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Domestic Abuse

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what practical measures they are taking to address domestic abuse as part of their strategy on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Home Office has provided an additional £2 million in funding to bolster specialist domestic abuse helplines and websites. This will ensure that all victims can access vital support safely and securely; it is in addition to the £750 million announced by the Treasury for charities. Alongside this, the Home Office has published specific guidance on GOV.UK and launched a new awareness campaign to signpost support services for victims.

The shocking increase in domestic violence, with a doubling of deaths and a 50% increase in calls to helplines, shows that there is more than one kind of epidemic happening in this country today. More than 60% of the women were turned away from refuges before the coronavirus epidemic. However, some good can come of this. This week, the Home Affairs Committee recommended a cross-government approach to tackling this scourge on our nation. For example, we could loosen the rules and speed up the availability of housing benefit to help refuges move families into social and other accommodation, thus unblocking the places in refuges. Will the Minister use her considerable powers of persuasion to knock departmental heads together and make tackling domestic abuse a central pillar of our Covid-19 response? Will she meet me, Women’s Aid and other charities virtually to ensure that we leave this crisis in a better position to protect victims than before we knew that the coronavirus existed?

I think the noble Baroness will agree that we have always had a cross-government approach on domestic violence. Certainly, some of the round tables that we had before coronavirus, in the lead-up to the Domestic Abuse Bill, were very consensual and collaborative. It is certainly something that I will continue to promote. We have been meeting and engaging virtually with charities right from the start of the outbreak of this pandemic.

We are also concerned about children trapped in dangerous domestic situations. What measures are the Government taking to protect those children? More widely, can the Minister say what they are doing to protect children at risk of sexual and other abuse?

I recognise the noble Lord’s point about children—they are at the brunt of abuse, or are witnesses to abuse. As I meant to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, I am on a call every day with the Home Secretary and her operational partners, who are very alive to what might be going on behind closed doors. In the last four weeks, the NCA has developed and disseminated 1,060 child sexual abuse packages for police forces to investigate. Those figures are horrific, but it is testament to the good work of our police forces.

We have heard about the surge in calls to the domestic abuse helpline but we have not seen a corresponding rise in calls to the police. What are the Government doing to understand this discrepancy so that we can make sure that victims also feel able to contact the police should they need to do so?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. There is a mismatch between inquiries to the helpline and what police are reporting. But even among police forces there is quite a disparity; the Met are seeing far higher incidences than are other police forces. Again, on those operational calls, police are really vigilant on spotting the signs of domestic abuse. It is a priority activity for the Home Office at this time.

There is clearly a lack of capacity in refuges for women fleeing abuse. Will the Government take a serious look at what the French Government announced in March—that they would fund hotel rooms, sitting empty, for victims of domestic violence, and consider opening pop-up counselling centres in supermarkets for easy access to advise and support victims of domestic violence? Will the Minister take this back and give a response to these proposals?

I found it very difficult to hear the question of the noble Baroness, but I think it was split into two parts, the first being on lack of capacity in refuges. I am not saying that this is a positive outcome but refuges are reporting vacancies, which is both a good and a bad thing. She said something about how in France people can report in through supermarkets—

There are two things: the French Government paying for hotel rooms so that they become available, and the pop-up counselling centres in supermarkets.

My Lords, I declare that I am chairing an inquiry into alcohol harms. When will the data on alcohol-fuelled domestic violence during lockdown be made available and collated with sales, given that over half of intimate partner and almost all family homicides in 2014-15 involved alcohol and that the latest research shows that alcohol-fuelled violence is disproportionately clustered in the lowest socioeconomic groups—the people living in particularly difficult situations?

One positive thing to come out of the current pandemic, if there is anything positive to report at all, is the decline in drink-related crimes after hours. However, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that data on the harms of alcohol behind closed doors is yet to be released. I think we will know it retrospectively, and the House will of course be interested in this and all other aspects of domestic violence as time goes on. We will report back to the House on the outcomes of that. So one of the positive things is the lack of violence on our streets, but the downside of that is what is happening inside the home.

My Lords, continuing the theme of children, given that lockdown has removed children’s usual contacts with schools, community groups and services, what are the Government doing to increase public awareness and provide advice and support for children at this time?

The Government are doing several things. In terms of adults, the #YouAreNotAlone campaign that the Home Secretary released is certainly up and running; I do not know whether the right reverend Prelate has seen it. Adults can access that and there have been a number of online support services for children, so that they have a line into help and support. Going back to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, there is also support for children who are victims of sexual abuse online during lockdown.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for all the excellent work she has been doing to tackle this long-standing and difficult problem, which has been greatly exacerbated by the current quarantine situation. Just how prepared were the Government and police in identifying and dealing with domestic abuse and violence during this pandemic, and what measures did they put in place in preparation for it?

It was at the forefront of our minds that, as we entered lockdown, some people would be affected not necessarily by Covid-19 but by violence within the home. It is very gratifying to hear that noble Lords are so concerned about it. One of the first things I did was to get in touch with the domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs; everything that she requested from the sector has now been put in place, including the #YouAreNotAlone campaign and other funding packages. There is also IT support, which is incredibly important; if you cannot get out of the house, you need to get that support somehow.

The current pressure-cooker situation does not have a retirement age—quite the opposite. Older people can be particularly vulnerable, not just to alcohol-fuelled abuse but particularly to financial abuse. The specialist charity which supports older people is also taking referrals from large organisations, carers and care homes. Will the Government ensure that both awareness and financial support extend to what is a less well-known problem?

The Government, particularly the Home Office, are getting more and more evidence of financial abuse, particularly among older people. Economic abuse is now seen as a form of domestic abuse, so the noble Baroness is absolutely right. There is not only economic abuse of the elderly; as was raised with me in a Question last week, older people are more subject to scams.

I have added a few minutes as a result of the connectivity and audio issues. We will go back to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, if she is still here. No?

The time allowed for this Question has elapsed. The Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 1 pm for a Statement.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.