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Domestic Abuse: Rural Communities

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to help families in rural communities experiencing domestic abuse and other relationship problems.

My Lords, the Government recognise the distinct challenges faced by victims of domestic abuse in rural communities. The new violence against women and girls strategy sets out our ambition that by the end of this Parliament every victim of abuse, irrespective of where they live, will be able to secure the support they need.

I thank the Minister. Noble Lords will know that the recent storyline in “The Archers” electrified the nation and put a spotlight on this issue, showing that early intervention and prevention are much better than cure, as with so many of the social issues that we face. Can the Minister help us understand in particular what the Government are doing to help people in rural communities earlier rather than later?

There is no doubt that the problems faced, particularly in rural areas, could be addressed earlier. Indeed, our nationally acclaimed campaign, This is Abuse, has had an impact. We have invested a further £3.8 million in a new campaign, Disrespect NoBody, which we hope will build awareness of these issues.

This is also an issue for police and crime commissioners to address in their respective areas, since through the police budget, for which commissioners are responsible, they can determine the resources, finances, staff and training, and the priority that will be given to and by their police forces to address domestic abuse. The police and crime commissioners can then hold their chief constables to account, and then be held to account themselves, if those resources are not effectively and appropriately used for the purpose for which they, as commissioners, have allocated them. Can the Minister confirm that that statement—of the key and powerful accountable role and responsibility of police and crime commissioners in addressing domestic abuse and violence in their respective areas—is a correct statement of the position?

The position of the Government is that police and crime commissioners will take a leading role in co-ordinating the response to issues of domestic abuse. Indeed, this will be done in parallel to the national statement of expectations, which is a blueprint for local areas and local partnerships, at the head of which will be our successful commissioners.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the family relationship centres in Australia? These are local hubs co-ordinating family and relationship services; providing integrated, wraparound family and relationship support. Will the Government look at this initiative as a better way of providing a triage service for identifying needs and making referrals to wider services, particularly in rural areas where such services are unlikely to be easily accessible locally?

The Government are already making headway in this area, and indeed have expanded the troubled families programme so that it now includes domestic violence and abuse as one of the six core themes.

My Lords, in his Answer, the Minister mentioned violence. Assiduous followers of “The Archers”, as I confess I am, will know that it escalated into violence only at the very end of the storyline—actually, I do not think we have seen the end yet, by a long way. The issue is coercive control, which by its very nature is subtle and very difficult to identify. Could the Minister expand on his Answer in relation to that?

Of course. I quite recognise the point that is being made, although I have to confess not to being a listener of “The Archers”.

I am obliged for the sympathy of your Lordships’ House. Let us be clear, social isolation is one of the issues that can cause the development of abuse. Social isolation can be made worse because of geographical isolation. Therefore, rural communities can be more susceptible to these developments. What we have to be able to do is come in and deal with these problems at an earlier stage. That is one reason why we introduced the new law in December 2015 with regard to domestic violence, to ensure that coercive behaviour—not necessarily physical—could be addressed more effectively.

My Lords, following on from that point about isolation, with rural areas often isolated from dedicated support services, local clergy can be particularly well placed to act as a conduit between victims and the relevant authorities. Can the Minister inform the House whether any steps are being taken to provide training to local professionals in rural communities, such as clergy and GPs, to help improve reporting and communication and to ensure that victims receive the help they need?

One of the difficulties in rural communities is often that victims will not come forward, even to their general practitioner, for fear that knowledge of their situation will become more widespread. They are concerned by that. That is why we are advancing the national statement of expectations as a blueprint for rural and urban areas in order to bring together a partnership of health experts, social workers, the police and the Church.

My Lords, rural populations also experience a higher suicide rate than urban areas despite comparable depression prevalence. What are the Government doing to prevent these suicides in rural areas?

Clearly, every life lost to suicide is a tragedy. We know that individuals living in rural areas may experience feelings of isolation and that individuals working in some industries, such as agriculture, are at a higher risk of suicide. The national suicide prevention strategy aims to reduce the risk of suicide in high-risk groups. Indeed, in 2014, we launched the crisis care concordat so that there is a crisis care action plan in every local area to support those who may be susceptible to suicide.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in commending the areas that have set up hubs and are working together, such as has happened in Norfolk, where there is a new hub in Diss and organisations are trying to work together? Will he say how the learning from those projects will be promulgated right through services so that we do not have a postcode lottery? If you are domestically abused, you will be fine if there is a service, but not if there is not.

Again, I go back to the national statement of expectations, which is intended as a blueprint for all local areas. In addition, the Home Secretary has made it clear that she wants to go back to the College of Policing in order to ensure that proper training is given to police forces so that they can address these issues.

My Lords, would the Minister care to agree that one of the common threads for people who end up in trouble in the courts and in prison is that they come from violent and abusive backgrounds? While the Government are looking at reforming the Prison Service and reducing juvenile crime, will they also bear in mind that the money spent on combating domestic violence should be linked to their other strategy as well?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. It is quite clear from data that have been collected over the past two years that there is a common factor identified between domestic violence in the family and subsequent conduct on the part of such children. That is why we have expanded the troubled families programme in an effort to address that.