Examination of Witness

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 29th October 2019.

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Zoe Billingham gave evidence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 2:30 pm, 29th October 2019

We are quorate, so we will commence. If anybody wishes to take off their jackets, they can. I welcome our first witness. Please introduce yourself.

Zoe Billingham:

Hello. I am Zoe Billingham, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, and I am also responsible for the work that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services does on domestic abuse.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I am grateful for your attendance today. I call the Minister to commence questioning.

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

Q 53 Hello, Ms Billingham. You have inspected the police response to domestic abuse for a number of years. What changes have you seen in that time?

Zoe Billingham:

Considerable changes. We started this journey back in 2014 with our first report. We called it “Everyone’s business”—slightly ironically, because what we found in 2014 when we looked at the police response to domestic abuse was that, in forces, it most certainly was not everyone’s business. A second-rate service was being provided to victims of domestic abuse when you compared it with that provided to victims of other crime. There was a poor understanding of domestic abuse among frontline officers and insufficient leadership to make lots of promises an operational reality. It was a pretty dire situation that we found in 2014.

We made a series of recommendations. We were hugely grateful for the support of the national oversight group, chaired by the then Home Secretary and Ministers, in holding the police’s feet to the fire. We are also very complimentary of the work police forces have done in the intervening five years to make this a real priority—to focus on domestic abuse in the way it ought to be focused on and to ensure that officers are trained and equipped to deal with domestic abuse, that victims are listened to, understood and taken seriously, and that investment has been made in areas of specialisms and protected, despite reductions in police budgets across the board.

We highly regard and highly commend forces for the changes that we have seen in terms of both the attitudes of frontline officers and the leadership displayed across forces. However, there is always a “but” with inspection findings: the “but” is that there are still a number of areas that forces need to improve on.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

The acoustics in this room are not great. Some Members have indicated that they have difficulty hearing. If witnesses, both present and future, can boom, that would be very helpful.

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

Q I forgot to say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson; I apologise for that oversight.

Ms Billingham, you just mentioned that there are some areas that still require attention. Are you able to summarise those for us?

Zoe Billingham:

I can give you a quick rundown of the areas that we identified in our last published report, which was in February 2019.

A better understanding around coercive and controlling behaviour: while frontline officers better understand domestic abuse and what their role is in keeping victims safe and bringing perpetrators to justice, the nuances around coercive control still need to be improved. We recognise that many forces have invested very heavily in training—in particular, face-to-face training, which has been successful. However, there is still further to go.

Issues around identifying risk: how much risk is a victim of domestic abuse at? There is still a lot of variance in how officers identify and classify that risk and inconsistencies in how that is being supervised. In our last report, we expressed real reservations and concerns around the drop-off in pre-charge bail and the protections that that may afford. We are also concerned about the number of occasions on which cases are discontinued on the basis that the victim does not support police action. We would also like to see forces take more action to receive feedback directly from victims of domestic abuse themselves, so they can tailor their services more appropriately to put the victim at the heart of the services provided.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

The shadow Minister has only just arrived from the Division, so I call Gillian Keegan.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

For those of us who are less familiar with your world, how do you use the domestic violence protection order today, and how will this new provision make a difference on the ground?Q

Zoe Billingham:

In our inspections, our basic, fundamental question is how well the police are keeping victims of domestic abuse safe: how well they are using the powers they have been given to make sure that victims are safeguarded and perpetrators are brought to justice. The proposals in the Bill regarding the new order are really positive.

The use of DVPNs and DVPOs has been very patchy, and some of the lessons that forces should have drawn from their use need to be applied to the new orders if they are to be successful. We will test this through our inspections when these new orders come on board, because we test how well forces are using DVPOs and DVPNs now and we find that it is very patchy; it varies from force to force.

A number of things will need to happen if the new order is to be successful. First, officers need to be properly trained. They need to understand the value of these orders, because a degree of effort will be involved in obtaining them. There needs to be clarity within forces as to who is responsible. The forces that are best at the orders now are those that have specialist teams dedicated to undertaking that work; Essex police are a really good example.

Forces will also need to have the time and necessary resources to make sure they not only apply for the orders but enforce against breach of orders, otherwise there will be a danger of undermining victims’ confidence. If there is something there to protect victims, but the forces are not geared up to use that tool appropriately, that is a potential risk. Of course, the pilots of the new orders are to be commended and we would like to see forces stepping forward and volunteering if they have not already, so that the implementation of these orders gets off on the right footing.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Q Clearly, if implementation has been patchy previously, it is going to be absolutely key. Do you think this point about training and the patchy response is at all linked to the fall in the number of prosecutions and the number of people coming forward?

Zoe Billingham:

When we inspect across domestic abuse, we try to take a whole-system approach, in so far as it relates to policing. We look at a whole range of measures all the way across; where we see drops in areas of performance, we are concerned.

Starting with the moment a call comes into a control room, if we see that forces are not attending to domestic abuse incidents as quickly as they should, that is warning flag No. 1. Warning flag No. 2 is when the responding officers who attend those incidents tend to arrest less. All forces have a policy of positive action, but the number of times that an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse is arrested varies between 80% in some forces and 30% in others, and that variation worries us. Warning flag no. 3 is when too many cases are being discontinued post-arrest on the basis that the victim does not support police action. Nearly 50% of domestic abuse cases are discontinued on that basis, and that worries us. We see variance among forces in all parts of that whole-system approach, and the orders are one part of that system in which we see that variance.

As an inspectorate, we would like to see less variance and greater consistency, because a victim of domestic abuse in Cumbria is self-evidently entitled to the same level of police service as a victim in Camden. We set that as our expectation—rightly so, I think.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

ThankQ you, Zoe, for coming along. Are there serial offenders among police forces in terms of variance? Are there forces that you go to that are not as good as they should be, and then you go back and they are still not as good as they should be? I think I know the answer. If that is the case, what can you do about it and why cannot we do anything about it? You identify the problem, but then it just carries on.

Zoe Billingham:

It is really interesting; policing has a habit of working like the swing of a pendulum. A force may be at variance in, for example, its rate of arrest, and we will put in our report—our local report—a recommendation that that should be reviewed and looked at. When we come back, we are listened to and we will follow that through, and we find that that may have changed. However, the danger is that, in addressing and focusing responses on one particular area that we have identified in our report, the eye is taken off the ball elsewhere. Although the force may correct one part of the whole-system approach, there may be something that then surprises us and surprises them.

For example, the force may be arresting more but may actually then be disposing of more cases, on the basis that the victim does not support police action. Now, that may be an appropriate thing to do, but we are concerned that too often that resolution is being used because hard-pressed officers simply have not got the time to take the correct action to pursue the criminal justice route and outcome.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q But what if the public wanted to know that? If you want to know how good a school’s exam results are, it is quite easy to find out—it is quite easy to compare schools. That is not so true of police forces, is it? I mean, what you say is quite right, but we know that there are police forces that do not improve their way of tackling domestic abuse by their serious violence strategy going west—they do both, even with the same resources and difficulties, even rural forces compared with rural forces or city forces compared with city ones. Everything is the same, yet there is a difference in performance.

Would it not help if there was greater public awareness of that? How can the inspectorate publish that information so that people can look at it and say, “My police force is not as good as equivalent forces”? League tables?

Zoe Billingham:

Well, I am not sure—

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q No—I just threw that out there. I am just trying. I do not agree with that either, but I am frustrated by the lack of that sort of thing.

Zoe Billingham:

What we have promised to do since 2014 is to inspect police forces on domestic abuse every year—year on year—until the service is what we would want it to be. We have lived up to that promise and we are still inspecting forces year on year, which is an indicator that we are still not satisfied with the performance that we find. We have to bear in mind that in the intervening period—between our starting in 2014 and now—there has been a whopping great increase in the amount of demand being placed on officers. There has been an 88% increase in recorded domestic abuse-related crime.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q An 88% rise? When is the base year for that?

Zoe Billingham:

In the three years from 2015 on, there has been an 88% increase. It represents 10% of all crime and 40% of all crime with violence.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Sorry to interrupt; I am just trying to think. Was that 10% of crime that people have gone to?

Zoe Billingham:

Some 10% of all recorded crime that police deal with, and 40% of all violence, has a domestic abuse-related basis.

We do what we call our police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy, or PEEL, inspections; I am sorry to go into so much detail. We review police every year, and within our vulnerability section we always look at domestic abuse. Within that, we always provide the public with a judgment on their police performance, of either “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. We think that brings a degree of transparency, and we supplement that with an annual report. We have published four—in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019—to shine the light on this area.

However, I think that the sentiment behind your question is this: “Should the public be made increasingly aware of this issue?” Our answer would be a resounding yes. We are playing a small part in that as the inspectorate, but there might well be more that we can do—in fact, I am sure of that.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

That is very helpful.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

ClearlyQ , from the numbers that you are giving us, there has been a huge increase in the trust in police for the victims to come forward and report. The work that you have been doing with police forces is clearly moving in the right direction, so thank you.

The Bill seeks to simplify procedures for police officers, which hopefully will result in higher levels of prosecution. It also gives new powers or responsibilities to police officers, particularly for two groups of people: children and family members. We increasingly understand that when children in households are under exposure to domestic abuse and violence, it will make them more likely to be either a perpetrator or a victim. From your inspections of the constabulary, what steps are you seeing them take to identify those children and refer them?

The other type of domestic abuse now caught in the Bill, which I think is brilliant, is adult family members abusing elderly members or people with disabilities in their families. Again, that is a new area for the police to be tackling. Bearing in mind what you said about resource constraints, what evidence have you seen of the police tackling those particular issues?

Zoe Billingham:

I can help particularly on the children front because we do a lot of inspection, including with other inspectorates, on the police response and other agencies’ response to children. Since 2014, we have seen a far greater awareness, particularly among those initially attending officers on the scene, of the importance of considering the impact of the domestic incident on the child.

When we first started inspecting, I was new to the area, but I was pretty horrified that police officers would often go into households with children who were themselves victims of the particular incident, even though they may have been in another room. The police officers were not even speaking to the children and checking that they were okay. We have seen a big shift now in the police’s understanding of the importance of safeguarding children and referring them into local authorities as appropriate, so that the appropriate safeguarding conferences can then take place.

We have seen an increase in the workload, which is why forces have invested in protecting vulnerable people areas and departments, which includes children. We continue to encourage that as an inspectorate so that children are put at the heart of this. We also see the prevalence of schemes such as Operation Encompass—an incredibly simple scheme where, if police attend a domestic abuse incident overnight, an arrangement with all the local schools means that a single person in the relevant school is notified that the child has had the most traumatic experience. The teacher can take steps—perhaps seemingly very small ones—to care for that child during the course of the following day, and subsequently. Some of these things are very easily done. They take a bit of arrangement to put in place, but they are not that costly. They do require a will and leadership.

I am not as able to help on elder abuse specifically, but would be happy to write to you if there are any specifics that I can think of that would help on that.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

The fact that you need to do that shows that that is an area of work, once the Bill goes through: police forces have to consider that as domestic abuse and violence. That is a whole new area for the police to be trained on and for you to inspect, ensuring that the new requirements are understood and the services are there to support victims. Clearly, there is some work to do there.

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

I wanted to talk about Operation Encompass; you raised it before I had an opportunity to ask. It is a wonderful scheme. I would like to see it rolled out across the UK as, I hope, a compulsory thing, so that all schools know what goes on.Q

You will be aware, as I am, that women’s prisons are full of women who have experienced domestic violence. When these women are convicted of criminal offences, it is very often through coercive control and behaviour. Are police forces aware of that and are resources stopping them from identifying that these women are victims of trauma?

Zoe Billingham:

To reinforce what you say about women in prisons, perhaps the most profound thing I have experienced in the five or six years I have been doing this work is visiting a women’s prison and speaking to prisoners, all of whom have been victims of domestic abuse. They all gave an account in a very small focus group of the failure of the police to understand the circumstances that had, they said, driven them to activity that resulted in their being in prison. I would certainly like to look at that in greater detail in the future. It is certainly something that I know more forces are thinking about: how they can ensure, through training, that the home circumstances of alleged offenders are being taken into account when looking at women’s offending particularly. I am afraid it is not something that we have done a specific inspection on, but it is an area that we are interested in looking at in the future.

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

Q Me too. When you make recommendations, do they have to be taken up by the constabulary, or can they be ignored? What impact do your recommendations have?

Zoe Billingham:

We have no powers of direction. We are an independent inspectorate, so our recommendations are just that. A force could, if it so chose, ignore our recommendations. We find that that happens almost never; when it does, it will be because forces have had to prioritise in different areas. Our power is to come back time and again, to check whether the changes that we recommended have indeed been made, and to report to the public—in a clear way, I hope—whether the improvements we thought necessary have been made and, where they have not, to explain that that has not happened. That will obviously affect the grade that we provide to the force in that particular inspection.

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

Q Hello, Ms Billingham. You very kindly shared with us some statistics in answer to another question; I noted that 10% of all recorded crimes have a domestic abuse basis. I have heard concerns about the recent fall in the number of prosecutions for domestic abuse-related offences. Bearing in mind your figures and our concerns, what do you feel could be done to reverse that decline?

Zoe Billingham:

I wish there was a simple answer; if there was, it would have happened and the changes would have been made. There is a whole range of issues, starting from the moment when the police are informed about an incident, that are leading to an attrition.

One concern, which we want to look at in the work we are doing this year and into next year, is how potential offenders are being dealt with and brought to justice, the interface between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, and in particular the number of referrals being made to the CPS by the police and the advice on charging that the CPS is providing to the police.

We have not done the detailed work on that yet, but the issue is about the interface between the police and the CPS, the decision on whether a charge should be brought on a domestic abuse-related case and whether—as I often hear from the police when I go into forces—the CPS has set the bar to secure a charge impossibly high. Obviously, if we do not secure the charge then we will never secure the conviction. We hear a lot of anecdotal evidence in that regard, but I cannot give you specific, hard and fast evidence.

One thing that we are doing next year, which may help to shed a little bit of light on some of the areas where we lose victims, is whether the issue of bail and release under investigation is leading to a diminution in attendance of those needed in court and an eventual loss of victims who basically give up, because the timeframe is spread out so long across a whole domestic abuse case. We are doing a specific piece of work looking at the effect of release under investigation postal requisitions, so that we can see the real reasons behind the elongation of the time factors and the changes around safeguarding that may flow as a result.

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

Q Just one more quick question, if I may: what difference do you think the 20,000 extra police officers will make in the domestic abuse area?

Zoe Billingham:

Obviously the uplift programme, as it is called across policing, is welcomed, and 20,000 officers will address some or most of the reductions in police officers since 2010. There has been a reduction in police staff and police community support officers during that period as well. The crux of that, in terms of how the police respond to domestic abuse, will be where those officers are deployed.

Of course, a whole lot of work will be done to ensure that frontline preventive policing is enhanced through the uplift programme. Although that is not a specific investment in specialist domestic abuse officers, in our view prevention is much better than cure. Clearly, however, forces will need to look at their uplift—what they are going to receive in terms of additional officers—and see whether the stretch in the system that we have identified can be alleviated by effective and smart deployment in a whole range of roles across police forces. That is really a matter for forces.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

We are into the last four minutes, so we must have short questions and short answers.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

Good afternoon, ZoeQ . You have been in your role at HMIC throughout the period of the domestic violence disclosure scheme—Clare’s law. How would you characterise its usage over the years and today?

Zoe Billingham:

It is patchy, again, in terms of not just right to know, but need to know. We encourage forces. Each year, we have identified the patchy use, knowledge and understanding of Clare’s law as something that forces have responsibility to do more about in terms of greater publicity and awareness-building. It is another one of those powers that the police have and that are available to them, but that are too often used inconsistently.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

Q Do you think there are tools or avenues open to us through the Bill to raise that tide?

Zoe Billingham:

Obviously, putting this on to a statutory footing will help, but two other things need to happen in conjunction with that. First, it needs to be publicised effectively in forces and across the broader population. Secondly, it is absolutely imperative that forces have sufficient resources to deal swiftly and effectively with what we suspect will be an increased number of requests. Our concern is that there might be a lot of local publicity about, “Your force will do this”, or, “Come forward and ask this”, only for victims to be let down because forces have not geared themselves up with the right resources. That would be our word of caution, but as I say, putting it on a statutory footing is welcome.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

Q To turn to the role of the commissioner, you mentioned that you can recommend that forces make those changes but you cannot command them. The commissioner will be a big ally for you in making similar public statements about the lack of satisfaction about certain local arrangements that will create significant public pressure for reform. Do you have any reflections on the commissioner’s role or ways that we could seek to improve it or its relationship with you through the Bill?

Zoe Billingham:

We welcome the introduction of the commissioner’s role. I have met her briefly. We need to ensure that we, as an independent inspectorate, work closely alongside the commissioner, that we do not duplicate our efforts, and that our learning from inspections is passed to her and vice versa, so that we can continue to set the expectation that is required of police forces. I expect us to work in close concert on that.

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

Q On the point about independence, questions have been asked today about the commissioner reporting to the Home Office. You are appointed by the Home Office, or HMIC is. What are your thoughts on your independence?

Zoe Billingham:

I would say that we are independent. As you know, Minister, we make recommendations without fear or favour. We are very happy to make recommendations directed at the Home Office and have often done so in our work around domestic abuse. We expect action to be taken not only by police forces or police and crime commissioners but by Departments. I feel extremely independent in my role. I suspect that that will be reflected in the role of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner as well. The fact that I have a relationship with the Home Office does not undermine my personal statutory independence as an HMI or our organisation’s independence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I am grateful for your evidence today, Ms Billingham. Thank you very much. We will move on to our next witness, Nazir Afzal.