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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 12:00 pm, 6th June 2019

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for securing the debate today and greatly welcome the draft domestic abuse Bill. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, I have been privileged to sit on the cross-party and cross-House pre-legislative committee to examine this draft Bill and to suggest to the Government ways it can be made even better.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, I can never unknow some of the disturbing and moving testimony given by survivors. I went to a meeting to listen to the testimony of adult survivors of child domestic abuse. Over 50 years ago, a little boy in Glasgow, along with his mother and siblings, suffered terribly at the hands of a violent and abusive father. He and his mother, brother and sister walked with their meagre belongings the length of Glasgow to seek refuge at the home of his aunt, his mother having no money for the bus fare, only to be turned away at the door. They had to walk all the way home again to witness yet another beating because there was nowhere else to go—there were no refuges in those days—and the police refused to interfere with a “domestic”. However, your Lordships should not imagine that this attitude does not exist at all today. Police called to a “domestic” today may at least ask about the children but allow themselves to be fobbed off with the excuse, “They’re upstairs, asleep”. They are not asleep. They may be upstairs, but they are awake and listening to everything. So the suffering and the cycle of abuse continues.

There is so much to say, and I am sure that other noble Lords will cover other aspects of the Bill that I do not have the time to include. In the short time allowed, I want to focus on three areas of abuse that some people may not automatically think of, including children, abused men, and abused women who end up in prison.

Children can arguably suffer as much or even more than the abused parent. They feel helpless, guilty, afraid and a whole spectrum of emotions which can haunt them their whole lives. Practically, they may have to move from place to place, missing out on schooling, doctor’s appointments and treatment for the psychological trauma they are suffering. They must therefore be included within the statutory definition, and they must have protected status, similar to looked-after children, to ensure that they get refuge places, protected status on NHS waiting lists, access to psychological help and school places. They must also have the opportunity to mix with peers and be children or teenagers in the community away from the worries of home, to have some adult support outside business hours when the professionals have gone home, through youth services and youth clubs—do your Lordships remember them? The Local Government Association says that, by 2025, there will be a £3.1 billion funding gap in children’s services just to stay where we are at the moment, and where we are now is not good enough by a long stretch.

When matters get to court, children deserve the opportunity to be really listened to, not to be forced to see an abusive parent but to be allowed contact when they want to see the parent without care. Children can be used as an emotional football, and it is sometimes hard for courts to know what is really going on, but Cafcass needs to do better in untangling that, and it can make a start by really listening to the wishes of the child.

Men are another category who are not always automatically included when we think about the domestic abuse. As has been said, it can be considered unmanly to admit that one has been abused by a female partner. The charity ManKind Initiative reports that nearly half of male victims of domestic abuse fail to tell anyone. Now that the coercive control category has been included in the statutory definition, I hope that men will feel less intimidated from coming forward to ask for help, because they are certainly not getting much at the moment. An estimated one-third of domestic abuse victims are men, but there are only 150 refuge spaces available, with fewer than 50 dedicated to men only.

My final category, not often mentioned, is the plight of women victims of abuse in prison. Well over half of women who end up in prison have suffered domestic abuse, as outlined in the excellent Prison Reform Trust report There’s a Reason We’re in Trouble. The Prison Reform Trust recommends that the criminal justice agencies should routinely inquire whether the accused has suffered abuse, so that it can be taken into consideration not just in sentencing but in supporting those women to live a better life on release. Backed by the Criminal Bar Association, it says that there should be a statutory defence that criminal behaviour was driven by domestic abuse. I should appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on that, and to know whether she is prepared to put that to her colleagues in the justice department.

Overall, it is not a very pretty picture, is it? All sufferers of domestic abuse deserve joined-up help—and here is the rub. I welcome the duty placed on local authorities to provide accommodation for victims and to publish their strategy and range of support services, but they cannot provide everything needed with no additional resources—let alone, in the case of children’s services, at least, with less. Not investing in the future of current victims, not intervening early to support victims and perpetrators, will cost far more both financially and in human suffering further down the line, when the state has to pick up the pieces of broken lives. That is why the Bill is so important. It is our chance to improve the lives of an estimated 2 million adult victims a year, let alone their children, but only if we are bold, radical and prepared to put in the resources to stop the suffering. Shame on us if we do not grasp the opportunity with both hands.