I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the criminalisation of victims of violence against women from ethnic minority and migrant communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes—I believe for the first time. I am proud to have secured this debate, especially as I chair the all-party parliamentary group on women in contact with the justice system. I want to give voice to black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women who have been victims of abuse, many of whom, far from being protected, have found themselves facing criminal proceedings due to failings in criminal law and practice. That includes those who are victims of domestic abuse, so-called honour-based violence, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women and girls. Meanwhile, in many cases the perpetrators of abuse against those victims are escaping justice. For too long, the Government have dismissed calls for change to prevent the unjust criminalisation of victims.
The backdrop to the debate is an epidemic of violence against women and girls. Every year, my hon. Friend Jess Phillips reads out a long list of women who have been killed over the past 12 months. It is clear that the criminal justice system is failing victims. It is eight years since the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour was introduced, and two years since the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 became law. Those were both positive developments. However, today, there is a continuing failure to take domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls seriously. Victims continue to be prosecuted and convicted for offences that result directly from their experience of abuse.
I have been supported in preparing for the debate by the Centre for Women’s Justice and by the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership. The Centre for Women’s Justice is a lawyer-led charity that works with frontline women’s services to challenge police and prosecution failings around violence against women and girls, including the unjust criminalisation of victims. The Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership consists of six charities that aim to tackle intersectional discrimination experienced by black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the criminal justice system.
Evidence gathered by the Centre for Women’s Justice and the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership highlights a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse among police, prosecutors, lawyers and judges. That includes failures to identify victims, failures to offer them support, failures to take proper account of their experience of abuse in proceedings, and reliance on misogynistic attitudes, myths and stereotypes, as well as a lack of cultural competence.
I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward the debate. I make my point with great sadness—the shadow Minister, Jess Phillips, has a passion for the subject, and she knows this better than most—because, unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we have had some 42 murders of women over a five-year period. That is the highest rate in all Europe, second only to Romania, and it tells me that in Northern Ireland the murder of women and disrespect for women are at higher levels than almost anywhere else. That grieves me greatly.
We always look to the Minister for a positive response, which is what we seek from the debate and what Kate Osamor is rightly asking for. When it comes to having better services in place, it is important that the Minister corresponds with the Minister responsible in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that protection for women across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is improved, especially in Northern Ireland.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for her powerful speech. She is absolutely right that violence against women can happen anywhere. Does she agree that we cannot with integrity call out violence against women in countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, much of which is based on women’s faith and beliefs, unless we also tackle the issue at home?
I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful intervention and commend her for all the work she does in that very saddening space.
Shockingly, victims of violence against women and girls who are not trafficking victims do not have a statutory defence when they are compelled to commit offences in similar circumstances. Another outstandingly bad discrepancy is that householders defending themselves against an intruder are permitted by law to use disproportionate force, provided it is reasonable in the circumstances, but no such leniency is allowed for domestic abuse victims defending themselves against their abuser. Attempts were made to amend the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 to fix that issue, but sadly the Government defeated them.
Data collected by lawyers at the Centre for Women’s Justice found that an alarming 57% of women in prison— at least—have experienced domestic abuse. The true proportion is likely to be much higher due to the barriers to women disclosing abuse. The cases involve a wide range of circumstances: some women were coerced by their abuser to offend and some defended themselves against abuse and were prosecuted as a result.
In one such case, a woman I will call Miss A was charged with driving while disqualified without insurance. The charge included excess alcohol and dangerous driving. She explained that her partner had dragged her from her home while she was partially dressed and forced her to drive. A police officer indicated for them to pull over, and she says that her partner threatened to kill her if she did not drive on. He punched her in the ribs and tried to grab the steering wheel while they were chased by the police. She was prosecuted and convicted, and her conviction was upheld on appeal to the High Court.
Black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women face additional disadvantages. Women and girls from minority ethnic groups are over-represented at every stage in the criminal justice system. That is partly due to a lack of cultural competence: agencies fail to respond appropriately to evidence of abuse, misinterpret women’s behaviour and fail to ensure that women can understand and participate fully in the proceedings against them. Added to that is the evidence of racism in the criminal justice system and the openly hostile environment for migrants.
A woman I will call Miss B entered an arranged marriage in her home country at the age of 15 and was subjected to physical and mental abuse. She then accepted an offer from a man to get her to the UK, but he sexually exploited her and she ran away. After using her friend’s documents to work as a cleaner and a carer, she was caught by immigration control and sent to prison for three months for fraud, before spending time in immigration detention. Thankfully, she met a woman from the fantastic Hibiscus Initiatives, whose women’s centre I have had the pleasure of visiting. It offered her support, and thankfully, since her release, she has been granted leave to remain and has given birth to a healthy baby boy.
The continued failure to introduce a data-sharing firewall between the police and immigration engenders a lack of trust among migrant women, which puts them at greater risk of violence and abuse. Measures in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and proposals in the Illegal Migration Bill curtail the rights of migrant and trafficked women further, leaving them even more vulnerable to abuse and widening the net of criminalisation. Toxic cultures of misogyny and racism in the police have also been highlighted by too many high-profile cases over the years.
It is against this backdrop that a small proportion of victims each year find themselves facing arrest, prosecution and imprisonment because of their experience of abuse. As the Government themselves acknowledged in their female offender strategy, by far the majority of women in prison or under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse, and there are strong links between women’s experience of abuse and their offending or alleged offending.
For ethnic minority and migrant women, it is particularly hard to access support. Migrants with the “no recourse to public funds” condition face extra barriers in seeking crucial support from the state to help them to flee abusive relationships. Meanwhile, research by Refuge has shown that black women are 14% less likely to be referred to its services by police than white survivors of domestic abuse. The Government’s female offender strategy delivery plan, released earlier this year, contained no commitment to take action to end the unjust criminalisation of victims of violence against women and girls, and the Victims and Prisoners Bill has been widely condemned by specialist women’s services for failing to deliver what victims need.
Given the issues I have raised today, I would like to provide the Minister with a series of recommendations, drawing on the work of the Centre for Women’s Justice and the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership. First, will the Government amend the Victims and Prisoners Bill to introduce statutory defences for victims of domestic abuse who are accused of offending, and to add a commitment to the victims code to protect all victims of violence against women and girls from unjust criminalisation, therefore ensuring that they have their rights upheld as victims and are not stigmatised?
Secondly, will the Government increase investment in women’s services for victims facing criminal proceedings, to ensure that they have a safe space to disclose abuse and receive support at the earliest stage, and especially services led by and for black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women? That would help the implementation of a strategic approach to changing the culture of the police and other criminal justice agencies.
Thirdly, the Government should seek to ensure that ethnic minority and migrant women have access to cultural mediation, translation, interpretation and international calls and are provided with improved standards of interpretation and the choice of the gender of their interpreter.
Fourthly, I urge the Government to implement a firewall to end the sharing of victims’ and witnesses’ data between the police and the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes, as recommended by the Justice Committee, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the women’s services sector. That would help to create greater security and confidence for migrant women who come forward to report abuse.
Fifthly, I ask the Government to commit to the annual publication of disaggregated data on gender-based violence and its link with women’s pathways into the criminal justice system, including a distinct focus on ethnic minority and migrant women.
Last, but by no means least, I urge the Government to withdraw proposals in the Illegal Migration Bill that would limit the rights of potential victims of trafficking and leave women far more vulnerable to abuse without recourse.
I have with me a letter for the Minister that sets out in more detail the demands and asks for change put forward by the Centre for Women’s Justice and the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership, and requests a written response to our recommendations and a meeting; I hope the Minister will be kind enough to accept it. I would be grateful if the Minister considered those proposals closely and worked with me and other Members from across the House who are here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osamor on securing this important debate and championing the plight of domestic abuse survivors, including survivors of domestic abuse who find themselves unable to access support due to no recourse to public funds, an issue on which she has been an advocate in this House.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and abuse, I am all too aware of the impact of the cost of living crisis. There is no doubt about its impact. Although we hear constantly about the crisis and its effects on families, schools and pensioners, we hear less about how it prevents women from fleeing domestic abuse. Even before the cost of living crisis, finances already acted as a barrier to people leaving an abuser. Survivors often struggle to access the money that they need to flee, and the cost of living crisis has hugely exacerbated that.
A recent survey published in January by Women’s Aid found that 73% of survivors had either been prevented from fleeing as a result of the crisis or it had made it harder for them to flee. In my view, the cost of living crisis and economic and financial abuse in particular are placing survivors of domestic abuse at risk of criminalisation. For example, in my borough of Tower Hamlets, the safer neighbourhood team has found that the most shoplifted item in the borough right now is Calpol. That is an utterly devastating fact. We know that that is driven by poverty and the utter desperation of mainly women and mothers.
I want to turn to the experiences of women survivors in the criminal justice system. We should all be appalled that at least 57% of women in prison or under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse. Indeed, campaigners have long raised their plight and the need for far greater support for them, as well as legal safeguards to prevent victims from being criminalised as a result of their abuse. This cannot be emphasised enough: we have known for long enough that black and ethnic minority women are disproportionately drawn into the criminal justice system and therefore, as the Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership has said, suffer from that double disadvantage.
I want to raise the plight of pregnant women in prison. The imprisonment of pregnant women is wrong. They are almost twice as likely to give birth prematurely and are five times more likely to experience a stillbirth. The Ministry of Justice is aware of that and campaigners have long called for no woman to have to give birth in prison. In 2019, for example, a woman gave birth in a prison cell in Bronzefield prison, which is Europe’s largest women’s prison with no access to a midwife or any maternity care. The woman’s baby did not survive. That is a huge injustice. I think most people in this country will see it as a grave injustice that women in prison are often expected to give birth without the care that is needed, so I urge the Government to review that. Once a year, campaigners including Level Up and No Births Behind Bars are outside the Royal Courts of Justice and outside Parliament campaigning on that issue.
I also want to raise the issues around pregnant refugees. Under the current provisions in the Illegal Migration Bill, pregnant refugees are likely to be placed in circumstances worse than the already inhumane situation of pregnant women in UK prisons. In places such as Manston, there have been outbreaks of diphtheria and reports of assaults and drug use by guards. Last year it was estimated that Manston was detaining thousands of people who arrived in Britain via small boats—some for as long as 40 days or more. No one should be detained in such places at all, never mind those who are pregnant. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and Maternity Action have all raised the issue of healthcare in immigration detention and the fact that it is very poor indeed.
In 2014, some 99 women were locked up in Serco-run Yarl’s Wood detention centre while pregnant, and research by Medical Justice found that they often missed antenatal appointments, often had no ultrasound scans, did not have direct access to a midwife and could not request visits. Surely that is an injustice and needs to be addressed. Many of those women will have fled persecution and violence in other parts of the world, and they go on perhaps to experience violence and abuse in this country as well.
I also want to speak about the condition of no recourse to public funds. The case has been made again and again; the research and the evidence are there as to how that is having an impact on migrant survivors of domestic abuse’s ability to come forward. I appreciate the steps and strides made in the Domestic Abuse Act. No one can take away from the fact that that was landmark legislation and had a lot of support on both sides of the House. It was important that we put this matter on a statutory footing and ensured that there were provisions to support people. But what was missing was support for migrant survivors of domestic abuse.
One of my concerns is about the DDVC, the destitution domestic violence concession, which allows those women who do come forward to apply for leave to remain, if they have the intention to apply for indefinite leave to remain, to get a three-month period to, essentially, sort themselves out. How can they really, in a three-month period, sort themselves out to get a roof over their head and have a sense of security while they are escaping domestic abuse? I am aware that there are the domestic violence ILR rules as well.
The problem underpinning all of this is that women and survivors will not come forward unless they are aware, and feel absolutely confident, that their information will not be shared with immigration enforcement, so I support the calls that are being made again and again that we need a firewall to end the sharing of data between the police and the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes. That has been recommended by the Select Committee on Justice, by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and all other women’s sector services. It literally can make the difference between life and death for migrant survivors of domestic abuse.
Lastly, I want to say a little about my own case. The topic that we are debating today cuts to the core of my experiences. Colleagues will be aware that two years after being elected, I endured an eight-day trial, instigated by a complaint made by my ex-husband’s brother-in-law, which forced me to talk about my painful and private experiences of domestic abuse. The action was taken by my local council, and my ex-husband was a councillor at the time. I was found to be innocent of all the charges, but what remains is that the matter of domestic abuse was actually used against me by the prosecution; it was argued that the domestic abuse was a motive for the alleged crimes. As Raj Chada, who represented me—he is the criminal defence partner at Hodge Jones & Allen—argued:
“Prosecutors and investigators need to better understand and consider how victims of coercive control and domestic abuse behave and how they are treated by the criminal justice system.”
It is absolutely imperative that the Government now look at introducing statutory defences for victims of domestic abuse who are accused of offences, and add to the victims code a commitment to protect all victims of violence from unjust criminalisation, ensuring that they have their rights upheld as victims and are not further stigmatised. Additional safeguards are needed throughout the criminal justice process. The Tackling Double Disadvantage partnership is calling for the introduction where necessary of additional safeguards, such as a process to allow the pausing of a police interview under caution where it becomes clear that the suspect may be a victim of domestic abuse. I did not have that. I am not saying that, as a Member of Parliament, I should have been treated specially or differently, but I am describing my case and my experiences of being interviewed under police caution, where I made the position very clear, and it took a lot of confidence and courage to come forward and say, “This is what has been happening and I am still fearful of what my ex-husband can do to me, just for coming forward—just for speaking out.”
There did not seem to be an understanding of domestic abuse in the handling of the case in its early stages, and I fear that other people are being prosecuted for offences in relation to which the law does not necessarily take into account the impact and experiences of domestic abuse. My case was a fraud case; there are no statutory defences around domestic abuse in a case such as that. The case rested heavily on the approach of the prosecution, which considered domestic abuse a motivating factor for the crime. I therefore call for additional safeguards and statutory defences, and for a commitment to the victims code to protect people from unjust criminalisation. I strongly feel that what happened to me must never happen to anyone ever again, but I fear that it is still happening to many people in this country.
I thank the Centre for Women’s Justice and the Tackling Double Disadvantage Partnership. The partnership is made up of a number of organisations, which I will name: Hibiscus Initiatives, Agenda Alliance, Women in Prison, the Zahid Mubarek Trust, the Muslim Women in Prison project and the Criminal Justice Alliance. They are making a range of calls on the Government; I have already mentioned the firewall on data sharing between police and the Home Office. They are also calling for increased investment in women-specific services, specifically for victims of violence who are facing criminal proceedings, so that women have a safe space to disclose and receive support, and they are calling for that investment to be made particularly in services that are for and led by black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women. They are also calling for criminal justice practitioners at every stage of the process—whether police, judges, juries, or prisons and probation services—to take proper account of the abuse experienced by victim suspects and defendants, and to be made accountable for doing so. That call is about having access to training, guidance and expert support from women’s specialist services, so that criminal justice practitioners can consider fully the relationship between alleged offending and experiences of abuse.
Without the support of the women’s sector, I too would have found myself not necessarily having the language to describe my experiences. It was profoundly empowering to put the proper words to my own experience, so that it could be understood by the criminal justice system. That would not have happened without the support that I ended up receiving, and availability of that support is a postcode lottery for many people in this country. For example, there are just not enough independent domestic violence advocates. I know that the Government are providing a statutory definition in the Victims and Prisoners Bill. We can make a statutory definition of what an IDVA is and does, but there need to be enough of them. There needs to be a commitment to funding enough of them, whether through Victim Support or local and established services. We can put things in Bills, but we need the funding to ensure that they can be implemented and have an impact.
I have already mentioned the Illegal Migration Bill. The Tackling Double Disadvantage Partnership is calling for the withdrawal of provisions that would limit the rights of potential victims of trafficking. We have to understand the experiences of women who have been persecuted and are fleeing violence in other parts of the world. They also have rights under international law, and we have to take that into account in terms of their experiences in this country.
Finally, I have not really mentioned data, apart from the data sharing among the Home Office, immigration enforcement and the police. It is important to collect and analyse disaggregated data to improve our understanding of the criminalisation of victims of violence against women and girls, and of the intersection between that and the experiences of black, Asian and minoritised and migrant women. Not enough data is available, and I could say lots about why it is not, but it is absolutely important to make that data available. Victims themselves need to know what is happening in the criminal justice system and the sector needs to know as well.
Every week, two women in the UK are killed by a current or ex-partner, and 49% of those women are killed less than a month after separation. That is unacceptable and preventable. Women make up 5% of the prison population, and so many of them will be victims of domestic abuse. That is also unacceptable. So many of those women are giving birth behind prison bars, which is also unacceptable. But this is all preventable. This injustice is preventable and I urge the Government to take action sooner rather than later.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Kate Osamor for securing this really important debate. It is timely when the rights and voices of women are being silenced—an issue that is really important to us all.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Apsana Begum for always being honest in sharing her own personal story, because every time she speaks about it she is helping another woman to have the strength and courage to come forward. That is not easy, but even if it is only one woman who comes forward, it is possible that they could change and impact another woman’s life, so I thank her for that and for always being honest about that.
I want to speak about an issue that sometimes we, as a society, sweep aside: girls who are associated with gangs, and the violence and sexual violence that they face. When we talk about gangs, people perceive violence and youth crime as an issue that predominantly affects young men and boys, but a number of girls are also being criminalised. If we look at county lines, we know that many gangs use young women to transport drugs up and down the country because they are less detectable. We also know that those girls are being criminally exploited. Child criminal exploitation is a big issue, and child sexual exploitation is also a big issue.
We see gang members involved in county lines sexually exploiting vulnerable young women and girls. We see male gang members grooming those young women into sexual relationships, to a point where those young women and girls do not realise that they are being groomed and used. They think they are in a relationship; they look up to this male. Then they are tricked into opening bank accounts, and tricked into using their homes to cuckoo and store drugs and weapons, including knives and guns, all with the allure of this older male being their partner.
For a number of these girls, it is quite hard to break out of these relationships. The issue of debt bondage comes in. They have to pay back the gang members, and that payback is often in the form of sexual exploitation. These girls have been raped multiple times by gang members. In some cases, gang initiation practices involve multiple rapes of these girls. How do we see the police and other agencies responding? They criminalise these young girls. They say that they are gang members, not recognising that they are being exploited both criminally and sexually. So we need a gendered approach when we talk about these young women and girls who are being exploited sexually.
Also, a number of these young women and girls are from a black and minority ethnic background, and they already have no faith in the criminal justice system. They feel that no one will believe them. I remember what happened to Sarah Everard in my borough—where she was attacked and kidnapped was close to the area I represented as a ward councillor. I have walked those roads. In one of the sessions that I had with a group of youth workers, one of the girls said to me, “If they can’t even believe someone like Sarah Everard, what chance do they have of believing me?” That is how the girls see it in terms of what is happening with the policing system.
We need to consider how we hear the voices of young black and minority ethnic women in the criminal justice system, and not just throw away the key and lock them up. We need to make sure that we listen to them when they tell us they are being sexually exploited and criminally exploited, and not perceive them as gang members. We need to listen when they are coerced into opening bank accounts so that money can be transported through them. We need to listen to them when they face being made homeless, often with their young children, and see their tenancies end because their homes are being used by gang members. We need to make sure that we believe these young women.
Sadly, in January 2019 the National Crime Agency estimated that 91% of people associated with county lines were men, but females were under-represented both as offenders and victims of exploitation because the data is not there. One of the issues I raised when I held a Westminster Hall debate on this subject was the importance of ensuring that violence reduction units, police and crime commissioners and different policing agencies across the country hold data on how many girls and young women come into their services. There is a lot of data on boys and young men. The data on women and girls is patchy at best. It is important that when the police stop and search a car with a young girl in it, they do not assume that she is the girlfriend of a gang member. She could be being held in that car against her will. She could be being criminally or sexually exploited. It is about asking her questions about her safety.
We see these young women and girls providing support to gang members when there is a stabbing. Again, I remember speaking to a gang member, who said, “When there is an incident—a stabbing—it is the girls and young women who are the first ones there.” It is the girls and young women who offer mentoring and trauma support to those young boys—who organise the funerals, lay flowers and tend to the burial site. Where is the help and support for those young girls? It is important, when we talk about violence against women and girls and minority ethnic women, that we think about their voices and ensure that they are heard.
On the specific area of girls associated with gangs, I ask the Minister when the Government will start working with the PCCs and violence reduction units to ensure that we collate the data on a gendered approach, because if we are serious about tackling the issue of violence against women and girls, we need to ensure that we have the data in the first instance.
I believe this is the first time I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I want to say a massive congratulations to my hon. Friend Kate Osamor for bringing forward this important debate, and to all the agencies that compiled the report. I am hopeful that the Minister will want to arrange a meeting with them to look at the findings, which, from my experience, are clear and accurate.
The nub of the issue, as my hon. Friend identified, comes from Refuge data, which found that black women are 14% less likely to be referred to its services for support by the police than white survivors. I have worked in the field for a long time, and people often say these are—I hate this language—“hard to reach” groups. In actual fact, black women are 3% more likely to report abuse to the police and 14% less likely to be referred by police services to specialist services. This is not a hard-to-reach cohort of people; this is a group of people asking for help and not being provided with it. There is something fundamental in that statistic about where we are going wrong, before we even get to the idea of people being criminalised.
To my hon. Friend Apsana Begum: maybe I just have not slept very well this week, but the statistic about Calpol being the thing that was most stolen in her constituency, based on police data, made me want to cry. That is unbelievable, yet so believable. That was before she went on to speak about her experience, where criminalisation was undoubtedly used as a weapon by her abusers. That is not uncommon. I first read about the charges against my hon. Friend in The Sun, when she had only just been elected. It was not a very detailed piece but as a professional in this area, on reading it, I did not see a woman being criminalised; despite having never spoken to her, I instantly knew that she was a victim of domestic abuse. I contacted her immediately to say as much. Why on earth could the first criminal justice agency to interact with her in that case not see that from the evidence in front of it? It is a disgrace.
What I am seeing at the moment, specifically in domestic abuse cases where children are involved, is that the new game in town for those accused of domestic abuse who want to attack their accuser is claim and counterclaim, and I have recently encountered counterclaims against known victims of domestic abuse that have led to their arrest. In one case I am handling, the health visitor of a woman who had been to the multi-agency risk assessment conference eight times, such was the high-risk nature of the threat to her life—two attempts had been made on her life, and on the lives of her child and parents—turned up at my office in a desperate panic because the woman had been put in a prison cell owing to counterclaims by her ex-husband.
Every single claim and counterclaim case I have been involved with in which the police have made an arrest has involved an Asian woman—and that is not just because of the demographics of the area that I represent. I am watching black and minoritised women being criminalised literally for being victims of domestic abuse. As I say, that interacts very badly with our failing family court system, where the game in town for a long time was parent alienation. Now that has been widely rebuked, there is a new game: every single domestic abuse claim a woman makes in family court—bar rape, one notices—gets turned around and put back on her. In every case where I have seen claim and counterclaim lead to either criminalisation or poor decisions in family court—this is totally anecdotal, based on my personal experience; I would love to show some data, but neither the Home Office nor the family courts collect any, so everyone gathered here will have to take my word for it—it has involved a black or Asian woman. There is definitely a problem in the system; I am seeing it live with my own eyes. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse is incredibly brave to talk about her experiences again, and I am proud to know her.
To the points made by my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, again, missing data is part of the problem, but the brutal exploitation of girls in gangs, both criminally and through sexual exploitation, only for them to go on and be criminalised, is absolutely woeful. Some 63% of girls and young women serving sentences in the community have experienced rape or domestic abuse in intimate partner relationships. I have absolutely no doubt that a large number of those will be linked to the gang and sexual exploitation activity that is going on.
We in the Labour party are seeking to amend the Victims and Prisoners Bill so that child criminal exploitation is defined in law. So far, the Government have pushed back against that, but hope springs eternal that by the time the Bill comes back in its next iteration they will have decided that defining child criminal exploitation in law is important. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall has lent her voice to that. Moreover, on the push for data, I cannot express enough how we need better data on all of these things. The situation is woeful.
This is not new news. At the moment, I sometimes feel like I am in a meeting that I was in 20 years ago. We must be 20 years on from Baroness Corston’s report, which roundly proved that criminalising women was costly to society, dangerous for our criminal justice agencies and bore no results. I used to run a female offenders’ centre in the west midlands that came about because of what was in the Corston report and we had a 97% non-reoffending rate. Sadly, I think the state has the opposite: a 97% reoffending rate. We know that women’s centres and services that divert people from prison work. It is not soft touch; it stops criminal activity. Do I think for a second that somebody who has stolen some Calpol should go to prison? That is phenomenal, yet it happens up and down our country. We know the data.
Unfortunately, the Government have a policy of building new women’s prisons, which they will fill overnight at great cost to the taxpayer. The reoffending rate achieved will be nowhere near as good as investing that money in women’s centre services. I set up a women’s centre because I watched victims of domestic abuse from my refuge being criminalised as part of the pattern of the abuse they had suffered, for things such as their children not going to school—that is the point of a women’s centre. Women move miles away from their home, where they have been living in horrendous situations in which they have basically been enslaved, and their children are frightened to leave them to go to a new school. Then they are criminalised because their children will not go to school. That is just unbelievable bad practice, all over the country.
I am not entirely sure why the Government, in the small bit of data they bother to collect, would look at the reoffending rates from prisons and women’s centres and think, “Prisons: that is the one for us.” It is absolute madness and does not make any sense. The failed and now returned to the state privatisation of probation—a dreadful and failed experiment over the past 10 years—has largely decimated our women’s criminal justice centres, which were doing brilliant and amazing work. I cannot stress enough the need for better data and understanding in this space.
On statutory defences, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, I tabled amendments to that effect in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. I continue to believe that statutory defences in cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence and exploitation should have a role in our law. Just as my hon. Friend pointed, it seems ridiculous that the same provisions for cases of force used in break-ins do not exist for victims of domestic abuse. It is as if the state is basically saying “We are not expecting zero violence. You should be able to take a bit of violence before you kick back.” That is pretty grim, and I urge the Government once again to look at statutory defences. Under the stewardship of Mrs May, statutory defences were put into law in cases of modern slavery and human trafficking.
I am afraid to say that, although the law is written well, the practice is not so good, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall pointed out, so much more work needs to be done in that space. But there is nothing for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead, the ex-Prime Minister and Home Secretary—back in the time when Home Secretaries stayed for a long time—acted with a spirit of fairness and had an understanding of what will work and what is right. I encourage the Government to take on that grit.
As for the firewall, I will briefly say that a woman in my constituency came to me because her husband was threatening to kill her. He continued to threaten to kill her after she called the police, as I told her to do, and she had a “sig” marker put on her house because her life was at risk. The police turned up, and the next thing I know she called me. Because she did not speak particularly good English, she said that she was in Bradford, but she was actually in Bedford, in Yarl’s Wood, because when she called the police to say that her husband was threatening to kill her and was coming round, she ended up in immigration detention. She has since, of course, been given indefinite leave to remain; I think she is actually a British citizen now. She should never have been detained, and she certainly should not have been detained when there was a threat to her life, because the next time her husband threatens to kill her, she will not call the police, and then I will read out her name on the next International Women’s Day.
We have case after case like that, and the Government’s response to our amendments on the firewall—the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has made clear that he supports that, and anybody who knows anything about anything thinks it is a good idea—is to act as if they are doing a kindness. What a kindness they did to my constituent when they put her in detention when her life was at risk. They act as if they are doing a kindness when they say, “Well, sometimes there is a need for the police to speak to immigration.” Of course there is. I speak to immigration all the time, but I do not do it as an enforcer; I do it to try to ensure that a victim’s immigration status can be sorted out and she can access the right services, and I do it at her request.
There is absolutely no reason why the police could not act in exactly the same way. No one is saying that we can never speak to immigration, but we should speak not to immigration enforcement, but to the Home Office at the point at which the victim needs her immigration sorted out. Caseworkers in violence against women and girls services do that all over the country, all the time, and nobody ends up in detention, so why do they when the police do it? It is a disgrace—it is part of the hostile environment—that the Government do not want to end the practice of detaining women who come forward to say that they have been raped or abused, that their lives are at risk, and that something should be done about it.
The Government agreed to the Istanbul convention, apart from the bit about migrant women. They literally carved out their rights, creating a two-tier system.
I will sit down shortly.
There is literally no excuse. I really hope the Government look at the report I mentioned, take its recommendations incredibly seriously, and use facts and evidence, not ideology, to make decisions about what they do with my constituents’ tax money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to Kate Osamor for securing such an important debate. I also thank everybody in the Public Gallery for taking the trouble to come along to listen to us. A lot of people work very hard in this area. I accept the letter with pleasure; I know a lot of work has gone into it. The recommendations will be separately and carefully looked at, and there will be meetings if meetings are sought. I thank them very much for that hard work.
As the hon. Lady and other hon. Members are aware, the Government take tackling violence against women and girls very seriously. We are determined to strengthen our response to those horrific crimes, which cause so much pain and suffering across society. We are working in that regard.
I will come to our approach in more detail, but I want to make the point at the outset that the needs of victims and survivors are central to all the work we do in this area. That means that when they encounter the criminal justice system, they should get effective and sensitive support, and should be treated with the utmost respect and compassion.
Let me turn to some of the specific issues raised by Members. In relation to female offenders, we know that many women who come into contact with the criminal justice system have experienced domestic abuse. Ethnic minority women in particular are over-represented at each stage of the criminal justice system, and they face disparities associated with their ethnicity, faith and culture. Since the publication of the female offender strategy in January, we have begun a programme of work aimed at improving criminal justice outcomes and disparities, and we have established the female offender minority ethnic working group, or FOME, to take that forward.
The programme of work includes cultural awareness raising for staff, commissioning an evidence review better to identify and understand the issues that lead to or underpin disparities for ethnic minority and foreign national women, and developing guidance for prison and probation staff better to understand the family relationship structures and support needs of ethnic minority and foreign women.
I thank Apsana Begum for sharing her experiences of the criminal justice system. As a new Minister, I responded on behalf of the Government to her Westminster Hall debate last November, and heard of her experiences. I thank her for participating in today’s debate.
Women in the criminal justice system have complex issues and vulnerabilities—for example, a history of abuse. There are some things on which I agree with the Opposition spokesman, Jess Phillips. Statistics show that 67% of women in custody or supervised in the community by the probation service with an assessment have experienced domestic abuse. Female prisoners are twice as likely to report the experience of abuse during childhood—53% of women against 27% of men—and female prisoners who report having experienced abuse as a child are more likely to report suffering sexual abuse than male prisoners. The figures are 67% for women and 24% for men. However, we need to remember that there are also vulnerable prisoners of the other sex.
Let me mention the Centre for Women’s Justice. The Ministry of Justice regularly works with the centre, and notably on the rape review, there is a high level of engagement, alongside the Home Office. A lot of work is being done. The centre will also work closely with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Edward Argar, throughout the passage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill. Some of the issues we are discussing today are not directly in my portfolio, but I work closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.
Order. May I interrupt the Minister for a moment? Somebody in the Public Gallery is using a telephone. May I alert the Doorkeeper to that? Back to you, Minister.
I am grateful, Ms Nokes.
On the cost of living, the Government remain committed to supporting victims. We have launched a £300,000 flexible fund, which we are working closely with Women’s Aid to deliver. I was privileged to visit a refuge recently, and to speak to the women who will benefit and who have benefited from that money, which has been accepted. The fund was launched on
I am always pleased when money runs out because that means it has been fully utilised. I was about to finish the sentence by saying that further support is under review. The demand for that service has been considered.
Let me mention one or two other points that hon. Members raised with great earnestness. On the drugs strategy and county lines, on
How will the Victims and Prisoners Bill improve people’s experience and the experience of victims? We are supporting victims of domestic abuse by enhancing the position of independent domestic violence advisers, while improving wider support services through a joint statutory duty in England on police and crime commissioners, local authorities and health bodies to collaborate in commissioning support services. Beyond the Bill, we are providing £51 million to support victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. Those are unprecedented numbers that the Government have committed to this field.
I have a little more time to mention support for migrant victims of domestic abuse. How we support migrant victims of domestic abuse has been raised by several hon. Members today. Let me reiterate that the Government are committed to supporting all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of their immigration status. We know that victims of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status can face additional barriers when seeking support from agencies and professionals. That is why in April 2021 the Government launched the support for migrant victims scheme, which is run by Southall Black Sisters and their delivery partners. I have had the pleasure on numerous occasions to speak with members of that organisation. That scheme provides wraparound support for migrant victims, including accommodation, subsistence support and counselling. As I mentioned, I am pleased to have met members of the organisation on several occasions and I am grateful for their work in this area.
As committed to in the domestic abuse plan, we allocated up to £1.4 million in 2022-23 to continue to fund the scheme. We have now extended that funding into March 2025. More than 950 victims have been supported through the scheme since its introduction, and I welcome the important work that Southall Black Sisters and many other specialist organisations do in this area.
Data sharing, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, is an area where there are strongly held views. Following our 2022 review of data sharing for migrant victims of crime, we will be establishing a migrant victims protocol. That will provide an assurance to individuals that no immigration enforcement action will be taken while criminal justice proceedings are ongoing or while support to make applications to regularise their stay is being sought.
Alongside establishing that protocol, we are developing a code of practice on personal data sharing between the police and the Home Office regarding victims of domestic abuse subject to immigration control.
The Government have committed large amounts of funding to support partners, and are always looking at and reviewing what they are going to do.
If I could just progress a little, I will mention the code of practice, which is pertinent to this area. Both the code of practice and the migrant victims protocol are currently under development. We are engaging with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Information Commissioner Office on the code, and considering how to engage further in this area.
I will be happy to do so once I have made a little more progress.
Right at the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Edmonton said that she had grave concerns about how people are dealt with by the police. I agree, on behalf of Government, that it is crucial for police officers to have the right tools and training to engage sensitively and appropriately will all victims of domestic abuse.
I hope it is useful to set out what training is already available for the police. For those entering the service, the College of Policing’s foundation training includes substantial coverage of police ethics, including the effects of personal conscious and unconscious bias. The initial training, undertaken by all officers, also covers hate crimes, ethics, equalities and policing without bias. Further training is then provided in specialist areas throughout an officer’s career. For example, training for those involved in public protection includes methods to raise officers’ self-awareness of their own views, stereotypes and biases.
The Minister may be aware of Valerie’s law. We are asking the police to look at having specialist training covering the fact that bruises and scars from domestic abuse do not show as much on the skin of black and minority ethnic women. The police have been found not to have believed some of these women, so does the Minister agree that there should be police training on that?
When I have had engagement with the national leads from the College of Policing, I have always been impressed with how they have been prepared to develop and pursue areas in their training. I know the hon. Lady will make representations to them and to me on how the training can be made better, and I am always interested in hearing about that.
I am pleased that Domestic Abuse Matters training has been widely undertaken. The Domestic Abuse Matters programme has been delivered to the majority of forces and we are supporting the roll-out to remaining forces. There are also updated modules, which are of assistance.
I will just pursue this point for a little while.
The first responders training specifically considers the needs and vulnerabilities of different victims as a core thread running throughout. The training also specifically covers responding to so-called honour-based abuse. We have not debated that in detail today so I will not spend too long on it, but I am pleased the training is developing in areas where that is needed. That is why debates such as this are so informative—because new ideas and recommendations can be brought forward. The College of Policing also issues authorised professional practice documents, which are the official source of professional practice on policing.
Various hon. Ladies raised the issue of data, and that is important because data and evidence is what informs us. While we received much reassuring information in December when His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services and its partner organisations published their report on the super-complaint, there is a need for improvement in the recording of ethnicity data and for the police to develop wider awareness of the different cultures and religions in their local communities. The Home Secretary and I take this very seriously. I am pleased the police have accepted the recommendations relating to those points and I look forward to seeing positive change as a result.
Funding for ethnic minority victims has also been raised in the debate. Violence against women and girls affects a wide range of people, and a one-size-fits-all approach is not always the most appropriate way to support victims, especially those with specific needs and vulnerabilities, which includes ethnic minority victims. We recognise the importance of specialist “by and for” VAWG services to understand the specific issues that ethnic minority victims face; they have the necessary skills and experience to provide that support. One of the pleasures of being the Minister with responsibility for this area has been meeting so many experienced people in these fields—voluntary, paid, individuals, groups. It has been wonderful.
To further bolster this important work that the Government do, the Home Office, alongside the Ministry of Justice, has launched the violence against women and girls fund, which will allocate up to £8.4 million of funding for “by and for” and specialist services across England and Wales over two years. The competition has concluded and announcements on successful bidders will be shared in due course.
The Home Office has also recently awarded over £10 million to organisations providing specialist support to children who have been impacted by domestic abuse, an area close to the hearts of all of us in this room. As part of this, we have provided SafeLives with funding to specifically improve the support available for children from ethnic minority backgrounds. This includes developing the knowledge of frontline professionals by delivering training with support from specialist “by and for” organisations.
As set out in the tackling domestic abuse plan, we aim to enable a whole-system approach to make sure the whole system operates in greater co-ordination to respond to domestic abuse and support victims. This support is essential and that is why we committed to invest up to £7.5 million in domestic abuse interventions in healthcare settings. It is very important that we tackle this and support each and every agency we can. This will include independent domestic violence advocates informed by, and specialised in, the needs of marginalised victims.
The Government response to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s “A Patchwork of Provision” report, published in March, reiterates the value of “by and for” specialist services in providing the tailored support required by those with protected characteristics and those who experience the highest levels of exclusion from mainstream services.
I offer my thanks again to the hon. Member for Edmonton for securing the debate. I look forward to reading in further detail the recommendations in her assessment report, which will be given to me. This is an important and emotive subject, as reflected in the emotions and careful considerations of this debate. As I said at the beginning, the Government are wholeheartedly committed to tackling violence against women and girls. That means going after perpetrators, strengthening our systems and, crucially, ensuring that victims and survivors get the support they need and deserve, whatever their background and ethnicity.
Thank you for reminding us, Ms Nokes.
I thank everyone who has helped me to put this debate together. It is really important that this House has considered the criminalisation of victims of violence against women from ethnic minority and migrant communities.
The Minister said that the Government are committed to tackling disparities facing ethnic minority women in the criminal justice system. Although the inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities are mentioned in the delivery plan, it does not go far enough. We need to tackle institutional racism in the criminal justice system from top to bottom. It is no wonder that black and ethnic minority women do not trust the police and the criminal justice system, for many different reasons. When we hear stories such as those of the police officers taking pictures of Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, we know that the lack of trust across the community only deepens. There is a lot of work still to be done. I thank the Minister for accepting my letter, and I look forward to working alongside the Government to improve outcomes for victims of domestic violence.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the matter of the criminalisation of victims of violence against women from ethnic minority and migrant communities.