We will now hear oral evidence from the designate domestic abuse commissioner. Thank you very much for coming today.
Before calling the first Member to ask a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and we must stick to the timings in the programme order. The Committee has agree that, for this session, we have until 12.30 pm.
What I am going to say now is about social distancing. If anyone in the room feels uncomfortable about social distancing, we will deal with it. Please do not hesitate to say if you are worried. I would be most grateful if our witness can speak into the microphone, because although this is one of the modern rooms of the Palace of Westminster, it has the worst acoustics. We have an additional problem, which is that we cannot get all Members around the horseshoe, so, exceptionally, Members are going to speak from behind. Will the witness not look behind when answering, because we lose the sound? If possible, when you are answering a question from behind, could you frame your answer in reply to the question? That way, Hansard will pick up the question as well. This is the first time we have done this, and we are trying to do the best we can.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Nicole Jacobs, and I am the designate domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales. Just as a short introduction, I was appointed in late September, after having worked for more than 20 years in domestic abuse services, some in the United States but mostly in the UK in various organisations—most recently, an organisation called Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, which is based in west London.
Before I call the first Member, Jess Phillips, to ask a question, I remind the witness that this is the only time that Ministers have fun in the whole of this process. They get to ask questions too.
Hello, Nicole, and welcome to our slightly weird distanced Committee. Some of my other colleagues will talk to you specifically about the role, the role of the Bill in creating it and some of those other areas, so I want to ask you more broadly about the Bill.Q
We keep hearing Ministers say, “We will be asking the commissioner to do a review of this, looking at different ways in which there might be a postcode lottery in the country for this, that and the other,” so that is expected to be part of your role. What do you think the Bill does well for the sustainability of services for victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse, and where do you think the main gaps are?
Thank you for that. I apologise to anyone who has heard me talk about the Bill before, but I appreciate that some Members are new here. I will say what I have said consistently from the start. I welcome almost all aspects of the Bill. There is nothing in it that I particularly disagree with, and I particularly welcome things such as the statutory definition and the inclusion of financial abuse. There are aspects that could be improved—I am sure we will talk about them over the hour—but on the whole, I support the key elements. I particularly support the inclusion of the statutory duty for accommodation-based services, because that has been such a vulnerable aspect of our services over many years.
What I have always thought is missing from the Bill and would greatly support the services sector is the inclusion of community-based services in the statutory duty. Everything I do as the commissioner in thinking about the monitoring and oversight of services—not just specialist services, but the breadth of what we expect of all our community-based statutory services—would be supported if there were greater inclusion in the Bill of the duty for community-based services. They are providing 70% of our services, and they are as vulnerable as refuges have been for years.
I am sure that I will talk about some of my mapping. Part of the reason why I am mapping services is to look at that postcode lottery. The reason why that gets a bit complicated is that all services, no matter where they are, will be cobbling together funding from all manner of places—the local authority, the police and crime commissioner, foundations and trusts, local fundraising and their own fee earning—and they will be doing that to cover the basic crisis response. There are very few places anywhere that would have the breadth of response that we would love to see, in terms of prevention, early crisis intervention, follow-up support and therapeutic support, which we know are really needed. The Bill is missing that element, which is a particularly strong one, and we have many people who have no recourse to public funds, which means there are many barriers to support.
Q I just want to pick up on that issue of the postcode lottery, which is potentially not harmed in the Bill but is not catered for in the Bill. In a situation where a child is a victim of domestic abuse directly or lives every day with their mother being raped, beaten and abused in front of them, are you confident that, if the child were to come forward, there would be specialist support—or any support—for that child, no matter where they stood up in the country?
No, I would not be confident of that. I did not mention that in my opening comments, but unless they met a particular threshold for children’s social care—most of the public would think children experiencing domestic abuse would meet such thresholds, but they often do not. Even if they did, there would be a lot of variance within our statutory provision of children’s safeguarding from area to area, let alone anything that is specifically commissioned to address domestic abuse. Children’s services, and services that help perpetrators to change, are probably the biggest areas where there are gaps in our system.
Q In the follow-up to the Joint Committee on the previous Bill in a previous Parliament—it looks pretty similar to this Bill in this Parliament, so we will assume it is the one for this Bill—the Government came back and said they felt that, in the wider context of abusive behaviour towards a victim under the age of 16, it would be deemed child abuse and the extra support would come through social services. Is that a picture of our country that you recognise?
No. Before the lockdown, I started to visit some areas that our chief social worker had told me were particularly outstanding in children’s social care. She would think it is broader than this, but she suggested a handful of places for me to visit. In the places I started to visit, I was, like she thought I might be, quite impressed by the provision of services within social care. I was seeing something that I had never seen before: a point of contact for the abusing parent, for the adult victim and for the child. I had actually not seen that before in 20 years of working, and I have not only worked in west London; I have worked in organisations that are much broader. I was really inspired by that, but I recognised something that I thought was fairly unusual. I think what you said is true.
Q On the gaps that you alluded to with regard to migrant women, migrant victims and migrant children, and to British children who are the children of migrant victims, you said that the Bill did not currently do enough to help them. Could you please expand on that?
That is right. Having been there myself, I have experienced the feeling of having someone in my office on a Friday afternoon who has three children, has no recourse to public funds and is too scared to go home, knowing that I could do very little and that I had a long night ahead of me. I understand how that feels.
That is happening every day, all the time, and I do not see anything in this Bill that would address that. I am a firm believer that we should lift the requirement that people have no recourse to public funds. It makes no sense. If you are experiencing domestic abuse, and you are here in our country, then you should have recourse to routes to safety.
Those are the people who actually got to me. I was sitting in an office that was within a broader larger charity, and it was probably lucky that those people got to me. Many migrant women will have fears about the system and about the repercussions of coming forward. They will be highly dependent on word-of-mouth networks and much smaller community-based services.
Q I wanted to clarify that the women—I am assuming they were largely women—who you talk about that came to you, and the people I am talking about, are here in this country completely legally.
That is right. They did not have a status that would allow them to have recourse to the funds. It is true that that did not mean they could not come to see me in a community-based service, but it meant my hands were tied and I had very few options. I would hope for a possible night in a hostel somewhere, but I would know that we would be back to square one the next day. That would happen over and over again, until, quite rarely, we would find somewhere more suitable. I might have been ringing around the few refuge spaces that were possibly available. The next witness will give you much more detail about that.
Q Absolutely. I want to finish by talking about the gap you identified around perpetrator services. The Bill has wide-ranging changes with regard to domestic violence protection orders and other such issues. Is there a particular area of the Bill that you think needs to be more robust about how we manage the postcode lottery of perpetrator services?
It could potentially be addressed in a statutory duty that was broadened in the clauses about domestic abuse protection orders. I leave that up to you to decide. In my years of experience working in the sector we have had huge changes in terms of innovation. It is an exciting time to think about the broad strategy that we need for perpetrators to help them change and for early intervention, all the way through to much more punitive measures. There are a lot of pilots, a lot of evaluation and practice.
We are in a better place than ever, but I am concerned about the DAPO and the positive requirements on it. You will not be able to place the positive requirement if there is not a service in the area that meets proper standards, as it is fairly unusual to find an area that would have that breadth of services.
Q Would it be pointless to have a Bill that makes ways for domestic abuse protection orders to exist if, in your local area, there is not a service that would be accredited, by some standard that does not currently exist?
I have always understood that the DAPO is in the Bill to pave the way, through its two-year piloting. There is no doubt that it will prompt many questions: the implementation, the way we should be working together, the thought we need to give to how victims and survivors are communicated with in courts, and any number of other things.
Because I am an optimistic person, I always thought that while things are not covered off completely—there is a huge gap with the idea of the perpetrator and where all the constant requirements are coming from—the general strategy is for people to learn in the process of the DAPO. I guess my plea is for you to strength the evaluation of that pilot any way you can in the Bill. It needs to be implemented and resourced properly, including the voice of victims, and my other plea would be for the Victims’ Commissioner and I to be included in the learning for the DAPOs.
I want to comment on a few things that you said in response to Jess’s questions. A lot of the things you are saying about the DAPOs will obviously come into the statutory guidance. It is important to remember that there are things in the Bill, but the statutory guidance will be the backup, and I suspect a lot of your concerns will be addressed by that guidance. When you talk about community-based services, are you talking about the charitable sector—the third sector—or are you talking about local government? In local government, there is an ability to offer a lot of domestic abuse services, but some councils do not choose to. What is your definition of community-based services?Q
In general, I am talking about the ones that are commissioned for domestic abuse services, usually—although not solely—by the local authority. Sometimes those are outreach workers or independent domestic violence advocates; at one point, I was one of those. All aspects of the local authority are highly dependent on those services—housing officers, social workers, teachers—and a whole breadth of referrals come into those types of services. Just to give you an example, in the area of west London where I worked the year before I took on this role, they had 4,000 referrals of people into those community-based services, so we are talking about quite high volumes of cases. Each worker will be supporting 30 to 40 people at any given time. That is on a rolling basis over the year, so by the end of that year, just that one worker will have probably supported well over 100 people, if not more.
There are a few places where that team will be employed within the local authority, but those are few and far between; the commissioning-out of that service is much more common. I prefer the commissioning-out of the service, because people who experience domestic abuse have such a lot of fears about seeking help because they worry about the consequences. They do not know for definite what the police, particularly, are going to do, or social workers or anyone else, and they really value the independence of that role. It is not that they would never share information: if they have safeguarding concerns, for example, they have a duty to share those, but there is a level of independence that gives them a bit of safe space to think through the complexities of their situation, and it is fairly well evaluated that these are critical services. They are also quite cost-effective. It is incredible what these individual workers will do over the course of the year. If you shifted that into a local authority, they would cost more and the relationship would change, so the case I am making is for us to recognise how critical these services are.
My worry is that if we go ahead with the statutory duty for refuge-based or accommodation-based services, local authorities that are cash-strapped or concerned about budgets will obviously prioritise that duty, and the unintended consequence could be that these community-based services are curtailed or cut. They are not in main budgets, but have to fight year in, year out or in each commissioning cycle, which are relatively short: two years or sometimes three. I worry that because they are not part of a duty, they will be cut or curtailed, when even now they are barely covering the breadth of support that they should. There could be some serious unintended consequences from the implementation of the duty.
If it stays that way, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should include in the current set-up of the statutory duty for accommodation-based services a firm responsibility to understand what the consequences could be for community-based services. In practice, the pattern is that it is hard to see the expansion in these services that you might think there would be, considering the prevalence rates. I think that surprises many people. It might not surprise you, but it does surprise many people when they realise how these services have to survive on a shoestring with such a lot of cobbling together of funding.
Thank you, Mr Bone, and thank you, Nicole, for coming in; we all greatly appreciate it. The issue of domestic abuse has had strong advocates in Parliament for a long time, and it Q has had strong advocates in the Home Office, politically and in the civil service, for a long time. Why is it that you need to act independently of these institutions in order to be effective?
I have developed my views on that over the past few months. Particularly in the past few months, in the period of covid-19, I have realised how much it helps Government to have an independent voice helping and advising and, at the same time, pushing for better, more effective ways of doing things. That does not mean that I have won every battle. It has not really been a battle; it has been very co-operative.
I have realised in recent months how much domestic abuse is an issue that runs through every Department—every strand of Government—and some of my role helps to bring those strands together. I said at the Prime Minister’s summit recently that I would love to see a cross-Government action plan. I am now seeing—as you will have recognised before—how much Government Departments in themselves work in silos and how much you need some kind of independent body such as mine. I feel that I have been very helpful, if I can say that.
Q So independence impacts the way you do your job, but presumably it also impacts the way you are perceived by the people for whom you advocate. Abuse victims and survivors need to see you as fully independent from Government and Parliament.
Of course, yes. I have been struck, in the time that I have been appointed, by how much it means to people to know that there is an independent Domestic Abuse Commissioner. People have said to me, “I have waited for years for this kind of thing.” In fact, I feel like the expectation is so high.
Just before I came here, I had a call from a woman who runs a campaign with hundreds, if not thousands, of people about family courts. She really values the idea that she can call me and talk to me about her worries about the Bill, and know that I can talk to her about that, and that I am not speaking for the Government. Equally, people expect me to co-operate with Government if I can, because they understand that I will have a certain level of access to conversations and influence, and it is important to them to know that is happening.
Q But there are certain areas of the Bill where the Home Secretary can direct you. The Home office sets your budget, the Home Office sets the framework that you follow, and the Home Office has the power—or the right—to look at your advice before it is published, and presumably to comment on it. In a productive, functional relationship that is co-operative, which is how you said you want to approach the job, that seems fine. However, should that become dysfunctional at any point, there is the power within the law to be quite assertive over you.
I suppose I would say to the whole Committee that if there is any way that you feel you could strengthen my independence, I would obviously welcome it, and I think anyone on this Committee should want to welcome that. As you say, it is important to the public and to the Government to know that. It makes the relationship functional. My experience, and the way I have been communicated with by Ministers and civil servants to date, has been entirely within those bounds, which shows me how everyone recognises it has to function—in a healthy, independent state.
Q That is entirely plausible, because you have here two of the most reasonable Ministers that I could ever imagine. You are very popular. The Joint Committee recommends that you should report to the Cabinet Office, the Home Affairs Committee believes that you should report to Parliament, and the Home Office will not let go of you at any cost, so you are very popular—as an institution and as a commissioner—before you have even been established. Do you have a view on any of those things, or do you believe that it is our business to try to sort that out for you?
My view of the role is probably more simplistic. Yes, I think it is your responsibility to sort it out. I really believe that. In my view, and with the kinds of rules I play by on this, I will always speak the truth, so far as I understand it, regardless of who I am talking to about it. That is what I have to abide by, and I will expect to be independent. However the logistics are set out, I would really welcome this Committee making sure that they are as independent as possible, without any doubt.
Q I have one final question—forgive me for hurrying along; we only have a short amount of time to do this—about cross-examination, which is obviously a very important part of the Bill. Do you believe that what is in the Bill achieves the purpose of giving victims and alleged victims of domestic abuse adequate protection against the possibility of continued abuse via direct cross-examination?
I think it is welcome. I would just take a step back and urge you to consider the kind of evidence that someone would produce in order to allow for that. Most people who are subject to domestic abuse will not always have—there will not be a record in many places, such as with the police, or of a conviction, for that matter, so I would be mindful that you consider how many people could be coming through the court and still be subject to cross-examination if they are not able to “prove” domestic abuse.
I think it points to a larger issue within family courts: because of the way the family courts currently operate, they are not able to understand and differentiate fully the breadth of what has happened, yet they make incredibly life-changing decisions. I would not like someone to make decisions about my children based on very little evidence and a short assessment, but that is what we often ask the family courts to do, in respect of cross-examination or any number of things that will happen. I just worry that we need a much broader ambition for our family courts to really understand exactly the breadth of what is happening, and not confine them to wanting domestic abuse to be proven in a particular way. There are other ways we could find these things out. That would be my higher ambition.
Specifically on the cross-examination, I would like that to be broader. There are studies that show that one in four people responding to the study who were subject to domestic abuse had been cross-examined if they had been in a family court. It is horrific to be cross-examined by someone who you fear, who knows intimate details about you. It puts you in a terrible position, obviously. So I am pleased that this is in the Bill. I think it could be strengthened.
Thank you. A number of Members have caught my eye, starting with Virginia Crosbie, then Liz Twist, Alex Davies-Jones, Liz Saville Roberts and Mike Wood, and of course the Minister will want to ask questions. I can see what the problem is going to be: we only have less than 15 minutes. Could we bear that in mind and perhaps have brief questions and answers? It is always a problem in these sessions.
Thank you for coming in, Nicole. I have two quick questions. You mentioned working with charities, and my question is on collaboration. In terms of working with the third sector, I have Gorwel in my constituency of Ynys Môn, which is a great domestic abuse charity. It has been very helpful in giving me lots of background information and very supportive in the community. How do you as a commissioner see yourself working with the third sector to make sure it has a voice?Q
I see it in a lot of different ways, particularly because they are the closest link to the voice of the survivor. Obviously, I want to be influenced directly by people who are subject to domestic abuse, but those services have such a breadth of understanding that my first question is almost always, “What does the frontline service think about this particular thing?” because I know that they will have spotted every advantage and every problem in anything. I would hope that the way I would work with them is quite close—I have been working very closely with them in past months. For example, I have a call every Monday with quite a few of our national helplines and services that represent the sector.
I probably should say the obvious: the idea of the domestic abuse commissioner’s office—not me personally, but the idea of it—will have a massive impact, because it will allow me to go to the local level and help elevate those voices. It will help illustrate more clearly the breadth of funding that needs to go to those services for them to do what they need to do, so that they are not constantly chasing funding deadlines or dealing with shortfalls in their budgets and all those kinds of things. It is also about making sure that they are rightfully where they need to be in strategic conversations at local level, because that has deteriorated quite a bit over time. You have charities that, because they are commissioned by the local authority, are sometimes at a disadvantage when there are challenging discussions to be had. That is because, on the one hand, they are asking for funding and, on the other, they are trying to be a meaningful strategic partner in the whole of the response for an area. I would like to make sure that I have an expectation in areas that would elevate that voice. Those would be my priorities.
Again, if anything, covid has accelerated my picture of how I would do that. I speak to the Children’s Commissioner often, and to the Victims’ Commissioner several times a week. I speak to the Welsh national advisers usually once a week, but possibly once every two weeks. We have pretty close working relationships because there is such a lot of join-up about, in recent weeks, the response to covid, but, in general, the breadth of whatever is being implemented or thought about or should be happening. They are pretty close working relationships, and I will develop a memorandum of understanding with all those offices in due course.
Q Finally, on the issue of community-based services, do you think that authorities and organisations will see looking after children in community services as a lesser responsibility if it is not in the definition?
Yes, I think they would understand that they have a statutory duty on one hand and not on the other. There is already a pattern and practice that is very evident—there is not the commissioning of a whole breadth of services, particularly for children. I do not know why we would think that would improve if we do not make it clear. I think there would be a detrimental effect; I would be afraid of that.
I will now call Alex Davies-Jones. She is about to make history, because I do not think we have ever had a Member speak from the Public Gallery before. I hope it is okay under these unusual circumstances. I ask the witness not to turn to face the Member, but to speak into the microphone, and if possible to frame your answer so that we can understand the question as well.
Thank you, Chair. I am never one for being quiet, so I think my voice will carry. I want to ask about the impact of the coronavirus and whether you think that has any implications. What can we learn from the impact of the pandemic that can help the Bill?Q
The question was about the impact of the coronavirus and what we might learn in relation to the Bill. I will answer briefly, but I think if it has taught us anything, it is about the prevalence of domestic abuse and the need for services. That goes exactly to our argument on broadening the statutory duty. At national helplines, we have seen increases across the board—for male victims, female victims, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims, and people who are concerned about their own behaviour. It shows the need for those services—that is where people go to for help, support and advice—and it strengthens our view about the need for the statutory duty. It has certainly, in my mind, shown the need for cross-governmental and much clearer action, planning and strategy. I will do my part and will make sure I play my role in that too. I would have been able to function more easily in the last weeks if there had been that kind of framework and the expectation on Departments.
One of the things I was very glad happened in the Joint Committee was the recognition of the fact that there is different legislation in Wales. There are also different third-sector organisations and a different arrangement with local authorities. There have been initial steps in your work in relation to the Welsh Government. You have been talking about cross-Government working. How do you see that developing in future? We have this divergence between England and Wales, and yet your role is equally important across both countries. How do you ensure that you are getting a voice back from Wales, to influence you at the heart of what you do?Q
To date, there has probably been more influence from Wales for me. I mentioned that Monday call. Welsh Women’s Aid sits on that call and an official from the Welsh Government sits on that call every Monday. They influence what comes out of that call, in what is given in the read-out, which goes to a number of stakeholders. It has helped us develop the obvious areas where we will need to work together—for example, thinking about funding through police and crime commissioners most recently and about what the picture is for Wales and what is happening there. I can see more than ever before where the synergies are. What is yet to be formalised in my mind is the areas where there could be more overlap, potentially, in thinking about mapping—things that, with agreement, it would make more sense to do together rather than separately on issues that are devolved. The working relationship is off to a good start, but I can see a real need for further development as well.
Q Is there any formal arrangement between you and the Welsh Government to report back on their strategy as well?
I am interested in your views on the impact of having a statutory definition of domestic abuse for the first time. Also, can you give your views of your relative powers compared with some of the other existing commissioners, such as the Victims’ Commissioner or the Children’s CommissionerQ ?
We cannot underestimate the need for that statutory definition; if I think that, for years and years, I have been training to what would have been an agreed cross-departmental definition, that is particularly welcome. That will have some effect, without any doubt, on any number of systems and services.
The question was about the importance of having the statutory definition. Like I said earlier, I think it should include children. I really welcome the inclusion of economic abuse. We are seeing, particularly with covid—it is coming up time and time again each week—people needing support for economic-related, financial abuses, and that is increasing quite substantially. It is a really important time to recognise that. One of the things we need in order to do that better would be to amend our coercion and control legislation to include post-separation abuse. That is incredibly important to consider and do.
I also think that the definition could include—you will hear about this from others later today—the idea of having a non-discrimination clause. I know there is a lot of detail to that, but, in some ways, that would help reiterate and underscore some of the points we talked about earlier in relation to migrant women. I would welcome that, and it would be positive.
In relation to the powers of my role in comparison with other commissioners, I think I have said before that the Home Office has looked at various commissioners and has done quite a good job of thinking about what set of powers this office should have. They are relatively strong. The duty to respond to recommendations, and the ability to ask for information and have an expectation for co-operation—all those things compare quite well with other commissioners.
I will be very brief. I want to follow up on the question on Wales. What sort of a relationship are you developing with Scotland, because much of this is devolved there as well? Do you feel there is a need for a formal relationship with the devolved AuthoritiesQ ?
I have been to Northern Ireland as well, and I have had conversations particularly with Scottish Women’s Aid. I was quite interested to understand that some of the funding for Scottish Women’s Aid comes as core funding from Government in Scotland, because of the recognition of their expertise and the need to advise Government. I was quite interested to see that that happened. In some ways, Scottish Women’s Aid is quite comparable to the way my role is set out in terms of advice to Government and challenge.
I think I will have quite a good working relationship in both Northern Ireland and in Scotland. I would probably welcome any way that you see fit to strengthen that, because, inevitably, there will be learning and crossover. I have talked to Scottish Women’s Aid about, for example, the research they do with their counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in terms of Women’s Aid, the research and the potential synergies with my office. I want to join that up and make sure we are not wasting any time or resource.
I will have to apologise to Members who have not been able to get in. You have been an excellent and very clear witness. There are lots more questions, but I am afraid we are bound by the time limits, so I have to call this session to an end. Thank you very much indeed. We move on to the next session.