Strategy for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 21st July 2021.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 7:03 pm, 21st July 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls. May I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the parliamentary staff who have helped facilitate this statement on what is an immensely important subject, but at an unusual hour, I think it is fair to say, of the parliamentary day?

I would like to begin with the words of some of the women who responded to our call for evidence, which helped to shape the strategy:

“I had never felt so lost in my entire life at the time of the abuse. I thought my life would never be the same again”.

Another:

“We shouldn’t have to pretend to be on the phone, or actually call someone, just because we’re scared to walk down the street in case we get attacked”.

And another:

“The trauma will stay with the victim forever. It seriously compromises all life prospects and opportunities”.

Those words are difficult to read. They are difficult to hear, but they capture a reality that we simply must confront: women and girls are too often subjected to abuse, harassment and violence. Enough is enough.

Today we have published our new “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, which will build on progress we have made in recent years. When the Prime Minister was Mayor of London, our capital became the first major city in the world to launch a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women and girls. I also pay tribute to the contribution that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, has made in this regard. This includes leading work on new offences for controlling or coercive behaviour, stalking, female genital mutilation, and so-called revenge porn. This year, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was passed, which ensured, for the first time, a statutory definition that includes recognising victims as children in their own right, strengthens the response to perpetrators, and creates new protections for victims.

But we must do more. The strategy we have published today sets out action to prioritise prevention, support victims, pursue perpetrators, and help to make sure the police, education, local authorities, prison and probation services and others work together more effectively. As I say, it has been shaped by a call for evidence that we ran earlier this year and that received over 180,000 responses. The volume of feedback was unprecedented and astonishing, and the content at times harrowing. I want to place on record my gratitude to all those who took the time to offer their thoughts and describe often painful experiences. That takes great courage. The national outpouring of grief and personal experiences that we saw in the wake of the tragic case of Sarah Everard was a watershed moment. We must change our society for the better. We owe it to Sarah and all the other women and girls who have lost their lives or been subjected to violence and abuse.

Crimes such as rape, female genital mutilation, stalking, harassment, cyber-flashing, revenge porn and up-skirting are appalling. They can take place behind closed doors or in public places. They can happen in the real world or online. The devastation and trauma caused by such crimes cannot be overstated. The scars can remain for years— in the worst cases, for a lifetime. The consequences are felt across society, too. They cause women and girls to calculate risk and calibrate their behaviour, sometimes without even realising it. They also require national and local responses, and result in economic as well as personal costs.

As I say, we have made progress in tackling these crimes, but the need to step up our efforts could not be clearer, and today we are taking a significant stride forward with the publication of this new strategy. The strategy represents our blueprint to address those concerns and deliver real and lasting improvements. It is made up of four key pillars: prioritising prevention, supporting victims, pursuing perpetrators, and delivering a stronger system. The most effective way of driving down these crimes is to stop them from happening in the first place. We have taken a range of action on prevention already, but we are determined to go further. So we will be launching a multi-million-pound national communications campaign with a focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes, educating young people about healthy relationships, and ensuring that victims can access support.

We have also launched a specific safety of women at night fund worth £5 million to ensure that women do not face violence in public spaces at night. It will support initiatives that target potential perpetrators or seek to protect potential victims. This will build on the additional £25 million we are investing this year into the safer streets fund. The Home Office will also pilot a tool, StreetSafe, which will enable the public to report areas anonymously where they feel unsafe and identify what about the location made them feel this way. This data will be used to inform local decision making. And we will invest in a “What Works” fund to build up evidence on the most effective approaches and measures.

It is difficult to imagine how traumatic and frightening it must be to be subjected to one of these crimes. It is essential, therefore, that victims, in their time of need, can get help. We recognise the role that support services and organisations play in helping people rebuild their lives. We are already investing a record £300 million to support victims of all crimes this year and our strategy outlines how we will increase funding this year for specialist services, including “by and for” services, and helplines for victims and survivors of crimes, including stalking and revenge porn. We will ensure that the police and prosecutors are confident about how to respond to public sexual harassment with new guidance. We will continue to look carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those. We will review options to limit use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment in higher education. Whatever the crime, whenever and wherever it happens, the needs of the victim must always be the priority.

Another priority is catching the perpetrators of these crimes and bringing them to justice. We will continue to back the police to do exactly this. We have given forces more powers, more resources and more officers, and we are taking action to restore confidence in our criminal justice system. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will change arrangements for serious violent and sexual offenders so that they serve longer in prison.

The strategy outlines a number of further measures: for example, we will appoint an independent reviewer to examine the police management of registered sex offenders in the community and advise the Home Office on whether changes are needed. The Department of Health and Social Care will work to criminalise virginity testing and we will carefully consider the recommendations in the review that the Law Commission has just published today on abusive and harmful online communications.

If we are to make real and lasting progress, this is clearly not a task that Government can take on alone. We need everyone in our society to play a part in fighting these crimes. The strategy outlines a number of steps to strengthen the system as a whole. They include introducing the first ever national policing lead for tackling violence against women and girls; reviewing the disclosure and barring regime; and appointing a new violence against women and girls transport champion.

The publication of this new strategy marks an important moment in our mission to crack down on violence against women and girls, but we will not stop there. Later this year, we also plan to publish three further documents: the domestic abuse strategy; a revised national statement of expectations covering all forms of violence against women and girls; and a revised male victims position statement.

These crimes, which disproportionately affect women and girls, are despicable. It is high time we sent a message: enough is enough. This Government will always stand up for the law-abiding majority and, through this strategy, we will strive relentlessly to prevent these crimes, to support victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. I commend this statement to the House.