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Violence Against Women and Girls

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

6. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls in (a) Newport West constituency and (b) Wales. (906199)

20. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls. (906214)

The Government set out in the summer their ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy to fundamentally change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime and relentlessly pursue perpetrators. This focus includes plans to roll out to all Crown courts pre-recorded cross-examination for complainants of sexual and modern slavery offences, and giving victims of domestic abuse more time to report incidents of common assault. Last month, we launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 helpline for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Last week, I met Cyfannol Women’s Aid Newport, whom I thank for all the work they do to keep women and girls in my community safe and supported. Labour has published a full Green Paper with serious and common-sense measures to end violence against women and girls. Will the Minister now commit to working with the Labour party to implement those important and long overdue proposals? After all, this is a matter of life and death.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. I note that throughout the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, I was delighted to work with colleagues across the House. I think we all recognise the vital importance of that legislation brought forward by the Government. I am particularly pleased that we are helping the police and crime commissioner in Gwent to support victims in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere in the police area. There is more than £6 million to help victims across Wales. We are absolutely determined to tackle violence against women and girls in a way that looks after victims, but also, importantly, changes some of the behaviours and attitudes that sadly lie behind so many of these crimes.

The backlog of court cases means that victims of rape are facing years fighting for justice. Rapists are walking free because victims are dropping court cases due to the trauma caused by delays. Will the Minister carry out an immediate review into setting up specialist rape courts, as recommended by the joint inspectorates, so that justice can be done and the public, including my constituents in Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield, can be kept safe?

I do hope the hon. Gentleman in his, I imagine, copious free time now that he has crossed the Floor, is able to read the rape review, because had he done his homework he would have seen the forensic examination we have conducted of the investigation and prosecution of offences of rape. We have seen tentative first steps toward increases in convictions for rape, but we are clear that through the rape review and working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims, we will make progress. I very much hope he will support the Government in our measures to do so.

After women spoke out about feeling exposed to physical aggression and sexual harassment when travelling on our regional north-east public transport system, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, launched the free Safer Transport Northumbria app, which takes people through a series of simple steps that allows them to raise safety concerns and report crimes. Does the Minister agree that that is a brilliant initiative from our Northumbria PCC, and will she commit to providing more funding for our region to tackle violence against women and girls?

I welcome local initiatives such as the one that the hon. Member describes. I hope that she also welcomes the national efforts that we set out in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, particularly on public transport, because we know that that can be a place of harassment and very unwelcome behaviour by perpetrators. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who led a campaign to outlaw cyber-flashing. I trust that when provisions to outlaw that crime on public transport and elsewhere are introduced in the Online Safety Bill, they will have the hon. Lady’s support.

I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday. In June, after three years’ work, the Law Commission will publish recommended changes to the criminal law to stop the publication of intimate sexual images online without consent, which is one of the worst forms of violence against women and girls. Will the Minister include those changes in the Online Safety Bill through Government amendments before it reaches the Lords, or will she look for others to do that on her behalf?

I thank my right hon. Friend; I can think of no better way in which to celebrate one’s birthday than by receiving questions from her.

We absolutely understand that the law must keep pace with society, which is why we are taking action to address some of these 21st-century crimes, such as cyber-flashing, and making efforts in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to tackle breastfeeding voyeurism and to extend the so-called revenge porn offence to include those who threaten to post or disclose such images. We have asked the Law Commission to advise us on that very complicated area of law. We await the results of that advice in the summer and we will look carefully at implementing or acknowledging any such changes that the commission may advise.

Ministry of Justice figures show that between 2015 and 2020, 17% of rapists sent to prison received sentences of less than five years. Does the Minister agree that that is incredibly lenient for one of the worst crimes? Will she back Labour’s call for minimum sentences of seven years for rape, or will the Government continue to be tough on victims and soft on crime?

I know that the hon. Lady and I share a determination to crack down on the perpetrators of vile crimes. It is with some regret, therefore, that I note that the Labour party declined the opportunity to support the Government on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, in which we require serious sexual and violent offenders to spend more time in prison when they receive sentences of between four and seven years. I also gently remind her that the average sentence for rapists is around 10 years, so rather than putting different proposals forward, it would be very nice if Labour Members supported the Government’s real-time work to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison.

That is precisely what Labour’s proposals would have achieved. The Government are not just letting victims down on sentences for rape; the Government have failed to act despite Labour’s call for a review into sentences for spiking offences and the introduction of minimum sentences for stalking. The Minister has an opportunity to show that the Government are serious about tackling violence against women and girls by backing Labour’s proposals. Will she do that today?

Forgive me, but the hon. Lady seems to have misunderstood how legislation happens in this place. Labour Members had the chance to vote for rapists to spend longer in prison through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they did not just abstain, but voted against that. I entreat the Labour party to consider acting and putting real pressure behind their warm words and to stand with the Government to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison. That is what the Government are doing, and we will achieve that through the good work of Conservative colleagues.