My Lords, this Government are committed to transforming the response to domestic abuse. A wide-ranging consultation on domestic abuse closed on 31 May. We received more than 3,200 responses. We will publish a response to the consultation and introduce a draft domestic abuse Bill later this Session.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that useful reply but, given that both the Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Home Affairs Select Committee have raised the importance of the domestic abuse commissioner being given robust powers, being well resourced and independent of government, will the Minister assure the House that the commissioner will be given those resources and powers and an opportunity to ensure there is real change in practice across local and national government? Further, will she ensure that women with uncertain immigration status who are domestic violence survivors get proper access to appropriate legal and financial support, independent of abusing partners?
My Lords, I can absolutely assure the noble Lord that the commissioner will have all the tools, powers and resources that he or she will need to undertake the role sufficiently. As he will know, the Prime Minister, who was formerly the Home Secretary, made both violence against women and girls and domestic abuse a first priority. He is absolutely right to emphasise access to legal services, particularly for women who perhaps have not got the resources. I can assure him that, in the last year, 12,000 people, both women and men, were given access to legal aid.
My Lords, I welcome the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, because it is very important. In the meantime, we must not lose sight of the fact that two women a week are killed by abusive partners and their families’ lives are ripped apart. As Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, I made 14 recommendations to the Government on their domestic abuse Bill, one of which was to give the domestic abuse commissioner powers with teeth, which would then set a blueprint for all other commissioners’ roles. What progress has been made in defining the role? As Victims Commissioner, will I be offered the opportunity to have input into the Home Office’s deliberations?
I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend for all the work she has done as Victims Commissioner and for the 14 recommendations that she put to government. As I said in my Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, the Government will respond to the consultation very shortly. I look forward to engaging with her extensively as the Bill goes through this House.
My Lords, what discussions has the Home Office had with the DWP about the implications for the domestic abuse strategy, particularly the part about economic abuse, of the harmful so-called welfare reform policies in the light of the concerns raised by the Home Affairs Select Committee?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question and for the very real concerns she raised about welfare benefits. I assure her and the whole House that the changes in the benefits system will not cause a reduction in support levels for victims of domestic violence: that would be completely counterintuitive to what we are trying to do. I do not know whether she was referring to split payments, but if an individual suffering domestic violence puts in an application for a split payment, the DWP will support them in that.
Noble Lords across this House and organisations such as Women’s Aid are looking forward to the publication of this Bill. We hope that it will provide a cultural shift to make domestic abuse everybody’s business. Can the Minister assure the House that the voices and priorities of survivors of domestic abuse will be central to the development of this law? Will she ensure that, as well as the criminal justice system, other services such as health and welfare, housing and children’s services will all be required to work together to tackle this scourge of our society?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: we need a cultural shift across all areas of government, including health and education, which she mentioned. This is a multidisciplinary approach to a terrible problem in society that costs the economy. She talked about the economic cost. It costs billions every year—I think it is £37 billion a year—and there is of course the effect on children, the future generation. So she is absolutely right that victims must be at the heart of the Bill: it is our very reason for bringing it forward.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Home Affairs Select Committee has said that the Bill needs to,
“facilitate a more effective, joined-up and cross-Government strategy to tackle”,
violence against women and girls? Will she give an undertaking to your Lordships’ House that this will not be a narrow Bill, dealing only with the criminal justice measures, but a wide-ranging, game-changing Bill that will make tackling this crime a priority across all government departments? When the Government respond to the consultation on the Bill, will the Minister address the concerns of charities such as Women’s Aid, which has called the Bill,
“a once-in-a-generation opportunity”,
to transform the way domestic violence is responded to, and urge the Government not to waste this opportunity?
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right on domestic violence. As for why it would not be a violence against women and girls Bill, it is a specific Bill for a specific purpose, which is to tackle the scourge of domestic violence that affects so many women—and men, of course—each year. To broaden the scope of it would take away from that aim. But that is not to dismiss the importance generally of tackling violence against women and girls.