Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of women facing homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion.
My Lords, last week, economists at the respected World Economic Forum kicked the UK out of the world’s top 20 countries for gender equality. Its report, The Global Gender Gap, measures something more intriguing than wealth. It measures the gap between men’s and women’s life chances. In other words, it measures how much opportunity in a country is governed by gender. You will not be surprised to hear that Saudi Arabia did not make the top 20 either. In 2014, the UK was ranked 18th for gender equality. Last week, we fell calamitously to 26th, ranked below Nicaragua, Rwanda, Bulgaria and Burundi. By the way, Saudi Arabia ranks 130th out of 142, with Yemen coming in last.
What has changed for Britain? Perhaps most dramatically since 2010, women have borne the brunt of swingeing budget cuts. At the outset let me say this: my argument today is not with the Government’s cuts to public services per se. That is my argument every other day of the week. Today, let us momentarily cast aside the ideological security blanket of British politics—the knee-jerk response of parliamentarians for decades—which is that we on these Labour Benches want to spend more on public services to help the most vulnerable and those on the Conservative Benches want to spend less. Those on the Lib Dem Benches come and go; a bit of public spending here, a bit of slash and burn there.
Putting all that to one side, a key element of today’s debate revolves around not simply the cuts themselves, but the nature of the cuts. The nature of the cuts damages not only women and children, but our country’s basic decency and, equally alarmingly, its economic sustainability. Gender lays bare the nonsense of the Bullingdon boys famous “all in it together” claim.
According to the gender gap report, average wages for women in the UK fell by £2,700 in a year to £15,400, while the average salary for men was unchanged at £24,800. But may be the World Economic Forum is packed with radicalised feminists, so let us forget them, and turn to a source we trust: the House of Commons Library. House of Commons Library figures show that the cumulative impact of George Osborne’s spending choices since 2010 have hit women a staggering four times harder than men. From housing to work-related benefits, child benefit, tax credits and increased childcare costs, in every area, women have been hit harder than men.
The Government have meticulously and systematically removed the safety net for women. Nowhere is this clearer than in the support available to help victims of domestic violence. Nowhere is this more shamefully demonstrated than in the Government’s legal aid legislation, which removes legal aid eligibility for many women fleeing violent partners.
On top of that, since the Government came to power, according to a report authored by a professor from UNESCO, quoted by the House of Commons Library, 31% of funding for the domestic violence and sexual abuse sector from local authorities has been cut. Before the Minister intervenes to say that she does not recognise that figure—as did the Minister responding to a debate on domestic violence last week in another place—let us be clear what that figure relates to. A freedom of information request asked all local authorities about cuts to their services helping victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Sixty-five local authorities replied. The average cuts to those services, in those local authorities, amounted to 31%. The fact is we do not know what the figures are for all local authorities combined, or, if we do, I would be most grateful if the Minister could let us know when she responds.
What we do know for sure is that Women’s Aid, that most excellent organisation, has lost 17% of its refuges since 2010. I pay tribute to Women’s Aid for the extraordinary work it does. The 2013 Women’s Aid annual survey of around 200 domestic violence services showed that those services supported more than 115,000 women and children in refuge and outreach services in 2012 to 2013.
In order better to protect women and children survivors of domestic violence, and enable them to reach specialist services, the national network of refuges must be protected. We need to develop a new model of national funding. More than 30 refuges across the country have closed in the past four years due to lack of funding—down from 187 in 2010 to 155 today. The most vulnerable women are forced to walk a tightrope between coercion and violence from their partners on the one hand and indifference—and, now, abandonment —from the state on the other. The commissioning process for these services, and in particular the way they are put out to tender, is of huge concern.
Women and children are being turned away in their hour of need. It often takes women years to get to the point where they can ask for help in leaving the perpetrator of the violence they are experiencing at home, but we slam the door in their face. We put them back on the tightrope between Kafkaesque bureaucracy and psychotic misogyny. If that sounds like a bit of an exaggeration, I shall give some examples passed on to me by Women’s Aid.
Mandy experienced 18 years of domestic violence at the hands of her partner, including severe physical abuse, rape and humiliation in front of her children. Every element of her life was controlled by him: he made her leave her job when she was promoted. She tried to escape on numerous occasions but he tracked her down. He hacked into her medical files, broke into her property, and repeatedly attacked and threatened the whole family until she went back. Her eldest son witnessed a particularly horrific attack, when Mandy nearly died. He was so traumatised when his father was let out of prison that he committed suicide rather than live in constant fear of his father coming back to get them. Mandy thinks that without the specialist refuges that she was able to go to—services that understood the level of danger they were in—she would not be alive now. Those refuges provided not only a roof over her head for her and her other children but the specialist knowledge to help protect her from a dangerous perpetrator of violence. It is that specialist knowledge that is being lost.
I also want to mention Sarah and her baby daughter. They were found a space in a B&B but the room below was occupied by a young man just released from prison for committing a violent offence, and the garden was regularly used as a meeting place by drug dealers. After being accosted on the stairs by other residents, she was too frightened to use the communal kitchen to heat her daughter’s milk or her own food. She was given one hour’s counselling a week at a local cafe by the service that provides outreach support for domestic violence in her area. Her specialist support worker knows that she needs a refuge place and that her insecure living accommodation makes it likely that she will return to the perpetrator—the man who raped her immediately on her return from hospital the day she gave birth to her daughter.
When I talk about women teetering on the tightrope between Kafkaesque bureaucracy on the one hand and psychotic misogyny on the other, I am not exaggerating. As you can see from these examples, it is not just women who walk the tightrope; we push children on to it too. We know that the safety net has gone; we know that they will fall; we know that their emotional development will be smashed to pieces—that they themselves might be smashed to pieces—and that, if they survive, they are at risk of replicating abuse and neglect towards the next generation. What we know most of all is that we will pay, when it is far too late, to pick up the pieces with an extortionate price tag attached.
The cost, not to mention the human misery, makes me think of a St Mungo’s centre in south London which houses 29 women. Of those, at any one point about half will have been looked-after children in the same borough, so they had come to the attention of social services many years before. Last year, 10 of those women had, between them, 30 children who are all now being looked after by children’s services. The cost of this diabolically short-termist approach is truly extraordinary. We take those women’s babies away from them and give them to middle class women like me. I shall come back to that another time but, for goodness’ sake, we must end this heart-breaking cycle. We must teach our children social and emotional skills. We must recognise that child protection systems fail to help. Mothers are treated only until their children are removed and then they are forgotten—until it is time for the next child to be removed.
There are examples of good work going on across the country but the fact remains that specialist refuges for women are closing their doors and turning people away every day due to government spending cuts. On a typical day in the UK, 155 women and 103 children are turned away. When I say “a typical day”, that was the census day. Birmingham City Council is an example of how multidisciplinary work with a variety of stakeholders —police, women’s aid charities, city steering groups and schools—can have a positive impact if they work together to get things done. It has even appointed a victims’ champion, Jess Phillips, who has put domestic violence at the heart of its agenda. Jess is currently campaigning for compulsory relationship and consent education in schools. It is so important to reach young people to prevent future victims. Why will the Government not make this compulsory? Does the Minister agree that educating young people about domestic violence is one of the best ways to prevent it continuing in future?
Social exclusion is often, although not exclusively, linked to poverty. I draw the attention of the House to a report by the Young Women’s Trust, called Totally Wasted? The Crisis of Young Women’s Worklessness. The findings about young women not in education, employment or training—the so-called NEETs—make sobering reading. The report reveals a pattern of social exclusion of which many of us might not be aware. I, for one, was not aware that NEETs are more likely to be female. Between April and June this year, 56% of them were women. In total, almost 18% of young women are NEETs compared to 13.5% of young men. That means there were almost 100,000 more young women NEETs than young men. But what is really depressing is that the impact of being a NEET is greater and more lasting for young women. When we combine the impact of being unemployed younger in life with the gender gap, this means that a women who has spent time unemployed at a young age will expect to earn, on average, £12,500 less in her mid-30s than a man who has spent no time unemployed. Basically, in Britain today, young women’s opportunities are limited by gender. That is why we are slipping down the league table.
Homeless women are more likely to have experienced a violent partner so there is a clear link between homelessness and domestic violence. I thank Rape Crisis for its excellent briefing, passed on to me by Polly Billington who is working on these issues in Thurrock. It is extraordinary and sobering to recognise that 61% of homeless girls report child sexual abuse and violence as a reason for leaving the home. Today I am asking the Government to match Labour’s commitment—already costed and promised by Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper in our first Queen’s Speech following a Labour victory—to find the immediate funding needed to save refuges that are about to close. We are slipping down the league table of nations, jettisoning decency as we go, normalising violence, entrenching the increased sexualisation of women and girls, emotionally disfiguring our boys, and ignoring the need for proper sex and relationship education—another Labour pledge—in schools. Research now conclusively proves that gender equality is good for the economy. Well, of course it is. How can you succeed if you abandon half the workforce?
Obviously, I never expected gender equality from the Bullingdon boys. I realise that is a bit of a stereotype as well so I will end it there. But I also did not expect them actually to accelerate gender inequality so rapidly. I could not imagine them speeding away from Iceland, at the top of the gender equality index, motoring in the direction of Yemen at the bottom, like a crazed pair of Jeremy Clarkson loons, delighted by any opportunity to add insult to injury.
I realise that the Minister will have to paint a very good picture. She will tell us about all the plans and look at the civil servants’ briefs which say how much good work is going on. Good work is going on, but women’s and children’s lives are at risk right here; right now; today. Will the Minister ask the Chancellor to meet with her, me and Women’s Aid? I have many other questions I could put to her but I would rather ask whether she could use her influence to arrange that meeting so that both sides of the House can work together to ensure that we take note of the women and children who are suffering so much at the moment. I know we will have a great debate and I look forward to hearing the two maiden speeches. It is a subject that we must tackle together.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues which she articulated so well. I also thank the Library for its useful briefing, and I am looking forward very much to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. The speakers’ list is not too long—I was number 52 on the list when I made my maiden speech—so I hope that they will get their message out on who they are.
In my role as Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, I am sorry to say that I have met many women who have suffered almost unimaginable abuse at the hands of their partners and have then faced homelessness as a result. Sadly, only last week, I met a very brave, intelligent woman who shared with me the trauma of what it feels like to be in an abusive behaviour relationship. She told me that her abusive partner suspended her by belts outside the windows of their home because he knew she was scared of heights. He constantly beat her up and afterwards submerged her in a bath of ice cold water as this would bring her around sharply from the savage beating she had just received, only for him then to drag and throw her back into the bedroom. The last attack happened when he taped her mouth shut with duct tape and then taped her arms and legs around wood, which she said is done so that bones do not break. He went on to use a fork and penetrated her body with foreign objects. She lived in fear of this man and was too terrified to leave or tell anyone about it. When she did, sadly nothing happened, and she went back to him. This lady was a virtual prisoner in her own home—so isolated and unsupported. When she did leave him he would find her, and because of the fear of terror and shame to her family, she had no choice but to go back to him.
We will hear excellent speeches today, many of which will be about statistics relating to the prevalence of domestic abuse. We know that it involves many different forms of physical and emotional cruelty, so it is good that we are in a position to have more information at our fingertips than we used to have. But why do we gather this evidence and in so doing become so desensitised by the same facts and figures?
People who are so frightened, injured and traumatised are, most of the time, incapable of doing anything other than just making it through from one day to the next. When the entire focus in your life is simply trying to avoid further injury or even death, you are unlikely to want to read leaflets, make phone calls or go on the internet to see what you can do to make yourself safe from harm. I am not criticising any of these initiatives as they all have an important part to play but we must not be so ready to dismiss the impact on victims. I know that it is so very lonely, so heartbreaking, so debilitating, and so emotional and raw, and it is that very emotional impact that we must take into account when developing ways of responding to domestic violence and other horrendous acts of crime and abuse.
I do not pretend to have all the answers but, from meeting many victims, I know that it is a complex and emotional issue which cannot be resolved by a one-size-fits-all model. Domestic abuse needs to be identified and acted on by all agencies and organisations, not just the criminal justice system. For example, some victims may feel comfortable seeking assistance from the health services which is why it is essential to have independent domestic violence advocates based in healthcare settings. Others will seek assistance from local authorities and housing associations to try to avoid homelessness or social exclusion.
These victims may not feel able to disclose exactly what is going on or how bad things are; there needs to be training for front-desk staff in housing associations or councils so that they learn to recognise the tell-tale signs of abuse and how to gain the victim’s confidence, and to respond empathically and effectively. It is vital that the Government consider how support can be provided across the board so that victims can be kept safe from further harm. A report to the police should not be the only way in which a victim can be helped to feel safe, supported or less isolated.
Victims of domestic violence can be socially excluded by the perpetrator, but also by agencies and the community from which they seek support. I know that those who have suffered years of abuse can also have problems with alcohol and drugs. The lady about whom I have just spoken also told me that she became an alcoholic to numb the pain from the abuse that she received. When she sought help she was placed in a rehab centre with seven men.
Victims’ behaviour can sometimes challenge the agencies that are trying to help them. It is important that all those working or volunteering in the field of domestic abuse are properly trained and supported. They need to understand how such abuse has impacted on the victim, how it can affect their behaviour and how best to engage with them at their level.
I welcome the many initiatives that the Government are taking to tackle domestic abuse, with domestic violence protection orders and the very important Clare’s law. These send out strong messages and may help keep women safe; but when considering the relative bluntness of our legislation we must forget neither the emotional impact of domestic abuse nor how much power perpetrators have over their victims. Preventing revictimisation, either by the same perpetrator or by another, also has to be a priority if we are to help break cycles of abuse. This requires acknowledging the psychological as well as the financial dependence of some victims on their abusers, which is often strategically fostered by those abusers.
If we seek a simple solution to a complex problem we will fail to help more women to come forward. For example, at a recent event I was asked if I thought that police should prosecute all incidents of domestic abuse, regardless of what that victim wanted to do. To me this was the wrong question. The question should not be which is best, coercion or abandonment, but how we can make our services and the criminal justice system more supportive so that victims choose to continue with criminal proceedings.
We must not forget to help the families of those who are killed by their partners. In many such cases there will be children or dependants. Victims are human beings—they are not case files. They need help and support, and recognition of the trauma that they go through each day.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for having secured this vital debate, focusing on one of our most socially excluded groups, which demands our attention. The complex and interrelated needs of women who are homeless are frequently rooted in early traumatic experiences, which all too often lead into chaotic adult lives, characterised by instability, insecurity and despair. I declare an interest as chair of the Making Every Adult Matter coalition of charities, helping adults with multiple needs.
Helping women to escape and recover from homelessness and rediscover hope in their lives often needs to be about responding to the traumatic experiences of abuse, violence and separation from a child, as well as dealing with feelings of stigma and shame. In our recent debate on social justice I spoke about a visit that I made earlier this year to a women’s hostel run by St Mungo’s Broadway in north London, where homeless women are supported with a range of needs, including health, substance abuse, employment and family relationships. I want to keep stressing the importance of this type of women-only support and space that help women feel safer and in a better position to start their recovery from homelessness, a theme that has already emerged in today’s debate. To be clear, this does not have to mean investing significant amounts of money in new women-only accommodation services, but ensuring that mixed services are so designed that they still enable women to access support in a single-sex environment, such as a separate area or perhaps floor of a mixed hostel. It is not rocket science.
There are notable differences between the experiences of homeless women and homeless men. Today we are focusing on the former. It is in homeless women’s experience of domestic violence and mental ill-health that we can start to see some of their particular vulnerabilities. I hope I may be permitted a few statistics. The 2014 St Mungo’s client needs survey is illuminating about the causes and consequences of female homelessness. It included responses from 530 women, of whom 31% said domestic violence contributed to their homelessness, compared to 10% of men; 51% have experience of family violence, compared to 15% of men; and 41% have experienced violence from a partner, compared to 6% of men.
As other noble Lords have said, domestic violence is without doubt a major contributing factor to women’s homelessness. So I ask my noble friend the Minister for an update on the Government’s thinking about practical steps that can be taken to ensure that local homelessness services give women a choice between women-only or mixed services.
We have already heard that homelessness is more than just a housing issue. I am sure others will speak about that and the lack of affordable housing, which is a real problem, but I would like to turn our attention briefly to homeless health. Sleeping on the streets or in unstable accommodation can be both the cause and consequence of health problems for many homeless women. Multiple physical and mental health problems, alongside substance use, are common. Many homeless people experience long-term and chronic conditions. Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C and HIV disproportionately affect women who are homeless, and homelessness can make those conditions extremely hard to manage.
I was recently made aware of Fiona’s story. She is a woman who has received help from the hostel I mentioned earlier. Fiona is not her real name, but the story is hers. Fiona suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia from a very young age. Her mental health deteriorated while she was sleeping rough and sofa-surfing for a number of years. Her issues with drug and alcohol use hit rock bottom; she developed cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatitis, and now suffers from epileptic fits.
Fiona explained that even simple things that most of us take for granted become health risks when you are homeless. She said, “You can’t just brush your teeth when you’re on the road”. Her feet also suffered from wearing poor-quality shoes and from constant walking. However, when Fiona first became homeless, she found it difficult to access the healthcare she needed because she did not know who to turn to. She struggled to access a GP because she had no fixed address and had substance use issues. As she put it, “They didn’t want to know me. They wouldn’t touch me. It really knocked my confidence. It was quite a while until I managed to walk into another doctor’s surgery and ask for help because I thought they were going to turn me away”.
I do not believe I am being melodramatic when I say that ultimately homelessness kills. The average age of death for men who are homeless is 47; for women it is just 43. I think that is scandalous. However, as the Faculty for Homeless and Inclusion Health notes:
“When homeless people die they do not commonly die as a result of exposure or other direct effects of homelessness, they die of treatable medical problems, HIV, liver and other gastro-intestinal disease, respiratory disease, acute and chronic consequences of drug and alcohol dependence”.
It is not unreasonable to think that with increased access to healthcare for homeless people, many of these deaths could be avoided.
If we turn back to the recent St Mungo’s client needs survey that I mentioned, there is a notable difference between the experiences of mental ill-health of homeless men and women. Separate research by the Salvation Army found that 53% of homeless women have attempted suicide at least once, compared to 34% of homeless men. Despite the Government’s very welcome investment in the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, which I strongly support, people who are homeless consistently miss out on mental health care as the services available are often not suitable for those with complex needs.
We know from Fiona’s story that substance use and mental health issues are often closely linked, with drugs or alcohol used to block out mental health issues but exacerbating them at the same time. It is not uncommon to find that both problems are rooted in the same trauma.
Despite their close relationship, experience of both mental health and drug and alcohol problems often prevent people from getting the help they need, since both services can only deal with one issue and refuse to treat people with both.
I very much welcome this debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister outline the Government’s plans to ensure more joined-up commissioning of services and other steps to get help to homeless women at the right time.
My Lords, as this debate progresses the seriousness and critical nature of this subject is dawning on all of us. I share with other noble Lords a gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for bringing it to our attention with such eloquence and passion. We all look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, this morning.
Although there are profound links between the three subjects before us, I intend to concentrate on the issue of women facing domestic violence. I do so with considerable caution, even trepidation, because of the horrific stories that have already been brought to our attention, but also as a man who represents a hierarchical position in a patriarchal ecclesiastical institution. Nevertheless, I dare to speak, for three reasons. First, because of the extremely disturbing statistics which others have referred to: an estimated 7% of all women experience domestic violence, according to the 2011-12 figures, equivalent to some 1.2 million victims. There were 88,000 domestic violence cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service that year, of which more than 64% reached a decision to charge, leading to more than 52,000 convictions. Even more disturbing are the 2013 figures, which indicate that on average 155 women and 103 children were turned away from refuges every day, at the most dangerous and vulnerable moment for them. They were then, of course, faced with returning to an abusive partner.
Secondly, I touch on this subject because of the attention given to it recently at the General Synod and the growing partnership between the Mission and Public Affairs Division of the Church of England and the Christian anti-domestic violence alliance, Restored. Thirdly, my own pastoral experience, and that of many of our clergy, reveals the prevalence of this issue and the need for the churches, but also, of course, the mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues, to be active partners in the allocation of resources as important, even vital, arenas in which attitudes and actions towards domestic violence can be challenged and changed. Charities such as Restored are working to scale up the voluntary efforts of the faith communities, but there is a clear need for a more co-ordinated effort from both national and local government to actively seek out faith communities and help fund these organisations to scale up their work.
The Mission and Public Affairs Division submission to the Home Office consultation on domestic violence in August 2014 made the point—as have other speakers—that strengthening the law in this area can only do so much if it is not supported by effective and appropriate implementation by the police, judiciary and others. This requires a number of important practical initiatives. Priority needs to be given to making domestic abuse awareness training a mandatory part of the police and Crown Prosecution Service training, so that there is at least a basic level of awareness and understanding of the underlying causes of abuse, and of power and control. There needs to be an increase in the provision of support and advice through the continued funding and training of independent domestic violence advocates. This needs to go alongside improvements in current response times between arrest, charge and cases being brought to court, because delays in this process can allow the perpetrator time to regain power and control over the victim.
As others have said, we need much greater public awareness of domestic abuse, its causes and consequences, and wider recognition of the signs of abuse and appropriate responses. Abuse thrives in an environment of shame, stigma and silence. The Government have a vital role in sponsoring effective campaigns to raise awareness of what domestic violence is and how to respond to it.
Further, there has been growing concern at the rise in sexting, mobile porn sharing and sexual harassment among young adults. It is essential that we equip young people to have healthy relationships to ensure a stable foundation for the future. That must include relationship and sex education within the school system that teaches about informed consent to sex, domestic abuse and its signs and indicators, and the healthy uses of power.
Church of England schools educate about 1 million children at any one time. As part of their statutory inspection, all Church of England schools must demonstrate the development of personal relationships that build self-esteem and values based on mutual respect. That highlights the church’s commitment to changing the culture in which negative perceptions of relationships and respect within them have developed.
Further, we need increased, ring-fenced and specifically allocated central funding provision for refuges and domestic violence work locally to reverse the trend of refuge closures, as others have said. Funding of specialist services and the provision of an adequate number of refuge spaces available for women and children escaping dangerous threats is vital and fundamental.
All of us share a concern about the disturbing picture of suffering, vulnerability and violence which the statistics reveal. The churches rightly have a particular concern for the vulnerable and oppressed, as well as acknowledging the need for perpetrators to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into more balanced social relationships. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could inform the House about progress in implementing the Government’s violence against women strategy, and especially the national rollout of the domestic violence protection order pilot. What are the Government doing actively to challenge the cultural stereotypes that can perpetuate violence against women, as required under Article 5 of the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women?
As we know, this debate touches on an often unseen, very widespread and massively damaging feature of part of our contemporary culture. I very much hope that our debate today will go some way to help us to address it more effectively.
My Lords, it is a great honour to make my maiden speech as a Member of this House. I am particularly pleased to follow such an important contribution from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.
I express my thanks to all your Lordships on each side of the House for the warm welcome that you have given me, and to the staff of the House, whose consideration and courtesy have surpassed their legendary reputation. I am particularly grateful to my supporters, my noble friends Lady McDonagh, of Mitcham and Morden, and Lord Hollick, of Notting Hill, for their wise counsel and words of encouragement.
I stand here today deeply moved because it was 10 years ago, in November 2004, that my husband, Lord Gould of Brookwood, gave his maiden speech. In fact, today’s date is particularly poignant because it was exactly three years ago that he finally lost his fight against cancer. He would have been thrilled to see me here among so many of his friends on these Benches, and he would have reminded me what an honour it is to have the opportunity of contributing to the debates and legislation that shape our nation.
I personally look forward to championing the causes that I have seen inspire individuals and transform lives throughout my 40 years in the publishing industry: the liberating power of literacy and reading for pleasure; the vibrancy and social impact of the arts; and the dynamism of our creative industries.
For 22 years, as chief executive of a publishing group of which I declare I am now the UK chair, I have been proud of how my industry has led the way on gender diversity, promoting women to the top ranks at a time when the only way into the executive suite in many sectors would have been with a tray of tea and biscuits. However, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady King of Bow, only last week the World Economic Forum report showed that the UK has slipped out of the top 20 countries for gender equality, dropping from 18th to 26th. Today’s important and extraordinarily moving debate highlights how far we still have to go in confronting the systemic problems that blight the lives of too many women.
Ensuring that women from different social backgrounds are given opportunities for self-development is critical in tackling social exclusion. For me, books are a symbol of freedom and transformation. They opened my mind and changed my life and I want others to share in that opportunity. My mother, the eldest of five, had to leave school at 13 so that she could help support her family. My paternal grandfather came to the UK alone, aged 15, to escape persecution in Lithuania. From selling suits off a wheelbarrow—he was a tailor—he became a successful businessman, but he never learned to read or write. There were no books on our shelves at home except for a leather-bound edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but, despite that, each Saturday my mother would take my brother and me to the local library to borrow books. It was the highlight of my week. Books unlocked my imagination and aspiration, and I became the first person in my family to go to university.
Through my years as a publisher, I have always believed that businesses should consider their wider purpose and social impact. It is shocking to me that 5.1 million adults in England can be described as functionally illiterate, struggling to understand a letter home from their son or daughter’s school and unable to read a bus or train timetable. Overall, 14.8 million adults have literacy skills below a GCSE grade C.
There is a range of valuable studies by the National Literacy Trust, of which I declare I am a trustee, that demonstrate the particular role that poor literacy plays in exacerbating women’s social exclusion. Women with low literacy skills are more likely than men to live in non-working households. Some 13% of women with non-functional literacy have experienced homelessness, compared to 7% of men. Lower literacy means that women are more likely to move in with a partner while still a teenager and to have a first child at a young age, and are five times more likely to be depressed. Such women are also less likely to be politically engaged, to vote or to participate in their community. The literate woman, by contrast, is a potentially empowered woman.
I became determined to do something to help those with low literacy. In 1998, I launched the World Book Day charity, on behalf of the book industry, to ensure that children celebrated reading for pleasure at least once a year. For many women, having a child is a spur to improve their literacy, as they want to read to them and help them with their school work. This is why, in 2006, I launched the Quick Reads charity for emergent adult readers. Quick Reads books are written by well known authors in such a way as to be accessible to those with entry-level literacy skills, reducing the fear of reading for the less confident. As one woman said, “I felt as though I had climbed a mountain. I was very proud, because it was the first proper book I’d read”.
It is not just books that demonstrate the role of the arts as a powerful vehicle for encouraging aspiration and liberating potential. For example, in Camden, my home borough, two 20 year-olds founded Youth Sauce, with a mission to deliver change through the creative arts. Their “Somerstown Tales” was an evening of spoken -word poetry addressing the grim realities of youth homelessness, assault and violence told through fairy tales. Another event, HerStory, was for 16 to 24 year-old women not in work, education or training, to enable them to tell their stories and discover their beliefs while honing their literacy skills. MC Angel worked with these young women. She herself grew up in a home torn apart by alcoholism, drugs and violence. From a homeless hostel at age 15, she studied community theatre; now a gifted performing poet and rapper, she also works for the charity First Story to open up creative writing for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Many women from Youth Sauce subsequently joined their local library and then started reading for pleasure, unlocking that unique, immersive experience that touches the core of our humanity by opening up undreamt-of worlds and building empathy. Yet reading for pleasure is only one aspect of our rich creative industries in the UK. We lead the world in literature, film, theatre, dance and art. Here I must declare two further interests as I am chair-elect of the Royal College of Art and chair of the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, established the first creative industries taskforce in 1997. I was privileged to be a member of it and we mapped for the first time the economic impact of the arts in Britain. What we must focus on now, however, is the social impact of the arts. I hope that current academic studies such as the Warwick commission will begin to marshal the enormous amount of data from arts organisations, charities and our schools about the transformative potential of the arts and that this, in turn, will inform all future policy. I have seen the arts change the lives of excluded children at inner London schools and through charities such as Kids Company, offering hope and a vision for a future that is often lacking in young lives. We should strive to ensure that everybody, especially the most marginalised and excluded women in our society, can have access to what Philip Pullman describes as the “rich, consoling, inspiring, liberating” experience of reading.
I thank your Lordships for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am sure that the power of books has touched everyone in this Chamber. I want to make sure that everyone in our society, especially the most vulnerable, also has that opportunity.
My Lords, it is a singular honour to welcome such a distinguished businesswoman to your Lordships’ Benches and to follow such a poignant, courteous and effective maiden speech. It was particularly moving to hear the life story of the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and to see what an example she is to others through her own life of what can be achieved, if one can achieve literacy and education.
The noble Baroness also brought home the importance of family learning and mentioned briefly mothers reading with their children. I draw her attention to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, who was chair of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education report last year into family learning. The NIACE report highlights that helping women who had difficulty at school to learn once their children start going to school has a tremendous impact on their children’s education. We recognise that in the developing world, the education of girls is the key to future development. We fail to recognise adequately that educating women is the key to ensuring that our children do far better in school.
As I say, it is a great honour to welcome such a distinguished businesswoman to the House. The noble Baroness broke the glass ceiling in 1991 by becoming chair and chief executive of Random House UK. As recently as last year, she was assessed as being one of the 10 most influential women in Britain by “Woman’s Hour”. While at Random House she initiated a programme providing volunteer reading help, which is now entitled Beanstalk, where she has provided reading mentors to local primary schools so that children in primary schools with difficulties—perhaps family difficulties as well as reading difficulties—have the benefit of an ongoing relationship with a highly educated person who works at Random House. This is very much welcomed by the charity in question. I am sure that I express the sentiment of all your Lordships in welcoming the noble Baroness and her maiden speech, and in hoping that we may hear from her on many future occasions.
I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for this important debate. I would like to speak about the importance of perinatal mental health care, particularly for socially excluded women. I would also like to talk about the issues for women living in temporary accommodation. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the very important report published just recently by the London School of Economics entitled The Costs of Perinatal Mental Health Problems—the cost to the nation of perinatal depression, perinatal anxiety, and perinatal psychosis. The shocking figure that this report from the LSE gives us is that failing to meet these health problems costs the nation £8.1 billion per annum. Simply failing to meet these problems costs the nation £10,000 for every childbirth. Nearly three-quarters of the cost arises from the failure of the children to thrive. It is the failure in that early attachment between the mother and child which causes such cost to the nation.
I would like to pay tribute to the Government for the investment they have made in health visitors in recent years. A few years ago it was an ageing profession with huge caseloads because there was such a shortage of health visitors. The Government have made a huge investment in this area. I am very pleased as well to learn of the development of the Institute of Health Visiting, which demonstrates the status of health visiting. Of course, health visitors play a crucial role in the matter of perinatal mental health. I ask the Minister whether the failure to provide any of these crucial specialist perinatal health services in many areas across the country is recognised by the Government and whether they have a plan to address the provision of these vital services. Maybe the Minister would write to me on this particular issue.
In passing, I would like to draw attention to the experience of women in custody. It is very good news that the number of women in custody has been reducing—in significant part because of the impact of the influential report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, of several years ago which highlighted the value of women’s centres as an alternative to custody. But there is considerable uncertainty about the future funding of such women’s centres. I would be grateful if the Minister could say, or write to me about, what plans there are to support these centres and keep them going, with particular regard to the perinatal health of women in custody. Also, there are high rates of teenage pregnancy in young women and girls in care and leaving care, so we need to be sure that they have the right expert care around the birth of their children so that we do not repeat the cycle of failure that so many have experienced before.
Moving on to housing, Shelter has recently highlighted the increasing numbers of children in temporary accommodation from about the mid-70,000s three years ago to upwards of 90,000 today. It is encouraging that Governments have reduced the figures overall in recent years, but this is a worrying development. I had the privilege on several occasions of meeting mothers in family temporary accommodation, through the Barnardo’s project working in this area run by John Reacroft. What struck me most was the isolation that so many of these mothers experience, and the many moves that they experience. I ask the Minister: will the Government try harder to replace the social housing that is sold? We need to have good, solid bases for these mothers in order that they can make secure attachments with their children and in order that their children can thrive. Information about providing that much needed social housing would be very helpful.
Also, in terms of tackling the isolation of such mothers, is any thought given, for instance, to providing travel passes for mothers in family temporary accommodation so that they can see their family, their community and their friends more easily? What about free mobile top-ups for such mothers so that they can call and connect with other members of their family and community?
It has been a huge honour to follow the maiden speech of our new Member. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I decided to take part in this debate because the subject interests me hugely. The debate is that this House takes note of women facing homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion. However, the opening speech from the noble Baroness, Lady King, did not actually help me to consider this in a very positive manner. I will return to the speech that I have prepared, but I want to make a few comments because I expect that the noble Baroness would expect me to do so.
The point is that domestic violence and social exclusion are issues that affect each one of us. No party has the sole prerogative to think that they are the only ones who can solve these problems; I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree with me on that. Maybe they think that they have all the ideas, but surely the point of having an idea is to try to communicate it to everyone in order to gain a consensus whereby national funds, which are not the prerogative of any one party, should be spent on national problems. Perhaps I have spent too much time in your Lordships’ House and its committees, where inevitably party political comments and views are taken less into consideration than the overall consideration of making legislation that is right for everyone in the country, which is properly costed and funded, and on which agreement can be reached and positive outcomes recommended to the Government. I hope that we will now leave that aside and come to areas where we can make positive comments. Indeed, a lot of the debate has had such comments; it was just the opening speech that I found rather difficult. Hurling vicious words at parties across the Chamber is not really our way to behave.
When looking at this Motion dealing with homelessness, domestic violence and some social exclusion, I decided that we wanted to get beyond what the immediate impact of it is on the people involved—which, of course, is women—and move on to how it is transposed down the family. The long-term effect on young children who witness domestic violence is just horrific. A report called Beyond Violence: Breaking Cycles of Domestic Violence, which has been produced by the Centre for Social Justice, corroborated the experience that I have been told about and witnessed over the years. It is supported by detailed evidence and statistics, and I will draw on some of this rather than risk being accused of exaggerating an abhorrent situation. The report states inter alia that the way in which we are tackling domestic violence is failing to break abusive cycles in families. It says:
“The impact on children of being a witness of domestic abuse tends to be underplayed but they are at risk of developing poor mental and physical health, failing at school and becoming a victim or perpetrator themselves, even if they are able to achieve safety”.
This sentence encapsulates exactly the experience that I have been close to while a teenager and a young adult. Some of my friends had appalling experiences. However, I think that these are fewer now because we are more open with each other, there is more investigative journalism and TV and radio have increased programmes on social exclusion, homelessness and indeed domestic violence.
We are much more aware of the social problems and I dare say, coming from these Benches, I still think that we are a much nicer society than we were, say, 20 or 30 years ago. I see that a friend of mine who is a noble Baroness on another Bench is saying no, but that is something that we can debate. When, for example, the European Union Select Committee produced a report on youth unemployment earlier this year, there was a description of visits made by the committee to two areas of high youth unemployment and the sterling efforts being made by a charity in one area and the local council in another. I would like to tell the noble Baroness, Lady King, that it was Birmingham Council, a body that she also quoted as one to be admired and congratulated.
These two, the charity and Birmingham Council, had independently set up groups to try to counter youth unemployment. They were two quite different programmes, but we got the opportunity to talk to the people—young men and women, teenagers and young adults—on a one-to-one basis and participate in conversations with them. It was chilling, the descriptions of home backgrounds which had led them to a situation where they were not able to get a job. The overall breakdown of trust and the inclination to bear some part of the blame for the abuse witnessed, along with expressions of defeat, could have mentally maimed these young people so seriously that they would have just given up. But both organisations, the Prince’s Trust charity and Birmingham Council, have got these very positive programmes going. This is something that we as a nation should try to encourage. We recommended that in our report and it is something that we need to do, particularly drilling back still further, not just to when they leave school and are unemployed but even deeper to hear about areas of domestic violence.
I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the police cover as part of their training the need to decide whether there is really deep-seated domestic violence in a domestic situation so that they should then take note of the children involved. It is possible that those children could be convinced that the world is not always as they have experienced at home, and that they would acquire skills and actually become employed.
Is enough emphasis being placed on the collateral damage done to young people who have witnessed domestic violence? Are there plans to make refuges available to teenagers and young adults, not just to women? There are situations where they are so damaged within the home environment that it is probably better to remove them and then try to rebuild their lives. Are there plans for more involvement at a local level? So much of our legislation is based on the idea that one size fits all—but it does not. I think that local authorities and local communities should get involved.
My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to take part in this debate, and to join in the chorus of compliments that are being paid to my noble friend Lady King. She managed to compress a speech of 30 minutes’ length into 15, which I think is something of a record—but every minute that I heard, I said to myself, “Hear, hear”. If I was to be asked for my solutions to the problems that she raised, I would simply say, “Give me the sheet and I will sign it”, because her speech was compelling and full of conviction.
My case is to say to the Government Benches that it is all very well having conviction, but what we want is compassion. To add to the cases that have been made and drawn to our attention, I have got my own store of knowledge based upon what is now 40 years’ experience between the Commons and the Lords. I was born on Tyneside, the eldest of five children, and my dad was on the dole for 10 years. Having passed my 11-plus, I failed to go to the school because my dad was unemployed, so finally I had to wait until the Open University came along to get my bachelor’s degree and then my master of arts, which made me very proud.
It reminded me of the way in which I believe our housing policy is in a mess. By “our”, I mean that of the House and the Government and the country. I place no blame upon any one individual or one party, but when you look at some of the illustrations of how it has worked out, it could make you weep.
In 1979, councils had 6,568,000 council houses under their control, and people had the ambition to get on to a council house list. Having been the leader of Enfield Council, and operating down there for many years, I know that that was fair and right. However, you now find that by 2012, those 6,568,000 had been reduced to 2,096,000, many of them sold under the right to buy. The right to buy was used on 1,500,000 houses, which hitherto had been available to the community to be given to those who, in the community’s view, through the councils, were worthy of that assistance.
Looking back to where this started. I do not particularly laud the right to buy. When I used to go round the Hyde estate on Haselbury Road in Edmonton I would knock on the door and say, “Can I expect your support?”. “Well”, the current tenant would say, “not really, because if I vote Conservative, I’m going to be able to buy my house. After I’ve bought my house, I’ll continue to vote Labour, but in order to get the house I’ve got to get a Conservative Government in”. They did, and as a consequence people would come to me and say, “My son and daughter want to get married and go on the housing list, but the houses that normally might have been available to them are gone because they’ve been sold”. Houses were valued at £7,000 in Edmonton in 1979, but you now pay nearly £200,000 for a detached, three-bedroom house in good order—because you can say about most councils that they kept the property in good order.
On the other hand, that is the way it is. I want to know, if the Minister has the time—and I appreciate the pressure she will be under—what the Government are trying to do to replace and allocate funds to organisations that can keep housing in the control of people like the councils. I know that there are housing associations and co-operatives, and they all do a very good job. The consequences for housing started to go down then, and I am sorry to say that the policies that were started in 1979 were of course continued by a Labour Government when we were in power. Something needs to be done in that direction.
The other points I want to make are on the scandal that exists in a number of places. I have here a newspaper article that is headed:
“Council plans crackdown on ‘wild west’ landlords”.
A man is named here, who owns many properties in Pentonville Road and Caledonian Road. One of the properties mentioned was a hostel that was bought, then subdivided and let to 19 separate families. They are being housed in conditions that you and I would not dream of allocating to anybody, and yet that scheme is available. In another newspaper cutting a man is quoted as saying that if you have more than two children, are on a zero-hours contract, if granny moves in or if you are on housing benefit, you will be evicted from his properties—which under the law he is entitled to do. We have got a situation in which the Government are aware of all the facts that I have given noble Lords. I want to know, not only that the Government are aware—I believe that they are—but what they are trying to do to obviate that kind of situation.
The value of this debate is to underline the real situation: not statistics, not blarney, not cover-ups, not ignorance, but reality. I have spoken on housing, but I have not got time to speak on the other matters. My noble friend Lady King has given us an opportunity to vent our spleen about some of the bad situations in which other people live. All noble Lords in this Chamber have a decent home to live in. All of us have struggled, and we are where we are now. But the people on whose behalf we are pleading are women who are afflicted unnecessarily, not only by the nature of their partners, but the lack of direct attention by the Government. I hope very much that when the Minister replies—in what I know will be a long speech, because she has a lot to say and we will listen to her with attention—she will give some comfort to my noble friend Lady King for the excellent job she has done in putting this Motion before the House.
My Lords, making my maiden speech today in your Lordships’ House, I stand here feeling very humble, being among those for whose wisdom and intellect I have nothing but the greatest respect; humble, but also feeling very welcomed and encouraged by one and all who legislate and work here. I am very grateful for the kindness and friendliness given to me and would mention in particular my introducers, my noble friends Lady O’Cathain and Lord Leigh of Hurley, and also my noble friend Lord Hodgson.
On entering your Lordships’ House, it seems to be a common experience to be confused and disoriented as to what is where. I was no exception to this, but thought that with the firm compass points of the Victoria Tower in the west and Big Ben in the east, I would soon master the confusion. However, it deepened when, to my surprise, a map of the building stated that the west end was actually the north end. Subsequent scrutiny of maps showed that Old Father Thames was flowing from south-south-west to north-north-east past this wonderful building, instead of west to east as he should have done. This forced me to revise my opinion and to accept that west was actually north.
I realised that perhaps this venerable building was gently introducing me to the important role that is played here of scrutinising, examining and revising legislation before making one’s mind up. That leads me to the important debate today on women facing homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, on initiating it—and will explain why I, a hedge fund manager, Tory treasurer and donor, should wish to participate.
I will give three brief facts of my career. I started work at 18 as an £8 per week difference account clerk in a London Metal Exchange member firm; I became a Christian when I was 35; and in the last 10 years I have been an active supporter of the Centre for Social Justice, especially of their policies which support families.
However, the background that I would emphasise to your Lordships is my sister’s and my childhood. We were born at the end of the war, and both our parents were alcoholic. My father died from this when I was four, and violence was a part of that backdrop. We were soon bankrupt and, with a mother still struggling with drink, my sister and I experienced the poverty, neglect and shame that are such potent drivers of social exclusion. I benefited from attending the boarding house of Wantage state grammar school, and in this context I welcome the Prime Minister’s determination to help more looked-after children gain places at today’s state boarding facilities. A good education is invaluable for social mobility; hence I am a sponsor and governor of ARK All Saints Academy in Camberwell.
My sister was not so fortunate; she left school at 14 and, in her subsequent years, struggled with broken relationships, alcoholism and depression. I am telling your Lordships this not only to explain why my heart and head would wish to be involved in today’s deliberations, but also to come back to that House role of scrutiny and opinion revision when we consider one another.
Be that all as it may, domestic violence is one of the great unspoken-of tragedies in society today. It stretches across all social divides and disproportionately affects women and children, particularly in our most disadvantaged communities. Research from the Centre for Social Justice highlights how the mental scars caused therefrom can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and crippling addictions: devastation not only to physical health, but also to self-esteem.
Last week I met with Sister Linda Dearlove—it is a tremendously appropriate name—from the Women at the Well charity in the King’s Cross area of London. Many of the women that she helps grew up with abuse and, as adults, have moved from one violent relationship to another. The majority are involved in prostitution or what might be referred to more accurately as survival sex. They need drugs, alcohol, and a bed for the night if they are homeless. When someone hits them, or worse, they assume that it is their fault. They consider their lives to be of so little worth that they often struggle to see the point of having the daily hot meal provided by the charity. When they start to deal with their addictions, the mental health difficulties that the drugs and alcohol had been soothing, albeit inadequately, start to emerge. It is the legacy, in many cases, of deeply troubled childhoods.
It is the slow and careful restoration of the person that grass-roots charities such as Women at the Well, and others of which I am sure your Lordships are aware, excel at. It is vital that government policy recognises the worth of these organisations, the restorative relationships they provide and the length of time required to help people rebuild their lives—as, indeed, my sister has done. We need such pools of kindness all over the country. Obviously, women in this position have to be helped to find safety, and refuges have an important role to play, but effective policy in this area has to be multifaceted. Domestic abuse victims will need support that helps them avoid being re-victimised. This requires them to develop new beliefs about themselves, as well as life skills.
For example, given their experiences, many mothers will find it almost impossible to create the loving family environment they long to give their own children—and the next generation will, all too often, repeat the cycle. Where this is the case, we have to ensure that women who have been the victims of domestic abuse are supported in the very difficult job of parenting. Again, this Government are doing well in that area through their Troubled Families programme, which aims to help over 500,000 families turn their lives around. Domestic violence is an issue in the vast majority of cases.
I will end by saying that it is my intention to contribute to the work of this House, and especially in these vital areas of social policy. As I hope I have already made clear, I will consider it an honour so to do.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, who has spoken so movingly and personally in his maiden speech. This place is full of people who have come from all kinds of surprising backgrounds, and I know that those in the Chamber today will have been glad of the opportunity to get to know a bit more about his. We thank him for sharing his background with us. I know that what gets the noble Lord out of bed in the morning is not business or finance but his family, his faith and education. I also know that he asked the rector of the church that he attends whether he should give up finance and go into the church, but that the response was that business and finance need Christians and those from other faiths who care about society and can give back generously. That is what the noble Lord does in his philanthropic work, including, as mentioned in his speech, sponsorship of one of the very successful ARK academies. Let us remember that the Good Samaritan would not have been able help his neighbour without the resources to so. We look forward to many further contributions from the noble Lord.
I had intended to speak to Amendment 49 of the Serious Crime Bill, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and debated last Tuesday, but was unable to stay, so I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter again. I am also grateful to the Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service and to the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation for their briefing, as well as to the Centre for Social Justice for its report, already mentioned, Beyond Violence: Breaking Cycles of Domestic Abuse, all of which have done much to help me prepare for this debate.
I wish to challenge the myth that domestic violence is only physical. Psychological violence and coercive control is often a predominant feature in domestic violence. Underlying much domestic violence is a desire for power and control and often physical and sexual violence occurs when the other controlling tactics are not working. Another myth is that domestic violence stops once the relationship ends. As we have heard already, coercive and controlling behaviour does not always end on separation. In fact, separation is a high-risk time, as the behaviour is likely to escalate, often resulting in stalking and, in some cases, homicide.
Do we really need more legislation? Surely domestic violence is a crime? No, it is not. The laws used to prosecute domestic violence, including assault, burglary, property, breach of a restraining order, rape, kidnap and murder, do not describe its essence. Patterns of power and control are missed. It misses the fact that domestic violence is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts. The totality of the behaviour and the non-physical manifestations of power and control that define an abusive relationship do real harm to victims and are currently not recognised in criminal law.
I very much welcome the Government’s change to the definition and their plans to change the law. If the victim’s plight is not recognised adequately in law, she—in this case—will be the one under pressure to leave, possibly becoming homeless in the process, whereas, if the law recognises the crime of coercive control and the way in which it can socially exclude women by robbing them of all confidence, if not their freedom, the perpetrator will often instead be the one who is forced to leave. So in what ways could the law be strengthened? The Home Office’s updated definition of domestic abuse provides an excellent starting point for defining the crime of coercive control. It should be a course of conduct crime in which the crime is recognised in a pattern of behaviours versus single incidents, and these are behaviours with the clear purposes outlined in the definition. Women know that by leaving their partner they face the very real threat of homelessness. Proportionate legal redress leading instead to the removal of the partner from the family home would make this less likely.
For the law to fulfil its primary function of achieving justice and to retain respect from the society it regulates, it must adapt to evolving societal understandings of wrongdoing. Forty years ago there was little recognition of the wrongdoing involved in domestic abuse. We now understand that physical violations are just as harmful if not more so when perpetrated by family members than by others. The law now needs to evolve to reflect a second major new understanding—that all too often the worst violations, harms and malicious intentions in domestic abuse are in strategic patterns of control and subjugation.
I wish to briefly comment on the role played by police and crime commissioners, especially those for whom domestic abuse is a priority. Here I pay tribute to Vera Baird, who is the lead PCC in this area, and to Nick Alston, the PCC in my home county of Essex, where it is the only crime type as a key area for focus in the police and crime plan. This is unsurprising when there are more than 80 emergency calls every single day for Essex police to attend a domestic abuse incident, compared with around 20 house burglaries or attempted burglaries each day. Every one of these incidents has the potential to lead to very serious consequences. The Essex police force has rightly been criticised for failing to protect victims of this abuse between 2008 and 2011, and over the last two years one person every two months has been killed in domestic incidents.
Protecting the victims of domestic abuse requires strong partnership working between the police and other agencies. At a time when resources are constrained across the public sector, we need imagination, bravery and openness from all the relevant agencies to ensure that, when services shrink, they shrink together, remaining firmly linked, rather than shrinking apart. The new multiagency safeguarding hubs are working well in many areas, and I am delighted that we now have one fully operational in Thurrock, in Essex. Every one of the agencies involved in tackling domestic abuse, whether social care, the police, probation, health, education or housing, should take a risk on information sharing. Data protection should be there to protect people and to keep them safe. There must be safeguards—but surely we should dare to share to protect women and children.
This is about culture change as well as procedures and processes; it needs leadership and sharing of best practice. I believe that PCCs can play a crucial role. In Essex, Nick Alston is challenging and supporting Essex police as they continue to improve their provision of support for victims as they more aggressively target perpetrators. He is also chairing a county-wide strategy board that brings the leaders of all the key organisations together to deliver the step-change that we need to reduce this awful hidden harm that pervades our communities.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and my noble friend Lord Farmer on their excellent maiden speeches. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, for the opportunity to debate these issues.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has already said, the issues of homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion of women are linked. In particular, it is male violence against women that lies behind many of these problems. For example, as my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield said, the homeless charity, St Mungo’s, reports that half of its female clients have experienced domestic violence compared with only 5% of its male clients. Research already referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, shows that between 50% and 80% of women in prison have experienced domestic or sexual violence. Two-thirds of domestic violence survivors say that their problematic substance misuse began following domestic violence. The evidence is compelling, not only that women are disproportionately victims of domestic violence and abuse, almost always but not exclusively perpetrated by men, but that violence and abuse lies behind much of the homelessness and social exclusion faced by women.
In July, the Government published the latest research and evidence of what works in the prevention of violence against women and girls. It talks about “discriminatory social norms” in relation to violence against women. This paper was published by the Department for International Development and was focused on countries overseas. It is time that we woke up to the fact that there are discriminatory social norms in the UK that result in violence against women. Much of male violence against women is the result of inequality between men and women, a culture of male privilege and male dominance, and a sense of entitlement, supported by sexism. The issues are compounded by underreporting of domestic and sexual violence. I was the victim of same-sex domestic violence; I was a police officer at the time and I did not report it. I was able to throw him out eventually, but imagine the position of many female survivors of domestic violence who are reliant on their abusers, not only financially but for their accommodation. They are even less likely to report such matters.
In addition, there are issues surrounding the response of the police when domestic violence is reported. A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary said that the police often fail to see domestic abuse, particularly in its non-violent form, as a serious crime. There is nothing more serious than feeling unsafe in your own home. Because of the massive underreporting of these offences, there is inadequate funding to address the aftermath, in terms of care of survivors, and inadequate funding for prevention, in tackling the underlying discriminatory social norms.
While I welcome the Government’s expansion of the definition of domestic violence to include any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive behaviour, it is neither a statutory definition, nor is there a specific criminal offence of domestic violence. I fully support the comments of my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington in that respect.
We have seen the Government recently support new laws—for example, extending child cruelty to include behaviour that causes emotional harm—in cases where the Government had previously said that existing laws were sufficient. We heard similar arguments deployed this week against the Government in the debate on the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill. Many noble Lords argued that the legislation was unnecessary as it was covered by existing laws, but the Government defended the Bill because, among other reasons, it sent a clear message.
We need to send a clear message to the perpetrators of domestic violence, and to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, that the essence of domestic violence is controlling behaviour and coercive control, and make such behaviour a specific criminal offence. Why does public-spirited activity deserve the protection of specific legislation while domestic abuse, mainly perpetrated by men against women, does not? We need a change of culture in this country towards women, the rules of gender and patriarchy. It may not be as much of an issue as it is in some overseas countries, but it is an issue in the UK none the less, and it is about time we admitted it.
We can start with compulsory personal, social and health education that teaches respect for women and with proper funding for women’s organisations that make up 7% of all registered charities but receive only 1.2% of central government funding. While localism is to be welcomed, with no ring-fence and the Government not prepared to influence local commissioning, too many local authorities have gone for the cheapest option when it comes to refuges for the survivors of domestic violence, run by generic providers giving a poorer service and less support.
Local, community-based organisations are trying to deal with the underlying issues of violence against women and girls. Meanwhile many local authority refuges no longer accept children, provide no out-of-hours support, and will accommodate survivors only from within their own local authority area, when the last thing a survivor wants is to remain in the local area where there is a chance she will encounter her abuser. Much needs to be done and that requires a change of attitude in society and across the political spectrum. I do not know whether this is what a feminist looks like, but it is what a Liberal Democrat looks like.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate initiated by my noble friend Lady King. I also welcome the contributions in their maiden speeches from my noble friend Lady Rebuck and the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. They both brought very different, but very particular contributions, which we can all learn from and think about.
I come to this debate with a long history of being involved in this sort of work. I was involved in setting up of one of the first women’s refuges in Sunderland—I do not like to tell your Lordships that it was over 40 years ago. I have worked professionally and politically around these issues and now chair an organisation based on Tyneside that has centres around the country, including many of the women’s centres that were set up following the Corston report on alternatives for women in the criminal justice system. The charity, now called Changing Lives, has a range of activities. It was initially set up in Newcastle around homelessness, but I am pleased that it has now recognised that you cannot understand homelessness without taking account of a much wider range of issues that affect the person or family who eventually becomes homeless.
The majority of our client group are women, but that is because we have expanded into providing women’s centres. We also do a lot of work with people with addictions and have an absolutely remarkable project—at the moment only in Newcastle but other areas are now looking at it—where women, once they have been through the 12 steps programme and are clear of drugs and drink, get the opportunity to go into a residential setting with their children. They may have lost a child or children to care or be in danger of doing so. This is a real opportunity, with very good parenting work, to enable women to get through an addiction and to look after their children effectively themselves. The local authority without any prompting was able to tell Louise Casey on a recent visit to Newcastle how much money it had saved by this method, rather than by taking children into care.
We know that many women with the poorest outcomes have themselves been victims of childhood and domestic abuse of some sort. Almost all the service users that we have worked with, male and female, would say that they have had experience of abuse in childhood or at some stage of their lives. That is really shocking. If noble Lords read the reports from Louise Casey around troubled families—much of that work, although it is never acknowledged, grew out of work that I was doing as Minister for Social Exclusion and that we did in the respect programme in the previous Government —they will find evidence of the acceptance that violence is simply part of daily life and something that has to be put up with. The case studies are deeply shocking because those are exactly the norms that we should not be living with and accepting in our society.
When I tried to include domestic violence in the public service agreement target in the last Government around dealing with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in society, I found that we could not include domestic violence because we did not have sufficiently robust figures. That fits in with the arguments from the Benches opposite that we have to have domestic violence recorded as a separate crime. I support that.
The impact of childhood abuse dominates adult lives and increases the likelihood of engaging in destructive adult relationships. We find that many of the women we work with have children who end up being cared for by other family members, the local authority or somebody else because they have not been able to deal with parenting. That is why we established the programme I have talked about. However, the guilt, shame and stigma associated with their perceived failure as mothers are a further huge burden on them that exacerbates their drug or alcohol abuse, which unfortunately is sometimes used as a solution for blocking out their feelings of guilt and so on.
The experience in the charity that I chair is that the effect of domestic abuse on the lives of our service users simply cannot be underestimated. There are wide-ranging implications for women on top of the emotional and physical abuse. They are often labelled as chaotic and unco-operative and their attendance at appointments is low, but they are trying to hold together a home. If the abuser is around, they do not want to leave the children and then they lose out, given the way that we administer our support and services. That is why I keep saying that too many of the people whom I know and work with are sanctioned in the welfare system, and this is a huge issue for them.
There are many more things that I would say if there were time, but what I will say is that we need to understand that many women become homeless because of all these other problems that they have experienced. Those who might have ended up on the street often do not do so because they choose sex work as a means of keeping somewhere to live. We drive women into more abuse and abusive relationships because we do not support them at the right time. I want to press the Government to work with those in the charitable sector who provide ways forward but know that this has to be done in a much more holistic way and much earlier so that the problems do not cost us, or the women, as much down the line.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, for securing this debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, on a masterly maiden speech, and the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on a moving and very pertinent maiden speech. I am sure that we will hear much more from them both in the future.
As has already been said, this is an important topic and one which blights the lives of many women. Homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion are all inextricably linked, with domestic violence being at the heart of many problems. This is not a problem confined to the city and urban regions; it goes countrywide, and even in the most idyllic villages women can suffer domestic abuse. It is often harder for women who are isolated in rural settings to get support and help. The shame attached to being the victim of abuse prevents them reaching out for help and support. The average number of times that a woman will suffer domestic violence incidents before she reports them is 32. This means that some will suffer many more instances before they bring themselves to admit that they are a victim and get help.
Those working in adult social care now routinely check for domestic abuse and report the isolation experienced by people who are physically disabled, are older or have a sensory impairment. Living in rural areas is a very real problem. This makes those who are additionally affected by domestic abuse a significant problem.
As we know and have heard, perpetrators are skilled in making the victims feel that they are to blame for what has happened to them. Victims feel that they must have done something to bring the abuse on themselves and that they must hide their inadequacies from their neighbours, friends and families. They shut themselves away until the physical signs have lessened.
In the spring of this year, Somerset County Council commissioned a review of its community-based services for domestic abuse. The national charity Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse completed this review for the council in June. Somerset, like many other local authorities with shrinking budgets, is reviewing its commissioning priorities. Specialist domestic abuse services are due for review and Somerset wishes to use the information gathered to inform its services. Since government money for this area of work is no longer ring-fenced, there is a natural nervousness that other services will take priority and that this vital service for the most vulnerable in our society will suffer as refuges close and support is withdrawn.
The CAADA research assessed the likely prevalence of domestic abuse and estimated need in Somerset. The number of female victims experiencing all levels of domestic abuse was estimated at 8,000. Of these, 2,000 were assessed as high to medium risk, and 40% of this group were assessed as needing a multi-agency risk assessment conference—or MARAC, as it is known. During the 12 months to December 2013, the number of cases going through a MARAC was 527. Thirty-three per cent of these cases were repeat referrals and 30% had been referred via routes other than the police. The number of police incidents at all risk levels during the same period was 6,281, and the estimated total number of children living in households with any risk level of domestic abuse was 6,000 to 6,500. That is an awful lot of children in Somerset who are living daily with the threat of domestic violence.
The women most likely to suffer domestic violence are in the 21 to 30 age bracket, with 36% in Somerset in this group. This is the group most likely to have young children. Of all victims, whatever their age, 63% have children, and the severity of abuse is ranked as 62% high risk and 27% medium risk.
Domestic violence is abhorrent and has a devastating effect on those who suffer. As has been said, women lose confidence, become demoralised and live in fear. This in turns paves the way for mental health problems and ultimately, in many cases, homelessness. I am proud that my party has led the way on ensuring that those who need access to mental health care will now get that help, and get it when they need it. It is key to ensuring that lives are turned around and that victims are in a position to take control of their lives.
Domestic violence is often self-perpetuating, as we have heard. A child who has been brought up witnessing their mother being subjected to physical abuse on a regular basis will often grow up to be an abuser themselves or to suffer abuse. This is what they have been used to and so they think it is normal. Their childhood has been tainted, they have lived in fear and they have often had to flee their homes at short notice in order to avoid further harm.
Some years ago when entering the Underground, I came across a woman and a child sleeping on cardboard alongside a man who was regularly there. Women do not sleep rough with their children unless they are truly desperate. Mercifully, the couple I saw were there only for the one night and I sincerely hope that they found safety.
We must do all we can to stop the abuse, prevent the appalling social isolation suffered by victims and prevent the homelessness which occurs as a result of women being forced to leave the family home. This is a terrible blight on our society. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for securing this debate.
I have spoken several times in your Lordships’ House on these issues. It is of course dreadful that women in our communities and in our society face homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion. We will all have witnessed the effect these can have on women and those around them. What is most unfortunate is that these issues do not happen in isolation. One can lead to the other and some women suffer all three. These cases are nothing short of tragedies. So many women’s lives are ruined by these issues and their great potential wasted. It also has a huge effect on their families.
There are many more incidents of abuse which are not reported and, as a society, we must not allow this to continue. For a number of victims, the act of reporting domestic violence is an emotive and traumatic experience which can divide families and friends and result in social exclusion. The manner in which the police in England and Wales respond to domestic violence was condemned earlier this year in a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary which described the matter as “alarming and unacceptable”. Research suggests that a number of adults who witness domestic violence as children are perpetrators of violence against their partners. Domestic violence against women often takes place in households where children are present. In some cases, these children are also victims of abuse. There should be an increase in support services for children who have witnessed abuse and for those who are victims of domestic violence.
We must do all we can to support women in seeking protection. That is why I am pleased that the Government have decided to continue to provide legal aid in private family law cases where domestic violence is a feature. I also welcome the fact that they have widened the definition of domestic violence to include both verbal and physical abuse. Domestic abuse is not just physical. It can also mean appalling emotional attacks and controlling behaviour. This can particularly be a factor in forced marriages, which are an issue in certain communities. Eighty per cent of cases of forced marriage involve girls. There have been positive steps on this in recent years. I have been involved in tackling the issue of forced marriages relating to people emanating from south Asia. It is important that we continue to address them through education and by encouraging the involvement of leaders and members of the communities in which these practices are taking place.
I strongly encourage the Government to look at strengthening the law to introduce a single offence to remove any possible ambiguity regarding harassment in relationships. We must also make sure that women are made aware of those men who are a threat to them before they themselves become victims of domestic abuse. I agree with the principle that those who serve time in prison should be rehabilitated and go on to live normal lives, but we must also protect women from those who may still be dangerous. I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce Clare’s Law, allowing police to disclose to individuals details of their partners’ abusive pasts. Not all those who commit acts of domestic abuse will still be dangerous but women should be able to make informed decisions about their relationship.
Although our economy is improving, I know that a number of people are still feeling the effect of the recession. It is thought that the economic climate could have the effect of increasing acts of domestic violence in households that are struggling to make ends meet. The economic impact on victims is also felt through loss of earnings and prolonged periods of unemployment, particularly for women. It is therefore essential that victims of domestic violence are given practical support that includes counselling, emergency accommodation, support during court proceedings, and help in obtaining protection orders. I ask my noble friend the Minister to comment on this in her closing remarks.
There are a number of charities doing excellent work to support victims of domestic abuse. However, I would like to draw attention to one in particular, Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse. CAADA is a charity that receives funding from Her Majesty’s Government. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s proposal to introduce a new criminal offence of domestic abuse to include emotional and psychological harm. Coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic violence. It is vital that victims should be able correctly to identify the behaviour they are experiencing as abuse. Criminalising such behaviour may help the relevant authorities to look for patterns of continually abusive behaviour rather than isolated incidents. This demonstrates that the Government are committed to addressing this issue, which is a strain on the lives of victims and their dependants.
We will not see an end to domestic violence until we modify attitudes. One of the most effective ways to do this is by empowering the next generation of young men and women with the knowledge to make a lasting difference and effect changes in their attitudes towards their partners while helping the victims. Victims must have confidence that they will receive the protection and justice they deserve from the relevant authorities.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady King of Bow for introducing this important debate on the plight of women facing homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion, and I congratulate the two noble Lords on their excellent and moving maiden speeches.
Government and society have a duty to help women who find themselves in these intolerable conditions, not only for their good but for that of their children and the communities in which they live. This debate is especially timely as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, chaired by my noble friend Lady Corston, is about to launch a new inquiry into the unnecessary criminalisation of women. In this country today there are 3,917 women in prison: 4.6% of the prison population of nearly 86,000. This new inquiry will build on the work of the Howard League for Penal Reform which shows that the vast majority of women involved in the criminal justice system do not need to be there. Women are still criminalised too quickly and better ways to prevent this must be found. The inquiry will look at the role of many agencies which should intervene at a much earlier stage.
The areas discussed today all play a role in the ultimate unnecessary criminalisation of vulnerable women. This new inquiry will look at what these other agencies, both statutory and voluntary, are doing to protect women at risk. Evidence will be sought from central and local government, as well as the criminal justice system. There is a growing consensus that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, secure housing, debt management, education, skills development and employment. Community services, especially those provided by women’s centres, enable women to take control of their lives, care for their children and address the causes of their offending.
The Prison Reform Trust, in its excellent report, Brighter Futures, recommends that:
“Central government should fund a national network of women’s centres, projects and services as these are critical to improved outcomes for women in contact with the criminal justice system”.
However, as this debate shows, it is also imperative to deal with the circumstances that propel too many women into the criminal justice system. When we look at their lives it becomes clear that many are victims before ever offending. More than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, while a similar proportion have been victims of domestic violence. The Women and Girls at Risk coalition, a new network of charities and grant-making organisations, has recently published a literature and evidence review which makes disturbing reading. Girls are at greater risk of most kinds of abuse, including severe maltreatment by a parent during childhood and child sexual abuse. The sexual abuse of girls is more likely to be perpetrated by family members, to begin at an earlier age and to occur repeatedly. Girls and women in disadvantaged circumstances are at greater risk of some kinds of abuse. Poor women are more likely to experience more extreme domestic violence and sexual and physical abuse as both children and adults. It is a vicious cycle whereby women who become homeless, misuse drugs and who are involved in criminality are highly likely to experience further violence.
It is widely acknowledged that early disadvantage is highly significant in later outcomes. The early years must be a major focus for intervention; yet we have seen too many Sure Start centres close. There is strong evidence that the key risk factors in early life are poverty, poor maternal health and education, poor attachment, poor parenting and an impoverished home-learning environment. The seed is sown early on and too many girls between the ages of 12 and 14 reach a breaking point if they have already experienced childhood abuse and neglect, domestic violence, parental mental health problems and substance use and family breakdown. They in turn are more likely to become sexually active, begin to use alcohol and drugs, run away from home and be suspended from school.
The peak age for offending behaviour for girls is 15. Eighty per cent of girls who offend will have criminal careers lasting fewer than 12 months, but if those two in 10 first-offending girls who are at risk of ongoing involvement in crime could be identified and helped at this stage, it could change their lives for the better without recourse to care homes. Thirty one per cent of women in prison have spent time in local authority care. Young women who have been in the care system may be at particular risk when they go out into the world. They often have no ongoing support, are estranged from their families and find themselves homeless. The charity Crisis has found that 28% of homeless women formed an unwanted sexual partnership and 20% have engaged in sex work. This increases the risk of dependency on criminals who exploit them by forcing them into prostitution and drug dealing. Forty eight per cent of women in prison committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else.
Providing safe shelter for vulnerable women must be given greater resources. Women’s Aid found that, on a typical day in 2013, 155 women were turned away from a refuge because there was no space for them. Across England there is a shortfall of 1,727 beds in specialist domestic violence refuges. Women’s Aid is calling on the Government to commit to preserving the national network of specialist refuges. St Mungo’s points out that many hostels and day centres for homeless people predominantly work with and are designed for men, so women are not catered for. I hope that the Government will take note of St Mungo’s report, Rebuilding Shattered Lives which calls on them to ensure that the Troubled Families programme addresses the needs of girls who are at risk of homelessness in adulthood by identifying girls who need support.
All the evidence points to the continued need to ensure that there is a system of integrated, holistic women-centred services for these women at risk. Women’s centres must continue to be funded after March next year. The alternative is the continuing imprisonment of women for non-violent crimes which destroys their lives and the lives of their children.
My Lords, it is a privilege to thank my noble friend for her compelling call to unite on this very important matter. We have walked a very long journey into this House and I commend her efforts on the issues of homelessness and violence against women. She draws attention to the tragic and continuous cycle of misery in which too many women and their families are trapped in the stigma of homelessness, which then further reinforces social isolation.
I have spoken to a number of organisations, such as the Jagonari Centre, Southall Black Sisters, and Women’s Aid, which all reinforce what has already been said this morning about the alarming rate of drastic cuts that are impacting the services to support the women who are caught up in violence.
I take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lady Rebuck on her passion for literacy and education; I look forward to hearing from her. I also extend my warmest congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. I was deeply touched by his speech and his courage in sharing his personal experience, for which I thank him. It greatly reinvigorates the discussion.
The experience of the women’s organisations is much reiterated by the St Mungo’s report, which says that almost half its homeless clients were the victims of domestic violence. Many of them will become homeless to escape their abusers, often leaving vulnerable women cut off from other familiar social support structures, resulting in further exclusion. We all know that addressing domestic violence and abuse would significantly reduce homelessness.
I particularly welcomed the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. His contribution, and that of the church in dealing with domestic violence, is much noted, particularly in Tower Hamlets and Newham where I have experience of working. I began that work at the age of 21—I am not ashamed to say that I am now 55—so it was almost 30 years ago. I worked with women and child sexual abuse victims when it was very difficult within the social services. Women were very scared to take part and risk being targeted by perpetrators. I have seen all too clearly the victims and survivors of brutal violence and child sexual abuse, and I am saddened and dismayed that so little seems to have changed in the experience of those who are abused. We know only too well that abusers can still be protected. Women and children are still scared to report abuse. Institutions with legal and moral responsibility to protect still continue to fail thousands of women and children across our country. There are thousands of ongoing investigations, as reported only this morning by LBC. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, that given the numbers, we may have become desensitised to the tragic consequences of violence against women.
While we have more and tougher laws, and greater public awareness and recognition of this problem, de facto changes in our culture and society would not appear to have kept pace with de jure changes to reporting and their experience of the criminal justice system. Therefore, as suggested by the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, I support the Government in considering mandatory reporting. That would go a long way to ensuring that we at least understand the numbers and the level of the problem.
There is a current fiasco about sexual abuse and domestic violence perpetrated against women allegedly by those in high office—from the corridors of power to the studios of the BBC, to the hospitals and institutions set up to care for the young and frail. Having worked as a social worker, I fail to understand how we came to assume that those who are in trusted and in positions of authority would be peculiarly exempt from these crimes when we have long known that abuse and violence are the very pernicious expressions of power and control. The infamous abuse of patients at Winterbourne View care home epitomised the vulnerability of those with learning difficulties at the hands of trusted institutions and eroded public faith in our care system, breaking down the notion that violence against disabled people occurs only at home.
I am pleased that the Care Act was recently passed to put the notion of well-being at the heart of our care system, although I was disappointed that the Government did not amend the eligibility criteria for social care to include “risk of abuse” even if the guidance was strengthened. I hope that this change, for which I have lobbied alongside the National Autistic Society, will be made, bearing mind the fact that those with a disability or learning difficulties are even more vulnerable.
Just as homelessness, social exclusion and domestic violence are all connected and often converge in individual instances of human misfortune, disability, race and gender also combine to affect people’s susceptibility to such problems. Last year, a little under twice as many women as men were reported to have been victims of domestic abuse. The figures are worse for those with disabilities. In general, women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violence and abuse as those without disability. Studies also reveal that women with disabilities are less likely to seek help when they are victims of violence.
The picture gets worse. Women’s Aid produced a report highlighting the link between disability and domestic violence among women. It showed that disabled women are likely to experience abuse over a longer period and suffer severer injuries than non-disabled women, and that in general they may be limited in their capacity to escape abuse and less likely to seek help. When they do seek help, services are often inappropriate to their particular needs. It is essential, therefore, that domestic violence services have access to disability-awareness training and information so that they understand and adjust to the complex needs of those in question.
As the Government seek to restore trust in our care system following the abuses exposed at Mid Staffordshire Hospital and Winterbourne View, they must take into consideration the emotional hardship of those in care who are sent to facilities hundreds of miles from home. I have heard doctors say that in hospital patients with friends and relatives, particularly those of a pushier, articulate variety who visit regularly, tend to secure the best quality of care. Their visitors will notice dehydration or a lack of cleanliness and will ensure something is done. That is not right. Responsibility of care cannot be dispensed on the basis that certain families are more watchful while others are more trusting.
I have already taken too much time and have too much to say. I urge the Government and the Minister in particular to ensure that those with disabilities are at the heart of our response when we come to tackle domestic violence.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, on securing time for this debate on this very important, if rather depressing, subject. I also congratulate the two maiden speakers on brilliant and moving contributions. If anyone queries the diversity of background of Members of your Lordships’ House, I shall refer them to the Official Report of today’s proceedings and to those maiden speeches in particular.
I should declare two interests, which, although they are set out clearly in the register of Members’ interests, I feel that I must mention explicitly. They are directly related to what I want to say.
First, I have a relationship with a private company, 3M, to which I am a strategic adviser. This company pioneered the technology that I intend to discuss. Although I discovered the technology independently, on a visit to New York, long before I was approached by 3M to advise it, the company is nevertheless a key player in this field and I have a commercial relationship with it.
Secondly, I want to mention that I am the founding chairman of a not-for-profit company called the Public Safety Forum. The forum is relevant to our debate today because its mission is to encourage the use of science and technology to make the police more effective and our communities safer. I propose to discuss the use of technology to make the victims of domestic violence safer.
In her introduction to the Government’s action plan, A Call to End Violence against Women and Girls, published in March, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary states:
“Supporting victims must be at the heart of our approach. … I want to ensure that the police and other agencies have the right tools in place to protect victims”.
That is precisely what the technology that I have in mind will do. It will give the police and other agencies a powerful tool to protect victims. In doing so, it will enable victims of domestic violence to go about their ordinary, everyday lives without being in constant fear that they may be the victims of sudden and unforeseen attack.
What is this technology and how does it work? Known as a domestic violence proximity notification system, the technology provides victims with early alerts that their potential attacker is in the vicinity, whether the victims are at home, at work, with friends or on the move. It does this by fitting the potential attacker, to whom I shall refer to as the offender—which I prefer to “perpetrator”—with a securely attached radio frequency or RF ankle tag and by giving him a GPS tracking unit, which he must carry with him whenever he leaves his home location.
If the offender tries to tamper with the ankle tag or leave home without the GPS tracking device linked to it, an alert will be generated at the 24/7 monitoring centre associated with this scheme. Once the offender is provided with this kit, his location is then continuously tracked by the monitoring centre using GPS. His RF ankle bracelet provides an additional layer of protection when GPS location information is unavailable—when the offender is underground, for example—or if a cellular connection is not possible, such as in areas of poor cellular reception.
Whenever the offender fitted with equipment attempts to enter a predefined restricted zone, within 500 metres of the victim’s home or workplace, for example, or wherever the victim happens to be at the time, the technology generates an alert. This is transmitted to the victim who is given a portable GPS alarm unit that she carries with her at all times. The portable alarm unit generates an audible and visual signal to alert her that the offender is within the restricted zone—that is, nearby. The victim’s device also has an in-built panic-button feature.
In the demonstration that I saw in New York, the 24/7 monitoring unit played a key role. When the alarm was triggered, the specialists in the unit alerted the offender that he was entering a restricted zone and advised him to leave it. They also informed the victim that the offender was within the restricted zone and, in the event of the offender ignoring the advice and not leaving the zone, the centre notified the police to respond to the potential attack.
It all sounds too good to be true, but there is nothing very new about this technology. It is in fact in use in our criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice currently uses similar GPS tracking technology as part of its electronic monitoring of offenders programme. GPS tracking of offenders round the clock is one of the options that the magistrate is free to impose. The new Ministry of Justice GPS tags can also be fitted to prisoners who are given temporary release from prison to make sure that they are abiding by the terms of their release.
In July this year, my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor, introducing the technology, said:
“Monitoring the movements of dangerous and repeat offenders will be vital in cutting crime, creating a safer society with fewer victims and ultimately offering greater protection and reassurance to the public”.
This sounds good, but I am sure that many of your Lordships will be wondering whether this is appropriate to domestic violence.
In Spain this technology has been in use for domestic violence purposes since 2009. There are currently 700 couples in the scheme, which is used under bail and prison release conditions. Since the scheme’s introduction I understand that the incidence of domestic violence between couples in it has dropped significantly and there has not been a single case of domestic-related homicide.
I am delighted to say that two outstanding police and crime commissioners, Vera Baird in Northumbria and John Dwyer in Cheshire, are keen to trial this technology in this country and to do so under the supervision of independent experts whose findings would be made publicly available.
Unfortunately, the present rules make such trials difficult, if not impossible, as this equipment cannot be fitted to domestic violence offenders without their agreement. To enable these trials to proceed and to produce sound lessons for the rest of the country, the Home Secretary needs to amend the present rules so that this tracking equipment can be used in cases of domestic violence, perhaps in association with domestic violence protection orders.
As noble Lords know, from April 2015 support services for victims will be transferred to local police and crime commissioners, who will be looking for every means to keep women and girls in their communities safe. This technology appears to be a cost-effective, reliable and secure way of doing so. The sooner we test it, the better.
Finally, I urge the Minister to persuade my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to do whatever is necessary to permit those trials to go forward as a matter of urgency. As the Home Secretary herself has said, she is committed to giving the police the right tools to protect victims. This technology would appear to fit that bill perfectly.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, for initiating this debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, and the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on their moving and inspirational speeches. We look forward to many more. I also take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal on her return to the government Benches. It will not surprise her to hear me, as a woman on these Benches, say the more the merrier—more please.
The noble Baroness, Lady King, has managed to take three complex areas of social policy and combine them in one impressive debate. They are complex in part because the reasons behind the homelessness of women are sometimes hard to detect and far too often hidden away. They are complex indeed, but at the heart of this debate is a very simple truth, which is that there is a terrible cost when a woman has no home, no escape from violence and no apparent way back from social exclusion, as was so movingly described by the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. It is likely that the cost is not just to her but to the children she may have with her, and to us as a nation as they grow up.
What is striking from all the information provided is how a child growing up in such circumstances is in real danger of getting into a similar cycle of being excluded from the system. Indeed, anyone who has seen someone grow up under the shadow of domestic violence will know that those scars run very deep. That is why the Troubled Families project led by Louise Casey has such significance, trying to capture and work with those children and families, ensuring that families learn those small steps—getting up and being clean, fed and off to school or work each day—which are all part of re-engaging with society. The Government’s introduction of the project and welcome extension of the scheme to an additional 400,000 of the most problematic families will, I believe, be looked back on one day as a turning point for those who are currently in a world that is almost unrecognisable. The recent news that 70,000 families’ lives have already been turned around is something that we should watch and review with interest.
I noted what the noble Baroness, Lady King, said right at the beginning about ideology. I believe that sometimes ideology overwhelms practical steps in this area. If we had moved away from ideology, perhaps today’s debate would be very different—if while selling homes under right to buy Baroness Thatcher had also built one or two at the same time and, likewise, Tony Blair after her. Lack of supply and the alternatives on offer mean that women are often hidden, reluctant to access mainstream homelessness services such as hostels, often because of concerns about safety, violence and sexual exploitation by other service users.
It is not much of a surprise that the Salvation Army, one of the biggest providers of services to homeless and vulnerable people, says that women will go to great lengths to stay away from the usual services, resorting instead to what was described by my noble friend Lady Tyler as sofa-surfing. In one case study, the person spent two years on different friends’ sofas, which is not unusual, particularly among homeless women. After all, how safe would any of us feel in some of the temporary accommodation currently on offer in these circumstances? That is why I am pleased that my own party’s policy is about getting to that target of a major programme of housebuilding, increasing the rate of construction until we reach at least 300,000 houses a year, using untapped sources of finance and giving more freedom to social landlords, local authorities and local communities.
Homeless Link, which represents 500 organisations supporting single homeless people, has reported that nearly a third of people in hostels are ready to move on but, as we all know—having been around this debate many times—there is nowhere suitable to go. I remember in the mid-1990s lobbying on behalf of Shelter for a major housebuilding programme and seeing the eyes of many leading politicians glaze over—including the then shadow Chancellor but with the honourable exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. But we all know that supply lies at the heart of the solution of some of these complex issues. While I understand that some people on this side of the House would not welcome a robust and heated debate on any of these issues, I wish the noble Baroness, Lady King, all the luck in the world in her meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer—I will hold her handbag if she wishes.
I just want to raise one small policy point that illustrates the issue of ideology versus practicality. I think it is ideologically led that the current Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, has put on the table plans to double the fee to file a petition for divorce, charging £750 and making a profit for the state above costs of £30 million. I am absolutely delighted that Simon Hughes in the same department has opposed this. As we all know, women are by far the highest number of applicants for divorce, and among those, inevitably and tragically, there are women who must escape from a violent partner. No one should place top-dollar prices on that woman’s chance to get out of the relationship and no one should turn it into significant profit for the state.
I will close by praising the work of Ann Fowler House in Liverpool, run by the Salvation Army, which works in precisely the area that some noble Lords have described of separate service, working one on one with women who are victims of domestic violence to build skills and support self-esteem. We have heard so many really tragic stories that I thought it would be good to tell one that has a better ending. Joanne came to Ann Fowler House after suffering domestic violence. It was discovered that she had a skill of hairdressing. She has now qualified as a hairdresser. She returns once a week and has very quickly found herself somewhere to live. I thought it would be good to end on a nice note. I hope that this debate, and the debate that the noble Baroness has initiated, leads to more stories like Joanne’s. I thank the noble Baroness for raising it.
My Lords, what an excellent debate and what excellent contributions we have heard from all sides of the House. I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to her place on the Bench as a government Whip. Clearly the coalition could not manage without her—quite right, too. I extend my congratulations to my noble friend Lady King on securing this important debate. We have had two brilliant maiden speeches. My noble friend Lady Rebuck’s speech was a model of its kind and we look forward to further great contributions from her. I have bad news for the noble Lord, Lord Farmer —I am still finding staircases and corridors after 16 years. It takes a long time to find your way around. Perhaps it is like Hogwarts and they move. I enjoyed the noble Lord’s maiden speech very much indeed.
My noble friend Lady King powerfully set the scene in relation to domestic violence, recognising the work of Women’s Aid and the wider issues of homelessness and social exclusion. We know that domestic violence cuts across class, ethnicity and background: it is an issue for all of us. This debate has shown how important it is to recognise the impact of domestic abuse on people’s life chances, their education, housing and indeed happiness. It is clear that domestic and sexual violence is little short of a national scandal and we need to do more.
Statistics have been shared during this debate, and however we look at things the scale of reported incidents is staggering. Women reported more than 12 million incidents of domestic abuse last year. At least 750,000 children in the UK witness violence in their home every year, and two women are killed by their partner or an ex every week. In some areas, one in five 999 calls is about domestic violence. It is a huge drain on our economy as well as a blight on society. Domestic abuse alone costs the UK almost £17 billion per year. My noble friend Lady Armstrong illustrated how well some of the programmes can work and how cost effective they can be. I want to congratulate my honourable friend Seema Malhotra for her work as a shadow Minister, preventing violence against women and girls. Her appointment is a symbol of how important the Labour Party regards this issue.
As many noble Lords have said, there is real and growing concern about the provision for those fleeing domestic violence, and this is what I shall concentrate on first. Women’s Aid has raised the adequacy of commissioning local domestic violence services. This was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Healy. Women’s Aid says that its member organisations are experiencing several problematic commissioning practices. Between April and September 2014 concerns about commissioning processes were raised in 16 areas of the country. Twelve specialist domestic violence services across England lost the services they were providing, through the competitive tendering commissioning process. Several local authorities issued tenders that included local connection rules, meaning that 70% to 80% of refuge spaces in their services must be reserved for women and children with a local connection. One local authority has put its domestic violence services out to tender and has included specific provision for male survivors. However, that is included in the totality of the funding, rather than being an increase in the funding, which means that providing those important services effectively reduces capacity for women survivors and their children. The alarming trend we see for local authorities to impose local rules on refuges effectively dismantles the national network of refuges, and that is very important.
The following is an example of this trend. A 24-hour domestic violence helpline support worker took a late-night call from a housing officer from an emergency duty team. He was trying to find refuge accommodation for a 19 year-old woman with twin babies. The only refuge space available for her across England was in a refuge subject to a local connection rule. The available space matched all the woman’s and children’s needs but she was unable to take the place as she had no local connection. So the woman was instead placed in emergency accommodation in the area she was trying to flee from, which was significantly less safe, and the specialist refuge was left with empty beds, as they were unable to accept her. That is a totally unacceptable situation.
I refer to other examples. Services are being squeezed throughout the country. A few months ago I raised the situation in Cheshire West and Chester at Question Time, after the Conservative council voted to stop funding a number of women’s refuge centres across the region. They have now pulled funding to the centres in Chester, which has had to close, and in Northwich, which faces a very uncertain future, leaving just one for the entire region, in Ellesmere Port. The number of beds available to women has been reduced from 17 to 12 and furthermore they have capped at 20% the number of women and children from outside Cheshire West who are able to seek refuge there. The remaining council service in Ellesmere Port is working with the housing sector to provide secure premises but these do not offer the same level of support as a refuge.
This is the reality of this Government's approach to vulnerable women, and it is not an isolated incident. The same has happened in Gloucestershire. As a result of funding no longer being ring-fenced, the facilities in Cheltenham, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean have had to close their doors. Only the refuge in Stroud remains open. It has to service the needs of vulnerable women across the entire county. Although the contract has been awarded to new providers who offer some outreach support, they no longer provide the specialist refuge or accommodation-based services. The refuge in Stroud is, not surprisingly, struggling. This, again, is the reality of the Government’s approach to vulnerable women. South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre has in the first four months of this financial year taken as many referrals as in the whole of last year, and there is a five-month waiting list for access to specialist sexual violence counselling services.
Hertfordshire is another place where the pressures on vulnerable women and those trying to help them are increasing: they feel that the system is working against them. An example is the woman testifying against an ex-partner who was told that she might have to appear in court on her son's first day at school, or face contempt of court and arrest herself. In many cases these women have to turn to the voluntary sector to get by. Does the Minister really believe that this is acceptable?
In Plymouth, a combination of government policies has left vulnerable women at even more risk. Services are being pushed to breaking point and in places where domestic abuse incidents have increased—such as Plymouth—it is even more difficult. In the year 2012-13 there were 6,092 domestic abuse incidents recorded in Plymouth, up 5% on the previous year. We know, however, that this figure masks the real truth, as on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she reports it to the police.
Funding cuts are just one of the problems. The coalition’s bedroom tax is also having serious consequences on vulnerable women. “Safe rooms”, where domestic violence victims can take refuge, are considered as spare rooms, so that many women cannot afford to stay in their homes and are left without access to this vital sanctuary.
There are three important areas the Government need to address. First is prevention, in which I would include, as a top priority, sex and relationship education, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate. Consider the challenges faced by our young people today. They are under a lot of pressure to conform, whether through their access to online pornography or through gang culture in some areas. Having compulsory sex and relationship education is about giving those young people the resilience to stand up and make sure their voices are heard.
We need to pay tribute to the work of Women's Aid, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Rape Crisis and others. They do incredible work, but they are under increasing pressure. In my party, my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper has committed a new £3 million annual fund for refuges, to support victims of domestic violence, because we want to see the continuation of a national network of refuges. What are the Government proposing to do?
Finally, we need to improve access to justice, to ensure that there is a joined-up justice system that works fast, gets things right and is cost effective and easy to access. We believe that we need a new commissioner for domestic and sexual violence who would sit in the heart of government to ensure that victims’ voices are heard. We believe that police training needs to be updated and refreshed.
This has been an incredibly important debate. We cannot rest while domestic abuse happens every day in homes across the UK.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for initiating the debate on this important subject and for introducing it with her customary passion and expertise. I also thank noble Lords for their kind words on my return to the fray. I join, too, in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Farmer and to the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lord Farmer confessed himself confused by “west” being “north”, but he has overcome many more challenging hurdles than that in his moving story of survival. He has a great deal to offer to this debate and to this House. His experience and subsequent achievements will, I am sure, benefit us all.
In welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Rebuck, I identify with her words. My husband and hers were both introduced on that list in 2004, a list distinguished by both of them. They are both very much missed. I hope she will find that this House offers many opportunities to contribute and to help to make the world a better place. She has a wonderful record already in that regard. The thoughtful and eloquent words of both our new Members have greatly added to the debate and we look forward to hearing from them both on many occasions.
Many issues raised by noble Lords today are ones of which we are well aware. Generally speaking, women are more likely to be poorer and less likely to control their own destiny. This is as true internationally as it is in this country. There are many challenges and we continue to work to break down those barriers, creating a culture shift that empowers women. Under this Government, there are more women employed in the UK than ever before, with 14.4 million now in employment. Since the coalition Government came to power, that is 711,000 more women in jobs since May 2010.
We know that caring responsibilities disproportionately fall to women. That is why we are introducing a system of shared parental leave from next year and reducing the cost of childcare. We are addressing the gender pay gap and increasing flexible working. Those policies are giving women the help that they need to give them the financial independence which they have so often lacked in the past.
As we know, women can be more vulnerable and disproportionately affected by homelessness related to domestic violence. Statistics show that more than half of people who receive homelessness assistance are women. The homelessness legislation in England provides one of the strongest safety nets in the world for families with children and vulnerable people who become homeless through no fault of their own. Local authorities already adapt their services to meet the needs of homeless women.
Women do not simply become homeless: there are clear reasons why it happens. Domestic abuse can mean that a woman needs to flee her home to protect herself and her children, or a mental health issue may mean that dealing with finances may become overwhelming, leading to the build up of rent arrears. Rather than waiting for a crisis to happen, one of the strengths of today’s homelessness services is that local housing authorities are reaching out to those in need to help them avoid one in the first place. In 2013-14, homelessness prevention work helped to stop homelessness crises happening for more than 200,000 households. That is supported by an investment of £6.5 billion to help households to maintain their tenancies and live independently through housing-related support services.
The type of support provided is wide-ranging and will be tailored to the specific needs of that person. Support could include help to develop life skills, such as understanding a tenancy agreement, or how to pay bills. It could include support services for those fleeing or at risk of domestic violence, adaptations to improve mobility and avoid falls, or support to find appropriate training, or to access education or employment opportunities. Interventions such as family mediation, debt advice, resolving rent arrears or even sanctuary schemes provided by specialist domestic violence services all help to prevent problems escalating out of control. More often than not, it is the local authority working hand in hand with the voluntary and community sector to provide effective support services that vulnerable women really need to get their lives back on track and make a fulfilling contribution to society. I also recognise that, tragically, last year, 77 women lost their lives at the hands of a current or former male partner. That is the lowest number of intimate partner homicides since 1998, but there is precious little comfort in that. Any more than zero is too many.
Domestic violence and abuse is an insidious and terrible crime, and it rightly has the attention of both Houses. Only last week, a debate took place in Westminster Hall to highlight its horrors. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, spoke eloquently during the Report stage of the Serious Crime Bill about criminalising coercive behaviour. My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to that in her speech.
Noble Lords will know that the Home Office has recently concluded a consultation on whether the law on domestic abuse needs to be strengthened. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly. We heard a powerful contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, on that. Domestic abuse cuts across all social boundaries and cultures, disempowering women financially, emotionally and practically. The Government are determined to do all they can to tackle it.
Alongside the £40 million of funding for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services, we have rolled out Clare’s Law and domestic violence protection orders, and placed domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing to make sure that lessons are learnt from individual tragedies. My noble friend Lady Bakewell spoke about the implications in her area of Somerset.
However, introducing new laws can only go so far to break the cycle of abuse which victims suffer. The Government are clear that changing hearts and minds is also required to send a clear message that domestic abuse is never acceptable. It is never too young for children to learn how to respect others and how to grow in self-respect. The right reverend Prelate, my noble friends Lord Paddick and Lord Sheikh, and the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Thornton, all referred to the important role that schools can play in raising young people’s awareness of issues within the PSHE curriculum. I pay tribute to the teaching profession for all it does to encourage positive behaviour in young people. I also draw attention to the pupil premium, which is being used very effectively to help those pupils who are at the greatest disadvantage. The Home Office has also run two successful campaigns aimed at teenagers to help to prevent them from becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse.
The police were referred to by my noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Paddick, the right reverend Prelate, and my noble friends Lady O’Cathain and Lady Jenkin. Following Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s report on the police response to domestic abuse, which highlighted significant failings, the Home Secretary chairs a national oversight group to drive an improvement in the police approach. Following a letter from her to chief constables, action plans to address these failings are now being quality assured by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in partnership with the voluntary and community sector. The Government expect police and crime commissioners to use those action plans to hold their chief constables to account.
We have not stopped there. My noble friend Lord Sheikh mentioned forcing someone to marry against their will. We have now made that a criminal offence. I am proud to say that the UK is leading the fight to stamp out that harmful practice in the UK and overseas. On violence against women, the message from the coalition Government is crystal clear: forced marriage, domestic abuse and other types of abuse are totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
I will try to pick up as many of the questions as I can in the time available. The noble Baroness, Lady King, asked: how do the Government know what is the level of domestic violence services? Decisions on funding are best taken by local authorities, and the Government do not collect information on funding for local services. The noble Baroness asked me to ask the Chancellor to meet Women’s Aid. I will certainly pass on her request and would welcome being part of the meeting, with or without the Chancellor—but I guess that the presence of the Chancellor is her main purpose.
The noble Baroness also mentioned average earnings. In fact, average full-time earnings for men are £556 per week, up 1.8%; for women, they are £489, up 2.2%. So the gap is narrowing, but it is obviously still not close enough.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Newlove for her courage and work in such areas. I welcome her many suggestions and will look closely at Hansard to see which of those we can apply and take up. I also noted her comment that simple solutions are not what is required for complex problems.
I acknowledge the invaluable work of the churches and faith communities. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we always pay heed to what we hear from them about their work as they often have first-hand knowledge of such cases and are the front line of defence. He probably knows that, earlier this year, 200 faith leaders signed a pledge to eradicate female genital mutilation in faith communities. That is a potent gesture and a sign of the work that is being done.
My noble friend Lady Tyler spoke about local homelessness services offering a choice between mixed or single-sex services. They are required to take account of the needs of victims and we hope that they would always consider the preferences of the victims as to where they felt safe. She also movingly mentioned the health of homeless people, with the simple thing of not being able to brush your teeth or wash your hands if you are homeless. We are looking at how to improve access to primary care services and hospital discharge arrangements for the homeless, but there is much work still to do on that score.
Several noble Lords mentioned issues about the police, some of which I have touched on. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the mandatory training of police. Training on domestic violence is already a mandatory element in police training, but we will look at this again with the review that is going on. It is too early to have figures on the domestic violence protection orders that he mentioned, but early indications are that they are working well. It is something that we will need to monitor.
I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for the work that he does, particularly with looked-after and vulnerable children. It is much valued and appreciated. He raised the issue of maternal and perinatal mental health. The Department of Health is working closely with partners to ensure that trained, specialist, perinatal mental health staff are available in every birthing unit from 2017. There is a lot of work going on in this area, too, but awareness has certainly been raised that this is an issue. It is important that these issues are brought to our attention because it is only in that way that measures can be taken to improve things. As the noble Earl also mentioned, a focus on maternal mental health is important, not only for mothers but for children too.
The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, talked about social housing, as did my noble friend Lady Grender. Since 2010 almost 200,000 affordable homes have been built in England and a further £23 billion will help us build another 165,000 affordable homes between 2015 and 2018. That is the fastest rate for at least 20 years. We have a lot of catching up to do in this respect. On the right to buy, for the first time, every additional council home sold under the right to buy will be replaced with a new, affordable home. Related to this is my honourable friend Sarah Teather’s Private Member’s Bill to tackle retaliatory evictions.
My noble friend Lady Jenkin referred to particular cases of domestic abuse work in Essex. We welcome the excellent work of Essex County Council in transforming domestic abuse services across the county. It is rebuilding services to meet the needs of victims for refuge, outreach, support for children and so on. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for her long record in this field. She asked about supporting women with children in care. Housing for Women’s programme to reunite female ex-offenders leaving prison with their children who have been in care has an economic value as well—it saves the taxpayer money but it also helps to reduce reoffending rates to 3% and, of course, reunites families. Programmes such as these are vital in improving people’s futures.
On homelessness and domestic violence, which was touched on by my noble friend Lady O’Cathain, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baronesses, Lady Healy and Lady King, we fund the National Domestic Violence Helpline and UKRefugesOnline so that those looking to find a safe place and the appropriate support can do so quickly. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and to my noble friend Lady Bakewell that funding for refuges has never been ring-fenced, and that when the Supporting People ring-fence was removed in 2009, spending on support for victims of domestic abuse actually rose. I say to my noble friend Lady O’Cathain that refuges have discretion over who they admit.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh asked about legal aid. We have retained legal aid in key areas impacting on women; in particular, for injunctions to protect victims from domestic abuse and for family cases such as child contact or division of assets after separation where domestic violence is a feature. We continue to provide civil legal aid for the victims of domestic violence to apply for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, for raising the issue of women in prison, which is another whole field of debate in association with these issues. The Government will respond to the St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives report shortly and set out our work in support of vulnerable women. Once again, this is an issue that needs to be kept high on the agenda as there is so much that could be done regarding women sent to prison and the negative effects that this has on society as well as on them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, mentioned those with social and learning disabilities and their additional needs. That, too, is something that we shall need to keep an eye on in order to make sure that they do not suffer additional disadvantage because of their inability in one way or another. My noble friend Lord Wasserman mentioned the tagging of domestic violence offenders. I have just been part of the Digital Skills Committee and our eyes have been opened to an amazing range of the wonders of technology. I cannot remember whether we have had this impact of digital technology brought to our attention, but the Government are certainly aware of the huge potential of technology to help protect victims of domestic abuse. We are exploring, with industry, how tagging can be used to protect victims of domestic abuse, but I accept my noble friend’s point that it may need legislation in order to be totally effective.
My noble friend Lady Grender raised concerns about the rising cost of divorce. She is quite right that we would not wish to see people trapped in unhappy marriages because of the rise in the cost of a divorce. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raised a number of issues on prevention and access. I think that, along with other noble Lords, I may need to respond to her in writing.
This has been a very rich, informative and insightful debate. I am conscious that I have not answered all the questions that noble Lords have raised and so I will write to them. I hope that I have offered some reassurance that this Government are totally committed to helping women who face homelessness, domestic abuse and social exclusion. I have outlined some of the significant steps that the coalition Government have taken to transform the opportunities and services available for vulnerable women, supported by the dedication and hard work of local authorities and the voluntary and community sector. This is targeted help that is designed to prevent homelessness and domestic violence happening in the first place by identifying the complex needs that many women have at the point of crisis and helping them to get their lives back on track and make a full contribution to society.
I repeat my congratulations to our two new Peers on their outstanding maiden speeches. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for bringing this debate to our attention and all noble Lords for their participation. It has been insightful and important and I hope that it will help to move some of these issues forward.
My Lords, this genuinely has been an extraordinary debate. I know that everyone always gets up at this point and says that, but I am genuinely moved when I hear politicians at their best; not least because everyone else usually only reads about us at our worst. Having said that, I cannot, in the two minutes available to me, mention all the important contributions that were made. Let me just say that the high quality of debate was exemplified by the two brilliant maiden speeches. These were from my noble friend Lady Rebuck, whom I have admired for many years, and from someone I hope will be my friend—the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. That has scared him. I hope that the noble Lord, a self-confessed hedge fund manager, will take a compliment from me, a self-confessed champagne socialist. The insight and understanding he brought to the debate were breathtaking.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, was less impressed with me and was very disappointed by my opening remarks. I must say, with all the kindness in my heart, I, too, am very disappointed that the very clever people currently running the Treasury are either unaware or do not care that their actions disproportionately harm women. Of course, I take the noble Baroness’s point that no party holds a monopoly on policy solutions. That is exactly why I shelved many of the questions I had for the Minister and asked her, instead, whether she will use all her powers of persuasion to get a meeting with the Chancellor. If George Osborne actually knew, in a little detail, how much harm these cuts cost, if he had heard this debate, he would make cuts elsewhere. The Treasury must understand that supporting women is not a passing PC fad, it is fundamental to the future of our country.