Monday 28 March 2022
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 554073, relating to greyhound racing.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Sir Roger. The Petitions Committee has asked me to open this debate. The petition closed on 30 April 2021 with 104,885 signatures. It asks that the UK Government
introduce legislation to abolish greyhound racing, via a managed shutdown of activities, and ensure the welfare of redundant dogs through a levy on the industry.
The petitioner wishes to remain anonymous; the words I speak this evening are his/her words. The petitioner asserts that the welfare of greyhounds is not adequately protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, GBGB—the Greyhound Board of Great Britain—or any independent body, and that greyhounds endure unavoidable suffering on dangerously configured tracks, are raced in extreme weather and are housed in kennels that have not been independently inspected.
An early-day motion was tabled on 16 December 2021 acknowledging and supporting the petition. The UK Government responded to the petition on 26 November 2020. The petitioner told me that greyhound racing uses thousands of greyhounds as a global, online betting shop commodity, and that spectators at racing tracks are not needed, because racing is livestreamed.
Pressure from animal welfare charities and campaigners resulted in GBGB being required to publish annual data of greyhounds injured, rehomed and euthanised for humane or economic reasons. However, the Dogs Trust and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have questioned the accuracy of the data, because different datasets have been used for different years, making direct annual comparisons difficult. The data is not broken down to track level, preventing remedial action if required at a particular track.
The total recorded number of GBGB greyhounds injured annually since 2017 is 4,837 in 2017, 4,963 in 2018, 4,970 in 2019, and 3,507 in 2020. The number of those put to sleep on humane or economic grounds is 605 in 2017, 566 in 2018, 472 in 2019, and 224 in 2020. The petitioner found that greyhounds that were recorded as being in rescue centres or as rehomed as a pet were actually still racing. The dual system of having GBGB-registered tracks and independent tracks does not work, because greyhounds are raced at both tracks.
GBGB data records some greyhounds as retired, but the petitioner says that some of those are sold or given away to race on the three independent tracks. The petitioner spoke to me about insufficient enforcement of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010 by local authority trading standards departments due to lack of welfare inspections at tracks, because many councils are under-resourced and because schooling tracks and breeding facilities fall outside these regulations.
The petitioner believes that the GBGB reform programme, greyhound commitment, does not go far enough. GBGB statistics reveal a minor fluctuation, rather than a sustained improvement, in the percentage of racing dogs being injured. The figures were 1.19% in 2017, 1.16% in 2018, 1.21% in 2019, and 1.12% in 2020.
The petitioner referred me to section 3.1 of Dr Andrew Knight’s “Injuries in racing greyhounds” report from 2018, with which I am sure Members are familiar. The salient point is that races are run anticlockwise, so most injuries occur on the left foreleg and the right hind leg, because when negotiating a bend in the track, the left foreleg is used as a pivot, with claws digging into the ground, whereas the right hind leg moves in an arc, providing the primary propulsive force. The greyhound skeleton adapts by reabsorbing calcium from other bodily areas, resulting in spongy or honeycombed bone composition, which contributes to track injuries.
On the suggestion of the petitioner, I visited Hope Rescue, a centre run by Vanessa Waddon, so that I could listen to the practical realities of rehoming injured and surplus greyhounds. Hope Rescue is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who wanted to be here but has parliamentary duties elsewhere. Vanessa is in the Public Gallery this evening. We also have with us Suzy the greyhound, who has already been mentioned by you, Sir Roger, and who is representing Greyhounds as Pets and Pets as Therapy—I hope I have got that right.
Hope Rescue is named after Last Hope, a greyhound found abandoned on a Caerphilly mountain in 2004, having been shot with a captive bolt gun. Both his ears had been hacked off to hide identifying ear tattoos. Last Hope was still alive, and his finder reported that he was still wagging his tail, but he had to be put to sleep. This cruel story inspired Vanessa to become involved in greyhound rescue, and she set up Hope Rescue, which is an all-breed rescue centre.
Move forward 17 years and Hope Rescue is supporting the UK campaign, and the campaign in Wales, to ban greyhound racing because of welfare concerns and the prospect of increased greyhound racing when Wales’s only independent track, Valley track, becomes a GBGB track. Hope Rescue started its Amazing Greys project at Valley track in April 2018 in order to provide emergency rescue spaces and vet care for injured and surplus greyhounds before they were transferred to one of Hope Rescue’s partners—the Dogs Trust, Greyhound Rescue Wales and the Forever Hounds Trust—although some dogs were rehomed directly from Hope Rescue. Between April 2018 and August 2021, the project took in over 200 greyhounds that had been surrendered because their owners or trainers had links with Valley track. They included over 40 greyhounds that had sustained serious injuries—mostly fractures—through racing at Valley track. Sadly, five greyhounds did not survive their injuries. Many greyhounds had old, undiagnosed injuries, lameness, other health problems such as dental, skin, fleas and worms, and behavioural problems such as anxiety and fear.
After publicly sharing the petition, Vanessa was told that Hope Rescue was no longer welcome at the Valley track, so the fate of current surplus and injured greyhounds from Valley track is sadly unknown. Although Valley track is an independent track, Vanessa told me that her project revealed the strong links between the regulated GBGB sector and independent tracks. Some 67% of injured greyhounds at Valley track were GBGB greyhounds. Vanessa and the project’s volunteers were heartbroken to witness those greyhounds in so much shock and pain when receiving emergency treatment from Hope Rescue’s vets. There were no vets at Valley track.
The majority of the injuries were broken legs, including snapped bones going straight through the skin. One dog had the skin degloved from her leg, down to the bone, when she collided with the hare, and more fractures to her skull, face and ribs due to the collision. Sadly, she did not survive.
Valley track advertises its “eye-watering sharp first bend” on its website, and Vanessa witnessed most injuries occurring on that first bend. However, the greyhounds try to continue to the end of the race, because that is what they are trained to do. Vanessa believes it is unacceptable that the risk of these beautiful dogs suffering an injury—or even dying—is disregarded by the industry as collateral damage. As she can testify, behind every injury and death statistic is a beautiful, sentient dog, which will have endured immense suffering.
Vanessa told me that animal welfare charities are currently experiencing unprecedented demand and pressures due to the huge surge in pet ownership during the pandemic. On the day I visited, Hope Rescue had 216 dogs in its care, including some seized from illegal breeders, stray dogs, and dogs surrendered by their owners. Rehoming surplus greyhounds is an additional pressure on rescue centres, in both cost and capacity, created by the welfare deficiencies in the greyhound racing industry.
The dilemma facing rescue centres is that they do not want to stop taking in racing greyhounds, even though it would free up thousands of additional rescue spaces and improve welfare for the wider dog population and their owners, because who would otherwise look after the greyhounds?
Vanessa recognises that GBGB has introduced some recent financial schemes, including the injury recovery scheme, which provides a 50% grant, up to a maximum of £2,000, for certain injuries, and a £400 retirement bond. However, those financial incentives cover only a portion of the true costs and resources necessary for rehoming surplus and injured greyhounds as companion pets. Vanessa believes that the need for an injury recovery scheme speaks volumes about the welfare issues caused by greyhound racing. Resources should not be needed to fix broken legs, because legs should not be broken in the first place.
Hope Rescue launched a petition to ban greyhound racing in Wales in September 2021, and within a week it had secured the 10,000-signature threshold to be considered for a debate. The petition had cross-party support in the Senedd from Jane Dodds, leader of the Welsh Lib Dems, Luke Fletcher of Plaid Cymru, and Carolyn Thomas of Labour, along with support from rescue centres across the UK. The petition closed on 1 March 2022 with 35,101 signatures, and was discussed by the Senedd’s Petitions Committee on 7 March. The Committee agreed to proceed with a call for evidence, to be followed by a debate in the Senedd.
The petitioner stresses that public attitudes to greyhound racing are changing. In the UK, there were once 77 GBGB-licensed tracks and 200 independent tracks; today, 20 licenced and three unlicensed tracks remain. Greyhound racing to satisfy the needs of, and create profits for, the betting industry is being recognised as an animal welfare and gambling addiction problem. Some 99% of British greyhound bets are placed online or at betting offices, so it is unlikely that that money remains in the local economy.
Increased regulation may offer a temporary solution and may marginally increase the welfare of greyhounds while they are racing, but the significant number of injuries, deaths, and surplus greyhounds needing rescue spaces requires a long-term strategy. A sustainable solution to the welfare problems is needed. The petitioner and Vanessa strongly feel that a ban is the only solution. A ban can be achieved immediately in Scotland and Wales due to the low number of tracks, but in England a ban should be phased in to ensure that displaced greyhounds can be accommodated and the infrastructure will be dismantled over time.
Hope Rescue recently commissioned a YouGov poll, which showed that 45% of the public support a ban, 17% oppose a ban, and 38% are unsure or do not support either option. The foundation of any welfare strategy is that prevention is better than cure. The petitioner and Vanessa humbly request a meeting with the Minister to discuss how the UK Government can progress the proposal to abolish greyhound racing.
I commend the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for rising to the challenge and leading this important and sensitive debate about the future of greyhound racing in this country. I listened to everything she said and sympathise with many of her points. All of us present are animal lovers and care for the welfare of greyhounds and all animals that we have a duty of care towards. There is much common ground in what we are discussing today. However, there are differences of opinion about how we approach the issue and ensure the best for greyhounds and those associated with the greyhound industry in this country.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, and I do so as co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary greyhound group. I am proud to do so alongside the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). I am also a vice-president of the Greyhound Trust, which works tirelessly for the welfare of greyhounds and their rehoming once their racing days are over. Of course, I am the MP for Romford, home of Essex and London’s premier greyhound stadium, which has been there for many years.
I fully support all those calling for the highest possible welfare standards in the sport of greyhound racing. No one wants to see animals being injured or harmed. We all want to see the best possible care and attention for those dogs, and it is right that we fight for that. I also support the continuation of greyhound racing as a traditional sport in this country, provided that we strive to keep improving welfare standards for greyhounds. I want to restate my unequivocal support for animal health and welfare in greyhound racing. I have always been passionate about this issue, as I am for all issues relating to animal welfare—as the Minister knows only too well. Indeed, this is not a matter that I take lightly at all. I have always fought for animal welfare throughout the United Kingdom since my election as a Member of Parliament, and I will continue to do so. I am open-minded; where things are wrong, they need to be called out, but we need to do that in an evolving way.
There is no denying that welfare standards in greyhound racing have not always been at the level we would want to see, but I believe the answer must be building on the great progress that has been made, certainly in the last 20 years since I have been involved as an MP, rather than banning the sport altogether. Some 15 years ago, I was appointed by the then Leader of the Opposition as the shadow Home Affairs Minister responsible for animal welfare, so I worked on this particular issue at that time. I worked with numerous animal welfare organisations at a national and international level to secure the health and welfare of all animals, especially dogs and greyhounds.
Since then, I have continued my work as an animal welfare champion in Parliament through my role as chairman of both the APPG on zoos and aquariums and the all-party parliamentary greyhound group, and through my private Member’s Bill, the Animal (Penalty Notices) Bill, which will introduce penalties for individuals who have cruelly mistreated pets, zoo animals and livestock—which, of course, includes greyhounds. As hon. Members know, I approach this issue with a genuine desire to improve the lives of the greyhounds and to ensure that their welfare is properly secured.
Our society is rightly judged by how it treats the animals in its care, and that care must go for racing dogs, too. I have therefore worked to support the Greyhound Trust, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and all the other organisations that work tirelessly for the welfare of animals.
Despite the concerns that many members of the public have expressed, which are shared by many Members of this House, I nevertheless feel confident to state my support for the continuation of greyhound racing. I believe that, when appropriately regulated and properly managed, the practice can ensure the health and welfare of the greyhounds.
My hon. Friend is indeed an animal welfare champion in this House and has been for a long time, and I share his passion for animals. Is it not correct that many of the statistics on the welfare of greyhounds—such as the number of injuries or the number of greyhounds successfully housed after retirement—show the movement is all in the right direction? There is still work to be done, but are we not moving in the right direction?
My hon. Friend is completely right. I would not be here today if I did not think that we were going in the right direction. There is absolutely a huge amount of work to do, and we should champion that work and make sure it continues to go in the right direction. If it does not, we will all be deeply upset; we probably will not defend the sport as we are doing today. However, things are going in the right direction because, I believe, GBGB is now taking the issue seriously.
There is still an enormous amount of work to do. We need an evolution, rather than just bringing in arbitrary bans that often do not work. Such bans can have the opposite effect, as has happened in other parts of the world. I share the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). Let me be clear: my absolute priority is the welfare of the dogs, which I will continue to argue for in this House.
Greyhound racing is one of the most popular spectator sports in the United Kingdom. Coming from Romford, I am aware of that. The huge number of local people from all over east London and Essex who come to Romford greyhound stadium love the greyhounds. They do not just come to watch them race; they adore the greyhounds and raise a lot of money for their welfare at Romford stadium. There are 20 licensed stadiums in the UK, which generate multimillion pound revenues and employ 7,000 local people.
In the year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, I want to also highlight that greyhound racing is an historic British tradition. The greyhound is the first breed of dog mentioned in literature. Greyhound racing reached the height of its popularity after world war one, when it provided an affordable day out for British working people. Let us be honest: it was a pastime for working people and, certainly in my constituency, it still is.
I am proud that the people of Romford continue this age-old tradition, which they balance with their love for the dogs and concern for animal welfare. I see it all the time. They do not have disregard for the animals—they would hate the idea of an animal being ill-treated. They would not go to watch greyhound racing if they thought there was arbitrary cruelty going on. As I have said, we need an evolution to a better place.
I am proud that my constituents regularly go to see the greyhounds racing at the London Road stadium in Romford. It is important that we do not take this institution away from my constituents and those across the country who participate in the sport by regularly watching the greyhounds and raising money to support the welfare of greyhounds in this country. Those people take great pride in breeding, racing and caring for their dogs. Greyhounds are active dogs that are bred for high-impact exercise. They enjoy having a purpose on the racecourses and receiving attention in the stadium. I see that they really love the attention and they enjoy what they do.
Vets have stated that greyhounds need regular high-impact exercise to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. They derive that from the tracks, during training and in the kennels. On the issue of kennels, I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Neath; we need more inspections and more veterinary attention in kennels. Let us go there too. Let us not ignore what goes on in the kennels. It is not just about the tracks. The kennels need the same level of scrutiny.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary greyhound group, I believe it is important that we understand that greyhound welfare must be at the heart of the sport. We must do everything we can to safeguard the wellbeing of the dogs. Greyhound racing in the UK is regulated by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, which states that greyhound safety and welfare is at the heart of everything it does. That means that races must be strictly regulated to protect animal welfare.
Greyhounds must be rehomed after retirement and funding from racing used directly to contribute to greyhound welfare. A lot more needs to be done to contribute to the rehoming of the greyhounds after their racing days are over, particularly by the bookmakers. I believe that we need to pressure bookmakers more strongly to get a greater contribution to the welfare of the greyhounds in retirement.
GBGB has made a series of commitments to greyhound welfare. It has a zero-tolerance policy against any individual found to have mistreated a greyhound in any way. Its measures include issuing licence suspensions, fines and lifetime bans from the sport; ensuring a vet is present at every race and that every greyhound is inspected before and after racing to ensure that no greyhound will race if the vet has concerns; maximising track safety to ensure that the UK’s track injury rate is the lowest in the world; requiring the highest standards of welfare at trainers’ kennels; and, finally, ensuring that racing greyhounds enjoy long and healthy retirements.
Since September 2020, GBGB has paid more than £2 million to help home over 5,000 greyhounds, and that comes on top of the work of other organisations and small local groups. I know about the work done by the Romford Greyhound Owners’ Association Trust for Retired Racing Greyhounds. I know that many different groups across the country are working tirelessly to ensure that dogs are rehomed, loved and cared for in their later years.
I have also heard great stories about how GBGB has been working with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home to ensure that greyhounds are rehomed. I hope that continues, along with its work with other dog welfare organisations. Through the measures I mentioned, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain has lowered the fatality and injury rate for greyhounds more than ever and successfully rehomed more greyhounds than we have ever seen before. We are going in the right direction, and we must keep that going ever stronger. There will be cross-party support for increasing that welfare across the country, because we all love animals and want the best for them.
Animal welfare is and always will be my primary concern in this debate. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain has been able to deliver an excellent programme of animal welfare and will continue to strive for even stronger measures to secure the welfare of the dogs in future. It has done that through its regulation of races and commitment to provide funding for veterinary treatment for greyhounds and by offering a home to the retired dogs.
Greyhound racing is an important British tradition that, when conducted properly, is fully compatible with animal welfare considerations. However, we must go further. A ban would result in thousands of jobs being sacrificed, millions of pounds lost to Her Majesty’s Treasury, areas of deprivation losing yet another community asset, and thousands of fit, healthy and much-loved greyhound racing dogs being left with no direct means of support. That is not the answer at this stage. We have to work together to ensure that further improvements are made and the welfare of the animals is given the utmost priority without going for a sudden ban, which would lead to unintended consequences for the welfare of the dogs.
For these reasons—with the proviso that welfare standards must continue to be improved—I believe we must allow the continuation of the sport in the United Kingdom. I look forward to the Minister’s response to all the important points that Members have made, because I know that the Government are dedicated to animal welfare and to the highest possible standards in greyhound racing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I fully support most of the comments by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) about the continuation of greyhound racing.
The debate is very welcome, and should in no way be confrontational. The priority of everyone, regardless of their view, should be the health and welfare of greyhounds—the most lovable, intelligent animals we will ever come across. Some of the tales that my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) mentioned are harrowing. We hear tales of greyhounds having received some of the most terrible treatment. It happens—I am not saying that it does not—but there are bad apples everywhere. We need to ensure that welfare standards and the investment in the welfare of these wonderful animals is increased.
I must say a massive thanks to the GBGB and the British Greyhound Racing Fund, and to the people who sent me information knowing that the debate would take place this afternoon, including the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, and individuals who might have a different view from mine. I am happy to listen to everything that everybody says about to the welfare of these wonderful animals, because it is important.
I have been involved in greyhound racing for 40 years. I have always had greyhounds. I have never met one person anywhere—not one—who wants to see any harm to these wonderful dogs. We talk about rules and regulations, and about banning people. Listen, if anybody in my area got caught doing anything against this wonderful breed of animal, they would be banished from the community—and it has happened. The common denominator among us all, in debating the petition today, is that we support increased investment in welfare, and that should be our priority.
My interest in greyhound racing—people call it an industry or a sport—reaches back to my days in the mining industry. We had whippets and greyhounds. Quite often, they were looked after better than some of the family. That is the reality of it: communities looked after these wonderful animals. I have been involved with greyhounds at different tracks up and down the country, and in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It is a most enjoyable sport that I was involved in for quite some time. I went to different tracks with greyhounds, and they were all looked after better than my own kids. The notion that such dogs are abused, killed and battered to bits on a regular basis is very much outdated.
As the hon. Member for Romford pointed out, the statistics are heading in the right direction. That is not to say that we should rest on our laurels, because we have to continue with the investment in greyhound welfare, as I have mentioned a number of times. I have been to many trainers’ kennels—not 10, but 20, 30 or 40—and I have not yet been to a bad one, which might be my good luck. The kennels that I have been to are clean enough to eat food off the floor. The food that the greyhounds get is good enough for a human. I have spent hours, if not days or weeks, at the wonderful kennels of the legendary Harry Williams, a British breeder and greyhound trainer. Harry has just retired, probably for the third or fourth time. When he retired, he had more retired greyhounds than racing dogs in his kennels, because he loved the dogs so much.
There is a massive issue with how dogs are transported from kennels to the track. We need to look at those sorts of things and continue to keep the pressure on to make sure that things are as good, if not better, than they are anywhere else in the world. A lot of tracks used to be in a state of disrepair, and the majority have closed. We have only 20 licensed GBGB tracks in operation now, and I think there are three independents, which are non-licensed and not governed by GBGB. The tracks have improved dramatically through investment in welfare for the dogs.
I take issue with individuals or groups talking about injuries, because greyhounds want to run. They are bred to run, and not in straight lines. Greyhounds will get injuries, as will hounds or any type of dog that loves to run, particularly at high speed. However, I agree with everything that has been said about trying our damnedest to eradicate injuries at greyhound tracks. If that means investment in the tracks, so be it. We have to try to do everything we can for these wonderful animals.
I do not want the debate to be about facts and figures, because it should be about how we can continue to improve the welfare of racing greyhounds, and the hon. Member for Romford has already mentioned a number of facts and figures. However, it is worth mentioning the injury data since GBGB’s commitment. The total number of injuries sustained at GBGB tracks in 2018 was 4,963; it is now 3,575. In 2018, the injury rate against total dogs run was 1.16 and is now 1.12. The total number of fatalities at GBGB tracks in 2018 was 242 and is now 200. The numbers are heading in the right direction. Although we are getting better and better at what we do, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to continue to get better.
There are great statistics in the retirement data since the launch of the GBGB commitment. In 2018, the total number of greyhounds that were successfully homed or retained in the sport after retirement was 6,773, or 83%. In 2020, that figure stands at 7,089, which represents 95% of all greyhounds leaving the sport. That is an amazing result. I have been involved for an awfully long time, and 95% of the dogs being rehomed is fantastic progress—what a brilliant achievement. A lot of that is thanks to the hard work of Vanessa and others in facilities for retired greyhounds up and down this country, where volunteers do fantastic work looking after and rehoming the animals. Some of them are tricky to rehome because people cannot just go and pick up a greyhound—they need to understand that greyhounds have different characters.
It is worth noting that the trainers are not millionaires; they are not in it to make fortunes, and if they are, they will not succeed. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of kennel hands—young men and women—looking after the greyhounds as if they were their own kids, working all hours to ensure their health, safety and welfare, often at personal cost. Let us be honest: a lot of those young people do not really have great career paths, but they dedicate themselves to the greyhounds they look after. Greyhound racing is not something where people can get involved and become millionaires; it is quite the opposite—their finances normally take a dive.
It is important that we recognise and listen to everybody’s views. The statistics vary quite a lot depending on who writes them, so we need to dig into them to get a good idea of what is happening. The GBGB is developing a new long-term strategy for greyhound welfare in five important areas: welfare, nutrition, behaviour, health and mental state, which we have already discussed—that is a fantastic initiative. Let us hope that, at its conclusion, the strategy, which has the classic name “A Good Life for Every Greyhound”, proves to have been beneficial to everyone in the great sport of greyhound racing.
I do not want a fight with anybody about this issue. I fully support the people in my community and across this country who want greyhound racing to continue. I agree with every single person who has ideas for increasing the welfare of greyhounds. The GBGB and the other organisations cannot rest on their laurels. Some individuals say that greyhounds should be afforded the same sort of protections as other breeds, but when we look at the support for extra protections for the breed—whether we agree with the continuation of greyhound racing or not—it is absolutely amazing.
I genuinely think it is important that we continue fighting for better welfare for every single one of these wonderful dogs. I have had some fast dogs and some very slow ones, but they are beautiful. I have cherished and loved every single one of them for what they are, not for how fast they run.
Not only is it a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, but it is very apt that you are chairing this debate, because you have a huge record on animal welfare. I know you take it extremely seriously, so it is good to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for presenting the petition and the facts. This is turning out to be a very good and thoughtful debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has also put a great deal of effort into all aspects of animal welfare, but particularly greyhound racing. It was great to hear what he had to say, and to hear the great passion that the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has for greyhound racing. He has had greyhounds himself, and they are beautiful dogs.
We have to remember that 104,000 people have signed the petition, so we have to take it seriously. I want to talk a little about the EFRA Committee’s 2016 inquiry and what we found. There is no doubt that the welfare of racing greyhounds is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. The 2006 Act allows action to be taken where there is cruelty to an animal or failure to provide for animal welfare needs. Those provisions apply where greyhounds are at tracks or kept at trainers’ kennels. Animal welfare standards at all English greyhound tracks are set by the 2010 regulations.
The regulations require that all greyhound tracks have a vet present while dogs are running and that vets inspect all greyhounds to ensure that they are fit to run, including in extreme weather. Temperature-controlled kennelling must also be provided at the track, and greyhounds must be microchipped and tattooed. A Government review found that the regulations had proved effective in improving the welfare of greyhounds at the track, and the traceability. However, it also found that much more needed to be done, and when I get to the findings of our inquiry I will ask the Minister about various things that I think need to be improved. There is a need to improve conditions not only at the track, in terms of kennelling, but with trainers. There is also the professional trainer and the professional who keeps greyhounds, and they may have a number of them. Those people need to be looked at very carefully to make sure that the welfare of the greyhounds is good. Some greyhounds are kept by people as pets, but they race. They are looked after extremely well but, again, we need to check because, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, we have to make sure what, whatever rules and regulations are in place, we come down heavily on those who do not comply.
There has been improved transparency: GBGB agreed to publish annual statistics on injuries, retirements and dog euthanasia. That is a big issue. At these tracks, is it that the dog cannot be kept alive and cannot have its injuries put right, or is that dog uneconomical? I believe the gambling industry must pay much more towards the rehoming of these dogs and ensuring that the injuries that dogs sustain can be put right.
There is no doubt that the statistics are going in the right direction. If we look at the total deaths, not just at the tracks, there were 932 in 2018, 710 in 2019 and 411 in 2020. But 411 dogs are still too many—there is no doubt about that. We have to look at how to improve that situation. The publication of the stats was accompanied by the introduction of the GBGB’s greyhound commitment, which set targets to reduce track injuries. Some tracks are very difficult to alter. I agree with the hon. Member for Wansbeck that kept greyhounds like to race and run, but we need to ensure that if there are problems with the track, the bends or whatever, they can be ironed out. Nothing should be off limits.
The GBGB also introduced an injury recovery scheme, which enables the treatment and rehoming of 500 dogs with career-ending injuries who otherwise would have been put to sleep. In September 2020, the GBGB introduced a greyhound retirement scheme, with a £400 bond paid jointly by the owner and the GBGB, which goes towards rehoming costs at the end of a dog’s racing life. The GBGB has already paid out over £70,000 in bond payments to improve rehoming centres.
To support the GBGB’s efforts to improve welfare, in January 2019 the Government announced an increased funding commitment from bookmakers. In 2019-20, the British greyhound racing fund collected £8.87 million from bookmakers, up from £6.95 million in the previous 12 months. The Government continue to encourage any remaining bookmakers who have not signed up to the voluntary arrangement to do so. I say to the Minister that any gambling authorities that will not pay up should be named and shamed. They cannot earn money from racing greyhounds if the greyhound race does not take place. The money that they earn when the bet is placed on greyhounds comes entirely from that industry. All aspects of the betting industry must pay up. However difficult it may be—or however difficult they say it may be—-they should pay much more money. I would like to see the amount of money raised doubled. It is not impossible to do that.
In horse-racing, there is a statutory levy, where the bookmakers pay 10% of profits made from horse-racing bets. A compulsory 10% versus a voluntary 0.6% is a huge difference. The horse-racing levy raises £95 million—naturally, it is a bigger industry. Many of us want a very regulated industry but one that continues. However, if it is to continue, that money must be raised from the gambling sector to ensure that greyhounds are properly rehomed and not euthanised when they could be saved and have a good life thereafter.
When we did our 2006 report, we looked at the traceability of greyhounds through their lives. The Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 made microchipping dogs, including racing greyhounds, a legal requirement. As Members will know, one of the drawbacks with microchipping is that we still do not really have a central database, so once a dog changes hands, it is necessary to go back to the original owners and trace that dog back. There is much more we can do in that area—as we know, many greyhounds are bred in Ireland, and traceability is hugely important. Also, if a greyhound is going to race, it is not just about speed; we want greyhounds to be robust and their limbs to be strong. All those things need to be taken into consideration when we breed dogs for racing.
I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure we check the tracks and the vets on those tracks. We went to a GBGB track and to a non-GBGB track, and in all honesty, I was expecting to come away from both of those tracks being far more critical than I was. There is still much to be done, and when a Select Committee turns up to a racetrack, we have to ask whether it has been prepared for us in advance—we have to see through what we are given—but I think the tracks and the veterinary side have improved, and much of it is going in the right direction. My conclusion would be that we need to make sure the betting fraternity pays its dues—twice as much as it is paying at the moment. Let us make sure that inspections of the tracks take place and that the vets on those tracks are trained—I believe they are, but they must be. Those vets must be present at all times so that when they weigh the greyhounds and check them over before they race, they know that those greyhounds are in good condition and are ready to race.
If there is a problem or an injury, let us make sure that all those greyhounds who can be saved are saved, so that they can have a good life afterwards. Greyhounds make great pets in their future lives and, ironically, although they like to run fast, they do not need that much exercise. They are very good-tempered dogs: when we take our Labrador around Battersea Park, we very often meet a greyhound or two, and they are always a very gentle animal. I think we are all clear about the need for rehoming, including the welfare organisations—the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA, the Blue Cross—and everybody who is working on this, including GBGB and all the little voluntary groups across the country that have been referred to that rehome greyhounds. There is one such group in my constituency, and all those organisations aim to do a good job, but I stress again that, while it is always laudable to raise money from individuals to help rehome greyhounds, I still believe that enough money is being made from betting in the greyhound industry for that rehoming to be properly funded.
We need to use today’s petition as an opportunity to look at these issues. Ministers will know that, as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I take a very independent view of life. On this issue, I come down on the Government’s side because I believe that greyhound racing should not be banned, but I also believe that it should be tightened up, that those betting organisations should pay their dues and that the Minister should bring in all those organisations and make sure they cough up the money. Let us make sure that the right greyhounds are bred and racing in future. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, where there are rotten apples, let us root them out, because we cannot and must not have greyhounds being ill-treated.
This petition is timely. The Government and the industry will need to take it very seriously. I thank the charities for the work that they do. As I have said, let us use this as a very positive approach in order to ensure that the welfare of the greyhound is much improved.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank my good friend the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for securing today’s debate on greyhound racing. The petition, which received about 105,000 signatures, is to ban greyhound racing and ensure that the welfare of redundant dogs is, via a levy on the industry, absolutely adhered to. May I say how apt it is that the hon. Member for Neath, a person who is absolutely steeped in sport and who understands and appreciates the benefits and value of sport, brings this sport in front of MPs for our attention and debate? I thought her speech was enlightening.
MPs across the room have made excellent points and raised concerns about the welfare of these beautiful animals. I, too, sympathise with the petition—I thank the 160 people from my own constituency of Falkirk who signed it, even though they do not have a dog track in their area—and its merits, aims and ambitions. Who would not do so when they read about the cruelty inflicted on the animals in this so-called sport? Why would we not have sympathy for them?
Sir Roger, let me take you back a wee while. May I take you back in time some 60 years to when, as a young boy growing up in Denny, I and my friends would sneak along to the local dog track? All innocent and all exciting it was, too, to watch these magnificent animals run. Then, as we grew, we started to learn a wee bit more about how the greyhounds were actually treated—including how they were fed a pie before the race to prevent them from running so fast. Goodness knows what else they were being fed or injected with. And of course, when their usefulness was done, they were cruelly destroyed.
We probably did not know any better at the time, so what has improved? There are certainly fewer tracks now. The British Greyhound Racing Fund has awarded, as other hon. Members have said, more than £1 million to improve the racing tracks and welfare. The Greyhound Trust has received approximately £1.4 million to home retired greyhounds. That all sounds good and it leaves us wondering why, if greyhounds are such wonderful pets, there is such a problem with finding them homes. The answer is simple: it is down to the sheer number of dogs involved in greyhound racing. More than 30,000 dogs are surplus to requirements each year. In 2020, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain recorded, if my figures are correct—I think they are—3,575 injuries. In 2018, 324 greyhounds were destroyed; no home could be found for them. In 2019, 14 greyhounds a week died; they were destroyed because of injuries sustained while racing.
In Scotland, the welfare of greyhounds is covered by devolved legislation under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, but significantly there is no statutory legislation on greyhound racing in Scotland. Only two greyhound tracks are currently operating in Scotland. Thornton Greyhounds, in Kirkcaldy, is an unlicensed flapping track, and Shawfield greyhound stadium is licensed under the GBGB. In August 2019, the Glasgow track reduced its activity to a single night of racing per week—there were simply not enough dogs, I am told, to make up two nights’ racing. The position was similar at Thornton. It seems evident that racing greyhound numbers are at their lowest in Scotland, at least, and the sport is on its last legs.
The Greyhound Board of Great Britain is the body responsible for the governance, regulation and management of the sport of licensed greyhound racing in England, Scotland and Wales, but oddly, the regulations on the welfare of the greyhounds do not apply to independent tracks. I find that quite odd. Could the Minister please confirm whether that is true?
The Scottish Government do not currently have plans to ban greyhound racing, but they are very much aware of the Animal Welfare Commission’s interest on this vexatious business. I want to finish up with this letter I received on greyhound racing from Marie, a Falkirk constituent of mine. I am grateful to her for sending such a thoughtful and knowledgeable insight into why we are debating this. Marie said:
“I adopted Morag when she was five and a half. Out of all the wonderful, excited and noisy dogs in the Greyhound Rescue Fife’s kennels that day, Morag was just lying there looking at me with her huge brown eyes. My heart went out to her. She had a rotten life. I’ll never know whether she was just born terrified or whether her early experiences made her that way. Ironically, her racing name was “Honour and Love”, but I saw no signs of her ever having been honoured or loved. She didn’t know anything about the world outside of racetracks. She had never slept on anything except straw and probably old newspapers. Shut up and locked up in a crate for most of the day and night, Morag bears the scars of her racing career—not just mentally, but in the form of ugly, large blackheads on her abdomen, a nasty scar on her face and the loss of 17 teeth.”
Many breeders and trainers do not bother to take care of the hounds’ teeth. Why? It is because they will not have them long enough to have to deal with the resulting decay from the negligence. That happened at Doncaster and Nottingham racetracks. Bookmakers, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, have a lot of money to put into their sport. They are taking a lot out of it. In the world of gambling, these wonderful, intelligent and innocent sighthounds do not matter. Only their ability to run for their lives at the snapping open of a metal trap matters.
Morag matters. When Morag first wagged her tail, when she first played with her toys and when she sighed contentedly in her basket, she had won the best race of all. She survived to have a better life and got her sweet revenge on those who mishandled her, filled her with drugs, did not show a minute of kindness and would have put a cattle bolt to her head, had the regulations not improved and had there not been the kindness of volunteers at rescue centres.
Due to Morag being so timid and scared, the Greyhound Rescue Fife advised Marie that a male dog companion would bring Morag out of herself. Marie went back up to Kinross and fell in love again, this time with her second sighthound, Hector—a big blue boy only 26 months old. He had been bought from his breeder in Ireland from £12,000. The trainer in Tranent who bought him raced him three times at Newcastle. The blue boy stopped to play at the last bend in each race, so he was disqualified. Luckily, he did not have to put up with a life of being a slave to the gambling industry for long.
Sandside Chief never made money for anyone, but he became a much loved part of her family, and every morning Marie wakes up to the pleasure of her wonderful greyhounds trotting towards her for hugs and food. She says:
“I adore them and all greyhounds. The racing greyhound is a special commodity. I would like to see the breed die out. I would like to see greyhound racing banned. Show greyhounds are looked after. Coursing greyhounds have a healthier lifestyle, but the racing greyhound is born into servitude and from the age of six weeks is trained for only one thing: to make money.”
We have all acknowledged a lot of problems in the industry. There is no doubt about that. If a ban is not forthcoming, then a better life for these greyhounds must be the absolute priority.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond for the Opposition in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening the debate and for raising a range of important, thought-provoking points that we must all take on board now and in the weeks and months ahead. It was a useful, constructive debate. It was almost harmonious. I get a little bit anxious when that happens, and this debating chamber has many such debates, but it is good that we are working together constructively.
I would like to acknowledge the colleagues who have spoken in the debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and the hon. Members for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I also acknowledge those who signed the petition. The top 10 constituencies are: Isle of Wight; Central Devon; Brighton, Kemptown; Brighton, Pavilion; Torridge and West Devon; Tiverton and Honiton; Hastings and Rye; Camborne and Redruth, the seat of the Secretary of State himself; Edinburgh North and Leith, the seat of the SNP spokesperson; and finally, Somerton and Frome. It is important that we acknowledge when our constituents get involved and get active, and they have clearly done so on this important issue.
We are here this afternoon because this petition received more than 104,000 signatures from local people across the UK. I do not want to detain the House longer than is necessary, but I will say a few things that I hope will reassure those who signed the petition that those on the Opposition Benches are listening but, more importantly, we understand animal welfare.
We believe in honouring animal welfare, and we will always push for the strongest possible animal welfare policies. Like many on the Opposition Benches, I am concerned by the lack of transparency about what happens to greyhounds after they are no longer fit for racing, which means that nobody knows the real situation. I hope the Minister will address that specific point in the wind-up. It is important that we hear about the transparency point, because my party and I believe that we must ensure that all retired greyhounds are properly cared for.
We need proper guidance on best practice and responsible ownership; statutory minimum standards for racing and welfare; better mechanisms to trace ownership; and a centralised database to record what happens after greyhounds are no longer fit to race. Does the Minister agree? If she does, will she speak to each of those real and tangible objectives?
As colleagues will know, and as has already been outlined by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, the welfare of racing greyhounds in England is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. The regulations were reviewed in 2016, and the Government state that they were found to be broadly effective. Ministers believe that a ban remains unnecessary, and the Opposition agree. I would be grateful, however, if the Minister outlined the most recent engagement with the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. What action is being taken to improve the welfare concerns outlined not only in this debate but by the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition?
Ministers indicated that from January 2021 all trainers’ residential kennels will be subject to auditing and veterinary inspections. Can we have a progress check on that? Last week I spoke for the Opposition at the Humane Society International’s parliamentary reception. In my speech I thanked the Secretary of State, who was present, for reading Labour’s animal welfare proposals in such detail that he ended up pinching many of those proposals for his own animal welfare action plan. That is important, because his action plan made a commitment to considering further protection for racing greyhounds, including further steps to improve standards at trainers’ kennels. Will the Minister outline in some detail what those further protections look like? I would be happy to receive a written report, but it would be great if we could have that information this afternoon. I am sure those sitting in the Public Gallery would be interested, too. Can the Minister touch on the steps being taken to reduce the number of dogs being put to sleep on humane grounds following injuries at the track? That matter is of considerable interest to many, and some clarity would be appreciated.
I led for the Opposition on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill—the hon. Member for Romford was a member of that Committee, too—the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and a range of other related pieces of legislation, such as the Animals (Penalty Notices) Bill. In my role as shadow Minister for animal welfare, I am determined to keep pushing the Government to take the strongest possible action on animal welfare, to have the strongest possible resolve in the fight to act, and to not just make empty promises.
That is why I supported measures contained within the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act to increase maximum sentences for the most severe acts of animal cruelty from six months to five years. I am pleased that, in a moment of cross-party agreement, that legislation became law on 29 April 2021, after much hard work from Government Members and former colleagues such as Anna Turley, the former Member for Redcar. Their work means that the maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment, which is a good step for animal welfare and shows that change can happen if people want it.
Ministers can and should focus on the strongest possible support for greyhounds, notably those who have retired or been injured. They should make sure that this sport—a part of so many working-class communities across the United Kingdom—gets the safeguards and protections it needs. I outline the following as a starter for 10: proper guidance on best practice in responsible ownership; statutory minimum standards for racing and welfare; better mechanisms to trace ownership; and, as already mentioned, a centralised database to record what happens after greyhounds are no longer fit to race. That plan is ready to go, so I urge the Minister to go back to her Department after the debate and get on with it.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Sir Roger, as I know you are particularly interested in animal welfare. I think we all agree that it has been a genuinely fascinating and moving debate, and I welcome everyone in the Public Gallery, including our canine friend, who I hope is comfortable. Clearly there is a great deal of love in the room for wonderful greyhounds, and I do not think anyone would deny that they are absolutely lovely creatures.
I thank the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) for opening the debate and putting the case for the 104,000 people who have signed the petition. I want to say at the outset that the Government take the issue of greyhound welfare extremely seriously, which is clear from what everybody has said. I particularly thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its ongoing work on greyhounds. I was actually on the Committee when it did the inquiry back in 2016. I was not on the Sub-Committee, but I was very much involved in all the discussions and scrutiny that took place, and I urge the Committee to keep going with its scrutiny. A huge amount of progress has been made on improving greyhound welfare, so the Government believe that a ban on racing is unnecessary. However, improvements in welfare are always welcome, and we should always be working towards them, as many Members have said.
I will go over some of the history. It was in 2016 that DEFRA and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee undertook the thorough review of the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). The regulations set welfare standards for all tracks in England while allowing the industry regulator—the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, known as GBGB—to enforce those standards at GBGB tracks. Independent tracks require a local authority licence. There is only one independent track in England, which is Askern in Doncaster.
The 2016 review looked at the performance of GBGB as an enforcer of the 2010 regulations and found it effective. The Select Committee reported that it had
“not seen evidence of critical failings that warranted the creation of an independent regulator at this point.”
However, although the 2010 regulations were found to have improved track welfare, both the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and DEFRA stated that GBGB should be doing more. The Committee recommended that it is
“vital that the industry demonstrates capacity to initiate welfare reform without legislative compulsion if it wants to stay self-regulated.”
The Government then challenged GBGB to do more for greyhounds at trainers’ kennels and to be more transparent. Since 2018, GBGB has published detailed figures on the number of GBGB greyhounds injured and euthanised annually. It has also published the number of greyhounds rehomed or kept by trainers.
I thank the Minister for summing up. I think the issue for GBGB is to make sure that greyhounds can be given enough veterinary expertise. It must not be that a dog is put down because it is uneconomic for it to have veterinary care and operations to ensure that it can have a good life. It is key to make sure that whether a dog is euthanised is not an economic decision but an animal welfare decision.
I will go on to talk a bit more about the national welfare strategy that is being worked on, which is very appropriately called, “A Good Life for Every Greyhound”. The point that my hon. Friend raises will be dealt with in the strategy, and rightly so.
The hon. Member for Neath mentioned that the stats—on the injuries, and so forth—were queried. However, those stats are independently verified in a manner approved by DEFRA. On data and stats, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), asked for a GBGB database; there is already a central database run by GBGB.
GBGB has also developed, with welfare groups—including the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, Battersea, and the Dogs Trust—independent standards and a code of practice for trainers’ kennels. GBGB trainers’ kennels are now independently inspected against those standards. Before the end of this year, GBGB should be accredited as an enforcer of them.
Responding to the EFRA Committee in 2018, GBGB introduced its greyhound commitment, which set out further welfare reforms, including its injury recovery and retirement schemes. As I said, GBGB will shortly produce and launch its national welfare strategy, which will look across a whole range of issues, but will genuinely focus on welfare throughout the dog’s life, not just during its racing career. I think that will address the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton.
I was concerned to hear the comments about the Valley track, which I believe is in Caerphilly. As I understand it, that is the only greyhound track in Wales and it is independent. Greyhound regulations are devolved, and, unlike England, Wales has no specific greyhound regulation—nor indeed does Scotland, I believe, although I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) said. However, I believe that Welsh Ministers have recently announced that greyhound racing and its licensing will be considered as part of their animal welfare plan for Wales. Independent tracks in England have been required to be licensed since 2010, and the 2010 regulations apply to all tracks in England, including independent ones.
The Minister has put her finger on the problem. The Valley track is in Ystrad Mynach, near Caerphilly, and is an independent track—although it is soon to be a GBGB track. The petition heard in the Senedd will be debated and will form part of the plan, so the Minister is quite correct. However, I would be interested to know what she thinks of the transformation from an independent track to a GBGB track.
We only have one independent track in England, which I have named, just now, and as far as I know, it does not have any desire to transfer. However, if it did, it would have to adhere to all of the correct standards, exactly as all other tracks do. I am sure that if the hon. Member wants further detail, we can get back to her with that.
Bookmakers have also been encouraged by the Government to pay their fair share to fund GBGB welfare. However, consistently, about 95% of all licensed betting offices—including those online—are now contributing to the voluntary greyhound levy. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the betting industry must be responsible in its contribution to funding welfare, addressing injuries, rehoming and so on. However, betting policy is led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so I urge him to raise that point with DCMS.
There is no doubt that some in the betting industry are paying their dues, but others are not. That is the key: everybody should be paying. I am not the only one who can contact DCMS Ministers—I urge the Minister to do so, too, to make sure that we fight this hard. I am determined that the entire betting industry should pay its dues.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I completely take his point. The Government believe that greyhound racing currently has a very proactive, pro-welfare body in charge that wishes to work to improve animal welfare.
There has been a lot of agreement in this room. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), in particular, for all the work he does for greyhounds with the Greyhound Trust and the all-party parliamentary group. We could not have a greater advocate for greyhounds, and I urge him to keep up his scrutiny of the industry. He painted such a great picture of his track in Essex. He was genuinely very supportive of the improvements made; I think we all agree that if there are more welfare improvements to make, we must make them. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) also raised that in his comments.
What a lot we learn about hon. Members in these debates. I have learned so much about the life of the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and his experience with greyhounds. It has been a bit of a revelation, actually. I think he really brightened up the afternoon with his insights, experience and knowledge, for which I thank him. He clearly has so much knowledge and experience with greyhounds. I urge him to keep up his scrutiny and to work with other hon. Members present for the welfare of these absolutely lovely creatures. I think greyhounds quite like to sit on a sofa, as well as doing all that running—I have seen them be very lazy.
I will conclude there. I hear what has been said in the petition and I thank all those who signed it. I hope I have made it very clear that this Government take animal welfare as a whole incredibly seriously, and particularly the issue of greyhounds and greyhound racing. Improvements are yet to be made, and they will be made. I hope I have made that very clear. However, this Government do not feel that a ban on greyhound racing is necessary.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Animal welfare is always very emotive, but this has been a very respectful debate. Again, I ask the Minister if she will meet with the petitioner, Vanessa—perhaps at Hope Rescue? Maybe the Minister can answer that in the few seconds remaining.
I thank the hon. Lady for putting me on the spot. We in DEFRA are always pleased to hear if people have views about animal welfare that they want to communicate with us. I am not actually the Minister responsible for this issue; she currently has covid. I will pass on that message and, if she would like to meet the petitioner, I am sure she will be in touch.
Support for Black Victims of Domestic Abuse
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 578416, relating to support for Black victims of domestic abuse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the Petitions Committee and its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for allowing me to move the motion despite not being a member of the Committee.
The petition we are considering is entitled:
“VALERIE’S LAW Compulsory Training for Agencies Supporting Black DV Victims”.
It calls on the Government to make
“specialist training mandatory for all police and other government agencies that support black women and girls affected by domestic abuse.”
The petition continues:
“Police and agencies should have culturally appropriate training to better understand the cultural needs of black women affected by domestic abuse.”
I thank the organisers of the petition—the specialist domestic violence organisation Sistah Space—and the 106,519 people who signed the petition, including 339 in my constituency. Sistah Space works with black women and girls who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse or lost a family member to domestic violence. Its mission is to encourage black survivors to report abuse by providing a safe cultural venue for victims to disclose abuse in a confidential environment and to encourage community integration. It also provides advice and support, as well as practical help, by providing hygiene and other essential items to women and girls who need them. I am very pleased that some members of Sistah Space have joined us in the Public Gallery today, and I thank them for helping me prepare for the debate.
The petition is about the support that black women and girls can and should expect from the police and other agencies that are supposed to help them when they experience domestic abuse, it is about the failures we too often see from the police and others in this regard, and it is about how we can make things better.
Before I come to the substance of the petition and the campaign for Valerie’s law, I want to speak a little about the context in which we are debating this issue. In the last few months, we have had the revelation that a 15-year-old black girl was taken out of an exam and strip-searched in her school by police officers on the basis that she smelled of cannabis—no drugs were found—we have had the shocking report into institutional racism and misogyny at Charing Cross police station, where male officers joked about beating their girlfriends and raping women, and we have had two Metropolitan police officers imprisoned for taking dehumanising photos at the murder scene of two black women, Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry.
The trust that black people—and perhaps especially black women—have in the police has been repeatedly damaged in recent months. It is, perhaps, at its lowest point in decades. The police, and indeed the Government, must recognise that, acknowledge it, and set out how they intend to repair it. Even before we get to specialist training, we need basic confidence that the police will treat black women with respect.
My hon. Friend has made an excellent start to her speech. She has touched on building trust and confidence in the police. Sistah Space has developed excellent campaigning tools and resources to educate people on the cultural differences that black African and Caribbean women make, but for that to take root and start to make a difference to the lives of black women, the Government and the police must recognise the role of institutional racism.
Before I begin, I also thank those at Sistah Space for all the work that they have done, and I ought to mention that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), would definitely have taken part in the debate to voice her support but, as people will have seen, she is recovering from breast cancer.
Some 628 people from Hampstead and Kilburn signed the petition. Sadly, that does not surprise me. Women in my constituency—particularly black women—have told me how scandal after scandal has seriously undermined their confidence in the Met police. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) has made an excellent start to the debate. Does she agree that the disturbing reports of racism and sexism at Charing Cross police station, which she has mentioned, have contributed to a breakdown of trust, and that specialist domestic violence training for the police would be an important first step in rebuilding trust between black women and the Metropolitan police?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and congratulate her on her work to bring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe back to this country. What she said is important, and Sistah Space has very much been trying to put forward such training. The fact that so many people across the country have signed the petition, and that trust in the police is low at the moment, shows that now is the time for the Government to introduce some sort of training, which would help the police to regain the trust of many people, particularly black women victims of domestic abuse.
I will now turn to Valerie’s law. In March 2014, Valerie Forde and her one-year-old daughter, Jahzara, were murdered by her ex-partner. He attacked Valerie with a machete and a hammer, and slit Jahzara’s throat. Six weeks earlier, he had threatened to burn down the house with everybody inside. That was recorded by the police as a threat to property rather than a threat to life. The Independent Police Complaints Commission—as it was then—strongly criticised the Met’s failure, and found that officers’ inaction left Valerie alone with the man who killed her.
In Valerie’s case, as in many others, there are real concerns that the police and other agencies have significant knowledge gaps when it comes to the black community and black victims of domestic abuse. I thank Valerie’s daughter, who is in the Public Gallery, for joining us and for allowing me to share her mother’s story. We cannot allow any more stories like that to happen again. I remind colleagues to be mindful of what they say in this debate.
Data from Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, shows that black women who experience domestic abuse are less likely to be referred by police for specialist support. Agenda also found that black women who are supported by Refuge are 3% more likely to have experienced physical abuse and 4% more likely to have experienced sexual abuse than white survivors of abuse. That suggests that black women are more likely to reach Refuge services when they are experiencing the most visible and extreme forms of abuse, and that they may not be taken seriously when they report more hidden and insidious forms of abuse, such as psychological and financial abuse.
Agenda says that barriers to disclosing or reporting abuse for black and minority groups are rarely given sustained attention in policy making. According to Sistah Space, without basic understanding of the experience of black women,
“it is impossible for police officers and service providers to ensure black women are equally protected.”
Valerie’s law is simple: it would introduce mandatory specialist training for all agencies that help victims of domestic abuse. It would enable police officers, relevant Government agencies and domestic violence organisation staff to acknowledge and protect black women in abusive situations, through better understanding of the specific threats and challenges they face. To give a practical example, generally, bruises on black skin do not show the same way as on white skin. That means the crucial physical signs of violence can be missed or overlooked.
Agenda raised the issue of adultification, where black girls are viewed as older than their age and professionals assume they have greater levels of maturity and less innocence than their white peers. As well as informing more punitive responses to black girls and young women, that may reduce professionals’ sense of their safeguarding responsibilities; practitioners highlight that stereotyping black young women as particularly resilient can be a barrier to accessing timely support. It is for those reasons that questions used to determine the level of risk should reflect the experience of black women and girls to better understand the danger they face.
Sistah Space is already delivering training to a variety of agencies, including local authorities. I welcome organisations and agencies that are taking the initiative right now to train their staff in that way, but it is clear that the Government need to take action to ensure that training is provided across the board. Unfortunately, the Government’s response to the petition states that
“the Government does not feel it is necessary to mandate training”
on the specific needs of victims due to their ethnicity. I really hope the Government will reconsider their position during this debate. Only by making that training mandatory, whether in law or guidance, can there be accountability and assurances that agencies are providing it.
My hon. Friend is making a customarily excellent speech on a really important issue. I gave evidence to the Macpherson inquiry over 20 years ago. A number of the recommendations in the Macpherson report were about training police on a variety of issues, but this issue was not picked up. There is a range of issues, including domestic violence, where the police do not deal with black and minority ethnic communities in the same way as they do white communities and white victims of crime. Do we not need a broad look at all those issues, and mandatory training in all those areas, including domestic abuse?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Macpherson inquiry was 20 years ago. Where are we now? Why is there no training being implemented to address these issues and support victims of domestic abuse? There is no reason it should not be implemented right now.
Sistah Space has made it clear that it is willing to work with the Government, other domestic abuse organisations and relevant bodies such as the College of Policing to develop a package of training that could be incorporated into existing training on domestic abuse. That would be relatively straightforward and would ensure that this important training is delivered to a wide range of police forces and agencies. But it requires the Government’s support to make that happen. If the Minister cannot commit to that in full, I hope she will commit to working with Sistah Space and other organisations to see what progress can be made.
I note the Government’s response to the petition states:
“To accompany the Domestic Abuse Act we will shortly publish statutory guidance for consultation that will provide further detail on how specific types of abuse can be experienced by different communities and groups, including ethnic minority victims.”
Could the Minister give us more details? It sounds as though that could be a positive step towards ensuring that agencies provide support to all victims of domestic abuse, including black women, but it is crucial that the Government work with specialist organisations to ensure that the guidance is rooted in the reality that black and other minority victims face.
I want to mention several other connected things the Government can do to support black victims of domestic abuse, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond to some of them. First, the Government should provide substantial ringfenced funding for specialist services run by and for black women and girls. Secondly, they should fund further research into the prevalence and dynamics of violence, abuse and exploitation experienced by black women and girls, in collaboration with specialist services supporting them. That should be accompanied by robust data collection for inquiries into domestic abuse, with responses collected and published by gender, race, ethnicity, age, ability and other relevant protected characteristics. Finally, the Government should ensure that all public services respond appropriately to disclosures of domestic abuse. Safe reporting mechanisms for survivors accessing vital public services must be established, including for victims with no recourse to public funds so they feel confident making disclosures without fear of immigration enforcement.
I will bring my remarks to a close as I am looking forward to hearing from colleagues. I will end by acknowledging the experiences of victims and survivors. Last week, colleagues and I heard from a survivor who experienced domestic abuse from members of their family. The survivor had two children under three years old. Despite seeking help, they were turned away by multiple councils and other agencies, each saying that it was someone else’s problem. Eventually, they were pushed back to their perpetrator. Victims and survivors may only have the energy to seek help once. That is why every agency, including councils, police forces, the NHS and third-sector organisations, must have the training skills to adequately support black women from the start. That is all that Valerie’s law seeks to do. I hope the Government will do the right thing and support it today.
I warmly congratulate the Petitions Committee for having the foresight to take on this debate. Before I talk about the subject, I pay tribute to Valerie Forde. Valerie was my constituent. Her daughter is still a constituent. Valerie is still very warmly remembered. She was a big community figure and very active in the Hackney Marsh Partnership. She was very popular and is fondly remembered by anybody who ever met her. Valerie’s daughter is clear that today we need to remember what she gave in life as well as how she left it. Her daughter, Jahzara, was bright and bubbly with everything ahead of her, but her life was cruelly cut short by an awful act of violence.
Valerie’s family have asked me to reflect on the impact that her and Jahzara’s murder has had on them. The impact goes on forever and ever. It will be felt by the family members and friends for a very long time to come. There are big issues, of course, about what happened at the time, which I will not repeat here in the time I have available. I refer hon. Members to my Adjournment debate in June 2020, when I highlighted some of the disparities in support for black women victims of domestic abuse. I put on record my thanks again to Sistah Space for its work in highlighting the disparities in support and, crucially, in understanding of black women victims of domestic violence.
The figures are stark. Freedom of information data from 30 police forces shows, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted, that between 2016 and 2020 police forces were one and a half times more likely to bring forward a charge when the victim or survivor was white than when they were black. The proportion of black and minoritised victims since the start of the pandemic is higher than the previous 15-year average for domestic homicides and higher than the 2019 data by five percentage points. The number of high-risk domestic abuse cases heard in Hackney increased by 20% in the first year of the pandemic—that is, the financial year 2020-21.
Those are stark figures, and there are many reasons for that. Much of it is about misunderstanding, to put it politely; some of it is about unconscious bias; and some of it is about racist attitudes that lead to stereotyped views of how people should be treated. That is unacceptable. Domestic violence is a horrible thing to happen to anyone. It rips apart families and causes grief all round, but for there to be a disparity even in this horrendous field because of the colour of your skin is unacceptable. Each of those domestic violence figures is one too many, so what needs to be done?
As well as Valerie’s law, which is a really good initiative, there are wider things that can be done. Small specialist organisations that work with specific groups—in this case, black women—often find it hard to compete for the contracts that are let by local authorities, the Metropolitan police or the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, due to the funding cuts we have seen in local authorities over many years and the knock-on effect on the services those councils provide. We know that however good a council is, very often people need specialist services that are from the community and understand it, and can make sure that where there is a gap in understanding, it can be bridged. There is also clearly a need for greater representation of black women at policy level, as well as delivery level. Too often, we hear the phrase “BAME”, which glosses over the many differences between different groups. It is really important that black women specifically have a space marked out for them to get the support they need.
If we are talking about things not being done about people without people, it is heartening that we are finally seeing far more black women in Parliament. For a very long time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was the only black woman in this place, and then for some time was one of only two. It is only in recent years that we have seen far more people in this place and, indeed, in government who have, and should have, more understanding of what is going on—a voice at the table to argue for people, which is a start. However, I think all my right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that that is not enough. It needs to happen at community level, from local council level right down to local delivery level—so that simple things, such as the colour of a bruise on black skin, do not have to be explained because somebody in that situation knows what they are looking for.
Valerie’s law is a simple, proportionate step, and I hope the Minister will be sympathetic to it. It is about mandating guidance to police forces at the first stage of their training. It is not a difficult thing to do, and it can be taken beyond just black women, because it is important that the cultural sensitivities of other communities are understood. We are in the midst of recruiting a large number of additional police officers; that programme is going quite well in terms of numbers, but as the National Audit Office report that was published on Friday highlights, recruiting is only one step. Those officers then have to be trained and deployed—trained in training, but trained on the streets as well, the training that happens when a young officer turns up for the first time to a domestic violence situation.
Depending on that officer’s background, they may never have met a black woman before. We know that happens in the Met, so it is really important that Valerie’s law is brought in now so that those new police officers can start out to hopefully help transform the culture of the Met, which—as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead has highlighted—has been rocked from top to bottom through a series of unacceptable racist and misogynist incidents. This law is a proportionate step that is simple to introduce, and I hope the Minister will embrace it quickly, so that those new police officers who are being recruited can learn from the beginning how they need to support black women who are victims of domestic violence.
I also start by paying tribute to the fantastic work of Sistah Space. The fact that it is the only domestic abuse charity working with black and minority ethnic women shows the scale of the problem we are dealing with. I especially thank you, Ngozi, for the work you continue to do in leading this—I salute you.
Over 800 residents in my constituency signed this petition, which shows how important it is. I am proud to represent a vibrant constituency that is home to Brixton, Stockwell, Clapham, Kennington and Oval; a proud, diverse constituency where, if I am honest, a number of black women have raised this issue with me. They are worried. They are scared. They are fed up with seeing their black sisters dying. They are tired—we are all tired—but that does not mean we should not continue to campaign for this change. Today’s debate and the associated work by Sistah Space highlights the fact that Valerie and her daughter were let down. If those threats had been taken seriously by the police, we would not be having this debate today—it is that simple. This debate cannot end without us asking the Minister what the Government will do to address the issue. Tragically, Valerie is far from alone in being a victim of domestic abuse, having found failures in the police, seemingly as a result of being black.
Research from Refuge found that between March 2020 and June 2021—in the midst of the pandemic that trapped domestic abuse victims in their home—black women were 14% less likely to be referred to Refuge for support by the police than white survivors of domestic abuse. That is despite the fact that Refuge found that black survivors were three times more likely to report that abuse in the first instance to the police.
Think about how difficult it is for these women to come forward in the first place. They may be in fear that their abuser will found out they have contacted the police. They have to summon courage, knowing that, by coming forward to the police, their life is at risk, and yet they are not taken seriously. These stark figures show that the police, often a frontline for domestic abuse cases, are letting down the black women who need their support at that critical time.
Every day a domestic abuse victim is left without support is another day they are subjected to torturous abuse, and it is another missed opportunity to get these women off the path that we sadly all know may escalate into deeper harm, physical violence and sometimes death. That is the reality facing so many women as we speak in this debate right now. So many women are scared to come forward and approach the police, because they do not know whether anyone will actually listen. We need to listen to these women.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Along with the incredible work being done by Sistah Space, Southall Black Sisters is running a pilot scheme with the Home Office to help women with no recourse to public funds. These survivors will include many black women who have suffered domestic abuse but may be fearful of reporting it due to assumptions, stigma and biases that could lead to their deportation or detainment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we get clarity on what is happening with the Home Office funding for that pilot? Multiple reports suggest that it will end this month, which would force many women to stay in abusive relationships. That shows this Government’s disregard when it comes to domestic violence and abuse, which they must take seriously.
I thank my hon. Friend for her powerful intervention. I commend her for speaking so publicly about what she experienced. By coming forward, she helped countless women she will never meet. It is so important that the Government look at how they respond to this. Migrant women, women with no recourse to public funds, BME women and LGBT women face different kinds of intersectionality in trying to get the right support. The Government need to understand that these women are being failed. I know that this is an area the Minister cares passionately about, and I hope that she will respond to these issues in her remarks.
The fact is that the current situation is unacceptable. We are calling for support for women and girls, and we need the Government to take leadership and ensure that there is no racial disparity in how victims of domestic abuse are treated. I mentioned that the Minister has taken some leadership on this, but I want her to go further. The draft statutory guidance under the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has been referred to. That is welcome, and it mentions some of the problems faced by victims of domestic abuse, but it remains to be seen whether this change will go far enough in ensuring that we see a sea change in how black victims of domestic abuse are treated by professionals and agencies.
The Minister will be aware that the campaign for Valerie’s law is advocating for clear cultural competency and training for police officers and service providers to ensure that black women facing abuse are given accurate assessments that correspond to the danger they are facing. They face danger almost on a daily basis. It is so important that the cultural environment and the barriers that black women face are understood and not overlooked and disregarded. I hope that the Minister will listen to everyone’s contributions today and introduce meaningful ways to ensure that no other woman—no other black woman—will lose their life at the hands of violence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the Petitions Committee for tabling this crucial debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) for opening it and for all the work that she does on this issue.
As the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and as a black woman, it is really important to me to be here today as we discuss how we can reform policing so that it better protects black women from violence. I want to thank all the charities, including Sistah Space, for their incredible work and their campaigning for change. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) said, domestic abuse became even more pervasive in British society during the covid-19 pandemic. It is harrowing that police recorded crimes of domestic abuse have doubled over the past five years, all while prosecutions have plummeted to an historic low.
We know that for many minority women the problems are compounded by institutional obstacles. Often, their ability to receive help, support and, ultimately, justice is impacted by institutional bias. According to the domestic violence charity Sistah Space, as many Members have mentioned, 86% of women of African or Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom have either been a victim of domestic abuse or known a family member who has been assaulted.
However, even in the face of those alarming statistics, the police too often ignore barriers that prevent black survivors from getting the support they deserve. For example, too often, black women see their dangerous and life-threatening circumstances dismissed by the police because the police cannot recognise bruising on their skin. Bruises are not always as visible on black women as they are on women with lighter complexions.
Taking a step back to look at the broader picture, the UK’s largest single provider of domestic abuse services, Refuge, recently published data showing that black survivors are 14% less likely to be referred by the police to use its services than white survivors. That is absolutely disgraceful. No domestic abuse victim should ever feel that they are being taken less seriously or given less support because of the colour of their skin. That is one of the many reasons why the Government need to act to provide specific training for police in supporting women of African and Caribbean heritage who are impacted by domestic violence and abuse.
That training should have been present when the police were handling Valerie’s case, which is why today’s debate is so important. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead, Valerie Forde was a black woman who, along with her baby daughter, was murdered by her ex-partner in 2014. She reported the threats that she received to the police, but those threats were overlooked and the necessary response was not provided when it was needed. The anniversary of Valerie’s death is three days from now, and there is no better way to honour her memory than by standing up here in Parliament and advocating for much needed and long overdue changes.
For far too long there has been a lack of specialist training for police and other key agencies supporting black women who face domestic abuse. Too many black women do not get the support that they need because the police are not trained enough to spot or deal appropriately with domestic violence in black communities. As a result, black women in this country are being impacted by violence and abuse and suffering unequal access to the resources and support that they desperately need. That is why we need mandatory specialist training for all police forces in England and Wales—something that the Labour party called for in its “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” Green Paper last year and that I am calling for again today. I urge the Government to do right by black women in this country and to pass Valerie’s law. I hope that the Minister will bring some positive news to this debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the previous speakers, including the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), who set out very eloquently why this issue matters and how we got here. I thank those in East Renfrewshire who signed the petition, and the more than 106,000 signatories overall. I particularly thank Sistah Space, which organised the petition so that we could focus our attention on Valerie’s law and why it is so important, and I am pleased that some of the organisation’s number are in the Public Gallery.
I have been struck by the power of the previous contributions, because they have focused on the real lived experiences of black women. The bottom line is that we need to listen to those experiences and be committed to upholding the fundamental human rights of women and girls. We need to recognise the lived experiences of black women and do our job, which is to make it possible for people to live their lives free from all forms of violence, abuse and harassment.
There is no doubt that there is a long history of systemic discrimination, which has led to real inequalities and disadvantage. If we are not willing to understand that, we will not be in a position to tackle it. I hope the Minister is able to explore some of that and talk to us about how UK Government policy can have an impact on gender equality and on this specific issue. If we recognise that there is a systemic issue, as undoubtedly there is here, it must be our priority to take action to deal with it.
The petition specifically asks for “specialist training” to be made
“mandatory for police and other government agencies that support black women and girls affected by domestic abuse.”
It is important that that is specified as culturally appropriate training, so that there is an understanding of the cultural needs and the potential backgrounds of these women. It is also important to recognise that the point made in the petition about too many women of African and Caribbean heritage not being afforded the same level of support in the past is true and has been illustrated very powerfully today. If we do not take the kind of action that is being sought, that will continue to be the case.
Obviously, that being the situation, black women are at increased risk, and we know that that will be the case if we do not seek to take action. Lots of things underlie that, and I will not necessarily dwell on them. However, I gently ask the Minister to reflect on policy and on where the UK Government are suggesting that we should go on some of these issues. If we are not clear that there is a systemic issue, it is not possible for us to deal with it. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) was incredibly clear when she set out why black women do not report domestic abuse, why they are so worried about doing that, and the stark consequences of their not coming forward.
The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead mentioned young black women, and it is right that we have touched on the shocking situation of the young schoolgirl who was recently strip-searched. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) rightly spoke of the additional complexity of women who have no recourse to public funds. I mention both things because they are examples of the need for the cultural competency that the petition asks for. Knowledge of the realities of these women’s lives must be an integral part of ensuring that change happens in a way that will actually make the difference that is needed.
The crime survey shows that as things stand in England and Wales, those in the “Black or Black British” and “Mixed” ethnic groups are significantly more likely than those in the “White”, “Asian” or “Other” ethnic groups to experience sexual assault. I think that we can read across from that some of the additional vulnerabilities. As we have heard, these women are also less likely to report or disclose domestic abuse to the police, so there is a double whammy for their safety and wellbeing. We need to recognise that, so that we can talk about what needs to happen next.
I was struck by a quote from Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, who was talking about the UK Government’s policy paper, “Inclusive Britain”. She said:
“We need our government to take a whole-of-government approach to tackling racial disparities in our society, which means recognising how all of its actions, including its ongoing legislative agenda, impact black and ethnic minority communities.”
That has to underlie everything that is done on this issue. I make a plea to the Minister to look again at the fact that the UK signed the Istanbul convention almost 10 years ago but is one of only a few European countries yet to ratify it and so is not bound by its provisions.
There are many things that the UK Government and Scottish Government are trying to do. I applaud them for their action, but what I am seeing from the UK Government at the moment will not be enough to deal with the systemic problems that we see. We have to be clear that none of us in any part of the UK is immune to the realities of discrimination. None of us is immune to conscious or unconscious discrimination. We need to accept that if we want to make a difference, and we need to reflect on what happens when we do not.
We have spoken about the scourge of domestic violence, but we have to recognise that all that is amplified—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Sir Christopher. I am going to draw my speech to a close, but before I do so I want to speak a little more about Sistah Space, which has been so instrumental in moving us to a discussion of Valerie’s law. I had a look at the group’s website when preparing for the debate, and it was so eloquent in how it explored this challenging issue clearly. Despite the significant challenges that have been thrown their way, its members are making a marked and evident difference to lives.
It is important that we reflect on Sistah Space’s campaign for Valerie’s law and on why we are all here. The way that Valerie Forde is described on the website as a creative and community-focused woman is a real positive, and the way that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) spoke about her told us of a loved and loving woman. That matters and we should keep hold of it, because what happened to Valerie should never be anyone’s story. We need to make sure that we listen to what we are told and press for this change, which will make a difference to the lives of black women who are impacted by domestic abuse. The best thing we can do today is hear those voices, recognise that we must do better and make sure that we take the opportunity to do better for black women and girls.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debates, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) on her very informed and cogent speech. I point out to the Minister that we have an unusually large number of black people in the public gallery, which demonstrates the tremendous concern in all parts of the community about the issue. I hope that an acknowledgement of that concern will be reflected in what she has to say.
I want to start by talking about Valerie Forde, because we are talking about Valerie’s law. As we have heard, she died in particularly tragic and violent circumstances in 2014 and it will be the anniversary of her death in three days. Although Valerie was a victim of domestic violence, she was much more than just a victim. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) says, she was a vibrant woman who was extremely important and respected in her community. I think that her friends and family would want her to be remembered like that, for their contribution to the community.
As we have heard, Sistah Space has done tremendous work gathering all these thousands of signatures. Sistah Space has existed since 2015, but many of the women associated with it have been active in the community for much longer than that. The last time I saw some of them, last weekend, we were out campaigning on Child Q. I will just say a few sentences on Child Q, because that case reflects some of the institutional racism that Valerie’s law is meant to address.
One thing that has emerged in the work and campaigning sufferers have done on the case is the wholly disproportionate number of black children who are strip searched in London. We have some figures available, but I would say that they are almost certainly an underestimate. What strikes me in listening to accounts of what happened to Child Q is that the police came and strip searched her—and they did not just strip search her, they treated her physically in an extremely degrading way—and then went back to the station. They did not tell their sergeant and or anybody. For them, it was all in a day’s work. That they were so casual about that extremely degrading strip search tells me that they have done it more often than the official figures reflect. I have still not had it explained to me why there are teachers in Hackney who think that the appropriate thing to do if they think they smell cannabis on a school child is not to let the parents know, but to call the police, and that that will deal with the issue. There is a lot more to say about Child Q, and I am sure that the opportunity to do so will come up in this Parliament.
On Valerie’s law and black women victims of domestic violence, when I was listening to my colleagues, I was thinking of my mother, who never suffered physical violence but was the subject of extreme coercive control to the extent that she eventually moved out of our home, leaving my father, my brother and me. My father being no kind of feminist, I had to do all the housework and cooking when she left. What he did to upset me, and to point out his feelings about my mother, was to get a photograph of her, slash it with a knife, scribble red ink on it and pin it above the cooker, because he knew I would have to look at the picture three times a day.
My mother would never have dreamed of going to an institution, to a community group or to the state in any form whatsoever. That was 40 years ago, but I think that one of the issues around black women and domestic violence even today is that reluctance to go to institutions—partly through pride, partly through a fear of institutions, partly through an acceptance of patriarchy. That is why we need organisations such as Sistah Space, which can reach out to those women, and support and enable them to engage with the institutions that they need to engage with. Sistah Space is doing very valuable work. We know that black women are particularly vulnerable to domestic abuse and that they do not get the service and the care that they should from some institutions.
Just this afternoon, I spoke to a constituent who has been the victim of domestic abuse. She has been treated very poorly by the police at Stoke Newington police station and by the Crown Prosecution Service. Her husband was convicted of domestic violence, but he appealed and got off. In the end, the court was not willing to accept her word or her son’s word—he witnessed what happened—and her husband was released from prison and continues to harass her. People sometimes talk about domestic violence as if it happens only to ordinary women. This woman is a very educated middle-class woman, and she is clearly completely traumatised by the physical domestic abuse that she has endured. She relates a lack of concern, poor treatment, an unwillingness to take a proper statement and all the other issues around the police, and if a highly educated woman like her can be treated so unprofessionally and so dismissively by the police, what happens to women who perhaps do not have her confidence?
As colleagues have said, there is clearly a real need for training in all aspects of domestic violence and women of colour, be they the cultural and even well-founded fear of going to institutions to complain about their partners or husbands, simple things such as being able to recognise bruises on black skin, or being able to understand the society and culture of black and minority ethnic communities. Clearly, there is an important need for training in all the institutions that deal with victims of domestic violence.
I would also say that, although in the short term we need the training, in the medium to long term we need to see black people in those institutions, whether as social workers and police officers or in management positions where they can take decisions. In the end, that is what will make it possible for people like my constituent or even my mother to go forward and talk about some of the things they are suffering. But in the immediate short term, there has long been a need for proper training.
I hope the Minister has listened to my colleagues and seen the concern of the public, and will be able to come forward with a constructive response to what the petition for Valerie’s law is asking.
It is a real pleasure to follow a moving contribution by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott); she shared some of her lived experience that will stay with us and motivate us to go further and do more. I thank her for sharing her contribution.
As others have done, I thank the Petitions Committee for securing this incredibly important debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), who opened the debate with an incredibly powerful contribution in which she made several serious points about practical measures that could, and should, be adopted almost immediately. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips); given her tireless work in this area, she would certainly be here were it not for a sudden family bereavement. I am sure all Members join me in sending her our condolences. I spoke to her ahead of the debate, and she spoke incredibly highly of Sistah Space.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, Valerie Forde was a mother, a daughter and a black woman. Six weeks before being brutally killed, Valerie reported her ex-partner’s threats to her life to the police. The threat was deprioritised and reported as a threat to property rather than to her life. On 31 March, Valerie and her baby daughter were killed at the hands of her ex-partner. The eighth anniversary of this tragic, heartbreaking loss is this week.
This debate is about support and protection for black women experiencing domestic abuse. At the moment, society is failing victims. We have heard many shaming facts and the harrowing lived experience of survivors. To paint a brief, troubling landscape, and to echo the words of others, we know there are numerous intersecting inequalities that black and minoritised women face that result in a higher risk of experiencing violence against women and girls. Black women face significantly higher barriers to reporting abuse and accessing protection, refuge and support. Research shows that black and migrant women experience higher rates of domestic-abuse-related homicide, and 50% of victims experience abuse from multiple perpetrators.
Others have shared these statistics, but at the height of the covid pandemic, when domestic abuse services were inundated with calls for help, the charity Refuge found black women were 14% less likely to be referred to their services for support by police than white survivors of domestic abuse. That is despite black women being 3% more likely to report abuse to the police than their white counterparts. Black and minoritised women are more likely to report inappropriate professional responses from statutory and voluntary agencies, including responses based on cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes. A 2020 report from the organisation Imkaan said of the police:
“Black Caribbean women in particular said the responses were sluggish and stereotypically cast them as aggressive rather than ‘victims that needed help.’”
There are things that we can and must do, including, as Valerie’s law asks, improving the training of institutions and professionals who work with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse with African and Caribbean heritage. The Labour party released the “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” Green Paper last year, which stated that we would ensure
“Training on the experiences of violence and abuse faced by Black, Asian, minority ethnic, LGBT+, disabled and migrant women. Labour would ensure that police and RASSO units training recognises the intersectionality of prejudices and discrimination, and additional barriers to accessing support and protection, that contributes to these victim’s experiences of violence against women and girls.”
All victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence need to be protected and supported. Institutions whose job it is to provide that care, support and protection need to be trained in such a way that they deliver it, taking into account the specific needs and experiences of all groups. It is as simple as that.
We need processes in place to ensure that victims and survivors are protected from the conscious or unconscious bias that we know exists in society. We must ensure a system that provides access to support and protection; victims and survivors cannot carry that burden themselves. Victims should not have to navigate ignorance, cultural bias or overt racism to access basic rights. The responsibility for safety must lie with those who are meant to protect us: those in the criminal justice system. Effective cultural competency training can support that.
In response to the petition, the Government have claimed that it is not necessary to mandate training because
“Current training on domestic abuse should include recognising the specific needs of victims due to their ethnicity or cultural background”,
but the lived experiences of women and girls are telling us otherwise. It is imperative that we listen to Sistah Space—I am so pleased that its representatives have been able to join us—and all supporters of Valerie’s law on what needs to change. We support the call to make cultural competency training mandatory for Government-run institutions involved in supporting African and Caribbean-heritage survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.
Valerie’s law and Sistah Space have driven today’s debate, but there is much more to be done to better protect and support black women who suffer domestic and sexual abuse. To truly protect and support all women, we must ensure we tackle the significantly higher barriers to accessing refuge and support that black women face. We must support and expand the by and for services available that provide for black and minoritised women’s specific experiences and needs. Importantly, by and for expert services are trusted by the women they support, due to their understanding of intersectionality. Minoritised women’s experiences of abuse and violence often intersect with race, immigration status, age and poverty. Those multiple discriminations often mean that the trauma experienced by victims is complex, and only specialist practitioners with experience and understanding can provide the right support. However, over the past decade, 50% of such specialist refuges have been forced to close, or have been taken over by a larger provider due to a lack of funding. According to 2018 data, there are fewer than 30 specialist by and for black and minoritised women’s refuges left in the whole of the UK.
As others have said, the situation is even more perilous for victims with no recourse to public funds. Just 5% of refuge spaces listed in 2019 were accessible to women with “no recourse to public funds” status. If a victim cannot access safety and support, what happens then? Black and minoritised survivors, who are disproportionately unable to access refuge, sometimes end up having to make the unthinkable choice between homelessness and remaining with their abuser. They also might be forced into exploitative and unsafe private shared housing, or sofa surfing—dangerous options that leave them vulnerable to repeat victimisation. We must ensure ring-fenced sustainable funding for by and for specialist providers. The Labour party’s violence against women and girls green paper commits to that, and so should the Government.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead said, we need to collect more vital data. Statistics and data that allow us to fully investigate and comprehend the relationship between protected characteristics and violence against women and girls are rare. The Femicide Census, which documents the women killed by men each year, tells us that during the period from 2008 to 2018, in 79% of cases in which a woman was murdered by a man, the ethnicity of the victim was not recorded. Also, while the Office for National Statistics provides an analysis of those involved in homicide offences by ethnic appearance, that data is not broken down by gender.
The Femicide Census reports that the lack of meaningful, verified data on ethnicity is an ongoing problem. It hinders proper research and our understanding of risk factors, barriers to support, and the need for specialist services. It states:
“The failure to record and publicise demographic data can also feed stereotypes, prejudice and assumptions. Media tends to over focus on the details of violence against women in certain communities and this in turn both feeds and reflects the existing prejudices and racism across UK society.”
The fact of the matter is that we count what we care about. We must gather better data to fully see and tackle the problem, so that we can truly protect all women.
Before closing, I thank Members for taking part, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who said that every day we fail to step in and recognise that a woman needs help is a day we leave them at the mercy of their abuser. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) said that the failure to recognise bruises due to the lack of cultural competency was contributing to the failure to fully support women. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) spoke of how Valerie and her daughter lived and were very much loved.
The current failings are clear, and we know that there are changes that we can make to better protect and support black and minoritised victims of domestic abuse. We can save lives, and I urge the Government to act with the urgency that the situation demands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) for introducing the debate and setting out the excellent work of Sistah Space. I warmly welcome everyone from Sistah Space who has come to witness our proceedings. As she and they already know, I very much look forward to meeting them to discuss their work in much more detail, and to seeing how we can constructively take their important work forward. I thank them for their work more generally in campaigning on domestic abuse.
I, too, pay tribute to Valerie and her daughter Jahzara. Many Members have set out the work that she did, and the influence and impact that she had in her community. I very much agree with those remarks, and I hope that we will remember her for being more than just a victim. I hope that the debate will go some way to ensuring that. Obviously, the crime was horrific. My thoughts, and everyone’s here, I am sure, are with the loved ones of the victim. We owe it to all victims and their families to use every measure at our disposal to prevent further tragedies. We expect all police forces to take necessary action to respond to all victims with the care and sensitivity that they deserve.
I will talk first about actions that the Government are taking to tackle domestic abuse. Then I will come on to the issue of training for the police. I will end by setting out my response as Minister to this petition. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will help the millions affected by these awful crimes by strengthening the response across all agencies, from the police and the courts to local authorities and service providers. It will also strengthen measures to protect victims, including children.
Our domestic abuse plan, which we will publish shortly, will seek to transform the whole of society’s response, so as to prevent offending, support victims, pursue perpetrators and strengthen the systems and processes needed to deliver these goals. It will be closely aligned with the “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy that we published in July last year. It will use the same call for evidence, which actively sought input from under-represented groups to ensure that we heard the perspectives of a diverse range of people, including victims and survivors from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Opposition Members have all highlighted that their constituents, and victims who they have worked with, have said that the response they received was not good enough. We as a Government agree with that. That is why we have taken the action that we have. We have brought forward the “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy, and we will shortly publish the plan.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for her remarks so far. We all mentioned issues that our constituents have raised, but does she appreciate that for each constituent we referenced, there are thousands of other constituents who have not come forward, because they feel that no one will ever listen to them?
Yes, I strongly agree. That was the evidence that came out of the call for evidence, which had the largest response of any Government consultation —or one of the largest; it was certainly a significant response—and evidence came from many previously under-represented groups, victims and survivors. I do use the word survivor; that is the preferred word.
Of course we recognise that when it comes to these crimes, and many others that she and I discuss regularly, there are barriers to coming forward. The plan, and the “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy, sets out how we intend to tackle those barriers and facilitate, make it easier for, and build confidence for victims and survivors to come forward and get the justice and response that they so richly deserve.
Specialist support, as many have highlighted, is vital, so the Government are funding those specialist by and for services, including with £2 million in the last financial year. Furthermore, as we committed to doing in the cross-Government “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy, we have provided an additional £1.5 million this year for those valuable specialist services for victims of violence against women and girls.
As announced in the Budget, the Ministry of Justice funding for support services will increase to £185 million by 2024-25. It is vital that all agencies and professionals supporting victims of domestic abuse are aware that domestic abuse affects a wide and disparate group, and that a one-size-fits-all approach to support is not appropriate for all victims, especially those with specific needs and vulnerabilities, including ethnic minority victims.
It does indeed. The hon. Lady will not need to wait much longer to read the domestic abuse plan in full, nor for the domestic abuse statutory guidance that she has asked about. We are in the process of finalising that, and it will provide further detail on specific types of abuse that can be experienced by different communities and groups, including black and other ethnic minority victims.
That guidance specifically mentions that ethnic minority victims might—and almost certainly do—experience additional barriers to disclosing domestic abuse and seeking help, including distrust of the police and other agencies. It mentions that professionals should be aware of that, and should actively seek to ensure that the right support is made available. We expect all agencies, and those working with victims of domestic abuse, to pay regard to that guidance.
I thank the Minister for being generous with her time. It is great that there is a guide. However, can she explain what references or recommendations are in the guidance specifically regarding black women and girls who are victims of domestic abuse?
I urge the hon. Lady to have a tiny bit of patience, because if the usual channels provide me with the time, I will come to the House to speak in detail about the domestic abuse plan and guidance, and the accompanying statutory requirements. However, she may be reassured to know that that guidance went out for consultation, and many organisations in the sector specifically fed back on the needs of the victims and survivors whom they represent—including black women and girls, but also those of other ethnic minorities and intersectionalities that many Members have referenced.
The guidance is an important part of our work, but it is not the only part. The Crown Prosecution Service also plays a vital role in this space. It will soon launch a consultation on its domestic abuse legal guidance, which will include information on the impact that domestic abuse can have on different groups of people, including black and ethnic minority victims and survivors. The CPS is also developing a new training programme through engagement with community groups and stakeholders, and is seeking to deepen its understanding of the issues that different groups can experience when trying to access justice.
Turning to the police and the training, which are at the centre of the debate, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead will hopefully find it useful if I set out the current training landscape. The College of Policing has mandatory foundation training for those entering the service, including all the new officers being recruited as a result of the police uplift programme. That training includes substantial coverage of police ethics and self-understanding, including the effects of personal conscious and unconscious bias. It also covers hate crimes, ethics and equalities, and policing without bias.
Further training is then provided in specialist areas throughout an officer’s career. For example, training for those involved in public protection includes methods to raise officers’ self-awareness of their own views, stereotypes and biases.
The College of Policing has also developed specialist domestic abuse training, the Domestic Abuse Matters programme, which helps first responders develop the skills they need when first on the scene of an incident or report. A core thread running through it is that it specifically considers the needs and vulnerabilities of different victims, including black and ethnic minority women and girls. The training specifically covers responding to so-called honour-based abuse, which, though not the subject of today’s debate, is clearly of interest to many Members. That training has been delivered already to, or is in the process of being set up for, the majority of forces. We continue to work closely with the college to encourage further take-up.
The College of Policing issues authorised professional practice documents, which are the official source of professional practice on policing. The college’s guidance on domestic abuse clearly sets out that victims may have specific needs or issues relating to their cultural background or immigration status that should be considered when understanding the risk and vulnerability of the victim. The college has also produced advice for police officers to advise first responders and investigators on how to deal with cases of honour-based abuse, which disproportionately affects members of ethnic minority communities. Last week, the Government published their updated guidance on forced marriage, which includes a chapter for police officers.
I have heard clearly the passionate calls from many Members across the House and about the excellent work done by the Sistah Space charity. As a Minister who is relatively new to this role, I undertake to bring together Sistah Space with the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council. I will facilitate that meeting to take place as soon as diaries can be synchronised, but I hope it will be within a relatively short period. I want the leaders in policing to hear directly from Members who are working with black and ethnic minority women and girls. I want them to explain the specific issues that have been discussed today, including that of bruising. Clearly, if there are gaps in police officer training, I know that they will be the first to put their hands up and say, “We want more information, because we want to protect our communities.” Every police officer I have worked with, bar one or two, has absolutely wanted to do their best, whatever the colour of their skin, to protect women and girls.
I thank the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for her work, and the many hundreds of thousands of petitioners who have signed and shared on social media.
I have a couple of other points to set out—I think I have some time left, Sir Christopher.
I will not detain you for that long, Sir Christopher, and I will allow the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead time to sum up.
The hon. Lady knows that we have a new full-time national police lead for violence against women and girls, Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth. One of her key roles—I meet her regularly to discuss this and to ask her to ensure that she includes it—is to build trust and confidence in the police. Members have referenced various individual forces, but this wider piece of work is happening across all police forces in the country. That includes her working directly with charities that support black and minoritised women and girls, to make sure that the police are not overlooking their specific needs.
To finish, I will talk about domestic homicide, which is an utterly abhorrent tragedy. When it happens to women like Valerie, it is vital that we remember her legacy and that we learn lessons when such terrible crimes happen. We will continue to build our evidence base on domestic homicides through the domestic homicides project, which is now in its second year. That is built on the recognition that there is more to do in the case of domestic homicides to understand, to build that learning within the force and to ensure that the police improve their response to tackling domestic abuse, so that they can prevent more such crimes from taking place.
We are creating an online repository to hold all domestic homicide reviews in order to allow for more analysis of the patterns, trends and triggers for domestic homicide, and the data, as the hon. Member for Halifax mentioned, to allow us to prevent further tragic deaths.
Will the Department also look at suicide rates and whether there is a connection to them? We know that in some cases violence in relationships ends up with women taking their own lives. I do not think that that is documented, but will it form part of the strategy, because it is as tragic an event as a homicide?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point. It is something that we are looking at very closely, because we recognise that the pattern of domestic abuse leading up to suicide is sometimes overlooked. The work that is taking place in the domestic homicide review project is looking specifically at the tragic cases of suicide as part of the wider work, and I will be happy to update the House in the normal way.
I thank all the Members that have taken part in the debate, including the hon. Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), and the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). We have heard striking personal accounts from Members across the House, and I thank everyone who has shared their experiences. We all want to do better by those Members, their constituents and the victims and survivors represented so well by the Sistah Space charity.
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Government’s position. Domestic abuse is a terrible crime and we are committed to doing everything we can to stop it happening, to pursue perpetrators when it does, and to give victims the best possible support.
First, I thank Sistah Space for all its campaigning, particularly its hard work in supporting victims of domestic abuse. I also thank Valerie’s daughter for allowing us to share her story so that we can get mandatory training for people and organisations such as the police and other agencies.
I also thank hon. Members for their contributions on how things can be done better for victims of domestic abuse, particularly black victims. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) spoke about Valerie and the impact on her family. My hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) also spoke, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for sharing her personal story. It is not easy to share such stories, so I thank her for doing so. I also thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald). As we know, the hard work has already been done by Sistah Space, so there is no reason why the training should not be put in place.
I thank the Minister for her approach to this debate. I welcome what she said about arranging a meeting with Sistah Space and the College of Policing. I am sure that Sistah Space will agree that that is a massive, positive step forward, so I thank the Minister for that.
I look forward to seeing the domestic abuse plan in detail. I will see that before I make any further comments. I welcome the guidance and new training for engagement with groups, but Sistah Space also needs to feed into it, along with relevant organisations that support black victims of domestic abuse, to ensure we get this right and no one is left behind. I spoke to Sistah Space before the debate and it said that the experience is so distressing for black women, and that that is so frustrating. We need to recognise people’s trauma when they share their stories. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, many people have not spoken about their stories and it can be extremely triggering to do so. That even includes talking to the police about their experiences, because they may not always be taken seriously.
We all agree on the issues in relation to domestic violence and women of African and Caribbean descent, but there are also issues facing our south Asian sisters. As well as looking at issues in relation to black women, it is important that the Minister pays attention to the work being done by groups such as Southall Black Sisters.
I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning the work of Southall Black Sisters. I know that the Minister works closely with them. This debate is a positive step forwards and I look forward to my meeting shortly with the Minister and Sistah Space to talk about next steps.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 578416, relating to support for Black victims of domestic abuse.