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Domestic Violence

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

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.