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Violence against Women and Girls

Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2011

Thank you very much, Mr Robertson, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

Although I am delighted to have secured this debate on the prevention of violence against women and girls, I wish that it was unnecessary. However, the facts and figures on gendered violence remain so alarming that it is clear that, as a society, we are still failing to approach the problem with anything like the urgency or seriousness that it deserves. Currently, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner and every year 60,000 women are raped. Sexual harassment in schools, communities and workplaces is routine, and an estimated 6,500 girls in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation.

According to the British crime survey, in Brighton and Hove—where my Brighton, Pavilion constituency is located—around 25,000 women are likely to experience repeat domestic violence as adults. Last year, 277 women sought housing advice and 102 homeless applications were made—[Interruption.]

As I was saying, 102 homeless applications were made due to domestic violence. Nearly 11,000 women experience physical and emotional violence; more than 2,700 women experience sexual assault; and more than 6,600 women were the focus of stalking. Those are big figures, but behind each number is a real life that has been hugely damaged by this experience. Moreover, 44% of the 264 young people assessed by the youth offending service in Brighton and Hove in 2009 had been abused—that is nearly half—and 42% had experienced domestic violence at home.

I therefore welcome the fact that, in its call to end violence against women and girls, the Home Office has recognised the need for a targeted approach to tackle the ongoing scandal of violence against and abuse of women and girls. The Government’s strategy purports to put prevention at its heart, yet I fear that that objective risks being undermined by a lack of joined-up thinking and the policies of other Government Departments.

Furthermore, as the domestic violence team at Brighton and Hove city council has told me, in the Government’s strategy, there is no allocated funding for prevention of and early intervention for violence against women. All the money is still being allocated to crisis work, with only limited attention being given to addressing the cause of the problem—in other words, perpetrators’ behaviour. In Brighton and Hove, since 2004, the city has been working specifically with perpetrators to address their abuse and I am proud that it was the first programme to be accredited nationally by Respect. The local authority has committed to maintaining the programme, but due to demand it is not able to accommodate all the referrals. It finds it very difficult to turn away people who want to join the programme, because it is so concerned about the risks that people face if help is not available.

That work needs to be properly funded. It should not be made dependent on sympathetic council administrations, or put at risk because of central Government spending cuts. Brighton and Hove, whose intelligent commissioning on domestic violence is recognised as good practice, has a local commitment to developing a strategy on violence against women and girls, with work already under way to deliver that strategy. However, not many local areas have the same kind of co-ordinated approach and I want the Government to consider making it an obligation that all local authorities must fulfil.

As well as the historical focus on tackling the aftermath of violence, such as bringing perpetrators to court, we must ensure that preventing violence in the first place is much more of a priority across Government. Let us take, for example, work with young people in schools. The importance of that work is underlined by the findings of an NSPCC study, which revealed that almost half—43%—of teenage girls believe that it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner. One in two boys and one in three girls believe that there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

Young people in Britain not only have an alarmingly tolerant attitude to violence against women but many of them are exposed daily to the results of our failure to confront such attitudes head-on. For example, a YouGov poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition found that a third of girls are subjected to unwanted sexual contact at school, with sexual harassment being routine. In addition, the NSPCC found that 33% of girls between 13 and 17 who are in an intimate partner relationship have experienced some sort of sexual partner violence. Although there has been an increased focus on other forms of bullying, many schools fail to recognise that unwanted sexual contact, sexual harassment and sexual name-calling are also specific forms of abuse that girls suffer routinely.

Girls from ethnic minority backgrounds may face additional risks. The Home Affairs Committee recently reported that schools are failing to respond to girls who are at risk of forced marriage and may even be putting female students in greater danger. We will wait and see whether forcing someone into a marriage becomes an offence in its own right, as the Prime Minister has indicated that it should be. I hope very much that he will introduce legislation on that issue.

The hon. Lady made an important point about early intervention and prevention, particularly in relation to girls. Does she agree that we must do a lot more in schools and that we must talk to our girls about self-empowerment, self-esteem, gender equality and empowerment? Does she agree that we need to do much more in those areas?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention, not least because I know that she has a great deal of expertise in this area, and of course I absolutely agree with what she says. It is also interesting that young women themselves tell us that they want things to change. Around 52% of young women who were polled said that ending domestic violence against women and children is the issue that they care most about. That is according to research carried out by Girlguiding UK in conjunction with the Fawcett Society, the British Youth Council and Populus.

All over the UK, women’s organisations are doing innovative work with these young people, often with only minimal resources. For example, Rise, a charity based in Brighton and Hove, delivers a personal, social, health and economic preventive education programme on healthy relationships to schools across the city. It is also currently working to integrate the Women’s Aid “Expect Respect” programme into work that is currently taking place in primary schools. Rise also delivers “Break for Change”, a groundbreaking group for young people who are aggressive in their relationships. That group is for the young people’s carers, too. The Home Office itself is currently running a campaign called, “This is abuse”, which is aimed at tackling teenage relationship abuse.

However, work to prevent violence against women and girls cannot be left to occasional campaigns or women’s organisations working in partnership with good schools where they can. It must be an absolutely integral part of education and policy that is delivered in every single school.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Department for Education is dragging its feet on this issue. The commitment to teaching sexual consent in personal, social and health education is welcome, but it needs to go much further and include all forms of violence against women, including teenage relationship abuse, forced marriage, FGM and sexual exploitation. It should also be linked to work on gender equality and work that challenges gender stereotypes.

I just wanted to draw on some of the experience that I have gained from the Education Committee. As I understand it, only three hours of teacher training time is dedicated to behaviour and discipline in schools throughout a two or three-year degree course. There is very little hope that we can even start to explore the issues affecting young women who face violence and give them any sort of strategy if the teachers have absolutely no awareness of behaviour and behaviour training. There needs to be a concerted effort from the Minister’s Department to work with the DFE to deal with that problem.

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. I did not know that particular piece of information and it makes me even more alarmed than I was when I first stood up to speak. It shows that this is part of a much bigger issue, which is about ensuring that our teachers are properly equipped to pass on that vital training.

It is interesting that Education Ministers have signalled that they want these issues to remain outside the statutory curriculum, running the risk that many young women and men will never be exposed to education designed to reduce gendered violence. Cuts to specialist local-level posts, such as domestic violence co-ordinators and teenage pregnancy co-ordinators, risk exacerbating the problem even further.

In its report, “A Different World is Possible”, the End Violence Against Women Coalition recommends a “whole school approach”, with heads taking a lead, teachers been trained on the issues and all students receiving comprehensive sex and relationships education on consent, equality and respect. That is already a top priority in Brighton and Hove—it builds on work by a number of the agencies that I mentioned earlier. The local authority’s strategy states:

“Evidence shows that to be effective in domestic violence prevention work, addressing the issue in PSHE and SRE lessons or in assemblies has limited impact and value, if the messages promoted are not supported by other initiatives and the broader ethos of the school.”

I therefore ask the Minister to call on her colleagues at the Department for Education to clearly identify one single Education Minister to lead on preventing violence against women and girls. I also ask her to tell us what contribution she has made to the Department for Education’s internal review on PSHE, and whether she has argued the case for sexual consent and all forms of violence against women to be a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister hosted a summit on tackling the commercialisation and sexualisation of children and announced a range of policies, many of which I warmly welcome. However, amid the messages about consumer and parent power, there was an element missing: empowering young people themselves to be media literate and to cope with the bombardment of often inappropriate images. Although I recognise that the measures announced will go some way towards cutting down on the images that young people are exposed to—outside schools, for example—we can safely say that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Like any parent, I absolutely understand the desire to protect our children, and one of the best ways of doing so is through specific education that allows young people to be more in control of their sexualisation, rather than being dictated to by the media or by advertising. There is no plan as yet, however, specifically to address that in schools.

Earlier, I noted that central Government cuts might undermine efforts being made to tackle violence against women and girls, and I am particularly concerned about cuts to legal aid. Informing women of their legal rights and giving them access to legal representation is one way of empowering them and of trying to protect them against violence. It can give them the information they need to stand up to their abuser. There are serious risk implications, therefore, for women who cannot access legal aid. By reducing women’s ability to access legal aid, the Ministry of Justice risks damaging work at the Home Office on preventing violence against women and girls, and I would love to know whether the Minister shares my concerns about that.

I also wonder whether the Minister is dismayed by the Home Secretary’s proposal to change the eligibility requirements under paragraph 289A—the domestic violence rule—of the immigration rules. That would mean that all applicants under the domestic rule must be free of unspent criminal convictions. That actively undermines the Government’s commitment to eliminate violence against women. Will the Minister contribute to the UK Border Agency consultation, and remind the Home Secretary about the coalition Government’s obligations and commitment to protect all women from domestic violence?

The Equality Trust points out that 24% of women in Britain are worried about rape and that all kinds of violence are more common in more unequal societies. It stands to reason that preventing violence against women and girls is closely linked to tackling inequality and other social injustices. As just one example of what happens if we fail to do that, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, tells me that more than a third of girls in the youth justice system have experienced abuse and a quarter have witnessed violence at home. Of the more than 4,000 women currently serving a prison sentence, more than half report having suffered domestic violence and one in three have experienced sexual abuse. For the vast majority of those very vulnerable women, prison is not the answer, and that is why both I and the Howard League for Penal Reform support community solutions for non-violent women offenders. I am keen, therefore, to see the Government’s target interventions to ensure the prevention of violence against women and girls address intersections of gender with other social inequalities.

I stress that the Government’s work on preventing violence against women and girls needs to encompass an international perspective. Here, too, we see evidence of a lack of leadership and concerns about co-ordination. There are now a number of very welcome Government strategies that reference international violence against women and girls, so oversight of all the different processes is vital and, for maximum impact, the different strategies and policies across Government should be coherent and mutually reinforcing.

Is it not important to bring the international communities into this—the women and girls of different nationalities with different cultural backgrounds? The Prime Minister will be attending a conference in a couple of weeks’ time at which he should raise that point, so that we can get the international communities behind us.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s important intervention.

At the highest level, a member of the National Security Council should have explicit responsibility for women, peace and security, to ensure that gender perspectives are taken into account in all discussions. Despite some references in the “Building Stability Overseas Strategy” document and in the UK national action plan for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, violence against women and girls is still not fully recognised as either a foreign policy priority or a security matter. It is not recognised as both a cause and a consequence of conflict. When violent conflict occurs, violence against women and girls is not seen as a priority matter.

The UK Government must take a leadership role internationally, to ensure that preventing violence against women and girls stays on the international agenda. Globally, about one in three women or girls have been beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime, and 75% of the civilians killed in war are women and children, so I am keen to hear from the Minister what has been achieved, or what has changed in our approach to violence against women as a foreign policy issue, since she was appointed to the role of overseas champion about a year ago.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and on her excellent and comprehensive speech. I agree that the international effort that we must be part of, and lead, is important, but it is vital that we lead by example. Yesterday in the Chamber, concern was expressed about the woefully low level of prosecutions for human trafficking, which affects many women and young girls, and about our country’s reluctance to take the lead on issuing a guardianship programme that would help us to secure those prosecutions. Does she have any thoughts about that?

The hon. Member is absolutely right to point to the guardianship programme as a concrete measure that we could take to show exactly that kind of international leadership. That would make a huge difference to some of the most vulnerable people coming into our communities. I very much support the proposal, and the work that she has been doing on it.

I was talking about the Minister’s role as the overseas champion, and I wonder if she can tell us what her priorities for that role will be over the coming year. Can she confirm whether she has a budget with which to carry out her responsibilities?

I am mindful that I have asked the Minister a number of questions, so I will wind up now. Making our schools safer for girls, enabling young men to challenge their peers, changing attitudes that blame women for violence and ensuring that the equalities team’s work is underscored by the policies of other Departments are all things that would make a genuine difference to the lives of women and girls here in Britain and around the world. The old adage that prevention is better than cure may well be familiar, but in this case it rings particularly true.

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this debate. The matter is a most important and serious one, both in this country and internationally, and I want to assure the hon. Lady that despite the very difficult times we are in, the Government are absolutely committed to nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls. I, too, wish that it was not necessary to have such debates, but the statistics in this country are truly terrible, and across the world they are far worse. The issue is sometimes hidden, so there is a fear and a danger that it will be marginalised when priorities compete. However, as the first page of the action plan says,

“VAWG services should not be the easy cut”

for local councils.

I do not know how much more loud or clear we in central Government could have made our message. Even in this climate, we are ring-fencing £28 million for VAWG services and £10 million from the Ministry of Justice for rape crisis support centres. We are funding independent domestic violence adviser posts, including one in the hon. Lady’s home patch in Brighton and Hove. We are also funding Rise. Where we can provide funding, we are, although circumstances are difficult. We have done so expressly to send the message that violence against women is a priority and should not be vulnerable to cuts from local authorities, although we know that that is happening. Local areas are best placed to make local decisions, but we have tried and are trying to say to councils—I hope that they read today’s Hansard—“Do not cut these vital services.”

I will give way to the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) and the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), but briefly, because I want to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion on securing this debate and on how she delivered her speech. Is the Minister aware that of every three victims of partner abuse, two are female and one male? Is she concerned that successive Governments have placed all domestic abuse policy under an overarching violence against women and girls strategy? It means that men suffering domestic or sexual abuse are second-class victims. Effectively, it is an example of institutional sexism. Does she believe that domestic abuse must be—

I assure the hon. Gentleman that men are part of our strategy and funding. I will take a quick intervention from the hon. Member for Wells, but I want to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion.

The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where there are serious stresses. I am in contact with the Farm Crisis Network, which is aware that people in isolated situations also face domestic violence, and there is practically no possibility that they can get to a rape crisis centre, which might be 25 miles away. Does the Minister have any thoughts on that?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that prevention, which is one of the four key planks of our strategy, is extremely important. I assure her that my Department and I will bring as much pressure to bear as possible in discussions for the Department for Education to get a shift on with its consultation on personal, social and health education, which just finished and will be published in November. We regard it as vital, although we do not necessarily regard it as vital that it be statutory. We await the results of the consultation. I agree that young people’s attitudes and behaviour are vital, and that teachers need training in order to intervene successfully.

I am not taking any more interventions.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned the teenage relationship abuse campaign. It is one area on which we are spending money. The NSPCC research that she discussed is shocking. The abuse that teenagers seem to accept as normal—they think that it is okay to be treated like that—is the most frightening aspect. I do not know whether she has seen the films from the abuse campaign, but they are incredibly powerful and successful. The site has received more than 75,000 visits. It is not just about the film and the campaign; the purpose is to signpost young people towards help.

I will not. I am keen to answer the hon. Lady’s points, as it is her debate.

The hon. Lady asked me about my role of international champion in tackling violence against women and girls. The other half of that is policy coherence across Whitehall; it is in the job title. I assure her that when I came into the post in December, the first thing that I did was engage across Whitehall. Clearly, I will not be effective on my own in tackling worldwide violence against women and girls, unless I find a multiplier for the work that I am doing. I have done so, and have developed numerous messages on women and on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Travelling Ministers have agreed to take those messages to international meetings and raise them wherever they go. The issue at the moment is finding out who is going where and when, but it is an important step. I reassure the hon. Lady that I have nothing but support from the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development. They are absolutely committed to the human rights agenda, and I argue that equal rights are human rights.

While we are on the role of the overseas champion, will the Minister clarify whether she has a budget for any part of that work?

I do, and a little bit of help, although not as much as I would like. I have been to India and Nepal. I am working at three levels on such trips. I cannot go gallivanting across the world; I have a limited budget, and it is a matter of where I can get maximum traction on the issue. For example, in India, I met with the India Women’s Press Corps, which carried messages about gender-based violence across India and into every publication. I am trying to maximise bang for buck. I am meeting at the ministerial and permanent secretary level as well as in civil society. I am also visiting projects involving women in rural villages. I am going to Brussels on Tuesday to carry some of those issues forward, including LGBT issues. My eyes are on Afghanistan at the moment, as well as on the Arab spring, which I want to be a feminist summer, as I am sure the hon. Lady does.

The hon. Lady asked about immigration changes. No one with a minor conviction has been or will ever be denied their stay in this country, but neither do the Government think that it is right for different rules to apply if there is a conviction. On legal aid, we are keeping legal aid for victims in private family law cases where domestic violence is a feature, and we have not sought to change the accepted definition of domestic violence. We are including all forms of domestic violence, physical and mental, in legal aid criteria.

The hon. Lady mentioned forced marriage, which has been in the news recently. The Prime Minister has made it a priority, and we will consult on whether it should become a criminal offence in its own right. I am keen that we take evidence, for example from the women involved in the 257 forced marriage protection orders taken out under civil orders. We should ask those women whether they would have come forward had forced marriage been a criminal offence. In my view, the only reason not to make it an offence is that doing so might prohibit people from coming forward, which would undermine the benefits of sending a message that it is serious enough to be criminal.

I cite the issue of female genital mutilation, which is a criminal offence. The Opposition ask me every time we have oral questions whether there have been any prosecutions. There have not, either under the Labour Government or during the year and a half that we have been in government, because it is difficult to get evidence and make people come forward. I am keen that whatever we do should promote the best result in dealing with forced marriage. We know that there is great pressure, and the law may well change. The Prime Minister has announced that we will criminalise breaches of civil orders in the interim while we consult on the matter. However, I am not keen on messages; I am keen on getting it right. That is more important.

We as a Government have moved forward proactively. We have introduced domestic homicide reviews and pilots on domestic violence protection orders. If they prove successful, we will roll them out. We have extended the Sojourner project and will find a long-term solution. We are fast-tracking asylum applications for those in refuges who, due to their asylum status, have no recourse to public funds. I hope that hon. Members agree that we are on the right path to making society a better and safer place where women and girls do not have to live in fear of violence or lack support when they need it. These are tough times, but we are doing our very best.