Examination of Witness

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Nazir Afzal gave evidence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 3:00 pm, 29th October 2019

Welcome to the evidence session this afternoon. For the record, please introduce yourself and state your job title.

Nazir Afzal:

I am Nazir Afzal. One of my roles is independent national advisor to the Welsh Government on what they call VAWDASV: Violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. Previously I was chief prosecutor, and I led for 10 years on violence against women and girls for the Crown Prosecution Service.

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

Q This witness was requested by Plaid Cymru, but I will step into the shoes of Ms Saville Roberts and ask a general question. How will you work together with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner to maximise the impact of the two roles across Wales?

Nazir Afzal:

I met with her yesterday, and I very much welcome her. I think she is sitting behind us right now. Obviously, there are restrictions on what she can do: there are devolved areas for the Welsh Government, and she is not permitted to comment on or analyse those areas. There are reserved areas where she can. We agreed yesterday to collaborate, and I know we will do that from here on in. There are opportunities for the sharing of good practice, and there are opportunities for commissioning joint research and things like that. I have no doubt whatsoever that our relationship will be very fruitful.

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

Q When we looked at this in the Home Affairs Committee, we made the final judgment, after a lot of back and forth, to pursue a Welsh approach—to introduce an Act to deal with violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, as was done in Wales. That is at the nub of the conversation about whether there needs to be a gendered definition. Whenever that is raised, there is the obvious reply about not missing out male victims and survivors. How does it work in Wales? What comfort can you give us that a gendered approach is practical but works for everybody?

Nazir Afzal:

We live in the real world, and it is acknowledged that 84%, or thereabouts, of victims are female. Much of the men-on-men abuse, for example, is men abusing, and the vast majority of perpetrators are male. When you recognise that, it does not mean that you ignore male victims. The Welsh Government have been working closely with organisations that support male victims, and I have no doubt that that will continue. Being one thing does not mean that you have to stop being another. That should not cause any problem for us in England and Wales, because it certainly has not caused any problems in Wales.

Nazir Afzal:

There is a substantial learning. For example, there are people working in the male victim sector who previously felt that they were being ignored and not listened to and that perhaps—I think this was underlying your question—they were second-class victims. What they have picked up from those who are suffering has informed the Welsh Government’s work in relation to female victims. There is substantial good practice in that area, which perhaps would not have been picked up had we not engaged with them in the way that we are doing.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Q I am quite intrigued by this role. Will you give us some examples of how it has helped to improve the response to domestic abuse in Wales, and how that might be seen from the viewpoint of the victim or survivor?

Nazir Afzal:

Do you mean the national advisor role?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Yes, the national advisor role.

Nazir Afzal:

I job share the role with a colleague of mine. I do two days and she does three days. It is a statutory role that was created by the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. Going back to a question you put to Her Majesty’s inspector, independence is a state of mind; it does not have to say “independent” in the Act. What we have been able to do—I spoke to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner about this yesterday—is to have access. My colleague and I were able to meet with the whole Welsh Cabinet a year ago and talk about this issue, and about cross-Government work that needs to happen. There are four director generals in the Welsh Government in four Departments, and I meet them every quarter. I would hope that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner would have similar access. We know that this is not just a policing issue; it is an education issue and a health issue—it is cross-cutting—so it needs that kind of access. We get that kind of access.

We are also advocates for the sector. When people knew I was speaking today, I got several hundred emails from the various NGOs, which do phenomenal work, saying, “Raise this; raise that”—although there is not enough time. We can do that advocacy for them or with them within the Welsh Government. We are literally on the road all the time—with the geography of Wales, you have to be on the road all the time—in order to try to understand the various issues that take place. We alert the First Minister and his Government to those issues in an intelligence-based, early way so that before it hits the proverbial, some action can be taken. It works really effectively.

As I said to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner yesterday, if she gets the kind of access that we have been given, if she gets the kind of freedom that we have, and if she is able to enforce her independent way of thinking—it goes without saying that she has enormous credibility within the sector—all those things will make her role really fulfilling. We have been able to look internationally and look at best practice across the UK. I think Wales lead the way—they will love me for saying this. The VAWDASV Act was four years ago, and they have put in place so many things.

One of the things I am concerned about with this Bill is what is underneath it—that is, the implementation strategy. Wales has grasped that and there is a phenomenal implementation strategy. There is the national training framework; you name it, there are all sorts of things underneath which will enable, and are enabling, us to deliver on the Act. We are there as critical friends to the Welsh Government and also to the Home Office here. We are able to share learning from Wales, and also to the Scottish Government.

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

Q I agree entirely that the Welsh Government have got it spot on: they are superb. I have long followed your career and admired your work and it was an excellent appointment by the Welsh Government—but then, it would be. We have got such a good structure in Wales. Will what is proposed in this Bill clash with what we have got, or will it link in with it? Are we doing things differently or better in the Welsh plan than is intended in this Bill? How can we make both of them the best that they can be?

Nazir Afzal:

Somebody will die or be severely injured in Wales today because of domestic abuse. There is no way on earth that I am going to be complacent, and neither should we. There will be victims with every minute of every day. On that basis, what progress has Wales made? There are issues with the Bill that I am happy to share with you, but implementation is key. If you do not have leadership from the top, it will not happen.

Let me give you another example. The First Minister has asked for his whole Cabinet to get training. Then he asked all the Assembly Members to get training, and he asked all their support staff to get training—to the point where, in Wales, 170,000 people have now been trained under the 2015 Act. Some 4,000 professionals—that is, pretty much every professional in the ambulance service and police service—have been trained. I encourage you as Members of Parliament, if you have not done so, to undergo some training to enable you to spot the signs. If leaders are doing it, it comes down from that. If you have done it, others who work for you and with you will do it as well.

With the implementation strategy, the amount of guidance that has been produced is second to none. There are guidelines for governors of universities and governors of further education institutions; there are guidelines on elder abuse, which I think you mentioned earlier on; and there are guidelines on children as victims. That is what we call “ask and act” training guidance, because in the legislation it invites professionals to ask if something is not right and act upon it. That is all in place.

A key point with regard to the Bill is that every local authority has a public duty to compare and publish annually their strategy on violence against women and girls, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and to put that out to the public and say, “This is what we are going to do”, and be challenged on it. Unless you mandate that and prescribe it, it is not going to happen. That is why I encourage you—it is not too late—to do that in the Domestic Abuse Bill. The Welsh Government have done that. They have commissioning guidance, so that every commissioner of services, and there are many, knows how to approach it. There is guidance left, right and centre.

In terms of what we still need to do, there is a big issue that only the Treasury can help us with: sustainable funding. From all the non-governmental organisations that mailed you and me, you will know that on 31 March they will not know whether they will have a job on 1 April. The people they service will not know whether they will have a service on 1 April. Unless you have at least an indication that your funding is x number of years, you cannot plan. Cardiff and Vale has a seven-year funding cycle. It tells everybody, “This is what we’re going to give you this year,” and indicates what they are going to get for the next six years. It can plan on that basis, and that is what we would like the rest of Wales to do. That is certainly what the NGOs in England would prefer you to do.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

Thank you very much for coming to the Committee today, and for your time. You mentioned that you had communicated with the devolved Administration in Scotland as well. Could you just elaborate on some of the communication you had and on the sharing of best practice, if anyQ ?

Nazir Afzal:

It is premature, to be honest. The Scottish Government do not have a role of the kind that you have in the Bill, and that the Welsh Government have. It would be premature of me to tell you what their plans are. There is certainly good practice—there is no getting away from it. When we talk about knife crime, we talk about the public health approach in Glasgow, do we not? If the public health approach can work for knife crime, it can work for violence against women and domestic abuse. The idea of being able to contain people who are currently infected, for want of a better term, and then prevent others from becoming so by dealing with the infection—it is the same thing with domestic abuse. They are applying the kind of approach we are taking in Wales, and I hope England will do the same. There is good learning, good sharing and good practice. The Scottish Government are probably no further forward than England in relation to structural governance issues, but the will is certainly there.

I go back to what I said. Part of the problem, as HMI indicated earlier, is that we have a bit of a perfect storm right now. Scottish police numbers and health service numbers have been reduced. There has been an impact on all sorts of areas where previously the people were there to provide that level of service. NGOs do not have the same funding. If you have a significant increase in victims, as we have had over the past three years or thereabouts, there is nobody there to provide them with the service. Scotland is no different from England and Wales in that regard.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

Q No, I appreciate that. The section of the Bill on the commissioner’s role talks about the establishment of an advisory board. The Bill mandates that the board must include representatives from voluntary organisations and healthcare professionals from England, but there is nothing about Wales. Given that Wales is a central part of the advisory board, would you like to be on the board?

Nazir Afzal:

Not me personally, because I have not got the time, but I certainly think that Wales should be on it. It is an England and Wales board, even if there are reserved and devolved areas. I cannot see any reason why Wales should not be present. We currently engage with the Home Office even though, technically, it does not have responsibility for certain parts of what we do in Wales. I see no problem with that.

Photo of Luke Graham Luke Graham Conservative, Ochil and South Perthshire

Q This is important, and I do not want to put you in a constitutional hotspot, but devolved does not mean separate. A lot of the Bill is meant to be set by the UK Parliament. Some Members will push for it to be extended in certain areas to Scotland. As I have experienced with my constituents, domestic abuse in relationships does not respect county or other political boundaries. Do you agree that—framed as the Bill is about sharing best practice, sharing standards, ensuring that certain standards are reinforced throughout the entire United Kingdom and ensuring that analysis is shared throughout the United Kingdom—this is a good space for the Bill to play in, and that it can respect devolution within the United Kingdom and the role of central Government?

Nazir Afzal:

Yes, 100%. The victim referral pathways could involve a victim from—well, I had one a long time ago in London who was moved to Inverness. If we do not have common practices, and so forth, rest assured that that would be a recipe for disaster. You need to have an understanding across borders, despite the fact that, jurisdictionally, there will be differences.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q In your evidence to us just a few minutes ago, you said that there were some issues with the Bill and that you would be happy to share them with the Committee. Could you please do that?

Nazir Afzal:

Absolutely. The main one is the public duty. We have found in Wales that unless you mandate it, it does not happen. Furthermore, unless you ring-fence it, it does not happen either. Our experience—the experience across England and Wales, actually—has been that if people have made cuts, they have made them in areas they see as soft, and strangely, they see this area as soft. That is ridiculous, frankly, but none the less that is what they do. Unless you say—we have not said this in Wales—“0.5% of your income must go on whatever it is” and ring-fence it, it does not happen.

The public duty side of it certainly needs to be clearer, because people do opt out. One third of mental health trusts in England do not have a strategy that deals with domestic abuse. Given the number of victims who will be suffering either as victims or, potentially, as perpetrators, that is scandalous. My experience tells me that unless you mandate these things, it does not happen. That is issue No. 1, and I clearly think that is right.

Black and minority ethnic victims have been let down. Do you know how many independent domestic violence advisors in England and Wales work specifically with BME people? There are four.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Say that again. Four?

Nazir Afzal:

There are four IDVAs in this country who are specially trained to work with BME victims. Given the population, that is not right.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q How many are there altogether, do you know?

Nazir Afzal:

Hundreds. That issue needs addressing.

There is also the rural-urban thing—I have said this specifically about Wales, but it is true of England as well. If you are a victim in a rural area, the perpetrator is probably known to everybody. To access support, you need transport—the support is not available locally—but we give everybody the same amount of funding. We give an NGO in Birmingham the same funding as we give one somewhere in Shropshire, but the one in Shropshire probably needs more funding per person than the one in Birmingham. We need to address that. Again, I do not know how you do that, but it needs to come from the top down, rather than the bottom up.

There are issues around refuge funding and refuge services. My personal view—it is the Wales view, too—is that the safest place for a victim is his or her home. The refuge should always be seen as an emergency, rather than as the first port of call, which is what it is commonly seen as. There are very few refuges with provision for children. You wait until mid-December, when it is coming up to Christmas: they will be turning away children left, right and centre, but what happens? They end up in emergency accommodation or going back to their abuser, because the support is just not available to them. Strange as it may sound, when I spoke to the Welsh Cabinet, one of the environmental Ministers mentioned pets. I was not aware of this. Victims do not leave home because of their pet. Apart from the Dogs Trust, as I understand it, there is very limited provision for animals in those circumstances, so they end up remaining with the perpetrator. Something needs to be done about refuge funding. It goes back to the sustainable funding issue I mentioned earlier, which needs to be addressed.

There are bigger issues. Your colleague, Sarah Champion, mentioned early marriage or child marriage yesterday. There are a substantial number of victims. I know the Minister asked for more detail, but my personal view is that you should ban child marriage under the age of 18. Too many 16 and 17-year-olds are forced into marriage, and too many suffer significant abuse at that age. Unless you put an age limit of 18 on marriage, you are not going to be able to prevent that from happening. The Bill offers you that opportunity.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Do you know what the estimates are? How many marriages are there?

Nazir Afzal:

There are roughly 200 marriages of 17-year-olds every year.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Do you know what it is for 16-year-olds? The Minister will be able to get that.

Nazir Afzal:

I do not know. The Minister will probably know better than I do.

Nazir Afzal:

Yes, but a lot of religious marriages are not registered. A lot more than 200 are not registered because they are religious marriages.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Q Have the Government made an estimate of the number of non-registered marriages?

Nazir Afzal:

I do not know. Again, the Minister will know better than I do. I have dealt with cases, and the most amazing ones—the most bizarre, horrible ones—involved people who were forced into marriage at 16 and 17. Some of them died at the age of 19 and 20. There is a gap that needs to be addressed, and maybe the legislation could do that.

There is another area in which I would agree with other campaigners. Twelve years ago, I met with somebody called Iain Duncan Smith—I don’t know if you know him—and he was running a campaign with Refuge about driven suicide. A lot of victims of domestic abuse are driven to commit suicide, and as it currently stands, there is no law that can hold somebody to account for that. I tried to bring one in back then, and the Court of Appeal said that we could, but we were not able to succeed. You probably know the fact that two women are murdered every week in domestic abuse cases, but you probably do not know that 10 women kill themselves every week.

Nazir Afzal:

Ten women, every week, in England and Wales will kill themselves because of domestic abuse. That is Refuge’s figure.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

The Minister wants to come in on this point.

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

I just want to clarify that the latest year for which we have figures on marriage is 2016. Of the around 500,000 people who entered opposite-sex marriages in that year, 179 were aged 16 or 17 years old. I just wanted to clarify that for the record.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I am going to bring in Carolyn Harris to ask some questions. If anybody else wishes to speak, please indicate now.

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

Q Let me pick up on two things you have said. First, is religious marriage a growing issue? Somebody came to see me last week who had been in what she thought was a marriage. When she went to get a divorce because of domestic violence, her marriage certificate was in Arabic. She had been married under sharia law and was not actually married.

Secondly, you talked about IDVAs; is there a programme in Wales for having IDVAs in hospitals, specifically for elderly people? I was in A&E with my son, who had pneumonia a couple of weeks ago, when I heard the nurse at the next bed asking a young girl if her problem was because of domestic violence. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Nazir Afzal:

The second one is easy. Yes, there is a programme to recruit more IDVAs. It is a bit haphazard because they are employed by different agencies—health, police and crime commissioners and so on—but there is a significant programme to increase the numbers. There was a dip in the mid-2010s, for all sorts of resource reasons.

On the first question, there is another campaign, which is about religious marriages also having to be certified—that is, to become marriages recognised by British law. I support that, too. You have given one example; I can probably give you several hundred others of people who did not know that they were married. In any event, if these people were married, their ability to seek a divorce is challenging, to say the least, and abuse is often tolerated in such circumstances. There is a role for the state to say, “If you enter into a religious marriage, you should also have a civil marriage.” There is some good practice around that—for example, just up the road in the Regent’s Park mosque you have to have the religious marriage and a civil marriage at the same time. Why can they not do that anywhere else? I absolutely agree with you on that.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Are there any further questions from Members?

Nazir Afzal:

Can I just say one more thing about release under investigation, because I forgot?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Q I will just see whether there are any further questions. No, there are not, so feel free to continue.

Nazir Afzal:

Her Majesty’s inspector mentioned release under investigation. The previous time I gave evidence to the Joint Committee, Lord Blair was here, and he and I agree on this. The Bill should specifically say that domestic abuse is excluded from the provision on release under investigation. There is tons of evidence already out there—you may want to get your own, Minister—that shows that there are suspects waiting for a long, long time before a decision but, worse still, that there are potential victims waiting for a long, long time, who are under enormous pressure to go back to their abuser or potential abuser, and who lose interest and so on because the process takes such a long time. If you had bail with conditions, it would offer protection, and it also concentrates minds in respect of decision making. We did not anticipate it happening when the Act was passed, but my personal view and, I think, that of anybody in the sector is that we ought to exclude domestic abuse from that provision.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Do Members have any further questions? If not, we are grateful to you, Mr Afzal, for your contribution, and will bring your session to an end.