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Women’s Aid

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2012

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

I am grateful to have secured this debate on women’s aid and safety and access to benefits, and to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am also pleased to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who has a great interest in the subject that we are debating, and of course my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire).

The theme of the debate is, unmistakably, women’s aid and safety and access to benefits, but it is also predicated on an enlightened understanding of the scourge of domestic abuse, which is the root cause of the problem. I believe that there is a moral duty not to just pay lip service to an endemic problem visited on far too many women. Domestic abuse was succinctly articulated by the psychologist and author Susan Forward, PhD, who described it as

“any behaviour that is intended to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, and verbal or physical assaults…it is the systematic persecution of one partner by another”.

Having assimilated and carefully studied the erudite view expressed by Dr Forward, I wish to proceed. The consequences of domestic abuse are simply horrific and lead women into a very dark place. They live a life in the most sinister, corrosive and destructive environment, which is as near to hell as it is possible to get on earth. Living under a reign of constant fear and terror of mental and physical torture damages the self-esteem of the victims, but what incalculable damage does it inflict on innocent children? We can ponder that. They, too, are often scarred for the rest of their lives.

One of the foremost international diplomats, renowned for resolving conflict around the world, the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, once said that domestic abuse

“denies women their most basic human rights, such as the right to health, and undermines the social and economic development of communities and whole countries…Domestic Abuse is widespread and cuts across class, age, religion and ethnic group…it has long been established that there can be no justification for any form of Domestic Abuse.”

He concluded:

“Domestic Abuse is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth.”

Monklands Women’s Aid provides a first-class service to women and children in my constituency. Before institutions such as Women’s Aid existed, many women were forced to suffer in a chilling silence for the sake of their children. When we think back to previous generations, we can only wonder with incredulity at how many women lived in hell. We will never know how many were driven to such a level of despair that they took their own lives.

Clearly, most women did not have a way out of their oppressive environment. I am sure we all agree, irrespective of our political differences, that we do not want a return to those days. We have to understand that many of the partners have not only a physical hold over those women, but a mental hold, an iron grip, which is extremely difficult for many women to break free from. Women’s Aid is now inculcated in our society. Thankfully, women of this generation are not alone and they realise that they have a place of refuge.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate; I know that that sentiment will be echoed across the Chamber. Like him, I pay tribute to my local Women’s Aid and I also pay tribute to Trafford rape crisis centre. There are some excellent organisations, as he says. Does he agree that in addition to the physical and mental abuse that he describes, there is financial abuse? As has been shown, when women are under financial pressure, it is more difficult for them to flee an abusive relationship, so at times of rising female unemployment and reduced access to financial benefits, more women might be trapped in the home in exactly the circumstances that he describes.

I agree and I hope to deal with some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises. That was an excellent intervention.

As an organisation, Women’s Aid has supported women from all social and financial backgrounds and continues to do so. One in four women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their life. Two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner. Women living with domestic abuse are five times more likely to suffer from depression. In 90% of domestic abuse incidents where children are present in the home, they will be in the same or the next room.

My right hon. Friend is citing horrific statistics that are all too familiar. In some areas of my constituency, there are spikes in the occurrence of domestic violence that are way out of kilter with the national or local average. I ask that Ministers look at the areas where there are spikes and find out why they are happening.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making an extremely significant point. On average, a woman will be assaulted 35 times before reporting it to the police. It is the case that 30% of domestic abuse either starts or escalates during pregnancy. Domestic abuse can account for up to 25% of all recorded crime.

Let me outline current practices and why they should be cherished. What is the present position in terms of access to benefits? The present position permits organisations such as Women’s Aid to go through proper procedures to ensure the safety and health of women who come to them. Here, as they recognise, is the tragedy: many women who are experiencing domestic abuse blame themselves for what is happening to them. Clearly, it is not their fault. The only person to blame is the perpetrator carrying out the abuse.

Monklands Women’s Aid, in its last annual report, shone a light on the scale of the problem. The contact made with Monklands Women’s Aid involved 4,310 women, 1,202 children—from birth to 12 years—and 1,056 young people aged from 13 to 19. If such an organisation did not exist, we would need to invent one.

As I have discovered, if a woman requests refuge, a risk assessment is carried out to ensure that the service and refuge will meet her needs. A home application and benefit check is completed for the user. A doctor is then put in place to assess the health of the woman. If necessary, women are taken to hospital immediately. Social workers, community psychiatric nurses or various support networks are contacted, with the woman’s permission, for continued support. If the woman wishes, the police are called. Throughout the process, workers from Women’s Aid offer continued support. If children are involved, relevant schools and nurseries are contacted and provision put in place to make the transition for the woman as seamless as possible. A children’s service is put in place as part of the outreach programme. When women are leaving the refuge, support workers help them to move to their new tenancy and offer much needed help and support.

Institutions such as the NHS and police services can do only so much in providing support to women who are in desperate need of help and protection. The refuge is the foundation for all services provided by this organisation, and it signifies the basis of a new life for many women. It is still desperately needed by many women in emergency situations—when their lives or their children’s lives are at risk. A refuge is a haven that, on multiple occasions, has saved lives.

In all candour, the proposed reforms by the Government are worrying. All the services that I have described will effectively be wiped out, thus leaving Women’s Aid with the sole service of signposting women to other support services—if they still exist.

Before my right hon. Friend moves on to what may lie ahead for women in the future, may I remind him that when a woman seeks a Women’s Aid refuge, it may be the first time in their lives when they, as the partner of someone who has abused them, find themselves without money? The first port of call will be the Department for Work and Pensions. All too often the delay in securing money through the benefit system is bad, so much so that some 30% or 40% of women find themselves, out of sheer frustration, going back to the marital home and to the abuser, which is no answer to their problems. The system is already far too slow to respond to the needs of women.

My hon. Friend bases his contribution on experience, and he is absolutely right. He has outlined the problem that many have faced and sadly might face again, so we must take it seriously.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Its importance for me stems from the fact that the very first refuge in this country was created in my constituency. Does he agree that housing is an issue and that pressure needs to be put on councils to put women who are in a refuge, especially those with children, higher up the priority list for permanent housing? Temporary housing is not good enough. Bed and breakfast accommodation is not appropriate for children because they need some stability in their lives.

Housing is at the heart of everything that we are discussing and I welcome what the hon. Lady said. Perhaps this is an opportune moment to assess what is likely to happen, including in housing, post April 2013. Essentially, the key change is that housing benefit will be paid directly to the claimant through universal credit, which will adversely affect Women’s Aid.

I recognise the imposition of a system in which people are always better off in work than they are on benefits. However, the so-called simplification of merging income-related jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit, working tax credit, income support and income-related employment support allowance into a single universal payment is not without problems. Although it may be desirable on paper, it will undoubtedly bring with it chaos for individuals and other charitable organisations.

Please be assured that the proposed changes would have a serious detrimental effect on Women’s Aid centres throughout the United Kingdom, and certainly in my constituency.

Like many Members here, I supported trying to get individuals responsible for their housing benefit. The fact that 75% now have to pay out of their own housing benefit is a positive step forward for individuals. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must ensure that women in refuges or in Women’s Aid are allowed to have their housing benefit paid not directly to them, but to the supportive housing. I understand that the Department is still considering the matter, and I share his concerns that we need to ensure that the most vulnerable do not have to deal with their own finances and housing benefit in this way.

That is an important point and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing our attention to the fact that the Department is now considering the matter. I hope that her points and those made by other hon. Members in this debate will be taken on board by the Department.

The changes under discussion would force women who go to Women’s Aid in moments of crisis to pay up front for refuge. That is money they simply do not have. The majority of women who seek help from Women’s Aid have few clothes and belongings, let alone the money to pay for refuge. Nevertheless, at present, Women’s Aid can provide refuge to any woman who turns up at its centres because it can claim a share of management costs through housing benefit. That crucial point was underlined by the hon. Lady, and will no doubt be underlined by others. The last thing that distressed women should be worried about is paying for refuge. Of all 4,000 women who were assisted by Monklands Women’s Aid group in 2011, not one of them turned up with enough money to cover the cost of the refuge.

There is an unshakeable belief, held by those who manage this service and by me, that existing resources will simply not be available. The private sector manager in North Lanarkshire council has confirmed that Women’s Aid received local housing allowance of £895.16 every four weeks for service users. Under the new rules, it may get £456.92 for four weeks. That is a terrifying prospect, which the Minister will have to address sooner rather than later.

I am now at the very heart of my argument. I have to pose the question: do the Government want women with small children walking the streets or, worse still, being forced to live in perpetuity under a reign of terror from an abusive partner? In 2013, is that the best we can do for abused women and children? I think not. Although I have political differences with the coalition Government on a range of issues, I simply do not believe that they want to make life any more unbearable for vulnerable women and children.

Let me now address my remarks to correspondence that I recently received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), Labour’s shadow Home Secretary and shadow Minister for Women and Equalities. She has launched a consultation on women’s safety, which will examine the impact of the Government’s decisions on women’s safety and consider how to protect and enhance it. The consultation is being chaired by Vera Baird QC, who will be supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the shadow Minister for Equalities, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), the shadow Home Office Minister. I intend to contribute to this new commission.

I genuinely wish to report that I have made representations to the Government and that they have listened and acted in a manner that does not put women’s personal safety in jeopardy. For the record, I plan to invite Labour’s commission to visit and meet the management of Monklands Women’s Aid as well as the victims. In a spirit of fairness and even-handedness, I extend a similar open invitation to the Minister and her team.

On one unique occasion, I visited Women’s Aid to meet four women from different backgrounds and with different experiences of domestic abuse. Listening to each woman describe their lives was quite depressing; to think that so many have to live their lives in such fear and anxiety is truly distressing. Listening carefully to numerous examples of abuse, and sitting alongside the victims explaining their plight, was emotionally draining. There is a world of difference between reading about such stories in a book or newspaper and hearing first hand such dreadful experiences. The bottom line is that an abused household is no place for women and certainly no place for an innocent child.

I was shown a work of art that a victim’s young daughter had drawn. It had originally been on her bedroom wall in the abused household where she had lived. It was a self-portrait, showing a tear racing down her cheek. Yet, after a few days in the refuge, the girl took down the drawing from the wall. We all very much welcome that first step towards the happiness that that child was entitled to enjoy.

Women often come to the charity having had their family broken into pieces, yet there is a real sense of togetherness at the centres that allows them to feel as if they are joining a new family. The four women I met had differing stories of abuse, but there was one common feature—all of them felt trapped in their lives, as if there was no way of escape. They would never have been released from that stranglehold of entrapment and suffering had it not been for the help of Women’s Aid. The tremendous sadness that I felt initially turned to delight as I witnessed how these women had managed to turn their lives around, not only for themselves but, most importantly, for their children and for their loved ones.

My right hon. Friend is very powerfully evoking the experiences of women and their children who have suffered abuse. Does he agree that one of the things that those women particularly value when they go to a Women’s Aid refuge is that it is a service designed for, run by and informed by an ethos that is led by women’s experiences? If so, does he share my concern that increasingly services are being contracted out to organisations other than Women’s Aid—non-specialist organisations that do not have that necessary empathy with the women, however well-meaning they may be, and, indeed, can sometimes make quite crass decisions? For example, we heard just the other day of a provider that had advertised for new staff to work in its service and had actually put the address of the local refuge in a newspaper.

Again, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Certainly, the sheer dedication of the women working at the centres, which I have seen at Monklands Women’s Aid and elsewhere, is awesome, and I do not think that it can be replaced by commercial considerations. I therefore welcome what she has said.

May I just make the observation that men can also be very helpful and sympathetic on issues of domestic violence? I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.

I am again very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Although it was not going to be a theme of my speech—given the title of my speech, it should not be a theme—I am aware that a minority of men are also abused and I know that that is something that we would want to consider.

The women I met at Women’s Aid said that they feared for what their life would have been like if it had not been for Women’s Aid. Meeting those women first hand showed just how vital organisations such as Women’s Aid are to our country. In many cases they can literally transform an individual’s life for the better. I was given an opportunity by my local Women’s Aid office to meet some of the women they serve. Most people would never get that close and my abiding memory is of the warmth and friendliness that the organisation sends out in abundance, which colleagues have rightly acknowledged today.

We need to appreciate that women can be mentally and physically tortured by their partner and that they often turn up at Women’s Aid penniless, with nothing other than what they are wearing and with traumatised children who are in desperate need of urgent help. Women’s Aid is the last resort for victims who are in a state of anxiety and who—emotionally speaking—are standing on the edge of a cliff. In that situation, the last thing that women should be worried about is paying for refuge.

When women are provided with refuge, there is a full range of follow-on services to ensure that they and their children are safe. Along with support workers, the women plan their future and one of the most important factors taken into account is their safety and that of their children. Refuge is the foundation for all the services provided by Women’s Aid and for many women it signifies the basis of a new life.

As patron of the Wirral Women and Children’s Aid refuge, I know only too well the harrowing stories of women when they arrive in refuge, having suffered terrible abuse. Obviously, the imperative is that they are looked after straight away. However, time and again, we talk about how to break that cycle of violence and that continuation of abuse. Should that not be one of the main imperatives in future, because the figures on abuse have gone up year after year? We must break that cycle of violence immediately.

I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady, but if—as I saw at Monklands Women’s Aid—staff at centres are compelled to contemplate the financial circumstances that they are facing as an organisation, that might take away some of the time that they would like to allocate to the wider objectives that she quite properly identifies.

For many women, the fact remains that refuge is desperately needed in emergency situations when their lives and their children’s lives are at risk. I hope that I have convinced the Minster that Women’s Aid is indeed a special case.

Just 10 days ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Women’s Aid centre in Bangor; it is in North Down, but it is also responsible for Strangford, which is my constituency. The staff there very clearly indicated the financial squeeze that faces them. They illustrated it by talking about the future not only of the centre in Bangor, which is responsible for a large catchment area, but of the staff. If the Government do not address those issues, I fear that the future of Women’s Aid will have a question mark over it, not only in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency but in mine.

Again, the hon. Gentleman speaks from experience and I passionately believe that we should not ignore such experience. He is dealing with what he sees in his constituency, day after day, and also reflecting our experiences in our own constituencies elsewhere.

Frankly, life and death issues are at stake here, and children can be victims of abuse too. We need to ensure the provision of free and safe refuge, which is crucial to the safety of women and children who are suffering abuse. That is an inviolate principle. At a time of desperation, people in Monklands, across Scotland and—as we have heard—throughout the United Kingdom must be afforded the opportunity to seek refuge. Most regrettably, domestic abuse is a considerable problem across our country.

Women’s Aid also performs a major role in the continued development of the children who are affected by abuse. In many families, children are often caught in the centre of a storm, and thus Women’s Aid focuses its attention on providing continuity for such children.

I urge the Minister to reconsider the current proposals on housing benefit. My plea today is that she reflects upon the comments that I and others make. Later, other hon. Members will undoubtedly make valuable contributions to the debate, and it is more than likely that they will be based on the kind of experiences that we have already heard about from hard-working, conscientious constituency MPs.

This subject and the real people who suffer domestic violence are too important for there to be a partisan Government. I am leaving an escape route for the Government when I refer to the unintended consequences of their proposals. If the Government ignore my representations, that could have a devastating impact on women across the country, leading to more women and children walking the streets.

We need the continuation of the marvellous back-up services that are provided by Women’s Aid and—lest we forget—managed by outstanding, caring people. Today I want not only to convince the Minister but to gain support from all parties. We cannot and we must not abandon women who are seeking refuge. In the words of the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta:

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody…is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty, than the person who has nothing to eat.”

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate on an incredibly important part of so many women’s lives. The right hon. Gentleman has already identified statistics that show us how important the subject is. He mentioned that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime and that two women are murdered each week. That has been consistent over the past decade and not enough has been done about it. It is important, if I may say so, that a man—a gentleman—has raised this issue today. The more that men speak about the issue, the more that it is seen as important.

The physical, mental and financial abuse suffered has already been mentioned. I stress the importance of those three aspects. There is still a lack of understanding that domestic abuse can incorporate all three aspects. Physical abuse is easy to see, but mental abuse is not. People are less likely to understand it and therefore women are less willing to come forward and report it. The financial side that was mentioned earlier is about control. It often starts with financial control, which leads to other things.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis. Does she agree, therefore, that we ought to be alarmed that one of the features of the universal credit is that it will be paid to one member of a couple? That may increasingly mean that women in abusive relationships will not have independent income, which will increase the possibility of financial abuse.

I think universal credit will help women in domestic abuse situations, and I am sure the Minister will address that issue in her reply. It is important to give women who are in such situations the support that they need and also emergency funds at the time they need them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of universal credit, which I am sure we will hear more about, is that child benefit—as we know, it will be paid only to lower earners—will still be paid directly to women? That is important for protecting women’s financial situation. It is not going to be rolled up in universal credit.

I agree. That will make a difference to women in such situations.

In my constituency, domestic abuse and violence is at the top of the police agenda in west London. The police take it very seriously. The matter was brought home to me when I was out campaigning on the streets one day, as many of us do as Members of Parliament, and a 16-year-old boy asked me what I was doing. I explained and asked him, “What is the most important issue around here?” He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Domestic violence.” I was really moved by that. Perhaps some of the work that has been done on prevention and in schools is beginning to make an impact now and young people are beginning to understand that it is an important issue. I have visited refuges in my constituency. They are a haven for women who need them at their lowest point in life and at their time of need.

I raised the issue of housing earlier, because it is one of the important factors for allowing a woman to rebuild her life following an abusive situation. Hestia, an organisation in London, put together a report that I launched on international women’s day last week. The report made some good recommendations on housing, such as having someone at the council who is trained in and understands domestic abuse issues, so that they can make the right decisions. An important aspect is the link to temporary housing, which came home to me when a woman visited my weekly surgery one day. She has a seven-year-old child and for 18 months has been in one of the refuges in my constituency. She is currently on band C on the housing register, which in London probably means a wait of six or seven years to get proper housing.

I started a campaign to persuade Hounslow council—my council—to try to move victims of domestic abuse up the priority list. Avoiding temporary housing or bed and breakfast accommodation would really make a massive difference to the lives of women and their children, because temporary housing, unlike permanent housing, means more instability.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. She will know that it is often necessary for women to move a long way from the family home and potentially to another local authority. Does she agree that local authorities receiving women who are fleeing abuse from a different part of the country should treat them with the same priority on the housing list? That is often not the case at the moment. I have a case in my constituency. A constituent wanted to be moved to the other side of Manchester—to a different local authority—but it simply was not willing to give her the same priority.

I completely agree; the hon. Lady is absolutely right. Women usually have to go far away from where they initially lived to ensure their safety, so they need councils to recognise that and give them priority. Even if councils initially gave priority to women with children, it would be a start. Then I would like to widen it to all women—all people—who are in refuges. It would make a tremendous difference and enable them to rebuild their lives. They have been through horrific circumstances and we have a duty of care and humanity to them. We should be able to say, “We will help you to create a fresh new start that is positive and could make a real difference to you and your children.”

I am pleased to see some of the work that has been done on rape crisis centres. We have opened additional centres in London. That will help to make a difference. I want to ask the Minister about work on preventive measures and early intervention, Some great work has been done on early intervention, including teaching young people about the importance of healthy relationships and respecting the right to say no. Preventive work is also being done with women at high risk. We have a sort of payment by results approach. Is there more that we can do to support the organisations that are doing great preventive work in that area and in schools?

I congratulate the Government on the call to end violence against women. The paper came out last year. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill on the positiveness of this debate. On such issues it makes me feel that we can work together to find solutions that will make a real difference. We can work across the House to find a solution that will make a long-term difference to many women who, unfortunately, go through horrific circumstances.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Lady the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). It is a pleasure to be in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I do not think that we have met in these circumstances before. I am delighted to be here today.

I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). I have known him for many years, long before he was a Member of the House. I know from previous experience that he has long been an advocate for support services for women, not only in his own constituency, but across Scotland. For Members who may not be as aware as I am of my right hon. Friend’s history, he was the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities at one point.

My right hon. Friend has done rather a lot in his life—for a man who is only 45. He was president of COSLA when local authorities in Scotland were trying to come to an understanding of what violence against women—it was mainly, but not exclusively, violence against women—meant for those women, their families and their communities. He was part of the drive in Scottish local authorities to recognise the problem and deliver services. It is fair to say that that was not always easy. Many local authorities turned their face against the provision of such services, and many a battle had to be fought to establish the idea that there should be a discrete service focused on women’s needs as part of mainstream activity. I hope my right hon. Friend does not mind my embarrassing him, but we sometimes forget that people had a life before they came into Parliament, and it is worth putting part of that history on the record.

From my right hon. Friend’s analysis, we can see the benefit of the experience that he brings to this subject. He is an assiduous constituency Member of Parliament and he keeps in touch in a way many of us might replicate; I am not saying that we are all bad constituency MPs, but I can verify that he is one of those Members who is known to all his constituents and who knows all of them. It is not often that we get the opportunity to pay a little tribute to one of our colleagues, and I hope that his ego can stand it.

My right hon. Friend’s analysis of the situation was telling. He emphasised that it is not only statistics that are important. As politicians, we talk about statistics, but every one of them represents an individual person who is part of a family, a street and a wider community. That was echoed in the contribution by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth and in other Members’ interventions.

There are two themes in the debate, but I want to concentrate more on one of them, although I appreciate that the Minister will wind up on both. One theme is the responsiveness of the benefits system to women—it is mainly women we are talking about. I hope, however, that that is not misunderstood; as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) mentioned, this is not just about women, and there are men who find themselves in this position. However, the overwhelming majority of cases involve women, so, for shorthand purposes, I will talk about them.

My point was that welcomed the fact that men are participating in a debate that is primarily about women. I totally support what the right hon. Lady says, but I also welcome the fact that it is not only women who are supporting action on this important issue.

I appreciate that. I may not have explained myself properly. I was saying that there are men who find themselves on the receiving end of domestic violence. However, I fully endorse the hon. Lady’s comment that this is not just a women’s issue; it affects women, but we should all be interested in it. I am more than happy to make that clear.

As I was saying, there is the specific issue of how the benefits system responds. There are then the wider elements that have been highlighted, and there is significant expertise at practitioner and political level on some of them. It is fair to say that some of the issues about the benefits system relate to continuing uncertainty about what the new Welfare Reform Act 2012 will deliver. People who rely on some element of benefit support and who are in or—this is increasingly the case, sadly—out of work face uncertainty, as the Government roll out their welfare reform programme. We have had some pretty robust debates on welfare reform, and I will not go back over them. However, we want to see what can be delivered under the new legislation to make sure people understand what its impact on them will be.

I want, therefore, to deal with some specific points about the impact of the new welfare legislation on women who face domestic abuse or domestic violence. As the Minister will be aware, the benefits system is designed for the many, but it must also show sensitivity to individual circumstances. I hope we all agree that such circumstances are sometimes difficult to anticipate and, even when we do anticipate them, difficult to frame provisions for in primary legislation. I hope that she will be able to give Members and, more importantly, those who face the trauma of domestic violence some confidence that what is being put in place can respond to individual circumstances. The test of any benefits system is not the high-level principles or the high-level legislation, but what the system means to an individual when they are at a point of need and how responsive the system is.

The right hon. Lady has come to an important point. Does she agree that one consideration for women who face the threat, or who are victims, of domestic violence in deciding whether to go to Women’s Aid or other such groups is often the impact that that could have on the benefits to which they or their family are entitled? The female at risk often gives more serious consideration to that than to the fact that she is being abused.

I totally agree. That echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown)—he is no longer in his place—who said that, given that uncertainty, women go back go the household where they were abused. If they have never engaged with the benefits system—and even if they have—there is an element of uncertainty about the time frames. It may not be entirely clear what will happen to their child benefit. Who gets the child benefit at the moment? Technically, it goes to women, but that might not be the case in some abusive relationships. As well as having to deal with violence and abuse, women face that financial uncertainty. We should not underestimate how difficult it is for women who are trying to get out of a violent situation not only to have to worry about the impact of the violence on them and their children, but to face uncertainty because they might be stepping off the edge of a cliff and they do not know what will happen. I totally endorse what the hon. Gentleman says.

Will the Minister tell us how organisations that offer hostel and supported accommodation will be treated in the assessment of housing support assistance in the new system? Currently, supported accommodation providers are allowed to breach the local housing allowance cap, because an element in the costs allows them to charge for additional support services, such as those provided by Women’s Aid or similar organisations, although Women’s Aid is obviously the principal provider.

We are seeing a real-terms cut in supported housing costs across the country, and we cannot run away from that. Local organisations that offer accommodation will therefore face a cut in any circumstances. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that women’s aid organisations are receiving a greater funding cut than local authorities—there is a differential of 4% or 5%. There is therefore uncertainty, and if organisations that offer supported accommodation cannot make up the additional costs, there will be a real threat—this is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill was alluding to—to the financial viability and, indeed, the very existence of their hostels.

The Minister understands the commitment of those in organisations such as Women’s Aid who are able to give the support that is needed at a very difficult time; but although that voluntary activity is important, it is not the only element of the support that is given. There are services that have a cost attached to them, and we cannot ignore that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that might have an impact on providers of specialist services, such as those for minority ethnic women, or very young women? Such organisations cannot take advantage of economies of scale, by providing for large numbers, as some housing associations can; but if we lose that specialist provision, some very vulnerable young women will be reluctant to go anywhere for support.

What my hon. Friend says echoes what I said at the beginning of my speech about how the benefits system relates to specialised individual needs. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort on that matter.

I suppose that my direct question to the Minister is whether those in receipt of local housing allowance who go into women’s hostels will receive just the basic housing allowance; or will the hostels be able to charge an additional amount, to be covered by the local housing allowance? My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill made that point starkly when he talked about the pressure on Monklands Women’s Aid. There may be a misunderstanding, and if so I am sure that we would love to receive clarification.

The Minister appreciates that some women and, as I have said, some men are forced to leave their homes as a result of domestic violence and need not just a roof over their head but significant support. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth highlighted that.Like other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will consider how to finesse the new system of local housing allowance to take account of those additional services. Otherwise, I fear for the long-term viability of women’s aid organisations that provide hostel accommodation.

I am echoing comments that other hon. Members have made when I say that some women who have left home may have little or no experience of budgeting, or may be in such a state that budgeting is the last thing on their minds. The direct payment of rent in those circumstances would benefit some people. I agree with the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye that, in principle, giving people the independence to pay their own rent is good practice. Indeed, we introduced that when in government, because it lessened some of the stigma effects—the “No DHSS here” signs and other such things—but we must be realistic and say that in some specific circumstances people would benefit from having their rent paid directly. I hope that the Minister will consider a range of exemptions, to allow those who want it and who feel that they need it at the time in question to access direct payment. I may be wrong, but I understand that the Minister, or the Department, is currently considering such exemptions. Perhaps she will be able to give us interesting news.

The Minister will be aware that on Monday a Delegated Legislation Committee debated the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Domestic Violence) (Amendment) Regulations 2012. The Government’s proposal to ease some of the JSA conditionality on those coping with domestic violence was unanimously accepted. We certainly welcome that decision, which implemented elements of the Welfare Reform Act 2009. Although there have been, as I said earlier, some robust Divisions on welfare reform provisions, the regulations in question were welcomed by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms).

However, I want to ask for the Minister’s view on an issue on which the views were not unanimous: how welfare reform will affect the capacity of women’s aid organisations to seek housing for women. There are serious concerns about the effect of the change to the shared-room rate of local housing allowance under the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on victims of domestic abuse and the possibility that it will make it difficult for some women to move easily from hostels to independent accommodation. The fact that the age limit is being extended from 25 to 35 makes it difficult, particularly for women who have been used to an element of independence. Is the age of 33, given all the other things happening in the life of such a person, really the time—I should not say “you”, Dr McCrea, but in Scotland “you” is the vernacular for “one”—when you should think about going into shared accommodation, perhaps with strangers? There is concern about that; I have certainly picked it up from women’s aid organisations.

I agree that that is a concern, particularly for women who have had traumatic experiences of violence. They will be reluctant to move into shared accommodation with people—potentially men—they do not know. Is not the likely result therefore that some of them remain in the refuge, reluctant to leave, so that there will be a sort of bed-blocking situation? Then other women who need to flee to the refuge will not be able to do so.

That is the general feedback that many hon. Members are getting from women’s aid organisations. The age of 35, for women in that situation, is perhaps inappropriate.

It would be interesting to see the evidence for that. I say that in all honesty, because the right hon. Lady’s argument is interesting, but for some women being in shared accommodation with other women in a refuge might be helpful. Shared support is important.

That is a fair point, and it was the argument prosecuted by the Minister on Monday. However, it is one thing to offer women the choice to stay in accommodation with other people; for many women that would not be their choice. Although it is anecdotally-based, the view that that requirement might be an impediment to moving women into their own accommodation has a strong resonance in women’s aid organisations.

The regulations passed on Monday proved that the general can be finessed to the specific, and I hope that the Minister will discuss with her departmental colleagues whether some easement of the relevant aspect is possible, so that women, many of whom have been their own person for a long time, will not be forced into a particular choice, but offered a range of choices. Are we really going to say to those women that the only option for them at 33 or 34 is to share a flat with someone else—and not necessarily, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)pointed out—people they know?

Another element on which I wish to question the Minister is the way that the new universal credit regulations will work for those who have had to leave home because of domestic abuse. Universal credit is a household benefit, and a test of its responsiveness to individual circumstances will be how flexibly it enables one allocation to a household to be deconstructed when one partner leaves the household, often in traumatic circumstances. That is a question not just of the speed of response, but of how that will give the confidence that was spoken of earlier. I appreciate that the decision makers dealing with these issues might not deal with them daily, but we need some confidence that they will be able to respond quickly to those who need to establish a second claim for universal credit under the new regulations.

I want to ask about women who flee violence and do not go to a refuge, or who leave a refuge to set up their own home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that another concern about the welfare reforms is the uncertainty about the localising of the social fund? Many women fleeing domestic violence depend entirely on the social fund to set up their new homes. Does she agree that it would be useful if the Minister indicated what guidance will be issued to local authorities under the Welfare Reform Act 2012?

That is a good point, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has slotted it in.

There is a question about how the social fund will be delivered to the devolved Administrations. Will it go directly to them or to local authorities? Will the devolved Administrations be the intermediaries? The reason why I highlight that in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is that he has had bitter experience with an allocation of funding at a UK level for respite care for disabled children. As a proportion under the Barnett formula, it went to the Scottish Government, but then—I shall be generous—we could not quickly identify where the money went. It appeared to be wrapped up in other funding packages; it certainly did not appear to be delivered as my right hon. Friend’s Committee intended.

I will wind up with one or two general points. We have focused to a certain extent on the benefits side, but there are wider issues. Although I appreciate that the Minister does not have direct responsibility for those wider issues, I hope that she will take them on board in her discussions with her colleagues. It is fair to say that women’s support services feel that they are facing a precarious future out there, owing to the uncertainty of funding. It is widely recognised that domestic abuse accounts for between 16% and 25% of violent crime in this country. It is not disappearing. It is there, and our police forces are aware of it.

Cuts are being made to policing. We can debate how many and how much. Street lighting is under pressure, as are women’s support services, including refuges. All those factors affect the wider issue of women’s safety in this country. I hope that the Minister will allay some of our fears and give my right hon. Friend and me confidence that she understands the issues and is prepared to see how the Government, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions, can respond.

I am sure that we would all agree that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke)had a distinguished career before first coming to the House. He will be happy to know that we do not need birth certificates to be produced to agree with those comments by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire).

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate. We have worked together on numerous issues in recent years, and I know that his tenacity and commitment are second to none. I underline how important it is that we debate this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) said that it is an issue for both men and women, and the fact that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill secured this debate underlines that.

On behalf of everybody who has contributed to this debate, I pay tribute to all the organisations involved in supporting women, men and children facing the ordeal of domestic violence. I marvel at the work of the Basingstoke Rape and Sexual Abuse Crisis Centre in my constituency, which employs a dedicated group of people who bring a much-needed service to an important part of my constituency. I am sure that all hon. Members can look to similar organisations in their constituencies.

I am grateful for this timely opportunity to discuss how the welfare system supports and will support those affected by domestic violence. As hon. Members have mentioned, significant changes will take place as a result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, particularly the introduction of universal credit. Domestic violence is a dreadful act of abuse, and the Government are absolutely determined to tackle it. There are many matters that I would like to discuss in response to the issues raised by hon. Members. I will try to address each in turn.

It is unacceptable that 7% of women and 5% of men reported having experienced domestic abuse in the past year. That is equivalent to around 1.2 million women and 800,000 men. The violence against women and girls action plan, launched in March 2011, was refreshed earlier this month and sets out numerous commitments that the Government have made across the board: to improve prevention, which my hon. Friends discussed in interventions; to challenge attitudes and behaviours by taking action early to ensure that the perpetrators of violence are brought to justice; to support victims of abuse in all its forms better by working with partners to reach out across communities; and to ensure that Government support is appropriately tailored to victims’ individual needs.

To pick up on the points made by my hon. Friends the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), it is absolutely right that prevention must be at the heart of our approach, as well as breaking the cycle that we as constituency MPs all too often see in action. We can do so by working with children, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West highlighted in her contribution.

I am mindful of hon. Members’ concerns about future funding for services that support victims of domestic violence. I hope that hon. Members will be content to hear that the Government constantly consider ways to strengthen protection for victims and that we have taken a different approach by ring-fencing nearly £40 million of stable funding up to 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and rape crisis centres in England, as well as funding the national domestic violence and stalking helplines. It is the first time that funding has been ring-fenced on a stable basis for domestic and sexual violence victims, and I am clear that local authorities should view funding for services to support victims of domestic violence as essential.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill will also be aware that in Scotland, decisions on funding applications for projects that focus on tackling violence against women will be announced shortly by the Scottish Government. I am pleased, as are key partners such as Scottish Women’s Aid, that funding for violence against women, including victims of domestic abuse, will be maintained throughout the spending review period. I hope that he will welcome that as a concrete commitment.

The right hon. Gentleman’s main point involved housing benefit, but other Members discussed the broader issue of the benefits system, so I will address that first, hopefully providing some of the reassurance that hon. Members seek in these times of change. We heard from the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who spoke for the Opposition, about this week’s approval for proposed changes to jobseeker’s allowance regulations. That legislative change will now come into force on 23 April and allow victims of actual or threatened domestic violence who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance to be exempted from job-seeking conditions for a period of up to 13 weeks, provided that evidence from an appropriate representative can be produced and that other conditions are met. That will continue with the introduction of universal credit.

It is right that victims of domestic violence who claim JSA or are new to claiming it can spend some time focusing on stabilising their lives. As we have heard from hon. Members today, that is a challenging time for the individuals concerned, and they need time to get their lives and, where applicable, their children’s lives straight. It is also right that they can do so without having to demonstrate that they are actively seeking or available for employment, or face the threat of sanction. I hope that hon. Members will feel that that is a clear sign of the Government’s commitment.

A further sign of how seriously we take the issue is that alternative support remains available via the existing JSA domestic emergency exemption for victims who are either unable or perhaps unwilling to produce evidence. We have a twin-track approach, which is important to note.

While the easements that operate under JSA are, as I have explained, commendable, they are somewhat complex. That is why the Government are already taking steps to clarify them as we move forward with universal credit. That shows our clear commitment in the area, and I hope hon. Members will welcome that.

On the subject of today’s debate, housing benefit, some victims of domestic violence live in a hostel or a refuge. Currently, many, if not all, refuges have their rents met in full through housing benefit, which is usually paid directly to the hostel. Refuges are exempt from the local housing allowance, and residents have their housing benefit worked out using rules that recognise the additional costs that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about in her intervention.

The Government consulted last year on changes to the way in which housing benefit meets the costs of people living in supported housing, such as refuges. Our consultation paper, “Housing benefit reform—Supported housing”, was published on 19 July 2011, and the consultation period ended on 9 October 2011. We are considering the responses to the consultation and intend to bring forward proposals as soon as possible for implementation in 2013. Let me clarify that we do not intend to change the way in which payments of housing benefit are made to people living in hostels or refuges. All tenants who live in the social rented sector, as well as those living in supported housing, normally have housing benefit paid directly to their landlords. That will continue until housing benefit no longer exists and is replaced by universal credit between 2013 and 2017.

As well as the process of payment, will the calculations allow hostels to have a higher charge than that which would be commensurate with social housing in the area?

There are a number of specific points, such as the one just made by the right hon. Lady, that I want to go into. I will deal with her point first.

We currently support around 170,000 claimants living in supported accommodation through housing benefit. They receive on average an extra £40 a week in housing benefit in recognition of extra costs. We expect higher payments for that sector to continue. I hope that the right hon. Lady feels that that starts to answer some of her points.

The right hon. Lady also asked several questions about how hostels will be treated under universal credit. Currently, we are considering how we will support housing costs for people in hostels under universal credit. Our consultation is helping to inform that, and we will involve stakeholders in the process before we issue regulations.

The right hon. Lady asked some important questions about people who are subject to the shared accommodation rate. I reassure her that the situation applies to a distinct group of individuals: those who are under 35, on their own, with no children, and moving into private sector accommodation. She is probably already aware that many exemptions are in place for vulnerable groups—for instance, those who receive the severe disability premium.

We have also introduced several further exemptions from this January—for example, for ex-residents of homeless hostels who have received help to resettle in the community. I reassure the right hon. Lady that if there are still individuals who, local authorities feel, require their own space, discretionary housing payments are also available, and they have been increased by some £130 million. That will allow local flexibility and discretion, which can make all the difference in such cases.

I appreciate the exemptions that have been made. However, housing organisations such as Crisis and Shelter have pointed out that if an exemption for people leaving homeless hostels is enshrined in legislation, there seems to be no objection to having the same exemption for women leaving refuges.

Our approach is to empower local authorities to have the sort of discretion that can make all the difference in such cases. Each individual case is different, which is why the discretionary housing payments are important and why we are putting so much more taxpayers’ money into that—to give local authorities the flexibility that can make all the difference.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said that he felt that there may have been some indication of a reduction in the amount available to pay for refuges. I make this clear to reassure him: the consultation on refuges that we have been through is not intended to be a cost-cutting exercise. We want to make the rules fairer and ensure that help is better targeted on those who need it. It is about ensuring that the money that we have reaches those who need it most. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman about housing benefit. His debate is timely because we are moving forward at the moment to talk to stakeholders on that issue before we formulate regulations and before they are looked at through the positive procedures of the House.

Hon. Members also talked about universal credit and how that will affect people who are at risk of or have experienced domestic violence. I believe that the system will hold a great deal of good for individuals who find themselves in such a situation. One of the important contributions—as a constituency MP, I can empathise with this—stressed that sometimes the issue is about the timeliness, or the lack of it, of support in place for women who find themselves in a refuge. A delay in receiving financial support at that point can be extremely distressing. The current complexities of the benefits system can do little to help speed that process up. That is why I feel strongly that universal credit will greatly benefit some of the most vulnerable groups in our communities.

Sometimes, it is important to pay housing benefit directly to refuges to secure their financial future. Private landlords may get into trouble or have difficulty, but they are supported by the law and can enter into negotiations with their tenants. For refuges, having a secure financial commitment is important to their survival.

My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on the subject, and I thank her for her intervention. She is pushing me a little further than I am able to go at the moment, but I hear loud and clear what she is saying about the importance of ensuring that there is some certainty there. I would like to make it clear to her and other hon. Members that the work that we are doing is not intended to unsettle or jeopardise the financial futures of the refuges. That is not something we intend to do. We do not want to do anything to damage the sector.

Universal credit will be a simpler way of people applying for benefits, and will significantly benefit this group of women particularly. We will introduce a system of payments on account, so that some individuals can get payments made, even if not all the details of their claim can be sorted out straight away. Again, simplification and a fleetness of foot will assist people in these very difficult situations.

Throughout the development of the reform—universal credit—we have worked very hard to ensure that safeguards are put in place to protect vulnerable people, including victims of domestic abuse. That includes those still residing within the household and those who have been forced into a refuge. The right hon. Member for Stirling, who speaks for the Opposition, highlighted the single monthly payment made to households. We have put that in place because we feel that it is important and integral that it is the family’s responsibility to decide how a payment is made and to manage their own finances.

However, as the right hon. Lady said, of course, there will be exceptional cases. It is important that any system can deal with and support those exceptional cases, where a single payment into one account may compromise the safety of household members. We have therefore ensured in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that there is a power to split payments between members of a couple in the case of a joint claim. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston also raised that.

The Minister is right that there is the option for universal credit to be split between members of the household. However, does she not agree that it will be difficult for a woman to seek that in a situation where there is financial abuse, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod)? I realise that it is well beyond the opportunity to get the legislation changed, but will the Minister at least assure me that the Government will keep a careful eye on the impact on those women of a single payment to one member of the household in relation to the financial abuse that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth rightly raised?

I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that, in all aspects of the reform that we are undertaking—whether it is this or another aspect of the Welfare Reform Act—we will keep a very close eye on how things are working in practice. She is absolutely right: we have to do that to ensure that those who are particularly vulnerable and in difficult situations are getting the support that they need.

Under universal credit, there will continue to be a 13-week exemption to conditionality where there is evidence of threatened or actual domestic violence. In addition, the application of conditionality overall will be more responsive to the needs and circumstances of individuals. Importantly, advisers will be able to have crucial discretion to vary or temporarily lift requirements where a claimant is subject to a change in circumstances such that they cannot reasonably be expected to take even limited steps into work. That discretion can help individualise the support that we give people in those difficult circumstances.

The situations faced by victims of domestic violence are very varied and therefore, beyond a three-month exemption, we believe that it is right to take a case-by-case approach and give advisers such discretion. As part of the move towards self-sufficiency, in the cases we have talked about, universal credit will be paid directly to tenants rather than to landlords. There are elements around direct payments that are still being considered, and the role of hostels and refuges are part of that. However, let me assure hon. Members that we will do that in a way that protects the income of social landlords. The Government have absolutely no intention of doing anything that will damage the sector. I hope that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill will find that commitment a reassurance at this time.

The debate is extremely timely. My colleagues in the Department and I will consider very carefully all the comments made by hon. Members from both sides of the House. We need to examine carefully the circumstances in which alternative arrangements for payment of universal credit will need to be made. We will start a process of working with key stakeholders over the next few months on what should be included in regulations, with a view to publishing a draft set of regulations in due course. I assure hon. Members that I am committed to ensuring that the right safeguards are in place, particularly in the case of victims of domestic violence. Again, I underline my thanks to hon. Members for sharing their thoughts on this matter. I assure them that they will help inform our discussions as we move forward.