It is a pleasure to follow Joy Morrissey. It is three years since the Bill was first promised to Parliament by the Government of the former Prime Minister, Mrs May. I welcome her earlier remarks, but it is no exaggeration to say that the progress of this Bill, in which she invested so much, has been dogged by delay. I do not think that any of us who were Members in the previous Parliament will ever forget the highly emotional accounts that we heard in the previous debate, particularly from Rosie Duffield, whose contribution today will, again, be one that many people will take notice of and that we should all take with us when the debate is over.
The fact that we are discussing the Bill today is important in many other ways, coming as it does at a time when, all around us, we are being encouraged to stay home and stay safe, although for the many people for whom this Bill is critical, that message brings an additional threat. During this crisis, we have seen an escalation in domestic abuse, which makes getting behind the Bill even more pressing. Reports this week indicate that calls to Refuge’s national domestic abuse helpline increased by almost 50%. Tragically, in the first three weeks of lockdown, 16 women and children died—the highest figure for this period in more than a decade. The need to act could not be more pressing.
Earlier this month, I was joined by MPs across the political spectrum in writing to the Home Secretary to demand immediate action to improve support for survivors of domestic abuse through this crisis. We called on the Government to pay for empty hotels to be open to those at risk. We sought guarantees that local authorities have access to ring-fenced funding to ensure that existing refuges and support services stay open. We asked the Government to make it clear that the stay-at-home rule should be disapplied to those most at risk of abuse. Those asks have not changed. Some progress has been made. For example, many hotels have opened their doors to survivors, but support measures remain piecemeal and something of a postcode lottery. That is why I and the Liberal Democrats are determined to play our part in bringing this badly needed legislation into law as soon as possible. We will also continue to work to ensure that the final legislation is as robust as possible. In doing that, we want to thank those organisations with which we have worked: the End Violence Against Women Coalition on the need for more rape crisis centres; Action for Children on including children in the definition of domestic abuse; and the Step Up Migrant Women campaign and Amnesty, which is a part of it, on the issues facing migrant women.
I am not satisfied that, eight years on from the UK signing the Istanbul convention on preventing and combating domestic abuse, it is still not enshrined in our laws. Yes, the Bill is a step forward, but it will not deliver on that promise and we must keep up the pressure until the Government do. That will also mean targeted measures to guarantee support for all victims, not least the children and young people for whom the trauma of having witnessed domestic abuse can cause lifelong damage. I want the Government to amend this Bill to recognise that.
By the same token, we will continue to press for the £195 million needed to expand the number of rape crisis centres in the UK. Support must be provided to all those who need it most. For migrant women, that must mean eliminating the fear that reporting violence or seeking sanction will throw a judgmental spotlight on their immigration status and could compromise their personal safety.
At the moment, we talk a lot about the urgency of the covid-19 crisis, but for those who suffer it, domestic violence is always in need of an urgent response. The Bill gives us the opportunity to make a dramatic difference to the lives of those people, to ensure that they have somewhere they can feel safe, and to protect children from the scars that the trauma of witnessing domestic violence can leave. I believe that every one of us elected to this Parliament has at our core the desire to make a difference—to improve lives. This Bill will give us the opportunity to do that. We must not let the progress that we have made slip through our grasp.