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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:53 am on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 11:53 am, 6th June 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who made the very important statement today that this is, in a sense, an outstanding issue from her seven years as Victims’ Commissioner that she has had drawn to her attention. I thank her for that work and for this debate.

This seems to me such a long journey. I met some Women’s Aid workers yesterday who are now getting ready for their 45th anniversary next year or the year after. I had to confess that I was at the original meeting that established Women’s Aid, as I was part of setting up one of the very early refuges in Sunderland all those years ago. It makes me feel very old.

The reason I want to speak in this debate is that I still work with Changing Lives, although I am no longer its chair. It does a lot of work in this area, and I act as a friend and informal consultant to the tremendous woman who runs its women’s services. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill and have just chaired a commission in the past year, whose report is called Breaking Down the Barriers, which worked with women and looked at domestic and sexual violence and multiple disadvantage among them. It was particularly looking at and working with women with complex needs. Nearly all these women have complex needs: they may have an addiction; they may be or have been homeless; they may have a mental health problem. Much of this has come from their lifelong experience of abuse, violence and neglect. As a society, we really have not begun to work out properly how we work with women with complex needs, many of which, as I say, have arisen from domestic violence.

The commissioners worked very closely with women with lived experience—which is how we now term this—of violence, abuse and the aftermath of that. We trained them to work as peer researchers: to ask the right questions and handle how they asked them, and then to deal with the trauma that they were hearing from other women. Each of them interviewed about 10 or 12 women in their own locality who had had the same experience. I met with these women about once a month during the period of the commission. Their stories were, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said, harrowing. But they were also incredibly inspiring. Nearly all of those whom we trained now have jobs, and nearly all of them are feeling really positive about taking better control of their own lives.

When it comes down to it, domestic violence happens because somebody in the relationship wants power. That is why we call it a gendered thing. Yes, men suffer from it as well, and their reluctance to come forward is largely because they feel that this is not the image they should be projecting as men. We have a problem all round, and we need to recognise that there is a gender-specific issue with the victims and offer services which respond to that.

Let me explain a little bit what I mean by that. I cannot go through all the recommendations of the commission—I am already well over halfway through my speech—but the women said to us very strongly that they had been best supported when the first person they met had some understanding of what they were going through and of how they may work. Even if they went to a homeless or mental health organisation, or somewhere else, somebody needed to recognise that it had come from trauma and abuse and that that was at the bottom of their problems. If it is not worked with in a way that recognises this, you will never get to the end you need to get to.

Therefore, we recommend that many more workers on the front line across the services be trauma informed—to be able to recognise what happens and what has happened to someone who is presenting, understand the behaviour and work from there from the beginning. When that does not happen, you never begin to tackle the problems for children or indeed the problems of recurrence of the violence and walking into other violent relationships. If we are to stop it, we have to do that.

Too many organisations do not have that, and nor do they have the safe spaces for women. I cannot tell you the number of local authorities I have talked to which think that the Equality Act means that, if they offer a homeless hostel, it has to be for both sexes. It does not and should not be. Women need safe spaces when they are vulnerable so that they will not be prey to the sort of people who have abused, troubled and traumatised them in the past. Without those gender-specific places, that simply will not work.

I have so much more to say, but I can see that my time is up. We have so much to do but, my goodness, if we do it, those women and children will give us back a lot, because they will know what to do in the most difficult circumstances. If we get it right for them, we will have a much better chance of getting it right throughout our society.