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Strategy for Tackling Violence against Women and Girls

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 21 July.

“I would like to begin with the words of some of the women who responded to our call for evidence, which helped to shape the strategy:

‘I had never felt so lost in my entire life at the time of the abuse. I thought my life would never be the same again’.


‘We shouldn’t have to pretend to be on the phone, or actually call someone, just because we’re scared to walk down the street in case we get attacked’.

And another:

‘The trauma will stay with the victim forever. It seriously compromises all life prospects and opportunities’.

Those words are difficult to read. They are difficult to hear, but they capture a reality that we simply must confront: women and girls are too often subjected to abuse, harassment and violence. Enough is enough.

Today we have published our new ‘Tackling violence against women and girls strategy’, which will build on progress we have made in recent years. When the Prime Minister was Mayor of London, our capital became the first major city in the world to launch a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women and girls. I also pay tribute to the contribution that the former Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead, Mrs May, has made in this regard. This includes leading work on new offences for controlling or coercive behaviour, stalking, female genital mutilation, and so-called revenge porn. This year, the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 was passed, which ensured, for the first time, a statutory definition that includes recognising victims as children in their own right, strengthens the response to perpetrators, and creates new protections for victims.

But we must do more. The strategy we have published today sets out action to prioritise prevention, support victims, pursue perpetrators, and help to make sure the police, education, local authorities, prison and probation services and others work together more effectively. As I say, it has been shaped by a call for evidence that we ran earlier this year and that received over 180,000 responses. The volume of feedback was unprecedented and astonishing, and the content at times harrowing. I want to place on record my gratitude to all those who took the time to offer their thoughts and describe often painful experiences. That takes great courage. The national outpouring of grief and personal experiences that we saw in the wake of the tragic case of Sarah Everard was a watershed moment. We must change our society for the better. We owe it to Sarah and all the other women and girls who have lost their lives or been subjected to violence and abuse.

Crimes such as rape, female genital mutilation, stalking, harassment, cyber-flashing, revenge porn and up-skirting are appalling. They can take place behind closed doors or in public places. They can happen in the real world or online. The devastation and trauma caused by such crimes cannot be overstated. The scars can remain for years—in the worst cases, for a lifetime. The consequences are felt across society, too. They cause women and girls to calculate risk and calibrate their behaviour, sometimes without even realising it. They also require national and local responses, and result in economic as well as personal costs.

As I say, we have made progress in tackling these crimes, but the need to step up our efforts could not be clearer and today we are taking a significant stride forward with the publication of this new strategy. The strategy represents our blueprint to address those concerns and deliver real and lasting improvements. It is made up of four key pillars: prioritising prevention, supporting victims, pursuing perpetrators and delivering a stronger system. The most effective way of driving down these crimes is to stop them happening in the first place. We have taken a range of action on prevention already, but we are determined to go further. So we will be launching a multi-million-pound national communications campaign with a focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes, educating young people about healthy relationships, and ensuring that victims can access support.

We have also launched a specific safety of women at night fund worth £5 million to ensure that women do not face violence in public spaces at night. It will support initiatives that target potential perpetrators or seek to protect potential victims. This will build on the additional £25 million we are investing this year into the safer streets fund. The Home Office will also pilot a tool, StreetSafe, which will enable the public to report areas anonymously where they feel unsafe and identify what about the location made them feel this way. This data will be used to inform local decision-making. And we will invest in a ‘What Works’ fund to build up evidence on the most effective approaches and measures.

It is difficult to imagine how traumatic and frightening it must be to be subjected to one of these crimes. It is essential, therefore, that victims, in their time of need, can get help. We recognise the role that support services and organisations play in helping people rebuild their lives. We are already investing a record £300 million to support victims of all crimes this year and our strategy outlines how we will increase funding this year for specialist services, including ‘by and for’ services, and helplines for victims and survivors of crimes, including stalking and revenge porn. We will ensure that the police and prosecutors are confident about how to respond to public sexual harassment with new guidance. We will continue to look carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those. We will review options to limit use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment in higher education. Whatever the crime, whenever and wherever it happens, the needs of the victim must always be the priority.

Another priority is catching the perpetrators of these crimes and bringing them to justice. We will continue to back the police to do exactly this. We have given forces more powers, more resources and more officers, and we are taking action to restore confidence in our criminal justice system. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will change arrangements for serious violent and sexual offenders so that they serve longer in prison.

The strategy outlines a number of further measures: for example, we will appoint an independent reviewer to examine the police management of registered sex offenders in the community and advise the Home Office on whether changes are needed. The Department of Health and Social Care will work to criminalise virginity testing and we will carefully consider the recommendations in the review that the Law Commission has just published today on abusive and harmful online communications.

If we are to make real and lasting progress, this is clearly not a task that government can take on alone. We need everyone in our society to play a part in fighting these crimes. The strategy outlines a number of steps to strengthen the system as a whole. They include introducing the first ever national policing lead for tackling violence against women and girls; reviewing the disclosure and barring regime; and appointing a new violence against women and girls transport champion.

The publication of this new strategy marks an important moment in our mission to crack down on violence against women and girls, but we will not stop there. Later this year, we also plan to publish three further documents: the domestic abuse strategy; a revised national statement of expectations covering all forms of violence against women and girls; and a revised male victims position statement.

These crimes, which disproportionately affect women and girls, are despicable. It is high time we sent a message: enough is enough. This Government will always stand up for the law-abiding majority and, through this strategy, we will strive relentlessly to prevent these crimes, to support victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. I commend this Statement to the House.”

[Inaudible]—are at a record low and domestic abuse in this country continues to increase, but charging continues to fall. According to Ofsted, sexual abuse in schools is becoming the norm. Ending abuse against women and girls is a cross-party issue on which all sides of this House wish to see progress. Unfortunately, the strategy the Government have outlined in their Statement falls short. We need ambition that matches the scale of the problem.

I again raise the concern that many have raised before: that the Government have regarded the violence against women and girls strategy as being separate from domestic abuse when, in reality, they are unavoidably interconnected. A policing lead on violence against women and girls is certainly welcome, but we already have one for domestic abuse, one for rape and sex offences, another for historical sexual abuse and one for child sex abuse. This policing lead, we are told, will be full time, unlike the others, and is in line with the recommendation last week from the inspectorate.

The Minister in the Commons yesterday seemed unable to answer questions about how the policing lead would work, including what the relationship would be with the inspectorate in respect of their investigations. What resources and powers will this new full-time policing lead have? Will the individual have the same resources and powers as the other policing leads, or will they have more extensive resources and powers? If so, what will they be?

On plans for the rape helpline, how prompt will the response be via the helpline in linking a victim to specialist support? How long a wait time will we consider acceptable? In the Commons yesterday, the Minister said in the Statement:

“we will be launching a multi-million-pound national communications campaign with a focus on targeting perpetrators and harmful misogynistic attitudes, educating young people about healthy relationships, and ensuring that victims can access support.”

How many millions of pounds will be allocated to the campaign? When will it start and how long will it last? By what criteria will the success or otherwise of the campaign be judged? Crucially, who will the department engage with and consult on the content and design of the campaign? The Minister in the Commons also said the Government had

“launched a specific safety of women at night fund worth £5 million to ensure that women do not face violence in public spaces at night.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col; 1084.]

What exactly will that £5 million deliver? Over what period of time will it be spent and how will its impact be judged?

The Statement says that the Government will

“review options to limit use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment in higher education”,

which is welcome. Why, then, is there nothing about non-disclosure agreements in workplaces, where women are still being abused and silenced—completely legally—in our country?

The Minister asserted in the Commons that

“there are legitimate reasons for non-disclosure agreements in workplaces.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col; 1087.]

That may be, but there are also non-legitimate reasons for non-disclosure agreements in the workplace, including in relation to the sexual harassment of women. What action do the Government intend to take over these agreements? Should the Government not think about taking the side of women who have been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace?

Why is there no national strategy for, or inclusion in this strategy of, adult victims of sexual exploitation? Where do these women find their experiences in this strategy? There is nothing but a gap. The only passing reference comes where the Government say they are going to ask porn sites to voluntarily do better on exploitation—do not hold your breath on that one if it involves a potential loss of money.

Where is the much-needed public sexual harassment law? The Government have said they think offences exist already. That will certainly be of real comfort to the two-thirds of young women who tell us they are suffering abuse every day. Home Office statistics show that 83% of sexual assaults go unreported. What is going to be done to address this alarming situation and the apparent lack of trust between victims and the policing system?

We need to make sure that women and girls, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, are safe and able to feel safe. The violence against women and girls strategy expects services to be able to deliver without any serious funding to deliver it. If that is wrong and there is such additional long-term funding to deliver this strategy, could the Government say how much it will be, and over what period of time?

What is clear is that, on every single step of their journey, women and girls are being failed—and, today, it feels as if the Government do not have enough of a plan to manage that. The Labour Party has worked up a green paper for ending violence against women and girls. We have set out, among many other things, toughening sentences for rape, stalking and domestic murder, and reviewing sentences for all domestic abuse. We have set about introducing a survivor’s support package to improve victims’ experiences in the courts, including fast-tracking rape and sexual violence cases, end-to-end legal help for victims and better training for professionals to give people the help they need. We also suggest the creation, as quickly as possible, of new offences for street harassment.

Clearly, the Government do not expect any early results from their strategy, since the Minister in the Commons said that she was prepared to wait until the end of this decade to see

“changes in the attitudes, misogynistic and otherwise, that underpin so much of this offending behaviour”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col. 1087.]

The chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee summed it up very well in the Commons yesterday when she said:

“Much of this feels very incremental—just limited pilots and evidence gathering”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col. 1090.]

My Lords, before I start, I wish all noble Lords, and especially the Minister, a well-deserved, restful and restorative Recess. However, before we get there, such is the importance that this Government place on violence against women and girls that this strategy was announced in the other place at 7 pm yesterday—or, as the Minister in the other place put it,

“at an unusual hour, I think it is fair to say, of the parliamentary day”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col. 1083.]

And here we are—last business before the Summer Recess.

A strategy should include a coherent set of specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives, rather than what appears to be the result of a “board blast”, where every possible option is thrown in the paper. The Minister in the other place said that the strategy would build on the

“progress we have made in recent years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col. 1083.]

She cited London as being the first major capital city in the world to publish a comprehensive strategy to combat violence against women and girls, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London.

The current Mayor of London said this year that the capital’s streets were not safe for women and girls, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, in response to his comments, said that the streets of London were

“not safe for everyone all of the time”.

Is that the sort of progress that the Statement referred to?

We have seen an incoherent collection of random ideas before, with the serious violence strategy published by the Government in April 2018. The difficulty is that success should be measured in terms of outcomes, not outputs. Can the Minister tell the House what impact in terms of outcomes that strategy has had on levels of violent crime in the past three years?

As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has just said, the Statement says that the strategy includes a

“multi-million-pound … communications campaign”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/7/21; col. 1084.]

It also talks about a £5 million safety of women at night fund, and talks about the broader, £25 million safer streets fund. Exactly what does “multi-million-pound” amount to? How many millions? The Statement is quite specific on the other initiatives, so why not on this one?

The Statement says that the Government will continue to back the police to catch perpetrators of violence against women and girls and bring them to justice, and that they have given the police more powers, more resources and more officers. How much more are this Government currently giving the police in real terms compared with 2010? What is the current establishment of police officers and community support officers in England and Wales—who are the visible policing presence on the street—compared with 2010? Although it is not just how much money is being spent but how it is spent that it is important, can the Minister tell the House exactly how much new money is specifically being targeted on reducing violence against women and girls, in support of this strategy?

It is abundantly clear what the problem is with violence against women and girls: it is the attitude of men, the culture in our society, and the belief among many men that they can do whatever they like to women because they can. They can because they are, on average, physically stronger, and they do not fear the consequences, whether disapproval from their peers or wider society, or effective sanction—whether by the criminal justice system, employers or institutions, including schools, political parties or religious organisations.

Too many men are likely to be given an encouraging slap on the back by other men for abusing women and girls, rather than condemnation. Every single person and every single organisation needs to say clearly and unambiguously that any abuse of women and girls, particularly male violence against them, is totally unacceptable. In particular, male leaders, especially political leaders, must set an example—not by being one of the lads, but by treating women and girls with dignity and respect. Noble Lords will not have to think very hard or for very long to think of an example.

We made drinking and driving socially unacceptable, and we need to make even verbal abuse of women and girls equally unacceptable, including making street harassment a specific criminal offence. We need every man to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

I join both noble Lords in commending the VAWG strategy. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for wishing us happy holidays—I am definitely looking forward to mine. I often do last business before Recess, so the noble Lord is not wrong in his observation. None the less, this is an incredibly important Statement. My honourable friend Vicky Atkins did not say that it would take a decade, but rather that it is the start of a decade of change. It is the beginning of the journey; it is a statement of intent. I am very glad that she laid her Statement to the House of Commons last night.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about prosecutions being down and what we are going to do about it. We have absolutely acknowledged that prosecutions are down, particularly for rape. My honourable friend Kit Malthouse in another place led the rape review together with the MoJ; it concluded in May. The whole point of the rape review was to make the victim’s horrendous journey a much easier one from start to finish and to ensure that convictions, now so low, matched the number of victims coming forward in terms of proportion.

The noble Lord asked about the police lead on VAWG, as did the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. It is not just another police lead on something; we intend to make this a specific role. This will be a full-time job, and it is absolutely the right thing to do, particularly in terms of good practice, training, et cetera. The noble Lord asked about the wait time for the helpline. I am afraid I do not know the answer, and I will have to let him know, but we will be spending £1.14 million on it.

The noble Lord also asked about NDAs in universities but not in workplaces. Of course, we are all familiar with NDAs in the workplace and there is no doubt that, if someone is made to sign an NDA and it conceals the fact that they might be sexually harassed, the NDA is null and void. On universities, we want to send a clear message to students that sexual harassment is in no way tolerable on our campuses and online environments and to take the necessary steps to ensure that it is stamped out of our world-leading higher education sector.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick, talked about street harassment. Although it is true that there are existing offences that can address sexual harassment, we are looking carefully at where there might be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address these. This is complex and it is important that we take the time to ensure that any potential legislation is both proportionate and reasonably defined.

We are committed to ensuring that not only are the right laws in place but that they work in practice. First, £3 million will go into the national communications campaign, which noble Lords asked about. It will challenge this kind of behaviour and ensure that victims know how and where to report it. Secondly, we will ensure that police and prosecutors are confident about how to respond to public sexual harassment—for example, through new police guidance. Thirdly, to prevent it from happening in the first place, we need to deepen our understanding of who commits these crimes, why they do so and how it may escalate—for example, through our new funding for what works to tackle violence against women and girls.

Both noble Lords asked about additional money. The total funding for 2021-22 is £300 million. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about additional money. That will be £43 million in addition. On funding for the police, in terms of numbers we have committed to the 20,000 and in terms of future commitment clearly a spending review precludes me from committing to anything further than that.

We now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that we can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I am very much aware of the need to respond to the genuine and substantial concerns of women and girls in our society, but could I just take one moment to remind the powers that be that many gay men are sexually abused or raped and that, as Chris Wild has so vividly described in his books, many boys as well as girls have suffered in residential homes or abusive families and flee them to seek what they believe is greater safety, often on the streets?

My noble friend raises an important point and IICSA is currently looking into some of the institutional abuses that took place in the past. We absolutely recognise that men and boys experience these crimes. That is why the Home Office is funding the men’s advice line run by Respect, which advises male victims of domestic abuse, and the Galop helpline, which provides support to LGBT victims. In addition, as part of the VAWG strategy, the Home Office has committed this year to increasing funding by £1.5 million for by-and-for service provision for victims of violence against women and girls, including by increasing the £2 million specialist fund recently launched by the MoJ with Comic Relief. This will build the capacity of smaller, specialist by-and-for organisations, supporting survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence who are also from ethnic minorities, are disabled or, indeed, are LGBT.

My Lords, while not disagreeing at all with the concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser, Lord Paddick and Lord Hayward, especially where rape is concerned, may I sound a more positive note just for a moment? I am sure the Minister would agree that there are beacons of hope to light the way forward on which we should build. The Home Office-sponsored Barnardo’s Cymru domestic abuse scheme is a whole-family approach that allows both parents and child victims to receive support while the perpetrators of abuse take part in rigorous programmes designed to change behaviour, rebuild relationships and keep families safe. Moving statements on BBC Wales yesterday from all the parties involved attested to the success of this approach. Is this not the way forward where domestic abuse is concerned?

I must whole- heartedly agree with the noble Lord. Clearly, a whole-family approach, where the perpetrator acknowledges what they have done and wants to change their behaviour, is absolutely the right way to go. Often, a multiagency approach will work, but I want to join him in commending Barnardo’s for the tremendous work it does in this area.

Can the Minister say how the strategy will work on the big problem of sexual harassment on the streets, where girls and women have to put up with sexual remarks and other incidents as they walk along, often in the daytime? My second point is that the Minister has told me on numerous occasions that, once a domestic abuse Act becomes law, the Government will ratify the Istanbul convention. This has yet to happen. So, can the Minister say why there has been a delay and when the convention will be ratified?

Well, I think the noble Baroness will have heard me addressing the issue of public sexual harassment to the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick—which is to say that not only is it completely unacceptable but we are looking at where there might be gaps in the law to address it. We are compliant with the Istanbul convention in all but three areas, and I can assure the noble Baroness that we are committed to ratifying and will do so as soon as we are fully compliant. We will then inform Parliament of the date. We will be compliant once Northern Ireland has introduced its new domestic abuse offence in the autumn and we have determined our compliance position on migrant victims. She will know about the pilot scheme. The House must acknowledge that, in some cases, we do more than we need to do to be compliant—for example, with forced marriage protection orders—but we are not complacent.

My Lords, nowhere in the Statement is there any mention of online pornography. Yet the Times and the Telegraph both reported that Wayne Couzens, who pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard, was obsessed with violent, extreme pornographic websites. So what assessment have the Government made of the effect of their decision in 2019 not to implement Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act, as planned, on the safety of women and girls? It would have meant that, since the beginning of 2020, we would have had a regulator with powers to take robust action against any pornographic website showing extreme, violent pornography in the UK.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this, and she is absolutely right in what she said. I know this will not be to her full satisfaction, but we are, through the Online Harms Bill, going to be addressing some of the issues that cause concern, such as user-generated pornography. I know that is not what she is referring to, but we are going some way towards addressing it.

My Lords, clearly we are all united in our condemnation of violence and aggression against women and girls, and we are also united in our view that perpetrators be pursued and prosecuted with vigour and the full force of the law. I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, that in the context of online pornography I hope to see more moves addressing the availability and access to that among children, which is incredibly concerning to all of us in the way in which it might influence the attitudes of young men and boys to women. In the context of such an important strategy, I want to raise very carefully a concern that is worth us being mindful of, and that is how we can avoid a mindset developing where all women are victims and all men are villains. Are the Government conscious of this, and if so, how are they reflecting that in this strategy and in the way that they intend to roll it out?

I thank my noble friend for that. We are not just conscious of it; there have been many debates in this House about anonymity. It is a difficult issue. We have to balance the lack of cases that come to court and conviction with the devastating effects that they can have on someone who is accused. We are committed, first and foremost, to arresting the steep decline in prosecutions for this offence and to improving the victims’ experience of the criminal justice system and access to justice. Any changes in this regard will, of course, uphold the principle of procedural fairness that is due to defendants in all criminal cases. There are existing offences designed to protect the administration of justice from false allegations, including the offence of perverting the course of justice, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for the most serious offences. But that does not undermine what the noble Baroness is saying, because for someone who is accused wrongly it can devastate their lives.

My Lords, following up on a point raised by my noble friend Lady Gale, what should women and girls who are harassed in broad daylight do in the absence of a specific sexual harassment law?

As the noble Lord will know, we are introducing the online pilot, which will be a repository for people to come forward if they are concerned about any element of violence against women and girls. The noble Lord is absolutely right that people can be harassed in broad daylight. Harassers are completely blatant in what they do, and there are existing offences which can include and address sexual harassment. However, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, we will be looking at where there might be gaps in the law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address them.

My Lords, can the Minister outline what preparatory work will take place to ensure that specialist work takes place in schools, workplaces, media and communities, on the harmful gender norms and stereotypes which underpin this violence against women and girls?

One of the things that is quite well established is the procedure for reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, notwithstanding what we were talking about earlier in terms of non-disclosure agreements, which can be used wrongly to suppress sexual harassment.

I think education has to be where it starts, because as a child you develop the values, social norms and morals that you keep for life. The DfE has updated its statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, for this September, which ensures that schools and colleges have even clearer guidance on how to deal with reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment, whether they occur inside or outside the school or college gates—or, indeed, online—and how to identify and take action to make sure that support is provided.

House adjourned at 7.55 pm.