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11 April 2020updated 14 Apr 2020 7:00am

Priti Patel has limited room to move to help domestic violence victims

The sector has been underfunded for years, but a clear public health message could really help.

By Stephen Bush

Although the lockdown measures that the United Kingdom is now observing are the only guaranteed way to stop the passage of coronavirus, they are not victimless.

They are borne particularly heavily by three groups: those with pre-existing mental health conditions, children facing disruption to their schooling, and people at risk of domestic violence.

Priti Patel has announced a new set of measures to help that last group, with an extra £2m of funding to the national abuse helpline and a media campaign to tell people that domestic violence services remain operational despite the pandemic.

In terms of the limited policy levers available to the government right now, it’s a pretty good announcement. The government had already recognised before the lockdown that domestic violence provision has been systematically underfunded for much of the last decade. As local government budgets were cut, they pared back their non-statutory commitments, resulting in reductions in domestic violence provision across the country. But while the government have committed to increase the amount being spent on domestic violence, most of those spending increases won’t be felt in the here and now. Increasing the amount spent on a helpline is a good, but limited, measure. It is, however, one of very few levers the government can use right now to help people in abusive households.

Patel has neglected the other thing the government could do, which wouldn’t cost anything from a financial perspective, but has a political and communications downside: to discourage people from reporting those they think are flouting the rules on social distancing, and instead to focus on making sure they themselves are following the government’s rules on social distancing. All of the evidence – the collapse in the number of journeys on public transport and by private car, aerial footage of the nation’s parks, and so – shows that most people are following the rules. The British public are taking the steps necessary to deny Covid-19 breeding space.

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A handful of people are flouting the rules, but for adults and children living with domestic violence, this may be the difference between life and death. A decision to go out for a second round of exercise, or to linger in a park, may be made with good reason. Reporting someone to the police for breaking the rules carries the risk of getting someone killed.

The difficulty for the government here is that communicating this unavoidably blurs the government’s initial message – effectively telling people that they should deal with the difficulties of lockdown while turning a blind eye to what looks like unjustified rule-breaking by others. You can see why the government has opted not to do this: but with fairly hard limits on what it can swiftly accomplish during to help victims of domestic violence with, they may need to, and soon.