In England and Wales, crime fell by 28% during the first three weeks of lockdown. However, this is misleading as closer inspection shows that one reason why crime rates have fallen is that policing practices have changed; with less police patrolling the streets, fewer arrests are being made. Thus, the decrease in crime rates cannot be wholly attributed to an actual decrease in crimes committed. But perhaps the most worrying observation to note is that whilst overall crime rates have fallen, forms of antisocial behaviour, specifically domestic abuse, have risen.
Indeed, during the first three weeks of lockdown, the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 49% increase in calls and there were 16 suspected domestic abuse killings. This is especially revealing when compared to the average of five deaths over the same period in the last 10 years.
One prominent reason why domestic abuse has increased in lockdown is that survivors of abuse are spending more time indoors in the same residence as their abusers. That said, it would be an ignorant oversimplification to say that the rise in domestic abuse is caused solely by the increase in time and proximity that survivors and abusers now spend together. Such an oversimplification would only hinder the search for an effective solution to combat the rise in domestic abuse during the pandemic. Other reasons for the rise in domestic abuse include a decrease in the incomes of charities due to people understandably focussing on their own needs, survivors not seeking medical help for fear of being an unnecessary burden on medical services, and abusers feeling a more intense lack of power and control that so often fuels their abusive behaviour.
The British government’s response to the crisis has been notable, but ultimately inadequate. The Home Secretary Priti Patel’s #YouAreNotAlone campaign, which aimed to reassure survivors that support would remain available throughout the lockdown, was a smart way to raise awareness about domestic abuse given that people are now spending more time on social media. In April, the government also announced a £750 million package to aid charities in financial difficulty, £76 million of which will be specially allocated to helping domestic abuse survivors. Such funding, which the government states is unprecedented in size, is commendable but the £76 million is still dwarfed by the economic and social costs of domestic abuse which the government has itself estimated to be £66 billion. This is not to say that anyone is demanding the government announce £66 billion worth of funding, but the disparity does mean that the £76 million must be spent wisely on preventative measures rather than on dealing with the consequences of domestic abuse. Preventing domestic abuse before it occurs would reduce the costs of physical and emotional harm suffered by the victims, estimated to be around £47 billion, and mitigate the costs of time taken off work and reduced productivity, estimated to be around £14 billion.
However, for all the efforts the government has made during the lockdown, the government needs to be criticised in its handling of domestic abuse legislation. For example, the UK is yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European treaty that took a significant step in advancing human rights by providing a legal framework to prevent violence against women. The UK’s failure to ratify the treaty in the eight years since it was initially signed means the UK is still not yet legally bound by the provisions of the treaty. A similar story of deferral surrounds the Domestic Abuse Bill which was delayed by the prorogation of Parliament in July 2019 and then by the election in December. Though the bill has its critics for not providing sufficient resourcing, and for not meeting the recommendations of the Council of Europe, it would have at least provided the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, a vital step in legislating against domestic violence.
Therefore, although the government has taken some hopeful steps to help survivors of domestic abuse, closer scrutiny suggests that those survivors are still being badly let down by a lack of legislative protection. Regarding government funding for domestic abuse services, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect huge financial packages given that government borrowing is already at record levels, £62 billion in April. However, the UK needs to live up to its reputation of being a strong proponent of human rights; the immediate priority must be passing the Domestic Abuse Bill through Parliament. The Istanbul Convention must also be ratified as soon as possible so that the UK finally has a legal obligation to protect domestic abuse survivors.