Examination of Witnesses

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 4th June 2020.

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Ellie Butt and Suzanne Jacob OBE gave evidence.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 3:15 pm, 4th June 2020

Q We will now hear oral evidence from Refuge and, via the audio link, SafeLives. Thank you both very much for giving evidence. I hope everyone will be forgiving of the fact that this is an unusual way of giving evidence, and it may take a minute or two to get it all working properly. Can our two witnesses introduce themselves for the record? Perhaps I will ask Suzanne to do that first.

Suzanne Jacob:

Hello everyone. Apologies for not being able to be there in person. My name is Suzanne Jacob, and I am chief executive of SafeLives, which is a UK-wide domestic abuse charity working to end abuse all over the UK. We believe in a whole-picture response to domestic abuse, which means addressing the needs and challenges of every family member—those harming as well as those who are being harmed—and linking issues. We do not see domestic abuse in a silo, but consider how it is closely linked and correlated with issues such as mental health and so on.

Ellie Butt:

Good afternoon. I am Ellie Butt, and I am head of policy and public affairs for Refuge, which is a national charity that provides specialist services for survivors of gender-based violence, including refuges and community-based services, and we run the national domestic abuse helpline.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Thank you very much. We have until 3.45 pm for this session.

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

Q Great to have you both with us. Suzanne, I will ask you about perpetrators, because that is a really important part of the Bill. The Government and PCCs have invested in Drive, which is a programme to address serial perpetrators. To what extent is it making a difference?

Suzanne Jacob:

Drive is a very important tactical intervention against perpetrators of domestic abuse. It deals specifically with high-harm and high-risk individuals, which means that they pose a risk of serious harm or murder to one or more family members. It is making a difference, and we are extremely proud of the consortium of organisations and funders who have supported it. It has been a very good team effort so far.

Drive responds to one particular cohort of those who use abuse. There is a very broad spectrum of individuals who use abusive behaviours in their family life. With 80-plus other organisations, we are calling for not just Drive but DAPOs and other really important tactical provisions to be set within the context of a comprehensive strategy about the perpetrators of domestic abuse. In exactly the same way, for years we have had a really concerted strategy called Pursue around counter-terrorism, and we have had the same for organised crime. It is overdue, and it could be a really good sign of the Government’s ambitious intent to have a strategy around those who use abuse.

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

Q That is helpful, thank you. What is your view on programmes for perpetrators being included as a positive requirement when DAPOs are issued?

Suzanne Jacob:

I think it is really helpful. We are very supportive of the amendment, which Members will have seen, around quality assurance for those programmes. Quality as well as quantity is vitally important when it comes to perpetrator responses, because the risks are very great and we know that, as with any industry, you can get the corner shop or backroom options, trying to do things on the cheap, which is not safe and not effective. So we very much welcome the provision and we would like to see something further, and something solid, in there about the quality assurance process for that.

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

Q Thank you, Suzanne. I have one question for Ellie. You will have seen that the Government are bringing forward an amendment to the Bill, to provide that victims of domestic abuse are automatically considered to be in priority need for homelessness assistance. How will this help victims, in your view?

Ellie Butt:

We really welcome that amendment. It is something that we worked with other organisations in this sector and the homelessness sector to bring about. It is important particularly for survivors without children, who currently are not entitled to priority need automatically. It will be an enormous help for that group of survivors and we welcome it.

I think there is a lot more to do around housing for survivors of domestic abuse. Hopefully we will come on to talk about it, but the legal duty for refuges is particularly crucial, because there still are not enough places to meet demand; but, yes—absolutely—it is brilliant that that change is being made, and it will offer protection to that particular cohort.

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

Thank you. Colleagues will have lots of questions, so I am going to draw myself in, as it were, now.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

My first question is to Ellie, but Suzanne, if you can hear me I will take you as well in the same question. We had the designate domestic abuse commissioner in earlier on and she described how we were taking huge strides and being innovative in our approach to tackling domestic violence, where there is a proper integration of the domestic abuse commissioner position to begin with. Where you do see her, or whoever might hold that post in the future, actually having the most impact?Q

Ellie Butt:

We really welcome the creation of the role of domestic abuse commissioner and the appointment of Nicole Jacobs, who I think is already doing brilliant work in this field. We think her particular strength will be understanding what service provision is going on, mapping that and looking at its quality—the gaps—and reporting and making representations to the Home Office and Parliament about it.

Something that I would really like to see, as well, is her bringing in areas of Government that I think currently do not do enough work in this field. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions has an enormous role here. Something that the Bill is going to do is define economic abuse, within the definition of domestic abuse. That is brilliant, but we want to see much more in terms of protecting survivors of economic abuse. We want to see some changes to the welfare benefits system to bring that about, including making advance benefit payments grants, rather than loans, for survivors of abuse, and the single household payment system being made into a separate payment system. I think Nicole has the capacity in her role—or whoever might follow in that role—to look at what those Departments, which we do not usually hear about when we talk about domestic abuse, are doing. I think there is an awful lot of potential there.

It is also important, though, to recognise that her role is currently a part-time role, with a relatively small budget. She can do lots in bringing issues to light and improving our understanding, but major gaps still need to be rectified through changes to the law and funding, and policy as well.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Q Suzanne, I do not know whether you heard my original question, but if you had a shopping list for the new designate domestic abuse commissioner, what would you prioritise for her to focus on?

Suzanne Jacob:

Apologies, because I am struggling to hear Ellie, so I may at times repeat some of her no doubt very good points. Everyone in the sector hugely welcomes not just the creation of the role, but the appointment of Nicole Jacobs specifically. She is an extremely adept and well qualified person, and as many people have said she is already making a difference in the role. I think we have to be a little bit careful in terms of overstretching our expectations not just of what the person can do but of what the role can do, and making sure that we do not blur the boundary between the Government’s responsibility and the responsibility of the independent commissioner.

It is particularly important to make sure that we do not end up with things parked with the commissioner that can and should be dealt with much more quickly. For example, at SafeLives, we are concerned that as currently drafted, the statutory duty does not live up to the big ambition that we know the Government have around responding to domestic abuse, supporting as it does just 0.5% of the total of the more than 2 million victims who experience domestic abuse every year.

The mapping process that has been suggested for the commissioner, I would suggest, is a repetition of quite a lot of mapping processes. I have been at SafeLives for five and a half years and I think we have taken part in at least one, if not more, mapping processes with the Government every year that I have been in post. I suggest that, in terms of priority need, it is that cross-Government picture that will be really important. The commissioner made the point clearly that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice in particular have borne the burden of domestic abuse for many years, but actually every single part of Government has a big role to play. We have not seen all parts of Government playing that role particularly well in the past.

In terms of priorities, it would be brilliant to see the commissioner, as Ellie said as well, resourced to address things such as the family court, domestic homicide reviews, mental health connections to domestic abuse, and the needs of children and young people, which primarily sit outside the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. That is where I would love her to start.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Ellie, you will often be the first point of call when people call the helpline. What are the barriers to support that go beyond the helpline?

Ellie Butt:

The national domestic abuse helpline is a national resource that is often, as you say, the first place a women might call if she thinks that she is experiencing domestic abuse, wants to talk to somebody, or is looking for a service or some information or advice. We have seen demand for that service increase hugely since the covid-19 pandemic struck. Our calls and contacts are up by 66% and web traffic, which includes the ability to live chat with our helpline team, has increased by more than 900% in the last few weeks. It is a hugely important and in-demand service.

There is the challenge of just ensuring that we can meet that demand. It is also important for the helpline team and for women calling the helpline that they have somewhere to go and there is a service for them when they call. That is why what is really needed to accompany the Bill is funding for the full range of specialist services that women and children need. We know that there are not enough refuges to meet demand in this country. I have been looking at the stats this week and the number of women calling the helpline, seeking a refuge place and there not being one suitable for them has been slightly increasing over the last few weeks. That is a huge worry. There is a real opportunity with this Bill to fix that and to get the duty right, so the full range of services that women need is there for them.

I know that you have already heard lots of evidence about this today, but the support for migrant women is not good enough. There are often very few options for them if they have no recourse to public funds. Again, the Bill is a real opportunity to fix that so that all women can access the range of services from the specialist third sector and from public services. Those are some of the key challenges when women call the helpline.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q With regards to the commissioner, everyone in this room shares your sense of excitement about the creation of the role and pleasure that the appointment has been made. How important is it to you that the role of the commissioner is independent of Government, and is demonstrably independent of Government? Does that make a difference to you?

Ellie Butt:

Yes, it does. It is really important that the commissioner has her independence so that she can determine what issues she wants to look into, speak truth to power, have difficult conversations with decision makers, and have the confidence of her independent role so that the organisations that have given evidence today and survivors themselves can work with her. I think it is really important and should be protected and strengthened as much as possible.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q  When you look at the legislation as it stands, do you feel it goes far enough? Would you ideally like a commissioner who is freer from Government and reports elsewhere?

Ellie Butt:

I know there have been different recommendations about whether the domestic abuse commissioner should report to Parliament or the Cabinet Office. I do not necessarily have strong views on that; it is just crucial that, wherever she is reporting, she has independence. I am open to the Cabinet Office idea, but the relationship with the Home Office is also important, because it is a cross-Government issue, but the Home Office has a key responsibility in this area.

Photo of Peter Kyle Peter Kyle Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q My final question to Suzanne is about cross-examination in family courts. It is a bit strange speaking out into the ether, but I know you are there somewhere, Suzanne. The legislation outlaws the vast majority of cross-examination. Do you believe it goes far enough? If you think it should go further, specifically what else would you like to see?

Suzanne Jacob:

I think you have heard from many of the witnesses today what an incredible ordeal family court is at the moment. Anything that can improve that process is important to do, so we at SafeLives are very supportive of the amendments that Women’s Aid has suggested, in terms of going further and getting rid of cross-examination from all parts of the court process when someone is facing an alleged abuser or ex-abuser. That is really important.

There are also a number of other suggested changes from other organisations around the role and expertise of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, for example, which we think are important. There is currently something innately adversarial about the family court process, which makes it an incredibly painful thing for both adults and children to go through. Many, many women who go through the family court process would tell you that they would rather they had just stayed with the abuser rather than go through family court, which is a horrible indictment of our current processes.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q I have a couple of brief questions and then something particular, if I may. All of us here will want to make this Bill the best it can be, of course, but do I understand you to welcome in broad terms the fact that there is a Domestic Abuse Bill, in principle?

Ellie Butt:

Yes, absolutely.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q May I take that a little further? Do you welcome what is contained within it, even if there may be other things you want? Can I take it that there is nothing in here that you think takes the cause of protecting victims backwards? Would you agree that this is all a step in the right direction?

Ellie Butt:

I would agree with that. Some of the measures in the Bill have the potential to have a positive impact, but there are some significant problems that need ironing out for them to achieve that potential, particularly the duty to assess need and provide for domestic abuse safe accommodation. There are some big questions about that, one of which is the funding—it really needs to be fully funded to work. Colleagues at Women’s Aid have estimated that that is about £175 million a year. Then what happens to those services that do not fall within that duty? There is a real risk that we could lose those, which is exactly what we do not want.

The Bill has been criticised in places for being too focused on criminal justice. While I think a full range of reforms is needed in all the different areas of life that affect survivors of domestic abuse, there are particular changes that we can make to the criminal law that would increase protection for survivors. Something we at Refuge work on a lot is abuse through technology. There is a big gap in the criminal law at the moment around threats to share intimate images, and survivors do not have recourse. It is a hugely powerful tool of coercion and control, particularly post separation, and there is a real gap there that the Bill could address quite straightforwardly. There is a lot in there, and I take your point, but I also think we need to take the opportunity we have now and make it as good as it can be.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q You would not be doing your job if you did not say it could be improved—I quite get that. May I ask one other thing? One particularly powerful bit of evidence that you gave was about how, in recent weeks, the number of calls to the national domestic abuse hotline, which you run, has skyrocketed and you have used live chat to assist. We know that the new domestic abuse commissioner will have a role to scrutinise how all those services are being provided. Would you welcome her coming in to say, “Look, you have had £2 million from the Government to assist with bolstering your services. I, the domestic abuse commissioner, would like to get under the bonnet of what you are doing at Refuge, to really find out whether it is doing what we all hope it should be doing.”?

Ellie Butt:

Yes, she is very welcome.

Ellie Butt:

Of course. Well, not right now, because we are all working from home—but absolutely. Minister Victoria Atkins has visited the helpline. The domestic abuse commissioner would be more than welcome to do that.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q The reason I ask is that we want, of course, to make sure that this critical resource is doing what we expect. We hear evidence from you and we take it at face value, but do you agree that the commissioner can play a role in adding to public confidence that that public money is having the impact that we all wish it to have?

Ellie Butt:

Absolutely. I am sure that she can and, at the same time, draw attention to what is not being done and where gaps are. You will have heard already that domestic abuse services are largely run on a shoestring. I would say this, but I think Refuge does brilliant work and lots of the organisations in the sector do brilliant work, but there is absolutely room for that to be scrutinised, for improvements to be made where they need to be made, and for gaps to be filled where they are not funded and there is unmet need.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Ellie, can I ask you about children? On Second Reading, a number of MPs talked about their concerns about how children would benefit from the changes in the Bill. Could you tell us where you think it could be improved for children?

Ellie Butt:

We support the argument that children need to be in the definition of domestic abuse. Children are victims in their own right; they are never just witnesses. There are some small improvements being made in understanding that, but it needs to go much further.

One thing that struck me when I first started working for Refuge and has never stopped is that on any given day, half the people in our refuges—we provide around 48 refuges—will be children, yet we receive little to no funding to do work and support them directly; we fundraise for that. That is not right. These are hugely vulnerable children who have experienced the trauma of growing up in a house with one parent who is abusive. We need to do so much more for children, including providing specialist services for them.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q A concern has been raised that if children are not included in the definition, there is a chance that there will be less provision of community-based as well as accommodation-based services. Is that a concern that you share?

Ellie Butt:

Yes, it is. We would definitely support them being in the definition. The definition is going to be really important as a driver of awareness and understanding. If they are not in there, that will have an impact. It is going to be used and quoted in training and strategy development and when people are making funding decisions about services in their area. It is really important that if we have a statutory definition, it needs to be comprehensive and include the impact on children as well.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Thank you. Can I ask both Suzanne and Ellie what changes you would seek to make to welfare provision, in order to ensure that victims and their children are able to escape violence and oppression? Suzanne, could you start?

Suzanne Jacob:

Apologies, but I want to just go back briefly to the previous question, because I did not get the chance to come in. The question was about whether we welcome the Bill overall and think that the current content is okay.

We hugely welcome the fact that there is a Bill. We have always supported it and we will continue to support it. What I would say is that when survivors have looked at the current content of the Bill, their patience and enthusiasm is not quite there anymore, and there is a great deal that we could do about that. What I would not prioritise is having a Bill; what I would prioritise is having the right Bill. Given that we have, for lots of very good reasons, had to wait quite a long time for the Bill to make its way through, I think we can afford to take a little bit more time to make sure that some of the things we have been talking about and other people have been talking about in their evidence are properly addressed, and not just pushed aside in the need to get the Bill on to the statute book.

In particular, in terms of what is currently in the Bill, as I mentioned before, the statutory duty is a very concerning part of the Bill as it is currently drafted. I know that it has very good intentions behind it—I do not doubt that for a second—but it falls into that big, gaping hole between Government Departments and responsibilities, because what we have got is something that speaks only to the very tiny minority of domestic abuse victims who use accommodation-based services and absolutely excludes everybody else.

Having heard the Prime Minister talk eloquently at the hidden harms summit a couple of weeks ago about the role of independent domestic violence advisers, lauding them and saying just what valuable work they do for tens of thousands of people a year up and down the country, it seems very odd that the Bill contains a statutory duty that purposely excludes IDVAs.

I turn to the question about children. SafeLives has grappled with the idea of whether the definition is inclusive enough of children and whether the age limit should be changed. We very much support the Barnardo’s amendment, which suggests that rather than nudging at the age limit—with all the complexities that that brings, as Andrea and Lucy talked about a moment ago—we are in favour of children being recognised as victims in their own right and removing those age barriers. Somebody who is in an abusive situation, whether they are aged five, 13, 24 or 54, is a victim of domestic abuse.

Regarding welfare provision, split payments are something that everyone across the whole sector is crying out for. Surviving Economic Abuse has called for them as something that would make a difference, and it seems to most of us to be common sense.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q Ellie, did you want to comment on the welfare issue?

Ellie Butt:

Yes. It is a huge issue for women in our services. As I said, it is really good that economic abuse will be in the new definition, but we need to do more to try and prevent that abuse and support survivors. Suzanne has already mentioned the single household payment structure, which makes it very easy to control the entire household income. That can act as a real barrier to leaving, because women simply cannot access any of the money that they need to leave.

The other problem is the minimum five-week wait when you apply for universal credit. Lots of women who come into Refuge apply at that point, because that is when their circumstances change, or that is when they apply for welfare benefits for the first time. Then they have that minimum five-week wait, and for many of them it is much longer; because of economic abuse, they might not have been allowed to have a bank account, or they might have fled without their ID documents. It is a really long period of time in which they are largely reliant on food banks and other forms of charitable provision.

Advances are available, but they are loans; they are not grants. They have to be repaid immediately, and they are quite significant deductions. It would be hugely welcome if, in this Bill, the Committee decided to make those advances grants rather than loans. That would hugely help women who are at the point of fleeing an abusive person, as they would not have to make the choice between safety and the real, acute financial hardship that I do not think anyone in this room would think is right.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Thank you. We only have a couple of minutes, so we will have a quick question from Liz Saville Roberts.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q We have the domestic violence disclosure scheme and DAPOs, but they both maintain the onus on victims to take the initiative. There has been talk about a register for serial stalkers and domestic abuse offenders, along the lines of the violent and sex offenders register. Why can that not move ahead? What is preventing it? It seems a logical step, to take the onus off the victim or potential victim and shift it on to proven offenders.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am afraid that this will have to be a very short answer.

Suzanne Jacob:

I am sorry, but I could not hear the question.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Q What is preventing the adoption of a register of serial stalkers and domestic abuse offenders, along the lines of the register of violent and sex offenders, given its importance in shifting the onus away from the victim and on to the perpetrator?

Suzanne Jacob:

At SaveLives, we believe very strongly that there needs to be comprehensive work wrapped around perpetrators of abuse. We believe that there need to be individual caseworkers of the kind that are supported by Drive, which the Minister mentioned, and indeed all sorts of other programmes. However, we also believe there needs to be a really strong multi-agency response, co-ordinated either through a multi-agency risk assessment conference, or MARAC, which is an existing procedure, or through a dedicated perpetrator panel.

The creation of another register is not something that we currently support because we know that the post-Soham recommendations were that the police are overwhelmed with the different databases and systems that they have got.

Ellie Butt:

At Refuge we agree; we are unsure whether a register would make the significant difference that we need. Part of the problem is that a lot of perpetrators are not known to the police, and that is one of the concerns with Clare’s law as well.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am sorry, but that is the end of this part of the sitting. I thank both of our witnesses very much for their evidence this afternoon. It is much appreciated.