choice but to sleep on the street. Her situation is still precarious – living from one short-term visa to the next. Because of her immigration status, she can’t access public funds.

That’s simply not good enough. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently being scrutinised by MPs, offers a perfect opportunity to right these wrongs. In the coming days, the Liberal Democrats will be supporting a set of amendments proposed by Step Up Migrant Women – a campaign by and for migrant black and minority ethnic women to support migrant women and help them access protection from abuse.

The first of the amendments would ensure that survivors of abuse can get access to the financial support they need by creating an exemption to the No Recourse to Public Funds rule. Currently, depending on your immigration status, you can’t receive help such as housing benefit, universal credit or child benefit. So if you’re a survivor of domestic violence and you are, for example, on a student visa or a spousal visa, there is no help for you.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this government cares more about an individual’s immigration status than either their wellbeing or human rights. That is not acceptable.

At the moment, those on a spousal or partner visa can get indefinite leave to remain thanks to the domestic violence rule, which means they don’t lose their right to remain in the UK by leaving their abuser. While they apply, they can also get access to public funds through the Destitution Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession.

Both of these provisions should be extended to all migrant women who are experiencing or are at risk of abuse, regardless of the type of visa they are on or if they have one at all.

We are also calling on the government to create a firewall between the police and the Home Office, so that survivors who report abuse do not have their information shared with the Home Office for immigration enforcement. We should be doing everything we can to make it easier for anyone to get the help they need to survive domestic violence, instead of adding to their difficulties with threats of detention and deportation.

And finally, the Domestic Abuse Bill must reflect the provisions made in the Istanbul Convention – a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe on violence against women and domestic violence. In particular, it should include article 4(3) from the Convention which enshrines the rights of survivors to be protected without discrimination on any ground.

It’s been three years since we were first promised the Domestic Violence Bill by Theresa May. Ever since then, the Bill has been dogged by delay. I’m relieved that it’s finally making its way through the House of Commons. It’s hugely important legislation, and in the current Covid-19 crisis, its need is acutely felt by those who might feel more trapped than ever.

But we need to get this right and leave no one to face this kind of abuse alone – no matter who they are, their gender, race, sexuality, age, religion or indeed their immigration status.

Christine Jardine is the MP for Edinburgh West, and the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on Home Affairs and Women and Equalities.

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