Examination of Witness

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:29 am on 29 October 2019.

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Louisa Rolfe gave evidence.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Q We have until 11.25 for this session. Will our witness kindly introduce herself and say something about her role?

Louisa Rolfe:

Good morning. My name is Louisa Rolfe and I am Deputy Chief Constable of West Midlands police, but I have been the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on domestic abuse since 2013. The job involves working closely with the sector, the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, HMICFRS and the College of Policing. For four years I have reported quarterly to the Home Secretary at the national oversight group, and my focus is on improving the police response to domestic abuse.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q For colleagues who are not familiar with the acronyms of the Home Office and policing, the National Police Chiefs’ Council is the collective of the most senior police officers in the country. It is fair to say that it is an influential and important body in the law enforcement world. Deputy Chief Constable, how do you rate the police response to domestic abuse?

Louisa Rolfe:

I think it is improving. It has significantly improved over a number of years, but I think it is stretched, and it is highly dependent on partnership working with other agencies, particularly the provision of IDVA services and refuge services. As you will be aware, we have worked hard to improve identification, and since 2013, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has noted substantial and significant improvements in the police response. It recognises, however, that the service is stretched in its response to domestic abuse.

Reporting has gone up by more than 90% since 2013, and some of that is down to improved accuracy in recording and reporting domestic abuse. Up to 40% of that 90% increase could be because we have got much better at identifying things that might have been recorded in the past as a non-crime incident that involved a verbal argument. There is now better identification of things such as common assault and harassment within those incidents. The proportion of reported incidents that become crimes has increased and, despite forces reducing in size since 2010, all have either maintained or invested in their response to domestic abuse, with dedicated investigators and specialists working in the field.

We have worked with the College of Policing to develop the domestic abuse risk assessment, which is an improvement on the established DASH risk assessment process. Evidence-based research helped us to develop that, and with a number of charities we have also developed the Domestic Abuse Matters training programme, which has been academically proven to increase the empathy of officers with victims and their understanding of abuse. Things are improving.

We are at a challenging time for prosecutions, and a number of things are driving that. Between 2013 and 2016, prosecutions for domestic abuse increased rapidly. They plateaued in 2016 and have fallen since. A number of things are driving that—this is about demand and pressures on the police service and the Crown Prosecution Service. When you look end to end at cases, however, it is also about the higher thresholds required for charging, the standards expected of digital evidence, medical evidence, and disclosure. Attrition in cases, post-charge, has reduced dramatically, but the number of cases hitting the threshold for charge has also reduced. I think that has gone too far, and we are working hard with forces nationally to improve the number of cases that achieve a prosecution and get justice for victims.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q In terms of the national oversight committee, which you have already mentioned, that is a meeting at national level, chaired by the Home Secretary, with organisations ranging from you, for instance, representing the police, through to HMICFRS and the CPS but also charities and stakeholders, who are important members of the group as well. Through that committee, what challenge do our members give to you, representing the police, in terms of the police response to domestic abuse incidents?

Louisa Rolfe:

There is a quite robust challenge. Certainly, at the last couple of meetings, we have talked quite extensively about the police response to migrant women and ensuring that our work with immigration enforcement services is effective in identifying and recognising the particular challenges and concerns faced by women who may have no recourse to public funds or have uncertain immigration status. There has been an appropriate challenge from the sector in ensuring that there is an informed and thoughtful response, not a clumsy response, in addressing those issues. There has been a robust challenge about the decrease in prosecutions and particularly referrals to charge. I have worked jointly with the Crown Prosecution Service to present to that meeting a detailed overview of the challenges as we understand them and the work we are doing to improve the situation.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Just to give us an idea of the pressures that domestic abuse in all its forms places on the police, do you have any measure of how many phone calls or reports to the police there are each day or each year, for example?

Louisa Rolfe:

The Office for National Statistics collects police data and the dataset in terms of calls to police, reported incidents and crimes, is publicly available each year. We are talking about more than 2 million reports to policing every year. It is important to understand how it is a growing proportion of demand to the police service as well. More than 11% of emergency call demand to the police service is now domestic abuse and more than 30% of violence with injury incidents recorded by the police are domestic abuse. So, it is not only increasing, it is a growing proportion of caseload. It is often multiple issues together: a significant proportion of rape investigations are domestic abuse rape. Honour-based abuse, or FGM, are often issues of domestic abuse as well. It is not a simplistic issue, but very complex.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Q Will the introduction of 20,000 police officers over the next three years assist in your investigation of domestic abuse?

Louisa Rolfe:

Undoubtedly, yes.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

Q It is a pleasure to meet you. I have been very happily married for 25 years, but I was married before and it was not so happy. I was a victim of domestic abuse—I have never said this before. I can remember the police coming to my house and saying, “It’s just a domestic”. The only person who was going to be able to do anything about that was me, the following day, but I did not do anything about it, because I was afraid. Needless to say, that marriage did not last very long. But I really worry about people of my generation and older, who believe that this is normal and quite acceptable. In the Welsh valleys, I have heard so many times the expression, “Just give it a clip across the ear-hole”. We are getting better but are not where we should be. That is down to the fact that the generations coming behind us are much stronger women, in the sense that they will not take the nonsense that we took. How many older people are we seeing who we know are victims of domestic abuse but are afraid to report it or to take that step to actually admit it?

Louisa Rolfe:

From my work with charities I know that that is a very real issue. It goes back to the discussion earlier about the gendered nature of domestic abuse. Some of it is inextricably linked with people’s perceptions of a woman’s place. Particularly with older generations—I know from charities that people are less inclined to report and can often feel more isolated, and that statutory agencies will be less likely to listen, support and understand if someone has been married for a long time in an established relationship.

We have found that domestic abuse is not restricted to one societal group or one area of the UK—it happens everywhere—but perpetrators, particularly manipulative perpetrators, will focus on the vulnerabilities of their victim. If that victim feels that they do not have a close network of friends or family and that agencies are not likely to believe them—perpetrators will often tell a victim, “Nobody will believe you”—that can be exacerbated by their vulnerability.

It might be that their vulnerability is that they are older and more isolated; it might be that they are somebody with uncertain immigration status and their spouse holds all their papers. There are many ways that perpetrators will manipulate and seek to control victims. This is why I promote the work that we have done on the Domestic Abuse Matters training, because it is about understanding what is behind the abuse and looking for signs of control. A lot of research now shows that violence is not necessarily an indicator of more violence, but that coercion and control tends to be the highest risk indicator that we have in domestic abuse.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

Q Police are under a huge amount of pressure, with lack of resources, lack of police officers and everything else that we talk about on a regular basis. With the DAPOs, I know that the victim will not be charged, but the police service will be charged for court cases. Will that prevent police forces that are already under pressure in terms of budget resources from going for DAPOs because of the financial implications?

Louisa Rolfe:

I have spoken to forces about this, and I think it will not. The cost of the DAPO would be the least of our concerns. There are many positive aspects to the DAPO: that it protects from all abuse and not just violence, that it is more flexible, that anyone can apply, that there is no restrictive duration and that it can include positive and negative restrictions. Policing is not deterred by cost, and I have some examples of that. We have a strong record of sometimes stepping in where other agencies are not able to.

A good example is that in my own force last year we spent more than £40,000 over a couple of months on emergency accommodation for women with no recourse to public funds. Where even local authorities and refuges are not able to find emergency accommodation, the police service will fund that, because our priority is the safety and protection of victims.

With the DAPO, there are some costs, and it is not just how much it costs—at the moment, it is £500 to present a domestic violence protection order at court—but often the on-costs and logistics that we must consider as well. When the domestic violence protection orders came in, they were something that the police service must present at court. Some forces employed lawyers to do it and others trained staff to do it, so there is an investment in an additional team and extra resources. Every force has done that, but we have done it to variable degrees.

I think the DAPO will focus on assessing the resources required to do this effectively, but we also need an understanding of the scale and volume. Are we anticipating domestic abuse protection orders for all 2 million victims, or are we thinking of the thresholds at which they would apply and how they could be used most effectively?

Louisa Rolfe:

I am concerned that a distinct register, not embedded within established police systems such as the police national computer, the police national database or the ViSOR—Violent and Sex Offender Register—system, adds unnecessary complexity cost and, most importantly, risk. The Bichard inquiry following the tragic deaths in Soham recommended that information about dangerous perpetrators should not be dispersed over different systems. That is why the PND system was introduced. There are established ways of registering dangerous individuals on the police national database. The disclosure and barring scheme system has access to that database, as do other agencies such as probation.

There is definitely work for us to do in the police service. I have been working with the College of Policing on what the principles for managing serial perpetrators should look like. It recently reported and provided a draft report in which it made some recommendations on improved use of tools to identify dangerous serial perpetrators, effective use of the systems that we have, such as the PNC, PND and ViSOR, and effective multi-agency management of those individuals at the most dangerous end, using multi-agency public protection arrangements effectively in the way that we do now for dangerous sex offenders or dangerous violent offenders, because those methods are established and it would worry me if we tried to create something distinct over here.

The draft report also recommended a more proactive use of the domestic violence disclosure schemes. If we have identified a dangerous serial perpetrator and we are really clear about the thresholds, when the police service or any other agency involved in the management of that individual becomes aware of a new relationship, there should be more proactive disclosure and use of right to know for potential victims.

My concern about the domestic abuse register is in the logistics and practicalities. Where do we draw the line? Do we intend to add 2 million individuals to that register each year? What are the risks and implications if your perpetrator is not on the register because you have not reported to the police? Would that offer a false sense of security to victims? I would be the first to say that there is more to do to use the systems we have effectively, but I would worry about creating a list that might present as a quick fix but does not address the risk.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q I am really interested in hearing that you are sharing some of the work you are doing in the west midlands. You mentioned Domestic Abuse Matters training. In addition to that, could the police introduce any other measures to encourage victims to come forward to the police in the first instance?

Louisa Rolfe:

We have done a lot to improve people’s confidence. If a victim is to have confidence, I have got to ensure that all the charities I work with have confidence, so that every IDVA we have a relationship with, as well as every GP or health visitor who might come across a victim, will reassure them and give them confidence in reporting to the police.

There is a lot of really good work going on nationally. For example, the IRIS—identification and referral to improve safety—project is live in Birmingham and a lot of other places across the UK. GPs and health practitioners are trained to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and to be able to tell a victim in a very informed way what happens when you report to the police. Often, people have a lot of fear about the consequences of reporting to the police, and it is really important that there is immediately accessible advice and support for victims as well.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

One of the real issues that has dogged us for years is the postcode lottery in dealing with domestic abuse and the different responses from agencies and police forces in different parts of the country. Some do it better than others, and prosecution rates vary, with some taking into account emotional abuse as well as physical abuse. Your role is to try to pull all that together and generate a national standard that everyone adheres to. Is it fair to say that there is still a lot of difference between forces? What are we doing to try to ensure that everyone is raising their standard to that level?

The National Police Chiefs’ Council will say, “As senior officers, we will adhere to these standards. It is absolutely right and we agree with all of it,” but we all know that sometimes it does not always work in practice. How big a challenge is that for each force? What will you do on that and what more could we do to help?

Louisa Rolfe:

There are a number of issues here. When I meet with the sector and the charities, I also meet with a representative from every policing region in the UK. Additionally, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Police Scotland and the Welsh forces are represented in that meeting. We share best practice.

There is a lot to be said for working closely with the College of Policing in ensuring that, when we are developing policy and practice, it is evidence-based. We took a long time developing the Domestic Abuse Matters training with charities and what I like about it is that it is very focused on challenging culture and perceptions. We have run a number of independent academic evaluations that prove that it increases officers’ empathy and understanding. That is the one training that I recommend nationally, and forces are rolling that out.

It is quite challenging: in my own force, the training has taken us nearly a year, because it requires an abstraction of nearly 25% of your workforce to be trained face to face. You need to commit to developing trainers within your workforce who can continue to develop practice and understanding. It is quite a big ask, but we are rolling it out slowly across forces nationally.

On the work on the domestic abuse risk assessment, the DASH tool is very good and still very effectively used by IDVA services, charities and specialists. For many years, lots of forces and academics told me that it was not working for first responders. We have worked with Cardiff University women’s safety unit to develop something that we know through evaluation better identifies coercion and control with first responders. We have worked with the College of Policing to develop authorised professional practice, so that there is one standard, and I work with regional leads and force leads. I publish a newsletter regularly to forces and practitioners across the UK on improvements and the work we are doing.

A lot is going on to improve practice, but some is dependent on local variation and local arrangements. There is a balance—I do not want to stifle innovation. Some of the best work has been developed in forces and then shared. Northumbria has done a lot of work on developing a multi-agency tasking and co-ordination response to perpetrators. That has now influenced the work the College of Policing has done and will be part of the guidance on how to better manage serial perpetrators. One of our challenges is the willingness of partner agencies locally to work with policing to develop an approach to multi-agency safeguarding and management of perpetrators.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Is there anything more that we could do? We have the inspectorate later and could try to influence what they inspect, I guess. What you said is absolutely right and exactly what one would expect you to do, but we still know that there will be individual forces where this will not happen in the way that you or any of us would want. How do you drive that change?

Louisa Rolfe:

HMICFRS has included domestic abuse in its PEEL inspections—police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy—and it has been a significant part of that. You will hear from Zoe Billingham, the lead HMI, later. We talk quite regularly. If she finds significant variation in forces, she will often flag it with me so that I can work with local leaders to address that. The biggest challenge is how we embed a more public health approach. I hear from charities that their concerns are less about policing and more about how we ensure that all agencies can work together and prioritise this effectively.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q I would like to start by saying to my colleague, the hon. Member for Swansea East how brave she was to share her experience. It reminds us all that every part of the country and every sort of woman is very much affected and how important this work is, so I am grateful to Carolyn. Talking about the Welsh valleys and traditional cultures resonates with me as I represent Cornwall. The point about older women being reluctant to come forward is very much borne out in the evidence.

I thank the deputy chief constable for being with and answering the questions so well. In the new definition in the Bill, we will extend domestic abuse to other family members—grown-up adults and older people—and the abuse that they commit, which is really important. You have described a long process of domestic abuse training—IRIS training, partnership working—to get the frontline police officers sufficiently trained to be able to recognise domestic abuse. This is another huge challenge you are now going to face in extending that definition and the training, so that people are looking out for a different group of victims and perpetrators. How will you go about doing that?

Louisa Rolfe:

Thankfully, much of the training we have invested in and the work on domestic abuse risk assessment will apply, because it identifies coercive controlling behaviour, which is often prevalent in those relationships where there are adult children and an elderly parent. I do not worry that we will struggle.

The police service has been working for many years to better understand and address vulnerability, and that is why we had such a dramatic increase in the reporting and recording of domestic abuse. In reality, many of those incidents are already recognised and reported. The challenge is often in the provision of adequate support services, to ensure that victims feel confident that they can take that leap and pursue a prosecution.

There are some great domestic abuse perpetrator programmes out there, such as the Drive Project, which focuses on addressing behavioural change. The evaluation of that programme has shown that it reduces abuse by 30%, which is hugely impressive. However, the reality is that the College of Policing recently looked at the provision of perpetrator programmes and found that only 1% of perpetrators participate in them. I do not think that that is because of the reluctance of perpetrators; it is about the lack of availability.

We found in the significant increase in the reporting of domestic abuse that many incidents might not meet the threshold for prosecution. In the absence of perpetrator programmes to address the behaviour, we are in a difficult position. We must do something, so we focus on safeguarding victims, but we really want to work with other agencies to ensure that there is also a solution to address that behaviour.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

Q I just wanted to ask you a very straightforward question about the definition of domestic abuse and clause 1(2)(a), which gives an age for when domestic abuse will be investigated. What is your view, as a police officer, of having the cut-off at 16? The Joint Committee heard evidence about abusive relationships that were happening below 16, and young people were querying why 16 would be the time that it would be treated as domestic abuse. As I understand it, below that it is treated as child abuse. From a police perspective, what is your take on that?

Louisa Rolfe:

In reality, often our specialist officers who investigate child abuse or domestic abuse work within public protection investigation teams in forces. For many years, our approach to child abuse investigation has been more advanced than towards domestic abuse, so there has been some catching up to do. While it is something that causes a little bit of consternation, the reality is that, in terms of the service provided to victims under 16, we would identify an abusive relationship. There is probably something about the justice system approach as well. If you have an older perpetrator, you might get an improved justice sanction if you address it as child abuse, as opposed to domestic abuse. The reality is that we would not be blinkered and say, “It is this, not that.” We would look to understand the dynamics of the relationship.

Some of that might be down to the vagaries of our justice system. The coercion and control legislation was so groundbreaking for us because it was the first time we had an opportunity to move away from focusing on single incidents of abuse, which often meant that much of the dynamic of what was going on was lost in the presentation of evidence and so we lost the opportunity to present to the court the totality of abuse and the impact on the victim and their life. At the moment, the reality is that we would provide an equitable—if not an improved—response to someone under the age of 16. The definition, in that regard, does not affect the support that victims might receive from the police service.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank our witness very much indeed for the time you have spent with us. We are very grateful for the evidence you have given us.

Colleagues, that brings us to the end of our morning sitting. The Committee will meet again at 2.30 pm in this room. The proceedings will be chaired by the right hon. Member for Delyn. It is quite safe to leave your possessions here—the room will be locked. In the event that there will be a general election, quite where we are going with the Bill I do not know.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Marcus Jones.)

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o’clock.