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Gender-based Violence

Volume 777: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are continuing to take to bring down the number of women who are victims of gender-based violence.

My Lords, in March this year we published a new Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy, which sets out an ambitious programme of reform, supported by increased funding of £80 million, to make tackling these crimes everybody’s business, to ensure that victims get the support they need and to bring more perpetrators to justice. We have also introduced a new domestic abuse offence, which captures coercive control, and we have introduced new measures to protect victims of stalking.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that Answer. The Women’s Aid and Nia femicide census, published yesterday, paints an extremely worrying picture. Seventy-six per cent of women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse were killed in the first year of separation. However, on top of that, today we hear that hundreds of police officers have abused their position of trust to sexually exploit vulnerable people. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing to protect and help women at dangerous and vulnerable times, particularly those who manage to leave abusive relationships to start a new life?

The figures released today are absolutely stark. We welcome the work that Women’s Aid has done on the femicide census, and we are committed to working in partnership with it to help improve the response to domestic homicides. Annual statistics on domestic homicide, with a breakdown by gender, are routinely published. The Office for National Statistics has today published aggregated data on domestic homicides over the last three years, broken down at a police force level. Information on women killed by men is also gathered by the Government through domestic homicide reviews, or DHRs, and we have used those data in a DHR lessons learned analysis, which we published yesterday. We have also published updated statutory guidance for DHRs. We will be providing additional funding to roll out further training for chairs of DHRs, and there will be a series of regional events to embed learning and share best practice.

The noble Baroness also asked about police abuse of authority for sexual gain, which is a very important point. It is another shocking finding. It is important to remember that HMIC findings relate to a very small number of police officers and staff, and the vast majority of over 200,000 police personnel are dedicated and passionate about protecting the public. In the new year, the College of Policing will be releasing updated guidance on police and media relationships. The college has also been asked to consider further the feasibility of developing a new supplementary addendum to the code of ethics. However, that is to take nothing away from the shocking findings of today.

My Lords, the Minister has given us a lot of facts, but the truth is that domestic violence and the number of women and girls being murdered is increasing, so whatever it is that the Government are doing, it is not working. That is the problem. Today, 70 Labour MPs have written to the Prime Minister to demand that the Government set a date to ratify the Istanbul convention. The reason why that is important is that all the warm words that we have heard from the Prime Minister, particularly when she was Home Secretary, have not actually led to a decrease in domestic violence. We believe that ratifying this convention and coming forward with a new plan of action that will reduce the level of domestic violence should be a priority, and a funded priority, for this Government.

My Lords, I do not entirely concur with the noble Baroness. I concur with her on one point: yes, the level is increasing. However, what is very pleasing is that reporting is increasing. That is the very good news: women feel confident enough to come forward and report. As to what the Government are doing, I will start on her last point about the Istanbul convention. We are committed to ratifying the convention and we need to take extraterritorial jurisdiction over certain offences to be fully compliant. We will do so when parliamentary time allows. However, we are taking extraterritorial jurisdiction over certain things such as FGM and forced marriage. Therefore, we are already undertaking some of our obligations.

Before I talk more about what the Government are doing, I want to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, who has herself been very involved in this area, as was I in my role in the DCLG and now the Home Office. I was very pleased that, yesterday, stalking protection orders were announced and the national statement of expectation for domestic violence funding on a local level was released. As I said, we also published yesterday analysis about domestic homicide reviews and updated the statutory guidance to ensure that local areas can learn lessons. Last month, the DCLG announced the two-year innovation fund of £20 million to help local areas deal with domestic violence and the seamless journey of women through what is a horrific process. I am sorry that I have gone on a bit too long, but the Government have actually done a lot in this area.

My Lords, it is acknowledged that domestic violence is the primary route for women into the criminal justice system. The women’s community centres have done a great deal of work in the past to assist those women in turning their lives around and escaping this cycle of domestic violence. Those centres are under threat because of the malign effects of the transforming rehabilitation programme, brought in during the last government. Will the Minister use the best offices in her own department and in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that those women’s centres are put in a more secure financial position?

I pay tribute to all the women’s centres and women’s groups, such as Women’s Aid, and all those people who provide so much support to women whose voices otherwise just would not be heard and who would feel too frightened to come forward. I have outlined some of the funding that we are putting into tackling domestic violence, and I look forward to the fruits of that funding.

My Lords, will my noble friend take on a practical solution here with regard to those women in religious-only marriages, who are so often misled as to their legal status and therefore extremely vulnerable? Will she take up what has been suggested in the Casey review: that all marriages, regardless of faith, should be registered, so that the union is legally valid under British law and those women, at least, are more protected?

My noble friend makes a very good point. Prior to the Casey review, as my noble friend knows, a sharia review is taking place. One of the worst things I have ever seen is a woman—several women, actually—who had escaped domestic violence from a marriage that was not recognised in law, had no leave to remain in this country and were powerless to do anything, so I fully take on my noble friend’s point.

Does the Minister agree that domestic violence and abuse affect women from all backgrounds, all cultures and all faiths— although they overwhelmingly white, in this instance? Seventy-six per cent of the women who have been killed by their partner or ex-partner were killed in the first year. There seems to be a problem with reporting. The cases are being reported as isolated incidents when in fact there has been a pattern of behaviour from the time the woman has fled an abusive relationship, but this has not been logged and reported properly, so there has not been proper follow-up and prevention. Many of these murders could have been prevented, but were not. Please will she respond to that?

I am very pleased to respond to the noble Baroness. Yes, domestic abuse is domestic abuse, and it is no respecter of class, religion or country. That is something that we are becoming increasingly aware of. In fact, some of the most silent victims are those in the middle classes, because it is not seen as a middle-class problem. I take on board everything that the noble Baroness said. We are trying to encourage an environment in which women can feel comfortable in coming forward and being able to escape the terrible situations that they are in.