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My Lords, I too want to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on bringing forward this debate today. I also echo the general thanks that have been given from all sides of the Chamber for her important work as Victims’ Commissioner, where she has clearly made a very big impact and begun to make some fundamental changes to the way victims are considered and treated, and also looked in some depth at the issues confronting those who have experienced, and continue to experience, forms of domestic violence.
Unlike other noble Lords in this debate, I do not bring a particular expertise or insight into this issue, other than through indirect experience. However, I have some thoughts I want to share, and I also want to reflect on the broader issues, relating to a particular category of victims—migrant women.
Over 50 years ago, I returned home from school to find two bikes outside my front gate, rather than one. Inside, my mother was talking very earnestly to a friend she worked with. They were both packers and pickers on a farm which specialised in soft fruits. This woman, whom I knew very well, had her two children with her, and was in a considerable state of distress. My life changed quite dramatically for several months thereafter, because I had to quit my bedroom and share our home with my mother’s friend. I am very pleased and delighted that we did, because my mother, being the compassionate and supportive sort that she was, ensured that this woman was protected from the violence that had been visited on her for some years by her husband.
I remember being very curious and asking my mother later what brought this about, and she said to me: “Well, it was just awful”. She described what had been going on. I remember asking, as a teenager, “Why doesn’t she go to the police? Why does she have to share our home—not that I mind?” My mother said, “Would you want to go and report this to our local policeman?” I thought about that a lot. I think my mother was probably right at that time, and the local authority was not very sympathetic or at all helpful.
In some ways, things have improved, but in others they have gone backwards, and we need to reflect on that. For that vulnerable group of women who are migrants to our country, things are not great. This is an important moment in the development of policy on domestic abuse, including in the Bill which has been consulted on for some time. It offers solutions but for some these are not adequate ones. We know that domestic violence has a devastating effect on people’s lives and that the stats are not good: 2 million people a year are affected by it.
As it is, the Bill probably leaves behind some of society’s most marginalised and isolated survivors of domestic abuse, particularly migrant women. As a result, I take the view that it fails to meet fully the requirements of the Istanbul convention, despite the Government’s well-intentioned moves to ratify that convention through the introduction of the Bill. Given the wealth of evidence submitted to the Government’s consultation on the Bill, it is important that we have clear language in the legislation that protection must be afforded to survivors, regardless of their immigration status. It is extremely disappointing in that context that migrant women are not mentioned anywhere in the legislation. If the Bill does not promote equality and ensure protection for all survivors of abuse, it will fail to incorporate the Istanbul convention and risks violating our own existing human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
There are four areas of concern here. First, women with insecure immigration status find it impossible to access refuges and other welfare support in order to escape violence and abuse. Without access to public funds and housing support, they are routinely denied refuge spaces, safe accommodation and welfare. They are therefore faced with impossible decisions about becoming destitute or homeless, or returning to the perpetrator. Many often find that they are unable to regularise or confirm their immigration status, for a host of complex reasons.
The second area of concern is that immigration enforcement has been prioritised over the need to provide safety and security to survivors of domestic abuse, perhaps as a hangover from or continuation of the Government’s hostile environment agenda. Invasive data-sharing agreements between public services and immigration enforcement prevent survivors with insecure immigration status accessing the very services that they need.
Also, the Bill does not meaningfully acknowledge or address the significant additional barriers faced by migrant women in accessing protection, including that abusers commonly use women’s fears of immigration enforcement and separation from their children to control them. Research has pointed to particular vulnerabilities for migrant women. These include: a higher proportion of homelessness; greater financial impact from abuse because of their inability to work, on account of their immigration status; being disproportionately affected by a lack of support when facing forms of abuse such as FGM, forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence. They are also more likely to report multiple perpetrators.
We also have to acknowledge that there is likely a justice gap, with the police not pursuing criminal charges.
The Bill therefore needs to introduce a non-discrimination clause. It has to provide for safe reporting systems for survivors accessing vital public services. It also needs to consider extending eligibility for the existing domestic violence rule and destitution domestic violence concession to all migrant women who experience or are at risk of abuse. Urgent consideration needs to be given to ensuring that those who report domestic violence and abuse should be exempt from having no recourse to public funds; they should be supported.
If we can begin to consider those issues and tackle them in the legislation, perhaps with amendments being brought forward, we will make some big leaps forward for those who are among the most vulnerable in our community.