It is nice to see the Front-Bench teams from the Equality Bill reassembled for one appearance only.
We take violence against women seriously in all its forms. We all have a responsibility, along with the Government, to tackle violence against women and girls within our families and communities, at our places of work or study and in society at large. The Government have developed a number of linked national action plans on domestic violence, which includes tackling female genital mutilation, forced marriage and evil crimes committed in the name of honour; sexual assault and rape; prostitution; and human trafficking. We want to increase reporting and conviction rates, ensure that victims are supported, improve the criminal justice response and maximise prevention.
The largest ever cross-governmental public consultation on tackling violence against women and girls was launched by the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jacqui Smith. During 2009, it received more than 10,000 responses, which informed the cross-governmental violence against women and girls strategy that we published in November.
The Department of Health has launched a taskforce led by Professor Alberti to consider the health aspects of violence against women. It aims to identify what is the current national health service response to violence against women and girls in terms of prevention and treatment, and to consider what more needs to be done. Part of that work is specifically to look at sexual violence against women and children. We expect the report next month.
The work I am describing puts into a higher gear the work the Government have done over the past decade, which has transformed the debate on violence against women. A comprehensive search of Hansard shows that the issue was very rarely mentioned by the last Tory Government. If one looks beyond the debates in the Chamber to debates on Bills, as I have done, one sees that Labour Front Benchers tried to amend Tory criminal justice Bills to get rid of the ability to cross-examine women on their sexual history and proposed support for domestic violence victims, but found their proposals blocked. Meanwhile, an epidemic of violence against women was being suffered privately.
The advent of 100 Labour women MPs in 1997 meant that the issue was taken on and run with. It has been taken on seriously, strongly and continuously by Ministers, male and female, ever since and there has been step-by-step improvement. Importantly, we have worked closely with the third sector, where there is great understanding of the subject-for example, Women's Aid has 35 years' wisdom. We have passed good legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.
As a consequence of the steps we have taken, domestic homicide rates are lower now than they have been for the past decade. I used to make speeches on violence against women in which I said that between two and three women a week are killed through domestic violence. Happily, that statistic has changed, although it is still far too high. On average, just over one woman is now killed each week.
Sentencing is imposed by the judiciary, not the Government. I do not think that those figures are correct. Rape sentencing was set down by the Millberry case about five or six years ago. It stated that the starting point for a rape case involving one rape is five years, increasing for aggravating factors, such as there being more than one victim or a campaign of rape. Life sentences and indefinite sentences are frequently imposed, for example in the case of Worboys. I do not accept that those figures are correct, but judges have the discretion to deal with each case.
We now have 700 specially trained independent domestic violence advisers nationally. That is a totally new sort of support person. From complaint to court, and if necessary beyond, they stand beside and befriend a domestic violence complainant and ensure that they are sustained through the pressures of a court case. They can help them with things such as benefits advice; home change, which may be required depending on where the violence happened; the impact on their relationship; and child care. They try to take those burdens off a woman so that she knows that if she is suffering domestic violence, she can make a complaint and have a friend beside her from start to finish.
There are 200 multi-agency risk assessment conferences, which protect high-risk victims and their children. Areas where they exist see a 50 per cent. cut in repeat victimisation of women. They have helped 29,000 victims of domestic abuse. Obviously, word has started to go round over the years that women will be supported, so women increasingly come forward. Support brings support.
I was proud yesterday to attend the Una Padel award ceremony at King's college London, where Survivors of Domestic Abuse, a volunteer organisation from Redcar, won an award for its work. It is run by young victims of domestic violence who saw the work done by Women's Aid locally and discovered that they could help people who were trying to get out of violent relationships by talking to them, sharing their experiences and giving support. It is cheering that it is young women who are doing that.
There are 127 specialist domestic violence courts in which all parties, from magistrates to prosecutors and the police, are trained to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. That is a fundamental part of our effort to deal with domestic violence and to improve the support that is available. Prosecution rates have doubled since the introduction of those courts and the average is now 72.5 per cent. Conviction rates are going up.
We know that 750,000 children in the UK witness domestic violence. We have produced a toolkit, which since last September has been distributed to all front-line professionals to whom it is relevant. The toolkit contains risk assessments and safety planning tools designed to support vulnerable children and young people in situations of domestic violence.
We will more than double the number of sexual assault referral centres by March 2011, and there will be at least one in each of the 43 criminal justice areas in England and Wales. Such centres bring together in one place all the relevant legal and medical agencies and departments. A victim may go there on her own, with the police or with her family, or she can telephone the centre and somebody will go to get her. She will get the Rolls-Royce treatment and be supported from the beginning with the intention of sustaining her through any court case and in overcoming the trauma she has suffered. If she wants to report the assault, a specialist officer will come out.
We have announced funding of £1.6 million to enhance existing sexual assault referral centres and to create new ones. There will be further funding to extend the network of independent sexual violence advisers. Like independent domestic violence advisers, they are befrienders who support a victim from start to finish, but these advisers specialise in sexual violence.
Those services are available to male or female victims. Of course, most of the aspects I mention will focus on women-this is a debate about violence against women-but I ought to put in that footnote at this point.
I welcome that list of new initiatives, which I know are working in many parts of the country. However, services are patchy: for example, anyone who comes from Stourbridge or Dudley and needs to get to a sexual assault referral centre has to travel to Walsall, which is quite a distance. Evidence has to be kept as uncontaminated as possible, and I know women who have had to travel in a van, sitting on newspaper, so that they can be examined once they have arrived at Walsall. That is quite a journey. The multi-agency risk assessment conference system is very good but, in Dudley where provision is patchy, victims have to suffer three or four incidents of domestic violence before they are put into that system. It adds insult to injury that they have to wait until they are beaten up again for that to happen.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important to preserve evidence and I am sure doing that can be quite uncomfortable on a long journey. As I said, we are enhancing the network of sexual assault referral centres, and the target is to have one in each criminal justice area, because those are defined areas that work cohesively together. There should not be an absolute barrier against the travel that is implicit. People in my constituency would have to go from east Cleveland and travel quite a distance through the countryside to the sexual assault referral centre in Middlesbrough. However, the police or whoever was dealing with the case would facilitate that.
In my constituency and presumably in that of my hon. Friend, there is a system whereby a trusted female cab driver is sent out to fetch the woman and take her to the sexual assault referral centre. Those centres have a lot of technical equipment and are highly staffed, so I do not suppose it will ever be practical to have one in every neighbourhood. However, she makes a strong point about ensuring that there is a proper distribution. The MARAC system is intended for repeat offenders. Of course, as my hon. Friend says, it is very odd to have to wait for someone to become a repeat offender before someone steps in. However, the assistance of an independent domestic violence adviser will be provided after one incident.
That is the theory of how it should work and it is what I supported when I voted for the legislation, but that does not happen in Dudley. The services are patchy. Sandwell, which is next door, has a better system. There is a better buy-in of the local authority and all the agencies, but there are only two counsellors and one primary care trust-funded counsellor available for 20 hours a week, and, in the words of one worker, "If you can get into that, you're lucky." Essentially, someone needs to wait until they have been mucked about four times before they are put into the MARAC system. It is not that the people providing help do not want to do it; the problem is there is a population of around 320,000 in the Dudley area and literally thousands of women are unsupported in relation to this problem.
Independent domestic violence advisers are, of course, not counsellors; they are primary workers who will provide support from the start, and they are usually from local rape crisis centre or Women's Aid centre. If there is a domestic violence court in my hon. Friend's area, which there must be, there are IDVAs attached to it and they need to be utilised properly. I do not know what her local authority is like in terms of match funding or funding-she has given a thumbs down-but the difficulty is that we send out money to local authorities for these services with indicators required for their performance and they spend the money as they should, but they do not always provide the service that she is seeking.
That is a real difficulty, and it cuts across the whole question of central versus local funding. I cannot decide from Westminster how many IDVAs there should be in Sandwell. That must be done by the local authority. Of course, there is a lot of Home Office funding for IDVAs and independent sexual violence advisers, but there needs to be some funding from the local authorities, too. My hon. Friend will know about the map of gaps, which shows where the gaps are with the intention-driven by the Equality and Human Rights Commission-of making those local authorities that are not match funding do so in the future. We are doing what we can, but my hon. Friend's point is well made.
Inside Government, we have a cross-criminal justice system rape performance group and all police forces in all Crown Prosecution Service areas are checked against a series of indicators. Of course, for some years, there has been sexual offences training for senior police officers and advocates prosecuting rape cases. Some primary training for all front-line officers is also in process, so that hopefully no one will get anything but a totally sympathetic reception when they make a complaint.
The Baroness Stern review on rape was commissioned because we thought that the consultation on violence against women that I mentioned, which was behind the strategy, was not deeply enough representative of what was going on in rape cases. It is probably extremely difficult for people to talk about such things, so we have asked Baroness Stern to take an in-depth look. We have asked her to examine the responses of all the public authorities to rape complaints; to consider how more victims can be encouraged to report; to explore ways in which the attrition rate-the fall out between reporting and getting to court-can be reduced; to consider how to increase the conviction rate fairly; to identify how to increase victim and witness confidence and satisfaction; and to explore public and professional attitudes to rape to see how they impact on criminal justice outcomes.
Although I will primarily talk about justice issues, there is a whole tranche of the violence against women strategy, which I imagine will be buttressed by Baroness Stern, that says we need to do a good deal of public opinion work. It is just as important to protect and punish when such crimes happen as it is to prevent them in the first place. For that, we need to mobilise those members of the public who are not already on board. Baroness Stern will make some recommendations very shortly.
Turning briefly to the Crown Prosecution Service, over which the Law Officers have superintendence, those involved are pioneers. We believe that we have the first public prosecution service to integrate all forms of violence against women, according to the UN definition, into a strategy and action plan that relates work in this area to wider gender equality. That is consistent with the CPS's vision to become a world-class prosecution service. The CPS intends to improve prosecution performance by introducing a new indicator on violence against women, which includes targets for successful outcomes in relation to domestic violence, rape and sexual offences.
There have been good increases in rape prosecutions. The figure of 6.5 per cent. for convictions for rapes that are reported is much better than it was a couple of years ago, when it was 5.2 per cent. The figure is indeed small, but it is from report right through to court. When the stage of a charge is reached, the conviction rate is 59 per cent. and, and it is rising. I am not aware of any other offence that we count from complaint to court, so it is hard to compare that 6 per cent. with anything. The figure does sound small and I feel that it is, but once we get to the charging stage, there is a conviction rate of 59 per cent. In relation to domestic violence, we have exceeded the target of 72 per cent. Baroness Stern will consider the area between complaint and charge to see what goes wrong.
From the launch of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 up to last December, 107 forced marriage protection orders have been issued. From January to August last year, the forced marriage unit received 1,063 calls of one sort or another to enlist its services, which is an increase of 25 per cent. over the past year. We believe that the message is beginning to get out that forced marriage is unlawful and that it can be stopped. Of course, a range of people can help somebody who is a victim or who is about to become a victim to take action in court. We made civil action available because it was clear from the research done-not by us but by an independent trust-that if forced marriage were made criminal immediately, it would stop a lot of victims taking action, because they would not be prepared to criminalise members of their family.
In 2006 we established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, a multi-agency organisation centrally co-ordinating intelligence and operations on trafficking. Tackling human trafficking is now core police business, and every force should have the capacity to deal with trafficking within their area.
Prostitution is another element of violence against women. For some time we have had exit strategies in place to assist women to leave prostitution. They often come into prostitution very young or for reasons connected to their vulnerability. We have prosecuted pimps for many years, and there have been police campaigns on street prostitution for many years. Last year we conducted a review of demand in prostitution, which is linked closely to trafficking, but it is not only about trafficked women, and we concluded that it should be a criminal offence to pay for sex with someone who has been subject to exploitative conduct. That is now a crime, and there will be training for police and the CPS to ensure that it is used.
We have tackled newspapers that advertise prostitution by asking the Newspaper Society to tighten its guidelines, which it has done. The number of advertisements referring to, for example, "fresh foreign girls available every week" has diminished enormously. Tackling the trafficking element has been an effective part of the action we have taken. Personally, I am interested in looking at whether we should make it unlawful to put such an advertisement in a newspaper, as it is in Ireland, and we will look at that legislation to see whether it would help here.
The points I have raised are headlines. I hope that we have a good debate and that we hear fresh ideas, because the Government are keen, as I have said, to shift up a gear in all we are doing on violence against women. We think that we now have an effective multi-agency response and have implemented an effective approach to victims and survivors, and we will do more. We have an ambitious programme to make our community a safer place for all and, in particular, to end violence against women.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. As the Minister said, and as I am sure all Members present will agree, this is an important subject, and I am pleased that the Government have chosen it for this afternoon's Westminster Hall debate. There is a good turnout, with colleagues from across the political spectrum wishing to contribute to the debate.
Violence against women remains serious and prevalent: 3 million women in the UK experience violence each year, and victims span a range of backgrounds, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. Different forms of violence can be linked and do not necessarily occur in isolation. There are, of course, enormous human costs, and enormous financial costs, too.
I listened to what the Minister said about a cross-Government strategy, which is welcome. She will know that in 2007, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron called for a cross-Government strategy for ending violence against women. In December 2008 we published our own strategy paper, "Ending Violence Against Women", which was a cross-departmental strategy. That is exactly the type of approach that must be followed. Indeed, WOMANKIND Worldwide, an organisation that works across the world and also does some work in UK schools on violence against women, commented on the publication of our strategy paper, stating:
"This is a real breakthrough. If implemented, the strategy would have wide-reaching repercussions for all government departments. The Conservatives have taken on board WOMANKIND'S advice to prioritise prevention through educating young people-and this approach has set the bar for the upcoming Labour strategy. We hope that the Government will include these commitments and take them further."
That organisation is doing work in UK schools to challenge violence and provide some of the education that the Minister touched on, and that sort of education in schools is very necessary. She referred to changing public opinion. One statistic of concern that I noted in a 2006 ICM poll is that 40 per cent. of young men thought that it was acceptable for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she was "very flirtatious". Surprisingly, 16 per cent. of girls agreed with that sentiment. Clearly, preventive and educational work in schools is, as she said, extremely important.
"Our vision is for a society in which no woman has to live in fear of violence."
The key point in the document is that we need an integrated strategy across all Departments, not just in the criminal justice arena. That was about dealing with prevention, as well as the consequences; it was about working with schools, the police, health-care professionals and the voluntary sector on measures that prevent violence from occurring in the first place. When it occurs, we must back the services that support and provide advice to women.
I totally agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, particularly in relation to the shocking statistics about the proportion of young people who seem to think that sex is to be expected if a girl's behaviour is flirtatious. Does he agree that that is why it is important that proper sex and relationship education be made a statutory requirement in schools-to give young people the confidence to say no and respect the rights of others? Schools or parents would then not be allowed to opt out of it, on behalf of their children. It is absolutely essential that all children have that kind of education.
I thank the hon. Lady for helpfully raising that point. In our strategy paper, we have stated that the specific teaching of sexual consent in schools is important. Indeed, we are relaxed about the Government's proposal to include that part of sex and relationship education in a statutory curriculum. Some aspects of sex and relationship education should be taught in accordance with the ethos of the school, but everyone should be taught about sexual consent, so that the issues are made clear to both boys and girls.
I will not try your patience, Mr. Benton, by reading out vast chucks of the strategy paper, but I will give an indication of its flavour and scope. It covers several commitments on prevention and front-line services. It is worth noting in that respect that we want to establish a standard for contracts with voluntary-sector organisations, so that they are given funding for at least three years. That was also adopted in the strategy that the Government published at the end of last year.
On sentencing, my hon. Friend Mr. Newmark will perhaps be interested to note that we want to scrap the early release of prisoners on end-of-custody licence schemes, which are of particular concern in domestic violence cases. We also want to legislate to end automatic release halfway through an offender's sentence.
Another proposal included in our strategy paper has fortunately already come to pass. We highlighted the fact that women who escape from violence to a refuge frequently rely on benefits to pay for their stay, and we said that we would introduce a three-month grace period, during which women housed in refuges following domestic violence would not be required to seek work to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. The Government adopted that measure in the Welfare Reform Act 2009.
Our document also covers proposals on rape and sexual violence, and deals with female genital mutilation, forced marriage, stalking, trafficking and honour-based violence-like the Minister, I do not like using that phrase, as there is nothing honourable about it. I know that my hon. Friend Mr. Greenway will touch on those subjects if he is successful in catching your eye, Mr. Benton.
The Minister highlighted the fact that the Government conducted a consultation on their cross-Government strategy last year and got a significant response. They published that strategy at the end of the year, and the fact that they adopted it is welcome. The Minister was right to say that the Government have adopted several measures on the issue in their 12 years in government, but it is fair to say that, until they published their strategy, they had disproportionately focused on the criminal justice system. That is not just my view; the cross-party Home Affairs Committee stated in its report that
"the Government's response to domestic violence...remains disproportionately focused on criminal justice responses at the expense of prevention."
It is good that that imbalance has been put right.
I want to draw out some of our specific proposals around prevention. As I said in response to Jo Swinson, prevention must begin with education, and schools are obviously one of the areas that we need to look at. There is clear scope, within the work that schools do, for a greater emphasis on the issue of violence against women. As I said and am happy to confirm, we want to ensure that pupils in schools are taught the importance of sexual consent. We want to encourage schools to use the voluntary sector. They should use some of the organisations that support women who suffer from domestic violence- they were mentioned by the Minister-to develop lesson plans, so that the issues can be discussed with young people.
Another proposal that we hope will be helpful, in terms of prevention, is our plan to establish a UK border agency that will better police our borders. That would be helpful in dealing with people-trafficking.
I have a question for the Minister on public-sector commissioning. She highlighted the fact that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers are well experienced on issues to do with the Equality Bill. I would be interested to know whether a matter that has been drawn to our attention has been raised with the Government. Many women's organisations, such as women's refuges, say that they are experiencing a funding cut, as public-sector funders-both local authorities and central Government-are saying that services have to cater for men and women equally in order to tick the equality box. The Minister said that many of the services do indeed deal with both genders, but it is also true-I think that she highlighted this as well-that women are disproportionately the victims of violence: 85 per cent. of domestic violence victims are women. Local and central Government must be confident in funding women-only services, where that is appropriate.
On that matter, has the hon. Gentleman spoken to the Conservative local authorities that are making the exact argument about which he complains, and that are discriminating against groups? The most obvious example in the area that I represent is Southall Black Sisters. Ealing local authority had to be taken to court by that organisation. That revealed the fact that the authority was interpreting the law incorrectly in making the kind of claims that he says local authorities should not make.
The hon. Lady supports the point that I am making. I am highlighting the fact that a number of local authorities are giving that reason for doing things. I raised the matter so that I could ask the Minister whether it had been raised with her, and whether the Government had therefore issued any guidance, or thought about issuing guidance, to make the position clear. Having sat through the many days of debate on the Equality Bill, which rolls forward existing legislation and makes new proposals, I do not think that the law precludes organisations from doing what the hon. Lady suggests and what I have mentioned. It would be helpful if that could be clarified.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, and I hope that he will explain to Tory local authorities, as we have to Labour ones, that there is absolutely no bar. What he describes is the complete opposite of what the gender equality duty represents. It has been in force since 2006-it is not part of the new Bill-and it means that services need to be provided for women. Overwhelmingly, as he has acknowledged, the violence that we are talking about is against women; it occurs relatively lightly against men. Of course local authorities need to provide services for the men who need it, but, overwhelmingly, the services need to be specifically for, and almost certainly run by, women, because women do not want to escape from a man and have to talk to another man about it. We are keen for that message to be sent down all possible party lines, and any other kinds of lines.
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. Given that the gender equality duty is subsumed in the public-sector equality duty, as are one or two other duties, it may be helpful, when the regulations are put together and the guidance that goes with them is drafted, to address the point specifically, in terms, so that there cannot be any doubt about the matter. The subject has now been raised in this debate.
One of the reasons why our strategy document-and, indeed, the Government's-looked across the whole of Government was that, as the End Violence Against Women campaign found, most Departments
"have not...seen the links between their policies and their impact on violence against women."
That is one of the reasons why we want to ensure, as part of our strategy, that there is a single Minister responsible for overseeing progress, across Departments, in taking co-ordinated action on violence against women.
I have already touched briefly on the issue of stabilising the funding base by ensuring that funding for rape crisis centres is moved to a stable, three-year funding cycle. I know from some of the announcements that the Minister for Women and Equality has made that there has been progress on that.
I shall make a couple of specific local points, Mr. Benton, just to give a bit of local flavour, and then draw my remarks to a close. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago-not that long ago-in my county of Gloucestershire, there was a report on BBC Radio Gloucestershire by reporter Faye Hatcher, who had been speaking to Gail Meecham, the manager at the Gloucestershire rape crisis centre. She highlighted some positive news and some less positive news. The positive news was that the sexual assault referral centre, which was opened in October 2008, had been having some success, but the knock-on effect of that success was that referrals to the centre were up 25 per cent. in that one year. That was obviously putting a great deal of pressure on the staff, and made their work challenging.
It was also highlighted-this is worth saying, and I know that the Minister will welcome it-that the centre has a close working relationship with the Gloucestershire constabulary, who take the issue seriously. Their recently retired chief constable, Tim Brain, was involved with the Association of Chief Police Officers on several issues in this area. He was the ACPO lead on prostitution, and was very heavily involved in combating trafficking. I suspect that that is partly why Gloucestershire has a good record on the subject.
Finally on local authorities, I want to put on record that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is providing £1.4 million to establish three new rape crisis centres in partnership with several London local authorities, and he is continuing the funding for the existing centre in Croydon. The four centres, when up and running, will serve the north, south, east and west of London, and I understand that one will be opening in Ealing in the spring.
The hon. Gentleman perhaps has not seen early-day motion 438, which states that the Mayor of London pledged in 2008
"to set up four new rape crisis centres in addition to the existing centre in Croydon at... £2.23 million".
It goes on to complain that, in fact, he has broken his word. I believe that it is signed cross-party.
The hon. and learned Lady reads out an early-day motion that is not accurate. The Mayor of London is opening the same number of rape crisis centres that he promised. It is true that he is doing it for less money than originally intended, but I would have thought that in the current public finance climate, achieving manifesto commitments at lower cost and with better value for money would, frankly, be welcomed by the public. Governments also ought to welcome it. In this era of tight public finances, given the appalling mess that the party that wins the election will inherit from the Government, we need to ensure that we can protect front-line services and deliver them at lower cost for the people who need them.
In conclusion, we look forward to an interesting debate. There is great interest on both sides of the House. The Minister said that we are talking about an important area of policy, and indeed we are. However, a more joined-up strategy across Departments would help us to combat the problem in future years.
May I say how pleased I am to make a speech under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Benton? As everyone on both sides of the Chamber agrees, this is an extremely important debate. It never ceases to shock me when I look at the statistics that women in this day and age are still so far from equality and still have such a long road to travel. The result is that they suffer violence on a number of levels.
The scale and complexity of the problem is vast, and we have heard some of the statistics. Three million women in Britain experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence, while many millions more are dealing with abuse that they experienced in the past and many incidents are not reported at all. The British crime survey says that 45 per cent. of women will be a victim of domestic violence, sexual victimisation or stalking at least once in their lifetime-that is nearly half of all women. In its publication, "Justice for Rape Victims", the Fawcett Society says:
"Every 34 minutes a rape is reported to the police in the United Kingdom."
As we all know, thousands of women do not come forward, for all sorts of reasons.
Violence against women cannot be a put in a neat box. We have talked about different sorts of violence, such as domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and human trafficking, but I sometimes wonder whether we will ever get to some of the reasons and the imbalances in life that give men-it is generally men-the idea that it is okay to behave towards women in a way that is not acceptable by any measure of a civilised society.
There are a lot of issues around power and control, and they quite often revolve around money. The economic inequality that women face means that it is often impossible for them to get away from a situation because they fear that they will have nothing to exist on. Although there are refuges and centres for those who suffer the worst domestic violence, women often put up with it for so long that things reach a critical point and they cannot get away.
The Solicitor-General and Mr. Harper mentioned mandatory pay audits. They were the one measure in the Equality Bill that would have brought about a vast step change in equal pay, and it is a great shame that pay audits have been left voluntary. Should there be a change of Government, I fear that mandatory audits might never come to pass and that parity and equality will be set back.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does she share my frustration when I see women in my constituency who, sadly, suffer domestic violence and are forced to go into a refuge? In some cases, that is the best solution, but in others, it is not. However, these women do not have the option of staying in the family home with their children. All too often, the man can stay there, while the lives of the children and the woman are entirely disrupted because they suddenly do not have proper accommodation. It is a huge injustice that the perpetrator of the crime and the violence can effectively get off scot-free, while the lives of the woman and the children are disrupted.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent intervention. The logic is upside down. In an ideal world, the woman and the children should stay in situ, and the man should be excised.
I agree wholeheartedly. I have even known of situations in which animal welfare bodies-this is commendable-have set up refuges for pets because the women will not leave without them. The woman can take her kids, but she cannot take the dog, and the man is threatening to cut its throat or throw it out of the car on the motorway if the woman and the kids go. If we have got to the stage where we need those refuges, the right thing to do is obviously to keep the dogs, kids and woman in and put the man out.
I thank the Solicitor-General for that. It would be really interesting to discuss the possibility of using the law to injunct the man and leave the woman in situ. However, the fear that the man would break the injunction or get to the woman has always meant that she has gone to a place of safety. I would be interested to hear what the Solicitor-General thinks might be done in that regard, because the logic is upside down. The best thing for the children and the woman would be to be left in situ, where they have some security and where they know the location and the neighbours and have all the things that give someone a life, rather than to have to flee and live in secret and in hiding.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I agree, but women's fear in these situations cannot always be overcome by the measures available to them. Often, it is not enough to give women a feeling of safety for the law simply to say that they should stay somewhere and that no one will be allowed to come near them. However, some analysis would be helpful.
Another issue is education, and as hon. Members have said, sex and relationships education is important. I am going to mention some ideas at the end of my speech-I was pleased that the Solicitor-General said that she would welcome ideas-but perhaps I can mention one now. There is an issue about fathers and role models. In America, they have something called "Dads and Donuts", in which schools invite men in to talk to their offspring on their own. Where families are in conflict, or where there is an injunction or trouble, the men often disappear altogether. Dealing with the issues that arise is not all about the law; it is often about education and trying to imbue people with the responsibility to hand on good behaviour, not bad behaviour, to their offspring.
Domestic violence is the thing that comes to people's minds most often when we talk about these issues. I do not have up-to-date figures on domestic violence, so perhaps the Solicitor-General can help me. The last figures that I was able to find are from 2004, when Walby and Allen said:
"In any one year, there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against women from partners or former partners", which is a horrific figure. They also said:
"Domestic violence accounts for between 16 per cent. and one quarter of all recorded violent crime."
Hon. Members have mentioned the "no recourse to public funds" rule. Southall Black Sisters estimates that 600 women a year with insecure immigration status face violence from a spouse. Women who come to me in my surgery in Hornsey and Wood Green are often on a spousal visa and have nowhere to go. I am therefore pleased that the Government recently announced the pilot of the Sojourner project to help women with no recourse to public funds. I welcome this opportunity to ask the Solicitor-General for an update on how the project is going. Do the Government have any initial statistics on the number of women who have accessed the programme? What plans does the Home Office have to make it permanent and available to all women? There is huge anxiety about the fact that it will last only three months. By the time that we have advertised it and got people to take it up, it may already be over.
I also wondered-I have not been able to get any statistics on this so far-how many women in each constituency or borough are turned away from refuges because they have no recourse to public funds and are not eligible under the terms governing the normal availability of refuges. I would be grateful if the Solicitor-General could elucidate that.
As the Solicitor-General said, it is not just women, but children who suffer as a result of domestic violence. Some 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence, and children who live with it are at an increased risk of behavioural problems, emotional trauma and mental health difficulties later in life. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are looking for ways in which we can cope with such a vast issue, which involves numbers so huge as to be almost unimaginable; and ways to find the resource to tackle all aspects of the problem, and work with children so that they have counselling and appropriate support.
We have heard about some of the very good work that is being done on rape and sexual assault. I want to quote the views of Katherine Rake, the director of the Fawcett Society-or rather, she is not, is she? She has gone from there. My researcher is toast. I cannot remember the lady's name; my apologies. Nevertheless, the view is that women face a postcode lottery when reporting rape to the police.
On that subject, I am obsessed with statistics, as the Solicitor-General realises-and I am sure she will get back to me on a statistic I have given her, which I think came from her office-but it is still the case that only 15 per cent. of serious sexual assaults on women are reported. Notwithstanding the fact that she said that the figure for reported assaults resulting in a conviction has gone up from 5.2 per cent. to 6.5 per cent., that is still a pretty appalling result. Does the hon. Lady agree that we still need to address that issue, encourage women to report assaults more, and ensure an improvement in the conviction rate?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I think that the Solicitor-General agrees that we must encourage women to come forward and report rape, and that our success, such as it is, is minimal in relation to the scale of the challenge. However, I am willing to give him some statistics on conviction rates, in return for his, to show how they vary across the country. In England and Wales, the average conviction rate is 7 per cent. The highest rate is in Cleveland, at 18.1 per cent.
That is cause and effect.
That is a rate of just under one in five. The lowest rate is in Dorset, with 1.6 per cent., where only one in 60 reported rapes leads to conviction. The Metropolitan Police Authority rate is 8.2 per cent. and of 12 police force areas, more than one in four had a rape conviction rate of less than 5 per cent. in 2007. I think that that demonstrates the hon. Gentleman's point that there is a huge challenge to get women to come forward. How on earth, when the number of rapes hovers around the 12,000 mark and the conviction rate is still so low, do we persuade women that it is worth their coming forward when it is so traumatic to do so?
Lynda Waltho described the discomfort for women who have to travel and protect the evidence about something so intimate, private and personal, which they really do not want to do. I cannot imagine how a woman does that, when the first instinct would be to cleanse herself. One of the most difficult situations a woman may face must be the time lag to allow for examination before being able to cleanse that appalling crime from her. Resource is not infinite, and it is a matter of how fast and how much we can improve the conviction rate, and improve facilities.
It goes back to the point that I made to the Solicitor-General, who I hope will correct me when she replies. I suspect that a disincentive to reporting by women is explained in the evidence that I gave her, which is set out in Hansard of
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but a far more critical issue is the conviction rate. The differential between seven and nine years is a point, but not the point.
This raises an interesting point, which the Solicitor-General touched on in her remarks, about the conviction rate following charge, which she said was 59 per cent., and the conviction rate compared with the rate of original reporting of an offence. I think that the Solicitor-General said-I am sure that she will respond on this point in her winding-up speech-that Baroness Stern's review is examining exactly that issue of what happens between the reporting of a rape and the decision whether to charge, and what factors are involved.
I think that the Solicitor-General said that it was only in the context of this offence that there was a tendency to consider the statistics on report and conviction; in most other crimes the statistics used were those relating to charge and conviction. I raise that matter because I do not want women who read the debate to be put off by the percentage of reported rapes that lead to conviction, when the figures for conviction following charge are more encouraging. We shall await Baroness Stern's report to find out in detail what happens in the time between, and to see whether the situation can be improved, although it is important to stick to the principle of fairness in the criminal justice system, which the Minister touched on, as well as Baroness Stern's terms of reference. We shall await the report with interest.
Yes, I do not want to discourage women in any way. It is important that women come forward when they have been raped, to report it. Baroness Stern's report will be of the utmost importance, because of the difficulty of bringing a charge.
I just wanted to back up the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Harper. He asked about the reasons, and there is one area that we should perhaps look at more closely. One of the main reasons shown in the recent Crown Prosecution Service report, "Violence Against Women", is non-attendance. There seems to be an increase in the frequency with which women do not turn up. In 2005-06, the figure was 1,593, but that has gone up to 2,226. We need to consider the reasons for women not attending court, and what may be putting them off.
I suspect that it is not rocket science, and that they need a great deal of support to come to that point in court. There is a raft of reasons, and I expect that they are not difficult to understand.
The other problem with the conviction rate, and even with the charge rate, is that it perpetuates a cycle in which men feel that they probably will not be caught, and will not pay the price, at the other end of the process, for having advanced their desires-because someone was flirtatious, which I believe was something cited in the survey raised by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean.
I want to talk now about the trafficking of women. Home Office research found that up to 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation in 1998. That figure was based solely on reported cases. Trafficking in people is understood by the police and organisations that work with victims to be increasing exponentially, because it is extremely profitable, with high demand and little capital outlay, and it is a growing industry, unfortunately. The Metropolitan police estimate that trafficked women forced into prostitution in London see between 20 and 30 men a day.
I believe that the POPPY project is the only dedicated safe house providing specialist support for victims of trafficking. Recent funding by the Government of £3.7 million has led to two new shelters, in Cardiff and Sheffield, I believe, giving another 54 refuge places. However, the need is still greater, and I am greatly concerned about the proposed closure of the Met specialist trafficking unit, which is the only such specialist unit in the country. In my view, this area of work is not something that easily can or should be joined with clubs and vice, and it is particularly difficult and time-consuming.
Why is this happening? As I said, there is a great lack of equality in this country. Women still are, in many situations, not masters of their own destiny and do not have any financial power, or any power, with which to write the script for their own lives. The current level of support for victims is better than it was, but the costs to this country of violence against women, as I understand it from various people who have briefed me, are as follows: the NHS spends about £1.2 billion a year for physical injuries and £176 million for mental health support, yet there is no specialist investment in this kind of NHS service.
The Solicitor-General said that nine more sexual assault referral centres are in development, which is welcome, because they are specialist centres. POPPY, of course, works with trafficked women. The sheer volume and the nature of the statistics speak for themselves. Hon. Members from all parties are trying to grapple with that problem to work out how we can get the resource and permanent support from all the Departments that need to be involved. An integrated, co-ordinated strategy is the only way forward. Only a comprehensive policy that tackles the problem on every front will have a chance of success.
The Solicitor-General asked for ideas, and I am here to offer her a few from the Liberal Democrats. In this respect, our policies include providing more rape crisis centres-up to 15-providing services such as individual counselling, support groups and advocacy; 10 new sexual assault referral centres; early intervention with education by rolling out classes about rights and fair treatment in relationships; working in schools with organisations such as Relate to break the cycle of children growing up in violent relationships; improving systems to report abuse by providing better, more supportive systems in schools and social services, such as those involving health visitors and midwives.
Last night I attended Haringey's overview and scrutiny committee on health and was concerned to discover that there has been a severe reduction in the regularity of visits by health visitors. Although those visits have more to do with birth and developmental checks, the health visitor is the family's and the woman's friend. A health visitor is crucial in this regard, because a woman can talk to her, perhaps without the man present.
We Liberal Democrats want to ensure that women living in refuges can continue to work so that they can stay economically empowered to some degree. We found that only one in 10 of the support services were targeted specifically at ethnic minority women. Issues to do with culture, practice and language make that a specialist subject. We want to provide all women with access to services tackling violence against women, regardless of their immigration status, thereby helping those with no recourse to public funds.
We want to provide a freephone trafficking hotline, allowing women who have been trafficked and are working, or anyone else, to report concerns. This is going to sound terrible, but I went into a local massage parlour in Crouch End, because there was a complaint about the frontage. I thought at first that it was about what was going on inside, but the complaint was about the frontage, which was dirty, boarded up and grubby. The only way to find out about that was to go inside, find out the name and address of the owner and write to them. Inside were two bedraggled, tired, ill-looking girls who were a bit shocked when I walked in, but they eventually trusted me enough to let me in. Their English was not brilliant. I do not know if they were trafficked. I checked the licence and saw that it had run out, although the owner reapplied and succeeded in getting one.
One Lib Dem women's policy is that every licensed massage parlour should have to display a multi-language sign with a phone number for an emergency line for the women working there to call, because they have no contact with the outside world. If such a thing were part of the licensing agreement, that might be a route in. I accept that that is hardly the answer, nevertheless it is a minor but important point. Another of our policies is to end the increasing criminalisation of non-coercive prostitution and increase efforts to help those who wish to exit to do so and find a pathway out of the industry.
I have mentioned mandatory pay audits. Things will not improve until women have some financial parity, know their rights and have the ability and strength to fight against situations in which they find themselves. For them, it seems impossible to get away from such situations, so that in the end their only recourse is to run. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties would wish to improve matters, across all the Departments involved, in respect of all those issues that still keep women subjected to a level of violence that is unacceptable in this day and age. I look forward to hearing contributions to this debate from hon. Members from all parties.
If I said that I was delighted to attend this debate, it would be a gross understatement. The number of debates on this subject has been pretty low over the years. In a way, I am delighted that the Government initiated this debate, but I would have much preferred a Member of Parliament to have done so, because we are the ones who are supposed to be scrutinising, commenting and offering our advice, and that has not happened particularly well.
I do not know if any members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs are present, but there are not too many of them if that is so. I am disappointed, because that Committee that produced one of the few reports of violence in the family-most of it on one aspect.
I do not wish to spend too much time on history, but history is important. A couple of hon. Members present go back a long way on the staff side-not of the present Government but the last one-and almost as long as several of us have been here in the House.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Home Affairs Committee. I am interested in this issue as a member of that Committee in the 1987-92 Session. We produced its first report on domestic violence in many years and a lot of progress has been made from those recommendations. He is right, however: I too thought that many more colleagues would have attended today.
I do not want to trump the hon. Gentleman, but I want to talk about the first Select Committee dealing with this matter, before the modern, new Select Committee system was established. In 1975, I tabled a question and, for my pains, I was put on the Select Committee on Violence in the Family-an experience that I found truly amazing. In five months we held 23 meetings, heard evidence from eight Ministers-most of them pretty useless-received memorandums from 50 individuals and groups and heard evidence from a High Court judge, which was pretty unusual. We worked hard and finished that inquiry, which created quite a stir. Then we moved on to violence against children in the family, following the terrible death of Maria Colwell.
We saw, in those early days, the relationship between two major aspects of policy. I am pleased to see that, as time has gone on, there has been a greater awareness that one cannot regard a single area of policy as divorced from so many other areas of policy. There has to be a degree of integration, not just co-operation. Where is the dividing line between violence in the family and violence against women? The mistake we made in our report was calling it, "Violence in the family". As time has gone on, ever more violence has taken place outside marriage and that matter is now being dealt with far better.
We produced pretty influential reports. We received one letter from an irate constituent of somebody or other who complained and asked, "Why are you focusing entirely on violence against females? My wife is violent and she's beating me up regularly, so please include in your analysis a little bit about violence the other way round." With the passage of time, that is becoming rather more common. We started the ball rolling, and that was important.
I shall show the attitude at that time, before the present enlightened era. In our first report we said:
"a general impression must be recorded at the outset. We have been disappointed and alarmed by the ignorance and the apparent apathy of some Government Departments and individual Ministers towards the extent of marital violence. Hardly any worthwhile research into either causes or remedies has been" provided. Responsibility is diversified
"between many Government Departments. No fewer than seven" appeared before us. Our report concluded:
"Only in a very few of these Departments does the problem of marital violence receive anything other than a very low priority either in terms of manpower or financial resources."
I do not think the situation is remotely like that now; if I said that it was, I would be punched on the nose, and deservedly so. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that there have been substantial changes.
Our report made a number of recommendations, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. We are still waiting for some of them to be implemented, which is par for the course for Select Committee reports. We recommended that more work be done in schools to break the cycle of violence-that recommendation was made almost 30 years ago. We said other things which may have become inappropriate with the passage of time, but some of our proposals remain relevant. Most members of the Committee are now dead, and I am sure that the civil servants are, but perhaps someone should read those two reports. They show that it was not the new system in 1989 that inaugurated competent Select Committees.
The absence so far of any discussion of the world outside is evidence of our indifference to the fact that other countries have domestic violence problems. Some have fewer problems and some infinitely more. I looked to see what international organisations have taken the lead and whether their words, resolutions and documents are relevant. They include the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. There has been an enormous output of recommendations and rules-almost treaties-imploring people and insisting that Governments do more. Many have, and have been inspirational, but probably half the countries in the world could not give a toss what any such document contains, especially those where violence and warfare are occurring and where rape is almost seen as a perk-a supplement to the low income paid to those who fight. Laws are not enforced, and there may not even be any laws to be enforced. We should see our major problems in perspective. I hope that more influence can be projected into those countries that are totally indifferent to implement the legal treaties they have signed, at least to some extent. Domestic violence is international; it always has been and I fear that it will remain so for a long time, unless more influence can be exerted on countries to eliminate any freedom that men, whether soldiers or civilians, feel they have to commit it. Thankfully, some countries are bucking that trend.
We have not spoken much about percentages, because we all know that they are pretty worthless. I hope that you will not rule me out of order, Mr. Benton, but in a moment of frivolity, although this is not a frivolous matter, I worked out that if 4 per cent. of males commit acts of violence in the family, 23 Members of Parliament-in the past, of course; no-one here would be guilty of that abhorrent activity-and 7.5 women would have done so. I am not a statistician, but someone may be able to have a stab at providing figures to show that it is feasible that Members of Parliament, former MPs or prospective parliamentary candidates may have a few shadows that they want to hide. That is how close the problem is. It is not a problem of class, nationality or residence here; it is a problem that exists and we have not done enough about it, although much more is being done.
Fast-forwarding from 1975 to the present, there has been a massive outpouring of literature from novelists, serious writers, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks. Although some people may disagree, the issues are debated more, and more people are aware of them. There has been a huge increase in NGO co-operation, and it is immensely valuable. Departments are not as ignorant of the issues as they used to be. Instead of having no Minister responsible for the matter, we now have a large group of Ministers from different Departments. Although some outsiders would dissent from my view that there is more sophistication among civil servants, the evidence in 1975 was laughable.
When we had the follow-on investigation into violence against children, Barbara Castle was the Minister. She was venerated, but she was more of a big ideas person and her knowledge of detail was slight. It was profoundly disappointing to see one of my icons perform so miserably and badly. She was given a bad time by the then Chairman, Willie Hamilton. I jumped in to rescue her four times, and I was irritated when I read her autobiography to see that the abusive words that I am sure she had intended for the Chairman were directed at me. Unfortunately, she had expired, so I could not obtain retribution for the terrible slur.
There have been directives from the Government, and the wonderful Library briefing gives a summary of the steps that the Government have undertaken to protect people from domestic violence since 1997. It is a long list. Some hon. Members may say that it is one thing to pass laws and to publish documents, but where is the beef? The evidence is reasonably strong, and my view is that the Government's endeavours have been valiant and largely successful, but others disagree.
Looking through the literature, the Select Committee on Home Affairs was partly supportive and partly critical. NGOs and Victim Support were critical-one would expect that from an NGO-but also complimentary. Refuge was welcoming but disappointed. The Minister commented on one, but I do not have time to list the complaints. A report to which I hope the Minister will respond is from the NGO End Violence Against Women, and was launched by Mr. Phillips. The Minister defended the Government's view. There were some powerful arguments and my hon. and learned Friend rehearsed them.
The map produced was almost entirely blank. According to the criteria, there were 13 cities and towns involved, including my home town of Walsall, but the report did not say what was going on elsewhere. If someone is lucky enough to live in my area, there is an excellent service. If they are not, however, they will have to travel a long way-if they are from Scotland, it will be an excessively long day. Looking at the map and the blanks, I was amazed at how many big cities are bereft of what the organisation would consider to be a minimal provision. There have been criticisms, but it is important to recognise that enormous reforms have been made.
The last part of my presentation is about my constituency. I have been critical of much that does or does not go on in my constituency which, alongside that of my hon. Friend Mr. Winnick, has a pretty high poverty rate. I do not suggest that the poorer someone is, the more likely they are to thump their spouse. However, I am pleased that there is a good service in my constituency. It is getting better, and in my view it is the epicentre of a set of fairly integrated structures. When the Minister visits other areas looking for best practice, I hope that she will come to my area and visit the Walsall Domestic Violence Forum, which is absolutely superb.
In fairness to the local authority, there is a network of structures that includes voluntary organisations, elements of the health service, the police and an excellent public protection unit-the list is long. Those are brought together into a framework that makes co-operation relatively easy. I have been to almost all of those organisations, and to the refuges-I am sorry if I have left any out-and I have been deeply impressed. My hon. Friend Lynda Waltho looks green with envy, but her constituency attracts all our people to its shopping precincts, so it benefits in both ways.
In its annual report, the Domestic Violence Forum states:
"We have a number of dedicated services to provide support, advice and information to people experiencing domestic abuse. These include two 24 hour help-lines to meet the needs of service-users from a diverse community. These services are widely promoted via regular advertising in local media and the distribution of leaflets to a wide range of places accessed by the public including; medical surgeries and centres, police stations, housing and social care offices, community and leisure centres etc. We also provide various modules of training in domestic abuse and related issues. This serves to raise awareness of professional and community members, allowing them to respond appropriately and effectively to their service users. Walsall Domestic Violence Forum brings together professionals from across the range of organisations working with people affected by domestic abuse. These include representatives from police, probation, social care, housing, health and voluntary sector (Victim Support, Relate, Citizens Advice Bureau etc). This multi-agency partnership has now produced a second three-year strategy to reduce domestic abuse having successfully met, or exceeded, all targets as set in the initial strategy produced in 2000. Our Crisis Intervention Service is in place to reduce sickness and distress in victims of domestic abuse following an incident."
It has 60 trained and experienced staff who do incredibly good work, so there is a relatively good side to the situation-it is something that we do well. If anybody has listened to the debate or reads about it, I would willingly pass on material to show what a good operation is.
The people who lead the forum are scintillating. I have helped them on a number of occasions and defended them from those on the council who do not have the same attitude towards that sort of service. The organisation is able to earn money by providing classes, and it has received money from the national lottery in the past. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has helped, and the organisation also provides services for social services. When money comes in, the Government push a large sum the way of related organisations in many parts of the country. However, what irritates me-and I would welcome a comment or a letter from the Minister on this-is that because the Government want to decentralise decision making, the decision on how that money is spent is left to the local authority. Therefore, the money is not ring-fenced as it should be, but is at the mercy of the council. Some of those people are decent, but others-and in the past, officers of the local authority-have been decidedly unhelpful.
Is my right hon. Friend as worried as I am, representing a west midlands constituency, that Dudley council has just published its budget proposals which involve the loss of about 1,000 jobs and cuts to all sorts of departments in a drive to have the lowest council tax in the black country, no doubt vying with my right hon. Friend's local authority? Many services fear that they will be cut first. Unfortunately, and particularly with Tory Dudley council, such cuts are always made at the vulnerable end, in services to elderly people, very young people or, as in this case, aid for women.
I share my hon. Friend's views. I have tried not to be too partisan because this should not be a partisan political issue. Protecting the lives of a vast number of constituents and non-constituents should be top of the list. I understand why a local authority that is strapped for cash might think, "Are we going to spend the money on closed-circuit television or anti-drugs policy and so on?" It is difficult. The local authority is arguing, "Look at all the money that this organisation has got, and all the women who work for nothing." Three years ago, that organisation received £150,000, but that has gradually diminished and it is now hoping for £75,000. If we cut its income from the local authority, that will mean that it is being punished for its success.
Most of my hon. Friends will not have the luxury of such a good service, but even though it is good, there are a vast number of women-and some men-who need assistance. I am not suggesting that people are washing their hands by providing less funding than they should. There was a debate in the council last week, and the resolution was incredibly moderate. It was not meant to inflame, but it was rejected. I know that money is tight, but such causes are important. The great advantage to the council of that wonderful organisation is that its wage rates are lower than those for local authority personnel. The people involved are largely women. When the money is cut below the level of their capability, those who are not being paid will not desert. They will hang on in there, because they do not want to turn people away. That is so commendable. I am proud of them: they are searching for work at a time when most people are trying to diminish the work that they do because they are having difficulty in coping with the increase.
I will not bore hon. Members, but I know, because I have seen all the statistics, of the increase in violence against spouses in the past 12 months. That has taken place for patently obvious reasons. When there is strife and people go out to celebrate or not celebrate their lifestyle, the women face it when they get back. In the past, it might have been seen as part of the normal cycle of marriage that the woman gets hammered every weekend. In some people's cases, that has not changed.
I am not criticising my local authority to a great extent. I say to the Minister that a slight diversion en route to the north might be worth while. Do not let the Walsall Domestic Violence Forum be written out as an afterthought. The local authority is functioning reasonably well and among all the statutory authorities, central Government, local government and the non-governmental organisations, there is a degree of integration. I do not want it to expand to an absurd level, as though it is the finest bureaucracy in the world, but in this sphere, it is well led by women, as opposed to a pretty appalling guy in the local authority previously. Things are going really well. However, Walsall should not think that because things are going well, we can now let up. I am sorry for the others, but I am paid to represent my own constituency and I want to protect it at a time when funding is very difficult.
I am sorry that I have gone on for so long. I visit the Walsall Domestic Violence Forum every two months. My assistant is the deputy chairman. I fight for the organisation and assist it and I am pleased to do that. Not all men are male chauvinist pigs. I must say that a slight majority of men have attended this debate, but as women are hopelessly outnumbered in Parliament, I am sure that they will tell me that in reality they are the more numerous.
Like Mr. George, I welcome the debate. It is on a very important subject and, like him, I am disappointed that more hon. Members are not present. I want to take the opportunity to draw attention to the work of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and, in particular, its migration committee, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
Only four weeks ago, I took part in a two-day seminar in Paris on migration and violence against women. That was a joint event, structured by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly and our migration committee, with strong input and support from the United Nations committee on the elimination of discrimination against women-CEDAW-of which our Government are a member.
I begin by reflecting on my time in the police more than 40 years ago. In those days, there was a general presumption that the issue was not a police matter. I would not go quite so far as to say, in the way that the right hon. Gentleman did, that women had to "face it", but to the extent that there was training, it said that, unless the violence was extremely serious, it was best to keep out; the attitude was "Let the people sort it out themselves."
That may be true. It is not the conclusion that I drew from the IPCC report. What I drew from that was the sense that there had been a clear dereliction of duty on the part of the officers involved. There were inquiries that they could and should have followed up. However, I share the hon. Lady's disgust at what happened to the 40 or so women who were subsequently assaulted and raped by Worboys. It was not one of the best days in the Metropolitan police's history, and I share some of the shame.
The hon. Gentleman is generous for giving way so early in his speech. My lesson from that is a slightly ironic one: I doubt whether, in the days when he was in the police, those officers would have been disciplined at all for not taking sufficient notice of women complaining, as opposed to not taking sufficient notice of a black cab driver saying that he was not guilty.
The other point that I want to raise with the hon. Gentleman is that it is increasingly important that we should emphasise the extent to which rape is becoming ever more clearly a serial offence. Many rapists are serial offenders. Women should be encouraged to see the issue in that light, and police should see it in that light, so that everyone collaborates to ensure that it is not just the individual who is at stake. She, and the police, should understand that there is a duty for the future.
I am glad that I gave way to the hon. and learned Lady, because I agree with her completely, but I want to move on and make a lot of other points.
I sensed that even in my time in the police-I left at Christmas 1969-attitudes were beginning to change. There was a sense in which it was simply not acceptable for women to be beaten up and abused by men, even within the family. When I came to the House in 1987, I was put on the Home Affairs Committee, in my first Parliament, as I said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Walsall, South. Under the chairmanship of Sir John Wheeler, we produced a detailed report on domestic violence. Many of our recommendations became policy, and I think that we changed opinion, even among parliamentarians, on the fact that the subject needed greater focus and impetus from Government.
I particularly remember visiting places of safety, refuges. The hon. and learned Lady referred to the fact that such places are now a central pillar of policy; I welcome that. We must restate strongly this afternoon that violence against women in all its forms is unacceptable, and there can be no possible excuse. It is a very grave violation of human rights, and cultural relativism should not be invoked to justify the actions of some men.
The Council of Europe as a whole dedicated three years, from 2006 to 2008, to a campaign aimed at combating violence against women across all 47 member countries. The campaign highlighted the need to protect victims, to prosecute offenders and to prevent violence. There is even a handbook for parliamentarians, a key feature of which is to remind parliamentarians in all countries that all women living within their territories should have access to law, should have relevant victim protection and should have rehabilitation facilities available to them.
In both the committee on equal opportunities for women and men and the migration committee, work on that issue is ongoing. It is never off the agenda. One report is followed by another. We have just completed a report, adopted by the Assembly in September, entitled "Migrant women: at particular risk from domestic violence". After the part-session next week in Strasbourg, I expect to begin a report on the rights of women migrant workers. I shall come to that in a moment.
The right hon. Member for Walsall, South, is right to say that although many recommendations are made, many reports have been written and many great ideas have been promulgated, not all of them have been taken up with the enthusiasm one would have liked. However, I would caution him that many aspects of the subject have been taken up by the Government. When we keep pushing at the door, attitudes begin to change.
The focus for the migration committee, understandably, is on migrant women and discrimination on grounds of gender and origin. Half of migrants are women, and they are at particular risk of violence. They are often confronted with language barriers, insecurity of status, family pressures, religious and cultural attitudes, and isolation with limited access to help. Psychological violence and exploitation are also often encountered in the workplace. Women are given jobs of drudgery.
There is also sexual exploitation; and, of course, there is sexual human trafficking, to which others have referred. According to the latest figure available to our committee, the industry of trafficking women for sexual exploitation is currently worth £32 billion across the whole of Europe; that includes not only the EU, but eastern European countries outside it. That is a shocking figure. It shows the scale of what confronts us. Other forms of violence against migrant women include so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation-the Government rightly legislated on that recently-forced marriages, and rape, including rape within families and communities.
The Parliamentary Assembly migration committee has long called for a Council of Europe convention on violence against women. We need to embrace action on all the aspects that I mentioned, and I am glad that there is now general agreement that the convention should be taken forward. I hope that the Government will be extremely active, through the CDMG-the intergovernmental migration committee-in making that a reality.
As I said, the needs of migrant women are especially important. We should not underestimate the real gravity of the problem. Migrant women often originate from countries where there is a strong patriarchal family structure, in which cultural and religious conventions often treat women and girls adversely. Women are often resigned to violence and abuse, especially if it is the tradition in their host country.
Other features of the experiences of migrant women can have a very negative impact. Divorce and separation can result in the women having no status. The bad experience of migration itself, which puts families under pressure, especially if they are in an irregular situation, can be the cause of violence against the woman in the home. Women feel a great sense of shame, often based on tradition, when it comes to reporting what has happened to them. Their rights are seldom understood. Women with no individual migrant status are frightened to seek help.
As regards people in migrant and multi-ethnic communities, even in our own country, talk of prevention is futile unless efforts are made to integrate those women into their communities. That is a route towards inclusion, which reduces isolation and the risk of violence. Migrant women may have young children who were born in the host country who have no status themselves, and who suffer violence. Migrants with irregular status live constantly in fear of deportation.
I am glad that the convention on trafficking, which the Government now enthusiastically support, is firmly understood. I say to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, that that is an example of the Council of Europe at work. I remember that three, or three and a half, years ago we pushed hard for that convention. The original response, not only from the Government but from our parties and the body politic, was, "Ah, yes, but this will just attract more of them to this country"-all the usual responses. The perceived wisdom now is that these women deserve help and support. We continue to change attitudes. Lack of access to interpretation or language training is also a frequent difficulty.
On women who are concerned or frightened about reporting because of their status, our understanding is that the United Kingdom domestic violence rule of 2002 has enabled abused women to stay here in their own right on production of evidence. It is most important that such measures be supported, approved and adopted, and that we see the consolidation of such measures in other countries.
Women need empowerment. We need to consolidate their role in society. I could give many examples. When travelling in Europe on Parliamentary Assembly business, I have been in countries where one can sense that the women are treated very badly and have little status. It is different in other places. I was in Azerbaijan in May visiting refugees, although they are in-country displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh. I was allowed to see the matriarch there; she was a powerful woman. Much of the problem is cultural, but there is much that we could do in taking a lead.
To make progress will require a significant improvement in the status of migrant women. Eventually, we will have to recognise that women need a status independent of their spouse. I accept that these are challenging concepts, but I believe that we must take primarily a human rights approach to change. That is the key to political action and the vehicle to overcoming cultural and religious barriers. Human rights primacy means that violence is not acceptable in any way. The rights of the perpetrator must never supersede the rights of women to protection from violence, but we know of instances, particularly in other countries, where that has not always been the case.
We can never overstress the importance of transnational dialogue and the development and implementation of international instruments and conventions. I accept that that may be a subject for another day, but there is considerable room for improvement. Legal instruments must translate into a guarantee of protected rights for women. We must make more of our membership of CEDAW. As a country, we should take a bigger role and a bigger lead in the various UN and Council of Europe committees. We have made much progress in this country, and I sense that our experience could be invaluable to women in other countries.
I return to the generality of the subject. Much progress has been made in the past 40 or 50 years, but there is much more to do. Yes, of course we need a strong criminal justice system. However, attitudinal change is not yet complete. In particular, among the younger generation, there does not seem to be the attitude that we want across that whole generation. That aspect, too, was referred to earlier. It is not acceptable to abuse or exploit women with impunity.
One of my colleagues on the Council of Europe, Mr. Mendes Bota from Portugal, will chair the equal opportunities committee, and I hope to become chairman of the migration committee next week, when all the chairmanships change. He made a telling point. He said that the trouble may be that all our efforts to deal with the problem of violence against women are reactive-that everything we do is largely reactive. The priority should be education. He said that, at the pre-primary level, in many elements of society there is no mutual respect. We need to change that attitude, culture and behaviour and focus on what is socially responsible and acceptable. If we can resolve the issue for future generations through attitudinal change, there will be a huge prize, in terms of health, family breakdown figures and social and economic costs.
Furthermore, more men need to be involved in pursuing the subject. I was delighted to see that at one point there were five men participating in this debate. There are still four of us, and I am not including the Whip and you, Mr. Benton, in the Chair. We need genuine equality-not equality as an end in itself, but equality that reflects a society that is based entirely on mutual respect.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on violence against women. I want to concentrate on domestic violence, which is an issue that I was involved with when I was a student, helping out at a refuge in Stoke-on-Trent, and then later as a teacher and MP. I am delighted to see so many Members here, given the low-level Whip on the rest of the business today, as it shows how many of us are dedicated to addressing this most vile of crimes and to improving the dire circumstances in which so many women and children find themselves.
We are all aware of the horrifying statistics. Although two lives a week is the often quoted figure, it is nice-if that is the right word-to be able to say that it is around one death a week, which reflects some improvement, but it needs to be zero. We all have to remember that domestic violence accounts for about a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales. Statistics such as that remind us how vital, long overdue and desperately needed Government action to tackle this issue has been.
I am proud to have been able to vote on some of the legislation. Although I welcome the new measures and the funding to support victims, it is by no means an indication that we can rest on our laurels. Legislation to punish offenders and support victims-although welcome-is not enough. The root causes of violence in the home must be addressed, and as Mr. Greenway said, the general attitude towards domestic violence must be changed in the community. We still need to do work within the legal profession and, sadly, within the police force.
Late last year, I had the experience of hosting Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon on her visit to the House of Commons. She was representing Avon Cosmetics in its international campaign to eliminate domestic violence, which was also backed by Refuge. It is an interesting concept because many Avon representatives go into women's homes, and it is seen to be a way of connecting with women and informing them. Moreover, it is a place in which women can meet, which is a good place to start. It also offers a safe way for women to confide in others or receive advice. I am happy to continue to support that programme.
During the event, I had the privilege of meeting the accomplished journalist, Wendy Turner Webster. She eloquently and movingly spoke about the effects of domestic violence on her own life. She is an intelligent, articulate and bright woman, but she still felt trapped in a situation about which she could do nothing. I could see that the experience was still painful to her. She described the destruction of her character during the many years of her first marriage.
Tragically, Wendy Turner Webster's story is echoed day in, day out in each of our constituencies, which is why the measures that we have introduced must not be undermined by intermittent funding or local cuts to vital support services. We must be aware that, despite the great advances, provision is still patchy in places. More worryingly, there is a lack of co-ordination across the services, so victims may experience a postcode lottery when they try to access help.
I want to illustrate the pathway that a domestic violence victim in Stourbridge may have to walk. If she is brave enough to report her situation or somebody does so on her behalf, she may, if she is lucky, get referred to one of the two workers who are based at Dudley Victim Support unit. We have a population of about 320,000 in the Dudley borough, but there are only two designated workers. The primary care trust employs one person, who effectively mans a telephone and does a bit of counselling, for 20 hours a week. One worker from Sandwell Women's Aid, with whom I have worked, said of the service, "Good luck if you can get an answer," not because the workers are lazy or turning people away, but because they physically cannot attend to the women who are trying to get help. Quite simply, they are overwhelmed. They have to prioritise victims, and it is only those who have suffered repeated incidents that go forward to the MARAC system. If we need to wait for three or four batterings before we can help someone, thousands of women will experience their first, second and third beating without being helped. I find that very distressing.
When I have come across cases, I often find that I take the details home with me. It is only with the assistance of the Walsall SARC group and Sandwell Women's Aid, which is in the neighbouring authority, that we can sometimes get things done. Some victims are lucky and manage to get in touch with Sandwell Women's Aid in the neighbouring borough, but they are few and far between. The focus on domestic violence in Dudley is poor. The Solicitor-General was invited to the midlands, and it is right that she should go and see the wonderful service that Walsall offers, but she should then come and see us, because there is quite a comparison to make.
Interestingly, the status of domestic violence within the local crime and disorder reduction partnership is quite low and is dangerously close to being non-compliant with things such as gender duty and the cross-Government action plan. Councillor Judy Foster, who is vice-chair of the West Midlands police authority, said:
"Though recent figures show that Dudley has a low crime rate compared to the rest of the West Midlands the figures for domestic violence are surprisingly high...and...prosecutions are low"
To add insult literally to injury, victims of domestic violence are not given sufficient priority for rehousing.
To cite a case, a lady whom I will call Miss T suffered years of violence from her partner that stopped only when he was convicted and sentenced for rape and a beating in their own home so severe that she suffered a stroke as well as broken bones and ruptured organs. She first came to see me at the end of 2007. Despite pleading and attempts to work with the local authority to rehouse her, she has been forced to live all that time in the same home, which holds such traumatic memories for her that she cannot even go upstairs to the room where it happened and lives in half the house. To use her words when she last came to see me, "Mrs. Waltho, if you had an accident in your car in which you were seriously injured, would you keep returning to the scene?" That is what she must do every day.
She has also been forced to enter Dudley's online bidding programme for a new home. She never gets to the top of the list, because officially she is adequately housed, but of course the authority managed without a problem to house her partner when he came out of jail. That is how dire the situation can be when things do not connect. The Minister must agree that that is not right.
We need to be vigilant about the wider package of support available-or, in this case, not available-to victims. We need to do all that we can to ensure that the good work done in the area is not undermined by a lack of cohesion between the wider authority services or, even worse, funding cuts. The workers at Sandwell Women's Aid do a great job, but much of their time is taken up by applying constantly for new pots of money, negotiating contracts and services and their service agreement. They need to be freed up to do the work that they were trained to do.
We must also be aware that the views of the public-and still, sadly, some in the legal profession-need to be questioned. My local paper, the Stourbridge News, reported on a particularly nasty domestic violence case:
"An emotional plea from a Stourbridge domestic abuse victim spared her partner from jail for a brutal attack. Jon Bennett, from The Broadway, head butted and repeatedly punched Natalie Wilkes, the mother of his three children, after returning home drunk on the night she expected to be taken out to celebrate her birthday. The 33-year-old also armed himself with a bread knife after dragging her downstairs at their home and threatened to kill her...Judge Michael Dudley told Wilkes he was only able to allow him to keep his freedom because of what he described as a 'compelling' letter from his partner asking him for mercy. The Judge said: 'I am able to do this because of the compelling letter written by your partner in which she makes it clear she wants to make a go of the relationship. It will resume in the course of time if you are sensible and I sincerely hope and trust that you keep out of trouble.'...Edward Soulsby, prosecuting, told the court that Bennett also broke Miss Wilkes' mobile telephone against a wall, smashed the house phone and broke a fish tank flooding their home with water. The couple had lived together for seven years and they have three daughters aged five and two and a baby who was just one month old at the time".
It is hard to imagine that such actions could not lead to an immediate custodial sentence. I find it difficult to reconcile all the measures that we have put in place with what comes out at the end. There is much work to do with all the other support services to make things work properly for victims of abuse.
That is a telling story. One thing that one would want to know is why she decided to write the letter. Who knows? Did anybody consider that important question?
Indeed. I think that that is obvious. I had hoped that that everybody would come to that conclusion, because that is the one that I came to. If she lacks support, it is possible that she was coerced by the family or even her partner into writing it. Without resources behind her, she would never proceed. It is about knitting together, or the whole thing could fall down. It is certainly falling down in Dudley. That is not to say that there are not lots of people and organisations working, but they do not seem to be pulling together properly. There are so many holes that women can fall down along the pathway.
Only seven years ago, in 2003, just 46 per cent. of domestic violence convictions resulted in a custodial sentence. By 2007, according to the national crime survey, it had risen to 72 per cent. It is getting better overall, but it is not working as well as it can or should in Dudley.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
I was talking about the increase in custodial sentences. That increase is, in no small part, because of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the various initiatives that have followed. The chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley, has said:
"The new legislation gives a clear and strong message to perpetrators and society at large that domestic violence is both unacceptable and criminal."
The measures in that Act were the genesis of many of the pragmatic steps that the Government have proposed, including the introduction of the domestic violence courts-the Minister referred to those earlier-independent advocacy, the multi-agency risk assessment conferences and a real focus nationally on the issue.
Characteristically, it seems that the Government are responding to further advice from victims and experts alike to enact legislation that offers enhanced protection from domestic violence. That has involved true heroes of the domestic violence movement, such as Sara Ward from Sandwell Women's Aid, who is responsible for supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence in my constituency, albeit not in Sandwell.
Recent measures should be welcomed by all parties. As we mentioned earlier, the domestic violence protection notices-or "go" notices-offer a protection for domestic violence from forced eviction at the hands of the perpetrator, which is something we should applaud. However, I understand that some victims feel that is not a safe enough vehicle to protect them at home.
The "go" notices will provide a previously unrealised protection for spousal victims of domestic violence, but I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some reassurances that they will protect not just the spouses, who are among the most prominent victims of domestic violence, but the hidden victims of domestic violence: the children.
The Home Office defines domestic violence as
"Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality."
That is undoubtedly the case, but I am sure the Government will want to do more to ensure that the impact on the children of those adults is considered in any measures. The Government have also committed to holding an annual debate on domestic violence-a move that is welcomed by leading domestic violence charities. Such moves have come from listening to the real experts in that difficult field, those who suffer from domestic violence and those who have to deal with it.
I would be grateful to hear from my hon. and learned Friend what further steps the Government will take to ensure that victims and stakeholders in the third sector who operate in that sphere will continue to play a leading role in developing Government policy on the topic, and perhaps even have an enhanced role. Surely, it is by proving that we value and can work in successful partnership with such experts in the prevention of domestic violence that we will make real progress in the fight against it. We must see where we can learn from their expertise and match their desire to fight domestic violence by using the will and machinery of Government.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have valid contributions to make, but before ending my speech I would like to underline an issue that is extremely important to constituents I have talked with, campaigners and domestic violence charities: sustainable funding. I have spoken many times in the House and will continue to do so about the pressing need for sustainable funding for those groups to provide help for victims, particularly of sexual crimes. Although I am unable to speak at length on that matter today, it is important stress how that situation is mirrored in the cause of fighting domestic violence. I would be grateful for reassurances from the Government that, as soon as possible, funding for domestic violence will be ring-fenced and sustained in the long term.
C.S. Lewis said:
"We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress may mean doing an about-turn".
Today there is no need for the Government to do an about-turn, because they are, I am convinced, going in the right direction on the long road to eradicating domestic violence. However, we can always do more, and I hope that the Government will bring forward further legislation that will enable us to do so.
It is well known in this place that there is a void in spending plans and no clarification on where cuts might fall, particularly from the Opposition-apparently that is matched by a void in coherent policy on how they would tackle domestic violence. A date-ordered search on their website reveals that the last time they published any strategy was in 2008, as Mr. Harper revealed, which was 13 months ago. He indicated that many of their strategy's suggestions have become Government policy, so I think that women all over the country have the right to ask, "What next?" The gap seems a clear demonstration of how the Opposition might let the issue of domestic violence lie again. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General can demonstrate how the Government will do the opposite and continue to be tireless in their fight against domestic violence and, wherever possible, preserve and protect the funding with which to do so.
I would be grateful for your guidance, Mr. Benton, on when Members are to give way for those on the Front Benches to make their final contributions.
It is apt that we hold this debate in the wake of the Second Reading of the Crime and Security Bill on Monday and the most welcome review of the family justice system announced yesterday by written statement. Ministers are to be congratulated on those two initiatives, the latter of which is an example of joined-up Government from two Departments. The statement from the two Secretaries of State is evidence of the wider repercussions that violence against women can have, particularly in the domestic context. It is on those aspects of domestic violence that I wish to focus my remarks.
When considering what support must be in place for victims of domestic violence, it is necessary to understand the pervasive nature of the crime for the victims. Victims are forced to carry their abuse with them. It is impossible to escape. Abuse happens in the home, in public and at work, and it stalks the victim throughout the day, whether the perpetrator is absent or not. The abuse does not end when the violence stops, but continues as a psychological torment. Depressive illness frequently follows. There is a fear of others' questions, of letting the carefully constructed semblance of normality slip and of the consequences of allowing the secret out. Then there is the ever-present fear, whether alone or in a crowd, of returning home to the abuser, perhaps an abuser who abuses in front of the children.
It is also true that abuse might not be limited to one assailant, but be perpetrated by several of the victim's close relatives, and perhaps against the victim's other close family members as well. Recourse to police intervention can come after an extended period of domestic violence. The perpetrator might come from a family environment where violence and intimidation in the home is one of the primary means of communication. That problem hints at the need for a broad menu of public policy solutions involving early intervention and support for all parties involved, and that is something I want to emphasise in my short speech, bearing in mind that another important contributor to the debate is yet to speak.
We need to accelerate the timing of intervention. It can be distressing for a family to see a relative exhibiting regressive tantrum-like behaviour normally exhibited in younger children. That can involve self-abuse, public exhibitionist self-abasement and public violence to fellow family members. That can cause trauma for partners and extended family members such that that they too are victims. Dr. Keren Skegg has done good work in that area.
Before taking recourse to the authorities, the victim of domestic violence might have faced a daily litany of violent abuse, physical force, false imprisonment, denial of funds for food for both them and their children, intimidation, threats to family pets, which the Minister mentioned, physical injury from the use of domestic items or even traumatisation through the erratic misuse of road vehicles to physically intimidate. The panoply of means of violence and abuse are frighteningly extensive, and ease of recourse to support for women who want to care for those whom they love, but at whose hands they suffer, is a much-needed reform. There is much that is done well in Europe in that regard, but I will probably not have time to detail that in my contribution.
A presumption in the family justice system to break up and separate families might need to be challenged by funding early support and intervention before court action becomes inevitable. In that circumstance, I praise the Government's upcoming review of the family justice system and refer to the valuable Adjournment debate held yesterday evening, in which I declared my frequent use of the family justice system. That debate was secured by Mr. Kilfoyle, who raised the vital issue of the abuse and overuse of ex parte family court proceedings, often on a Friday afternoon, and often on behalf of male applicants. I was pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Bridget Prentice, said that she would consider whether the concern about ex parte application misuse could be included in the Government's welcome family justice system review. We must remember that violent partners in family justice system cases can abuse that system to continue their intimidatory behaviour and use the public domain for inappropriate defenestration.
I would also like to highlight the excellent work of the Centre for Social Justice in seeking support for bolstering families subject to domestic violence, which in itself can exhibit intimidation within the extended family. Violence within lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual relationships also needs to be considered in the debate, and I would like to place on record the excellent work I have learned about through my attendance at monthly Croydon LGBT meetings with the Croydon police about that serious concern. That is an initiative of the Croydon police that should be studied and followed.
The proposed "go" orders in the Crime and Security Bill are vital. The need for their introduction is urgent, but I believe that it should not fall on the police to order; instead, there should be proper investment in the court system to allow for immediate recourse to 24-hour courts. I would prefer the term "time-out orders" rather than "to go orders". It is a better term, which would encourage more frequent use and, most importantly, earlier recourse to the facility. Earlier and frequent use of time-out orders would save lives and save families.
I am cognisant that there is another Member who has more to contribute than I do to this debate, so I will not have time to talk about good practice in Europe. However, it should be noted how the support that is given to both sides of a dispute means in many ways that families can be protected.
In conclusion-perhaps it is an exaggeration to say "conclusion"-I would like to spend a little time on two issues that were raised by Lynne Featherstone. I have raised in this Chamber before my concern about victims of domestic abuse being denied services because they are not entitled to public funds in what is a sad and serious legal anomaly. Of course, the Solicitor-General will say that it is a matter for the courts. It is right and proper that what might be termed social benefits are not available, but support at public expense in the course of upholding the British tradition of justice is a separate issue. Police officers would not pass by on the other side of the street if they observed a person being assaulted whom they knew to be without the right to remain, so why should it be acceptable to consign a victim to the same fate within the confines of what might loosely be termed their home? A distinction must be made between public money used in connection with crime and justice, and the sort of social services benefits that are properly the thrust of the legal finding.
The qualification must be that entering into the support system should not have an immediate effect on the victim's immigration status. That is a separate issue, and while their new familial status is undoubtedly of importance, it would be unfortunate if people were attracted to making accusations of abuse from anything other than genuine concern.
I would also like to refer to the Metropolitan Police Service human trafficking team pilot, which is being closed down. I was so pleased to hear what the Solicitor-General had to say about advertising: I agree that local newspapers should abstain from the type of advertising that assists the human trafficking business. It is of great regret to me that the Croydon Advertiser has not followed the example of the Croydon Guardian in removing such adverts, regardless of the amount of money that they bring in.
The process that was agreed at the beginning for funding the pilot-to reduce the 50 per cent. of the Home Office funding during this financial year and to have no funding next year-compromises an important unit. I previously had an answer in the main Chamber from the Leader of the House that the problem will now be dealt with by the vice unit in the police service, but I believe that it is important to have a dedicated service. As the Solicitor-General will know, I do not wear any political badge here so, in quoting the Mayor of London's letter to me I am not trying to make a partisan point. However, I would like to quote it in concluding my speech, because it poses a question which the Solicitor-General may have time to answer in winding up the debate.
Boris Johnson stated:
"It is very disappointing that the Home Office will not be providing the MPS with any further additional funding to tackle human trafficking, particularly given the anticipated increase in trafficking leading up to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Your support"- the letter is to me-
"in raising this issue with other parliamentary colleagues would be most appreciated."
I have fulfilled the Mayor's request. I very much look forward to what I am sure will be a significant contribution to the debate by the next speaker.
I thank Mr. Pelling for his generous remarks. I speak as the chair of the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade, and as a secretary of the all-party group on domestic violence, and I am the only person in this Chamber at the moment who was able to participate in yesterday's debate on trafficking. I think that there is some important read-across between that debate and this one.
I believe that everyone who has contributed to this debate agrees that tackling violence against women is of massive importance in reducing violent crime, and that we must focus on it in a way that was not sufficiently done in ancient years. My right hon. Friend Mr. George, led us back to those ancient years, and we remember the victims of those times.
I was honoured this year to be given an Emma Humphreys award for the work that I have done in tackling prostitution. The award recognises organisations and individuals who work to tackle violence against women. I had the privilege of winning it because of my work to ensure that men who pay for sex from women who have been forced to prostitute themselves are criminalised, and I would like to honour the Solicitor-General for contributing to that work. I believe that it makes an important contribution.
The Government's strategy is great, but let us be clear: we have done a lot but there is a lot left to do. I want to focus on the "left to do". Hon. Members have focused on prevention. I share the view that education is a critical part of prevention, but we need to start before people are born. One of the most important ways to prevent domestic violence is for every pregnant woman to be asked at antenatal appointments whether she has ever been a victim of domestic violence. The Daily Mail and others will claim that that is nanny-stating, but there is compelling evidence that a woman is more likely to reveal her status as a victim at that time than at any other. One can then put in place the kind of support procedures that she needs to protect herself and her future child from domestic violence. I strongly urge the Solicitor-General to speak with her colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that that becomes the norm rather than the exception. Such action is taken in my area, but not in many others.
I also urge the Solicitor-General to ensure that section 14 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which criminalises men who pay for sex, stops being the secret piece of law that it is at present. We must have proper publicity in every male lavatory and so on asking, "Are you certain that someone who you are thinking of paying for sex has chosen to do it? If you have any reason not to know, you will be prosecuted." I do not think that there has been sufficient publicity about that.
I would like to echo remarks by other Members about the valuable Sojourner pilot project for women who are subject to immigration control and are victims of domestic violence. My anxiety is that it provides for only eight weeks' support, and in many cases, frankly, there is not competent legal immigration advice available to women during that period. One of the simple ways that the Solicitor-General could make a real difference to the effectiveness of the pilot is by guaranteeing good-quality legal advice for that group of women at that point. I hope that that the pilot project will be extended.
There is another issue that I would like to raise in respect of the interaction between immigration law and violence against women. In my constituency there is a young woman who has temporary immigration status because she was admitted in conjunction with her mother. She had two years' stay in the first instance, which will lead to settlement if her mother's marriage, which one imagines has been going on for some 18 years because that is how old the daughter is, persists during those two years. Her father is trying to force her to marry her cousin in Bangladesh and she is being protected by the forced marriage unit, but there is no mechanism to sort out her immigration status. She has no income, but to get settlement she has to pay a fee although she has no access to money for that. The bending of the rules put in place for victims of domestic violence is not available for women in her position. Frankly, the Home Office is doing its normal Home Office stupid in this case.
I urge the Solicitor-General to take up that case and raise with the Home Office the need for victims of violence to receive not only legal advice, but the kind of resources that women often do not have. They do not have money that is needed to make the Home Office do the things that they need. The response that people receive is: "Oh, this is not a proper application, because it was not accompanied by the fee that we require. It's therefore an improper application and we're therefore bound to refuse it in law." That is what I mean by Home Office stupid. If the Solicitor-General intervened, we might get a little less of that.
I have spoken frequently about rape conviction rates. I praise the Solicitor-General's police force in Cleveland, which has the best conviction rates in the country because it has a decent strategy on a range of sexual violence issues, including prostitution. However, in some ways, I was disappointed by her explanation of how rape conviction rates are counted. In most cases of rape, although not in every case, the victim is able to identify the perpetrator. That is true in, say, street robbery, but not true in many areas of crime, such as burglary, car crime, and so on. It is therefore logical to count the statistics in that way.
I am afraid that I was depressed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission report into Warboys, because it showed that still there persists, even among specialist police officers, insufficient sensitivity to the experience of the victim of rape and an insufficient determination to treat rape as a major violent crime that must be investigated. I hope that the Solicitor-General will ensure that that attitude leads to penalties for those who were responsible for that case and that such attitudes are driven out of the force.
I am really looking forward to the Stern report. Vivien Stern is an excellent woman and I am sure that she will do a good job. However, one thing that other hon. and right hon. Members have discussed-and it is true-is the importance of supporting rape victims to enable them to go through the court procedure to get a conviction. In that regard, independent sexual violence advisers are critical. I represent an area that has one of the 27 domestic violence courts, which make a real difference, but I have noticed a trend for the police to scoop up the money for ISVAs. I am anxious about that, because it is better to have an independent sexual violence adviser who is from the voluntary sector and separate from the police. I urge the Solicitor-General to try to find mechanisms to stop this trend, which does not recognise the brilliance that the voluntary sector is capable of-the police can be brilliant in other ways-and which is often lacking in other sectors.
The brilliance of the voluntary sector is not sufficiently recognised in commissioning refuges. I am deeply concerned that some local authorities are putting out to tender refuge provision in their area, with contracts being won by big housing associations that offer a 9 to 5 answer, and a service in which men supervise women, but in which there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the great vision of those women who created the refuge system is protected. I urge the Solicitor-General to speak to colleagues to ensure that the significant contribution of the voluntary sector, is properly protected, not just with words but by putting in place mechanisms that prevent such local authority stupid commissioning of services.
Finally, I should like to mention the case of Rancheva, recently decided by the European Court of Human Rights. She was a young woman who went from Russia to Cyprus on an artiste's visa to perform in what she believed was burlesque or something like that. She tried to leave the club within three days of arrival-it is clear that it was, in effect, a club for sexual exploitation-and days later she was found dead beneath the balcony of her flat. The judgment in that case included the following statement:
"The Court considers that the spectrum of safeguards set out in national legislation must be adequate to ensure the practical and effective protection of the rights of victims or potential victims of trafficking. Accordingly, in addition to criminal law measures" directed at
"traffickers, article 4 requires member States to put in place adequate measures regulating businesses often used as a cover for human trafficking."
The Solicitor-General mentioned voluntary efforts to reduce the number of advertisements in local newspapers. That court judgment gives our Government a responsibility to prevent the acceptance of such advertisements by law, because it says clearly:
"Article 4 requires member States to put in place adequate measures regulating businesses often used as a cover for human trafficking".
There are no regulations preventing such advertisements, which are used as a cover for trafficking.
I am mystified, given the number of advertisements in the back of local papers that are clearly to do with trafficking, as to why the police do not follow up those telephone numbers, track them down and use them. Yes, such adverts should be banned, but the police say that they do not have the manpower to track those numbers down.
In her speech, the hon. Lady mentioned the Metropolitan police trafficking unit. She is right to be concerned that that specialist expertise is due to be lost. In fact, as soon as this debate ends, along with other Members of Parliament from all parties, I will be speaking with Commander Cressida Dick of the Metropolitan police, trying to persuade her to reverse that decision. The reason why that decision is so important is connected to the reason why local police forces are not prosecuting in such cases: they do not really know how to and it is outwith their competence.
The inadequacy of policing this issue is a little bit like the inadequacy of police responding to rape victims in years gone by. Hon. Members may recall a television portrayal of Thames Valley police many years ago and how they treated a rape victim. The public were really shocked by how that victim was treated. As a Member of Parliament who represents Thames valley, I should say that that is not the usual experience. At that time, the police did not have the expertise and did not understand the extent to which this is a cover for massive organised crime.
Local police forces do not get it. I am anxious about the merging of the trafficking unit with the vice and clubs unit, which is more concerned, in my experience, with public order and less concerned with serious and organised crime, because it will mean that a resource that was beginning to educate police forces around the country about ways of tackling and policing this will be lost. I do not believe that this is merely a matter of Government funding, because the Government only ever offered the start-up funding for that unit. It is due to a combination of factors, including the Metropolitan police choosing not to be the national resource that we fund them to be. If the Metropolitan police refuse to act as a national resource to other police forces, why do Thames Valley police not get some of that money and do it? Why do Cleveland police, who have a better record than other police forces, although they are a tiny police force, not get some money and do it? We should penalise the Metropolitan police for their inadequacy in this regard.
This has been a good debate, with some welcome and powerful contributions. I shall try to take on some of the issues that were raised, but I am happy to take interventions if that will help.
Mr. Harper referred to the need for sustainable funding. We have resolved to try to make the funding of the support sector for women who suffer violence compliant with the compact, and that is what we need to do. My hon. Friend Lynda Waltho referred to people whose qualifications, experience and expertise was in supporting women, not in making bids for claims, although help is available for such claims, and money has gone into supporting bodies, such as Rape Crisis and the Survivors Trust, to capacity-build for that job. None the less, if people have come into an organisation intending that their role should be to support women, it is not second nature for them to make regular applications for funding.
In the past two years, the Government Equalities Office has provided emergency funding and, indeed, on both occasions had a sort of Government whip-round to make sure that rape crisis centres and other organisations did not close. It appreciated the need for better funding in the longer term, and has driven the agenda. The Alberti review of health, to which I shall turn in a moment because of comments about health sector services, will say quite a bit about commissioning. I am thinking particularly about services in SARCs and who should commission. For example, forensic medical officers are probably better coming from the core health service and being commissioned in that way. There is a bit of an analogy with the prison medical service moving over.
I am not predicting that that is what Alberti will say, but at the moment, forensic medical examiners have a number of tasks, and it sounds as if they should be well qualified to deal with rape complainants, and many of them will be. However, they may arrive to examine a rape complainant in the middle of the night, having certified dead a victim of a road traffic accident, then seeing someone who is coming out of heroin addiction to decide whether they are fit to be interviewed at a police station, then perhaps looking at the injuries of three people who have been in a fight in a pub to see how they are and writing that down. They may not have an opportunity to specialise, and may not be particularly sympathetic to everything to which we want them to be sympathetic.
Instead of having that random-ish model, there are seeds in the Department of Health for adding a qualification so that as doctors continue their education, they can obtain a qualification in dealing specifically with sexual offending. The intention is to move the agenda along to ensure that sympathy and expertise are offered to complainants not only at the outset, but when the cases continue to court so that top-class evidence can be given in court about the nature of injuries. I think that elements of sustainability will come from a number of quarters.
The hon. Member for Forest of Dean said that there is criticism of the fact that there is disproportionate emphasis on the criminal justice system. It is easy, looking back, to think that that is right, but it was critical to establish the fact that domestic violence is a crime, and that rape is a crime to be taken seriously, and to put the whole business of violence against women up front in the criminal justice system, because that was not there before. The criminal justice system sends out the message to delinquent men that such violence is a crime with which the authorities will deal, and that offenders will go to prison. It also counts numbers, so that we can see the nature and extent of the problem. Coupled with the British crime survey, it also shows the deficiencies in coverage. Women who have campaigned for 30 years have done a great job in putting it high on the criminal justice agenda. I do not regret one bit that that was our focus.
Funding must be sustained in the sector, but it is right to consider changing attitudes. We have the signals in place. We are saying that the state is against that violence. It is doing all that it can, and I shall come on to the ideas that have been mentioned on which we can press forward. My hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart is right in saying that there is still much to do. However, the state is making a clear statement, and when public attitudes are lagging behind, we must bring them with us. We must do a good job in personal, social and health education, which will be compulsory in schools. We have put stuff in there about domestic violence, how women can deal with unwanted sexual attention, how young men can read signals from young women, and whether they are implementing unwanted sexual attention. We must help with public opinion-and there is no doubt that we must move to prevention-but it is important to establish in the criminal justice system the fact that violence against women is wrong. I think that those were the major points made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean.
I return to the early-day motion, which has three signatories from colleagues from London who are closely in touch with the domestic violence and rape crisis sectors in their areas and have received expressions of bitter disappointment at what the Mayor of London offered after his consultation. He invited me to go to it, and I did with some optimism, but it has not come forward with anything. The issue is not about measuring funding because of the recession; it has simply not come forward with what he promised. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough disclosed the fact that the Mayor masqueraded behind the suggestion that the police specialist unit was closing because of Home Office funding. He tried to blame the Government, when it is well known that he has a large influence-probably too much-that he should exercise in this case over the Metropolitan police to try to persuade them to take their responsibilities more seriously. He should also take his responsibilities in that regard more seriously. I am talking about a contender for the Tory party leadership, so we should take what he does seriously, and note his shortcomings in this area.
I am grateful for the Minister's comments about the trafficking unit, because funding was guaranteed for only two years. Does she accept that the unit is important, and would it be possible to keep an open mind on whether additional resources might come from the Government to allow the project to continue?
I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough will make powerful representations when she leaves the Chamber tonight. I am pleased that she will talk to Cressida Dick, who was a member of the Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System when I chaired it, and who is very sympathetic to the issue of violence against women. That approach will be helpful.
The intention, as with all new areas of activity, was that core funding would be provided for a couple of years to put the matter into the middle business of policing. It should then be taken on part and parcel, and should not require supplementary funding from outside. The funding was intended to get it in there, but it remains a hot issue and I acknowledge that. We should, at the very least, keep an open mind on whether there is a danger of expertise being lost.
I am not as depressed as Lynne Featherstone-I know that, because we had a quick word about this during the suspension for the Divisions-about moving responsibility to the vice squad. I understand that it deals much more with raiding clubs, public order, and so on, but it has an understanding of the nature of prostitution, and it deals with brothels, so it can understand the help that needs to be given to women who are imprisoned in that sort of work.
The hon. Lady talked about the need to get the man out in a domestic violence situation, and not to get the woman, the children, the dog and the cat out. I agree that "go" orders in the Crime and Security Bill will probably be immensely helpful in that regard, but the real point is the conceptual shift. Clearly, in the past there has been the notion that we must rescue the woman quickly and get her out. The man is there, he is a hazard and the police cannot stay there all the time as he might come back. In a way, we have gone on with that cast of mind. Even without "go" orders-I am not saying that they are of no use, far from it-there are powers of arrest for common assault, which could be just a threat when someone is close enough to carry it out. People can now be arrested in almost all domestic violence situations if the policeman senses that it is a genuine case, as it frequently will be.
A person can be arrested, taken away and put on bail with the condition that they do not go back, or be remanded in custody if they do go back. In a way, the powers are already there, and however they fill the gaps that are perceived to exist in the current framework, the "go" orders certainly ought to influence that perspective. Let us swap things around and make it the norm for the police to think, "What do we do with him?" and not, "What do we do with her?" I agree with that completely.
There are also injunctions to remove the man and keep him away, and there are now restraining orders that can be put on to the back of criminal proceedings. As the hon. Lady knows, a restraining order is a sort of county court injunction in the criminal court, and it can be applied where there is a conviction for a criminal offence by a perpetrator of domestic violence. Furthermore, such an order could be applied in cases of acquittal should the judge perceive that there is a continuing risk to the woman on the balance of probabilities. We are not talking about locking people up under restraining orders if they are absolutely not guilty. However, if they are not guilty but the nature of the case leads the judge to feel satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, there continues to be a threat even if someone has not been convicted of a crime, the judge would be entitled to place a restraining order on them, which could include keeping them out of the house.
That is not a new power, but it has only newly been enforced. It needs to be used and strongly advertised to the magistracy. It was very badly reported in the press. I recall an article in The Observer in which a journalist suggested that this was, as he put it, yet another example of the Government's illiberality. Of course, that is not what it is. It is about making it simpler for women who need the protection of an ongoing injunction not to have to go to the county court and start completely fresh proceedings when they have spent the day in the magistrates court. Their witnesses and the policeman would not have to go twice either, and that is the purpose of the power. We must ensure that it is used.
The hon. Lady also discussed the fact that there is no recourse to public funds. She is aware of the pilot scheme. This is not the first pilot scheme-there was something called the last-resort fund run by Women's Aid. Before I was a Minister, I pressed for that scheme from the then Minister at the Home Office. Somehow it did not quite click or work entirely correctly. I do not know where the fault lay, if indeed it could be allocated-that is between Woman's Aid and the Home Office. However, the effect of that pilot was to speed up the process when women show signs of domestic violence, so as to get them an immigration status of their own. It was also about widening the ambit of evidence that the Home Office will accept for domestic violence so it was not only formal affidavits, but all sort of evidence from anywhere. That was helpful and I hope that this new pilot scheme-which has a better structure than the last scheme-will show the importance of that funding and be carried on. It is being piloted mostly because the last scheme was not a great success. It needs to be tried out.
I cannot tell the hon. Lady how many people are ejected from refuges in each constituency because of cost. I suspect that what happens is that refuges take people on even when they cannot get benefits, and use their core funding. That is not so helpful and the figures may or may not help if I can get hold of them, although I will try to do that.
It was very good and a delight-if I can put it that way and not seek to categorise my right hon. Friend Mr. George and Mr. Greenway as senior men with an enormous amount of experience-to see them supporting the agenda in such a powerful way. They forcefully brought to our attention the international dimension of violence against women, and I am glad that they appear to work together on that international agenda. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, the Government are enthusiastic supporters of the convention against trafficking, and I was pleased to hear him praise the 2002 process, which I have just mentioned, to improve the position of immigrant women in this country.
I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South is proud of the services dealing with violence against women that are offered in his constituency, but sad that those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge are less good. That is a problem. The popular mood is, probably rightly, for us to decentralise funding and have indicators as to how the money should be spent in local authorities. However, we then get the great disparities pointed to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge. We must look at more sustainability for funding those organisations.
The "Map of Gaps" to which my right hon. Friend referred by End Violence Against Women is a fine piece of work. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will use the gender equality duty to take proceedings against those local authorities that do not provide appropriate services. Trevor Phillips has written to those local authorities that are failing, and I have written to the MPs who represent them, asking them to go in and speak to those local authorities and tell them that they have do more. The idea behind the "Map of Gaps" has been taken up as heartily as we could wish.
What happened is that the commission wrote and said, "You're accused", as it were. A number of authorities wrote back and said, "No, we share services-that address is not in Walsall or whatever. You are wrong." We ended up with 18 local authorities, I think, and I have written to all of them.
Of course, End Violence Against Women will do another "Map of Gaps". If we have been conned by local authorities that are doing that kind of stuff, it will look at the map again. Every time the map is published, a body of knowledge is built up that can be used next time round.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge makes a strong set of sterling points. She suggests further steps for us take and asks me what we will do. We will take on as much of the content of the debate as we can. As I say, we are at a stage at which the violence against women strategy has drawn in cross-governmental involvement that is more wide-reaching than we have ever managed before. It is time for us to up the whole thing a gear.
Mr. Pelling painted a compelling picture. He obviously has a good understanding of the ever-present nature of domestic violence. He was also keen on the "go" orders and is as glad as I am that the family justice system will be looked at. I was pleased to hear him welcome our intended further restriction on newspaper advertising for prostitutes. The law in Ireland seems capable of being transferred across, although there is probably more to add, as it does not cover the internet and we would want it to do that. A well-known website called "punternet" has been mentioned, where not only are prostitutes offered for sale, but there are comments about how they have performed. We want to close that down as quickly as we possibly can.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough is a doughty campaigner. It was very good to see that she got an Emma Humphreys prize this year. Emma Humphreys was a client of mine on appeal. She killed her violent partner who was a pimp and who had pimped her when she was 16 years old. When she was 17, she went to prison for life for murder. Ten years later, we managed to get her released as a manslaughter case, using a number of defences that I will not set out here. She died about a year after she came out of custody, still only 28. She has contributed, through that defence, to many developments in domestic violence legislation. The Policing and Crime Act 2009, which has just come into force, has in it many elements of the case that she gave rise to, so my hon. Friend was greatly honoured-and rightly honoured-to receive that award.
I shall end as quickly as I can, in about half a minute, by saying that work with the third sector is our hallmark. However, we must do more. We have a formal stakeholder group around the inter-ministerial group on trafficking. Perhaps we should do the same with rape and domestic violence. Let me say with my very last words that rape is a serial offence. Let us all please keep saying that. That is the single most important conceptual shift that has started to emerge this year. It can have the effect both of helping juries and courts to understand the nature of what is going on before them and of encouraging women to continue to report. I am most grateful for all the contributions made today, all of which we will try to take forward.
Question put and agreed to.