We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for bringing this really important debate before us today. I am grateful for that. I also thank her, as other noble Lords have, for all the work she has done as Victims’ Commissioner. She has made a huge contribution to victims and, like others have said, we now all look forward to her bringing all that expertise to your Lordships’ House.
I welcome recent developments which the Government have brought forward: the long campaigned for statutory duty on councils to provide services; the provisions in the draft domestic abuse Bill, including a domestic abuse commissioner and an end to cross-examination by perpetrators in courts; and the much-needed review of family courts. These changes are a testament to organisations, campaigners and Members of this House and the Commons who have campaigned so hard and so long for these changes. Above all, they are a testament to survivors of domestic violence and abuse, who have shown such exceptional strength.
Recent announcements come after years of damaging cuts and loss of services, support and places of safety for survivors and their children. The 60% cut in government funding for local authorities since 2010 has stretched them to their limits. The fact is that one-fifth of refuges have closed since 2010. Women’s Aid has found that some organisations are having to provide these lifesaving local services without any support from cash-strapped local authorities. In 2017-18, over 59% of referrals to a refuge were declined. That is a huge number of women and children being turned away every day. This is really worrying. Where are these women and children expected to go? Many had to go back to their home, with the perpetrator still there.
The Government have promised funding to support the statutory duty on councils. This is to be,
“determined through the forthcoming spending review and informed by the consultation”.—[
I look forward to seeing the results of this consultation. Does the Minister have any idea when this will be? Unless funding is provided to make this work, councils are being set up to fail. When will we and, most importantly, service providers know how much funding the Government will provide to give services a genuinely sustainable long-term future? This is crucial information, as I am aware that those running women’s refuges are worried about the lack of funding but have really welcomed the Government’s announcement in this field. Some are really relieved that they will get this funding, but they are anxious to know when it will happen. Can the Minister confirm that the funding will be ring-fenced?
For obvious reasons, survivors often need to access services outside their local area. What is being done to ensure co-operation and flexibility of services across different areas? Specialist services, including those for BAME and LGBT users, have been hit the hardest in recent years and suffered high rates of closure. It is unclear how the Government’s proposals will focus on these areas of service provision. Can the Minister assure the House that these services will be specifically and strategically provided for?
The draft Bill and other announcements do not seem to do enough to remove barriers to accessing support and safety for migrant women and women with no recourse to public funds. Can the Minister inform the House what the Government plan to do to ensure that all women can access services or a vital place of safety when they desperately need it?
The Local Government Association has raised concerns that government policy is focusing on crisis-point intervention, rather than early intervention. I trust the Minister agrees with me that funding must be provided for early intervention and prevention, to stop these crimes being committed in the first place. Would it not be marvellous if we could resolve this massive problem? Early intervention is obviously much needed. The effort to tackle domestic violence and domestic abuse needs to be driven by multiple government departments working together. It must inform all our policy areas—housing, justice, employment, education, health and welfare
Voluntary organisations and Members of Parliament have campaigned for the Government to provide universal credit as split payments, to protect against economic abuse. The Secretary of State announced in January that universal credit will be paid to the main carer. Can the Minister update the House on what progress has been made in identifying the main carer in a household? Will the Government give more consideration to the benefits of a split payment being standard?
Although we welcome the direction of travel in making improvements to the court system for domestic violence cases, there is far more to be done. Legal aid for domestic violence survivors was decimated by the coalition Government. Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said last week:
“While the government’s draft domestic abuse bill marks an important step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to safeguard children in domestic violence cases. The government’s cuts to legal aid in 2012 have left many victims of abuse unrepresented in court, often unable to argue their case”.
She is calling on the Government to reinstate legal aid for early advice so that domestic abuse can be identified as early as possible. Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to reconsider legal aid provision for domestic abuse survivors?
The provision of emergency accommodation services is quite literally lifesaving, but plans must be made for the availability of good quality, long-term housing provision for survivors of domestic violence and their families. I trust the Government will be able to say something positive about this. The lack of genuinely affordable housing has left domestic violence victims facing homelessness and squalid housing. Last year, the number of homes built for social rent fell to fewer than 6,500, compared with almost 40,000 in 2010. Under current legislation, a person made homeless because they are fleeing domestic abuse is not automatically considered in priority need of settled accommodation. This can leave survivors facing a choice between homelessness and returning to an abusive partner. The Minister will no doubt be aware that the charity Crisis and the APPG on Ending Homelessness are calling on the Government to use the domestic abuse Bill to ensure that anyone fleeing abuse is considered a priority and guaranteed a safe home.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, and it has been really good to hear all the expertise across the House. We welcome the Government’s initiative and a lot has been done, but I ask the Minister to listen to the debate this afternoon—there is a lot more to be done. I look forward to the domestic abuse Bill coming to your Lordships’ House; I know we will examine it thoroughly. In the meantime, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.