Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to support victims of domestic violence and abuse.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to move this Motion. It has been mentioned several times over the past years across the Floor of the House that, sadly and needlessly, one in four women and one in six men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime. Even more tragically, on average two women are killed every week by a current or former partner. Today, we must think of those families whose lives have been shattered as they try to cope with the loss of their loved ones.
Across government, domestic abuse is defined as:
“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality”.
Power and control are at the centre of domestic abuse. Insidious controlling behaviour, which may appear innocuous, slowly and surely removes the victim’s ability to think for themselves and erodes their feeling of self-worth. It can encompass physical, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial violence or abuse. Domestic abuse is a complex and hideous crime which knows no social bounds. It affects people from all walks of life, in all our communities. Often, those living at the end of a long gravel drive are the most isolated and the most reluctant to report it.
We must also do more about the economic abuse that is suffered on a daily basis. Surviving Economic Abuse, which I thank for its excellent briefing, has highlighted just how severe economic abuse is, whether it comes from a current or former partner—in intimate relationships, it is just unbelievable. Of those reporting economic abuse, 86% also experience other forms of abuse, and 45% are in debt because of the abuse.
Last year, the Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that more than 2 million people were the victims of domestic abuse, with women twice as likely to be victims as men. The estimated annual cost of domestic abuse is £66 billion, with an average cost for a single victim being over £34,000. The human and emotional costs borne by an individual victim cannot be quantified. We cannot and must not stand by and allow this social ill to fester any longer. Whatever the nature of the abuse, be it physical, mental or financial, it takes its toll and destroys lives.
Last month, I stepped down as Victims’ Commissioner, having spent seven years in the post. I have just come back from New York where, as a guest of the UN, I spoke about victims’ rights. In May last year, the Government launched their consultation: Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse. Before I responded to it, I was determined to go out across the country to meet victims and practitioners. Hearing first-hand their harrowing and heart-breaking stories has never left me.
Today’s debate gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to those victims and survivors, and thank them all for sharing the horrendous and violent stories of their lives at the hands of someone who they loved, and who they genuinely thought loved them. I listened intently, not only to how their lives were torn apart but to the harm and mental anguish caused to their children, who were innocent bystanders. Some women had lost their jobs, their homes and, sadly, their businesses. I heard about the horrors experienced by victims when challenged by their perpetrators through the family courts, and how the mentality of Cafcass officers is always to meet the best interests of the child. I heard from victims who had to go back to the house they shared with their abuser, because there was no alternative safe refuge available to them. And if they did find secure and safe accommodation, if they were working, they had to pay a fee, along with paying towards a home that they could no longer live in.
The first challenge in all of this is to give all victims of domestic abuse the confidence to come forward and seek help. This is, without doubt, a colossal step for any victim, especially when in a coercive and/or violent relationship. It takes tremendous courage for a person so vulnerable to make such a decision, but it is a formidable turning point in their recovery.
On this point, I bring to the Minister’s attention the real concerns that support workers have raised with me about police bail. They have told me that police officers say they cannot use bail anymore, resulting in perpetrators being questioned and then released unconditionally—some are back on their doorstep as soon as they leave the police station. When this happens, it not only places victims at risk but does untold damage to that victim’s confidence in the police, yet again. I am fully aware of the debate between government and the police on this issue. However, I am not interested in the intricacies of politics; human lives are more important than that. No victim must ever be placed at risk because front-line staff are unsure when bail can be used. I want to see the police enforcing non-molestation orders. I want to know that they are using domestic violence protection notices and applying for restraining orders with teeth.
It is laudable that the Government have increased public awareness. There have been greater numbers of victims coming forward. However, while this growth is positive, it places further demand on our already creaking, threadbare domestic abuse services. So I say to my noble friend the Minister: aspirations are welcome, and I truly believe we have a good starting point, but they must be backed up with sustainable funding that makes them a reality for the lives we need to save.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I wrote to the Government on this matter, because the formula of sustainable funding was a priority for practitioners. It will ensure that professionally trained workers are kept on in their roles and, through their relationships, able to raise more confidence and build even stronger victims, becoming survivors. Protecting vulnerable victims, as well as supporting survivors of domestic abuse, is at the heart of the Government’s strengthened response to domestic abuse. The draft domestic abuse Bill and wider package of measures, including the violence against women and girls strategy, will not only bolster protection for victims of domestic abuse but help to expose and bring to justice the perpetrators of this intolerable offence.
Taken together, the Government’s measures seek to make a real difference to the lives of victims of domestic abuse. They create the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse. They establish a domestic abuse commissioner responsible for driving the response to domestic abuse and standing up for victims. They prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts, and create new domestic abuse protection notices and domestic abuse protection orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders. In my capacity as the former Victims’ Commissioner, I believe that the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner is most important, so that they can hold the Government to account for the delivery of this strategy.
Legislation alone will not be enough to provide all the necessary protections. As Victims’ Commissioner, I visited many front-line services. They provide excellent support to female and male victims of domestic abuse—assessing risk and providing safety advice, housing information, legal protections and support from other professionals. I salute and applaud every one of those front-line workers. Unfortunately, the same level of support is not available everywhere. Victims of domestic abuse deserve better than a postcode lottery of support.
This brings me to the male victims of domestic abuse. We see and hear that male victims have limited access to safe accommodation. To address this, for the first time ever councils across England and Wales will be legally required to house securely all victims of domestic abuse and their children. Local authorities will also be legally required to assess the level of support needed in their area for such victims. I know that my successor as Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, will want to work closely with the domestic abuse commissioner, when appointed, and I have asked the Government to facilitate that. By working together they can ensure that victims of domestic abuse receive the advice and support they need, wherever they live and whatever abuse they have faced.
Both Women’s Aid and Refuge have welcomed the new legal duty placed on local authorities to work together with neighbouring councils to ensure that domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people. Giving targeted support for minority communities, including support for BME, LGBT and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors, will be the key to success.
Charities also play a hugely important part in supporting domestic abuse victims. There are too many to name them all, but as this is Volunteers’ Week, today is an ideal opportunity to celebrate and thank all those volunteers who give their time and expertise for the benefit of others. This may be in the form of listening without judging, or of advocacy support and giving safety advice to victims of domestic abuse; it may include supporting survivors as they navigate their way through a very complicated court process; or it may be assisting them as they begin to rebuild their lives, their self-confidence and self-esteem. I would like to personally thank Jan Berry from DAVSS; the Suzy Lamplugh Trust; Frank Mullane from AAFDA; Gill Smallwood of Fortalice, Bolton; and Survivors Manchester. I also thank ManKind and Surviving Economic Abuse. Most importantly, I thank my former team in the Victims’ Commissioner’s office for pulling together a lot of briefings and for the kindness they showed to every victim who picked up a phone to speak to them: victims were so pleased to hear that somebody wanted to listen to their lives.
Before I conclude my thoughts, domestic abuse remains a scourge on our society. It requires a comprehensive, co-ordinated set of measures to combat it. We are talking about human lives, not statistics. I read a great quotation the other day:
“Domestic abuse can be so easy for people to ignore, as it often happens without any witnesses and it is sometimes easier not to get involved. Yet, by publicly speaking out against domestic abuse, together we can challenge attitudes towards violence in the home”,
where we should feel safe, and show that such violent and coercive acts are crimes, and not merely unacceptable. I not only believe that this legislation is a starting point, providing measures that are necessary, but that it will make a positive difference to victims of domestic abuse and protect them and their families. This is just the beginning. We can and must always do more. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, who made the very important statement today that this is, in a sense, an outstanding issue from her seven years as Victims’ Commissioner that she has had drawn to her attention. I thank her for that work and for this debate.
This seems to me such a long journey. I met some Women’s Aid workers yesterday who are now getting ready for their 45th anniversary next year or the year after. I had to confess that I was at the original meeting that established Women’s Aid, as I was part of setting up one of the very early refuges in Sunderland all those years ago. It makes me feel very old.
The reason I want to speak in this debate is that I still work with Changing Lives, although I am no longer its chair. It does a lot of work in this area, and I act as a friend and informal consultant to the tremendous woman who runs its women’s services. I am also a member of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill and have just chaired a commission in the past year, whose report is called Breaking Down the Barriers, which worked with women and looked at domestic and sexual violence and multiple disadvantage among them. It was particularly looking at and working with women with complex needs. Nearly all these women have complex needs: they may have an addiction; they may be or have been homeless; they may have a mental health problem. Much of this has come from their lifelong experience of abuse, violence and neglect. As a society, we really have not begun to work out properly how we work with women with complex needs, many of which, as I say, have arisen from domestic violence.
The commissioners worked very closely with women with lived experience—which is how we now term this—of violence, abuse and the aftermath of that. We trained them to work as peer researchers: to ask the right questions and handle how they asked them, and then to deal with the trauma that they were hearing from other women. Each of them interviewed about 10 or 12 women in their own locality who had had the same experience. I met with these women about once a month during the period of the commission. Their stories were, as the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said, harrowing. But they were also incredibly inspiring. Nearly all of those whom we trained now have jobs, and nearly all of them are feeling really positive about taking better control of their own lives.
When it comes down to it, domestic violence happens because somebody in the relationship wants power. That is why we call it a gendered thing. Yes, men suffer from it as well, and their reluctance to come forward is largely because they feel that this is not the image they should be projecting as men. We have a problem all round, and we need to recognise that there is a gender-specific issue with the victims and offer services which respond to that.
Let me explain a little bit what I mean by that. I cannot go through all the recommendations of the commission—I am already well over halfway through my speech—but the women said to us very strongly that they had been best supported when the first person they met had some understanding of what they were going through and of how they may work. Even if they went to a homeless or mental health organisation, or somewhere else, somebody needed to recognise that it had come from trauma and abuse and that that was at the bottom of their problems. If it is not worked with in a way that recognises this, you will never get to the end you need to get to.
Therefore, we recommend that many more workers on the front line across the services be trauma informed—to be able to recognise what happens and what has happened to someone who is presenting, understand the behaviour and work from there from the beginning. When that does not happen, you never begin to tackle the problems for children or indeed the problems of recurrence of the violence and walking into other violent relationships. If we are to stop it, we have to do that.
Too many organisations do not have that, and nor do they have the safe spaces for women. I cannot tell you the number of local authorities I have talked to which think that the Equality Act means that, if they offer a homeless hostel, it has to be for both sexes. It does not and should not be. Women need safe spaces when they are vulnerable so that they will not be prey to the sort of people who have abused, troubled and traumatised them in the past. Without those gender-specific places, that simply will not work.
I have so much more to say, but I can see that my time is up. We have so much to do but, my goodness, if we do it, those women and children will give us back a lot, because they will know what to do in the most difficult circumstances. If we get it right for them, we will have a much better chance of getting it right throughout our society.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for securing the debate today and greatly welcome the draft domestic abuse Bill. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, I have been privileged to sit on the cross-party and cross-House pre-legislative committee to examine this draft Bill and to suggest to the Government ways it can be made even better.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, I can never unknow some of the disturbing and moving testimony given by survivors. I went to a meeting to listen to the testimony of adult survivors of child domestic abuse. Over 50 years ago, a little boy in Glasgow, along with his mother and siblings, suffered terribly at the hands of a violent and abusive father. He and his mother, brother and sister walked with their meagre belongings the length of Glasgow to seek refuge at the home of his aunt, his mother having no money for the bus fare, only to be turned away at the door. They had to walk all the way home again to witness yet another beating because there was nowhere else to go—there were no refuges in those days—and the police refused to interfere with a “domestic”. However, your Lordships should not imagine that this attitude does not exist at all today. Police called to a “domestic” today may at least ask about the children but allow themselves to be fobbed off with the excuse, “They’re upstairs, asleep”. They are not asleep. They may be upstairs, but they are awake and listening to everything. So the suffering and the cycle of abuse continues.
There is so much to say, and I am sure that other noble Lords will cover other aspects of the Bill that I do not have the time to include. In the short time allowed, I want to focus on three areas of abuse that some people may not automatically think of, including children, abused men, and abused women who end up in prison.
Children can arguably suffer as much or even more than the abused parent. They feel helpless, guilty, afraid and a whole spectrum of emotions which can haunt them their whole lives. Practically, they may have to move from place to place, missing out on schooling, doctor’s appointments and treatment for the psychological trauma they are suffering. They must therefore be included within the statutory definition, and they must have protected status, similar to looked-after children, to ensure that they get refuge places, protected status on NHS waiting lists, access to psychological help and school places. They must also have the opportunity to mix with peers and be children or teenagers in the community away from the worries of home, to have some adult support outside business hours when the professionals have gone home, through youth services and youth clubs—do your Lordships remember them? The Local Government Association says that, by 2025, there will be a £3.1 billion funding gap in children’s services just to stay where we are at the moment, and where we are now is not good enough by a long stretch.
When matters get to court, children deserve the opportunity to be really listened to, not to be forced to see an abusive parent but to be allowed contact when they want to see the parent without care. Children can be used as an emotional football, and it is sometimes hard for courts to know what is really going on, but Cafcass needs to do better in untangling that, and it can make a start by really listening to the wishes of the child.
Men are another category who are not always automatically included when we think about the domestic abuse. As has been said, it can be considered unmanly to admit that one has been abused by a female partner. The charity ManKind Initiative reports that nearly half of male victims of domestic abuse fail to tell anyone. Now that the coercive control category has been included in the statutory definition, I hope that men will feel less intimidated from coming forward to ask for help, because they are certainly not getting much at the moment. An estimated one-third of domestic abuse victims are men, but there are only 150 refuge spaces available, with fewer than 50 dedicated to men only.
My final category, not often mentioned, is the plight of women victims of abuse in prison. Well over half of women who end up in prison have suffered domestic abuse, as outlined in the excellent Prison Reform Trust report There’s a Reason We’re in Trouble. The Prison Reform Trust recommends that the criminal justice agencies should routinely inquire whether the accused has suffered abuse, so that it can be taken into consideration not just in sentencing but in supporting those women to live a better life on release. Backed by the Criminal Bar Association, it says that there should be a statutory defence that criminal behaviour was driven by domestic abuse. I should appreciate the Minister’s thoughts on that, and to know whether she is prepared to put that to her colleagues in the justice department.
Overall, it is not a very pretty picture, is it? All sufferers of domestic abuse deserve joined-up help—and here is the rub. I welcome the duty placed on local authorities to provide accommodation for victims and to publish their strategy and range of support services, but they cannot provide everything needed with no additional resources—let alone, in the case of children’s services, at least, with less. Not investing in the future of current victims, not intervening early to support victims and perpetrators, will cost far more both financially and in human suffering further down the line, when the state has to pick up the pieces of broken lives. That is why the Bill is so important. It is our chance to improve the lives of an estimated 2 million adult victims a year, let alone their children, but only if we are bold, radical and prepared to put in the resources to stop the suffering. Shame on us if we do not grasp the opportunity with both hands.
My Lords, I, too, warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for calling this important debate and for holding her office of Victims’ Commissioner for the past seven years. I am sure that her fire for these issues will not diminish because she has moved on from that post. I thank the Government for the draft Bill, in particular the Prime Minister—who has made it a point since she entered office of reaching out to those just-managing families—for her work developing social housing and her courage in pushing that issue. We know that victims of domestic violence may have a short time in a refuge, but they need stable and secure housing so that they can recover from the trauma. The measures that the Government are introducing to make more social housing available is very welcome; of course, we all think that they should go much further in that regard.
I thank the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, who recently announced significant additional funding for family drug and alcohol courts. Currently, there are nine of them; founded by district judge Nicholas Crichton, they have been going for seven or eight years. They support parents, mainly mothers, in getting off drugs and alcohol so that they can keep their children and move forward. I suspect that many of those mothers experienced domestic violence in their early lives; of course, through their addictions, they are vulnerable to further exploitation and mistreatment. I warmly welcome that funding.
I also express my thanks to James Brown, a partner in Hall Brown, a family law firm that has led work to resuscitate the Family Drug and Alcohol Court National Unit. His work has resuscitated that unit, which will help to lead work on spreading family drug and alcohol courts across the country, preventing many children going into care and protecting mothers from domestic violence.
I declare an interest as a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation, the Brent Centre for Young People—a mental health service for adolescents—and the Child and Family Practice Charitable Foundation, a mental health service for families.
In summary, I stress the need for specialist services in refuges, especially mental health services to support the mental health of mothers and their children in these settings. I emphasise the need to recommit to our universal services, such as health visitors, teachers and social workers. Austerity has been very challenging for them. As a nation and as a society, we need to commit to these caring professionals if these families and other vulnerable groups are to get the help they need.
My experience of this issue includes speaking with various affected individuals and victims. From what I have seen, over time, mothers can be trapped in long-term relationships, as has been said before. One particular example is a mother whose immigration status was uncertain, so she depended on her partner to be able to remain in this country in the long term. Over several years, I saw this confident, hard-working woman lose her confidence and become brittle and prone to tears when facing challenges. Unfortunately, her daughter was led to take her father’s side, so complications also arose from that. Language was also an issue because she did not speak English confidently.
Some of the young people I have worked with and am acquainted with come from such families. They may turn to drugs for a way out, to escape the feelings arising from their experiences. That can lead to early death; indeed, it did in the case of one young person in my acquaintance. That is an issue. I know another young person from such a background who suffered from paranoia, bouts of anger and, in particular, difficult relationships with women. For girls, such relationships in their family can poison their future relationships with men and put them at higher levels of risk. As we have heard, this serious issue has serious consequences.
On specialist support for mothers, refuges run by charities and shelters run by local authorities are very important. However, a Royal College of Psychiatrists briefing highlighted that these refuges are not always fully integrated with mental health services. Professor Panos Vostanis has worked in this area at the University of Leicester for many years, providing support to families in refuges. He highlights the high level of need of these children—they live in chaotic circumstances, often with high levels of staff turnover, and are often in these settings for only a short time—and the fact that we must target support for their mothers’ mental health if we are to help these children effectively. He has found in particular that supporting family support workers in those settings can be very useful. I suggest that some sort of clinical consultation or supervision in these settings may be very helpful to these families and improve their outcomes. Can the Minister point me to a working group looking at improving mental health support for families in refuges? Would he consider a meeting with interested Peers sometime before the Recess to look at some of these issues in more detail?
I have mentioned the importance of early years in prevention. This week we heard evidence on Sure Start; 10 and 11 year-olds who have been through Sure Start have a significantly lower level of hospitalisation. Early intervention works, yet it has been stripped down in the course of austerity. We really need to reinvest in that area, and that is why the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, made is so important. We need to fund local authorities properly to provide these services. Of course, youth work is important for young people experiencing domestic violence in their families.
What can men do in this area? Men can be good fathers, grandfathers and uncles. Male teachers in schools can be consistent and reliable. It is through these early relationships with men that girls and young women can gain self-confidence and self-esteem. They can also begin to make judgments about what a good man is and perhaps make better choices in who their long-term partner might be. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lady Newlove for initiating this timely debate and glad to have the opportunity to pay tribute to her for the enormously hard work she has put in as Victims’ Commissioner for the past seven years. Helen has been an inspiration to so many who have suffered through no fault of their own. As she said when she was created a Peer in 2010:
“I am just an ordinary woman, propelled into high profile by a set of horrifying circumstances which I wish with all my heart had never occurred”.
What she has achieved since then is more than most of us can ever hope to. Her family and friends must be rightly proud of her—and how proud her husband Garry would have been too.
It is extraordinary to think that it was only some 45 years ago, in a speech in the other place, that the late Lord Ashley first used the term “domestic violence” in a modern context, meaning violence in the home. Until then the term referred mainly to civil unrest, violence from within a country as opposed to violence perpetrated by a foreign power. That was at a time when no agency, police or otherwise, intervened in so-called domestics and it was normal to consider intimate partner abuse, if not exactly acceptable behaviour, at least none of anyone else’s business. Thankfully things have moved on, but anyone who knows anything about the subject or has received briefings from charities or other NGOs for this debate, let alone the Library document, knows only too well that violence is still on the rise—although the increase is possibly due, at least in part, to improvements by police forces in the identification and recording of incidents and the apparent increase in the willingness of victims to come forward.
The odds are that most of us will know someone who has experienced such abuse. Looking around the Chamber, the odds are that at least some of us—although not me, as it happens—may have experienced violence. I remember the testimony from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, in a previous debate on this topic, describing the coercive behaviour he experienced from his partner, later developing into physical violence, all while he himself was a serving policeman.
Someone close to me had been physically abused for years by her husband before her injuries were so severe that she was forced to attend A&E, which finally led to the legal process taking its course. This is often the case. Through her attending hospital, the health service was finally able to reach her and she was taken care of, as are so many others in her position. The health service reaches everyone—victims, perpetrators and children—without stigma.
In this House we are lucky enough to have access to experts on almost every topic under the sun, and I for one am a bit disappointed and frustrated when—for technical reasons, I suppose—we are unable to hear from them on the subject of their expertise. I refer today to my noble friend Lady Barran, founder of the domestic abuse awareness charity SafeLives, who served as its chief executive from 2004 to 2017. We may not be able to hear from her today—although I am delighted that she is at least able to attend this debate—but I am sure my noble friend the Minister is consulting her as the Bill wends its way through the political process. I spoke to her in advance of this debate and asked her what motivated her to set up the charity. Like me, she had a friend who had experienced abuse and she realised that what women in particular really need is the ability to stay safe in their homes, to keep their children in their local schools and, if possible, to get help for their partners. It is also important to have one person to talk to who can assist and advise on all aspects of the abuse. Peer support from other women who have been through similar experiences is also crucial.
But why, in 2019, is it still an expectation that it should be the woman who leaves the family home, rather than that the perpetrator should be held to account and, where possible, helped to change? Unless the behaviour of these perpetrators is addressed, the size of the problem for both women and children will not be reduced. We may be making the current Mrs Jones safer, but Mr Jones is likely to find a new partner, will probably have more children and, in all likelihood, will repeat his behaviour. So I ask my noble friend to consider more provision for perpetrator programmes and one-to-one work with perpetrators to build on the progress made in recent years to support and protect women and their children.
These are complex issues. Every case is a tragedy and needs an individualised approach. But this is the first time in a generation that we have the chance to change and improve the system for millions of people. The Bill presents a huge opportunity to go beyond a traditional criminal justice system approach to domestic abuse. We must not waste that opportunity.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove. I particularly agree with her opening point on the inappropriateness of using police requisitions rather than police bail when one is dealing with domestic abuse cases. This is something that I see quite often and it is of great concern. I also agree very much with the comments of my noble friend Lady Armstrong and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. We sit on the Joint Committee for the draft DA Bill and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to serve with them both. I sit as a magistrate in London, in Westminster magistrates’ court in the Specialist Domestic Abuse Court, and I will concentrate my comments on the way we work in that court.
I have been a magistrate for about 14 years now, and in that time we have seen a development of the recognition of domestic abuse as a pervasive ill in our society. The courts have adjusted procedures and sentencing practices and we are still looking at ways to hear cases fairly and reduce the very high drop-out rate of cases coming to court.
I will make a brief comment on family courts. Some 70% of all cases in the family courts have a DA element to them. Of course, that needs to be recognised when we are finding suitable long-term arrangements for children. That is a separate subject and I will not dwell on it now, but I think that the Government’s three-month review of the role of the family courts is inadequate. It is a very complex matter and one of the most difficult things that I have to deal with, so a more in-depth study would be appropriate for the work of the family courts.
The figures for domestic abuse in England and Wales are in the briefing note that we received from the Library. It is clearly a gendered crime in that the vast majority of victims are women, but other groups such as disabled people and elderly people are disproportionately vulnerable. It is also a hidden crime in that it occurs mainly in private, in the home. It is also—this has been touched on in today’s debate—difficult to define what domestic abuse is. The perspective of domestic abuse has evolved in the time that I have been aware of it over the last 14 years.
I shall say something more about the work of Westminster magistrates’ court. It is supported by a charity, Standing Together. Complainants are supported through the court process. This time-consuming work is done so that women—and it is usually women who are the victims—understand the process and the likely outcomes of the court’s sentences. Another important factor is that the court will be better informed when making bail decisions. Bail is very often one of the most difficult decisions one has to make in court. The additional information we get as magistrates means that we can make better decisions. All this extra, non-statutory support that we get in Westminster magistrates’ court is paid for by the local authorities—Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster councils.
I shall go through the extra support we get from the co-ordinators who work in the court. First, the complainants’ wishes are much better understood by the court than may normally be the case outside a domestic abuse situation. Secondly, there is a far fuller understanding of ongoing proceedings in other jurisdictions, other matters that may be coming to court and previous hearings. Thirdly, and equally importantly, the co-ordinator will liaise with social services to understand issues in the family background and the housing status of the men and women involved. Fourthly, we get additional police information—namely, callouts to the home. That can, and sometimes does, colour our decision on bail. There is also better tracking of cases. There is liaison with local authorities through the MARAC procedure, which is the complex recording and research of difficult cases, and with police community safety officers and witness care.
It is evident to me that, while these courts play a central role in ensuring that the guilty are brought to justice, they are, and must be, only one part of a wider co-ordinated community response to the complexities of domestic abuse. Ongoing support of DA victims not only supports better outcomes in court but means that victims will feel better able to leave abusive relationships and live safe, violence-free lives. The management of specialist DA courts is done by the normal court listing process, but we have 10 agencies that regularly sit in on meetings as we review procedures and listing patterns.
As a magistrate, I do not get involved in looking at conviction rates. Magistrates leave that to the CPS and literally leave the meeting when that subject is talked about. Our concern as magistrates is just that the case gets on so that we can have a fair hearing of the matter before us. I know that the Government are sympathetic to the work of these courts, and we have benefited greatly from the non-statutory support of the specialist co-ordinators. However, I believe that, even without that support, the court could do better in addressing the procedures and levels of co-ordination with other agencies to get better outcomes for domestic abuse cases. The statistics in Westminster show that the number of defendants is increasing, the conviction rate is increasing and the number of hearings per completed case is decreasing—all of which helps to give proper support to specialist domestic abuse courts.
My Lords, I begin by drawing attention to my interests as set out in the register. I do this because some of what I want to say today, particularly about technology, reflects things that I learned while I was serving as an adviser to a firm operating in this field. I want to make it clear, however, that I no longer have any commercial interests in this area.
Having got that matter out of the way, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lady Newlove on securing this debate. Like my noble friend Lady Jenkin, I pay tribute to the outstanding job that she has done both as this country’s first Champion for Active, Safer Communities and, more recently, as the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, a position from which she retired at the end of last month.
I am sure that my noble friend would agree that neither of those jobs was easy, but I can tell noble Lords that, on the basis of reports I have had from police and crime commissioners around the country, my noble friend has carried out both jobs with great distinction and that she leaves her most recent post, that of Victims’ Commissioner, with the heartfelt thanks and deep respect of all those who care about victims and are trying to help them.
In two previous speeches that I made on domestic violence in your Lordships’ House, I talked about the availability of technology which would improve both the safety and happiness of victims of domestic abuse but which could not yet be used effectively in this country because the courts did not have the power to make it mandatory. On both occasions, I urged the Government to introduce legislation to allow this to happen before more innocent victims lost their lives in attacks that could have been prevented had this technology been in use. I therefore make no apology for returning to this subject again today. We really are talking about matters of life and death.
The technology that I have in mind is a form of electronic monitoring or tagging developed specifically for domestic abuse cases and known as proximity monitoring and notification systems. These systems provide victims with early alerts that their potential attacker is in the vicinity, whether the victims are at home, at work, with friends or on the move. They do this by fitting the potential attacker—sometimes called the offender or perpetrator—with a securely attached radio frequency, or RF, ankle tag and by giving him a GPS tracking unit, which he must carry with him whenever he leaves his home base.
If the offender tries to tamper with the ankle tag or leave home without the tracking device, an alert is generated at the monitoring centre associated with the scheme, 24/7. In this way, his location is continuously tracked by the monitoring centre. Whenever an offender fitted with this equipment attempts to enter a predefined restricted zone—for example, within 500 metres of the victim’s home or workplace or wherever the victim happens to be at the time—the technology generates an alert. The alert is transmitted to the victim, who has been given a GPS alarm unit to carry with her at all times. The portable unit alerts her that the offender is nearby and that it would be sensible to leave the area. The offender is also alerted by those monitoring the system that he is entering a restricted zone and should leave it. At the same time, the police are alerted that the offender is heading into a restricted zone and can notify local units that they need to respond to a potential attack.
As I have said, I have referred to this technology in at least two speeches in your Lordships’ House. In both, I pointed out that, while proximity tagging does not deal with the underlying social and psychological causes of domestic abuse, it can save lives. To give your Lordships some idea of just how many lives I was talking about, I pointed out that between my first speech in November 2014 and my second in March 2018, 300 women had been the victims of domestic homicide.
However, this technology can save lives only if the courts have the power to make it mandatory. We have another opportunity to make this happen as part of the new domestic abuse protection orders to be included in the forthcoming domestic abuse Bill. I urge the Government to bring this Bill and these orders into law as expeditiously as possible so that this new technology can be trialled and introduced across the country. I know that several PCCs are simply waiting to be able to mount such trials as soon as the law permits them to do so.
I understand that this technology by itself is not a panacea for domestic abuse—indeed, it is not even a cast-iron guarantee that the victims of determined perpetrators will always be safe from harm. The use of tagging depends on adequate police resources to make it effective. There is no point in the police knowing that an attack is about to take place unless they have the resources available to prevent it. That is why technology by itself is only part of the answer. It must be complemented by adequate police resources and the appropriate legal powers.
I very much regret that I do not have the time to mention any of the many innovative, non-technological domestic abuse prevention and support programmes which police and crime commissioners up and down the country have developed and are funding, often out of their own resources. I have had emails from at least 10 PCCs giving terrific examples of what they are doing. I am sorry that I have not been able to include them, but I suspect that my noble friend Lady Seccombe will tell us something about what at least one PCC is doing in this area.
I do not want to sit down without mentioning the brilliant appointment of Dame Vera Baird, the PCC for Northumbria, as my noble friend Lady Newlove’s successor as Victims’ Commissioner. I congratulate Dame Vera on her appointment. I can think of no other PCC who has done more to highlight the importance of domestic abuse as a police priority. With her experience, both as a PCC and a Minister in Whitehall, victims of crime—and especially of domestic abuse—could have no better champion. Her task is immense and urgent. It is also critical to the safety of our communities. I wish her well.
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the APPG on Victims of Crime. Members of your Lordships’ House may know that I also have a Private Member’s Bill sitting in the queue, on the rights and entitlements of victims of crime. I hope it might achieve a Second Reading at some point in the next year. I echo the congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on securing this debate, as well as the thanks and congratulations for her work over the last seven years as Victims’ Commissioner. I wish her successor much luck as she takes up the reins. During this period, there has been a considerable movement in support for victims of crime. I thank the noble Baroness and her staff for having been able to focus on and target that.
I will not echo the many statistics shared by colleagues on domestic violence. I want to focus on one of my—I am afraid—perennial comments: until we mandate agencies to deliver support, we cannot guarantee that support for victims of domestic abuse and all the associated crimes surrounding it will be achieved. I was pleased when the Government published their new Victims Strategy last autumn, but noted with concern that we had moved only to holding,
“agencies to account for compliance with the Victims’ Code through improved reporting, monitoring and transparency”,
rather than insisting that these agencies have a duty to deliver the support that victims require. For victims of domestic violence, a very broad range of agencies may be involved, including schools, probation, social services, children’s services and all the different elements of the criminal justice system.
I want to use as illustration a particularly distressing case where it was absolutely clear that the support mechanisms failed. This is the case of the five year-old boy, Alex Malcolm, who was beaten to death by his mother’s partner. His mother, Liliya Breha, had not been told that her partner had a list of previous offences, nor that the probation service had been in touch with him, using her phone to talk to and check up on him. At no point had she been warned that he had any history at all. After her son had been murdered and her partner was found guilty, she was horrified to discover in court for the first time that he had a string of previous convictions that it took the court 15 minutes to read out. That is exactly the sort of support I am talking about: the probation service should be mandated, where it knows that there is a new partner, to work with that partner to say, “Perhaps you need to be aware of past history”. In this case it was not a one-off; he had a long track record. It was an absolute disgrace.
By the way, I regard “agency” as everything that the victim needs for support. In this case, Ms Breha also lost her right to stay in this country when her son was murdered, although she was moving towards citizenship, because she was here as his parent. The Home Office immediately moved to start deporting her. I know that was put on hold, but at what point do we actually try to genuinely support the entire life of a victim? She had seen her partner jailed for crimes, she had not been told about what had previously happened, her son had been brutally murdered and the inquest had been delayed because of the court case. Her particular domestic violence even continued on the day when her partner murdered her son. He brought the child home and then punched her when she tried to call an ambulance because she was screaming and crying at the sight of her son’s body. Even then she was still a victim of domestic violence.
We also need to consider the view that children’s services sometimes take of mothers. The noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, said that we need to keep families together and ensure that the security of home is there, but a distressing point, also picked up by my noble friend Lady Burt, is the number of women convicted of a crime—some jailed—as a result of their domestic abuse. Louise Tickle said in an article in the Guardian last November:
“Too often victims’ experience is a grotesque indictment of the child protection system that is failing both women and children. A clinical psychologist tells me of one mother who survived a shockingly violent relationship despite getting little support from any service that might have been expected to help. Instead of support and concern for her safety, she lost her children to adoption”,
because she had not protected them enough. She continues:
“In an extraordinary twist, this woman now has a criminal conviction for failing to protect her children, while her abuser remains free”.
That is a failure of the support agencies to work with victims of abuse.
That is why I have asked repeatedly that, where there is at least one serious history of domestic abuse, coercive control or stalking, we have a register. People facing the possibility of future violence need to be able to go to the agencies and say, “Is the person I am with dangerous?” There is a second part to that, which I have already covered: the agencies need to alert partners—usually women, occasionally men—about the new partner in their lives.
I want to pick up on my noble friend Lady Burt’s very good list of things that we need to think about in relation to victims of domestic abuse and their families. While refuges are important, it is increasingly clear that housing is a major issue if people have lost their homes. The idea of a mother and child going into emergency accommodation, which is very stretched, and not having their own private unit other than a bedroom, is extremely worrying.
I conclude by saying that there are some happy endings. I worked with a woman who, along with her children, was the repeated victim of domestic abuse in Watford around a decade ago. The woman had to have panic alarms installed and the police were frequent visitors to the house; she got the support that she needed. Her young daughter at the time was absolutely terrified. The mother is now a leading advocate in Watford. Her daughter was determined that that should happen to no one else, and she is now a police officer.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for securing this debate and introducing it so well. Domestic violence and abuse is a serious problem. There were some 2 million incidents last year alone; 1.3 million against women and just under 700,000 against men. That does not give a full picture because I am told that 83% of partner abuse is not even reported to the police, so if that were to be taken into account then the figure would be much larger.
I suspect that the figure will be larger still over the years, partly as a result of Brexit. We know that when people feel frustrated and angry, they build up aggression. That aggression takes many forms, one of which is attacking the vulnerable. I suspect this will become an even more serious problem than it has been thus far. It requires a lot of attention.
I want to make four or five points rather quickly. Each one contains a question. My first point is about definition. When we talk about domestic violence, we seem to think largely of violence between partners. We tend to ignore—we certainly have so far—violence done to children under 16 and to people over 60. These two groups should not be ignored; they are important. In the case of children, there are all sorts of forms of abuse, such as denying them love and affection, or denying them any kind of support. In the case of elderly parents, there is a tendency to ignore or maltreat them, or not let them talk to neighbours in case the neighbours find out what is going on. We should think of domestic violence in not just the narrow context of relationships between partners but also in the context of children and elderly people.
Secondly, when we talk about domestic violence, we concentrate on the victim. Although that is important, I suggest that we ought to also concentrate on the perpetrators. After all, here is a man who must have loved his wife once, or fallen in love, or built up some affection. Why has he turned so violent? What has gone wrong? How have his circumstances changed? Is he unemployed, or experiencing difficult relationships with people at work? What has gone wrong? It is important to concentrate on the individual and help him regain his balance and sanity, so that the old relationship can be restored. It is also important that it is a question of not just understanding him but attaching some sanctions. It is quite serious that a perpetrator does not lose his house or job, but stays where he is, while it is the victim who we think of resettling somewhere else.
My third point relates to the role of doctors. Doctors are important, because many women, and some men, who are victims of abuse will tend to turn to their doctor as the first port of call, indicating what the problem is and asking for help. Doctors are not trained for this kind of thing; they are not social workers. So what will the doctor do? He might say, “Well, go and make your marriage work, forget all about it”, or simply, “Look, these things happen, don’t worry too much about it”. He might even offer to talk to the husband, in which case things become even worse. Therefore, there has to be some concentration on doctors as the first point of entry for those in this situation.
I am sorry for rushing through my points, but I would like the Minister to take account of them. My fourth point relates to providing a safe and guaranteed refuge. It is very disturbing that quite a lot of women who ran away from home in a state of emergency were turned away by the local council. It is very important that there should be a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide emergency refuge services. It is also crucial that these refuges have trained staff. When a woman runs away, the husband may know where she is or wants to find out, so he goes to the refuge and asks all kinds of questions. Unless staff are properly trained, they are either rude to the husband or they try to provide the kind of information which ought not to be provided. I say this from experience—not personal experience—as I have heard about people asking refuges where their wives are and then acting on that information.
Fifthly, as the 15th recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee report states, it is important that there should be,
“‘by and for’ BAME domestic abuse services”.
BAME victims of abuse have special requirements and circumstances. In a multicultural society, you cannot simply treat everyone using the same norms. People from BAME backgrounds have different problems, different cultural sensitivities and count different circumstances as duress. What constitutes violence? There is a general definition, but beyond a certain point, it varies from community to community. What constitutes harassment, or an apology? It is therefore quite important that we ought to provide services certainly “for” ethnic minorities. I would not go with the report and say “by” them, because there is no reason why they cannot be provided by British people, but the important thing is that there should be a special category of services for them.
The last point I want to make is that, in the data that has been circulated to us, we do not get detailed analysis of when domestic violence occurs, why, in what circumstances and by whom. Some research indicates that, for example, it tends to occur at weekends, during a woman’s pregnancy—not for obvious reasons—or among people between the ages of 26 and 30. If we can begin to build up a picture through statistical analysis such as this, we will be able to anticipate where the problem will occur and what can be done about it. I strongly suggest that we should have a full statistical analysis of whether the husband is in employment, and of what kind, whether he has been out of employment, whether he has been thrown out of it and what his circumstances are. Unless we can get a full account of all this, we will not be able to tackle domestic violence pre-emptively.
My Lords, like many of you, I first wish to pay tribute to the untiring efforts of my noble friend Lady Newlove. As Victims’ Commissioner, and well before her appointment, she has devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to raising the profile of the victims’ code and supporting those who have been the victims of crime. She is an inspiration to all of us who work in public policy.
Amidst the stifling enormity of Brexit, it seems that important parts of the domestic agenda have been left adrift or to be patched up by ad hoc measures and not substantive legislation. I am glad that domestic violence is not one of those issues, and that the Government have a proper Bill, which I am proud to support. The Prime Minister has announced her formal departure, to take effect on Friday. While she may not have had the chance to pass as much domestically as she might have liked, she can take pride in setting the groundwork for the Bill at the Home Office and pushing it along in No. 10.
I am particularly gladdened that the appalling practice of survivors being cross-examined by their abusers is to be outlawed, which will bring us into line with other common law jurisdictions. The understanding we have of coercive control has been deepened with new research that suggests that the court process itself might enable it—this practice being a good example. I look forward to a further discourse on this important issue and commend the Government for this sensible proposed change to the law.
That said, some alterations could be made that would improve the Bill’s impact and ensure fair treatment for those who suffer domestic abuse, wherever they are in the country. In another place, the Member for Sheffield Heeley has drawn on the saddening treatment of a constituent to suggest a sensible alteration, which received cross-party support in a letter to the Lord Chancellor. It is a sad fact that rapists are entitled to seek access to children they father by Section 8 of the Children Act, which entitles the family courts to make contact or residence orders in favour of a natural parent. The paramountcy principle embedded in statutes is powerful, and the discretion afforded to the court is wide. It is appropriate for us as legislators to see if there are public policy reasons to limit the scope of this discretion. I think Members here and in the other place, as well as the general public, would agree that rapists should rarely, if ever, receive rights of parental access.
While such an amendment might seem difficult to include, there are other statutes from which we can draw useful parallels. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which other Members might recall, excludes donors of gametes and embryos from being automatically included in the category of persons entitled to apply for such orders. As such, applicants have an additional barrier to overcome before the orders can be granted in their favour, and the actual paramountcy test embedded in statute need not be altered or amended.
We have previously combined departmental competencies in single Bills, and the domestic abuse Bill does seem an appropriate vehicle for such a policy, given the interconnectedness of sexual and domestic abuse. With limited parliamentary time for policies that do not relate to Brexit, it seems prudent to consolidate some issues, so that important domestic policies can receive the legislation they deserve.
Will the Minister consider working with the Ministry of Justice to conduct a consultation regarding this important issue, which has already received cross-party support in the other place? Alternatively, will the Minister consider consulting on a separate Bill to remove parental rights from rapists?
My Lords, I too want to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, on bringing forward this debate today. I also echo the general thanks that have been given from all sides of the Chamber for her important work as Victims’ Commissioner, where she has clearly made a very big impact and begun to make some fundamental changes to the way victims are considered and treated, and also looked in some depth at the issues confronting those who have experienced, and continue to experience, forms of domestic violence.
Unlike other noble Lords in this debate, I do not bring a particular expertise or insight into this issue, other than through indirect experience. However, I have some thoughts I want to share, and I also want to reflect on the broader issues, relating to a particular category of victims—migrant women.
Over 50 years ago, I returned home from school to find two bikes outside my front gate, rather than one. Inside, my mother was talking very earnestly to a friend she worked with. They were both packers and pickers on a farm which specialised in soft fruits. This woman, whom I knew very well, had her two children with her, and was in a considerable state of distress. My life changed quite dramatically for several months thereafter, because I had to quit my bedroom and share our home with my mother’s friend. I am very pleased and delighted that we did, because my mother, being the compassionate and supportive sort that she was, ensured that this woman was protected from the violence that had been visited on her for some years by her husband.
I remember being very curious and asking my mother later what brought this about, and she said to me: “Well, it was just awful”. She described what had been going on. I remember asking, as a teenager, “Why doesn’t she go to the police? Why does she have to share our home—not that I mind?” My mother said, “Would you want to go and report this to our local policeman?” I thought about that a lot. I think my mother was probably right at that time, and the local authority was not very sympathetic or at all helpful.
In some ways, things have improved, but in others they have gone backwards, and we need to reflect on that. For that vulnerable group of women who are migrants to our country, things are not great. This is an important moment in the development of policy on domestic abuse, including in the Bill which has been consulted on for some time. It offers solutions but for some these are not adequate ones. We know that domestic violence has a devastating effect on people’s lives and that the stats are not good: 2 million people a year are affected by it.
As it is, the Bill probably leaves behind some of society’s most marginalised and isolated survivors of domestic abuse, particularly migrant women. As a result, I take the view that it fails to meet fully the requirements of the Istanbul convention, despite the Government’s well-intentioned moves to ratify that convention through the introduction of the Bill. Given the wealth of evidence submitted to the Government’s consultation on the Bill, it is important that we have clear language in the legislation that protection must be afforded to survivors, regardless of their immigration status. It is extremely disappointing in that context that migrant women are not mentioned anywhere in the legislation. If the Bill does not promote equality and ensure protection for all survivors of abuse, it will fail to incorporate the Istanbul convention and risks violating our own existing human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
There are four areas of concern here. First, women with insecure immigration status find it impossible to access refuges and other welfare support in order to escape violence and abuse. Without access to public funds and housing support, they are routinely denied refuge spaces, safe accommodation and welfare. They are therefore faced with impossible decisions about becoming destitute or homeless, or returning to the perpetrator. Many often find that they are unable to regularise or confirm their immigration status, for a host of complex reasons.
The second area of concern is that immigration enforcement has been prioritised over the need to provide safety and security to survivors of domestic abuse, perhaps as a hangover from or continuation of the Government’s hostile environment agenda. Invasive data-sharing agreements between public services and immigration enforcement prevent survivors with insecure immigration status accessing the very services that they need.
Also, the Bill does not meaningfully acknowledge or address the significant additional barriers faced by migrant women in accessing protection, including that abusers commonly use women’s fears of immigration enforcement and separation from their children to control them. Research has pointed to particular vulnerabilities for migrant women. These include: a higher proportion of homelessness; greater financial impact from abuse because of their inability to work, on account of their immigration status; being disproportionately affected by a lack of support when facing forms of abuse such as FGM, forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence. They are also more likely to report multiple perpetrators.
We also have to acknowledge that there is likely a justice gap, with the police not pursuing criminal charges.
The Bill therefore needs to introduce a non-discrimination clause. It has to provide for safe reporting systems for survivors accessing vital public services. It also needs to consider extending eligibility for the existing domestic violence rule and destitution domestic violence concession to all migrant women who experience or are at risk of abuse. Urgent consideration needs to be given to ensuring that those who report domestic violence and abuse should be exempt from having no recourse to public funds; they should be supported.
If we can begin to consider those issues and tackle them in the legislation, perhaps with amendments being brought forward, we will make some big leaps forward for those who are among the most vulnerable in our community.
My Lords, I pay tribute to noble Lords for their many eloquent and informed speeches, and to our Prime Minister for her leadership on this issue. I thank the many organisations and individuals who have campaigned for changes to our laws and worked with survivors for decades. In particular, I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lady Newlove for all her work over the last seven years.
I grew up in a supportive and loving family environment. The one thing that my father expected from me, apart from hard work, was always to respect my mother in the way he did. In my professional life, I have worked for seven years on the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, a campaign to end the use of rape as a weapon of war. Early on in this quest, a woman who worked with victims of domestic violence in London came to see me. She asked why I was spending so much time on violence against women abroad when women at home, here in the United Kingdom, were suffering. My answer at the time was that, to my knowledge, we had a system to look after and support survivors while women in war-torn countries had nothing—no protection, no recognition, no funding and no justice. But her question stayed with me and I have often thought about her. I have concluded that I was wrong and that we have to do both. We must confront abuse at home and use our influence abroad to try to address mass atrocities; to do one without the other is illogical.
It is truly appalling that in the 21st century, the most dangerous place for a woman is her home. According to the UN study of gender-related killing, more than half of all female murder victims in 2017, globally, were killed by an intimate partner or family member. Women are far more likely than men to die at the hands of someone they know, and someone whom they think loves them. I acknowledge that many men and boys are victims too, and I acknowledge the men who work steadfastly on these issues, including in our police forces, NGOs, government departments and Parliament. None the less, domestic violence disproportionately affects women. It is an injustice compounded by inequality.
It is deeply troubling to me that the Office for National Statistics reports that there has been little change in the prevalence of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom. As others have pointed out, an estimated 2 million adults experienced domestic abuse in our own country during 2017-18. Most of these cases still do not come to the attention of police or result in a conviction. This requires deep scrutiny and national soul-searching. The total economic and social cost of domestic abuse is greater than the total estimated economic and social cost of crime, according to the Home Office, even without taking into account the costs associated with financial and economic abuse, for which there is little data, and costs relating to children and the wider family. This is truly a social and public health emergency.
In addition to urgent questions regarding medical support, social services and housing, I believe there is a huge cultural taboo and stigma contributing to it still being an underreported and invisible crime—a crime behind a curtain. Women who try to report abuse are often described as crazy and emotional. They often face pressures from family and friends to keep silent, or to minimise what has happened to them. There is a stereotype that a strong woman cannot be a victim of domestic violence, or has somehow provoked her partner’s behaviour. Mothers are often labelled as angry or vindictive when they try to shelter their children from the effects of continuing trauma after they leave. We have a long way to go to understand the dimensions of this crime and stop failing survivors, either through our legal and health systems or our social attitudes.
I strongly welcome the Government’s intention to enshrine in law the definition of domestic abuse, including controlling, coercive and manipulative non-physical abuse. Other countries could learn from this example. I also welcome plans to establish a domestic abuse commissioner, to create new domestic violence protection notices and orders, and to prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts. However, we must not forget children. Children are not the property of their parents and we need to pay far greater attention to their trauma and needs. No one has a right to damage or traumatise them and destroy their lives, their parents included. I hope that the Government heed the call from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee to recognise this explicitly in the legislation and to develop a specific strategy for their protection and support. I hope the Minister tells the House what plans there are to introduce paid leave for victims of domestic violence, and improve training and education of GPs and obstetricians in the UK, in this area.
I worked for many years with my noble friend Lord Hague of Richmond. It made a deep impression on me that he, who served as Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, regards the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as the proudest moment of his career, given its transformative impact on laws and attitudes. We can take inspiration from this, and work hard to ensure a real and transformative change that can eventually root out this disease of domestic violence from our society. I hope that the domestic abuse Bill is one day an Act that we are all proud of too.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for securing this debate and for her continuing efforts to improve outcomes for victims of domestic abuse. I also pay tribute to the way she has championed the cause of victims. I am delighted that her excellent work will be carried on by Dame Vera Baird, who, as the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, said, has also been a champion for victims for a number of years.
Domestic violence, as we have heard from everybody, is something that should not be tolerated, because its consequences are dire. It affects all communities, walks of life and ages and, sadly, is very common in our society, as has been stated by a number of contributors to this debate. I welcome the Bill and some elements within it but, in my few remarks, will focus on older people who suffer from domestic abuse.
Age UK has raised a serious concern over the lack of information on older people who suffer from domestic abuse. Before 2017, information was collected up to the age of 59. In 2017, the age limit was extended to 74 for the Crime Survey for England and Wales. This means that older people are hidden in this issue. Perpetrators do not have a cut-off point when their behaviour ceases to be abusive towards a victim. Data needs to be collected beyond age 74. As people live longer, there is a greater need for good, comprehensive data on which to base our policies, legislation and targeted help for victims. Older victims are often likely to rely on the perpetrators of abuse for their care and needs. They are, therefore, less likely to report abuse or even be physically able to report mistreatment. As public services become increasingly digitalised, this large group of vulnerable people risks being left behind and unprotected. If the person is ill, different agencies may already be involved in supporting their needs. It is self-evident that a multiagency approach is needed to address safeguarding issues.
Emphasis on multiagency and partnership working needs to be enshrined in legislation to ensure effective support for victims. The elderly can even be carers themselves, often less able to gain access to help and recover from the trauma of abuse, especially when it is sustained abuse. The elderly in minority communities may suffer disproportionately, as there are often closer ties and the victim is perhaps more intimidated and afraid of reporting abuse for fear of stigma, or language barriers may prevent them from speaking out or knowing where to find help.
We may be failing a large part of our society when we do not include figures for anyone above 74 years of age in the information gathering. There is also a need for better understanding of the abuse suffered by elderly people, as there is a need for better resources. It is disturbing to think that the elderly and vulnerable who are subject to physical violence are not in the figures we currently collect. It has been noted how huge the costs are to deal with this crime, with many agencies and public bodies picking up the pieces. If we do not collect the right data and make better provision for multiagency working, we will not be able to make any reductions in the number of incidents, assist victims adequately, stop abuse from happening or reduce costs.
While the issue of abuse in care homes does not come under the remit of this Bill, perhaps it would be helpful to look at both issues together to see where our systems and procedures are failing the elderly at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. Issues around domestic abuse of the elderly can often materialise at the point of leaving hospital. If adequate multiagency care is in place, there is less likelihood of the victim having to return to the perpetrator. We need proper and better scrutiny of how domestic abuse is occurring for people beyond the age of 74, and what needs to be done to help victims, including hospital and care support.
It is encouraging that local authorities will be required to work together with neighbouring councils to assist local people, including specialist support for BAME victims, but will the new,
“legal duty placed on local authorities to deliver support to survivors of domestic abuse in accommodation-based services”,
include reference to the special requirements of older people, especially those from BAME communities? Can the Minister say whether the draft domestic abuse Bill will include specific reference to the elderly, including multiagency safeguarding policies with proper sustainable funding?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Newlove for securing this debate today. One of main reasons for putting my name down was that I wanted to add mine to those congratulating my noble friend on her role as Victims’ Commissioner. She has been outstanding and so impressive in the way she has met the demands before her. It has been a privilege to work with her, and now we can look forward to her bringing more of her special qualities to the House of Lords.
I have spoken of domestic violence, this hidden form of abuse, on previous occasions, and I commend the Government for the measures that have been taken and are ongoing, such as the strategy to end violence against women and girls by 2020. The Government have also started a consultation, which closes in early August, that would enforce the provision of secure accommodation for victims. There is also a strategy to confront domestic abuse within the Armed Forces and defence communities. Some £22 million has been allotted to 63 projects over two years to help those who have suffered this abuse. Many councils are involved in the effort to protect women, as are some charities. In Warwickshire, my son, the police and crime commissioner, awarded a three-year contract to Barnardo’s and an independent charity based in Rugby, RoSA, which supports victims of rape or sexual abuse. They will provide a range of support services, including face-to-face, telephone and online support, to meet the current and emerging needs of victims.
The Government published the draft domestic abuse Bill in January, which was welcomed and endorsed by many outside bodies. Under the proposals, a domestic abuse commissioner will be appointed to drive the response to domestic abuse and hold the Government to account, stand up for victims and monitor the provision of available services. There has been an increase in the number of people reporting cases, which I believe is caused by government action to publicise and not because there are more cases. That government publicity has highlighted these crimes. This has encouraged victims to report to the police and to flee bravely from their home. Such women are often accompanied by their children in seeking refuge, which must include provision of secure housing.
Too many people have their lives torn apart by this awful crime. It is mainly women who suffer abuse, but we should not forget that last year, out of 2 million people, while 1.3 million were women, approximately 650,000 were men. Every case is a tragedy and usually includes children who have witnessed all that goes on behind closed front doors. I want to see victims protected as well as supported. I know that many more measures are included in the draft Bill which I cannot mention today, but we must try to build a society able to stop this horrific crime. Both men and women often feel shame in admitting that they have been abused, and that is intolerable in a modern society. I cannot wait for the draft Bill to be brought before us, agreed and put on the statute book.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, will be in no doubt of the House’s gratitude to her for securing this debate and, more importantly, for never letting us overlook the interests and points of view of victims. I know that that will continue.
I declare an interest as a past member and chair of the board of Refuge. My first meeting was on the day I was asked to become a Member of this House—I too feel rather old. That experience has stayed with me. I am very struck by the level of knowledge and understanding that has been shown in this debate, such as I do not think we would have heard even 10 years ago. I also declare an interest as a trustee of Safer London, given the issue of teenage relationship abuse which is part of its remit. This issue is one for the whole of society, obviously. Of course, we do not know how many men and women will not disclose and we know that the fact that domestic abuse happens to anyone is an issue for us all. I am glad that we have had five men speaking alongside 12 women in this debate, but where are the others?
There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill: inevitably it is the concerns that are aired in a debate such as this, and we cannot discuss domestic abuse without reference to resources, of which there are never enough. The greatest barrier to leaving an abusive relationship is the shortage of housing: discuss. Is it universal credit, the single payment or—it is a long list. You begin to appreciate the scale when you think what it must take to leave an abusive relationship, maybe after many years, maybe without access to money—withholding money may have been part of the abuse—maybe with children. There is the impact upon an unsettled young child in a refuge who wants to see Daddy, or on a teenager whose mental health is affected for years. Controlling and coercive behaviour may continue after partners have separated, in connection with contact and other arrangements for the children. I was startled to hear the estimate that the damage to a child caught up in domestic abuse—one child—can cost the taxpayer between £500 million and £1.4 billion up to the age of 28. It is not always acknowledged, though one noble Lord did so earlier, that children witnessing abuse are so affected. I do not just mean a child who is in the room when Daddy hits Mummy, or vice versa; children know what is going on without actually seeing it.
Mention has been made and there has been a good deal of welcome for the appointment of a domestic abuse commissioner. I do not want what I am going to say to be taken as any comment on past or recently appointed commissioners in any commissioner posts, but I have never been wholly persuaded about the way we have gone in this direction. The previous incarnation was tsars, now we have commissioners. My concern is that it can become all too easy for the Government to offload work which should actually be the work of Ministers. I particularly wonder how the post will relate to that of the Victims’ Commissioner, and where the post will sit in government. Will it be the Home Office, as is suggested by there being a Home Office Minister responding today? The Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner position comes under the wing, if that is the right term, of the Home Office. The inclusion of the word “Independent” in that title was fought for very hard when the legislation went through this House, but of course legislation and practice do not always coincide.
I want to mention one relatively small group of victims. My noble friend Lady Brinton referred to a shocking case, and it was also the subject of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. How much more difficult must it be if you are a migrant with insecure status, or if you believe your status is insecure, which might be part of the issue? In my view, curtailing a spousal visa when a partner claims the marriage has ended amounts to complicity in control and coercion. The destitution domestic violence concession has been mentioned. It is restricted to immigrants on a spousal visa and is too short. It does not apply to asylum seekers and there is no means through the asylum system to access specialist women’s services. There is no recourse to public funds, which means there is no refuge place. It seems that some police forces share the details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control, which is shocking. Expecting women to return “home” is such a failure to appreciate the cultural dimension: it is nowhere near victim-centred.
I want to end, even though I have the luxury of a few more minutes than other noble Lords had, by asking the first question: why? There are lots of whys. Why is there underreporting? Why are there such high attrition rates when it comes to prosecutions? Why is there still such a shortfall in awareness among the general public and professionals whose work brings them into contact with people who are abused? They should be both alert to the possibility of abuse and able to recognise what support is needed. I am glad to see that my own borough of Richmond upon Thames has recently agreed the recommendations of a group with which my own ward councillor Alice Bridges-Westcott—I told her I would give her a namecheck—has been very much involved. This includes the recommendation, to pick just one, that all housing officers dealing with people affected by domestic abuse should work collaboratively with support workers and advocates.
There may be new statutory duties for local authorities. I confess that on the whole I am suspicious about central government adding to the duties of local government. I mentioned the shortage of housing. With her background I know that the Minister will be well aware of the need for powers for local authorities, as distinct from duties. I am glad to see that she is nodding, so she does not actually need to say that in her response. Of course, the big question is what underlies domestic abuse, at the individual level and socially. I hope that we will have other occasions to pursue the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, about trauma-informed services, and to look at a range of psychological issues, such as the attachment in relationships.
I do not tweet, but I bet that there was a backlash on social media when Sally Challen’s murder conviction was quashed: “Why didn’t the silly bitch just leave him?” There is an awful lot to address.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, for bringing this really important debate before us today. I am grateful for that. I also thank her, as other noble Lords have, for all the work she has done as Victims’ Commissioner. She has made a huge contribution to victims and, like others have said, we now all look forward to her bringing all that expertise to your Lordships’ House.
I welcome recent developments which the Government have brought forward: the long campaigned for statutory duty on councils to provide services; the provisions in the draft domestic abuse Bill, including a domestic abuse commissioner and an end to cross-examination by perpetrators in courts; and the much-needed review of family courts. These changes are a testament to organisations, campaigners and Members of this House and the Commons who have campaigned so hard and so long for these changes. Above all, they are a testament to survivors of domestic violence and abuse, who have shown such exceptional strength.
Recent announcements come after years of damaging cuts and loss of services, support and places of safety for survivors and their children. The 60% cut in government funding for local authorities since 2010 has stretched them to their limits. The fact is that one-fifth of refuges have closed since 2010. Women’s Aid has found that some organisations are having to provide these lifesaving local services without any support from cash-strapped local authorities. In 2017-18, over 59% of referrals to a refuge were declined. That is a huge number of women and children being turned away every day. This is really worrying. Where are these women and children expected to go? Many had to go back to their home, with the perpetrator still there.
The Government have promised funding to support the statutory duty on councils. This is to be,
“determined through the forthcoming spending review and informed by the consultation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/19; col. 34.]
I look forward to seeing the results of this consultation. Does the Minister have any idea when this will be? Unless funding is provided to make this work, councils are being set up to fail. When will we and, most importantly, service providers know how much funding the Government will provide to give services a genuinely sustainable long-term future? This is crucial information, as I am aware that those running women’s refuges are worried about the lack of funding but have really welcomed the Government’s announcement in this field. Some are really relieved that they will get this funding, but they are anxious to know when it will happen. Can the Minister confirm that the funding will be ring-fenced?
For obvious reasons, survivors often need to access services outside their local area. What is being done to ensure co-operation and flexibility of services across different areas? Specialist services, including those for BAME and LGBT users, have been hit the hardest in recent years and suffered high rates of closure. It is unclear how the Government’s proposals will focus on these areas of service provision. Can the Minister assure the House that these services will be specifically and strategically provided for?
The draft Bill and other announcements do not seem to do enough to remove barriers to accessing support and safety for migrant women and women with no recourse to public funds. Can the Minister inform the House what the Government plan to do to ensure that all women can access services or a vital place of safety when they desperately need it?
The Local Government Association has raised concerns that government policy is focusing on crisis-point intervention, rather than early intervention. I trust the Minister agrees with me that funding must be provided for early intervention and prevention, to stop these crimes being committed in the first place. Would it not be marvellous if we could resolve this massive problem? Early intervention is obviously much needed. The effort to tackle domestic violence and domestic abuse needs to be driven by multiple government departments working together. It must inform all our policy areas—housing, justice, employment, education, health and welfare
Voluntary organisations and Members of Parliament have campaigned for the Government to provide universal credit as split payments, to protect against economic abuse. The Secretary of State announced in January that universal credit will be paid to the main carer. Can the Minister update the House on what progress has been made in identifying the main carer in a household? Will the Government give more consideration to the benefits of a split payment being standard?
Although we welcome the direction of travel in making improvements to the court system for domestic violence cases, there is far more to be done. Legal aid for domestic violence survivors was decimated by the coalition Government. Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said last week:
“While the government’s draft domestic abuse bill marks an important step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to safeguard children in domestic violence cases. The government’s cuts to legal aid in 2012 have left many victims of abuse unrepresented in court, often unable to argue their case”.
She is calling on the Government to reinstate legal aid for early advice so that domestic abuse can be identified as early as possible. Can the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to reconsider legal aid provision for domestic abuse survivors?
The provision of emergency accommodation services is quite literally lifesaving, but plans must be made for the availability of good quality, long-term housing provision for survivors of domestic violence and their families. I trust the Government will be able to say something positive about this. The lack of genuinely affordable housing has left domestic violence victims facing homelessness and squalid housing. Last year, the number of homes built for social rent fell to fewer than 6,500, compared with almost 40,000 in 2010. Under current legislation, a person made homeless because they are fleeing domestic abuse is not automatically considered in priority need of settled accommodation. This can leave survivors facing a choice between homelessness and returning to an abusive partner. The Minister will no doubt be aware that the charity Crisis and the APPG on Ending Homelessness are calling on the Government to use the domestic abuse Bill to ensure that anyone fleeing abuse is considered a priority and guaranteed a safe home.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, and it has been really good to hear all the expertise across the House. We welcome the Government’s initiative and a lot has been done, but I ask the Minister to listen to the debate this afternoon—there is a lot more to be done. I look forward to the domestic abuse Bill coming to your Lordships’ House; I know we will examine it thoroughly. In the meantime, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I also join the many noble Lords who paid tribute to other noble Lords who are so expert in this area—in particular my noble friend Lady Newlove, whom I thank for bringing forward this debate. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to all the work she has done as Victims’ Commissioner. Of course, supporting victims is in the context of the debate we are having today.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, as one of the founders of Women’s Aid—I did not know that until today—and of course to my noble friend Lady Barran. I think noble Lords intimated that she should be answering the debate because she is such an expert—and she certainly inspires me. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who I had not realised has been involved with Refuge, although I knew that she had been involved with SafeLives. We have a lot of expertise in this Chamber, and all of us want to achieve the same thing for both victims of domestic violence and their children, who are also victims.
I am glad that noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Helic, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Suri, paid tribute to the Prime Minister for her efforts to make domestic abuse a key priority. When historians look back on her period as Prime Minister, I hope that they will recognise her work and the progress she made on equality and ending violence against women and girls, and in the area of domestic violence. That is why this year we published a landmark draft domestic abuse Bill alongside a wide-ranging package of commitments to help protect and support victims of domestic abuse and, most importantly, their children.
As my noble friend said, domestic abuse affects almost 2 million victims every year, both physically and mentally, and carries a financial cost to society. The devastating consequences that it has for victims and their children, and of course the economic costs, are such that it necessitates a separate comprehensive programme of cross-government activity. We believe that having a specific programme of work focused solely on domestic abuse gives us the best chance of achieving our aims and of raising awareness and preventing abuse. We have also refreshed our cross-government VAWG strategy to ensure that we are doing all we can to tackle crimes which have a disproportionate impact on women—although that is not to take away from the fact that of course men are also victims of domestic abuse.
The draft Bill includes a number of measures to improve support for victims. It will: for the first time create a statutory government definition of domestic abuse; create a new domestic abuse civil prevention and protection order to provide better protection for victims; establish a commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors; raise public awareness and monitor the response of agencies; prevent victims being cross-examined by their accused perpetrators in family courts, which I will say more about later; and take steps to allow us to ratify the Istanbul convention—I am amazed that the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, did not mention it today—which will enable UK courts to prosecute British citizens for domestic abuse regardless of where in the world the offence was committed. A Joint Committee of both Houses was appointed to undertake scrutiny of the draft Bill. Its evidence sessions have now concluded and I look forward to seeing its report on 14 June, which we will respond to in full. We will then introduce the Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, raised the subject of inequalities in this area. As he knows, every Bill contains an equality impact assessment. I will talk about the specific issue of migrant women, which a number of noble Lords raised, including the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Gale. The complexities regarding migrant women and their access to support are many and varied. We recognise that some people living in the UK as the partner of a British citizen or other settled person are subject to the no recourse to public funds condition and that some of these people may therefore encounter financial issues if their relationship breaks down as a result of domestic violence.
The intention of the destitute domestic violence concession is to support people who, as noble Lords have said, may otherwise be forced to remain in a relationship with an abusive partner on whom they are financially dependent. As part of our work on the domestic abuse Bill we are considering the argument for widening the cohort of individuals eligible for the concession and are taking into account evidence submitted to the pre-legislative scrutiny committee on this issue. I was pleased to be able to be there on that day. In addition, last month the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, the Minister for Victims, the Minister for Immigration and I co-hosted that round table with stakeholders to discuss how we can best support migrant women who are victims of domestic abuse. When we review all these sources of evidence to come to a view on whether to extend eligibility of the DDVC, we will also take into account the provisions of the Istanbul convention, which were discussed at that round table.
More broadly, to support those who fall outside the scope of the DDVC, we are continuing our work to help build long-term capacity, support and expertise around immigration rights for those working to combat domestic abuse. We have already provided £400,000 through the tampon tax in 2017, and in March 2019 we further committed more than £1 million to Southall Black Sisters. This money will fund safe accommodation, subsistence and help, including counselling, therapy, immigration advice and community awareness-raising for domestic abuse victims in London, the north-east and Manchester, with the aim of improving our understanding of the needs and number of migrants who can claim urgent crisis support.
In addition, the Government are committed to ensuring that all victims of crime are treated first and foremost as victims, regardless of their immigration status. Immigration enforcement is currently engaged with the NPCC lead on domestic abuse to ensure that police and immigration work collaboratively to quickly recognise victims and to ensure that immigration status is not used by perpetrators to coerce and control vulnerable migrants.
A number of noble Lords talked about the importance of funding, in particular for domestic abuse services: my noble friend Lady Newlove and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, talked about this, the former in conjunction with the use of technology to further our efforts in this area. We have committed £100 million-worth of funding up to 2020 to services that combat violence against women and girls, which includes £17 million of funding for 41 projects across England and Wales that support local areas to work collaboratively with specialist third-sector organisations and to develop best practice on early intervention and prevention, not just that crisis response.
It also includes £20 million specifically for domestic abuse. Of this, we have allocated £8 million specifically for services to support children, who are so badly affected by domestic abuse. One of the projects we are funding in north Somerset will create a new support service to help children and young people recover from their experience of domestic abuse, using specialist therapeutic interventions and individualised programmes based on the child’s developmental needs and experience of domestic abuse. That is in addition to the funding provided by local commissioners, including local authorities, police and crime commissioners and health commissioners. In 2017-18, PCCs reported that they spent approximately £23.5 million on support services for victims of domestic abuse.
I will take up the point my noble friend Lord Wasserman has brought up before, about tagging and making the best use of technology. As I acknowledged in earlier debates, that could be a requirement of a domestic abuse protection order. One noble Lord talked about early intervention. I thought it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but perhaps it was not. Early intervention is of course crucial.
Several noble Lords mentioned accommodation. Since 2014, the Government have provided £55.5 million for services, including refuges, to support victims of domestic abuse. We now have more bed spaces than we did back in 2010, but that is not to dismiss the pressure on bed spaces, which is for ever present and possibly growing. This includes a £22 million fund to provide more than 2,220 new beds in refuges and other safe accommodation, supporting more than 25,000 survivors with a safe space in which to rebuild their lives.
In addition, we carried out a review of how domestic abuse services are locally commissioned and funded across England. That is an important point that exercised me when I was in MHCLG. On 13 May, MHCLG launched a consultation on future delivery of support to victims and their children in accommodation-based domestic abuse services. Proposals in the consultation include a new legal duty on local authorities to provide support for domestic abuse survivors and their children. This will provide a range of services to support victims and their children in secure accommodation. To answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I understand that the results of that consultation will be issued on 2 August.
It is proposed that local authorities will be required to complete full needs assessments and publish local strategies which set out how they will provide specifically tailored support. They will also be required to work together across boundaries—let us not forget, domestic abuse does not respect local authority boundaries—to ensure that domestic abuse services reflect the needs of local people. To answer another point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, this includes targeted specialist support for BAME and LGBT victims, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller survivors.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the integration of mental health support in refuges. As we know, refuges provide a wide range of support to victims of domestic abuse, and the current consultation on what that support should involve includes his proposals. Our proposals also include plans for local partnership boards, which I think are a really good idea. They could include health professionals and will ensure that commissioning decisions for services are joined up and informed by information on local needs.
Several noble Lords talked about moving on from safe accommodation. It is crucial for victims to have certainty of support in the longer term. Last November, we issued new statutory guidance for local authorities to improve access to social housing for victims of domestic abuse who are in a refuge or another form of safe, temporary accommodation. As I pointed out, under the proposals under consultation, local authorities are expected to disapply any residency tests for victims who have fled from another local authority district. They set out how local authorities can ensure that victims are given appropriate priority and advise local authorities on how they can use their existing powers to support tenants who are victims of domestic abuse to remain safe in their homes if they choose to do so.
I shall touch on the subject of universal credit and financial support raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. We are looking at what more we can do to ensure that the main carer more often receives the universal credit payment direct, as opposed to the current system, where someone has to request it. We expect to make changes to claimant messaging to support that in the summer.
At the heart of what we are talking about today are not just the victims of domestic violence but their children. That has been one of the themes of this wide-ranging debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, raised that, as did my noble friend Lady Newlove. It has a devastating impact on children. If you grow up in a household of fear, it will have an impact on your well-being and development, with lasting effects into adulthood. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said: that children might be in bed but they hear everything and it follows them all through their lives.
It is really important that social workers provide effective support to children and families affected by domestic abuse. Our children and social care reform programme is working to improve social work practice across the country through initial education, continuing professional development and tougher professional regulation. In school, it is a sad fact that those children do significantly worse than their peers. Through the children in need review, we will identify what needs to be done in policy and practice to address that injustice and improve educational outcomes.
As part of our innovation project funding, we have invested £43 million in 12 projects, with a focus on domestic abuse, including projects with a whole-family approach and therapeutic interventions for children. The Government also provide £163,000 to fund the national rollout of Operation Encompass. This initiative ensures timely information sharing between police and schools when children have been exposed to domestic abuse.
The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, also asked about creating a new statutory defence for women whose offending is driven by domestic abuse. I have seen that issue so often in women’s prisons and recognise it. I understand that she put that question to Edward Argar when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee and that the response will be issued shortly to this end.
My noble friend Lady Newlove and other noble Lords asked about the domestic abuse commissioner: primarily, how will that person be independent? I can confirm that they will have day-to-day operational independence. Ministers will not dictate their work plan nor determine their recommendations. We are clear that we expect the domestic abuse commissioner to provide robust, challenging advice and recommendations to national government as well as to local commissioners. As with most public bodies, there must be a degree of ministerial oversight—for example, to ensure that public money is spent according to Treasury principles—but the relationship between the commissioner and the Home Office will be codified in a published memorandum of understanding. The domestic abuse commissioner will also be required to establish an advisory board and a victims and survivors advisory group.
I have run out of time, although I have a further pile of papers with which to answer noble Lords’ questions. Rather than go on today, because I know that another debate is due to start, I hope that noble Lords will agree for me to follow up on the many questions that I have left to answer in writing. I once again thank my noble friend for all that she has done and for securing this debate and thank all noble Lords who have taken part.
My Lords, I want quickly to thank everybody in your Lordships’ House for their very kind words. I am quite emotional; I did not expect any of that. All of us in this Chamber do excellent work, and I for one champion that outside.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for her response on finances and the independence of the domestic abuse commissioner. I look forward to hearing who that will be; I hope that the role will be designated soon so that we can work together to make things better for domestic abuse victims. I offer my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who mentioned unrecorded crimes. We do not know about the people we do not know about at the moment.
I am honoured to have secured this debate. More importantly, my sleeves are rolled up and I am ready to get stuck into the draft Bill that will come on to the Floor of the House. We owe it to the next generation to show that we did not just do the talking, but rolled our sleeves up and did the walking. We need to help victims of domestic abuse gain confidence in coming forward and feeling supported. More importantly, we need to leave them empowered with the self-esteem to go on to lead healthier lives.