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Women’s Safety

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve women’s safety (1) from domestic violence, and (2) in the streets.

The Government are committed to tackling domestic abuse and making our streets safer. We have provided £125 million through the safer streets and safety of women at night funds. For example, Lambeth Council has received just over £1 million to deliver interventions including improving street lighting and CCTV. On 20 February, we announced new measures to crack down on domestic abusers, including the locations of domestic abuse protection order pilot sites.

I thank the Minister. The organisation Refuge has said there is a “fragile funding landscape” for specialised domestic abuse services, even though they are statutory, and more than 60% of referrals are turned away. Financial support for community-based support services such as advocacy and support for children is particularly dire as it is non-statutory. What steps will the Government take to provide better funding for the specialist domestic abuse service sector? Will the forthcoming victims Bill introduce an adequate, sustainable funding offer for specialist domestic abuse community-based services?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. On 20 February, a package of measures was announced by the Home Secretary to tackle perpetrators and give better support to victims of domestic abuse. As the noble Baroness will know, the Government committed to legislate to add controlling or coercive behaviour, with a sentence of 12 months or more, to the list of offences eligible for management under MAPPA, and to ensure that all offenders managed under MAPPA are recorded under MAPPS when it is launched in 2024. She will know that MAPPS is replacing the violent and sex offender register. All these measures, together with the development and piloting of the domestic abuse harm risk assessment tool so that police forces can quickly identify the highest-risk perpetrators and take appropriate action, demonstrate the Government’s dedication to addressing these issues.

My Lords, one of the first areas the Government have to address is the sexism and misogyny in police forces all over the UK. What specific measures has the Home Office suggested for all police forces? If the Minister cannot reply, I am happy to have a letter left in the Library.

I am conscious that that is an issue to which the Home Office is paying close attention in light of the recent cases. I am happy to write to the noble Baroness about it and to deposit that letter in the Library.

My Lords, is my noble friend convinced that the current rules on indecent exposure go as far as they possibly could? Can he think of a reason why the perpetrator who went on to murder Sarah Everard was not apprehended and prosecuted for earlier offences of indecent exposure, which could have prevented her sad death?

I am conscious that the case to which my noble friend alludes is a terrible one, and officials in the Home Office are very alive to it. The safer streets fund has worked with various local authorities to reduce the risk of incidents of indecent exposure. In particular, one project at the Basingstoke Canal had the effect of reducing incidents by 55%. Clearly there is much more to be done, but I assure my noble friend that that work will continue.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that confidence on the part of women that sexual and violent crimes against them will be properly investigated is at an all-time low? If so, what will be done to make sure that the police focus on the crime and the offender rather than on shredding and undermining the reputation of the victim?

The ambition of the department is to ensure that women and girls have absolute confidence in the police. I appreciate the difficulties that have been caused by recent court cases. I should add that in January we launched a fund worth £36 million for police and crime commissioners to increase the availability of interventions for domestic abuse perpetrators. These aim to improve victims’ safety and to reduce the risk posed by the perpetrator. I hope all these measures will generate increased confidence among women and girls.

My Lords, I hope that on International Women’s Day women’s voices might be given a little more prominence. I want to raise the issue of sexual harassment in public places. While it is very clear that not all men sexually harass women in public spaces, it would be hard to find a single woman who has not experienced it at some point in her life. What is being done to address that? There has been a call for misogynistic sexual harassment in public spaces to be addressed as a crime and to be more effectively dealt with. It is one of those things that blight women’s lives. Social media has disinhibited people so that, in the very way that we are seeing this happen online, we are now seeing it increasingly experienced by women offline, and it leads on to more serious crime. What is the state going to do about introducing a law to protect women in the streets, at bus stops and on public transport as they go about their lives?

I agree with almost everything that the noble Baroness has said. I am delighted to confirm that the Government will support the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill, advanced by the right honourable Greg Clark, which would make public sexual harassment a specific offence. It provides that if someone commits an offence under the existing Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986—that is, intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress—and does so because of the victim’s sex then they could obtain a higher sentence of two years rather than six months.

My Lords, what monitoring is undertaken by the Home Office of those who have been convicted of either sexual offences or domestic abuse who subsequently go on to change their names?

I know this issue has been raised in the House of Commons recently in a 10-minute rule Bill. It is certainly a matter that the Home Office has under review, and it may be something that we hear more about later.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage more intelligent and public-spirited young women to join the police force? Would that not go a long way towards making women feel that when they reported sexual abuse they would have a more understanding ear at the end of the phone? It would make women feel much safer on the streets if they knew that a female police officer might be there to help them.

I entirely agree, and there is much in what the noble Baroness says. I do not, I am afraid, have the statistics to hand as to the level of women among recent recruits to the police in meeting the 20,000 target that was in the last manifesto, but I can certainly find that out and write to her.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lady Kennedy, evidence suggests that the impact on victims of indecent exposure can be considerable, as visual sexual violence. If the report of Wayne Couzens’ indecent exposure had been taken seriously and acted upon, he would have been apprehended and would not have gone on to rape and murder Sarah Everard a few days later. In the past, the stereotype of a harmless and possibly mentally ill—but not dangerous—flasher has informed the view of this offence. Is it time to take the offence of indecent exposure more seriously, and how might that be achieved?

Clearly, the first answer is the one I gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, a moment ago. We are supporting the Bill brought by Greg Clark. There is also the money that has been spent under the safer streets fund and the safety of women at night fund. If I may return to the example of the funding for the Basingstoke Canal programme, it had a very effective method of tackling the crime of indecent exposure. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that the impact of these offences has often been minimised in the past and we must not fall into that trap again.