My Lords, on this the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I am pleased to announce that the Government are launching a £10 million fund to support women’s refuge provision. This is not just about short-term funding. We will also be publishing strengthened statutory guidance setting out clear standards for the support that victims can expect to receive. The guidance will also make it clear that support in refuges should be extended to all victims, not just those living locally.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Today is indeed White Ribbon Day, which, apart from anything else, is about men committing to working for the end of violence against women, and I trust that all noble Lords will have taken the pledge to do so.
I return for the third time to the Question that I put to the Minister previously. In a way, he may have answered it, so perhaps he can be specific. It concerns women and children who seek refuge from violence but whose local authorities, like those of Gloucester, the Forest of Dean, Stroud, Cheshire West and Chester, have closed or dramatically reduced access to refuges. That is not consistent with the Government’s policy. Are the Government monitoring the effects on those families of not being able to access a refuge? Does the fund being launched represent new money, and will it be used to make up the deficits of the cuts in those local authorities that have closed refuges?
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this area. I can assure her that this is indeed new money. It underlines the Government’s priority of this issue and follows on from the international summits that my right honourable friend William Hague led, the Prime Minister’s speech at the Girl Summit and the Home Secretary’s cross-ministerial leadership on issues relating to violence against women. This is a specifically new set of funding that will be available to local authorities to tackle those issues. The Government are acutely aware of the specific issues that the noble Baroness has raised, and safeguards in legislation recognise the inherent risks of domestic abuse. This means that victims can apply to any local authority in the country and cannot be referred back to their home authority if they are at risk of violence.
My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient consistency of provision across local authorities and across regions? As has been pointed out, local authorities cannot send women back in those instances where they have suffered domestic violence and abuse. Is he satisfied that there is enough provision wherever they may go and whichever local authority then takes responsibility for them?
My noble friend raises an important point. As with anything, there are examples of good practice and there are other local authorities that need to do more. The Government’s commitment of £10 million will ensure a maximum of new moneys of up to £100,000. Within that, as I have already said, there is statutory guidance now to make clear that support in refuges should be extended to all women, linking up with other support networks in the local area.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that recently the all-party parliamentary group on violence against women and sexual exploitation took evidence from a number of groups, including the national Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis England & Wales? Is he aware that many of the organisations are expressing deep concern about the extensive cuts to their services over a prolonged period? Is he also aware that particularly suffering are the specialist organisations, including those dealing with the effects of domestic violence, forced marriage and so-called honour killing? Will he ensure that they also have funding equally distributed to them?
The noble Baroness raises an important point. I have met with Women’s Aid, which does an incredible amount of work, and I am sure that it will acknowledge the support that the Government are extending, not just with this new funding, which will help local authorities, but to deal with these issues of domestic abuse. Noble Lords should know that 77 women were killed last year from domestic abuse in the UK; I am sure that, for all of us, that is 77 women too many.
What wonderful support, my Lords. Can the Minister assure the House that steps are being taken to equip police forces and accident and emergency units to make sure that adults and children at risk are identified at the earliest possible stage and given the right kind of protection that they need, rather than be sent back into these dangerous situations?
It is always a pleasure to take a question from the noble Lord, who raises an important point about joined-up thinking. The Government are investing a great deal more—whether, for example, through our Troubled Families programme, on which the DWP and the DCLG are working together, or through recent announcements about local health provision. The noble Lord will recall that my honourable friend Jane Ellison made an announcement on how hospitals and doctors’ practices will be encouraged to identify such cases. On policing, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has written to each PCC to ensure that our policy is reflected as a key priority in their programmes.
My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that one of the problems in this field is that large numbers of people in public life refuse to admit the size of the problem, which is that millions of men are smashing up millions of women? Their reply is: “I like to think the best of people and I cannot believe the size of this problem”. We all like to think the best of people, but that does not preclude accurate diagnosis.
My noble friend again raises an important concern that has been relayed to us. Women who are abused in this way sometimes blame themselves, and it is important that we have local experts working at a local level. One of the things that we can perhaps take some comfort from is that, after a slight dip this year, we have seen an increase in referrals to the CPS on this issue. More importantly, there has been an increase of 21% in the last calendar year in prosecutions for this heinous crime committed against women and, on occasions, against children. It needs to be stamped out.
Can I say to the noble Lord how welcome this news is? Can he tell us what efforts, if any, will be made to enhance the opportunity for these women to take advantage of legal aid? He will know that there has been a dramatic reduction in access to legal aid, which is trapping many women in dangerous, life-threatening circumstances.
This funding is on top of the £6.5 billion that we have invested to help vulnerable people, including those suffering from domestic violence. The whole essence of this aid is to focus on those most acutely in need of assistance—to provide, first, a safe refuge and then whatever assistance they may need to overcome being victims of crime. The noble and learned Baroness raised an important issue on assistance through the courts. Of course, extensive advice will be offered. On the specific issue of legal aid, I will write to her.