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Violence against Women and Girls: Support for Victims

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021

What steps his Department is taking to improve support in the justice system for victims of violence against women and girls. (900154)

What steps his Department is taking to improve support in the justice system for victims of violence against women and girls. (900158)

Supporting victims to seek justice is a significant priority for the Government. We are investing in vital victim support services—more than £150 million this year—and a new victims code sets out the level of service that victims can expect to receive from justice agencies, but we must go further. The victims Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech will enshrine victims’ rights in law, hold agencies to account for delivering those rights and set expectations for the standard and availability of victim support.

The Minister talks about a victims Bill. There has been one in every Queen’s Speech since 2016 and we have not seen any concrete action. So can I ask him to remedy that by starting with a particular concrete action? Can he back the amendment that the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and I are tabling to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to address the fact that 50% of women seeking abortion at clinics face intimidation and emotional distress? We want national legislation put in place to provide clarity for women, police and girls rather than relying on councils all the time, which do not have the bandwidth, resources or time to do this issue justice.

I take the hon. Lady’s rebuke about a victims law, but she should be reassured that we are currently scoping the outline of that Bill with an intention to consult for prelegislative scrutiny later this year. We are firmly of the conviction that the victims code, which became effective on 1 April this year, is worthy and should be enshrined in statute and that is what we are aiming for. As to her amendment to the Bill, no doubt it will be considered as part of the legislation going forward.

At a recent Oldham roundtable on domestic abuse, we heard of the increase in abuse during lockdown and the issues that the victims were facing. In particular, the lack of measures to address wider cultural issues, the fact that poverty is a driver and consequence of abuse, and the lack of availability of appropriately adapted or supported safe accommodation, were all cited as issues with the Government’s new Domestic Abuse Act 2021. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Domestic Abuse Act is as effective as we all want it to be? At the moment, it is just a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

The hon. Lady is quite right that legislation is only half the fight. The implementation of that legislation, and what we actually do physically on the ground for the victims of domestic abuse, are key to ensuring that we reduce the number of victims and increase the number of perpetrators who receive punishment.

When I was Housing Minister, I was pleased to work closely with the supported housing sector, particularly in the area of refuge, to ensure that refuges stayed within the housing benefit regime, rather than moving towards universal credit. One key plank of the argument that we made to Treasury colleagues was that that would enable greater investment by the sector in this area, as it could then be confident on the income stream that will arise from people who are within that kind of accommodation. I have just taken over the brief on victims, so I will shortly be talking with colleagues in MHCLG about what more we can do on supported housing—not just for people in that particular situation, but more widely for those who are seeking either to build a better life post incarceration or to escape victimisation.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The first duty of any Government is to protect and deliver justice, but justice for victims of violence against women and girls is becoming ever more distant. Rape convictions have fallen by more than 50% in the last two years—a record low, according to the Crown Prosecution Service. Worse still, more and more victims are dropping out of the process altogether. The Government are due to release a violence against women and girls strategy, but Labour’s is ready to go and includes: a fast-track system; a dedicated Minister for survivors of sexual violence; and a survivors’ support package, which would aid victims before, during and after the process. Will the Minister commit to taking these proposals forward now? If not, can he explain to victims why this Government choose further delay and inaction?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment, but I am afraid that I reject her rebuke as to inaction. With my other hat on at the Home Office, I have been working very hard over the last two years to address some of these issues, in particular, for example, by setting murder as one of the key national priorities; a third of all murders are domestic. In order to prevent murders, the police and others have to reach back into the crime types that result in that catastrophe, not least domestic violence and abuse. There is an enormous amount of work going on.

The hon. Lady should not believe that the fact that we have not yet published our rape review—I hope to publish it shortly—means that work has not been under way. For her and other Members’ information, I chair an action group—a taskforce—that brings together the police, the CPS and other partners across Government to focus on this issue, and to see if we can drive better outcomes for victims and better performance in the courts; there is an enormous amount of work going on. Having said that, this issue is not one on which there should be a political divide. If there are good lessons to be learned from the Opposition or, frankly, from around the world, we would be foolish not to have a look at them.