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Domestic Violence (West Essex and Harlow)

Volume 576: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr McCrea. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on an important matter that affects thousands of men and women up and down the country. I want to give special recognition to Safer Places in Harlow, Essex county council, Nick Alston, who is police and crime commissioner for Essex, ManKind and Women’s Aid for the assistance they have given me in preparing for this debate. I also welcome the work done by the TUC on domestic violence training and education.

For six months, I have put in for this debate because of the particular problem of domestic violence in Harlow and because of two tragedies that have afflicted our town. That is why I must pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Blunnie, who are in Westminster today. They have been incredibly strong throughout their ordeal since their daughter’s death, and continue to astound me with their campaign to prevent any other families from going through similar tragedies. I am hugely grateful to the Minister, who has agreed to meet the family after the debate.

This debate is much needed. Nationally, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse, with two women being killed per week by a partner or former partner.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about male victims of domestic violence. Female victims are more numerous and sometimes more vulnerable, but we should not overlook male victims, who can fall victim to domestic violence in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Often they are unable to talk about the issue or to find resources available for victims of their gender.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Domestic violence is evil, whichever sex is afflicted by it.

As I said, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse. Today I want to focus specifically on west Essex and Harlow, where there is an above average amount of domestic abuse incidents. I am incredibly proud of my town. I love living there and am very proud to be its MP, but we cannot sweep the problems we have under the carpet and so it is important to set out some of the problems that we face. In Harlow alone domestic abuse makes up 10% of all crime, a statistic that has increased by 2% in the past year; 32% of all offences are assault with injury. Across Essex, police deal with 80 domestic incidents per day. As I mentioned, we have sadly lost two Harlow residents to domestic violence recently, Eystna Blunnie in June 2012 and Claire Parrish in July 2012.

I therefore want to raise three issues this afternoon. First, what the situation is in west Essex in relation to domestic abuse; secondly, what steps are already being taken to improve how domestic abuse is dealt with; and thirdly, what needs to be improved and how that could be achieved.

As I have already mentioned, there are two tragic cases I would like to discuss that really typify some of the problems that we face. The first is the distressing case of Eystna Blunnie. Before she met her ex-fiancé, Eystna was a happy young woman who had a close relationship with her family. During her relationship with her ex-fiancé she became withdrawn, and had little contact with her mother and father. In April 2012, she was taken to hospital after being strangled and falling unconscious. She was pregnant at the time, with a daughter called Rose. She made the decision to leave her ex-fiancé, and returned to live with her family. But two months later, and just days before her baby was due, she received a text from him saying he had a surprise for her. She was found by the roadside with over 50 injuries, and died shortly afterwards from severe head injuries. Her ex-fiancé was found guilty of her murder and of causing the death of their unborn baby, Rose. He was jailed for a minimum of 27 years. I was due to see her in my surgery just a few days after she died. During the court case, it transpired that her ex-fiancé had previously been arrested for assaulting ex-girlfriends.

The second tragic death is that of Claire Parrish, a mum of four living in Harlow. Her partner murdered her just hours after she told him that she wanted to end their relationship because of his domestic abuse. Like three in four victims, Claire was sadly one of the many who felt unable to contact the police.

Of course, those cases are horrific examples of the terrible tragedies that can occur. But they unfortunately also reflect the wider problem of domestic abuse in west Essex, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, recorded incidents of domestic abuse increased by nearly 88% across Essex; they increased by 25% between 2010-11 and 2011-12. The cost of domestic abuse in Essex alone is £86 million per year. It represents a substantial amount of police work.

Those statistics can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know from studies that the incidence of domestic abuse is higher in areas of deprivation, and that is sadly reflected in Harlow wards. Toddbrook, Little Parndon, Hare Street and Netteswell are in the top 30% of the most deprived areas in England; unfortunately, they also have the highest rates of domestic abuse in my constituency. On the other hand, it is good that Essex police are recording incidents of domestic abuse thoroughly, and it has been acknowledged that changes in how records are kept and county priorities are one of the reasons why domestic abuse figures in Essex are so high.

Yet that must not stop us acknowledging that there is a clear problem with domestic abuse. In the aftermath of tragedies such as the deaths of Eystna Blunnie and Claire Parrish, it is worth remembering that Essex police and Essex county council have taken important steps forwards in how they treat domestic abuse. They have created a new domestic abuse strategic board, and I praise them for that. I am glad for the enormous amount of work done by the Minister, who is taking a zero tolerance approach and is extending Clare’s law across the United Kingdom. I am hopeful that that will prevent victims from being sucked into a cycle of abuse that is difficult to break. I also recognise that the east of England has the best conviction rate in the country for cases of domestic violence, with Essex having the second highest conviction rate of all the criminal justice areas in 2011-12.

That does not minimise in any way, however, the significant failings that led to a lack of help for Eystna and Claire. There are three main problems that I wish to discuss. First, current training regarding domestic abuse for people working in key public services is inadequate. There were a number of occasions where better training for front-line staff might have provided Eystna with the help she so badly needed. For example, she was under the care of midwives and housing officers. She was also seen at A and E, and had reported to the police that she was being abused. Despite coming into contact with all those services, she received little support.

Eystna’s case is echoed in the review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of Essex police’s handling of domestic abuse cases in 2013, which reported that

“most staff were not able to demonstrate a broad understanding of the wider approach to domestic abuse, and of how dealing with it effectively can enhance the confidence of victims and ultimately prevent homicides.”

Nationally, training has also been identified as a priority, and a recent report said that there is a need for improved training and awareness about domestic violence and abuse for GPs and healthcare professionals. The training also needs to extend to the Crown Prosecution Service, which acknowledged that it made a mistake by not initially charging Eystna Blunnie’s ex-fiancé when he tried to kill her in April 2012. Healthy relationship education should be extended in classrooms. Victims of domestic abuse tend to be women in their early 20s, and education will hopefully give them the skills to deal with a bad relationship and encourage them to speak up if they are in an abusive one.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also represent a constituency in Essex, and we have many issues with domestic violence. My hon. Friend touched on the issue of training in the CPS and the health and social services. I, too, have experienced horrifying cases. Does he agree that in addition to improving training we must integrate the services better to co-ordinate the services and support for the victims of this awful abuse and to create stronger support structures and signposting for those vulnerable individuals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am proud to have her as a near neighbour in Essex. Sharing information and safeguarding are crucial issues, which I will come on to. She makes an important point, and I hope the Minister is listening to her.

I want to build on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I used to practise in the criminal justice system in Essex, in which I saw both good and bad practices. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) agree that it is incumbent on HM Court Service to play a role, so defendants and victims are not left alone together, for example? In my experience, the witness service does a fantastic job in preventing that kind of thing. Nevertheless, it is important that courts ensure that the interests of both parties are protected while they are going through the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure the Minister is listening carefully to what he has to say.

Perpetrators tend to come from families in which there is a history of abuse. Studies show that nearly a quarter of young people in the UK think that abuse or violence is sometimes okay. It must be stressed to young people that abuse in any form and for whatever reason is never acceptable. I am pleased that Essex county council is working with schools to develop a programme to help students recognise abusive relationships. However, abuse should be tackled nationally, and the curriculum should focus on altering the creation of violence through targeted education. That could include training on self-esteem and values; learning about the help that is out there, such as Clare’s law, and how to access it; and special training for tutors in schools.

Victims have identified that how they are supported needs to be reformed. Following the terrible death of Eystna, Mr and Mrs Blunnie told me that despite good help being available from individual police officers, they felt let down by Victim Support. They received little follow-up, always had to be the first to make contact and had to speak to different people each time. Ultimately, they came to rely upon a charity called Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse for support, to which I give huge thanks for all it has done. The situation is disappointing, and I encourage Victim Support to review what it can do for victims and their families.

Finally, one of the major problems that was identified in the handling of domestic abuse in Essex is the lack of cohesive information sharing across services, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) referred. It is shocking that despite the fact that Eystna was pregnant and was known to many key services to have a fiancé with serious mental health problems and a history of abusing women, a sufficient safeguarding plan was not put in place. The HMIC review strongly criticised Essex police for failings across the force in that area. It said:

“We found poor communication between those providing victim care, investigators and voluntary sector support workers…The force needs to intensify its work with other agencies across Essex to develop a more co-ordinated approach to domestic abuse.”

That view has been expressed to me privately, with the suggestion that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on mental health and substance misuse issues. It is essential that services work together and share information when people’s lives are at risk.

If we are to avoid tragedies such as those that happened in Harlow and prevent such things from happening again anywhere, we must not only learn lessons but act on them. As I have said, that means providing education in schools, investing in and focusing on areas of high deprivation and significant domestic abuse, fully implementing Clare’s law, ensuring proper information sharing among services and safeguarding vulnerable people. The Government are making significant efforts on a national level, but we must ensure that they also work on a micro-level. Local areas—in particular, those with high levels of domestic abuse—should have everything at their disposal to deal with this ever-increasing tragedy. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for the opportunity to debate this serious issue. I thank him for the measured way in which he presented his remarks. These are difficult issues to discuss without emotion.

Domestic violence is unquestionably a terrible crime, and I give my absolute assurance that the Government is committed to tackling it robustly. Getting a clear picture of the prevalence of domestic abuse is always a challenge because it is so under-reported; we must deal with that problem. The crime survey for England and Wales, which measures what people tell us, rather than crime recorded by the police, estimates that 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse last year. That is a huge number. The police and crime plan for Essex estimates that there were 44,000 victims of domestic abuse in the county, which has a population of 1.7 million.

I am aware that in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across Essex there have been some tragic cases, and domestic abuse is often fatal. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, six people were killed by their partners or ex-partners in Essex in the three years between 2009 and 2012. That was against a national backdrop of 76 women being killed by their partners or ex-partners last year. Although we can take some comfort in the fact that that is the lowest figure since 1998, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that anything more than zero is too many.

My hon. Friend mentioned the two particularly tragic deaths in Essex of Eystna Blunnie and Claire Parrish. Eystna was brutally murdered only days before she was due to give birth to her baby, Rose, in 2012. She was looking forward to being a mother. When she died, her profile picture on Facebook featured a recent ultrasound scan. She told friends that she “could not wait” to be a mother, and added:

“Only 17 days and counting”,

but her life was cut short when she and her unborn child were brutally murdered, as my hon. Friend described.

I want to take the opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to Eystna’s family for the loss of their daughter and granddaughter, and to the family of Claire Parrish for their sad loss. The Blunnie case was all the more tragic because there was a chance to prosecute Mr McLernon when he attempted to strangle Eystna two months before her death. Regrettably, the Crown Prosecution Service missed the opportunity to pursue the case. It has now rightly apologised for that unacceptable failing.

My hon. Friend also referred to the death of Claire Parrish, a mother of six brutally stabbed to death following a history of suffering abuse. She was a scared and vulnerable victim, again tragically let down by the agencies that should have been there to protect and support her. I want to reassure my hon. Friend and Members generally that I take such cases extremely seriously and I am determined that we all learn lessons from them, both inside Government and in the agencies involved that are on the front line to protect people.

I was pleased to see that the Essex police and crime commissioner, Nick Alston, has prioritised tackling domestic abuse in his police and crime plan. I was particularly encouraged to see his focus on learning lessons from Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations of the police handling of domestic abuse cases, and his plan to tackle domestic abuse through a multi-agency approach and the joint commissioning of victim services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on some excellent examples of local services for victims of domestic abuse in west Essex, including the charity Safer Places, which offers accommodation and support to victims of abuse. I am also aware of the innovative Essex Change programme, which is an accredited programme that works with perpetrators of domestic violence to help them break the cycle of abuse. That is a very important aspect of our work.

The Government has supported a series of reforms to the handling of domestic violence by the police. The introduction of police and crime commissioners, the increased independence of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, and the establishment of the College of Policing are reforms that are working and, I think, are helping.

Police and crime commissioners provide an impetus for reform, innovate, and deliver policing more efficiently. They bring real local scrutiny of how chief constables and their forces perform. I am encouraged by the fact that the vast majority of police and crime commissioners across England and Wales have made tackling violence against women and girls a priority in their policing plans, and we are committed to ensuring that they have all the information that they need to make good decisions on how to deliver those priorities.

Specific training on domestic violence and abuse is included in the national police training curriculum. That training was updated this year to take account of the Government’s introduction of a new definition of domestic abuse. The new definition helps to prevent the escalation of abuse, which can end in tragedy, by dispelling the belief that domestic abuse begins and ends with violence. It places coercive control at the centre of determining whether abuse is taking place, and that is absolutely right. The College of Policing has committed to updating training on domestic abuse this year for its officers.

On top of that, the Home Secretary has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to look at the performance of police forces across England and Wales in domestic abuse cases and identify where improvements need to be made. In just a few weeks’ time, it will publish its findings. The review will shine a light on police practice in each of the 43 forces. I am sure that my hon. Friend will read the report on Essex constabulary with particular interest. We will review the national recommendations with care and ensure that they are acted on as we strive for further improvements in this area.

Also of importance is the Government’s decision in April 2011 to place domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing. Now community safety partnerships produce a report for each domestic homicide review that they conduct, and each report is quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. Each review results in a tailored action plan that must be delivered by the area in question to make sure that we learn from each individual tragedy that occurs.

The Home Office has also published a document collating the national lessons learned from those reviews and making recommendations to local areas to drive improvements in practice. That, in particular, flagged up the critical importance of effective information sharing. I understand that a domestic homicide review has been conducted in the case of Eystna Blunnie and will be published by the local community safety partnership in the coming months, following close liaison with the family, as is right.

However, in order for a victim to access justice, it is important that a professional police force is complemented by well-trained prosecutors who progress as many domestic abuse cases as possible, so that unnecessary deaths are prevented. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently refreshing its domestic violence policy. I understand that a revised version will be published for consultation in the next few weeks. I also look forward to the outcome of work between the CPS and the police to join up training to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are provided with a consistent and collaborative response.

My hon. Friend also raised the importance of the training of front-line professionals. I welcome the recent publication by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, better known as NICE. That guidance has been published and is directed at commissioners and front-line professionals, including the NHS, the police and social services. The guidance provides information for multi-agency professionals dealing with domestic violence and abuse. It includes evidence-based interventions to be used as best practice by professionals to identify and support victims and their children, as well as enforce the law and respond to perpetrators.

It is vital that our criminal justice approach is reinforced by support services for victims. This Government has ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services. Facilities funded with that money include 144 independent domestic violence advisers, who help victims of domestic violence get their voices heard, and 54 multi-agency risk assessment co-ordinators, who protect the interests of those who are most at risk by promoting information sharing. Up to 60% of abuse victims report no further violence following intervention by independent advisers.

However, we can and should do all we can nationally as well to reach out to those caught in cycles of abuse. The start of the national roll-out of Clare’s law, which my hon. Friend referred to, and of domestic violence protection orders is now just days away. Clare’s law, the domestic violence disclosure scheme, is a system in which anyone can seek disclosure of a partner’s violent past. Those with the legal right to know are provided with information that could well save lives, empowering them to make an informed choice about their futures.

Domestic violence protection orders offer respite to victims in the immediate aftermath of domestic abuse. Those orders have the power to prevent a perpetrator of domestic violence from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days. That offers both the victim and the perpetrator the chance to reflect on the incident. It provides an important opportunity for the victim to determine the best course of action to end the cycle of abuse. Together, those two moves significantly improve the reality for victims.

I am also keen to do more to challenge cultural mindsets, which need to be changed to eradicate domestic abuse from our society. That is why the Home Office relaunched the “This is Abuse” campaign in December. It is particularly aimed at young people who think that violence can be okay, which is a point that my hon. Friend rightly referred to. It is aimed at stopping teenagers from becoming victims and perpetrators of abusive relationships by encouraging them to rethink their views on controlling behaviour and violence in their relationships.

We have also developed a “This is Abuse” discussion guide in partnership with voluntary sector experts, designed to help teachers, parents and youth workers lead discussions about abuse in teenage relationships. The guide has been quality assured by the Personal, Social, Health And Economic Education Association and is available to download on the website. I welcome the work that the Department for Education is doing to establish a personal, social and health education subject expert group to ensure that teachers have the support and resources to deliver high-quality teaching and give the issues the same prominence as national curriculum subjects. The group will look at school-based programmes on domestic abuse and other key areas. I am committed to helping work with the DFE on those matters.

West Essex and Harlow have seen some extreme examples of appalling abusive behaviour in intimate relationships. The local area is to be commended for its efforts to learn lessons from individual tragedies and strive for improvements in the services offered to victims of domestic abuse. Through our violence against women and girls action plan, which will be updated and relaunched in a few days’ time, this Government has made significant strides towards a better reality for victims of domestic abuse.

We know that there is still much to do, and our refreshed action plan will capture that and outline the steps we will take to deliver further improvements. I look forward to working with local areas to ensure that actions identified by HMIC are driven forward. I will update Parliament, of course, on our continued progress in tackling domestic violence in the coming months, and I assure my hon. Friend and Parliament that this remains very much a priority for the Home Office, and for the Government as a whole.

I would like to thank the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the Minister for the sensitive manner in which they debated this important issue of domestic violence. We now move to the debate on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs inquiry centre closures. It is a pleasure to call Ian Lavery.