Woman's aid - Domestic abuse commissioner 'essential'

By Michael McHugh, PA

A domestic abuse commissioner is essential to hold Government to account, a campaigner in Northern Ireland has said.

Justice Minister Naomi Long has previously ruled this out and argued the money would be better spent directly helping support groups.

She is piloting draft legislation through the Stormont Assembly.

But Sonya McMullan from Women's Aid said other parts of the UK had benefited from having a dedicated commissioner during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Women's Aid will actively continue to campaign for a domestic abuse commissioner," she said. "It is essential.

"It is an accountability mechanism for scrutinising legislation, policy, practice, commissioning, funding and provision."

The regional services manager at Women's Aid Federation Northern Ireland said close and constructive working relationships were not enough to ensure scrutiny.

Senior PSNI officers have expressed concern about increased domestic violence during the coronavirus lockdown which began in March, including suspected murder.

Under the proposed new law convictions for the most serious offences could involve up to 14 years in jail.

It will also make a form of bullying, known as coercive control, an offence.

Ms McMullan said the victims commissioner, unlike in other parts of the UK, was only addressing Troubles-related crimes.

"We would advocate for a commissioner for the work in the sector, there needs to be some form of monitoring and evaluation of current services."

She said Dame Vera Baird, the commissioner in England, had been a "true champion" and had done positive work in a short time.

"There is much learning from other parts of the UK who are ahead of us in relation to legislation but also other good practice including the introduction of the commissioner.

"The feedback is so positive, especially during Covid-19, that they had someone to go to, to oversee implementation of appropriate support services and of course to access emergency funding during the lockdown, which was promised through Westminster - £76 million in total.

"At time of writing there has been no offer of emergency funding to support specialised domestic violence services in Northern Ireland."

She gave evidence to Stormont's health committee on Thursday.

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