Skip to main content

Violence against Women and Girls: Plymouth

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of violence against women and girls in Plymouth.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. 2021 was a tough year for the city of Plymouth. In August, a young man tragically took the lives of five people in Keyham, killing two women and a little girl, before turning the gun on himself. In November, 18-year-old Bobbi-Anne McLeod was abducted from a bus stop in Leigham and found several days later, close to a beach in my constituency, having been brutally murdered by a man. These horrific incidents compounded the sense of fear and concern among female residents of Plymouth, which was shared by many across the country after the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer in London, earlier in 2021.

As a result, it became clear that something needed to be done to tackle violence against women and girls in Plymouth, if the city was to feel safer and be safer. And so began a cross-party piece of work, which resulted in a groundbreaking report containing 15 recommendations. Recommendation No. 5 states that Plymouth should share its learning:

“Plymouth will share its story as widely as possible so others can learn from the experiences of people in the city and the work of the Commission. The Commission will call on local MPs to host a debate in Westminster on male violence against women and girls in Plymouth.”

That is why we are here today: to share the work of the Plymouth commission on violence against women and girls, and the ongoing work across the city to embed real change and make women and girls safer in our city.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) sends his apologies. He cannot be with us due to a long-standing commitment, but his work following the Keyham murders was exceptional. I am also expecting my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) to pop in later in the debate. His ministerial duties mean that he cannot say anything, but he is very supportive of the action we are taking today. We are all in this together. I also pay tribute to the leader of Plymouth City Council and the leader of the Plymouth Labour group for collaborating so closely on this project. They appointed a rising star of the council chamber, Councillor Rebecca Smith, to head up the commission. Months later, that appointment has proved to be well judged.

The first step on the commission journey was to host a question and answer event with groups already working on the issues of violence against women and girls in Plymouth, ranging from the police and the council to organisations such as Trevi and First Light, which work with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. It was important to start by more clearly sharing the existing work being done across the city. The online event was attended by over 120 people and gave a clear sense of the sort of questions that women wanted answers to, but also provided some of the topics that the commission would need to address—for example, the importance of working with young people to help to shift the culture of everyday sexism and misogyny that so many experience.

A group of experts from across the country were invited to join the commission to investigate the current situation in the city and make recommendations on how the city should tackle violence against women and girls. The commission was chaired by Councillor Rebecca Smith, with former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal OBE serving as an independent adviser. Just over 12 months ago, the commission met for the first time and set about gathering evidence to report on how Plymouth was tackling violence against women and girls, and to recommend what might be done to enhance existing work. The result was the “Male Violence Against Women and Girls Report”, with its 15 recommendations, which was published in May 2022 and is available online.

We believe that the commission and its report and recommendations are the first of their kind in the country. The commission heard over 40 hours of oral evidence, conducted a citywide survey completed by over 1,300 people, and received written evidence from a large number of sources. From the start of the work, it became clear that the elephant in the room is the fact that the violence against women and girls acronym, VAWG, unintentionally leaves out any mention of the perpetrators. The commission therefore deliberately referred to male violence against women and girls throughout its report, to make that point. Although it is important to acknowledge that not all sexual violence, domestic abuse or stalking is male on female, it clear from the data that the vast majority is. In 2019-20, 69.3% of domestic abuse victims in the city were female and 74.4% of suspects were male. Thus, the commission sought to keep this tragic reality central to its work and recommendations.

The report and recommendations focused on four key areas: the need for cultural change around language and behaviour; the need for better access to support for women and girls who are victims of male violence; the need to help women and girls across the city to feel safer by creating safe places and spaces; and the recognition that, in order to deliver the recommendations, the whole community needs to be involved. Let me deal briefly with each area in turn, beginning with cultural change.

How do we change our deeply entrenched culture, which is riddled with inappropriate male attitudes to women and girls? In particular, how do we do so when the internet has made access to degrading images of women a free-for-all, and on social media so-called influencers such as Andrew Tate, as well as men belonging to the incel mindset, continue to pour out their bile and disrespect on women and girls? A challenge indeed. But just because we are unlikely to solve the problem completely does not mean we should not try to make a real difference right here, right now. As the commission chair, Councillor Rebecca Smith, said, a key to success is the fact that the conversation has already started.

By shining a light on male violence against women and girls through the work of the commission, Plymouth has been able to highlight the issues that need to be fixed—those that are behind the closed doors of homes across the city, common in workplaces and social spaces, evident across internet usage, and too often commonplace among our young people. Honest conversations have begun, and need to continue, as the city explores what a world without male violence against women and girls looks like, and the steps needed to achieve it. An early example is the NSPCC’s series of five films, launched in December last year, that show an intergenerational approach to preventing violence against women and girls. Another example has been the start of a local group called M.A.N. Culture, which is described as a network to challenge lad culture and promote positive attitudes among men towards women and girls.

Cultural norms can be challenged and changed. When I was first elected 30 years ago, who would have thought that we would call each other out for having a couple of drinks in the pub and trying to drive home? Drink-driving was not seen as particularly wrong in those days, but public opinion turned, legislation followed, and once acceptable behaviour became all but obsolete. That is just one example that cultural shift is possible; and on male attitudes towards women and girls, the journey has begun.

The report’s second area of focus was better support. It recommended that

“Women and girls in Plymouth are supported and empowered to report violence and abuse”,

that they should

“get the support they need, at the right time and in the right place”

and that they should not have to share their story twice. Since 2018, Plymouth has been proactively addressing violence against women and girls through the city’s domestic abuse and sexual violence partnership. The city has been implementing Home Office guidelines: putting the victim at the centre of service delivery; having a clear focus on perpetrators in order to keep victims safe; taking a strategic and systemic approach to commissioning domestic abuse services; providing locally led services; raising awareness of issues; and involving, engaging and empowering communities to design and deliver solutions to prevent violence against women and girls.

Work was already being done across the city before the commission was set up. However, since the commission’s report, work to deliver the recommendations has accelerated. The Safer Plymouth partnership, supported by the domestic abuse and sexual violence partnership board, is providing the overall leadership and direction for the citywide deliver of the commission’s recommendations, and a new strategic lead has recently been appointed, bringing to the role 20 years of experience in the sector.

Since the launch of the VAWG report in May 2022, a programme of work has been set in train across the city. Moonstone is the name of the local police force’s new stand-alone domestic abuse team, which brings together expertise and focus on cases of domestic abuse. Gemstone is the name of the sexual offences team based in the city. Early indications are that this new focus is bringing about more effective pre-charge advice, improved outcomes, improved timeliness and improved responses to victims. It is significant that tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for our excellent Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez.

As one of 15 areas to attract Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and national lottery funding to deliver the changing futures programme, the city has been able to use the project to support the commission’s recommendations. Charities working with abuse victims have co-designed the violence against women and girls charter mark and helped to shape last November’s VAWG conference, both of which were recommended in the commission’s report but were enhanced by the approach of bringing in lived experience. The city’s specialist domestic abuse service is in the process of being re-procured—a timely activity, enabling the new service to be shaped to meet the commission’s recommendations. Much good work is under way following the commission’s report.

Thirdly, creating safe places and spaces also featured heavily in the commission’s list of recommendations. Although meeting the recommendations is obviously challenging, not least because one woman’s feeling of safety is not necessarily matched by her neighbour’s, it has been important to take action and do whatever is possible to ensure the streets of Plymouth feel safer. Funding has been secured to deliver help points at key locations for the night-time economy—essentially lamp posts with a camera installed in them. If someone feels unsafe for whatever reason, they can push the button and get connected to the CCTV team who can support them or provide help.

A night bus service has also been funded and is running each weekend over the winter to help those enjoying the night-time economy to get home safely. A mobile CCTV van providing a high visibility deterrent to tackle all forms of antisocial behaviour has been positioned to support the safety, both perceived and actual, of women and girls. It is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View joining us; he is very engaged with the whole situation.

The dynamic response project has been developed to make tactical and visible environmental improvements across the city, using referrals from the police or local councillors on behalf of residents to improve feelings of safety in hotspots. These might be simple changes such as trimming back trees to improve the lighting in dark walkways or improving the appearance of areas that have become rundown. The city is testing a single point of entry for children who require assessment, support and treatment for harmful sexual behaviour. All those measures are part of the work being done to ensure the city feels and is safer.

Finally, there is the recognition that this is an issue for us all—the whole community. Continuing to talk about and take action on violence against women and girls is crucial if Plymouth is to see the change it seeks. As a result, the city has set up a new VAWG communications working group to co-ordinate a citywide programme of activities, campaigns and events, including an annual conference, with the inaugural event held last November attracting over 200 attendees from businesses and organisations.

In addition, conversations are taking place with over 50 organisations across the city that have already signed a pledge to tackle VAWG, and to develop a violence against women and girls charter mark scheme and champions network by November 2023. As with any set of recommendations, setting up the framework for delivery is essential, and the new strategic lead is working with the domestic abuse and sexual violence partnership board to refresh the plan for the next 12 months to include the commission’s recommendations.

By setting out the work that has been done in the city since the publication of the commission’s report last year, I wanted to highlight how possible it is to tackle violence against women and girls across a city like Plymouth. Obviously, we have years of committed work ahead of us to see the cultural change we want and an end to violence against women and girls, but in Plymouth we have made a positive start. We cannot pretend it will be easy to set aside centuries of ingrained male attitudes and behaviour, but if we are to build a safer, better world for all women and children, it is essential that we commit to that task.

I will conclude by asking the Minister a few questions. I am sure she will set out how the Government have worked hard, which they have, to play their part in tackling violence against women and girls in recent years. Much of the work being done and facilitated in Plymouth has been impacted directly by Government policy and through funding made available for the work. For that we are grateful, which leads me nicely to my requests.

Additional central funding for frontline interventions would make a world of difference to our cause. Is the Minister aware that current Home Office funding is inaccessible to the majority of small local VAWG organisations in Devon and Cornwall because of the conditions attached? Could she kindly re-examine and consider that?

I have spoken about the ambition to see more work on prevention and systemic cultural change impacting all generations, and additional funding and focus are necessary to include work to change the behaviour and attitudes of men and boys. That would greatly help the city to deliver this vital work. I think we all agree that it is not all about funding; we also need to hear a clear and consistent voice on the issues from those people and institutions qualified to speak about the deeper causes of such attitudes and behaviour. I welcome the recent amendments to the Online Safety Bill that will ensure that we protect children from inappropriate sexual material online, because that is a key part of tackling violence against women and girls through culture change and education.

The commission launched its report at an event last summer attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), then a Home Office Minister, who gave a keynote speech that was extremely well received. All three city MPs were in attendance. We would like to invite the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), to visit Plymouth and see for herself the excellent work that we are undertaking. I congratulate the commission on its work and report, and look forward to supporting its leadership on this vital issue over the years ahead.

I do not wish to set a formal time limit, but speeches of around six minutes would allow everybody to have their full say.

It is, as ever, a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It is important for me to speak in a debate about an issue that impacts communities across the UK. It is not isolated to Plymouth or Pontypridd but impacts us all. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), and I congratulate him on securing this important and timely debate. Having spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), I know that violence against women and girls is a very active issue in Plymouth specifically, so it is important that we have time to debate the issue in detail.

I will keep my comments brief and fairly general, in the knowledge that much of what I say sadly applies, as I have said, to cities, towns and communities throughout the country and across the world, and is not limited to Plymouth. We all know that violence against women and girls can take many different forms, which can include, but are certainly not limited to, physical aggression, coercive control or harassment. In recent years, we have been reminded of the stark realities of what it is like to be a young woman in modern Britain. The stats speak for themselves: in 2019, the number of female homicide victims in England and Wales reached its highest levels since 2006—up 10% on the previous year.

But violence against women and girls is not just about murders or homicides; there are many more issues at play that have led us to the point where male violence against women and girls—as the hon. Member for South West Devon said, let us call it what it is—is too often treated as a societal issue that is a given rather than one that can actively be prevented. For example, there are significant issues with our criminal justice system, which has historically failed women and girls, as the Government have known for many years. I need only point colleagues to the brilliant Baroness Kennedy, who forensically examined the issue of discrimination in her incredible series of books “Eve Was Framed” and “Eve Was Shamed”.

Of course, many of the real problems around violence that women and girls experience every day on our streets, at home, online, at work and even in our schools never even make it to the police—let alone the court system. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on perpetrators of domestic abuse, it is clear to me that we need a long-term, whole-system response to ending violence against women that needs to provide justice and protection to survivors, deliver effective prevention, and tackle the societal attitudes, inequality and discrimination that underpin the abuse faced by women and girls.

That brings me to what I consider one of the most significant issues that underpins violence against women and girls more generally: misogyny. Colleagues may be aware that last week I had an Adjournment debate on the worrying rise of misogyny that many teachers are reporting among pupils in our schools. I think we all recognise that much of the misogyny is not new; perhaps there is scope for a separate debate on the history of sexism and misogyny, but that is certainly a matter for many other days.

Colleagues across the House have already made reference to, and must acknowledge, the role that social media plays in spreading misogyny online for all to see. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South West Devon about the prominent so-called influencer Andrew Tate. I have made my position on him very clear in previous comments. Having done so, I have now received a barrage of misogynistic, aggressive and sexist messages across a variety of platforms, but that will not deter me. In my role as shadow Minister for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we have recently concluded the Third Reading of the Online Safety Bill, which is a very important piece of legislation. Sadly, I, like the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Glitch the charity, believe that in its current form the Bill will fail to properly protect women and girls online. The systems and business models of many platforms often actively promote such controversial content, which gains significant views and therefore boosts their advertising revenue, but when it comes to keeping people safe now and in future generations, there must be a balance.

Something that I found particularly stark—I am sure this is the case in Plymouth and across the country—is the sheer number of young people I speak to when visiting schools in my constituency who aspire to be like those social media influencers. It is for that reason that we should not underestimate their influence on young people. As we know, the links between misogyny and more traditional forms of violence against women and girls are all too easy to see.

Ultimately, the Government have work to do to reassure young people, their parents, teachers and other trusted professionals that they are taking the issue seriously. While I proudly sat on the Domestic Abuse Public Bill Committee alongside the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), it feels as though that piece of legislation is failing to capture the broad range of harms, both obvious and more discreet, that are specific to women and girls. Part of the Government’s approach must be to consider the power and influence that the online sphere can have on the victims’ ability to seek help and in preventing perpetrators from being exposed to damaging material online, or directly fed it through dangerous algorithms. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that point. I hope she will feed back my comments to her colleagues in other Departments. Only with a cross-departmental approach will we truly go some way to tackle violence against women and girls at its root.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my longstanding friend, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), on securing this debate.

The abduction and murder of Bobbi-Anne McLeod in November 2021 brought the issue of violence against women and girls into focus in Plymouth and across Devon and Cornwall. No one can fail to be impacted by hearing about a woman who simply left home to catch a bus and was subjected to such savagery. That followed an incident only a few months earlier when a man driven by the poisonous ideology of the incel movement shot dead five people in Keyham.

Both incidents brought fear to the streets. They brought to the fore our need to tackle male violence against women and girls, not just in the city of my birth but across our country. I grew up in Plymouth. I was born in Freedom Fields hospital and I attended Hele’s School, first meeting a then councillor and newly selected parliamentary candidate, my hon. Friend, back in March 1992. It was painful to see my home town going through what happened in 2021. But for a short distance, it could have been my own family, who live there, who were affected by one of those incidents.

As a then Home Office Minister, I welcomed the way the city came together to console the bereaved, support the community and resolve to make a difference. It was particularly welcome to see the political unity in that work, which included the city council, the police and crime commissioner and the local Members of Parliament, irrespective of their political party.

As has been said, these issues are not unique to Plymouth. The poison that is the incel movement is infecting too many a mind on social media, and too many women in Torbay have a story of harassment or violence that they could share. That is why it was particularly welcome to see the work of the Plymouth violence against women and girls commission, ably and effectively chaired by Councillor Rebecca Smith, who is well known to many MPs across Devon as a champion of her community in Plymstock and for her work in tackling the issue. The commission produced a report following a process of listening to those affected by violence. Its conclusions represent a welcome list of actions that can be taken to tackle the challenge and make a difference to it. It will therefore particularly interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on them, and how they will be embedded as part of the long-term approach, especially the recommendations about a peninsula-wide domestic violence perpetrator strategy.

It is also important to reflect on the approach taken across Devon and Cornwall, which will affect outcomes in Plymouth. Our excellent local police and crime commissioner and Torbay resident, Alison Hernandez, had made tackling violence, including serious violence against women and girls, one of her four priorities in her policing plan. The £4 million serious violence prevention programme, which is part of that, is welcome, as is the investment in victim and perpetrator programmes.

I note that the investment package that the Home Office has provided as part of the £1.1 million safer streets package for Torquay includes a specific element for tackling violence against women and girls by making our town centre safer. That also works alongside community groups, such as Torbay Street Pastors, which specifically work to provide a safe place on the harbourside where people can go in the evenings to wait for a taxi or be picked up by parents, or if they are under the influence and just need somewhere to sit safely.

It is welcome to see some of the progress that has happened, such as the provision of independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers to support victims through the criminal justice system. All too often, offenders and perpetrators rely on the fact that people will not want to go through the whole process, so they can continue their pattern of offending, creating new victims. The events that prompted attention to the issue in Plymouth, along with Devon and Cornwall more widely, were tragic. They showed the outcomes that can happen when poisonous attitudes, such as those of incels, are able to spread and infect minds. Yet they also show the best of how a city and a community can come together and react to such horror by looking to support each other and vowing to make a difference for the future. The people of Plymouth are doing that, and they deserve all our support as they take the work forward.

I thank the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter)—the Member for Plymouth during the 1990s—for setting the scene so well and for leading the debate. It seems that all too often we hear stories in the news about violent, sexual or domestic attacks on women and girls. First of all, we are all here to support the hon. Gentleman. I know that I do not represent Plymouth, but I represent an area in Strangford, Northern Ireland that has, I am sorry to say, the worst levels of attacks on women and girls in all of the United Kingdom—they are horrendous. With great pain, I want to add my support on this issue.

I am of a generation—I suspect you are as well, Mr Pritchard, as well as the hon. Member for South West Devon. You are probably a couple of years younger than me, but I suspect not by very much. We were a generation that had the utmost respect for women. I am from a generation that would open a door for a lady, stand and let her pass by. I am from a generation that would give up a seat for a lady or girl. I am of a generation that respected ladies—that is just me, but I suspect there are many others from my generation who are the same. Social media, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) mentioned, has destroyed the attitude of some young people towards girls and ladies. I find it quite horrendous.

I understand the debate is centred around violence against women and girls in Plymouth, but I want to give the Northern Irish experience where it has proven to be extreme. In 2021, Northern Ireland was named the most dangerous place for women in Europe. Only Romania matches our grim toll across the whole of Europe of 0.43 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, which is three times that of England and Wales. Women and girls in Northern Ireland are disproportionately affected by violence, abuse and intimidation. From April 2021 to March 2022 in Northern Ireland, women made up 78% of all victims of sexual crimes—my goodness, these stats are terrible—68% of domestic abuse, 64% of harassment and 95% of stalking crimes. I know the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), will speak, and she will know the stats. It is no joy for me to stand here and say that.

Most notably and very recently, we have heard of the news of the murder of Natalie McNally. I give my sincere sympathies to the family for all they are going through. She was a 32-year-old woman from Lurgan who was 15 weeks pregnant with a baby boy. She was stabbed multiple times, losing her life and that of her unborn baby too, sadly, and still nobody has been charged with the murder. There are countless reports of women being abused, assaulted and murdered, and the volume of stories is just unheard of. I deal in my office with cases of domestic abuse every week—society seems to reflect that unfortunately—and we have to deal with cases of verbal and physical abuse as well. The hon. Member for South West Devon and the initiative he is taking in Plymouth are something to stand by.

I understand that organisations and charities in Plymouth have embarked on 16 days of activism to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women and girls, and that a new men’s group aims to ensure that boys and men play their part, too. How much do we need that work in society today, not just in Plymouth but everywhere? Such steps are crucial and they must be taken to give women a voice and reassure them that there is protection for them out there.

There has been a significant rise in the number of cases involving violence against women in the last few years. Historically, that has been because men feel—wrongly—that they can get away with these things, as women are not encouraged to report them. Everyone in this House, including those who are in Westminster Hall today, is here to speak up for women—for ladies—and for girls, and to make it very clear that there are not enough arrests or convictions. The figures are severely lacking.

I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for South West Devon for leading this very important and timely debate. I will take note of the initiative in Plymouth for us back home; it might be something that we can do with as well. I have hope that we, as policymakers in this place, can play our part to raise awareness of these crimes and do more to ensure that women and girls feel comfortable and reassured about coming forward. That is what I am about; I think that is what everybody here is about.

It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for securing the debate, which allows me to give my very strong opinions on this topic on behalf of my constituents in Redditch, as well—of course—to express my sympathy for the victims of the horrendous events in Plymouth. I served as a Minister in the Home Office shortly afterwards and it impacted many of us deeply to see the situation unfolding in Plymouth.

However, what is a real credit to the spirit of Plymouth is the way the city has come together and responded through the practical measures of the commission that my hon. Friend mentioned. Those practical measures are extremely encouraging and a great example for the rest of us across the rest of the country to follow to tackle this pervasive, absolutely pernicious and—sadly—endemic issue.

I would just like to ask the Home Office Minister who is in the Chamber today to respond to a few points. The Home Office has done an extremely good job in responding to the strategy to end violence against women and girls, but I think that we would all be interested to learn a bit more about some of the ongoing work, including how she is pushing it forward and how we can see the measures rolled out to protect more women and girls.

The first issue that I want to highlight is the importance of prevention. Of course we all know the emotional and psychological impacts of crimes of violence against women and girls on the victims. However, there is also the economic impact. Home Office statistics have set out that the costs of violence against women and girls are in the region of £66 billion for the whole economy, although those are quite old figures. I am sure that the Minister knows of more recent ones. It is absolutely vital that we tackle the issue for the sake of our entire economy.

Will the Minister update us on the work that she is leading on prevention? Specifically, I mean the domestic abuse prevention orders and the domestic abuse prevention notices; the electronic tagging, the provisions for which were introduced in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; the ongoing work on the register of perpetrators to ensure that we monitor and track perpetrators and keep women and girls safe; and any work that she is doing on the mixed picture on stalking prevention orders. We know that some areas are fantastic at rolling these orders out; others are not so good. Many stalkers are being missed and are slipping through the cracks, so we really need to ramp up this work and use these powers to keep these people monitored and keep their victims safe.

Secondly, there is the incel phenomenon. May I bring the House’s attention to the very good work of Laura Bates, who has sone extensive research on that topic? It is a relatively new subject—I say “new”, but I mean in terms of our understanding it and making policy about it. What should the policy response be? Is it right to look at it through the terrorism lens? Should we have a bespoke response? Of course, we know that it is proliferating online. The Online Safety Bill introduces a number of measures to strengthen the response of the online platforms, but is the Minister concerned about the phenomenon and, if she is, what more can she do from a policy perspective so that we really understand why these young men are being radicalised in this way and committing such horrendous acts?

Thirdly, we have done a fantastic job in the Home Office of kicking off the Enough public information campaign, which I know is having an impact across the country. Will the Minister update us on it? Does she plan to roll it out more widely? Does she plan to repeat it? Does she plan to roll out the campaign across the transport network, because we know a lot of crimes of violence against women and girls occur on buses and trains? Can she update us on the Home Office’s work on prevention and what works? We all want to prevent these crimes taking place.

We need to understand the psychology of perpetrators, who are mostly men, although some women commit such crimes. We know there are interventions that work and, thankfully, prevent lives being lost and trauma inflicted on women and girls. We need to understand that. If the interventions work, we need to roll them out widely, so that every area knows what to introduce and what is right for their area.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon set out some good interventions that are clearly working in his area, but we need to gather that data so that every single local authority has no excuse but to come to the Home Office and ask for funding if needed. That funding should be available so that local authorities can roll it out and know that it will make a difference.

Finally, will the Minister update us on the strategic policing requirement, which was a commitment that we in the Home Office made on the back of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022? A lot of work has gone on in the Home Office, and it is important to bring together strategic law enforcement at a national level, so that police forces are working and know what to do, so that we can tackle this and keep more women and girls safe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) on securing this important debate. The other person I would like to thank is Eva Woods, the youth MP for Peterborough. I thank her for briefing me fully on this issue and contributing to my speech.

As has been said by other hon. Members, violence against women and girls is not just limited to Plymouth, but it is inspiring to hear of the good work that is going on in Devon and Plymouth. It is inspiring me to think about what I can do in my city of Peterborough, working with Eva and others. Unfortunately, violence against women and girls is widespread across the country, and Peterborough is not immune.

Sexual harassment in schools and colleges was pointed out in the 2022 UK Youth Parliament elections as the top concern of Peterborough’s young people. Eva received the testimonies of women and girls in the constituency’s schools who, on a daily basis, received sexualised comments and contacts intended to humiliate, intimidate and control. Across the UK, controlling women through such behaviour is rife, and it is visible in Peterborough. One of the biggest employers of young people is the service industry, a sector in which an enormous proportion of the female staff report intimidation by customers and even employers.

In public spaces, including Central Park in my constituency, women and girls report feeling unwelcome and unsafe as soon as darkness falls. It is saddening that incident figures from the police do not always correspond to the levels of threat that constituents have reported directly to Eva. Frequently, victims do not even feel supported to report their experiences, through fear of seeing no consequences to their aggressor, or simply thinking that their experience of violence is so minor that it is not worth police time. We need an emergency response to sexual harassment in schools and places of education. It should be the duty of every Member to make clear that a culture of violence, intimidation and control of women is not tolerated in their constituencies.

The example of Plymouth has inspired me to do something similar in my city. In fact, I already have two councillors in mind, and I texted them during the debate to see whether they would get involved and chair a similar commission to the one in Plymouth. I know that those councillors, working with me and our youth MP, can make a real difference in a place such as Peterborough.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know we are quite tight for time. I want to show massive respect to the hon. Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) and all those who he represented who are working collaboratively in Plymouth. He said that doing that was one of the commission’s recommendations. I have to say, given the kind of reports that get written, it is a delight to hear in this building of a recommendation actually being fulfilled. It was good to hear that this place needed to be involved.

There are many brilliant organisations in Plymouth, but I want to pay specific tribute to one that I mention very regularly when I talk about violence against women and girls general: Trevi House, which is one of only two places in the entire country where women can go with their children into substance misuse rehabilitation. I cannot express how important it is that that exists. Indeed, it is to our country’s shame that there are really only two, or possibly three, places in the country where that is available, because it is hugely important to preventing what the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) talked about. I know that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and his wife are heavily involved with Trevi; Plymouth should be really proud of that jewel in the crown.

That said, in recent years we have obviously seen some devastating cases of violence. Others have talked about the heartbreaking murder of Bobbi-Anne, whose family described her as

“a beautiful girl who lit up our lives”

and whose death meant that their

“lives will never be the same”.

The inquest into the deaths of Stephen Washington, Kate Shepherd, Maxine Davison, Lee Martyn and three-year-old Sophie Martyn continues as we speak, so it would not be right to go into that too much. However, incel ideology—which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and others, including the hon. Member for South West Devon, who made a very strong and actually progressive case in that area—was undoubtedly involved in that particular case.

It is absolutely lovely to hear the fervour and the care that Plymouth has taken, but I am afraid to say that it will only ever be able to go so far on its own merit while it, like everywhere else in the country, relies on the infrastructure built for victims of violence—[Interruption.]

Order. There is a Division in the House, so I am suspending the sitting. There may be more than one vote. For the first vote we will suspend for a maximum of 15 minutes and then for 10 minutes thereafter, but I will continue once the mover of the motion and the two Front Benchers are here, so hon. Members should please be as quick as possible.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying, Plymouth, like other places in the country, relies on the national infrastructure.

I wish to ask the Government a few questions. Last year, the Government committed to making violence against women and girls a national policing priority, as the hon. Member for Redditch said, yet here we are, nine months later, and it has been reported that nothing has happened. Will the Government confirm that nine months after Ministers announced it, they have not yet made prioritising violence against women and girls a strategic policing requirement?

I could talk about what has happened in the past nine months, but I do not even need to stretch to then—I will just go back over the past few weeks. Yesterday, we heard that a man with a history of violence was able to sexually assault and murder law graduate Zara Aleena after mistakes were made by probation staff. The chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, found that McSweeney had been wrongly assessed as medium risk by staff who were under “mounting pressure”. Mr Russell claimed:

“In this particular case we found a very heavily overloaded senior probation officer supervising a probation officer who had 50% more workload than they should have had.”

I could go on. This week, the latest domestic abuse stats from the Crown Prosecution Service show a crisis once more, I am afraid to say. From 2022, prosecutions are down 9.6%, while convictions are down 9%. Convictions in the latest quarter were just 9,587; in the same quarter in 2019, there were 12,467 convictions. That is a 23% fall. In 2019, there were 16,257 completed prosecutions; today, that figure is 12,672. That is down 22%. Those disgracefully low statistics demonstrate the Government’s failure to act, meaning that victims are kept in danger and perpetrators are left in our communities, in our homes and on our streets.

I am sure we will all have seen the media reports about the police over the past few weeks. The Met alone is investigating 1,000 domestic or sexual abuse claims involving 800 of its officers. Last year, the Centre for Women’s Justice super-complaint against the Met found significant inconsistencies in how cases of domestic abuse perpetrated by police were dealt with. The Home Office is responsible for the police. That is where the buck stops. Why are police officers accused of rape or domestic abuse not immediately suspended, as Labour is urging for? The public are astounded that this is not the case already.

Where is the promised domestic homicide sentencing review of the deaths of women, like the women killed in Plymouth? We are a year in the waiting. Where is the harms report from the family court review? Again, we are more than two years in the waiting. Where is the perpetrator strategy? Charge rates for rape have dropped to a shameful 1.5%—a drop of two thirds over the past seven years. Where is the action?

Plymouth has shown grit and joined-up thinking. I would like to see the same from this place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) for bringing forward this debate on such an important issue, for highlighting the work of the Plymouth Violence Against Women and Girls Commission and for sharing the learning of the commission, to which I pay tribute for its work. I also thank those who made considerable journeys to come here, such as Councillor Rebecca Smith and Eva Woods, who has come from Peterborough. Much work is done on a community level, and that is very much how this issue will move forward.

Work in this sphere starts at the community and is also led at a national level. There is personal responsibility, too. It is only with all the sectors working together that fundamental change will be achieved. It is not just from the centre down; the things that work work with the community and individuals grappling those issues. I pay tribute to those locally elected people and those working very hard in Plymouth, as well as the Members who have always worked very hard in this place.

I reiterate at the outset how important tackling violence against women and girls is to me and to this Government. Indeed, the Prime Minister made that clear in his new year speech this month. We need a change of culture, and that is what this Government are doing. Successive Governments have failed to grip the issue, and I am pleased that this Government are gripping it.

The David Carrick case has underscored yet again why this work is critical. It is a horrific set of circumstances. It is tragic and dreadful, but I welcome the opportunity to use it to move forward. I echo the Home Secretary’s words of tribute to victims for their extraordinary strength and courage in coming forward. We must not only deal with perpetrators but encourage victims and survivors to come forward—with an onus on the perpetrators, but listening to the victims. For the victims to have suffered as they did at the hands of a police officer is almost unthinkable, and my thoughts are with them.

I express my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Bobbi-Anne McLeod, whose life was so tragically cut short. What happened has understandably shocked us all, but particularly those in the community of Plymouth. It is shocking to the core. Whether in Plymouth or anywhere else around the country, we must use every tool at our disposal to ensure that law-abiding people can feel safe both inside and outside the home. That is a major priority for me and the Government as a whole.

Several Members raised the Keyham shooting. The inquest into those tragic events began just last week, so it is inappropriate for me to say anything other than that my thoughts and deepest sympathies remain with everyone involved in that matter.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon for bringing forward the debate and to all those people who have worked alongside him on this quite lengthy journey. It is a good cross-party piece of work, and change in society works only if it is from the grassroots up. It is encouraging to see cross-party work at that level. The words that resonated with me were:

“We are all in this together.”

Those were well-thought words, and I thank him for them.

The Trevi organisation and First Light were also mentioned. In my previous job, I had dealings with Trevi, and I travelled down to visit the area. I have always been immensely impressed with the organisation. It is just the sort of organisation that needs support. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), speaking for the Opposition, also rightly raised it. I pay tribute to it for its work.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon was absolutely right that we need cultural change. These issues are deeply rooted in our society. We also need better support. The recommendations of the commission rang very true. The work of the Safer Plymouth Partnership, Moonstone and Operation Gemstone are all important, and I pay tribute to them for their work. It is an issue for us all—that is quite right. The violence against women and girls strategy and the domestic abuse work are fundamental, and I am pleased that more than 50 organisations around the city are delivering work on the issue.

My hon. Friend asked about additional funding and concerns that small groups are finding it difficult to access funds. That is exactly why the Home Office, with a lot of careful thought, is providing for consortia applications, so that those with expertise can assist those with lesser expertise to move in the right direction to secure funding. We need cultural change, as the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) reflected.

In relation to understanding why these things happen, the Home Office has undertaken a lot of research. In relation to the amount of research generally that is engaged, I am genuinely flabbergasted at the effort, expense and thought that has gone into policy making in the Department. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch has witnessed that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon said, we need to be a clear voice talking to the deeper causes of what happened. The Online Safety Bill will be amended in the Lords to reflect even greater concerns than when it first appeared before the House of Commons Chamber. The amendment will further strengthen it. It is a seminal piece of legislation and I am proud that it is this Government that is bringing it through. I do not accept the narrative that it is in any way inadequate. Legislation in this place rightly evolves and moves forward. That is why we have the House of Lords and the amendment process.

I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) for her contribution. She mentioned physical violence and coercive control, and that is at the heart of her work as chair of the APPG on perpetrators of domestic abuse. The Government are rightly shifting their focus to perpetrators, and a lot of money is being spent by the police as well as with stakeholders to ensure that work bears fruit. Historically, there has been an emphasis on the victim. We know that from offences such as rape and all forms of violence against women and girls, and against men. We want to shift the focus from victims to perpetrators. We must change societal attitudes and stop misogyny. I agree with her on that, but I do think that the Online Safety Bill is groundbreaking and will be improved.

This Government introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which the hon. Lady mentioned. I do not accept that it has failed to catch online harms. There will be a focus on using industry to assist in this policy area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) made a valuable contribution. The death of Bobbi-Anne McLeod was fundamental in bringing about local change. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interventions; he mentioned the local police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, and the work that she does. The work done in the south-west on Operation Soteria has been groundbreaking. All these things come together. There will be a moment when there will be change and I think Plymouth is fundamental to that change.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the dreadful situation in a part of our country and a part of the Union, Northern Ireland, and the very sad case of the lady who was attacked when pregnant, resulting in her death and the death of her unborn child. That is tragic. That is why we need a strong process in relation to violence against women and girls.

I do not need to go back to the great work that my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch did when she was in the job that I now have. She raised some important questions and wanted answers to them. In relation to the register, we are looking at the options. In relation to the specialist orders—the domestic abuse protection orders—we are continuing to work very hard in policy development. I have witnessed that for myself. We are finalising pilot sites, so there is progress in this policy area.

In relation to prevention, my hon. Friend is bang on—to use a colloquialism. The new statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education is being changed and improved, and my personal view is that there needs to be better training and better education. If we want to change things, we have to get people while they are young, thinking about life and growing up, so I would like to see more work in that space. That is being done with the guidance to be taught in schools.

On transport champions, which several Members mentioned, I recently had the opportunity to speak to the British Transport police. We have appointed transport champions, who have given a set of recommendations that the Government are considering.

As the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) asked, what is happening with the strategic policing requirement? I note that the Minister has not answered that question, which both I and the hon. Member for Redditch asked.

That is being actively worked on. Violence against women and girls will be added in due course, and if I have anything to do with it, it will be sooner rather than later. It was on my list of questions to get to.

I want to try to mention everyone, because everyone who has contributed to the debate has worked hard in the subject area and I want to acknowledge them all. When there is cross-party work, things really work.

Why do young men become radicalised? I suggest that one of the items in that complex picture is the platform that the internet has given young men to express their feelings without having to go out to meet people. There are lots of psychological reasons for that, and research is being commissioned.

I mentioned the strategic policing requirement, in respect of which a lot of work is being done. The police have to be part of this story, so I am pleased with the work of Maggie Blyth in progressing us forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), and Eva Woods as the Member of Youth Parliament for Peterborough, are very much an illustration of how this work can multiply across the whole nation. The Government can do their best to steer changes and pass laws, but fundamental change comes from individuals and communities. I am proud of the work that my hon. Friend is doing in Peterborough.

The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, has worked very hard on this issue. She rightly talked about the work of Trevi House and said that it is lovely to hear what Plymouth is doing, and I could not agree more. Statistics for convictions are simply not good enough. Successive Governments have had difficulties, and I support the work of the deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to create movement in this policy area. The increase in police officers is a start, but we need the whole culture to change.

I would say much more if I had time, but let me say that the Government do not lack any commitment on this issue. We are committed to tackling violence against women and girls—and boys—which is why we published the cross-Government strategy on tackling violence against women and girls in 2021. It must not be forgotten that £230 million is being spent on the tackling domestic abuse plan, which we published last year. That is groundbreaking, and more than any previous Government have spent. We have made significant progress in pushing out a variety of ways to spend that money. Just one example is the “Enough” communications campaign. It was groundbreaking: almost half a million people engaged with it. It shows a need for change, and that change will happen.

To sum up, much work is being done in Plymouth. The Government are supporting that work by awarding significant amounts of money to the Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner. Through the police uplift programme, Devon and Cornwall police have an additional 313 officers. The University of Plymouth has been awarded £670,000 for direct work to make the streets safe. There are now local CCTV vans. There is local educational provision and training, and there is the “safe spaces Plymouth” initiative. I could say much more if I had time. In general, the Government and I are committed. I thank every person who contributed to the debate.

I thank the Minister for her response and thank everyone who contributed to the debate. It is worth sharing that when the three local Members of Parliament had a briefing—which was done individually by Zoom—on the killing of Bobbi-Anne McLeod, after 15 minutes I had to ask the police officers to stop. I just could not take any more. Maybe it is because I am a grandfather of two beautiful girls; I do not know, but that is what we are talking about here. We are talking about a beautiful young life, snatched away by someone who was influenced by the internet.

There is no politics in this: we are all in this together. I am so pleased that Plymouth has put in place the commissioner and is leading the way. I hope that other parts of the country will follow. I will say one thing to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who we are so fond of. He said that perhaps attitudes 30 or 40 years ago among our generation—we are the same age, more or less—were different. I am not sure about that. We are the Jimmy Savile generation. We are the Rolf Harris generation. So much was hidden. At least now it is out in the open, but we still have to deal with it. We have a long journey ahead, so we just have to commit ourselves to this task.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of violence against women and girls in Plymouth.

Sitting adjourned.