Rape Crisis Centres

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 10th November 2009.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge 12:30 pm, 10th November 2009

While preparing to speak in this debate, I was approached by several charities, lobbyists and politicians, who represent a wide range of opinion and interest in the subject. What unites them is a desire to see the issue of funding for rape crisis centres given the greatest possible prominence-both for the public and the Government-and although they may differ in opinion on the means, the end of achieving sustainable funding for rape crisis is the same for them all.

The way in which victims of rape and sexual assault are dealt with by the voluntary and statutory sector has a huge impact upon the victims themselves and upon the services and volunteers who support them. Every year, 3 million women across the UK experience incidents of rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, human trafficking or other forms of sexual violence. In financial terms, the cost of that is estimated to be around £40 billion. Quantifying that huge figure is extremely difficult, but it is near impossible to measure the long-term impact of the horrific sexual crimes that many women, men and children are subjected to each year. Out of an estimated 80,000 annual incidents of rape, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary believes that up to 95 per cent. go unreported. Of those that do get reported, there is an 80 per cent. attrition rate of victims from the criminal justice system. We in this place must continue to ask ourselves why that remains the case.

In common with many people around the UK, in my Stourbridge constituency, people who wish to report a rape or a sexual assault must go to the police in the first instance. People reporting a sexual crime that has just happened almost inevitably require examination by a forensic medical examiner. For people in Stourbridge, that can mean a wait for a police car to take them on the journey of up to 20 miles to the Sandwell sexual assault referral centre-SARC-which is the closest one to Stourbridge. Alternatively, the person concerned has to remain in what is often a busy police station, where it is difficult to find the privacy that is particularly needed after a horrific crime such as rape.

The victim is then treated as forensically hot, which often means they are unable to wash or drink, and sometimes they have to sit on blotting paper to preserve evidence of the assault. There is usually a protracted wait to see a doctor and, bearing in mind that 99 per cent. of sexual crimes are committed by men, it is possible that women victims of sexual assault may not be able to see a female doctor at all. That is particularly the case in the west midlands, where 85 per cent. of FMEs are male.

The police officers who are involved in these cases are clearly managing the needs of victims of rape and sexual assault alongside their own immense work load. However, they are not necessarily mandated to have special training in how to deal sensitively with these victims. Through experience, many police officers are extremely adept at assisting people who find themselves the victim of rape, but it is not guaranteed that someone who is brave enough to come forward as a victim of a recent or historic sexual crime will have such a police officer dealing with their case.

Police officers do not always know that a victim of sexual crime can be told that they can have the assistance of one of the excellent, but all too rare independent sexual violence advisers-ISVAs-who provide victims and survivors with emotional support through counselling. They also provide practical support, such as by finding safe accommodation if it is needed, or assisting on the long route through the criminal justice system.

Inevitably, a victim's first encounter with the criminal justice system will be affected by the reception that they get. That in turn provides them with a perception of how the system will deal with their case and informs their decision and the further decisions they need to make about seeking an all too rare prosecution. Without specific training, it is possible that police might not have the skills, through no fault of their own, to recognise the particular sensitivity needed when assisting victims of rape at the initial stage. That is the case for people who have just been assaulted, as well as for people who may have been assaulted a long time ago, which requires a particular form of bravery to come forward and even more careful assistance as they enter the criminal justice process. The Home Office says that each rape costs £76,000, but it is not uncommon for rape crisis centres in the west midlands to get just £100 per victim in funding.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

The hon. Lady is returning to the issue of funding and costs, which she mentioned at the start of her speech. We are fortunate in Croydon because we have a rape crisis centre, which has recently benefited from an additional grant of more than £250,000 from the London Mayor. Croydon is unusual in that respect because there are really only two such centres in London. Does that not underline the need for additional resources, whether from Government, regional government or, indeed, some match funding from local government?

Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge

It does indeed. The matter is not just about one-off amounts of money, which are obviously very useful; it is about sustainability. Often people who should be counselling and supporting victims are filling in forms, chasing money and effectively finding their wages for the next year. Sustainability is the key to dealing with the issue.

In common with those around England and Wales, rape crisis centres in the west midlands face a constant struggle to achieve funding, whether from Government bodies or charities. Recently, in 2008-08, a rape crisis centre in the west midlands was given £40,000 from the Home Office to provide services in that financial year. In 2009-10, as an emergency measure, similar to the previous year it was awarded £50,000. However, to cope with an expanding work load, it had needed and had asked for nearly £90,000. That could not be provided because funding had been capped.

When someone is accused of a sexual crime, from investigation to courtroom, funding is assured to see that the case is dealt with fairly. In comparison, funding for the provision of services to victims and survivors of sexual crime is not assured and varies by area. Of course, securing investigation and, where appropriate, conviction is in the public interest, but surely, the welfare of the victims of these horrific crimes is equally so.

What confidence can victims of sexual assault have in a system that offers them no guarantees about getting their case in front of a court? That problem speaks to an inherent distrust in people who make an allegation of rape or sexual assault. Demolishing that tendency requires institutional change, as does the process by which rape crisis centres, police, the health service and prosecutors work together to provide positive outcomes for victims of sexual crime. Local and national Government must take their place in limiting the bureaucracy imposed on rape and sexual violence support organisations.

This is a Herculean task, but we should not shirk from it. What would certainly make it easier is putting enough money into the process that victims go through to see their attackers brought to justice and ensuring that they are given help in recovering from the trauma of horrific attacks. The Rape Crisis network is the umbrella organisation for 38 groups in England and Wales that provide support to victims of rape and sexual assault. In doing so, they do an amazing job. The centres that are supported by the RCN have many things in common. They work tirelessly to support victims of sexual crimes, they rely on the good will of volunteers and they are under constant financial pressure to make ends meet.

Rape crisis centres and similar organisations form the backbone of support for victims of sexual crime. They support people who have had the bravery to come forward and ask for help after a traumatic experience. However, for the past two years they have been forced to apply for emergency funding because no sustainable funding exists to allow them to do their vital and admirable work. We all know of the pressures to reduce public sector spending, but we should increase funding for rape crisis centres, if possible. At the very least, we should sustain for a number of years the money that supports them.

When someone who has been sexually assaulted approaches the police, a doctor or a counsellor, they fear, among other things, a lack of dignity. But rape crisis centres that support them, such as Sandwell in my constituency and others like it, step in to help them through emotional trauma and through the criminal justice system, which is improving but could always do more. It is crucial that police, health care providers, prosecutors and rape and sexual violence organisations have enough confidence in each other's place in the system to give the assurance needed for victims of sexual assault to keep coming forward. That will happen only when rape crisis centres are recognised for their ability to support victims and survivors as well as for their skills in working, as part of the third sector, hand in hand with the statutory sector.

I am sure that many who work across local government, the police, charities and health services to support victims of rape will welcome the Government's moves to improve the way that we handle this issue. There has been a 46 per cent. increase in convictions for rape since 1997, and the criminal justice system has been ever more responsive. There has been extra funding of £1 million for rape crisis centres in the past 12 months, and there is now a team of advisers to help areas that do not have dedicated sexual assault referral centres to set one up. Those changes are all creditable and historic, because no previous Government have sought to provide them. I hope that the Government will demonstrate how those groundbreaking measures can be extended to provide long-term, sustainable support for rape crisis centres.

Sexual violence and assault can, among other things, strip victims of their dignity. The Government have gone a considerable way towards helping to restore it, but it is essential that they also dignify the organisations and professionals who support and care for rape victims with the sustainable funding that they need to continue their vital role, rather than commit them to a constant merry-go-round of short-term funding applications.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice) 12:42 pm, 10th November 2009

Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Lynda Waltho on obtaining the debate and thereby allowing us to consider the serious and important issue of sexual violence. I pay tribute to the work of the third sector on sexual violence. Such organisations do vital work across the country to support those who have been subjected to what is one of the most horrible crimes. Rape and sexual violence involve violation of the most personal and intimate kind, and the situation is often made worse by the fact that the victim knows their attacker. The impact of those crimes can be devastating to victims and very difficult to deal with. Some people can and do recover, but many need or want support. Sometimes the impact emerges later-in some cases, years later. As my hon. Friend has said, voluntary rape crisis organisations play a crucial role in providing a range of services such as counselling, therapeutic support and advocacy services. They work closely with victims, the majority of whom are women.

Far more rapes and incidents of sexual violence are not reported than are. British crime survey figures have indicated that only 15 per cent. of such crimes come to the attention of the police because so many victims do not tell anyone about their experiences. As my hon. Friend has acknowledged, however, there was a 50 per cent. increase in the number of convictions for rape in 2007 compared with the number in 1997. Reporting of rape has more than doubled since 1997. That increase is partly due to the systemic improvements that the Government have tried to make in the criminal justice system to facilitate victims of sexual violence and rape in feeling able to come forward to report to the police what has happened to them. In respect of sexual violence, improvements include the appointment of specialist officers and specialist rape prosecutors across the country, supported by much improved guidance and training for police, the Crown Prosecution Service and barristers. Other measures include supporting police forces in developing plans to improve the investigation of rapes, and ensuring that all forces are supported by a specialist team in implementing the plans.

We are funding and extending the network of sexual assault referral centres that my hon. Friend mentioned to ensure that victims receive medical care and counselling and that they can assist the police investigation through a forensic examination. The number of SARCs has increased from just five in 2001 to the current 29, and we aim and expect to have one in every police force area by 2011. We also fund the provision of independent sexual violence advisers in 43 areas to provide advocacy and support for victims. My hon. Friend has talked about the excellent work that they do.

This year, the Government conducted a wide-ranging consultation on violence against women, the responses to which will be published soon. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is working with the judiciary on cases in which defendants raise the issue of delayed reporting to undermine the credibility of complainants. They are working to ensure that juries are better advised and better able to understand the impact that the trauma of rape can have on victims and on their behaviour after the attack.

As well as taking action specifically in relation to victims of sexual violence and sexual crime, the Government have taken general actions to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Those actions have had a positive impact on the support that victims of sexual violence can obtain from the criminal justice system. I shall not argue that more could not be done or that we have turned the corner completely, because there is more to do. However, special measures are available to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, such as rape victims, in our courts so that they can give their best evidence in court without having to be next to the attacker or looked at by them. The victim personal statement can enable victims to have a voice in certain cases, such as where there has been a guilty plea. All that helps to ensure that the point of view of the person who has been attacked can be at the centre of the court's consideration.

I think that my hon. Friend requested this debate mainly to talk about funding the third sector, so I shall address her comments on that. The Government have done a lot on this issue. First, we have provided more than £12 million of funding in the past five years, through the victims fund, for voluntary organisations that support victims of sexual violence. For a few years now, there has also been a special fund, as my hon. Friend noted, to top up the money that is available to support the work of the third sector on sexual violence. That is a £1.6 million fund for members of the Survivors Trust and Rape Crisis to keep open local services for victims. As my hon. Friend rightly said, those charities provide invaluable support and specialist services such as counselling and advocacy to women and men who have been raped or who have experienced sexual violence. Another £1.8 million has been invested in the current year for new and existing sexual assault referral centres, and there is a £1.4 million fund for creating a national support team to bring together all the key agencies and to provide support to ensure that victims of sexual violence get the support they need in local areas to report crime. That helps to ensure that prosecutions succeed in greater numbers, where they are undertaken, and that those who rape and engage in sexual violence do not get away with it. Twelve million pounds of spending was provided over the five years prior to this year for specialist services for victims of sexual violence, and core funding was provided for Rape Crisis (England and Wales) and the Survivors Trust.

We are looking at the issue of sustainability, which my hon. Friend raised, and understand that we need to support voluntary sector organisations more. Officials from across Government are working to consider what more can be done to address the issue of sustainability in the sexual violence sector. We recently commissioned research and shared it with the stakeholder advisory group on sexual violence and abuse funding, a group on which officials from my Department and others and representatives of the sexual violence sector sit to look at how we can best sustain the work that those organisations do in the future.

One area we seek to address relates to cash. My hon. Friend said that many of the professionals and volunteers in the third sector organisations dealing with sexual violence spend too much of their time making applications for funding rather than continuing their work helping victims, so we are looking at trying to ensure that there is a more streamlined process.

We are looking at commissioning to see how that should be compact and compliant with equality duties, because one issue relating to the sustainability of funding for third sector organisations is that many local commissioners of services with mainstream budgets, some of which should clearly be used to support such voluntary organisations, have taken the view that those are too low down the list of priorities and, as they are women-only, do not comply with equality law. That is a misconception and incorrect, and it is something we need to educate local commissioners about more fully. We are looking at what more can be done on commissioning by those with mainstream budgets, whether in local authorities, health authorities or the criminal justice system, to ensure that it is properly understood that that part of the third sector should not be funded only by central Government from some central pot.

We are trying to ensure that the Government's capacity-building work for third sector organisations includes those from the violence against women sector and the rape crisis and sexual violence sector.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

Does the Minister have a view on those women who have no recourse to public funds because of their migration status, and on how rape centres should be better provided for to deal with their needs?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

There is some central funding from the POPPY project, which comes largely through the Home Office, for those who have been trafficked into this country and subjected to sexual violence, so there is some specific funding aimed at helping those victims of sexual abuse who come to the attention of the authorities.

One of the issues with the sexual violence third sector is that it does not tend to be commissioned to provide services, as it would be perfectly possible for it to be, because those involved are specialists, such as those who deal with a particularly vulnerable part of society locally or local group. One of the strands of the work we are trying to do on sustainability is saying to local commissioners across public organisations that that area should not be ignore because it is covered elsewhere. It is an essential part of providing support for victims of crime and those who find it difficult to recover from their experiences.

I hope that the work we are doing in conjunction with the sexual violence third sector organisations will produce a better understanding across the public sector, centrally and locally, of where those organisations fit into the available services that can be commissioned by mainstream budget holders in local authorities, health services and the criminal justice system, and create awareness that by working together across those natural boundaries, which is always difficult but always a good thing to do, it ought to be possible to ensure better and more sustainable funding for those organisations that provide such vital services in many local areas. Indeed, one need visit only a few of those organisations to hear that referrals come from many statutory services but not necessarily with any money. The volunteers in those organisations are committed to their work, so they do not say, "Oi, where's the money for these referrals?" Instead, they get on with the job. We must find a way to ensure that money is attached to referrals.

We need to ensure that local services, whether local authorities or regional or local arms of central Government services, do not take the work that is done in those organisations as a free good that they do not have to pay for one way or another. I am convinced that the work we are doing should enable us, with good will on all sides and with a proper understanding across the statutory services of central and local government, to ensure that those organisations doing such vital work do not fall through the various gaps between the priorities of mainstream budget holders, because in many ways that is what has happened over the past few years.

I want to say a few words about the Stern review, because several recent cases that have come to the public's attention illustrate that there is still a need to address head-on some of the myths, misperceptions and wrong attitudes surrounding the crime of rape. The Government are pressing forward with the agenda of trying to ensure that more is done to support better the victims of sexual violence. There is now a review into how rape complaints are handled, from when a rape is first disclosed until the court reaches a verdict. My hon. Friend gave some examples of the experiences that victims of sexual violence have immediately after what has been an extremely traumatic experience and a crime committed against them. One is not surprised that some of those women feel unable to report properly to the police what has happened to them.

The review, led by Baroness Stern, will look in particular at how public authorities, including the police, local authorities, health providers, the Crown Prosecution Service and others, respond individually to rape complaints and interact with each other, as well as the attitudes of professionals to rape and evidence from the victims. It will take account of the emerging findings of the Department of Health task force on the health aspects of violence against women and girls, led by Professor Sir George Alberti, which is due to report early next year, and of the work done by Sara Payne, the victims' champion.

Since September, Baroness Stern has held 21 meetings with key stakeholders, including academics, public authorities, inspectorates, political leaders, local government, third sector support services and complainants, and has now embarked upon a programme of regional visits to collate further evidence and perspectives from a range of authorities, service providers, prosecutors and members of the judiciary. Regional visits will also provide her with the opportunity to speak to and visit a variety of specialist rape investigation teams, rape crisis centres, sexual assault referral centres, third sector groups and local crime and disorder reduction partnerships. She will visit the English regions, Wales and Scotland for some comparative discussions throughout the rest of the year. She is expecting to present a final report to Ministers at some time in the new year.

I hope that I have been able to indicate to my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to tackling rape and sexual assault, bringing perpetrators to justice and ensuring that victims get the help and support they need. I congratulate her on securing the debate and highlighting in particularly the issues that concern those in the voluntary and third sectors who do so much to help the victims of sexual violence.


An interesting speech - but not really an answer to the question about the "no recourse to public funds" rule which excludes vulnerable women who have been victims of sexual crime or domestic violence from accessing services, forcing them to rely on charity or remain in dangerous situations.

Submitted by SB