Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the publication on 10 January by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics of An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, what steps they are taking to protect women’s safety in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to introduce an important theme in our series of Questions for Short Debate. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have put down their names to speak. Peers from all sides have joined; and not too many, so we all have enough time to discuss this issue.
I was in Delhi when the horrible gang-rape incident happened on 16 December. I observed the amazing upsurge of movement among men and women in India, which later spread to other parts of the world, about the very urgent question of women’s safety as they go about the ordinary business of life—both inside and outside their homes. That is very important. This is not just a local Indian problem but a world-wide one. When I got back, I saw that the Government had issued an excellent document. The Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the ONS had published a statistical bulletin, An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, which I want to use as a background to introduce the question of women’s safety.
First, although it is a very good document—it lays out the complexity of the issues, the different statistics, and the different sources and definitions with which we have to deal in judging the extent and seriousness of crime against women—parts of the problem are not covered in it. It relates mainly to adult women, aged 16 to 59, and therefore avoids the important question of children. There have been scandals in Rochdale, Derby and Torbay relating to the grooming of young girls and their exploitation. Perhaps other noble Lords will take up that issue. There is also the question of the abuse of elderly women. There are many other facets of the problem, which I hope other noble Lords will bring out.
The way the document lays out the issues emphasises one thing. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, only 15% of the victims of adverse sexual events actually report the case to the police. What we have in the statistics of police action on complaints is a very small part of the total problem. We ought to give some thought to how we can increase the rate of complaints and encourage women not to withdraw into a shell if they have had a horrible sexual experience and how we can encourage them to come out and complain.
A major difficulty with rape and other sexual assaults is that 85% to 90% of the perpetrators of the crime are known to the victim. They are partners, somebody in the family or somebody the victim knows very well. Part of the reluctance to complain may be that you might be harming a family member or friend. We ought to set up ways, perhaps after asking experts, to make the extent of the problem more visible to the police and the criminal justice system than it is at present. If we do that, we may be able to find out even more than before.
One rather tragic example is that of Frances Andrade, who was abused when she was a student at a music school. The case came to light many years later and she tragically died while the court case was going on. That shows us that women undergo a huge amount of bad experiences but somehow or other they are reluctant to, forbidden from or cajoled against complaining. We ought to deal with that as a first step.
If you bring together rape, sexual threats and indecent exposure, one woman in five experiences something sexually unpleasant. That is a very large number. It seems to be that practically every woman has an unpleasant experience in their life and somehow we do not find ways of getting around it. Half a million adult women are victims of sexual offences. Typically, according to the survey, the women who are more vulnerable to such attacks are young—16 to 19 years-old—are single or separated, have a low income, are sometimes students and are often physically unwell or disabled, as well as economically inactive. We have a profile of a vulnerable person who is more likely to be predated upon, and when we devise our systems for encouraging them to complain, following through what has happened to them and getting justice for them, we ought to look at this profile very carefully and find out how, based on that profile, we can add better things to protect these women’s lives than we have otherwise done.
I have very little complaint about the way the police operate and the courts go through with a complaint after it has been made. Perhaps other noble Lords will know more about that. There is of course a problem of delay. It seems that it takes more than a year from the beginning, when the police register the complaint, to the end of the process. It may be that this is inevitable—you must not hurry a process in such a way that may make injustice more likely, and we want to be scrupulously fair both to the victim and the offender and not prejudge the issue. Have the Government thought about any means for speeding up this process, while preserving the scrupulous care with which we administer justice? The victims would have some guarantee that there would be a somewhat speedier resolution to their problem than at present.
I do not want to take up all my 10 minutes, because I think other noble Lords will want to say more. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister say what the Government are doing to tackle this problem.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this subject. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, in her influential review into how rape complaints were, and maybe are still, handled—I have to say that the noble Baroness should be speaking earlier than me in this debate—concluded that,
“it is time to take a broader approach”—
broader, that is, than relying on the conviction rate—
“to measuring success in dealing with rape”.
She talked in the report of,
“a range of priorities that needs to be balanced”,
in particular by giving “higher priority” to,
“Support and care for victims”,
as well as of helping,
“the victim to make sense of the police and prosecution processes”.
As the noble Lord said, if we did not understand the need for that before, the response of Frances Andrade to the prosecution of Michael Brewer has made it shockingly vivid.
The Government’s progress review of the action plan on ending violence against women and girls reported that a number of actions had been completed to identify ways to improve communication with victims of sexual violence. The actions taken were the completion of a Home Office handbook and a CPS booklet. Perhaps this issue needs to be revisited. The Home Secretary acknowledged last week that Frances Andrade’s suicide might discourage others from coming forward with complaints.
In late 2011, I attended a conference at New Scotland Yard for SOIT—sexual offences investigation trained; this is a new acronym to me—officers. I was impressed by the concern then shown by police to extend understanding and professionalism in this work, but I wonder whether this is still not something which is often better recognised by the more senior officers. Has it trickled down to the junior officers who will respond initially to complaints and offences?
What also made an impression on me were some of the comments made by victims of sexual offences, though “victims” seems to me to be the wrong word, because the women in question presented themselves very much as survivors. I looked this morning at the notes that I made. They included: “Victims have lots to lose … villains are the defence teams and the judiciary”—I recognise that that is a pretty complicated area and I do not want to be too simplistic, but this is the reaction—and “getting DNA on the database is regarded as a result”. What all that amounts to is the victim not being taken sufficiently seriously and not being treated as any of us would feel we or people whom we know to be in this situation would want to be treated.
Since I thought that we would have even less time available this evening than we have, my focus in preparing my remarks was deliberately narrow, although there is one other particular issue which I will come to in a moment. The noble Lord’s referring to how women are treated inside the home as well as outside prompts me to mention, though not at length, domestic violence. Another point that he made which is similar to what I have been saying was about the attitude of less senior police officers. When I mentioned this in a debate not long ago in the presence of a retired, very senior police officer who is a Member of this House, he took me to task afterwards. I raised the matter also with the chief executive of a domestic violence charity with which I used to be associated and she said, “No, the attitude has not changed. We’d like to think it has, but it hasn’t, certainly not to the extent that would be appropriate”.
The other issue that I will slot in, and on which public awareness is probably about 20 years behind that on domestic violence—which is how I have heard others describe it—is that of trafficking of women. Here I make a plea for imaginative understanding of victims. That ranges from how immigration issues are dealt with through response to minor offending by the victims of trafficking to treating the trauma which they have experienced.
It is not a very good idea to add to my speech in a rather disorganised way a whole lot of scattered points, so let me come back to the other item that I wanted to raise. The report which is the subject of this debate inevitably presents snapshots, but it is trends which are the most important. I am not saying that trends are completely ignored by the report, because one trend which is very clear within it is the steady rise in the number of offenders in prison for sexual offences, from around 6,000 in 2005 to almost 10,000 in 2011. That suggested to me that offender management is not succeeding, but then I came across the statistic that more than 80% of those offenders had not previously been cautioned or convicted for sexual offences. I am not sure how these statistics lie together and whether the Government have any comment to make on them, nor am I sure whether they are affected by a tendency to prosecute for a lesser offence than rape, which I presume is to ensure a conviction. Perhaps the questions on this should all be about the rehabilitative skills which will be available in the world of payment by results that we all see coming along the track.
I cannot get away from the thought that perhaps no distinction is being made with other offenders and that the best approach to rehabilitation as well as punishment is the big question. However, I shall return to where I started: I heard it said the other day that someone who is murdered is murdered once—I do not condone that, of course—whereas someone who is raped is raped over and over again, because that trauma is experienced again and again. In the system’s treatment of victims, we would do well to remember that.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for securing this debate, which is timely for many reasons, and for his good judgment in knowing that we would in the end be given nine minutes instead of five—that was extremely prescient of him. I am very glad that he cited in the title of his debate the Office for National Statistics publication, An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales. I take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics for producing this compendium and for the hard and painstaking work that has gone into it.
When I was working in 2010 on the report on the treatment of rape complainants by public authorities, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, so kindly mentioned, I was struck many times by how confusing, uninformative and contradictory the official statistics were and how unhelpful they were in enabling people to have any understanding of what might happen to them if they were to enter the system. I therefore recommended in my report that clearer data be produced by the Office for National Statistics so that victims and the wider public would have a better idea of what might await them and how people are dealt with. At last, we have such information and it is very welcome.
I shall refer to just two points in the authoritative report that we are discussing today—I hope that it will be widely read, because there is much in it that is useful and which helps us to understand, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, the complexity of the subject. First, it says that between 2008-09 and 2011-12, the number of rape offences reported to the police increased by 22%. Secondly, it notes that conviction rates for all rapes—of females and males—increased between 2005 and 2011 by 9.9%, and that the conviction rate in 2011 was 51.8%. I understand that the figures for 2012 are somewhat higher. These changes in reporting and conviction are substantial moves in the right direction and reflect the profound changes that have taken place in the police, the prosecution service and the whole approach to serious sexual offences in the past few years.
In many places, most of the time, rape services are better trained and investigations and prosecutions are done by specialists. According to recent research by the Association of Chief Police Officers, 19 forces now have specialist rape teams. The research suggests that these teams increase reporting, victim confidence and victims’ willingness to stay with the long drawn-out process. More victims now have access to a sexual assault referral centre as more of these centres open. Research shows that these centres are universally welcomed. Everyone in the field will tell you that they have made an enormous difference to the humanity and effectiveness of the whole process. More victims, although not nearly enough, now have an independent sexual violence adviser to guide them through the system and help them with the ordeal of going to court and understanding what will happen to them and how they can best prepare themselves for it. The system of independent sexual violence advisers is so admired that the Government of New Zealand have been advised that it should be introduced there.
These improvements are the result of the efforts of a substantial number of people in the police and prosecution service, the health service, the voluntary sector and the rape crisis movement. These are people, often with huge commitment, working together and responding more effectively and creatively to victims. I will mention three very quick examples.
In London people who have been raped can go to the sexual assault referral centres called the Havens. I declare an interest as patron of the Havens. Some of these people are prepared to report to the police and some are not. Some of them come for medical and other help and do not want to go through the criminal justice process. The Metropolitan Police have placed a specially trained police officer—a SOIT officer, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, explained—in the centre from 8 am to 10 pm. This officer deals with those who want to report, and those who do not. Of course, it is their right not to report. Those who do not report are invited to talk to the officer anonymously, if they wish, to tell their stories without detail but to give enough information to contribute to intelligence-gathering—and perhaps prevent more rapes, as rape is often a serial offence. This must be good practice.
My second example is the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, which I am patron of, which runs a scheme to protect prostitutes from violent clients. The scheme is called Ugly Mugs. Information is collected from prostitutes who report violent clients and circulated to prostitutes who join the scheme via a website. This project has prevented much violence and rape and helped to arrest perpetrators. I thank the Home Office for supporting it and hope that the Minister will personally ensure that this support continues.
My third example is a project at a Cornwall rape crisis centre, where the counselling the centre offers to victims is now also offered through the probation service to women in trouble with the law, as a very large proportion of those women have been sexually abused in their early lives and those experiences have led them in many cases to the position they are now in.
This Government have built on the work of the previous one to ensure that we have a system that provides an all-round approach, with the victim at the centre; victim services for everyone, whether they report or not; a good healthcare response; efficient law enforcement; prevention campaigns that do not blame the victim; and work to change attitudes. There is very good news in an even more recent report from the Office for National Statistics that only 8% of the public now blame the rape victim if she is drunk or wears inappropriate clothes. That is a change from the previous set of figures.
So we have a system that works to change attitudes and is beginning to make special effort to protect the vulnerable. All this constitutes an approach that other countries want to copy, which is taking us, slowly but surely—there is indeed much more to do, including looking at the delay in cases coming to trial—from the gross deficiencies of the past to a more just and effective response.
I ask the Minister: how are the Government going to ensure that this continues? Specifically, what is the Home Office doing to inform police and crime commissioners that this work, although expensive, is very cost-effective and must be a priority? Will they keep the specialist units? What will be the exact arrangements in the reorganised NHS for providing sexual assault referral centres? Where will the responsibility lie? Where will quality assurance come from? I understand that the Minister may need to write to me about that. Finally, what do the Government envisage happening to the funding of the network of rape crisis centres and other voluntary projects that deal with many thousands of victims as local authorities face more cuts? Will the support come from central government? I look to the Minister for some reassurance on all these points.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for introducing it. I will focus my remarks on drawing attention to three ways in which the scourge of sexual violence against women might be tackled more effectively alongside seeking to increase the number of cases that come to the police, before making a more general point.
The report to which this debate draws our attention tells us that shocking numbers of women are victims of sexual offending. It is a horrifying reflection upon our society. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, has noted that the resolution of cases that do come forward takes a long time. If this is to be addressed in the manner that he wants, there is surely a need for greater provision of resources and training for the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others involved in bringing justice to speed up the rate at which sexual offences are brought to court. Investigation has to be thorough and justice must be scrupulously pursued, but a year is a very long time for a case to reach court.
Secondly, independent domestic and sexual violence advisers and other such agencies play an invaluable role in accompanying survivors through the system, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, noted. I hope that the Government are prepared to invest significantly in that crucial work. More cases might be resolved if that were to be the case; and some of the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about cases not being pursued or not being taken sufficiently seriously by the police might be addressed.
Thirdly, I hope that the Government will recognise that recent budget cuts have led many local councils to reduce provision of services for survivors of violence. That is a real problem. I should add that a great deal of good work continues to be done by organisations such as the Worcestershire Forum against Domestic Abuse. Many individuals and organisations in civil society work with that organisation, as they do with others.
I believe that the suggestions that I have made would be a real help, but although they are crucial, they are tackling the symptoms, terrible as they are, of a deeper malaise. Lying behind the horrifying facts that the report highlights is the increasing sexualisation of our culture, which creates an enabling environment for sexual offences to develop. I feel that acutely as the father of two daughters, one aged eight and one aged 13. Reg Bailey, the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, carried out an independent review of that in 2011, and noted the concern of parents on a number of issues, including the sexualised and gender stereotyping of clothing, products and services for children and pressure on children from a range of sources to act as consumers.
Those are just the background, but I suggest that it is an important one. A lot of what we see is the result of that increasingly sexualised culture. The number of children suffering from sexual offending is one result. Reg Bailey’s report suggests a range of actions to address those concerns which deserve attention, but which I cannot go into now. Suffice it to say that, as all noble Lords will recognise, there are big issues to which I hope that the Government will pay attention.
I add that it cannot be just the Government’s responsibility. It is good to know that attitudes to victims are changing. Much more needs to happen. Although I welcome the Question to the Government enshrined in the debate, I suggest that responsibility for tackling it lies with us all.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Desai for giving us the opportunity to debate the report tonight. It throws up some interesting statistics on sexual offences. On average, 473,000 adults are victims of sexual offences per year, and the majority are female. About 90% of the victims of the most serious sexual offences in the previous year knew the perpetrator. That comes up in every study. For example, victims of rape are often raped by people they know.
One paragraph in the report which struck me was that, of females who were victims of the most serious sexual offences in the past year, as my noble friend Lord Desai said, only 15% had reported such offences. The reasons that they cited why they did not report such incidents were that they were embarrassed, or did not think that the police could do much to help, or saw it as a private family matter, not police business. There is much to be done to encourage victims to report. Otherwise, there is not much chance of ever bringing the perpetrators to justice and they will carry on committing offences.
We know that such offences are prevalent throughout the world. Thursday marks the One Billion Rising Day, which is a global campaign calling for the end of violence against women and girls. The campaign highlights the fact that one in three women world wide will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That is a terrible statistic. The One Billion Rising campaign deserves our support, which I hope that we will all give it on Thursday.
International agencies such as the UN, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have policies to deal with violence against women and girls, as does our UK Government. Whatever Government we have in office in the United Kingdom, they all address that issue.
I wonder whether noble Lords are aware of the policies of the Welsh Government on violence against women. They published a White Paper last year, and the consultation ends on 22 February. Following the consultation, they plan to introduce a new Bill, the ending violence against women and domestic abuse Bill. The Bill does not address the criminal justice issues, as the Welsh Government do not have the power to do so. It proposes that Welsh Ministers should have the power to appoint an independent ministerial adviser for ending violence against women. If the Welsh Government do that, that would be a first in United Kingdom. They wish to legislate to require local authorities and public service partners to collaborate on a local and regional level to develop and implement strategies to reduce violence against women.
The Welsh Government will commission an independent review of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence across Wales to inform future strategic direction and funding. The Welsh Government want to ensure that all children and young people understand the key concepts of respect, fairness and consent, which are the cornerstones of healthy relationships. They believe that such knowledge and awareness will help inform and drive their everyday decisions and underpin their expected standards of interpersonal relationships.
Although that is primarily the responsibility of parents, the Welsh Government believe that schools also have a role to play in delivering those outcomes. The personal social education framework provides some direction. They believe that more should be done to ensure that schools work actively to support and promote healthy relationships. The Welsh Government propose to ensure that education on healthy relationships is delivered to all schools in Wales. They propose to place a duty on local authorities to identify a regional champion for educational settings on ending violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, who will support schools and promote a whole-school approach.
These are exciting and great measures by the Welsh Government, and I believe that they are relevant to tonight’s debate. Now that we have devolution, different parts of the United Kingdom can do different things. In Wales, in a sense it is quite easy for us to experiment and try out new measures, because we are a small country. We have 3 million people, all in close contact with each other, and can debate these issues. Does the Minister agree with the Welsh Government on their proposals, and will he hold discussions with Welsh Ministers to see how those proposals could be implemented in England? Again, with devolution, we can all learn a lot from each other where there is good practice. We created the first Children’s Commissioner in the United Kingdom, and all the nations of the United Kingdom now have one. I hope that the Minister will agree that this is a good example for the UK Government to look at.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for introducing this debate in what is becoming an increasingly important subject. On occasions like this, one is not often of the view that it is good to be further down the list because everybody will have said everything and one will have nothing to say. That is not my view today; I have been extremely glad to have had the opportunity to listen to previous speakers and to learn about their specific concerns. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, indications of some improvement, which is a good sign for the future, as well as the priorities for future action by the Government, so I am glad indeed to be quite near the end.
There is a huge amount to be covered on this issue and even though we had a debate quite recently, I suspect that there will be plenty of others to come. The Government’s report that is the focus of our debate today states, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, that one in five women surveyed had been a victim of a sexual offence at some point in her life since the age of 16. That such a large proportion of women in England and Wales should have experienced this sort of assault is yet another indication serving to highlight the urgency of the need to address the very damaging effects of the increasing sexualisation of our society.
Provocative images and language permeate all areas of our culture from film and television to song lyrics and advertising, while the amount of explicit pornographic material widely accessible on the internet continues to grow. The ubiquity of this type of material creates an environment in which, as we are seeing, more and more people are exposed to images of sexual violence which can, in turn, have a serious impact on their own attitudes, expectations and behaviour.
Particularly vulnerable to these harmful influences are children and young people. The sexual offending report records that young women aged between 16 and 19 are the age group most at risk of being victims of sexual offences, while an NSPCC survey reported that physical and emotional violence is commonplace within teenagers’ intimate relationships. It appears that many adolescents are increasingly developing damaging attitudes towards relationships where violence and bullying are accepted forms of behaviour. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, mentioned the importance of schooling in all this and, my goodness, that is very true. Of course there is parental responsibility, but schooling will have an increasing responsibility over the years.
The development of communications technology is increasing young people’s access to sexually explicit material while simultaneously reducing the ability of parents to oversee what their children are viewing. These concerns, among others, prompted me to introduce my Online Safety Bill, which I am glad to see has its supporters in the Chamber today, as it is vital that mechanisms to reduce access to explicit content are made simpler for the ordinary internet or mobile phone user and that greater responsibility is placed on the providers of internet services to ensure that their products are not being used inappropriately.
The opt-in mechanism contained within that Bill would prevent children and young people accessing pornographic material on the internet, whether accidentally or otherwise, by requiring that this material is accessible only to consumers who have purposefully chosen, by opting in, to have access to such websites. Furthermore—and this is vital—service providers would be required to verify that the consumer is over the age of 18. This second mechanism ensures that young people are protected not only from inadvertently being exposed to unsuitable material but from intentionally seeking to opt in. Sadly, we also know that some young people intentionally seek access to pornographic material, and these young people’s own behaviour can be most influenced by the images to which they are exposed. As we all know, having had talks about trafficking children, the group to whom this whole approach is most dangerous is those who have been in care for a long time but have nowhere that they can turn to.
Sexual violence in all its forms, as we have heard, is extremely dangerous and damaging for individuals and for society as a whole. I certainly believe—as I am sure others do, too—that it is vital that we seek to redress this situation wherever and however it occurs, including in the digital arena. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I look forward to hearing what plans the Government will in future be making to protect women’s safety in the UK so that, with the increased services that are already being provided, we can begin to feel more confident that this kind of behaviour will diminish rather than increase.
My Lords I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for introducing this very important topic in your Lordships’ House. I speak as somebody who supports an organisation in Derby, where I am the bishop, called Safe and Sound Derby. It works particularly with women who are the victims of sexual exploitation, violence and abuse. In this debate, I feel that I really need to speak as a Bishop. It seems less obvious to do that when we are discussing pensions, public service and such things but in this debate I want to speak specifically from these Benches as a Bishop.
That is because the Government have the unenviable but vital and necessary task of trying to regulate behaviour. Ever since JS Mill in the 19th century, we have seen Governments trying to regulate behaviour to protect the individual’s right to be who they want and to do what they want. It is difficult to regulate people’s behaviour without—and this is where the church has a role, so I speak as a Bishop—looking at the ideas, imaginations and inner motives within people that lead them to claim freedoms which, in the terms of this debate, have such terrible consequences upon other people, such as violence against women and abuse.
In their attempts to regulate behaviour, the Government need to be in dialogue with faith communities and churches, which are particularly concerned with people’s inner motives and moral values, and the framework within which to try to live their lives. Our culture is dominated by people’s right to feel something, express it and be who they want to be. That has many great effects and outcomes but it also has some terrible ones, as we are hearing in this debate. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, about the terrible profusion of pornography and the freedom to access, make and trade it—and to involve people in it. Starting from the base of what people feel they want has seen an inordinate explosion of promiscuity in our society in the past 30 or 40 years, and enormous stress in personal lives. My right reverend colleague the Bishop of Worcester referred to the sexualisation of young people and a sexualised society.
Most violence and sexual abuse takes place in a private space. That is why it is difficult for the Government on their own to legislate about behaviour. Motives, ideas and imaginings can be explored in private spaces, and that creates an atmosphere where people feel intimidated, disoriented and unsure what private space should be about. There are no public norms; you are suddenly in a very small space if you are subject to this kind of abuse and violence. So, besides the Government working with agencies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, has said, and the structures in proposals in the excellent report, I invite us to think about how the Government can work with a problem that largely takes place in private space, below the radar—people claiming their freedom to be who they want to be.
One way of entering into the private space where most of this abuse takes place is through voluntary groups. The Safe and Sound project in Derby, which I support, works with victims and parents in their domestic settings, trying to help them understand what has happened to them and what values those domestic settings need to be about and to defend. In the past nine months in Derby, which is not a large city, Safe and Sound has dealt with 117 young people as well as older women.
We should note that not all these women and girls come from difficult backgrounds. I know that the statistics point that way but this very week in the Derby Telegraph, our local paper, there have been articles on three consecutive days about cases of children from very established and well-off homes being groomed and drawn out of those. The whole ethos of being a teenager, really, is to be uncomfortable in the private space that your family creates and to want to find your own private space; that is what teenage life is about. People who enter that through the internet and other ways, such as taking girls to parties or whatever, begin to create an attractive alternative private space that does not seem to have many moral guidelines. It is called grooming, and young people are increasingly being groomed into sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking.
Our experience in Derby shows that grooming and abuse are not just happening in an ad hoc way; sadly, in our culture of freedom for people to behave as they think they want to and feel, grooming and abuse are highly organised. They are organised by gangs and by older men grooming younger women. It is a very scientific and commercial operation, sadly, for many people, and young women are manipulated and taken advantage of.
In this context, despite the excellence of the report, its analysis and suggestions, all the evidence shows that there is a significant shortfall in the availability of therapeutic services to deal with women who are confused about what private space is, how to defend one of some quality and how not to get drawn into private space that is abusive and damaging. I hope that the Government will take very seriously, first, the proper resourcing, as other noble Lords have mentioned, of the formal services and agencies that work in this area. Secondly, I hope that they will take seriously the resourcing of the work by voluntary groups such as Safe and Sound, which can enter into that private space of young people and their families and friendships to help people to engage and find a way out of the terrible places into which they are drawn.
Thirdly, and this echoes what the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, was saying, what steps can the Government take to be proactive in the world of education, of the formation of people’s values, priorities and a framework for those inner feelings and imaginations that are powerful in all of us? That partly includes working with schools, as the noble Baroness says, but it also includes working with faith communities and those who give priority to the values that we carry around inside us that guide us, discipline us and challenge us
Speaking as a bishop, I shall end by saying that something that is distinctive about the Christian faith is that it does not begin from saying, “I wish to decide how I feel and that’s who I’m going to be”. It begins from saying, “Love God and your neighbour as yourself”—that is, put others first and yourself second. That is the kind of moral and spiritual discipline that forms an adult person: not to love yourself first and do what that is about but to love others first and put yourself second. That is what Christianity is about. It is that kind of moral and spiritual discipline that is the only chance of complementing the Government’s task of providing models and guidelines of behaviour with encouraging people to learn and carry around within themselves some kind of respect and understanding of what human life is about that is based on some kind of discipline, some kind of self-denial and some kind of honouring of other people rather than oneself. I ask the Minister to comment on how the Government can complement faith groups and others to ensure that better standards of behaviour emerge not just from regulation and agencies but from moral conviction and the culture of self-discipline that make adult people proper citizens and would be a major step in bringing this terrible problem under control.
My Lords, there is no doubt that this piece of research is invaluable. I thank my noble friend Lord Desai for initiating this debate, and commend the work that has been carried out by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics to provide an overview of the available statistics on sexual offending. I will not repeat all the somewhat depressing statistics that this research reveals, but what an important job there is still to do to reduce sexual offending and other violence against women and girls.
The plight of women suffering violence is about to have the spotlight shone on it, starting on Thursday of this week with the One Billion Rising campaign, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Gale. I hope that all noble Lords will consider joining the amazing events that are taking place all over the country on Thursday, not least outside in Parliament Square during the morning—singing, dancing and joyful as these events will be. Noble Lords can access the full menu of events if they put OBRUK into their search engine, or pop into the opposition Whips’ Office and pick up the pamphlet. These events will be joyful and respectful for women and those who love them, but they have a serious message—that violence against women is endemic across the world—and call upon Governments, parliaments and justice-makers to make this violence end. The events aim to increase awareness, raise money and revitalise existing anti-violence efforts.
The report that we are discussing tonight makes it clear that we in the UK still have a long way to go. Part of the build-up to the activities on Thursday were small events and discussions held all over the country involving thousands of women, young and old, from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities, and on one thing they were clear: to prevent violence against woman and girls we need to do much more to ensure that both young men and women are supported to develop positive and equal relationships with their peers. This must, of course, be true. When one in three 16 to 18 year-old girls in the UK say that they experience “groping” or other unwanted sexual touching at school; when more than 70% of 16 to 18 year-old girls and boys say that they routinely witness sexual harassment at school; and when, according to NSPCC research, “sexting” is linked to coercive behaviour, harassment and even violence in which girls are disproportionately affected, we know that more must be done.
There is a call for statutory provisions to make personal, social and health education, including a zero-tolerance approach to violence and abuse in relationships, become a requirement in schools. Does the Minister agree with that? Will the Government support the proposal that is being called for? I invite the Minister to send a strong message of support to the One Billion Rising international campaign and to the millions of women across the world who will be making their voices heard on Thursday.
Violence against women and girls flourishes in societies where prejudicial attitudes towards women are deeply entrenched. In its excellent brief for this debate, End Violence Against Women makes the important point that, similar to the long-term investment that successive Governments have made in, for example, road safety campaigns to change attitudes and behaviours, there needs to be sustained investment in work to prevent violence in order to save lives and reduce the emotional, physical and financial cost of violence in the long term.
The Home Office’s strategic narrative Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls is grounded in the principles of equality and human rights and has prevention at the heart of its approach. Nevertheless, I feel that this remains the weakest part of government actions. For example, a joint inspectorates report into sex offending by boys found that in almost half the cases they examined, there had been previous harmful sexual behaviour that had been either minimised or dismissed as a one-off. In the light of this finding on boys’ sexual offending, how are the Government ensuring that all schools teach young people about sexual consent, gender equality and respectful relationships?
In a 2006 ICM poll for End Violence Against Women, 405 of 16 to 18 year-olds said that they did not receive lessons or information on sexual consent or they did not know whether they had done, and 68% of 16 to 20 year-old girls said that they did not feel they had enough information and support about abuse.
I echo and support the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. An important part of this problem is media sexualisation and access to inappropriate images and behaviours involving new technology and young people. Will the Government either support the very practical Bill introduced by the noble Baroness or bring forward legislation that deals with ways of combating the illegal sale of violent and grossly pornographic films depicting all manner of degrading and violent sexual behaviour directed towards women? So far the Government have failed to take decisive action on this, so will the Minister please ensure that robust action is taken on issues such as age verification and combating children’s, particularly young men’s, access to such material?
Finally, how are the Government working across government to deal with these issues? For example, and following the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worchester, how is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, for example, supporting the Government’s efforts to tackle media sexism and sexualisation, which provide a conducive context in which violence against women and girls flourishes?
The contributions tonight draw on the level of expertise and commitment that we have in this House to deal with these problems. This report reveals the scale of the problem. The question now is: how will the Government step up to tackle the evil of violence and sexual assault against women?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for this opportunity to debate this important matter. All violence against women is completely unacceptable. It is the fundamental right of every woman and girl to live her life free of fear and violence, and it is therefore imperative that we in government remain focused and continue to raise awareness around this issue.
In introducing this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, rightly expressed the universal nature of this issue. Indeed, the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Thornton, drew the House’s attention to One Billion Rising, which is taking place this Thursday, 14 February, and which draws attention to the universal nature of this problem. For us in this country, the scale of the issues has been shown by the report that forms the background to this debate. It was reinforced by all speakers, and particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. I also thank her for informing the House about how they are tackling this problem in Wales. As she rightly points out, we can learn a lot from the devolved Administrations on this issue, and I am very happy to take up the invitation to study the Welsh experience.
The noble Baroness and other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, talked about the importance of education and the key role it has to play in this. Schools can address this issue through the personal, social, health and economic education programme. When teaching about these issues, schools must have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance on sex and relationship education. The DfE has conducted a review of personal, social, health and economic education and will be publishing the outcome in 2013. The review was intended to take account of the outcomes of the review of the national curriculum, so this important matter is not being ignored by the Department for Education.
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and respect her for the work she has done to raise awareness on this issue. She notes that the statistics demonstrate that more work still needs to be done to tackle violence against women and girls, and I assure the House that the Government are wholly committed to continuing doing so. That is why we have: ring-fenced up to £40 million across the spending review period as stable funding for specialist local services, support services and national helplines; published a cross-government violence against women and girls strategy and action plan; announced plans to criminalise forced marriage in England and Wales; introduced two new stalking offences; and tested new ways to protect the victims of domestic violence.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who mentioned this, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee that we expect every report of sexual violence and rape to be treated seriously from the time it is reported, every victim to be treated with dignity, and every investigation and prosecution to be conducted thoroughly and professionally. As such, the police have introduced a number of special investigating teams to deliver a consistent and professional response to the recording, investigation and prosecution of these complex—all noble Lords will agree that they are complex—and serious crimes. All rape cases are handled by prosecutors who have undertaken bespoke training. By February 2012, 849 rape specialist prosecutors had been trained. CPS successful outcomes rose in 2011-12 to the highest CPS conviction rates since recording began. The average length for sentences was in excess of eight and a half years, an increase of nearly 21 months since 2005.
It may help noble Lords if I address a number of other issues. Indeed, I may have to write to some noble Lords; the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, was kind enough to suggest that I did so. The Ministry of Justice is spending £10.5 million over three years to fund rape support centres. Furthermore, the Home Office has committed funding of £1.72 million per year to part-fund 87 independent sexual violence adviser posts. The noble Baroness herself should take a great deal of credit for the sexual assault referral centres. There are currently 37 of them in the country. It is important that these local centres are supported.
My friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby talked about Safe and Sound Derby. I am pleased to say that the Home Office funds an independent sexual violence adviser in that particular centre. It was good to hear his observations and commentary on our society, and the relationship of individual expression and the difficulties which that then created for some people. He is absolutely right that it is important that we work closely with faith groups. The Government cannot eliminate violence against women and girls on their own. We need the support of the community to do so. It is about engagement with civil society, the voluntary sector and faith organisations. They are vital to success in this area.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee mentioned domestic violence. A lot of the violence that we are talking of occurs within the home. My noble friend will know that there are now specialist domestic violence courts, and that these are an important part of recognising that the issues involved are often complicated. We are dealing with matters that have previously, perhaps, been hidden and kept private.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Thornton, talked about the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, and the ways in which that compounds the difficulties that we face. I cannot promise to support the Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. On the other hand, it makes a positive contribution to the formulation of policy in this area. The Government have made a commitment to take action to protect children from excessive commercialisation and, indeed, premature sexualisation. The Bailey review did not make any particular recommendations connected to violence, but, in terms of causation, business and media regulators have taken a number of significant actions to reduce children’s exposure to sexualised imagery. We should welcome, support and encourage these, and make sure that they actually happen, because this is such an important part of ensuring that we make a success of this policy.
The safety of women and girls is paramount. Our approach to tackling violence against women and girls is therefore characterised by key themes: prevention; improving the support available; strengthening multi-agency working; and taking action to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
The violence against women and girls strategy will be refreshed in March to ensure that we continue to identify new ways and opportunities to eradicate these abhorrent crimes. However, ending all forms of violence against women and girls is not possible through government work alone, as I have said. Violence against women and girls is a societal concern. It is the collective responsibility of all of us to challenge embedded gender inequality and to prevent violence through sustained action that seeks to change attitudes and behaviour.
We need to send out a clear message that violence against women and girls is wrong, and that challenging attitudes and behaviour is key to achieving that aim. That is why the Government have launched two preventive campaigns through the mainstream media to tackle rape and relationship abuse among teenagers by creating awareness, changing attitudes and provoking debate.
As we have said, much has been done. The progress that we have made would not have been possible without the dedication and hard work of the police, local authorities, teachers, health workers, international partners and the women’s sector. I take the opportunity of this debate to thank all of them. Now and in the future we must build on and maintain this momentum and our commitment to enact change, to challenge collectively the inequalities and attitudes that encourage violence against women and girls, and to drive improved services for its victims. I believe that we are on the right path. Our ambition must be to create a society where no woman or girl need live in fear. Together we can make it happen.