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Fatal Domestic Violence

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

It is a pleasure to secure a debate on this sensitive and important issue. I am grateful that the Minister is in is place to hear the case for peer support and advocacy services for the families of domestic homicide victims.

Our understanding of the full effects of domestic homicide is still emerging, but I will give my perspective. I was a criminal barrister for many years, and I dealt with homicide, murder and manslaughter cases. I thought that I had a deeper understanding than most people of the effects on the families of victims, but I realised after discussions with expert advocate services that the family’s journey does not end at the door of the court when the verdict is passed and the sentence is handed down. Often, that is only the first stage of a long, arduous process through which families have to go.

A domestic homicide, whether it is murder, manslaughter or another form of death, profoundly changes a family’s life in an instant. For example, the surviving children may have witnessed abuse or the killing, or they may have lost a sibling. They may have lost both parents if the perpetrator parent either committed suicide or is held securely. The family property immediately becomes a crime scene, the criminal justice system must be navigated and the health and financial costs of that need to be challenged. Information that is vital to the family may have to be held back so they are not compromised as witnesses. At the same time, they must deal with the grief that results from the loss of their loved ones and the private personal details of their lives will be made public. It is a self-evident truth that the aftermath of such a death is traumatic. It raises issues that nobody the family knows has ever had to deal with before, and thrusts the family into contact with agencies with which they never thought they would have to engage. In an instant, they are in a strange, troubling new world.

Specialist advocacy and support is desperately needed for those families. There is a real concern that the Government’s well-intentioned proposal to give a grant to one prime service provider while withdrawing direct grants to smaller specialist and expert providers will reduce the number of families who are provided with specialist expert and independent support after domestic homicide. The Government recognise that that sort of support helps families to cope with and recover from the trauma.

The organisation Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse is directed by somebody whom I regard as a friend, Frank Mullane. It is an award-winning service that is funded from a number of sources, and for a number of years it has received welcome and helpful contributions from the Government. It provides specialist services to some categories of families—in particular, families who were bereaved before April 2010, for whom Victim Support’s homicide service currently has no responsibility and for whom the homicide service provider will not have responsibility from October 2014, and families whose tragedy attracts a section 9 domestic homicide review. The Government brought that important provision into force, and I warmly welcome their decision. However, a number of organisations already refer families to AAFDA for domestic homicide reviews, and Victim Support’s homicide service signposts families to the organisation. The word “signpost” is important, because Victim Support uses the word “refer” only for organisations that it directly commissions using its budget. AAFDA has an excellent relationship with Victim Support’s homicide service, and the two organisations collaborate effectively on behalf of many families.

Victim Support’s homicide service signposts families to AAFDA for help not only with that issue, but also with inquests, serious case reviews, mental health inquiries and other matters. Families also directly approach the organisation, and it has an input into Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiries. It does a range of work, and engages with local employers, service providers and other agencies to provide a full package of support.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. I entirely agree about the excellent work of Frank Mullane. As my hon. Friend is aware, the police must appoint a family liaison officer to support the families of victims on every occasion. However, a problem that has not been resolved is that in murder and killing cases, the perpetrator, until convicted, is treated as the next of kin of the deceased and the children.

That is right, and that relationship often leads to manipulation after the event. The intercession, the support and the advocacy service are vital if we are to prevent families from reliving the trauma, as has happened in many sad examples.

The Minister will be aware of the report that was completed in July 2011 by the former Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses, Louise Casey. It was the largest survey of bereaved families ever undertaken; more than 400 families revealed the toll of bereavement. Louise Casey concluded that the devastating effects of homicide manifested in many ways. She rightly concluded:

“these effects persist for many years.”

That is why I said that the criminal trial is often only the beginning of the journey for the family.

Louise Casey identified the enduring needs of families after homicide, and she provided several important conclusions. First, many families who were bereaved before April 2010 still need the support of specialist agencies after October 2014. There is a concern that the funding for the homicide services for those families has not been dealt with adequately. Secondly, many families who were bereaved after April 2010 still require ongoing support. They already seek out AAFDA and other small specialist organisations during the time that the current national homicide service provider is engaged and afterwards.

From 1 October, the prime service provider will have to have an exit strategy with families, or its capacity will eventually be insufficient because of the numbers that will come to the service. For many families, the journey through the criminal justice system alone may take several years. For example, some domestic homicide reviews are necessarily suspended until the end of the criminal trial, and some inquests may not take place until several years after the tragedy. I know of an example of a family who are about to face an inquest that will last for several weeks, two and a half years after the homicides.

A further problem arises because families’ emotional and practical needs often do not emerge until years have passed since the homicide. It is then that the smaller specialist organisations such as AAFDA will be approached to help those families cope and recover. In reality, and as history shows, many families need help to cope and recover after the homicide service has exited the process. That is no reflection on the services provided by the homicide service, but it is simply a fact of life that the amount of time that people need to cope and recover often will not match the resources that are available. There is a concern that those families will not get the support that they need.

Although the Government’s aim is that from October this year, the prime homicide services provider will commission other services that families need, there is a worry that the expertise of small organisations such as AAFDA may be overlooked, and if it is not overlooked, that the funding available will be insufficient to make the service sustainable. That will result in fewer families getting the support that they need.

I cannot overemphasise the expertise and skill of AAFDA. It is a registered charity that was formed in 2008 and which has strong connections with Swindon, where my constituency is. It has become expert on domestic homicide, domestic violence and supporting families after these horrors, including support through the criminal justice system. It has been recognised by both the previous Government and this one as a leader in its field.

AAFDA has three specialist caseworkers, two of whom lost family members to homicide, and the other who has 30 years’ operational and strategic experience in the domestic violence sector. In addition, it has a volunteer criminologist and a volunteer barrister who give significant pro bono help. One of AAFDA’s caseworkers is considered to be a national expert on stalking, and the other two caseworkers, including the director, Frank Mullane, are Home Office accredited chairs of section 9 domestic homicide reviews. AAFDA is, of course, a member of the Home Office panel that quality assures those reviews.

Frank is rightly credited with being the driving force behind domestic homicide reviews becoming law in England and Wales and helped draft some parts of the statutory guidance. He has a now-growing academic expertise, being a visiting lecturer and assessor at the university of Gloucestershire, and he works closely with universities both at home and abroad. He is continually learning about developments in the sector. Having attended, for the past four years, the annual conference of AAFDA, held in Swindon, I too, have learnt a lot about this area. I have met some of the families being helped by the organisation and I have listened to speakers from as far afield as Sweden, Ireland and indeed, from many parts of England. AAFDA is also a member of key national forums, advising the College of Policing, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and those of us—me included—who are looking to develop legislation on domestic abuse.

In the brief time I have left, I want to give some case examples of the importance of the ability of the organisation to stand in the shoes of those who have been victims of domestic homicide. The fact that we are dealing with immeasurable grief almost goes without saying, but let me give an example of one family. A woman—a mother and sister—was killed by her husband. The family had to summon up the strength to clean the bloodstains from the house where the victim was killed—just imagine that for a moment. As one family member said to the media,

“it's like being told—it's not your mess, but you clean it up.”

That is a graphic, I accept, but important illustration of the ordeal that people have to go through, not only in losing somebody, but in physically dealing with the aftermath of a homicide.

That family are being helped and have been helped for more than three years. They have been given expert advice and guidance on which organisations they needed to go to to get the information that they needed, otherwise they would have been in isolation. That family have channelled their resilience into providing well thought through and skilful challenges to the various bodies in the system, and it is an important example of what can be achieved to the benefit of those who have suffered.

Another example is where uninformed advice had been given to a family about a domestic homicide review, and because of that uninformed advice, they had declined to participate. As a result of signposting to AAFDA, they were given proper, expert advice. The process was explained and the family changed their mind. They participated in the review, and the review itself has benefited hugely from the involvement of the family. It has given them an opportunity to participate and to explain from their point of view the challenges that the system posed to them.

It is all about identifying and achieving the objectives of the family while managing their expectations, because for many families, finding out the facts of the case and what happened can be a huge difficulty, for some of the reasons I outlined earlier. Helping families to acquire that information may serve at least two purposes. First, as the Prime Minister acknowledged when he gave evidence to the Liaison Committee in 2013 about the awful case of Jacintha Saldanha—the Bristol nurse who took her own life after the very sad hoax call from broadcasters in Australia—the family absolutely need the truth. They need the facts.

Secondly, and this is important, significant public resources may later be avoided as a result of the resumption of inquiries that have been justifiably sought by the families because the initial inquiry had been wholly inadequate. Many of these families cannot afford solicitors, but they need—this is undeniable—help from those who have considerable experience of the system. As I have said, the work that AAFDA does with regard to inquests is very significant. It is an advocacy service that helps a family to understand the process and how they can participate and prepare for the ordeal itself.

I have given a few family examples, but I want to give one further example of a family who talked with passion about the action plan that was set out by AAFDA. That action plan gave that family a sense of where to go and what to do and allowed them to move forward. AAFDA helped to make sense of the process to the family in a way that just was not happening for them without its input.

As I have said, AAFDA is influencing the practice of domestic homicide reviews to include family and friends. It first influenced the Government to ensure that that was stated clearly in the statutory guidance, and its caseworkers continue to advocate strongly on behalf of families, so that reviewers understand that the family is to be given space and to be integral to the reviews, rather than lip service just being given to their involvement. Without families being able to influence the reviews, frankly, they become meaningless. They become talking shops and they become ineffective.

As I said, there are concerns about the way in which funding will be configured from October this year. Although AAFDA is already working with police and crime commissioners such as Angus Macpherson in Wiltshire, there is a difficulty for them directly to fund the work because the incidence of domestic homicide in many police areas will be low. Therefore, the nature of that specialist work will, by dint of its relative rarity, have to be in a national framework. That is why, we understand, the funding is being administered centrally. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could not only acknowledge the value of the work by organisations such as AAFDA, but look carefully again at the funding mechanism to make sure that this invaluable service and others like it are not lost to those families in real need.

In congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing the debate, I very much echo his opening words that this is indeed a sensitive and important area. I also echo his closing words in paying tribute to AAFDA and the other organisations that work in this most difficult area. I have been aware for some time of his interest in and knowledge of the area from the various written questions that he has submitted on it.

I am more than happy to assure my hon. Friend that the Government remain committed to ensuring that victims of all types of crime have access to support to enable them to cope and, wherever possible, to help them to recover from their experience, or at least, to be able to have some kind of normality in their lives: for example, returning to work, re-engaging with outside interests and trying to rebuild their lives.

Domestic abuse and homicide are particularly abhorrent forms of crime. Such violence, as my hon. Friend said, ruins and destroys families. It is insidious and can take many forms: physical, emotional and sexual. Homicide is its most extreme manifestation. Clearly, for anyone to lose a loved one in such a way is a disturbing and traumatic experience.

Progress has been made over the years to raise the profile of the issue and, more importantly, to fight it. In 2011, the Home Office implemented section 9 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. That means that local areas and agencies are expected to undertake a multi-agency review following a domestic violence homicide to help all those involved in the review process in identifying the lessons that need to be learned. In November 2013, the Home Office published a document setting out the most common themes that were identified as lessons to be learned.

I am obviously aware of the organisation Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and of the very good work that it does in supporting those affected by domestic abuse and homicide. More generally, support for those bereaved by homicide has been improved in the past few years. The Government remain committed to providing support for victims of crime and their families, and that includes provision of support for those bereaved by homicide.

Currently, the Ministry of Justice provides £2.4 million of annual funding to a national homicide service provided by Victim Support. That service provides an assigned caseworker who delivers and co-ordinates practical and emotional support and who can commission specialist support, including legal advice and counselling. In addition, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently provides up to £100,000 of funding a year for additional support when the homicide has occurred abroad. That funding helped 4,500 individuals to be supported by the homicide service between 2010 and the end of 2013. Currently, 2,588 people are being supported.

In addition, the Ministry of Justice currently provides a total of £350,000 of annual funding to a number of other specialist and peer support organisations that provide help for families bereaved by homicide. Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse is one of the organisations providing peer support that we currently fund.

A new national homicide service is currently being commissioned by the Ministry of Justice and, from October 2014, the Ministry of Justice will be providing grant funding for a more integrated offer of support for those bereaved by homicide. It will provide access, where required, to practical and emotional support and to both specialist and peer support.

The principle of service provision is that it will be based on need. My hon. Friend mentioned Louise Casey’s review of the homicide service in 2011, and rightly so; it is an important document. One of the lessons that we have drawn from it and, indeed, from learning and feedback from the service providers currently funded, is that the needs of those bereaved by homicide can range from the short term to the long term and, in some cases, as he said, persist for many years or even be lifelong. In that regard, it is important to remember that Louise Casey’s report called for an integrated service for the bereaved; and, indeed, an integrated service commissioned and managed by one grant fund will be able and required to refer individuals to peer and specialist support. That is precisely because signposting, under current separate grant funds, is sometimes not in the best interests of families, so we are trying to address that specific point that my hon. Friend made.

We also know that individuals who need support will not inevitably fall into one category of support need. Individuals who need specialist advice may, for example, also need immediate practical support and advice, counselling support or help with claims for compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. We know that victims’ needs can both change and recur over time, so not only will the balance of what victims need across these various areas of support vary from individual to individual, but the balance of support that any individual needs may change over time. That is why we want support to be available to individuals for as long as they need it; we are not looking to exit individuals from the support that they need according to a pre-set time scale or proportion of the available budget. That is to say that victims who receive support from the national homicide service will be able to do so for as long as they need it. We also want the support offered to address and help to meet the range of an individual’s needs, so that in time the need for support reduces.

The Ministry of Justice therefore intends to provide one grant award for a national homicide service. We are inviting bids from organisations that can demonstrate how they will deliver support across the range of needs; it is important to ensure that this leads to a more integrated service than the current separate funding arrangements. We are inviting prime contractors with subcontractors, and consortiums, to bid. There is therefore scope for smaller organisations, including peer support groups, to take part in the process, either as bidders for the direct MOJ grant or as partners in service provision. This competitive grant process will allow the provision of support to families based on need and entitlement, and provision of the support is therefore not time-limited.

Let me be clear that although we are changing the way in which we fund the homicide service in order to provide a more efficient, effective and integrated service, we remain committed to ensuring that peer support is available to those victims who want or need it. It is expected that in bidding for and providing the service, the future recipient of this grant award will need to demonstrate how it will directly provide support and, where it cannot directly provide all support across the range of needs, it will put in place sustainable arrangements with other organisations that can help to ensure that the range of needs are met.

Let me address directly a point that I know AAFDA makes: what happens to those bereaved by homicide before the setting up of the homicide service in 2010? Among the essential features of the current service model is that it is designed to provide immediate support and then structured ongoing support. It provides a dedicated caseworker in the immediate aftermath of bereavement who conducts a needs assessment. Obviously, the needs of those bereaved before 2010 will not be best supported by this service model, so we do not propose to extend the scope of the new service to include support in cases that predate the current service, but organisations that currently support pre-2010 provision were advised in August 2013 that they would need to ensure that they made suitable funding arrangements, either to continue to support service users or to transition them to appropriate services once the current funding streams ceased. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice also gave organisations the opportunity to engage in work to consider how to help the victims sector build capacity and capability ahead of the move to local commissioning by police and crime commissioners in October 2014. Of course, PCCs will be able to augment nationally provided services locally as they see necessary.

The organisations have been told about this; they have been told about the new funding arrangement, and I hope that they will be able to use the new arrangements to ensure that they continue their essential services. If an organisation proves unable to develop such arrangements and that means that there is a risk of essential support ending, it can and should contact the Ministry of Justice to highlight that risk, the steps that it has taken to resolve it and information on the range, volume and type of support activities that would constitute the gap in service provision from October 2014, because the purpose of the new grant award arrangements is that resources can be distributed as effectively and efficiently as possible, which will ensure that organisations provide as much support as possible for individuals.

I again emphasise the importance, under the new arrangements, of commissioning by police and crime commissioners. That will mean that decisions about local services are based on local needs and made by individuals who have an understanding of those needs and who can be held accountable for the money that they spend on these services. Each PCC will therefore be able to look at the range of services being provided both locally and nationally and make their own assessment of how to provide additional, tailored support to victims based on local requirements.

I think that the new system will be better integrated than before and I hope that it will also be more flexible than before, so that the small specific charities that do such vital work will be able to continue doing it. I hope, therefore, that I have gone some way towards reassuring my hon. Friend that it is precisely because of the changeable and varied needs of individuals who are bereaved by homicide that a grant award for a co-ordinated and integrated provision of service is the right approach to ensuring that those bereaved by homicide have access to vital support.

Sitting suspended.