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House of Commons

Wednesday 29 March 1995

The House met at Ten o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Domestic Violence

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Maclean.]

10.4 am

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr): In raising the issue of domestic violence, I want to highlight four areas of special concern. They are the effect of domestic violence on children; the operation of prosecution policy, as instanced by the under-prosecution of domestic violence because of the ease with which women can withdraw complaints; the need for a corporate approach by local authorities at the most senior level; and work to tackle the root causes of domestic violence, which is largely perpetrated by men.

Those who suffer domestic violence are not criminals. Whatever they may feel or be told, it is not their fault. Although 90 per cent. of victims are women, in my view it is not a women's issue, to be ghettoised by male policy makers or national or local elected representatives. However, it takes men to raise the issue, to force other men in senior positions to sit up and take notice of that crucial area of social policy.

I will not cite many statistics, but certainly domestic violence knows no social frontiers of class, wealth or ethnicity. During last autumn's long recess, I spent several hours with one domestic violence forum in Birmingham. It is based on one of the current police divisions, although that is to change, and co-ordinated by officers from the city council chief executive's department. I spent four hours with that 20-strong group, all of whose members are women. They included representatives of the Crown Prosecution Service, Churches and the Salvation Army; solicitors, health visitors, staff from local authority housing departments and social services; and representatives of housing associations, the Children's Society and Relate. The police and probation service were represented, as were hostel staff.

During that session, which included one devastating role play of the effects of domestic violence on children, several issues were raised, but I cannot mention them all today. One was the lack of separate waiting rooms for victims and defendants in Birmingham courts. One can imagine what it must be like for a victim to take the matter that far and then find herself in the same room as the defendant.

That problem has largely been solved by the city's new Crown courts, and the magistrates courts are due to be revamped next year. I am particularly grateful for the

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interest shown in that aspect by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor).

Birmingham's city-wide inter-agency steering group on domestic violence-- which includes citizens advice bureaux, benefits agencies and other players in the voluntary sector that I mentioned--defined domestic violence as follows:

"The cycle of abuse affecting women which takes the form of habitual, repeated or random use of intimidating behaviour aimed at controlling and subjugating the individual. This can occur through physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and verbal means. which in turn causes responses such as fear, humiliation, shame and guilt, and changes in a woman's behaviour. That occurs across all sections of the community regardless of culture or social-economic status and within heterosexual or lesbian relationships. The most important point to take account of is that it can kill."

There are about half a million reported incidents of domestic violence a year in this country. In Birmingham in 1993, more than 5, 000 domestic violence incidents were reported to the police, leading to almost 1,000 arrests. In north Birmingham's D police division, which includes most of my constituency, there were just over 1,200 reported incidents. Of seven murders in Birmingham in 1993, five were attributable to domestic violence. This year there have been more, and several serious attempts at murder, as women have attempted unsuccessfully to leave.

More and more women in recent years have been encouraged to use their rights as citizens. I shall never forget one lady who came to my surgery a couple of years ago, just after the last election, and who had been on the receiving end of violence. She belonged to a culture that does not exactly treat women equally. She said: "I have learned to speak up for myself so I can defend myself and my children, and I have found out that I can get help"

She had already sought help before coming to me, but I dealt with other aspects of the case.

Information is both a power and comfort to the victims. The police do take the issue much more seriously than they did a decade ago. Some firms of solicitors specialise in this area. I pay tribute to Tyndallwoods in Birmingham, which some years ago set up a women's 24-hour legal helpline to deal with domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there remain considerable hurdles for the victims. The need for access to quick legal aid; an end to different treatment of married and cohabiting women as compared with other cases where the violence is external to the household; owner-occupiers and tenants being treated differently; the attacker being a joint owner or tenant--all these factors lead to complex and different procedures, which can be daunting.

Indeed, the latest restrictions on legal aid mean that it is almost impossible for women to pursue civil or criminal proceedings using legal aid. Most women in work will not qualify; and worse still, others will be deemed to have income by virtue of the income of their violent partners. That places the victims in an incredibly difficult position.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): I am following the hon. Gentleman's arguments with great interest, because I used to practise in the courts. I cannot quite see why there should be a difference between the

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treatment of people in rented accommodation and of those who are owner-occupiers. I should be grateful for some elucidation.

Mr. Rooker : It is not possible in the time available to go down all the byways. It has to do with income and ownership. If a woman is in a hostel, there will be a difference in the rehousing of her children. It will depend on whether she has been the part owner of an owned house or a tenant of a private landlord or local authority. These factors will result in differences of treatment, which boil down to questions of future housing --and it can all be very bewildering.

Injunctions vary; if taken out under the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976, put through the House by our late friend Jo Richardson, then there is power of arrest. With civil injunctions, there is no power of arrest; and even getting an ouster order has to be done by means of the law on trespass.

I realise that the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, currently in another place, will deal with some of these anomalies, although some of the points that I want to raise are not dealt with in it. That is one reason for my speech this morning.

An injunction with power of arrest presents problems for the police, which are too easily resolved by not making an arrest. This is because the arresting officer has to be the person going to court with the defendant. My constituents believe that any police officer should be able to go to the court with the defendant armed with a statement from the arresting officer. More importantly, the power of arrest where there is evidence should cease to be discretionary. It has been put to me that a major concern is the number of women sufferers of domestic violence who later withdraw their complaints.That is done for a variety of reasons. Anyone can make a mistake. But the facility to withdraw a complaint is openly abused by defendants. Intimidation from both the defendant and members of his family is frequent. The police know that, in many cases in which a complaint is withdrawn, the victim later informs the domestic violence liaison officers that she was coerced into submitting the retraction statement.

Action should therefore be taken to make it more difficult to issue a retraction statement--particularly when the offence has involved arson or the use of caustic substances; a section 18 wounding; or threats to kill where a weapon was involved. Following any offence of violence where a child was a witness, a retraction statement should not be taken from the victim.

Also, once a victim has withdrawn a complaint against a defendant--if that is allowed--no further retraction statements should ever be taken from that victim if a further complaint is made in the future. Of course, that might put people off complaining, but I shall cover that point later.

The Crown Prosecution Service should publish its policy guidelines on the prosecution of such offences; those guidelines should ensure that such cases are not withdrawn too easily. Perhaps research into this aspect should be undertaken.

Bail conditions need attention, too. Too often, those conditions are not specific enough, and the perpetrators will stand around in public places, where it is difficult to

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move them on. They may wait in the street, or outside a college, shops or factory. They may stand outside the homes of the victim's relatives, where the victim has to go, to harass, frighten and intimidate. Hence the need for more specific bail conditions. Local authorities have a major role to play. I know that they come in for criticism in this House, but the fact is that they are the bodies that can perform a genuine co-ordinating role, linking their own services, the police, health authorities and GPs. This does, however, require action at the very top of local authorities, at chief officer level. This is not a matter for delegation. Some local authorities, such as Northampton, have regular meetings of chief officers to look at the issues. Responsibility is not delegated to less senior people, and work is done in partnership with external agencies such as the Women's Aid Federation. They look on domestic violence as a crime with victims and perpetrators, not as a women's issue. That attitude is crucial.

It requires men at the top to spell out to councillors the fact that policy in this important area is not a side issue or a ghetto issue. The hostel and refuge provision in the public sector needs some attention. From what I have heard and seen, local authority hostels tend to be used as a last resort, unlike those in the voluntary sector. This, in the main, is because they are not geared up for the needs of children. That can be a nightmare.

It is estimated that some 750,000 children may be suffering long-term trauma due to exposure to domestic violence. The children are our future, and it is here where work has to undertaken in the schools to change attitudes. Children witness domestic violence, but they will still cry to their mothers that "Daddy has been taken away", and ask why he is not with them in the hostel.

The pressures upon a woman victim forced to leave home with children to seek sanctuary can be immense, especially if the children are unhappy, bewildered, away from their friends, and sent to new schools, with all the fear that that brings to young children. The pressures of coping with several different agencies, dealing with finance, housing, education, the police, solicitors, and trying to take and collect the kids to and from school and get back into a hostel before it closes are all too much for some victims. Some take the easy way out and head back home, usually to a welcoming beating. There are no easy answers--no one claims there are. Twenty years ago, a Select Committee on domestic violence recommended more refuge bed space: one per 10,000 population. We currently have only about 10 per cent. of that number.

I have touched very briefly upon narrow aspects where progress needs to be made. Attitudes--mainly men's attitudes--need changing to end this unacceptable behaviour. I have concentrated on the 90 per cent. of victims who are women. By definition, the other 10 per cent. are men. It is easier to change the attitudes of men if the victims are given help, and if it is known by all concerned that top people will move quickly to help victims.

As a constituency Member, I know the difficulties of getting help quickly to some of these people. As a result, some women put up with intolerable situations for too long, and murder can result. It might be useful to hear from the Minister about the Home Office-sponsored research by Dobash et al of Cardiff university. I have been familiar with that research

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only for the past couple of weeks, but I understand that its publication has been put back. It would be useful for people to see it, so that we can make a judgment whether any recommendations are positive. There may be resource implications to be looked at. Men must be confronted and not let off the hook, and many local schemes are attempting to do that. In Birmingham, "Freshstart"--I do not know why that name was chosen, because that name has been used for another purpose--makes contact with the women partners. It pulls in the men so that they can talk, and they are confronted with what they have done. At the same time, their partners are contacted to ensure their safety, while the menfolk go through the process of chatting about what they have been up to, over an eight to 10-week period.

So far, it has proved highly successful, and does not cost a great deal. Nevertheless, it is something that has to be driven from the top. It requires chief officers to tell local authorities that such schemes are worth while, and that they want senior people involved in them. It is not a matter that should be pushed away to junior staff. Encouragement must be given to work in the schools with young boys, particularly those who display aggressive behaviour in the playground. Some of them will role-play in the playground the domestic violence that they have seen at home. That is understandable, but it must be nipped in the bud at an early stage. They think that it is normal and acceptable behaviour. The education sector has a key role to play in changing attitudes.

In summary--I do not wish to detain the House, as these brief debates have proved extremely useful and I am keen to allow as many hon. Members as possible to speak--we need better, more accessible information for women-- for example, on child benefit and social security allowance documents. There should be more access to freephone 24-hour help lines, which are an extremely valuable resource. It is a comfort to know that they are available, believe me.

There should be more and better safe places in refuges, and they should be more in tune with the fact that, by and large, the woman victim will have young children. We have to think about the effect on the children in the hostels. They have to be there in certain circumstances, but it must not be a trauma for them. The trauma should be reduced to the absolute minimum, and that requires changes in the quality of hostel provision.

There should be better legal remedies. I know that a forthcoming Bill will insist on improving legal remedies. I make no complaint about that. There should be more work with children in school; more training for solicitors, health workers and the police; and a co-ordinated operation from city councils and local authorities. It is important that that is resourced over a long period.

I thank those in my constituency who help my constituents who are involved in domestic violence: health visitors, the police, the Children's Society, which makes a valuable contribution from the small base it has, and Women's Aid and the Salvation Army, whose hostels in parts of north Birmingham provide a model that the city could well follow.

I thank the volunteers who staff some of the help lines out of their own pocket, without any public resource. They give comfort and aid to women. I thank Birmingham social services department, which some years ago set up an organisation known as PAROSA, which has a 24-hour

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help line for Asian women and Asian families. It has qualified staff on the other end of the telephone, where language is not a barrier and help can be provided. The victims should have the comfort of knowing that information and help is available in these circumstances.

Domestic violence is not something that they have to put up with in the quiet of their own home, suffering a battering day in day out, week in and week out, worrying about the affect that it will have on the children and making excuses for the damage, perhaps to their faces and arms. It is wholly unacceptable behaviour in our society at this part of the century. Frankly, we have to do more about it. I hope that we can send some signals this morning to those who work in the area, that the House of Commons is at least aware of the situation.

10.24 am

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I give a warm welcome to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for a most important debate. I totally endorse his definition of domestic violence. He said that domestic is a crime, not a women's issue. I regard domestic violence as a serious issue. A mugging at home is no more acceptable than a mugging in the street. The tragedy is that, for many years, domestic violence was not given the due attention it deserved, and we all know that it is no myth.

I congratulate the Government on their many initiatives in bringing help and support to a very beleaguered section of our society. Such violence is growing every year. Disturbingly, some 40 per cent. of the women murdered in 1993 were killed by their spouses or partners. But even with the many thousands of cases recorded by the police, there is evidence that it is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that many women are fearful of reporting their partners or spouses to the police.

Indeed, I can recall very well going out on a police patrol in Bethnal Green, during which we received an urgent call from a young teenager, to visit a home in a tenement building. He said, "Come quickly, my father is beating my mother very badly. Hurry!" The sense of urgency was quite acute. His call had a calming effect on the father, who, when we arrived, was striding around the flat, still excited, but insisting that everything was "perfectly all right". It did not seem so to me. His wife was huddled in the kitchen, her face bloodied, black and blue. It was a terrible sight. But she did not say a word against her husband. She did not dare, for fear of reprisals. There was nothing we could do. We had to leave, and the tragedy is that she did not press charges, then or later. I very much hope that the Government's excellent domestic awareness campaign, launched last October with a clear message, "Domestic Violence is a Crime--Don't Stand for it", will have some effect. We want to encourage them to come forward. There is no excuse for perpetrators to escape unscathed, and this campaign a complemented by a leaflet, produced in a number of languages and targeted specifically at women who may be reluctant to report domestic violence because of their immigration status. Its message is clear: nobody, whatever their nationality or immigration status, should have to fear violence or abuse of any kind.

I welcome the Home Affairs Select Committee's report on domestic violence, in which it recommended that every police division in London set up a domestic violence unit.

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So far, 28 police forces have special units, and I am proud to say that one of them is run by the Epsom and Sutton division, which covers my constituency. We have two full-time domestic violence officers working flat out, but it would be a mistake to believe that they act alone. Every officer in the division is involved--all 360 of them. It is a team effort, in which they all have an input. We also have our own very active victim support scheme--one of 375 victim support schemes across the country, which altogether are funded to the tune of more than £7 million a year. It is a valued service.

One imaginative scheme that deserves wider attention is a pilot programme in the Central region of Scotland, where panic buttons, of the sort used by thousands of elderly people, are handed out to women at risk. The scheme is only three months old and, according to the last report, only two of the nine women equipped with panic buttons have not had to press them. As soon as they do, the phone rings in the region's emergency care control unit and case details appear on the computer screen with a message to call the police immediately. So far, it takes, on average, three minutes for the police to be at the door complete with details on whether there is a restraint order in force against the man, and the ages of the children. I am delighted to report that the scheme has been welcomed by Sutton police, who regard it as effective because women can get an immediate response. As a result, the police are beginning to install the first alarm in the home of a person who is considered to be particularly at risk.

There is pressure on the Government to fund more women's refuge centres, and that is an attractive and tempting idea. However, I am not sure from conversations that we have had with Sutton's housing department that that is the main issue. Many people apply to social services and, in turn, to the housing department for help. But the great majority--500 in our case-- were given sufficient emotional support and counselling to enable them to return home with their problems resolved.

The housing department helps when it is needed. For a variety of domestic reasons, 66 households were rehoused. But of that number, only 28 families were rehoused because of breakdown resulting from a violent relationship.

The social services department gave me a word of caution. It says that some applications by women are rather dubious, in that they claim excessive domestic violence, which the department feels is somewhat exaggerated in the telling, as a means of getting greater benefits or access to alternative accommodation.

I do not want in any way to use that illustration to denigrate a serious issue. The department has noticed that the numbers of people crying out for help are increasing. It is hard to assess exactly why that is so. More relationships end in blows, and, over the last 20 years, Britain's partnerships are ending in divorce and break-ups are growing at an epidemic rate. Perhaps that has led to increased bitterness.

The hon. Member for Perry Bar rightly said that children are the real victims of domestic violence. I congratulate the Department of Health on taking a lead in co-ordinating the work of the interdepartmental group on child abuse. This is an extremely important area. Esther Rantzen's Childline

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has some chilling examples of horrifying abuse. Children can be damaged for life by their experiences. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr said, based on reported domestic violence, some 750,000 children across the nation may be growing up in an atmosphere of fear and violence. We ignore their plight at our peril.

I agree that local authorities should co-ordinate services, and that it should be done from the top. Chief executives should have an overview, and local authorities should look carefully at their budgets and their consciences. They should cut extraneous spending in cosmetic and political areas and concentrate on the real priority of social services and particularly on children who are the victims of domestic violence. They could focus resources to give a positive benefit.

For example, they could provide skilled counselling for children, which can be very helpful. A play therapist can help a child work through what has happened so that it can face the future. Schools play an essential role in helping to identify children at risk, and that means that teachers will need training for that important task. There is a demand for such services. A survey by NCH Action for Children, based on a poll of 108 mothers with 246 children who had all suffered domestic violence, is telling. Three out of four women questioned said that their children had seen violent incidents, and almost two thirds of the children had seen their mothers beaten. One in 10 women reported having been raped in front of her children. All claimed that their children were aware of violence, and almost three in 10 mothers said that their violent partner had also beaten their children. As a result, the children developed serious anxiety symptoms, starting with bed-wetting. They have difficulty concentrating on school work and become poor achievers. One in three youngsters became violent and aggressive. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Perry Barr.

That becomes a self-perpetuating syndrome because as those children grow up they inflict the same punishment on the next generation. Many develop serious sleeping problems. They become anxious and withdrawn and find it difficult to trust anybody, let alone develop an ability to form close relationships. The survey shows that children witness violence over long periods. On average, the relationships that were described as violent lasted about seven years. That is dreadfully oppressing for children.

I trust that time and resources will be made available to continue to study the effect on children and the help that we can give them. They are innocent victims, and I shudder at the thought of the helpless cry of a child going unanswered. They are our highest priority. It is essential to make sure that we continue to tackle domestic violence with the vigour that we have shown so far. It must be treated as a crime, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

10.35 am

Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith): I have taken a special interest in this subject because of Edinburgh's pioneering role in the "zero tolerance" campaign. I pay tribute to Franki Raffles, the brilliant designer of that campaign, who, tragically, died a few months ago. She is sorely missed, but the work that she started goes on. Many local authorities in Scotland and, I think, in England as well have adopted the zero tolerance

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campaign or a variant of it. Local authorities in Scotland have come together to carry the campaign forward, and are commissioning new material to extend it into a new phase.

The problem with the campaigns by local authorities is that not every part of Scotland will be covered. As hon. Members would expect, I propose to concentrate on Scotland. Highland region will not take part in the campaign. People in Edinburgh and elsewhere have been demanding for a long time that the Scottish Office take the initiative and organise and co- ordinate that campaign.

It would be churlish to deny that the Scottish Office has taken some action. There has been an advertising campaign in Scotland, and that part of it on television has not been too bad. However, the poster campaign has not been handled in the best possible way. One reason for that is that the main poster in Scotland reinforced the stereotype of domestic violence, depicting it as a working-class problem. For the benefit of hon. Members who are not from Scotland, I should say that the poster featured two fists with tattoos stating "Love" and "Hate" and a caption which read, "Which one will she get tonight?" The tattoos have class implications.

One of the important aims of the Edinburgh campaign is to establish that the problem pervades all classes in society. That was a flaw in the Scottish Office poster campaign. Regrettably, the advertising campaign has now ended, and, as far as I know, the Scottish Office does not intend to take it further.

We need not a campaign but a strategy, and that which is being formed by the local authorities is based, first, on prevention; secondly, on provision; and, thirdly, on protection. As other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, I shall be brief in describing each of those.

Prevention has been pioneered by the zero tolerance campaign in Edinburgh, which is based on raising the issue and trying to tackle the attitudes that lead to domestic violence. The campaign was based on the fundamental assumption that domestic violence was part of a continuum of violence against women and children, which is why sexual abuse and rape were included. That continuum expands to lesser forms of violence such as slapping, but they are also serious.

The zero tolerance campaign grasped the fundamental issue that domestic violence is rooted in male power and control over women. The underlying background to domestic violence is the historic belief that men have the right to have that power and control. The campaign has been willing to grasp that nettle. It must be grasped, which means challenging men.

Great unevenness of provision exists Scotland. There are whole areas where no refuge provision exists. That issue must be grasped at Scottish Office level. There is not enough provision, even in local authorities that have it. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has issued guidelines on how many refuges each local authority should have, but not one local authority in Scotland meets those guidelines. That is a funding issue for the Scottish Office. The protection of women has various aspects. First, men must be properly sentenced once they have been convicted. Secondly, proper help must be given to women who want to get injunctions. The diminution of legal aid makes it more difficult for women to get injunctions to protect themselves against men who are threatening them.

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Thirdly, there is retaliation, which is not such a frequent issue, but which arises in quite a few cases in relation to the protection of women.

When the matter was last debated nearly two years ago, I referred to the "Brookside" programme. The plot that I mentioned then is still running, as some hon. Members will know. That programme will cover the issue of what happens to a woman who understandably retaliates when the position becomes impossible. The character in that programme will be tried for murder. It will be a topical issue, which must be dealt with.

This morning, I was pleased to read in The Scotsman that a 60-year-old woman who drew a knife on her husband when she was being attacked was just admonished in court yesterday. Perhaps things are changing, but I also read in this morning's Edinburgh Evening News a depressing story about a victim of rape who had £3,000 of the £4, 000 that she had received in compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board taken away because she had committed various minor breach of the peace offences. It is a shocking indictment of society that a rape victim could be considered worthy of only £1,000 in compensation.

The protection of women victims involves many issues. I hope, and the campaign that local authorities are co-ordinating in Scotland is demanding, that a working party should be formed to consider the protection of women and the treatment of domestic violence by the criminal justice system.

Other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall draw may remarks to a close. I hope that the Government will consider the issue with the seriousness that it deserves. I concede that the Scottish Office has done something, but I hope that it will do much more.

10.42 am

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on bringing this important subject to the Floor of the House. Domestic violence has a low public profile, but it is disturbingly widespread. As we have heard, it is the second most common form of violence reported to the police, and it makes up a quarter of all recorded crime.

Of course, of all crimes, it is perhaps the hardest for the Government to tackle. We can put more police on the streets, try to make houses burglar- proof, and encourage neighbourhood watch schemes, but none of that will protect a woman or a child from domestic violence. What can we do? Today, we have heard some of the solutions that are being proposed, but, especially in a crisis, we need to make it as easy as possible for victims to leave their homes where they cannot live safely and, if they choose, to take action against their tormentors.

In combating domestic violence, the first priority is to tackle refuge overcrowding and funding problems. Money must be made available to local authorities so that they can provide one refuge place per 10,000 of the population as part of a national strategy for refuge provision. Voluntary groups, many of which provide refuges, suffer from a dreadful insecurity of funding, and therefore of long-term planning.

I agree that legal action is a difficult and sensitive issue. If a victim of violence does not wish the police to take action, should they go ahead, regardless of her wishes, so that society sends the message to perpetrators that such

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behaviour will not go unpunished? It may be that the desire not to have the offender prosecuted arises from fear of repercussions, of being made homeless, or of not being able to provide for children. It may simply arise from not wanting to be alone. If so, we should be helping that person by offering her the choice through housing and financial and emotional support.

Fear of the legal process may be, and often is, a factor, but the major factor influencing victims of domestic violence is often a genuine desire to avoid prosecution because of their love for the perpetrator as a husband or father--which is often difficult to believe--because of the knowledge of the effect that the prosecution will have on other members of the family, especially young children, or, as we heard earlier, because of threats and coercion. What we in Westminster see as the right thing to do is never an easy option. It is often difficult to decide whether to prosecute. We can ensure that the best possible counselling and advice is made available, and that all unnecessary fears are dealt with. The hon. Member for Perry Barr mentioned the spread of departments and organisations involved at local level. That makes an inter-agency approach essential. The police and social services, health and education departments all have a part to play. There is an example of that teamwork in Dorset, where all those agencies are taking part in a domestic violence project in an attempt accurately to assess the scale of the problem and to consider the appropriate police response.

The purpose of that inter-agency forum is

"to identify and monitor the incidence and nature of domestic and family violence . . . to reduce the risk of violence in the home or arising from those relationships termed as `domestic and family violence', to emphasise the unacceptability of this behaviour, to reduce the risks to adults and children who are exposed to domestic and family violence, to respond to the needs of those affected." The project began only a few weeks ago, on 1 March, but the project co-ordinator, Detective Sergeant Gill Donnell, says that, already, an increasing number of self-referrals are being made to the project by victims who would have been reticent in making contact directly with the police. That is an example of the sort of approach that the Government should be encouraging.

It is difficult to say that we will ever eliminate domestic violence. It has been, and certainly will be, with us for a long time, but, by publicising the fact that people who are suffering have someone to whom they can go, and by providing properly funded counselling and, as a last resort, refuges, we can limit the suffering.

10.49 am

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on his success in securing a debate on this important subject. It is important to women, important in terms of the law, important for children and the viability of family life, and certainly important to policy makers. Two weeks ago, I presented a Bill on the subject of domestic violence. It called attention to three issues: the unacceptability of domestic violence, which is criminal behaviour; the provision of information about the legal remedies available to people who suffer domestic violence; and refuge provision for people fleeing domestic violence.

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As hon. Members have said, domestic violence has a long history. We all know the phrase "rule of thumb", but not many of us know that it comes from the old idea that a man was allowed to beat his wife so long as he did not use a stick any thicker than his thumb. People routinely use the phrase, without realising its derivation. Mention has also been made of the fact that domestic violence is no respecter of social class, and is indeed an expression of male power over women, which the phrase "rule of thumb" adequately describes.

It is important to recognise the effect that domestic violence has on children and women. A friend of mine in her forties said that it was only when observing the married relationships of her friends that she realised that domestic violence was not the norm. Her father had beaten her mother, and her husband had beaten her. She thought that was what marriage was like --that is the view of a youngish to middle-aged woman today.

The effect of domestic violence on children sometimes has to be seen to be believed. A couple of years ago, I represented in court a woman who was applying to commit her husband to prison for breach of a domestic violence injunction. She had been getting injunctions against him for years. He had beaten her, assaulted her with a knife and thrown furniture at her. His behaviour was utterly outrageous, unacceptable and criminal, but, as it occurred in the private home, the remedies open to the woman were not the same as they would have been had he assaulted a total stranger. She came to court with her mother and children.

The behaviour of her four-year-old boy had to be seen to be believed. He had witnessed his father's violent behaviour day in and day out, and had clearly learned that might was right. He had no respect for his mother, because his father had no respect for her. He was clearly caught in a cycle of violence, which one suspects will be repeated down the generations. I was told that he was receiving behavioural therapy, but I wonder how successful it will be. He is likely to beat up any woman or women with whom he has a relationship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm), who has spoken up in the House on this issue since he was elected at the same time as me. He referred to Edinburgh district council's zero tolerance campaign. Bristol city council is very impressed with the style of the campaign and the way in which information is being conveyed to the public, and is planning a similar campaign.

In 1993, the Select Committee on Home Affairs reported:

"We recommend that the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department fund a campaign designed to raise awareness among the public, and in particular actual and potential perpetrators and victims, of the criminality of domestic violence, the opportunities for redress and the willingness of authorities to treat the matter seriously."

The Government's action on that recommendation has been found wanting.

Hon. Members have mentioned the law, and I am delighted that a Bill from another place will consolidate existing legislation, which is confused. The fact that we have any legislation at all is in very great measure due to the sterling work done by the former Member for Barking, Jo Richardson, who was a dear friend to many of us. She was behind the Select Committee on Violence in Marriage

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and the work that led to the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 and the Domestic Proceedings and Magistrates' Courts Act 1978.

One of those Acts covers only married people while the other covers unmarried people, and the injunctions available are different in the two jurisdictions. There is no protection for unmarried people who have to return to their parents' homes, and lawyers trying to advise women who suffer domestic violence have to pick their way through a minefield of legislation, which clearly needs consolidation. I hope that the House will take full advantage of the opportunity that is to be provided.

I recently met representatives from Bristol Women's Aid, who made several important points at their annual general meeting. One involved the effect on women of Government cuts in the legal aid budget. While local authorities are trying to disseminate information about the availability of remedies, it is becoming increasingly difficult for women to seek the protection of the courts, because of the unavailability of legal aid. The women referred to refuge provision and the fact that, in 1975, the Select Committee had recommended one place for every 10,000 of the population. We have not reached even a third of that figure.

The women also talked to me about the need for a co-ordinated approach at local level. We are lucky in Bristol, in that it is an innovative city. It was in Bristol that victim support, health centres and family mediation began, and for a long time we have had a domestic violence forum involving the police, the courts, the local authority, women's organisations and Women's Aid, which give information to protect women who are vulnerable because of their housing arrangements and those who are fleeing domestic violence. It is most important that we say that women are not victims, which is the impression given when we deal with the problem by allowing people to flee a violent relationship and then offering them refuge--it is like firefighting. We need strategies that enable women to recognise their own strength, and the fact that they are suffering violence. We should be turning our attention to the aggressors and saying that their behaviour is unacceptable. The more men who say that, the better.

Women are often told to stay indoors because the streets can be very unsafe, yet a quarter of all recorded crime is in the home. Where are women safe? If they stay indoors, they might run the risk of being beaten up, but on the streets they are frightened of crime. It is important to have a co- ordinated approach for women who suffer domestic violence. We must tell men when their behaviour is unacceptable, but, in the meantime, more refuges must be provided. We must support local initiatives that help women and children and educate male perpetrators of domestic violence. This should be at the forefront of public policy, to enable family life to be the example and experience that most of us would wish.

10.58 am

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