Former prime minister Theresa May has urged the government to consider the impact of lockdown on domestic abuse victims when deciding how quickly to lift restrictions which prevent them leaving their homes.

Ms May said there was “clear” evidence that abuse was increasing during lockdown because perpetrators have greater freedom to act and victims find it harder to leave. The end of social distancing measures will see a “significant” increase in reports of incidents which took place behind closed doors during lockdown.

Speaking via video link in a House of Commons debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill, Ms May warned: “We cannot have a situation where the cure for the disease does more damage the disease itself.”

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The bill was brought forward by Ms May in the final days before she handed over power to Boris Johnson last year, and is viewed as a key part of her legacy as prime minister.

It passed its second reading in the Commons without a vote on Tuesday, as the draft legislation enjoys cross-party support.

Ms May said it was all the more urgent in the light of the current coronavirus outbreak, which has trapped many victims at home with their abusers around the clock.

“Because Covid-19 has required people to stay at home, to be locked down in their homes, it has set an environment where perpetrators have greater freedom to act, where victims find it harder to leave an abusive situation,” said the former PM.

“The figures are clear - domestic abuse increases during lockdown.”

Although the lockdown rules provides an exemption allowing people to leave their homes to escape the risk of harm, Ms May said this would not always be possible.

“What we must recognise is that it is much harder for them to leave,” she said. “It is much harder for them to report domestic abuse, because perpetrators have been given greater control of them in the lockdown situation. They can take their mobiles away, they can stop them from walking out of that front door.”

She urged UK police forces to follow the lead of the New York Police Department, which has conducted random visits to properties where known abusers live.

And she said: “I would also urge government to think of the impact on domestic abuse that lockdown has made as they consider the exit strategy from lockdown.

“I want government to look not just at the impact of relaxing restrictions on capacity in the National Health Service.

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“Although we must all have a concern for our wonderful NHS staff and care workers and for those who contract the disease, government must also think about the impact of lockdown on our overall health and wellbeing as a nation.

“That of course includes the economy, but it must also include the impact on domestic abuse and mental health.

“We cannot have a situation where the cure for the disease does more damage the disease itself.”

Ms May called on ministers to ensure that victims’ services and the criminal justice system are prepared to cope with what could be “a significant increase in reports of domestic abuse” when lockdown restrictions are eased.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, said there was evidence now the number of women and children killed as a result of domestic abuse in a "few short weeks has increased sharply and is at its highest level for over a decade".

She added: "At a time when calls to helplines are up by 50 per cent and visits to some support websites up seven-fold and when some victims are feeling more trapped than ever because perpetrators of abuse are exploiting the coronavirus crisis to increase control and to commit crimes."

Earlier, justice secretary Robert Buckland told MPs that help was available for victims of domestic abuse during the coronavirus outbreak.

He said: "The police continue to respond to incidents of domestic abuse and anyone in immediate danger should not hesitate to call 999 and the emergency services."

The new domestic violence commissioner will now work four days a week, rather than three, he added, after being convinced by arguments from MPs that the post should not be "part time".

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