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Domestic Abuse: Protection of Victims

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2020


Asked by

My Lords, the Government provide funding to domestic abuse organisations, helplines and specialist services at national and local levels, and have introduced measures to tackle abuses such as forced marriage and FGM. We are committed to further strengthening victim protections through the Domestic Abuse Bill. We have also allocated £27 million of Covid-related funding to domestic abuse services and launched the #YouAreNotAlone campaign to signpost people to support.

During the present Covid crisis, domestic abuse is, sadly, increasing in the UK. Can my noble friend confirm that, in their approach to those who may suffer domestic abuse, the Government will ensure that recognition and support are afforded to men as well as women and children as well as adults, and that they understand that abuse may be as much economic or psychological as physical in nature?

I agree with all my noble friend’s points. Children are included in the definition due to the effects domestic abuse has on them, potentially for the rest of their lives. He is right about the economic aspect; coercive control is a very efficient way in which abusers control their victims.

My Lords, I add my voice to the concerns raised by many others in this House about how migrant women will be affected by the Domestic Abuse Bill. I thank the Government for their £1.5 million commitment to support research into the particular needs of this vulnerable group, but how many women is the scheme expected to support and what specific questions will the pilot be seeking to answer?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that point. The first thing to be clear about is the principle that all victims of domestic abuse must be treated as victims first and foremost, whether they are migrant victims or not. I do not have the numbers before me, but the pilot will make it clear how many people we are talking about and where some of the gaps in provision might be.

My Lords, last summer, the Home Office began a review of the effectiveness of Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, headed:

“Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.”

Can the Minister tell me when it will be published?

I thank my noble friend for that question. Coercive control is something that until relatively recently had not been identified as domestic abuse, but it is. Just because something does not involve hitting or physically hurting somebody else does not mean it is not as bad as other types of domestic abuse. I am pleased to be able to tell my noble friend that it remains our intention to publish this to inform the Lords stages of the Domestic Abuse Bill.

My Lords, the main way in which child abuse is discovered is either through teachers or social workers, yet throughout most of this year, children have not been in school, and due to social distancing, a lot of social workers have not been able to visit homes. There are also many kids who are still not back at school for all sorts of reasons, and according to various charities I have spoken to, there is a kind of hidden time bomb out there. I know this is very difficult, but I wanted to know whether the Government are aware of this, what they are doing and whether extra resources are being put in to take care of this unbelievably vulnerable small group, which is truly isolated and alone.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right; these children are truly isolated and alone. That has been especially true during lockdown, when we provided funding for the NSPCC. We were aware before lockdown of these children being in a vulnerable position and saw it as one of our priorities, together with domestic violence. One of the reasons, besides lots of others, to get children back to school was for their well-being to be looked after.

My Lords, the pandemic has exposed the shocking extent of domestic abuse in our society, with many more women being subjected to domestic abuse, along with children, and many more driven into sexual exploitation for survival. We have a new Bill coming to the House, which we welcome, but what we have learned must be incorporated into that Bill. Will the Minister meet with myself and others before it is introduced here so we can make sure that amendments brought forward will strengthen the Bill, get government support and enable us to find ways of protecting the most vulnerable women and give them some hope?

[Inaudible] started that engagement as the noble Baroness will probably be aware. I am pleased to say I will be happy to meet her. The Domestic Abuse Bill is just the start of the process of dealing with victims of domestic abuse. Members of your Lordships’ House will want to discuss many other things, and I would like for us, in order to get the Bill through, to be very focused on what we seek from it.

My Lords, I would like to press the Minister a bit further on the issue of children witnessing domestic abuse in the home. Women’s Aid has some stark figures: 53% said their children had seen more abuse, during lockdown, in the home, and a third said the abuser had shown an increase in abusive behaviour towards the children. She mentioned some statistics and information about the NSPCC. The impact on the mental health on children is paramount, yet child and adolescent mental health services still have waiting lists of three to six months, even for an assessment. What additional resources will go into supporting families? Children need mental health services as well as the other support services she mentioned.

I do not think anyone in the House would disagree with the noble Baroness that some children have probably experienced terrible things during lockdown, with not only their parents being victims of domestic violence but themselves too. Even if a child sees domestic violence going on, they are a victim, and that is why we have included it in the definition of a victim of domestic abuse. One of the key functions of the domestic abuse commissioner will be to encourage good practice in the identification of children affected by such abuse and the provision of protection and support to people, including children, affected by domestic abuse.

My Lords, the Domestic Abuse Bill, as currently drafted, places an important duty on local authorities in England to deliver support for victims who are in accommodation-based services such as a refuge. But 70% of victims of domestic abuse, specifically children, suffer at home, not in a refuge. How can we avoid creating a two-tier system whereby 70% of the victims of domestic abuse, including those children, will not be able to access this support because, sadly, they suffer at home?

The idea is that they will be able to access the support—it would be a terrible thing if, say, the mother of the child was getting the support and the children simply were not. Part and parcel of the support that people will receive includes of course the children of people who are being abused.

My Lords, how will the Government ensure that Refuge and other providers which choose to prioritise the well-being of women by applying single-sex exemptions are not penalised through contracts awarded by local authorities, CCGs and PCNs, many of which have misinterpreted the Equality Act by making gender-neutral or trans-inclusive provision for members of the opposite sex a condition of contracts? Will the Minister agree to a meeting with me and others to discuss the current guidance on this issue?

What is important is that local providers of accommodation-based services are the people who are best placed to do the risk assessment when people are going into their accommodation. It has become a very volatile conversation and I would be very pleased, at a slow time, to have a conversation with the noble Lord on this issue.