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House of Commons Hansard
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Black Women: Domestic Abuse
30 June 2020
Volume 678

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

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It gives me great pleasure to raise a very important issue to the UK and to this House, particularly as we are about to debate the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to this place in the next fortnight or so.

In preparation for today’s debate, I was aided greatly by a number of groups. I would like to thank Refuge; Southall Black Sisters; Women’s Aid; the End Violence Against Women Coalition; Hackney Council; London Councils; Imkaan, which does amazing work in this area; and my local organisation, Sistah Space, with whom I met recently and who were the inspiration behind this debate.

I would also like to put on record my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is unable to be with us physically today, for her assurance to me that she is committed to listening on this. I appreciate her willingness to engage on this vital issue, and look forward to hearing the Minister’s detailed response to the points that I raise.

It is important to summarise some of the concerns around this. We are dealing with domestic violence and domestic abuse, which is an issue that of course cuts across all people, all ethnicities and those of every socioeconomic status, but black, minority, ethnic and migrant women are particularly vulnerable to high rates of abuse. I am concerned that small specialist organisations are often unable to compete for the contracts that Government and other authorities run to provide money and support, partly due to funding cuts to local authorities and the knock-on effects on services provided. My own local authority, for example, has suffered over 40% cuts in the past decade. This collective loss of money means that anything that is not a statutory service is at risk.

There is also a need for greater representation of black women at policy level. The term, “black, Asian and minority ethnic”, or BAME, as some people call it, groups together a lot of different lived experiences and is a lazy shorthand for the real lived experiences of so many women. In Hackney, we see domestic abuse as an issue that particularly impacts black and minority ethnic women—disproportionately so. I will be touching on the issue of “no recourse to public funds” and of course return to the Domestic Abuse Bill.

The budget cuts to local authorities have meant that there has been a general push towards generic, lower-cost service provision for domestic abuse and violence against women services. Because of economies of scale, that push towards lower-cost services favours larger organisations and contracts over the small, specialist groups that are led by and for the communities they support. They often do not have the resources or finances available to them, or the stability, because they are small groups working in the community. We need to acknowledge that the experiences and discrimination faced by black women are different from those faced by other minority ethnic women, although I shall speak about other women in this speech as well. Using that term BAME—black, Asian and minority ethnic—as an all-encompassing term homogenises vastly different lived experiences.

Let me take a very human example. Imagine someone leaves their home fearful of their situation, in the middle of the night. They have managed to escape from their abusive partner and they turn up, if they are lucky, to a refuge or a hostel and are unable, as a black woman, to have the cream to cream their body or the hair products that they need to support their hair. Their dignity is already through the floor and these little things can make a significant difference, but generic services just do not always get that. That is not particularly a criticism of every generic service—they provide a service and I am not critical of them for that—but there often needs to be much more specialism, and it needs to be locally driven, because local areas know their communities best. Even in my own borough, for instance, we see many differences between our population and that in the neighbouring boroughs of Tower Hamlets or Islington, both of which my constituency abuts.

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I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this issue to the House. I am always inspired by her care and compassion for others, for her community and for this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a whole—that is something that I have noticed in my time in the House. Does she agree that work must be done, time put in and funding directed to enable women to know that they are valued, that their experience matters and that there is a hand to help them towards a life in which fear is not the norm?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful and sensitive intervention. That is exactly what I think everybody is aiming for: to make sure that women are not living in fear and have somewhere to go. However, sometimes that somewhere to go is not a comfortable place to go for some women, and it is important that we recognise that domestic violence does not affect everybody homogenously, that different groups are affected in different ways, and that cultural, religious and other differences are important to recognise. It is important that we have an accurate representation of the needs of black women, and that they are listened to when decisions about services that disproportionately affect them are being made. Quite simply, I say to the Minister: no decisions about black women without black women.

Of course, work is being done to tackle domestic abuse, and I welcome the Domestic Abuse Bill, to which I will turn a little later. London Councils has begun work with the Women’s Resource Centre to better understand the structural inequalities that exist in grant making, to create a longer-term funding vision and framework that will bring about tangible change in the next grants programme. If we look at the numbers, we see that only 32 refuges are run by and for black and ethnic minority women. We know that there is a shortage of refuge space generally—I do not have time to go into some of the other wider issues today, but that is a big concern.

London faces some unique challenges with domestic abuse compared with the rest of the country. London-based refuges account for 23% of the total refuge spaces in England—higher than the proportion for any other comparable region—and domestic abuse is on the rise in London. Between July 2018 and December 2019, some 2,817 women and 2,425 children in London were placed in refuges. London boroughs will receive some £13 million in this financial year via the London crime prevention fund to try to tackle domestic abuse. London grant programmes distributed £14 million over the past four years to support the tackling of sexual violence and abuse.

It is important that we see better representation of different groups in the media. The London Borough of Hackney has been trying to promote awareness work, so that people from different backgrounds see themselves reflected and thereby have the confidence to come forward. It is a good way to educate people about what is available. Imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you are living in fear at home. It is difficult to make that call to a domestic abuse hotline. You may be in a controlling relationship and it might be difficult to find help from a friend. You may have your phone monitored. But if the television is on and soap operas are sending out messages about where you can go for help, that is important. It is important that we press for that.

I recognise that it is not entirely in the Government’s control, but in focus groups that the London Borough of Hackney ran with survivors, the following comment was made:

“Having messages on TV shows, soap operas, radios would help.”

A recent storyline in “The Archers” was cited as a good example but, of course, only a narrow group of people listen to Radio 4 on a weekday evening. One person said,

“Having it talked about more makes it easier to talk about.”

Another said,

“There should be more advertising on buses.”

Someone said, rather poignantly,

“I lost my job due to being fearful. You cannot exactly tell your colleagues what is happening with your life, but if you see yourself represented in the media, you know that you’re not alone.”

It is a small but important element: too often, our media does not reflect the richness and diversity of cultures and backgrounds of people I represent in my borough, so I see this as a very significant issue.

I was talking about the London figures just now, but in London there was a 63% rise in reported domestic abuse offences between 2011 and 2018. In 2018, there were more than 85,000 recorded domestic abuse offences in London in just that 12-month period. Staggeringly, that represented one in 10 of all crimes reported in London that year, and that is just those that were reported. For many people, it is still very hard to report the situation that they find themselves living in, wanting to protect their children—I know that the Minister will be well aware of all the issues.

Funding for refuge provision is a key concern in London and for London councils. In my own borough since July 2017—so just in the last three years—169 women and 146 children have been placed in refuges. Of those 169 women, 110 were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There are real concerns about that percentage. Over and over, the evidence that I have gathered—although the data, I have to say to the Minister, could be better, including at national level—shows clearly that a disproportionate number of black women, and Asian and minority ethnic women, are affected in London.

In Hackney, in the last financial year, there were a total of 492 high-risk victims or survivors of domestic abuse reported to the multi-agency risk assessment conference. Black women constituted a disproportionately high number of those compared with the general population—27%. If this were any other group, people would take it a bit more seriously, and it is important that we recognise that.

I have mentioned children a number of times, and in my research for this speech I have been alarmed by the number of children who are affected by domestic violence, particularly for this group of women: 45% of all children assessed due to domestic abuse concerns in Hackney were black children. If there is a perpetrator in the household, it is not just the woman who is affected—it is usually a woman, but obviously men can be victims too—but it has a damaging and long-term effect on those children. In many ways, if domestic abuse was treated as a public health issue, notwithstanding the efforts of the Government to finally get the Domestic Abuse Bill through, it might have been dealt with in different ways and more seriously in the past.

I turn to the Domestic Abuse Bill, and I am particularly concerned as we approach that debate. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views. The “no recourse to public funds” provision is a big concern in my constituency. I have many constituents who are migrants who come here to work, they work hard and pay their bills: they do all the right things according to Home Office rules, but they have no recourse to public funds, so if they need to flee a domestic abuse situation, they do not qualify for a lot of the support that is available. Those often life-saving routes to safety are not available, and the Home Office needs to look at this issue, just as it has with victims of human trafficking, for whom some safeguards are in now place—not all of them, but I will not go into that now.

There are some safeguards to support people in that situation, and there needs to be some safeguards here. These are people who want to work and will want to continue to work if they can, but if they have not got the money to pay their rent or they have a problem with their job, they will be left high and dry and in a very vulnerable position, often unable to leave, under the Domestic Abuse Bill. It is a significant barrier that excludes many people from those routes to safety.

The domestic abuse commissioner is also highlighted in the Bill. I hope the Minister can confirm that domestic abuse commissioner will listen to all voices and make sure that all these diverse groups—black women included—are at the table so that decisions are made that reflect their very specific needs. I know that my own Front Bench, with my support of course, are pushing for other migrant women to be better supported through the Domestic Abuse Bill. There is no provision, for example, for those on non-spousal visas to enter a refuge.

We also need to see a public duty on all commissioning authorities to fund domestic abuse services in the community. Refuges have a very important part to play but, as with Sistah Space in my constituency, it is the community-based services that are often there on the frontline, accessible and embedded, and they know who is who.

It is much easier to do that, especially for someone who, for example, is having their phone tracked or someone who cannot travel very far from their partner because they will not allow them to do that. Having that local specific support is very important.

It is important as well that the Bill reflects that the commissioning of community services needs to reflect protected characteristics. Too often, black and minority ethnic women’s services go completely unfunded, as I have touched on, and they cannot be sustained, and that means that black and minority ethnic women often struggle to access services.

It is essential—I hope the Minister will agree and give me some comfort and comfort to the women out there, some of whom are not yet affected, but may be in the future, and those who have been through it and those who are living through it now—that funding systems for domestic abuse understand that a one-size-fits-all policy will not address the problems within the sector. We need a granular way of funding so that whatever the main funding body, it can get right down to those small grassroots organisations that do not have the resources necessarily to bid, but can provide essential services.

We need, as I have said repeatedly, to ensure that black women’s voices are listened to and represented at policy level. I think I have time to segue into my experience 13 years ago almost to the day, when I became a Minister in the same Department as the Minister. One of the first things I was asked to do was sign off the board for the vetting and barring service. I was presented with a list of names, and I said, looking at it, “Can I just ask out of interest whether anyone has any experience of African child abuse?” At the time, there had been a number of such instances, including the torso of Adam in the Thames, which many people will remember vividly. Representing a constituency with a large number of West Africans, I was very attuned to it, but it was a very big issue at the time.

There was a slight awkward silence from the officials—I am not critical of the officials, who were trying to do a good job, but just were not tuned into this reality—but lo and behold, they went off and found an excellent woman. I have not told her I would name her, so I will not name her today. She was very expert in the area and became a vital part of making sure that our child protection and our set-up for the protection of vulnerable people began to understand and reflect some of those specific issues. It was a minority in that community, but nevertheless the issue was present.

She said to me, “I thought of applying for this position, but I thought they would not want people like me.” It is her story to tell, rather than mine, but the stories she told me about how people reacted to her as a black African woman in that position—unusual in the public sector—are important. The Minister is not entirely responsible for public appointments, but Ministers get that chance, and it is important we have a much more diverse reflection of our community in public appointments, especially for issues where their lived experience is vital to getting things right.

I do not think there is a single official deliberately trying to exclude people, but practices can build up and assumptions can be made. Unless we constantly challenge that, we will end up with a homogenous group of people making decisions about other people. I am on a mission to make sure we support civil servants and Ministers in understanding the wide diversity of people who are affected by the decisions they make.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is a real opportunity, but we also need clear data about the impact of domestic abuse on women, and we need detailed breakdowns of ethnic background, nationality and so on, so that we can really understand where the problems are and where emerging problems arise. As I have said repeatedly, future funding must recognise the importance of specialist services. In simple terms, let us make sure—I hope the Minister will agree—that we do not see decisions about black women without black women.

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May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for a really thoughtful and obviously well-researched speech, which I know will have been heard beyond these walls? It was an extremely powerful contribution.

With the leave of the House, I will wind up the debate. As the hon. Lady has already indicated, I am standing in for the Minister for safeguarding, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is unable to be here. Although it is my pleasure to stand in her stead, I can say without fear of contradiction that she is personally deeply committed to this issue, and I know she would welcome the opportunity to speak to the hon. Lady further about the points she has helpfully raised this evening.

There is no dispute between the parties, I trust, that domestic abuse has a horrifying and devastating impact on individuals. The hon. Lady has spoken very powerfully about the stark and harrowing impacts it has on all people, but potentially in different ways, because we have to take account of the context—sometimes the cultural context—in which it takes place.

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I thank the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for bringing this debate to the House. She makes a really good point that BAME is a bit too much of an umbrella term for an issue such as this, so my point will be about black women. I have been to Midlands Women’s Aid in Broxtowe and was told that there is a culture of shame and stigma around victims of abuse in black communities. Will my hon. Friend the Minister put at the heart of the agenda empowering women to access support?

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I thank my hon. Friend and commend him for the work that he is doing with Women’s Aid. He is absolutely right, because we hear of this stigma and what is so upsetting about that is that, all too often, it will mean that victims continue to be victims. They will not necessarily have the courage to break free. That is why we need to make sure that there are tailored services, which take account of the cultural issues so that we can truly protect all victims, whatever their background. I am very grateful to him for raising that issue as he has.

We focus on this issue because of the impact not just on the individuals themselves, but, of course, on the children. No child should have to grow up exposed to violence. We understand fine well the repercussions—often life-long repercussions—that that can have, so we must do everything we can to expose this hidden and often under-reported offending and eliminate it, and the Government are fully committed to doing that.

Over the past four years, we have provided £100 million of dedicated funding, working with local commissioners to deliver a secure future for rape support services, refuges, national helplines and critical services, and, as the hon. Lady adverted to, we have reintroduced the Domestic Abuse Bill—the third time of asking, I think—and that will offer strength, protection and support for victims of abuse for the long-term and help bring more perpetrators to justice.

Before I go onto the specific points that the hon. Lady raises, I wish to say a word or two about coronavirus, because we cannot really fail to mention it. Although home should be a safe place, we know that, for victims of abuse, it is often not, and facing enforced confinement with perpetrators and isolation from normal support networks must be especially harrowing for victims. She made a powerful point about the extent to which all people are able to pick up the phone, but in certain circumstances, particularly in close confinement, that is a conversation that is very difficult to have, and it is why, as I shall come on to in a moment, we have been at pains to ensure that there is a diversity of channels through which women—it is usually women—can access the support they need.

Let me provide a little more detail on the things that we are doing. Our national communication campaign, “You are not alone” has raised awareness of this issue across the general public and helped signpost victims to sources of help. Additional funding has gone to support the national helpline—the one run by Refuge, of course, is a very important one—and online services run by domestic abuse charities, including those offering specialist support to minority groups. The hon. Lady will be aware, as, I am sure, you are, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Treasury has provided £750 million to the charitable sector, of which £76 million has been allocated to support victims of domestic and sexual abuse, vulnerable children and their families and victims of modern slavery.

I want to pick up a point that the hon. Lady made about community-based support, which she was right to stress. Some £20 million is allocated via the Ministry of Justice, via, in turn, police and crime commissioners for precisely this. One of the encouraging things, if there is any silver lining within this horrible cloud of coronavirus, is that we are better able now to monitor where that money is going and to do so by considering protected characteristics. In other words, we can make sure that a police and crime commissioner for area A is taking proper steps to ensure that those under-represented communities get their fair slice of cake. That is putting it very simply.

We have also allocated money to the FLOWS charity, for example, which finds legal options for women survivors. I am taking this opportunity as a Minister of Justice to say that, sometimes, the potent weapon that the victim needs to defend themselves will be a legal weapon—be that an occupation order, a non-molestation order or a domestic violence protection order—and providing that legal support is critically important.

Let me quickly mention the Hidden Harms summit that was chaired by the Prime Minister.  That was an opportunity to shine a light on domestic abuse issues, and I hope the hon. Lady will also welcome the strong focus on sustainability: we cannot simply patch the demand, very generously and appropriately, in respect of coronavirus; we have to ensure that it is sustainable into the future.

I turn to BAME and domestic abuse statistics. I echo the point made by the hon. Lady. BAME is a pretty clumsy expression, for the reasons that she powerfully expressed. It covers all sorts of cultures, traditions, needs and a whole diversity of experiences. I recognise that it is not a homogenous group, but simply a convenient shorthand. I hope that the House will not consider my usage a discourtesy.

Domestic abuse affects a wide and disparate group of people across all backgrounds. One size does not fit all, and a particular approach would not be appropriate for all victims. That is particularly important when we are working to protect and support victims of domestic abuse with specific needs and vulnerabilities, including victims from marginalised ethnic groups.

The hon. Lady made an extremely powerful point, which might have sounded trivial, but is anything but. It matters if somebody from a certain background goes to a refuge and it does not have the basic toiletries or whatever to give them that human dignity. Wanting to look right is about feeling human, and recovering a sense of dignity and self-esteem. It is not a trivial matter—although I did wonder whether hair products might not make quite the difference to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). For some people, this really does matter.

According to the crime survey for England and Wales, in the year ending March 2019 an estimated 10.4% of black British women aged 16 to 74 had experienced domestic abuse in the last year, compared to 7.2% of white women. Now, there is a statistic to conjure with. The figure rose to 20% for women aged 16 to 74 who identified as mixed ethnicity. From research and reporting, there is evidence to suggest that black and minority ethnic women put up with abuse for a longer period—the point that I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry)—and are more reluctant to access services. One estimate puts the time period before leaving a violent relationship at an average of 10 years—10 brutal, wasted years. We need to do everything possible to bring that figure down.

It is vital that we ensure that specialist services continue to be available to black and minority ethnic women, and find ways to break down any perceived barriers to accessing available services. In this context, we need an approach that brings in all the relevant agencies. Yes, of course the Home Office does its bit, as does the Ministry of Justice, but one of the key messages that we have had from the sector is to ensure that this is a cross-Government fight; and it is. I am pleased to say that I now have regular meetings with my hon. Friend the Minister for Safeguarding and with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. That is very important. It is something that the sector has asked for and which we have been pleased to deliver.

The hon. Lady said that we need to present avenues for support in a context that is accessible for people. She referred to provisions being presented on television or whatever; there need to be different avenues. May I take a moment to plug the gov.uk website as a resource for accessing support, particularly legal support? People might visit the site for passport renewal and so on, but it often contains very good advice and support.

I completely endorse the hon. Lady’s central point. She said that there should be no decisions about black women without black women. That is what I want to come to now. We need to ensure that all Government Departments are diverse in terms of both ethnicity and experiences. Things have improved really quite dramatically and I pay tribute to those in the civil service who have pushed this agenda, but ethnic minorities are still under-represented at senior levels across the public sector, apart from NHS consultants, so there is further to go. There is much more that I could say about that, but I want to move on to some other points, if I may.

The Domestic Abuse Bill sets out a statutory definition of domestic abuse in legislation for the first time.  It ensures that there can be no excuse for or hiding from abusive behaviour. The definition makes it clear that domestic abuse is not confined to violent or sexual abuse, but includes controlling or coercive behaviour, psychological abuse and economic abuse. That is critically important, because one of the barriers to that woman who has been experiencing it for 10 years might be the economic abuse. She needs to be able to say to a police officer or the authorities, “Well, hang on; this is not trivial just because it is invisible.” That is a really important point.

The hon. Lady also referred to the domestic abuse commissioner, which is one of the single most important innovations of the Bill. She has the ability—she has made an excellent start—to speak truth to power, to shine a light on the issues and, crucially, to ensure that there is co-ordination and coherence in this space, which could otherwise quite easily become fragmented, as well as proper representation and a proper slice of the cake for those from minority communities.

I am fast running out of time. There is more I wanted to say in respect to funding and so on, but I will close by recognising that this is not a subject for a single debate. This is a subject for an ongoing conversation. As I said, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, wants to continue that conversation. She will be reading the hon. Lady’s speech and will be reflecting on the contributions in this debate. She remains committed to continuing to strengthen our collective approach.

Ensuring that we are truly inclusive of all sectors and working closely with expert organisations is how we tackle the scourge of domestic abuse. I am determined to ensure that we build such partnerships, safeguard the most vulnerable in our society and bring perpetrators to justice.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.