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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:20 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration) 1:20 pm, 6th June 2019

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, will be in no doubt of the House’s gratitude to her for securing this debate and, more importantly, for never letting us overlook the interests and points of view of victims. I know that that will continue.

I declare an interest as a past member and chair of the board of Refuge. My first meeting was on the day I was asked to become a Member of this House—I too feel rather old. That experience has stayed with me. I am very struck by the level of knowledge and understanding that has been shown in this debate, such as I do not think we would have heard even 10 years ago. I also declare an interest as a trustee of Safer London, given the issue of teenage relationship abuse which is part of its remit. This issue is one for the whole of society, obviously. Of course, we do not know how many men and women will not disclose and we know that the fact that domestic abuse happens to anyone is an issue for us all. I am glad that we have had five men speaking alongside 12 women in this debate, but where are the others?

There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill: inevitably it is the concerns that are aired in a debate such as this, and we cannot discuss domestic abuse without reference to resources, of which there are never enough. The greatest barrier to leaving an abusive relationship is the shortage of housing: discuss. Is it universal credit, the single payment or—it is a long list. You begin to appreciate the scale when you think what it must take to leave an abusive relationship, maybe after many years, maybe without access to money—withholding money may have been part of the abuse—maybe with children. There is the impact upon an unsettled young child in a refuge who wants to see Daddy, or on a teenager whose mental health is affected for years. Controlling and coercive behaviour may continue after partners have separated, in connection with contact and other arrangements for the children. I was startled to hear the estimate that the damage to a child caught up in domestic abuse—one child—can cost the taxpayer between £500 million and £1.4 billion up to the age of 28. It is not always acknowledged, though one noble Lord did so earlier, that children witnessing abuse are so affected. I do not just mean a child who is in the room when Daddy hits Mummy, or vice versa; children know what is going on without actually seeing it.

Mention has been made and there has been a good deal of welcome for the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner. I do not want what I am going to say to be taken as any comment on past or recently appointed commissioners in any commissioner posts, but I have never been wholly persuaded about the way we have gone in this direction. The previous incarnation was tsars, now we have commissioners. My concern is that it can become all too easy for the Government to offload work which should actually be the work of Ministers. I particularly wonder how the post will relate to that of the Victims’ Commissioner, and where the post will sit in government. Will it be the Home Office, as is suggested by there being a Home Office Minister responding today? The Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner position comes under the wing, if that is the right term, of the Home Office. The inclusion of the word “Independent” in that title was fought for very hard when the legislation went through this House, but of course legislation and practice do not always coincide.

I want to mention one relatively small group of victims. My noble friend Lady Brinton referred to a shocking case, and it was also the subject of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. How much more difficult must it be if you are a migrant with insecure status, or if you believe your status is insecure, which might be part of the issue? In my view, curtailing a spousal visa when a partner claims the marriage has ended amounts to complicity in control and coercion. The destitution domestic violence concession has been mentioned. It is restricted to immigrants on a spousal visa and is too short. It does not apply to asylum seekers and there is no means through the asylum system to access specialist women’s services. There is no recourse to public funds, which means there is no refuge place. It seems that some police forces share the details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control, which is shocking. Expecting women to return “home” is such a failure to appreciate the cultural dimension: it is nowhere near victim-centred.

I want to end, even though I have the luxury of a few more minutes than other noble Lords had, by asking the first question: why? There are lots of whys. Why is there underreporting? Why are there such high attrition rates when it comes to prosecutions? Why is there still such a shortfall in awareness among the general public and professionals whose work brings them into contact with people who are abused? They should be both alert to the possibility of abuse and able to recognise what support is needed. I am glad to see that my own borough of Richmond upon Thames has recently agreed the recommendations of a group with which my own ward councillor Alice Bridges-Westcott—I told her I would give her a namecheck—has been very much involved. This includes the recommendation, to pick just one, that all housing officers dealing with people affected by domestic abuse should work collaboratively with support workers and advocates.

There may be new statutory duties for local authorities. I confess that on the whole I am suspicious about central government adding to the duties of local government. I mentioned the shortage of housing. With her background I know that the Minister will be well aware of the need for powers for local authorities, as distinct from duties. I am glad to see that she is nodding, so she does not actually need to say that in her response. Of course, the big question is what underlies domestic abuse, at the individual level and socially. I hope that we will have other occasions to pursue the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, about trauma-informed services, and to look at a range of psychological issues, such as the attachment in relationships.

I do not tweet, but I bet that there was a backlash on social media when Sally Challen’s murder conviction was quashed: “Why didn’t the silly bitch just leave him?” There is an awful lot to address.