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Violence Against Women and Girls: Police Response

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 22 September 2021

I remind all hon. and right hon. Members that the House’s sub judice resolution means that cases in which proceedings are active, including where charges have been made, should not be referred to during questions. I am sure that all Members will wish to respect that resolution, especially where there is a prospect of court cases in the future. Nobody would want to put those cases at risk.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on what action she will be taking in response to the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the police response to violence against women and girls.

Crimes of violence against women and girls are utterly despicable. They inflict profound and lasting harm on the victims and have a damaging impact on our society as a whole. That is why the Government are taking concerted action to crack down on these appalling crimes.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for providing me with an opportunity, as the newly appointed Safeguarding Minister, to outline our work in this area, and I very much hope to work collegially across the House. I know that every parliamentarian shares our concern about these serious issues.

The Home Secretary commissioned this report from the police inspectorate to help police forces strengthen their response. We are carefully considering the inspectorate’s findings, and we expect the police and others to take any necessary action. The Home Secretary has committed to considering the report’s full recommendations and will update Parliament when she has done so.

We supported the inspectorate’s recommendation in its interim report in July to introduce a full-time national police lead for violence against women and girls. I am pleased to say that Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth has been appointed to the role, and we look forward to working with her.

While the report shows that there is more to do, we must not lose sight of the fact that we have made progress. The report acknowledges improvements in the police response to these crimes, including better identification of repeat victims, improved techniques to collect evidence, and improved safeguarding measures.

Since 2010, the Government have taken significant action in this space, including introducing new laws to tackle stalking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called revenge porn. Importantly, we have brought forward the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is sitting beside me on the Front Bench, and to the Prime Minister for playing a vital role. We have more than doubled the safer streets fund, while our unprecedented police recruitment drive is putting more officers in our communities to protect the public and drive down crime.

We are determined to go further, which is why we published our new tackling violence against women and girls strategy in July, and we will publish a complementary domestic abuse strategy this year. Our new strategy will drive our effort to prevent these crimes, ensure that victims get the support they need, and bring perpetrators to justice. It details a number of steps, including immediate investment in measures to make our streets safer, more funding for specialist support services, and a multimillion-pound public behaviour campaign to challenge unacceptable behaviour.

Public protection is our No. 1 priority. Violence against women and girls has absolutely no place in our society, and we are committed to working with the police and other key partners to confront these crimes wherever they appear.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am really grateful to you for granting this urgent question.

I thank the Minister for her response and welcome her to her new role and wish her well in it. I will support her in her work, but we need a greater sense of urgency. In just the last few days, there have been more horrific killings of women. In Sheffield, 35-year-old Terri Harris was killed together with three children, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennet and Connie Gent. In Greenwich, primary school teacher Sabina Nessa was only 28 years old.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of police, Zoë Billingham, rightly describes this as an “epidemic” of male violence against women, and the extent of the impunity of men for this violence is shown by the killer of Sophie Moss saying that it was just “rough sex gone wrong” and literally getting away without a murder charge.

All credit to the Government for commissioning this report. Will they now implement its recommendations in full? We have a woman Homey Secretary, and I believe that women in leading positions have a special duty to deliver for other women. Although she will meet the inevitable institutional objections and traditional resistance to change, she will, if she does this, have 100% support from this side of the House and, indeed, 100% support from her own side. It is not often we can say this, but this is something that the whole House wants.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her questions, and I pay tribute to her for her long-standing record of action in this area. I am sure that she will continue to hold me to account at this Dispatch Box and in other forums.

Speaking on behalf of the Government and myself, our heart goes out to all those affected by these horrific crimes. Our thoughts are with the families and the victims. The right hon. and learned Lady will be aware, however, that we cannot comment on ongoing cases.

Addressing murder is a key priority for the police. They are, of course, operationally independent from the Government, and rightly so. Driving down the murder rate in this country is a key priority. The right hon. and learned Lady mentions the report’s findings. We are working carefully and very closely on them and are considering them in detail. That is why we have appointed the policing lead Maggie Blyth; we look forward to working with her and taking forward those recommendations and actions.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her role at the Home Office, a great Department of State. She is going to be doing important work there, and I wish her well.

We can succeed in ensuring that we have no violence against women and girls only if we change attitudes, as referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), including the attitude that women “just ask for it”. One of the issues in the report is a lack of consistency across and between forces in their treatment of crimes of violence against women and girls. The College of Policing plays an essential role in developing and spreading best practice, so will my hon. Friend ensure that particular attention is paid to recommendations 4.3 and 4.4, to ensure that best practice is adopted by all forces up and down the country?

It is a real privilege to be questioned by my right hon. Friend on this issue. She has been instrumental throughout the years in initiating the important work I am now talking about. She is absolutely right to highlight the fact that when women go to the authorities to seek help, they need to be listened to and they need to be supported adequately. That is a key part of the work we set out in the violence against women and girls strategy. We will be making sure that that takes place.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the new Minister to her place.

The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services highlights the continued staggering failures by the Government to protect women and girls adequately. We should not make any bones about what it actually says. Since Sarah Everard was killed, a further 78 women have been killed by men, and I am sure that we would all wish to send our support to the family of Sabina Nessa this week.

The report tells the Government that there cannot be anything less than sweeping and fundamental changes across the board. There have been many reports, statistics and cases this year. After each one there has been an opportunity for concrete action, but each time we simply get a piecemeal response—a little review here, a pilot project there. Tackling misogyny and violence is on all of us, but primarily it is on the Minister. It is the Government’s job to keep people safe. The report is clear. In the words of Her Majesty’s inspectorate, these problems have arisen because of

“the continuing effects of austerity on policing and partner-agency budgets.”

The Labour party continues to call for a comprehensive violence against women and girls Bill. We also support all the recommendations in Zoë Billingham’s report. Will the Minister today commit to keeping to the very detailed action plan commanded by the report within the timeline it states? I will, of course, be checking. Will the Minister now take seriously our calls for the proper supervision and management of repeat offenders? Again, I quote from the report:

“there is no consistent and dedicated model in place for managing domestic abuse offenders”.

No model in place, Mr Speaker. I could actually scream. How can there be no model in place to deal with violent criminals? We have repeatedly asked for one. When can we expect it?

Will the Minister tell this House—I have asked this from this Dispatch Box before—when the Government will finally categorise violence against women and girls as a serious crime, just as they do with terrorism and serious youth violence? When I asked this question recently of the Minister for Crime and Policing, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who is in his place, he said that local areas can do it if they want. That is exactly the kind of half-hearted effort that leads to patchy approaches that this report decries. It is not an acceptable response. Will they finally act? They have a chance to do it in the House of Lords in these weeks around us.

The safety and security of women is not some side-line, add-on issue; it is essential to a functioning society. It can no longer be a weight borne by women everywhere. Every day wasted waiting for the Home Secretary to decide if she wants to undertake the recommendations is another rape, another murder and another beating.

I am delighted to answer questions put to me by the hon. Lady and I look forward to many more opportunities to do so, but I must start by robustly rejecting her central accusation, which I think is that the Government have done nothing. May I remind her that the Government commissioned the report precisely because this is a priority for this Government? This Government have delivered a number of measures to keep women safer, whether they are legislative measures, funding to essential services to support women, toughening up laws or passing laws to keep more perpetrators behind bars.

Let me point to a couple of key parts of the strategy. We have appointed someone with a lifetime of experience to work with us; following the report published only last week, I am looking forward to working closely with Zoë Billingham. I will take forward what she comes out with very seriously to ensure that the police drive forward her recommendations.

Make no mistake: this issue is a central priority for me. I have been in my role for three days, but the hon. Lady will know that it is a priority for me and for the Home Office as a whole.

There will not be a single woman in this House who has not been the victim of dehumanising behaviour from men. As my hon. Friend says, addressing that will require societal change, but we are increasingly seeing that women’s first exposure to that violent behaviour is in schools. What steps will she take to challenge the Department for Education to make sure that we have conversations about consent and tackling entitlement at the earliest possible time?

I completely agree about the important issue of early intervention, working with families and young people and tackling the root cause of these horrific crimes. That is why, as part of the violence against women and girls action plan, we have commissioned a significant public communications campaign that will tackle many of the issues that my hon. Friend addresses, but it is also vital that I work with my colleagues in the DFE and that we ensure we are working in schools as well.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs heard damning evidence last week from rape survivors about how they have been let down by the criminal justice system. The report is also damning about the scale of the problem and the scale of the change that is needed.

I welcome the Minister to her new post and look forward to working with her on the issue, but may I say to her that urgency is hugely important? We have heard very many words about very many reforms over a long period of time, but on rape prosecutions, things have actually gone backwards. I urge her to say that she will support all the recommendations and implement them, not just take them forward. If she cannot commit to implementing them this week, will she come back next week, commit to implementing them and make sure that they actually happen in practice and save women’s lives?

I refer to my previous comments. It is right that we work with people who are independent and have authority over the police forces in this country. They are operationally independent from the Government; that is the system we have in this country, and it is right that we have that. It is right that I take evidence and work closely with those who have that expertise. I remind the right hon. Lady that we have already implemented a number of the recommendations in the report, as I set out earlier. My colleagues in the Home Office are doing wider work around rape and the end-to-end rape review, which is tackling some of the very important issues that she raises.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. Does she agree that one of the best things that we could do to protect women and girls from violence would be to reverse the catastrophic decision to close hundreds of police stations? If police stations are open, particularly in our towns and cities, the police patrol from them. They offer deterrence, reassurance and, in the worst cases, a place for women and girls—and men and boys—to run to.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of active and visible policing. The Government are committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers for exactly that purpose. It is right that we have our officers out on the streets, where they can fight the crime that is affecting our communities.

On Friday evening, Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old primary school teacher, was walking near her home in my constituency, in the Kidbrooke area, when she was attacked and murdered by a man who is yet to be identified. Our hearts go out to her family and friends.

Sabina’s murder highlights yet again the growing problem of violence against women and girls. The Victims’ Commissioner, Vera Baird, has described it as an epidemic and has endorsed the recommendation of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services that violence against women and girls be given the same priority as counter-terrorism. Will the Government accept that recommendation, agree that the time has come to prioritise tackling violence against women and girls, and give it the resources it demands?

Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. It is precisely cases like those that have led us to prioritise violence against women and girls in such a vital way. That is why we have appointed a national policing lead so that we can put the issue at the heart of Government policy. That is the right way to tackle it.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place and thank her for her statement. Data sharing and collaboration between organisations in victims’ cases are obviously sensitive but crucial issues and are highlighted in the report. Will she outline the steps that the Government are taking to improve data transparency, to help to stop offenders from repeating their heinous crimes?

We are looking into these matters, which are clearly a vital part of our response. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss them in more detail.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has recently held that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010, yet women in public life are increasingly finding that we cannot debate or discuss our rights under the Act without fear of abuse, threats, intimidation and violence; I know that from my own experience, and I know that other Members of the House know it. To take just two other examples from public life, the celebrated writer J. K. Rowling and the celebrated feminist and campaigner against abuse against women, Julie Bindel, who was assaulted outside Edinburgh University, know that to be the case. My question for the new Minister, whom I welcome to her place, is this: what is this Government doing to make sure that women can debate or discuss their rights under the Equality Act without fear of abuse, without fear of threats, without fear of intimidation and without fear of violence?

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer the hon. and learned Lady. I am acutely aware of the issues that she raises. It is frankly a disgrace that women cannot go about their important work and express their opinions freely without the kind of harassment and intimidation that she refers to. This is a very wide societal issue. I would like to see the Labour party taking more active steps to protect its own members so that they can go to conference without fear of being attacked or abused, but these are matters for wider Government; I am very happy to meet the hon. and learned Lady and discuss them in more detail in due course.

Two years ago, when my constituent lived in a flat in London, she had to barricade herself in, while for two hours, on eight occasions, her neighbour, who had known mental health issues, tried to get in. When she called the police and they turned up, she begged them to look at the CCTV. They refused and left her and the individual still in those flats. When she—not the police, but she herself—looked at the CCTV evidence seven days later, the man was found to have been naked and holding an implement. Only then did the police take the matter seriously.

Will the Minister meet me and my constituent to discuss these issues? Does she agree that if I write to the Met commissioner, I would be a lot more assured that she was taking it seriously if she wrote back herself rather than palming it on to the local force who were responsible for the failure in the first place?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important constituency case. It is shocking to hear the experiences of his constituent. I am very happy to meet him and I fully agree that this is exactly why we have published the strategy: to make sure that all police forces across the country are responding appropriately to crimes in these horrific circumstances.

Sabina Nessa, a young teacher in Catford, had so much left to give our community. She was described by the headteacher as

“kind, caring and absolutely dedicated to her pupils.”

Her life was brutally taken, like those of so many before her, through misogynistic violence. How many women’s lives must be stolen before the Government take serious action?

Every women who loses their life is one woman too many. We are devastated to hear of the loss of the life of Sabina Nessa, and our hearts go out to the family, as I said, but the hon. Lady will have heard my earlier comments about the priority that we have put on this work. The Government are passing legislation, setting out actions and tackling these horrific crimes, and we are determined to see a reduction in them.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place.

In the year to June 2020, it was estimated that 70% of domestic abuse cases were closed prematurely by Greater Manchester police. During the same year, 80,000 crimes were not recorded at all. The picture nationally is even worse: three out of four domestic abuse cases end without charge. A crisis is happening, certainly in my local policing area. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me and the chief constable of Greater Manchester to ensure that the failures that have happened there over many years can be put right at the earliest opportunity?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is at the heart of our strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, ensuring that cases are not closed and women get the justice to which they are entitled, and that perpetrators receive the sentences and punishment that they should receive. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Violence against women and girls needs to be treated in much the same way as terrorism and county lines. It is about resources. It cannot be left to local forces and police and crime commissioners. What conversations is the Minister having, if this is a priority, with police and crime commissioners to ensure that they deliver on the agenda?

The role of police and crime commissioners will be vital in this regard. Because I have been in my present role for only two days, I have had no conversations with them yet other than in my capacity as a local MP, but I am acutely aware of the role that they play in commissioning those vital local services, and I look forward to having many conversations about that in the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her new job. She is right—operational policing has to be left to commanders and suchlike—but she can set the policy. Can we make it clear that there will be zero tolerance of any violence against women and girls, and that women who are at risk will be taken to a place of safety and not returned against their will to a place where a perpetrator could continue to subject the victim to violence?

My hon. Friend has referred to domestic abuse. We have pulled out the whole issue of domestic abuse, because it warrants a separate response. That is why the former Prime Minister and Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), initiated the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which has rightly strengthened protections for domestic abuse victims across the board.

I welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities.

This new report recognises that fundamental system change is needed in the way in which police respond to violence against women and girls, and highlights positive examples in our devolved policy, such as the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. The commission led by the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Thomas recommended that policing and crime reduction policy should be determined in Wales so that it is properly aligned with and integrated in our health, education and social policy. Good work is happening in Wales now; imagine how much more we could do if we had the necessary powers and funding. Does the Minister agree that in order to take a truly radical approach to tackling gender-based violence, we should follow Lord Thomas’s recommendation and devolve powers over policing in Wales to Wales?

It is a pleasure to respond to the right hon. Lady, but I am sure she will not expect me to make such commitments at the Dispatch Box. Of course we work closely with the devolved Administrations—the Minister for Crime and Policing, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), will have had many such conversations—but we need to work collegiately across our entire United Kingdom.

I hope that Members in all parts of the House can agree that every rape survivor is worthy of compassion, support and justice. Last week I highlighted the case of a constituent who had been raped but was not entitled to any criminal injury compensation because of a past conviction related to a previous addiction. I have written to the Department, and I hope that the promise of a meeting is fulfilled and we are able to sit down and discuss this. However, it seems wrong to me—and I hope the Minister agrees—that one rape victim should be considered somehow less worthy than another.

I am obviously sorry to hear of the experiences of the hon. Lady’s constituent. The Government are doing a great deal of work in examining the treatment of rape victims, but the hon. Lady has raised a specific case, and of course I should be happy to meet her and discuss it with her.

I, too, welcome the Minister to her place. I have listened carefully to these exchanges, and I understand that she sincerely wants to tackle the issues, but I think that what we on these Benches are asking is for the piecemeal approach to end and for the Government to deal with the root causes of the problem. Will they finally tackle the root causes of violence against women and girls, and legislate to make misogyny a hate crime?

If the hon. Lady is serious about tackling the root causes, she will understand that we need a whole-system approach—a societal approach—and it is impossible to do justice to that in these exchanges. The violence against women and girls strategy sets it out in considerable detail, and the inspectorate report pulls out some key themes. We are looking across the piece at all the actions that we need to take. We are taking this seriously: that is why we have passed the Domestic Abuse Act, created the VAWG strategy, and appointed the national policing lead. However, there is a great deal of work still to be done, and I am determined to do it.

We had another horrific incident in the Rhondda yesterday, and the police are still investigating. However, I want to ask about the injuries that are done to women. Many such injuries show bruises, and there is something to be seen by the naked eye, but many others are injuries to the brain, and are often not recorded by the police. No evidence is taken about them, and there is no screening.

First, may I urge the Government to please ensure that every woman who makes complaints about domestic violence is screened for brain injury? Just two simple questions—that is all they have to ask, so that we can get the right help to people who have had such injuries. Secondly, will the Government please support my private Member’s Bill on acquired brain injury, which will be debated later this year? It is very simple: it does exactly what Dame Cheryl did for autism. It simply requires the Government to have a cross-party strategy. Sixty-seven per cent of women in prison have had a brain injury. We are not going to tackle this unless the Government as a whole take a position on it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing advocacy of this vital issue. He is right to say that many of the injuries done to women are hidden—and we know that this is a hidden offence, which often takes place behind closed doors. I shall be happy to meet him and discuss further what I can do in my capacity, and he is right to highlight the fact that this is a cross-Government approach.

I welcome the Minister to her new role. May I, in her early days in that role, ask her to look specifically at low-level sexual offending against women? As we know, offences such as indecent exposure often go unreported, or, if they are reported, are not taken seriously by the police. We also know that that behaviour often escalates to far more serious sexual offending and to murders, as happened in the case of Libby Squire in Hull and Sarah Everard in London.

The right hon. Lady makes a valid point, and this is an area that the Home Office is determined to look at in more detail. As she will appreciate, there are difficulties in gathering evidence, which is why we have focused on the communications strategy, helping women to have the confidence to come forward to report offences—and, most important, to know when they do come forward that they will be believed and action will be taken. That is a central part of our action plan.

As the Minister will know, the Department for Transport’s consultation on personal safety on the streets of England closed on 15 September. I appreciate the fact that when she was my opposite number in that Department she met me to talk through the issues, but, as she will also know, the Department for Transport is not the quickest Department when it comes to acting on responses to consultation, and I could reel off a whole list of issues that I am waiting to see turned into concrete action. Could she take it upon herself to talk to her colleagues in that Department, and ensure that there is speedy action on those responses?

It is a pleasure to see the hon. Lady in a different capacity. That was a strategy that I initiated during my time as a Minister in that Department, and she will see that my successor in the role, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), is sitting here on the Front Bench listening carefully to her comments. I am sure that my hon. Friend would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady. This is an important issue for the Department for Transport, and I am sure that the Department will respond in its usual speedy way to this consultation and all the others.

The Minister is obviously right to say that every woman murdered is an appalling tragedy, but it is particularly agonising when women are murdered when there were opportunities to protect them but they had not been taken. In my constituency, 23-year-old Gracie Spinks was murdered by a man who had been stalking her for months. She had reported this to the police. What has been described as a murder kit was found at the stables where she kept her horses, and it was handed into the police, but no action was taken. Ultimately, she was murdered at that very spot on 18 June. There is a real need for urgency and for police forces to be consistent in their approach. I welcome the fact that the Government have commissioned this report, but what can the Minister point to that the Government are physically doing to ensure that consistency across police forces prevents families like that of Gracie Spinks from having to undergo similar appalling grief?

I am obviously sorry to hear about the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, which is clearly devastating. I can specifically point to the laws that we have already passed to tackle stalking, which are much tougher than the previous regime and include stalking protection orders. These are a vital part of our response. In terms of consistency, which he and many other Members have raised, it is important to stress again that this is why we have appointed a national policing lead, Maggie Blyth, to drive this consistency. We know that there are forces that are doing an excellent job in responding to some of these horrific crimes, but some are not. That is why we need to work across the whole of the policing community.

In the wake of so many women across the UK losing their lives at the hands of male perpetrators, I welcome the publication of the report. It recommends that

“there should be a radical refocus and shift in the priority given to VAWG offences by the police and all partners, including wrap-around, tailored support for victims”.

However, the Government have still failed to confirm the details of the long-awaited perpetrator strategy, so I ask the Minister, whom I welcome to her place, when exactly this strategy, which is so crucial to tackling violence against women and girls, will be published.

I would like to be able to write to the hon. Lady about this specific strategy, as these are my first couple of days in this role. She is clearly right to highlight the importance of dealing with perpetrators and bringing them to justice, which is why we have introduced a number of measures across the piece in the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

I welcome the Minister to her new post. On this issue, there has to be a culture change in society as well as in the police and the criminal justice system, because the common thread running through many of these crimes is a power differential between women and men. Too many men still feel entitled to do or say whatever they wish to women, to disrespect women and to harm them. What more is the Minister doing to tackle head-on the culture that is prevalent in too many men out there? What is she doing to change that culture?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this culture. He is also right to say that it is unacceptable. This type of violence against women and girls has no place in our society. Publishing the strategy is simply the first step. There are a number of actions that many actors in the system have to take. They include, but are not limited to, our significant public communication campaign, as well as working with our colleagues in education and schools, driving through our priorities and making it crystal clear that this culture has no place in our society and that we must tackle it.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place and wish her well in her new ministerial role. Bearing in mind the shocking increase in domestic abuse throughout lockdown, has any consideration been given to allocating additional funding to women’s aid charities to help them to make contact with their vulnerable clients and to offer them the help that they very much need?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 that we have passed, and we will be publishing our domestic abuse strategy setting out more detail of how we will work across the whole system to ensure that those places of safety are rightly available. Any conversations around funding are a matter for our colleagues in the Treasury, but he should be in no doubt that we are strongly advocating to see adequate funding going into those vital services.