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Violence Against Women

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 9th March 2006.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central 2:30 pm, 9th March 2006

Quite a number of hon. Members wish to speak in this debate. If everyone keeps their comments as succinct as possible, we might be able to call all of them.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I first want to remark on the significance of the fact that this debate is taking place. The innovation of having a debate to mark international women's day was made following the 1997 election. That is a mark of the importance that we attach to equality.

I am glad that we are focusing on violence against women today. That is why in the Chamber we have two Ministers for the price of one. My Department, the Home Office, is the Department responsible for violent crime, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality will conclude the debate. That signals that this is not just an issue for women, but an issue of crime and violence that we need to address.

It is a shocking fact that, globally, domestic violence is the leading cause of morbidity in women between the ages of 19 and 44. It is also shocking that 30 per cent. of pregnant women in the United Kingdom have experienced domestic violence while pregnant. Women are significantly more likely than men to experience physical or sexual violence. Although I acknowledge that men and same-sex couples may also experience domestic violence and/or sexual assault, we must not forget that in this country a woman is killed every two or three days as a result of domestic violence. This is a crucial issue of crime.

Those statistics illustrate the barriers to achieving our objective of equality. The low social and economic position of women can be a consequence of the violence that they experience, but it can also provide a context within which that violence can thrive, forcing women and girls into a subordinate position. Violence against women is much more likely than violence against men to take place in the home—the place where we all want to feel safe from fear.

I have the privilege of being the Minister with responsibility for victims. In this area of violent crime more than any other the victim may end up blaming themselves—feeling that somehow their action contributed to the violence against them. That is completely unacceptable. Only one person is responsible for violent crime, and that is the perpetrator of that violent crime. If only one message goes out from today's debate and that message is that that is what the whole House believes, it will be very important for both the perpetrators and the victims of violence.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I wish to confirm that the Minister is right. Conservative Members agree with what she has just said.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I thank the hon. Lady.

We have designated this month as domestic violence month, illustrating the Government's commitment to tackling that crime, which devastates families and erodes communities. We condemn all forms of violence against women—domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking and prostitution.

I asked for a record of the milestones of achievement over the past 30 years. I shall not read them out because I can see how many Members wish to speak and it might be regarded as complacence, but such a list would mention legislation, intervention and protection; ensuring that police officers, Crown prosecutors, probation officers and people who work with victims are better prepared; and ensuring that other areas of service are better prepared, such as health services so that, for example, accident and emergency departments are able not only to provide care for victims but to do so in a way that protects forensic evidence. We have also established advocacy and support services, which are vital in the early stage of contact with victims. They should be available to victims before, during and after court processes. In that context, I recognise the success of specialist domestic violence courts pilots and of the introduction of independent domestic violence advisers, who have demonstrated successful outcomes in bringing perpetrators to justice—too many perpetrators are still not brought to justice—providing support to victims, and improving the entire criminal justice pathway.

P

Whilst I personally whole-heartedly support the campaign against domestic violence, my daughters and I having been victims of such, I have to object to the tone in which this campaign is being pursued.

Are we to assume that violence against men is okay, or that violence against a child by their mother is acceptable, because they do not constitute your much emblazoned 'violence against women' bracket?

Many men, possibly as many as women, are victims of domestic violence, and as the NSPCC's own statistics show, children are as much at risk of mental or physical abuse from their mother as from their father.

So I must ask that the situation is clarified. Are you (the government) campaigning against domestic violence, or just against domestic violence against women?

Submitted by Philip Andrew Else (Chairman of the Equal Parenting Alliance)

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Labour, West Ham

Given that we know that more than half—57 per cent.—of victims of domestic violence are involved in more than one incident and that women are on average beaten more than 30 times before they go to the police, does my hon. Friend agree that we still have a long way to go in persuading women that any type of violence in the home is totally and utterly unacceptable?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

Absolutely, but we ought also to persuade the men who are being violent.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

Is not one of our biggest tasks to get the message out to men that violence is unacceptable? I was horrified to read a survey that showed that 75 per cent. of 11 to 12-year-old boys thought that women should get hit if they make men angry. We must get into schools and help young people to understand that that sort of attitude is unacceptable.

I remember being involved in a court case when I was a social worker where the judge was cross-examining the man, and he said to him, "You're saying that Mrs. Moon is lying when she says that you are violent towards your wife?" The man replied, "That's right, I'm never violent." The judge said, "Can I be clear; you have never hit your wife?" The man said, "Well, I give her the odd backhand to keep her in line, but I'm never violent." That understanding of what violence means—that violence somehow does not include the odd backhander to keep wives in line— is sometimes the gap that we have to cross. We must make it clear that that crosses the line of what is unacceptable.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

My hon. Friend is right. One of our innovations is work with perpetrators. In the probation service in 2005, we established an accredited perpetrator programme. There is some debate about how well it works, but research in the United States and our country seems to show that it reduces the likelihood of reoffending. That is one issue, but my hon. Friend's point about educating young people about violence and about intervening before such incidents occur is also very important.

Across Government, we have the rape action plan, the national domestic violence plan, and we have established sexual assault referral centres and domestic violence specialist courts, which are now in existence in every region of England and Wales.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office

That is an impressive list of achievements, and I agree entirely that men need to be engaged in the issue. However, does my hon. Friend agree that the push to get domestic violence on to the agenda received a huge boost when large numbers of Labour women were elected to Parliament in 1997? Prior to that there were all-party groups on beer, cider, Scotch whisky, probably Irish whiskey as well and every Indian ocean island to which a free trip could be got, but there was not one on domestic violence. Does my hon. Friend agree that that was a great step forward?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I agree absolutely. I think that when the voices of women are normal in politics, politics changes, and not only in the sort of field that we are discussing. I remember doing research on how women had changed Parliament, and one aspect of that was that when we talked about the Army, we stopped talking only about the size of their bombs and the number of regiments, and started to talk about their wives and children and what happened to them. Women think about politics differently, and, when we talk about violent crime, one of the aspects of violence to which we are more alert—one that leads, as I pointed out, to two murders a week—is domestic violence and violence against women.

It is a reflection of women's greater engagement in Parliament that one of the most recent items in a slew of legislation is the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. Later this month we shall publish the second national report and the comprehensive delivery plan outlining how we shall improve help for victims and ensure that they come forward in the certainty of getting the help, protection and support that they need. We also have assistance programmes in relation to the domestic violence that affects people in black and minority ethnic communities.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that women need allies among politicians, religious leaders and health professionals. I wonder whether she is aware that later this year the Council of Europe, to which I am a delegate, is to launch a pan-European campaign against violence against women, including domestic violence. The Council is looking for a venue for a conference to launch that campaign. Will she communicate with the Council of Europe to ascertain whether it is possible to offer the United Kingdom Parliament as the venue for such a conference?

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

That is the other thing that women do in politics—they use opportunities to make quick bids, and more power to my hon. Friend's elbow. I shall pass that suggestion on to colleagues.

Britain has collaborated very effectively in Europe, such as in the work that we did with Turkey, on people trafficking and related issues. These are significant issues and we are making progress. We have established a proactive and multifaceted strategy on trafficking in human beings, including legislation, prosecution, law enforcement, provision of appropriate care and support for victims and national and international co-operation.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I really want hon. Members to have the opportunity to make speeches. I shall give way again, but I shall start to resist interventions.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Whip

On the point about trafficking, what is the Minister's view on the UK's not yet having signed the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings? It is an important step that we should take to give the women in that position the support that they need at a vulnerable time.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

As the hon. Lady knows, there are some minor technical difficulties about the consequences of the period of rest and reflection. However, we believe absolutely in leadership on a cross-Europe basis. We led on the recently adopted European Union action plan, which will enable us, with our international partners in source countries, transit countries and other destination countries like ours to intervene effectively at each key stage of the trafficking process, to protect women who are being exploited, and, most importantly, to bring to justice the criminal gangs who do it.

We are already seeing the fruits of those actions in the conviction of several members of organised criminal gangs and their sentencing to lengthy prison terms. We are working directly in partnership with the voluntary sector to support and protect victims who are trafficked for sexual exploitation through prostitution. The Government-funded Poppy scheme has successfully supported more than 100 victims since 2003. We are engaging actively with key non-governmental organisations as we develop our strategy further.

We recently conducted a wide public consultation exercise on another form of violence against women: prostitution. Views were sought from a wide range of individuals and organisations, including women victims of sexual exploitation, as the basis for the development of a co-ordinated strategy on prostitution. That should lead to a more proactive and comprehensive response from local partnerships to address street prostitution and all forms of commercial sexual exploitation.

The risk of being a victim of violent crime and the barriers to the successful prosecution of those who commit rape and other serious offences are magnified enormously for those who are involved in prostitution. They share with many women the feelings of shame and self-blame, but those feelings are exacerbated by a lack of self-esteem and the common view that it is only what they should expect.

Prostitution is a dangerous occupation and the best way to protect women is to challenge its existence and deal with the factors that cause them to be involved in prostitution in the first place. That is what our strategy does. It establishes effective measures to protect young people from those who would use and abuse them through prostitution. It provides help and support to women involved in prostitution, to enable them to find a way off the street. It also makes it clear that we will not tolerate those who control prostitution—that is why we have imposed 14-year sentences for brothel-keeping and controlling a prostitute—and those who create the demand for it in the first place.

It will take time to end all forms of commercial sexual exploitation and as we work towards that end we have a duty to women in prostitution to keep them as safe as they can be. We cannot make theirs a safe profession, and in some ways that should not be the goal of our policy, but we can reduce the risk of violence. That is why we are planning to redefine a brothel, so that a woman can work with a maid, or two women can work together, rather than alone. It is a matter of helping women to protect themselves from violent and sexual assault. An important part of protecting them is the sharing of information on what they call "dodgy punters" through ugly mugs schemes. We are building on those successful schemes by encouraging the making of reports to Crimestoppers and ensuring that important information is fed back to those on the street.

Many women are, initially at least, reluctant to report violent crime. We funded an initiative to explore ways in which voluntary organisations providing support to women in prostitution can encourage them to report such crime by providing an advocacy service. It is not only women in prostitution who are reluctant to report matters: other women are similarly reluctant, because of the victimising effect of prosecutions in many such cases. We need to use advocacy and victim support as a normal part of the operation of justice.

Violence perpetrated against women often affects silent victims: their children. Witnessing domestic violence can have a profoundly negative effect on a child's emotional and physical well-being, which, in turn, can negatively affect their educational attainment and social interaction. That has a substantial effect on society as a whole. I commend to hon. Members the statement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary issued yesterday on the work of the Home Office on international women's day.

Underpinning our concern about violence against women are the consequences for the criminal justice system as a whole. About half of women in prison have experienced violence repeatedly in at least one relationship. That is a stark reminder of why early intervention and prevention is so crucial. It is the first key objective of the national domestic violence strategy.

I know that many hon. Members want to speak and I shall bring my remarks to an end, but I should like to end by saying that what I have outlined is not just about the work of the Government; it is about work in partnership, and not only our partnership with the voluntary sector—the sector that provides refuges, advocacy and support to women. It is about the whole of civil society. Domestic violence costs our economy about £23 billion a year. I have been struck in recent months by the degree to which business, for example, realises that violence against women is a business cost—about £2.3 billion of the overall cost is borne by businesses. Getting businesses to work in collaboration with Government to protect their employees and ensure that their human resources departments deal with the effects of violence is part of providing a civilised society—one in which women can be free from fear. Every citizen, but particularly women, should be free from fear. We are moving down that road, but there is more to do. We should be proud of what we have achieved, but we should be determined to achieve more.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

The Chairman:

Order. I repeat my request for brief speeches. A large number of Members want to speak, and it will be difficult to accommodate everybody. The winding-up speeches will start at about 5 o'clock.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 2:50 pm, 9th March 2006

I shall be brief because many Members want to speak. I shall address one specific aspect of violence against women—the sex slave trade, or as The Sunday Telegraph more graphically put it, "The plight of the cellar girls".

The issue is important nationally, but also in my area of Northamptonshire. A prostitute wrote to me not about prostitution—I shall not go down that route—but about the forced slavery of young women, particularly from eastern Europe. Let me read briefly from a BBC report:

"On 31 October 2004, a 16-year-old Lithuanian girl made what was probably the biggest mistake of her young life when she agreed to go on a trip to the UK with a group of new friends.

Instead of the few days of fun she had been promised, she ended up being sold into prostitution in an ordeal that was to last for months."

I should say that this is a success story, because the police broke the ring up. Things are much worse for other girls.

The girl was tricked into leaving home by a young man who she thought was a friend. The article continues:

"He introduced her to a group of his 'friends' in a nightclub, who invited her to join them on an exciting 'sports' trip to London, all expenses paid.

After forging a permission letter from her parents, the men took her to Sheffield and handed her over to a gang who took her ID . . . which clearly showed she was only 16 . . . They told her she would have to work as a prostitute to cover the money they had paid for her and took her to a house in . . . Hounslow—one of a string of brothels in . . . London . . . Under the working name 'Veronica from Italy', she was forced to sleep with as many as 10 men a day and earning her pimps around £800 a day—of which she received nothing, despite being promised a share."

During the prosecution, the court was told:

"The gang gave the girls little or no money and kept them in the brothels mainly through fear, occasionally selling them on to other traffickers 'like cattle'".

Is it not disgraceful that, 200 years after we abolished slavery, this form of slavery is still going on? The Minister said that there were technical reasons why the Government will not sign the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings. Whatever those reasons are, they should be overcome quickly because this trade is disgraceful.

When such young women are discovered in this country, their fear of having to return home is a real issue, and I hope that the Government will tackle that. I would also like them to consider tougher border controls for young women coming into this country. Action on those two points would at least help to reduce this disgusting and outrageous trade.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley 2:53 pm, 9th March 2006

Since March 1975, 8 March has been celebrated as international women's day. It is celebrated throughout the world at local and national levels. This year, the theme is "Women in Decision-Making: Meeting Challenges, Creating Changes". As the Beijing declaration tells us:

"Women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of life, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace".

The international community is beginning to understand the fundamental principle that women are just as affected as any man by the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century in terms of economic and social development, peace and security; indeed, women are often more affected by them. It is therefore necessary that women should be engaged in equal strength and equal numbers in all areas of decision making. The world has also begun to realise that the most effective policy to promote development, health and education is the empowerment of women and girls. Furthermore, no policy is more important in preventing conflict or achieving post-conflict reconciliation.

At the 2005 world summit, world leaders declared that

"progress for women is progress for all".

The summit outcome called for universal access to sexual and reproductive health to be integrated into strategies for achieving millennium development goals and as a means to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. Four issues were of particular concern: sexual violence in conflict areas, human trafficking, honour killings and female genital mutilation.

The UN declaration on the elimination of violence against women defines violence against women thus:

"Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women".

Gender-based violence often begins at an early age. Female infanticide is still practised in societies where male children are valued economically and socially above girls. Medical testing for sex selection has become a business in some countries; indeed, it is currently being debated in the United Kingdom. During childhood, preferential allocation of precious family resources to male children might impact negatively on the health of girls. Those resources might include food, medical care and schooling.

Domestic violence is the most common form of gender-based violence. As girls enter marriage, domestic violence might become a problem. They often enter marriage as adolescents and, in some instances, without giving consent. Domestic violence might become a very big problem where the husband is considerably older than his wife and where local custom recognises the husband as the dominant partner.

Violence against women also occurs in situations where women are unable to exercise their right to fair treatment. Such situations include the sexual exploitation of women refugees, use of rape as a weapon of war and the trafficking of women for sex work. As a weapon of war, children and women are sexually assaulted by soldiers, police, militias and others who take advantage of the climate of lawlessness and impunity that often prevails in armed conflicts. Women and girls who have been raped sustain serious injuries and psychological trauma as a result of the violence that they have endured. Usually, they have few means of seeking justice, medical care or social support. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women and girls have been raped in the past five years of conflict in the Congo. That rape is increasingly characterised by extremely savage and brutal violence, and includes gang rape, rape with objects and cannibalism.

Recent wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Rwanda have seen the use of forced pregnancy as a form of ethnic cleansing—another weapon of war with long-lasting consequences for women and for the babies that are conceived in that way. Women might be shunned by their husbands and families and be forced to raise on their own the children who have been conceived as a result of rape. The children themselves might be stigmatised and seen as children of the enemy; they might experience neglect, denial of resources or even infanticide.

Many soldiers appear to feel that committing rape or other acts of sexual violence against civilian women and children is acceptable behaviour in a war situation. Numerous international observers have reported a systematic campaign to use rape to spread devastation and humiliation in the Darfur region of Sudan. Women and girls have been raped, gang raped, enslaved and mutilated while their village is burnt or when they leave the displaced persons camp to collect water, food or fuel or to travel to the market. Even those with a mandate to protect and assist children and women commit acts of sexual and gender-based violence. In a six-month period in 2004, 68 allegations were made against UN soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including some involving a child prostitution ring and rape of children by soldiers.

Sexual violence is only one of the types of gender-based violence that is exacerbated during armed conflict. Other forms of violence against girls also increase during conflict, such as early or forced marriage, infanticide, enforced sterilisation, domestic violence and trafficking. Sexual violence is a brutal crime. It is a means of warfare when used to torture, extract information, degrade, intimidate or punish. Rape has also been used to bring about ethnic cleansing of an area by spreading fear and compelling people to leave. Sexual violence committed during armed conflict is prohibited under the Geneva convention and is a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court.

Because of the accompanying psychological and physical trauma, rape often threatens livelihoods and economic productivity, as well as spreading fear, disease and injury. Violence against women can reach such proportions that every aspect of life becomes pervaded by its threat or use, and the continuing social and cultural impact can of course inhibit peace building and recovery.

Five years ago, the Security Council resolution on peace, women and security was passed, but the international community has yet to realise fully and respond to causes and consequences of rape for both individual survivors and communities. Perpetrators remain unpunished and survivors go without adequate support. Sexual violence programmes, including the delivery of support services, physical protection measures and action to ensure long-term prevention, are largely absent from humanitarian responses. Underfunding, limited capacity and resources, poor co-ordination among partners and a general lack of organisational commitment hinder many efforts to address sexual violence.

A growing body of evidence indicates the enormity of the problem of gender-based violence among refugees and the internally displaced in post-conflict situations, and the lack of adequate prevention and response. The development of appropriate responses has recently begun under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but it is important that that work gathers apace in all situations where it is required.

Trafficking in women has become a global problem and is one of the world's greatest violations of human rights. Up to 1,500 girls and young women are traded into the UK every year and those affected are getting younger and younger, with many as young as 15. I accept that the Minister has been working hard on the issues, but to eliminate the trafficking of women into the UK we must make progress on the three main areas of prosecution, protection and prevention.

As violence against women is frequently rooted in the unequal balance of power between men and women, the most effective counter-measure over the long term must be continual progress towards the empowerment of women, equal educational opportunities for girls and, for adult women, greater control over their resources and greater decision-making powers. Those are the prerequisites in the drive to eliminate the traffic of human beings.

The most extreme form of gender-based violence is of course honour killing, which is used mainly to control women's sexuality. A woman who is raped or voluntarily engages in sex outside marriage is considered to have defiled the family name. In some cases the woman may be only suspected of dishonourable behaviour, but the allegation is enough to dishonour her family.

In some countries the law allows honour killing, even where it is not explicitly permitted. The crime may not be prosecuted or, as in Iraq, a very lenient sentence will be handed down. The penal code in Jordan exempts from any penalty a man who kills, wounds or injures a female relative who has committed adultery, and a similar law exists in Syria. Hundreds of women are killed every year in Pakistan for crimes such as adultery, breaking an arranged marriage or simply attempting a divorce.

Honour killings are committed worldwide and they must be tackled. They occur whenever a man regards a woman as his property and seeks to uphold that false assumption by cruel and abusive force. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that as many as 5,000 females are killed every year, and Scotland Yard believes that there were 12 honour killings in the UK last year.

Governments need to reform all laws that serve as barriers to women's equality. Women cannot stand alone in their demand for social justice. Other sectors of society must be involved. Women need allies among politicians, religious leaders and health professionals. Since the UN declaration on the elimination of violence against women much progress has been made in establishing sexual and reproductive rights, but there is a lot more to do in translating those rights into policies. Persistent discrimination and violence against women and girls is also a persistent barrier to achievement, a violation of their human rights and a threat to sustainable development.

Gender-based violence causes more death and disability among women between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war put together. Gender-based violence is rightly condemned worldwide. The violent abuse of women is a violation of their human rights and must receive persistent and insistent international censure.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire 3:07 pm, 9th March 2006

I am grateful to be called today and, in the light of the large number of hon. Members present, I shall try to keep my remarks brief.

The Minister referred to the co-operation between our Government and European and worldwide Governments. I should like to bring to the Chamber's attention the position in Guatemala, which is a particularly appalling case in terms of the treatment of women. I pay tribute to Megan Anderson, Sophie Barker, Gemma Haywood and James Grant of Ibstock community college in my constituency, who recently wrote to alert me to the appalling crimes that are being committed in that country.

I contacted the two Ministers in the Department for International Development earlier this year, asking what was being done to help the Guatemalan authorities to reduce the incidence of violent crime against Guatemalan women. To put the matter into context, 1,000 Guatemalan women have been murdered in the past two years. That is in a country of about 13 million people—a fifth of the size of this country. One could only imagine the impact of such appalling atrocities if 5,000 women were killed over a two-year period in this country. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development reassured me about the contacts that had been made with the Guatemalan presidential commission on human rights and the fact that our country, I am pleased to say, provides 18 per cent. of the funding for European Community programmes to Guatemala in that respect.

The second question that I raised was with the Minister for Europe, asking what contacts he had had with his Guatemalan counterpart about the status and treatment of Guatemalan women. Although that had not been discussed in any detail, on 7 October 2005, officials from the British embassy in Guatemala met a representative from the Guatemalan human rights prosecutors office to discuss the serious rise in violent acts against women in that country. A representative from Guatemala's network for the prevention of violence against women was also present.

I was relieved to hear the Minister talk about the European and international links that have been established by our Government, because the position in Guatemala is extraordinarily depressing and tragic. Many women and girls in Guatemala live with gender-based violence. Violence against women in the family, rape and sexual harassment in the workplace are common, and women and young girls are the victims of commercial trafficking and, as we have heard from two speakers, sexual exploitation. Most appallingly of all, police officers have been implicated in cases of sexual violence in that country. A number of victims of the killings—I have given an indication of the scale—were under 18 years of age.

The United Nations special rapporteur on violence looked into this dreadful example of a country allowing violence against women, and he found that the Guatemalan Government were failing in their international obligation to prevent, investigate and prosecute violence against women. Last year, a special police unit was established to investigate and prevent crimes against women, but it was reportedly insufficiently resourced to deal with the scale of the problem.

It is not all bleak in Guatemala: more women there go out to work than have ever done so before, and they stay in education for longer and express themselves more freely than ever before. However, in much of the country their reward is the perpetual fear of violent, sudden death. Prostitutes and female gang members are at the most serious risk, but the death toll includes women from all walks of life.

Let me conclude with a reference to Amnesty International that links with the remarks of my hon. Friend Chris McCafferty. Independent assessors have established the reasons for the dreadful position in Guatemala, where three and a half decades of internal conflict have produced cheap guns and a culture of violence, which has worsened the position. First, there is no respect for the body; people feel that they can treat women however they like—that is almost a cultural expectation. Secondly and finally, there is the idea that women are somebody's property. Those values need to be challenged. In a recent report, Amnesty International called on the Guatemalan Government to improve public education, inject real urgency into criminal investigations and reform outdated laws on rape and sexual violence.

Yesterday was international women's day, and I am delighted with the achievements of our Government. I come from a female-dominated household, with four daughters and lots of sisters and sisters-in-law, so I feel that I have the privilege of being able to contribute to the debate on their behalf. Our Government's natural focus and priority has been within the United Kingdom, but they will reach out to other countries. I urge both Ministers present to see what they can do to establish links with, and improve the appalling position of, women in Guatemala.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Whip 3:13 pm, 9th March 2006

I very much welcome the fact that we are having this important debate to mark international women's day. In January, I was lucky enough to come high in the ballot for Prime Minister's questions, and I used the opportunity to question the Prime Minister about violence against women. In doing my research for that, I came across a frightening statistic. Nearly half the women in the United Kingdom have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. That is the kind of statistic that one reads and wonders whether it can really be true. However, I went away and researched it, and there it was in black and white from 45 per cent. of real women talking about their experiences to the British crime survey. That underlines how wide ranging the problem is and how often it occurs behind closed doors. It is happening in every constituency in the country.

I am not sure that I received as full an answer as I wanted from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but time is very short at Prime Minister's questions, so I shall give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I would very much welcome it if the Minister who responds to the debate would comment on the idea of an integrated strategy across Departments to deal with the issue. It is good to have a strategy on domestic violence, but we need to recognise that that is only one aspect of violence against women. There are sex crimes, trafficking, which has been mentioned already and involves the Home Office and the Foreign Office

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Does the hon. Lady accept that violent internet pornography of the sort that led to the brutal murder of Jane Longhurst is also a form of violence against women? Will she take this opportunity to praise Jane's mother, Liz Longhurst, who has spearheaded an all-party campaign against violent, exploitative internet images in which women are raped, tortured or murdered in the name of private profit and sexual gratification?

Jo Swinson: Certainly. I very much welcome the opportunity to do so, and to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his hard work on that issue. It is a good example of how violence against women involves all aspects of Government and many Departments, particularly the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and even the Department for Transport where it concerns women travelling home safely, often late at night. It is vital for the issue to be on the agenda and discussed and acted on in every Department. I hope that the Minister will express support for that strategy, as endorsed by the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

Today, I should particularly like to discuss an issue that was brought to my attention by a women's refuge in my constituency, the Women's Aid refuge in Bishopbriggs, which I visited yesterday. It opened fairly recently, and comprises five flats that provide a great haven for women who are fleeing domestic violence. The issue that they raised with me was not one that I might have expected—it was television licences. That is an issue because when many women take the difficult decision to flee their partners, they do not at first have the confidence to go into the communal area of the refuge. They often want the safety and security of being within their own, self-contained flat with a locked door.

The charity Refuge tells me that women often say that the television is a great source of comfort, perhaps as a way to entertain their children or just to provide background noise, which gives them a feeling of security. The situation that was brought to my attention and which I found shocking concerned the fact that the refuge had been told that it needed one licence to cover the property, but shortly afterwards started receiving angry reminder letters saying that it needed a licence for each flat. What was worse was the fact that the letters went to the women in the individual flats who were fleeing domestic violence.

That was obviously distressing for the women in their vulnerable state. The refuge wrote to the television licensing enforcement people, explained the nature of the property, said that it had been told that it needed only one licence and asked the agency to send any future correspondence to the office instead. What happened then was that one Friday night at 6 o'clock an enforcement officer came round. The staff had left the refuge, but he demanded entry and the 20-year-old mother who answered the door and let him in was bullied into signing forms to make instalments and payments. She was very distressed for the entire weekend. Eventually, the staff who came back on the Monday morning were able to sort out the situation.

Hon. Members will know that the most dangerous thing that a woman suffering domestic violence can do is to leave her partner. That is when she is at the highest risk of homicide. Men often stalk their partners and try to gain access to refuges. One of the most common ways in which they do that is to pose as officials, such as plumbers or council officials. It is unacceptable for television licensing people to force their way into women's refuges. Looking into the issue, I was further appalled to learn that hotels and guest houses require only one licence per 15 rooms. Although they are private enterprises, they do not have to have one licence per room; they have a concession. Residential care homes also have a concessionary rate per room.

Many of the people in women's refuges are staying there temporarily, whether for a few days, a few weeks or even a few months. There is a very strong case—I have written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about it—to extend the concessionary scheme to include women's refuges. I very much hope that that will be done in the upcoming BBC charter review. I should particularly like to know whether the Minister responding to the debate would be prepared to support that initiative on an issue that affects women's refuges throughout the country. It might be a small matter, but it is one that we should take the opportunity to sort out.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton 3:19 pm, 9th March 2006

I welcome this opportunity to speak in the debate following international women's day. I congratulate the two Ministers present and the Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Barbara Follett, who inevitably cannot speak today, on organising things so well yesterday, when in the rain with our umbrellas we attended at the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] Looking up through the umbrellas, I thought it a very celebratory event. Today's discussion is, inevitably, much more serious, and all the contributions so far have reflected that. I think that the women who paved the way for us to be here today would probably have approved of today's debate not being self-congratulatory, but focusing on the serious issues that still beset us.

In her opening speech, the Minister said that if there is one message to send it should be that violence is not acceptable wherever it occurs, whether in our homes or on the streets, in our country or abroad. The two speeches on trafficking particularly struck home with me. I shall comment briefly on that issue before I refer to local matters of domestic violence.

The Minister made a brave decision to turn around policy relating to prostitution. If anything illustrates the reason why that had to be done, it is the fact that these days trafficking of the sort described by Mr. Bone is tied up with violent crime to such an extent that it is pretty well impossible to think that the path that we were previously considering of having tolerance zones could have served the interests of women or made their lives safer. I greatly welcome the co-ordinated strategy to take policy forward and to consider how we can help women to escape and clamp down on the men who are conniving with these crimes. There is no other way of looking at it: whenever a man uses a prostitute, the chances are that he is ensuring that drug crime and the even more deep-seated—often twin—relationship between trafficking and drug crime can continue. That must be seen to be unacceptable.

I make no apology for turning to domestic matters, now. I greatly welcome the Ministers who are on the Front Bench today. There are so many Members who want to speak, Mr. Illsley, that I hope that you will, if you have the opportunity, tell the House authorities that we need an international women's day debate in the main Chamber. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

I shall use the rest of my brief contribution to celebrate and to paint the background to what is happening in Plymouth. I make no apology for doing that. We probably all have a catalogue of what is happening in relation to domestic violence in our constituencies, but we in Plymouth have struggled over the years to try to establish adequate services and gain resources for dealing with these matters. Ours is about the 15th largest city in the country, but only in recent years have we managed to establish a Women's Aid service, which has had its ups and downs.

Research carried out in Devon in 2001 estimated that there are about 175,000 incidents of domestic violence in Plymouth each year, many of which are, of course, repeat incidents. It is also estimated that 10,000 local women are likely to experience domestic violence in any one year. Plymouth's police domestic violence unit receives reports of almost 6,000 incidents a year, and there were three domestic violence-related murders in one month in Plymouth in November 2004. Now that we have an established Plymouth Women's Aid, it supports more than 2,000 women a year, either through face-to-face advice and assistance, or via its telephone helpline. It received more than 650 referrals from the police between July and September of 2005. In addition, the women's refuge supports about 120 women and their children each year at its 11-bedroom unit.

The Minister said that domestic violence costs the state, employers and victims £23 billion a year. Based on the figures that I just quoted, I calculate that the total cost of domestic violence per year in Plymouth alone is £12.4 million for services, £10.8 million in costs to the economy, and £68 million in the costs associated with human and emotional scarring and support services. That is a total cost of about £92 million a year in my city alone. Those are shocking figures.

In June 2003, the Government published "Safety and Justice". At that time, services in Plymouth were really rather down, so I decided that it would be good to bring people together. We held a seminar and produced our own response to the Government consultation process, called "Views from Plymouth on Safety and Justice". At that time, we were talking about prevention, protection, justice, support and what more needed to be done—for example, raising awareness, having better education, and doing something about children and family services and housing services in Plymouth. We were also trying to improve the operation of the courts to reduce the time taken to get cases to court, and to improve how people were treated there. We were also looking closely at the Leeds pilot on how to bring domestic violence cases to special courts as, perhaps, showing the way forward. We very much hope to see that in Plymouth in the near future.

I hope that those actions led, in part, to the coming together of a visioning day in Plymouth a year later. It led to the formation of the Plymouth domestic abuse network in February 2005, which has been working hard on housing. It has a housing domestic abuse working party that is considering how we can improve what were quite dire circumstances for women seeking a way out of damaging marital home set-ups. There is now a 15-point action plan to chart the way ahead. We also have a Signpost Care-supported housing project, and hope to have more safe and secure housing units in the city, which can be used specifically for at-risk women.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Moon quoted a shocking statistic about young boys and their attitudes. I was pleased when the partnership in Plymouth had a highly successful week of events during domestic violence awareness week in November 2005. One such event, a musical extravaganza, involved 600 young people from local schools, colleges and youth groups. All of the entertainment was provided by young people. There were dancers, singers, and rap artists, many of whom had written their own material about domestic abuse and its effect on them and their peers. The evening was used to launch the Plymouth young citizens' domestic abuse forum, to which more than 200 young people signed up on the night. Its work is now being taken forward by a young man of 19, who co-ordinated the running of the evening and is now working closely with Plymouth Women's Aid to tackle the issue.

Much still needs to be done. I hope that in charting the way ahead in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, Ministers will argue for further resources, because funding is still very fragile and partnerships in Plymouth have to spend a lot of time looking for funding. As the partnership in Plymouth said to me,

"Lack of substantial and sustainable funding for services . . . are a vicious circle—no funding means lack of progress, lack of progress means no funding."

There has been huge progress in the past three years in developing partnership working and more joined-upness at local level, but goodness knows there is a great deal more to do.

Finally, I think that we have all had the briefing from the Equal Opportunities Commission. Others might refer to hopes that the gender equality duty in the Equality Act 2006 will "mainstream" the approach to tackling violence across our public, private and voluntary sectors, and achieve the sort of joined-unless that Jo Swinson seeks. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality will refer to that in her closing remarks.

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho PPS (Mr David Hanson, Minister of State), Northern Ireland Office 3:29 pm, 9th March 2006

I am pleased that we are having this debate today. It is important that we discuss the subject in the open, because bringing domestic violence out into the open helps us to combat it. I take domestic violence seriously, and I am delighted to see so many Members attending the debate and intending to speak. It is good to see that so many of us are dedicated to tackling the issues that surround domestic violence and to improving the dire situation suffered by so many adults and children throughout Britain.

I am sure that everybody is already aware of the horrific statistics on domestic violence, but it is always worth remembering that domestic violence costs the lives of more than two women each week and accounts for nearly a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales. Dire statistics like those prove how vital, how long overdue and how desperately needed Government action to tackle domestic violence is.

I welcome the extensive new measures introduced in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the important role that the Act has played in raising the profile of domestic violence across Britain. I recently asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for exact figures on how much the Government are investing in improving services for women seeking refuge from domestic violence. I was pleased to hear that more than £30 million is being invested over three years in new refuge provision and refurbishment of existing refuges. As access to information is also important to domestic violence victims, another £1.4 million is being invested over three years to develop the new national domestic violence helpline, which is supported by UKRefugesOnline—a vital link.

Although I am incredibly pleased that such comprehensive legislation has at long last been introduced to support victims of domestic violence, it is by no means any indication that we can rest on our laurels. As Jo Swinson mentioned, the British crime survey shows that almost half of all women experience domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking in their lifetime. We clearly have a long way to go. To put that statistic into context, if we were to apply it to all the female MPs in this House, 63 would have had their lives affected in some way by those abhorrent crimes.

Legislation to punish offenders and support victims is not enough. The root causes of domestic violence must also be addressed and the general attitudes towards it must be changed. As with so many of the social problems that we in Britain face, legal changes are not sufficient to break the cycle. To my mind, education remains the key way to tackle such problems head on and to change attitudes in the long run. Much education seems not to address sufficiently the attitudes that lead to violence against women, and the different attitudes towards violence held by girls and boys are not addressed in a systematic and consistent way.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point that violence against women affects women of all classes and from all walks of life. I am also grateful to her for talking about children. When we talk to men who perpetrate violence against women, we often find that they experienced a great deal of violence in the home when they were children. Does my hon. Friend agree that tackling the root of the problem involves changing the attitudes of the present generation of young people and ensuring that we target our resources to ensure that we are not perpetuating problems for future generations?

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho PPS (Mr David Hanson, Minister of State), Northern Ireland Office

I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, I will address that issue as I go further into my speech.

Like my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon, I was shocked and disgusted to read the research undertaken by the universities of Warwick, Bristol, Durham and North London, which explored the understanding and attitudes of more than 1,300 children aged between 8 and 16 about domestic violence. It revealed disturbing trends that suggested that work in schools to address the issue must start at an early age. More than 75 per cent. of 11 and 12-year-old boys thought that women get hit if they make men angry, and more boys than girls of all ages believed that some women deserve to be hit.

Such attitudes must be changed if the next generation of children is to grow up in a safer world. The Equal Opportunities Commission argues that addressing violence against women is not simply a matter for criminal justice, but that it requires a more holistic approach. A role needs to be played by social services, the health service, the education system, child care services and other agencies. Everyone, male and female, young and old, must learn that violence is wholly unacceptable in any shape and form and that it will never be tolerated, as it should not be in any civilised society.

Equally disturbing was a recent survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which revealed that far too many of our young people are subjected to relationship abuse in their teenage years. That illustrates that there is still much work to be done if we are to create a culture change that makes domestic violence socially unacceptable for future generations.

As a former teacher and the mother of two teenage boys, I know that the education of young people on the subject is particularly important. One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute across England and Wales. Last year in Dudley, the area that covers Stourbridge, children were present in 1,173 of the 3,400 incidents involving domestic violence to which police were called. We also know that 35 per cent. of households that experience a first assault will experience a second within five weeks. It is vital that those statistics are picked up and acted on, and that they inform our policy.

The effects on children who are present when such attacks take place cannot be underestimated. I remember not too long ago discussing the issue with a dear old gentleman in his 70s. He is a strong, capable man who worked hard all his life and survived bringing up three very opinionated daughters, of whom he is proud. Not much fazes him, but on mention of this topic he began to tell me the story of his childhood. He told me of the cruelty of his father and his feeling of powerlessness to assist his mother when she was being beaten. On one occasion, he was so fearful for his own life that he ran from protecting his mother and hid behind an old washing tub, where he waited with his fingers in his ears until the rage and the sound of the blows had stopped. In his eyes, I could see the fear and shame of a young boy, powerless to come to the aid of his beloved mother. It was as real to him as if it happened only yesterday, not 70 years ago. He wept; I was not far from doing the same.

Such fear and pain rarely leaves victims, so we need to push forward as far as we can with young people. I would like to share an approach that is used in my constituency to raise young people's awareness of domestic violence and the issues that surround it. A few weeks ago I attended a conference on domestic violence with a difference at Redhill school. It was not for women's groups or refuges, but for year 10 and year 11 students. The first part of the conference took the form of a piece of drama, which was extremely powerful and moving. It introduced the pupils to four aspects of domestic violence: emotional, physical, sexual and financial. They met male and female victims of domestic violence as well as professionals, and then they participated in four workshops. The first considered the health implications of domestic violence, the second took the perspective of the police and the child protection service, and the third considered the local safeguarding children board. The fourth workshop was the one that the young people found most effective. It explored the victims' perspectives, and the young people had the opportunity to talk with and question both male and female victims of domestic violence. They also considered the effect that experience of domestic violence has on children.

The support and education that the young people received did not simply end after the conference ended. The co-ordinator and volunteers from the refuges who organised the conference also had drop-ins at the school for some time afterwards; they worked with the school's child protection co-ordinator, spoke with young people and addressed any issues that might have been raised by the conference. As well as providing vital emotional support for some young people, that approach also meant that young people do not have to disclose private information in front of others.

The young people gave the project positive feedback. They found the drama powerful and learnt a lot though the workshops. Some said that they had not realised the huge extent to which domestic violence is both physically and mentally draining on its victims, and about its effects on children as well as adults. Some commented that they had not realised how hard the police worked. Many expressed outrage that the punishments given to domestic violence offenders often did not fit the seriousness of the crime. They found it particularly enlightening because the majority admitted that they had not considered the perspective of male victims, or even that male victims existed. Bearing in mind that the conference received such positive feedback, I would like to see a similar approach being considered more widely so that children and young people across England and Wales can benefit from the wide range of topics and interactive approaches that children in my constituency are benefiting from.

While I would never dream of claiming that I have any sort of expert knowledge about how to tackle the root cause of domestic violence, I would like to share a few findings from the recent Women Against Violence Europe report of 2005. The report shed an optimistic light on the situation, claiming that violence in our society was neither inevitable nor universal. In a cross-cultural study of 90 societies around the world, anthropologist David Levinson found 16 communities where interpersonal violence was absent or rare.

As we begin the enormous task of trying to lead our society to a less violence place, it is worth bearing in mind the factors that Levinson found predicted low or no family violence, and thinking about what other positive steps we should take to ensure that our society does not foster and breed violence. The factors included stable relationships, economic equality between the sexes, equal access to divorce for men and women, availability of alternative caretakers for children, norms that encourage the non-violent settlement of disputes outside the home, and cultural norms that recognise the dignity of every human being. It is important to remember that the societies studied are not free of the emotions that elsewhere lead to violence; they just deal with them in a non-violent manner.

Domestic violence is not an inevitable part of society and it should never be treated as such, either here or in any other country. It is important that all members of a community realise that it is their responsibility to change attitudes and to make the community one in which domestic violence is recognised and treated as the abhorrent and unacceptable crime it is.

Last November, I attended an exhibition run by Amnesty International in which members of the public were asked to imagine what a world without violence against women would be like. I know that many hon. Members present contributed to the exhibition. Their imaginings were printed on to flags and displayed as one of the exhibits. Reading the contributions was a moving experience, and I was saddened by the number of women who had simply written that in a world without violence against women they could feel safe in their own homes and could bring up their children in an environment where they were not terrified for their safety. It is truly tragic that we live in a society where that is not the case, and where thousands of women still do not feel safe in their own homes. Those imaginings of safety, security and peace should not be just dreams; a life free from domestic violence should be the right of all women of all ages.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 3:42 pm, 9th March 2006

Like other speakers, I greatly welcome this debate and the fact that so many Members want to speak in it. I also welcome what the Government are doing to combat violence against women and to help victims to get the support that they need. I support what my hon. Friend Linda Gilroy said about commending the Government on their change of stance on prostitution; that gives an important and welcome signal.

Before this debate, I asked Women's Aid in Oxford what it regarded as the key priorities, because like others here I think that it is crucial that what we say in these debates is informed by experience from the front line. We are all indebted to organisations such as Women's Aid, Refuge, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Relate and the YWCA, which do such invaluable work and which have campaigned so long and hard on this vital subject.

In terms of priorities, Oxford Women's Aid stressed to me the crucial contribution of effective inter-agency working and the need to sustain resources, notably in the supporting people programme, which is under real pressure in Oxfordshire and elsewhere. It also stressed the importance of outreach work, both in helping women to move from the refuge to a safe home and environment in the community, and in helping to address acute needs, especially those of people exposed to drug and alcohol abuse or suffering from mental health problems.

Women's Aid highlighted particular matters on which more attention was needed, and I shall mention them in no particular order. I heard about difficulties in getting injunctions against abusive partners quickly enough. Cases were cited of support workers and clients having to wait two weeks for an appointment with a solicitor, during a period when the woman—and often her children—are particularly vulnerable. I was told that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service need to initiate more prosecutions for violent behaviour, rather than leaving it up to the woman to press charges, when she is in fear of retribution.

There is a need for more refuge places and move-on support, so that victims' longer-term needs can be properly addressed. Ensuring secure arrangements with proper risk assessments for fathers meeting their children is also important, as access arrangements are often a means of continuing harassment of women, whether directly or indirectly through the children. There is also a need for more 24-hour support refuges—there are none in the Oxford area—where help can be given to those facing serious drug and alcohol abuse problems. Such people are, if anything, at particular risk of being propelled out of one abusive relationship and into another, and their need for support, counselling and protection are especially acute.

Women's Aid also highlighted the particular problem in Oxford of finding longer-term accommodation, including accommodation for those victims of violence who do not have children. They are often in a very difficult position as regards housing on social priority grounds. That issue needs to be addressed by social housing providers, who should recognise that victims of abuse are usually driven to an even poorer and weaker position in the housing market. Better support for pregnant women experiencing domestic violence is also needed, given the evidence referred to by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, which showed that, sadly, pregnancy is often a trigger for aggression by male partners.

As others have said, we as a society need not only to tackle the symptoms, but to address the causes of violence in terms of the attitudes and values underpinning what is considered acceptable behaviour, and the expectations and knowledge of men and women, young and older, as regards their rights and obligations. Both Women's Aid and the YWCA in Oxford have drawn to my attention to a number of important points about raising awareness and understanding, and tackling the behaviour that gives rise to domestic violence. For example, there is a need to ensure that domestic violence issues are discussed in schools in a sensitive way and with an awareness of the extent to which violence is a gender issue.

There is a real and present challenge. Other hon. Members have already cited statistics, but the NSPCC recently found that one in five teenage girls has been hit by a boyfriend and one in three young women says that cheating on a boyfriend could justify him hitting her. As others have said, the problem is in our culture, including in our youth culture, and we all have a responsibility to do what we can to change it. In addition, we need dedicated funding for projects working with young women from ethnic minority communities to ensure that their specific needs are addressed; too often, they are not.

Of course, if we are ever to end violence against women, we need to provide support for projects that challenge and try to change aggressive behaviour in young men and attitudes that accept violence against women. As I have seen at first hand through the work of the Family Nurturing Network in Oxford, schools can be a useful hub for work on family and personal relationships. As my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho said, well directed programmes can make a real difference in enabling children from quite a young age and their parents to learn how better to talk with one another about their emotional needs. Such programmes can also help them to learn how to manage anger, because at the end of the day, the cultural, social and personal circumstances that give rise to coercive relationships and a tolerance of hitting out physically in anger or jealousy are what feed violence against women. As a society, and through all society's social institutions—not only Government—we must say, "Enough is enough." Furthermore, there should be a consistent, determined drive to prevent abusive behaviour, protect its victims and re-educate, as well as prosecute and punish, its perpetrators.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 3:49 pm, 9th March 2006

It is good that this debate on domestic abuse has been called to coincide with international women's day, as it gives Members of Parliament the opportunity to highlight issues that are important to women in the UK and internationally, as many hon. Members' contributions have shown. I shall stick to the domestic agenda.

I pay tribute to the Government for the great progress that has been made. The Minister listed some of the great achievements. I also pay tribute to the work that women did in the early days when setting up Women's Aid. I remember Welsh Women's Aid being started up on a shoestring. The women involved were so determined to get domestic violence recognised as a scourge. I pay tribute to those who started the recognition process. When do we hear people saying, "It's only a domestic," nowadays? That used to be so common, and we know that the police thought that. There has been a huge change and a great many advances. There is a long way to go, but we have made a lot of progress.

I shall talk about what is happening in Cardiff. The Women's Safety Unit, which was started four or five years ago as a Home Office-funded project, is now funded by the Welsh Assembly and comes under the auspices of the Cardiff domestic abuse forum, which I chair. That ground-breaking project has significantly increased the number of women who are prepared to go to court, and significantly reduced the number of repeat victimisations. All the statistics show that if there is a really good advocacy project, with people who are prepared to go out on a limb to help the victims, there can be a much fairer justice system.

One unique thing about Cardiff Women's Safety Unit is that there are secondments from the police and the probation service. A serving policewoman is a full member of the team, along with secondments from Women's Aid, the probation service and project workers. The plan to have similar services available to victims throughout the seven south Wales police districts is enthusiastically supported by one of the few women chief constables in England and Wales, Barbara Wilding. We hope that advocacy can be made available in each area, so we can see the statistics improve. The repeat victimisation statistics are the most striking. We have already heard how women are often the victims, time and again, but we have been able to get those numbers down.

A domestic violence court has been developed in Cardiff. The roll-out of the specialist domestic violence court programme by the Home Office is an important development. In Wales we have three such courts in Cardiff, Caerphilly, and Neath Port Talbot. The court in Rhondda Cynon Taf will be starting in May and the one in Gwent will start at about the same time. However, there is an issue in relation to starting these courts that we have to recognise. The Home Office says that to establish such a court requires the presence of an advocacy service—somebody has to be there to support the women in court and advocate on their behalf. There must also be risk assessments, MARACs—multi-agency risk assessment conferences—and independent domestic violence advisers. That is a real problem in some areas that are trying to start up domestic abuse courts, because funding for the courts does not include funding for those additional services. The areas in Wales where the programme is progressing are finding it difficult to provide the services.

We know that having well trained advocates who will go out on a limb for the women who have been abused produces results—we have seen that in the Cardiff Women's Safety Unit. Although I strongly welcome the roll-out of the specialist domestic violence court programme, it must be acknowledged that advocacy services are not always there to run alongside the courts. Perhaps the Minister will say how we can move the process on.

Where domestic violence courts are operating, the results are good. In Caerphilly since the mainstreaming of the specialist domestic violence court system, in the period from January 2005 to September 2005 the total average of successful outcomes was 73 per cent. Only 19 per cent. of cases were discontinued, in 4 per cent. no evidence was given on the day and in 3 per cent. the accused was found not guilty at trial. Those stunning statistics show what can be done. How are we going to support those courts and make money available to ensure that the advocacy is there?

Cardiff university has studied the Cardiff Women's Safety Unit and the interface between the civil and the criminal courts and its recent report says that the interface in Cardiff is completely dependent on the Women's Safety Unit advocates, who support victims through the legal process. The report by Dr. Amanda Robinson says that without such advocacy arrangements in place there would be no interface at all and decision making by either court would be based on partial information. That study emphasises how important it is to have an holistic multi-agency response to domestic violence.

Civil law is an important part of that holistic approach. In Cardiff, the Women's Safety Unit offers free legal advice for the initial consultation by a core group of specialist solicitors on a rota, who see the women in the safety of the unit and are able to advise them. However, that is only the initial consultation. The survey of women from the Women's Safety Unit expressed a lot of dissatisfaction about the civil courts: they said that they felt unsafe and would like to see a police officer in the civil court so that they felt protected. On a point that has already been made today, the women consulted by Cardiff university felt that the system was designed to keep fathers involved, rather than to keep people safe. Most of the respondents felt that a combined civil-criminal court would be beneficial and would prevent duplication and overlap. The director of the Cardiff Women's Safety Unit, Jan Pickles, who has given inspirational leadership to the project, says:

"In domestic violence cases, there is an artificial divide between civil and criminal courts which is bureaucratically neat, but fails victims and their children. Safety can only be achieved when victims have access to both forms of justice."

I shall be grateful if the Minister tells us whether there are any further proposals to develop more courts in which criminal and civil matters are linked. I do not know what stage of development the courts in Croydon have got to, but I believe that there is an attempt there to link civil and criminal proceedings. To bring the criminal and civil courts together on domestic violence issues would be an important long-term aim. I know that that would be difficult, because solicitors are trained and specialise in one type of law, as I believe judges are, but that would, in the longer term, be a much more satisfactory way of dealing with things.

Finally, I should like to mention the Equality Act 2006, which introduces a duty on public bodies to promote sex equality. Public bodies will have to ensure that their policies reflect the different needs of women and men. All hon. Members have probably had a briefing from the Equal Opportunities Commission, which says that violence against women is one of the biggest forms of gender inequality. The EOC will play a vital role in promoting the gender duty. I should like as much assurance from the Minister as she can give that adequate funding will be available for the EOC to carry out that duty.

As the American writer, Maya Angelou, says,

"Being a woman is hard work", but we have the power, through the various measures we can bring about through government and being MPs, to make the job of being a woman—especially one suffering from domestic violence—that little bit easier.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport 3:59 pm, 9th March 2006

Under normal circumstances it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, but the reality is that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century and still find ourselves debating a blight on our society. Even if we were to say that this is a modern society, we have to ask whether we are making any progress in eliminating the vile problem of domestic abuse that still hides away in far too many homes. In my contribution, I want to concentrate on domestic violence.

I looked at some of the historical facts on the Women's Aid website. Until the end of the 19th century, the law supported the right of men to control their wives by force; it intervened to restrain violence, not prevent it. In the late 18th century, a certain Judge Butler held that assaults on wives were legal, provided that the husband used a stick no thicker than his thumb. That subsequently led to the saying "the rule of thumb".

Thankfully, legislation has changed a great deal, although there is still a question mark over some decisions that the judiciary come to. During the year we entered the 21st century, there were an estimated 15 million incidents of domestic violence in the UK, more than 85 per cent. of which were committed by men. As hon. Members have said, two women are killed by their current or former partners every week. More than 60 per cent. of reported incidents end in injury, and about 81 per cent. of those victims are women.

Domestic violence is nothing less than a horror—a horror for the direct victims, but also for the tens of thousands of other innocent victims: the young witnesses of violence inflicted by one deeply loved individual on another. Theirs are tortured minds and souls that all too often carry those violent experiences right through childhood and into adulthood. Regrettably, as others have said, such children often later turn to domestic violence themselves.

I shall tell one humorous anecdote, which is not about violence. Late last summer, I was told the story of two three-year-old children who lived next door to one another and were playing together. The mothers had overheard them. The little girl Emily had said to the boy, "Let's play mummies and daddies." The little boy agreed, and then the girl said, "I'll clean the house and you go off to the football." Those children came from loving households, and it was the norm for their fathers to go to the football. However, one can see how things are imprinted on children's minds and how, if there had been violence in those households, it would have carried through the generations.

It is astonishing that so many people think domestic violence is acceptable in certain circumstances and that the victim may well have deserved it. For some reason, some who experience such violence blame themselves: figures show that in recent years almost two thirds of women and more than 90 per cent. of men who had been subject to domestic violence did not even think that they had been a victim of crime.

The crime of domestic violence knows no social barriers. It is not found only in certain households: the full social range, from manual or unskilled workers from low-income households to some of the most educated and professional individuals, witness violence, sometimes in its mental as well as its physical form. Nor is the problem found only in the homes of young or middle-aged couples—in recent years, as women have come forward seeking help, it has come to light how long some people have been prepared to tolerate abuse in their homes.

I deal now with how the matter is being tackled in my constituency of Dumfries and Galloway, a large rural area approximately 120 miles long from east to west. Women's Aid has established two offices there—one in Dumfries and one in Stranraer, some 75 miles apart. Both provide excellent help and support through their refuges. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work that they do to help people in times of crisis, when individuals are at their most vulnerable.

We are also fortunate in having a multi-agency Dumfries and Galloway domestic abuse group. Yesterday, I was delighted by news that it had been awarded £100,000 over the next two years by the Scottish Executive's violence against women fund. Delna Weston, the chair of that strategy group, has said that the funding will allow it to expand and develop support right across Dumfries and Galloway through public awareness. That is so important.

We all know that funding is vital, and in my area support from the local authority and the Scottish Executive keeps work going. Having said that, there is always a need for additional finance, and I shall come to that issue later. The steady, but on occasions rapid, increase in self-referrals seems to indicate that widespread media advertising is achieving its aim of encouraging women to make contact with Women's Aid in the local area. Older women, who in the past would have tolerated abuse, are now less reluctant to conceal the truth. The refuge run by the Women's Aid office in Stranraer had a resident who was 88 years old; its youngest contact was just 16.

When women eventually leave their abusive partners, that is only the start of a number of other problems. What about money and finance? Potentially, there are about 20 different organisations to contact—to do with housing, doctors, schools, benefits and solicitors, to name but a few. Where can those women's furniture be stored if they have been lucky enough to be able to remove some possessions? There are other agencies, some run by the Government, such as the Child Support Agency, which all too often simply do not appreciate the fear of threats from ex-partners.

Locally, all that can be offered is a communal refuge for women and their children. That means that they are given their own bedroom, but have to share a kitchen, sitting room, dining room and toilets. Women can be turned away if they have a drug or alcohol addiction, a mental health problem, a son older than 16 or a family pet.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Does my hon. Friend agree that in such circumstances, every effort must be made to ensure that the woman stays in the family home and that the perpetrator of the violence is put out?

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

I agree fully with my hon. Friend. Yes, it is important to try to keep the woman in the home, possibly with her children.

I was taken aback by the notion that family pets can be an obstacle to a woman's fleeing her home, despite the violence that may be going on. However, I am delighted to say that the Women's Aid refuge in Dumfries has secured funding from the local authority, and that that has enabled a number of people to come with their family pet, which is dear and precious to them. I shall not read out a letter that I have from a certain lady, but what she went through to put her family pet into a kennel for a short time was heart-rending. However, it enabled her to get away from something that she had experienced for 30 years.

The local offices have recognised that improvements to the service could be made with secure funding that would cover the employment of more staff and training costs. There is a need to move away from the present refuge-type accommodation to cluster flats. Women and children fleeing domestic abuse could be given their own secure flats in which they could have their pets, visitors and, most importantly, a life.

Current office premises are bursting at the seams and more appropriate facilities are becoming necessary in both Dumfries and Stranraer. Raising the profile of the service is essential, but that can happen only with additional staffing. At the same time, it is important to educate all people that domestic abuse is wrong. Ideally, that should be done from an early age, perhaps through the school curriculum, possibly with input from Women's Aid.

Given that mine is a rural area, it would greatly assist if the service were developed to provide further drop-in sessions in other towns in the region. The service delivery offered by two Women's Aid offices 75 miles apart is far too sparse.

The domestic abuse strategy group recognised that domestic abuse was an issue for everyone, including such service providers as Women's Aid, the police, health and medical services, housing services, Jobcentre Plus, education services, social workers, the Crown Office, the Procurator Fiscal Service, the judiciary and solicitors, as well as many voluntary sector organisations. The issue is important for politicians and decision makers, as it is for all members of the community. All those organisations and individuals have a role in establishing how domestic abuse is viewed. Everyone has a part to play in eliminating it and in providing support to those who experience it.

The group, in formulating its strategy which will cover the period until 2008, established five main aims: working to prevent domestic abuse in the future, making it clear that such abuse is never acceptable; ensuring that there is appropriate protection in place through legislation and policy for those who experience domestic abuse; ensuring that adequate, appropriate and relevant services are provided to address the needs of those who experience domestic abuse; ensuring that all those with a role in tackling domestic abuse work together, recognising their own and others' responsibilities in this matter; and making progress to ensure that those involved carry out appropriate data collection, monitoring, evaluation and reviewing of the work to address domestic abuse.

I am encouraged by the fact that such action is being taken in my own area. I am sure colleagues will share my view that we would much prefer it if such activity were not required in our communities and neighbourhoods. That will happen only when we eliminate domestic violence.

My plea to the Minister is simply for additional funding to support such projects, especially early-intervention work for young people. It is a sad indictment of modern society, which is driven all too often by other agendas, that partners continue to abuse one another both mentally and physically. I suspect that we all have a major job to do for many years to come to change the attitudes of all concerned. I am thinking of those who turn a blind eye to the problem and fail to recognise it and, more importantly, those who are directly involved: the direct victims of abuse, the perpetrators and the even greater innocents, children.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Lord Warner, Minister of State), Department of Health 4:12 pm, 9th March 2006

This is an important debate. Almost a year ago today, the former Member for South Swindon, Julia Drown, secured a similar debate. She raised the disturbing case of a mother and son who were murdered, and brought to the attention of the House the crimes of Alan Pemberton. In November 2003, after shooting his wife Julia and his 17-year-old son William, he took his own life. Those events took place in the neighbouring constituency to mine, Newbury, but the surviving family members live in my constituency. The deaths followed a history of domestic violence, to which the police were alerted 15 months before the tragedy. Sadly, Thames Valley police failed to act on Alan Pemberton's death threats until it was too late.

Defence lawyers and judges often claim that wife-killers are just ordinary men who snap in a moment of extreme provocation, but such circumstances are quite unusual. Only a small number of men murder their partners without having previously used domestic violence against them. Far more common in murder cases is a history of violence by the offender against the victim, as happened in the case of Julia Pemberton. It was a horrifying case, partly because it was so avoidable. Lessons had to be learned about the protection, prevention and provision that we afford to victims.

My predecessor raised the case and I am proud to have continued her work in supporting Frank Mullane, the brother of Julia Pemberton and a constituent of mine, by keeping the House's attention on it. I am pleased that I have been joined in that work by Mr. Benyon. I also give thanks to the work of Baroness Scotland and Refuge, among others. As a consequence of their work, the results in improving the situation for families such as Julia's have been outstanding.

Refuge brought Frank and his family to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs. The family told her:

"We know this is supposed to be an inquisitorial system, but we felt it was an adversarial system, and we felt that it was against us."

They were talking about the system that examines the reasons why Julia's murder occurred. Any system that makes bereaved relatives feel that the whole system is weighted against them is unsatisfactory. I therefore welcome the proposed changes to the coroner system that were announced recently.

Julia Pemberton's persistent pleas for help to the police during 14 months were not enough evidence, at that time, for the coroner to say that anything could have been done to prevent her murder. It cannot be acceptable for judges, coroners and magistrates to be ignorant of the complex dynamics of domestic violence, when they conduct trials and inquests based on domestic violence. They should all engage with Refuge, Women's Aid, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and local authority domestic violence co-ordinators. They should seek out training, for which they will not have to look far. Each of those organisations has a programme and is waiting to be asked to provide it for the people whom I mentioned.

Much more can be achieved in future if the efforts of judges, magistrates and coroners are informed better by the work of organisations fighting violence against women. Julia Pemberton's family have fought extremely hard, and I pay tribute to them. They have been awarded a homicide review and they are now fighting to ensure that it will be fair. It is only by examining what went wrong in cases such as Julia's that we will learn what to do next and how we can improve the protection, prevention and provision afforded to victims. That is why the homicide review is so important and why I mention it in this debate.

Things have changed for the better. My hon. Friend Lynda Waltho referred to the considerable investment in refuges that this Government have made. We have also invested in helplines, training and support. It is only right to do so.

Locally, Wiltshire constabulary has a good track record. In 1997, the Swindon refuge worked with that constabulary to revise its domestic violence policy. It is generally the lead statutory agency in the county and the force is excellent compared with many, including Thames Valley. Wiltshire constabulary welcomes multi-agency working and other forces would do well to emulate its work.

Given what we have learned, can we really say that Julia Pemberton would have been safe from her husband if she was living in today's 21st century world? I do not know the answer to that. The reason why I say that is because today I was contacted by Swindon's family centre. I will not go into the details of the case, because it is a delicate one, but it involves threats, a violent man, and a mother and son in fear; it is history repeated and is too close a reminder of the early days of the Pemberton case. The woman under threat just wants something simple: the protection offered by a new lock on her door. That is not much to ask. Unfortunately, Swindon borough council will not fit one, because she cannot be sure whether or not the violent partner has a key. I find that extraordinary and I mention it so that it will be changed.

That is one specific case that I have taken up, but there are more general issues, some of which hon. Members have mentioned. Cost is one of them. Ironically, the Government's success in raising the profile of domestic violence has brought many more victims forward. That is a good thing, but it puts strain on existing resources. Every new measure that we introduce has a cost attached. Sometimes the additional funding is not easy for statutory or voluntary agencies to find.

I have a bad example to relate from my constituency. The local refuge in Swindon, whose work is recognised nationally, is another victim of our Conservative council's cuts. I hear the words and the commitment of the Opposition party, but words in this place and fine feelings are not enough. We want actions on the ground to support refuges. I hope that Mrs. Laing will take that message to the Conservatives on Swindon borough council. It has supported the refuge since 1977, but under the current administration, proposed funding cuts mean that it might lose a member of staff.

There are also problems relating to financial support for the victim. Applications for benefits for domestic violence victims need to be fast-tracked. They are taking up to two months, but women need financial independence when they have to leave the partner who is abusing them. Then there are problems in the civil courts. The manager of the Swindon refuge says that there are huge difficulties for women trying to get injunctions. That happens in Swindon, and as far as I know the situation is the same around the country. Fewer and fewer solicitors are doing family work and doing what was legal aid, which makes it difficult for victims to access civil law procedures for protection.

Frank Mullane, Julia Pemberton's brother, is calling for a much wider review of Government policy to create a comprehensive integrated strategy to end violence against women. Frank has made that call alongside the campaign to end violence against women, and he was not a campaigner before that happened to his sister.

I agree that we should continue to reinforce the long-term work aimed at preventing violence against women by challenging attitudes that tolerate it, as hon. Members have said. That is why I was glad to see Sarah Brown, the wife of the Chancellor, calling on Valentine's day for an end to the taboo surrounding violence in the home against women and children with Women's Aid. It is also why I am glad to see so many of us in my party and Opposition colleagues speaking today against that taboo.

It was only in 1971 that the first women's refuge opened. Swindon women's refuge opened in 1975. It was only in 1981 that it was made illegal for a man to rape his wife. We are part of one of the first generations to break the domestic violence taboo and I hope that through these debates we can push the Government and local councils even further to provide adequate resources and give priority to the three core areas of protection, prevention and provision so that we can see enduring change.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that if hon. Members keep contributions as brief as they can, I will be able to call everyone to speak in the debate.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler PPS (Rt Hon Jane Kennedy, Minister of State), Department of Health 4:22 pm, 9th March 2006

I want to talk about violence against women at stations. I have been running a safer stations campaign for about the past four weeks and I have been campaigning for all stations to be staffed from the first service to the last. That has been picked up by local press in my constituency, such as the Willesden and Brent Times and the Wembley Observer, which have ensured that people are directed to my website so that they can sign a petition. The campaign has also been picked up by the Evening Standard, and I have gathered about 4,000 signatures. Other London MPs have also taken the issue on board and I hope to present to Parliament a petition of about 10,000 signatures.

We need to see movement on the issue. Ken Livingstone has ensured that an extra 30 British Transport police officers will be on the rail lines to ensure that the stations have a police presence, but it is still up to the rail operators to make sure that stations are staffed and that they use their profits to do that. It is a known fact that women feel not only more vulnerable at stations but that they are more likely to be attacked. In north London alone in 2003–04, five men reported some kind of sexual attack, compared with 90 women. In 2004–05, seven men reported an attack, compared with 98 women. They are just sexual attacks; there are many more attacks of other kinds.

When Jo Swinson said that one in two women has suffered from some kind of stalking or attack, I wondered whether I had ever been stalked and the answer came to me—yes. It was about 10 years ago. I came out of the tube station and was followed, and I had to wait in my local shop until we were sure that the person had disappeared before I proceeded to go home. That makes it even more relevant to me that we ensure that rail operators make their stations safer. I started getting off the train one station further along, where there was a cab station outside, and then taking a cab to go back to my home. I did that for my own safety, but not every person will be in a position to do something like that.

Silverlink has been hiding its inadequacies under its Tory franchise agreement, saying that it signed the agreement years ago so it is still valid. It is not. That is unacceptable and it is not good enough. Time has moved on; women travel later at night, and stations open later at night. They deserve to be staffed. It is important that we press all major companies, although they are not covered under the Equality Act 2006, to take seriously the safety and protection of their passengers, especially women.

Safer stations are the right of everyone, and a right of women especially. They pay to travel on the tubes and trains and they deserve safety.

J

I would like to comment on the statistics and issues raised here. While it is right to explain that there are a lot more attacks of other kinds, we fail to highlight that these are reported incidents. The statistics might look like last year there were 14 times the attacks on women than men, but there are so many that go unreported.

I live in Harlesden and years ago I was stalked, attacked and mugged of my belongings, but fear led me to not reporting the crime.

I support whole-heartedly the campaigns for safer environments at stations, as mentioned taking seriously the safety and protection of all passengers and staff, especially women.

Submitted by Justin Rubio

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office 4:25 pm, 9th March 2006

I am very glad to follow, albeit at one remove, my hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove, who talked about murder and killing under provocation. I had intended to talk about that this afternoon. Homicide law currently favours men who commit murder, usually after a long history of committing domestic violence, as opposed to women who strike back once. Frequently the latter are convicted of murder, while the former are convicted only of manslaughter by means of a defence of provocation, and have their sentence at large. A homicide review is currently going on, and there is a long and detailed argument as to exactly how the situation should be changed, but I invite everyone present to look at that review. Indeed, I might circulate it to people, because it has put forward proposals that would rectify this sexist prejudice in our law.

Instead of talking about that rather wig-and-gowny area, however, I shall go for a quick romp around a document produced recently by the Women's National Commission: an independent analysis of Government initiatives on violence against women called "Making the Grade". Although the last speaker was a notable exception, many people have talked about domestic violence. Violence against women, of course, is not only that. It is forced marriage, crimes in the name of honour, rape, sexual assault, murder, trafficking, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment and stalking, and only when we set the great list out in that way do we appreciate the broad sweep of what we are talking about.

We know from a number of contributors that almost half of adult women in England have suffered domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. One in four women suffers from domestic violence, and it has the highest rate of repeat victimisation of any crime in the UK. Every minute of every day of every week of every month of every year, a police station somewhere is phoned by someone asking for help in a case of domestic violence, and that is just from the people who report it. They are still a minority.

The rate of rape convictions has fallen from one in three cases reported in 1977 to one in 16 at present, which is a 5.3 per cent. conviction rate for rape. Again, that is the case among those who report it. If we compare the figures of those who ring up rape helplines for help with the number of those who report being raped, we can see that probably only about 10 per cent. of women who are raped report it. The rape conviction rate is therefore absolutely negligible.

Moreover, when we consider that women between the ages of 20 and 45 who experience rape or sexual assault are most commonly assaulted by a current or ex-partner and that two of the locations where sexual assaults more frequently occur are the victim's or the perpetrator's own home—and if we bear in mind that domestic violence is violence exactly in a domestic context—we can appreciate how deeply steeped in the very fabric of our society violence against women really is.

This Government have taken a great many positive steps and the list is too long to go through; the Minister mentioned many of them. However, I shall quote "Making the Grade" on this, rather than suggest that it is my own fresh idea, as it says that

"attitudes that tolerate or justify violence are not changing, incidence rates are not falling, conviction rates are not increasing and women and children still fall through the gaps."

I would say that conviction rates are starting to increase in relation to domestic violence because of the domestic violence specialist courts to which my hon. Friend Julie Morgan referred, but they are just one or two courts, and conviction rates are generally not increasing.

"Making the Grade" makes the very powerful point that there is a glaring lack of any overall strategic direction from the Government about violence against women. For instance, in England three inter-ministerial groups are operating in parallel: one on domestic violence, one on rape and one on trafficking. There is also work on forced marriage and on female genital mutilation, and separate work on prostitution. Do strategic approaches help? The Greater London domestic violence strategy has led to a fall in domestic homicides against females of one third during the five years for which it has been going, so there is a little suggestion that strategic approaches most certainly do help.

It is not all that surprising that there is no strategic approach, because awareness in the political as opposed to the campaigning field and the demand for action have risen quite quickly. Although we are into and appreciate the subject now, during the 18 years of Tory rule, domestic violence did not raise its head at all. Before 1997, the last time domestic violence was a significant factor in the House of Commons was when Jo Richardson introduced the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Bill as a private Member's Bill in 1976. As there has been so much to do, and because we have done so much and campaign groups, campaigners, Ministers and MPs are all individually interested in dealing with rape, domestic violence or prostitution, development has been piecemeal.

The trouble is that unless the issue of violence against women and its ending is integrated into each Department and its public service agreement, it may easily be chopped away when finances are difficult, cutbacks are needed or the nature of the Government changes so that they are not so supportive of such issues, or when the piecemeal growth with which we are now so pleased stops. In such circumstances, it will be easy to chop off the issue, remove domestic violence specialist courts, which are that little bit more expensive to run than ordinary courts, and remove sexual assault referral centres, which are more expensive than examining people at the police station. It will be very easy for that to occur if there is no integration.

More immediately, women and children fall through the gaps anyway. For example, the domestic violence specialist courts are a great asset. They are built on experience. The magistrates deal with little other than domestic violence, and they become specialists. The prosecutors are specialists in domestic violence, and the police are specialist investigators of domestic violence. Specialism ousts all the old-fashioned and inappropriate attitudes that militated against a good hearing for a domestic violence victim—saying that it was six of one and a half a dozen of the other, or a domestic issue that was so integrated in a relationship that outsiders should not intervene. Specialism is working in domestic violence specialist courts.

With rape, we have not even started that process. There is a nod in the direction of specialist prosecutors and to some extent there are specialist police, but there are no specialist judges. In recent weeks, we have heard extraordinary remarks from judges. There seems to be an incapacity to implement the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The message that specialism ousts prejudice, which has got through in domestic violence, has not got through in rape courts, because there is no overall strategy.

Domestic violence advocates push through the case for the complainant in a domestic violence court, but they also befriend her. The advocate is her friend from start to finish, so if she needs to move house because of the split or threat from her partner, the advocate will help her to find a new home. The advocate will help with child care if the partner's mother used to look after the children and the couple have now split. If benefits need to change, they will help with that. All those things are imperative if a woman who has been violently abused by her loved one is to drive a case through the court. Rape complainants have just as great a need for just as much befriending, but there are no rape advocates, because we put those victims in separate compartments. That is particularly odd, because it is a rare case of domestic violence in which rape is not involved as well.

The "Making the Grade" survey went around all Departments to find out what they were doing to address violence against women, and its report shows up the lack of an integrated strategy. The Home Office—the Department with which I am most closely related—did quite well, getting three out of 10. It undertakes all activities, but it does not do so in an integrated way. The Department for Constitutional Affairs, which is in charge of many of the justice aspects of those issues, got two and a half out of 10. It undertakes the activities, but not in an integrated way. As for the Ministry of Defence, even though it is well known that in the military, where there is a premium on masculinity and male strength, there is more domestic violence, and owing to the clannishness of military culture, it is harder for a forces wife to complain about domestic violence than for an ordinary woman. The MOD scored exactly one out of 10 in the survey.

What about the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? Well, one might say, "Look here, Vera. DEFRA is about badgers and windmills. What has that got to do with domestic violence?" However, there are special problems with domestic violence and its victims in rural areas. There will be no sexual assault referral centre and no refuge. To whom should victims complain? Their partner's GP will be their GP, and they can hardly get any confidential counselling. There are special difficulties for rural people who are victims of such violence, yet DEFRA scored zero out of 10.

Scariest of all, the Department for Education and Skills scored zero out of 10. The statistic I know best is that 30 per cent. of 15 and 16-year-old boys think that in certain circumstances, it is all right to hit a woman; and 17 per cent. of 15 and 16-year-old girls think so, too. However, the DFES has no strategy for educating about violence against women. I used to assert that violence against women was on the citizenship course, but I am not sure that it is at all.

To cut matters down to a manageable size, the issue that Jo Swinson raised about needing a television licence for each room in a refuge is also due to a lack of integrated thinking. It is not due to a lack of political will to make it easy for people in refuges to enjoy that comfort and amuse their children while they are in that unfortunate situation; it has happened because nobody has thought about it and the Home Office has not liaised with the Department that deals with television licences, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to ensure that that knotty corner is knocked off.

Without a systematic and strategic plan throughout all Departments to deal with violence against women, many other factors will not be taken into consideration in exactly the same way. The WNC is going to conduct its survey of Departments annually, so Departments will know what is coming and they must be ready to improve and integrate.

It is good to see a lot of women present for the debate, but it is excellent to see a lot of men present to support it; I compliment them on the insightfulness of their contributions. I join my hon. Friend Linda Gilroy in saying that we must strive to have this debate reinstated in the main Chamber. It looks like special pleading coming from the women; it looks like generous advocacy coming from the men. So may we ask for their support in that as well?

"Making the Grade" is an important report. The WNC was led by Margaret Prosser, the very woman who only recently led the women and work commission, which reported so emphatically and importantly about other aspects of women's inequality. What a great woman she is. She should keep up the good work.

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland 4:37 pm, 9th March 2006

Many Members have given horrific examples of violence against women. They have also commented that it takes place within a general culture. I should like to make a few remarks about that second point.

I find the sexualisation of our culture and the normalisation of the sex industry most alarming. The growth of pornography and anti-female lyrics in the pop music industry is a major influence on young people. Its impact on male attitudes towards women and on women's internalisation of negativity is serious. Men are believing that there is a connection between sex and violence, and academic research has shown that they are acting out those fantasies in private. At the same time, women are being encouraged to believe that it is appropriate.

I do not want to detain the Chamber, so I shall provide just one example to illustrate my point. On the internet, one can buy a talking dartboard, shaped like a naked woman's torso, which will "squeal with delight" when hit. Object, a campaign group that analyses pornography, has received legal advice stating that the courts are highly unlikely to consider the product indecent under the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981.

The Home Office is working to deal with extreme pornography, but the constant proliferation of what is coyly called soft pornography is also a problem. I am extremely unwilling to allow my daughter, who is nine, to do the things that her brother was able to do 10 years ago. I do not want her to go to the local newsagent to buy sweets or to collect the Sunday newspaper, because she will be bombarded with such images. I am sure that mothers and fathers throughout the country are similarly concerned about the impact of certain images on their children. Children internalise the images at a very early age, and girls are made to feel that the world is an unsafe place in which to live.

I hope very much that hon. Members will consider signing early-day motion 1622, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Ms Abbott and addresses the need to restore the top shelf to what it was. Some of us had a useful meeting yesterday afternoon in an all-party group that included men and women—Members of this and the other place. I hope that we can take early steps on that issue.

We need to think more deeply not only about the practical things but about more radical measures. We need to think about introducing a legal definition of pornography, which we do not have currently, and about the possibility of introducing gender-hatred legislation, because the language that is used about women and the images that are produced of women would be ruled to be totally unacceptable if they related to people of different races or different religions. We should extend the respect agenda to women.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 4:41 pm, 9th March 2006

I apologise for not being present at the beginning of this very important debate: I was serving on a Standing Committee just along the Corridor. Luckily, it finished early, so I can take part in this debate, which is, sadly, vital.

As other hon. Members have said, domestic violence kills two women a week. In the view of Women's Aid, domestic violence is physical, sexual, psychological or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. That can include forced marriage and so-called honour crimes, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Crime statistics and research show that domestic violence is gender-specific—it is most commonly experienced by women and perpetrated by men—and that any woman can experience domestic violence, regardless of race, ethnic or religious group, class, disability or lifestyle.

Domestic violence is repetitive and life-threatening; it can destroy the lives of women and children. We have heard horrific examples today. Domestic violence can also take place in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships and can involve other family members, including children. It is very common: research shows that it can affect one in four women in their lifetime, regardless of age, social class, race, disability or lifestyle. All forms of domestic violence—psychological, economic, emotional and physical—come from the abuser's desire for power and control over other family members or intimate partners.

British crime survey research found that women are most commonly sexually assaulted by men who they know. The researchers asked women about the last incident of rape that they had experienced since the age of 16. They found that 45 per cent. had been raped by current partners, 11 per cent. by former partners, 11 per cent. on dates, 16 per cent. by acquaintances and 10 per cent. by other intimates. Only 8 per cent. had been raped by strangers.

That brings me to a case raised with me by one of my constituents. She was raped by her then husband. I will not name her for obvious reasons, but she is a professional woman—a teacher. Her relationship with her husband was tumultuous. He was extremely jealous and domineering. I do not know the full history of the relationship and whether there had previously been domestic violence, but I feel that there must have been. The incident that she brought to me was the final straw. One night, her husband came home and she was asleep in bed. She awoke to find that she was being raped. There had been no prior argument or anything else that led to that—not that anything could give someone the right to rape another person.

My constituent chucked her husband out, started divorce proceedings and is now divorced. The police were involved. The Crown Prosecution Service said that she had a very good case and that it would probably result in a conviction. Unfortunately, about six months later, the CPS wrote to tell her that the case was being dropped because it would not result in a conviction. I am pursuing the case now, although obviously I cannot have the case tried. Various reasons were cited for dropping the case. One was that the woman was drunk on the night. Another was that she would not make a good witness, for whatever reason. Yet another was that there was a discrepancy between the date on which my constituent claimed the rape happened and the date that the police had written down. The police have said that they made a mistake in their notes. I am not a legal expert, but I am following that up with the police and the CPS. We will probably receive only an apology; the case will not go to court.

As I said, my constituent is a professional woman. She did not want to let the case drop and felt that she was capable of pursuing it. She took out a private prosecution. When she got to court, her barrister said to her, "This judge won't be sympathetic. Don't take the matter any further. Don't put yourself through this ordeal. The best we can go for is an injunction." The man lived nearby and was starting to intimidate her. She has obtained about three or four injunctions. They started at about 500 yd or metres, but the figure went down to 250 yd. The man keeps appealing and the decision keeps going in his favour. At that point, my constituent could go within about 250 yd of her house comfortably. I think that the judge overruled the injunction because the man claimed that his mum lived within the 500 yd and he wanted to be able to go and see her. The area was therefore reduced.

There is one working men's club—it is the only pub—within the 250 yd, and the man claimed that he wanted to have access to his mam and to be able to go to that pub because all his friends go there. That is totally not true; it is where all my constituent's friends and family go. However, the judge allowed him to go and see his mam and go to that club. Now, my constituent basically cannot go out for a drink at night and does not feel safe anywhere, because that was her safe zone. Her case raises big issues.

I have other interesting statistics. In the "Routes to Safety" study, 76 per cent. of separated women reported suffering post-separation violence. That is what my constituent now fears. I asked her whether she was still frightened of her ex-husband and what she felt he was after. I have never been raped, but obviously I appreciate why she would not want to be in the same room as him. She said, "No, it's more than that." She feels that he wants to see her dead—that the situation is as black and white as that.

The figures that I have back up such fears. Seventy-six per cent. of the women I was referring to were subjected to continued verbal and emotional abuse; 41 per cent. were subjected to serious threats towards themselves or their children; 23 per cent. were subjected to physical violence; 6 per cent. were subjected to sexual violence; and 36 per cent. stated that that violence was ongoing. That is after they have stopped living with the abusive partners; it is ongoing domestic abuse.

What is the cause of domestic violence? Abusers choose to behave violently to get what they want and to gain control. Their behaviour often originates from a sense of entitlement that is supported by sexist, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes. Domestic violence against women by men is caused by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance in which men have power over women and children. Other hon. Members touched on that, and it was fantastic to hear some men make that very point.

Domestic violence by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities that still exist in our society between men and women. Such inequalities are rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe that they are entitled to power and control over their partners. Domestic violence is learned, intentional behaviour rather than the consequence of stress, individual pathology, substance use or a dysfunctional relationship. Perpetrators of domestic violence frequently avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour by blaming it on someone or something else, by denying it took place or by minimising it.

Research shows that violent men are most likely to perpetrate violence because of their own sexual jealousy and possessiveness, which were the factors in my constituent's case, because they demand domestic services, or to demonstrate male authority. Some men believe that sex is another type of domestic service that they can demand. Violent men will typically justify or ignore their behaviour by minimising the violence—by saying that it was just a slap or that it was not that bad—by justifying their behaviour to themselves and blaming the victim, by denying that the violence happened or even by refusing to talk about it.

Can alcohol or drugs cause domestic violence? Many people who drink too much or take drugs do not abuse their partners or family members. Likewise, abuse does not occur exclusively when an abuser is drunk or under the influence of drugs. The use of alcohol or drugs is therefore not the underlying cause of domestic violence.

Abusers who use alcohol or drugs may use them as an excuse for their behaviour, saying that they were drunk or do not remember. However, even if they generally do not remember what they did, it does not remove responsibility for their behaviour. There is never an excuse for domestic violence, and the causes of domestic violence are far more deep-rooted than simply being the effect of intoxication or alcohol or drug dependency. If an abuser is alcohol or drug dependent, it is important that the dependency is treated in tandem with the violent behaviour. Addressing one without the other is unlikely to prove successful.

Women who experience domestic violence may turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of escape from the violence. Sometimes, abusers will then use their partner's addiction as an excuse for their violent behaviour, saying that they have been provoked into using violence. Excuses such as these are used by the perpetrator to deflect responsibility from themselves and to put the focus or blame for their violence on to the victim. In such situations, it is vital that women receive the support they need, but also that the perpetrator is held accountable for their actions and not excused because of the woman's behaviour.

A study of 336 offenders convicted of domestic violence found that alcohol was a feature in 62 per cent. of offences and that 48 per cent. of offenders were alcohol dependent. Some say that domestic violence is caused by a lack of control. That is just not true. Domestic violence is about gaining control, not a lack of it. If an abuser is careful about when, where and to whom they are abusive, they show sufficient awareness and knowledge of their actions to indicate that they are not out of control.

So who is responsible for the violence? The abuser is, always. There is no excuse for domestic violence. The abuser has a choice whether to use violence, for which he is responsible and for which he should be held accountable, but he does not have to exercise that choice—he could choose instead to behave non-violently and foster a relationship built on trust, honesty, fairness and respect. The victim is never responsible for the abuser's behaviour.

It is important that any intervention to address domestic violence prioritises the safety of survivors and holds the perpetrators accountable. Couple counselling or mediation is often seen as a way of addressing the problem. However, there are two significant problems with such an approach. First, there is a risk to the woman's safety, as asking her to discuss the violence with the perpetrator present may lead to later reprisal. Secondly, the approach assumes that the woman is in some way responsible or capable of altering the perpetrator's behaviour. Women's Aid therefore does not support the use of couple counselling or mediation in situations where domestic violence has occurred.

In addition to the individual costs associated with a loss of quality of life—and the loss of life itself, in some cases—domestic violence costs our society as a whole. The estimated total cost of domestic violence to society in monetary terms is £23 billion per annum. That figure includes an estimated £3.1 billion as the cost to the state, £1.3 billion as the cost to employers and £17 billion as the cost of individual human suffering.

I end by thanking Women's Aid, whose website I found most useful in researching my speech. I quote from that website:

"Everyone has the right to live free from abuse and fear."

We all know only too well that there will be women in this country and around the world tonight for whom that statement is just that—a statement, words—as they are living lives of abuse and fear. It is for those women that debates such as this one are vital. As all right hon. and hon. Members have shown by taking part in this debate, we shall all feel that we have not really made a difference until the statement I quoted becomes a reality.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities 4:56 pm, 9th March 2006

I am pleased that the debate around international women's day has become something of a fixture. My first reaction on seeing the topic this year was slight disappointment, as I thought that it would be nice to celebrate the achievements of women for a change. That is something that we do not do very often, but then I thought a bit more and realised that this debate is important, as all aspects of it come up often in various Bills and Committees, but the reality in the daily lives of many women is that such subjects are difficult to talk about and still very much taboo.

We have had a wide-ranging discussion covering domestic violence, honour crimes, which we have not dealt with much, rape and trafficking. There was a mention in dispatches of female genital mutilation, which goes to show that not all violence against women is perpetrated by men. I shall start by speaking about domestic violence. The statistics have already been given. Every minute, somewhere in the UK the police receive a domestic assistance call. It is only when one starts to think about that that one realises that domestic violence is prevalent in many women's lives. Every year, 500,000 women are victims of domestic violence, and according to a Home Office report published in March 2005, "Domestic Violence: A National Report", only 7,000 of those 500,000 cases—1.4 per cent.—result in prosecution. It is clear that we still have a long way to go.

As this will probably be my last debate speaking on these matters for my party, I was tempted to have a go, but then I thought that that would be churlish. In fact, if one looks back eight years, progress has been made. Vera Baird has pointed out some of the problems, so I shall leave my adversarial comments at that and simply say that I echo some of her concerns that things are not as joined up as they could be.

It is interesting to note that domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime When one talks to the police about this issue, they state clearly that many of the perpetrators of domestic violence are not only violent in the home. Sorting out domestic violence problems can result in some of the wider problems in society being sorted out as well.

One of the concerns that I have about a current changes in Government budgets is around the supporting people programme. Between April and September 2005, 82,000 people accessed services that were paid for by supporting people grants, and just over 10,000 of them—13 per cent.—had either a primary or secondary link to domestic violence. However, in the financial year 2006–07, the supporting people budget will be cut for the fourth year in a row, by approximately £30 million. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is on record stating that councils could expect cuts of up to 5 per cent. in 2007 and 2008. That is especially important, because Women's Aid has pointed out that since 2003 supporting people has been the main funding source for the provision of refuge-based domestic violence services and community-based domestic violence floating support services.

As various speakers have hinted, when local councils are faced with decisions on which services to cut domestic violence is, sadly, not very high on the list of priorities. It can appear to be a relatively easy target, because the victims are not the sort of people who generally want to make a fuss, because of the taboo. Also the nature of domestic violence is such that it starts with a psychological element and the women somehow think that it is their fault.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar picked up the concerns expressed in "Making the Grade", which was compiled by the End Violence Against Women Coalition. The only quotation from the report that I shall repeat is about the

"picture of disarray and non-co-ordination" within Departments, so I am delighted to see that we have made a start on co-ordination with the two Ministers here today.

One of the areas of most concern has been the low conviction rates for rape. Some hon. Members present here today served on the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Act 2003. There were some good things in that Act, which, we all thought, changed the law for the better. It is therefore of some concern to learn of a case in December last year that received quite a lot of publicity, in which a judge halted a rape trial before the jury had heard all the evidence, because, he said:

"drunken consent is still consent".

That shows how difficult it is for women to see justice being done. The problem is that the judge did not seem to be aware of the change in the law. He did not seem to realise the implications of the 2003 Act, which lays down that if a woman says that she was raped while unconscious or stupefied, including through drink, the responsibility shifts to the man to explain why he thought she consented. That clearly did not happen in that case.

It has often occurred to me while pondering the wisdom of our judiciary that in many other areas of public life—particularly in the health service, where the consequences of a lack of professional development can be dire—there is a strong emphasis on continuing professional development. I wonder whether it would be a good idea to ensure that people trying cases are up to date and up to speed. I do not think that there is any mechanism to ensure that that happens and it might be worth considering, because such incidents send the wrong message to all women.

What has not been mentioned in the comments on rape is the phenomenon of drink spiking, which, according to one survey, 25 per cent. of younger women claimed to have experienced. Such incidents are often dismissed by saying, "No, it was the drink, it wasn't the drug," but someone very close to me had it happen to her. She was sensible enough to realise that something had happened, so she called her boyfriend in front of the people she was with and managed to get home. They did not know that her boyfriend would take an hour to get home, but she managed to get home and nothing happened. She cannot remember very much about the event; the drugs used often have that effect.

The problem has received scant attention from the Home Office—indeed, one of the initial studies on the subject was later found to have been highly influenced by somebody who was in the pay of the drugs company that produces one of the drugs that is most commonly used. If there is any work being done on the problem, it would be useful to have an update.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

The hon. Lady may be interested to know that the students' union at Plymouth university has done some pioneering work on the issue, raising awareness in the clubs and pubs in Plymouth. I would certainly commend such work to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart. I shall send her details if she is not already aware of it, because it is an interesting initiative. I agree with the hon. Lady that more work is needed on the issue.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

Certainly more awareness is needed, particularly in the period leading up to Christmas, with office parties and people going out with people who they do not know. Young women should perhaps be more alert, looking after each other and recognising the signs when such incidents occur.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird PPS (Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Secretary of State), Home Office

The Home Office made GHB, which is the drug the hon. Lady is talking about, unlawful. It was not unlawful before, but it is hard to control because it can be made out of things that can be bought in a shop and the recipe is on the internet.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Women & Older People, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

GHB is one of the drugs in question, but that was not the drug to which I was referring.

Many hon. Members raised the issue of trafficking. During the passage of the 2003 Act, Opposition Members tabled amendments on trafficking to support both the provision of safe houses—there was an experiment on that and I wonder whether there are any plans to expand it—and the cooling-off period, which has been introduced in countries such as Sweden. During a cooling-off period victims can stay in the country for a while before being deported—they are not returned immediately to their home town. There is evidence to show that such measures lead to an increase in convictions.

It is still not clear to me why the opportunity was not taken then to tie up the loose ends, so that the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings could have been ratified at an early stage. I would urge the Government not to be afraid of ratification, because Italy, which has a huge immigration problem, seems to be able to distinguish between immigration and trafficking quite successfully. There is a lot of work being done, even with users of prostitutes. That may seem odd, but users often build up relationships with trafficked girls and can be the ones who blow the whistle to the police.

I am glad that the general influence of pornography has been mentioned. Pornography is pervasive in our society, which as a liberal causes me great conflicts. The media and the press have greatly influenced our attitudes towards women. The increase in pornography is a puzzling trend, but what puzzles me even more is the number of women who appear to be willing participants, which, as an older feminist, I struggle to get my head round. Often they are bright young women who have other options but choose for some bizarre reason to go into jobs that are loosely associated—I use the word "loosely" advisedly—with the sex trade.

I was interested as a Member of Parliament to receive a flier addressed to my office for Spearmint Rhino—I did not take much notice; it might have been peppermint rhino. It was quite excited to be opening in Southampton, but I was amazed that it thought it appropriate to send me that flier and wondered how many male MPs had been lobbied in similar ways.

We have to change attitudes in schools. A lot of that is about assertiveness skills for women, as well as the attitudes of young men and young women. Waiting until the age of 11 is probably too late. We need to start on such work much earlier.

Finally, I was quite amused by the some of the anti-female comments that we have heard about. I do not know how many hon. Members have been in receipt of an e-mail from someone who seems to think that there is a terrible anti-men lobby out there. The belief seems to be based on a knife-holder, which is actually anti-gender—it is not possible to tell what sex it is. The e-mail also complained about a website where people can buy "boys are smelly" wristbands. All I would say is that if that were the worst thing that such men had to contend with, they should get a life, start supporting some of the initiatives and projects, and start campaigning against violence against women.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality) 5:09 pm, 9th March 2006

It is a great pleasure to speak after Sandra Gidley. I did not know until she mentioned it at the beginning of her speech that this might be one of the last occasions on which she speaks for her party on this subject. In the absence of anybody else from her party to pay tribute to her—[Interruption.] I do apologise; Jo Swinson is, of course, here. Even though somebody else from her party is present to pay tribute to her, may I, on behalf of everybody in the Chamber, congratulate her on all the work that she has done on matters relating to women and equality during the past year or so? There has been much legislation on which many of us have worked together—I do mean together, rather than against one another. I hope that she will not be as successful in her next post as she has been in this one, but only because I might not agree with her on so many issues in future. She has certainly been very successful in this role, and we wish her well.

The very fact that we are having this debate is a big step forward; it is a positive way for the House to mark international women's day. Let me begin by apologising for the fact that while the Government have two Ministers on the Front Bench, I am alone. I should have been joined by my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier but, unfortunately, he has been detained on jury service. That is pretty hard for a learned member of the Bar, so he has my sympathy. I particularly wanted to mention that, because while I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend Mr. Bone, I want to point out that I am not the only member of the Conservative Front Bench who is concerned about the issue, it is just that we are spread rather thinly, so I am the only one here.

There are many kinds of violence against women. Hon. Members have touched on several subjects this afternoon—and very eloquently. However, I want to use most of my time to speak about domestic violence. The very fact that we are talking about the subject openly and emphatically is a step towards eradicating it, because we are getting rid of the taboo about domestic violence, which has been considered a private matter between a man and women or other domestic partners in which others should not interfere. That attitude has prevailed for far too long and I am sure that that is why the statistics are so shocking.

Since I began to be involved in the subject, I have told many people that they can assume that between one in four and one in three women in any room they care to go into has been affected by domestic violence. When people stop and think about that they are truly shocked, and so they should be. For generations, if not since the beginning of time, women have put up with certain situations because they have had no way of dealing with them or getting out of them. They were, and still are, conditioned to think that being treated badly is just part of a woman's lot. It is not and it should not be, and the fact that we are discussing the subject now is an important step in the right direction.

Domestic violence is not just caused—as many have said this afternoon—by a quick burst of temper on the part of a man who is a bit annoyed about something. That is how people would have us believe that it happens. It is just as bad—worse in many cases—if the violence is the result of years of control through bullying, as several hon. Members have said, because mental and emotional abuse is often worse than straight physical abuse. Of course, there is usually a combination of all of those things.

Worst of all, women who are victims are usually made to feel that it is their fault, that they have to take responsibility for it, that they deserve it and that there is nothing that they can do about it. Of course, because respectability is so precious, women do not want to talk about it. They do not even tell their best friends or their families, because they feel responsible and ashamed. That is how men get away with domestic violence. I have to say that a small but significant amount of domestic violence is perpetrated by women against men. However, for the most part it is women who are abused.

At a meeting in Essex about domestic violence, I met the sister-in-law of a woman who had been murdered by her husband. That woman had known that she was going to die one day at the hands of her husband. She was trapped, and there was nothing that she could do about it. That was not because she had no money, or because she did not know what to do, but because she could not travel to work from a refuge, or go on earning money and keep her respectability and her position as a professional woman. If she had left home, she would have had to move her children out of school. There was too much to get over for her to get away, so she just kept taking the risk of staying with her husband, and eventually he killed her.

Most people who are in refuges are children, because children suffer even more from domestic violence than women do. Of course, as other hon. Members have said, a child's whole life can be affected. When I was a child, a little boy called Clifford lived down the road from us. He used to come and play with my younger brother. One day, Clifford was not there any more. Years later, I discovered that he had had to go and live with his grandparents because his father had murdered his mother—but of course we did not talk about it then; it was all hushed up. Nobody knew that behind the respectable fac"ade of the lovely house in which they lived, such dreadful things were happening. Such things are still happening to one in four women in Britain today.

While mentioning children, I should say that the NSPCC's full stop campaign is relevant to the issue, because children learn that if it is acceptable to hit them when they have apparently done something wrong, then hitting is acceptable. Hitting is never acceptable in any circumstances, and that includes smacking.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton

Does the hon. Lady agree that, as well as children, perhaps the most vulnerable group is older people? Those of us who are active in the all-party group are concerned that that should be discussed.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I certainly do, and I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Lady. I was going to make that point later, and she is absolutely correct. When one looks into the subject it becomes more and more frightening.

Women's Aid and Refuge, to which I pay tribute, are doing a brilliant job, but I must ask the Minister for Women and Equality whether the Government have any plans to provide financial support for the work of those two organisations. Last year they received 250,000 calls to their helpline, and they simply do not have the funds to enable them to keep the service going, although we know how vital it is. Last Christmas, I organised a poster campaign to publicise the refuge helpline number, so I hope that a few of those 250,000 calls came as a result of my little posters. That was a small effort, but I said at the time that if just one life is saved, or one child does not have to see his father beating up his mother, it will have been worth while.

Vera Baird mentioned domestic violence courts. For the sake of brevity, all I will say is that I hope that they work.

Practical points were made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire and others, about television licences, for example, and such matters as local authorities classifying women who have fled domestic violence as deliberately homeless. That is ridiculous, but many local authority housing departments still do not re-house women in that position, because they consider them to be deliberately homeless. I hope that the message will go out across the country that that appalling attitude is not acceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough mentioned trafficking, slavery, prostitution and other such tragic cases, as did other hon. Members who spoke about the international situation. In many countries, violence against women is acceptable and normal and it is not easy for us to make a difference there. However, the fact that it is not easy does not mean that we should not continue to try.

Recently, in one of those big surveys of women in public life, a magazine asked me, "What do women want?", to which my immediate answer was, "To be treated with respect." The interviewer said, "Oh, what a very unusual answer. Everyone else said, 'Shoes and handbags and diamonds.'"

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

Yes, I agree. We want the shoes, handbags and diamonds as well, but I would happily give up those things to ensure being treated with respect. All the women in the Chamber are usually treated with respect, but every woman deserves that.

Violence against women is not a joking matter, and I am pleased that international women's day has provided a focus for this important issue. We have won many battles, but there are many more to go. I am pleased to see a general consensus across the political divide this afternoon.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Women and Equality) 5:20 pm, 9th March 2006

I shall not take interventions, because hon. Members have given me a great deal to think about and I want to respond to everybody's comments. If anybody thinks that I am not about to respond to their points, they should please hang on, and if I have not responded by the final 30 seconds, I shall do so then if I can.

This debate is extremely important, and it has been excellent. To have 14 Back-Bench speakers as well as the Front-Bench speakers is a tribute to hon. Members and the interest that has rightly been paid to this issue.

The Government have a comprehensive body of work that is being undertaken across government, and we are joining up our approach. We recently launched a media campaign to raise awareness about the issues, and policy work is properly joined up at the centre. Part of preparing for international women's day and the decision to focus on violence against women, which chosen by the Ministers as the focus for this year, has led to a significant amount of work being done to pull together exactly what is going on.

That is the volume of work going on across government; there is quite a thick book of it. I draw hon. Members attention to some of the issues that have been taken up in the past few years. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred to significant milestones; there are almost two pages of significant milestones, although those achieved before 1999 take up only a third of a page. As the rest of the two pages covers milestones since then, hon. Members can see that that work is picking up, and rightly so, because we will have to concentrate a great deal more on this area.

I should like to convey my best wishes to Sandra Gidley. She and I have been involved together in many debates on many issues. I am pleased that there has been cross-party working on this matter and that real progress has been made in the work that we do together on women's issues.

Looking to the future, the Home Office will publish later this month a new comprehensive and transparent domestic violence report that will include greater detail on the national delivery plan and other cross-governmental work. Significant steps have been taken in relation to domestic violence, such as the production in 2003 of "Safety and Justice", the Government's proposals on domestic violence, which led to a range of work.

The work of specialist domestic violence courts was mentioned by several hon. Members. Some 25 such courts will be in place by April 2006 as part of a national programme, and there will be at least one such court area in every region. I believe that Plymouth is being supported to gain such a court by the national programme, which will please my hon. Friend Linda Gilroy.

We are seeing the benefits of those measures. Recent data show that during the Caerphilly domestic violence court pilot, guilty pleas went up from 21 per cent. to 27 per cent., and they averaged 61 per cent. by September 2005. Convictions also went up from 8 per cent. to 19 per cent., and they have now reached 32 per cent. Victim withdrawals fell from 53 per cent. to 27 per cent., and then down to 17 per cent. in the further phase, so we are recognising the value of such measures. Several hon. Members mentioned advocacy, which we value and want to see more of.

The Government have put in place a best value performance indicator for local authorities in relation to domestic violence. That is important, because we are trying to ensure that there are services throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton noted that, at times, there have been few services in certain areas. We want this issue to be given priority, because as many hon. Members have emphasised, this issue is not on one side; it is a huge part of violent crime, and it should be central to the safety plans in each area. There are important indicators. I do not have time to go into all of them, but I can say that local authorities have to consider domestic violence issues such as having a minimum of one refuge place per 10,000 population. They must also have a multi-agency strategy to tackle domestic violence, which is developed in partnership with other areas.

In relation to the future of refuges, I am happy to make the commitment to Jo Swinson that I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to consider changing the rules. I shall write to the hon. Lady about that.

I am pleased to say that the issues relating to the courts are being given serious consideration not only by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, but by Baroness Scotland, who is today visiting the Cardiff specialist domestic violence court and women's safety unit. I am sure that she will be lobbied on the issues raised by Julie Morgan. The Croydon pilot focused particularly on matters of criminal and civil domestic violence courts, which has been raised today. I hope that the pilot will give us more evidence on which we can take these matters forward.

My hon. Friend Anne Snelgrove referred to homicide reviews, which are an enormously important aspect of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. Domestic violence and homicide reviews will come into force across the country from April.

My hon. Friend Mr. Brown raised the important matter of encouraging strategies to ensure that victims can stay in the family home wherever possible. Several projects are being taken forward in relation to that, such as sanctuary schemes involving heightened security and co-ordinated support from police and the wider population. Guidelines on establishing such schemes are being drafted by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We plan to publish a brief, targeted consultation document on those issues.

The funding of the national 24-hour freephone domestic violence helpline, which is delivered in partnership with Women's Aid and Refuge, is enormously important. I am pleased to confirm that there will be £1 million of Government funding for the helpline over three years, which will lever in £1 million in match funding from Comic Relief.

I shall deal briefly with issues of sexual offending and rape. Obviously, a great deal is being done through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and the Government are committed to improving the legal system by tackling low conviction rates in rape and sexual assault cases and through the rape action plan 2002. There was a stock-take of the plan in the summer of last year, whose results will be made known soon so that we can ensure that lessons are learned from it. My hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird made some important points about how the lessons that are learnt in some situations, such as in the domestic violence courts, can be applied to rape. We need to do more such joining up.

On finance, the women and equality unit has had discussions with the Treasury about the 2007 comprehensive spending review to ensure that gender and equality form a cross-cutting theme throughout the review and to ensure that bids from other Departments are gender sensitive.

On human trafficking, a public consultation is ongoing. We are anticipating developing an action plan. Again, I want to stress the UK's work, particularly during our presidency, in forming the EU action plan on trafficking and ensuring that the issue is highlighted. Indeed, the range of legislation that we have to deal with the matter is really important.

I want my final words to be about respect. A lot was said, quite rightly, about attitudes. We should take this matter forward as part of the respect agenda. It is about what we do in schools, about changing attitudes and about ensuring that there is proper respect for women and for girls. Only when that respect is in place will we finally be able to put behind us these dreadful crimes of violence against women.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Five o'clock.