South Ayrshire Council is a Scottish local authority responsible for providing services to around 112,700 constituents. Labour and the Scottish National Party control the council, although 12 of the 28 members are Conservatives. It is divided into four main service areas (resources, governance and organisation; economy, neighbourhood and environment; educational services; and health and social care), each led by an executive director with a number of department heads under them. The council has 5,116 employees.
According to the Office for National Statistics 7.9% of women and 4.2% of men experienced domestic abuse in 2018 in the UK. That’s 1,300,000 women and 685,000 men.
In Scotland the police recorded 59,541 incidents in 2017 to 2018, 82% of which had a female victim. In South Ayrshire alone there were 1,027 incidents recorded that year. And actually all of these statistics could be higher, as not all victims will report violence or even be aware of what constitutes abuse.
Scotland is leading the way in tackling this issue though. Its parliament passed the Domestic Abuse Act in February 2018 by 118 votes to one (the opposing MSP, Margaret Mitchell, later said she had pressed the wrong button during the vote). The Act covers not only physical violence but emotional and psychological abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour for the first time, and came into force in April 2019.
To back up the legislation the government rolled out a national public awareness campaign and gave £825,000 to Police Scotland to train 14,000 staff, with online training also available to all of the force’s 22,000 staff.
Assistant chief constable Gillian MacDonald said: “This new offence is groundbreaking. For the first time it will allow us to investigate and report the full circumstances of an
“In preparation for the change in law our officers and staff have received further training on the dynamics of power and control in abusive relationships to help recognise the signs, identify investigative opportunities and to tackle the myths and misconceptions of abuse that still exist.”
Legislation in England and Wales is lagging behind though. A Domestic Abuse Bill that would force councils to provide shelter for victims was put to the House of Commons in July but halted when prime minister Boris Johnson prorogued parliament. It’s now on its second reading.
Amid all this political activity at a national level, South Ayrshire Council had been quietly implementing internal support of its own. Inspired by paid domestic abuse leave legislation in New Zealand, councillor Laura Brennan-Whitefield put forward a motion in December 2018 to introduce something similar.
Because South Ayrshire was the first UK council to offer this, there was nothing like it in the UK or Europe to learn from at the time. So it worked with the local branch of national charity Women’s Aid.
“It’s not really about just putting a policy in place – anybody can do that – it’s about the implementation. So we linked in with South Ayrshire Women’s Aid in developing it and in developing guidance for managers,” explains Gillian Farrell, service lead for organisational development and customer services at the council. “We wanted to make sure that anything we were putting in was guidance they’d approve of because they’re the experts.”
Once all of this research and initial work was done the proposals were voted through by the council’s leadership panel in February.
South Ayrshire Women’s Aid then came in and trained the council’s HR team, its equality champions and its managers. It also produced videos and e-learning content, such as a gender-based violence course. These are available to all employees on the staff intranet.
“We’re hoping if you’re an employee and you’re working alongside a team member you will now be able to recognise signs [of abuse] that you can raise in confidence,” says Farrell.
The policy allows all employees 10 days of paid time off, which they can take in a block or in chunks depending on what best suits their circumstances. This ‘Safe Leave’ doesn’t come out of their annual leave allowance. It can be used for anything, including attending counselling, medical appointments or legal proceedings, moving house or reorganising childcare.
The leave is the flagship part of the policy, but the aim is for the council to work with individuals to provide a range of support.
“Every situation is different so it may be that we change their pay arrangements; sometimes it could be moving them to a different work location, or changing their direct dial phone number if they have one,” Farrell says.
“We can make referrals to Women’s Aid and give people time away during working hours. We can even take them, so that they can speak to an adviser and their partner would have no idea they had done that.”
The policy, training and supporting materials have been well received by managers and employees, Farrell reports. Managers now feel more confident having conversations about domestic abuse as they can offer concrete support, backed by the organisation.
Being so open about the topic may also encourage more people to come forward, feels Farrell. “Just knowing that support is there I think people are more likely to disclose that there’s an issue. I don’t think there’s anything that’s a silver bullet as it’s a really complex area and people are psychologically ground down by it. But just having it there is really meaningful,” she says.
One manager who received a Safe Leave request says: “I recently became aware that a member of my team was experiencing issues at home. The Safe Leave awareness and training made me feel more confident about speaking to her about her situation and it really helped that I could offer Safe Leave. She was really appreciative of the support and it gave her one less thing to worry about at such a difficult time.”
Measuring the policy’s effectiveness is difficult because everything is confidential, so conversations between a manager and employee may not make it as far as HR. But so far there have been two recorded cases of individuals taking the Safe Leave. In February 2020 the council plans to take stock of how else it can promote the policy to its workforce.
Other councils and public sector organisations have approached South Ayrshire to learn from its journey, and Farrell is happy that more are showing interest. “It’s something we’re really proud of as an organisation, especially when you sit with people who have experienced domestic abuse and they’re saying ‘if only I’d had this when it was happening to me’. It’s the right thing to do; that’s the crux of the matter.”