Examination of Witnesses

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:04 pm on 4th June 2020.

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Simon Blackburn and Sara Kirkpatrick gave evidence.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North 4:30 pm, 4th June 2020

We will now hear evidence from the Local Government Association and from Welsh Women’s Aid. Please introduce yourselves to the Committee, and we will then move on to the questions.

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Good afternoon and thank you so much for inviting me. My name is Sara Kirkpatrick and I am the CEO of Welsh Women’s Aid. I am trying to be short and sweet. I could introduce my organisation but that feels a bit unnecessary.

Simon Blackburn:

I am Simon Blackburn and I am the chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities board, and the leader of Blackpool Council.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

We will move on to the questions, I call first on Alex Davies-Jones.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Labour, Pontypridd

Sara, would you give us some information on your experience given the changes in legislation made by the Welsh Government, and maybe some of the impacts we are looking at in the Bill. Will you give us some of your experiences on that, and have they worked?Q

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Some really exciting things have come out of the Welsh legislation, particularly the idea of taking that broader lens—the lens of violence against women and girls—in recognising that domestic abuse is an aspect of violence against women and girls. So there is that commitment to a gendered understanding and a gender-informed offer which does not exclude but ensures that all services are offered in an appropriate way, because gender-informed services are hugely important. For me, that part of the legislation is one of the most exciting things.

The other thing would be the “Ask and Act” legislation that we have enacted in Wales. It has ensured that training for statutory organisations is provided and has really secured connections with specialist services, so that we are not asking non-specialist organisations to provide support. We are ensuring that they are equipped to do their job well and to connect effectively with specialist survivor organisations across the country.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I am sorry to have to say this, because I know it is enormously difficult, but please try to respond to the microphone even though you are not facing the person. It is for Hansard in particular. It is nobody’s fault, it is just a problem with the layout. We are probably all right now.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Labour, Pontypridd

Q What changes do you think are needed in the Bill to ensure that the Government protect the victims and their children in Wales?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

For me, the significantly important part is to ensure that this legislation—England and Wales legislation—aligns with the Welsh legislation so that we do not have gaps or inconsistencies where things fall through. Some matters are devolved and some matters are not devolved. One thing of particular concern to Welsh Women’s Aid, specifically around family law, is that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is a department within the Welsh Government—Cafcass Cymru is a different organisation from CAFCASS in the UK—and family courts are part of the Ministry of Justice offer, so it is about ensuring that those things align, so that no citizens of Wales are disadvantaged by the gaps between legislation.

It feels important to me to say that it is incumbent on Westminster that there are no gaps. The idea of the devolved Administrations is that the citizens of different countries get the best in their country, and we do not want people to be worse off.

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

Q My first question is to Councillor Blackburn. I hear Blackpool has been sunny this week—I declare an interest.

The Bill places a duty on tier 1 local authorities to provide support services to domestic abuse victims and their children in safe accommodation. Do you welcome that? What can we do to help you and your colleagues to implement that?

Simon Blackburn:

We absolutely do welcome the duty and we want to make sure that local authorities are equipped to enact that duty in an appropriate way. There are a number of points to make.

Although the provision of safe and secure accommodation for victims, survivors and their children is absolutely fundamental, it represents a failure in all the systems. We should not be in a place where that is the only thing that local authorities are doing. There should be early intervention and prevention work taking place to make sure that women are not being removed from their homes and that, wherever possible, it is the perpetrators lives that are being disrupted.

Funding for domestic abuse services comes from the Government to a variety of different actors; local authorities are only one of those. Some funding is distributed directly to the third sector, some to police and crime commissioners and some to parts of the health service. It is important that we think about whether an opportunity ought to apply to those organisations as well. I do not think local authorities are the only people that can fix this.

In broad terms, we welcome the emphasis and the responsibility, but we want to see early intervention, prevention and community-based services given as much weight as accommodation-based services.

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

Q Could you help us with domestic abuse local partnership boards, which will be used to help ensure that this duty is delivered? There have been a lot of questions, understandably, about the impact of domestic abuse on children. The local partnership boards are required to include someone who is representing the interests of the children of adult victims. What advice would you give to your council colleagues about how these boards can be most effective in addressing the needs of local residents?

Simon Blackburn:

It is important that the needs of children are put at the forefront of what local authorities do. In all social work assessments that should come through and be very clear. There will be differences in practice between one local authority and another. There may be a more informal disposal—for want of a better word—such as asking parents to engage with parenting classes or providing family support. The point at which that tips over into the local authority offering a formal assessment of need will vary from one area to another, depending on the services available. What should be consistent throughout is the threshold at which, for instance, a section 47 inquiry begins, because a child is deemed to be at risk of significant harm. That should not vary from one area to another.

In terms of the boards and partnerships that you refer to, I would think there would need to be somebody senior from the children’s social services department on that board. It is also possible that some form of guardian ad litem, or some independent representative of the needs of children, could sit on that board.

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

Q Finally, 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. What are your views on that proposal?

Simon Blackburn:

It is clear that victims and their children are in need of priority assistance and certainly local councils would not shy away from that. There are, however other groups of people who local councils have been asked to give priority to, such as former servicemen and women, ex-offenders and victims of modern slavery. The council housing and social housing stock can only be so elastic. For instance, in my own local authority in Blackpool, were a victim or survivor to require a four-bedroomed house, I have five such houses and they are all occupied at the moment, with a waiting list potentially between five and 10 years.

We would need to look at some flexibility in terms of funding, and at discharging that duty potentially in the private sector—where, of course, it is not possible for a local authority to guarantee a lifetime tenancy, because we would be dealing with a private sector landlord. Given sufficient stock, absolutely, but we know there are major challenges across the board for local authorities up and down the country in building enough council and social houses. We absolutely would not shy away from the duty.

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

Q I have just one more question, if I may. We have heard a lot about the definition today. What impact do you think that will have for commissioners in deciding which services to commission?

Simon Blackburn:

In terms of the definition?

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

The definition of domestic abuse in clause 1 of the Bill. What influence do you think that will have on commissioners when they are designing and commissioning services?

Simon Blackburn:

I think it is potentially quite transformative. In the past it has been possible for people to interpret domestic abuse very narrowly. The broadening of the definition and the fact that we are taking things such as economic abuse into account certainly enable local authorities and other commissioners, such as police and crime commissioners, to look for more provision of specialist services, as Sara said earlier on, rather than asking providers to deliver things in which they do not necessarily have expertise. Of course, that comes down to the total quantum of money available to deliver on that, but I would welcome the expansion of the definition.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I will run through who I have seen so far. I have Rebecca Harris, Liz Saville Roberts, Fay Jones, Liz Twist, Virginia Crosbie, Nickie Aiken and Jess. Rebecca Harris?

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 Sara, thank you very much for coming here today, and thank you for raising the matter of CAFCASS and the fact that it operates in quite a different way in Wales. I wanted to refer to the inquiry by the Commission on Justice in Wales and Lord John Thomas’s report that came out at the end of last year, which indicates that in Wales we effectively have in many cases a twin set of bodies—those operated through the Home Office, those operated through the Ministry of Justice here, and those functions put in place by Welsh Government. How do we manage the situation? What are the lessons we should learn in relation to what the Domestic Abuse Bill is doing and the fact that we have a diverging environment in Wales, although of course we would want to use funding and opportunities as they come for common interests?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

I am so sorry, but could you clarify the question you are asking me?

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 In Wales, we have a twin-track set of justice bodies: those that come from the UK Government and those that have been put in place by Welsh Government. That is relevant here, because we have the domestic abuse legislation and we also have the CAFCASS situation, which is different in Wales from how it is here, and we are talking about children’s experiences here as well. What would be interesting for people who are not familiar with the Welsh justice environment to hear is how comfortably or uncomfortably this new legislation will sit in Wales and how we should be looking at that planning stage here.

Sara Kirkpatrick:

The answer is that we should be cognisant of it at every stage within the legislation. For me, one of the stumbling blocks is the word “national”. I often hear things described as national that are actually UK-wide; then I hear things that are described as national that are actually England and Wales; then I hear things described as national that are England only, and Wales, which also has national, is slightly different.

I think it is hugely important to ensure that alignment and to make sure that there is that two-tier system. To do things differently does not have to mean that there is a gap between, but you have to be cognisant that those things are sitting next to each other. If you disregard that, that is when the problems will arise—if we do not look at the very beginning and say, “This legislation is coming into two countries; the Domestic Abuse Bill that Westminster is doing is a hugely exciting and innovative piece of work, but we have to look from day one and see whether it works in both places.” If it does not work in both places, we have to be really clear about where the gaps are and what the differences are, and also learn.

Your colleague asked me earlier what we could learn from the Welsh legislation, and Victoria asked a question about the definition. For me, the broadening of the definition is hugely important, so that it ensures that we get the different types of abusive behaviour and the different types of domestic abuse—that is very important—but also the gendered nature and the disproportionate effect of domestic abuse on women and girls and on migrant women. We need all of that stuff in there, and we need not only to have that in the definition; we need to back up our commitment by collecting data and disaggregating that data so that we can ask, if we make a commitment to do something, “Did we do that?” We should go back and check. One of the things that always frustrates me is when we make a commitment to do something and then we pat ourselves on the back without looking at the detail and saying, “Did we?”

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 One of the issues that has come from my English colleagues as well is the availability of funding. Far be it for me to tell the Welsh Government what they should do with their funding—that is a fundamental rule of devolution, obviously—but none the less there is going to be a question as to how this operates from the Home Office to PCCs and with the different structures that we have in Wales.

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Yes. There are different structures in terms of what money is devolved and what money is coming directly from Westminster. There are different settlements for different things. Welsh Women’s Aid is a membership organisation and we are currently running members’ meetings every single week, and we are incredibly privileged—sadly, that is because we are in a pandemic—to be able to engage with our members on a frontline basis and hear what their challenges are.

One of the challenges is that frontline services get confused. The information is put out from Westminster or the information is coming out from different commissioners and organisations are being asked to prove a need, which is fair enough, but they become confused because a declaration will come from Westminster that says there is money for everyone. Is that money for everyone, or is it just for some people? Clarity is so important. First is a proportionate settlement, but second is clarity about that settlement.

The last thing I would say is that Wales is physically different. This happens in England as well, actually: sometimes we take a very metro-centric view. We think that we have a lot of public transport and we think that the roads are easy. I have just walked around London today, and it has been very easy to get from one place to another. That is less true in rural areas. When we are talking about a proportionate settlement, we need to take into account the fact that rural communities have a smaller population, but it takes longer for individuals to get from one place to another. A single service provider cannot provide the same service and get everybody to a single site in the way that they can in metropolitan environments, because there is more rural in Wales—or I notice more rural in Wales, perhaps because I talk to the members.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I have four or five people who want to come in, and we have 10 minutes, so that is the guide for how long they should try to speak for. I call Fay Jones.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I am over here, in Welsh corner. I am pleased that you mentioned rural areas, because I represent Brecon and Radnorshire, which has a large border with England. I am very interested to know, building on your earlier answer, what you see as a practical difficulty that could arise from any divergence between England and Wales, if you see any such divergence. Then I will have a quick follow-upQ question.

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Again, it is about being cognisant of that and ensuring the alignment. The other thing is that, from my experience of working with victims and survivors, they are quite mobile—both victims and survivors, and perpetrators. Sometimes, it is not just about how we choose to enact; it is about where people choose to engage. While they might be on one side of the border, the services they choose to access, where they connect or where their family lives might be on the other side of that border. That feels like an important consideration.

We are supposed to be providing services and making legislation that fits the needs of survivors, rather than expecting survivors to fit the offer of the legislation. That is often a challenge we are presented with: we create some rules and ask people to fit them. To me, the big thing about the border would be to be aware that people move on either side of it. Again, it is about making sure that there is alignment, so that people are not disadvantaged. It is also about being clear, so that people know on which side and what would benefit them.

Is that a clear enough answer? I don’t want to ramble, and I feel I have covered it.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q It was. The Home Office funds some programme that Welsh Women’s Aid runs, particularly one around early intervention on perpetrators. Will you talk about some of the successes that has had?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Are you talking about Change that Lasts?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Excellent. That is a relief. Welsh Women’s Aid and the Women’s Aid Federation of England came up with the Change that Lasts model initially. It is a three-stage model, which looks not only at early intervention but at community awareness, training of professionals and specialist support services. We both—Welsh Women’s Aid and Women’s Aid Federation England—got into partnership with Respect, which is actually my formal employer. Change that Lasts in Wales is my former baby, and it is about an early intervention offer.

I was heartened to hear what Simon said earlier about not waiting until people need rehousing. The Change that Lasts approach, and the perpetrator strand of that approach, is about recognising that not all those who are using harmful behaviour are yet entrenched perpetrators of domestic abuse who are using patterns of abusive behaviour. Some people, in my experience, are concerned about their behaviour at an early stage. They seek support from GPs and citizens advice bureaux, and they have been known to seek support from faith leaders.

If there is an offer out there where people can address and consider their own behaviour, consider the impact of their behaviour and be given simple strategies to do something differently, there is no guarantee that they will take those strategies on board, but, by creating a narrative that says, “The problem is that you are choosing to use problematic behaviour, and there is an opportunity to make a different choice”, we move the responsibility to where it should be. We move the responsibility, and that is the idea behind Change that Lasts, the perpetrator strand, which is being delivered in Wales.

Change that Lasts has got some really promising results on the early engagement. The feedback is that people are attending and remaining engaged. These are self-referral clients, and the feedback from their partners is that it has been a positive and beneficial experience. I do not want to overclaim, because it is in its early stages—it is being evaluated by London Metropolitan University—but the early signs are that when you meet someone early in their journey and you give them an opportunity to make changes, some of the grasp the opportunity.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Q Thank you for coming, Sara. You spoke about the challenges of rural. What additional challenges have you had with the coronavirus and with actually getting victims to come forward? How have you encouraged people to come forward?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Some of the ways that people have been encouraged to come forward are that in the country a lot of promotion has been done—putting messages out about the Live Fear Free helpline, using social media, and engaging with both local celebrities and local politicians—and somehow I have managed to be a local celebrity and do a video.

There is that idea about putting simple, non-targeted messages in as many places as we can. Local supermarkets have been putting leaflets, just with information about the Live Fear Free helpline, into all shopping deliveries. One of the nice things about a non-targeted offer is that it does not arouse the suspicions of a perpetrator, because everybody gets it. When a targeted offer is made, it has the potential to increase risk.

That is some of what is being done; it is just that much more general putting the message out there, over and over again. In terms of rural communities, what we are hearing is that, because rural is more difficult from that point of view—there is limited access to transport and so on, so at this point everybody is quite isolated—people who were already isolated are consequently more isolated, because they have no neighbours. There is no network that you can run to if you would want to. So it is much harder.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Q Gorwel, the domestic violence charity on Ynys Môn, seems to be very successful in reaching out to families and working with schools. In your experience, what is the best way of supporting families? Is it more prevention?

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Do you mean before the pandemic?

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

No, I mean in terms of supporting vulnerable families.

Sara Kirkpatrick:

Before we end up in a situation—again, it is that idea that the best way of prevention is education, early offers and non-targeted messages. One of the wonderful things about Wales is the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. It relates to the idea of challenging at the earliest opportunity—the concept that with any form of oppression there is no low-level, tolerated abusive, oppressive gender discrimination. All of that is not okay. Then you are sending a message that removes the fertile ground where more entrenched harmful behaviours can take root. So I think that is the big message, really.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

We have two minutes. I know Nickie wanted to come in.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Q There has been a lot of discussion today about whether children are direct or indirect victims of domestic abuse if they are within a family or household where domestic abuse is taking place, but they are not actually being abused physically themselves—but they are witnessing a parent. How do you feel—I am speaking particularly to you, Councillor Simon, with your local government hat on— about whether children should be considered victims, whether they are indirectly or directly affected?

Simon Blackburn:

Children are direct victims—

Simon Blackburn:

When I was a social worker—I used to be a child protection social worker—I had numerous arguments with my bosses and the police along the lines that even if the children were not present in the house, and were staying at grandma’s, for instance, and there was an altercation and their mother was hurt by their father or her partner, the children were none the less victims, because when they returned home the trauma, whether physical or emotional, is there, and it impacts on Mum’s ability to parent and her ability to manage relationships with the children. So it does not even matter if they are physically present. They are direct victims, in my view.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Q How do you think councils could deal with that if the definition covered children?

Simon Blackburn:

The Children Act, the legislation under which all social workers operate, is clear that children are at the front and centre of every assessment that is completed, so I am not sure that there is a need for anything. There may be a need to emphasise that. There may be a need for Ofsted and the Department for Education to remind local authority social services departments of that, but I think that is already very clear in legislation.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

We have run out of time for this sitting. I thank our last two witnesses very much for coming along.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Rebecca Harris.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 9 June at Twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

DAB01 Prison Reform Trust

DAB02 Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

DAB03 Transform Justice

DAB04 The ManKind Initiative

DAB05 Rape Crisis England & Wales (RCEW)

DAB06 Centre for Women’s Justice (submission on non-fatal strangulation)

DAB07 Andrew Todd

DAB08 Centre for Women's Justice (further submission on pre-charge bail)

DAB09 Cris McCurley

DAB10 Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee (UKPAC)

DAB11 Helen Bichard, Trainee Clinical Psychologist

DAB12 Amnesty International UK

DAB13 Equi-law UK

DAB14 Refugee Council

DAB15 FNF Both Parents Matter Cymru

DAB16 Grazia Magazine

DAB17 Magistrates Association

DAB18 Southall Black Sisters

DAB18D Southall Black Sisters: Annex 4 (detailed amendments to the Bill)

DAB19 Step-Up Migrant Women Coalition

DAB20 We Can’t Consent To This

DAB21 Age UK

DAB22 Local Government Association (LGA)

DAB23 Resolution

DAB24 JUSTICE

DAB25 Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

DAB26 Working Chance

DAB27 Men & Women Working Together (MWWT)

DAB28 Mr RS Wells, Director of, Domestic Abuse Business Support Ltd “Bridging the Gap Project”

DAB29 Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse

DAB30 Royal College of Psychiatrists

DAB31 Latin American Women’s Rights Service

DAB32 Joint submission from 29 VAWG (violence against women and girls) sector organisations

DAB33 Refuge

DAB34 Drive

DAB35 Lucy Snow