Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—it is pleasure to see one of Renfrewshire’s ain back in the Chair for tonight’s debate.
I am pleased to follow Giles Watling, but I suggest—I mean no offence towards the hon. Gentleman or criticism of him whatsoever—that he does not need female relatives to give him permission to speak on gender equality or domestic violence. On social media and elsewhere, it has become common for men to list their daughters or their various female relatives as a preface to making comments on domestic violence or any related subject, but it is a societal issue, so we do not need permission to talk about it.
Despite this being a Bill that affects only England, I am nevertheless grateful to be able to participate in the debate and express my support for the Bill and the continued protection that it will hopefully provide to those fleeing domestic abuse. As we debate the Bill, which would be unnecessary in Scotland where we have not gone down the road of limiting tenancy agreements, it is worth reminding ourselves that the torment that survivors of domestic violence experience sadly does not end at the moment when they escape the violence and abuse. The traumatic events will have an impact on their lives long after they have fled from their abuser. Sadly, whether it be due to lack of space at local refuges or a lack of training or resources in local government, the system all too often lets down the abused, and often the children fleeing with them, at the most vulnerable point in their lives.
It can sometimes be too easy when discussing this issue to make it a binary debate focusing on the abused and the abuser, but abuse of any kind not only affects the person on whom the behaviour is directly inflicted but has an impact on the entire family and disrupts their lives, too. The decision to flee an abusive partner is not an easy one, particularly when children are involved, and the decision is often taken after months or years of abuse, or when the woman has simply reached breaking point or becomes concerned for the safety of her children. The crucial point to make is that they are extremely anxious and frightened, and they leave trusting that the local housing service will help them in their time of need and secure immediate accommodation for the family.
After speaking to several housing officers, I know that they are fully committed to helping women in such situations and leading them hand in hand through the often complicated housing system to avoid any further unnecessary stress. Unfortunately, though, as we have heard, schedule 7 to the Housing and Planning Act 2016 will require that new secure tenancies be offered for only between two and 10 years. When that legislation was being debated, hon. Members and peers from across both Houses rightly pointed out that it might mean those fleeing domestic violence losing their lifetime tenancies. This is a vital point, as we in Parliament really should not pass legislation that makes it harder for anybody to leave an abusive relationship. When somebody decides to escape violence, what they are looking for is safety, stability and security. The removal of a lifetime tenancy can remove that stability and security that survivors are seeking for themselves and their families. It is only right that we attempt to correct that, and I appreciate that the Bill has backing from Members from right across the House, as it rightly should, and that, in this case at least, the Government recognised this issue quickly and have taken action to fix it.
I mentioned previously that I have had discussions with housing officers, which provided evidence of their commitment to help those fleeing domestic violence, and that is backed up by my casework. However, as a member of the all-party group on domestic violence, I note the points made by Women’s Aid about the existence of a postcode lottery in how local authorities deal with domestic abuse cases. The “Nowhere to Turn” report highlights the variations in approach, finding that 19% of the women studied were prevented from making a homelessness application due to the housing officer’s assessment that “no local connection” existed and therefore the local authority had “no duty” to help the women and children who presented to it.
The report highlights how many local authorities are ill equipped to assist survivors appropriately and are still erecting administrative barriers in their way. Improving training and understanding is therefore crucial to ensuring that all survivors who need a secure tenancy when escaping domestic violence can access it. Training will help to break down some of the problems that exist, including the fact that too many officers still insist on a local connection when they assess someone’s housing needs. We need to accept that many survivors will flee to a different local authority area to get as far away from their abuser as possible.
Domestic abuse is not always an easy issue to deal with—in fact, it rarely is—so proper training is vital for those dealing with survivors in any capacity. For example, the Scottish Government have committed to training 14,000 police officers and staff to ensure that the new domestic abuse legislation can be implemented effectively. It would be good to hear the Minister commit to ensuring that all housing officers will be trained appropriately, ensuring that comprehensive, specialist and face-to-face training is delivered to them, as they are often the first point of contact. Furthermore, I hope she will lobby the Home Secretary to persuade her that all English and Welsh police officers and staff should be fully trained to deal with the Government’s new domestic abuse legislation, which we hope to see on the Floor of the House soon.
I know you like talking about Scotland, Madam Deputy Speaker, so let me make the point that it is likely that someone living in England will flee to Scotland, or indeed to Wales or Northern Ireland, to present as homeless to escape violence. I hope that the Government will keep us up to date on discussions with the devolved Governments to ensure that co-operation on helping those fleeing domestic violence extends into the constituent nations of the UK. As I have said many times before in this place, it matters not to me whether a woman is abused in Renfrew or Runcorn, Paisley or Penarth; this problem is societal, across the UK, and we need to work together to end it. So on this issue, at least, this Scottish nationalist fully supports a consistent approach across the UK.
Even though I welcome the fact that the UK Government are correcting a particular mistake with this Bill, they should not for one minute allow themselves to think that their work in this area is done. It would be remiss of me not to mention that their proposed funding model for short-term supported housing would be disastrous for refuges. During her International Women’s Day speech in Downing Street, the Prime Minister stated that she was committed to “sustainable funding”, which is welcome in itself but meaningless if refuges are still forced to close. I heard what the Minister said about the audit, but the Government need to fix this and provide clarity as soon as possible.
In conclusion, I welcome today’s Bill and hope that it will offer the safety, security and stability that people fleeing domestic violence are entitled to. However, the Government could and should be doing a lot more to help those experiencing abuse of any kind. We need to build on this legislation by introducing comprehensive training for housing officers to help eliminate the postcode lottery on the support provided. We must also be mindful of the very real threat of a changed funding model to the future of women’s refuges. This Bill aims to provide stability for those fleeing domestic abuse, but if the Government fail to provide a long-term, distinct and sustainable funding model to support women’s refuges, we face the strong possibility that centres will close, removing the safety, stability and security that survivors of domestic violence are looking for and should receive.