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Covid-19: Domestic Abuse

Volume 804: debated on Monday 29 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to support victims of domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, the Government are working closely with domestic abuse organisations, the domestic abuse commissioner and the police to understand and tackle the impact of Covid-19 on victims. The Government have launched a publicity campaign to raise awareness of domestic abuse and to signpost victims to the appropriate support services. We are also ensuring that charities are able to continue to provide such services, with £76 million announced to support survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence, vulnerable children and victims of modern slavery.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but does she agree that urgent action is needed for victims of domestic abuse, since in the first three weeks of lockdown 16 women and some children were killed in their own homes? As lockdown is eased, that is the time when women will decide to escape, and they must know where to get information and support. What plans are being made to deal with the anticipated surge in demand? Will the £76 million already announced in May to support victims of domestic abuse during Covid-19 be distributed speedily, as only £1.2 million had been allocated by 2 June? Perhaps the Minister could update the House on this matter.

I am very happy to update the noble Baroness and the House on this issue. The danger that women were in was well appreciated by the Government even before lockdown began, and from that point moves were afoot to try to support, help and raise awareness about this awful crime. The noble Baroness will know that the #YouAreNotAlone campaign has been running since almost the beginning of lockdown, and I think it has had 120 million hits on online media. She will also probably know that £2 million was allocated for infrastructure and communications for the online helpline for domestic violence victims to access. No lady or, indeed, man should feel that they do not have anywhere to turn and that the funds are not available for the help that they might need during this very difficult period, particularly, as the noble Baroness says, after the lockdown is lifted.

Can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will continue to deliver sustainable national funding for women’s refuges beyond the Covid-19 crisis, so that there will be no repeat of the situation in 2019, when some services were just days away from having to close their doors before additional funding was announced?

My Lords, funding has been announced for the coming year. The noble Baroness is right that sustainable sources of funding need to be there in order for charities to be able to plan. Since 2016, £100 million has been awarded to VAWG services.

My Lords, speaking of a recent report on family courts, the Victims’ Commissioner recently said:

“This panel of experts has dug deep to understand, and address, the serious harm to domestic abuse victims and their children caused over many years by the presumption of”

the right of contact, and that

“victims and children are in need of better protections from abusive perpetrators.”

Does the Minister agree, and do the Government intend to act on this report?

I totally agree with the noble Lord that perpetrators will use the family courts to abuse their victims yet further by putting pressure on them and by appearing in court. The Government are absolutely aware of that, and moves are in place to ensure that perpetrators cannot cross-examine their victims in court.

Growing up in a household where there is domestic abuse is traumatic for children. It can normalise harmful behaviour and warp a child’s understanding of what relationships should be, and so the cycle of abuse continues. Does my noble friend the Minister therefore agree that there should be reference to children in the statutory definition of domestic abuse in the Bill, because it is clear that children who see, hear or experience abuse by one adult against another are themselves victims of abuse?

I could not agree more with my noble friend. We fully recognise the devastating impact that domestic abuse can have on children and will of course reflect this in the accompanying statutory guidance. The Government have listened very carefully to the very strong views expressed on this during the passage of the Bill in the other place. I can update him: we have undertaken to reflect further on this issue.

Has the Minister seen the briefing produced by Birmingham University on domestic violence and child maltreatment during Covid? It proposes repurposing existing NHS surveillance methods, such as scheduled emails and text messages for health surveys, to include questions to see whether anyone at risk of domestic violence or child maltreatment is being victimised. If she has not seen it, could she have a look?

I have to confess to not having seen it, but I can recognise what the noble Baroness says and therefore what the report might contain. I shall have a look at it, but I do not disagree with that point. I will take this moment to correct a number that I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. The #YouAreNotAlone campaign has not received 120 million online impressions; it has received 220 online impressions.

Turning to practicalities, how many women’s refuges are there in the United Kingdom—or at least in England—and how easy or not is it to get temporary accommodation for women who may want to flee an abusive situation, but also to know where they are going to rest their heads next?

There are 3,898 bed spaces in refuges in England. That figure is from 2018, but it is a 10 % increase on that for 2010. During this Covid crisis, certainly, no woman who is fleeing domestic violence will find herself without food, shelter and support.

I call the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. Baroness Greengross?

We will move on to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark.

My Lords, additional funding is welcome, but I do not believe that it is enough to cope with the surge of domestic abuse during the pandemic. Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Polak, what specific additional work are the Government funding to help children who could be victims or who witness this criminal behaviour, because of the trauma it causes and the risk that it will be normalised in the home as acceptable behaviour and carried on into future generations?

I agree with the noble Lord. He is absolutely right that what an adult experiences as domestic violence the child will also feel, whether directly or indirectly, from that domestic violence. Children are part of the support package, so if the mother is safe—it is usually the mother—the child will be safe. But various charities are working with women and children to ensure their safety during this pandemic.

I declare an interest as patron of the Albert Kennedy Trust, which looks after LGBT youth who are homeless. It reports an increase in domestic violence perpetrated by parents during the Covid lockdown. Will the Government include parental violence in the definition of domestic violence, and will they start to collect data on this?

Whatever type of violence it is, I think it will be captured within the definition. I agree about parental violence on children. I have also seen a couple of cases reported of children, not necessarily small children, committing child violence upon parents—it goes both ways—during the pandemic, when people are all cooped up together.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. There will be a short pause while we allow Front-Bench teams to change place before the next Question.