Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
20 Mar 2019, 3:10 p.m.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report on extending eligibility for the destitution domestic violence concession to European Economic Area nationals and persons other than those granted immigration entry clearance as a partner; and for connected purposes.
This Bill seeks to level the playing field, righting a significant wrong and protecting people at the time they need it most. In 2010, the UK Government introduced the destitution domestic violence concession, which gives those who entered the UK as a dependant on a spousal visa access to social security for three months while they apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, providing that their relationship ended due to domestic abuse. This breathing space is vital; without it, many domestic abuse survivors could not access housing benefit and so could not escape their homes. However, the DDVC is not open to everyone. There are increasing numbers of people who have no recourse to public funds yet did not come to the UK on a partner or spousal visa. If someone comes to the UK on a student visa, as a domestic worker or on a visitor visa, or they are here as an EU national but without settled status, they may have no recourse to public funds but will not be eligible to apply for the DDVC.
I am asking the UK Government to report on extending eligibility for the DDVC. As this is a ten-minute rule Bill, I cannot introduce a Bill whose main purpose is to have a charge on the public purse, which is why I am requesting that a report be made by the Government.
The issue first came to my attention because a pregnant European Union national who had no recourse to public funds came to my office. She had expected to be eligible for housing benefit, but because of her husband’s financial control over her she had not worked for long enough to have gained settled status. Financial control is a significant issue in many abusive relationships, meaning that EU nationals in abusive relationships are far less likely than others to have built up a right to reside here. I discussed this with the No Recourse, North East partnership, an organisation set up to advocate on behalf of those with no recourse to public funds in north-east Scotland and to work to ensure that those of us supporting individuals without leave to remain can give the best possible advice and assistance. The partnership confirmed to me that this was not an isolated case but was in fact the tip of an iceberg. Its concern and advocacy on behalf of individuals encouraged me to bring forward this Bill today.
Last year, I wrote to the Home Secretary asking for consideration to be given to extending the DDVC to European economic area nationals. I was genuinely convinced that this was an accidental oversight in the immigration legislation passed at the time, but the reply I received from the Minister for Immigration said:
“Our position is that we expect people who arrive in the UK as the partner of a temporary migrant to return to their home country if their relationship with that person breaks down.”
That is an unrealistic and unreasonable ask; many of those fleeing would be ostracised by their communities or would even be at risk of physical injury. The UK Government must now bring forward a report on extending eligibility for the DDVC. Organisations that support women have been raising this issue for some time. They are faced with the reality of women coming to them and asking for support. They are faced with the reality of women being forced to stay in, or even return to, abusive homes.
I have heard the story of a woman whose partner subjected her to severe emotional, physical and sexual abuse. He forced her into terminating pregnancies. She left with her young child to escape him and stay with family members, but they could not house her for long and she was forced to return to her husband. If she had had access to the DDVC, she would have been able to claim public funds, including housing benefit. Refuges and shelters are under pressure, feeling the squeeze of austerity. They are reliant on the ability to claim housing benefit on behalf of those they give a safe haven to. Without access to social security, many refuges do not have the funding to provide safety for those fleeing. With access to housing benefit this woman would have had breathing space and may have been able to gain safe, permanent housing, instead of having to return to a man who physically, emotionally and sexually abused her—her child is also in this home.
I have read a case study of an EU national woman with a young child who managed to escape an abusive home. She wished to return to her home country, but her partner obtained a court order preventing her from taking their child out of the UK. She is therefore forced to stay here but is refused access to public funds. She has no choices and no options left. She should have been treated with compassion and given support to access public funds and safe housing. Women and men are finding themselves and their children left destitute as a result of lack of access to public funds. Getting out of an abusive home is difficult enough, but doing so when you do not have the certainty of a roof over your head or of food to feed yourself and your family is even harder. Survivors of domestic abuse should not be forced to rely on charitable organisations to provide the most basic necessities. The UK Government must step up to ensure that people have access to shelter, food, and specialist services that can begin to help healing the long-term damage caused by domestic abuse.
In addition to support from the No Recourse, North East partnership, the following organisations are among those that have been advocating for changes to the DDVC: Scottish Women’s Aid, Grampian Women’s Aid, Southall Black Sisters, Liberty and Refuge. I am indebted to them for their case studies and their work in highlighting the significant hardships and impossible choices many people face as a result of the narrow scope of the DDVC. I would also like to thank JustRight Scotland for its help, and the Public Bill Office for its invaluable assistance in drafting this Bill and getting the procedure right.
On Monday, I attended an event in Parliament chaired by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and I am pleased to say that she supports this Bill. The event was supported by Southall Black Sisters and a number of other organisations. One of those speaking at the event detailed her experience as a migrant woman subjected to domestic abuse. She said:
“Little by little I was becoming invisible in this country. When I look in the mirror I do not recognise the person I am.”
This is not a comfortable issue to raise. Many of the first-person accounts I have seen and read have been absolutely harrowing. People are being forced into impossible choices; they are facing a choice between continued abuse, destitution, homelessness, further physical and emotional harm and returning to an abusive home, or returning to a country where they have no roots or will be at risk of further harm due to leaving a marriage. We owe it to those who are suffering to take on this issue and to commit to allowing them the chance of a better life. Being safe from physical and emotional abuse is a basic human right. I want to live in a country where we allow survivors of domestic abuse the ability to reach safety, but more than that I want them to have the safety to come forward and report their experiences to the police without fear that their immigration status will be questioned. We need a culture where the first priority is protecting people from harm, no matter what their country of birth, nationality or immigration status.
The current concession is open to women and men, and to those in civil partnerships or same-sex marriages. I would hope that the Government would extend the eligibility on the same basis. I also hope they will consider extending the DDVC from three months to six months, given the length of time involved and high cost that people can face when attempting to apply for leave to remain. This is a particular issue in areas such as mine where people may have to travel to Glasgow in order to submit an application. That is a costly journey and it takes at least three hours—so we are talking about the best part of a day to go both ways. At a time when we are all seeing increasing numbers of people caught in the Home Office’s hostile environment, with no access to public funds, it is vital that the UK Government make this change. Life for these women and men is hostile enough. The UK Government should allow them to access this life-saving concession to allow them to flee abusive homes.