I am delighted to follow my constituency neighbour, Peter Kyle, but I am also rather daunted—daunted because I am not a woman, because I am not Welsh and because whatever I say I am fated, along with everybody else, to be in the shadow of the outstanding contribution from Rosie Duffield. If ever anyone needed evidence that domestic abuse takes on many guises, puts on many faces and can insidiously target anyone in any place, it was her emotional, harrowing and brave contribution.
I agree with everything that has been said, and I very much welcome the Bill. I want to comment on a few things that are not in it, however, rather than on what is in it. As we have heard, this is not just about changing legislation; it is about changing culture and the way we look at domestic abuse. We must demonise it wherever it rears its ugly head.
I want to concentrate on the impact on children. As we heard from the former Prime Minister, that is often overlooked. When I was Children’s Minister, I was shocked to find that over three quarters of safeguarding cases had domestic violence at their heart. Incredibly, one third of domestic violence cases start during the pregnancy of the woman victim. When women are abused in the home, the impact can traumatise the children. When they are forced to flee, the disruption to the lives of those children, particularly if they are of school age, is immense. Refuges tell us that around half of their residents are children, while 770,000 children live with an adult who has experienced domestic abuse in the previous year, according to the Children’s Commissioner. It is the most prevalent risk affecting children in need.
I was very proud, along with Carolyn Harris, to be part of the “On the Sidelines” report by the London domestic abuse charity, Hestia, in collaboration with Pro Bono Economics and the “UK Says No More” campaign. It highlighted that one in four women and one in six men experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, but that the millions of children exposed to it in their homes are too often considered merely witnesses to the abuse, rather than victims themselves. When children are exposed, they can suffer in the short, medium and longer term, and it is also intergenerational, as we have heard in so many cases. Over half of people suffering domestic abuse as an adult experienced it as a child: “Well, it happened to my mum when I was growing up, so inevitably it’s going to happen to me, isn’t it?” That is an extraordinary culture that we absolutely must dispel.
Children need to feature more prominently in the Bill. Domestic abuse is the single most common factor that leads to children requiring support from local authority children’s services—and we know the pressure they are under. I have spent a lot of time on the doorstep with social workers. I spent a week being a social worker in Stockport. I met a fantastic and very experienced domestic violence specialist social worker who was the linchpin of that safeguarding team, a great authority who joined together various agencies. It is, however, a postcode lottery whether that experience is available in local authorities.
We need to embed in local authority delivery domestic abuse specialists able to draw together all the agencies involved to ensure an effective and comprehensive local offer. I welcome the national Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who started two weeks ago, but there is also a case for local domestic abuse commissioners—a high-profile figures who can ensure that local authorities are living up to their duties to provide a local service. I believe that can be done only by including in the Bill a statutory duty on funding. By working with this cohort of expert frontline providers, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner could have a stronger role in strengthening planning at local and national levels to ensure that all are protected from abuse. That would help to embed the impact of domestic abuse on children in local safeguarding teams as well.
As an aside, I believe that health visitors have an important role to play, too, as an early warning system of trusted professionals going into houses to meet new parents. I reiterate, therefore, that it is a false economy to have reduced the number of health visitors by 30% since the excellent work the coalition Government did in building up their numbers by more than 4,000 by 2015.