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Domestic Abuse

Volume 804: debated on Friday 24 July 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the analysis by Refuge that showed that (1) the National Domestic Abuse Helpline received more than 40,000 calls and contacts during the first three months of the COVID-19 lockdown, and (2) calls and contacts increased by 77 per cent in June, published on 23 July, what plans they have to support victims of domestic abuse.

My Lords, the Government have been working closely with domestic abuse organisations since the beginning of the pandemic to monitor the volume of calls to helplines and to ensure that vital support services remain available. We have provided £2 million of funding to ensure that helplines and web-based support remain available at this challenging time, and are working closely with those organisations, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the police to understand the impact of Covid on victims and survivors, including as lockdown restrictions are eased.

My Lords, emergency Covid funding for violence against women and girls charities must all be spent by 31 October, yet the sector is chronically underfunded and demand has never been higher. It is vital that sustainable long-term funding is delivered with urgency. So can the Government confirm exactly how much money they are making available to back up the new legal duty in the Domestic Abuse Bill to assess the need for and commission domestic abuse safe accommodation services?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to refer to the package of funding that has been announced by the Government to help charities and organisations working in this important sector during the Covid crisis. The Government consistently funded this important work before Covid came on the scene as well—for instance, helping to provide a 10% increase in the number of bed spaces available in refuges. We will certainly continue to monitor the needs of the sector as the pandemic eases.

My Lords, warm words are always welcome from the Minister, but he will know that the situation was dire even before lockdown. The majority of women who need refuge are turned away because there is no accommodation. The sticking-plaster emergency funding and the inadequacy of the UK’s support infrastructure disguise the sheer scale of this problem. The Government must make it a higher political priority. How will they promote a step change in continuous funding to refuges, particularly those offering specialist support?

My Lords, the Domestic Abuse Bill that has just passed in another place is of course heading for your Lordships’ House, where we will be able to debate these measures. That sets the new statutory definition of domestic abuse and creates new duties on local authorities, including to make sure that those who are fleeing domestic abuse will automatically be considered as a priority need for housing by local authorities. I am sure that these are debates to which we will return when the Bill reaches your Lordships’ House.

Is the Home Office going to do any work to understand what lies behind the increased use of the helpline? If it is the case that the Government’s recent public information campaign is encouraging more victims to come forward, would they consider continuing with that for the foreseeable future?

My noble friend makes an important point. She refers to the publicity campaign that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary launched in April, the #YouAreNotAlone campaign, which encourages greater awareness of the problem of domestic abuse, particularly at this time, and makes sure that people know where they can turn to for help. My noble friend is right: this is, sadly, an underreported crime. As we have seen an increase in the number of calls to helplines in the pandemic, we want to understand whether that is because of a rise in the number of incidents, a rise in the confidence of people seeking help, or a combination of both.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a past chair of Refuge. The helpline run by Refuge, which has a lot of sophisticated functions, relies on volunteer help—as do very many charities, of course. Does the noble Lord agree that, in order to support the volunteers and maintain their commitment, it is essential that they have confidence in the Government’s own commitment?

Absolutely. I will take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that Refuge does, particularly in running the national helpline, which is so important, particularly at the moment. I am pleased to say that Refuge has received more than £230,000 of the £2 million that the Government made available and which I mentioned in my first Answer. I hope that that is testament to the importance we accord to its work, and particularly the adaptability it has shown, as many of the people working on the helpline and providing help throughout the crisis have been doing so from their own home.

The Domestic Abuse Bill puts a duty on local authorities to provide support to victims in refuges and accommodation-based services. That is welcome, but the majority of domestic abuse victims access services in the community rather than through a refuge. So will the Government now commit—particularly in the light of the latest figures on abuse—to extending that duty on local authorities to provide support to victims of domestic abuse to also cover vital community-based services? If the Government will not now so commit, why not?

The noble Lord is right: the Domestic Abuse Bill includes a new duty on tier 1 local authorities to assess the need, and commission support, for safe accommodation for victims. The Government recognise that more needs to be done to ensure the adequate provision of community-based support. I am pleased to say that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner has agreed to undertake an in-depth exploration of the current landscape in this area. We will then of course work with the commissioner to understand the needs that she has identified and develop options on how best to address them.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of a commission on forced marriage. In providing support for domestic abuse victims, will the Minister also take into account victims of forced marriage or those in forced-marriage situations, some of whom are only teenagers?

The noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right that domestic abuse takes many forms. There are no excuses for it, but there are many facets to it, and forced marriages and so-called “honour-based” abuse are just two of them. The Government work with a number of organisations that specialise in precisely those aspects of this vile crime.

Does the Minister agree that, as restrictions are lifted, many more victims of domestic abuse will seek help to escape their abuser and that much more support needs to be given to those who run refuges? The Minister mentioned the sum of £2 million that had been spent; can he say what has happened to the £76 million of extra funding that was announced, which ends on 31 October? How much of that funding has been spent? Many organisations in this field are saying that it is only just reaching the front line.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right; we are aware that there may well be further changes in the number of people seeking help as lockdown restrictions are eased or as they start to see friends, family and those in whom they can confide or who have concerns about them. She asked about the funding that has been made available. As part of that £76 million set aside for groups working in this area, £10 million was disbursed via the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for safe accommodation services. I can say that £8.76 million of that has been allocated so far.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what action the Government are taking to respond specifically to the long-term emotional needs of children who are victims of domestic abuse? Also in that context, can he include work with perpetrators, who are often male and often the father, with whom children might have had a bond that they value?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very important point. New Clause 15 of the Domestic Abuse Bill provides precisely for that—the impact of domestic abuse on children, who are sometimes the victims and sometimes witnesses to this appalling crime. That will help us to ensure that locally commissioned services consider and address the needs of children affected by domestic abuse, particularly, as he says, where a parent or parent’s partner is the perpetrator.

The lockdown has impacted disproportionately on migrant women trapped in abusive relationships with little financial help from the state, or entitlement to such help. Are applications from these women for indefinite leave to remain being considered accordingly, as they can be in some instances, and what emergency funding has been made available to help these very desperate women?

The Government have made sure that the advice provided has been translated into a number of priority languages to ensure that help reaches those for whom English is perhaps a barrier to seeking that help. A domestic violence concession allows people who require it to be treated outside the Immigration Rules. We recognise that, for some, uncertainty about their immigration status is something that their abuser might hold over them. Therefore, the Government are very alive to the concerns that the noble Baroness raises.

My Lords, despite the Minister’s assurances, the “no recourse to public funds” rule is excluding many migrant domestic abuse victims from refuge housing and financial support. Will the Government therefore now suspend the rule during the pandemic and meet the Step Up Migrant Women coalition to discuss this issue and address it in the context of the Domestic Abuse Bill to ensure that it is compliant with the Istanbul convention?

As I mentioned, there is the concession for domestic violence, which allows people to be looked after outside the Immigration Rules, but the Joint Committee which looked at the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is coming to your Lordships’ House, recommended that this be reviewed further. The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who asked the Question, was a member of that committee. The Government have carried out that review and, flowing from that, my honourable friend the Minister for Safeguarding announced during the Second Reading of the Bill in another place a £1.5 million fund to launch a programme to support migrant victims of domestic abuse so that we can see what further work needs to be done in this area.

My Lords, as has been said, children who witness domestic violence are also innocent victims who suffer trauma. There is an increasing need for support for such children, yet 60% of service providers state that they have had to cancel their services for children during the Covid pandemic. How will the Government ensure that such services are restored and improved?

A number of organisations do brilliant work in this area, looking after children who, as the noble Baroness said, are witnesses to these appalling crimes. That is particularly difficult at the moment, when face-to-face help cannot be provided. As I have mentioned, a number of the charities have moved to online support during the crisis, and of course we will continue to work with them, as we have been doing throughout the pandemic, to make sure that they are able to help everybody who needs their assistance.

My Lords, is the number of domestic violence victims who are intimidated after they have sought refuge increasing? What measures are taken to ensure that the locations of refuges are kept secret?

My Lords, I do not have to hand the numbers that the noble Lord seeks but I will find them out and write to him on that point.

Can the Minister inform the House of what recent discussions the Government have had with the CPS to prioritise domestic violence cases during the Covid-19 outbreak? Also, the Minister mentioned the “You are not alone” campaign, which we all welcomed with open arms. Have the Government made any assessment of the effectiveness of the campaign so far?

In answer to the first question, on 21 May the Prime Minister hosted a virtual summit on hidden harms and the Home Secretary chaired a session with policing leads and relevant commissioners to explore how we can ensure that law enforcement agencies and those right across the criminal justice system are able to meet the demands of the pandemic and provide confidence that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. On the efficacy of the “You are not alone” campaign, the website has had more than 250 million hits. Right at the beginning of the crisis, the Government updated the advice on GOV.UK, which we continue to update throughout the pandemic.

Sitting suspended.