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Women’s Aid — [Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 14th March 2012.

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Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 2:30 pm, 14th March 2012

That is an important point and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing our attention to the fact that the Department is now considering the matter. I hope that her points and those made by other hon. Members in this debate will be taken on board by the Department.

The changes under discussion would force women who go to Women’s Aid in moments of crisis to pay up front for refuge. That is money they simply do not have. The majority of women who seek help from Women’s Aid have few clothes and belongings, let alone the money to pay for refuge. Nevertheless, at present, Women’s Aid can provide refuge to any woman who turns up at its centres because it can claim a share of management costs through housing benefit. That crucial point was underlined by the hon. Lady, and will no doubt be underlined by others. The last thing that distressed women should be worried about is paying for refuge. Of all 4,000 women who were assisted by Monklands Women’s Aid group in 2011, not one of them turned up with enough money to cover the cost of the refuge.

There is an unshakeable belief, held by those who manage this service and by me, that existing resources will simply not be available. The private sector manager in North Lanarkshire council has confirmed that Women’s Aid received local housing allowance of £895.16 every four weeks for service users. Under the new rules, it may get £456.92 for four weeks. That is a terrifying prospect, which the Minister will have to address sooner rather than later.

I am now at the very heart of my argument. I have to pose the question: do the Government want women with small children walking the streets or, worse still, being forced to live in perpetuity under a reign of terror from an abusive partner? In 2013, is that the best we can do for abused women and children? I think not. Although I have political differences with the coalition Government on a range of issues, 1 simply do not believe that they want to make life any more unbearable for vulnerable women and children.

Let me now address my remarks to correspondence that I recently received from my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary and shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. She has launched a consultation on women’s safety, which will examine the impact of the Government’s decisions on women’s safety and consider how to protect and enhance it. The consultation is being chaired by Vera Baird QC, who will be supported by my hon. Friend Kate Green, the shadow Minister for Equalities, and my hon. Friend Stella Creasy, the shadow Home Office Minister. I intend to contribute to this new commission.

I genuinely wish to report that I have made representations to the Government and that they have listened and acted in a manner that does not put women’s personal safety in jeopardy. For the record, I plan to invite Labour’s commission to visit and meet the management of Monklands Women’s Aid as well as the victims. In a spirit of fairness and even-handedness, I extend a similar open invitation to the Minister and her team.

On one unique occasion, I visited Women’s Aid to meet four women from different backgrounds and with different experiences of domestic abuse. Listening to each woman describe their lives was quite depressing; to think that so many have to live their lives in such fear and anxiety is truly distressing. Listening carefully to numerous examples of abuse, and sitting alongside the victims explaining their plight, was emotionally draining. There is a world of difference between reading about such stories in a book or newspaper and hearing first hand such dreadful experiences. The bottom line is that an abused household is no place for women and certainly no place for an innocent child.

I was shown a work of art that a victim’s young daughter had drawn. It had originally been on her bedroom wall in the abused household where she had lived. It was a self-portrait, showing a tear racing down her cheek. Yet, after a few days in the refuge, the girl took down the drawing from the wall. We all very much welcome that first step towards the happiness that that child was entitled to enjoy.

Women often come to the charity having had their family broken into pieces, yet there is a real sense of togetherness at the centres that allows them to feel as if they are joining a new family. The four women I met had differing stories of abuse, but there was one common feature—all of them felt trapped in their lives, as if there was no way of escape. They would never have been released from that stranglehold of entrapment and suffering had it not been for the help of Women’s Aid. The tremendous sadness that I felt initially turned to delight as I witnessed how these women had managed to turn their lives around, not only for themselves but, most importantly, for their children and for their loved ones.