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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:08 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 12:08 pm, 6th June 2019

My Lords, I, too, warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for calling this important debate and for holding her office of Victims’ Commissioner for the past seven years. I am sure that her fire for these issues will not diminish because she has moved on from that post. I thank the Government for the draft Bill, in particular the Prime Minister—who has made it a point since she entered office of reaching out to those just-managing families—for her work developing social housing and her courage in pushing that issue. We know that victims of domestic violence may have a short time in a refuge, but they need stable and secure housing so that they can recover from the trauma. The measures that the Government are introducing to make more social housing available is very welcome; of course, we all think that they should go much further in that regard.

I thank the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, who recently announced significant additional funding for family drug and alcohol courts. Currently, there are nine of them; founded by district judge Nicholas Crichton, they have been going for seven or eight years. They support parents, mainly mothers, in getting off drugs and alcohol so that they can keep their children and move forward. I suspect that many of those mothers experienced domestic violence in their early lives; of course, through their addictions, they are vulnerable to further exploitation and mistreatment. I warmly welcome that funding.

I also express my thanks to James Brown, a partner in Hall Brown, a family law firm that has led work to resuscitate the Family Drug and Alcohol Court National Unit. His work has resuscitated that unit, which will help to lead work on spreading family drug and alcohol courts across the country, preventing many children going into care and protecting mothers from domestic violence.

I declare an interest as a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, the Brent Centre for Young People—a mental health service for adolescents—and the Child and Family Practice Charitable Foundation, a mental health service for families.

In summary, I stress the need for specialist services in refuges, especially mental health services to support the mental health of mothers and their children in these settings. I emphasise the need to recommit to our universal services, such as health visitors, teachers and social workers. Austerity has been very challenging for them. As a nation and as a society, we need to commit to these caring professionals if these families and other vulnerable groups are to get the help they need.

My experience of this issue includes speaking with various affected individuals and victims. From what I have seen, over time, mothers can be trapped in long-term relationships, as has been said before. One particular example is a mother whose immigration status was uncertain, so she depended on her partner to be able to remain in this country in the long term. Over several years, I saw this confident, hard-working woman lose her confidence and become brittle and prone to tears when facing challenges. Unfortunately, her daughter was led to take her father’s side, so complications also arose from that. Language was also an issue because she did not speak English confidently.

Some of the young people I have worked with and am acquainted with come from such families. They may turn to drugs for a way out, to escape the feelings arising from their experiences. That can lead to early death; indeed, it did in the case of one young person in my acquaintance. That is an issue. I know another young person from such a background who suffered from paranoia, bouts of anger and, in particular, difficult relationships with women. For girls, such relationships in their family can poison their future relationships with men and put them at higher levels of risk. As we have heard, this serious issue has serious consequences.

On specialist support for mothers, refuges run by charities and shelters run by local authorities are very important. However, a Royal College of Psychiatrists briefing highlighted that these refuges are not always fully integrated with mental health services. Professor Panos Vostanis has worked in this area at the University of Leicester for many years, providing support to families in refuges. He highlights the high level of need of these children—they live in chaotic circumstances, often with high levels of staff turnover, and are often in these settings for only a short time—and the fact that we must target support for their mothers’ mental health if we are to help these children effectively. He has found in particular that supporting family support workers in those settings can be very useful. I suggest that some sort of clinical consultation or supervision in these settings may be very helpful to these families and improve their outcomes. Can the Minister point me to a working group looking at improving mental health support for families in refuges? Would he consider a meeting with interested Peers sometime before the Recess to look at some of these issues in more detail?

I have mentioned the importance of early years in prevention. This week we heard evidence on Sure Start; 10 and 11 year-olds who have been through Sure Start have a significantly lower level of hospitalisation. Early intervention works, yet it has been stripped down in the course of austerity. We really need to reinvest in that area, and that is why the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, made is so important. We need to fund local authorities properly to provide these services. Of course, youth work is important for young people experiencing domestic violence in their families.

What can men do in this area? Men can be good fathers, grandfathers and uncles. Male teachers in schools can be consistent and reliable. It is through these early relationships with men that girls and young women can gain self-confidence and self-esteem. They can also begin to make judgments about what a good man is and perhaps make better choices in who their long-term partner might be. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.