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HMICFRS Recommendations

Volume 709: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2022

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the recommendations of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire & rescue services.

One in five women experiences sexual assault or attempted assault. The same proportion has been stalked. More than a quarter have endured domestic abuse. Harassment, abuse, rape, female genital mutilation, so-called revenge porn and upskirting happen every day.

Last year, we received more than 180,000 responses to our violence against women and girls call for evidence. The vast majority were from members of the public and many responses made for distressing reading, but their courage in speaking out has shaped our work. It has also laid bare the scale of the problem. Violence against women and girls is endemic. The major change in society that we urgently need demands action from all of us. I am absolutely determined that we will stamp out violence against women and girls, ensure that victims get the support they need, and bring perpetrators to justice.

We set out our plan in our tackling violence against women and girls strategy last July, including committing to a communications campaign, measures to ensure women’s safety in public spaces, and strengthening the law—including by criminalising so-called virginity testing and appointing an independent reviewer to help ensure that the regime for managing registered sex offenders is as robust as it can be.

Last year, the Home Secretary also commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire & rescue services to inspect the police response to violence against women and girls. The inspectorate published its final findings and recommendations in September. It found that progress has been made, but that urgent and significant action was still needed to protect women and girls. Today, I can confirm that we are accepting all the recommendations.

In its first recommendation, the inspectorate called for the response to VAWG offences to be an absolute priority for Government, policing and beyond. We are wholeheartedly committed to that. We took immediate action to strengthen national co-ordination in the police response to these crimes through the appointment of deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth as the full-time national policing lead for VAWG last October.

DCC Blyth has since published a national framework so that police forces have clear and consistent direction. The National Policing Board, which the Home Secretary chairs and which I attend, discussed VAWG last November. The Home Secretary and I underlined the need to act swiftly to protect the public and address confidence in policing. All the board members pledged to support DCC Blyth with her plan to improve policing’s response to VAWG-related crimes and hidden harms, and we will return to these discussions later this year.

Continued national grip of these issues is vital. As I said, we will be adding tackling violence against women and girls to the strategic policing requirement. That sends the unequivocal message that these crimes must be a priority for forces, taken as seriously as homicide, serious and organised crime, and terrorism. For women and girls, this means they can expect their local force to work with others, including collaborating with other agencies, using their local and regional capabilities to tackle violence. We are also strengthening legislation, to make it clear that domestic abuse and sexual offences can be part of the serious violence duty being introduced via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

In its second overarching recommendation, the inspectorate rightly advocated the relentless pursuit and disruption of VAWG perpetrators. That is why we have committed to expanding Operation Soteria, an innovative pilot project to transform approaches to rape cases, including through perpetrator-centric investigations, to a further 14 police force areas. This year, we have also invested £11 million in domestic abuse perpetrator programmes across the country to stamp it out before it escalates, and we are toughening up legislation to clamp down on online abuse such as cyber-stalking and so-called revenge porn.

Victims are right at the heart of everything we do, which is why we fully accept the inspectorate’s third overarching recommendation: to ensure tailored and consistent victim support. In the tackling VAWG strategy, we committed to increase funding for specialist services. This support comes from right across Government. In the Home Office alone, we have allocated £43 million to tackling VAWG. Across Government more widely, we are spending £300 million to support victims.

Mr Speaker, you will also be aware of the £5 million safety of women at night fund, as well as the multiple rounds of safer streets funding, amounting to £150 million. These schemes are advocated for and delivered by local authorities, and they are making a real, tangible and practical difference to women in the night-time economy and as they go about their daily lives, going to work, seeing their friends, going shopping, using public transport and being in public spaces. The schemes include things such as patrols, taxi marshals, additional security, training for the night-time economy, and the better lighting of routes between bars and nightclubs. We will also publish a victims’ Bill to enshrine in law that the needs of victims are a priority for the criminal justice system.

Individuals and communities need to have full confidence in policing. That requires chief constables to demand consistently high standards in responding to VAWG, as recommended in the inspectorate’s fourth overarching recommendation. DCC Blyth is supporting forces in doing that and holding them to account. Dame Elish Angiolini’s inquiry will shine a light on the failings that allowed the abuse of position by a then serving police officer and those wider systematic issues within policing. The Home Secretary has also asked the inspectorate to review vetting procedures in policing across England and Wales, including whether forces are equipped to deal with misogynistic and predatory behaviour.

Lastly, as recommended by the inspectorate, we are also committed to exploring the use of police outcome codes, particularly those used to close cases where there are evidential difficulties or victims do not support police action. All cases must be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.

In addition to the inspectorate’s recommendations, last night we launched a powerful multi-year national communications campaign, to go live today, called “Enough”. It is designed to make clear to perpetrators that their crimes will not be tolerated, to drive rejection of those crimes throughout society and to help victims to get all the support they need. I urge all hon. Members of this House, whatever Bench they sit on, to share the campaign, to ensure it reaches as many people as possible. They will find the resources on the Home Office website.

We will soon publish a dedicated domestic abuse plan complementing the VAWG strategy, as well as statutory guidance on the definition of domestic abuse. We will publish a refreshed national statement of expectations to provide guidance to local areas on effective commissioning of support services for victims and survivors. We will also refresh our male victims position statement in recognition of the fact that, of course, men and boys also experience these appalling crimes and need a tailored response.

This Government will never accept that violence, harassment or abuse are an inevitable feature of life. Changing things radically for the better is everyone’s business, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for her statement, a copy of which we received 15 minutes before it was made. You might think, Mr Speaker, that with the machinery of government at their disposal Ministers could follow the normal practice and give the statement to us a little sooner than that, but I thank her for the statement in any case.

Order. Have I heard the shadow Minister correctly that she got the statement only 15 minutes beforehand?

That is not acceptable. I say to the Minister and to the officials in the box: why has this happened? It totally goes against the rule. Copies of statements should arrive at least 45 minutes before they are made. I cannot understand. If we were told that this statement was due, there must have been enough time to make sure that the Opposition could, quite rightly, hold the Government to account. Back Benchers also need to hold the Government to account, but the statement should be led equally by both sides of the House.

Mr Speaker, may I offer my full and wholehearted apology for the failure to follow those processes? There has been a failure. I apologise to the shadow Minister, I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise to the whole House. I will personally take it upon myself at the highest levels of the Department to find out what went wrong in this instance, and I am very happy to answer questions at any time.

May I say that that was an exercise in making a very good apology? I appreciate it very much.

On so many measures around violence against women and girls, we are sadly going in the wrong direction. Confidence in the police to tackle violence against women and girls is falling; the rape charge rate is staggeringly low and going backwards, at just 1.3%; the police recorded a total of 845,734 domestic abuse-related crimes in 2021, and we know that domestic violence skyrocketed during the pandemic, with 260,000 abuse offences between March and June alone. More and more victims are dropping out of the system, unable to cope with the intrusion and the delays.

The damning report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire & rescue services into the police response to violence against women and girls should have been a wake-up call. Zoë Billingham told us clearly that we cannot stand aside and let violence against women and girls continue, and it must not be left to women and girls to make that happen.

We welcome the Government’s saying today that they will make tackling violence against women and girls a strategic police requirement—but why on earth have they waited until now to do it? They could have done it straight away when the report was published. The scale of the response is still far too small. Nothing the Government are saying does anything for offender management. The Government must set out a plan for how exactly perpetrators will be interrupted.

The inspectorate’s report was clear that far more needs to be done to identify and manage high-harm and serial offenders against women and girls. Some of the offenders in cases reviewed by the inspectorate had offended against eight or nine different victims. That is completely unacceptable. Far too many dangerous perpetrators are being allowed to offend again and again; criminals are being let off and the victims are being let down. We welcome the expansion of Operation Soteria, but why not do that for every force—why only 14?

Members across the House will have read about the tragic case of a woman killed by her ex-husband in Maida Vale. She had reported multiple incidents of domestic abuse and a stalking prevention order had been put in place, but the lack of proper perpetrator management meant that she lost her life. At least two fifths of police forces in England and Wales do not have specialist RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—units, even though specialist support and advice to victims is vital in reducing victim drop-out. The Government are refusing to back Labour’s calls to require RASSO units in every police force area. Will the Government now commit to putting a RASSO unit in every police force area, and if not, why not, when we know that they work?

The joint thematic inspection of the police and CPS’s response to rape says that the provision of victims services varies wildly throughout police forces and CPS areas. Rape victims should be given a legal advocate who sees the victim through the whole process so that fewer people drop out. What are the Government’s plans to ensure that victim support is consistent across the country? Will the Government commit to giving rape victims a legal advocate? The Government should be doing everything at their disposal to raise the priority of the police and CPS’s response to violence against women and girls.

The Government have the power to act and make this period one of profound change, and to lead a transformation to make our streets safer for women and girls. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) has repeatedly asked when the Home Secretary will implement the recommendations of Zoë Billingham’s report in full, so we welcome the fact that the Government have finally committed to accepting the report’s recommendations, but why did it need to take this long? Will the Minister commit to coming back to this House to provide a timeline for the report’s implementation?

The time for warm words has long passed. Now is the time for Government to work together, across Departments, to tackle this epidemic of violence wherever it arises, be it in the criminal justice system, in schools, in our homes or on our streets.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s response to the fact that we have made this momentous change and added the issue of violence against women and girls to the strategic police requirement. I think she has broadly welcomed this very important step. It is vital to point out to the House how significant it is: it is putting crimes of violence against women and girls on a par with terrorism, serious violence and drug offences. That is an enormous change to the policing operation in this country. Members across the House will, I am sure, reflect on the fact that policing in this country is independent from Government, so it is vital that we work across the entire system to make sure that the police have the funding, the resources and the legal powers they need to do their job. This Government have put record funding into the police, supporting them with an uplift programme of £15.9 billion and recruiting additional officers to be able to tackle these crimes wherever they occur. We are absolutely focused on driving out these crimes from our society.

I noticed that the hon. Lady did not refer to the communications campaign that we launched last night. That is a shame. I would be grateful if she could confirm, as I think she is doing, that she will share that widely with all her colleagues. In that room last night, there were charities, campaigners, victims of extremely serious crimes and people who have worked on the frontline, and they told us that they have been calling for exactly such a campaign for decades. Education is vital. We need to make it as unacceptable to be calling out and harassing women and girls on the streets as it is to drive without a seatbelt. Today we are taking the first step to doing that, and I know that everybody in the House will welcome it.

I welcome the seriousness with which the Minister is taking this issue and the fact that the Government are adopting the recommendations of the inspectorate. She will be aware that the Home Affairs Committee is looking into violence against women and girls and the low level of rape case convictions. Two of the key findings that will improve the situation are, first, the quality and appropriateness of the initial police reaction to reports, particularly with certain cohorts of people such as deaf women and those who do not have English as their first language; and secondly, the delay between an initial investigation and its ever coming to court, if it does—so many women drop out of that process because of the continued hassle overhanging them of having to go through the investigation. Does she agree that we absolutely urgently have to get those two things right?

It is a pleasure to respond to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and of course it was a pleasure to appear before him—[Interruption.] Oh, the interim Chair: my apologies to the Chair, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who is in her place. That is mortifying; I do apologise. Nevertheless, I look forward to appearing in front of the Committee, no doubt, in future.

The issues that my hon. Friend raised are vital. He is right to point to the challenges faced by women and girls, and of course men, who come from backgrounds of disability or other circumstances that make it harder for them to engage with the criminal justice system. That is exactly why we are expanding our groundbreaking programme, Operation Soteria, which looks in detail at the issues that he highlighted about the delays in rape case prosecutions. These issues are systematic and actually go back decades. This is a very important point. We are now prosecuting rape and these crimes in a very different age—in a digital age. People now have evidence on their phones. They have gigabytes and terabytes of information in the cloud, all of which, at times, needs to be introduced into an investigation. That must be done in a proportionate and sensible way. That is why I think my hon. Friend will welcome the work that we are doing in Operation Soteria to tackle another issue that has often been raised with us by victims—that of people having their phones taken away from them.

Order. I understand we are trying to buy time. We do not need to buy time, so let us do our normal routine.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)—the longest-serving member of the Home Affairs Committee and a very able acting Chair.

I welcome the fact that men’s violence against women and girls will be a strategic policing requirement—that is absolutely right. However, the joint thematic report on the police and CPS’s response to rape, which was published at the end of last week, had, again, the shocking statistic that for those cases that actually get to court, over 700 days elapse from the report of the incident to actually getting to court. There were nine recommendations in the report, including the establishment of a commissioner for adult rape and serious sexual offences, and having specialist rape courts to deal with the backlog. Will the Minister comment on whether those recommendations will be accepted by the Government? Will she confirm which Home Office Minister is responsible for the implementation of the rape review?

It is a pleasure to respond to the Chair of the Select Committee. The rape review is a cross-Government effort led by the deputy Prime Minister. A number of Ministers are involved in it, most notably myself and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). We work together to make sure that our two Departments co-ordinate on these very important issues. We will be coming forward in due course with our response to the report that was published last Friday, and we will be happy to come back to the House or answer questions in the usual way.

I welcome this statement very strongly. May I highlight to my hon. Friend the case of the rape and murder of Libby Squire? Her parents still live in my constituency; the case of course took place in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). The case particularly highlights how behaviours can escalate from non-contact sexual offences to, as I say, rape and murder. What will my hon. Friend do to make sure that those patterns of escalation are effectively dealt with so that tragedies like that can be avoided in future?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this atrocious case to the House’s attention again and for all his work on behalf of the victim’s family. He is right to highlight the trends of escalating offences, which are an integral part of our Operation Soteria work and which we are dealing with through the rape review. The academics reviewing cases in which things have gone wrong, or have not progressed as fast as they should, have come forward with recommendations that are being implemented in forces at pace. We are rolling out the model of best practice in investigations to a further 14 forces and will stand it up nationally to forces across the country, because we need these patterns to be recognised and tackled as soon as they occur.

I thank the Minister for the positive initiative that she mentions and for the enthusiastic way in which she is addressing the Chamber. The inspectorate’s report found that a high number of rape and domestic abuse victims are closing their cases and dropping out of the process; in fact, more than 40% of rape victims dropped out of the process last year. It is clear that more specialist support is needed, so today will the Government back Labour’s plan to increase the number of RASSO units?

I want to be clear that we completely support the need for specialist RASSO training in all police forces. We are working with our partners in policing through the National Policing Board, through all the work taking place in the rape review and through the additional funding resource that we have put into the police to enable them to train officers to investigate and tackle these crimes. Labour is right to say that this is a specialist area; we need to get it right, so we agree that forces need that specialism.

I agree with many things that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), said, especially her comment that we cannot just leave it up to women and girls to resolve the violence against them, but it was rather ironic that she made that comment to a Chamber in which there were about 15 male Conservative MPs and not a single male Labour MP behind her, which was disappointing.

I congratulate the Minister on accepting all the recommendations in the report, which builds on the good work already done on FGM and particularly on spiking; last night’s announcement was very important to me and to many in this House. At last night’s event, Deputy Chief Constable Blyth and others, including Nick Gazzard of the Hollie Gazzard Trust in Gloucester, brought together people who really care about the issue. Does the Minister agree that we must keep it high up the agenda?

My hon. Friend has been a consistent champion who has worked tirelessly to bring the House’s attention to crimes such as spiking. Because of his consistent advocacy, we will be making enormous strides in the area.

I am absolutely delighted to see so many male colleagues behind me. We are united in tackling this.

Without knowing the full scale of violence against women and girls, we cannot hold all perpetrators to account, and victims continue to see justice denied. Hundreds of suicides and deaths a year could be linked to abuse at home.

#NotJustAnother is a campaign initiated by Professor Jane Monckton Smith and supported by Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, with which I happened to be on the phone just before I ran into the Chamber for this statement, and by many organisations and experts. It calls on the police to count all women who have died in suspicious circumstances following abuse. That is counting the real cost of male violence. Will the Government pledge to do it?

I thank the hon. Lady for attending the event last night. It was a real pleasure to see her there and speak to many of the organisations with which she has been working on these vital issues. We are looking at domestic homicides and suicide after domestic abuse; I am very happy to meet her and update her in more detail on the work we are doing.

I spent much of the morning talking online with Loughborough College uniformed services students about prisons and reducing reoffending, so this is a well-timed and welcome statement. I really welcome today’s announcement.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, following the recommendations, her Department will improve collaboration between police and prosecutors to improve rape prosecution rates? What steps will be taken to identify and monitor that action and report back to the House?

My hon. Friend is totally right: improving how the police, the CPS and all parts of the system work together is vital to improving victims’ experiences and bringing more rapists to justice. Other measures that we have introduced, such as those in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, will bring in stronger sentences to act as a deterrent. I am always happy to update the House on the groundbreaking work of Operation Soteria, which is led by the Deputy Prime Minister.

I welcome the Government’s intention to take violence against women and girls seriously at last. I put on record my disappointment that yesterday the Government did not agree to the Lords amendment to make misogyny a hate crime, but there we go.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), will the Minister support my private Member’s Bill coming before Parliament next week? My Bill would establish an independent review of rape conviction rates and the effect on victims of rape, and it would make sure that the Government act on the review’s requirements.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we already have independent mechanisms in place to review exactly those issues. That is the work of the rape review and of the many inspectorate bodies that many hon. Members have referred to, such as HMICFRS and HM Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. I am not sure whether she attended the launch last night, but I urge her to look at the innovative, fantastic and well-received national communications campaign, which directly addresses misogyny in society. That is how we drive misogyny out of our society: by stopping men and boys from acting in a misogynistic way.

I welcome the Government’s position and their adoption of the recommendations. I apologise for not attending the event last night; I wanted to, but my diary did not allow it.

I particularly welcome the tailored and consistent victim support that the Minister mentioned. I commend the work of Alison Hernandez, our police and crime commissioner in Devon and Cornwall. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the extra challenges that rural and coastal communities face? If we are to get a genuine tailored commitment to get victims from the offence to a successful prosecution, it will take feet on the ground and extra resource. Will she expand on what the Government expect to present in that space?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the need for specialist support, which is why we have put additional resources into the system. We have expanded the essential independent sexual violence adviser and independent domestic violence adviser scheme, in which individuals are trained to work with victims in a very specialised way and help them to navigate their way through the system. We recognise that it is daunting, but we know that putting those people in place can make an enormous difference to the conviction rate.

The Minister asks us to support the new communications plan, as I am sure everybody in the House will. She said in her statement that the “Enough” campaign

“is designed to make it clear to perpetrators that their crimes will not be tolerated”,

but it is hard to see how the communications plan is being matched with action. More than 98% of reported rape cases go unprosecuted. When can we expect prosecution rates to increase under the new plans? Is it months, is it years or is it decades?

The hon. Lady will recognise that this is a systemic change—an enormous cultural change that will not happen overnight. In fact, the issues go back decades under multiple Governments. Women and girls and rape victims have been let down. That is why this Government have taken the bull by the horns: we are the Government who set up the rape review to work extensively with the CPS and the police to find out what is going wrong and fix it with cash, legislation and action.

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. The hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) asked about the communications campaign. I believe that the campaign is important, but the long-term societal shift must start from a very early age. What is the Minister doing in schools to ensure that young people understand this important issue and come out of school well educated and fully aware of the issues?

As I say, it is fantastic to see so many male colleagues behind me. We are united, and we understand that the issues start in schools. Conservative Members have consistently advocated for education in primary and secondary schools on healthy relationships and consent for sexual acts. We know that young people are exposed to the internet these days, and to so many other influences; we stand by them as we help them to grow up in a healthy way.

In its second recommendation, the inspectorate rightly advocated

“the relentless pursuit and disruption of perpetrators”

of violence against women and girls. The Minister may be aware that one area about which I have grave concern is the number of girls and young women who are coerced by gang members. Those women sometimes do not come forward; they do not have voices to report the sheer level of violence that they suffer. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), made a commitment that the violence against women and girls strategy would involve looking at data on the gender-specific abuse that these women face throughout the country. Will the Minister commit herself to reviewing that, please?

Of course we are aware of the tragic involvement of girls, and boys, in county lines. Our response to county lines has been strengthened considerably, which has resulted in a huge number of arrests and the taking out of criminal gangs. Our response is very sensitive to the fact that these are hidden harms. We do record the data on the victims, and that informs our response to enable us to put more of these horrific perpetrators behind bars.

I thank the Minister for her statement, and for the positive action that she and the Government are taking. In respect of the safeguarding of ladies and girls, as well as gentlemen and boys, has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss this positive statement with the devolved Administrations—for instance, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the relevant Minister in particular—to ensure that back home we can follow the rules that have been set here for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? We can all gain from what has been put forward here today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advocacy of this issue. We work very closely with all the devolved Administrations, and I will be happy to set up further conversations in which he can be involved.