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Domestic Violence

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

4. What proposals for changes in prosecution of domestic violence offences there will be as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service’s violence against women strategy. (212145)

The Crown Prosecution Service, after public consultation and extensive work, now has a single, cohesive violence against women strategy, which the Attorney-General will launch on 24 June. That will strengthen the prosecution response to domestic violence, through better co-ordination of guidance, training and performance management, and by supporting CPS work on victim satisfaction.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does she agree, however, that because some women who suffer serious domestic violence feel that less harsh penalties are available if they report the fact that they have been violated domestically, we need far stronger penalties and more prosecutions, to ensure that we give women who suffer from this dreadful thing an incentive to come forward?

I do not know that that is the case, to be honest. The number of prosecutions has increased markedly. In 2005-06, 59.7 per cent. of prosecutions were successful and in the last quarter of last year, 70.1 per cent. were successful. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has done a lot of work on domestic violence. We have got away in the courts from the notion that domestic violence is a softer form of violence, which should be treated more leniently than public violence. In fact, domestic violence is a much graver kind of violence. If one is attacked on the street, one can run home; if one is attacked in one’s own home, one has nowhere to go to. I hope that we have got over that hurdle and that people are being sentenced appropriately when they are convicted, as they increasingly are, of such offences.

Does the Solicitor-General accept that any improvements in the prosecution of domestic violence are being undermined by the long delays experienced in many parts of the country in sending offenders who have been sentenced on the effective and excellent domestic violence programmes? There are delays of six months in many parts of the country and delays of up to four years in others. That is completely unacceptable.

By no means all domestic violence perpetrators are put on what are called perpetrator programmes—in the United States they are called batterer programmes. Availability varies from one part of the country to another. Delays are unfortunate. However, I am not sure that such programmes are the magic formula or cure that the hon. Gentleman suggests they are. There are other ways in which perpetrators can be brought to understand that their violence simply cannot continue. For instance, there is often a salutary lesson in the fact that when the woman finally complains, the authorities come down forcefully on her side and against the man. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There must be more of those programmes—the ones that are successful—and he can take it from me that the issue is being looked into.

We obviously need increased support for victims of domestic violence, to enable them to bring the perpetrators to justice, but we also need early intervention, to prevent escalation to serious injury and, in some cases, death. Will my hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the recent Select Committee on Home Affairs report, which noted the positive outcomes of the one-stop shop model, of which the family justice centre in Croydon that I visited is an example? The report recommended further evaluation of the model, which I hope—and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend agrees with me—will lead to a one-stop shop centre in every local authority area.

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. It was very pleasing that the Home Affairs Committee report was positive about the work of the Crown Prosecution Service on domestic violence, as well as on forced marriage and honour crimes. I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. There is an organisation in Middlesbrough, near my constituency, called My Sister’s Place, which is a one-stop shop. Domestic violence complainants are now supported by independent domestic violence advisers, who befriend them and stand beside them, right through from the point at which they make a complaint, helping them with public services and the difficulties that can follow making a complaint about domestic violence. For instance, sometimes the children have to move school and sometimes child care stops, perhaps because the in-laws were helping with it. IDVAs, as they are called, can help with all those practicalities. More of that holistic support is vital. However, we already have a large amount in place. That must be a major reason why the conviction rate has got so much higher; few complainants now give up.

The Solicitor-General was quite right to say that there was a need for more provision for domestic violence treatment courses, if I may describe them in the vernacular. The truth is that two thirds of probation areas report huge delays of up to 12 months in some cases. The hon. and learned Lady has made it clear that we need more provision; will she now lobby her Cabinet colleagues to make that provision?

Yes. It is not so easy simply to roll out perpetrator programmes. First, they have to be properly evaluated and monitored, and they have to be successful, so it is not just a question of getting money and, as it were, doing more automatically. A programme of work is being undertaken to evaluate the programmes, but it is quite difficult to determine how good they are. We have to rely on the victim to say whether the violence has stopped, and, almost by definition, that is historically the person who has been oppressed by the perpetrator of the violence. So there are difficulties involved in ensuring that we do not roll out programmes that are not as effective as they should be. A programme of evaluation is under way, however, and I hope that that will give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

As the Solicitor-General will be aware, a key issue is the treatment of victims by the police as well as by the prosecution services. What more can be done to ensure that women feel that their allegations are being taken seriously when they come forward to report them?

A huge amount of work has been done with the police and with the Crown Prosecution Service, and it would be surprising if there were still a prevalent sense that domestic violence was not taken seriously when people come forward to report it. Now that we seem to have got the criminal justice agencies to take this matter seriously and to be immensely supportive, I see the need for earlier identification as the greater problem. We need to start putting a lot more resources into that, so that women—at least 90 per cent. of the people who suffer in this way are women—do not suffer for so long before they decide to come forward. We need to enlist all the public authorities to be watchful for the impact of domestic violence, so that there can be earlier intervention.

The CPS strategy document on violence against women states that

“the CPS has had inspections on domestic violence and rape that have highlighted areas for future action”.

Will the Minister please update the House on what those areas are and what further action she proposes to take?

Those reports, particularly the ones on rape, were published in 2002, and then again in 2007. The 2002 proposals were very clear, and the CPS acted on a good number of them. However, in 2007, it was clear that there were still some deficits and that certain matters had not been brought up. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, since then, there has been a powerful, strong and concentrated programme to ensure that the policies—which the inspectors found to be in the right place and of the right kind at the top of the CPS—were being driven all the way through. There is now a powerful system of monitoring and evaluation of the way in which domestic violence and rape are dealt with in the CPS. I therefore hope that we are now well set for the future.