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Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:38 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 1:38 pm, 6th June 2019

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I also join the many noble Lords who paid tribute to other noble Lords who are so expert in this area—in particular my noble friend Lady Newlove, whom I thank for bringing forward this debate. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to all the work she has done as Victims’ Commissioner. Of course, supporting victims is in the context of the debate we are having today.

I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, as one of the founders of Women’s Aid—I did not know that until today—and of course to my noble friend Lady Barran. I think noble Lords intimated that she should be answering the debate because she is such an expert—and she certainly inspires me. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who I had not realised has been involved with Refuge, although I knew that she had been involved with SafeLives. We have a lot of expertise in this Chamber, and all of us want to achieve the same thing for both victims of domestic violence and their children, who are also victims.

I am glad that noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Helic, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Suri, paid tribute to the Prime Minister for her efforts to make domestic abuse a key priority. When historians look back on her period as Prime Minister, I hope that they will recognise her work and the progress she made on equality and ending violence against women and girls, and in the area of domestic violence. That is why this year we published a landmark draft domestic abuse Bill alongside a wide-ranging package of commitments to help protect and support victims of domestic abuse and, most importantly, their children.

As my noble friend said, domestic abuse affects almost 2 million victims every year, both physically and mentally, and carries a financial cost to society. The devastating consequences that it has for victims and their children, and of course the economic costs, are such that it necessitates a separate comprehensive programme of cross-government activity. We believe that having a specific programme of work focused solely on domestic abuse gives us the best chance of achieving our aims and of raising awareness and preventing abuse. We have also refreshed our cross-government VAWG strategy to ensure that we are doing all we can to tackle crimes which have a disproportionate impact on women—although that is not to take away from the fact that of course men are also victims of domestic abuse.

The draft Bill includes a number of measures to improve support for victims. It will: for the first time create a statutory government definition of domestic abuse; create a new domestic abuse civil prevention and protection order to provide better protection for victims; establish a commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors; raise public awareness and monitor the response of agencies; prevent victims being cross-examined by their accused perpetrators in family courts, which I will say more about later; and take steps to allow us to ratify the Istanbul convention—I am amazed that the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, did not mention it today—which will enable UK courts to prosecute British citizens for domestic abuse regardless of where in the world the offence was committed. A Joint Committee of both Houses was appointed to undertake scrutiny of the draft Bill. Its evidence sessions have now concluded and I look forward to seeing its report on 14 June, which we will respond to in full. We will then introduce the Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, raised the subject of inequalities in this area. As he knows, every Bill contains an equality impact assessment. I will talk about the specific issue of migrant women, which a number of noble Lords raised, including the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Gale. The complexities regarding migrant women and their access to support are many and varied. We recognise that some people living in the UK as the partner of a British citizen or other settled person are subject to the no recourse to public funds condition and that some of these people may therefore encounter financial issues if their relationship breaks down as a result of domestic violence.

The intention of the destitute domestic violence concession is to support people who, as noble Lords have said, may otherwise be forced to remain in a relationship with an abusive partner on whom they are financially dependent. As part of our work on the domestic abuse Bill we are considering the argument for widening the cohort of individuals eligible for the concession and are taking into account evidence submitted to the pre-legislative scrutiny committee on this issue. I was pleased to be able to be there on that day. In addition, last month the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, the Minister for Victims, the Minister for Immigration and I co-hosted that round table with stakeholders to discuss how we can best support migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse. When we review all these sources of evidence to come to a view on whether to extend eligibility of the DDVC, we will also take into account the provisions of the Istanbul convention, which were discussed at that round table.

More broadly, to support those who fall outside the scope of the DDVC, we are continuing our work to help build long-term capacity, support and expertise around immigration rights for those working to combat domestic abuse. We have already provided £400,000 through the tampon tax in 2017, and in March 2019 we further committed more than £1 million to Southall Black Sisters. This money will fund safe accommodation, subsistence and help, including counselling, therapy, immigration advice and community awareness-raising for domestic abuse victims in London, the north-east and Manchester, with the aim of improving our understanding of the needs and number of migrants who can claim urgent crisis support.

In addition, the Government are committed to ensuring that all victims of crime are treated first and foremost as victims, regardless of their immigration status. Immigration enforcement is currently engaged with the NPCC lead on domestic abuse to ensure that police and immigration work collaboratively to quickly recognise victims and to ensure that immigration status is not used by perpetrators to coerce and control vulnerable migrants.

A number of noble Lords talked about the importance of funding, in particular for domestic abuse services: my noble friend Lady Newlove and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about this, the former in conjunction with the use of technology to further our efforts in this area. We have committed £100 million-worth of funding up to 2020 to services that combat violence against women and girls, which includes £17 million of funding for 41 projects across England and Wales that support local areas to work collaboratively with specialist third-sector organisations and to develop best practice on early intervention and prevention, not just that crisis response.

It also includes £20 million specifically for domestic abuse. Of this, we have allocated £8 million specifically for services to support children, who are so badly affected by domestic abuse. One of the projects we are funding in north Somerset will create a new support service to help children and young people recover from their experience of domestic abuse, using specialist therapeutic interventions and individualised programmes based on the child’s developmental needs and experience of domestic abuse. That is in addition to the funding provided by local commissioners, including local authorities, police and crime commissioners and health commissioners. In 2017-18, PCCs reported that they spent approximately £23.5 million on support services for victims of domestic abuse.

I will take up the point my noble friend Lord Wasserman has brought up before, about tagging and making the best use of technology. As I acknowledged in earlier debates, that could be a requirement of a domestic abuse protection order. One noble Lord talked about early intervention. I thought it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but perhaps it was not. Early intervention is of course crucial.

Several noble Lords mentioned accommodation. Since 2014, the Government have provided £55.5 million for services, including refuges, to support victims of domestic abuse. We now have more bed spaces than we did back in 2010, but that is not to dismiss the pressure on bed spaces, which is for ever present and possibly growing. This includes a £22 million fund to provide more than 2,220 new beds in refuges and other safe accommodation, supporting more than 25,000 survivors with a safe space in which to rebuild their lives.

In addition, we carried out a review of how domestic abuse services are locally commissioned and funded across England. That is an important point that exercised me when I was in MHCLG. On 13 May, MHCLG launched a consultation on future delivery of support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services. Proposals in the consultation include a new legal duty on local authorities to provide support for domestic abuse survivors and their children. This will provide a range of services to support victims and their children in secure accommodation. To answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I understand that the results of that consultation will be issued on 2 August.

It is proposed that local authorities will be required to complete full needs assessments and publish local strategies which set out how they will provide specifically tailored support. They will also be required to work together across boundaries—let us not forget, domestic abuse does not respect local authority boundaries—to ensure that domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people. To answer another point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, this includes targeted specialist support for BAME and LGBT victims, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the integration of mental health support in refuges. As we know, refuges provide a wide range of support to victims of domestic abuse, and the current consultation on what that support should involve includes his proposals. Our proposals also include plans for local partnership boards, which I think are a really good idea. They could include health professionals and will ensure that commissioning decisions for services are joined up and informed by information on local needs.

Several noble Lords talked about moving on from safe accommodation. It is crucial for victims to have certainty of support in the longer term. Last November, we issued new statutory guidance for local authorities to improve access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse who are in a refuge or another form of safe, temporary accommodation. As I pointed out, under the proposals under consultation, local authorities are expected to disapply any residency tests for victims who have fled from another local authority district. They set out how local authorities can ensure that victims are given appropriate priority and advise local authorities on how they can use their existing powers to support tenants who are victims of domestic abuse to remain safe in their homes if they choose to do so.

I shall touch on the subject of universal credit and financial support raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. We are looking at what more we can do to ensure that the main carer more often receives the universal credit payment direct, as opposed to the current system, where someone has to request it. We expect to make changes to claimant messaging to support that in the summer.

At the heart of what we are talking about today are not just the victims of domestic violence but their children. That has been one of the themes of this wide-ranging debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, raised that, as did my noble friend Lady Newlove. It has a devastating impact on children. If you grow up in a household of fear, it will have an impact on your well-being and development, with lasting effects into adulthood. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said: that children might be in bed but they hear everything and it follows them all through their lives.

It is really important that social workers provide effective support to children and families affected by domestic abuse. Our children and social care reform programme is working to improve social work practice across the country through initial education, continuing professional development and tougher professional regulation. In school, it is a sad fact that those children do significantly worse than their peers. Through the children in need review, we will identify what needs to be done in policy and practice to address that injustice and improve educational outcomes.

As part of our innovation project funding, we have invested £43 million in 12 projects, with a focus on domestic abuse, including projects with a whole-family approach and therapeutic interventions for children. The Government also provide £163,000 to fund the national rollout of Operation Encompass. This initiative ensures timely information sharing between police and schools when children have been exposed to domestic abuse.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, also asked about creating a new statutory defence for women whose offending is driven by domestic abuse. I have seen that issue so often in women’s prisons and recognise it. I understand that she put that question to Edward Argar when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee and that the response will be issued shortly to this end.

My noble friend Lady Newlove and other noble Lords asked about the domestic abuse commissioner: primarily, how will that person be independent? I can confirm that they will have day-to-day operational independence. Ministers will not dictate their work plan nor determine their recommendations. We are clear that we expect the domestic abuse commissioner to provide robust, challenging advice and recommendations to national government as well as to local commissioners. As with most public bodies, there must be a degree of ministerial oversight—for example, to ensure that public money is spent according to Treasury principles—but the relationship between the commissioner and the Home Office will be codified in a published memorandum of understanding. The domestic abuse commissioner will also be required to establish an advisory board and a victims and survivors advisory group.

I have run out of time, although I have a further pile of papers with which to answer noble Lords’ questions. Rather than go on today, because I know that another debate is due to start, I hope that noble Lords will agree for me to follow up on the many questions that I have left to answer in writing. I once again thank my noble friend for all that she has done and for securing this debate and thank all noble Lords who have taken part.