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UK: Violence Against Women and Girls

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 29 June 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

My Lords, for health reasons my noble friend Lady Drake cannot be here today. She has asked me to deliver on her behalf what she wishes to be said in opening this debate, and I share her views.

The UK Government have labelled violence against women and girls as a national threat. The prevalence of violence against women and girls in the UK is not only unacceptable but frightening. Such violence covers a depressingly long roll-call of crime types, including domestic abuse, stalking and harassment, modern slavery and human trafficking, rape and sexual offences—which show a particularly large increase—spiking, child sex abuse and exploitation, female genital mutilation, adult sexual exploitation and so-called honour-based abuse. The exponential advancement of technology has fuelled the opportunities for sexual harassment and abuse. Such violence accounts for at least 15.8% of all recorded crime. Domestic abuse makes up a third of violence recorded by the police. In the six months from October 2021 to March 2022, at least 507,827 offences against women and girls were recorded. That equates to two crimes per minute.

Even these figures are an understatement. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s first strategic threat and risk assessment of such violence confirms that many crimes remain hidden. Victims do not report them. ONS data reveal that only one in four women who are victims of rape or penetration before the age of 16 told someone about the abuse at the time. More than half give “embarrassment” as a reason. Just under half thought that no one would believe them. Some 1.7 million women aged 16 and over experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2022, and while 81% of female victims of partner abuse told someone, mostly a friend or relative, only 18% contacted the police. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 5,395 women and girls attending a hospital or a GP had FGM identified.

The impact of violence extends to experience of the criminal justice system. Women from minoritised groups and immigrant women are particularly fearful of engaging with the police. Victims’ experience in the court process too often serves to enhance the impact of the violence. Public trust in policing has eroded over recent years. A series of high-profile public cases has clearly affected women’s confidence in how policing responds to crimes affecting women and girls. The impact of the violence is complex and long lasting. Girls who experience abuse before they are 16 are much more likely to experience abuse later in life.

Sadly, the burden of harassment and abuse on girls from a young age has for a long time been invisible. The Children’s Commissioner recently surveyed more than half a million children in the “Big Ask”. Young girls wrote about feeling unsafe and intimidated in public spaces. It is a compelling read and reveals a deeply disturbing reality for our children. It describes a society that downplays and accepts harassment as a norm and leaves perpetrators unpunished.

I will take noble Lords to that reality through the girls’ own voices. A girl of 16 said:

“There’s no safety for young people: harassment and crime, no-one feels safe, girls in uniform get catcalled by creeps … We deserve better. We deserve for things to change”.

Girls as young as 11 feel responsible for their own protection strategies, avoiding certain areas or routes home, or planning escape or self-defence. One girl of 11 wrote:

“I think that lots of girls are afraid of things that will happen to them. For example, harassment or assault … most girls my age (including me) do not know what to do when this happens. I think we should be taught what to do, like a form of self-defence. This is very important to me”.

Another little girl of 11 said:

“The fact that girls all over the country have to always have an airpod out to listen for danger, to carry self defence skills, to always go home with friends, to wear trainers more often to run away from trouble. Girls are constantly thinking of this at school and it frightens us”.

Boys and girls are increasingly exposed to pornography from a young age, which is normalising violence against women and girls and warping young people’s perceptions of what healthy sexual relationships are. Reports by the Children’s Commissioner, including Evidence on Pornography’s Influence on Harmful Sexual Behaviour Among Children, vividly capture these voices. A girl of 18 who first saw pornography aged 11 said that it had

“affected me in my adult relationships and my body image and how my sex life is currently”.

A 19 year-old girl who first saw pornography at the age of 10 said:

“You see a lot of stuff like barely legal teens on porn sites and it’s not nice. They want us to act like porn models but we can’t change who we are, what we like, what we are afraid of”.

Pornography depicts sex as a transactional, one-way interaction in which women perform as objects for male gratification.

The survey also captured boys’ views. A boy of 18 who first saw pornography at the age of 13 said:

“Males can be led to believe women are purely for sex”.

A boy of 18 who first saw pornography at the age of 12 wrote:

“Many heterosexual men grow up to have certain expectations of how to treat women when having sex, and in general. A lot of that is actually just abuse”.

The reports find a link between specific acts of sexual violence commonly seen in pornography and those reported in official documents on the investigation of children who have abused other children.

Building on this research, the commissioner has been speaking with girl victims of peer-on-peer abuse about the impact of pornography. Key things emerged. One was toxic relationships: “He would just lose it quite a lot, and he could be quite violent”. Another was negative role models for boys: “I got catcalled by this guy, and I remember telling the boy I was with and he was like, ‘Yeah, like, that’s funny, me and my dad do that’”. There was the sharing of intimate child abuse images—“My friend said, ‘Basically, he’s filmed like you’re having sex with him and he’s been showing everyone at school’”—and rape and sexual assault: “He came round and it was all fine, and then it just got a bit not fine very quickly”.

Girls often do not tell. They often believe that they will get a poor response from professionals and adults. Reporting a crime to the police can be as traumatic as the event itself. To share one abused girl’s advice to her abused friend: “I don’t even want to turn round and go, ‘Go to the police, get justice’, because it’s not going to make her feel any better. I think if I could do it again I wouldn’t, because I’d get over the abuse much faster. I only reported it because I wanted the perpetrator to not do it again”. The court process is not always child-centred and trauma-informed. One victim of peer-on-peer abuse observed that it feels like punishment for the victim.

These experiences are confirmed by recent Girlguiding attitudes surveys, which show that 53% of 11 to 21 year-old females do not feel safe when they are outside on their own, 79% have experienced online harms and 67% of 13 to 18 year-old girls experience sexual harassment at school. The 2021 Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges found that nearly 90% of girls and 50% of boys said that being sent explicit pictures or videos of things that they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers. Sexual harassment of children is commonplace. The frequency of harmful sexual behaviours means that some children consider them as normal.

By failing to protect our girls from the increasing prevalence of violence, we continue to fuel the level of violence and harassment experienced by women in our country. I have focused on children’s experiences because they highlight for us all the appalling and fundamental challenges they face and what that bodes for the future, However, I want to end by briefly reminding the House of some statistics. Two women are killed by partners or ex-partners every week. Rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low. One rape per school day is reported as taking place on school premises. The Crime Survey estimates that approximately 1.7 million women over 16 experienced domestic violence last year. The position of women from minority groups is even more precarious; they have no recourse to public funds, which is a significant barrier to accessing support, including safe accommodation such as a refuge. Too few women experiencing domestic abuse can find a safe home with the support that they need to rebuild their lives.

There is so much more that we need to do, and some things will of course take time, but I want to make some proposals to the Minister for immediate action. Will he strengthen the Online Safety Bill to ensure that all platforms and service providers, including user sites and pornography providers, are subject to stringent requirements to protect children and women from online pornography? Will he strengthen the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure that every child victim is entitled to support, including specialist advocacy, if they are a victim of sexual abuse? Will he ensure that the code of practice sets guidance on how children’s rights will be met? Will he ensure that training in relationship, sex and health education teaching in schools takes a “safeguarding first” approach? Teachers should receive training on delivering sensitive topics, including pornography. Will he fund vital community-based domestic abuse services? Will he take immediate steps to rebuild women’s and girls’ confidence in our police and criminal justice system? These proposals are only a start but urgent action is needed now if women and girls are to be free to live and thrive in Britain today. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the speech of the noble Baroness, but how depressing to hear that this is the world in which girls and boys are being brought up. I really hope that we can do more and better to address these issues. I would like to focus on two areas: the situation of migrant victims of domestic abuse and the experience of survivors of domestic abuse in family courts.

We know that migration status is weaponised by abusers. Eleven years after signing and ratifying the Istanbul convention on preventing violence against women, we are still waiting for the Government to sign up to Article 59 of that convention—they have refused—which grants protection to survivors of domestic abuse or forced marriage whose residency status is dependent on their abuser.

Last year, in response to a Written Question, my noble friend Lady Williams, then a Home Office Minister, wrote that the reservation on Article 59 was

“pending the results and evaluation of the Support for Migrant Victims”

pilot scheme, and that the Government would decide what to do about supporting these very vulnerable survivors of abuse, and about the reservation, “as soon as possible” once it was concluded. The scheme, which was offered by the Government as the answer to all our concerns about support for migrant women while we debated the Domestic Abuse Bill, was originally due to be concluded last summer but has now been extended. Can my noble friend the Minister update us on when the Government intend to publish the evaluation of the first year of the scheme, and tell us what the timetable is for moving beyond that pilot to comprehensive support for migrant victims of domestic abuse and ratifying Article 59?

Turning to family courts, I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Bellamy, who wrote to me last month with an update on the implementation of the Ministry of Justice’s 2020 expert panel report, Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases. He highlighted the success of the integrated domestic abuse court pilot scheme, which shows that a more humane and efficient court system is possible. I urge the Government to roll this model out across the country. When that happens, it will be important to ensure that it receives the funding and institutional backing necessary, so that it can continue to be a success.

In the meantime, anecdotal evidence suggests that women continue to have their children taken away from them on the basis of so-called expert opinion, given by unregulated witnesses who would not be allowed to make formal diagnoses in any other setting. It would be helpful if the Government could publish data on how many children are removed from parental care by the family courts in private law proceedings and in how many of these cases domestic abuse has been experienced by a parent and parental alienation has been alleged by the abusive parent.

Greater transparency over judicial training on domestic abuse is crucial. Without clear information on what training is provided and who is providing it, we are not able to scrutinise the basis on which judges are making decisions. During the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act the then Minister, my noble friend Lord Wolfson, assured me that he would continue to raise this in his meetings with the senior judiciary. Can the Minister tell the House today if judiciary training on domestic abuse remains on the agenda for ministerial meetings with the senior judiciary? I respect the impartiality principle of the judiciary’s independence, but perhaps Ministers could encourage the Judicial College to be more open about what training is being provided.

Finally, I am concerned about a Ministry of Justice consultation on making mediation mandatory in domestic abuse cases. This gives the abuser a platform from which to continue their abuse. I strongly urge the Government to preserve the existing exemption from mandatory mediation for survivors of domestic abuse.

There are many who are stepping up to deal with—

Given the organisations which are stepping up to address this issue, would it not be better if we could resolve it at the source and protect survivors, while preventing inappropriate child removals?

I thank my noble friend Lady Warwick for taking this debate on behalf of my noble friend Lady Drake, who I trust will be back in good health very soon. How many times has this House debated this topic? It has been many, many times. Have things improved? It does not seem like they have. The statistics on violence against women and girls show that this is still a very big problem.

There are now many laws by which perpetrators can be brought to justice. Research conducted by the UK’s Office for National Statistics—the ONS—found that violence against women and girls can have significant and long-lasting impacts, such as mental health issues and homelessness. We have already talked about rape convictions, but the highest ever number of rapes within a 12-month period was recorded by police in the year ending September 2022: the figure was 70,633. In that same period, charges were brought in just 2,616 rape cases, so the truth is that women in Britain today who are raped have little chance of seeing justice.

I want to highlight in this debate violence and abuse against older women. In doing so, I declare an interest, as I am a patron of the charity Hourglass, which campaigns for, and on behalf of, older people who are victims of domestic violence and abuse. Is the Minister aware of the excellent work that the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales is undertaking on the matter of domestic abuse against older people? This is a serious and concerning matter, and the commissioner offers advice and support in a very practical manner. Older people in Wales are fortunate in having a commissioner. It is a shame that older people in England are denied such a commissioner by this UK Government.

Domestic abuse and violence against older women is rarely spoken about—it is just hidden away—and Hourglass is working hard in the four nations of the UK to highlight this problem. Until recently, data on domestic abuse was collected only on women aged up to 74, but the ONS has now removed that limit. I submitted a Written Question on 29 March on the number of domestic abuse victims who were over 74. I received a reply from Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the head of the ONS, in which he said that he plans to release domestic abuse data for those aged 75 and over for the year ending March 2023 in late November.

Once we have these figures, they will be of great value. Without such statistics there is no way of knowing how big the problem is, how to tackle it and what help and support can be given. When this report is published, will the Minister agree to a debate so he can say what further measures, including funding, the Government will take in order to work with charities such as Hourglass, which know so much about this matter? Doing so will bring violence and abuse against older people into the open and, I hope, lead to women and girls living in a fear-free world.

My Lords, I wonder whether we are not looking at this subject from the wrong end of telescope, because by the time the violence has occurred, in a sense, it is already too late: the damage has been done. So I want to share my theory of how this abuse starts.

Sometimes, it begins at school. I was shocked to read Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. Did noble Lords know that 88% of girls have been sent pictures or videos they did not want to see, and 80% have been pressured to provide sexual images of themselves? The first I knew about this practice was some years ago. As a local MP, I met the worried parents of a girl who had been bullied into posting a photo of her own genitals online. She was so traumatised and humiliated that she refused to return to school.

That leads me to why I am so passionate about Amendment 170 to the Online Safety Bill, on cyberflashing. I was really delighted at the amendments the Government recently made, broadening the scope of the current offences of revenge porn and the sharing deepfake pornographic images. However, we still do not have a consent-based cyberflashing offence, although we do have alterations extending the scope of Amendment 170 to include content that has been altered and appears to be a photograph or a film. A group of us will be trying to convince the Government that they need to go that bit further, because the constraints put on the Bill will not prevent much of the damage that unsolicited cyberflashing will do to the mental health and well-being of women and, importantly, girls.

Thinking further about schoolgirls and boys, images being frequently sent without permission will increase the sexualising of children, and images sent “for a laugh” may pressure girls to laugh off these images on the outside when they are cringing with humiliation inside. They are not mature enough to cope. This is the first stage in being groomed into a culture which is a million miles away from how they have been brought up. This is where it often starts, with boys socialised into believing that porn is realistic behaviour as to what girls think and want.

In a sense, these are first-world problems. At the other end of the spectrum are abused migrant women who are nevertheless too fearful to report abuse because they fear that doing so might get them deported. Fear of having information shared between police and immigration authorities is enabling perpetrators to use immigration status to retain, control and inflict further abuse. This is known as immigration abuse, and the ambiguity of where people stand, even between the services themselves, leaves perpetrators with the freedom to act with impunity, evade justice and potentially target others, undermining public safety.

The answer would be a proper firewall—a blanket ban on services such as police sharing data with the Home Office. We tried to introduce such a ban during consideration of the Domestic Abuse Bill, but more needs to be done. I have no time to go into it now, but I would like to put the Government on notice that, a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back”, raising the issue of the firewall in amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

My Lords, one of the most shocking aspects of violence against women and girls is that almost one in four girls in this country reports having suffered abuse before the age of 16. Millions of women and girls face many forms of violence throughout their lives, including pornography, sexual exploitation and rape. The impact of pornography and violence against women and girls, whether physical, emotional or sexual, is devastating and often lives long with the victim.

Women and girls form the bulk of those who provide much-needed care and support in our society, both within and outside the family. They used to be called the weaker sex, but in practice more often than not they provide the strength, boundaries and moral foundation that we all need.

The Home Secretary’s Statement about violence against women and girls three months ago was welcome in giving strategic direction and indeed some funding. It is welcome too that there has been a move towards making it easier to raise the alarm and taking complaints more seriously from the start. However, I am concerned that these welcome moves might not be sufficient to get a grip on the issue, given the gap between reports and prosecutions, and given that the reporting rates are, as we know, a significant understatement of the extent of the problem.

The justice system is creaking from chronic underinvestment over more than a decade, and what is needed is an honest and frank appraisal of what that means in a policy area where intervention and remedy—for example, in cases of honour abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence—are extremely urgent and missteps place victims at greater risk.

Police powers and sentencing guidelines are important elements in a strategy, but they are not in themselves solutions. I add my voice to those of other noble Lords in urging the Government to do all that is necessary to prevent violence against women and girls. I also underline the importance of collecting data in this area, and urge the Minister to consider appointing an independent rapporteur to support policy development and to report on the progress we are making in tackling the scale of the problem.

My Lords, in the UK, for as long as I can remember, we have had a very successful practical measure that has worked to help keep women and girls safe: the provision of single-sex spaces and services—toilets, changing rooms, hospital wards and dormitories, to name just a few. When we saw a sign saying “Ladies” or “Women” on the door of a facility, we believed that we would come across only females in that space. We are often told that signs on a door do not keep men out, but the social contract did in the vast majority of cases, and women and girls felt able to raise the alarm when a male breached those boundaries.

I suspect that a lot of women have a story to tell about escaping a predatory man—a man who would not take no for an answer or was being verbally or physically abusive—by escaping to the ladies’ toilets and waiting until he had given up or gone away. Ask your female friends, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins; you may be surprised and saddened by their stories.

The social contract is now broken. In many public buildings and areas, single-sex facilities have been replaced by mixed-sex ones, or men have been given the impression that they can go where they like and nobody will challenge them. I have heard from women who tell me exactly this: they are afraid to challenge men who should not be in a female-only space, due to the fear of how they may react—so they fake a smile, which many men take as acceptance, and get out of there as quickly as they can. In many cases, they never go back to that venue.

Of course, violence does not have to be physical. In 2021, Ofsted published a review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. In England, it found that sexual harassment occurred

“so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’”.

We heard today of an alleged attack on an Essex schoolgirl, which is outrageous. Some 59% of girls reported being photographed or videoed without their consent. Males having access to previously female-only spaces enables this. Do large retailers, who proudly boast of their inclusive and gender-neutral changing rooms, conduct regular sweeps for hidden cameras? Voyeurism is still a crime, so why are some organisations enabling it by replacing single-sex spaces with mixed-sex spaces? Often, it is because lobby groups have told them that it is more inclusive, when, in fact, being inclusive excludes many women and girls from taking an active part in public life.

In law, single-sex spaces and services are intended for one sex only: that is the very thing permitted by Part 7 of Schedule 3 to the Equality Act 2010. It is not possible to admit a male to a single-sex space or service for females without destroying the very basic nature of that service. Once there are males using it, however they personally regard themselves, it becomes mixed-sex. Some 88% of sexual offences occur in unisex changing rooms and unisex bathrooms, and this cannot be allowed to continue. The Government have done really good work on the social contract, but it is broken and needs fixing. We have to keep spaces single-sex.

I congratulate my noble sisters on facilitating this debate on the vital issue of violence against women—an epidemic exacerbated by decades of austerity.

While I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, on the need for more judicial training, today also feels like a moment to celebrate our judiciary. I pay tribute to my dear friend, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, who retired from your Lordships’ House last week due to fading health. It is sometimes hard to believe that it was as late as 1991 that rape within marriage was outlawed in this country, and that it was judges, not parliamentarians, who established such an obvious and civilised reform. This is what the ever self-deprecating noble and learned Lord said about his landmark decision in the Crown v C years later in 2017:

“I have few boasts to my name by way of legal achievement, few jewels in my judicial crown, but I can and do boast of being the first judge in this jurisdiction … to rule that a husband is not permitted in law to have intercourse with his wife quite simply whensoever he chooses—in short, that there is such an offence as marital rape. That decision was said at the time to fly in the face of centuries of established legal principle but in fact, happily, it was upheld by both the Court of Appeal and indeed the Appeal Committee in your Lordships’ House”.—[Official Report, 10/3/17; col. 1584.]

But now, six years later, it is political priorities and economic resources, rather than the law, that are letting so many women in the United Kingdom so badly down. As we have heard, attrition rates between the reporting and charging of rape, let alone trials and convictions, are so dire as to amount to de facto decriminalisation of one of the gravest offences, the prevalence of which casts a very long shadow on any society’s levels of basic common decency.

Further, we are now in a vicious spiral of such low trust in policing and the criminal justice system, on the part of women in particular, that they are reluctant, as we have heard, even to come forward as victims of terrible, inhuman and degrading abuse. Rape and other types of violence against women are complex crimes, and all the more difficult, evidentially, on account of their intimate nature. It takes expensive expert personnel and generous support services to even begin to tackle the problem, and years of neglect now render the challenge even greater. Will the Minister commit to making this a personal priority for his tenure in the Home Department?

Will the Government guarantee the provision of specialist rape provision in every police force in the country, of more publicly funded refuge places and of other priority support for victims? Will the Prime Minister, himself a father of daughters, lead a public campaign for women’s and girls’ dignity and rights, in contrast with, I am afraid, the rather laddish and often misogynistic political culture of recent years?

My Lords, I will make three points about this very serious and demanding issue. First, dealing with it may take a much longer time than any of us would like; secondly, identifying early, or identifying at all, those likely to abuse or kill is one of the greatest challenges that we face; and, thirdly, any situation is likely to be intertwined with other parallel issues of concern, such as rough sleeping, homelessness and the rest.

First, alas, there are no quick fixes, however much new money or however many new laws come along. I stress that I applaud measures such as the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the Health and Care Act 2022, the regularly updated tackling violence against women and girls strategy, and the recent review by Clare Wade KC, as well as all the interagency co-operation that is going on and developing all the time. But, alas, none of that will bring about change overnight, even taken together at top speed.

This is because crime prevention is a very long march. The late Mary Tuck, who was a distinguished Home Office expert—I actually like experts—taught me never to think that nothing works; it is just that, sometimes, things take a long time to work. They are helped by changing social attitudes in the background; we have lots of examples of that in the past with smoking, seat belts and the rest. However, this process must begin with the young getting it—“it” being that violence is a bad and not a solution for whomsoever is involved.

Domestic violence has a number of manifestations—including the vanishingly small number of attacks by women on men in the home and the much greater number of lethal attacks on children by women and men who are in partnership in the home—but, of all these, the worst manifestation is that which this debate concentrates on: violence against girls and women. Getting the message across starts early—it has to start early—but one also has to remember, as Mary Tuck, the Home Office civil servant, again taught me, that just when you think you have taught one generation, there is another generation waiting in the wings, coming along as teenagers who will grow up, to be dealt with next.

Secondly, I have pondered how some potential attackers could ever have been spotted. Take, for example, because this is a UK-wide debate, the terrible Arthur’s Seat killing in Edinburgh of the young solicitor, Fawziyah Javed, and her unborn child. She was a professional, her killer husband was in the optical world, both were educated British subjects, she had her own voice and Police Scotland said at trial that there was no evidence at all that this was a so-called honour-based piece of abuse. At least I suppose now that her husband, who killed her and went after her money, is in prison and cannot do it again.

Lastly, I think we have to look after those in our own home areas. I just point out that, having lived around here, around the cathedral and the Palace of Westminster, for many decades, time out of mind, I have been greatly struck in recent months that suddenly, this year, I have noticed among the rough sleepers around Victoria Station, where there is an epidemic of rough sleeping, a disproportionate number of women. Some of those women are actually seen black-eyed and with cuts across their faces—all the signs of abuse. That has struck me terribly hard, and I think the Met and Westminster City Council need to get on and sort this out before something much more terrible happens.

My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Warwick, for securing this debate. We need to do all we can to keep up consistent focus and momentum on this issue and need always to be asking ourselves: what is working? What legislation has been successful? What has not been so successful? Where are the gaps and what more needs to be done?

To begin on a positive note, I am delighted that the Government have toughened up revenge porn laws this week. The onus is now no longer on the victim to prove that the perpetrator intended to cause distress. This is big progress; it sends a powerful signal to perpetrators but also to society as a whole. It says to the predominantly female victims that, finally, a law is on their side. The dismal prosecution figures associated with crimes of a sexual nature have to change, and I hope that announcements such as this will mark some kind of turning point. It also rightly recognises what is actually going on in the world: technology is now the dominating theme in so many crimes against women and girls.

I was unable to speak on the Online Safety Bill, but I give my full support to noble friends and colleagues who have fought to make changes around age verification for pornography and codes of conduct for violence against women and girls, recognising that of course we are disproportionately attacked and abused online. Real damage is being done not only to our children but also to women, and if we let this opportunity pass without putting the best protections in place, we will have failed. I urge the Government to be brave on this and accept many of those amendments.

On the issue of pornography, allowing young people, particularly young boys, such easy access to misogynistic and degrading porn renders much of the hard work that many people, so many campaigners and organisations are doing to combat VAWG completely redundant. It changes behaviour and informs how relationships begin and continues. Anecdotes of boys in primary schools playing out porno scenes where they are choking their female classmates are commonplace and absolutely shocking. There was one shocking anecdote from a head teacher which will always stay with me. She described having a 12 year-old boy in her office accused of raping his classmate. He was sobbing as they waited for the police, saying he had no idea that what he was doing was wrong, believing that force was a normal part of sex, having watched so much pornography of that nature. Her life was ruined and his life too.

When researching this speech, I spoke to a group of 16 year-old girls. One issue, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said, that came up time and again was cyberflashing. Every one of them had experienced it and they all found it frightening and threatening. They also expressed concerns that, despite it becoming a crime, prosecution levels would be non-existent, due to the onus being on them to prove the intent of the perpetrator. This is the wrong way around and once again prioritises men’s freedoms over women’s and girls’ freedoms not to be sexually harassed.

Cyberflashing, just like real-life flashing, is completely perverse behaviour. Let us just take a moment to remember what this is. A young woman might be sitting on a crowded train when someone decides to airdrop a picture of his penis. He is close by. She knows he is watching her reaction, getting a kick out of the shock, the disgust and fear. This really is an unpleasant crime and one-third of women have experienced it. Worse still, it is a precursor, as we know, to far more serious crimes and should not be left unchecked. People do not just wake up one morning and become a rapist or a murderer; they work up to it, very often through crimes such as these.

So, I ask the Minister, if he cannot accept the amendments, which I sincerely hope he does, can he reassure us that, since there are unacceptably low prosecutions in the area of cyberflashing, the Government will think again about how they deal with this increasingly ubiquitous and sinister crime? I end by saying that, while of course it is men’s behaviour that is the problem, we must be careful not to pitch this as men versus women. This is about violent men versus society, and we need to include men and boys in the conversation and the solution much more than I think we do at the moment.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for bringing this subject yet again to this House. It has happened many times, but we still need to talk about it and to highlight the fact that it appears to be increasing and becoming worse in many areas. Other noble Lords have talked a lot about the problem, in some quite graphic detail, and I am going to try to concentrate on the solutions. The solutions often seem a little dull and worthy, but as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, there are no quick fixes on this.

For somebody who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, as I did, when society actually appeared to be changing very fast and for the better, it seems inconceivable that we still have a problem of male violence, misogyny and sexism towards women and girls. That a man can grope a woman’s breasts and think she ought to be flattered, or that a girl can be raped and not feel able to tell anyone, is horrific. Clearly, we need to do something about it, and we are not doing enough.

The solutions to the problem within our society involve addressing the imbalances of power, including economic and social power, that can leave individuals vulnerable to domestic abuse—and of course domestic abuse is one of those gateway crimes to much worse crimes, including murder. So I am going to talk about solutions, which are hard but vital.

We need relationship education to inculcate values of respect for others and respect for difference. These must be provided in schools and other appropriate environments. Programmes must also be provided to train all front-line staff dealing with the public, including housing officers, police and workers in the health services, particularly maternity services and other relevant areas, to recognise signs of abuse and provide pathways of escape for survivors and victims. This is not only to help those who are suffering from this but also to educate the people involved, because we can start with schools but we have to go through the whole of society.

Multiagency working is essential to identify the full extent of domestic abuse and improve prevention or early intervention. Crime reduction partnerships must take a lead in co-ordinating information from refuges, the NHS, police, children services, adult services, social housing, schools, voluntary organisations and any other appropriate local body which may have information about individuals and families at risk.

Access to counselling has to be increased for all those affected by domestic abuse—survivors, witnesses and perpetrators—because this is the most effective way of reducing reoffending and breaking cycles of offending within family and neighbourhood networks. Of course, children within families can also be at risk. It is not just the risk of physical abuse; witnessing such abuse can cause long-term psychological damage.

Afterwards, of course, survivors should be helped to remain in their own homes, with the provision of all necessary safety measures, including alarms, improved locks and grilles, extra police patrols, neighbourhood watch schemes and so on. Where this is not possible, appropriate immediate refuge and future housing must be available for all victims escaping domestic abuse. Of course, all these provisions have to be publicly funded, with permanent guaranteed funding.

In closing, I ask the Minister replying to the debate not to make reference to what women and girls can do to protect themselves—I am sure he will not—because this is a male problem. We must focus on what the majority of non-sexist men can do to stop the minority of violent, misogynist men.

My Lords, with respect to my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, I am not a noble sister, but I hope I can add to this debate as a male.

Let me tell the story of Marie—a completely true story which I heard recently, perhaps a month or two ago. She had visited a famous, large IVF clinic as a private patient to get an MOT to test for fertility. She was offered an AMH, which is a blood test, and a scan. According to the people who manufacture the AMH test, it does not in fact predict your fertility. None the less, this was sold to her, together with the scan. When her results were handed to her after the tests were done, the female doctor said: “You see these results? These are shit. You have no chance of getting pregnant”. This was said to a woman of roughly 40, acutely concerned about her fertility for lots of reasons, as many women are, who suddenly found this violent language in front of her. It is not uncommon; it happens a lot. I have heard so many stories like this one. As a result of my website, trying to sort out the issue of egg freezing, I get letters of this sort once a week and sometimes daily. Marie was then told that, if she paid £20,000 straight away, she could book three cycles of IVF to have her eggs frozen, and that the chances of her getting pregnant would be very high indeed—probably greater than 50%.

It so happens that, as a kind of hobby, I regularly submit a Written Question—about every three years—to find out the results of egg freezing in the United Kingdom compared to those internationally. According to the latest results from the five years up to the pandemic, 75,958 eggs were subjected to thawing after freezing. Of these—I will round up the figures for speed—13,000 thawed, 11,400 were fertilised, 7,257 produced an embryo, 1,695 were considered suitable for an embryo transfer, 288 of the women got pregnant after transfer, 205 gave birth, and 80 pregnancies were lost as a result of miscarriage. In spite of the HFEA saying on its website that the effects are improving, when you look at these figures in detail you see that they are not.

Only last week, on BBC radio, a well-known individual who was a senior member of the HFEA said that the success rate of egg freezing is 18%. It is nothing like that. In fact, according to the figures I have just given the House, less than 0.2% of eggs that are subjected to thawing result in a live birth, and only 1.7% of eggs that are fertilised become a baby. Women do not want miscarriages, and if there is any violence that you can talk about, having a miscarriage is certainly one of them. It is really quite shocking that this goes on and that this kind of information is bandied around in this way. It is not acceptable, and it needs to be done much more carefully by the Government, because the Government are responsible for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. It needs to make certain that the website says what the success rate is. It does not say what the success rate is; it just says it is improving.

Moreover, the website says that egg freezing is completely safe. How can we say that? It has been going for only 20 years, and it will be a long time before these children can be followed up as adults. It probably is safe but we do not know that. The high miscarriage rate is one certain concern that I have. Clinics are telling patients—I hear this again and again—that if you come to the clinic you have a 60% chance of having your eggs frozen, with a successful baby afterwards. This is a scandal, and it needs to be halted and taken under control.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for her comprehensive introduction, and I wish the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, well. I hope she will soon be back with us. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in her tribute to my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and his wisdom and balance. You could often rely on him to say what you would not expect him to, and it really made one reflect and think again. He will be sorely missed.

I am going to focus on the subject of stalking in particular, because today it is not possible for either of the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Bertin, to take part. The three of us are part of the National Stalking Consortium. I would like to thank the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the victims’ commissioner for London for their help in preparing for today. I will fire a series of questions at the Minister. I do not expect detailed answers at the Dispatch Box. However, I ask the Minister to feel free to respond to me in writing, preferably in great detail, after the debate.

First, the National Stalking Consortium put a super-complaint forward last November, prompted in part by the fact that only 5% of reports of stalking to police result in a charge by the Crown Prosecution Service. While it is welcome that, as a result of the super-complaint, the IOPC, the College of Policing and HMICFRS are going to investigate a series of different police forces to understand the underlying issues, we will not have any findings until some time next year. One immediate action that His Majesty’s Government could take would be to urge the College of Policing to mandate that all officers who will deal with stalking complete specialist training. The Met, to its credit, has decided to do this voluntarily, but it is our contention that all forces should undertake this as soon as possible—an action that I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Patten, would approve of, given his comments about prevention, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, given her comments on the importance of training.

Secondly, I want to talk about imminent changes to the Home Office counting rules for different crimes. The National Police Chiefs’ Council is looking at four changes to the way in which crimes are reported: the threshold for cancelling crimes; the principal crime value; recording malicious communications offences; and recording Section 5 public order offences. I particularly want to focus on the second of those: what is the principal crime rule? Stalking, typically, is recorded as a type 2A offence; it is rarely flagged up as a type 4A offence. If what the police chiefs wish to happen happens—which is that the incidence of reporting is reduced—it is quite possible that the large number of stalking crimes will not actually appear and be recorded as such, because they will be subsumed among other crimes that are deemed more important.

The third point is about stalking legislation itself. In 2012, stalking was created in two separate types of offence: stalking that involves fear of violence or serious alarm or distress, and a lesser charge that is simply described as “stalking”. Confusion reigns as a result. The vast majority of prosecutions that are brought against stalkers are against the lesser category of stalking. A 2017 report found that stalking behaviours were present in no less than nine out of 10 homicides. Could the Minister undertake to investigate whether the time has come for this confusion to be ended? We need to establish a new stand-alone offence of stalking that adequately recognises the psychological terror it inflicts on victims. I look forward to the Minister’s detailed response.

My Lords, I welcome this debate on violence against women and girls and thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Drake and Lady Warwick. I have spoken before about my fears for girls and young women today and about how our rights and the way we are treated seem to be going backwards. Central to these fears is online pornography. I will expand on the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and others.

Violent, hardcore, misogynistic, racist and utterly disturbing pornography is ubiquitous online, not on the dark web but on mainstream porn sites and all major social media platforms. Mainstream porn platforms host vast, unknown quantities of illegal content, such as videos of trafficking, rape and sexual violence, child sexual abuse material and image-based sexual abuse. I assure those who think it is still like the top-shelf magazines or videos of old that it is not. Regular porn videos include choking and strangulation of women during sex, men ejaculating on women’s faces, verbal aggression and degradation, and women being penetrated by multiple men at the same time or one after another. I hesitate to encourage noble Lords to watch porn, but until you see it—I have not been able to face watching the worst—you cannot imagine how utterly violent and vile it is.

This material is freely available online to adults and children of any age. While we are hopeful of getting age verification regulation in the Online Safety Bill, it is important to note that, while we debate Bills, children as young as nine are accessing this hardcore material. Nothing blocks them watching it.

This is not a niche issue. For context, the porn industry’s revenue estimates globally are as high as $97 billion. By comparison, Netflix brings in about $11.7 billion. Porn sites received more website traffic in 2020 than Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, Zoom, Pinterest and LinkedIn combined. In 2019, there were more than 42 billion site visits to Pornhub and, during the pandemic, Ofcom reported that Pornhub had a bigger audience than the BBC. In 2020, a study by a digital marketing company concluded that Pornhub was the technology company with the third-greatest impact on society in the 21st century.

The Children’s Commissioner for England held a meeting here this week in which we heard her evidence that children are frequently exposed to violent pornography depicting coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts. The impact of this is clear. Some 47% of respondents in research carried out by her office stated that girls now expect sex to involve physical aggression and a further 42% stated that girls enjoy physically aggressive sex acts. Porn is shaping sexual scripts and relationships. This is deeply alarming. No wonder girls no longer want to become women.

Another alarming issue is the “barely legal” genre of pornography. This content suggests sexual activity with children, where petite, young-looking performers are made to look underage through the use of props such as stuffed toys, lollipops and school uniform. This content is extremely harmful, promoting violence against women and girls, sexualising children and driving demand for real child sexual abuse material. While it is illegal and prohibited offline, it remains legal online. This must be immediately rectified by the Online Safety Bill; I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, and the campaign groups leading the charge on this.

What happens on porn sets, wherever they are located, is violence against women and girls. They are trafficked into the billion-dollar porn industry, used, violated, raped and tortured, and left to live with the consequences of catastrophic physical and mental trauma—and those are the ones who escape with their lives. If we want to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls, we need to stop the violence of the porn industry, both the violence in it and the violence that it leads to.

My Lords, I too welcome this debate, although with one caveat. I speak at lots of sixth-forms and universities, and I am increasingly struck by how scared young women are. They see threats everywhere and are convinced that rape, sexual assault and male violence are rampant and a real and present danger. Often, this is based less on real experience than on their being taught that headline-generating horror stories are the norm. This can be debilitating, so I am aware of our responsibility to be proportionate and avoid the unintended consequence of undermining young women’s resilience. We need to be wary of reinforcing the narrative that all women are vulnerable victims and all men are a threat.

It is worth remembering that, historically, scaremongering about women’s safety was society’s excuse for limiting their freedom and equality. The so-called weaker sex needed constant paternalistic protection, to be chaperoned everywhere and confined to the safety of the home. The fight for women’s liberation insisted that women should be free to take risks and able to live in the world autonomously, without being inhibited by fear.

However, my main focus today is when real victims are let down by our refusal to confront one fashionable policy priority that undermines efforts to tackle violence and sexual abuse: gender ideology. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, has discussed, a boy has just been arrested at an Essex school over allegations of serious sexual assault in gender-neutral toilets. At a recent Westminster Hall debate on equality legislation, Jess Phillips MP explained the crucial role that women-only refuges play for victims of domestic violence. However, these are now under threat because councils and charities have embraced the elision of biological sex and gender preference. We have seen similar scandals in rape crisis provision and are all familiar with the mess that the criminal justice system is in, with convicted male predators being housed in women’s prisons.

I will share a personal injustice of what happens when a male sexual abuser leaves prison as a woman. Ceri-Lee Galvin is a 24 year-old mum who was systematically raped and abused by her own father for nine years from the age of eight. In 2016, Clive Bundy was given a 15-year sentence. The first shocker was that the Parole Board recently released him after he had served only seven years in jail. The second shocker was that, before his release, his daughter Ceri-Lee got a call from her victim liaison officer telling her that her incestuous father had been given permission to change gender. The prison provided make-up, female clothing and a wig, and Bundy was segregated to protect “her” from male prisoners. His name change by deed poll was paid for; his new name is Claire Fox—my name.

Even more shockingly, as a free Claire Fox, Clive Bundy can distance himself from his crimes. Changing his gender means that his criminal checks are compromised by a legal loophole created by gender orthodoxy closing down any challenge. A sex offender changing their name would officially show up on Home Office Disclosure and Barring Service records, a safeguarding device used to check previous convictions. However, something called a “sensitivity application clause” gives transgender job applicants the choice not to record any information that would reveal their previous identity. We are all supposed to collude with this new gender identity on pain of being accused of transphobic misgendering.

Kate Coleman, author of the Keep Prisons Single Sex report on these enhanced privacy rights of trans people, notes that the likes of Bundy can change their name and gender on official documents such as passports and driver’s licences, which can be used as proof of identity to the DBS. Bundy’s privacy rights also mean that his own daughter—the victim—was told by the authorities about her father’s name and gender change only because he gave permission. As a postscript, since his release Clive Bundy—aka Claire Fox—has been seen in Ceri-Lee’s hometown looking suspiciously like the man he is, with no wig and no pretence, but on paper the authorities tell us that we all have to pretend that he is female.

Ceri-Lee bravely broke her anonymity to speak out so that other abuse victims will not be hurt by this loophole. I hope that we as legislators can honour her courage by amending the forthcoming victims’ law to ensure that no more people like Clive Bundy can get away with gaslighting their victims or mocking all safeguarding initiatives. We must oppose gender ideology.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Drake for tabling this debate; I wish her well and hope that she is soon back with us. I thank my noble friend Lady Warwick for introducing it. So much has been said that I will not be able to add much, other than on alcohol and domestic violence, as noble Lords might expect.

All the statistics indicate that violence against women has been increasing since about 2008 or 2009, particularly domestic violence. In many areas, that is linked in part to alcohol, which has not been raised so far. It is high time that we had a look at the rules that my Government, the Labour Government, introduced in the 2003 Act, which greatly liberalised freedom to purchase and access to alcohol. A re-examination of what has been happening with pricing and freedom to access alcohol is long overdue, as well as of the consequential difficulties that have arisen from cheap booze being freely available and so easily accessible. In turn, it has the effect of many men attacking women, which has continued to increase in recent years. Covid made matters even worse in that respect, so I hope the Minister might be prepared to comment on how the Government feel about the impact of alcohol and drugs on women.

Secondly, on pornography, unfortunately, I did not participate in the Online Safety Bill debates, but I have been watching carefully and I am pleased with how things are going. However, we still have not gone anything like far enough. Interestingly, the British Board of Film Classification tells us that it would never permit the stuff it sees to be shown in films. It is freely and widely available, and increasingly so across the whole of the online system. We need a broader societal debate about pornography and its impact across the board, particularly on younger children, and we need it soon if we are to believe the Met Police, which is very concerned about how the metaverse will develop. When that technology becomes more freely and cheaply available, we will see extraordinary things that will have an impact on the whole of society, particularly children. The metaverse has not been disused today, and I wonder whether the Minister can explain to us the Government’s views on it and how it may impact violence between men and women. Indeed, there is increasing violence between men and men, which is an issue that has not been raised today.

I hope the Minister will be able to give a general response to those three points.

My Lords, I, too, welcome this important debate and the excellent speeches we have heard so far. I shall express my concern about the alarming increase in violence against women and girls due to gender identity ideology, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, highlighted so well.

At first, we took it as being inclusive and kind, but in the space of a few years, it has become a dogma which we should all accept without questioning its validity. This ideology alleges that biological sex does not exist and that males can become females and females males. As a result, women and girls, as my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott clearly said, are no longer safe in female-only spaces as biological men who identify as women, despite having full genitalia, are allowed into them.

Even our language has been altered. We are no longer referred to as women, but as “adult persons”. We have been given new labels, such as “cis”. We are no longer breastfeeding our babies but are neutral “chest feeders”. Only biological men who identify as women seem to be allowed to use the word “women”. They are calling themselves “transwomen”. The irony is that, as Matt Walsh’s documentary, which I highly recommend, has revealed, those who have endorsed this theory that transwomen are women cannot actually define what a woman is. This is quite a conundrum. Talk about a circular argument!

Since the beginning of time, no one has dreamt of disputing the indisputable: the fact that sex is binary and immutable. Human beings cannot change their sex, yet today, anyone who dares question gender ideology is instantly labelled as a bigot or transphobic. This is not party political. It is not right wing versus left wing. This is indoctrination of the masses by a small group of activists. It is reminiscent of oppressive regimes such as Communism and Nazism. While I shy away from drawing direct comparisons, it is disconcerting to witness a similar pattern emerging in our society and how, as happened then, our children are being indoctrinated with a single truth based on ideology rather than factual evidence. We have all read recent reports of children being taught that there are hundreds of genders and that anyone can identify as anything they want—human, animal or object. This is not only dehumanising but is pushing children towards experimental surgery that has long-term and irreversible consequences.

Of course, we must be compassionate and understand that some children’s biological sex is a great source of distress for them, and of course they should be protected and helped, but it is not those children I am talking about. I am talking about children who may simply be going through the often difficult stages of puberty being told that their problems will be solved and disappear if they change sex. As many noble Lords have pointed out already, those children are being exposed to violent pornography and it is not surprising that, as a result, some of them reject the idea of womanhood and seek to escape their own bodies.

Is it not time to investigate how pharmaceutical companies are able to rack up billions while our girls are being mutilated? Is it not time to act to protect our women and girls against this form of violence? Does my noble friend not agree that it is the responsibility of our Government and legislature to make sure that children do not end up mutilating their bodies? Does he not agree that the Equality Act 2010 must be updated to clarify the definition of sex?

I think it is a shame that the noble Baroness has tried to deflect what is actually an incredibly serious debate about violence against girls and women into some kind of culture war that she talks about in the House often.

Last Sunday morning at about 7.30 am, having dropped my husband off to get to Heathrow, I stopped for a coffee on the way home. As I crossed the road back to my car, a man stopped to let me cross the road, which was nice. He then slowed down next to me and through his window asked me if I was up for something or other—I hesitate to define exactly what. I was not interested and walked swiftly to my car. Disturbingly, he pulled up around the corner and turned to look at me. I was not sure what he was about to do—a U-turn perhaps—but, having locked myself in my car, I drove away, checking that I was not followed home, which I was not.

What do we do? Sometimes you make a joke of it, which I did when I was telling one of my Front-Bench colleagues about it. A 70-year old woman at 7.30 on a Sunday morning is not safe—for goodness’ sake. I admonished myself for not snapping his registration number, although quite what I would have done with it, I do not know. Actually, at the point where he pulled up around the corner, there is a bus stop with a camera, and he may end up with an £80 fine, so that would serve him right. The truth is, of course, that he may go on to do it again and again—and who knows where it might lead?

That is the everyday, low-level occurrence that every woman here today will recognise and have some experience of. It is frightening. Why should we live our lives being afraid that some bloke might feel he has the right to grope, shout sexist remarks, comment on our appearance, get nasty or violent when told to stop his unacceptable behaviour, and sometimes do worse: attack, rape, sexual assault or murder? These are the matters at the root of violence against women and girls in our society today.

When I look at my granddaughter and her friends, I worry about the oversexualised world they are growing up in, one where many boys learn about relationships and sex from watching porn, as many noble Lords have said. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who passionately explained the damage that this does.

So the debate today is important, and I thank all who have participated, and indeed the organisations which sent us briefings: the Girl Guides, Refuge, Women’s Aid and others. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Warwick for stepping up so wonderfully as she did to take the place of my noble friend. I am also grateful for the comments of my noble friend Lady Gale; we have shared this platform on many occasions over the last 20 years or so that we have been here to talk about violence against women.

Like others, I want to start by looking at and thinking about girls’ experience. I was very grateful to the Girl Guides for the research that it sent us. I am also very grateful for the work it does in supporting young women and increasing their confidence. I was never a Girl Guide—I was only ever a Brownie—but they do a brilliant job today.

As noble Lords said, girls and young women regularly experience harassment and abuse in public places, such as on the street and on public transport. Some 53% of 11 to 21 year-olds do not feel safe when they are outside on their own, and over 60% have experienced unwanted attention. As other noble Lords said, they do not feel safe at school. This is a terrible thing—a place where they should learn and thrive is instead somewhere they do not feel safe.

Girls tell us that they regularly experience online harms such as harassment and abuse, including sexist and derogatory comments, also mentioned by many noble Lords. Some 79% of 13 to 21 year-olds have experienced online harms in the last year: sexist comments, cyberflashing, sexual harassment, catfishing—I suggest your Lordships look that one up—pressure to share nude pictures, and cyberstalking. Some 94% said that they experienced negative emotions as a result of online harms. However, the thing that really disturbed me is that only 15% of girls think social media is a safe place for them. That is terrible because, in this modern world, these girls need to feel safe on social media—of course they need to feel safe.

What these girls want is really modest and simple. They want public sexual harassment to be made a crime. They want their ideas to be listened to and their voices to be heard in the design and creation of safe public spaces. They want the reporting of sexual harassment to be made easier. They want—as many other noble Lords have said—the Online Safety Bill to be strengthened to address the issues of online harassment and abuse, and they want the Department for Education to renew its commitment to the delivery of RSHE and to aim for 100% of people to learn about consent.

When these girls become women, they will face the epidemic of violence against women and girls that has escalated, particularly in the last 10 to 15 years. Noble Lords have referred to the record 70,000 rapes reported to the police in the year to September 2022, just 2,600 of which resulted in a charge. Some 70% of the rape complainants who go to the police give up their case. There is a lack of trauma-informed police support, and most forces have scrapped rape specialist units through funding cuts. That means that experienced police officers who know how to deal with these issues have left, and young police officers who do not know how to deal with these issues are now having to do so, because the policy has changed and there has been a recognition that this is a serious issue, but they do not know how best to deal with rape. This is a problem. It is particularly a problem for black and minoritised women who, not surprisingly in recent times, do not trust the police in so many different ways. Independent sexual violence advisers are in short supply and rape crisis centres are underfunded. There are 10,000 victims on their waiting lists for rape trauma therapy.

The same set of abysmal statistics appears when we think about domestic violence. The criminal justice system is failing women and children who have experienced domestic violence and the current system is inefficient for domestic abuse spending. Women’s Aid research found that a minimum of £427 million per year is needed to fund specialist domestic abuse services in England. If domestic abuse services work and domestic abuse is reduced, that could deal with the fact that domestic abuse costs our economy £78 billion a year in England. Therefore, the economic as well as the social need is absolutely clear.

We now have what is being called the ground-breaking Victims and Prisoners Bill to address these issues. The Government may plan to attack the court backlog, increase charges for rape perpetrators and show that victims’ rights are upheld and supported through the system, but the problem is that none of those things is actually in the Bill. I hope that my honourable friend Anna McMorrin and her colleagues will deal with some of those issues in the Commons, and that when the Bill comes here we will deal with it. Without an enforceable victims’ code, it is nothing but words on a page, and without the legal support to guide survivors every step of the way through the system, from reporting a rape at a police station through to trial and driving up standards, the Bill is not worth it. So I hope noble Lords will join us in tackling those issues.

Labour has a mission to make our streets safe for women and girls. We have a Green Paper on Ending Violence Against Women and Girls which makes scores of commitments to tackle this epidemic, including specialist rape units in every police force, setting up dedicated rape courts, introducing minimum sentences for rape and for stalking, and making misogyny a hate crime. We will put specialist domestic abuse workers in the control rooms of every police force responding to 999 calls, supporting the victims of abuse, following the excellent example of Kim McGuinness as a Labour police and crime commissioner in Northumbria. We will also make sure that we have a Victims’ Commissioner. Since my friend Dame Vera Baird left, we have not had one of those—so that will be nice, too. We will lead the charge on the Human Rights Council for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls.

I thank all noble Lords for speaking in this debate. I particularly thank my noble friends Lord Winston and Lord Brooke for their distinctive and relevant contributions to tackling violence. My noble friend opened the debate with eloquence and force and asked the Minister about many issues. I am grateful for the outstanding contributions across the House. I do not envy the Minister his task, but do I know how seriously he takes these issues.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have participated for their valuable, thoughtful and insightful contributions. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for opening this debate on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake—I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, well. I will do my very best to address all the points that have been raised, but there are a number, so I hope noble Lords will indulge me if I go a little over time. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, in thanking Girlguiding UK and Refuge, which supplied me with some very thoughtful briefings on this subject.

I am confident in saying that tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for all Members of the House, as we have heard, so I am glad that we have had the opportunity to discuss it today. Some Members of this House may have experienced it for themselves—such as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on Sunday morning—or they may have loved ones who have experienced the horrific nature of these crimes. They have absolutely no place in our society and, again as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, said, why should anyone live like that? We have to change attitudes and improve how the criminal justice system supports victims and pursues perpetrators. That is why the Government are taking a whole-of-society approach to tackling this issue.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, outlined in her introduction, violence against women and girls—or VAWG—includes crimes such as rape and other sexual offences, stalking, domestic abuse, so-called honour-based abuse, including female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour killings, as well as revenge porn and upskirting. These crimes can occur online as well as offline, and they are deeply harmful, not only because of the profound effect that they have on the victims, survivors and their loved ones but because of the harm they inflict on wider society. It is important to say that men and boys also experience abusive and violent crimes that fall under some of the umbrella here.

Domestic abuse alone is a high-volume crime, affecting 2.4 million adults every year. It is high harm. One in five homicides is a domestic homicide, and I note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about stalking and homicide statistics.

To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I am not aware of the work that has been done in Wales to which she has referred but I commit to looking into it. I can say that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are investing £3 million specifically in “by and for” organisations over 2023-24 and 2024-25, which will include organisations that support victims of abuse with different protected characteristics—for example, older victims or victims living with disability. I am happy to agree to a debate, for which she asked. I am also pleased to be able to inform the House that since 2018 the Government have provided £300,000 to Hourglass, to which the noble Baroness referred, to enhance its helpline, provide casework support and so on.

This crime is also very high cost. For the year ending March 2017, the cost of domestic abuse was estimated to be £66 billion.

I turn to a couple of more general points. My noble friend Lady Helic and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, talked about judicial training. I am also happy to join them in their comments about Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. The Government do not provide input into judicial training or have responsibility for it, for reasons of judicial independence. The Lord Chief Justice has statutory responsibility for the training of judges and magistrates, with the responsibility exercised through the Judicial College.

The noble Lord, Lord Winston, may not be surprised to know that I am not particularly up on the subject of egg freezing, but I will come back to him when I have done a bit more investigating.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Patten that tackling violence against women and girls is a long slog, but it is one to which the Government are committed. He is right that it requires ongoing diligence; it is not something we can just fix and then walk away from.

Noble Lords will be aware that in July 2021, the Government published the tackling VAWG strategy to ensure that women and girls are safe everywhere—at home, online, at work and on the streets. This was followed by the tackling abuse plan, which we published in March 2022. Through the commitments set out in these documents, the Government aim to transform society’s response to these crimes with actions to prevent abuse, support victims and pursue perpetrators, as well as to strengthen the systems to respond to VAWG.

The documents build on the Government’s work to date, including the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021. That Act bolsters our response to domestic abuse at every level, strengthening protections for victims while ensuring that perpetrators feel the full force of the law. The measures in the Act include the creation of a statutory definition of domestic abuse, emphasising that domestic abuse is not just physical violence but can be emotional, controlling or coercive, and can include economic abuse.

The Government have made good progress in implementing the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and the tackling domestic abuse plan. As my noble friend Lady Helic noted, we ratified the Istanbul convention on 21 July 2022, which demonstrates to women in the UK and partners overseas our commitment to tackling VAWG.

This provides a suitable opportunity to talk about migrant victims of domestic abuse. Support is provided to migrant victims in the UK through our destitute domestic violence concession, which gives victims who have entered the UK on certain partner or spousal visas access to public funds for three months, which can be used to fund safe accommodation. Migrant victims can also apply for settlement—indefinite leave to remain—under the domestic violence indefinite leave to remain rules. The intention is to safeguard victims of domestic abuse by offering them an immigration status and financial support independent of the abusive partner.

Following the Government’s review of support for migrant victims in 2020, in April 2021 we launched the support for migrant victims scheme pilot to provide a support net for migrant victims of abuse with no recourse to public funds. We are providing a further £1.4 million in 2023-24 to continue to fund the support for migrant victims scheme, ensuring that we maintain support for migrant victims of domestic abuse.

The noble Baroness, Lady Burt, asked me about the firewall between the police and immigration enforcement. When a crime is committed, our immediate priority is always the welfare of the victim, irrespective of their immigration status. All victims should be free to report crimes without fear, and it is in the interests of the general public for all crimes to be fully investigated. The protocol will provide assurance to individuals that no immigration enforcement action will be taken while criminal justice proceedings are ongoing and while support to make applications to regularise their stay is being sought.

Returning to the Istanbul convention, my noble friend Lady Helic asked why the UK made reservations on certain aspects of it. Many members that have ratified the convention have also made reservations on specific articles. We placed one on Article 59, which relates to migrant victims of domestic abuse, to avoid further delays to ratification. However, we are carefully considering the findings of the support for migrant victims scheme pilot evaluation to ensure that migrant victims are supported effectively. We will reflect on our position following that, and in the interim, as I have just said, we are providing up to £1.4 million in each year up to 2025 to continue to fund support for migrant victims of domestic abuse.

We have published the revised domestic violence disclosure scheme, allowing the police to disclose information to a victim or potential victim about their partner or ex-partner’s previous abusive or violent offending. We have doubled funding for the national domestic abuse helpline so that victims of domestic abuse are better supported, and we have launched our national communications campaign, ENOUGH. The ENOUGH campaign challenges harmful behaviours that exist within wider society, educates young people about healthy relationships and consent and ensures that victims can recognise abuse and receive support. Campaign advertising has reached millions of individuals across England and Wales, resulting in tens of thousands of visits to the campaign website and thousands of clicks through to organisations offering support for victims of VAWG.

This is the right time to talk about a subject that has been raised by many noble Lords: online pornography. As my noble friend Lady Jenkin has noted, it is deeply alarming. The noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick, Lady Burt, Lady Jones and Lady Thornton, also referred to the subject so I will go into it in some detail. Offences relating to sexual images—for example, revenge pornography and extreme pornography—have been included in the Online Safety Bill as priority offences. Priority offences reflect the most serious and prevalent illegal content and activity, against which companies must take proactive measures. As such, platforms in scope of the Online Safety Bill will be required to implement systems and processes to minimise the uploading and sharing of such content. Beyond the priority offences, all services will need to ensure that they have effective systems and processes in place quickly to take down other illegal content that targets individuals, once it has been reported or they become aware of its presence.

In addition, the Bill will address children’s access to all forms of published pornography, whether extreme or otherwise. However, it should be noted that publishers of extreme or illegal pornography are already liable for publishing any illegal content on their service.

The Online Safety Bill will cover all online sites that offer pornography, including commercial pornography sites, social media, video-sharing platforms, forums and search engines. These companies will also have to prevent children accessing pornography or face enforcement action. In addition, the Bill will require all in-scope providers to take preventive action to protect all users, including children and young people, from illegal content such as extreme pornography and revenge pornography. This new duty will be enforced by Ofcom, with providers being subject to the same enforcement measures as other services, including substantial fines up to the greater of £18 million or 10% of global qualifying annual revenue or, in the most serious cases, business disruption measures, including blocking.

My noble friend Lady Bertin brought up the image-abuse offences. The Government are reforming the law on the abuse of intimate images, based on the recommendations made in the Law Commission report Taking, Making and Sharing Intimate Images without Consent, which was published in July 2022. That includes offences of sending, sharing and threatening to share deepfake pornography as part of the new base that criminalises someone for sharing an intimate image without consent. That is in combination with the measures already in the Bill to make cyberflashing a criminal offence, which will significantly strengthen protections for women, who are, as has been powerfully stated, disproportionately affected by these activities.

On 27 June the Government announced amendments to the Online Safety Bill relating to intimate image abuse that will protect victims of revenge pornography by changing current laws that require the prosecution to prove that perpetrators shared sexual images or films in order to cause distress. Through this package of amendments, for the first time the sharing of deepfake intimate images, explicit images or videos that have been digitally manipulated to look like someone else will be criminalised.

I want to speak about children accessing pornography in a little more detail, as it was powerfully raised again by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bertin and Lady Jenkin, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. On 8 February 2022, the Digital Minister Chris Philp MP announced world-leading measures to protect children from accessing pornography online. As I have just stated, that is a key principle for this Government. They include the new legal duty requiring all sites that publish pornography to put robust checks in place to ensure that their users are 18 or over. I think it is worth reiterating that, if a site fails to act, Ofcom will be able to fine them substantially.

That deals with the supply side. On the demand side—I think this goes to the points the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Fox, made about education—relationship, sex and health education, or RSHE, is now a statutory part of the curriculum. Children will be taught about the importance of respectful relationships, as well as issues such as domestic abuse and sexual consent. The Department for Education is currently working to update the RSHE statutory guidance. In the tackling VAWG strategy, we committed £3 million in funding for what works to tackle violence against women and girls and invest in high-quality evidence-based prevention projects, including in schools.

In 2022, the Home Office and wider government committed over £230 million over the next three years as part of the domestic abuse plan. This includes over £140 million for supporting victims and survivors. One example of funding to tackle VAWG is the 2023-25 domestic abuse perpetrator intervention fund. This awards up to £39 million to local areas in support of the delivery of interventions for domestic abuse perpetrators, including behaviour change and stalking intervention programmes.

I noted the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on alcohol and substance abuse. It is important, obviously, to break cycles of disengagement and reoffending, but there are no excuses for domestic abuse. There is a frequent coexistence of domestic abuse, mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse, with complex interrelationships between all of them. The NHS plays a key role in providing care and support to victims through a wide range of services. It is also important that any alcohol or drugs treatment plan for perpetrators, as well as addressing the causes of the substance abuse, addresses the complex dynamics of power and control which underpin domestic abuse. I agree with the noble Lord’s comments.

I think this also goes towards answering some of the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Patten about interventions regarding perpetrators. Perpetrator interventions are designed to help change or disrupt offenders’ behaviour and stop crimes being committed. That supports our aim to place the onus on the perpetrator to change and stop victims from experiencing further harm. There is promising evidence suggesting that interventions can be effective at reducing levels of abuse. For example, a perpetrator’s participation in the Drive Project can result in substantial reductions in abuse and risk, with physical abuse reduced by 82% and controlling behaviours by 73%. The Drive Project works with high-harm, high-risk and serial perpetrators of domestic abuse to prevent their abusive behaviour and protect victims. Alongside this funding, the Home Office has appointed an independent evaluation partner to conduct evaluations of perpetrator interventions to help us further enhance our evidence base and better understand what works.

Clearly the police have a vital role to play. Following the 2021 HMICFRS inspection into the policing response to VAWG, we supported the introduction of a new full-time national policing lead for VAWG: DCC Maggie Blyth. She has been working closely with government to drive national co-ordination of the policing response to VAWG. DCC Blyth and her team published a strategic threat and risk assessment for VAWG last month, outlining the areas where police should prioritise their resources to tackle VAWG crimes in the coming year. In February this year, the Home Secretary added VAWG to the revised strategic police requirement. This means that VAWG is now set as a national threat for forces to respond to, alongside other threats such as terrorism, serious organised crime and sexual abuse.

In the tackling VAWG strategy we can confirm that we are looking at the case for a new law on public sexual harassment, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords. We ran a targeted consultation on this last summer. We are grateful to those who responded to the consultation and recognise that a specific offence could deter perpetrators, encourage victims to report and make the law clearer for everyone. We think there is a case for legislative change; the Government are therefore supporting the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill, sponsored by the right honourable Greg Clark MP and my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar. The Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons in March and received its Second Reading in the Lords on 16 June.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that the changes to crime reporting will free up hundreds of thousands of police hours. On the subject of stalking, in January 2020, we introduced stalking protection orders, which are a new civil order to protect victims of stalking at the earliest possible opportunity and address the perpetrator’s behaviours before they become entrenched or escalate in severity in the way that the noble Lord described. SPOs support existing tools to ensure robust protections are available to victims, including victims of stranger stalking, where the perpetrator is not a current or former intimate partner of the victim. The courts issued almost 1,000 SPOs between February 2020 and December 2021. I will write to the noble Lord in answer to his other questions, because I do not have much time left and I still need to talk more about the police. I hope noble Lords will indulge me if I go over my allotted span a little.

It is obvious, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and my noble friend Lady Bertin both identified, that trust issues with the police have been a problem, and it is paramount that public trust in the Met, in particular, is restored. The Government will continue to hold the commissioner and the Mayor of London to account to deliver wholesale change in the force’s culture. There is much more to do, and the task of this mission is rooting out unfit officers. That will mean that further unacceptable cases will inevitably come to light.

The Government are also driving forward work to improve culture, standards and behaviour across policing, including strengthening vetting and reviewing the dismissals process. In January, we launched a review into the process of dismissals to ensure that the system is fair and effective. Among other areas, the review is considering the consistency of decision-making in cases of sexual misconduct and other forms of VAWG. We are currently considering the findings, and the next steps will be published in due course.

I have spoken a lot from the Dispatch Box about other things that the Government have done, so I move on to the subject of rape. It has been mentioned on a number of occasions: the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Thornton, discussed the decline in prosecutions for rape. The Government’s end-to-end rape review found that there had been a steep decline in the number of cases reaching court since 2016. One key reason for this was the number of victims who were withdrawing from the criminal justice process. In the rape review action plan, we took a hard and honest look at how the entire criminal justice system deals with rape, and recognised that in too many instances, it had simply not been good enough. We apologised at the time for this and will not rest until we have delivered real improvements, transforming support for victims and ensuring cases are investigated fully and pursued rigorously through the courts. We are committed to more than doubling the volume of rape cases reaching court by the end of the Parliament. The most recent rape review progress report, which was published in December 2022, showed increases in police referrals, charges and receipts at the Crown Court.

While we have made important progress, much of the work remains ahead of us and it will take time for the effects of these systemic transformations to be seen in the data, particularly due to the inherent complexity of rape investigations and prosecutions, because we are aiming to achieve genuine cultural change. To the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, we recognise that having police officers with the right skills is critical in ensuring cases are progressed and managed effectively. Chief Constable Sarah Crew is the national policing lead for adult sexual offences, and when she gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee she highlighted that she is engaging with chief constables to help ensure that this specialism is recognised across forces. Operation Soteria, which I have spoken about from the Dispatch Box before, is helping to establish an effective, evidence-based way of driving improvements across policing.

I shall talk a little more about Operation Soteria, because it is an ambitious joint policing and CPS programme to develop new national operating models for the investigation and prosecution of rape which will support officers and prosecutors to conduct suspect-focused, rather than victim-focused, investigations. The Home Office is investing £6.65 million in the policing aspects of Operation Soteria between 2021 and 2023. That builds on work in Avon and Somerset Police by bringing together academics and front-line police officers to develop a new national operating model for the investigation of rape.

Operation Soteria is working. We have seen improvements in a number of pathfinder forces: charge volumes in Avon and Somerset more than tripled between October and December 2022, and the Met has seen an 18% reduction in victims withdrawing, falling from 743 cases before Soteria to 611 between October and December 2022. All pathfinder forces have seen an increase in the number of cases being referred to the CPS; Durham has seen a 113% increase, more than doubling the number of cases referred. All pathfinder forces have experienced a reduction in the average number of days taken for a charge outcome to be assigned, with South Wales Police seeing a reduction of almost 300 days in the latest quarter. I am reluctant to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, but I do not think that rape has been decriminalised—serious work is being done to fix this problem.

We will have more to say on the national operating model in due course.

On the subject raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, about children affected by domestic abuse, she is quite right. The Home Office has increased funding for the children affected by domestic abuse fund. We have allocated up to £10.3 million across three years to eight organisations across England and Wales that provide specialist support in the community to children who have been impacted by domestic abuse. That builds on the more than £12 million provided through the children affected by domestic abuse fund since 2018. This scheme has provided support to thousands of children, young people and families who have experienced abuse.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked about refuges. In the Domestic Abuse Act a new duty was introduced on local authorities to provide support for victims of domestic abuse and their children in safe accommodation, including refuges.

I appreciate that I am over time, so I will try to conclude. My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, and my noble friend Lady Meyer, brought up the subject of single-sex spaces. We are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. It is important that the principle of being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is maintained. The Equality Act 2010 sets out that providers have the right to restrict the use of spaces on the basis of sex and gender reassignment, where that is justified. The EHRC has published guidance on the existing legislation, which provides much-needed clarity to those who are operating single-sex spaces.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that we have robust legislative measures in place that require registered sex offenders to inform the police of any name change and enable courts to put restrictions on a registered sex offender’s ability to change their name if they pose a specific risk in relation to name changes.

I have gone over time, so I finish by again offering my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, for initiating the debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for introducing it and giving us all the opportunity to talk about this critical issue. I hope I have outlined some of the vital work that is being done to tackle violence against women and girls; we are doing a great deal, but we know that there is always more to do. This is a societal concern and requires a whole-of-society response. Driving that response is a key priority for the Government and for me, because no one should have to feel unsafe or suffer abuse. We must be and we will be relentless in our efforts to help victims pursue perpetrators, and we will strengthen our systems so that all victims of these crimes have the support and protection they deserve. I hope I have answered all the questions.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I also thank the Children’s Commissioner, Girlguiding, Refuge and others for their very helpful briefing, which I know that we have all taken advantage of. It has been a passionate but very thoughtful debate, dealing with so many different facets of violence against women and girls and recognising how widespread it is and, indeed, how damaging.

I will not even attempt to summarise the debate, particularly given the time, but I thank the Minister for his very detailed response and his clear determination to try to approach, assess and deal with every one of the issues raised. So many proposals for action and change were put forward during the debate that I will have to read his response very carefully, as indeed I suspect we will all have to do, to judge whether it is strong enough to deal with the size of the problem. As several noble Lords have said, we have debated this many times, yet things seem to be getting worse rather than better.

In conclusion, it is vital that we recognise the need for urgency, particularly in protecting young girls from these behaviours. I again thank everybody for their contributions to the debate.

Motion agreed.