Hi. My name is Giselle Valle. I am director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service. We are a human rights organisation led by and for Latin American women. We are a feminist organisation working with migrant women. Very shortly we will be leading the Step Up Migrant Women campaign and coalition of over 50 organisations in the migrant sector, women’s sector and social justice sector.
Q Thanks for coming. I was going to ask you to explain what the Step Up Migrant Women coalition is, but you have done that. It is lots of different organisations. The Step Up Migrant Women’s coalition is calling for several things to be part of the Bill that currently are not. Can you give us a quick rundown of those?
Yes, we are asking for four things. The first one is to include provision mirroring the Istanbul convention on protection for all victims of domestic abuse. The second one is establishing a separate reporting pathway for migrant victims of domestic abuse. The third one is an extension of the domestic violence rule and destitute domestic violence concession to include not only a longer period of time for the concession, but also higher eligibility for women who are not married to British citizens. The last one is to allow migrant victims to remove the no recourse to public funds requirement in visa applications for migrant victims of domestic abuse.
Q Specifically on domestic violence and destitution—it used to be called something else, and I still want to call it that—you can get destitution funding only if you are on a spousal visa. Is that correct? So that means you come here as a partner of somebody who is British or European and was living in another part of the world. Is that correct?
That is correct. It only applies to spouses of British citizens living outside. For example, one of the survivors who gave testimony today—Gil—was completely left outside on the basis that she was not married. So it leaves a high amount of domestic abuse among migrant victims outside of the protections.
Q On the women you work with at LAWRS, as well as in the Step Up Migrant Women coalition—let us leave the people who are on a spousal visa to one side—what sorts of visas do the other groups of women that you support have?
The ones that are lucky to have the required visas can be on partner visas or family reunification visas. This is a crime that can also touch on children when there is domestic abuse within the family, not other types of abuse. We also have women who are on working visas or student visas who have become undocumented, sometimes through no fault of their own—a lot of the time, really. There is a wide range of visas that women are on.
Q So if you are a student in this country and you came over here from, let’s say, Venezuela, and you were abused by your partner, you currently would not be able to access a refuge. Is that correct?
Q Thank you. Quickly to Lyndsey, I think that Hestia are specifically looking at some of the issues around children in the Domestic Abuse Bill, if I remember the 17,000 briefings that I have read in the past week. What exactly do you want to see from the Bill?
One of the key things is seeing children recognised as victims in their own right. That in turn will mean that they can access funding, which will then mean investment in recovery. We have seen time and time again that provision for children is very varied across the country, and also dependent on funding: depending on what year you went to a service, for example, you would get support.
The other piece is the fact that lots of support for children is centred on accommodation. If you are accessing a refuge, then you have support because you are in the home, but a huge group of people are not accessing refuges and living within their own homes, being supported by independent domestic violence advocates. Those children in particular are seeing the same level of domestic abuse and experiencing very similar impacts on their emotional, psychological and practical needs, but have no access to support. What we want to see is a strong focus on the provision for support as that turns into protection and stopping the repeat victimisation of individuals. For us, it is about having a very clear mention of how children are victims in their own right.
Q And MARAC—multi-agency risk assessment conference. From your experience in the areas where you operate, if a child living outside of a refuge—let us say, a high-risk MARAC case—came forward to the MARAC, how many times out of 10 do you think that child would be getting specialist support for the domestic abuse they are suffering?
I spent a couple of years as a MARAC co-ordinator, and I managed a MARAC in London. In that time, the provision of support for young children was about whether they met the threshold for social services, and in that instance, the support was about keeping them safe. At no point was there any offer of provision to enable children to look at their own mental health and examine their traumatic experience, because that provision just did not exist within the community.
Q We all speak in acronyms, but for anyone who is not familiar with the term MARAC, can you please explain what it is?
A multi-agency risk assessment conference falls very much in line with the co-ordinated community response model, which is about bringing as many organisations together as possible and them all seeing that domestic abuse is a core issue. It entails a group of individuals who are named by their organisations to present and represent the cases on which they work. The majority of MARACs focus on the entire family: provision is put in place to keep the victim safe along with their children, but they also focus on prevention and holding the perpetrator to account.
When MARACs work well, they can be really effective. However, one of the challenges with MARACs is that although we have a huge need for people’s cases to be heard, the threshold for reaching and being heard at MARAC is often being deemed to be high risk. Obviously, risk is incredibly dynamic when it comes to domestic abuse, and with MARAC being once a month, your risk can change from day to day: you could have been able to use it, but then you cannot.
Q I am interested in your thoughts on children, Lyndsey. I think we all accept and agree about the impact that domestic abuse can have on children living in households. I do not know whether you are familiar with clause 1 of the Bill, which specifically refers to abuse and to children being used as a form of abuse. Do you think that will help?
I think it is very important for us to recognise it, and it needs to be recognised by the professionals within the criminal justice system. We know from numerous experiences—it is something that victims of domestic abuse tell us nearly every day—that domestic abuse does not end at the point of separation, and that in the criminal justice system, especially around family courts, children are consistently used as a weaponised tool to control and prevent somebody from moving on into a new space.
Q Giselle, thank you so much for joining us today. I was struck by your comment that the women whom you are helping are likely to be turned away by the police. Why do you think that is? The police should investigate any offence, regardless of one’s nationality or immigration status.
Because in our experience what happens is that the police focus very quickly on immigration status. Once they find that somebody’s immigration status is not secure, they outright deny the service and say, “Just go back to your home country,” or they refer them to the Home Office so that they get sent back to their country. This process ensures not only that the women will not be supported, but that perpetrators are actually getting away with it, just on that basis alone.
In our organisation it is quite prevalent. A referral to the Home Office instils such fear that it is really difficult to convince women to go to the police, even when they are supported by our organisation. A freedom of information request—I think it was one or two years ago—revealed that about 60% of police forces in the country make referrals to the Home Office, which essentially closes the door on women who are experiencing domestic abuse and thinking about reporting it to the police, but who realise it would be highly dangerous for them and sometimes for their children, so they refrain from doing so.
Q The reason I am asking is that it may have been that the police were checking the status. I am trying to understand where the 60% figure has come from.
Q Obviously the conversation we are having is framed around the Bill, because we are starting the process of the Bill Committee. There is a lot more that you want in terms of protecting children and young people. Lyndsey, if the Bill did not exist, how would you approach the legislative challenge of protecting young people and giving them the kind of protection that you believe children need?
I think there are two parts to it. The Bill now speaks to big issues, but there are some practical issues that can make a real difference for children who have experienced domestic abuse. Some of that is about looking at their interaction with the NHS and at how they can maintain their appointments. One woman, who has allowed me to tell her story, came into our refuge after she had waited about 18 months for a referral to a speech therapist; she was concerned about her daughter’s speech. The social worker in the area told her that she had to leave and move into a refuge. After arriving in the refuge, she waited another 8 months for a referral to speech therapy. She was then rehoused, but her child was too old to benefit from speech therapy. Having a protected status on NHS waiting lists can be really important and can enable somebody to make the decision to leave and flee, without having that as a hindrance.
The other factor is looking at children’s access to schools and making sure they have that as soon as possible. Within primary schools the time can be quite reduced, dependent on which area of London you are in. If you are talking about secondary schools and GCSEs, getting a child back into school and into a school rhythm is exceptionally important. We now see that children have been forced to travel, pre-covid-19, across two or three boroughs. Unfortunately, in one instance, a gang picked up this young person, whose movement was known because they were going backwards and forwards, and used them to transport drugs. We know those opportunities increase vulnerabilities for children. If we can do some of the really simple, practical measures that can reduce that, they do make a big difference.
Q The commissioner would have the power to make recommendations to other Government Departments. Although not everything is mentioned in the Bill, there is a vehicle for taking things forward and engaging with other Departments. We cannot predict the future, but do you think that, based on the powers you see in the Bill, the commissioner will have an unignorable voice in trying to get the changes for the two circumstances you have just illustrated?
I am going to be honest and say this: when multi-agency risk assessment conferences were launched in the UK, we all came together as professionals and we stepped up. We did excellently for the first couple of years at making sure the right information was on the right days, and that everybody was sitting in the room listening to the right topics. We know that has dissipated over the past couple of years, so holding to people to account and having legislation in place will always be valuable. We cannot underestimate the value of having a Bill that talks about children and makes provision directly for children who are experiencing domestic abuse.
It is about prioritisation. It is about capacity. It is about having the right person in the post who gets the right set of training. We know that people move on into different roles, and there is a transition. It is about what we must not have. Someone said to me very early on that we must not have people who are championing issues around domestic abuse who then retire or move on to different roles, and that championing disappears. We have to have a consistent voice, because our victims are consistently telling us the same thing.
So we need something that is unignorable? Part of that is about creating the opportunity for it, and part of it is making sure that the vehicle that is created is filled by the right person—not just now, but into the future.Q
Yes, and the domestic abuse definition is incredibly important. That is used so much either to enable people to access services, or sometimes as the gatekeeper. It is vital to have the right definition that speaks to all the people who experience domestic abuse and understands those experiences. Including economic abuse within that is absolutely imperative.
I was interested in what you said about the MARACs, having been responsible for MARACs in a previous life. What do you think the Bill will do, if anything, to strengthen MARACs and the ability to work across agencies?Q
The Bill talks around MARACs quite efficiently and gives additional powers to the police and the criminal justice system. However, it does not look at the third sector’s involvement in MARAC, or at making it a statutory obligation for people to be at that table and ensuring that the people who come to the table bring the right information and act on it.
In a way, the Bill will be great because we will see a resurgence in attention, but the reality is that in a couple of years’ time we will be saying the same things. We cannot let that happen. MARAC, and attention to detail around victims of domestic abuse and safety planning, must remain an incredibly important and prioritised issue in all agencies.