Britain’s coronavirus lockdown will have “devastating consequences for a generation” unless the government urgently tackles rising abuse inside homes, MPs have warned.
The Home Affairs Committee called for the government to mount a wide-ranging strategy to tackle domestic violence and protect victims and their children.
A report published on Monday said that the crisis could cause homelessness, unemployment, debt and mental health problems.
“Without strong action to tackle domestic abuse and support victims during the Covid-19 pandemic, society will be dealing with the devastating consequences for a generation,” it added.
“The strategy should combine awareness, prevention, victim support, housing and a criminal justice response, backed by dedicated funding and ministerial leadership.”
The committee said the Counting Dead Women project calculated that at least 16 domestic killings of women and children took place between the start of lockdown on 23 March and 12 April – double the total of an average 21-day period in the last decade.
The Refuge charity reported a 49 per cent increase in people contacting its national domestic abuse helpline in the week to 15 April, even though there are concerns that victims trapped with their abusers are less able to seek help. The Men’s Advice Line has also seen calls increase by 17 per cent.
MPs called for new schemes to ensure that victims can seek assistance during the lockdown, when they may be unable to use the phone at home or talk to friends.
They proposed extending a piloted “safe spaces” scheme, which would offer confidential help at supermarkets, pharmacies and other retailers that people are able to visit without arousing suspicion.
The Home Affairs Committee called for Priti Patel to establish cross-government working group, tasked with producing and implementing a coordinated action plan covering both lockdown and the period after.
MPs warned that when restrictions lift, many victims may seek help for the first time and “the need for support is likely to be acute”.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said: “Staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn’t safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse.
“There are already alarming signs of the rise in domestic abuse. Our cross-party committee is calling for an urgent action plan from government setting out practical measures to tackle domestic abuse as an integrated part of the fight against Covid-19.”
The committee also called for support services to be given emergency funding, and for councils to proactively visit households with histories of domestic abuse.
MPs said anyone who has to leave home during the lockdown must be guaranteed safe housing, either in refuges or hotel accommodation provided by authorities.
In order for victims to obtain justice, the report said the government should legislate to scrap a time limit on prosecuting some offences, including harassment, common assault and battery.
Evidence given to the committee warned that police were struggling to secure Domestic Violence Protection Orders, which ban abusers having contact with victims for up to 28 days, due to the requirement to provide an alternative address.
The report said that of the women already in refuges two-thirds have children with them, and data from Childline indicated that young people are concerned about abuse at home.
“Things are particularly hard for vulnerable children. We can’t abandon them in the middle of this crisis,” Ms Cooper said.
“Local authorities, schools, the police and other professionals involved in child welfare need to ensure they are working together to contact and visit homes where children are at risk.”
The Labour MP said the measures must stretch beyond lockdown, adding: “The emotional, physical and social scars from domestic abuse can last a lifetime. If we don’t act to tackle it now, we will feel the consequences of rising abuse during the coronavirus crisis for many years to come.”
The call came a day before the Domestic Abuse Bill was to be reintroduced to parliament, following several delays, and several charities including the NSPCC are backing amendments.
Anna Edmundson, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “The lockdown has created a unique set of circumstances for us all, with the risk of abuse, neglect and domestic abuse intensifying behind closed doors.
“We are very pleased that MPs have taken on board our call for children to be better protected and recommended an action plan to tackle the cause and effects of domestic abuse.”
Victoria Atkins, the safeguarding minister, said: “The government has prioritised those at risk of domestic abuse in this national health emergency. This has included a dedicated national campaign to provide practical help to victims, and supporting charities by giving them the funding and the resources they specifically said they needed to help people through this crisis.
“We are taking action across government. Alongside the #youarenotalone campaign, we are increasing funding to boost online services, helplines and technology support at the request of charities, and I am working with the domestic abuse commissioner about how they can use the government’s £750m fund to further support victims.”