Q We will now hear oral evidence from the Southall Black Sisters. I am very grateful that our witness sat through the first session, so I will not repeat all the information about social distancing and the fact that Members are sitting behind you, as you have heard that. I would be very grateful if you could introduce yourself.
My name is Pragna Patel, and I am the director and a founding member of Southall Black Sisters. We were established in 1979 to meet the needs of black and minority ethnic women, certainly in our local area of west London. Although we are based in west London, we now have a national reach.
Most of the women who come to us have been subject to all kinds of gender-related violence and, related to that, issues of homelessness, poverty, trauma, mental illness and, of course, difficulties with immigration matters. We exist as an advice, advocacy and campaigning centre, and have been at the forefront of many campaigns to highlight the needs and experiences of black and minority women in the UK.
Q Hello, Pragna. Thank you for coming in today in these slightly strange circumstances.
For a number of years, this Bill has been getting to the point where we are sitting here today. Organisations like yours, Southall Black Sisters, are run for and by migrant women and black and minority ethnic women. Could you estimate how many hours you have spent trying to help build the Bill, working with the Government and advocating in meetings in this House? How many hours do you think you have spent asking for things to be in this Bill for migrant women and victims of domestic abuse?
During the course of the Bill, I would say hundreds. It has become a core element of our work. The reason why we have put so much time and resources into the Bill is that, like many, we see it as a landmark Bill—a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity Bill—to try to get things right for abused women. For us, it is vital that it includes protection measures not for some women but for all women, and particularly the women we work with.
Q Could you briefly, in one line, set out what exactly you—not just you, but organisations like yours and lots of more generic organisations—have been asking to be put in the Bill?
There are lots of aspects of it that I could talk about, but the key thing is the inclusion of protection for migrant women, who represent some of the most marginalised, vulnerable, forgotten women in our society. If covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that there are glaring inequalities in our society. If we want to create a new normal, we have to seize opportunities like this to combat the inequalities that are being shored up, which lead to problems in the long run. We have seen that in relation to the exclusion from the Bill of protection for migrant women.
Q So after all those hours of work and, I believe, two reviews—please correct me if I am wrong—on migrant women, with one completed and one not completed, do you see any of your work written on the face of the Bill in front of us?
I cannot tell you how disappointing and frustrating it is for us to feel that our voices continue to be unheard. It is not my voice, but the voice of those who remain invisible, that I am trying to amplify here. It does not signal confidence that, in the governing structures of this society and in the criminal and civil justice systems, there will be protection afforded to all women who need to engage with statutory, legal and voluntary services to obtain protection and justice. The women I work with are some of the women who suffer the most disproportionately from violence and abuse, who face some of the most prolonged and extreme forms of harm, and who have the least ability to exit from abuse and protect themselves. That is why it is so important that people here today take account of the need to make this Bill the best that it can be, in terms of protecting those who cannot protect themselves. The litmus test of this Bill has to be: are we protecting those who are the most marginalised and the most vulnerable?
Q Just so that people can hear this, if a victim comes forward who is working in, let us say, a hospital and has no recourse to public funds, would she be able to easily access a refuge bed for her and her children in any local authority area?
No way. There is no way. No recourse to public funds prohibits abused women who are subject to it from accessing any kind of support. They basically cannot access the welfare safety net.
Q Have you ever met any women in that circumstance who have children—let us discount single victims at this point—and who have been told that they would have their children removed from them? Obviously, local authorities have a duty to provide, under section 17 of the Children Act, for every child who comes forward. Have you ever seen circumstances in which women have been told that their children will be removed because the women have been victims of domestic abuse?
All the time. One of the areas of work for us has been working with our local authorities to try to encourage them, support them and challenge them to support women and children, because they have safeguarding duties to the children at least, even if women have no recourse to public funds. We are finding that there are two problems to this. The first is that many of these women have insecure immigration status. Immigration and Home Office enforcement officers are now embedded in many social services, which increases the level of fear that women have in even getting out, reporting abuse and seeking help, because they are afraid that data will be shared with the Home Office and that, instead of being offered help, they will be subject to possible deportation. That is the first problem we are facing.
The second problem we face is that, for all sorts of reasons, the local authority response is one of deterrence. It may be because they are cash-strapped; it may be for other reasons. It means that when women go and report domestic violence, particularly if they have no recourse to public funds and have children, there are three or four common responses that we are always met with. One: “We do not have a duty to accommodate you, but we can pay for your return ticket to your country of origin—this is without assessing needs and risks. Two: “We have a duty to your child but not you, and therefore we will accommodate the child and not you.” Three: “The child has not been the subject of abuse, and therefore the child can remain with the abuser.” That way, the safeguarding duties are discharged. Reconciliation and mediation meetings, offering immigration advice when they are not experienced enough to do so, having immigration officers in the building speaking to those women, which drives up their levels of fear, encouraging women to return to their country of origin or sometimes encouraging women to go and obtain asylum even though that is not appropriate, are some of the most common responses that we have received from local authorities, not just in London, but also outside.
We are in the middle of producing research to bring together the evidence around local authority responses. What I would say is that over three months last year—October to December—we had occasion to seek legal advice in 18 cases involving local authority responses, because they were not fulfilling the statutory duty in relation to section 17 of the Children Act and the need to safeguard children.
Q This is my final question. If it was written into the Bill that victims of domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds, regardless of their status, were able to access welfare, security and support from any agency, would that save people’s lives?
There is no question that introducing such a measure would provide almost certainty, in terms of protection and safety and providing life-saving services and access to justice for many women.
I really want to emphasise the context of this. We have seen with the covid-19 crisis that inequalities that have always existed have been exposed and exacerbated. We have also seen, in relation to what is going on in the US, the racial uprisings, which are also a reflection of historical and glaring inequalities—in both cases, in relation to the protected characteristics of race, age, class, sex and so on. When I say that migrant women are excluded from the Bill, I am also talking about discrimination and inequality.
We have an opportunity to redress that balance and to ensure that those who need protection and justice can get it, regardless of their status, regardless of their background. That is what the Istanbul convention that the Bill is seeking to ratify—it is a step towards that ratification—is hoping to do. If we really mean that, if we really want to change and to combat inequalities and create a new normal, introducing measures that will support the most vulnerable and the most invisible—those who are most likely to be subject to the hostile immigration environment—is critical. I encourage the Committee to really think about the opportunity we have got to signal a new normal.
Q Good morning. You agree that the Government need clear data and evidence in order to create meaningful and effective policies to help those incredibly vulnerable women.
Absolutely. Of course I do. I think the evidence has been gathered, and it is there; that is my difference with the view that we need to collect more data and evidence. Over the duration of this Bill, there have been various roundtables, ministerial meetings, submissions to the Home Office, internal reviews, submissions to the last call for evidence. In all these ways, evidence has been submitted to show how migrant women, particularly those with no recourse to public funds and on non-spousal visas, are being left behind and left devoid of protection. There is a lot of evidence out there, and it is gathered. Government themselves have funded us, through the tampon tax, to provide that evidence.
Q That was my next question: we have asked you to help us with this evidence, haven’t we? We have given you £250,000 through the tampon tax fund and a further £1 million to build on that work. Against that background, could you please help us by telling us how many victims you have helped through the tampon tax fund?
Q Is it fair to say that a high proportion of those 500 women were eligible for support under the destitute domestic violence concession?
Q Of the 250 who were not eligible, how many of the cases were complex and would have needed more than three months under the DDVC arrangements, and how many times have you asked for the DDVC time limit to be extended?
We have asked several times for the time limit to be extended, in recognition of the fact that women who are on non-spousal visas have complex immigration histories, and the evaluation findings suggest that we need a longer period of time to support them in order for them to resolve those immigration difficulties. Up to six months or so would be an average.
Half of them at least, because our evidence shows that about two thirds of the women who come to us and our partner agencies in relation to the no-recourse fund that we provide are women who do not have spousal visas, and therefore need at least three months, if not longer—up to six months, or sometimes a little more—to resolve their immigration matters.
Q Fair enough. How many of the 250 women who were not eligible under DDVC could have sought help from other sources of Government support, including, for example, the national referral mechanism, having been trafficked and—
Q I appreciate that incredibly vulnerable victims of human trafficking living in abusive households may not know that the NRM exists, but of course, the role of charities is to signpost them to that system where they get support.
Not many of them were what we would classify as trafficked victims. Many of them were women who were in abusive marriages and relationships, whose relationship or marriage broke down due to domestic abuse. It is not an accurate reflection to say that many of those women could have been referred to the national referral mechanism.
Q The reason I am asking these questions is to understand the evidence base we have at the moment. We are very grateful for the work you have done, but at the moment, the evidence base consists of a few hundred cases. They are compelling, complex cases, but to create a national policy, would you not agree that we need more evidence to ensure that the policies we are creating will help those women most in need? For example, the three-month DDVC extension may not help some of the women who you have just described.
No, we are talking about a six-month period in which the evaluation findings suggest that many of the women could be helped to resolve their immigration matters or be well on their way, and helped to deal with the barriers they need to overcome in order to stand on their own two feet. In terms of the evidence you need, the evidence we have provided is exactly the evidence that you will get if you do another pilot project.
Q Am I allowed one more question? Do you welcome the pilot project, and the money that we are investing in trying to help?
We are worried that the pilot project will delay matters and will delay the needed protection measures, and that it may be followed up by yet more pilot projects. We are worried that the pilot project has been allocated £1.5 million, whereas the tampon tax that we currently have has allocated £1.9 million. It is only helping 130 women over two years, so we cannot see how the £1.5 million that you have allocated for a pilot project will support many women or will garner the kind of evidence that you will need and that is not already available to you now.
I shall be brief, because time is short. Turning specifically to the Bill, what benefits do you see the domestic abuse commissioner being able to deliver for migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse?Q
What benefits of the role of the domestic abuse commissioner, as it has been set out in the framework document, do you see being available for migrant victims of domestic abuse?
The first thing about the role of the domestic abuse commissioner is that it allows someone independent of Government to amplify the voices of migrant women, and also the BME women’s sector, and to help ensure that the kind of demands that we are making are included in any agenda in relation to statutory guidance, on further reforms in law and in relation to the kind of joined-up thinking that the Government need to be doing in order to meet the needs of more women.
The benefit of the role of the domestic abuse commissioner, so far as I can see, will be particularly powerful when it can influence Government Departments to work across government to try to deal with some of the barriers and obstacles that migrant women particularly face, because those barriers are intersectional. They relate to the ways in which the Home Office, the criminal justice system, the family courts and the third sector can all work together and better to provide the support and protection needed.
I think the statutory definition is definitely a step forward. It is a very important definition. I wish it was gendered, because the social reality of domestic abuse is that it disproportionately affects women and girls. As the Bill is intended to mirror the Istanbul convention, it would have made sense to have been a violence against women and girls Bill.
That is not to say that I do not think that other groups face violence, but this is about gender inequality. Domestic abuse is a reflection of the cause and consequence of gender inequality, so it makes more sense to me to include a gendered understanding of domestic abuse for a number of reasons, including for the gathering of evidence to inform future policy and the need to ensure that support and prevention measures are targeted particularly at young girls, so that they can better understand abuse, recognise abuse and negotiate abuse.
The broad categories of abuse that are set out in the definition are very useful, but it would be important to show that there are also specific forms of abuse that are not included, including forced marriage, honour-based violence, female genital mutilation and other forms of cultural harm that straddle these broad categories. They straddle physical violence, sexual violence, emotional abuse and also financial abuse.
I think it can be strengthened. I think the statutory guidance and the explanation of the definition could spell out some of these things better.
Q Reading your evidence last night, one can sense the weariness of the frequency with which you have had to feed information in for a very long time. This is a fresh opportunity. I am sorry if it feels repetitive to you. There are many of us who are trying to do justice by some of the work and experience you have had.
In your written evidence and in your verbal evidence today you say that the pilot will cover support for about 130 to about 150 women. How many women will be left out from that? How many people are we talking about in general, in total?
I wish I could tell you that. I wish I could tell you how many women there are who are subject to abuse in this country and who are subject to no recourse to public funds. Those figures just do not exist, and that is part of the problem. That is part of the problem of why this issue is so invisible.
Some of the ways in which we have tried to gauge is by looking at how many women, for example, have received the DDVC. I think the figure in 2019 was, if I am not mistaken, that about 1,200 were entitled to the DDVC. If we then look at Women’s Aid statistics and the statistics that Southall Black Sisters have gathered over the years, which suggest that two-thirds of the women who come to us are not entitled to the DDVC, we get a figure of 3,000-odd women. That is the best estimate I can give you. It probably could be more because of under-reporting, so we are talking about possibly low thousands. That is why it is not beyond our ability to ensure that those women receive the support they need.
There is enough evidence. We do not need another pilot project to assess needs. Those needs have been assessed by my organisation and others over the years. The Home Office internal review has not been published. We would like to see that published. We would like to see what the equality outcome of that has been. That would also help us in terms of understanding where the gaps in the evidence are.
A few moments ago you said that you wanted a gendered definition of domestic abuse. I completely understand that everybody acknowledges that the overwhelming number of victims of domestic abuse are women and that is tragic. Are you not worried that, in doing that, we would actually overlook and possibly leave behind some male sufferers of domestic abuseQ ?
I think it is possible to provide a gendered analysis of domestic abuse while also recognising that there are circumstances in which men also face abuse. I do not think that the two need be mutually exclusive. I think it is possible for us to draft the Bill in such a way—the way in which we talk about the fact that it applies to many groups in society but the overwhelming victims are women—that it should not necessarily do what you fear might happen. The disadvantage of not making it gendered—I have seen this in our local area and the way in which statistics are gathered and skewed. Let me give you an example, if I may.
When a woman reports domestic abuse and the police turn up at the door, the perpetrator usually makes a counter-allegation and says, “Well, actually, it was her abusing me.” The police feel that they cannot judge who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. What they have done—we have seen this in a number of our cases—is that they either label both as perpetrators or both as victims. There have been circumstances when the victim herself has been labelled the perpetrator and arrested and charged. What that then means is that the statistics gathered locally are skewed, because it suggests that more men are victims of domestic abuse than they are. In all these cases where women have been categorised as perpetrators, by the time they have got to court those charges have been dropped, because the context has been interrogated and it has been seen that they were the victims.
What I am saying is that that then skews the statistics. It then skews the policies that are needed to deal with abuse and skews policies that are needed to deal particularly with prevention and who the target audiences should be. It is dangerous not to reflect what is a social—and a global—reality and what is recognised in other UN laws, in international human rights law, under the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and in the Istanbul convention itself: that domestic abuse is gendered. It does not mean, therefore, that we cannot accept that abuse also occurs towards men and make sure that there are also protective measures to deal with that.