Domestic Abuse and Public Life

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:14 pm on 22 November 2022.

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Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:14, 22 November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I take stock of and am impressed by the courage of all victims of domestic abuse, from whichever walk of life, who have to deal with misogynistic physically and mentally abusive behaviour. It is a pleasure to address this Chamber. I would like to thank Apsana Begum for requesting the debate and for speaking so openly and candidly about her terrible experiences. I thank everyone else for attending, and particularly my hon. Friend Kate Kniveton for her contribution.

We can all agree that domestic abuse has no place in our society. It is a terrible crime with devastating consequences. It is high volume, affecting 2.3 million adults a year. It is also high harm and high cost. The social and economic costs of domestic abuse are estimated to be in the region of £77 billion. Our Parliament and our institutions must play a role in addressing it and making sure victims are supported and feel supported. No one should have to experience the abuse we have heard about today and the Government are determined to tackle violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned domestic abuse and I want to come on to that. Domestic abuse is the all-too-common form of violence against women and girls, but it is emotional abuse too. In July last year, as a Government we published our tackling violence against women and girls strategy to help ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online, at work and on the streets. In March, we published our tackling domestic abuse plan, our blueprint for delivering the change that is so badly needed. Our violence against women and girls strategy and domestic abuse plan aim to transform the whole of society’s response to those crimes to prevent abuse, support victims, pursue perpetrators and strengthen the systems in place to respond. The tackling domestic abuse plan committed more than £230 million of investment to that purpose, including £140 million for supporting claims and more than £81 million for tackling issues regarding perpetrators.

We are making good progress with implementing our commitments in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan. To give a few examples, we have launched a highly successful communications campaign called “Enough”, which has reached millions and surpassed all expectations. It is a wonderful initiative that focuses on the range of safe ways in which bystanders can intervene and help women who are suffering such incidents. The fourth round of funding from the safer streets fund was announced in July, an initiative that has been taken out across the whole nation. Through the fund, the sum of £125 million has been awarded. We have also supported the appointment of the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for violence against women and girls to drive better policing of such crimes. We have doubled our funding for the national domestic abuse helpline and increased our funding for other helplines too. We have also increased funding to support children—it is worth noting that this not only affects individuals who are adults, but children too. Millions of pounds a year will support seven bespoke projects related to children, who are also victims. I know the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse does not like the term “victim”, but we need to protect and empower those who are victims in equal measure.

We introduced the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which the hon. Lady has mentioned. It includes the first general purpose definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that it is not just physical, but can be emotional, controlling or coercive and can relate to economic abuse. Through the Act, we have also introduced new offences and it was salient that not everybody in the Chamber voted for that. The Act created the new offences of threatening to disclose intimate images and non-fatal strangulation and also prohibited perpetrators from cross-examining their victims in family courts and civil proceedings. That is huge progress and was probably unthinkable when I first qualified at the Bar in 1988. We have made progress, but there is more to do.

I was particularly moved by the hon. Lady’s explanations about abuse extending post-separation. That is something that the Government know much about and there is academic research on the subject. That is why the work on the landmark Domestic Abuse Act is so important, delivering new support and protection for victims as well as the new offences I have mentioned. The Act also recognised for the first time—something that the Government are very proud of—that controlling or coercive behaviour does not stop at the point of separation.

I am grateful for the private information that has been publicly shared in this Chamber. I was very moved by what has been said. There is a huge amount I wish to say, but I have been trying to focus particularly on what has been said. I want to mention the courage of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse in calling this debate and coming back into public life, as well as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton. It takes a huge amount of effort to come back to work and carry on after this sort of incident.

Nobody should have to bear stigma or shame. We are a modern country and it is not good enough. I will do my best in my ministerial position to support victims. I am pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Burton that she feels strong enough to speak out and encourage those who do not have a platform to speak for themselves. The debate is part of that journey, and I commend all involved for being here today.

I note the general concerns on so-called honour-based harassment, vexatious issues of litigation and the use of proxies or third parties to spread maliciousness and lies. All those issues need to and will be considered carefully. It is a tricky balance in looking at what can be considered as clear, provable abuse and what happens behind the scenes. That is part of the reason why the police have an onus through their new training to look at the whole picture. They must and should look at the whole picture, not just one incident that happened at a certain time on a certain date. They need to look at the overall picture and history.

The Government are funding extra work on risk assessments for cases with a history of domestic violence and abuse. I urge the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to seek police advice where necessary. If there is a physical risk to her being that prevents her from being not only an ordinary citizen, but the extraordinary citizen that she is as an elected MP, she must seek advice. Wherever I can, I will seek to help her.

Let me move on to standards in public life and the working culture in Parliament and other organisations, which are issues close to all our hearts. The crime survey for England and Wales, which reaches thousands of people annually, shows that women and people from minoritised groups are disproportionately affected by domestic abuse. We have a responsibility to tackle these issues and ensure that we listen to and support victims.

The Government work very closely with organisations that seek to improve employers’ responses to domestic abuse, including the employers’ initiative on domestic abuse and the employers domestic abuse covenant. It is vital that employers, including police forces and other frontline services, as well as Parliament, can effectively respond to domestic abuse. Developing robust policies to ensure that all employees feel supported and empowered in their workplace is critical to that.

In Parliament, the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme was set up in 2018 to improve the working culture of Parliament. The House of Commons also agreed to establish an independent expert panel to determine sanctions against MPs should a case of bullying or harassment be upheld. Although these steps are welcome, there is clearly more to do in all walks of life. The Government have made it clear that there is no place for bullying, harassment or sexual harassment in Parliament—or elsewhere. We will continue to work on a cross-party basis to ensure that everyone working in Parliament is treated with dignity and respect.

On internal political issues, I do not think it would be right for me, as an observer, to make any major value judgments, save to say that I have heard about a very worrying picture. I hope and wish that transparency will come forward and we will hear the true facts. If things are as dreadful as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse has said, I wish her the best of luck in clarifying her future. It does not matter what area a victim works in, where they live, or what sex, colour or religion they are—domestic abuse is not acceptable. The Government will work wherever we can to try to stamp out domestic abuse and uphold proper standards in this place.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.