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My Lords, I am pleased to be able to move this Motion. It has been mentioned several times over the past years across the Floor of the House that, sadly and needlessly, one in four women and one in six men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime. Even more tragically, on average two women are killed every week by a current or former partner. Today, we must think of those families whose lives have been shattered as they try to cope with the loss of their loved ones.
Across government, domestic abuse is defined as:
“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”.
Power and control are at the centre of domestic abuse. Insidious controlling behaviour, which may appear innocuous, slowly and surely removes the victim’s ability to think for themselves and erodes their feeling of self-worth. It can encompass physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial violence or abuse. Domestic abuse is a complex and hideous crime which knows no social bounds. It affects people from all walks of life, in all our communities. Often, those living at the end of a long gravel drive are the most isolated and the most reluctant to report it.
We must also do more about the economic abuse that is suffered on a daily basis. Surviving Economic Abuse, which I thank for its excellent briefing, has highlighted just how severe economic abuse is, whether it comes from a current or former partner—in intimate relationships, it is just unbelievable. Of those reporting economic abuse, 86% also experience other forms of abuse, and 45% are in debt because of the abuse.
Last year, the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that more than 2 million people were the victims of domestic abuse, with women twice as likely to be victims as men. The estimated annual cost of domestic abuse is £66 billion, with an average cost for a single victim being over £34,000. The human and emotional costs borne by an individual victim cannot be quantified. We cannot and must not stand by and allow this social ill to fester any longer. Whatever the nature of the abuse, be it physical, mental or financial, it takes its toll and destroys lives.
Last month, I stepped down as Victims’ Commissioner, having spent seven years in the post. I have just come back from New York where, as a guest of the UN, I spoke about victims’ rights. In May last year, the Government launched their consultation: Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse. Before I responded to it, I was determined to go out across the country to meet victims and practitioners. Hearing first-hand their harrowing and heart-breaking stories has never left me.
Today’s debate gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to those victims and survivors, and thank them all for sharing the horrendous and violent stories of their lives at the hands of someone who they loved, and who they genuinely thought loved them. I listened intently, not only to how their lives were torn apart but to the harm and mental anguish caused to their children, who were innocent bystanders. Some women had lost their jobs, their homes and, sadly, their businesses. I heard about the horrors experienced by victims when challenged by their perpetrators through the family courts, and how the mentality of Cafcass officers is always to meet the best interests of the child. I heard from victims who had to go back to the house they shared with their abuser, because there was no alternative safe refuge available to them. And if they did find secure and safe accommodation, if they were working, they had to pay a fee, along with paying towards a home that they could no longer live in.
The first challenge in all of this is to give all victims of domestic abuse the confidence to come forward and seek help. This is, without doubt, a colossal step for any victim, especially when in a coercive and/or violent relationship. It takes tremendous courage for a person so vulnerable to make such a decision, but it is a formidable turning point in their recovery.
On this point, I bring to the Minister’s attention the real concerns that support workers have raised with me about police bail. They have told me that police officers say they cannot use bail anymore, resulting in perpetrators being questioned and then released unconditionally—some are back on their doorstep as soon as they leave the police station. When this happens, it not only places victims at risk but does untold damage to that victim’s confidence in the police, yet again. I am fully aware of the debate between government and the police on this issue. However, I am not interested in the intricacies of politics; human lives are more important than that. No victim must ever be placed at risk because front-line staff are unsure when bail can be used. I want to see the police enforcing non-molestation orders. I want to know that they are using domestic violence protection notices and applying for restraining orders with teeth.
It is laudable that the Government have increased public awareness. There have been greater numbers of victims coming forward. However, while this growth is positive, it places further demand on our already creaking, threadbare domestic abuse services. So I say to my noble friend the Minister: aspirations are welcome, and I truly believe we have a good starting point, but they must be backed up with sustainable funding that makes them a reality for the lives we need to save.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I wrote to the Government on this matter, because the formula of sustainable funding was a priority for practitioners. It will ensure that professionally trained workers are kept on in their roles and, through their relationships, able to raise more confidence and build even stronger victims, becoming survivors. Protecting vulnerable victims, as well as supporting survivors of domestic abuse, is at the heart of the Government’s strengthened response to domestic abuse. The draft domestic abuse Bill and wider package of measures, including the violence against women and girls strategy, will not only bolster protection for victims of domestic abuse but help to expose and bring to justice the perpetrators of this intolerable offence.
Taken together, the Government’s measures seek to make a real difference to the lives of victims of domestic abuse. They create the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse. They establish a domestic abuse commissioner responsible for driving the response to domestic abuse and standing up for victims. They prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts, and create new domestic abuse protection notices and domestic abuse protection orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders. In my capacity as the former Victims’ Commissioner, I believe that the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner is most important, so that they can hold the Government to account for the delivery of this strategy.
Legislation alone will not be enough to provide all the necessary protections. As Victims’ Commissioner, I visited many front-line services. They provide excellent support to female and male victims of domestic abuse—assessing risk and providing safety advice, housing information, legal protections and support from other professionals. I salute and applaud every one of those front-line workers. Unfortunately, the same level of support is not available everywhere. Victims of domestic abuse deserve better than a postcode lottery of support.
This brings me to the male victims of domestic abuse. We see and hear that male victims have limited access to safe accommodation. To address this, for the first time ever councils across England and Wales will be legally required to house securely all victims of domestic abuse and their children. Local authorities will also be legally required to assess the level of support needed in their area for such victims. I know that my successor as Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, will want to work closely with the domestic abuse commissioner, when appointed, and I have asked the Government to facilitate that. By working together they can ensure that victims of domestic abuse receive the advice and support they need, wherever they live and whatever abuse they have faced.
Both Women’s Aid and Refuge have welcomed the new legal duty placed on local authorities to work together with neighbouring councils to ensure that domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people. Giving targeted support for minority communities, including support for BME, LGBT and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors, will be the key to success.
Charities also play a hugely important part in supporting domestic abuse victims. There are too many to name them all, but as this is Volunteers’ Week, today is an ideal opportunity to celebrate and thank all those volunteers who give their time and expertise for the benefit of others. This may be in the form of listening without judging, or of advocacy support and giving safety advice to victims of domestic abuse; it may include supporting survivors as they navigate their way through a very complicated court process; or it may be assisting them as they begin to rebuild their lives, their self-confidence and self-esteem. I would like to personally thank Jan Berry from DAVSS; the Suzy Lamplugh Trust; Frank Mullane from AAFDA; Gill Smallwood of Fortalice, Bolton; and Survivors Manchester. I also thank ManKind and Surviving Economic Abuse. Most importantly, I thank my former team in the Victims’ Commissioner’s office for pulling together a lot of briefings and for the kindness they showed to every victim who picked up a phone to speak to them: victims were so pleased to hear that somebody wanted to listen to their lives.
Before I conclude my thoughts, domestic abuse remains a scourge on our society. It requires a comprehensive, co-ordinated set of measures to combat it. We are talking about human lives, not statistics. I read a great quotation the other day:
“Domestic abuse can be so easy for people to ignore, as it often happens without any witnesses and it is sometimes easier not to get involved. Yet, by publicly speaking out against domestic abuse, together we can challenge attitudes towards violence in the home”,
where we should feel safe, and show that such violent and coercive acts are crimes, and not merely unacceptable. I not only believe that this legislation is a starting point, providing measures that are necessary, but that it will make a positive difference to victims of domestic abuse and protect them and their families. This is just the beginning. We can and must always do more. I beg to move.