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Women and Equality

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

Domestic Workers (Trafficking)

15. If she will meet non-governmental organisations to discuss the treatment of trafficked female migrant domestic workers. (195485)

I have already met a number of non-governmental organisations to discuss the trafficking of female migrant domestic workers. This disturbing issue was also raised at a round table event with representatives of non-governmental organisations that I held in October.

Is the Minister aware that many hundreds of women come into Britain every year with unscrupulous employers who beat them, bludgeon them, scare them, frighten them into submission and say that if they go to the police they will be deported? To ensure that domestic slavery does not continue to raise its head in Britain, as I believe it already has, will she consider the Home Office’s proposal to prevent visas from being transferred from unscrupulous employers to other employers if the women escape?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which has not been aired much in the House. I also thank him for the work that he continues to do on this horrible issue. I will agree to speak to the Home Office—in fact, I speak to the Home Office quite often about the issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that the primary aim of Pentameter 2, which was launched on 3 October, was to recover victims of sexual and domestic exploitation. That work needs to go on and I welcome his support.

Women’s Representation

The law that we introduced to allow political parties to use women-only shortlists for selection has been one of the most effective ways of increasing women’s representation. On 6 March, I announced our intention to legislate in the new equality Bill to extend the right of political parties to have women-only shortlists until 2030.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. On the Labour Benches in this House, more than a quarter of our representatives are women. In Holyrood, one in two Labour MSPs are women. Those overall averages, however, are unfortunately brought down by the representation of women in other parties. Only 25 per cent. of the SNP’s representatives in Holyrood are women—

Order. A supplementary question must be short. The Minister might try to answer the question.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want improved representation of women so that the issues of concern to women in this country are reflected not only in the House of Commons but in our local councils, too, in our devolved Parliament in Scotland, in Wales, and in London. It is notable that although we have fewer Labour Members in the Scottish Parliament than the Scots Nats, we have twice as many women Members. Women in Scotland are properly represented by Labour women. The other parties say that they support women’s representation but they must get their act together and do something about it.

If it is so important for the Labour party to have more women in Parliament, can the Minister tell us how many male Labour MPs have agreed to cut short their parliamentary career to give up their seat for a woman? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, can we abandon all this political correctness regarding getting more women into Parliament and just concentrate on people being selected on merit?

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of merit. Does he think that this Chamber was meritorious and representative when it was, as it was when I was first elected, 97 per cent. men? Then, it was said that it just so happened that all the men in the country were the best people, and they had to be in this House of Commons. The fact is that we have to bring about change so that women are fairly represented. We have made progress on that in our party. We now have 96 Labour women MPs, and the hon. Gentleman’s party still has only 17. It is in the interests of everyone in this country and of our democracy that there is fair representation in this House of Commons.

In Wales, 47 per cent. of those in the National Assembly are women, which is one of the highest records in the world. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this was achieved only by the efforts of Labour in Wales, by bringing in twinning, and by being bold and acknowledging the fact that we need people who actually represent the communities whom they represent?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and there are three really important issues here. First, it is only with positive action that there has been a difference and an increase in women’s representation. Secondly, it is Labour that has taken the lead—whether in Scotland, Wales or other parts of the UK. Thirdly, women’s representation has made a difference for women in this country, ensuring that women representatives have been able to put issues of concern such as domestic violence, child care and flexibility at work on our political agenda.

What message does it send that, of the Ministers who are women, a disproportionate number of them are not paid, compared with that of male Ministers? Should my right hon. and learned Friend not have a word with the Prime Minister, saying that there should be parity of treatment—equal pay for work of equal value—or is the real question whether Ministers should be paid at all?

The message that it sends is that, while we have made progress, a great deal more still needs to be made.

Historically and regardless of political parties, local government has attracted proportionately more women to participate in it than this House has attracted. What lessons does the Minister think we can learn from that, and why does she think that that has been the case?

In fact, the representation of women in local councils is only about the same as that of women in this House. Historically, there have always been more women in local councils than in this House, but because of the positive action that we have taken, and which has been taken in Scotland and Wales, this House has overtaken that figure. Many of the people who work for local councils are women, providing important local services, as are many of the people who depend on local councils’ services because they are caring for young children or older relatives, or are involved in schools or local social services. Because such services are so important to women in local communities, it is quite wrong that we still have so few women in local government. We need to make progress on that, too.

Domestic Violence

18. If she will make a statement on the Government's policy on assistance for victims of domestic violence. (195489)

I welcome the number of men asking questions in this House today during women’s questions. Although there are women here, none of them is asking a question on the Order Paper.

Delivering support for victims of domestic violence is at the heart of the Government’s recently published action plan for tackling violence. Over the next three years, we are committed to ensuring that they and their families have access to the help that they need, including with accommodation, specialist counselling and legal and financial advice.

Will the Minister undertake to review the assistance provided after the police attend a domestic violence incident? Although the forms and bureaucracy may be appropriate during the first visit, they are perhaps unwieldy and not particularly action-oriented if a second visit by the police is necessary.

I will look into the matter. I welcome the hon. Gentleman raising it in domestic violence month. As Minister for the East of England, I know that we have had an increase in reports of domestic violence in Essex, but I am glad to say that I would count that as a success, because it means that women are now willing to come forward, rather than suffering in silence.

Does the Minister share my concern that according to Home Office figures, domestic violence almost trebled from 241,00 to 658,000 incidents reported in the past year alone, yet the conviction rate for domestic violence is a paltry 5 per cent.?

No. As I said in response to the previous question, we count that as positive because—[Interruption.] Well, it means that people are coming forward to report such incidents. For a long time people were too frightened to report, and we are providing support. There has been an increase in convictions in Essex, as I know from my position as Minister for the East of England.

On the subject of violence against women, some women who suffer from domestic violence find support through rape crisis centres. In the past week I have visited the rape crisis centre in Newcastle and the rape and sexual abuse centre for Merseyside, both unable to provide as full a service as is needed locally because of uncertainties about their funding. On Tuesday the Minister for Women announced in a press release £1 million funding for rape crisis centres. That looked very similar to the announcement nearly two weeks ago by the Home Secretary of £1 million to tackle sexual and domestic violence. Can the Minister confirm that that will indeed be additional money? Can she also confirm over what period the money will be available and exactly how much will be available? Will she guarantee that every penny will go to rape crisis centres?

Once again, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s interest in the matter, which I share. Like her, I have been visiting rape crisis centres and, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, I am concerned to ensure their sustainability. That is why we announced the emergency fund. I can confirm that that is new money and that it is long term. We want to make sure that the centres are sustainable. I hope to improve capacity in rape crisis centres and to get them working with the new sexual assault referral centres, which I think is the way forward.

To continue the theme of uncertain funding, in my local area there is a women’s refuge which, each year, has to go out with a begging bowl to the district council, primary care trusts and so on. What more support can be given to refuge centres, and what can be done to encourage local councils to take up their responsibility and ensure that they make a major contribution to those centres, which are desperately needed?

This is where the new sub-national review gives us an opportunity. Under the local area agreements, we can perhaps influence funding, as long as the sexual and domestic violence sector is ready and able to input into those local area agreements. However, at present only 37.8 per cent. of local authorities have a refuge—that is not good enough—and only a third provide services for victims of domestic violence. In Warwickshire, which is Conservative-controlled, funding for the refuge was cut by half, and in Conservative-controlled Ealing, the funding for Southall Black Sisters is being withdrawn.

I welcome the Government’s announcement that over the summer they will consider the issue of women who are trying to flee domestic violence but who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, but will the Minister commit to putting emergency funding in place now, because abusers will not wait for Government policy and these women need urgent help right now?

Like the hon. Lady, the Government are extremely aware of the acute problems faced by this group, and that is why applications for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom made by victims of domestic violence are prioritised, and where the applicant is destitute we are now waiving fees. It is also why we will shortly be announcing details of a new scheme under which victims of domestic violence with indefinite leave to remain may be able to have their housing and living costs met, but there is more work still to be done in this area.