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Migrant Women: Domestic Abuse

Volume 808: debated on Monday 23 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect migrant women who have been subjected to domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds.

My Lords, it is essential that migrant victims of domestic abuse, including those with no recourse to public funds, are treated first and foremost as victims. Already, the destitution domestic violence concession provides emergency crisis support to protect victims on certain spousal visas. We are taking steps to provide further protection through the £1.5 million scheme to support migrant victims, and to assess and address shortfalls in the current provision.

My Lords, instead of listening to the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, organisations on the ground and the commissioner-designate, the Government’s review of migrant domestic abuse victims has produced a pilot widely condemned as unnecessary, totally inadequate and, despite what the Minister has just said, potentially discriminatory, because it subordinates abused women’s needs to their immigration status. Will the Government act on these concerns and rethink the pilot or, better still, enshrine in the Bill protection for abused migrant women and the Istanbul convention principle of non-discrimination, as is widely called for?

We listened very carefully to the Joint Committee’s recommendations. I will discuss with colleagues whether there is any discrimination inherent in the scheme. While it will be in force for only four months, we fully intend to roll it out far beyond March. I will keep the noble Baroness updated, and certainly take back her point about discrimination within the scheme.

My Lords, the destitution domestic violence concession is a limited way in which some of these women can access some support, but can the Minister confirm how long it currently takes for such applications to be considered, and for a payment to be made to these vulnerable women?

I cannot confirm the time but, particularly during Covid, our intention is to get funds to people and to lift any restrictions on recourse to public funds as quickly as possible, so that those people—mostly women—get the support that they need when they need it.

I refer to my interests in the register. Can the Minister take into account that, among migrants subjected to domestic abuse, there may be those in enforced marriage situations?

I agree that the two are not mutually exclusive at all. One might assume that, having been forced into a marriage, those women are more vulnerable to specific types of abuse than the general population.

My Lords, the Joint Committee, of which I was a member, was shocked by the evidence from those women with no recourse to public funds about how perpetrators exploited their immigration status. We now know that many of these women, during the pandemic, have been forced by those same perpetrators into sex for survival. It is shocking that in Britain today we are unable to support these women, so that they do not have to resort to such extreme and deplorable activity. This is urgent. What are the Government prepared to do to support them so that they are not exposed to such huge vulnerabilities?

If anyone is subjected to domestic violence or any other type of exploitation outlined by the noble Baroness, we will treat them first and foremost as victims. The Government have—particularly during the Covid situation, as she outlined—put quite substantial funding into ensuring that people in these vulnerable positions, and their children, get the help that they need, when they need it.

The Minister has told me that she believes that all domestic abuse victims should be protected, no matter what their status. Therefore will she confirm that, when amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill to afford financial protection to all are put forward, they will be favourably received?

I do not know what the amendments are, but the noble Baroness will know, since I have responded to her previously on this, that we will look as carefully as we can at any amendments that seek to protect women at a very vulnerable time in their lives, hence the support for migrant victims scheme which will be rolled out very shortly. We will look at gaps in provisions but, to return to her initial point, people will be treated as victims first and foremost.

My Lords, this is such a difficult area. On 19 October, the Government put forward the support for migrant victims scheme, which we have been alluding to. The day after, they reported to the authorities of the Council of Europe that this was evidence of their making progress towards ratification of the Istanbul convention and their need to comply with its requirements. The trouble is that I have here 58 signatures from leaders in this field who feel that this was an entirely misconceived initiative that will end up with measures that “directly contravene” Article 4.3 of the Istanbul convention, the non-discrimination principle in relation to migrant or refugee status. Can the Minister help me to see my way through these apparently contradictory remarks?

My Lords, I do not think that the Government wish in any way to contradict themselves on what they intend to do on the Istanbul convention. I understand that when the Domestic Abuse Bill becomes an Act, extraterritorial jurisdiction over specified offences, as required by the convention, will enable the convention to be ratified. However, I will look into it further and perhaps get back to the noble Lord on any further measures that are needed—or indeed any contradictions that do exist, because we would not want that unintended consequence of the passage of what I think is quite forward-leaning legislation.

My Lords, many of these women have very little English, so huge language barriers isolate them from help that could be available to them. Will the Minister encourage local authorities and voluntary organisations to help groups and individuals to overcome these barriers? An additional problem that has been researched by charities in north Kensington is that very few such individuals have internet contact of any sort—the figures are quite alarming—so there will be no help for them at all until they become more conscious of using the internet and can afford to get some appliances.

I agree with my noble friend that accessibility to online services is crucial, and in fact we announced funding to help with online services during the Covid period. I wholeheartedly support her point about people who have very little English. I have met women in such situations who not only cannot speak English but have had their passports taken away from them. That leaves them in the most vulnerable situation imaginable, as they are not even able to explain what has happened to them.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants argued, even before the Covid pandemic, that having no recourse to public funds had pushed families into abject poverty, unsustainable debt and homelessness. Covid has exacerbated this problem, particularly with regard to the rise of domestic violence suffered by migrant women. As a matter of urgency and decency, can we massively widen the exceptions to “no recourse to public funds” or, at best during this difficult time, abandon it?

As a matter of course during the Covid pandemic, if someone is a victim of domestic violence, they are effectively supported as such first and foremost, before any other considerations are taken into account. Certainly, “no recourse to public funds” change of conditions grants have been 89% successful. I do not take away from what the noble Lord says at all, because he is asking whether we can help these people as victims of domestic violence first and foremost.

Sitting suspended.