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Domestic Abuse and Hidden Harms during Lockdown

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 14 January.

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement. The coronavirus pandemic has presented this country with enormous and unprecedented challenges. In order to control the spread of the virus, we have had to ask the public to follow a simple but crucial instruction: stay at home. Earlier this month we entered a new national lockdown, and while we are absolutely clear that these measures are necessary, it is also important to recognise the potential impact on what we refer to as hidden harm crimes, which include domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation and modern slavery. These are some of the most pernicious, harmful types of offending in society, and they often occur behind closed doors. Given that fact, let me reiterate a crucial message that the Prime Minister delivered to the public last week: notwithstanding the restrictions in place, those at risk of abuse can leave home to seek safety and avoid the risk of harm.

Protecting those at risk of abuse and exploitation remains a priority for this Government, which is why I am so pleased that today I can announce the launch of a new codeword scheme for victims of domestic abuse called Ask for ANI. From today, thousands of pharmacies across the UK will provide this service, enabling victims to seek help discreetly. Through a signal to a pharmacist, a victim will be provided with a safe space in the pharmacy, and taken through the support available to them, whether that is a call to the police or a domestic abuse helpline service. The codeword scheme will offer a vital lifeline to all victims, ensuring that they get help in a safe and discreet way.

Let me set out more of the steps that we have taken to ensure that victims and those at risk can continue to access critical advice and support. We have provided unprecedented levels of additional funding to critical frontline services helping victims of domestic abuse. As part of wider charitable funding, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have between them distributed more than £25 million in emergency Covid-19 funding for domestic abuse organisations. That has provided almost 1,900 bed spaces in safe accommodation and enabled domestic abuse organisations of all sizes to provide advice and support to victims. For example, Home Office funding allowed the charity Safelives to train hundreds of frontline workers online, including new independent domestic violence advisers. To help sustain those charities through the second part of the year, we are providing further funding of nearly £11 million from the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.

Although funding forms an important strand of our response, it is also vital that victims of domestic abuse, and those worried about them, know how to access help and advice. In April, the Home Secretary launched the #YouAreNotAlone communications campaign to do precisely that. The campaign has reached almost 25 million people through paid advertising and has been supported by a range of celebrities and influencers who have shared its messages with more than 130 million followers on social media. Materials have been translated into 16 languages. The campaign directs victims to sources of specialist help and support. It also makes clear that the ‘stay at home’ restrictions do not apply to those at risk of abuse who need to leave home to seek help or refuge. We have relaunched the campaign over the winter to reaffirm those messages, and I ask honourable Members across the House to do everything they can to highlight that campaign, and make clear to victims that help continues to be at hand, should they need it.

The police have been and will continue to be proactive in tackling domestic abuse during this period. Courts have continued to prioritise domestic and child abuse cases throughout, as well as civil protection orders relating to domestic abuse, stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. We have seen many innovative police responses to domestic abuse during the pandemic. The Metropolitan Police has developed an online function for the domestic violence disclosure scheme, whereby police can disclose previous domestic violence history to new partners. Nottinghamshire Police is applying the disclosure scheme in every domestic abuse occurrence. Other forces are able to use discreet technology to take witness statements remotely, without leaving any trace on the victim’s phone. Some forces, such as Gloucestershire Police, have used spare capacity to instigate dedicated domestic violence response vehicles, while independent domestic violence advisers are helping to support victims.

There are, sadly, other forms of hidden harms within domestic abuse, and we are acutely aware that the pandemic has increased risks to some children and young people and reduced their contact with trusted professionals and adults. The Government are committed to doing everything they can to continue to support and protect children at risk, and they have provided more than £11 million since last June to Barnardo’s ‘See, Hear, Respond’ service, to support more than 50,000 vulnerable or hidden children, whose usual support networks have been affected by national and local pandemic restrictions.

The Home Office has also launched a national communications campaign, Something’s Not Right, to help children who have been exposed to a range of harms, reaching millions of secondary school children in England. At this time, we are particularly concerned about online harms. With children spending more time on the internet, parents have been signposted to materials for staying safe online, including from the National Crime Agency’s Thinkuknow campaign.

A record number of reports of online child sexual abuse have been processed by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation, including a large increase in self-generated indecent images of children. The Home Office is providing £80,000 to support the development of the IWF’s campaign to support parents in starting conversations with their children around keeping safe online, and to help young people to identify the signs of coercion and to report abuse. In December, we published the full government response to the online harms White Paper, which sets out our expectations on companies to keep their users safe, especially children. At the same time, we published the interim code of practice on online child sexual exploitation and abuse, which sets out steps that companies can take now to tackle these crimes on a voluntary basis, ahead of any regulatory system being introduced.

Another form of hidden harm is modern slavery. The Government are committed to the safety and security of victims of modern slavery, particularly during the pandemic, by ensuring that victims are provided with the support they need and that those responsible for these crimes are prosecuted. Last year, we made an additional £1.73 million available for modern slavery services in England and Wales. The funding has enabled providers to adapt the ways in which they provide support during the pandemic, including by reducing face-to-face contact where appropriate and ensuring that support can be accessed remotely. The new victim care contract came into force last week and will help to ensure that victims receive the care they need. In early adopter sites, child victims of modern slavery continue to be supported by the independent child trafficking guardian scheme which is working flexibly to continue to provide effective and responsive support remotely, both to trafficked children directly and to other professionals. Law enforcement agencies continue to pursue high-risk modern slavery cases where there is a risk of harm or detriment to individuals.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have remained resolute in our commitment to tackling abuse that takes place behind closed doors and out of sight. We continue to work across Government to monitor, assess and respond to the ongoing situation, but I ask all honourable Members to consider ways in which they can point victims in their constituencies to support. We will continue to prioritise domestic abuse during and after the pandemic. To do this, we remain committed to delivering our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to further strengthen protections for victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

In addition, this year we will publish the Tackling Violence against Women and Girls Strategy, which will help us to better target perpetrators and support victims of these abhorrent crimes. We are currently running a call for evidence to inform the new strategy, and I urge honourable Members to share this via their networks within their constituencies to help us reach as wide an audience as possible. This will be followed by a dedicated and complementary domestic abuse strategy that will ensure progress following the passage of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. We will soon publish the first-of-its-kind strategy on tackling all forms of child sexual abuse, outlining our long-term ambition to drive a whole- system response in tackling this heinous crime.

In conclusion, I thank everyone involved in helping victims of hidden crimes in this pandemic and beyond, from those working in domestic abuse refuges and community services and in modern slavery safe accommodation, to those scouring the internet to remove images of children being raped, as well as our police officers, our National Crime Agency officers, our Border Force officers and those working in the security services to support this work. I thank them all for what they are doing to help support victims and to stop perpetrators of these terrible crimes. I would like to finish by reassuring all victims of hidden harms that they are not alone, that their voices are heard, and that help will continue to be there for them. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the Statement to the House today. I welcome a lot of what is in it but I wonder whether we are going fast enough to tackle effectively all the problems that we are all aware of. It was good to read about the launch of the Ask for ANI scheme, which is a real step forward. Can the Minister tell the House what her department has done to ensure in launching this scheme that, when a victim comes forward, there will be support beyond an initial phone call, and what co-ordination of resources has taken place to ensure that this happens in all cases?

The “stay at home” message for the pandemic is right, to help us defeat the virus, but we need to hear clearly from all quarters that individuals who wish to leave their homes to escape domestic abuse can do so. That message was not given in March, and it still needs to be said through an array of media platforms, because unless messages are repeated consistently, they just do not get through to those who need to hear them.

Getting funding to the front line is extremely important. Can the Minister tell the House why the £75 million of funding announced has been so slow in getting to the front line, with only a third of the money having been spent? Can she also tell us when the unspent £51 million will be allocated, and confirm that the £11 million extra is in excess of the £75 million already announced and not just a reannouncement of funding already pledged? That is a very important point to be clear on.

I pay tribute to all those who work in the refuge sector for the brilliant work that they do every day in keeping women and children safe. What is being done to increase capacity in the sector? Is the Minister confident that there will be the capacity to meet demand? What specific provisions have been made for specialised services for victims who are black, Asian, minority ethnic, migrants, LGBTQ, male or disabled? Children are often the hidden victims of domestic and sexual abuse in the home. What work is the Minister’s department doing to ensure that vulnerable children who are out of school are kept safe?

There are huge issues about how children are faring generally in the pandemic, and considerable justifiable concern over the significant failures of the Department for Education—everything from the food parcels being made available to families and the supply of computers, to understanding what it is like to grow up poor. Can the Minister reassure us that the Home Office is better equipped to deal with children and domestic abuse, sexual abuse, slavery and other issues that are their responsibility? We need to deal with those in a much better way than the Department for Education, given its record.

Looking at youth work, is there support for the proactive targeting of children—at the very least, those on child protection plans? What work has been done to reach children living in dangerous and violent homes? The £11 million of funding for the See, Hear, Respond scheme will target 50,000 children, not the three-quarters of a million children living in dangerous homes today. So can the noble Baroness tell us whether any of the schemes that have been announced will cover every child, so that all child victims can benefit, not just those in some areas, where a postcode lottery determines whether we fund a child’s safety? That surely cannot be a situation that we would want or would allow to continue.

Turning to independent child trafficking guardians—a scheme that we welcome—can the noble Baroness confirm that that support is available for all children trafficked in our country, as was promised some years ago by this Government, or is it still, as I understand, just a pilot for some areas, leaving some trafficked children without support?

Domestic abuse and community support services are currently planning for redundancies in March. That is shocking in the middle of a global pandemic and a national lockdown. What is the noble Baroness’s reaction to that? The staff being made redundant are the very people whom the Home Office and the noble Baroness need for the Ask for ANI scheme to have any chance of success. Can she confirm that there have been discussions with the sector and/or the Treasury about multiyear funding and putting an end to concerns that we have every financial year about dangerous year-on-year short-termism and redundancies in the sector?

With the thought of the lockdown carrying on until March, it is imperative that the Government act, and act faster than they have been doing. I have posed a number of questions to the noble Baroness and would be grateful for any response that she can give today from the Dispatch Box. Equally, I accept entirely that she might have to write to me on some of the points, and I would be delighted to accept a letter from her. Perhaps she could confirm that and agree that, if she writes to me, she will place a copy of the response in the Library of the House.

I am grateful to the Government for the Statement and for all the things they are doing to support victims of domestic abuse in the pandemic and in the longer term through the Domestic Abuse Bill and in other ways. It seems clear thar the repercussions of Covid will last for a long time after we all emerge from the lockdown. Some victims will not report their abuse for years. Women’s Aid figures show an average of six years between the abuse beginning and a victim coming forward for help. So, we must put the support in place, ready for whenever it is needed.

There is no doubt that help is urgently needed now. The Government have announced £125 million for safe accommodation and £40 million for victims’ services, but there is still no clarity about when the money will reach services, and many face a cliff edge in March. Many are already preparing for the worst, including redundancy processes in some cases. Can the noble Baroness give any clarity on when funding will reach them? Can funding be planned on a longer-term basis so that services can focus on helping victims instead of worrying about having to close?

The Statement says that the £25 million emergency Covid funding has provided almost 1,900 bed spaces in safe accommodation. However, the Routes to Support database, which is the UK-wide directory of refuge vacancies, reported in November a net increase of only 317 spaces. Can the noble Baroness explain this huge shortfall?

The latest initiative being announced today, the “Ask for Ani” code for requesting help at selected pharmacies, is a great idea and very welcome. However, I wonder about the practicalities of how it is going to work. Training for staff will be absolutely vital if the victim is to be helped and not endangered further. Can the Minister confirm that the actual training consists of watching a video? Does she feel confident that people will feel confident and equipped to respond to a survivor effectively?

Finally, I make a helpful suggestion about victims who are migrant women with no recourse to public funds. I understand the considerable effort and money invested in a pilot project to investigate how best to help, and we have to be patient. However, while all this evaluation is taking place, women are suffering and dying because they are faced with the impossible choice of destitution or remaining with their abuser. Why not extend the destitution domestic violence concession to all victims, just for now? All victims deserve compassion and help, whatever their immigration status. Would not the Minister agree?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for their questions. First, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, because it was he and I who exchanged words in a debate around the code word, and it is very pleasing that it has now come to fruition. He asked about taking it forward and about co-ordination. Taking it forward is not just about a phone call; it is absolutely about the first port of call to enable the woman—usually it is a woman, although it might be a man—to be dealt with in the appropriate way, at the appropriate time. Obviously, that may not be in the pharmacy; it will be by the relevant professional, depending on the case. But, yes, it is not just about picking up the phone in the pharmacy and hoping for the best. There has to be far more of a co-ordinated approach.

The noble Lord also talked about the reach of the statement by the Prime Minister that anybody who needs to leave home because of domestic abuse can do so—they are the exception. I agree with him that that statement got far more traction this time than last time, but it was not that it was not mentioned; I think it was the fact that the Prime Minister mentioned it so publicly in the daily update. I think people are in no doubt about the fact that, if you are a victim, you can leave home.

The noble Lord also said that the £76 million was slow to get out. I understand that £27 million of that funding has already got out, so he is not wrong about it being a third—but, of course, it is the annual amount and, therefore, we would not want to spend the whole lot now. I think that the £11 million is on top, but I shall correct that if I am wrong. The £76 million is for four of the organisations that have been granted awards, which are focused on the impact on children; the noble Lord talked about children, and a number of funds focus on them. The Department for Education and the Home Office have funded Operation Encompass, with £194,000 of funding to provide a support helpline for teachers to assist children affected by domestic abuse. There is an £8 million fund for the “well-being for education return” scheme, funded by the DHSC, DfE and PHE. Of course, he will know about the “You are not alone” campaign, which has been incredibly successful, gaining 130 million take-ups on social media.

Some forces have actually developed incredibly clever technology for taking statements discreetly so that a woman or a victim of domestic abuse does not very obviously have to go to a police station. I know that Gloucestershire police have instigated DA response vehicles.

The noble Lord mentioned the £11 million Barnardo’s fund to support 50,000 vulnerable or hidden children. The Home Office launched the “Something’s Not Right” communications campaign to help children exposed to a range of harms. On top of that, there is the NCA’s Thinkuknow campaign for parents concerned about the online safety of children, which is vital during the lockdown. There are quite a number of packages of support, so noble Lords will see that children are at the heart of our response.

The noble Lord talked about the increase in the capacity of the sector to meet the demand. I think that noble Lords will agree that some packages of funding that we have delivered or will be delivering will meet that capacity. He also talked about the postcode lottery, which is important. When I first went into MHCLG, there was a really patchy picture of people who could access DA services versus those who could not. The duty on first-tier local authorities goes some way to address that.

Both noble Lords talked about the sustainability of funding. I cannot disagree with that because it is crucial for services to be able to make long-term decisions instead of having to lurch from one set of funding to the next.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, talked about migrant women. We had the opportunity to discuss them during the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill. She will know that there is a £1.5 million pilot programme up and running to see where some of the gaps in the provision for migrant women lie. However, let me make it clear that any woman or man suffering domestic abuse will get the support she or he needs.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. Questions and answers should be brief. I call the first speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington.

My Lords, I too welcome the innovation in the Statement and congratulate the Government on their progress. However, given that so much of the violence takes place when perpetrators are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, can the Minister update the House on the use of new technologies and, most especially, on what consideration is being given to the use of tagging of offenders via compulsory sobriety orders, which I think are still being trialled around the UK?

My noble friend is right that a lot of domestic abuse happens when alcohol has been taken, hence the police and the Government are very much alert to the probability that levels of domestic abuse will increase when there are big events such as the World Cup. Of course, lockdown has also meant an increase in drinking for some people. The Home Office and the Government are very concerned for the welfare of people who may be stuck at home, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s statement that you do not have to remain in your home if you are the victim of domestic violence. On how we can ameliorate alcohol abuse through the various things that we might require perpetrators to do, a domestic abuse protection order may specify alcohol abstinence—or there may be tagging, as my noble friend said—and on breach it becomes a criminal matter.

I refer to my interests in the register. This is a very helpful Statement from the Minister, but I ask her to include forced marriage in government strategy, communication and training programmes. Will she also look at the position of some wives whose marriages are not registered and therefore fall outside the spousal domestic violence immigration status?

I am acutely aware of the woman who finds herself either in a forced marriage or in a marriage that is not actually a legal marriage at all. One thing that will be very important for ensuring the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill will be to keep it focused on the issue of domestic abuse. I am not in any way saying that forced marriage is not a form of domestic abuse, but certainly there are laws against forced marriage, and it is something that the Home Office is acutely aware of.

My Lords, I, too, express my thanks to the Government for their work on domestic abuse issues, particularly following the announcement of “Ask for Ani”. However, as the Minister will know, there are certain issues that particularly impact minority ethnic groups and people of faith. Will the Government look to take on the recommendations of the Keeping the Faith report and seek to increase faith literacy within secular bodies so that they are equipped to respond to particular harms found within a faith context?

I certainly know that officials have been working with bishops and others on developing the guidance, but I think the right reverend Prelate is taking about something slightly different, which is abuse that happens within a faith context —that is, using faith as a reason to abuse. I hope that some of the work she and others are doing with officials is cognisant of that type of abuse. I am sure it is, and I am sure that is the reason why she raised it.

While I welcome the Statement, there is one group of people that does not get a mention—those who are victims of elder abuse. Will the Minister say what measures are being taken to support such people, as they fall into a category that often differs from other forms of domestic abuse? Is she aware that Heléna Herklots, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, is doing very good work in this area? Will she agree to consult the commissioner in Wales and take advice from her on the special needs of older people suffering domestic abuse, as she is doing such valuable work in this field?

I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware that the ONS will now be including the over-74s in its statistics, which is very helpful indeed. I am very aware of elder abuse—particularly as some older people do not even know that what they are going through is in fact domestic abuse. I am very happy to speak to the commissioner in Wales and glean any areas of good practice that we might learn from here.

My Lords, the surge in domestic violence since the start of the pandemic is appalling and the launch of “Ask for Ani” is really very welcome. However, of the nearly 12,000 pharmacies in the UK, less than a quarter are registered on the scheme. What plans do the Government have to carry out monitoring and rapid evaluation of the scheme? If results are encouraging, what plans are in place to promote it to all pharmacies with suitable premises?

I agree with the noble Baroness. I would like not to just promote it to all pharmacies but—as in the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy—to see how it could be rolled out more widely to more premises. She says that fewer than a quarter of pharmacies are registered. I do not know whether that is the case at all, but it has just been launched and I assume that the take-up will improve as time goes on. We will certainly promote it to more than just pharmacies as time goes on.

I congratulate the Government on the initiatives that they have taken on this issue; they are very much to be welcomed. My question concerns the strategies outlined at the end of the Statement. There is one to tackle violence against women and girls, another to tackle domestic abuse and one to tackle child sexual abuse. There is clearly overlap here as, after all, most domestic violence is directed against women and girls. Can the Minister clarity how potential confusion and muddle will be avoided in relation to these different strategies?

I understand the noble Lord’s feeling that there might be some confusion but, looking at the various strategies he has outlined, I do not think we can lump them all into one, because we would then start to fail to support the people who very much need our help. I am content with how it is outlined although, as he said, there is the possibility of some overlap.

I refer to my entries in the register. Does my noble friend think that underreporting is an issue in the lockdown, particularly in households where abuse cannot be reported by an outsider? Does she consider that may disproportionally impact male victims as statistics show that 35% of all victims are male and they are three times less likely to report domestic abuse?

What we have seen is a sharp increase in the number of calls to domestic abuse helplines, but that does not necessarily equate to underreporting generally. I think that the numbers reported have gone up, and the extent to which they have gone up will probably be unravelled only subsequently, as some people feel too scared to report in any event. It is a problem generally in lockdown, and it remains to be seen just how much has occurred. I do not know why men might feel more reluctant to report; there is possibly some issue of feeling ashamed to report domestic abuse. The number of men who do come forward are to be commended for sharing what some men feel too ashamed to admit.

My Lords, measures like the “Ask for Ani” scheme outlined in the Statement are welcome and will help reduce domestic abuse and hidden harms in the majority community. Does the Minister agree that we need to do more to meet the sometimes differing concerns and hidden harms in minority communities? Does she agree that the Government should look beyond the routine round-table meetings with sometimes questionable faith leaders to clear social agenda-led initiatives for a more cohesive and fairer society?

I agree with the noble Lord that different communities have different problems in different situations. Perhaps lockdown is the most appropriate one to be talking about now. I do not think we should listen to the same voices; we need to get a range of voices before deciding what our interventions should be and in what context.

My Lords, I thank the Government for their wonderful efforts on all these different initiatives. I particularly acknowledge the Minister’s role in their formation. We are all grateful. She is aware that women still do not report or seek advice services early enough and have experienced many episodes of violence and abuse. Equally stark is the fact that women of south Asian heritage may take even longer in accessing services or reporting abuse, particularly because they find it difficult to access specialist accommodation and counselling services, which remain in extremely short supply, including in my borough, where policy over the years has meant the complete and utter destruction of specialist services, particularly for bilingual women; they say it is about budgets. Given that there seems to be £50 million outstanding, will the Minister undertake to have a broader discussion with women’s organisations across the country, as the noble Lord, Lord Singh, has just suggested, so that we can mitigate some of the shortfall in their budgets and services?

I do not know whether the noble Baroness knows but we did extensive pre-legislative scrutiny on this topic. I have never been involved with so much engagement with various stakeholders across the sectors. The engagement has certainly been broad and of course we want to get the money out to the organisations that need it, to support the people who need it.

The Government’s proactive approach on this and, indeed, the Minister’s personal commitment are vital. However, given that we are more than three-quarters of the way through the financial year and, according to the figures that she confirmed, only just over a third of the funding available this year has been spent, does she accept that there seems to be some kind of bottleneck and problem in getting the money out? Is she tasking her officials to look to getting it out before the end of the financial year?

The noble Lord makes a good point. If there is money there to be spent for people who need our support, we should try to ensure that it gets out. I shall certainly discuss the matter with my honourable friend the Minister for Safeguarding, Vicky Atkins, and see what we can do to expedite some of the money for the remainder of this year.

There are additional complications in dealing with domestic violence in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, and the lockdown, in all its forms, has significantly worsened this. Is the Minister confident that measures are in place to ensure that that community is sufficiently serviced by the services and facilities available?

The noble Lord mentions an important section of the community and I am aware of some of the issues that it faces. As I say, we have engaged extensively across the various sectors. However, I thank him for raising that point. I will check on that matter because that community needs our support.

Sitting suspended.