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Violence Against Women and Girls

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

May I take a moment, Mr Speaker, to place on record my sincere thanks to Her Majesty the Queen, as we celebrate the seven decades of peerless public service that she has provided to our great country? May she long reign over us.

This Government set out its ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy in the summer to change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime, and pursue perpetrators relentlessly. This focus includes rolling out section 28 video-recorded evidence in sexual and modern slavery cases nationally and helping victims of domestic abuse to have more time to report common assaults, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Last week we also launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 support service for victims of rape and sexual assault.

This Sunday we marked International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Sustainable development goal 5.3 commits the UK to the elimination of

“all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”

by 2030. However, the UN estimates that 2 million extra girls are at risk of cutting due to the pandemic. Is the UK on track to meet its own targets?

We are. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject, because female genital mutilation is one of the most hidden crimes. Those poor victims, who are often very young, face the most terrible pressure to explain to others what has been done to them, often by their loved ones. We are really supporting victims not just through the tackling violence against women and girls strategy that I have already discussed, but through our work over the last decade to tackle those terrible crimes, so that they can, if they feel able, seek help. Importantly, we are also educating people that it is not a fit practice for the 21st century.

A woman has approached me for help. She tells me that as a teenager, she was raped and has lived with the trauma for over 30 years. She has no confidence or trust in the police or the criminal justice system. She feels intimidated and frightened by her attacker to this day and fears that she will not be listened to, taken seriously or protected. What can I say to her?

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for gravely articulating the many effects that such terrible crimes have on victims, not just in the immediate aftermath but for many years, often decades? We have a programme of work to address the failings in the criminal justice system in terms of prosecuting sexual assault and rape cases. We have already been publishing our national scorecards, which aim to bring transparency to every corner of the criminal justice system to give victims and the public the confidence that they need in it.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point, I commend to him the current Ministry of Justice campaign #ItStillMatters. I very much hope that the lady he speaks about can seek support through that campaign or through the sexual violence helpline that I outlined in my previous answer, which I hope will be up and running very soon.

One of the most heinous forms of violence against women and girls is found online and the law has some serious gaps, as my hon. Friend knows. Cyber-flashing, which is online indecent exposure, and deep fake pornography are not against the law. What is she planning to do to change that?

I thank my right hon. Friend who has been concerted in her campaign on that terrible form of online crime involving deep fake imagery. On cyber-flashing, I am pleased to confirm that the Government are looking for a legislative vehicle in which to outlaw that pernicious modern-day crime. On deep fake imagery, she will know that we have sought the advice of the Law Commission to help to update our general laws to better reflect the 21st century in which we all live.

Many women are sent to prison for low-level summary offences, and incarceration has a catastrophic effect on them and their families. The female offender strategy will see the first residential women’s centre sited in Wales that will provide accommodation and rehabilitation for vulnerable women. Can the Minister give an update on the progress of that centre in Wales? Will it house a families unit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, as she will know, because she has a particular interest in the area, there are women in the criminal justice system who have been the victims of crime, including domestic abuse. Of course there are women who commit incredibly serious crimes—indeed, sadly, we have seen them in the news recently—and who must be imprisoned to serve their sentences. For the more vulnerable women who my hon. Friend talks about, however, we are looking seriously at and progressing our plans for a residential women’s centre in Wales. I cannot go into more detail at the moment, but I hope that I will be able to come back with an update in due course. It will provide an alternative for judges and magistrates in dealing with those particularly vulnerable female offenders who may benefit from the sort of intensive care that we hope to provide in such a centre, rather than putting them in prison.

At a roundtable with rape survivors last week, victims told me that they had come to terms with what had happened with them, but could not come to terms with how they had been treated by the criminal justice system. It now takes a shocking 1,000 days for a rape case to get to court, and only 1.3% of rape cases are prosecuted, so it is no surprise that victims feel that the system is working against them. Will the Minister back Labour’s fully costed plans to give rape victims a legal advocate from the moment they report the crime through to trial, or will she continue the Government’s failure to tackle violence against women and girls?

I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady has welcomed the victims Bill consultation. As she will know, it has just closed, but it is very much part of this Government’s work to bring the victims Bill into law to provide safeguards of the sort she indicated. In addition, we are already funding more independent domestic violence advisers and independent sexual violence advisers. These people can really help from the very moment a victim feels able to report their crime to the police, and they have that support when they need it. I also think, as I say, that using the helpline—the 24 hours a day helpline—we are setting up for victims of sexual violence may be the first step some victims feel able to take before reporting the crime to the police.

Finally, I very much hope that we can persuade the Opposition to support the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It has many measures to help tackle violence against women and girls, but in particular we are raising the period of time that violent offenders and sexual offenders spend in prison from half to two thirds if they receive a sentence of more than four years. This is a really important step, and I very much hope the Opposition will support us in our efforts to keep dangerous sexual offenders in prison.