With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls. May I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the parliamentary staff who have helped facilitate this statement on what is an immensely important subject, but at an unusual hour, I think it is fair to say, of the parliamentary day?
I would like to begin with the words of some of the women who responded to our call for evidence, which helped to shape the strategy:
“I had never felt so lost in my entire life at the time of the abuse. I thought my life would never be the same again”.
“We shouldn’t have to pretend to be on the phone, or actually call someone, just because we’re scared to walk down the street in case we get attacked”.
“The trauma will stay with the victim forever. It seriously compromises all life prospects and opportunities”.
Those words are difficult to read. They are difficult to hear, but they capture a reality that we simply must confront: women and girls are too often subjected to abuse, harassment and violence. Enough is enough.
Today we have published our new “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, which will build on progress we have made in recent years. When the Prime Minister was Mayor of London, our capital became the first major city in the world to launch a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women and girls. I also pay tribute to the contribution that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), has made in this regard. This includes leading work on new offences for controlling or coercive behaviour, stalking, female genital mutilation, and so-called revenge porn. This year, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was passed, which ensured, for the first time, a statutory definition that includes recognising victims as children in their own right, strengthens the response to perpetrators, and creates new protections for victims.
But we must do more. The strategy we have published today sets out action to prioritise prevention, support victims, pursue perpetrators, and help to make sure the police, education, local authorities, prison and probation services and others work together more effectively. As I say, it has been shaped by a call for evidence that we ran earlier this year and that received over 180,000 responses. The volume of feedback was unprecedented and astonishing, and the content at times harrowing. I want to place on record my gratitude to all those who took the time to offer their thoughts and describe often painful experiences. That takes great courage. The national outpouring of grief and personal experiences that we saw in the wake of the tragic case of Sarah Everard was a watershed moment. We must change our society for the better. We owe it to Sarah and all the other women and girls who have lost their lives or been subjected to violence and abuse.
Crimes such as rape, female genital mutilation, stalking, harassment, cyber-flashing, revenge porn and up-skirting are appalling. They can take place behind closed doors or in public places. They can happen in the real world or online. The devastation and trauma caused by such crimes cannot be overstated. The scars can remain for years— in the worst cases, for a lifetime. The consequences are felt across society, too. They cause women and girls to calculate risk and calibrate their behaviour, sometimes without even realising it. They also require national and local responses, and result in economic as well as personal costs.
As I say, we have made progress in tackling these crimes, but the need to step up our efforts could not be clearer, and today we are taking a significant stride forward with the publication of this new strategy. The strategy represents our blueprint to address those concerns and deliver real and lasting improvements. It is made up of four key pillars: prioritising prevention, supporting victims, pursuing perpetrators, and delivering a stronger system. The most effective way of driving down these crimes is to stop them from happening in the first place. We have taken a range of action on prevention already, but we are determined to go further. So we will be launching a multi-million-pound national communications campaign with a focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes, educating young people about healthy relationships, and ensuring that victims can access support.
We have also launched a specific safety of women at night fund worth £5 million to ensure that women do not face violence in public spaces at night. It will support initiatives that target potential perpetrators or seek to protect potential victims. This will build on the additional £25 million we are investing this year into the safer streets fund. The Home Office will also pilot a tool, StreetSafe, which will enable the public to report areas anonymously where they feel unsafe and identify what about the location made them feel this way. This data will be used to inform local decision making. And we will invest in a “What Works” fund to build up evidence on the most effective approaches and measures.
It is difficult to imagine how traumatic and frightening it must be to be subjected to one of these crimes. It is essential, therefore, that victims, in their time of need, can get help. We recognise the role that support services and organisations play in helping people rebuild their lives. We are already investing a record £300 million to support victims of all crimes this year and our strategy outlines how we will increase funding this year for specialist services, including “by and for” services, and helplines for victims and survivors of crimes, including stalking and revenge porn. We will ensure that the police and prosecutors are confident about how to respond to public sexual harassment with new guidance. We will continue to look carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those. We will review options to limit use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment in higher education. Whatever the crime, whenever and wherever it happens, the needs of the victim must always be the priority.
Another priority is catching the perpetrators of these crimes and bringing them to justice. We will continue to back the police to do exactly this. We have given forces more powers, more resources and more officers, and we are taking action to restore confidence in our criminal justice system. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will change arrangements for serious violent and sexual offenders so that they serve longer in prison.
The strategy outlines a number of further measures: for example, we will appoint an independent reviewer to examine the police management of registered sex offenders in the community and advise the Home Office on whether changes are needed. The Department of Health and Social Care will work to criminalise virginity testing and we will carefully consider the recommendations in the review that the Law Commission has just published today on abusive and harmful online communications.
If we are to make real and lasting progress, this is clearly not a task that Government can take on alone. We need everyone in our society to play a part in fighting these crimes. The strategy outlines a number of steps to strengthen the system as a whole. They include introducing the first ever national policing lead for tackling violence against women and girls; reviewing the disclosure and barring regime; and appointing a new violence against women and girls transport champion.
The publication of this new strategy marks an important moment in our mission to crack down on violence against women and girls, but we will not stop there. Later this year, we also plan to publish three further documents: the domestic abuse strategy; a revised national statement of expectations covering all forms of violence against women and girls; and a revised male victims position statement.
These crimes, which disproportionately affect women and girls, are despicable. It is high time we sent a message: enough is enough. This Government will always stand up for the law-abiding majority and, through this strategy, we will strive relentlessly to prevent these crimes, to support victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. I commend this statement to the House.
The first responsibility of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. Today, rape prosecutions are at a record low, domestic abuse in this country is soaring and charging is falling. Sexual abuse in school is being normalised, according to the recent Ofsted inspections. Ending violence against women and girls is a cross-party issue. On both sides of this House, there is a profound concern and desire for an ambitious strategy that will deliver. The strategy today is not ambitious enough.
There are things to welcome. A policing lead on violence against women is certainly one of them, but we already have one for domestic abuse, one for rape and sex offences, another for historical sexual abuse and one for child sex abuse, so why will this one succeed where others have struggled without the resources to tackle the issue properly?
It is good to see that calls for a public awareness campaign aimed at men to stop the perpetration of misogyny have been answered. A rape helpline looks good when it is written on a piece of paper, but can the Minister answer this: will it be for recent sex offences, or will it be open to all historical cases too? Is there a guarantee that the helpline will have a local specialist agency to refer to that can pick up the case straight away? Currently, in a number of rape cases I am handling, victims are on very long waiting lists—some waiting for 18 months for any sort of a service. Can people just keep calling the line until a service is available? It is simply not enough.
There is so much missing in what the strategy sets out today, and time will only allow me to highlight a few things. I welcome the offer to look at the possibility of reviewing some non-disclosure agreements at universities and the preventive duty on employers is something we have campaigned for, along with unions and women across the country, for years. Why, then, is there nothing about non-disclosure agreements in workplaces, when women are still being abused and silenced completely legally in our country?
Where in the strategy is there anything to help adult women suffering sexual exploitation? During the pandemic, I sat with a 23-year-old woman as she bled on the floor in front of me, following a battering by her controlling gang, miscarrying the child she had conceived of rape. She was scared of the police and needed urgent, yet unavailable, housing. Why in this strategy have we left the gap that means there is no national strategy for sexual exploitation of adult women? Where is this woman in this strategy? Why is there no national strategy for or inclusion in this strategy of adult victims of sexual exploitation? Their only slight mention is that the Government are going to ask porn sites to voluntarily do better on exploitation. I am sure the porn sites are all going to do the right thing!
Where is the much-needed public sexual harassment law? The Government have said that they think offences exist already. Well, tell that to the two thirds of young women who tell us they are suffering this abuse every day. We need root-and-branch reforms not only across the criminal justice sector, but in health, in housing, in social security and online. We need to make sure that women and girls, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, are safe.
Instead, we have some transport champions, who already seem to have pretty busy jobs—especially if you are a west midlands MP, you would think they did—as well as an app gathering data that local authorities will not be resourced for responding to or compelled to respond to, and absolutely no long-term funding for any of the invaluable specialist services that the Government are relying on to deliver most of this strategy. The VAWG strategy expects services to be able to deliver without any serious funding to deliver it. What is clear is that, on every single step of their journey, women and girls are being failed, and today it feels as if the Government do not have enough of a plan to manage that.
The Labour party has worked up a Green Paper for ending violence against women and girls. We have set out, among many other things, toughening sentences for rape, stalking and domestic murder, and reviewing sentences for all domestic abuse. We have set about introducing a survivor support package to improve victims’ experiences in the courts, including fast-tracking rape and sexual violence cases, end-to-end legal help for victims and better training for professionals to give people the help they need. We also suggest, as quickly as possible, the creation of new offences for street harassment.
I once again offer to work with the Minister to help make this strategy into something that women and girls in our country need. I hope she takes me up on it.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and I am pleased to hear that she supports much of this strategy. Perhaps I can just help her understand one or two of the policy areas that we have announced today.
The hon. Lady referred to the national policing lead and to the policing leads in the National Police Chiefs’ Council. She is absolutely right that those officers sit in those roles but, as she knows full well, they are not specialist full-time officers working on those areas; they are assistant chief constables or, indeed, chief constables doing their day job as well as vital work for the National Police Chiefs’ Council. This national policing lead, which incidentally was recommended by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, is a full-time role that will be focused solely on tackling violence against women and girls. This is a great policy announcement, and I very much hope the hon. Lady will come to support it.
The hon. Lady asked whether the helpline will be open to all victims historical and current. Of course it will; just as with any of the other helplines that we as a Government fund, whether to do with domestic abuse or perpetrators or the revenge porn line, it will be open to all victims 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That message came through loud and clear in the survey; we have acted in this strategy.
In relation to non-disclosure agreements, we have specifically referenced universities. The hon. Lady will know that there are legitimate reasons for non-disclosure agreements in workplaces. It continues to be a line of work that we look at, but we wanted to send the message out loud and clear to universities that they have got to sharpen up their act and ensure that we have consistency and quality of standards in dealing with these serious cases of sexual harassment in universities and on their sites.
The hon. Lady asked about street harassment. Again, I refer her to the communications campaign. It became clear as we read the responses that it was felt that if only it were the case that passing a law on street harassment would eradicate street harassment, but that in fact it is much more complex than that. We need to look at, for example, why women are not reporting cases to the police: is it because they do not know that what they are experiencing is in fact already an offence, are there gaps in the law, and how can we help them have the confidence to report to the police? That is why later this year we will be launching a public communications campaign; I understand it will be welcomed by those who work with victims and survivors of violence against women and girls, and I hope it will be welcomed across the House, because this is the campaign through which we can tackle perpetrators’ behaviour and also, importantly, give victims the confidence they need if they wish to report such behaviour to the police.
The hon. Lady asked about the online tool. That actually came from a lady called Lucy, who emailed me with it as we were having the national conversation about the terrible tragic events earlier this year, and it has met with a great deal of support from the public. We will be piloting it and will be working closely with those who work with victims and survivors and the police to ensure that there is the appropriate safeguarding framework around it. It is meant to be an anonymous reporting tool where we can pinpoint where we feel unsafe, and then that information can be shared with local commissioners, both local government and indeed the police, to ensure that these messages are getting through to the police in a way that does not, as I have already set out, mean that women do not always feel confident or able to report.
The hon. Lady asked about support for services that support victims. Again, in that specific pillar of the strategy we set out our commitment to specialist services. She will know, for example, that we have underlined in the Domestic Abuse Act alone our commitment to specialist services for victims of domestic abuse who have had to flee their homes and are living in safe accommodation. She also knows, because we have had this conversation before, about the £27 million that we are investing to create 700 new independent sexual violence adviser and independent domestic violence adviser roles. These are all important steps that will help us support victims.
What I want by the end of this decade, because I genuinely want us to seize the moment that this year and the public conversation that we have had presents, is for us to be able to point to real changes in the attitudes, misogynistic and otherwise, that underpin so much of this offending behaviour. That is how we are going to make real change, alongside the support and the pursuit of perpetrators—that is how we will make a real change and help ensure women and girls are safer in our country.
I commend my hon. Friend for the measures in her statement and for her personal commitment to this subject. As she mentioned, the Law Commission has today recommended that cyber-flashing be made a criminal offence. It is a pernicious act, and one that we know is a gateway towards more dangerous crimes. As someone who has been flashed in the past, I was appalled to learn that Sarah Everard’s murderer was accused of flashing someone six years before he attacked Sarah, so may I urge my hon. Friend to review the commission’s recommendations and to work to make this a criminal offence as soon as possible?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, and I thank her for sharing her experiences. It is so important to share our experiences if we feel able to do so, because hopefully that will give confidence to younger women in particular, who may be facing these problems too. I also commend her for her campaign to bring about an offence in relation to cyber-flashing. We have said throughout the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that we will await the Law Commission’s findings, and that we will look at them carefully when it has reported. I am delighted to say that it has reported today, and we will look at the findings expeditiously. I very much hope that my hon. Friend’s campaign will come to fruition in due course.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. It is welcome to see the UK Government looking further at this issue. These past months, we have had many discussions in this place and more widely on the blight that violence against women and girls is on society, and the lives that it destroys, but this is not a new issue and the statement, welcome though it is, comes with a glaring and inexplicable gap. The UK signed the Istanbul convention almost nine years ago. Five years ago, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, a former SNP MP, brought forward measures obligating the UK to ratify the convention, but despite warm words, the UK Government remain one of the few EU Governments yet to ratify it, despite repeated pleas from these Benches, so the UK is still not legally bound by its provisions. Does this violence against women and girls strategy mean that this issue will finally be addressed and, if so, when? Warm words do not protect women, but ratifying the Istanbul convention would.
I welcome references to measures to increase prosecutions, but that is just spin unless there are also resources to handle that increase. Delays will simply mean more trauma for victims and less likelihood of convictions as existing delays stack up further. I also ask the Minister to clarify what the strategy will do to overcome the failure of the UK Government to improve support for migrant survivors in their Domestic Abuse Act 2021. What specifically will it do for foreign nationals and those with no recourse to public funds because of UK Government policy choices?
I hear what the Minister says on higher education, but we know that because the UK Government have not acted, abuses of non-disclosure agreements to cover up workplace discrimination remain hugely problematic, two years after the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry on the issue. What specifically will this strategy do for these women? When will the UK Government bring forward specific steps to deal with this in the employment context, including requiring companies to report on their use of NDAs? These issues could not be more important, and we need to match our words with action in this situation. We need to see action from the UK Government, but I fear that some of the elements of the strategy do not appear to offer the heavy lifting that is required to move far enough forward.
May I reassure the hon. Lady? She knows that we have to report to the House each October on our commitments to the Istanbul convention. I am pleased to tell the House that we meet or exceed the expectations of the convention in all but three of the requirements in the convention. Two of the three requirements will be met by the end of this year. We had to pass the extraterritorial jurisdiction measures in the Domestic Abuse Act. That has happened and, with the help of the Scottish Government, they will apply across the United Kingdom. Legislation also needs to be passed in Northern Ireland, and I am told that that will happen by the end of this year. That leaves the support for migrant victims. As the hon. Lady will know, in the Domestic Abuse Act we set out a support for migrant victims scheme, which is due to finish next year, but we take these serious commitments very seriously, unlike other countries. Some other countries do not need to meet the requirements before they ratify, but we do, and I hope and expect, given the commitment in the strategy to ratification, that that is our intention.
We know there are some instances in employment situations where non-disclosure agreements are used legitimately. They must not—I repeat, must not—be used to conceal criminal behaviour, and we want to take this first step with higher education because we are particularly concerned about how some young victims are having to deal with these cases at university.
My hon. Friend will understand my disappointment that there is no current commitment to outlaw public sexual harassment. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, writing in The Times, indicated that there would be ongoing work to look at gaps in legislation, but her correspondence to Members this evening omitted it. Please will my hon. Friend the Minister, from the Dispatch Box, commit to making sure that, where gaps are identified, they will be acted upon, and swiftly?
As I hope is clear in the strategy, we are looking very thoroughly at the issue of street harassment. We very much hear the concerns of Members on both sides of the House about whether current legislation meets every instance of street sexual harassment that we see in the survey, that we see as constituency MPs and, indeed, that we have perhaps experienced ourselves. That work will be ongoing, and I am sure I will appear at some point before the Women and Equalities Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, to provide an update.
I welcome the measures that the Minister has announced, and I welcome her personal commitment. The challenge is whether these measures match the scale of the problem and the scale of the huge response that she has had from women across the country. I, for one, do not want to wait 10 years for major changes to take place. Much of this feels very incremental—just limited pilots and evidence gathering.
In the most awful cases of violence against women, we know that too often the perpetrator has committed previous offences of stalking or domestic abuse, or previous sexual offences. What will the Minister do to make sure that all police forces take much stronger action to identify those repeat perpetrators and intervene early so that lives can be saved?
The right hon. Lady is right to highlight the issue of escalating behaviours. On waiting 10 years, this is the beginning of the journey. If one reads the strategy—I appreciate it only came out today—I hope one will see the immediate-term, medium-term and long-term aspirations. As Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, she will know better than anyone that some of the education work and cultural attitudes work will take time.
We cannot pretend that attitudes will change in a matter of months, but we have immediate-term work. The public communications campaign will be launched later this year. We will begin the appointment process for the national policing lead as soon as possible. The online tool pilot is being launched next month. The what works fund is being set up, and it is an interesting fund because I am trying to mirror the excellent work of the youth endowment fund in tackling serious violence. We want to do the same for violence against women and girls and build the evidence base.
I accept the right hon. Lady’s point that we cannot wait 10 years, but there is a lot of work before that 10-year period ends. I very much want colleagues on both sides of the House to see this as the beginning of the journey.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement on the strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, and I welcome her personal commitment. I am grateful to her and her ministerial colleagues and officials for meeting me to discuss the new clauses I will address. She is no doubt aware of the campaigners from Karma Nirvana, IKWRO, the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation and others who worked with me on my proposed new clauses 1 and 2 of the Health and Care Bill to end so-called virginity testing and hymenoplasty. They, like me, will welcome her statement that we will criminalise virginity testing. We must also look to tackle hymenoplasty, and do it now. Will the Minister examine new clauses 1 and 2 and meet me and colleagues to discuss them again and ensure that further progress can be made in this Session?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a diligent campaigner on these issues. I remember meeting him some months ago on precisely these issues and he has dealt with them, if I may say so, in a sensitive and appropriate way, understanding just how delicate some of them are. In terms of virginity testing, I am really pleased that he welcomes that. We will work together, I am sure, with my counterpart in the Department of Health and Social Care to find the appropriate legislative vehicle. On hymenoplasty, we have already spoken to clinicians about that process. Whereas virginity testing has no medical validation, I am told by clinicians that there are circumstances where it is not quite as clearcut—if I can put it that way—as virginity testing, so we have very much undertaken to examine that in great detail with clinicians and the royal colleges to ensure that in relation to that particular practice we arrive at the right result that is medically sound.
I thank the Minister for her work on this strategy. She will know that if somebody is subjected to abuse or attack because of the colour of their skin, we rightly ask the police to record that and the courts to prosecute it as a form of hate crime. Yet if somebody is subjected to abuse or attack simply for being a woman, they face no such protection under our current system. Will the Minister meet me and campaigners, who are waiting for the imminent report from the Law Commission about how to make misogyny a part of our hate crime rubric in this country, to look at how we can quickly close that gap and give equal protection to everyone everywhere?
Yes. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady and campaigners to discuss that issue. I hope she will recall that when the Domestic Abuse Act went through the House of Lords, we undertook, in response to issues raised in the other place, to ask the police to record issues of gender where the victim felt it was relevant. We look forward to that data, but I am always happy to discuss such matters with her. Indeed, I hope she will find the public communications campaign, for example, a helpful intervention from this strategy. Again, over the longer term we believe that education and changing cultural attitudes is one of the ways we can tackle misogynistic beliefs.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. Focusing on what she said about delivering a stronger system, I wonder if I can urge her to speak with colleagues in other Departments, especially the Ministry of Justice, about the family court system. Today and yesterday, I have been dealing with constituents who have been subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour. They have finally fled their marriages, and children are involved. Unbelievably, one family court judge dismissed out of hand the coercive behaviour and said it was out of time, and then suggested that my constituent, who had to travel 130 miles to deliver custody of her daughter, could perhaps stay at his house overnight. Will my hon. Friend work with other Departments, because in delivering a stronger system we also have to address the fact that the family courts are really letting down women who have escaped dangerous, coercive and evil behaviour?
Not only will I commit to working with the Ministry of Justice, but it has been incredibly important in informing cross-Government work on the strategy. On the family courts, there is an ongoing piece of work arising out of the harm panel report, which was created last year in light of the Domestic Abuse Bill. I am very happy to meet my right hon. Friend to update him on the work of that panel, along with Ministry of Justice colleagues.
In today’s Times, the Home Secretary wrote:
“Nowhere should be off limits to women and girls. Nobody deserves to be victimised or feel unsafe.”
This week the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment stated in the House that nobody should be intimidated when accessing legal healthcare, so when will the Government join Australia, Canada and France among others in legislating for consistent national buffer zones around abortion clinics? Surely the status quo, with women and girls protected only in the areas of three local authorities—and they have to stretch antisocial behaviour order provisions in order to do so—creates an unsatisfactory, unequal situation of justice that is subject to legal challenge all the time and cannot stand.
The hon. Lady is diligent in her campaigning in this important area. We believe that the public space protection orders regime that is in operation in three local authority areas provides balance in protecting women who are seeking medical care and only that. However, as I have said, the Government are determined to keep this area under review and to ensure that women are not intimidated or harassed.
I thank the Minister for making this statement to the House before the summer recess and for letting us scrutinise her. Girls in this country are trafficked into sexual exploitation—imagine being a girl forced into sexual exploitation. Thankfully, because of the excellent work of police forces and our Modern Slavery Act 2015, forces are breaking up these gangs and rescuing the girls. Unfortunately, we do not support girl victims of human trafficking as well as adult victims. My private Member’s Bill, the Human Trafficking (Child Protection) Bill, which will have its Second Reading on 21 January 2022, would put that right. Will the Minister and the Department work with me to ensure that that Bill becomes an Act of Parliament?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a strong campaigner for some time on modern slavery and on the care of victims of modern slavery. On the care of children, the national referral mechanism applies to adults, but children go into children’s services because of the statutory requirements under the Children Act 1989. I am, however, interested to hear how he believes support could be improved. The Government have, as he may know, set out plans to refresh the modern slavery strategy in the coming months and I would be pleased to meet him to understand where he believes that could be improved.
I thank the Minister for her encouraging statement. No one can doubt her clear personal commitment; I appreciate that very much. I welcome this move to take every available step to tackle violence against women and girls; it is not before time. The new strategy involves new legislation to deal with stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, and yet, as the shadow Minister said, more work needs to be done on sexual assault and rape. Recent Home Office statistics show that 83% of sexual assaults go unreported. What additional work will be done to encourage victims to come forward about their assaults? What will be done—I say this respectfully—to fix the lack of trust there is between victims of violence and the policing system?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for dealing with some important points in a sensitive way. He will know that, alongside the violence against women and girls strategy, only a matter of weeks ago we published the rape review, which is focused on the end-to-end results of the criminal justice system from the moment at which the police record a crime through to a conviction or the other ways in which a case can be finalised. There is a real action plan in that rape review dealing specifically with rape prosecutions, and that forms part of our work to tackle this.
On building trust, a measure in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill sets out and clarifies the law on the extraction of data from mobile phones. This will not apply for every victim of sexual offences, but for many victims handing over their phone and losing it for months at a time has a real impact on their willingness to continue with the investigation, if indeed they volunteer at all. Through the Bill, we will be able to clarify the law and ensure that victims are treated properly in that regard. Of course, the rape helpline that we have announced in the strategy will also go a long way to helping victims have the immediate support they need, as and when they need it.
Five years ago an SNP MP passed through Parliament a law obligating the UK to ratify the Istanbul convention. The United Kingdom Government have yet to deliver, despite countless pleas from the SNP Benches. There has been delay after delay. The Minister confirmed that sections have been adopted and are in place. However, after years of waiting the Government should proceed to adopt this completely. Will the Minister therefore provide a clear timetable for ratification today?
As I said in response to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), we meet or exceed all the requirements of the convention, except for three areas. One of those has already passed into law through the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; another, in relation to Northern Ireland, will happen by the end of the year; and we are dealing with the third issue by way of the support for the migrant victims scheme.
I welcome today’s strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, particularly the focus on and greater education about crimes in higher education and school settings, backed up by an additional £25 million for the safer streets fund. To that end, will the Minister do what she can to support the application to the safer streets fund by Cleveland’s police and crime commissioner Steve Turner that looks to increase education provision on violence against women and girls for schools in Middlesbrough, and in Redcar and Cleveland?
I probably ought not to support the application, given that I am a Minister in the Department handing out the bids. What I will do is warmly encourage the efforts of police and crime commissioners who are focusing on violence against women and girls as part of their priorities, having recently been elected. It is critical that the national expectations that we have set in this strategy and continue to set in other pieces of cross-Government work are met at a local level. I look forward to the help of my hon. Friend and other colleagues in ensuring that police and crime commissioners are able to do that.
Female genital mutilation is a spectacularly horrible crime, yet the possibility of perpetrators—or even those aiding the crime —being brought to justice is very tiny in our society. In the past, I have worked with women who have been victims of this crime, who do not want it for their own families or for other women, but we need a national strategy to combat it. It is not enough to deplore FGM. We have to ensure the multi-agency working that gives us the opportunity to change the culture and ensure that the cutters are brought to justice. What can the Minister do to make sure that we take this agenda forward?
The hon. Member will know the work that has been done in recent years—indeed, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead—to tackle female genital mutilation and ensure cross-agency working. It is difficult, in that the victims are often very young; they are children, and are facing that criminal behaviour from close family members or friends. Through the mandatory reporting duty, we have set out what we expect of agencies that discover such injuries in the course of their public service. We very much want to support victims—if they feel able to do so—to support prosecutions.
I had the chance to meet Lauri Swindell, who runs the Hop Pole and Imperial pubs in my constituency. Lauri and her staff are passionate about their venues being safe spaces for women and girls, and their approach includes using the Ask for Angela initiative. Could the funds announced today support the promotion of such initiatives locally, as they make a real difference on the ground for women and girls?
It is great to hear about the initiatives in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, throughout the country. The Ask for Angela scheme is really effective and we took inspiration from it earlier this year when we launched the Ask for ANI codeword scheme in chemists up and down the country for victims of domestic abuse. I am happy to support my hon. Friend and the landlady he mentioned in her work. The fund is open to police and crime commissioners, local authorities, British Transport police and civil society organisations; that will allow for the development of a variety of innovative initiatives and encourage local partnership working. My hon. Friend’s constituency is lucky to have a Member of Parliament who does such a great piece of work with his local landladies.
The UK Government failed to improve support for migrant survivors in their Domestic Abuse Act, so what have they done in their violence against women and girls strategy specifically for foreign nationals and those affected by the Government’s absolutely horrendous “no recourse to public funds” policies? The fund that ends next year does not cut it.
The hon. Lady knows the range of crimes that are included under the umbrella of violence against women and girls: they range from rape and sexual assault through to female genital mutilation, forced marriage, stalking and so on. Every victim of such crimes must be treated as a victim first and foremost. If they feel able to—they will not always—they can report their offences to the police, and helplines and so on are available to them as well. If we can help them with investigating those crimes, I hope that will be a significant support for them.
I thank the Minister for her statement, for the measures announced and for all her hard work and dedication to this incredibly important issue. Women and girls are the predominant victim of modern slavery and human trafficking. The Government have committed to strengthening the Modern Slavery Act 2015; does the Minister agree that one way we can strengthen that Act is to expand section 54 to include investment portfolios?
I have already met my hon. Friend to discuss this area of potential policy development and I am very interested in it. As he rightly says, as we review the modern slavery strategy we will be able to build on the significant success we have had since the introduction of the previous strategy and, indeed, the passing of the Act. My hon. Friend knows that I am looking carefully at his suggestion.
I thank the Minister for her work and for this long-awaited strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, but as she will be aware, the Labour party put forward a detailed proposal to criminalise street harassment in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. We need much more than a communications campaign and the online tool, as described in the statement, so will the Government adopt that detailed proposal?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope he has heard, as I have said before, the assurances I have given at the Dispatch Box that while we are working on launching the public communications campaign and the other measures, we continue to explore whether a bespoke street-harassment offence is necessary. As I say, some offences already exist that may address some of the concerns, but we are keen to understand what is needed in addition to legislation, which is why we have responded carefully with the communications campaign, which I hope will see real dividends over time.
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend, who does so much work in her constituency to help women and girls and to tackle these heinous crimes. We very much want, through the strategy, to build on the existing relationships and sex education that is now mandatory in every school. Indeed, only yesterday I visited Uplands Primary School in Sandhurst and learned about Pantosaurus, the dinosaur who wears pants. That is the first lesson that children as young as five and six have at that school to start to understand about personal privacy, safeguarding and what is healthy and what is not. We are determined that such education continues at school, but of course we have to reach beyond school, which is why there are measures in the strategy such as a public communications campaign and reaching out to universities. We want to try to reach the wider public with some of the attitudes that we all find so concerning.
The strategy published today includes a proposal for a new national policing lead on violence against women and girls, but it does not clarify whether this person will have any meaningful powers to improve police practice. The Minister referred to the fact that this was a recommendation from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, but will she tell us what relationship she sees the lead having with HMICRFS? For example, will they have input into its inspections? What powers will the lead have to investigate and address problems within police forces where they have not been reaching best practice? Will the lead have a role in reviewing the recording of aggravations of misogyny, as the Government agreed to do earlier this year?
As the hon. Lady will know, the inspectorate’s report landed a matter of days, perhaps only a week, ago. We are working through these details, but, as I say, we have absolutely accepted the inspectorate’s recommendation that there should be a national policy lead whose sole focus is eliminating violence against women and girls.
On combating virginity testing, I welcome the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), and I want to express my support and praise for the campaigner Nimco Ali, who has done an awful lot behind the scenes on that. Separately, I have said before that Stroud’s schoolgirls came to me to raise the issue of public and sexual harassment. They were quite desperate and it was really upsetting; girls are struggling, at school, on the streets and in relationships right now. I welcome the measures in this strategy, but I ask the Minister to use her energy to work across government to deliver safety for our young girls.
My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for her constituents and in raising these issues with me. On street harassment, as I have said before, we are looking at every option to try to ensure that women and girls feel supported in reporting such incidents, at whether there is room within legislation in this regard and, importantly, at cracking down on the behaviour of perpetrators. Men must not think—we are talking about some men, a minority—that it is appropriate to behave in the way we have seen in the survey; that must stop. By acting together across the House and across society, we will achieve real change.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. She will well know that many victims fail to come forward for fear of retribution by an abusive partner or by gangs or other individuals. What more can she do to ensure that victims of these horrible crimes come forward, so that the police can take action to not only arrest those individuals responsible but to ensure that they go through the courts and the judicial process?
My hon. Friend identifies an important theme in this work. I should say that it is work that we set out not just in this strategy; there is a whole body of work that we are doing across government to fight youth violence, in particular, and the work of gangs. Part of that is about ensuring that girls do not fall foul of criminal gangs through exploitative relationships that can harm them greatly. On building confidence, this is where, among other things, the national policing lead can make a real difference, because we must tackle head on this issue of trust in the police and the ability of victims and complainants to put their experience before the police. Interestingly, the analysis we did during the rape review suggested that victims are reporting rape offences more to the police, but we must do more to ensure that people know that the sorts of offences we have heard about today, particularly those in the street, are offences and that they can and must, please, if they are able to, go to the police about them. We can do that through the communications campaign, as well as through education.
I am grateful for the Minister’s hard work in this area; I know it is something that she is passionate about.
Like colleagues, I welcome the long-awaited publication of the violence against women and girls strategy and the announcement that the Government will look at finally making street harassment a crime. However, this issue is so much bigger than legislation. We require urgent action to tackle the attitudes and behaviours that drive male violence. We need to see a complete culture change in this country if we are to truly make women and girls feel safer on our streets. How does the Minister think the strategy will change the lives of women across the country—me included—who feel compelled to tell our friends at the end of a night out, “Just text me when you get home”?
The hon. Lady has described just one of many calibrations—behaviours—that we all use and have used to ensure that we get home safely. I have talked before about the immediate term, the medium term and the longer term. The sort of cultural change she is talking about is going to take time. I wish that we could change it overnight or over a couple of days. However, I believe that this strategy sets out our clear ambition, over this Parliament and beyond, to change those attitudes, to improve the trust of victims and to pursue perpetrators relentlessly. That is how we are going to eliminate violence against women and girls.
I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, and I was very pleased that she recently met me, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and Lisa Squire, the mother of Libby Squire, the Hull University student who was raped and murdered in 2019. It came out in the court case that the man who raped and murdered Libby had been prowling the streets of Hull for 18 months beforehand, committing low-level sexual offences such as indecent exposure, many of which had not been reported. I know that the Minister was particularly moved by the power of what Lisa Squire had to say to her.
I really welcome the strategy if it is going to encourage people to come forward and go to the police for those non-contact, low-level sexual offences, which we know are often the gateway to much more serious sexual offending. However, it will be effective only if it means that the police and the courts are able to take that early intervention. Will that happen under the strategy that the Minister has outlined this evening?
I thank the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for bringing Mrs Squire to meet me. It was an incredibly moving meeting. Indeed, Mrs Squire and parents of other women who have been murdered have set out very clearly the escalation of behaviours before such terrible, awful, horrendous crimes are committed.
We are doing a number of things. The right hon. Lady mentioned the public communications campaign—I know that was something that Mrs Squire was very interested in—but I hope that she will also see in the strategy that we want to review the police management of sex offenders to ensure that it is as effective and safe as it should be. She may note, too, that in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are strengthening sexual risk orders and sexual harm prevention orders, which can be used to manage such offenders in the community.
However, the plea must go out that if you are the victim of a non-contact sexual offence—in common language, that means if someone flashes you, if they are following you, if they are masturbating in front of you, if they are making you feel unsafe in the streets, and it is sexually motivated—please, please, if you feel able to, ring the police so that we can get these crimes recorded and, hopefully, the police can start to find those serial perpetrators before they do something even worse.