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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 14th March 2012.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 3:33 pm, 14th March 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate Mr Clarke on securing this debate. We have worked together on numerous issues in recent years, and I know that his tenacity and commitment are second to none. I underline how important it is that we debate this issue. My hon. Friend Amber Rudd said that it is an issue for both men and women, and the fact that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill secured this debate underlines that.

On behalf of everybody who has contributed to this debate, I pay tribute to all the organisations involved in supporting women, men and children facing the ordeal of domestic violence. I marvel at the work of the Basingstoke Rape and Sexual Abuse Crisis Centre in my constituency, which employs a dedicated group of people who bring a much-needed service to an important part of my constituency. I am sure that all hon. Members can look to similar organisations in their constituencies.

I am grateful for this timely opportunity to discuss how the welfare system supports and will support those affected by domestic violence. As hon. Members have mentioned, significant changes will take place as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, particularly the introduction of universal credit. Domestic violence is a dreadful act of abuse, and the Government are absolutely determined to tackle it. There are many matters that I would like to discuss in response to the issues raised by hon. Members. I will try to address each in turn.

It is unacceptable that 7% of women and 5% of men reported having experienced domestic abuse in the past year. That is equivalent to around 1.2 million women and 800,000 men. The violence against women and girls action plan, launched in March 2011, was refreshed earlier this month and sets out numerous commitments that the Government have made across the board: to improve prevention, which my hon. Friends discussed in interventions; to challenge attitudes and behaviours by taking action early to ensure that the perpetrators of violence are brought to justice; to support victims of abuse in all its forms better by working with partners to reach out across communities, and to ensure that Government support is appropriately tailored to victims’ individual needs.

To pick up on the points made by my hon. Friends Esther McVey and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), it is absolutely right that prevention must be at the heart of our approach, as well as breaking the cycle that we as constituency

MPs all too often see in action. We can do so by working with children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West highlighted in her contribution.

I am mindful of hon. Members’ concerns about future funding for services that support victims of domestic violence. I hope that hon. Members will be content to hear that the Government constantly consider ways to strengthen protection for victims and that we have taken a different approach by ring-fencing nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and rape crisis centres in England, as well as funding the national domestic violence and stalking helplines. It is the first time that funding has been ring-fenced on a stable basis for domestic and sexual violence victims, and I am clear that local authorities should view funding for services to support victims of domestic violence as essential.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill will also be aware that in Scotland, decisions on funding applications for projects that focus on tackling violence against women will be announced shortly by the Scottish Government. I am pleased, as are key partners such as Scottish Women’s Aid, that funding for violence against women, including victims of domestic abuse, will be maintained throughout the spending review period. I hope that he will welcome that as a concrete commitment.

The right hon. Gentleman’s main point involved housing benefit, but other Members discussed the broader issue of the benefits system, so I will address that first, hopefully providing some of the reassurance that hon. Members seek in these times of change. We heard from Mrs McGuire, who spoke for the Opposition, about this week’s approval for proposed changes to jobseeker’s allowance regulations. That legislative change will now come into force on 23 April and allow victims of actual or threatened domestic violence who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance to be exempted from job-seeking conditions for a period of up to 13 weeks, provided that evidence from an appropriate representative can be produced and that other conditions are met. That will continue with the introduction of universal credit.

It is right that victims of domestic violence who claim JSA or are new to claiming it can spend some time focusing on stabilising their lives. As we have heard from hon. Members today, that is a challenging time for the individuals concerned, and they need time to get their lives and, where applicable, their children’s lives straight. It is also right that they can do so without having to demonstrate that they are actively seeking or available for employment, or face the threat of sanction. Hopefully hon. Members will feel that that is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment.

A further sign of how seriously we take the issue is that alternative support remains available via the existing JSA domestic emergency exemption for victims who are either unable or perhaps unwilling to produce evidence. We have a twin-track approach, which is important to note.

While the easements that operate under JSA are, as I have explained, commendable, they are somewhat complex. That is why the Government are already taking steps to clarify them as we move forward with universal credit. That shows our clear commitment in the area, and I hope hon. Members will welcome that.

On the subject of today’s debate, housing benefit, some victims of domestic violence live in a hostel or a refuge. Currently, many, if not all, refuges have their rents met in full through housing benefit, which is usually paid directly to the hostel. Refuges are exempt from the local housing allowance, and residents have their housing benefit worked out using rules that recognise the additional costs that Kate Green talked about in her intervention.

The Government consulted last year on changes to the way in which housing benefit meets the costs of people living in supported housing, such as refuges. Our consultation paper, “Housing benefit reform—Supported housing”, was published on 19 July 2011, and the consultation period ended on 9 October 2011. We are considering the responses to the consultation and intend to bring forward proposals as soon as possible for implementation in 2013. Let me clarify that we do not intend to change the way in which payments of housing benefit are made to people living in hostels or refuges. All tenants who live in the social rented sector, as well as those living in supported housing, normally have housing benefit paid directly to their landlords. That will continue until housing benefit no longer exists and is replaced by universal credit between 2013 and 2017.