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Support for Black Victims of Domestic Abuse

Volume 711: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

[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.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which I completely support. In the last few months in particular, it has become even more apparent that we need that training.

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.

On resuming

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.

I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at strengthening the support and abuse plan, which the Minister mentioned. However, does it specifically reference support for black women and girls?

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.

Sitting adjourned.