[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, HC 91, and the Government response, HC 826.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence; further notes that violence against women is a human rights violation and prevents women and girls fulfilling their full potential; recognises that an estimated one in three women experience physical or sexual violence worldwide, but that violence against women and girls is not inevitable, and that prevention is possible and essential; and calls on the Government to work with other governments around the world to adopt comprehensive laws addressing violence against women and gender-based inequality and discrimination, to provide women-centred, specialist services to all survivors, and to fund key education and prevention programmes so that violence against women and girls is ended once and for all.
I thank hon. Members from all parts of the House who have supported this debate today. They include: my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). I also thank other Members who are here to contribute to the debate. I particularly wish to recognise the work of the right hon. Member for Basingstoke who is Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and whose report is also being debated today.
I am proud that, as a Parliament, we are debating this motion, because it is vital that Parliament plays its part on the world stage in combating violence against women in all its forms, at home and abroad. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women describes violence against women and girls as
“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty”.
The 16 days of action, which have seen events and campaigns across the country and the world, end on 10 December, Human Rights Day. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the 16 days of action.
Tackling violence against women has to be a cross-party issue, and the delivery of strategies has to be based on what works and has to go across Parliaments. In 2009, the Labour Government published the first violence against women and girls strategy, which was described as marking a major shift to joined-up policy. The current Government strategy continues that approach, but the challenge that we face now is ensuring that we have a complete strategy and that we turn that strategy into outcomes.
The right hon. Gentleman leads me directly on to my next point. I was about to congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on the publication of her Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill, which will have its Second Reading next week. The UK signed the convention in June 2012, but has not yet ratified it. That issue was the subject of a letter today to the Prime Minister signed by more than 75 Labour Members of Parliament. Let me just take a moment to thank the IcChange campaign for its work on this issue, and to recognise the early-day motion of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), which was signed by Members from across the House.
In opening this debate, I wish to make three main points: the first is the growing scale of the challenge at home and abroad; the second is our call to the Government to do more on prevention through relationship and sex education and ratifying the Istanbul convention; and the third is the culture shift across society, businesses and public services that is needed to lift the lid on violence against women and girls and to engage all in the role that they can play in eliminating that violence in all its forms.
Let me start with the scale of the challenge. Violence against women and girls is rising at home and abroad. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence—that is a staggering statistic. The World Health Organisation highlights the fact that, in addition to being a human rights issue, violence against women is a major public health issue. Women who have experienced violence are more likely to have babies with low birth weights and to experience depression. Each year in the UK, up to 3 million women experience violence. On average, one woman in Britain dies at the hands of a man every three days. We also know that around one in 10 domestic violence incidents involves men as victims. That number is significant, but the overall figures show the scale and gendered nature of domestic and sexual violence. The cost to our economy is estimated to be around £25 billion. This scourge is present in every community across our nation. Domestic and sexual violence knows no boundaries—of age, geography, ethnicity or social background.
I want to share a few, relatively recent, examples from my constituency. I was approached by a lady who had suffered domestic violence for many years. Eventually, she found the courage to leave her husband, but was unable to care for her children who were then taken away. The abuse continued and she now lives in terror of her ex-husband and his family. She feels unsupported by the police, and scrimps and saves to afford new door locks and security. Her future feels uncertain, and she lives a nightmare every day.
Another told me how, six years after leaving her husband who had an alcohol addiction, he recently reappeared and threatened her elderly parents. She is at a loss as to how to protect them as well as herself. The impact of domestic abuse is borne not just by female victims, but by children. SafeLives estimates that 130,000 children live in homes in which a parent faces serious harm or death at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. Those children can go on to replicate the behaviour that they have seen. One mother told me of her experience. She said that her teenage son was starting to behave in the way that he had seen his father behave. He was lucky enough to respond to her challenging him, but she knows that the story is not over for him, and is now seeking support for him as the trauma that he experienced plays out in his life as he reaches adulthood.
The challenges that we now face in the provision of child and adult mental health services are having an impact on outcomes. One mother told me that she had to wait a year for support for her six-year-old son who had witnessed her abuse. That just cannot be right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not enough resources are being invested in shelters and refuges for women? More importantly, another by-product of domestic violence is that it affects not only a child’s character but a child’s education. If I were a kid at school, I would be more worried about what was happening to my mother than about my lessons.
My hon. Friend has supported refuges and other services that help his constituents. I will, if I may, refer here to the work of Refuge and Women’s Aid in challenging the cuts to refuges and the support for women and their families. It is horrifying that, in recent years, we have seen an increase in the number of women being turned away from support because of the lack of provision.
My hon. Friend mentioned schools and educational attainment. I would extend that to the role that schools are playing in picking up the pieces. One school told me that it estimated that five children in each class were experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse in some form at home. I was told the very sad story of how a school was working with a mother who kept an emergency escape bag in a cupboard at the school for when she felt she had to flee her home.
Such cases are far from unique. Women’s Aid highlights some staggering statistics. The crime survey of England and Wales found that 27.1% of women had experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. The rate of domestic violence crime against women has doubled each year since 2009, and there were over 100,000 prosecutions for domestic abuse in 2015-16, the highest number ever recorded.
It is a year since the new offence of coercive control came into force. Domestic abuse goes beyond physical violence. Using the law effectively will require greater understanding. I would be grateful if, in her closing remarks, the Minister outlined the steps that the Government are taking to improve training for statutory agencies so that some of the new offences can be put to greater use.
Online abuse is a growing problem. The scale and nature of domestic and other abuse are changing. Online abuse is combining with offline abuse. A survey by Women’s Aid shows that over 45% of survivors of domestic violence had also experienced online abuse. The existing legal frameworks should be examined to ensure that the law is up to date in all areas to provide protection against online abuse as well as offline abuse.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets need to take responsibility for some of the abuse, and that they do not regulate enough? More regulation through law or through their own work would be a positive step to support women and girls who are subject to abuse, as well as other groups that are abused via the social media network.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Later I shall mention the work of the Reclaim the Internet campaign chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) highlights the need for a code of practice for technology companies and social media providers to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse and other forms of violence are protected online, and that other vulnerable users are not subject to abuse that goes unchallenged or unaddressed.
Does the hon. Lady agree that codes of conduct already exist? There are rules of the road that the social media platforms ostensibly trumpet as monitoring their conduct online, but they do not enforce them to the extent that they should.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There are good and emerging codes of practice, but they do not go far enough and they certainly are not enforced sufficiently. Further work could be done—for example, the Government could investigate the regulation or closing down of websites that promote or profit from image-based sexual abuse, an approach advocated by Women’s Aid. We could also look at the extent to which criminal and civil sanctions are used in cases of domestic abuse, such as domestic violence protection orders and non-molestation orders, which can be applied to routinely restrain a perpetrator from making digital contact with a survivor. I hope to hear some response from the Minister on that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that the offence of online abuse, and also physical abuse, sometimes crosses international borders, and many of the websites are hosted outside the UK? Will she join me in asking the Minister to offer us in her response to the debate assurances that, as we leave the European Union, the security arrangements that we have in place through European security agencies, as well as our other international security arrangements, will be protected and resourced so that they are up to the task?
My hon. Friend is right. Having worked in the creative industries on some of the issues surrounding the prevention and addressing of abuse online, I experienced the complexity of reaching agreement. The more we work together with other Governments and lead on that, the more that will help us to move forward on the complex issue of policy and regulation. My hon. Friend points out the potential risks to such cross-government working that could come from Brexit, and I hope the Minister will deal with that in her remarks and give the House confidence that our ratification and implementation of the Istanbul convention will not be affected by impending Brexit.
I want to mention the Femicide Census. It is a horror that we record the details of women killed by men. The initiative was launched in partnership with Women’s Aid, based on the information collected by Karen Ingala Smith on her blog “Counting Dead Women”, where she began collating details of women killed by men. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has spoken powerfully about this in the House on previous occasions. This week a new report was released which covers seven years and collates information on 936 women in England and Wales killed by fatal male violence. The report makes a number of recommendations to the Government. I am confident that we will hear from Ministers about their response.
I recognise the work done by local authorities across the country, even as they grapple with cuts. Data for my own local authority from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime show that in the year to September 2016, there were over 4,400 more notifiable offences than in the year to September 2015. There has been a rise in domestic offences, sexual offences and rape offences. The lead Hounslow councillor on this portfolio is Sue Sampson. In 1976 Sue’s sister Maureen Roberts was shot dead, aged 23, by her estranged husband at her place of work, West Middlesex hospital, which still serves my constituency.
Maureen had become a victim of domestic violence shortly after she got married three years earlier. Straight after her husband shot her, he turned the gun on himself, killing himself. Sue still lives with the shock and the horror of what happened, like many others who are victims of these attacks on women. Such killings are increasingly being documented. Victims live with those stories for the rest of their lives. We have come far with the changes in the law, but, as this week’s Femicide Census shows, such violence still happens all too often.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech on this incredibly important subject. She is right to mention local councils. Stafford Borough Council has worked with Staffordshire Women’s Aid to create a new women’s refuge in Stafford. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is a fine example of partnership working, which in this case is under the inspirational leadership of Dickie James?
The hon. Gentleman has made his point extremely well, and he is absolutely right. Indeed, his local authority, like Hounslow and others, is at the frontline of prevention, early intervention and the provision of support. However, like Hounslow, many authorities will face huge challenges in tackling both the reduction in funding across statutory and non-statutory organisations and, indeed, the integration of services.
As the data show, the scale of the challenge is increasing, and the pattern of violence seems to begin even earlier. The recent inquiry and very powerful report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that almost a third of 16 to 18-year-olds say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. Some 59% of girls and young women aged 13 to 21 said in 2014 that they had faced some sort of sexual harassment at school or college in the previous year. We also need to reflect on the fact that the nature of violence can change. Last year, the revenge porn helpline received almost 4,000 calls, with children as young as 11 making those calls.
The battle is being fought hard. We are lucky to have the organisations we do, and the individuals working tirelessly in them mean there is cause for hope. I want to acknowledge and thank organisations including Refuge and Women’s Aid, whose Save Our Services campaign I have mentioned and which also has the very effective Child First campaign. Respect deals with the needs of perpetrators. I should also mention Southall Black Sisters, FORWARD and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, as well as female genital mutilation campaigners Hibo Wardere, Nimco Ali, Leyla Hussein and Fahma Mohamed, who, aged 19, was recognised by Bristol University this year with an honorary doctorate for her work in driving forward a very effective campaign.
A very powerful point is being made. The work of women’s refuges was mentioned, and I want to highlight the fact that the Government are providing £20 million for women’s refuges to help them with their valuable work. I would urge people to applaud that and to take advantage of it. What would the hon. Lady say about that?
I have worked on these issues in Parliament for a number of years, and I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that while I acknowledge that support, I also question whether it goes far enough, whether it will be sustained so that organisations can plan sufficiently and whether it has been funded through cuts in other areas. There are complex issues around funding for refuges, of which the hon. Lady will be well aware. Supporting those services absolutely has to be a priority for any Government so that we can ensure we provide support for women at their most vulnerable moments.
The Everyday Sexism campaign has campaigned hard and shown very effectively how women face threats, harassment and violence in every walk of life. The Reclaim the Internet campaign, which I mentioned, has a really important role to play, because the scale of the technology in our lives, and the way it can be used to the advantage of victims and to support them, but also against them, must be understood and tackled by lawmakers and regulators. I also want to put on record my appreciation for SafeLives, the White Ribbon Campaign, Imkaan and others which remind us that gender-based violence is not inevitable and that prevention is not only possible but essential.
Let me turn to why we hope the Government will do much more and why we need them to do more.
Just before the hon. Lady comes to a very large chunk of speech, I should point out to her that I fully appreciate that she has taken a lot of interventions and that we are not under tremendous time pressure, but she has taken very much longer than the time normally allocated for the opening speech in a debate such as this. I am not suggesting she should finish immediately, but perhaps she should just have a couple of minutes more.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will be pleased to hear that I am very close indeed to concluding.
As I mentioned, I and other Labour Members wrote to the Prime Minister regarding the Istanbul convention, and an update on the issue from the Minister today would be very welcome.
I welcome the Government’s moves this week on the new measures to support victims of stalking. There was also the announcement of new funding and guidelines. Obviously, there is much work to do with the national statement of expectations to ensure that what has been announced actually makes a difference and addresses the challenges we have heard about from services across the country. We need to ensure that best practice that is highlighted is promoted and extended, and that those providing services through local authorities have some guarantees that they will have resources in the future.
I want to refer to the urgent need for compulsory and age-appropriate relationship and sex education, and I recognise the work my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has done on this recently. I also want to explain why it is so urgent to focus on healthy and consensual relationships. I met the family of Hollie Gazzard, who founded the Hollie Gazzard Trust in memory of 20-year-old Hollie, who was killed in 2014 by an ex-partner. They highlighted how she did not speak out about the abuse, and nor did she understand the signs of a controlling relationship. They believe very strongly that relationship and sex education in school could have saved their daughter, and that is a message they take out through their organisation. There is an urgent need for this provision, and I fail to understand how, after six years, the Government have failed to implement what all the evidence shows is absolutely necessary. Where there is relationship and sex education in schools, it is clearly patchwork and clearly not good enough, and there is an urgent need to join up delivery on not only this issue, but on the Government’s strategy on violence against women and girls as a whole.
My final point is about the need for a shift in the culture in our country and in the public awareness of the role we can all play. I want to mention the excellent work of Croydon Council, which has taken this issue mainstream by engaging with businesses and other organisations on how they can sometimes be the first line of support for employees who are victims. Building awareness and doing work on joining up provision is not always about resources; it is also about a shift in culture, and that can save lives.
I want to close with a powerful quotation of Ban Ki-moon, which I believe is important for us to note:
“Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, public health pandemic and serious obstacle to sustainable development. It imposes large-scale costs on families, communities and economies. The world cannot afford to pay this price.”
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and I congratulate her on leading this debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it in the first place.
Gender-based violence is a human rights violation—the hon. Lady is absolutely right—and it is something that women confront in every country across the globe. However, whichever side of the House we sit on, I think we can recognise and be proud of this Government’s record, and particularly the Prime Minister’s commitment to these issues. She has shown her commitment, on a very personal level, to ending violence against women—not just with warm words, but with very clear action. Ever since I have been an MP—and probably for as long as you have, Madam Deputy Speaker—she has shown that commitment, and we need more countries to have the sort of leadership we have in this country. I was reminded of that only yesterday when I spoke to my counterpart, Mehrezia Labidi, chair of the parliamentary women’s committee in Tunisia, who has been instrumental in pressing forward with a Bill on women’s rights and gender-based violence which would be ground-breaking legislation in the Arab world and deserves all our support.
I would like to echo the words of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston in paying tribute to the extraordinary work of organisations such as Women’s Aid, Refuge, ActionAid, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and the Everyday Sexism Project. They are representative of the kind of civil society that we take for granted but does not always exist in other countries. One of our challenges is how we take forward that sort of learning into other countries around the world.
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I make some speedy progress? I do not want to incur the wrath of Madam Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.] I know her well.
The Government’s record at home should be recognised across the House. Their violence against women strategy, which was delivered in March, means that in the UK we really do have a clear practical strategy in place, not only to support victims but to bring perpetrators to justice. New offences have gone hand in hand with work to change culture. It is this Prime Minister who put in place the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to tackle a crime that affects so many women. However, we still have 1.3 million women in this country who experienced domestic violence in the past year, and 400,000 who have been victims of sexual assault. The announcements made by my hon. Friend the Minister yesterday show that this Government are in no way complacent. Measures such as the new stalking and civil protection orders, and the provision of more funding for better local support services, show that this is under constant review.
We should also recognise the work that has been done in other parts of Government. The UK has advocated a stand-alone goal on gender equality as part of the sustainable development goals. The Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, will look at this in detail, because we need to make sure that these commitments are being put into practice here at home. The Department for International Development has boosted the support to tackle violence against women by increasing by 60% its funding for work in Africa, particularly around the issues of female genital mutilation, and—
Hold on, boys. [Laughter.] DFID has also supported work on the Freedom Programme, which means that over 200,000 people, particularly those in domestic households and those in the garment industry in South Asia and the middle east, have been helped who would previously have faced slavery and exploitation.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way to one of the boys. I welcome the measures the Government are introducing in relation to FGM, particularly the requirement for the NHS to collate data sets on it. Does she have any evidence that that is starting to feed through to an increased level of prosecutions, for instance?
Yes, I was going to come on to that. The right hon. Gentleman is stealing my next lines somewhat.
The crime survey statistics show that the number of women experiencing domestic violence is the lowest since the survey began, and there is a downward trend in the prevalence of sexual assaults. At the same time, we are seeing the highest ever levels of convictions for crimes of violence against women. While there is much more to do, the direction of travel is to be applauded. It remains the case, however, that 1.3 million women, potentially, will be listening to this debate and thinking that there is more we could be doing for them.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and for the very substantial contribution that she is making. Does she agree that among the different things we can do, it is important that the Government ratify the Istanbul convention in order to show global leadership? Yesterday, in a Westminster Hall debate, we heard about the situation in South Sudan, where 70% of the women in the capital city of Juba have experienced sexual assault during the conflict in that country. It is absolutely horrific. We need to show global leadership by ratifying the convention.
The hon. Gentleman is right. We have shown global leadership in signing the convention, but we are waiting to ratify it. Having been a Minister in the position of considering how we do so, I know that ministerial colleagues will be continuing to unpick the complexities of making sure that ratification is done in the right way.
I want finally to make two very swift points, because many right hon. and hon. Members want to come in on this debate. I make no bones about it: I am going to focus on two issues that really affect us here in the UK, because while it is right that we look out to the world, we have to look on our own back doorstep as well. One of the biggest challenges of our lives is the way in which we tackle the online world. We need to do more about this. Children now spend more time online than watching television. New and more inventive ways are being presented to us with regard to how perpetrators of violence against women and girls act. Forty-five per cent. of domestic violence survivors experience abuse online, and that abuse is really difficult to escape.
I welcome the legislation that this Government have introduced on online revenge pornography. I was pleased to work with my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), when he was at the Ministry of Justice, on making sure that we have world-leading legislation in this area, and not only that but help and support for victims through the revenge pornography helpline. I welcome the new guidance that has been issued to schools on sexting. I also welcome the Digital Economy Bill, which, for the first time, starts to put in place laws that recognise that the online world is very different—that is, the laws about age verification for accessing pornography online.
However, we need to go further. I hope that the Law Commission is able to take forward its review of the law in this area. We need a clear legal liability on online media platforms to make sure that women are not abused online; a clear definition of “abuse”; a recognition of the drain on police resources that the current system creates; and perhaps a system of fines for the worst of these offenders. We should not be put off by the fact that this industry transcends international borders, but make sure that it is working for us in our country in the way we want it to work. I echo previous thoughts on the importance of having a proper code of practice, not just paying lip service, as it is at the moment, I am afraid.
The second area we need to focus on was mentioned by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston in relation to the excellent report produced by the Women and Equalities Committee on sexual harassment. It is excellent because of the wonderful work of the Clerks, not because of the likes of me and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), as much as we try very hard. I thank the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston for giving that report yet more publicity. As she knows from having read it, two out of three young women regularly experience sexual harassment and violence in schools; that develops into a situation where, according to the National Union of Students, 68% of students experience verbal, physical and sexual harassment on campuses; and those students then go on into the outside world, where 85% of women experience unwanted sexual attention. It is a cumulative problem that we must deal with.
While there are many things that we can be doing, the most important is making sure that we give young people the kind of knowledge they need to be able to navigate the world better—the knowledge they would get from having compulsory sex and relationship education delivered at school. We must not continue to tackle only the symptoms of the problem of violence against women; we have to tackle the root causes as well. We would no longer tolerate the sort of behaviour that some of us may have had to experience in the workplace 30 years ago, yet we insist that young people keep quiet, do not speak out, and do not get the support they need when they experience such behaviour in schools.
There is a great deal of support for change. I have heard it from the Dispatch Box from my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. I hope that in her response to the debate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), will say that there is widespread support from Ministers across the board to update the guidance and ensure that it is fit for purpose, and to make sure that we listen to the 90% of parents who want compulsory sex and relationship education, and want it now.
I am going to relay an event that happened to me many years ago. I want to give a very personal perspective to help people, both in this place and outside, understand one element of sexual violence against women.
When I was 14, I was raped. As is common, it was by somebody who was known to me. He had offered to walk me home from a youth event. In those days, everybody walked everywhere—it was quite common. It was early evening. It was not dark. I was wearing— I am imagining and guessing—jeans and a sweatshirt. I knew my way around where I lived— I was very comfortable—and we went a slightly differently way, but I did not think anything of it. He told me that he wanted to show me something in a wooded area. At that point, I must admit that I was alarmed. I did have a warning bell, but I overrode that warning bell because I knew him and, therefore, there was a level of trust in place. To be honest, looking back at that point, I do not think I knew what rape was. It was not something that was talked about. My mother never talked to me about it, and I did not hear other girls or women talking about it.
It was mercifully quick and I remember first of all feeling surprise, then fear, then horror as I realised that I quite simply could not escape, because obviously he was stronger than me. There was no sense, even initially, of any sexual desire from him, which, looking back again, I suppose I find odd. My senses were absolutely numbed, and thinking about it now, 37 years later, I cannot remember hearing anything when I replay it in my mind. As a former professional musician who is very auditory, I find that quite telling. I now understand that your subconscious brain—not your conscious brain—decides on your behalf how you should respond: whether you take flight, whether you fight or whether you freeze. And I froze, I must be honest.
Afterwards I walked home alone. I was crying, I was cold and I was shivering. I now realise, of course, that that was the shock response. I did not tell my mother. I did not tell my father. I did not tell my friends. And I did not tell the police. I bottled it all up inside me. I hoped briefly—and appallingly—that I might be pregnant so that that would force a situation to help me control it. Of course, without support, the capacity and resources that I had within me to process it were very limited.
I was very ashamed. I was ashamed that I had “allowed this to happen to me”. I had a whole range of internal conversations: “I should have known. Why did I go that way? Why did I walk home with him? Why didn’t I understand the danger? I deserved it because I was too this, too that.” I felt that I was spoiled and impure, and I really felt revulsion towards myself.
Of course, I detached from the child that I had been up until then. Although in reality, at the age of 14, that was probably the start of my sexual awakening, at that time, remembering back, sex was “something that men did to women”, and perhaps this incident reinforced that early belief.
I briefly sought favour elsewhere and I now understand that even a brief period of hypersexuality is about trying to make sense of an incident and reframing the most intimate of acts. My oldest friends, with whom I am still friends, must have sensed a change in me, but because I never told them they did not know of the cause. I allowed myself to drift away from them for quite a few years. Indeed, I found myself taking time off school and staying at home on my own, listening to music and reading and so on.
I did have a boyfriend in the later years of school and he was very supportive when I told him about it, but I could not make sense of my response—and it is my response that gives weight to the event. I carried that guilt, anger, fear, sadness and bitterness for years.
When I got married 12 years later, I felt that I had a duty tell my husband. I wanted him to understand why there was this swaddled kernel of extreme emotion at the very heart of me, which I knew he could sense. But for many years I simply could not say the words without crying—I could not say the words. It was only in my mid-40s that I took some steps to go and get help.
It had a huge effect on me and it fundamentally—and fatally—undermined my self-esteem, my confidence and my sense of self-worth. Despite this, I am blessed in my life: I have been happily married for 25 years. But if this was the effect of one small, albeit significant, event in my life stage, how must it be for those women who are carrying it on a day-by-day basis?
I thought carefully about whether I should speak about this today, and it was people’s intake of breath and the comment, “What? You’re going to talk about this?”, that motivated me to do it, because there is still a taboo about sharing this kind of information. Certainly for people of my generation, it is truly shocking to talk in public about this sort of thing.
As has been said, rape does not just affect the woman; it affects the family as well. Before my mother died early of cancer, I really wanted to tell her, but I could not bring myself to do it. I have a daughter and if something happened to her and she could not share it with me, I would be appalled. It was possibly cowardly, but it was an act of love that meant that I protected my mother.
As an adult, of course I now know that rape is not about sex at all—it is all about power and control, and it is a crime of violence. I still pick up on when the myths of rape are perpetuated form a male perspective: “Surely you could have fought him off. Did you scream loudly enough?” And the suggestion by some men that a woman is giving subtle hints or is making it up is outrageous. Those assumptions put the woman at the heart of cause, when she should be at the heart of effect. A rape happens when a man makes a decision to hurt someone he feels he can control. Rapes happen because of the rapist, not because of the victim.
We women in our society have to stand up for each other. We have to be courageous. We have to call things out and say where things are wrong. We have to support and nurture our sisters as we do with our sons. Like many women of my age, I have on occasion encountered other aggressive actions towards me, both in business and in politics. But one thing that I realise now is that I am not scared and he was. I am not scared. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.
It is an unbelievable thing to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), who has just shared a horrific event from 37 years ago. As the mother of two daughters, I find it very hard to comprehend the impact of such an incident on a 14-year-old and the sense of shame and blame.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this very important debate, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing it. It gives us an opportunity to share our experiences. This House is at its best when it speaks to the nation.
It is incredibly concerning and depressing, and deeply distressing, that we are having a debate about violence against women, because there are so many different themes to discuss. One of my first points was going to be about rape being used as a disgusting weapon of war, and about the fear and, as we have heard, the actuality of it happening to our youngsters on our streets.
Last night, I hosted an event with colleagues from the all-party group for women in Parliament and the women and enterprise all-party group to help, support, inspire and link with women in our communities. A diverse group of women came to Parliament to talk about their backgrounds and their growing and thriving networks.
Sadly, we have to accept that, as we have heard, women and children who live with gender-based inequality and the daily threat of violence are robbed of basic life chances and opportunities. Whether we are talking about acts of institutional violence against women worldwide or domestic abuse, so much needs to be done to protect women from gender-based violence. It is astonishing and heartbreaking that one third of women report experiencing physical or sexual violence—and that is just the women who feel able to report it. More than two thirds of family-related homicides are of our women.
In my constituency work, I hear weekly in my surgeries from people who are, as I realise when I sit there and listen to them, living with coercive control. We now have a law against it, and I have spoken to the Home Secretary and the chief constable of Hampshire police about understanding that law and the opportunity it gives us to protect people who find themselves living with coercive control. Even as they are sitting in my office and going through what the law covers, people start to recognise that it describes their situation.
I encounter constituents who tell me how they have had to deal with domestic violence and interact with the police. They describe living in fear and feeling under threat, and they ask me to feed into debates such as this the actuality of their situation. I am shocked by the controlling and threatening behaviour that people experience in relation to family courts. It still surprises me that people do not feel safe in a place where they are reporting what has happened to them so that they can go on to have a better life, which they truly deserve.
I welcome the Government’s work on a vital strategy to end violence against women, and their commitment to a transformation of service delivery and a long-term reduction in the terrible crimes that we are discussing. I am proud to have contributed to the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller)—she is not in her place at the moment—on the pure commitment and leadership she has shown to make the Committee effective, bold and vital to the work of the House. The strategy and the £80 million of associated funding that we have heard about will go some way towards fighting violence against women. I am especially pleased that, as we have heard, £20 million more will go towards supporting women’s refuges and helping councils to provide further accommodation for those—often women—who are fleeing violent partners.
I want to touch on three key areas on which I feel I can contribute to this debate: human trafficking, stalking and the international effort to stop violence against women. Human trafficking is widely accepted to be a form of violence directed against women. The police and other authorities identified at least 3,266 people last year who were thought to have been victims of modern slavery. I suspect, as we must all do, that the real number—including those who go undetected—is much higher.
The Government are doing excellent work to increase the rate of detection and liberate modern slaves from their abusers. Victims of modern slavery are often women who have been sold a lie. They are forced, with threats of violence, into this country and into degrading and dangerous servitude. While we debate this motion in a palace beside the river, women in this city are being beaten, enslaved and forced into prostitution. No effort is too great, and we must leave no stone unturned in finding and punishing the gangs responsible for those hideous crimes.
I welcome the work that the first Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, is doing. I hope that his recent report will shine a light on the acts of these despicable criminal gangs, and that we will capture and bring to justice the gangs that exploit our women. The Department for International Development “Work in Freedom” programme has reached more than 200,000 people so far, and I am delighted that the Government are supporting DFID’s aid budget.
Under section 111 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the Government created two new stalking offences. The more serious of the two is the section 4A offence, which is defined as:
“Stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress”.
There, again, we see the recurring theme of women facing the threat of violence. The number of prosecutions has risen dramatically every year, from 91 in the first six months to more than 1,100 commenced in 2014-15. In December 2015, the Home Office published a consultation on the introduction of a stalking protection order for cases of “stranger stalking”.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for his work and focus on that terrible crime, and I share with him personal experience of it from my former career. I was also affected by the confusion surrounding the Data Protection Act—the idea that it was safe for me not to know the identity of the person who was stalking me because of data protection concerns. It was a terrible personal experience.
The summary of the consultation responses was published yesterday. An astonishing 20% of respondents stressed that there was a lack of understanding of stalking among professionals, including the police, and, sadly, a continued failure to take it seriously. Interestingly, it appears that the consultation responses are broadly in favour of increasing the strength of the law in this area. I absolutely agree, and I am very pleased that the Government have announced that they will introduce a new civil stalking protection order. That is a good measure, which should go some way to strengthening the law.
Finally, I want to touch on the international effort. I congratulate the Secretary of State for International Development on her work in this area. We are contributing £8 million to the UN trust fund to end violence against women and £35 million to the programme to reduce female genital mutilation, and that money is having an effect. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of going to the Women of the Year lunch, at which one attendee took me to one side and said that she applauded the Conservative party and our Government for tackling FGM. She said that our Prime Minister had led the way in this matter. She went on to say that we were the only party that realised that we had nothing in it for us, so we were able to go where others had not dared to tread.
My hon. Friend is so right about FGM. The issue has slightly gone off the burner in the last few months, and it must come back again. Does she agree that it is absolutely vital that we get proper prosecutions? Does she also agree on the importance of the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, which is being implemented by the Government?
I was very proud to sit at the Women of the Year lunch with some really diverse and fantastic ladies from around the country who had done a great deal of positive work in this area, and to know that people felt that we had gone into an area that had been left and ignored for a long time. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
The UK’s contribution to women’s rights organisations is critical to ensure that there is an international and co-ordinated effort to deal with the crimes that we are discussing. The debate is part of that effort, and I am delighted to contribute to it. The UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is, as we have heard, held on 25 November, and the 16 days of vital activism highlight all the important issues. We have made the UK one of the leading voices in the world, and I am proud to support the Government in doing so.
Many statistics have been cited to describe the truly enormous amount of work that needs to be done. However, these are not just statistics; they are mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces, friends and colleagues. If we are truly to end violence against women and girls, we need to make sure that there is no part of the world, state or society where the abuse of women is allowed, and no lack of laws, laws left unused or inappropriate laws that mean such abuse is allowed. We need to crush the human trafficking gangs, and we need to strengthen our institutional resolve to fight violence in this country. More needs to be done so that no sister is left behind, or, even worse, ever feels that she is left so.
I was 20, and the worst thing that I could ever imagine happening to me was about to take place. I was going to be one of those very rare statistics of a woman who is attacked by a stranger, not by someone she knows. I was in my second year at university. The man had seen me walk past his car, and had waited ahead for me to turn the corner. As I came up against him, all those words of advice given to me by my mum—“Knee him where it hurts, then run like hell”—disappeared. I was frozen in fear. As he shoved me to the ground, trying to rape me, I fought back, but I was battered. It was only the community spirited Indian neighbour further down the road who saved me from something worse.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I had managed to memorise his car number plate, and he was caught an hour later. He went to court; not many do. He pleaded guilty; I did not have to go through the horrors of a trial. He was sentenced; I did not have to look over my shoulder, checking if he was following me. He was a stranger; I did not have to wake up in the same bed as him, or go to work with him as my boss. He did not use a broken bottle to hurt me. He was alone, not with a group of other men. It was only once, not several times.
The point to this story is that even though, on the scale of violence against women, I was lucky because justice was done, the following few years were hard. I got afraid walking alone, so I bought a bike. I got scared in the night, so I slept with a knife. I was easily startled, and cried at the drop of a hat. However, again, I was lucky. I did not have a job to keep down, children to care for or elderly relatives to see to. I could work my way through the impact of this violent assault at my own speed and in my own space.
A new investigation by Nata Duvvury recognises that violence against women is a global health emergency and that it can have an impact on the GDP of a country. After a woman experiences violence, as I did, the hours, days and weeks a community and family have to spend taking care of the affected woman have a quantifiable financial impact on her community through the loss of her unseen caring responsibilities and work contributions.
As I said at the beginning, there are all sorts of versions of violence against women—domestic abuse, sexual assault, child abuse, actual bodily harm, murder. Every assault is very different: some are one-offs, like mine, but for others, violence is a regular and painful part of the fabric of their lives. At least one in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police. The police receive one domestic violence call every minute in the UK. Just to reiterate, one woman, who has probably been hurt 35 times before having the courage to do so, rings the police every minute. Sadly, as we know, domestic violence can often end in the death of the woman. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) has pointed out, 936 women were killed by men in England and Wales during a six-year period, which is one every three days—I repeat, one every three days.
Statistically, violence against women is happening in large numbers, and it can be predicted in some instances. Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, has said:
“The killing of women, especially when women are killed by an abusive partner or ex-partner, is often reported as an isolated incident.”
However, there is an abject failure to look at the patterns of behaviour. It is as though we accept that fatal male violence is an inevitability, not a conscious choice that a man has made to end a woman’s life. These killings are not isolated incidents; too many follow a similar pattern of violence and are premeditated. Many are committed in similar settings, similar weapons are used and similar relationships exist between the perpetrators and victims.
We need joined-up thinking on this issue. We need to educate young men about consent and about respect for women. We need to empower women who are suffering domestic violence to leave, and offer them a safe place to go. We need to refuse to accept online abuse. I applaud the Minister’s work on making stalking, either online or in person, a crime. We need to support the organisations that work with women and girls who have experienced violence, and give them the resources and time they need. We need to encourage women to speak out and get the help they need.
Victims of abuse do not fit any one stereotype. In my previous industry—it is famous for tales of the casting couch—65%, or nearly three quarters, of women media workers have experienced intimidation, threats and abuse. The International Federation of Journalists has said:
“Violence against women remains one of the most widespread and tolerated violations of human rights and its perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity while its victims face losing their job, having their careers ruined, being silenced or worst of all killed.”
It does not matter how famous people are or how big their public profile is. In fact, this week Lady Gaga admitted that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped at 19. The actress in “Last Tango in Paris”, Maria Schneider, has said that the infamous scene with the butter was not consensual and that it was an assault, but because it was in front of cameras, she had to suck it up as all in a day’s work. Oprah Winfrey has been very open about being raped aged nine.
We know about those cases because the survivors are in the public eye, but what about the millions that suffer in silence? Are they just statistics in a newspaper—an awful inevitability—or are they someone’s daughter, someone’s mum and someone we should be doing everything we can to protect? In such a spirit, I urge the Government to stand up and take action by ratifying the Istanbul convention to prevent violence against women, protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators.
Violence against women and girls is an abomination. That may not require restatement, but I am enormously proud that this Parliament is today noting the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. If I may say so, I am also hugely proud to witness the most powerful, cogent, eloquent and articulate speeches made today, particularly by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson), the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). It is a matter of great pride that Members of this House have spoken so powerfully.
I want to say a few words about stalking, which my hon. Friend mentioned. So much progress has been made in this area in recent years and progress continues to be made, but one piece of the jigsaw needs to be inserted. Stalking is a horrible, violating crime that rips apart relationships, destroys careers and can cause lasting mental harm. All too often, it is the gateway to serious violence. In the words of the Home Secretary in her excellent article for The Daily Telegraph this week:
“Victims can be tormented for years”,
“too afraid to leave the house.”
The point about stalking is that it is no respecter of fame or fortune. We have heard about the cases of Lily Allen, Keira Knightley and Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes, but ordinary men and women—particularly women—can also be targeted.
In her article, the Home Secretary referred to doctors being targeted by patients, and she may well have had my constituent Dr Ellie Aston in mind. I will not go through every last detail of the ordeal she suffered, but it went on for seven years. The patient turned up at her surgery over 100 times, and he posted foul items through the letter box. He followed her on patient visits, slashed her tyres and appeared at a children’s birthday party. In her case, the defendant served a short prison sentence. However, in a pattern that is not uncommon in this kind of case, having served his sentence, he restarted his campaign. She started to receive packages at her surgery and at her home in Cheltenham. One of the packages simply read, “Guess who’s back?” When he was arrested again, a search of his computer revealed that he had made the inquiry “How long after a person disappears are they assumed dead?” As Members might expect, the effect was profound. She was advised by police to change her name and job, and move address, and it was suggested that she should come off the General Medical Council register—but she is the victim in all this. She unsurprisingly developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Given that context, I strongly welcome the Government’s response. First in 2012, they recognised stalking as an offence—that is excellent. Secondly, we have the new protection of victims of stalking through the stalker protection orders, which, if breached, can carry a jail sentence of up to five years. They are a really positive step. They enable the police to ask courts to impose restrictions, and can restrict access to the internet and require mental health treatment.
That is all excellent. But the orders have to be seen in their proper context. The truth is that all they are is orders. An order is in effect a requirement from someone in authority that a person should alter their behaviour. Important as that is, sadly those who perpetrate this kind of activity all too often show themselves unwilling or unable to observe boundaries or respect authority. They do not obey the quiet word from the neighbourhood police community support officer, the letter from the local police station, the formal harassment warning, the civil injunction and so on. Although the orders are welcome, and in appropriate circumstances may serve to nip some obsessions in the bud, they are unlikely to assist where that obsession has become ingrained.
That is why I respectfully suggest that for those most serious cases, in which the victims’ lives are made a living hell and they live in constant fear, we need to give the courts the powers they need to protect victims. That means treating stalking as a serious crime, not a minor offence. The reality is that when a stalker pleads guilty to the most serious imaginable offence, which could, by the way, be a repeat offence, the maximum he—and it is usually a he—can end up serving is just 20 months. The judge in the case of my constituent said that he did not have the tools he needed. When he was passing sentence at Gloucester Crown court, his honour Judge Tabor QC said:
“I have no doubt at all that you are dangerous in the sense that you pose a significant risk to her”—
that is, the victim—
“in future in terms of causing her serious harm… I am frustrated that the maximum sentence…is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”
Therein lies the problem. In the most serious cases, only when the stalker is in custody can the victims feel free—free to rebuild shattered lives, careers, relationships, confidence and mental health. No one is suggesting, least of all me, that in all cases we should lock people up and throw away the key or that people should be denied mental health treatment—none of the above. But in those most serious cases, where we know stalking can be a gateway to serious violence, our absolute priority must be to protect victims, and that means a sentence that is commensurate with the gravity of the offence. In due course I will therefore be inviting the Government to extend the sentences for stalking. Only by doing so can we truly protect victims of this horrible crime.
I commend hon. Friends and colleagues for their incredibly powerful contributions. I congratulate the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on supporting this Backbench Business debate. It is absolutely necessary that we have such an important debate on the Floor of the House. It is through contributions such as that of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) and my friend from the Women and Equalities Committee, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), that we are able to give a voice to these important matters.
The UN initiative of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women serves to remind us of some of the worst human rights abuses imaginable. Violence against women persists in systematic abuse across the globe. I echo the sentiment of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston that women’s rights are human rights. Although large strides have been made in recent years, as we have already heard there is still a long way to go. More than 20 years after the UN General Assembly declaration on the elimination of violence against women, one in three women still experiences physical or sexual violence, mostly from an intimate partner.
Violence against women encompasses wide ranges of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, honour killings and trafficking. These are abhorrent acts, and we all have a part to play in their eradication. In the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:
“Break the silence. When you witness violence against women and girls, do not sit back. Act.”
I ask the Government to follow that command and act. We are in the middle of the UNiTE campaign’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, which runs from 25 November to 10 December.
The 16 days are being marked by all kinds of activity across the country and indeed, increasingly, around the world. The Maryhill women’s centre in my constituency does incredible work supporting women from all walks of life, especially those who have been affected by gender-based violence, and is having a series of events. Does my hon. Friend welcome the centre’s activities and those going on across the country?
I welcome every single effort across the UK to eradicate violence and to raise awareness of this important subject,
This year’s UNiTE 16 days of action seek to raise funds to resource the services that do vital work each and every day to end violence against women and girls, in response to a major shortfall in resources and tightening budgets; the campaign is doing all it can to raise awareness. Frameworks such as the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, which includes a specific target for ending violence against women, need adequate funding if they are to result in significant change. That new global development agenda was adopted and ratified by every UN member state this year. It aims to
“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Big projects are taking place worldwide. For example, the non-governmental organisation Physicians for Human Rights is working in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with doctors, nurses, police, lawyers and judges to enhance access to justice for survivors of sexual violence, and UN Women is working in Ethiopia, Jordan and Myanmar to develop essential health and legal services for women subjected to violence. However, funding and support are also needed closer to home.
I take this opportunity to recognise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on the rape clause campaign, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on the white ribbon campaign, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) over many years on gender-based violence. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to support her private Member’s Bill next week seeking to prevent and combat violence against women and girls, and asking the Government to ratify the Istanbul convention. I remind all Members that article 1 of that convention states:
“The purposes of this Convention are to… prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence …contribute to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women”
and girls in law and in practice. I also take this opportunity to commend the work of Dr Marsha Scott of Scottish Women’s Aid and all the staff of Women’s Aid South Lanarkshire for their work each and every day.
Turning to the domestic sphere, it could be argued that the UK Government place survivors of violence at risk through the operation of the child maintenance service. The service operates on a basis whereby the parent caring for children is charged a 4% collection fee for using it, amounting to an additional tax on a parent who has suffered domestic violence. There is an alternative: the caring parent can avoid the child maintenance tax by giving their bank details to the other parent directly, in what is known as a family-based arrangement. I have heard from constituents who are survivors of domestic violence who are too frightened to establish a family-based arrangement because of the legitimate fear that their abuser will be able to access their personal details or, where they have moved to a place of safety through fear that their life is in danger, to locate them.
What must the Government do to resolve that? They must consider the fact that women who have fled situations of domestic violence in certain circumstance are often pushed into poverty through having to flee their abuser. They could remove the additional 4% tax; and they could also issue clear guidance on ways in which women can get the tax removed, and provide clarity on the evidence required to make sure they are eligible for this removal. This should not be an arduous process. I am sure the Government would seek to amend it to ensure that it did not create problems.
It is all very well for the Government to encourage parents who have separated amicably to set up their own arrangement for paying child support as a cost-saving exercise, but a maintenance tax on victims of domestic violence is not a feasible option for domestic abuse survivors. Child support payments are often relied on as a way to establish a safe and independent life for domestic abuse survivors and their children, so to charge them puts the lives of the survivors and their children at risk. I hope the Minister will seek to address this issue and make a real commitment to these women, who are trying to put their lives back together and give their children a safe and happy childhood.
In Scotland, we are committed to tackling domestic violence. It is the priority of the Scottish Government. I recognise that the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling domestic violence through legislation and in law is far ahead of the rest of the UK, but I am sure that the UK Government will commit to following in the steps of the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government are bringing forward a Bill to create a specific offence of domestic abuse. This will cover not only physical abuse but forms of psychological and coercive controlling behaviour that cannot easily be prosecuted under existing criminal law. This law will of course cover male and female perpetrators although, as the figures show, women are more often the victims of violence and they will benefit most from this protection in law. It will not only act as a deterrent, but make it clear that these sorts of behaviours are socially unacceptable.
The Government have a chance to make a statement and commit to ratifying the Istanbul convention, either today or next week by supporting the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. The Government have taken an approach to child maintenance which is ethically dubious and practically dangerous, and it must be addressed. Systematic violence in relationships must be tackled appropriately, and we must address the serious issue with the child maintenance service and survivors of domestic violence.
Every little girl deserves to grow up feeling safe and free from online abuse, stalking, violence, rape, sexual assault or the fear of being killed. These are criminal offences. Every little girl deserves to grow up feeling safe.
I first want to pay a massive tribute to Members who have told their own personal stories today. For so many people, the victims of domestic and sexual violence look like somebody else—they look like the “other” when in fact they are all of us, and it is incredibly powerful to show that. In fact, they are everybody. They are living on our streets. We are sitting next to them at work. We are talking to them on the school run. They are everywhere. I pay a huge tribute to those who have done that today. The memorable women in here will certainly resonate with people out there.
Last week, I dealt with a very upset mother on the phone. Her daughter had, while at school, had to deal with two boys in a dinner queue throwing insults at each other about how they had had sex with her. These children were nine years old. When the mother spoke to her daughter about the incident, the little girl said she felt ashamed. She thought she had done something wrong and that was why the boys were saying this about her. And so begins the life of another young girl who thinks she is to blame for the misogyny she faces, and will probably face for the rest of her life.
That is the example I heard last week. During the inquiry into sexual harassment in schools undertaken by the Women and Equalities Committee, we heard a huge amount of similar evidence. It felt like lifting up a huge rock on a problem that has existed for too long, and is holding back both young girls and young boys. In my time working with local schools in partnership with Women’s Aid, I heard hundreds of stories of girls who were harassed, assaulted, raped and sexually exploited—all before they were 16. I would hazard a guess—I think the debate has shown this—that every woman in this building has a tale to tell about being a teenager and having boys or men groping them, trying to lift up their skirts, talking about have sex with them and scaring them.
When I told my 11-year-old son, who has just started secondary school, about what had happened to the little girl, he shrugged and said, “I hear that stuff all the time, mom.” When I look at the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s report, I am left exasperated. As a parent, I am worried. Should I sit with my son and the little girl in question and say, “Don’t worry, there is cross-Government support for prioritising work to make significant progress in this area”? I am sure their shame will not be at all reduced.
Just after I was elected, I went to speak at a conference in Birmingham on tackling violence against women and girls—I am sure that’s a surprise to everyone! The room was filled with police officers, children’s social workers, housing managers, doctors, nurses, teachers and charities—all specialists in their field. I asked them to raise their hands if they thought that the single biggest change in the prevention of violence and abuse of young women was to make sex and relationship and consent education mandatory in our schools. Every single person raised their hand.
Year after year, this House has been given a chance to pass this much needed law. Obviously, the Government were a little ahead of their time in refusing to listen to the experts, because every time the proposal has been before the House, this House has failed to pass it. I want to know why. I want the Minister, who I know cares deeply about this, to put down the red folders, throw away her notes, throw caution to the wind—I’ve made a career out of it—and tell me honestly why this is. In the days of David Cameron, we were always led to believe, by whispers, that someone at No. 10 was stopping it. We in the preventing violence against women and girls sector were constantly assured by people in the Home Office that the then Home Secretary agreed with us. Well, she is in No. 10 now, and still some sort of conservatism with a small “c” stands in the way of what over 90% of parents want for their children and what 100% of experts know would make the difference.
I do not want to hear “We are looking into this”, “We support the calls” and “We are taking firm action.” I do not want to be pointed to another strategy document that proves nothing more than our ability to write strategy documents. I have been hearing it for years, and now I want a real answer as to why this law has not been passed. I know it has support across this House and in every party. We must act and start having open conversations with our children about gendered attitudes that lead to the harassment of girls and young women, and the demonisation of boys and young men.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech and of course I agree with every word. Like her, before becoming an MP I spent my life in the domestic and sexual violence world. Does she agree that we really need proper, high-quality and well integrated perpetrator programmes, as well as sex and relationships education? The one does prevention and the other tries to make things better when things do not work out, but they must be of a high standard. Will she join me in calling for the Istanbul convention to be ratified by this country, and for all Members to be in the House a week tomorrow to do that?
I thank my hon. Friend and of course I agree with every word. It is very important to stress that the Select Committee heard amazing evidence from some brilliant organisations working specifically with men and boys in this space. They showed how much could be done. If we do not focus on the attitudes of men who commit violence, and on boys who will become those men who commit violence, we will be letting the side down. I stress that I have seen bad practice in this space of work with perpetrators. Local commissioning must be done by experts in the field, and the organisation my hon. Friend worked for is exactly that.
We are here to speak about the elimination of violence, not cleaning up afterwards. Every year, I stand and read the names of women murdered at the hands of violent men. It is only through prevention and culture change that each and every year that list will grow shorter. Ministers have the power to reduce that list, and I will sing their praises if they do. Talking to our children about consent, gendered attitudes and respect is the very best place to start.
I am honoured to follow the powerful speech from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who clearly has much experience in this area. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting a debate on what everyone agrees is a very important subject—one once regarded as taboo, as was referred to, so powerfully, by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson). Hers was a deeply moving speech that I think will help to move this cause forward. I really do applaud her.
The fact that we are holding this debate shows how the taboo is being broken. Is it not great that we can discuss these things? With the lead of a Prime Minister utterly committed to change in this area, and with the cross-party consensus, further progress can be made. As we have heard so eloquently today, violence against women and girls has a devastating impact, not only on the lives of the victims, but on their families and all those close to them. It has enormous knock-on effects also on the criminal justice system and the health service and puts a strain on local authorities and police services, all of which have to deal with these issues on the ground. Avon and Somerset police service reports that it is one of the fastest growing categories of crime.
Local charities and organisations that support women and girls who have been victims of violence do much excellent work, and I want to commend some such charities in my constituency. Taunton Women’s Aid does excellent work with the local community by offering practical support in its drop-in sessions—for women and men. It also works closely with other charities, such as Mind, to develop school workshops—many colleagues have referred to the importance of education—where people can talk about domestic abuse and mental health issues.
Another fine Taunton-based charity working in this area is Stand Against Violence, which runs school workshops focusing on personal safety, anger and aggression, basic life support and the awareness of choices and their consequences. I know the gentleman who runs the organisation. He set it up because when only a teenager his brother was tragically set upon and murdered by a group of young people. Out of that aggressive and unacceptable action has come a charity that goes into schools to talk about how we cannot live like that. It is important that we get across these messages, particularly to the opposite sex, about controlling abuse and aggression, and that is exactly what Stand Against Violence does.
Complementing the work of those charities, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset County Council are offering services to support women who have been victims of violence. Some housing associations are also doing excellent work. Knightstone housing association, which operates across the south-west, runs a domestic abuse service, which it started in 2015, offering a 24/7 helpline and providing emergency accommodation across the country. It is a particularly good model, run in conjunction with Somerset County Council, and is moving us towards a much more comprehensive and integrated service as part of Somerset’s groundbreaking integrated domestic abuse service. It is the kind of model that we should be encouraging others to follow.
I am pleased that this excellent local work is being backed up by the commitment from the Government and their provision of a sound framework upon which to stimulate the necessary shift in attitudes that many colleagues have mentioned. Violence against women and girls is everybody’s business, not just that of charities and worthy Members of Parliament. If we can get that message through to adults and children, we will make a real difference.
The violence against women and girls strategy, published in March 2016, has been allocated £80 million and is bringing together the significant advances in legislation that colleagues have mentioned, including the specific offences relating to stalking. I welcome the new stalking civil protection order and the coercive and controlling behaviour legislation. As a great “Archers” fan, I also think that its storyline has helped to raise awareness. I personally was not really aware of it. It was utterly shocking and really brought it to the fore. There is also the legislation on failing to protect women and girls from female genital mutilation and revenge pornography. The strategy recognises, however, that there are still many challenges ahead and that all too often these crimes remain hidden. If we are truly to tackle them, we must bring those crimes out of the shadows. With 1.3 million women a year still experiencing domestic abuse and 400,000 sexual assaults in the last year, there is still much to do.
I welcome the Government’s continued four-pronged approach, bringing together prevention, the provision of services, partnership and the pursuing of perpetrators. This approach, which is definitely the way forward, has been in place since 2010 and is starting to work. Although I have just given some shocking statistics, the crime survey in England and Wales shows that the number of women who experienced domestic abuse in the past year is the lowest since the survey began, which is welcome news, and that prosecutions and convictions are up, so perhaps we are moving in the right direction.
I want to give a special mention to the £15 million to launch the Government’s three-year violence against women and girls service transformation fund, the purpose of which is to aid and facilitate best practice—perhaps the programme I mentioned earlier is an example of best practice. That is on top of the £20 million available for accommodation-based services announced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The transformation fund is open to commissioners working in partnership with specialist groups, police and crime commissioners, local authorities and health groups, and I would encourage all those groups to get together, to form working groups—perhaps Members could run roundtables and get people together—and to formulate bids, because the money is there for people to take advantage of, and I welcome it.
I welcome the lead that the Government, particularly our Prime Minister, are taking on this very serious issue, but there is a lot more to do, and it is essential that we all work together to banish the prospect of any woman having to live in fear of violence. As a mother of two daughters, I believe that every girl should grow up knowing she is safe.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for bringing this debate to the House and for speaking so powerfully. We have heard some brilliant speeches, but I want to commend in particular the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for so bravely sharing their personal experiences. We all listened and learned a lot. I hope that their speeches have a wider impact.
I want to touch on some international issues. A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Sierra Leone. It was humbling to see this country struggling to recover from the effects of an Ebola epidemic that took 11,000 lives there. In the midst of the chaos of this horrendous epidemic, Sierra Leone decided to ban the procedure of female genital mutilation. However, Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free in March this year, and the ban on FGM has sadly now been lifted. Women in Sierra Leone are being repressed by FGM. It is an ancient practice in Sierra Leonean culture, cultivating a heritage of fear among young women. It is reported by the World Health Organisation that 88% of Sierra Leonean girls have been “cut”, to use the commonly used description of this dreadful practice.
Globally, 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation. Culturally, the procedure is alleged to protect communities against wayward and evil spirits, and it is seen as the final passage from adolescence to womanhood. In reality, it is imposed on girls by a matriarchal society, forcing the younger members of the community to join their faction and structure of society, which in turn controls women—and it becomes a vicious circle in which the “tradition” of FGM, if I may refer to it in that way, is passed on to the next generation.
While I was in Sierra Leone, we visited the country’s Parliament and spoke with its MPs who were at the time considering a law to ban FGM below the age of 18 and to introduce a requirement for “consent” to be given. In reality, it would be difficult to prove that consent had been given, especially in the isolated villages and townships outside of the capital Freetown, but it must be welcomed as a very small step in the right direction. There is an enormously long way to go before this vile practice is banned outright and internationally.
I thank the hon. Lady for that important intervention. Yes, sadly, I am all too well aware of that practice. I am sure that she has constituents raising that issue with her. I, too, have been contacted by church groups about families that they are trying to protect.
Moving on, even when the legislative process finally enshrines protection against violence towards women, the journey will not have ended; legislation is just the beginning. Afghanistan epitomises that struggle. In 2009, women’s rights activists successfully fought and campaigned to implement an executive order of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Bill, which put into the constitution the fundamental right to protect its female citizens. Since then, however, the situation has systematically deteriorated.
In 2013, Special Representative Jan Kubis of the UN Secretary-General in Afghanistan told the UN Security Council:
“The majority of women killed is linked to domestic violence, tradition, culture of the country, but women activists have been deliberately targeted.”
Since the continued withdrawal of British and US troops, the situation has escalated. Amnesty International reported this year:
“It has been increasingly dangerous over recent years to be a woman in public life in Afghanistan, and there has been a growing body count of women who have been brave enough to ignore the risks. With the withdrawal of international forces and the deterioration we are seeing in women’s rights, there is every reason to fear that these dangers will become even worse in the years ahead.”
Nearly seven years on, Afghan women are still under serious threat and violence is on the rise. In the first eight months of 2016, the Afghan Attorney General’s Office received 3,700 cases of violence against women, with 5,000 cases recorded in 2015.
As well as deep-rooted historical, religious or cultural diktats, newly formed technological changes have had detrimental effects on women. Women cannot only be victimised in civil society; it has seeped into the virtual sphere. As many colleagues have mentioned, the internet and, in particular, social media have fuelled gender violence. Even here in the European Union, one in 10 women and teenage girls reports having experienced cyber-harassment. This includes threats of rape and unsolicited sexually explicit images.
In Bangladesh, a group of bloggers were targeted by a militant group because of their posts supporting religious freedoms and the promotion of women’s rights. All 84 of the group were put on a hit list. One prominent blogger, Shammi Haque, had to leave the country and her family because of the threats on her life. A member of a militant organisation put a bounty on her head. She was granted asylum in Germany earlier this year, but even after escaping to Germany, Shammi was still at risk. A political leader in Bangladesh began collecting money through a crowdfunding platform to pay for a ticket to Germany so that someone could be
“sent over to rape her”.
Many of us in this House have received threats online, but it did not mean fleeing our country, our home and our families. Yet the online tone in the UK is becoming more and more vitriolic and threatening towards women. Only this week, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) was subjected to an abhorrent online threat, leading to a man being arrested, while earlier this year my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) had to have her house locks changed in similar circumstances. Again, just this week, a man has been arrested after online threats against Gina Miller, the woman who launched a legal challenge against the Brexit process. Also this week, a 24-year-old man was found guilty of racially aggravated harassment of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger).
The statistics and stories we have heard this afternoon are shocking, disturbing and fundamentally unjust. As an elected female Member of Parliament, I am fortunate to have a platform where I can speak not for myself, but for those without a voice, for those women and girls who are forced to live in silence, who are not treated with dignity and who do not have the right to equality. I hope that this debate will lead to further conversations and further progression on eliminating violence against women and girls.
It is always a pleasure to speak on this issue. Let me first congratulate right hon. and hon. Members who put their names to this debate on bringing it forward so that we can all participate. I thank them very much for that. There have been some excellent speeches, but I would single out in particular the contribution of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson). I doubt whether any Member in their place today could have failed to be moved by her story. I thank her greatly for giving us the opportunity to hear such a personal story put across so well.
I recently attended an event on this issue at Westminster, and I was again shocked by the research carried out for that debate. It is beyond me how in this day and age there are still some people out there who believe that it is permissible or even forgivable to physically harm anyone—never mind women and children. This issue is close to my heart, and I am my party’s spokesperson on women and equalities, among many other issues. I am very happy to contribute to this debate and to support the thesis, focus and central thrust of what the debate is all about.
I note that the debate coincides with the 16 days of action against domestic violence campaign, which has been highlighted on social media to great effect. We are right in the midst of these days of action, which span 25 November to 10 December—and what better place for us to play our part in taking action against domestic violence than in this place where laws are made in the greatest seat of democracy in the world, setting an example to many other democratic societies.
In my own Strangford constituency, Women’s Aid has done a wonderful job in highlighting this campaign, and I am aware that it is aimed at businesses to support them in taking action against domestic abuse and violence. Employers have a legal obligation to assess dynamic risk and to support the health, safety and wellness of their employees. Sometimes it is good for business to focus on that and discharge the responsibility to employees. Companies can do more to aid their employees who endure domestic violence by training those who witness it and by protecting staff as a whole, with the goal of securing safety and mitigating financial loss.
Most small businesses without a human resources department will panic at the very thought of this, so we now have the perfect opportunity to educate people in how to help those who are caught in situations in which they cannot help themselves. I know that this is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, but perhaps she will give us some idea of what could be done to give small and medium-sized businesses the capacity and, perhaps, the resources to ensure that education programmes are carried out effectively in the workplace.
The idea of the campaign is that a different theme will be identified each day to explore the various forms of domestic violence, so that those in the workplace are better equipped to acknowledge signs that it may be taking place. My mum always told me “Never air your dirty laundry”, and she was absolutely right, because we should not do that in our families or in our parties; we should keep it at home. However, it is also true that there is a mentality that often prevents people from seeking the help that they need. As the statistics make clear, domestic violence does not consist of just a few isolated events. It is an epidemic, and it must be addressed. That is why this debate is so important, and why I am so pleased to be taking part in it.
We tend to reel off statistics, but they are important, because they show what is happening in society. I want to cite, in a little more detail, some statistics that may have already been mentioned. Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. As we heard from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), one woman is killed every three days. One in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and 8% will suffer domestic violence in any given year. Globally, one in three women will experience violence at the hands of a male partner. Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime.
Every minute police in the United Kingdom receive a domestic assistance call, but only 35% of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police. We need to do something about that, but I am not sure what should be done. Is it a case of raising awareness, or a case of ensuring that when people go to the police, they receive the response that they need?
The 2001-02 British Crime Survey found that there were an estimated 635,000 incidents of domestic violence in England and Wales during that period; 81% of the victims were women and 19% were men. Nearly 22% of all violent incidents reported by participants in the BCS were incidents of domestic violence. That is a massive proportion. On average—this statistic worried me particularly—a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police: only then does the lady have the courage to report those assaults. We must encourage women to go to the police at an early stage, so that we do not end up with the horrific stories that we are hearing. Other Members have told such stories today, and I want to make it clear that I understand the issues.
Like others, I welcome the news of a legislative change to deal with stalking, and I thank the Government for what they are doing. Let us give credit where it is due. I understand that the new legislation will enable the problem to be dealt with at an early stage, so that rather than someone being stalked two or three times and then complaining to the police, the stalking will be stopped at the outset. That is certainly a step in the right direction. I have attended some meetings in the House to discuss the issue, and I am aware of the great fear and threat that people feel when they are stalked, almost as prey, by people who do not seem to care what happens to them. We need a strong law to deal with that.
In 2014-15, the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline, which is open to anyone who is affected by domestic violence, managed 27,923 calls. Most calls to the service continue to be from women—and that is what this debate is about. There were 611 sexual violence calls to the helpline, from 518 female callers and 93 male callers, and 58% of women callers disclosed mental health issues as a result of that violence. The effect on family members moves me greatly. I find, as an elected representative, that constituents have heart-rending stories to tell that move me to tears, and I am sure that other Members have had the same experience.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the mental health effects of violence against women. It concerns me that women in my constituency who have been victims of rape cannot gain access to the counselling and support services that they require. There is nothing in Slough, so they have to go to Wycombe or Reading. Moreover, the waiting list means that women who experience this devastation must wait for up to 20 months. I urge the Minister to promise Government investment to deal with that horrible delay.
I know that the right hon. Lady takes a very compassionate approach to this subject. We should all consider her wise words, and I hope that the Minister and the Government will respond to them positively.
In 2014-15, 533 women—an increase of 79 on the previous year—and 226 children were referred to Women’s Aid refuges. Yesterday, in Westminster Hall, we had a debate on South Sudan, and some of the statistics that we heard were equally horrendous. Some 70% of women in certain parts of the area have been subjected to sexual violence in either a minor or an extensive form. Abuse is almost inherent in some societies throughout the world. Given that this is International Women’s Day, let us speak not just for our women at home in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but for women throughout the world, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and others have already done.
I have been privileged to meet a lady called Michelle Akintoye, the chief executive officer of Britafrique. On 22 November, an event was held in the House involving a panel of speakers and people who had been sent invitations. The purpose of the event was to celebrate universal children’s day and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Members of the police were present, and solicitors and people involved in matrimonial and family law were on the panel. There was a very good crowd there, asking questions, and many of the questions concerned violence at home, in this great city of London. That gives us an idea of the magnitude of what has taken place.
I hate the fact that 25% of women—one in four—will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. That statistic should be in a history book rather than in an article in today’s paper, or tomorrow’s paper, or Sunday’s paper. The question is, what are we in the House doing to play our part, not simply during these 16 days of action, but in the lifetime of this Parliament? What education are we providing to raise a generation who will abhor this violence, and who will know that there is no shame in seeking help? We need to encourage women to respond, and to have access to centres throughout the United Kingdom—in Slough and elsewhere—which they can contact whenever they need them. That generation will know that they are worth too much to have to put up with emotional and physical abuse. Let me ask the Minister this: how are we training our young men to value women, and our young women to value themselves? It is our duty to answer those questions today, and if we do not have the right answers, we have a duty to get them right.
I thank the Members who initiated this debate. Let me end by issuing a challenge to every Member who has spoken today, and to those who have not been able to attend the debate. How can we make changes here that will make changes in the quality of life for people in every age group and of every colour, creed and class throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? That is our challenge, and we must be determined to meet it.
Today’s debate marks the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. “Elimination” is an ambitious word, but what we have heard today makes it very clear that we need to be ambitious and determined if we are to tackle the epidemic of violence against women that is blighting so many lives.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on leading the debate so comprehensively, and commend the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for the ongoing work of her Committee to promote and advance progress in this area.
We have heard from many speakers the recognition that violence against women is a global human rights abuse, but it is a pervasive and systemic human rights abuse and it affects women in all our communities and all over our world. It is rooted in, and compounded by, gender inequality; Scottish Women’s Aid is fond of saying it is a cause and a consequence of violence against women.
We have heard today that one in three women will experience domestic abuse or sexual violence in their lifetime, but that is probably a conservative estimate. I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) for her enormous courage in talking openly about things that have been so unspeakable for so long. Breaking the silence—as she and other Members today, including the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), have done—is incredibly powerful. I hope their frankness, wisdom and strength will help other women—women who are recovering from sexual violence, women who at the moment do not know whether their lives will get back on track or ever be the same again. I hope what we have heard today helps women to go forward with strength, and makes the future different for the next generation of women.
Members have made reference today to the fact that this morning I published my private Member’s Bill that would require the Government to set out a timetable to ratify the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, better known as the Istanbul convention. It would also strengthen reporting requirements so that MPs would have better opportunities to scrutinise the implementation of the convention on an ongoing basis. I hope the Government will support my Bill and that Members will come to the debate a week on Friday, and push forward something all of us want to see happen.
The Istanbul convention has local, national and transnational dimensions and its implementation has the potential to make a real difference to women’s lives. Scottish Women Aid has described the Istanbul convention as
“quite simply the best piece of international policy and practice for eliminating violence against women that exists, setting minimum standards for Government responses to victims and survivors of gender based violence...It is a blueprint for how we move from small change at the margins, services that are picking up too few people, too late, to a system that is designed to end domestic abuse and violence against women.”
The Istanbul convention offers a powerful vehicle for countries across Europe, and beyond, to prevent and combat violence against women. The UK has played a prominent role for many years in responding to the challenge, and was involved in the development of the convention and the negotiations surrounding it. However, although the UK signed the Istanbul convention back in June 2012, it is still to ratify the treaty. The Government have consistently said that they want to ratify and intend to do so, but we have reached a hiatus. The process has stalled and the Istanbul convention has now been languishing on the backburner for over four and a half years. My Bill is an attempt to shift the logjam and give the Government the impetus they need to take the final steps to bring the UK into compliance.
There are a number of areas in which the UK Government need to legislate to bring domestic legislation into compliance with article 44 of the treaty, and there is the need for legislative change or legislative consent in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I hope the Government will use the opportunity of my private Member’s Bill to shift this logjam and ratify the convention while they have the opportunity to do so.
I want to join other Members in paying tribute to the IcChange campaign for its work. I have also been very grateful for the support from Members on both sides of this House and from every part of the UK for that process. Given all the comments today from Members—not least the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) saying, “Come on, we can do this; let’s just do it”—I hope we are now on a fast track to making this a reality.
I have been working with women’s organisations from across the UK in connection with my Bill. I was invited by Solace Women’s Aid to visit one of its refuges here in London, which I did yesterday. I met five women and eight children currently staying in the refuge and the staff who support them. There were many things to reflect on from my visit, including overwhelmingly how vulnerable some women are when they leave an abusive situation and how precarious their lives can be for some time afterwards.
My visit brought it home to me that the problems associated with the shortage of affordable housing—which is of course very acute in London, but is also a reality in all parts of the UK—are magnified and compounded for women trying to move on from refuge accommodation and make a fresh start. Women who have left home with their children in what they stand up in have a really hard road ahead. For their own safety, they often need to leave their own community, moving away from any support networks they have.
I met a wee boy in the refuge yesterday. He was nine years old and he bears the physical scars of his father’s violence; I do not think it is possible to know what invisible scars he may carry. However, he wanted to show me his Lego. He had built an aeroplane, which he was very pleased to tell me he had designed himself, but his masterpiece, which he was showing off with pride, was a house—a house made out of Lego. At present, his family is all sleeping in one room in a refuge, but he dreams of a home some day. Yet his mum told me how hard it was to find a house for her and her children, when she is still looking after a toddler and does not have a job. She also talked about experiencing racism in her search for housing and more generally, and this focused my mind on the fact that domestic violence is one of the major causes of homelessness right across the UK. In Scotland, domestic violence is the third most common reason for a homelessness application. Some 73% of applications are made by women, and more than a third of those are women with children.
This does make me wonder, too, how many women might stay in violent and dangerous situations because they have nowhere else to go and fear the consequences of uprooting their families, unsettling their children and taking them out of school. Women who do leave their home to escape violence find that they may have to move repeatedly before finding a stable home, with all the upheaval that entails, and there is no doubt in my mind that that inhibits women from seeking safety for themselves and their children.
Gender-based violence affects women of all social and economic backgrounds, all ages, all ethnicities and all religions, but we know that some women are at greater risk: poorer women, younger women, disabled women, and women from minorities. In this respect, we see gender inequality compounded by other forms of structural disadvantage, and I saw that at first hand yesterday.
Several Members have talked about the cultural and traditional aspects of violence against women. I have talked a lot about the Istanbul convention today and in recent weeks and it is a very powerful legal instrument, but it is also important to remember that we have work to do to bring about changes in attitudes and beliefs. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston touched on this, as did the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) when she was highlighting traditional practices such as FGM at home and abroad.
I attended an inter-faith event held along the Corridor in the House of Lords earlier this week. Representatives of many of the major religions in the UK attended. It is important that we bring those dimensions into the debate, because culture is often held up as a justification for certain forms of gender-based violence, but cultures can, and do, change, and religious leaders have a special responsibility and opportunity to influence deep-seated attitudes, values and beliefs that are often foundational to people’s identities and the lives they go on to lead. So I was encouraged by meeting those people from several faith traditions who are taking these issues very seriously and working within their own faith communities to move things forward.
One of the things the women in the refuge said to me yesterday was that women need to help women. It is clear from looking around at the gender balance of those in the Chamber today that women take these issues very seriously. Our bodies are on the frontline; our psychological health and our very selves are often on the frontline in this battle. All of us are affected by gender-based violence, and some of us are affected in very personal ways, as we have heard today. Far too many of us continue to experience one form or another of gender-based violence.
Sexual violence is grounded in the abuse of power, yet each and every one of us in this place is incredibly powerful: we are women with a voice; we are women with a platform; we are people entrusted to speak on behalf of others. Surely our greatest testament would be for us to use that power to eradicate violence against women. I hope women right across this House—and men, too, who want to stand in solidarity with us—will join us in a fight to make these statements not just words, so that when we talk about the elimination of violence against women, we mean it, and we end it once and for all.
I should like to start by congratulating the right hon. and hon. Members who secured this Back-Bench debate. It has been a phenomenal debate, and I want to echo the message from my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) that this is a cross-party issue and that we can eliminate violence against women only if we work collaboratively. What we have heard in the Chamber today has shown that that is indeed a possibility, given the conviction that we all have on this issue. My hon. Friend went on to contextualise why the debate is so important, with 3 million women a year in the UK experiencing violence. That is 27.1% of us, or almost a third. I echo the comments from other Members that that is probably an underestimate. She also rightly focused on the impact of violence against women and the ripples of horror that go out from it. She focused particularly on the impact on children and the lack of support for them, as well as the impact on the whole community. She also spoke about the lack of mental health care for those affected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) also spoke about that.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) spoke powerfully about the horrifying increase in online abuse and gave clear recommendations on what needs to be done. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke also spoke about the sexual harassment of girls, and I would like to acknowledge that the work done on this by the Women and Equalities Committee has been fantastic. I hope that we get an equally strong response on this from the Government.
I am pausing before saying this, because I do not think that anyone in the Chamber will forget the speech made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson). She spoke of “feeling surprise, then fear, then horror”. Those words described her feelings as a 14-year-old girl. We all felt that horror, and we are all sorry for her and for every other girl who experiences it. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) spoke of the shame that we should feel for allowing this to happen. She urged the Government, as so many have, to introduce proper mandatory sex and relationships education so that all children can understand that no means no, understand how to respect themselves and others and understand the difference between right and wrong.
I want to pick up on one word that my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) used repeatedly in her speech. That word was “lucky”. She said she was lucky because she was only violently assaulted by a man. When we look at the scale of abuse, at the number of murders, which she also mentioned, and at the number of times a woman will endure domestic abuse before she reports it, perhaps she was lucky. I feel lucky that she is here in this Chamber to share her story with us and to campaign to prevent that from happening to other women.
I was pleased that the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) picked up on how victims were often the ones who had to change their lives, move house or change their name as a result of violence. Why do the victims of this crime, and this crime alone, have to suffer this perpetual assault and live in fear, possibly for the rest of their lives? We have to do something to address that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton broadened the subject to an international level and spoke powerfully about the fact that 88% of women in Sierra Leone have been mutilated through female genital mutilation. I agree with her point that as long as this is viewed as a cultural practice rather than child abuse and a gross violation of children, we will never eradicate it. We in this Chamber need to do all we can to stop using that cultural excuse. We need to attack it because it is child abuse. She also told the House how dangerous it is to be a woman in Afghanistan, particularly in public life. The horrors in Afghanistan are unparalleled, but we are seeing a ripple effect across the world at the moment. That is something that we all need to call out very actively.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an interesting speech about working with companies to help them to recognise the signs of domestic violence and to help them to intervene to prevent it. He also mentioned the international aspect of the problem, telling us that one in three women suffered violence and that one in four women suffered domestic violence in the UK. He gave us in the Chamber a duty to challenge and address that issue.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) talked about her Bill, which will be debated in the Chamber next Friday, and I hope that we will all support it. It demands that the Government produce a timetable for ratifying the Istanbul convention. That convention is a historic international treaty that sets legally binding standards for preventing and tackling domestic abuse. Crucially, the convention gives all survivors of domestic abuse the right to access the specialist services they need to enable them to live in safety and rebuild their lives. I hope I am not being uncharitable in wondering whether that is the block that is preventing the Government from signing the convention. I hope that they will do the right thing next Friday and give a guaranteed timetable for the ratification of the convention.
The Government should, however, be commended for doing a lot of work to prevent violence against women and girls, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for drawing that work to the attention of the House. A lot of work has been done on modern slavery, and a stalking Bill has been introduced. Similarly, national and international work has been done on preventing violence against women and girls and on preventing FGM.
However, we know that domestic violence and violence against women and girls remain at pandemic levels the world over. Levels of domestic violence and violence against women in the UK have increased rapidly between 2009 and 2014, pushing up the overall levels of violent crime in the UK. Yes, a number of Members mentioned the contradictory official view that the Office for National Statistics crime statistics suggest that violent crime in England and Wales is continuing to fall, but we know from research carried out by Professor Sylvia Walby that that is because the ONS caps the number of crimes committed against an individual at five incidents per victim, even when many more offences have been recorded. When the cap is removed and the raw data are examined, the number of violent crimes increases by 60%. That increase is predominantly concentrated in violent crimes against women perpetrated by their partners and acquaintances.
As my hon. Friends have stated today, domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime. On average, a woman will endure 35 attacks before calling the police. So, looking at the ONS data, we can deduce that 30 of those attacks will go unrecorded. I am grateful that the ONS has now agreed to stop that arbitrary capping of repeat incidents at five, and I therefore expect the next crime stats to give a much more accurate picture of the scale of violence against women and girls. Unless we have reliable data, the Government and local authorities simply cannot plan and resource the correct response. It is impossible to prioritise women’s services if they are unaware of the extent of the need. How can the Government resource the police correctly, for example, when they have no idea of what support is needed? As we have heard today, local authorities and domestic violence refuges are struggling to cope with the number of victims seeking help, and many are in crisis. When the Government have evidence of the true scale of the need, will they look to provide more specialist resources to local authorities and more resources directly to specialist services?
The Government’s national statement of expectations gives guidance on what local authorities should be providing for victims of domestic and sexual violence, but guidance alone does not ensure that every woman in need can access services. The statement says that service commissioners must have sufficient specialist support provision, including specialist BME refuges, but local authorities are facing unprecedented budget cuts, forcing commissioners to value cost per bed over quality of service. Specialist services are closing as a result. So where can a women and her children sleep on the night she leaves her violent partner if there is no refuge for her to go to? How can she rebuild her life if there are no specialist staff to counsel her and her children or support her to find a new home? The responsibility for the delivery of domestic violence services cannot simply be devolved to local authorities in a haphazard and piecemeal way. Under the current system, the Government have no way of knowing whether provision for women is adequate or targeted at the right areas. Will the Minister commit today to mapping out the existing domestic violence and sexual violence provision across the country and to correlate it with a needs assessment? Will she recognise that the sheer scale of domestic violence requires a strategic central Government response, not simply a set of expectations for local authorities? Will the Government live up to the provisions in the Istanbul convention by ratifying it so that every survivor of domestic abuse has the right to access specialist services?
I remain absolutely committed to championing the cause of prevention. Violence against women and girls is not, and never will be, inevitable. Prevention is essential if we are ever to ensure that women and girls can live free from fear and be able to determine their own life. Yet we are seeing an ever-increasing normalisation of violence, staring out of advertising boards, computer screens and the mobile phones of little girls and boys. Through exposure to online pornography from an increasingly young age and messages conveyed in the media, children are growing up believing that violence and non-consensual sex in relationships is not just normal, but to be expected. At the same time, children are being pressured by adults and other children to engage in harmful sexual behaviour, such as sharing indecent images. Children are entering adulthood unable to recognise exploitative, abusive and manipulative behaviours. Teenage girls in my constituency tell me that they expect to be abused by their boyfriends because that is what being a girlfriend is about. The Government can no longer stand by and allow that. Will the Government introduce statutory, age-appropriate sex and relationships education in schools to give children the knowledge, resilience and confidence they need to recognise abusive or coercive behaviour and to challenge or contextualise the messages about sex and relationships they receive from the media?
Violence is perpetrated against women because they are women. Women are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands, sons, fathers and uncles in the UK and around the world, because those men believe that women are to be controlled and owned. Girls’ genitals are mutilated, because it is believed that a women’s sexuality belongs to her husband. Girls are denied education and forced into marriage, because girls’ lives are valued less than boys’. They are afraid to leave the house, see their family or love their children, because they exist to please men. Women are murdered and tortured and abused at the hands of men, because this violence is structural and used to maintain male power and control. Until that is accepted across societies, Governments and institutions, we will never truly eradicate it. Until violence against women and girls is accepted as structural violence, perpetrators will still be allowed to cross- examine their victims in court, a little girl will continue to be told that he is groping her because he likes her, and girls will continue to grow up thinking that violence and manipulation are all part of being a woman. Ending violence against women and girls requires a radical, systematic societal shift in power and attitudes. It is the role of every Member of this House to live up to that.
Today is a really important day that marks one of the UN’s 16 days of action to eliminate violence against women and girls. This vital debate has shown our utter and united determination across the House to end these terrible crimes. I want to start by paying heartfelt thanks to the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson). To hear her talking about her rape when she was 14 years old, breaking the taboo by talking about it in this place, was truly remarkable. It was incredibly brave of her to talk, as she so eloquently did, about what happened to her. I am sure that her mother would be incredibly proud of her, because she will be helping so many women who are suffering in silence. If after listening to her just one women picks up the phone and gets the support that is available, the hon. Lady will have saved someone’s life. I am sure that many women will draw courage and inspiration from her today.
I also thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) who bravely talked about a serious sexual assault. She made a powerful speech, highlighting what she says are widespread attitudes towards and abuse of women in the industry in which she served. I give every power to her elbow and give her every encouragement to carry on talking about this to help women in that industry today not to have to suffer in the way that she did.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who also gave a moving, powerful speech about her dreadful personal experience of being a victim of stalking. I commend her for using that experience to campaign strongly since she became a Member. She played such an important part in bringing in the anti-stalking measures that were announced yesterday.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for securing this debate and for the approach she took in her speech. I also thank my friend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), with whom we work so closely. She is right that it is absolutely essential that work must be cross-party and done across the House. There is simply no room for politics in this. We must keep the issue at the top of the political agenda by working together to get the cultural changes that we all want.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) for reminding the House of the Prime Minister’s strong, persistent leadership on keeping women and girls safe at home and around the world. The Government appreciate the valuable work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and the Women and Equalities Committee, not least the report that we have discussed today.
Our goal remains simple: no woman should live in fear of abuse, and every girl should grow up knowing that she is safe. As we have heard today, violence and abuse can affect anyone, and while we do think that the prevalence of violence against women is going down, we are working to ensure that we have the right data. We published more data just yesterday to help us be sure about that, but we have a long way to go to reach our goal. While it is encouraging that more women feel able to come forward and that more prosecutions and convictions are being secured, we are absolutely not complacent.
Since 2010, we have done more than ever before to tackle violence against women and girls. In March, we launched the new violence against women and girls strategy and pledged over £80 million of funding to support that in the UK. We have strengthened the law and provided agencies with the tools they need to support victims, bring perpetrators to justice and prevent such crimes from happening in the first place. We have introduced new offences of coercive and controlling behaviour, stalking, forced marriage and FGM, and have banned revenge porn. On top of that good work, I am delighted that we announced yesterday some important new measures to tackle gender-based violence.
As we have heard, stalking is a devastating crime and can have serious consequences. Yesterday, we committed to introduce new civil stalking protection orders to protect victims and stop perpetrators at the earliest opportunity, before their behaviour becomes entrenched. We also launched a £15 million, three-year VAWG transformation fund to aid, promote and embed the best local practice that exists today and to ensure that early intervention and prevention become the norm, so that we can stop the awful gaps in services about which we heard today. Although we have a national framework and strategy, it is vital that local areas take ownership of and responsibility for the services in those areas, and that they put the victim at the centre of their approach to providing services, working together to incorporate the needs of a wide range of people. To help areas to do that, we published our national statement of expectations, on which we worked in partnership with a great many civil society organisations and the Local Government Association, to ensure that commissioning is the best it can be. We want good examples from across the country to be available to every community and every woman.
Included in the data we published yesterday was the domestic homicide review, which for the first time considered all the learning from examples of when things have gone badly wrong and individuals did not get access to services, and of when the statutory sector did not do everything possible to keep women safe, including the worst outcome of that leading to a death. By publishing this review and a series of recommendations, we will be able to make real progress. Included alongside that was better training for the chairs of domestic homicide reviews and funding to enable this work to carry on.
I am not going to give way, as I want to cover all the questions put to me.
Our new £15 million VAWG service transformation fund is just one part of the £80 million package that I talked about. This is the most central funding that any Government have put into tackling these terrible crimes, and it includes provision for rape support centres, national helplines and refuges. I am sure that our actions are backing up our strong words, and if more resources are needed, we will always keep that under review.
The police transformation fund has also funded programmes that support our work to end VAWG, and other sources of funding are available across the country, at the local and national levels. These sources include money from the troubled families programme; for victims’ services; for dedicated mental health provision; for the tackling modern slavery programmes; and £15 million from the tampon tax fund. I am particularly pleased that this year that fund recognised the incredibly important role that grassroots organisations play in addressing VAWG and they have a particular spot in the fund.
I was asked some very direct questions and I wish to answer them directly today; the red folder is on the Bench. First, let me say that abusive behaviour online is treated the same as such behaviour offline. The same prevention orders and the same tools to prosecute offenders for that behaviour online should be pursued. So please, Members, go out into your communities and spread the word that we must get law enforcement agencies to use those new powers.
I am sorry, but I do not really have enough time to do so.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said that we must do more to educate children about healthy relationships, including sexual relationships, and that no must mean no in every circumstance. I think we all agree with that, and there is a huge amount of determination and ongoing work to deliver that. She is absolutely right to say that we all need to talk about this. As a mother of three children, I can say that it can be a bit embarrassing, not least for my children, having to sit down to talk about this; my son has just about recovered from having to talk to his mum about online porn. But it is essential that we all do this, and there is a lot of very good material to support us as citizens, as parents, as teachers and as youth workers to have those conversations. We are absolutely determined to make sure we work with partners such as the PSHE Association, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and the range of excellent charities that do so much in this space, to make sure we have highly effective communications to really educate young boys and girls about good, healthy and safe relationships.
I was also asked to respond to the femicide report, and I will be writing to the Members who raised that, because it was a detailed report and I want to do it justice by responding to all the recommendations. The issue of perpetrator programmes was also raised. Clearly, they have an incredibly important role to play in trying to prevent harmful behaviour, but I am aware that not all of them are as good as we want them to be, so we are working with the charity Respect to revise the accreditation standards for these programmes.
We have also heard harrowing stories today about FGM and its continued prevalence. I just want to confirm to everyone the utter determination of the Prime Minister and of the Home Secretary, who has made this a personal challenge, to do everything we can to stamp out this vile and unacceptable practice in our country and all around the world.
Finally, there has been much talk about the ratification of the Istanbul convention today. I am proud that we signed that convention and I know that we will ratify it. I want to assure Members that the lack of ratification is not stopping us doing anything; we are already complying with every single aspect of that convention. We exceed most of its criteria, with the exception being the criterion relating to extra-territorial powers. Detailed and ongoing discussions are taking place between the Ministry of Justice and the devolved Administrations, particularly Northern Ireland’s, to get this right. We will not have time to go into all those details today, but we will be able to talk about this at length next Friday, and I looking forward to that debate.
In concluding, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Birmingham, Yardley, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), and the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) for their powerful and insightful speeches today. This has been one of the finest debates I have had the pleasure of sitting through in this Chamber. I also want to underline, especially to the people outside the Chamber today, that I am sure that together we will be redoubling our efforts across Parliament and across civil society, through business and in conjunction with international partners, so that we when we meet again next year, we will have many more victories to celebrate and fewer failures to talk about.
Violence against women and girls simply has no place in a modern world. It harms individuals, families, communities, societies and the global economy. Through our determined effort, I am sure that we can make this history. It is important that we do this, not only because it is the right thing to do and because it is vital for women and girls, but because all humanity will reap the benefits.
Let me start by thanking the Minister and the shadow Minister for their helpful and valuable contributions at the end of this debate. I also wish to thank all the other Members who have taken part, making particular mention of my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), and the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson). Let me echo the Minister’s words by saying to the hon. Member for Edinburgh West that her mum would have been incredibly proud of her, and I am sure that her family are, as we all are. In her speech—the same could be said of those others—she put others first, ahead of herself. I thank her for doing that, as it will make a big difference to my constituents, too.
I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for its support and for allowing us to have this debate today. We have heard a range of contributions highlighting the heartening progress in some areas but the rolling back of the clock in others, with the description of the situation in Sierra Leone being an example of that. I thank the Minister for her comments on the questions that were raised, but it will not surprise her when I say that we were disappointed not to hear a commitment to compulsory relationship and sex education in schools, particularly given the urgency of that. I am sure this will not be the end of that debate. There was also a recognition of the need to ratify the Istanbul convention. We need the Government to lay out a timetable, one that we believe and know will be stuck to.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence; further notes that violence against women is a human rights violation and prevents women and girls fulfilling their full potential; recognises that an estimated one in three women experience physical or sexual violence worldwide, but that violence against women and girls is not inevitable, and that prevention is possible and essential; and calls on the Government to work with other governments around the world to adopt comprehensive laws addressing violence against women and gender-based inequality and discrimination, to provide women-centred, specialist services to all survivors, and to fund key education and prevention programmes so that violence against women and girls is ended once and for all.