Q We will now hear evidence from the Women’s Aid Federation of England and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. We are grateful to our two witnesses. Once you are ready, will you introduce yourselves to the Committee? I will then ask members of the Committee to ask you questions.
I am Lucy Hadley, the campaigns and policy manager at Women’s Aid Federation of England. We are a national federation of local domestic abuse services across England, with 180 members delivering around 300 local services to women and children. I am here to talk about the expertise of our federation and the survivors we work with on the Bill.
My name is Andrea Simon. I am head of public affairs for the End Violence Against Women Coalition. We are a national coalition of more than 85 specialist women’s organisations, academics and other experts working to end violence against women and girls in all its forms. We campaign for improved responses to VAWG both nationally and locally.
Q Welcome, both; it is good to see you. Could you give us your view on the Bill and, in particular, how you think the domestic abuse commissioner will be able to help your organisations help survivors?
We really welcome the Bill. There has been a long wait to see it here in Parliament, and we are really pleased that it is back. The current context shows how urgently we need to improve protection and support for survivors. There is currently a real postcode lottery in access to support across the country, which is one of the main reasons why the domestic abuse commissioner can make a massive difference to survivors and their access to support.
The impact of covid-19 has been clear: women are telling us that abuse is escalating but it is harder to leave. At the same time, 85% of the service providers we spoke to in March said they had had to reduce or cancel elements of their service provision. The pandemic has landed on top of a difficult funding crisis for our sector. It is vital that the Bill brings forward the legal protections and support that survivors need, and that that is backed with the sustainable funding that life-saving specialist domestic abuse services require across the country. The domestic abuse commissioner, in mapping that provision and monitoring services, can make a real difference in access to support for survivors.
I agree. The domestic abuse commissioner in particular is a welcome addition to the Bill. We welcome the powers to ensure that public bodies respond to the commissioner’s recommendations, and the commissioner’s remit in tackling the postcode lottery in service provision.
I think you heard earlier, when the commissioner gave evidence, that we must go further in terms of resourcing a wider range of the community-based services that VAWG victims rely on. It is currently a crucially missed opportunity in the Bill that we do not have a statutory duty that speaks to that wider provision.
It is really important for the End Violence Against Women Coalition that the Bill sets up the crucial principle of equal access to protection and support for all survivors of domestic abuse. We cannot have a situation in law that leaves certain victims behind. In particular, we highlight that migrant victims of domestic abuse are currently left out of the protective measures proposed in the Bill.
Q Thank you; that is helpful. I did not get a chance to ask the commissioner this, but are you aware of her plans, once we pass the Bill, to map community-based services across the country so that she has the powers to do so? Presumably you welcome that.
Yes, we do. There is a wider question about the mechanisms through which funding is delivered, and it is also about the amount of funding. We currently see year-long funding pots, and commissioners who do not take a strategic approach to domestic abuse and violence against women and girls service provision. We need to overhaul not only the means of long-term, three to five-year funding—secure funding, across the different public bodies that fund support for survivors, whether they are local authorities, police and crime commissioners or the healthcare sector. We also need to ensure that we are funding these services in a more secure way, stopping competitive tendering where it is no longer required, and ensuring that local authorities and other public bodies are held accountable forfunding these services securely and in the long term. That is where the commissioner can really help.
Q I will ask just one more question, because I know other colleagues will want to take this up. What are your thoughts on the use of domestic abuse protection orders to help survivors, stop perpetrators and stop the cycle of abuse?
I think the protection order could be really welcome. Our main concern, and what we hear most of all from survivors, is that poor enforcement is the problem with the protection order system. There are a range of protection orders—non-molestation orders, occupation orders and the domestic violence protection order—and survivors’ No. 1 concern with that is poor enforcement.
In our Law in the Making project, which engaged a group of survivors in the development of the Domestic Abuse Bill—you heard from one of those survivors earlier—one woman told us, “My last 11 years were built on 13 harassment warnings, four restraining orders and one non-molestation order, averaging a breach a month.” It is not easy to get a protection order, and when we do get them they are not enforced, time and time again. For us, the key concern with the DAPO is the implementation and the enforcement, and that applies to the new requirements on perpetrators, whether they are requirements to attend a perpetrator programme or to attend drug and alcohol programmes. If that is not in force, and there are not the resources to ensure that the programmes that people are accessing are safe, well monitored and enforced by the police, we are concerned that the orders will not do what they promise to do.
Q Of course, a key difference between these new orders in the Bill and other orders is that if you breach the order, that is a criminal breach.
To what degree or does this actually do what is required for the Istanbul convention? If it does, great. If not, what needs to be done?Q
I would say that it does not go far enough in enshrining one of the key principles of the Istanbul convention: article 4(3), which speaks specifically about types of discrimination and how the implementation of the convention by parties should involve taking measures to ensure that the rights of victims are secured without discrimination on any of the grounds that are listed in article 4(3). One of those grounds is migrant status; we do not feel there is enough legal protection in the Bill to ensure that there will not be discrimination in the provision of services and support to migrant victims. To remedy that, it is important to insert the principle of non-discrimination into the Bill. That should be applied to any statutory duty on local authorities, or a wider statutory duty on public authorities to ensure that when they are discharging their responsibilities under the Bill, they are doing so mindfully and in accordance with the requirement under the Istanbul convention not to discriminate against certain categories of victim.
Q Can you tell us how important you think it might be for victims to have access to local authority welfare schemes? Also, do you think the definition of domestic abuse should apply only to those over 16? Please give a reason for your answer.
I will respond to the question on the definition first. I echo my colleague Andrea’s points on compliance with the Istanbul convention. Another important means of ensuring the Bill is compliant with the Istanbul convention is to include a gender definition, which I know you have heard a lot about today. We believe that the age limit for domestic abuse should remain at 16. We do not feel that it should be lowered, but we absolutely agree that the definition needs to recognise that children are directly affected by living in a household where there is domestic abuse. We know they do not witness it but experience it, and it leads to long-term impacts on their health and wellbeing. Without clarity that they are specifically affected by domestic abuse and are survivors in their own right, we are concerned that we will still see inconsistent responses to recognising children as victims, particularly in the family courts and in other parts of the public sector, so we really support the proposed change.
On the issue of local welfare schemes, we would absolutely like the Bill to do more on welfare for survivors. The Bill rightly recognises economic abuse as a key part of the pattern of abuse that a perpetrator imposes on a victim, and economic abuse has really significant impacts on access to safety for survivors, and on their ability to leave a relationship and rebuild an independent life. Sadly, many welfare reforms have compounded women’s barriers to leaving, from the benefit cap to the two-child tax credit limit and many more. We would like the Bill to introduce a guarantee that the Government will assess the impact of welfare reforms on survivors, and we would also like the Bill to exempt survivors from the benefit cap, because it restricts their ability to move on safely from refuges and to build an independent life after suffering abuse.
It is probably unhelpful to extend the criminalisation of under-16s by reducing the age limit. We believe that it is important to have an urgent response or action plan for intimate partner and sexual violence that occurs between under-16s who are in a relationship. At present, the experience of some under-age victims of very serious gender-based and violent crimes committed by perpetrators who are also under 16 can be minimised in a way that they would not if the perpetrator was over 16. That needs to be taken seriously and recognised. We agree 100% with the need for the definition to recognise children and their experiences of domestic abuse, which are often connected to their parents’ experiences, but are also distinct. There are certainly many gaps that need addressing, in terms of service provision for children and the resources that are needed to address children’s needs.
As a former magistrate in domestic abuse courts, I have seen women suffer in court and have more trauma imposed on them. How do you feel about the new measures to prevent cross-examination in family courts and to ensure that we can get special measures? How important do you think they are?Q
At Women’s Aid, we think they are absolutely essential measures, and we are so pleased that the ban on cross-examination is finally being brought forward in the Bill. For survivors who are being re-victimised and re-traumatised in the family courts, it is so important that the ban be in place. I think you heard earlier that we would like it to be strengthened and to apply to all cases where domestic abuse is alleged, not just where there is an evidence test for it. Unfortunately, many women who experience domestic abuse will never tell anyone about the abuse, so having a form of evidence is a challenge.
We would like the Bill to go much further on the family courts, and to deliver a safe family court system for survivors and their children. One of the experts by experience in the project I mentioned earlier told us that the family courts were “horrific, traumatic, psychological warfare”, and that the proceedings replicated the abuse of her relationship. That is what we hear time and again.
The family court estate can feel very unsafe for survivors. Sixty-one per cent. of survivors we surveyed in 2018 had no access to special protection measures at all in court. Those are really basic things like screens, separate entrances and exits, and waiting rooms, which are vital to keep them safe from the perpetrator while they go through family proceedings.
We would like to see the guarantee of special protection measures in the Bill extended from the criminal courts to the family and civil courts, because it is vital that women experience consistency across the different jurisdictions. Many women will never go to the criminal courts, but they will use the family courts, and it is important that they get the same treatment.
Finally, we would like a systemic change in the approach to safe child contact with a perpetrator of domestic abuse. There are really serious issues about the understanding of domestic abuse and coercive control by the family judiciary and professionals in the child contact system. Despite robust judicial guidance in the area—practice direction 12J—we continue to see a very strong presumption that parental involvement in a child’s life is in that child’s best interests, regardless, seemingly, sometimes, of any safeguarding concerns about domestic abuse. We would like to see an end to that assumption of contact in domestic abuse cases, with a focus on child contact arrangements that are always safe and in a child’s best interests.
I think it is probably unhelpful, as I said, to look at criminalising under-16s in terms of the offence of domestic abuse. There are dynamics for young people who are in relationships that are very concerning and worrying, and they need to be tackled, but we are keen that we do not conflate different types of abuse. There are very specific ways of dealing with child sexual exploitation and child abuse, and to conflate that with domestic abuse would be problematic. That is why it is important to recognise, acknowledge and deal with that, and it is certainly important to deal with and tackle attitudes and behaviours among young people in relationships, but it doesn’t necessarily need to sit within this frame.
I agree. We are talking about the impact of living in a household where adults, predominantly, are perpetrating domestic abuse, and the impact that has on a child. Absolutely, there are lots of—sadly, far too many—cases where children and young people experience domestic abuse in their own relationships, but as Andrea said, that requires a strategy, focus, attention and resources, and ways to tackle healthy relationships and to recognise what is not healthy and what is potentially coercive and controlling behaviour. Hopefully, this sex and relationships education that is to become statutory for schools will go a long way to help with that, but the risk of the law conflating child abuse and domestic abuse, and criminalising children who are perpetrating unhealthy behaviours between themselves, is concerning.
Q There are a number of issues here, are there not? One is the issue of under-16 relationships, and clearly that is a real concern, but there is also the issue of how we best protect children who live in a household where there is domestic abuse. They might not only observe that, but feel the direct impact of it. How can we best protect those children, their rights and their access to services?
We absolutely support making clear in the definition that children are impacted by domestic abuse, and that they are survivors in their own right. The amendment tabled today would do that, in addition to statutory guidance that explains the types of impact that domestic abuse has on children, and why just witnessing domestic abuse is not what we mean here; it is about living in an environment of fear and control that has really devastating impacts on children’s wellbeing and development. Clarity in the law and clear guidance would really help.
We must be clear as well that children are not just one grouping. There are children in migrant families who are very much failed by the inability of a parent with no recourse to public funds to access the kinds of support and assistance that they need. Children in those families face a number of impacts, such as enhanced child poverty and not being accommodated safely because of their parent’s inability to access safe accommodation.
Where there are language barriers, there are cases where children in migrant families act as translators for their parents. To have to describe to the authorities the abuse that one of your parents has faced is extremely traumatic. That is the context for some migrant children in abusive households.
I think the domestic abuse commissioner’s appointment is really helpful right across the public sector. She has duties, and public bodies are required to respond to her recommendations in a range of different areas, from criminal justice to health, as are other Government Departments. That is really important.
However, we need to recognise that the domestic abuse commissioner’s remit is focused on driving up standards, improving practice and ensuring that we have consistent responses to survivors across the public sector. I absolutely think that the commissioner would be able to map special measures, for example, in court systems, or map different practices in different parts of the public sector. However, without the robust legal framework that the Bill could deliver for ensuring equal access and equal provision of measures such as those for special protection, or to ensure that migrant women with no recourse to public funds can routinely and consistently access support, it will be difficult for the commissioner to hold accountable the bodies that they need to. We need the law to be really clear on consistent access to protection and support for survivors; the domestic abuse commissioner can then hold public bodies accountable for that
The domestic abuse commissioner has said that having a cross-government framework is really important. We have had the VAWG strategy for some 10 years—a cross-departmental strategy focused on tackling and ending violence against women and girls. The responses of every part of Government need to be co-ordinated. That is very important for the domestic abuse commissioner’s work.
Q Lots of my questions have been answered. I used to work for the same organisation, so I know that Lucy works with organisations that work with victims of modern slavery. Andrea, do you work with any such organisations, or have any knowledge of modern slavery?
Q Me also, many, many times, when I worked for the organisation that Lucy works for. Have you ever seen cases of domestic abuse taken through the national referral mechanism?
Q Let us say that a woman had a spousal visa, or did not but was here with a partner, and was essentially being treated like a slave in their home, which would not be uncommon. Would support organisations—including Women’s Aid, where Lucy works—ever refer those women to the trafficking service that exists in this country, run by the Salvation Army?
Q You would never do that. Has any part of the VAWG strategy in this country ever made this suggestion for migrant women? Have there ever been any conversations, in the meetings that you have had, saying that migrant women should be using the national referral mechanism?
Q It is just that the issue has come up a few times today, and I wanted some clarity. I would like a tiny bit more clarity specifically on that. If a migrant woman in, say, Bradford was in a situation and went through the national referral mechanism, what sort of support could she expect from that?
Q We all want public money to go as far as possible, and to go where it will be most helpful. As a result of covid, some £76 million or so is going into the sector to support victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence. How can this Bill ensure that that money goes where it is most needed, and that we, as a society, get the most bang for our buck and the most justice for the money that we are spending?
Just to be clear, it was £27 million for domestic abuse and a further £13 million for sexual violence; I think the other funding pots were for vulnerable children and for other vulnerabilities during this time. That money is absolutely essential; it is really welcome. As I mentioned before, covid-19 has hit this sector at a time when it was already really vulnerable. It has been experiencing a funding crisis for a very long time, so it is vital that the money reaches the services that are protecting and supporting some of the most vulnerable people during this period.
What our member services tell us is that one-off funding pots provide them with no security and no ability to plan ahead or retain and recruit staff for the long term. What we would really like to see underpin the Bill’s very important statutory duty on local authorities to fund support in accommodation-based services is a commitment to long-term funding, so that year on year, services or local authorities do not have to competitively bid into different funding pots. That would provide us with a framework, so that services could plan ahead, get on with doing what they do best, which is supporting vulnerable women and children, and not spend significant amounts of time on tendering processes or bids for different funding pots.
We have estimated that fully funding the Government’s statutory duty would cost £173 million a year in England; that would ensure that the national network of refuges could meet demand. As we know, we are 30% below the recommended number of bed spaces in England, and 64% of referrals to refuges are turned away, so we would like a long-term funding commitment underpin the duty.
Q May I drill down on one issue that has come up a lot: regional variation, and making sure that the service is more uniform and consistent? As you rightly point out, a lot of money is going through police and crime commissioners. How do you think this Bill will help to provide the tools to ensure that police and crime commissioners in county A are doing as good a job as police and crime commissioners in county B, so that we get the consistency that women and victims deserve?
The duty will include requirements on local authorities to report back to Government. We would really like stronger national oversight of the duty, because refuges are a national network of services. Two thirds of women in refuges are from a different local authority area, so we cannot just leave this to local authorities. We would like to see the national oversight proposed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government clarified in the Bill. That would help with the national oversight of those different local approaches that you are talking about.
We would really like to see police and crime commissioners and other funders get much more involved in funding support for domestic abuse. That is where the commissioner’s role in mapping and monitoring service provision is really important. There are concerns that a statutory duty on accommodation-based services alone is not the same as the duties that the commissioner has.
Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of this very valuable session. I thank our two witnesses very much for giving evidence.
We now move on to the next session. As the Committee is aware, one of our witnesses is giving evidence down the phone, so we will pause for a minute while we make the connection.