Constitution and Home Affairs
Oral Answers to Questions — Education
Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon, Conservative)
I am grateful for the opportunity to give my maiden speech today, although not quite so grateful to follow the excellent maiden speeches of so many of my colleagues on both sides of the House. They have set the bar almost impossibly high.
Many Members will know my predecessor, Evan Harris, as an energetic and uncompromising Member of this House, and although we often disagreed on points of principle, he was one of the few politicians who never put popularity above principle. I know that he will go on to make a significant contribution elsewhere. Dr Harris was not my only predecessor to make an appearance on the campaign trail. Far too often on the doorstep, constituents would look at me, sigh, and say, "Well of course, I remember Airey Neave", or "Now John Patten, he was a good constituency MP." It is a little too early to work out exactly where I will end up in that illustrious line-up, but I hope that it will be recorded that I did everything in my power to serve the constituents of Oxford West and Abingdon with integrity and commitment, and that I became the dedicated constituency representative that they so deserve.
Let us be honest-there could not really be a better constituency to represent. My home town, Oxford, is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world and its history of scholars, authors, artists, inventors and Prime Ministers fills library after library. I am particularly pleased that, even after boundary changes, I still have the opportunity to represent my undergraduate and graduate colleges-St. Anne's and Somerville.
Oxford university and Oxford Brookes have international reputations in field after field. I know that many scholars and students are watching the university fees review with anxiety. I know exactly what it is like to pay tuition fees, having been in one of the first years to do so, and we must ensure that university funding reform is open and fair, properly supports students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, creates an academic environment that supports research, and enables our top universities to remain competitive-and even become more so-on the international stage.
Oxford West and Abingdon's excellence is not confined to education. The NHS in Oxfordshire hosts many centres of excellence and an enormous number of dedicated health professionals-my father for one. I know that they join me in welcoming the coalition Government's commitment to increasing NHS spending and to introducing the revolutionary idea of letting local health professionals set local health priorities.
As we struggle to maintain the recovery, it is ever more important that we support Oxfordshire's vibrant private sector. That includes ventures at every stage of growth, from start-up university spin-offs in biotech and renewables at Begbroke science park to long-standing international publishers such as Oxford University Press and Blackwell.
Beyond the dreaming spires lies Abingdon-a beautiful market town that is one of the oldest continuous settlements in the UK. However, Abingdon's fantastic location on the banks of the Thames and the River Ock has been a thorn in its side, creating difficult traffic problems and allowing terrible floods in 2007. Climate change means that there is an increasing risk of flooding in that area. As research shows, it is incredibly important to maintain our commitment to flood defences, which are far cheaper than the catastrophic results of unmitigated flooding. Those defences are much needed by the residents of Osney, Abingdon and nearby villages such as Kidlington. I look forward to supporting their campaign for them.
However, I have chosen to speak in today's debate because of my commitment to another local campaign. Despite chronic under-reporting, research shows that domestic abuse accounts for 16% of violent crime. It affects one in four women and one in six men. Despite the fact that most people still think of it as a women's issue, a third of victims are men.
The social and economic impact of domestic abuse is becomingly increasingly unsustainable. Domestic abuse claims more repeat victims-that is more police time and more repeat visits to A and E-than any other crime. It leads to the murder of four women and one man a fortnight, and affects four children in every class of 30. All that costs our economy an estimated £23 billion a year, and front-line services bear the brunt. In the current economic climate, that will only get worse. United Nations research has confirmed what common sense has told us for years: unemployment and financial instability exacerbate domestic abuse.
Surely if those on both sides of the Chamber can agree on anything, it is that no one should fear being raped or beaten in their own home, forced into marriage or killed in the name of honour. However, there are still worrying gaps in provision. In theory, the introduction of sexual assault referral centres is a good thing, but the nearest one for us is in Slough-a long way to go for someone who has been brutally raped. To add insult to injury, my local rape crisis centre currently faces a funding crisis. There is also the gender problem. Although roughly a third of victims are male, only 1% of refuge space is available for men. In Oxfordshire, there is no provision for male victims fleeing domestic abuse.
There is also a serious lack of perpetrator programmes. Despite the fact that a quarter of male probationers and 17% of male prisoners are domestic violence perpetrators, there is such a shortage of places on those programmes that, recently, some courts were expressly prohibited from using them as a sentencing option. No perpetrator programmes are available in Oxfordshire.
However, we have one thing to boast about: the champions network. When research revealed that victims can go to as many as 10 agencies before finding the help that they need, the Oxfordshire county domestic abuse service decided to short-circuit the problem and train a network of volunteers in other agencies. They were called champions. They are seen as the lead on domestic abuse issues in their agency and they can advise colleagues on management of individual cases and ensure access to local resources. There are now more than 300 champions in 60 agencies. They are all volunteers, all trained and they all make an enormous impact. As far as I am aware, it is the only network of its kind in the UK. I am proud to be a champion myself, to speak up for that excellent work. I thank the Deputy Speaker for giving me the chance to speak in this debate.