Q Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members—I am sure they do not need reminding—that everything must be related to the Bill; we should not wander beyond its scope. We should also stick to our timings. For this session we have until 10.55 am. Secondly, I ask Members to declare any relevant interests before they ask their first question. I cannot think that any Member does have an interest.
Nicole, would you please tell the Committee—not in huge detail—something about yourself?
Good morning, and thank you for having me. I am your new designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales. By way of background, I have worked in the domestic abuse sector for more than 20 years—in the US at the very start of my career, but I moved to the UK about 20 years ago —and have worked in a variety of local and national domestic abuse charities.
Q It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Before I start the questioning, for the sake of completeness, I will say that I used to practise as a criminal barrister and prosecuted for the Crown Prosecution Service and other prosecuting agencies.
Ms Jacobs, congratulations on being the designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner. You have explained your expertise and experience in this area. Could you please help us with your thoughts on how you see the role of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner? What do you hope to achieve?
I was attracted to apply for the role at the start of the year because I feel, having worked for many years, that there is a real need for public leadership and an independent commissioner to hold the Government to account and look at the provision of service across England and Wales. You will have heard the term postcode lottery, and you will probably hear it many times in the next few sittings. I have worked in the field for more than 20 years and know what it feels like for people who are subject to domestic abuse, how services change and how the response of statutory services will differ from area to area.
My vision for the role is to instil a co-ordinated community response to domestic abuse, where essentially you have specialist services—we all know that victims of domestic abuse say time and time again that such services make a life-changing difference, and that has been well evaluated—with the survivor voice at the centre of the response; and where all entities, including housing, health, the criminal justice system and community and religious groups, are doing their part to address domestic abuse properly, as they should.
That is why I loved the job description set out for this role, which is about mapping provision and looking at our findings from homicide reviews. I have just come from an organisation that, sadly, has chaired over 60 homicide reviews. The idea of co-ordinating the learning from those reviews highly motivates me, as well as other aspects of the co-ordinated response.
Tangibly, what I would like to set out and do, as quickly as possible, is to get on with that mapping and really help to shine a light not only on where practice is lacking but on where there is good practice, because we need to emulate that and really push for that to be much more common across England and Wales.
Q Thank you; that was most helpful. Your current title is designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner, because you will not possess statutory powers until the Bill becomes an Act. To help the Committee to put the framework in place—I suspect you may be asked questions about this—what are your thoughts on the statutory powers that you are given under the Bill?
I have been in post for a month, and one of the things that has struck me already—I was not fully expecting the breadth of this—is how much survivors and people who work in the sector and elsewhere have embraced the idea of this role. I understand the idea of public leadership in the role and what that means to people, but the powers that the Bill will give my office are critical.
I am an expert in domestic abuse, not in commissioners’ powers, but I have done a bit of looking around and talking to other commissioners and I have had in-depth talks at the Home Office about this. Essentially, I feel that the powers in the Bill are fit for purpose, as far as I understand them. Obviously, I will defer to you if you think they should be strengthened, but what I like about them as they are set out is the ability to table reports to the Home Secretary and Parliament, and the timeframe in which the Government must respond if my office has made recommendations in those reports. I know from having talked to other commissioners that that is very important. The ability to redact information in my reports is limited; there have to be compelling reasons.
You know all those details, but the powers are quite well set out and have been well thought through, as far as I am concerned. Having said that, more power is fine with me, so if you, in the course of your duties, come across things that you feel would improve the independence and power of my office, I would certainly welcome that.
Good morning and welcome. It is an absolute pleasure to have you here. I am interested to hear you say that you would welcome more powers. An issue for me, at this moment in time, is whether you need more time. I am really concerned about the fact that the role is part time, and there is definitely an opportunity for us to look at that. I am offering you a full-time jobQ here.
I would love it. I have said from the very start that I recognise that this is a huge role. I am certainly 100% committed and passionate, and I would welcome working more. I will obviously be building up a team, which will sit around me in my office. I am slowly starting to recruit for it, and I will feel better when I have got it. I always try to point out to people that they should not worry about the fact that there is not a team sitting around the commissioner. There is resource there, but of course I believe that it is more than a part-time role.
I understand from my conversations with the Home Office, which is my host, that there is a real openness to doing that. People made that clear on Second Reading—I was listening in Parliament—so I do not worry about that so much. Once I have been in post a little longer, I can make a decision if I believe I need more time, but I would certainly welcome your support on that. I would really like that.
I am of the view that there is a gendered nature to domestic abuse. Going back to the homicide reviews that I was talking about earlier, three fourths of them are intimate partners or former intimate partners—that is highly gendered. A fourth of those homicides are adult child to family—again, that is highly gendered. That does not mean that there are not male victims of domestic abuse. Both those things can be true. In my area—I have just been working in central London—there were 4,000 women who came to services in just one tri-borough area last year. That is a lot. The facts speak for themselves.
I appreciate that your dilemma is that you want to write inclusive legislation that is clear that domestic abuse can happen to anyone. Where I have eventually fallen on this is that there is strength in the statutory definition in wanting the gendered nature of domestic abuse to be very prominent in the statutory guidance. If you can all figure out a way to make the law gendered and still address the breadth of people who suffer domestic abuse, I would welcome that. My understanding is that what you would like, and what the Joint Committee on the draft Bill looked at, is to have gender-neutral language in the law, underpinned by much more informed statutory guidance related to the gendered nature. I hope that makes sense.
You made a compelling description in your opening remarks about the landscape of community services and specialist services commissioned by the NHS, local authorities, children’s services, and police and crime commissioners. I am delighted that you have picked mapping this provision of services as a key priority. Are you also looking at prevention services? We know that, unfortunately, if children grow up in a home where they witness domestic abuse and violence, they are far more likely to become perpetrators or victims. Given the scale of the challenge—we have heard your reflections on time—will the budget of £1 million be enough to undertake such a mammoth mapping exercise? What role does sharing best practice have and how would you undertake that partnership working, given the range of agencies involved in providing services?
I will take on prevention first. You are exactly right, and we will all differ in our views of what we would undertake if we were preventing domestic abuse. Some of us would be interested in a public health campaign. Some would be interested in work within schools. Some might say that we need to do a lot to intervene early, so that we are educating all manner of frontline services about how they can prevent this. With any issue as complex as domestic abuse, it must be all three, and we must do all that.
Although I endorse the idea of a public campaign, I am aware that we would have to have the services and the breadth of development and understanding to underpin that. If we raise the expectations of the public—if we want them to understand that we are there and they can reach out for help—we need to have the help in place. I can see a role in helping to shape some of those prevention activities, but that responsibility rightfully sits within Government. My office, for example, cannot run a prevention campaign, but I really endorse the idea of helping to support the Government to do that.
In respect of my budget, I understand the scope of the staff team I can hire. I understand that I can have roughly 13 staff members with that budget. I can anticipate what I think they could do in terms of analysis, stakeholder engagement and policy work. As the Committee hears further evidence, I encourage you to be mindful of the fact that there are a lot of ideas and discussions about what else my office might do. Please be mindful of the fact that if there are any additional responsibilities, they will need to come with additional resource.
I am a bit concerned about being able to do the breadth of that mapping. I would have to depend on Departments sharing with me the information that they already have, and charities in our sector doing the same. I do not intend to start from scratch. I know there has been a lot of work, and I would like to have access to that information and make sense of it, and to use it as part of the mapping. There are some efficiencies in that way.
In terms of my background and the breadth of what gets mapped, which was the last part of your question, the organisation I have just come from is about promoting a co-ordinated community response. We have specialist courts, and we had health-related and housing-related work. I feel that I would have a level of precision in terms of knowing what I would be looking for. You are right to say it is a huge endeavour, but there are definitely areas of work where we know what the practice ought to be. We do not have to worry about figuring that out; we just need to know who is doing it and who is not, and why not. With the breadth of that, there is a bit of expertise that I can bring that will help to make that a little more precise and efficient.
WelcomeQ , and congratulations on your role. I want to ask you whether the fact that the advertised role was part time was one of the reasons you applied for it. I asked the Minister about this in the House of Commons yesterday, and she said that she had had advice from recruitment consultants that we would get a better breadth of applicants if we had a part-time post. Is that why you applied?
To be perfectly honest, I applied because of the job description. I was very motivated by the job description. In fact, I looked at that more than I looked at the part-time nature of the role. I would have questioned it a bit, but then thought, “Well, there’ll be lots of full-time staff on my team.” I was very relieved in my initial conversations that it was likely, if I wanted to spend more time—
I can imagine that if I were at a different stage in life, with different responsibilities, I might find that attractive. Right now, from my current thinking about it, I would love to be doing it full time but it did not dissuade me when I saw it was part time. I just assumed I would have to work around that.
Q I wonder whether you have read the prelegislative scrutiny report on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, because it was clear from its recommendations that there was unanimity that the issue of accountability was not properly addressed in the way the commissioner is accountable to the Secretary of State in the Home Office. Their budgets and staff are set by the Secretary of State in the Home Office. I wonder what your thoughts are on that.
Kevin Hyland, who was a commissioner with whom I am sure you are very familiar, gave evidence that the Secretary of State would have too much control over the commissioner’s budgets, the staff employed and the content of the commissioner’s reports. I note that you said at the beginning that you wanted to be a publicly independent commissioner and hold the Government to account. What is your view on what Kevin Hyland said?
Obviously, I have really considered that, because the last thing I want to do is stop the job that I love in the charity sector and come to a role in which I would not be able to exercise my independence as much as I would like. In the ebb and flow of the work on the Bill, I looked at a framework document just last week that set it out more clearly. I am sure you will have sight of that in the Committee. I feel quite confident in the way I have negotiated thus far with officers at the Home Office, in terms of asserting different changes and things that I would like to be clarified. I have felt confident in the way that that has been conducted to date.
I would highlight that the budget is set out year to year. My view, as I have said to the Home Office, is that if I have a three-year plan and my term is for three years, I should have assurance over the budget over that time. I will have people working for me, for example, who will be working on things, so I would rather have the assurance of three years at a time rather than year to year. Again, I am highlighting that to you not because I am concerned about it but because we are discussing that now. In other words, I have felt assured by the reactions of the Home Office to date, in terms of how I will conduct myself independently.
I have considered that as well. I have worked in this sector for many years. There is expertise in many Departments, obviously, but the Home Office has traditionally been the centre of activity, not just for criminal justice related work but for good leadership in terms of violence against women and domestic abuse, in any number of areas. There is a certain level of expertise within the Home Office of which I am appreciative; I have less experience with the Cabinet Office. I know people who work there. I would defer to your view, but I feel confident about the hosting at the Home Office.
I hope I am not naive, but I fully intend to be independent. I do not intend to wilfully disagree if I do not disagree, but I do not feel hindered in any way in the process to date, in terms of my independence.
By tabling reports to Parliament and annual reports. One of my biggest regrets about only being in post for a month is that I have not been able to get around and speak to many parliamentarians yet, and there has been all this activity related to the Bill. I feel that I would be accountable to Parliament in the way that I would table information and reports to Parliament, and be clear about the work of my office, what we are finding and what we are doing about it. I thoroughly understand how accountable I am in this role, and I would welcome any ways that you wish to improve that.
I, too, would like to congratulate you on your new role. There are such high expectations of this role. As the comments so far show, this is now the time to make sure that we set out the role so that it is set up to be successful.Q
I listened to what you said about mapping and co-ordinating support services to eliminate the postcode lottery across England and Wales, and to make sure that we have a clear idea about what services are there. We know that there are big gaps in services for survivors and children. It is a massive brief. Like many Committee members, I have concerns about whether this can be a part-time role or whether you will end up doing it three times over. This is going to take up a lot of time.
You have a staff of 13. Could you give us a bit more colour about what that staff looks like? How are you going to eat this elephant, in a way? It is a massive thing to do. What can we expect? Perhaps our expectations are too high. What can we expect in the first 100 days or so? Now is the time to say and to give us all the feeling about whether the role ought to be considered to be full time, whether the budget is sufficient and whether you have the right staff. We want to make sure that you are successful and that we get it right. We do not want something where we all come back later and think, “That’s disappointing.”
In terms of the first 100 days, to give a little more colour, I would expect to be hiring a chief of staff next week and some element of communications specialism within the office, but primarily having analysts, policy leads and officers. For me, having a stakeholder engagement post is very important in order to feel like I am doing as much as I can to reach out to frontline services and individual people, and to have built up an advisory board, which would include people who have been subject to domestic abuse.
I agree that there is a lot to do and a lot of breadth of work in that. One thing that would help me is for you to consider the statutory duty for services. If my job is to help shine a light on what practice ought to be out there and end the postcode lottery, I cannot do that on my own. One of the things you will be thinking about in this Committee is the statutory duty for accommodation-based services, which I wholly endorse, and I congratulate the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on all the work and leadership on that. I believe that duty should be expanded to the breadth of frontline services for domestic abuse.
You will understand that housing-related services will excellently cover refuge and those types of associated services, but there is a whole breadth of other services such as community-based independent domestic abuse advisers. A significant majority of domestic abuse services that we call specialist services do not fall within the duty as it is set out. That would be a great help to me as the commissioner, because that would strengthen the services that must be provided. In some ways, the underpinning of that would be a huge boost to not only my role but the provision of services in England and Wales.
I would love to give you a precise budget increase that I would like, but I have been in role for a month and I do not have my full strategic plan and the costings set out. I would feel a bit embarrassed to come to you and say, “Could you provide more resource, but I can’t really tell you the strategic plan and exactly how it will fall out?”. I feel I have the resource now to get started, certainly, and to make headway. My understanding of the framework document, which I would love for you to take a really good look at and consider, is that as that strategy is set by my office, there is a process of negotiation related to what resource I need. I would really appreciate anything you could do that would strengthen my hand in terms of what I can do at that point.
Q Could you give us a little more information on stakeholder engagement, as that will be a key part? How do you see that playing out and who are the key stakeholders?
In my mind, the absolute stakeholders are the adults and children suffering domestic abuse. They would be first and foremost in my mind. I know that sounds possibly clichéd, but in every decision I make and everything I do, that would be the first thought I have—what the implications are, what is needed, what people are saying about services. It would be the first thing I consider.
I will not go into all my thoughts about this, but it is difficult to consider how we would do that properly. How do we engage? We are talking about millions of people, so I would like to think carefully about how to do that in a meaningful way, in terms of advisers and whatnot.
I brought with me something that I was struck by—of course I cannot put my fingers on it right now, but I do have it somewhere. I know several of you were at the Law in the Making launch in Parliament last week, and there was an amazing booklet that set out priorities that were set by survivors. It is an excellent example of the careful bringing in of the views of stakeholders. I fully intend to take every one of the recommendations and, if they are not addressed in the Bill or the statutory guidance, to use them in some way in my mapping.
I know this is a long answer, but it is worth you understanding that my view of stakeholder engagement is much broader than that. Going back to that co-ordinated response, where is health? We talk about the health response to domestic abuse, and one of the recommendations from the Law in the Making booklet was about mental health services. There is a lot to do to engage stakeholders, such as mental health trusts, acute hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups, and in every area that is being mapped, a whole host of stakeholders need to be engaged fully and to understand where the practice is, where their practice should be, and what we expect. I will aim to do that.
Q Thank you; that was a helpful response. Will you tell me one last thing? In a lot of the discussion, there was clearly a great deal of difficulty with the children of survivors—in finding school places, in considering the children and with the support services for children, who are also survivors of domestic abuse. I am conscious that this role is massive, but how do you see it fitting in with them as stakeholders and with the provision of services for them?
That is why I feel strongly about the broadening of the statutory duty. One of the things that I want to point out is that when you hear about refuges or community-based services, all those people are serving the needs of children. They are the people who are finding the school places and thinking about advocating to CAMHS—child and adolescent mental health services—for example, about waiting lists and all sorts of things.
That aside, there is still a distinct lack of services that address the child directly. There are the needs of the child and then what services a child in their own right should have, such as counselling support to understand and make sense of the trauma they have suffered. Those services are seriously lacking because in the local authority, at the local level, it is the crisis-related services that are prioritised for funding.
Believe anyone who gives you evidence on the lack of services for children, because it is true to say that it is very unusual to find an area with genuine nice provision and breadth of services for children in that respect. Again, that is why we need to be clearer about where that is happening, so that we can learn from it—how do they fund it, or which partners come together at the local authority level to fund it? Even better, that should be included in the breadth of a duty that we would expect everyone to have. That would make things significantly better.
Welcome, Nicole. I have just two things. To continue the theme of mapping, it has always seemed to me that there is a real challenge with refuge or accommodation-based support because a constituent of mine, for obvious reasons, is as likely to need somewhere outside Nottingham tonight as inside Nottingham. There is no connection between the commissioning decision made in, say, Birmingham and that individual back in Nottingham, in the way that there would be for another service commissioned through the local authority. I know you are in the early stages of this, but have you had much chance to consider that issue, perhaps drawing on your previous experience? How is the health of the national network of refuges at the moment? Do you intend to establish that in your roleQ ?
My colleagues at Women’s Aid, whom I trust, would say that we are turning away one in three people who seek a refuge. I know what it is like to try to find a place in a refuge—I have many years’ experience in frontline services and I have been at the end of the phone on a Friday night trying to find a place for someone sitting in front of me who has nowhere to go. I welcome the establishment of a solid fundamental duty to ensure that that provision is in place.
I like the way that MHCLG has consulted many stakeholders about having a board that would include specialist services that map and think carefully about the priorities in any area. All those things would end the idea of, “I am funding something that is not for ‘my residents’,” which has been the attitude from some, although not all, local authorities. Some local authorities have had an attitude of, “Why are we providing this service when it is not our residents who are attending?”, but if everyone did that there would be no place to go.
Some of the measures being introduced will address that in part, but I stress that things such as provision for migrant women or people with no recourse to public funds—I cannot tell you how frustrating it is when you are desperately trying to find suitable, safe accommodation for someone in those circumstances. I am sure you will hear a lot of evidence about that, so I will not go into great detail, but we must seek to improve those things through the Bill in terms of our duties. I do not see it happening any other way.
Local authorities are very constrained. For example, even when you go to a local authority with great solid information and say, “This is the percentage increase in our referrals; this is the breadth of what we are not doing,” the response is not, “Okay, you have given me the evidence, here we go.” Usually, it is, “Let’s have a 10% cut because we are cutting all services right now.” That is the reality out there, and that is why there has been such a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of a duty, which I feel needs to be extended.
Q Pivoting to recruitment, the Home Affairs Committee heard from Kevin Hyland, just before he left his role as anti-slavery commissioner. We asked him about the challenges and what he knew then that he did not know at the beginning. He said that one challenge of being in the Home Office is that, quite rightly, it has exceptionally rigorous recruitment processes because of the access to exceptionally sensitive material, including on organised crime and counter-terrorism. All that makes abundant sense, but it means that recruitment of staff is difficult, and he was taking up to nine months to bring in members of staff. You are building a team of 13 people from scratch. How is that looking so far? Do you have any of those anxieties? Has anything changed? Is there a streamlined process specifically for you?
Yes, it is quite different. I am used to working in an organisation where if I wanted to recruit someone, I could go to my office, write a job description, put in an ad, and it would all be done. It is a bit of a shock. There has been some real learning from Kevin Hyland. The team in the Home Office that has been helping me get set up—I have had some support—has really got ahead of that and the recruitment, which has been great. I feel it has helped to manage my expectations a bit, but it has got a few key posts in place. To be honest, if the team had not done that—it was a courtesy to get me off to a good start—I would be doing it now, and instead of interviewing next week I would be interviewing in three months’ time.
I understand what Kevin Hyland was saying, and it reminds me of something that I would like to point out. I was madly reviewing all the documents in preparation for coming before you—although you are very friendly and not as intimidating as I had thought—and one of the things that I noted was this thing about recruitment. It says that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner would approve the recruitment. When I read that wording, I thought, “This is my staff team, and I will select it. If it is not me, it will be my chief of staff.” I would not approve the recruitment; I would be doing it. Again, I do not anticipate that I will not be able to negotiate that in the framework agreement, but it is something that I noticed yesterday, and I thought, “Actually, it should be worded to be really clear that I or someone on my team will be recruiting, as it is my staff team.” I will be advocating for that small change in the wording.
Q Good morning, Nicole, and congratulations on your new post. I want to focus on one particular group of stakeholders: victims and their children. I believe they are at the heart of the Bill; I wonder what your thoughts are on that. What do you feel are the right levers for improving the response to domestic abuse for victims and their children?
Without saying some of what I have said already, I think it is necessary to have the basic services on a very solid footing, in terms of the provision of funding, and to include that for all survivors, no matter whether they are disabled, LGBT or migrants. Frankly, to be the bearer of bad news, there is massive room for improvement in every direction. That would be central to my thoughts about what those levers would need to be—the levers that would enable the funding to be settled and much more stable. Later, you will hear from Jo Todd about male victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, and I would endorse all those things.
It is not as if people who experience domestic abuse line up at the specialist service door or call. They are most likely to receive support through the nurse, the housing officer, the neighbour or the community leader. There will be a pathway to support. It is interesting to think about those levers individually. What does housing need to do? What does the criminal justice system need to do? I am a huge advocate of specialist courts so that when people access the criminal justice system for redress, the system really pays attention to them as a witness. The levers are different for different types of service and different pathways into support. I know that is not a very succinct answer, but there are many things we can do in every area that would lever support. Some would not need to be contained in the Bill; some would rightly sit in the statutory guidance alongside the Bill. An exciting aspect of this process is strengthening that guidance. I have had sight of an initial draft and was pleased to consider what this would be like and what kind of effect it would have, once it was in the statutory guidance.
Q In terms of working with others, we obviously have the Victims’ Commissioner and the Children’s Commissioner, and we also have the Welsh Government national advisers’ role. How would you see your work linking in with them, or any collaboration with them? How do you see it all not just knitting together, but working together in this space?
I always really admired Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner. She has been quite active in this process and you will be hearing various things from her colleagues who work with her. In a lot of ways, the synergy with her office is quite clear to me, because of the breadth of her understanding and her background. I feel the same about my initial conversations with the national advisers—I met with them yesterday—and the Children’s Commissioner and others. Technically, there will be a memorandum of understanding that will set out and make clear the delineation of priority, duties and how we will co-ordinate. Practically speaking, we are off to a good start: I feel really enthusiastic about how we will work together and think about really practical ways to work so that we are not stepping on each other. There is plenty to do and if anything I do not think there will be any stepping on toes; there will be a lot of co-ordinating work and prioritising of what we would like to see done. That should work quite well.
One thing I find is that there has been a lot of discussion about the breadth of violence against women and girls, and that could sit in certain aspects of what I will do but it could also sit well with the Victims’ Commissioner and other commissioners. There is a lot to do to co-ordinate that work, but I feel confident that will happen.
Q Just one more quick question. You touched on the work of Jo Todd and we talked earlier about the definition of domestic abuse and about gender neutrality. How do you see your role in terms of supporting male victims of domestic abuse?
I see it in a fairly similar way, in terms of feeling that I would want people to feel I was championing and amplifying their voice, their views and their needs. I would not see it as wholly different in that way. For example, in many aspects of my career over many years I have worked with male victims, particularly in health settings, where perhaps you would be more likely to have people come forward or be able to intervene early. I would see it in a very similar way, but that does not mean it would be the same. We have to realise that there are all sorts of intersections. We have to appreciate the differences: male victims may not need the same provision of services or types of services. I would be open to having these conversations and understanding what would be individually needed for any number of groups, including male victims.
Good morning, Nicole, and congratulations on your role. How much importance do you place on diversity in your recruitment, and within your department and the work you are doing thereQ ?
I highly prioritise it, partly because I understand that people who are subject to domestic abuse are very diverse. We say that it is a gendered crime, but all women are not the same. There are older women, disabled women, lesbian women—there are all sorts of people that I would want my office to represent. I really want a diverse range of people represented in my office and being engaged by my office. Put simply, I would absolutely be committed to that, because we have learned in the past that sometimes we have geared our services and responses towards people who might be similar to those running the service.
Over the years, we have learned that we must have a more diverse service pathway. For example, in the area of London where I come from, instead of commissioning one service, there is a partnership of nine services. It is a partnership and it is commissioned as one. That has allowed for smaller, community-based BME services to thrive and be part of the service framework. That is the kind of thing I would really like to see more of and to be encouraged.
There are unintended consequences of promoting the provision of service. The worry is that larger charities will come into the frame and provide more generic services. People who have been subject to domestic abuse tell us that they want many pathways and to know that there are people in particular communities whom they could approach. I am a huge advocate of making sure that we do not do anything that would make small charities even more fragile in that way.
You Q will be aware from listening to the Second Reading debate that there was discussion as to whether the definition should pay regard to the fact that women are much more likely to be victims or survivors of domestic abuse than men. I thought that was more a statement of fact, but I could see the argument that that would help to ensure that providers or funders would weight provision according to that same proportion. Will your office and powers allow you to investigate and ensure that providers are providing on a proportionate basis when it comes to gender?
I think so, because the approach is very much based on the idea of mapping and understanding needs. Anyone who is doing that properly will understand this gendered nature. What I want to get across and achieve is, at the very least, a prominent statement about that in the statutory guidance, because that would have an influence and would be something tangible to point towards. It does not happen in every single place, but it is not unusual for services to be commissioned in such a way that people think: “Well, we have to take a gender-neutral approach, so that is not fair, so it has to be a much more generic service.” That flies in the face of all that we know is likely to work.
I feel comfortable with what you describe. I would very much welcome your views on whether you think it should be in the law versus the statutory guidance. At the very least, it has to be prominently put in the statutory guidance. A lot of the mechanisms that are being promoted in the statutory duty, such as the mapping and multi-agency planning of services, should, I hope, address that as well, if done properly.
Q May I ask a supplementary question? You talk about the guidance; excuse my ignorance—I should perhaps have known this—but in your role how much input will you have in writing the guidance?
I have been shown the guidance and I had a session last week where I was able to suggest changes. I would like to think the changes will all be there the next time I see the draft, but it is in process right now and I think the idea is that the guidance will be published by the time the Bill passes. I am perhaps being a bit trusting, but I believe that I will have input.
As long as I have made my case strongly, and it is fair and clear, I do not see any reason why my input would not be in the guidance.
Congratulations on your recent appointment. I have two questions on the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom and devolution divergence. I will start with Northern Ireland, although I appreciate that you are the commissioner for England and Wales. The Joint Committee report stated that it was unacceptable for people in Northern Ireland to be denied the same level of domestic abuse protection as those elsewhere in the UK because of the lack of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. Do you believe the Government’s response as it stands to be satisfactory? In the present circumstances, do you have any role whatsoever in relation to Northern IrelandQ ?
No, in the present circumstances I do not. That does not mean that I am not interested. I am the type of person who would be very interested in the services needed—all that we have discussed—in Northern Ireland; they would be needed anywhere. As for raising the quality and provision of services, my assumption would be that that all stands for Northern Ireland, but in terms of what I have been hired for and what I am currently doing, it is for England and Wales. It would be entirely up to you potentially to change that.
Q That leads me seamlessly to my next question, which is about Wales. I appreciate that Wendy Morton mentioned the adviser to the Welsh Government, who is giving evidence to us this afternoon. The Joint Committee made a recommendation on reporting to the Senedd—Wales’s Parliament—and a duty to consult. Of course, Wales has the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. Here we have an instance of devolution divergence, given that housing, education, health and local authorities are all devolved. How do you see your role interacting with Welsh Ministers as well as in accountability to the Senedd?
If am being totally honest, I am still working that out. One of the conversations I had with the national advisers yesterday was precisely about that so that I would fully understand what is currently happening in Wales, which is quite impressive in terms of the structure of legislation; there is a lot to learn. Some of what I was doing was listening and hearing their experiences from the last two years in post and what they know of from before that. I am sure you will hear about that today.
I asked the national advisers, quite openly, where they see the potential for us to work together, and obviously they thought that particularly in the criminal justice or court systems there are lots of ways we can work together in joined-up efforts, but I would be respectful of the notion that many duties are devolved.
There is a lot of progress. If anything, there is a lot of learning to do on the agenda in Wales. The overarching duty of Government has been to ask and act—I am sure you will hear evidence about that—which is very impressive, as is the headway they have made. The advisers were talking to me yesterday about how many thousands of frontline workers have been trained in Wales. The proportion of Government Ministers who have been trained in Wales is extremely impressive. I would want to be cautious. I would want to plan with them essentially what we can learn but also what exactly I should do, because I would not want to do anything that would disrupt those structures.
Q Justice is not devolved to Wales, yet many of these critical services are, and you are answerable to the Home Office. Do you feel that there should be answerability to Wales, given the critical nature of those services, which are devolved, and the fact that criminal justice over-straddles that?
I understand what you are saying. In other words, would I welcome the idea, for the issues that I would predominantly be working on, of answerability to Wales or Welsh Ministers? Of course, any mechanism that is appropriate to do that would be important to me. In fact, yesterday the national advisers were saying that they really welcomed the idea that I would be meeting the breadth of Ministers in Wales. They were not very territorial about that; they liked the idea that, once things have settled down, we will find ways to work together. There is obviously some resource that I can bring, in terms of things that they would like to get done. Again, I would be very cautious to learn exactly what is happening before setting out some kind of plan, not knowing how all of it co-ordinates or connects with Welsh colleagues, or whether it is welcome.
Welcome and congratulations. My questions will be a bit about Wales, but also Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not want to put you in a constitutional hotspot, because most Ministers and MPs could not answer some of these questions, but hopefully they will help to clarify the position and provide a bit of guidance to us. You will be held accountable to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, because there are Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs who sit in this place and will, of course, hold you to account. One part of the Bill is the advisory board—clause 11, I think. As part of that, part 4 and subsections (a)(b)(c) and (d) specify certain participants who should be part of the advisory board. It is very specific about ensuring the representation of the interests of voluntary organisations that work with victims of domestic abuse in England, healthcare services in England and providers of social care in England. Given that, certainly for now, you cover England and Wales, do you think it would be helpful for us to specify the same stakeholders from Wales to ensure that they are on the advisory board and that England and Wales are represented at that levelQ ?
Potentially. Because some of those issues are devolved to Wales, I would not want to impose the requirement that someone would have to come and sit on an advisory committee of mine if they thought, “In actuality, this is something that we govern ourselves.”
My intention is that the advisory committee will not just be set at 10. That is something that I was looking at last week. It could be set there, but there could be any number of advisers. In fact, I have been highly encouraged to use advisers from areas that perhaps do not sit in that official capacity. I think I would be seeking out advice. There is incredible work being done in Scotland. There is good legislation and really interesting work there. I think that, in any respect, I would be very curious and would want advice from outside Wales and England.
I suppose I would leave it to you to consider whether it is necessary to have them as official advisors. If my role and passion in life is seeking out the best practice —I assure you that it is—I would not be restricted by borders in that way. I would be very interested to visit—I often do this—and hear about work in Scotland, and I would like to know more about Northern Ireland. I am learning every day about Wales, and have done for the past few years, since that legislation was introduced.
Q That leads me to my next question. In your experience—obviously, you come from the United States, which is federal system with several different states and lots of different jurisdictions, but they come together as one country—do you find that domestic abuse or relationships stop at certain political jurisdictions?
Q You have talked a lot about the mapping exercise that you want to undertake. Do you foresee problems in having a national network, when it is not actually national—it covers England and Wales only, which is not our country but only two parts of it? Do you foresee major problems with that, especially when many victims, as in my constituency, will be flipping between different parts of the UK or will have family the length and breadth of the UK?
You are correct that that is true. My understanding is that what is happening in Scotland is quite impressive in terms of legislative changes. I know from a frontline-service perspective that in England we often look to Wales and Scotland to see what is happening there. I would not anticipate there being something superior happening in England. It would be more about learning, co-ordinating and making sure that my office would talk to equivalents in Scotland. My understanding of Scotland is that there is more of a regional and planned perspective of services. There is a lot of learning there, and certainly co-ordination.
Looking down the line, if there was a view taken between countries that there was inconsistency in service provision and something to bring back to you, that would certainly happen. I can imagine there would be a lot of cross-border support. I am about ending the postcode lottery: if there was a related issue in Scotland, I cannot imagine we would not find ways to work together and to promote those ideas. I hope that addresses it.
Q It does. I appreciate that. I have one final question, if the Chair does not mind. Unfortunately, in an area such as this, your role is so worthy and so wanted throughout the United Kingdom. I do not want to put you in a political hotspot with our constitution, whether it is Brexit or other movements where the UK can become a bit of an issue. However, I have a big concern. In my constituency I have Clackmannanshire, which has the highest instance per head of domestic abuse in Scotland. It is as much of a postcode lottery in Scotland as it is in other parts of the United Kingdom.
To be devolved does not mean to be separate. You come from a country with a federal system; the point about eminent domain still rests within this UK Parliament, as the sovereign Parliament. I do not see this as an either/or model. I would be very keen for a role such as yours to have a UK-wide remit, following a similar model to the Office for Veterans’ Affairs that was recently launched, which connects devolved and reserved matters and guarantees guidelines and standards throughout the United Kingdom, which I think is exceptionally important.
Do you foresee any problems? The Bill is quite specific about Wales. Paragraphs (c) to (g) of clause 6(2) talk about
“undertaking or supporting (financially or otherwise) the carrying out of research; providing information, education or training…to increase public awareness…consulting public authorities…co-operating with, or working…with, public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons”.
At the moment, the Bill talks about
“co-operating with, or working jointly with, public authorities, voluntary organisations and other persons, whether in England and Wales or outside the United Kingdom.”
I find it bizarre that we are creating a Bill that says, “We want you to co-operate with England and Wales and other countries outside the UK, but not the two other constituent parts of the United Kingdom.” Do you foresee any problems for us in trying to extend your role in just paragraphs (c) to (g)—which currently apply to Wales—to Scotland and Northern Ireland? Obviously we might have to stagger that for Northern Ireland because we have no Assembly just now, but do you foresee any problems with extending your role for guidelines, consultation and research, so you can complete the mapping exercise and make sure that the service is provided to all citizens of the United Kingdom, rather than just two constituent parts of it? I will take away the political side for a minute—that is our job—but from a practical point of view, so long as you got a budget uplift to match, do you foresee any problems in your role being extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland?
May I intervene for a moment? We have less than 15 minutes left and we still have four colleagues who have been waiting patiently to ask their questions. I wonder whether we could just speed it up, please.
I will give you a quick answer. I am not sure about some of that, but my instinct about the things you listed is that certainly some would be easier than others and, from my own knowledge of working, some things—such as the good practice mapping and some research—might be more welcome to colleagues in Scotland. Whether that extends to the whole breadth of the activities you described, I am not sure. My understanding of Scotland is that there are different structures, and different things are perhaps being mapped and planned that I am not aware of.
Q There is no commissioner in Scotland. We have no equivalent. Currently, it falls between the courts and Police Scotland to pick up some of the activity. We have no commissioner, so this would not be a substitute; it would be a complement. The idea is that, just as in Wales, you would have a role in that consultation on the work. Obviously, a legislative consent motion could be passed in the Scottish Parliament so that this was done in consultation and agreement with different levels of government rather than being imposed with an iron fist. I just wonder whether you foresee problems on an operational level. I know about the political bits; those are for us to deal with. I am just interested in that operational point.
Without having thought about it very much, I would say that some of those points seem obvious, but I am afraid I would have to consider some of the others further. There are things I know of happening in Edinburgh in children’s social care—“Safe and Together”—on which we are already co-ordinating with England. There are really obvious things to me about learning and maybe some shared research and other matters. On whether it extends to the whole list, I would have to come back to you or defer to your decisions.
Welcome to the post. What should we say in the Bill about perpetrators? There is a lot about prevention orders and so on, but Q what should we say about that? Should we say anything about rehabilitation or should we just lock them all up? What should we do?
I would say a couple of things. There are some criminal justice elements in the Bill. Making those robust and effective is not necessarily to do with locking people up but about ensuring that the criminal justice system is working in the way that it should and that is set out. I believe that one of the things we do not do enough is to prioritise multi-agency working around the courts system. In the area I have come from, we have specialist courts. We have a court management group, which is all the criminal justice partners and the specialist service, and they can collectively remember and problem solve around the mistakes that they inevitably may be making. That is not intentional; sometimes it is to do with the bulky way that our criminal justice system works. In terms of holding perpetrators to account, I suppose the one thing I would really encourage the Committee to consider is in what ways, in piloting the DVPOs, we could consider what helps to make the implementation work. We should not just say, “Are the police doing it or not?”, as if it is down to one entity; it has to be the whole of the criminal justice system working.
Having said that—I talked about the duty—I believe there is very little consistency in terms of enabling people to engage and change their behaviour. I would include that in the broadening of the statutory duty. Again, you will hear later from Jo Todd, who is much more of an expert than me, about the breadth of service. There is a perpetrator strategy that many organisations have signed up to that I am very interested in, and which I am sure you will have sight of or will perhaps be given in written evidence. I would stand behind that type of strategy, which is about prevention, provision of service and what I would call incentives to change—both carrots and sticks. What do we do to really have the breadth of provision that we need? Of all the domestic abuse provision, that is probably the most patchy in terms of where you could find places to change.
Q Welcome to the role, Nicole. You mentioned your views on the gendered nature of domestic abuse at the beginning. Some people have been suggesting that we should have a violence against women and girls commissioner, rather than a Domestic Abuse Commissioner. What are your views on that?
I understand the logic. Obviously, some of those who have said that are colleagues of mine. One of the things we would all have to understand about doing that is just how broad a remit you would be moving to. That would certainly extend well beyond all the discussion we have had this morning, to do it properly and do it well.
While many strategies and, certainly, the Government strategy is a violence against women and girls strategy—I appreciate that—when I am describing to you the breadth of what needs to happen for domestic abuse, it is a heck of a lot of work. There is a lot of progress to make. In doing that, it will strengthen certain aspects of what we call those strands of violence against women and girls. For example, so-called honour-based marriage, forced marriage—all these things intersect. By strengthening the approach in general, you are addressing aspects of that, but you are certainly not covering the whole breadth of it. That is when I was referring back to my looking forward to working with the Victims’ Commissioner, and certainly the national advisers in Wales and colleagues in Scotland, where there is a lot of expertise on that. If you wanted to broaden my remit to that, I feel I have the background and understanding to do it, but I would just caution that you are talking about a huge difference.
Again, going back to the very first thing I said to you, the reason I was so motivated by this role is the breadth of what still needs to happen. Sometimes, we think, “Oh, we’ve been talking about domestic abuse for years and years and somehow it’s all sorted.” Well, it is really not. It has shaky foundations, and I think that is what we can address here.
Q That is great. That is why I wanted to ask you about the awareness. One of your roles is to raise public awareness as well, but you rightly said at the beginning that you do not have the capacity to do all the public health campaigns and these kinds of things. How do you see your role and capacity to join the dots, whether from entry-level, early intervention for emotional abuse at that stage, through to members of the public and others who come into professional or personal contact with people in an emotional or domestic abuse scenario?
I guess what I meant by that is that there is not a budget to run a huge public campaign in the same way as those run by the Home Office in the past. That rightfully sits within the remit of what needs to be funded and developed in Government, including in the Department for Education and in public health. My role would be to influence that type of campaign, and I would be mindful that my role would be about asserting what kind of services are needed to underpin that campaign. We are raising expectations and awareness. That is a good thing, but we must have the infrastructure in place to meet the needs of what that would bring.
I will be brief, Chair. One of the significant things in the debate around the Domestic Abuse Bill has been the Istanbul convention. How significant is it to the work you do that we make sure that we ratify it and are in line with it?Q
My understanding is that this Bill will help us to meet those commitments. It is incredibly important. The Istanbul convention is important symbolically, in terms of the message that is sent. A lot of what it does is to create an expectation of Government commitment. Some of the elements of the Bill are tidying up certain things, but there are also elements of broadening the duty—which we will hear about from other witnesses—and broadening the statutory provision of services and strengthening the duty for that all the more. I know I sound a bit like a broken record. Other colleagues will present fine-tuning of anti-discrimination clauses and that kind of thing, which I would obviously support. Symbolically, the Istanbul convention is very important, and what it would deliver practically is important.
Thank you. Apologies again for the combination of my sore throat and my accent.
I hope you have found my evidence and advice helpful. I have been in post for a month, so I am doing my best in terms of trying to give you the information you need. As you go through the process, I feel confident that you will be presented with a lot more specific information by other colleagues.
I did want to talk about a couple of things that you will be hearing, and I want you to know that I feel strongly about them. I would like you to consider them. We have talked about migrant women, and you have heard and will hear a lot about that, obviously. I am interested in whatever we can do that would improve the family court response in statutory guidance or in the Bill. There is a real, desperate need to better understand what exactly we have to do in relation to the family court. You might be tabling amendments relating to women charged with crimes, understanding their past in domestic abuse, and understanding how that may have influenced their offending. I am encouraged to know that that may be coming.
Lastly, there is the issue of the kind of abuse and financial abuse that happens post-separation. Our coercive control law requires people to be living together, when in fact some of the financial abuse will come after separation. You will be hearing evidence about that. Again, I would like you to know that I am encouraging of those types of provisions and improvements. Thank you for being patient with me and for understanding my new role. Thank you for your support. I was struck on Second Reading by the level of support from all parties and by the wish to strengthen my role and powers. Thank you very much for all your support today.