Skip to main content

Domestic Violence

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 8 May 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allocating me my first Adjournment debate in the Chamber. It is an honour and an excellent opportunity for me to raise this very important subject of Government support for organisations that support the victims of domestic violence. Tackling the problems associated with domestic violence is of great importance and interest to me and to my constituents who regularly speak to me at my constituency surgeries.

I hope today not only to discuss the general problem of domestic violence against women, but to lay out the particular problems that women from black and minority ethnic communities face. I will also address how central and local government can support women suffering domestic violence and deal with the organisations in the voluntary sector that provide support services.

Domestic violence still claims up to two lives a week, with around half of all female homicides being committed by a partner or ex-partner. About one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence. With those appalling statistics as a backdrop, we must all ensure that there is zero tolerance towards domestic violence and that we do all within our power to support individuals and organisations tackling this widespread and evil problem in our society.

The causes of domestic violence are well known: male chauvinism, poor parental role models, outdated and controlling attitudes of weak men, often fuelled by alcohol and gambling problems and added to by financial pressures, and a lack of condemnation and punishment from society. Victims find it extremely difficult to get support to escape a violent situation for fear of retribution and fear of testifying against their partner in court to bring about a conviction.

Fortunately, times are changing and I congratulate the Government and the Minister on the excellent work that is going on across government in tackling the causes, which is having a discernible impact on the problem. For example, the Government have introduced trained domestic violence prosecutors, specialist domestic violence courts and extra support for victims, which has resulted in the successful prosecution rate for domestic violence increasing from 46 per cent. in 2003 to 69 per cent. by December 2007. I endorse the Government’s approach as recently laid out in the Government Equalities Office report “Tackling Violence Against Women”.

The general challenges for women suffering from domestic violence are immense, but they are added to and intensified for black and minority ethnic women, who have to deal with a host of additional difficulties. Some of these are forced marriages, fear of honour killings and the social evils of the caste system, the dowry system, human trafficking, immigration practices and cultural pressures. For those coming from outside the UK, there is also the problem of language barriers and a lack of knowledge of the system. All these pressures can result in BME women being forced into exploitative cheap labour and, in extreme circumstances, prostitution. In my constituency, those women are the majority of sufferers and I hear tragic accounts almost daily.

I applaud the Government for the initiatives they are taking to support these women, such as through the joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office forced marriage unit, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 that comes into effect in October this year and provides civil protection for people threatened with forced marriages, the establishment of the UK Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield and the £2.4 million allocated over the next two years to the POPPY project, which provides safe accommodation and support for victims of trafficking escaping from prostitution. The Government’s Ethnic Minorities Innovation Fund is helping to fund a number of accessibility-related services on the ground, including a holistic service for south Asian victims of violence against women.

There is a lot of work to be done, but if the Government work in partnership with support organisations on the ground, a real difference can be made. We need to publicise, and raise awareness of, the help that women can receive and the support networks that exist.

Organisations such as the Southall Black Sisters are working in the BME community and are reaching women who would otherwise be suffering on their own. They speak to women in their own language and with cultural sensitivity and awareness. They have real expertise and have worked closely with the Government to help draft the 2007 Act, and they are the real voice of many women who are suffering from all kinds of domestic violence.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work he has done on behalf of his constituents since his election. He mentioned the Southall Black Sisters. As he knows, the Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into domestic violence. We have visited the Southall Black Sisters. It is vital that such organisations are adequately funded so that they can continue to do the excellent work that that organisation has done over the past 30 years.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and for his support for the organisation.

Given the Southall Black Sisters’ expertise and international reputation it is very concerning and shocking to note that it is currently threatened with closure because of short-sighted grant commissioning policies due to be implemented in my borough of Ealing but which are currently due for judicial review. The council has cynically used the Government’s cohesion agenda to stop funding specialist services for those who historically have been the most marginalised and least able to assert their human rights.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the Government’s human rights commitment does not, as I believe Ealing council has claimed, mean that there is an excuse to stop specialist expert services such as those provided by the Southall Black Sisters. Members who have spoken so far in this debate have greatly welcomed that organisation, and it should not be prevented from offering the best possible service to south Asian victims of domestic violence. I hope that the Minister will make a strong statement on that when she responds to the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful comments and her support.

Other secular Asian women’s domestic violence services are threatened by the cohesion-faith agenda and by the wholesale redefinition of equality so that it is no longer about protecting the historically disfranchised. Central Government need to produce robust guidance on cohesion policies and their implementation for local authorities, and should look to developing a central strategy on funding for key services, such as on domestic violence, that are not dependent on local authorities. I hope that the Minister will find a way to help that first-class organisation, which helps so many women in Southall, Ealing and beyond. I hope that Ministers will consider carefully the responses to the recent public consultation “Marriage Partners from Overseas”, and I welcome the Government’s intention to establish a new scheme under which victims of domestic violence with indefinite leave to remain in the UK may qualify for a contribution to their housing and living costs.

More thinking also needs to be done to try to protect those women without leave to remain who often end up being exploited and driven into prostitution. A starting point would be speeding up the time that the Home Office takes to make decisions. I urge the Government to consider reducing fees for genuine domestic violence ILR applications.

Another area that needs to be looked at is dowry and the exploitation of women and their families through the abuse of this system. In India, dowries are illegal but are still widely entered into and are still part of the culture amongst south Asians here in the UK. In 2005, the Indian Government passed the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. In its definition of “domestic violence”, the Act includes

“harassment by way of unlawful dowry demands to the woman or her family.”

A similar clause in UK law is necessary if some of the abuses that are occurring in the UK today are to be tackled.

I thank colleagues for their support and contributions to this debate and I now look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. I am also grateful for the opportunity to raise these important issues in this debate.

I shall begin by saying how much I welcome this debate and the opportunity that it presents to set out the work that the Government are doing in this area. I also wish to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) on his consistent and clear approach to supporting this issue since he became a Member. I also compliment him on his understanding of it, and I acknowledge the key points that he has made about trafficking and dowries.

Although I am answering the debate for the Government, I should point out that the Home Office leads on issues of domestic violence, and the lead Minister is the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker).

Domestic violence is a devastating crime that impacts across all communities and the Government are fully committed to improving our response. It has to be said that until fairly recently the response to tackling this crime was driven by local services, especially non-governmental organisations, which provided specialist services for more than 35 years, often with little or no help from Government or the statutory sector. I acknowledge the difficult path that domestic violence service providers and the individual women and children had to tread before the Government woke up to this crime.

I was a campaigner against domestic violence long before I came to Parliament, and I am especially proud that, since 1997, our Government have risen to the challenge and brought about a step change in how we address domestic violence. Organisations that deal with domestic violence have, of course, played a critical role in that, and we owe a significant debt to those groups who help, in particular, those who suffer domestic violence in the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. I freely acknowledge that my hon. Friend is right: the problem of domestic violence can be especially complex and difficult to tackle in those communities.

We are working with Southall Black Sisters—the organisation that everyone has mentioned—on a range of issues regarding domestic violence. I can confirm that the Home Office has recently identified a small amount of funding that will go to Southall Black Sisters for 2008-09 to strengthen its business management practices.

One thing that many people outside this House will not understand is the fact that although Southall Black Sisters is a local organisation, the level of expertise that it has developed in dealing with these issues means that it is a national resource. Will the Solicitor-General ensure that her colleagues in Government understand the extent to which this apparently local organisation is providing a national resource in connection with the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) has so eloquently raised?

There are two points, are there not? First, Southall Black Sisters provides local services, and secondly, the organisation works with the Home Office and has historically offered a national resource for policy input. I am sure that that is partially reflected in the fact that some moneys have been found to support its business practices.

I recognise that we all have to be cautious because of the ongoing judicial review proceedings, but will my hon. and learned Friend confirm what the Select Committee was told when we took evidence? As she will know, we are taking evidence on the whole issue of domestic violence. Will she confirm that it is not part of the Government’s vision that specialist services should not be supported? Some have said that because of the Government’s policy, there cannot be individual funding for such organisations. That is not the case, is it?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who have supported my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, have both made the same point. I intend to set out my response to that point in exact accordance with what they both said.

Let me touch on some of the other things that we are doing about domestic violence. It is important to contextualise the debate. We have a national domestic violence delivery plan, through which we intend to ensure that tackling domestic violence is mainstream in all public services. It is also an important plank on which we want to create a more stable set of conditions for the voluntary and community sectors to continue their role as our partners and our critical friends. That is a role that SBS already plays.

We set ourselves five key goals, and key planks in the plan to assist with meeting those goals are: the ongoing expansion of specialist domestic violence courses, to which my right hon. and hon. Friends alluded; the introduction of independent domestic violence advisers who support complainants in bringing legal proceedings; and the introduction of multi-agency risk assessment conferences that protect people at high risk of serious harm or homicide from repeat domestic violence. Those measures are all underpinned by the Government’s new public service agreements, which prioritise serious violence and include domestic violence for the first time ever.

Let me give some examples of the funding that the Government have provided to domestic violence organisations and other services. The Ministry of Justice has funded independent domestic violence advisers to the tune of £3 million this year. We have provided £1.85 million in funding for multi-agency risk assessment conferences in the past year. We have committed £6.5 million to ensure that we can roll out both those essential components of our domestic violence plan nationwide.

We are also funding Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse—CAADA—which is a training organisation. We need not merely to roll out the schemes nationwide but to ensure that there is appropriate and accredited training so that there is consistency in the quality of service across the country. We continue to fund a matrix of helplines: the 24-hour national domestic violence freephone helpline; the men’s advice line for male victims; Broken Rainbow, a service for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities; and the RESPECT phone line for perpetrators, which offers advice to those seeking help.

While I am on the subject of funding, I want to mention that we have devolved funding for local domestic violence services, as well as for services in respect of all other crime, to local decision makers and partnerships. Funding for the local services provided by Southall Black Sisters must be determined locally. I cannot say a great deal more about that because, as everyone has mentioned, leave has been granted for Southall Black Sisters to take the local authority to judicial review, so we must not consider that matter further. However, in general, decisions on funding for services are based on local areas identifying a need and putting that into their priorities for improvement. The voluntary sector is, of course, key in providing specialised and focused services.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: the gender equality duty, put into the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by the Equality Act 2006, plays an important role in getting public authorities to consider what forms of positive action they should take in tackling violence against women. However, it seems that the very misunderstanding to which my right hon. and hon. Friends have alluded has arisen, and some people think that the duty somehow means that women-only specialist services, such as those that provide support for women victims of domestic violence, should no longer be provided. I am pleased to take this opportunity to make it clear that such an interpretation of the duty is wrong.

I wonder whether I could finish this important point first. The code of practice makes it clear that the duty is not about providing the same service for men and women in all cases. It is up to each public authority to decide the priorities for its gender equality schemes, but such authorities can be proactive—the Government would encourage them to be—in tackling violence against women, if they wish, through specialist services.

I do not know whether this is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East was going to make, but let me add that similarly, there is no reason why the race equality duty should prevent authorities from catering for the special needs of racial groups in respect of domestic violence services, as in the case that we are discussing. If that is not what he was going to say, I give way to him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) has led an energetic campaign on behalf of Southall Black Sisters, and I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her clarity this afternoon. What she is basically saying is that Councillor Stacey and Ealing council can fund that organisation if they want to.

I have said what I have said. Let me put it this way: nothing from the Government says the council cannot do so. Yes, they can fund that organisation if they choose to do so.

We need to do more to ensure that the victims of domestic violence from black and minority ethnic communities benefit from our interventions. We have made that a priority for this year. An example of our commitment is the development of a specific honour-based violence action plan to address the specific forms of domestic violence that affect some of our BME communities. We shall expand the work of the forced marriage unit to ensure that potential victims of forced marriage can speak out with the certainty that they will get the help that they need.

More work is needed, however, with local community leaders to condemn the archaic and repugnant practices that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall has alluded to. We are also planning a series of regional and local seminars, starting in the summer, to publicise the work of the forced marriage unit and highlight the emerging strategies of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring that the criminal justice system responds appropriately to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

A step-by-step guide for women in black and minority ethnic communities who are the victims of domestic violence will soon provide what we hope is practical advice on the steps that victims can take to protect themselves and their children. We hope that, in producing that guidance, we will have taken on board cultural issues, which can prove problematic.

Another example that my hon. Friend referred to, and on which we have been working with both the statutory and the voluntary sector, is to try to find ways of supporting victims with no recourse to public funds. People come in and are dependent on someone who undertakes to support them, but they are then tied to that person if domestic violence starts to become an issue. In March, we announced a new scheme for victims of domestic violence in exactly that situation whose applications for indefinite leave to remain are successful. I acknowledge that we need to speed up the process, and work is being done to do that for people applying for indefinite leave to remain. If their applications are successful, they may qualify for a contribution towards their housing and living costs.

The proposals under the new scheme will strengthen the way in which domestic violence cases are considered, enabling vulnerable victims to obtain the support that they need. We have been working closely with the No Recourse to Public Funds Network to get a national picture of the issue and we will expand on the details of this programme of work later in the spring.

I am proud to say that over the years, I have worked with Southall Black Sisters on a number of occasions, and I am pleased to say that the Government continue to work with the group and are pleased to receive its input. I am glad that we have been able to resource it in a limited way to ensure that its business practices can be made good. I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that nothing in the gender or the race policies—nor in anything else that one can readily think of in the Government’s policy or legislation—can give any local authority any reason not to fund such specialist services if it chooses to do so.

We have all come a long way in trying to tackle domestic violence, but there are many things left to do. We will not relax our efforts.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Six o’clock.