Examination of Witnesses

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 29th October 2019.

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Sally Noden and Eleanor Briggs gave evidence.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 3:24 pm, 29th October 2019

Q I am grateful for your attendance at this evidence session. For the record, the maximum time we have for this session is until 4 o’clock. Please introduce yourselves for the benefit of the Committee.

Sally Noden:

My name is Sally Noden and I am a children’s service manager in Newcastle.

Eleanor Briggs:

I am Eleanor Briggs and I am head of policy and research at Action for Children.

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

Q Welcome to the Committee. It would perhaps help the Committee if we could hear a little bit about your work in Newcastle, Ms Noden.

Sally Noden:

In Newcastle, I oversee a cluster of services, but one of them is called Breaking the Cycle. This is a service that was specifically designed by us several years ago, when we saw a gap in recovery services for children. We work with children between the ages of four and 16 who have experienced domestic abuse, and we offer them one-to-one counselling.

The way the piece of work is done is that we normally meet the non-abusing partner—normally the mum—and we do a session with her, and then we bring the child in. One of the big points of the model—this is why it is a specialist service—is that we name why the children are there. It is named. That is actually a really big issue for a parent who has spent a long time thinking that they are protecting the child. They realise that the child’s behaviour—the traumatic behaviour that they are displaying —is because of the domestic abuse that they have experienced. We need to spend time with the non-abusing partner, getting them to understand their story and what has happened to their child.

We then offer up to 10 sessions with the child, and they are child-led sessions with the counsellor, using a variety of tools that the counsellor is extremely skilled at using: sometimes they use play, sometimes they use games and words, and they do special box work with the young people. We then have a review session with the child and the non-abusing partner and parent. Some of that is very much around looking at their relationship, because children can be really angry. Suddenly they can be angry and confused, and the relationship between the parent and the child can be really broken, so we need to do some work to improve that parent-child relationship and have an understanding on both sides. That is the work that we do up in Newcastle at the moment.

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

Q Thank you very much, Ms Noden; Ms Briggs, please do not think I am going to leave you out. I am going to get straight to the point. The Committee is considering the definition, and at the moment the definition is limited to from the age of 16 onwards. What are your views on that age being in the definition? Perhaps you can go first, Ms Briggs.

Eleanor Briggs:

It is certainly a really complex issue and something that we have thought really hard about and discussed in great detail with other children-sector organisations. Ultimately, we agree with the Government’s decision to go for the 16 age limit. We talked in detail to frontline practitioners, such as Sally and others, and to our safeguarding experts, and the final decision we made was that because abuse of someone under 16 is child abuse, we did not want to muddy the waters. We wanted to keep it absolutely clear that under 16 it is child abuse. Also, the age of consent is 16, so that is another factor to consider.

We do recognise, though, the need for support for children and young people in romantic relationships under 16 where abuse happens, and we warmly welcome the recommendation from the Joint Committee around the need for a Government review to look at those relationships. One thing we would stress is that the experience from when the age limit in the definition was lowered from 18 to 16 showed that adult responses are not necessarily the right ones, so a different model could be needed for 16 and 17-year-olds. We would ask that that review consider 16 and 17-year-olds as well. Sally has extensive experience of what services work for young people and how they need to be different.

Sally Noden:

It is great that we are looking at it, but we need to recognise those relationships and we need to look at services through the lens of a young person or teenager. An adult service may not meet those needs. In Newcastle, we have a service called West End Women and Girls Centre, which has peer educators, and those peer educators are young people who have been through abusive relationships and are now trained to be peer educators with other young people. That sort of service is really important.

I have experience of a young person working in a service. I was in a children’s centre and I was running the Freedom programme, which is a social educational programme. This young person was 17 and I suggested that she came on to the programme, but there were women who were much older than her and their experiences were very different to her experience, and she did not feel as valid. I learned from that mistake. She did not feel valid because her relationship was an 18-month relationship and she was listening to women who had been in abusive relationships for 30 years. I did a lot of work with her after that. We absolutely need to recognise that there are abusive relationships, but we need to have the right responses for them.

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

Q For me, children who experience domestic violence are victims—there are no two ways about it—and we know that it can be a vicious circle. What more can we do to break the cycle of victims becoming perpetrators?

Sally Noden:

We need to have the right services and we need to invest in services for some of our young victims. In Newcastle, we have one of the only specialist services. In the past four months, I have had 59 referrals, but I have one and a half counsellors. In the sense that the resources are not there to do the work, we need to look at some peer education work and work on what healthy relationships are about. We need to look at some early intervention work, but then there need to be those specialist services to help break the cycle. There are a number of fantastic programmes out there, such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education programme and the Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together programme, but again, from my experience in Newcastle, we had the programme running, the funding stopped, and it has not run again. It might come back again. We need to have the right resources to have the right community responses.

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

Q So the work is being done in silos, without being all joined up. Are we not all aiming for the same thing, or are we working to different agendas?

Sally Noden:

There is some very good joining up. I sit on the violence against women and girls strategic group in Newcastle with a whole host of services, and we work really well together. However, there are not the resources to continue the work that we need to do.

Eleanor Briggs:

That is where the Bill offers a real opportunity. Two things can happen in the Bill that would contribute. The first is to put children as victims into the definition. Our view is that that being in the statutory guidance is not strong enough. We can talk in more detail about the definition.

Secondly, the duty on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should be extended. We really welcome the duty and the fact that it will look at accommodation-based support but, as the previous witness said, we really feel that the refuge should be the person’s home and that the support needs to be there in the community for children. That will build into the whole cycle: if we get the support for children early on, they will learn what healthy relationships look like. We know that Sally’s excellent service in Newcastle is Big Lottery funded and only has two more years to go, so what happens to it after that? If we had the statutory duty extended out, we could have secure, proper and long-term funding for services for children, and that would help to break the cycle.

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

Q Are local authorities keen to support you financially or with services in kind, or is it a battle just to get the money to keep going?

Sally Noden:

It is a battle to get the money to keep going. As Eleanor said, our money comes from the Big Lottery Fund. I work really closely with Safe Newcastle, with their offices, and they are really supportive—they were supportive of our Big Lottery bid—but they are not able to give us the funding.

Eleanor Briggs:

And that is one of our concerns. If the MHCLG duty comes in as designed at the moment, just for accommodation-based support, the local authorities will be under pressure to fund refuge and accommodation-based support. Obviously, we see the need for that, and it is very important, but the duty needs to be wider, because if the funding is all going into that, funding will come away from non-statutory services, as we have seen with children’s services. Under the Children Act 1989, statutory services are still being provided, with increased money going into them, but the funding has come away from the non-statutory services—the early help services. Although we welcome commitments to funding for the new duty, which is fantastic, this will be in law for the long, long term and we cannot guarantee that the funding will always be there. That is why the legislation needs to be right and why we need to have a statutory duty for both accommodation-based and, crucially, community services that include children and young people.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q We are all united in wanting to break the cycle. The evidence is overwhelming that young people who are exposed to domestic abuse, coercive control or violence are likely to be perpetrators or victims themselves. As the Government are investing a lot of money in schools on good relationship education, I am concerned that children will start to realise that what they are seeing at home is not a good relationship, but they will think that is what love looks like because that is what their mum and dad do with partners they see. In the context of what the commissioner and services are to do, what should we do to make sure that that part of the Government’s work in the Department for Education is linked to the sorts of the service you you provide and the possibilities in the Bill?

Sally Noden:

I think it is about linking up with community services—making sure that there are the resources within community services. We talked about Operation Encompass, which I think is fantastic, but it needs to go further. There needs to be the support. It is great to do the silent monitoring or to enable the teacher to help that child through the day, but are we actually saying, “It’s okay—it’s okay to go back home”? We have to be honest: children will be going back home, so there needs to be an open discussion and resources to be able to work with a child to make sense of that and enable them to be resilient. There are services to support women who are in abusive relationships and plan to leave, and there is support to enable them while they are in that relationship. We need that for children as well.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Q I was thinking along slightly different lines—sorry if I did not make myself clear. Again in my constituency, there is another Big Lottery-funded youth work-based project where young people are coming to realise that they are living in a home with domestic abuse and violence, whereas before they did not really understand that that was what was going on. The youth workers are there to make sure that the parents have a conversation and that they are being supported to address their relationship issues. That is more what I was thinking of. Is that something we should be looking at, so that rather than the child being identified as being in an abusive home, it is more that the child themselves identifies that they live in an abusive home? What support can we then give to the parents?

Sally Noden:

Absolutely. We have to then be very mindful about making sure that we are not keeping children in the abusive relationship, and about whether the parents are willing to do that piece of work or whether someone will continue to be controlling. It is really important to have that open dialogue, and name it. There are a number of projects, such as the Helping Hands project, that you can work with children on, and I know of a number of youth work projects working with young people, but you are right to ask whether they are really doing the joining up. We need to look at that further.

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

Q What do you think are the implications for children of a proposed legal duty on local authorities to provide accommodation-based support?

Eleanor Briggs:

I have touched on that already. Although we really welcome the duty and see it as a step forward, we think that, as it stands, it is not adequate and will not provide the support that children and young people, and adult victims and perpetrators, need. We welcome the focus in the duty as drafted on children’s support, and we welcome the fact that children’s social care will sit on the board, although we would like to see DFE on the national steering group as well.

We need to face up to the reality that most victims will not be in a refuge. That is a positive thing—people should not need to leave their home to get support. It seems logical to us that if you are getting all the local partners together, including children, to look at an issue and how they are going to respond to domestic abuse, you should not limit that to accommodation-based support. It should be a holistic, expanded duty where they can look at what support we need in the community as well.

There is a particular concern about refuges and the amount of support, because of the fact that people are being turned away and that children are being turned away. From what Sally has said, and from what we see in our own research with Stirling University, we know that those issues are also there with community-based services. Currently, there is a real postcode lottery for access. Research that we did with Stirling University and local authorities showed that in two thirds of areas there were barriers to children and young people accessing community services. Also in two thirds of areas the funding issues that we have already spoken about were present, with projects being funded by unstable funding streams and not knowing what their future was. In 10% of local authorities, there were actually no services for children and young people, and only two had services for children in the early years. There is a real problem around adequate services for children and young people in the community, which the Domestic Abuse Commissioner picked up this morning.

The duty is a real opportunity, which we welcome, but to do its job properly, it needs to be widened. In that research with Stirling University, local authorities said that there is an absence of guidance, that they are not sure what they are supposed to be providing, and, unusually, that they would welcome a duty to give them that clarity about what is wanted. Of course, they will need it to be properly funded, but having that clarity would be a real step forward for everyone.

I have already addressed our fear that unintentionally the duty as it stands might have a negative impact on some of those vital community services for children and young people, particularly given the funding pressure that we know local authorities are under. MHCLG has said that the duty will not have an impact on community-based services, but no detail was provided about how or why that is the case. We therefore echo the Joint Committee’s recommendation that the duty needs to look at how community-based support can be provided. We know from the services that Sally provides how important that support is in helping children to recover and preventing further abuse in the next generation.

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

Q Is anywhere doing it really well at the moment? Postcode lotteries have winners as well as losers. Does anywhere model the sort of thing that you are talking about?

Eleanor Briggs:

Yes. The research that we did with Stirling has three different case studies of how local authorities are operating. One is high functioning, one is doing okay, and one is a really poorly functioning local authority. We will happily share that to show you how the different models are working. We hope that through an expanded duty everyone could get up to that high-functioning model.

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

Q My question builds on those of some of my colleagues regarding how children who experience domestic abuse link with potential fostering services, the Department for Work and Pensions, and future education opportunities. Having had a number of constituents and some family go through a similar process, I know that there is a lot of opportunity to fall through gaps. What, in your view, are the elements of best practice? If they are not in the Bill already, we can try to add them. Certainly, we can share such best practice more widely, supporting an individual in an abusive situation and then connecting them with DWP services, education and other opportunities.

Sally Noden:

I can talk about a case study. I think this will answer your question—tell me if it does not. Within our service, we had a referral of a sibling group. There is a waiting list, and by the time of the referral one of the children had been removed—in fact, all three of them had been removed and one was in a foster placement on their own. We continued with that work; our original piece of work was with the foster carer and the young person.

We linked up with children’s social care and with the foster carer, and we met with mum, because the young child was potentially going to go back home—so we linked up in terms of what sort of therapeutic support we could offer this young person. In fairness, children’s social care linked up with us as well and ensured that we were speaking to the right people. We needed to speak to the foster carer. We might have spoken only to mum, or we might not have spoken to her.

The big piece of work that we did with that young person was trying to work out their emotional responses to the uncertainty that they were going to go through. That was a huge piece of work, because they did not know whether they were going to go home. At one point, the courts were looking at whether dad was a potential caregiver. Dad had been the perpetrator of domestic violence towards mum. We had to do some work, although the child was not really in recovery because they still had lots of uncertainties; they really needed some therapeutic support in working out their emotions and their lack of knowledge about what was going on.

I do not know whether that quite answers your question. We ensured that we connected up, and doing so has to be everybody’s responsibility. It is the same with adult services. Often you see the adult presented, and you do not connect up whether the child will have to move school, and what will happen to them and their education. That is why it is so important to have children named as victims in the Bill, because people then have to connect it up, from all services.

Eleanor Briggs:

I would add that if we got a wider duty, looking more broadly than accommodation-based services, that would help because you would have the board and representatives from all relevant partners across the local authority on that board looking at their joined-up response. That would get them talking, and would be such an opportunity. If they were looking more widely than just at accommodation, they would pick up on those issues.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

It all sounds a bit precarious. A lot of excellent work is going on, but it is not certain that it will continue in a consistent way. You seem to be putting quite a lot of eggs in the basket of the wider duty, which will be a way to drive resource and underpin greater consistency, so that we are not just dependent on lottery funding that is falling. Can you explain how you think that will work?Q

Eleanor Briggs:

I suppose the way the duty will be set up is that the boards will come together and do an assessment of what is happening their area; what the needs are and how they can commission services to meet those needs. I think the current version of it will look at accommodation-based needs, whereas the way that we envisage it, they will look at the whole spectrum. With other organisations, we would like to look at perpetrators as well, so that we can get a proper picture. We are looking to end this problem and that also involves support for perpetrators. They look at the whole thing as a holistic issue and look at where support is needed. Obviously, that demands a good risk assessment and the right people being there, but proper funding is also key. For this duty to be in place will need proper funding, so that once the assessment is done, the right services can be commissioned and funded properly so that that support is in place.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q We heard from the earlier witness that these sorts of services are often seen as low-hanging fruit when pressures are on budgets.

Eleanor Briggs:

Absolutely. That is why for us this is the part of the Bill that offers us the best chance we have to get those services. People have already talked about how something gets done when you make it statutory. When there is an obligation, it will be provided. We want these services to be a statutory obligation to provide support to children and families and then we will see it funded. As I mentioned, we have seen children’s services, where there is no statutory obligation. Those, as you say, are the low-hanging fruit and the ones that go when there is a problem.

You say we are putting all our eggs in one basket. This is absolutely key for us and the best way that we can see at the moment to secure vital support. We also definitely want to see children in the definition on the face of the Bill. That is really important in getting a response from all services. Zoe has already mentioned that the police are doing much better, which is great to hear, but we know from studies abroad that the police have responded to children much better when children are named as victims in the definition of domestic abuse, so we want to see that here as well.

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

Q Thank you for joining us today. I want to touch on the Children Act. You are probably aware that the Government are considering the pre-legislative scrutiny Joint Committee recommendation on the definition of harm in the Children Act and whether it should be amended to recognise the impact on children of coercive control. What are your thoughts on that? What do you think the impact of such an amendment will be? Also, do you foresee any unintended consequences of singling out one form of harm?

Eleanor Briggs:

We really welcome that. We were really pleased to see the Joint Committee recommendation. The Children Act is a fantastic piece of legislation. We are excited its 30th anniversary is coming up next month. It is a great piece of legislation because it has adapted and changed as things have moved forward. As part of that, in 2002, the definition of harm was changed to include impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. That was added in relation to domestic abuse, so that recognition was there. We support the Joint Committee’s recommendation for it to be absolutely clear that coercive control is included. Our research with Stirling University, that I referred to, showed that the local authorities we spoke to felt that social workers still did not recognise coercive control and how dangerous it can be. Research shows that children really do suffer when coercive control is going on in the house. It is also very high risk. There is a high chance of very serious violence related to coercive control, so we support that widening.

We would also like to see the definition change slightly so that it talks about children seeing or hearing—experiencing—the domestic abuse that goes on. This point was powerfully made when we went to see one of our services. We did not prompt them or say anything when we did our initial research, but one of the service managers said: “Children don’t witness domestic abuse, they experience it.” She was absolutely passionate about that. They are not sitting there as some kind of secondary part of it; they absolutely are experiencing that. The Bill provides an opportunity to get that into the Children’s Act and to link it to the definition in the Bill. I am not concerned about it limiting, because from my understanding it was introduced in 2002 to be around getting domestic abuse in there. To get that right and to make sure it is up to date with the Domestic Abuse Bill, now feels like a real opportunity.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Three more Members wish to speak and we have just under 10 minutes, so questions and answers need to be relatively quick.

Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West

I want to expand on mental health issues. Do you work with child and adolescent mental health servicesQ ?

Sally Noden:

Yes. Actually, over a third of our referrals come from CAMHS, and I also oversee a family support service within Early Help. We work really closely with our CAMHS colleagues, because mental health is a real issue for our young people and for parents.

Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West

Q I know we have the NHS in the commissioning body, but do you think there should be something for people with mental health issues, particularly children, in the commissioning body?

Sally Noden:

Yes, I think so. I do not know whether Eleanor would answer that better than I would.

Eleanor Briggs:

We have not done a lot of work on this, to be honest, but we can speak to others and come back to you. I know that Hestia Housing will be appearing before you on Thursday and that they have done a lot of work looking at CAMHS. That is one of their asks, so it might be good to ask them about that.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Q It is fascinating to hear all about the services, and the people of Newcastle are obviously very lucky to have them. We heard in other evidence sessions that not having services such as these is often a barrier to women going further to seek out more services, because they do not think their children will get the services required. Do you have a view on how widely available they are across England and Wales? What difference will the role of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner make in ensuring that when she and her team are mapping all these services, it will help to improve the availability of such services across the country for children affected by domestic abuse?

Eleanor Briggs:

The research that we did with Stirling University looked at 30 local authorities and at where services were available and where they were not. It varies a lot. In two thirds of local authorities involved in the study, there were some barriers to accessing services. In 10% of areas, there were no support services available. In a third of areas, access to services was restricted by postcode. We know it really varies, which relates to the lack of duty and the instability around funding being an issue.

We really welcome the role of the commissioner, and it is fantastic to see that. We welcome that she has a specific remit on children and that she will have a child advisor as part of her office. We would really like to see children included in the statutory definition, just to strengthen it and ensure that it is absolutely clear. We would also like to see a bit more clarity in the wording—when she looks at the provision of services, it should include children’s services as well, because it could be a real tool if it was absolutely clear that she is going to look at that.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

Thank you very much for the interesting evidence. Can I just come back to your point on people under 16 being victims? The Bill states:Q

“Behaviour of a person (‘A’) towards another person (‘B’) is ‘domestic abuse’ if…A and B are each aged 16 or over”.

Are you suggesting it should be the case that, in that scenario, B does not have to be aged 16 or over? Is that what you were driving towards?

Eleanor Briggs:

No.

Eleanor Briggs:

It is really confusing, and we have spent literally hours thinking about this. We want to keep the domestic abuse age at 16, because of the issues around child abuse that we have talked about. We are working on various amendments. We would like to see something added, probably under clause 1(5), so that the impact of domestic abuse on children is recognised in the definition. The offence would be between A and B, who would be over 16, but then further down we would have the impact recognised on children, as happens at the moment in the Australian model. It is complicated legally, but we are working with a number of barristers and there are options that we are pursuing about how that could fit.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I have probably missed it—if so, my apologies—but, from a legal perspective, what would you be wanting to occur as a result of that addition at paragraph 5?

Eleanor Briggs:

We would want it to be linking in to the commissioner and to the new MHCLG duty that we have there, so that it is absolutely clear. The notes with the Bill also make very clear that this definition will be used well beyond the scope of the Bill. It will be used by frontline practitioners as well. We are really passionate that that has to be in there, so that when healthcare or the police are responding to a domestic abuse incident, they are recognising children in there. We know from the joint targeted area inspection reports that were done in 2016 that a lot of adult services just did not ask any questions about children. We think that we need it there in a definition, so that everyone is aware. The Children’s Act is great, but it does not do all of that, and a lot of other practitioners will not be looking at it.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

So it is a similar concept to the discussion we were having about recognising the gender imbalance and that being on the face, but there was also a feeling that that could be covered by the statutory guidance that comes out. Could that not be a place for what you just described there with regard to children, in terms of the guidance, and knock on to the providers of the services?

Eleanor Briggs:

We do welcome the guidance, and that is definitely a step forward. But for us, that is not going to be strong enough. We do not feel that you can guarantee that everyone is going to read the guidance—or when they see the guidance they might see children and think, “Actually, that is just relevant to children’s services”. If you have got it on the face of the Bill it will be much stronger, and we can guarantee that we are getting the proper response that we need.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Do any Members wish to ask further questions? I thank both witnesses for their contributions today and discharge them from the Committee.