Domestic Violence

– in Westminster Hall at 4:04 pm on 18th May 2004.

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Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar 4:04 pm, 18th May 2004

Soon, there will be a new domestic violence Act, which will enhance powers of arrest, improve court procedures and empower sentencers. The mere fact of passing, for the first time in 30 years, a piece of legislation to be known as the domestic violence Act will send out a signal that domestic violence is against the law and that the days when it was tolerated are well over. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is a commendable, much-needed piece of legislation.

As is now fairly well known, one in four women suffer from domestic violence at some time in their lives. A call about domestic violence goes to the police every minute of every day of every year, and between two and three women a week are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner. There is, of course, domestic violence against men as well.

Prosecutions are few and convictions even fewer. There are many barriers to complaining. The average woman who lives with her abuser has children and usually has either no job or a less well paid job. The barriers to making a complaint include the risk that the abuser will take his revenge against her or, perhaps, the children. Even if she leaves, he might make it clear that he will follow her and take his revenge. A large proportion of domestic violence continues after the parties have separated.

The abuser has the money and, as a rule, is the tenant or the owner of the house. He helps with child care, or perhaps his mother does, so that the woman can go out to work. What will the complainant do for money if she gets rid of him but cannot work? He will have to leave or, worse, she will have to leave and perhaps go to a refuge—and where then? She has never had a tenancy. The children will lose their father, and be poor and emotionally upset. The home will break up. What will all the people think who regard him as a nice guy? They are bound to think, "It's something she does that makes him want to beat her up. Can she not just put up with the odd thump? It hasn't killed her yet."

Women die from such violence, which is why it is important to go beyond legislation and beyond this debate. All authorities that come into contact with families in which such violence may be happening must be trained to be aware of it, so that they can work out an intervention and help the woman to help herself.

If the woman makes a complaint, it is sometimes even harder to sustain it. When a woman makes such a significant and seemingly counter-intuitive decision, it is imperative that agencies should act on it professionally. Recently, however, the joint inspectors of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police compiled a thematic report on domestic violence that makes it clear how often the police meet such complaints with rather thin interest and reveals the rather cavalier approach taken in CPS file reviews. Both those attitudes lead one to assume that the factors that make it hard for a woman to complain in the first place are likely to re-emerge. Many domestic violence cases will go nowhere. I can give no particular praise to the courts either, except to the specialist courts on the issue that are being piloted and which should be encouraged.

Since that thematic report, the police and the CPS have started to get their act together at ground level, but the woman, the complainant, will not have the personal power to drive them on. We should remember that, statistically, she will have been abused around 30 times before she makes a complaint. Her morale and self-esteem are certain to have been undermined. It is essential to provide, at least in the short term, a domestic violence advocacy service, to support complainants, overturn the system's lack of enthusiasm and drive the agencies forward.

I was privileged yesterday to discuss the New Zealand system of domestic violence advocates with the Attorney-General of New Zealand, Margaret Wilson, who is in London. I was equally privileged last summer to visit the Auckland domestic violence advocacy project. Margaret Wilson says that domestic violence is no longer a hot issue in New Zealand, which is truly well ahead of us in a number of ways. Advocacy has played its part in cooling this issue. There are advocacy systems in New Zealand, the USA and Australia. I am aware of two in this country—there may be more. One is in Hammersmith and one is in Cardiff. When a domestic violence complaint is made to the police, it becomes the officer's duty, once the situation is controlled, to ask the complainant if she will have the services of an advocate.

Advocates are trained to support the complainant through the multiple impacts of her situation. They are trained to negotiate about housing—a frequently needed skill because all too often it is the woman, not the man, who leaves the house. Alternatively, if she stays in the house, the advocate will help to develop a safety plan to enable her to be safe in her own home—changing the locks, arranging for a panic alarm or CCTV, or whatever it takes. Advocates understand and can manage benefit entitlements, which change when families break down, and can help to arrange child care and, if necessary, to change the child's school. They can make referrals to counselling services, involve other community support agencies, arrange interpreters, where that is relevant, and perhaps support the sufferer in going to the civil courts for an injunction to keep the man away.

In addition, advocates can drive on the criminal case, because they will have experience of other criminal cases, unlike the complainant. They can make sure that full information from the complainant goes to the magistrates for bail hearings, that appropriate conditions to keep the man away are attached to his bail, and that any breaches of bail are taken to court and not ignored. They can make sure that statements are taken from witnesses, accompany the complainant to the police station and the court and ensure that full information is given to the complainant about adjournments, new dates, new times and bail conditions. They can make doubly sure that the complainant does not come across the man in the public areas of the court, which sometimes still happens. Often they can stand with her while she gives evidence, or at least accompany her through the tense wait until she testifies.

Advocates aim to be the complainant's competent guide and friend through the morass of effects of their new situation. My particular interest as a lawyer is that there is also a real probability that advocacy systems increase the complaint and conviction rates. It should be remembered that domestic violence perpetrators are often serial offenders. They move from one victim to another woman. A perpetrator must, therefore, be taken to court, not just for the sake of the current victim, but for the sake of those who, otherwise, might be yet to come.

The lead officer on domestic violence for the Association of Chief Police Officers, Jim Gamble, told me last week that it is becoming increasingly clear to police that domestic violence perpetrators are frequently criminal in other ways too. It is in our interest, first, that the courts should stamp out that vicious crime from the lives of women and children and, secondly, that we should all be protected against the public criminality that domestic violence often, it is becoming clear, foreshadows.

The evidence is that advocates increase conviction rates. A complainant who is sustained by an advocate is better able to go through with the process. The agencies are driven by the advocate, too. There is also evidence that advocates help women in ways that go beyond that. Research shows that abused women consistently want one point of contact that they can approach for help. The confusion of different departments, authorities, policies and practices would be a minefield for most professionals in the field, let alone an abused woman. It can make all the difference if there is one point of contact for information and support, so that an overview of the complainant's progress in the various systems can be maintained and advocacy can be provided on her behalf when necessary.

A national domestic violence advisory service is possibly the most efficient, effective and economic intervention in domestic violence that the Government could make. The evidence from abroad suggests that it would reduce crime. Domestic violence advocates have been crucial in reducing domestic violence in New Zealand, the USA and Australia.

The star turn is San Diego in the USA, where a 75 per cent. reduction in domestic violence homicides has been achieved since 1985. There is of course a link between the number of homicides, which is highly visible, and the hidden domestic violence underneath. San Diego has a co-ordinated approach and advocacy is the linchpin. Advocacy in those circumstances has recently been recognised by the Bush Administration, which have provided funding for 12 more jurisdictions to benefit from it. I hope that the Minister now feels under heavy pressure, if the Bush Administration have chosen to fund such a thing.

Evaluations of UK schemes have shown significant reductions in repeat victimisation and benefits for the process of healing after the event. They are cost-effective, too. The estimated cost in 2000 for the police to respond to a single incident of domestic violence was £1,027, whereas the average unit cost per client of an advocacy service is £778. Furthermore, many police attendances are ineffective. Some years ago, I dealt with a case in the north-east in which the police had attended the family 103 times, but had clearly never got a grip on the situation. It was ultimately resolved, if that is the right word, by the woman killing the man, which is how I came to be involved. Many police interventions are ineffective, and we should think of the costs. Last year, the police attended more than 500,000 domestic violence incidents.

Estimates of the total cost to the public purse of responding to domestic violence exceed £4 billion a year; a national advocacy service would cost about £45 million a year. Of course, there are figures to count beyond those for police interventions, but a team of dedicated domestic violence advocates will almost certainly be much less costly than repeated visits to health, housing and social services.

Flexibility is an important characteristic, and advocacy services are more effective in the voluntary sector. Many women have concerns about the powers of statutory agencies, which sometimes means that the staff of such agencies get an edited version of events. For example, if the abuser has threatened to kill the children if the woman leaves him, that is often concealed from social workers out of fear that the children may be taken away. Voluntary sector advocacy services can therefore obtain better information and make safer interventions. Advocacy services also work because they are sufficiently flexible to be able to respond to women's individual circumstances. I have emphasised the model of the couple who are breaking up because of the man's violence, but for many women, leaving their partner would mean leaving their community, and even leaving their partner is not an option. Nor is involving the justice system.

Proactive advocacy, safety planning and support are essential in empowering victims of domestic violence to increase their safety, regardless of whether they are staying in the relationship, leaving it or going to court. They may have no one else. Interestingly, lay advocacy services score very highly not only with victims, but with members of criminal justice system agencies. Reports show high levels of victim satisfaction, and criminal justice professionals comment favourably on the advice, support and information provided by lay advocates. Evaluations of advocacy systems show that they lead to a more co-ordinated package of support, intervention and monitoring, because they are finely tuned to identify gaps and flaws in service provision. In other words, they improve the calibre of public service delivery in these specific cases.

A domestic violence advocacy service must have certain features. For women, it must be delivered by women, independent and in the voluntary sector. It must be centred on the complainant, allowing women to define their own safety needs and to have the services that they require. It must focus on increasing safety as a priority, irrespective of including justice system involvement. It has to be available and accessible 24 hours a day. In the end, an advocacy service has to create opportunities for survivors to meet for mutual support, and has to respond to children's specific needs. Specific funding could and should be ring-fenced and distributed to local criminal justice boards for local distribution for advocacy services.

Those proposals are supported by a body of research, including the Home Office's evaluation of its violence against women funding stream, "What Works in Reducing Domestic Violence", which was published in 2001, and "Evaluation of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts/Fast Track Systems", which was published by the Crown Prosecution Service in 2004. Both lend weight to the arguments. Domestic violence advocates are championed by the Women's National Commission, Women's Aid and our fellow Labour Government in New Zealand.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is about improving outcomes at court, but the bulk of it will be less than maximally effective unless it is buttressed by a system of domestic violence advocates.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird for introducing the debate. I pay tribute to her as chair of the all-party group on domestic violence and the group's other members for their tireless work to raise awareness of this horrific crime.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to several statistics that should make us all pause for thought about the terrible situation. Domestic violence accounts for almost a quarter of all violent crime, and in 1999, 37 per cent. of women homicide victims were killed by present or former partners—that is one every three days or two women a week. We know that repeat victimisation is common, and no other type of crime has a rate of repeat victimisation as high as that involving domestic violence. On average, a woman will be assaulted by her partner or ex-partner 35 times before reporting it to the police.

It is a complex situation, based on what is going on in someone's home and whether there are others—for example, children—who are witnesses to the violence. There is a complex series of relationships, and my hon. and learned Friend eloquently outlined the difficulties faced by a woman or man, but normally a woman, who is deciding whether to leave a relationship and/or take legal action against her current or former partner. Those statistics are shocking, and we recognise that we must work across disciplines, nationally and locally, if we are to tackle domestic violence and its impact on victims, their children and the community.

Baroness Scotland chairs an inter-ministerial group on domestic violence, which includes my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, colleagues from Wales and Northern Ireland, and ministerial colleagues from five key Departments, all with central roles in supporting victims and children. That approach must be developed across Government to tackle the issue, focusing on prevention, protection and justice, and support, the latter of which is the theme of today's debate. As my hon. and learned Friend has said, our hand will be strengthened by the measures in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which is shortly to receive its Second Reading in the Commons. It is a key part of our wider aim of putting victims at the heart of our criminal justice system.

Support is important. Without back-up from statutory agencies and the voluntary and community sector, victims and their children will not have the support that they need to live free from violence. We must ensure that the signs of domestic violence are picked up by statutory agencies, in particular our health services, so that victims can gain access to support as early as possible. I pay tribute to the work of Mansfield District and Ashfield primary care trusts, which are already operating a comprehensive domestic violence strategy of training for all staff and routine inquiry in various areas. That means that every woman coming into contact with a health professional should get appropriate information about the available domestic violence services. The recent appointment of a Modernisation Agency national co-ordinator for domestic violence and abuse in health and mental health services should help to improve the response of health services throughout the country and enable more women to access support services.

Having made the often difficult decision to seek help, victims and children will need a range of interventions to help them rebuild their lives. Victims are often at their most vulnerable on leaving. They may need urgent advice, someone to discuss options with or someone just to listen. We are investing £1 million in the next three years in the new national 24-hour free helpline, backed by an online database of refuge places and other services. We have also contributed £1 million to its promotion, because we want the people to know about the services that are available. The helpline was launched last December, and Women's Aid and Refuge are working in partnership to help us deliver results.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tireless and dedicated work of people in the voluntary community sector, many of whom have worked for decades to care for and support victims and their children—often, unfortunately, without the backing of statutory agencies or public policy. Now that public policy is catching up with them, we must use their expertise and experience to ensure that we provide the best possible services.

Safety is paramount, which means that secure accommodation is a top priority. Last year, with the Housing Corporation, we invested £18.9 million in refuge provision. We have committed a further £9.8 million to fund additional schemes in 2004–5 and 2005–6. In practice, that means that at least extra 300 extra units of accommodation will come online. I am sure that people will argue that that is not enough, but it is a start in the right direction.

Where appropriate, it can be less disruptive and more cost effective for victims to stay in their own homes. That may require the installation of new or better security—as with the Sanctuary project in Harrow—as well as outreach and support from specialist organisations and individuals to help to avoid crisis points. That is the kind of housing-based support that the "Supporting People" programme will deliver to victims, either in refuges or at home.

My hon. and learned Friend proposed that we should introduce advocacy schemes to support victims. We know that some organisations already use advocates to great effect, and that projects have shown that they can be a cost-effective intervention. I was interested to hear the statistics that she gave. As I am standing in for the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Goggins, I will ensure that he is made aware of her observations.

When tackling the criminal justice issue, it is important that we perform a cost-benefit analysis of whether we should continue to run the same system, or try to change it to bring about better outcomes for victims of crime while tackling the logjam that occurs when such cases are not dealt with for many years. In many such cases, the perpetrator is not brought to justice.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, who has ministerial responsibility for correctional services and reducing reoffending, has already indicated that we at the Home Office are keen to build on established activities and projects, such as the national helpline, and link them with advocacy services, which will involve a fuller process. The number of issues with which an advocacy worker could be involved is huge and varied, so particular skills will be needed for that job.

I was interested to hear what my hon. and learned Friend said about New Zealand and America. When developing public policy in the UK, it is always important to consider events in other parts of the world and what we can learn from them.

We think that the idea of an advocacy service has merit. It could build on what we are already doing. As my hon. and learned Friend rightly said, some women who come forward to make complaints, and who want action to be taken against their partner or ex-partner, will often fall out of the system due to lack of support.

The crime reduction programme has funded a number of projects to assess the effectiveness of different advocacy, outreach and support measures. The results are due in the summer. We hope that that will give us all a clearer understanding of what might be needed and, importantly, the cost implications of providing such a service.

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned Jim Gamble, whom I have also met. I am pleased that senior police officers such as Jim are seeking to make changes in their organisations to improve police performance in this important area. I was pleased to hear on the radio, either yesterday or today, that the Police Federation conference—which I think is taking place this week—is devoting part of its agenda to discussing domestic violence, and that my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is to speak at the conference. There is a long way to go, but we must raise awareness of this issue. We need the leaders of law enforcement organisations in the courts to take a stand.

Children are often the hidden victims of domestic violence—living with and witnessing it, and sometimes being abused. They may suffer both short and long-term harm, and it may be necessary to consider the needs of such children and put them in touch with the appropriate services.

The measures in "Every Child Matters" and in the Children Bill will significantly improve services for all, and later this year the all-party group will be examining the problem of children and domestic violence. We would like to see specialist domestic violence services coming under the auspices of the new directors of children's services and safeguarding children's local boards.

Finally, we are committed to ensuring that all communities have access to the support that they need. By commissioning services locally, we believe that agencies will be able to take account of the needs and priorities around them. Nevertheless, we need to consider those national issues that may not be picked up locally. That is why we are funding the first UK-wide working group on forced marriage. We also supported the creation a telephone helpline for victims of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual communities by Broken Rainbow.

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend and I are in agreement on a number of matters, but we share our pride in being members of a party that puts measures to tackle domestic violence high among its legislative priorities. We agree that an improved response to domestic violence from all statutory agencies needs to go hand in hand with legislative change. That is why our programme is broad, and deals with prevention and support as well as protection and justice.

We can pass laws, and we can make changes to assist the police in enforcing the law; but we must also support people through the process. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend has given us the opportunity to air the issue.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

We thank the Minister for her sensitive reply to an important debate.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.