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Local Authorities: Violence against Women

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009

Question

Asked By Baroness Howe of Idlicote

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what work they have done with local authorities on violence against women.

My Lords, local authorities form part of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, which have a crucial role to play in tackling violence against women; for example, considering what more can be done to prevent sexual violence, bringing perpetrators to justice and providing services to victims.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and, indeed, for all that the Government have already done to tackle this horrendous problem. But despite this, is it not still the case that no fewer than 3 million women in the UK will have experienced violence this year, and every year, and that 25 per cent of local authorities still do not provide any women’s support services? What will the Government do to ensure that all local authorities have both the will and the resources to provide these services?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that it is an appalling business. I was quite horrified when looking into it to find, for example, that 24 per cent of women have apparently experienced sexual violence since the age of 16—a staggering figure—and that 5 per cent of women have been raped but only 15 per cent of them reported it to the police.

We have done a great deal to ensure that there is enough funding. Indeed, on Tuesday, the Home Secretary announced the launching of a new guide with tips on how to recognise domestic violence; a further £3.5 million to tackle interpersonal violence, including expanding the number of multi-agency risk assessment conferences; and just under £1million to support a range of domestic violence helplines.

We very much believe that we should let local authorities decide their spending as part of our commitment not to require local authorities to ring-fence funding other than for education. By 2010–11, we will have “mainstreamed”—in other words, let the local authorities use some £5.7 billion of funding as they think best. It is absolutely right that we should keep a check on whether they are looking after women at risk, and they are required to report their performance against a set of national indicators. The recent Map of Gaps report highlighted that a number of local authorities are not doing enough. We need those local authorities to let us know what they are doing with non-governmental groups. If it emerges that they are not doing anything, we need to focus on it quite specifically.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in the view of many who have experience of the family jurisdiction in the courts, women’s refuge centres have achieved more in terms of protecting women and children from violence and abuse than probably all other public initiatives put together? Does he further agree that it would be most injurious to the success of those institutions if there was to be any diminution at all, even in these difficult economic circumstances, of the support that they receive?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that the dynamics, particularly of domestic violence, mean that accommodation plays a vital role in resolving these issues, and there is no doubt that the provision of accommodation has made a huge difference. In 2006, for example, local housing authorities in England accepted 3,180 households that were made homeless as a result of fleeing from domestic violence. He is quite correct that the refuges are important. In 2004–05 we spent £57 million on the Supporting People programme, which provides housing for domestic violence victims. Funding increased to £59 million the following year and to £61 million in 2006–07. CLG provides a yearly homelessness prevention grant of about £47.2 million and further moneys from CLG go to the third sector. This area is crucial and the noble Lord is absolutely right: we must not let this funding go because it is so important within this area of violence.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a child who is brought up in a household that experiences domestic violence is very likely to be affected to the extent that they will leave themselves in the hands of violent men in the future? What advice is given to local authorities about dealing with the children of families that are subject to domestic violence?

My Lords, I do not know the exact details. I imagine that our sexual assault referral centres and investment in the other non-governmental groups would provide such advice. If I may get back to the noble Baroness in writing on the specifics I can let her know exactly.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government have over the past 11 years made violence against women one of our top priorities by bringing in new laws and providing additional funding? Will he comment on the Home Secretary’s announcement last week that there will be a consultation to find new ways of dealing with domestic violence, and can he say when that consultation will be launched? Can he also comment on other new initiatives launched last week, including a leaflet that seeks to help the relatives and friends of those believed to be suffering from domestic violence by giving hints, advice and support on how to help these victims? Does he agree that these leaflets should be distributed widely in supermarkets, community centres and post-natal clinics?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. We hope, subject to departmental business, to make an announcement in March on the cross-governmental initiative. As for the pamphlets, I see no reason why we should not be able to make them widely available in places such as job centres, shopping centres and so on. We will try to get them distributed as widely as possible. I entirely agree with her that this Government have a very good record on focusing on this issue, an issue which is a disgrace to a civilised nation. I am delighted with what the Government have done over past years to try to resolve it.

My Lords, what guidance do the Government give on when restraining orders should be used, as opposed to forcing women and children to flee to refuges?

My Lords, will the Government provide minimum standards for local authorities to ensure that they do have domestic abuse co-ordinators in every local authority area, as have been established in Wales, and also to ensure that there is a long-term funding commitment for the future of sexual assault referral centres which were pump-prime funded by the Home Office?

My Lords, I was asking whether minimum standards will be set for local authorities to ensure that there is a minimum standard of provision, given that there is no local authority in this country that does not have women who are subject to violence and abuse.

My Lords, I go back to my previous statement. We want to force out into local authorities the decisions on how they spend their money, but they have to report exactly what they are doing. The Map of Gaps report highlighted some of the real problems. We need to give the authorities that the report highlights the opportunity to show whether they are meeting the requirements in other ways, as I am sure some of them are. I do not believe that they would simply forget the responsibility. However, it is incumbent on us to focus on those that are not and point out what should be done. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that these things occur all over the country and through all spectrums of society, and it is important that we focus on it.