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By Stacey Lamb

As Theresa May pledges to bring a decade of austerity to a close, it comes too late for the 6 in 10 women who were turned away from refuges last year, following funding cuts to domestic violence services. Increased waiting lists have left women facing a terrible decision: sleep rough, or return home to violent partners.

So what does Brexit mean for the 1.2 million women throughout England and Wales who will likely experience domestic abuse this year? What changes, both good and bad, can we expect?

A future without EU safeguards and scrutiny

When the UK leaves the EU, we will no longer be afforded protections under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which safeguards our rights to equality and non-discrimination. We will be reliant upon domestic legislation. However, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill proposes to empower ministers to amend statutory legislation through regulations, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny. Therefore our ability to depend on domestic legislation, as it currently stands, is called into question.

For many survivors of domestic abuse, EU regulation is the vehicle that allows them to enjoy their entitled rights and freedomsThe European Protection Order (EPO) is a key example of this. An EPO allows contact restrictions and bail conditions to travel with the victim, ensuring that protections granted in the UK apply in a specified EU member state. After Brexit, it is unclear if EPOs will continue to be granted and enforced, potentially depriving survivors of much-needed protections.

Further concerns arise for European survivors of domestic abuse living in the UK, who risk facing tighter restrictions on entitlements such as social housing, healthcare and welfare benefits, as well as on their right to reside. Restricting survivors’ access to these vital services will amount to no less than forcing them to choose between the streets or returning to violent partners. The same will also be true for UK survivors in European member states.

Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill 

The new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill aims to “challenge and change the attitudes that underpin domestic abuse”. There are some positive reports of its contents so far, including a new statutory definition that will break down the different types of abuse, including economic. In theory, this will let survivors rely upon the legislation more easily and provide the opportunity to give a more complete picture of their circumstances.

Another potential step forward is the appointment of an independent Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner. With the right person in the role, this position could deliver impactful advocacy and policy development, but it will require an individual with genuine independence, reach and clout.

But will the Bill give power to those who can affect real change, both in attitudes and in effective safeguarding?

Unfortunately, it seems that during the recent consultation, voices advocating for additional funding for specialist support services and refuges went unheard. Instead, the Bill is likely to give increased powers to police and courts, focusing on the criminal justice system. Whilst this may be a well-intentioned attempt to deliver increased protection to victims, when applied in the US the approach resulted in an increase in survivors being arrested, rather than increased protection. With a crucial opportunity to drive real change at stake, we must take on board the lessons learned by others, and listen to those with knowledge of front-line services.

Access to funding and lack of pan-EU civil society projects

Since 2010, one in six refuges in England have closed – an unsurprising statistic considering local authorities across the country cut a quarter of their spending on domestic violence services over the same period. On leaving the EU, NGOs and specialist services will no longer have access to EU grant funding. With local authorities unlikely to be in a position to increase funding for crucial services, and no sustainability model in place for the sector, it is difficult to see how to avoid a continued reduction in services.

Funding aside, post-Brexit the UK will have limited input into pan-European evidence collection, shared learning and policy development. This could severely impact UK universities that have previously secured EU funding to increase learning on domestic violence, and will set back organisations looking to ensure best practice and collaborate with European counterparts.

Looking forward

With Brexit’s legislative uncertainty being one of several risks for survivors of domestic abuse, it is paramount that we campaign for guaranteed protection of our rights to equality and rights to non-discrimination. If the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill is to deliver effective safeguarding and access to justice, it must give due attention to the role of specialist services, education and increased awareness.

To avoid a continued reduction in domestic abuse support services, the Government should collaborate with civil society to develop a sustainable funding model, to allow survivors to access the specialist services that they need. Providing shelter is not enough.

This blog first appeared on the Equality Diversity Forum website as part of their Gendering Brexit blog series. If you would like to contribute to the series, you can get in touch with them at [email protected]