Funding

Domestic Abuse Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 9th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

These clauses all relate to the powers of the domestic abuse commissioner; there is a huge area of the Bill about her powers and how this role is going to work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove and the Minister have said, we all welcome the commissioner.

I want to make some brief comments about the issue that clause 4 deals with, which is funding. It arises from a constructive concern that I had during the evidence sessions and on Second Reading, which is that it appears that if there is something that the Government have not yet got an answer for, possibly for a completely good reason, there is a tiny bit of a willingness for them to say, “We’re going to ask the commissioner to do this thing for us.”

For example, on Second Reading, there was a push from all sides of the House, as there was from the sector and from the commissioner herself, around the provision of community-based services. Off the top of my head, the statistic is that 70% of all domestic violence victims are supported in community-based services. The vast majority of people will never end up in refuge accommodation, and that is something that we should continue to facilitate; refuges are absolutely not for everyone.

What concerns me and what we heard from some in the sector—I think it came from the voice in the room that was Suzanne from SafeLives—is that what was announced on Second Reading related to a mapping exercise rather than a duty. In the Bill, we see—it seems like we will see it in many weeks’ time—a duty on refuge accommodation, which we certainly all welcome, but there is definitely a desire, which I share, to see a similar duty on community services.

It seems that rather than a duty, the Government are proposing a mapping exercise—they proposed it on Second Reading—by the commissioner, to understand what community-based support exists. As Suzanne told the Committee in her evidence—I have to say, I think I could probably do it here now. If I did not come to the Committee tomorrow, I could probably map out community services, because droves and droves of evidence have been gathered about what community-based support services exist. I feel for the Government, because people like me put in questions such as, “How many bed spaces are there?”, when I know full well what the answer is. I understand the concern and the need to map services, and to make sure that we are funding things.

What concerned me a little on Second Reading and in the evidence sessions was that there were a huge number of questions from Members asking the sector what they felt the commissioner should be doing: “What is the commissioner going to do for my group of women? What is the commissioner going to do about this and that?”. They were completely reasonable questions to ask, although largely they were asked not of the commissioner, but of the voluntary sector aides and the victims. With the greatest respect to Nicole and her position, I am not sure most victims of domestic violence are too concerned with who the commissioner is, but the sector is.

What concerns me is the commissioner’s funding model. I know that there was some argy-bargy and push and pull about the number of days, which letters presented to the Committee on the previous Bill said would be increased. What worries me on staffing, which is dealt with in the next clause, and funding is that the commissioner will end up with all these jobs because, rather than taking direct action, we do another review or more mapping. It starts to ramp up the amount of funding that somebody will need to take on all this extra responsibility.

I want to be absolutely certain and to understand from the Minister what the mechanism is if the commissioner says: “I cannot afford to do this exercise that you have said I should do because I no longer have the funding.” What I do not want to see is Parliament scrutinising the domestic abuse commissioner—she and whoever takes the role after her will undoubtedly many times in their career sit in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee—and her being forced to answer: “I couldn’t afford to do this exercise or this report into x because we just didn’t have the budget.”

There seems to be a tendency to push things on to the commissioner that would once upon a time have sat with civil servants in the Home Office. I want an understanding of how the review process and funding will be taken forward and what grounds it will take to make a case to increase the budget, including increases that might be needed for the local boards that are associated with this part of the Bill. I therefore seek reassurance from the Minister.

There is a game that gets played—although certainly not by the Ministers in this Committee—of the devolution of blame. We devolve power, whether it is to Wales or Scotland or to local authorities, whereby the Government hold the whip hand. I am certain that all Governments of all flavours have done this. The Government hold the whip hand in deciding the funding formula or within what constraints that money may be spent. When problems arise we say, “Well, that’s Birmingham City Council’s fault because they are rubbish.” Again, if I was given £1 for every time I heard the invocation of the Welsh NHS, I could fund all community services. What worries me and what I do not want to see is an underfunded commissioner, with the Government saying, “That is the commissioner’s responsibility,” given that ultimately all this policy—everything that flows from the Bill and everything that happens in every single one of our local authorities—

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

We have heard several times today already that the Bill is landmark legislation and that we should be future-proofing it in certain ways. Do I understand from what the hon. Lady says that we have to future-proof it against undermining public confidence, through arguments about whether it has been sufficiently funded and who is to blame for that—and should we take the opportunity at this point to make sure that that argument cannot arise?

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:00 pm, 9th June 2020

Absolutely. I am not asking for a bottomless pot of funding for the commissioner for ever and ever. I am sure that, even if the Minister were to ask really nicely, the Treasury would tell her no—although it would seem that that is not so much the case now, given that my husband is furloughed at home. The reality, though, is that I do not want to put the commissioner into that position. The Minister invoked the position of the independent anti-slavery commissioner. Of course, we have seen—perhaps not from this appointment, but from previous appointments, when Kevin Hyland was commissioner—that he very much felt there were problems in that particular area. Will the Minister reassure me, first, that we will not be expecting the commissioner to do the job that we do here, the legislators, people with a mandate and elected to office, and that we will not apportion blame where children’s services, for example in local areas, have not been suitably encouraged by the commissioner; and secondly, that where there is a real need for her to do something on which she will then have to answer to a Select Committee, for example, that she will be resourced properly?

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

I appreciate that this debate has been probing clause 4 and the resources available to the commissioner. We have provided the commissioner with an overall annual budget of over £1 million, which, among other things, will provide for 10 to12 staff to support the commissioner in carrying out her functions. In addition to the money from the Home Office, under clause 8(3) we have given the commissioner the power to charge a person—and when we say “person”, we are not talking about an individual but an authority or an organisation—for providing them with advice or assistance under subsection (2). We appreciate that exercises such as mapping community-based services will take a great deal of staff time and resources: it will take relationships across the country.

On the subject of mapping, I remember that just after I was appointed, two and a half years ago, my officials had done a very quick and dirty analysis of community-based services in a particular county—I will not name the county. They had found that there were something like 80 charities in one county who were working to help victims of domestic abuse. They ranged from the largest, national-type charities to the sort of charities where it is my great privilege to meet and discuss their work with their founders, who perhaps have set up a charity to commemorate a loved one who has been killed by a partner, for example. In their individual ways these charities work sometimes at a very local level to provide services. I wish that trying to map that was as easy as one would like it to be, but it is a difficult task, which is why we are asking the commissioner to do that for us. That is not because she is going to be in charge of policy creation but because, with the powers she will have under the Bill, the commissioner will be able to request that information from the public authority, as set out in the Bill. Then she will be able to produce advice and a report.

That touches on the point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raised earlier about the meaning of the word “encourage”, and I apologise for not responding to it sooner. We believe that clause 14 is very powerful when read in conjunction with clauses 13 and 15. Clause 14 sets out the powers to request information and assistance from public authorities. Clause 15 sets out the requirement that the public authority must respond within 56 days to the report or the analysis by the commissioner. They report not just to the commissioner, but to the Secretary of State. I do not want to cast aspersions on any particular type of public authority; the public authorities mentioned in clause 14 include nationally known organisations as well as local councils and authorities. If there is a report by the commissioner condemning the conduct of one of those public authorities, and the authority has to respond within 56 days, that is quite a powerful tool for the commissioner. As we have already discussed, the commissioner is also required to lay annual reports before Parliament. It may well be that, as part of her general functions under clause 6, she will want to express her views on the conduct of public authorities in her annual report. Again, I do not want to direct her—she is independent—but this is a way to keep the commissioner and public authorities accountable.

On funding, we know that being in Government is about making tough choices. We have funding for the Home Office to be allocated across a whole host of deserving causes, including policing, counter-terrorism and maintaining a fair and effective immigration system. The budget we have set aside for the domestic abuse commissioner is what we have allocated. In setting that budget, we have looked at the budgets of other commissioners to ensure that it compares favourably, which it does. We will keep the budget under review, and the commissioner will discuss with the Secretary of State her budgetary needs for the forthcoming year. We have provided the commissioner with the available resources, because we want her to be able to fulfil her functions as set out in clause 6. It is not about attributing blame, but about trying to ensure that this new, powerful appointment will help us tackle domestic abuse and that, at both national and local levels, we can utilise what she will bring with her laser-like focus on domestic abuse. Her power and authority flow from clause 6, and I hope we will see real differences—not just nationally but in our constituencies over time, as public authorities realise that they are accountable not just to the public, but to the commissioner.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.