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Domestic Abuse

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement on domestic abuse made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement to the House today on a consultation on a new, sustainable approach to delivering support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in accommodation-based services across England.

Domestic abuse is a devastating crime experienced by more than 2 million adults a year, with women twice as likely to be victims. This is completely unacceptable, and we have much more to do if we are to reach a point where no family lives with the threat of domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse can take many forms and affects the young and old, male and female. But whoever the victim, those fleeing abuse must have somewhere safe to go. Just last year, we announced £22 million to provide more than 2,220 new beds in refuges and other safe accommodation, supporting more than 25,000 survivors with a safe space to rebuild their lives, but I know that more must be done to ensure a consistent approach across the country to ensure that survivors have a safer future.

At the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister made a manifesto commitment to review funding for refuges. The Ending Violence Against Women and Girls strategy for 2016-20 set out our ambition to provide support for refuges and other accommodation-based services, helping local areas ensure that no victim is turned away from the support they require at the time of need. We also committed to reviewing the locally led approach to commissioning of domestic abuse services.

To meet these commitments, in January 2018 we began a full review of the funding and commissioning of domestic abuse services in England. We have worked closely with sector partners, drawing on their data, expertise and knowledge. This review complements wider government work on tackling this devastating crime and supporting victims, including our new domestic abuse Bill.

Through the course of the review, we have engaged with specialist domestic abuse service providers and their representative bodies, local authorities, police and crime commissioners and other organisations which support victims to fully understand the challenges in commissioning and delivering these vital services and the positive features of the current system. We are grateful for their engagement and extensive input into our work.

We know that there are dedicated professionals delivering support to victims and their children in accommodation-based services across England. This support helps victims move from danger and abuse to safety and independence, and their children to regain their childhoods, and includes the vital work of service managers and support staff, counsellors, outreach workers and play therapists. But we also know that we need to do more to ensure that all victims and their children can access this support at the right time, underpinned by a sustainable approach to providing it.

We understand that victims and their children will live in a variety of different forms of safe accommodation and will need support to stay safe and rebuild their lives in all of them. This includes outreach support to remain safe in properties with enhanced security measures, in emergency or temporary accommodation, in dispersed accommodation and in refuges.

While refuge plays a critical role in supporting those victims at high risk of serious harm, we have deliberately kept our definition of “accommodation-based” wide to include the full range of safe accommodation in which victims and their children may require support. This will help local areas meet the support needs of diverse groups of victims and their children and those at lower and medium risk to prevent their needs escalating.

Having reviewed the current system and listened to the views of expert stakeholders, I am today proposing new, local authority-led arrangements for delivering support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in accommodation-based services in England.

Our proposals would place a new statutory duty on upper-tier local authorities—county councils, metropolitan and unitary authorities and, in the case of London, the Greater London Authority—to convene a local partnership board for domestic abuse accommodation support services. The local partnership board should include representation from police and crime commissioners, health bodies, children’s services and housing providers, along with specialist domestic abuse service providers. The board would be required to assess need for domestic abuse services, develop domestic abuse strategies, commission services to meet the support needs of victims and their children and report progress to MHCLG.

In two-tier areas, lower-tier local authorities—city, district and borough councils and, in this instance, London boroughs—will have a significant role to play in contributing to needs assessments, strategy development, service commissioning and reporting on progress. Authorities in those areas would be subject to a statutory duty to co-operate with the local partnership board.

To support local authorities and local partnership boards to meet these new requirements, I am proposing that we should produce new statutory guidance, making our expectations clear. This new approach will be backed by funding from the Government to ensure that services are put on a sustainable, long-term footing. This will be determined through the forthcoming spending review and informed by the consultation.

I want to safeguard provision of support, clarify expectations of governance and accountability, ensure that needs assessments are undertaken, and enhance our understanding of service provision across England through monitoring and reporting. I also want to ensure that the diverse needs of all victims and their children are met, including those with protected characteristics.

This is part of a wider government drive to tackle domestic abuse and end this pernicious crime for good. Our domestic abuse Bill, published in January this year, is the most comprehensive package ever to tackle domestic abuse. We have also brought in a new offence to capture coercive and controlling behaviour, and new domestic abuse protection orders will allow police and courts to intervene earlier.

It is our duty to ensure that victims and survivors can receive help by providing the support they need to transform their lives and move to safety and independence. Through this consultation, I want to hear views on our proposals from victims and survivors, service providers, local authorities, housing providers and other public agencies, as well as professionals who support victims and children every day.

I believe that my announcement today will provide much-needed help to ensure that more victims and their families better overcome their experiences and move on to live full and independent lives. The consultation will run from today until 2 August 2019. A copy of the consultation document will be placed in the House Library”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement delivered yesterday in the other place by the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup.

I welcome the announcement. Many people deserve credit for the Government taking this step, but I think that the survivors of domestic abuse, who have campaigned for this and shown real courage and strength, are to be congratulated on the progress made to deal with this disgusting and appalling crime. While men are sometimes the victims, most victims are women, often suffering years of sustained, horrific abuse.

There are several questions still to be answered by the Government to ensure that this announcement delivers what it is intended to. Funding will be a huge issue. Without adequate funding, this policy will fail. At this stage, what is the Minister’s estimate of the likely cost of the new legal duty, and will the Government provide these funds? I ask this in the context of the £8 billion funding gap for local authorities in England by 2025.

Why is this announcement wholly focused on crisis-point intervention? What about early intervention? I welcome the idea of local partnership boards. Getting all the agencies together to deal with the issue across the broad spectrum of services and interventions is very welcome.

However, I was less impressed with the reply to my Parliamentary Question from the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood of North Oxford. I tabled a Question on 11 April and received a Written Answer on 29 April. It was about GPs charging domestic abuse survivors outrageous sums of money to write letters confirming that they are victims of domestic abuse. Clearly, no progress has been made on getting these charges banned. I will keep raising the issue until they are banned, because there is a real risk that we cannot help victims here if we do not get this right.

The Statement says:

“I also want to ensure that the diverse needs of all victims and their children are met”,

and that,

“I know that more must be done to ensure a consistent approach across the country to ensure that survivors have a safer future”.

Victims of domestic abuse are now in a postcode lottery. They can be charged for these letters in one area and not in another. That is not good enough. Will the Minister confirm that the guidance that is to be issued will make it clear that such charges are unacceptable until we can bring forward a Bill to ensure that they are abandoned entirely? We also need a greater focus on social rather than affordable housing and further support for refuges, a fifth of which have closed since 2010. Can the Minister also confirm that police officers dealing with domestic abuse will form part of the partnership board? They can bring valuable experience of helping to deal with the issues faced by victims seeking to get to a place of safety.

In conclusion, I welcome the announcement, but we need to see much more in terms of funding, policy change and legislation from the Government if we are to tackle this sickening crime—one that is committed by the very person who should be supporting and protecting you. As the Prime Minister said:

“Whoever you are, wherever you live and whatever the abuse you face, you will have access to the services you need to be safe”.

My Lords, I add my welcome to this Statement and declare my interest as a patron of a refuge in Birmingham. Local authorities will now have a legal duty to provide secure homes for the victims of domestic abuse. It is absolutely right that the Government are taking this step to end the postcode lottery of the wide disparity in provision depending on where a victim lives.

The Government are anticipating that local authorities will require an extra £90 million to buy the beds and space needed. This is to cover BAME, LGBT+ and disabled people, women, children and men. Does the Minister believe that this is enough when 60% of women are currently being turned away from refuges—this, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned, in a country where local authorities will have seen their budgets shrink by £8 billion by 2025? Does the Minister anticipate that other budgets for non-statutory projects will be raided to pay for this support or can he confirm that this money will be additional and ring-fenced?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I have to say that it seemed a little as though there has been a desperate search to find some bad news. I would say that this is extremely good news and it is worth putting on the record that this is the first time that we have ever looked at having a statutory duty on such an important area as well as the domestic abuse Bill. Yes, there are some issues, so let me try to deal with those which have been raised.

First, of course we need proper funding but it is inappropriate to come up with a precise figure at this stage. The £90 million per annum referred to by the noble Baroness was mentioned by the Secretary of State, but we need to look at the consultation before we can come up with a hard and fast figure, which obviously will be informed by the spending review. I think that it would be unwise to come up with a definitive figure at this stage, but this certainly needs to be properly resourced, and it is on that basis that we are seeking to end the postcode lottery by having appropriate provision in every area of the country. That will ensure that we will not have cover for domestic abuse in just one particular area. The funding needs to take care of specialist services. Mention was made of LGBT, Roma and Travellers, and of course it is appropriate that we have cover for the BAME community. It is worth noting that Imkaan, the specialist provider in the area, rightly welcomes what we are doing.

The detailed consultation will look at how we can ensure that we make properly funded provision across the country on a consistent basis. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to the importance of early intervention. Certainly, prevention is better than cure and we need to look at this. Again, that is what the system is designed to ensure. Partnership working through local partnership boards will be key to this. The noble Lord also asked if this would involve police officers. Certainly it will; indeed, they are central to it, along with health professionals. Through the involvement of police and crime commissioners, specialist agencies and professionals, we can ensure that we go forward with the appropriate cover for what is a very serious issue, given that there are 2 million victims every year. While they are twice as likely to be women, obviously it means that a significant number of men are victims as well. All of this needs to be taken care of and that is why we are carrying out the consultation until early August.

My Lords, I chair a commission on forced marriage. Will the Minister keep in mind that victims of forced marriage are often victims of domestic abuse? Many are extremely young and sometimes need rather better accommodation than the refuges provided—when they are provided—for victims of domestic abuse. They are also victims of domestic abuse, but in forced marriage.

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right to make that cautionary point about forced marriage. These will often be members of BAME communities, so we hope that will be catered for additionally, but she is right about the importance of ensuring there is appropriate provision here. Again, this perhaps relates to the broad definition of domestic abuse that will be in the Bill, which will include coercive and controlling behaviour.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that one criterion for the success of these new measures is that it is the aggressor—the one committing the domestic abuse—who should be excluded from accommodation? Early intervention means that people subject to domestic abuse have a right to stay in their house and to protection. Will the Minister outline this change and ensure that early intervention becomes the norm?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that point. I very much agree that we must ensure that the aggressor—the controller, the person perpetrating the domestic abuse—is appropriately excluded from the home if that is what the domestic abuse victim wants, as it often is. We have sought through guidance to take care of that issue in advance of this Statement. It will often be appropriate for the domestic abuse victim to stay in the home. It is not always appropriate for them to go to a refuge; that is often not what they want.

My Lords, I welcome this Statement, which is good news, and the Prime Minister’s pledge—already cited by my noble friend—that:

“Whoever you are, wherever you live and whatever the abuse you face, you will have access to the services you need to be safe”.

Can the Minister give an assurance that this means that no domestic abuse survivor will be denied help because of the rule about making no recourse to public funds, which is of such concern to organisations in the sector? The implication of the consultation document is that they will still be denied access to the services they need, in contravention of the Istanbul convention—which, as we heard earlier, we are finally going to ratify.

My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness. I know she has done a tremendous amount of work in this area; indeed, we have worked together on some aspects of domestic abuse coverage and on ensuring that it is dealt with. I agree with her that the important point about this consultation on the action we propose to take is that any victim of domestic abuse—this will often include children, who, of course, are victims too—will be covered by this. This is the essence of what we seek to do, so I give her that assurance and encourage professionals and others to look at all the cases—there are many complex cases that will need taking care of in the statutory provisions—so that when we look at the consultation over the summer we will know that every area has been covered.

My Lords, I also welcome the Statement, the pledge from the Prime Minister and all the work that has gone into the consultation on the domestic abuse Bill. It is an important step forward. I have dealt with domestic violence cases over many years with women from many different communities. Recently I was asked to help a young woman in Islington, where I live, who was facing serious threats of violence from her ex-partner. She was forced to flee with two small children. Three months later, she is still waiting for permanent accommodation, her children have had to go from school to school and she has had to go from house to house, because there was a lack of refuge beds when she had to flee her home. As the Minister will appreciate, this is very distressing. I was also in touch with the police safeguarding officer dealing with her case, and it was apparent to me that the police could not do as much as they should about this man—who is scary and very dangerous—because they simply did not have the resources. I spoke to the safeguarding officer a number of times, asking why someone who was out on bail and restricted from going to the family home or the parents’ home was routinely doing that, and they could not do anything about it.

Local authorities have an important role, but we must ensure that the safeguarding officers and the police have the resources to ensure that their role in upholding this exclusion is in place as well. Without the police working with the local authority and other agencies, people will, sadly, be under threat and will not get the safeguarding they need.

The noble Baroness makes an important point. In seeking to deal with it, I congratulate all those victims of domestic violence who step forward to help others. There are many in refuges up and down the country. It is important to the victims of domestic abuse to have those examples of people who have come through it. I make that point at the outset.

The noble Baroness is right that there are often safeguarding issues, which is why we are particularly keen to have this partnership approach whereby police and crime commissioners and police forces are represented as well as emergency services and health services so that we can look at this in the round. She is right that this is not just a question of protecting the victim and children, although that is vital, but of dealing with the perpetrator. It is no good dealing with one and not the other, particularly when we know where the person is. That should be a high priority.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Statement and the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Minister to this subject. Is there any intention to have national oversight on this? One complication of setting up refuges, possibly on local authority-based areas, is that the person escaping domestic violence sometimes wants to go a lot further than the boundary of that local authority to ensure their safety and that of their family. There is a lot of cross-border activity, which also possibly reflects on the commitment of a particular local authority when the person concerned has moved away to another authority for refuge. Some kind of oversight mechanism would be important to take account of the cross-border activity, if I may call it that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kind comments. She is, as always, on the money. Paragraphs 70 to 72 of the consultation are headed “National Oversight” and make provision for a ministerial-led steering group to evaluate progress and understand how delivery of support to victims and their children is proceeding. We very much agree with that. National oversight is important if we seek to do away with the postcode lottery and ensure that we have a national system.

My Lords, while what the Minister said is welcome, will he confirm that this will not just be about accommodation? Refuges used to provide counselling and other forms of support to victims but, because of central government cuts, many local authorities now provide the bare minimum of accommodation only, if that—often contracted out to the private sector. Will the Government fund restoration of these vital additional services?

My Lords, the noble Lord will have heard me say that it is indeed across the piece. Accommodation-based services are obviously central, essential and probably more costly than much of the service that is needed. But additionally we need to do other things, as we do now. There are helplines and training, and there is care for particular kinds of victims, such as those who are deaf or disabled. We need to do all that. The noble Lord is right that this is not just about accommodation-based services. He will be reassured by the consultation—which is very detailed, involving a survey and lots of questions—that we are seeking to take care of those essential elements that he mentioned as well.

My Lords, I too welcome this announcement. I remind the House that I sit as a magistrate: I am the domestic abuse lead at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and I regularly deal with these matters.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said, 60% of referrals to refuges were turned away. On my figures, that adds up to 21,000 in 2018 or 2017. My question to the Minister is about monitoring how effectively these refuges are being used. We have heard about national oversight: will that include people being turned away, the reasons they are turned away and whether categories of people who are inappropriate to go into particular refuges are also monitored? As the Minister will be aware, a wide range of people who are victims of domestic abuse need to be found accommodation appropriate to their needs.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he does in an important area of activity and an important area geographically. He is right that we need continuing oversight to make sure that we continue to deliver. It is anticipated that the local partnership boards, which will be responsible for delivering the statutory duty locally, will make annual reports and be held to account. As one would expect, accountability is a key part of the consultation. It runs through the consultation document that accountability is extremely important. To do this effectively we must ensure that it is working not only locally but nationally. Another key feature, without going through it in detail, is the need to work across local authority borders. Consideration will be given to the devolved areas—this issue is essentially devolved in Scotland and Wales—to make sure that we are joined up at the borders. However, effectively, there is no border, so we need to make sure that we have effective provision in those areas as well,

My Lords, perhaps I may have another go. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked about ring-fencing and I do not think the Minister answered. Yesterday the Secretary of State said:

“I remain open-minded about how we look at this as the consultation develops”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/19; col. 41.]

From my quick read of the consultation document, I cannot see any question about ring-fencing. If I am right, can the Minister assure us that the Government will consult on whether this money should be ring-fenced? I do not expect an answer now. However, if the money is not ring-fenced, hard-pressed authorities will inevitably be tempted to use the money in other underresourced areas.

The noble Baroness is right that the Secretary of State, in answering questions in the other place, indicated that he is open-minded on this issue. Obviously, we will seek to understand what people want. From memory, I think question 29 in the consultation would perhaps allow something on that but the noble Baroness is probably right that there is nothing specific on this issue and it will be a matter for the spending review. It is an important consideration but I come back to the fact that there is a statutory duty and, to deliver it, the money will have to be spent. However, we are open-minded and we have certainly not ruled it out.