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Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Services: Redcar and Cleveland

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for rape and sexual abuse support services in Redcar and Cleveland.

As always, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I was pleased to secure this debate to once again bring to the Minister’s attention the crisis facing rape and sexual abuse victims in my constituency. I have raised this crucial issue in writing and on the Floor of the House, but the response from the Government has been disappointing. I have been given the same response about the money the Government are investing in domestic and sexual violence and abuse services, which is welcome, but it simply does not reflect the realities on the ground in my area.

In response to my question in the Chamber last week about the cuts to rape and sexual abuse funding, I was told about the Government’s work on domestic violence. While domestic violence is extremely important, and I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill, I was talking about rape and sexual assault services, not about domestic violence. So I am glad to have the debate today to specifically focus on EVA Women’s Aid, which is a fantastic charity in my constituency that does amazing work supporting vulnerable women and children who survive rape, sexual abuse and violence and childhood sexual abuse.

EVA provides services across a 94 square mile area, and last year it supported nearly 1,000 vulnerable women and many children. It goes without saying that the support provided is a lifeline to clients, with whom the charity has worked hard and carefully, often over a long period, to develop sensitive, caring and trusting relationships. That trust is vital to enable victims to get the support they need. Because of that record, EVA is a well-respected organisation in the local community, held in high esteem by local people and led brilliantly by Richinda and her fantastic team of staff. I pay tribute to them today. Women feel comfortable approaching EVA because they know its reputation, how many women the charity has cared for and the respect and esteem in which it is held in the local community. That is why the removal of EVA’s grant from the Ministry of Justice’s rape and sexual abuse support fund is a devastating decision, which I urge the Minister to reconsider.

Since 2014, EVA has received funding from the rape and sexual abuse support fund to carry out its important work. The funding accounts for 15% of EVA’s revenue and is a significant source of income for a small local charity. In March, EVA was informed, without any prior warning or expectation, that its bid to renew the funding for the 2019-2022 period had been unsuccessful. That decision means that from the end of June the Borough of Redcar and Cleveland will not have the sexual violence support services and specialist counselling that EVA currently offers to children and young people of all genders, and to adult females. That includes support services for victims of child sexual abuse, which we know to be a crucial issue, and the number of people coming forward is increasing.

EVA is now trying desperately to make up the shortfall and save these crucial services. It has exhausted all other avenues, from the local police and crime commissioner to the local authority and clinical commissioning group. In areas like mine, the reality is that the budgets and funds of those organisations are already stretched. They have already had to make cuts to services and they do not have reserves of unallocated funding with which to step in and rescue services, such as those provided by EVA. Those services will have to go by the wayside if the funding is not found.

The PCC and the NHS jointly fund independent sexual violence adviser services and a sexual assault referral centre, which are highly valued and important, but they are not responsible for funding longer-term therapeutic counselling of the type EVA provides, which is vital. We cannot continue just to respond to crisis after crisis; we have to support people in the long term, which is exactly what EVA does. That is why I am raising this issue with the Ministry of Justice once again.

Ministers simply cannot pass the issue down to police and crime commissioners. Until now, the funding has been directly provided to EVA from central Government and it is central Government who have taken the decision to withdraw it, with very little notice and with devastating consequences. The three-month extension to June to allow for “necessary adjustments”, as stated in the ministerial response I received, is welcome but inadequate. At this point in the funding cycle, when organisations already have commissioning arrangements in place, this is just a stay of execution on the closure of services. Five of EVA’s 23 staff could be affected by the decision. They are specially trained rape counsellors who provide specialist support, and they could now be lost, along with all their skills, experience and training, because of short-sighted funding decisions that have not taken into account the impact on many vulnerable women in my constituency.

EVA received notification of the cut on the same day that the Government announced a funding increase of £24 million over three years for victims of rape and sexual assault. The victims Minister celebrated, saying that the Government are

“supporting more centres than ever”.

That would be a welcome development, but it is not the truth in Redcar and Cleveland and it is not what we are seeing. In reality, we are seeing a cut to vital services. While I appreciate that Arch North East is being funded to provide support for sexual abuse victims in the Cleveland police area, I understand it is receiving a similar amount to its previous funding allocation. It will have little extra capacity to support the residents of Redcar and Cleveland, who EVA currently caters for.

I do not know how familiar the Minister is with Cleveland; it is a huge geographic area, with a lot of rural, former mining villages and accessibility issues, as our buses are very expensive. Making one grant allocation for the whole area covered by the Cleveland police and crime commissioner fails to appreciate the different communities and demographics covered, as well as the fact that many women will only come forward to organisations and charities that they know, trust and feel secure with. Asking them to travel and to face a new and unknown organisation is going to put many women off accessing services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and the powerful speech she is giving. It can be incredibly difficult for women to come forward. In south Yorkshire, where my constituency is, 3.5% of rapes result in a charge; nationally, it is only 4.1%. These figures are absolutely shocking and appallingly low. Does my hon. Friend agree that cuts to services, such as the one she is talking about and others across the country, will only make the situation worse and reduce the number of people, predominantly women, coming forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The levels of conviction for rape are a national scandal; more has to be done. The idea that we are seeing cuts to services and safe spaces for women coming forward is shocking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend because not only is she here today defending her constituents and standing up for vulnerable women, but she ran the London marathon last weekend in support of a local domestic violence and rape charity. She’s talking the talk, as well as walking the walk or running the run; I congratulate her on that.

The geographic diversity of my area and the inaccessibility is a huge issue; it means many women will not access the services or be able to afford to access the services they need. The funding decision comes at a time when demand for independent specialist provision for survivors of sexual violence and abuse is at unprecedented levels. The message I hear from the workforce on the ground is that they are seeing services shrinking and provision is not meeting the level that is needed. The decision also demonstrates the risk of smaller organisations and charities, and the valuable, community-focused services they bring to the table, being squeezed out by larger organisations.

Indeed, the report by the all-party parliamentary group on sexual violence on the funding and commissioning of sexual violence and abuse services, published last year, found a huge contradiction in the way in which services are commissioned. There is supposed to be a move towards local commissioning to achieve tailored, locally appropriate solutions, which would be welcome, but that is countered by funding pressures on commissioners, who too often let large service contracts to single, generic providers in order to deliver savings through economies of scale. This approach is evidently happening with national commissioning too, and it will force small but vital, well-loved and respected providers, like EVA, out of the picture.

I will take a moment of the Minister’s time to share feedback from service users at EVA’s centre that highlights why the services matter. It is easy to talk about figures, cuts and national services in this place, but the reality is that we are talking about the lives of the most vulnerable women, who we must support and protect. These are the voices of women from my area who have reached out and sought EVA’s help after suffering horrific sexual abuse. Karen says:

“Your service gave me a lifeline when I was at rock bottom and didn’t know where else to turn, and I’ll never forget that. I don’t know what my fate would have been without you.”

Nadia says:

“The counselling service gave me back my life. I’d be stuck in a nightmare if it had not been for EVA.”

Angela says:

“I now have the strength to face my issues. You have helped me realise I haven’t done anything wrong but was vulnerable and taken advantage of”.

Finally, Jane says:

“Counselling has helped me feel sane through the weeks. I thought I was going crazy. It has helped me start figuring out what to do about my circumstances and historic abuse”.

I am sure the Minister agrees that here are real people facing terrible situations, who would have nowhere to go if not for the services EVA provided. It is vital that we support them and enable them to get the support and provision they need. It is clear from those personal accounts how much EVA’s service users value the local, individually tailored support that they trust. As I am sure the Minister recognises, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, it can take a huge amount of courage to come forward and seek help after the kinds of horrific ordeals these women have gone through. This funding decision risks closing the door on that option for many women and children in Redcar and Cleveland, so today I ask the Minister once again to please revisit this funding decision. I would love to invite him to visit Redcar and see EVA’s fantastic services for himself. If the Government are truly committed to supporting more centres than ever and ensuring that every victim of sexual violence receives the full package of support they need, then I urge him to look at this one more time.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for securing this debate. We may not always agree on everything, but one thing we can agree on is that she is a doughty champion for her constituents and speaks up for them in this House at every opportunity. I know the subject we are discussing is, rightly, enormously important to many Members of the House more broadly. Sexual violence and abuse, as the hon. Lady has alluded to, are horrendous crimes that sadly affect too many in our society. As the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said, they continue to be a huge problem for our society and our country.

I will start by saying how important it is to me, as a Minister with responsibility for supporting victims of crime, to ensure that support is available to them when and where it is needed. The right support is essential to help victims to try to cope with what has happened to them and to try to start rebuilding their lives. Ensuring that more victims and survivors of sexual violence have access to high-quality services remains a key priority. As the hon. Member for Redcar will know, I have visited a number of services providing vital support to women facing abuse and violence around the country, including in Cheshire and Brighton, and heard of the struggle many of these services face to secure long-term funding.

Those services tell me that there are three challenges: first, sustainability of funding; secondly, the need to move from a single-year, round-robin settlement to a multi-year settlement; and, thirdly, the need for the process to be made simple and clear. Often, particularly with the small local organisations mentioned by the hon. Lady, it is the same person who is the director running the organisation, delivering the service on the ground and sitting up until the early hours having to write multiple bids to try to build up the pot for a sustainable budget.

I have listened to those organisations, and in last year’s first ever cross-Government victims strategy we set out ways in which the Government planned to improve support to all victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual violence and abuse. My aims have been to ensure the provision of high-quality services, with sustainable funding and clear and simple processes that reduce the administrative burden while moving to a multi-year settlement, reflecting what those services say to me.

The national rape support fund, for which I am responsible, is one of a number of Government sources of funding for rape support services. A number of significant improvements have been made to that fund, the previous competition for which took place in 2014. The most recent competition commenced last November and, as the hon. Lady has said, the results were announced in March.

That funding will now be provided for three years, rather than annually. As the hon. Lady said, I also ensured a 10% funding boost overall for these essential services, with an extra uplift above that in London to recognise the differential demand levels there compared with other parts of the country. The rape and sexual abuse support fund now totals £24 million over three years. Far from cutting spending at the national level, we are increasing it, and I welcome the spirit in which she acknowledged that.

It is also important to note that this is not the only source of funding to which many of these organisations have access. As I mentioned, last November EVA and others were made aware that this would be a competition for the next three years. The hon. Lady would not expect me to do anything with public money other than to recompete it, at appropriate intervals and with appropriate criteria, to ensure that services continue to evolve and we continue to get the innovation and the highest quality of services that we would wish for.

I have always been clear that in the context of the support that victims receive, their needs must come first. In addition to trying to ensure geographical access for as many victims as possible, our competition ensured that stringent quality criteria were applied to all bids. As a result, 79 support centres have been awarded grants, including various small local providers, and the Ministry of Justice now funds more support centres than ever before and in all areas. For the first time, there are directly Government-funded services in all 42 of the country’s police and crime commissioner areas.

The number of PCC areas with Government-funded male support centres—we must recognise that men as well as women are victims of these horrendous crimes—has nearly quadrupled from 11 to 41 under this process. That is in addition to funding a national helpline and webchat service for male victims, following a significant rise in the number of men and boys coming forward to report crimes. Funding has also been extended to include those who suffered abuse while under the age of 13, recognising that many victims of child sexual abuse may struggle to access timely support.

We are also testing full local commissioning of sexual violence services with five PCC areas for three years, to explore the benefits for victims and service providers alike. Our aim is to better streamline services locally, including with the national health service, to reduce administrative burdens and challenges for centres so that more money be spent on frontline services.

Our final piece of the strategy was to increase spending from £31 million in 2018 to £39 million in 2020-21, to improve services for victims of sexual violence and abuse who seek support from sexual assault referral centres. We are working to ensure better service integration between statutory services such as the NHS and the third sector and charities, to provide joined-up and lifelong care and support for those who have suffered sexual assault and abuse and therefore need them. The NHS strategic direction for sexual assault and abuse services is an example of those commitments put into practice. It seeks to improve support for victims and survivors of sexual violence by joining up key agencies and ensuring we have a whole-system response to tackling sexual abuse.

That work is complemented by the investment the Government have made in supporting PCCs to commission support services locally, with £68 million of funding nationally going to PCCs. The Ministry of Justice is also funding much of the spending that PCCs do in this area. The PCC for Cleveland has been allocated more than £600,000 to provide support to victims, of which £45,000 is ring-fenced specifically to support victims of child sexual abuse. PCCs also, rightly, choose to invest some of their own funds additionally into these services.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, as a result of the recent competition in her Cleveland PCC area we will be funding Arch North East to provide support to men, women and children across the county. As with all centres receiving MOJ grant funding, the funding will be expected to support victims resident across that entire area, including her borough, irrespective of postcode. Her constituency will continue to be covered by the service.

Arch North East is approximately nine miles from Redcar town centre. This is where my geography may become a little hazy, but I think it is about a 30-minute journey by car or a journey of an hour or so on the 63 bus. I know the hon. Lady mentioned cost, and she is right to highlight the need to remove as many barriers as possible to accessing services.

In addition to usual support services, Arch North East provides independent sexual violence advisers for victims, and they make home visits across the area, including the entirety of the hon. Lady’s borough. Home visits are also offered for children. The service is primed and ready to take on any victims that require support in the area, and reassures us that it has one of the shortest waiting times for services in the country. Arch North East complements services provided by Helen Britton House, a sexual assault referral centre in North Ormesby. The SARC provides 24-hour crisis intervention and support 365 days a year with dedicated specialist staff.

Additionally, the Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre in Darlington is an hour away from Redcar on the train and is served by good local train connections with nearby towns in Durham and Cleveland. Residents in the north of the PCC area of Cleveland—for example, up towards Hartlepool—would also be able to access services in Northumbria such as SomeOne Cares, Grace Northumberland Rape Crisis and Tyneside Rape Crisis Centre. For residents in the south of the PCC area of Cleveland, Survive North Yorkshire can also be accessed.

I understand that the hon. Lady will be disappointed that one of the centres, which she has highlighted today, was not successful in its bid to secure national funding. I reiterate what I said earlier: she is nothing if not a doughty campaigner for and supporter of her constituents and constituency. However, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss in this Chamber the specific detail of our evaluation of that organisation’s bid, although I will re-emphasise that all bids were measured against clear quality criteria, as well as geographical criteria, with awards made accordingly. The decision not to fund EVA Women’s Aid was not taken lightly.

I recognise the value that providers bring to those whom they support and to the local community and the point that the hon. Lady rightly makes about the need, in this space, for familiarity and trust at the heart of conversations. However, my primary consideration must be to provide the best-quality support to victims, even if on occasion that means taking a difficult decision such as the one under discussion. I regret to say to the hon. Lady that we will not be revisiting the decision. I know that she will be disappointed by that, but I feel it is important that I am honest with her.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, EVA Women’s Aid will receive a three-month extension of its current MOJ grant, to help it to adjust during this transition period. I understand that EVA was also not successful in a recent competition for PCC funding. The hon. Lady may wish to discuss with Cleveland’s PCC his decision in that respect as well; I imagine she probably will do so.

The House should be in no doubt that the Government are determined that victims of rape and sexual violence will be supported by high-quality, accessible services throughout their journey to try to cope and recover from these hideous crimes. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues across Government, with the specialist support organisations that have helped to shape our victims strategy and with colleagues across the House on this agenda, to ensure that all victims of crime have access to the high-quality services that they need and deserve.

Victims of these most appalling crimes rely on all of us in the House, irrespective of whether we are in government or opposition and of whether we are a Front Bencher or Back Bencher, to represent their needs and to ensure that they receive the support to which they are entitled. It is a privilege to work with colleagues across Government and across the House. In this context, although she is not here given the nature of this debate, I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), with whom I work closely on these issues. She, too, is a doughty champion of victims of crime. We will continue to work to ensure that victims in Cleveland and in all areas of England and Wales are heard and supported.

In conclusion, I appreciate that the hon. Member for Redcar will be disappointed by the outcome of the process, but I again reiterate my commitment to continue working with her to ensure that her constituents get the services that they need. I again pay tribute to her dedication to her constituents in bringing forward this debate and thank her for doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.