In any civilised society, absolutely no one has the right to knock the living daylights out of anyone else, yet the police receive more than 570,000 calls a year reporting violent attacks in the home. The largest category of assaults recorded by the British crime survey involves domestic violence and 80 per cent. of them are against women. Domestic violence--violence within the family--is a huge and hidden problem. A snapshot of one day of violence shows that some victims are raped or stabbed. Women are kicked while pregnant. Some are left with cuts and bleeding. One victim had her throat slashed with a razor blade. Four out of five calls are from women who have been attacked by men. Only one in 10 is from a man who has been attacked by a woman. A person is assaulted in the home every 20 seconds, so a woman somewhere has been assaulted since I started my speech.
At greatest risk are those aged under 25 and in financial difficulty. The risks are highest for women who are separated from their spouses. The public is now on the alert for child abuse, both physical and mental. The media and the Children Act 1989 have done a great deal to bring that evil into the public eye. Rape is a vile crime, which thankfully no longer attracts comments from the police and judiciary suggesting that the victim asked for it. Parliamentary colleagues regularly receive thousands of letters from constituents reporting cruelty to animals, but what about cruelty to human beings in this country? Domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, so it has been convenient to overlook it. However, by tolerating domestic violence, we condone it as an acceptable form of behaviour. By failing to outlaw and punish the perpetrators, we collaborate in undermining the healthy fabric of our society.
The law acknowledges physical violence, but emotional and mental abuse are as widespread and its natural precursor. When the victim is verbally undermined as well as physically threatened, she suffers a loss of confidence and dignity. Women live moment by moment, fearful of what might happen when their partner returns home and experiences an unexpected mood change. Emotional terrorism goes hand in hand with physical abuse but often is not accompanied by physical abuse. Only such emotional and mental abuse enables the abuser to feel sufficiently confident to pursue the power that he seeks--complete control, body and soul, of another human being.
The full extent of domestic violence will probably never be known, but the facts speak for themselves. In 1996, nearly half of the 224 woman homicide victims were killed by their partners. Of 426 male homicide victims, only 8 per cent. were killed by their partners. Domestic violence is the most common single cause of violence against women, and it accounts for a quarter of all recorded crime.
The harrowing account of a constituent of mine illustrates the horror and degradation that a young woman had to endure at the hands of a brutal and cruel man who, on the face of it, was a respected manager of an out-of-town shopping centre where she had worked for six years. Julie's story is so typical that I shall tell it in her own words. She said:
The day before I was due to return to work, he set about me on the stairs, just because my mother said he looked like a character from a soap opera she watched. He slapped me about the face and pushed me down the stairs. The next morning I had a huge black eye and bruising about the head. The mirror said it all. I couldn't go to work like that.
By November I was five months pregnant and that is when the trouble began in earnest. He would get me up in the middle of the night and interrogate me about my past boyfriends, saying he was not the father of our child and set about me. He was never in a rage when he did this, he was always calm and collected. I dared not provoke him by defending myself in any way. It never worked. I was afraid what more he might do to me. I guess it wore me down because I couldn't find the guts to ask for help, particularly from my family or friends. I was too ashamed, it had been going on so long. A couple of months after our baby was born, he punched me in the breasts and pinned me to the floor, his foot to my throat, he was wearing his Cat boots.
The final straw came on 9 May 1997. He first attacked me at around 10.00 in the morning, then on and off for the better part of the day, about 6-7 hours in all. He repeatedly got me by the throat to stop me breathing while he reassured me that I could be unconscious for two minutes and still be okay. Then he would take to kicking me in the legs and buttocks. He only stopped to wash his face of sweat, before starting off again. He told me he was ready to do 25 years in prison for me. He then got hold of a fondue fork and threatened to stab me in the eye. I was absolutely terrified and really believed that this time I would not get out alive. But he suddenly left off, put on his coat and went out of the house--"to get some fish and chips", he said.
The scale of the problem and its horrifying nature is mind-numbing. We need to lift the lid on this horror. Perpetrators of domestic violence must pay; just as child abusers and paedophiles are now recognised as pariahs of society, so must they be exposed for the monsters that they truly are. What can we do to rid ourselves of these bullies and tormentors? How are the police, the social services and the courts coping?
At one time, the police distinguished between violence on the streets and violence at home. Thankfully, they have made great strides in recent years, with the help that they provide to victims of domestic violence--many of whom are in a state of utter despair and fear and have nowhere else to turn. Indeed, Julie told me that she was eternally grateful to the policeman who listened to her and believed her. He was sympathetic and understanding, and encouraged her to sign her statement. Julie told me that it was the police's positive response that helped to turn her life around. If she had received a negative response, she might well have gone back to her abusive husband and ended up as another homicide statistic.
Although police attitudes have changed, targeted training is needed to deal with domestic violence on the doorstep and careful attention needs to be given to how the police might become more proactive in seeking it out. We are fortunate in Devon to have two police officers whose sole responsibility is for cases of domestic violence. They cover Torbay, South Hams and Teignbridge, which are part of my constituency, and West Devon, which is not. The total population there is well over 300,000. It is self-evident that more police officers should be aware of what domestic violence entails. The limited number of trained police officers in far-flung rural areas such as mine--where two officers often have to travel 60 or more miles between each call--results in limited cover.
A decade ago, I spent an evening with the police in Kingsbridge, a town in my constituency. In retrospect, I realise that almost all the emergency calls that night involved apparent acts of domestic violence. At the time, I was not aware of it. One call was from a woman whose partner was threatening her with a double-barrelled shotgun. Out we rushed in a panda car. When we arrived, the policeman smiled at the couple and told the farmer with the gun to put that silly thing away. He smiled at the lady and told her that everything would be all right. In retrospect, it was probably a warning sign that should have been taken much more seriously.
What about the judiciary? There are some very real problems there. Although there has been a shift in awareness, the courts employ practices that often militate against bringing abusers to justice. What woman who has been knocked senseless is prepared to confront her partner across a courtroom, without fear for her personal safety when she gets outside? Videotaped evidence should be the norm in these cases, and in instances of domestic violence the burden of proof should be specifically placed on the man to prove that he is a responsible person and should have access to his children.
Although under the guiding principles set out in section 1 of the 1989 Act, the welfare of the child is paramount, there is no reference to domestic violence. The same applies to the guidance that accompanies the Act. It does not require the court to consider the safety of the other parent or of other children in the family. The Family Law Act 1996 went some way to recognise those issues, but decisions in the Court of Appeal have established a strong case law presumption that contact will almost always be granted, as in the long term it is considered to be in the best interests of the child.
Children of abusive families live in fear and confusion. Many abused children fail to thrive, remain weak and undernourished, start hitting out at school, fail to make academic progress, play truant and steal, and become part of the crime statistics. In one third of child protection cases domestic violence was identified as part of the problem, although it is widely believed that the real figure is much higher.
Women need protection. South Devon Women's Aid has a number of refuges in which women who have been brutalised may seek a safe sanctuary. There are three in Devon and four in Cornwall, offering between them about 35 to 40 places--and that is all--enabling desperate women to get away. There is always a massive waiting list. The refuges do essential, invaluable and vital work in providing a safe house where victims' self-esteem can be restored. The 897 women who called South Devon Women's Aid last year were primarily counselled by a handful of paid workers and a small battalion of women volunteers. Those women do an amazing undercover job with inadequate resources. They provide practical help, advice and information for women who are desperate to get out of abusive relationships. Let us not forget that the numbers involved are massive--at least half a million women a year in the United Kingdom suffer from abusive and violent relationships.
Is there any way to prevent this problem? Is there a way to make progress? I believe that that depends on analysis of the cause of the problem. Some psychiatrists and psychologists believe that domestic violence is proof positive of widespread mental disorder eating away at the fabric of our society and effecting the breakdown of the nuclear family. They point out the increase in stress and personal pressure in everyday life, which means that many people just cannot cope any longer with the demands made of them and the speed of change. However, that analysis fails to account for the fact that the problem is not a new phenomenon. Unemployment, poverty and poor housing do not help, but we should not forget that domestic violence is encountered in all strata of society. Regardless of its root causes, it cannot be tolerated. In a civilised society, no one has the right to knock the living daylights out of anyone else.
I applaud the recent focus on bullying in schools. Perhaps it will open our eyes to scraps in the playground involving boys and girls. The teaching profession is reassessing training methods, to help teachers in primary schools deal with bullying. The work of Kidscape shows how crucial it is for violence at an early age to be rooted out. Coram Family, the London child care charity based in King's Cross, is breaking new ground in tackling poor family relationships and family breakdown. The work focuses on improving relationships and expectations between men and women, thus preventing violent and abusive relationships. One of the projects recently set up is Boyz to Men, which works with young black men in the care system, setting out to promote new understanding of their future role as fathers and partners. The young men in question frequently have had bad models in their own fathers and need to find new and less violent ways of relating to their partners in future.
Quite a bit is being done in the voluntary sector to address the problem that I have described, but can the state do anything? An effective and supportive legal system is essential in tackling domestic violence. It needs to provide protection for women and children and to hold abusers to account. If women are afraid to use the legal system, we must attend to it until it is shown to provide protection and safeguards for people who have suffered such terrible violence. The Crown Prosecution Service should play a far more helpful and positive role. It should automatically take the initiative and bring prosecutions. It should not be expected that victims will prosecute. Although there is a general acceptance that the police and judicial system now treat victims of domestic violence with greater sympathy and listen and respond to their experiences, such improvements are piecemeal and not every court is quite so sympathetic.
We can get to work straight away. Comprehensive training in domestic violence issues should be included in the training of all legal practitioners. We need an improved police response, strengthened pro-arrest policies, improved collection of evidence and an end to the routine release of the offender on bail. There should be better co-ordination between the criminal and civil law in relation to domestic violence. The criminal justice system should issue stronger sanctions against abusers. "Seek and find" orders should not be pursued in cases of domestic violence and the court procedures must be altered to ensure that the addresses of abused women and children remain absolutely confidential.
The Child Support Agency grants departure orders allowing men to reduce their contributions to their wives on the pretext of having to make costly journeys to see their children. The benefit should be available only with proper receipts, because the mothers know when the visits do not happen, but fear to let the officials know because of the likely consequences. An effective legal response should be part of a wider, community response
Women have had the vote for nearly 80 years and are viewed as equals in the eyes of the law. Condoning domestic violence by turning a blind eye and shrugging one's shoulders has gone on long enough. If more than half a million black people a year were physically and mentally assaulted, there would be a national outcry, but because women report the abuse we acquiesce. Also, because it is seen as happening at home. A change in public attitude is urgently needed. Our institutions are slowly recognising the enormity and nature of the problem and seeking better ways of dealing with it. However, the response still seems halfhearted when one realises that the homes of many victims have become war zones with an enemy as cunning as any wartime interrogator effective in the arts of brainwashing and torture.
One in four women are assaulted at some point in their lives. There are 650 Members of Parliament in the House of Commons; how many have experience of domestic violence? There are 2,000 support staff in the Houses of Parliament; how many of them have been involved in an abusive relationship?
We must now see what can be done to help women to escape from abusive relationships and to prevent their children becoming part of the cycle of violence. Child abusers and rapists must face the full consequences of their crimes, and no longer should perpetrators of domestic violence be able to escape. I hope that the debate will bring us closer to that aim.
I shall speak about one aspect of domestic violence: contact between violent parents and their children. My plea is that the Government enshrine in legislation the guidelines laid down by the Children Act subcommittee of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Board on Family Law Matters, on parental contact in cases of domestic violence. That means changing the presumption set out in a ruling by the Master of the Rolls in 1995 that contact is "almost always" in the interests of the child. Instead, there should be a presumption, capable of being rebutted, that if there is a history of violence to the child or the other parent, contact and residence will not be granted until it can be shown to be safe for all parties. The safety and welfare of the child should be paramount, and that should be achieved by amending the Children Act 1989. It would also mean challenging wider social assumptions about parental rights, including parents' rights of access to their children, but it would do much to protect children and their resident parent--usually, but not always, the mother--from further attack.
To emphasise the human cost involved I, like the hon. Gentleman, shall describe the experience of a constituent, whose ex-husband attacked her eldest child with a knife and tried to strangle her when she was five and a half months pregnant with their child. When she came round, she discovered that her husband had gone,
In nine months, the father of the little girl sent two cards, one at Christmas and one a few months later. He took little opportunity to make even indirect contact. None the less, the court ordered direct contact. My constituent faced being imprisoned for contempt of court for refusing to agree, and was told to make child care arrangements because she would be sent to prison. The court was a family court, so there was no publicity. I was horrified to realise that a woman could be repeatedly sent to prison and threatened with losing the custody of her child in a case that would not be tried at any stage in a public court.
Only at the final hearing did my constituent's lawyers draw the court's attention to the Children Act subcommittee guidelines. Much to everyone's surprise, it was found that although she was in contempt, she was reasonably in contempt and so was not sent to prison. Her story had a happy ending, but not all children are so fortunate. In August, Daniel and Jordan Philpot were gassed to death in their father's car during a contact visit. A contact order had been granted to the father, despite the fact that he was due to appear in a Crown court on charges of threatening to kill his ex-partner and causing her actual bodily harm.
Women's Aid, which has done excellent work on the subject, has provided other examples of such cases. One was of a woman who fled to a refuge with her youngest child. She was collecting her son from a contact visit to the father in 1996 when she was stabbed to death. Her son was found strangled in her husband's car, and later her three other children were found dead in their beds with their throats cut. Her husband is serving a life sentence for murder. Another case was of a woman worried about her violent husband's mental stability. She was persuaded to agree to contact without a court hearing, and her two children were murdered during a contact visit in 1993.
As the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned, it is a problem that neither the 1989 Act nor its supporting guidance explicitly mentions domestic violence in relation to contact. That makes it difficult for judges to deny contact to a violent parent. The county courts, as the hon. Gentleman said, heard 36,144 applications for parental contact in 1997-98. In only 656 cases was contact refused. The welfare of the child is considered only in decisions of residence, not contact. The number of contact orders refused is surprising, given the substantial role that domestic violence plays in marital and relationship breakdown.
capacity of the parent seeking contact to appreciate the effect of past and future violence on the other parent and the children concerned...The attitude of the parent seeking contact to past violent conduct by that parent; and in particular whether that parent has the capacity to change and/or to behave appropriately. Those points are excellent, as is the rest of the subcommittee's report. However, I disagree with the conclusion that legislation is not needed.
The principle at stake is important. It concerns the priority that should be given to the safety of the child, and society's attitudes to parental rights in relation to children. Those issues are a proper subject for discussion in Parliament and for wider debate, and I am sure that that debate would be heated. We all agree that it is wrong to hit people, especially vulnerable people such as children. However, the notion that the parent--in most cases, the father--should not have an automatic right of contact or access to his child would be controversial. It would need to be discussed, so that the principle could be established on a wide basis and properly understood.
My view is that when a parent, spouse or partner has shown a pattern of violence, especially when that violence--as it often is--is exacerbated by drug or alcohol abuse, there must be substantial evidence of
We tend to assume that domestic violence is directed at women alone, but that is often not the case. I do not have the results to hand, but some children's charities have done careful research and have found that, when the woman is attacked, the children may be witnesses to the violence or attacked themselves. Therefore, it is untrue that the issue affects only women; it affects children directly, and we should recognise the impact that it has on them and take steps to prevent it.
I welcome the approach taken by the Lord Chancellor's Department; in fact, I thought that a Minister from that Department might reply to the debate. However, I am sure that the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) will speak with colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department. The approach that it has taken suggests that the Government are considering issuing a practice direction to the judiciary. However, for the reasons that I have given, I do not consider that a practice direction would be adequate to deal with the problem properly, in such a way as to allow society to understand how the issues should be resolved. I believe that the guidelines recommended by the Children Act subcommittee must be entrenched in law, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to that point.
Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate and making a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech. Let me say, without being patronising, that it is excellent that a male Member has brought the issue to our attention this time. The issue has too often been perceived as one that concerns women alone, but it should concern us all.
I wish that we could come up with a term other than "domestic violence": "domestic" sounds so cosy and homely and, as the hon. Gentleman said, violence is violence wherever it occurs. If anything, violence that takes place in the home, where one normally wants and expects to feel safe and secure, must be even more frightening. As the hon. Gentleman said, at one time the stereotypical police response to a violent argument between husband and wife or cohabitees was that it was "just a domestic" and that it was better for outsiders not to get involved. I remember hearing that response. One used to hear many anecdotes about people seeing a warring couple in the street and not wanting to interfere because they were likely to be thumped instead. The police have moved on a great deal since then. My local Avon and Somerset police force has been particularly pioneering by having a domestic violence unit in each district, dedicated domestic violence officers and a pro-arrest policy. Sadly, however, it is still the case that, too often, the attitude of neighbours and witnesses is that it is better not to interfere. Much education needs to be done among ordinary members of the public.
Jackie Ballard : I certainly agree. My daughter witnessed a violent incident--not domestic violence--that ended up as a case of murder; she had to wait a year before she knew whether she was required to go to court. I had to persuade her that it was the socially right thing to do. The whole court process can deter people from coming forward as witnesses.
People concerned about domestic violence are not limited to those who have experienced it at first hand or even to such people as refuge workers or the police who are in the front line of dealing with perpetrators and victims. As the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said, the concern extends to teachers with pupils who are or have been direct or indirect victims, to general practitioners who need to be able to spot the signs of emotional crisis as well as the physical wounds, and to health visitors who need training to ask the right questions. Housing officers, social workers, probation staff, community nurses and the Crown Prosecution Service also have a role to play. A considerable number of people are therefore touched by the issue. From the victim's point of view, many people are involved. The police, refuge staff, social workers and the CPS can all play a part in what is for most victims one of the most difficult, intimate and frightening experiences of their life. It is therefore vital that victims who contact any of the agencies are guaranteed basic rights.
The hon. Member for Totnes said that one in 10 calls to the police are from men who have been assaulted by women. I suspect that there is a great deal of under-reporting of the violence perpetrated on men. As there was once a huge amount of under-reporting among women--there is probably still some--because of the shame of admitting that they were being abused in their own home, it is still very difficult for a man to come forward and say that he is being physically abused by his female partner. I suspect that the number of male victims is much higher than the recorded figures although I am sure that the majority of victims are still, because of the physical differences between the genders, women. We tend to focus on women victims, but it is important that we do not forget male victims.
All victims need to be guaranteed confidentiality. They need to be guaranteed that they will be dealt with sensitively to ensure that the process of reporting domestic violence does not contribute to the sense of powerlessness that many victims already feel. They need to be reassured that if they come forward for help they will not be judged. In the past, victims too often felt that they had done something wrong. People who have spoken to victims of domestic violence know that they often start by saying things such as, "It was my fault because I did not have his dinner ready on time", or "It was my fault as I made him angry".
We know that domestic violence is rarely a one-off event. Many of the people who speak out have been on the receiving end for a considerable time. As the hon. Member for Totnes told us, the police say that women who report domestic violence have, on average, been
We need to be able to guarantee that the professionals dealing with the health, social and emotional needs of women and their children have been properly trained to do so. Ideally, specialist services will be available, but we must also ensure that every front-line worker who is dealing with the victims of domestic violence has had basic training. Above all, we must be able to guarantee that the professionals involved have a co-ordinated response. The last thing that a person who has plucked up the courage to come forward needs is to be passed from agency to agency, with the feeling that those agencies are not even talking to one another. There must be a response that does not stigmatise the victim or her family, but encourages her to take positive control of the situation.
A new United Kingdom-wide membership organisation was formed earlier this year. It is called Respect and was formed to promote best practice among statutory and independent-sector projects and workers who work with perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. It is to be formally launched in March 2001 and will be a great help in ensuring a standardised method of response. We know from children that even when people are not being abused directly, they can be living with domestic violence in a constant state of fear, anxiety, confusion and often helplessness--a fact that has been described by mothers also. At the very least, that should influence the nature of the interventions made to protect women and children. A challenge remains for all of us to try to improve a system that affects so many women and children each year.
We know that properly co-ordinated inter-agency work can achieve a great deal. It can enable effective intervention, as well as challenge and change inappropriate attitudes to domestic violence. No single agency, whether the police, social services or any other, knows all that there is to know about the subject or can tackle it alone, but when a range of agencies work closely together, domestic violence can be reduced and prevented. Hon. Members may know about the intervention project in Duluth, Minnesota, whose inter-agency strategy has reduced significantly the number of men who repeat acts of domestic violence. Indeed, it has also reduced domestic violence murders.
When I first visited Women's Aid projects, I found that people who worked with the organisation would not work with male offenders and focused only on the female victim. That is, after all, what the organisation was established to achieve. It regarded it as part of its task to help the woman to get away from the male offender. Many refuge workers now accept, however, that some men can be helped to recognise and end their violent behaviour if they receive appropriate counselling and support.
An independent voluntary-sector project called the domestic violence intervention project was set up in London in 1991. It provides many services to women and children but also does violence prevention group work with male perpetrators. The DVIP believes that working with perpetrators alongside their partner or ex-partner dramatically improves the safety of women and children. The previous speakers mentioned the difficulty of child contact orders. The DVIP is currently involved in an inter-agency pilot project on child contact and domestic violence, in partnership with the Middlesex family court welfare service and the Coram Family centre, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes.
I should like to list the main aims of the pilot scheme, as such schemes will, alongside legal changes, have a significant contribution to make. The first aim is to include the voices of women and children in the risk assessment process, so that their safety and wishes are taken into account. The second aim is to build into the system of risk assessment the notion that perpetrators can change and should be held accountable for their abuse, and to ensure that perpetrators are actively working to change their behaviour and attitudes before contact is given. It is important to accept that many perpetrators can change, because even if one woman manages to escape from a perpetrator of domestic violence, that perpetrator is very likely to enter another violent relationship. Therefore, if it is possible to change him, that opportunity should be taken.
The third aim is to encourage consistency in judicial rulings regarding contact orders and to help the judiciary in its dilemma of balancing a child's right to see both parents against the possible risk that contact with a violent parent may present to the child and the resident parent. That means promoting safe and appropriate contact by decreasing the number of inappropriate contact orders granted, while increasing the number of perpetrators with whom people can safely work towards establishing contact.
The project will assess both partners. A risk assessment will be made of the perpetrator, and recommendations will be made to the court, which may order the perpetrator to attend a programme before it takes a decision about whether a contact order is appropriate. It has the makings of an excellent pilot project. I know that the Minister has been listening carefully, and I hope that she will note that the scheme is still actively looking for funding to evaluate the project. As we all know, it is not enough merely to conduct a pilot project. It must be evaluated to provide evidence of whether it would be worth rolling out on a wider basis.
By taking an approach that is person-centred rather than process-centred, which does not blame the victim for experiencing violence and clearly places responsibility on the abuser, which imposes sanctions for such behaviour and which ensures that sanctions are imposed as soon as possible after the incident is reported, it is possible to offer effective services that enable victims to empower themselves in circumstances that seem hopeless.
I am convinced that the inter-agency approach is best, but inter-agency working raises difficult questions that must be dealt with. How do different agencies share information while retaining confidentiality? How do
As the hon. Member for Totnes said, changing society's understanding of violence and its causes and solutions is an on-going and long-term process. In the past 10 years, many changes have taken place in how we view such matters. Services and protection are more accessible than previously. People now accept that the victim should not have to flee to safety, and that the perpetrator should be removed instead. However, effective counselling is still not widely available for everyone involved.
The hon. Member for Totnes is right about the need to reduce general levels of violence in society, to tackle violence when it starts--in the playground--and to tackle some deeply held views. A recent opinion poll asked young men in what circumstances they felt that it was appropriate to thump their partner. I have forgotten the percentages, but a rather high and worrying percentage said that if dinner was late, it was appropriate to do so. Many views need to be challenged. It is a complex issue, and I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to have a sensible and thought-provoking debate about it today.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on having secured the debate and on the graphic illustration of the curse of domestic violence that he offered to hon. Members. According to the figures, the number of reported incidents has declined somewhat in recent years, for which we are grateful, but it still bedevils our society, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to it in such an eloquent fashion this morning. I congratulate the hon. Members for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who illustrated with constituency examples a problem that continues to rage.
Domestic violence can be defined as activity that involves any form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse of people in a close relationship. It is important to understand, however, that it can involve more than physical violence. It can include threats, privation, humiliation and behaviour that is designed to belittle the victim. Controlling and, in a sense, degrading conduct towards mainly women, but not infrequently now towards men, is deeply undesirable and needs to be countered.
Several hon. Members have already drawn attention to the scale of the phenomenon. One in four women suffer domestic violence at some stage during their life. When undertaking research for the debate, I was horrified to discover that two women are killed each week as a result of such violence. In 1999, the year that reflected a reduction in the incidence from two years previously, there were 761,000 cases of domestic
Those who practise domestic violence are more likely than not to inflict that violence on their children. Furthermore, children know rather more about it than was hitherto thought to be the case. Evidence demonstrates that about one third of children are aware of the infliction of domestic violence and that figure rises to one half in instances, regrettably all too common, of repeat offences. We must bear it in mind that in the majority of cases that knowledge is scarcely surprising given that, at the time of the commission of the offences, 90 per cent. of the children are in either the same or an adjacent room. We do not know the scale of the damage that is done to them, not only physically, but in the long-term with irrevocable emotional and psychological scars.
It is therefore right that the significance of the problem for the country has to a considerable extent been reflected in the interest that right hon. and hon. Members have taken in the subject since the general election. In the House of Commons, there have been no fewer than 33 oral questions, 169 written questions, two business questions and 10 early-day motions. There have been three Adjournment debates, initiated respectively by the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in March 1998 and for Luton, South (Ms Moran) in June 1998 and again in June this year. Twenty-one questions on the subject have been asked in another place.
If we are effectively to tackle domestic violence, we must be aware that, sadly but almost inevitably, several prerequisites fall upon the victim. The first responsibility for the victim--if "responsibility" is the appropriate word to use--is for her to recognise that the violence is occurring. Secondly, the victim must come to terms with the fact that, without exception, she is not to blame. There can never be an excuse, a mitigating factor or an element of personal responsibility for the fact that someone who supposedly loves her chooses to beat her up. Thirdly, the person concerned needs to be given every possible encouragement, advice and succour to seek official help.
Many organisations provide such help and it is right to draw attention to the good work of the Women's Aid national domestic violence helpline and its local refuge services, of which there are 300 in England and Wales. Many refuge services operate advice centres, drop-in centres or outreach services to isolated areas that are still bedevilled by the problem, but which often are not so visible to the naked eye. They also operate helplines. Victims can also seek help from the refuge 24-hour national crisis line, a men's advice line, a victim support service, Shelterline, the police, the national health service, the Samaritans, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children child protection helpline, Careline and Relate.
As I have said, we need to do everything that we can to encourage the victims of domestic violence to bring it to public attention. Of course, that also requires us, consciously and repeatedly, to confront the prevailing myths on the subject. Those myths are all too frequently heard. One is, "Well, it's just the odd domestic tiff,
The current legal position is substantially better than it was. On a wholly unpartisan note, I should like to observe that good work took place under the previous Government. I know that when the Minister was a Back Bencher and a member of the Home Affairs Committee, she constantly urged Ministers in the previous Administration to do more, and was right to do so. This Government have also done a good deal.
The Family Law Act 1996 is one of the principal protections for those who suffer from the curse of domestic violence. That Act has two features, of which increasing advantage is being taken by victims. The first is the opportunity to secure non-molestation orders. The evidence, I think, is that that is starting to happen on a significant scale. There is common ground that under-reporting still exists, and we must do everything that we can to tackle it. In 1998, about 18,000 non-molestation orders were granted. The fact that a power of arrest is attached to the granting of those orders gives them added bite. That power has been used on 22,000 occasions, which must have a deterrent effect. It must send out a clear message about the unacceptability of domestic violence.
The second feature of the Act is the opportunity to secure an occupation order. That is crucial, although sometimes more difficult to obtain, as it regulates who can live in the home in which the domestic violence takes place.
Ms Keeble : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a housing problem attached to domestic violence? A woman can be forced to leave the home with her children, in the middle of the night, during a crisis, or later when things have calmed down. That is extraordinarily difficult for any woman. Help can be provided by local authority assessments of women who have left home suddenly because of domestic violence. Sympathetic consideration should be given to women who need private housing, rather than saying, "You've got a home to go back to." Women have real difficulty if they have to leave their homes, as they often must do, at least in the early stages.
Mr. Steen : I like what my hon. Friend is saying, but I would like to hear a little more from him on one matter. There are only 35 or 40 beds available for desperate women in the whole of Devon and Cornwall and in four small districts in south Devon, 897 women have rung in for help. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that local authorities could do an immense amount if they had safe houses and if the refuge service had more homes so that it could provide halfway houses for women. I am worried about the number of places, other than local authority places, where women can go.
Mr. Bercow : I am certainly concerned because my hon. Friend is right. There is, at least, an argument for ring-fencing the allocation of funds to ensure that local authorities' resources are used for that specific purpose. There is always a conflict between the principle of guaranteeing funding and local autonomy, but ring fencing should be considered. That there is still a lamentable inadequacy of supply throughout the country, particularly for those in remote communities, is not in dispute. Members of all parties should recognise the importance of doing what we can to provide further provision.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides the opportunity for restraining orders and that is welcome, because one of the problems that we have experienced is that those who have never been married to or co-habited with the violent partner have had limited protection. I believe that under the 1996 Act they have no recourse, but under the 1997 Act they do have at least some recourse, and that is welcome.
Some issues remain to be addressed. For example, there are substantial variations in the performance of different police forces and, even now, in the apparent lack of seriousness with which they pursue the evil of domestic violence. That was recognised by the Home Office. While recognising the principle of operational autonomy of individual forces, will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to exhort good practice and to show those forces that are not doing as well as they should how they could do better--the carrot and stick approach. Let them see what other forces are doing and recognise their responsibilities.
Domestic violence and child protection indices are often not properly integrated. A clear majority of forces now monitor repeat victimisation, but it is only fair to record that around 40 per cent. of forces do not have systems and mechanisms in place to record repeat victimisation. It is essential that they do so because, unless the scale and frequency of offences is known, we shall not have an accurate picture and it is less likely that the robust measures, including those within the criminal justice system, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes rightly calls, will be forthcoming.
As long ago as 1995, the interdepartmental group on domestic violence called for an inter-agency approach and that call has been repeated. Victims need to be assured that they will not be passed from pillar to post and that claims for confidentiality or anonymity will never be used as an excuse for apathy or inaction.
Some hon. Members said that in the overwhelming majority of cases the presumption was that contact should be granted. I believe that it is granted in around 98 per cent. of cases. However, in a recent significant study of the problem here and in Denmark, it was found that in England only seven of 53 women interviewed felt that they were able to make safe arrangements for contact between their violent ex-partner and their children. The overwhelming majority still felt at risk. Yet in 1997-98 the courts granted contact in 33,000 out of the 36,000 cases that came before them. That indicates that something is wrong.
One sometimes wonders whether judges are properly aware, as they should be, that supervised contact typically ceases to be supervised after six months, when it becomes unsupervised contact. Subsequently, unless the right decision was made in the first place, the children are at terrible risk.
When I was preparing for the debate, I was horrified to discover that not only are addresses sometimes given out in a palpably inappropriate way, but that addresses of women's refuges are given out. If a woman is in a refuge, fleeing violence and still trying to rebuild her confidence, it is unjust that a violent ex-partner should have the opportunity to find out where she is.
In his 1998 Adjournment debate, the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out that relatively few hospital accident and emergency wards collect statistics on the injuries that are caused by the commission of domestic violence. Surely that information should be collected. While we do not want to impose an undue bureaucratic burden on hard-pressed hospital staff, we need to build an accurate picture that enables us effectively to publicise the nature and scale of the evil that is taking place and to build robust public support for measures to counteract it.
Section 60 of the Family Law Act 1996 confers a power on a third party to apply for an injunction in circumstances in which the victim did not have the confidence to do so herself. Unless I am mistaken, that section of the 1996 Act has still not yet come into force. We have all talked about the importance of encouraging victims to come to terms with what has happened, recognise that they are not to blame and seek help. However, some will not reach that stage, and we cannot abandon them to be the continuing and tragic victims of evil. Will the Minister clarify how soon the section will take effect?
With regard to immigrants, many women have been fearful of reporting cases of domestic violence lest they are chucked out of the country in the process. The Government said some time ago that they would consider the operation of a concession on that matter. Last night, I had the benefit of a productive exchange with the Minister, and she assured me that that concession is now operating. I hope that all hon. Members would say that that is absolutely right and proper.
The problem is now treated more seriously than ever before. Much good work is being done, but there is still a great deal to do. Domestic violence must not be tolerated. It must be clear that, without fail and wherever we can ensure it, the perpetrators will be apprehended, convicted and punished.
I conclude on a point of language. The hon. Member for Taunton said at the outset of her contribution that it would be a good thing if we could devise a better expression than "domestic violence". I think that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members in the Chamber would be astonished to hear me call for the nationalisation of anything. However, in a sense, domestic violence needs to be nationalised. For far too long, it has been privatised--that is, regarded as something to be kept in the closet, which is scarcely worthy of significant public discussion. That is unacceptable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, if large scale, continuing and appalling violence were taking place against black people--thankfully, such violence is greatly decreasing--it would be considered a national outrage and there would be a national outcry. We need to develop a similar moral imperative with regard to the discussion of domestic violence and the introduction of effective remedies against it.
My hon. Friend has performed a signal service to the Chamber by introducing this debate. I greatly enjoyed the contributions made by the hon. Members for Taunton and for Northampton, North, and I now look forward with eager anticipation, bated breath, and beads of sweat upon my brow, to hearing the Minister's response.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche) : I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), not only on securing this important debate, but on the way in which he opened the proceedings, the content of his speech, the passion with which he outlined his views and the way in which he set the tone of the debate. Such speeches show how important the Westminster Hall procedure is, allowing us to hold a debate of this kind. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) on their valuable contributions, both of which brought a wealth of interest and expertise on the matter to the debate.
Mrs. Roche : The shadow Front Bench, as my hon. Friend says--this is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome him to the shadow Front Bench, and I look forward to having a continuing exchange with him. His speech today, in his first outing--if I may put it that way--as shadow Front Bench spokesman on home affairs, was an outstanding contribution. I warmly congratulate him on that.
In some ways, it is right to say that even a few years ago we would not have been having a debate of this kind. Attitudes have changed remarkably over the past few years. When practising as a barrister, I remember being sent to court, as all new barristers are, to obtain civil injunctions. I remember the attitude among the police, the judiciary and also, perhaps, fellow members of the Bar--although this did not apply to everyone--that a case of this kind was a "domestic" and was not serious. Sometimes such cases would be greeted with ridicule, and dealt with in such a way as to suggest that they were really not important. As far as the criminal justice system was concerned, they were not an important aspect of the work. Attitudes have changed remarkably since then.
Attitudes have also changed remarkably in the House of Commons. When one looks back even further to past debates, and to some of the remarks that were exchanged, the attitudes of Members of Parliament--not surprisingly--reflected the attitudes of the society that they represented. There has been a sea-change since.
The hon. Member for Buckingham was kind enough to refer to my past involvement with the Select Committee on Home Affairs, of which I was fortunate enough to be a member when I first entered the House in 1992, and to the report that it produced on domestic violence. The report was unanimous, and I pay tribute to my colleagues from all parties who served on that Committee. It was interesting that, even while we were conducting the debate at that time and taking evidence from witnesses, there was still a feeling in some quarters that it was not a serious issue. That situation has changed, but I do not want to be complacent. There is still a long way to go, and I was struck by what the hon. Member for Taunton said about the attitudes of some young people on the subject.
I shall not rehearse the figures--which have already been graphically presented by hon. Members today--illustrating the extent of the problem and its effect on the victims or survivors, most of whom are women. We know that half of all women survivors are living with young children, that the children are regularly aware of what is going on, and that they are damaged by it. Often, as the hon. Member for Buckingham graphically illustrated, the abuser of the child's mother is also the abuser of the child. No one should tolerate that, and the Government are doing everything that they can to combat it.
I understand what was said about the term "domestic violence". One often has to point out that domestic violence is a crime; it should not, as the hon. Member for Taunton pointed out, have a cosy connotation. In many cases, we are talking about violent crime. Domestic violence is not a private matter in which agencies should not intervene--it is completely unacceptable. As hon. Members have rightly said, everyone should feel safe and secure in their own home, and victims of domestic violence should be able to expect that security.
I want to deal with some of the important issues that have been raised. Little has been said about judges, but their role is very important. When I was a young barrister on one of my first outings in court, the judge
We must consider not only the judges but the court. As the hon. Member for Taunton pointed out, courts can be difficult places in which to give evidence, and a great deal of thought has recently been given to how support and protection for those who testify can be improved. That is why, as part of our published integrated strategy, we have increased funding for Victim Support. All hon. Members will have had experience of that organisation in their constituencies, and I pay tribute to it. Victim Support does tremendous work. It is a volunteer organisation in the very best sense of the phrase, and the volunteers give tremendously of their time and effort. That is why we included provisions to help all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999.
I accept the point that the hon. Member for Totnes made about delays, and we have introduced measures to reduce them. He is right to say that delay in the system increases pressure on the victim. It makes it less likely that she will want to proceed, and leaves her vulnerable to further intimidation and violence from the perpetrator, and perhaps even from neighbours, who may be unsure of the circumstances.
I want to deal now with child contact cases. I recognise the very important points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North, who has discussed the problem with my ministerial colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department. As she said, last year the Children Act subcommittee of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Board on Family Law Matters issued a consultation paper about domestic violence and its relevance to contact disputes under the Children Act 1989. My hon. Friend was right that the paper suggested that although changes in legislation did not seem necessary at present, good practice guidelines might be issued to courts that deal with cases in which domestic violence is raised as a reason for refusing or limiting contact. The subcommittee reported earlier this year to the Lord Chancellor, saying what the good practice guidelines might be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North noted, the draft guidelines were subsequently considered by the Court of Appeal in four cases, which were heard together, and on which judgment has been handed down.
The Lord Chancellor, with the President of the Family Division, are now considering what further action may be necessary. I undertake to bring to the attention of my ministerial colleagues the comments of the hon. Member for Taunton and of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North and to pass on all the important points that have been made today. We want to avoid tragic cases such as that of Gina McCarthy, who was killed by her ex-husband following
The role of the Crown Prosecution Service was mentioned. For some years, the CPS has had a code of practice on the handling of cases of domestic violence. It is being revised, but it is not yet ready because we want to get it right. Among other things, it must take account of the review of the Crown prosecutors' code. It must also take account of the relationship of such cases with related civil proceedings, and special consideration must be given in those cases that involve children. I assure the House that that revision is taking account of consultation with other bodies such as the police and voluntary agencies such as Women's Aid. I know that some hon. Members who have close contact with the CPS in their own areas may want to make representations.
Often, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said, difficult issues are involved. For example, a victim may not wish proceedings to be taken against her partner if they are likely to result in some penalty. Such wishes must be taken into account, and there are no easy solutions. As hon. Members have said, it can be difficult to balance such needs with the likelihood that violence might become worse and more frequent without active intervention. Of course, children are often involved and their position must be taken into consideration.
Of course, there are very many examples of good practice. In Leeds, for example, the CPS is involved in an experimental domestic violence court--a dedicated court with relevant advice and expertise. The CPS is also involved in projects being funded under the £7 million violence against women initiative, part of the Home Office's crime reduction programme.
The role of the police is vital. I understand what the hon. Member for Totnes said about training and the number of officers responsible. I pay tribute to the many officers involved. They are dedicated to their task, which shows when one speaks to them about it. They have a stressful and traumatic job, which many officers do very well. I understand what was said about training, and about the fact that ensuring good practice will make it a national response.
In drawing up a Home Office circular on domestic violence, officials worked in close collaboration with the Association of Chief Police Officers. They also had the great advantage of expert comment from outside bodies such as Women's Aid.
Mr. Steen : I have listened with great interest to the Minister's speech, which has been extremely helpful. I wonder whether the Department has comparable figures on domestic abuse in other European countries. It would be interesting to know whether Britain has the worst record. Is there something wrong with our society or the mental health of Britain that is not shared by other European Union countries?
Mrs. Roche : I do not believe that that is the case, but I will send not only the hon. Gentleman, but all hon. Members present, details of any research or figures that we have. It is sometimes difficult to make comparisons, because domestic violence is not a category in itself. It is difficult to abstract figures if it comes under grievous or
To return to the police response, earlier this year we issued the police with a new Home Office circular on addressing domestic violence. We have also introduced two indicators relating to domestic violence into the suite of police best-value performance indicators. One relates to the number of incidents attended resulting in an arrest; the other relates to the number of incidents that represent repeat victimisation. The police are getting the message that the Government and the Association of Chief Police Officers take domestic violence seriously. Equally, the police take the issue seriously.
We must ensure that all other agencies join in. Without wishing to use jargon, a multi-agency approach is important. The probation service and social services have a part to play. Our pathfinder programme for the probation service is considering what works in perpetrator programmes for those convicted of domestic violence. The hon. Member for Taunton raised that issue. I remember discussing the subject in a Home Affairs Committee report, and the issue was controversial in those days. It is still a complex area, but we need to look forward.
We must ensure that our legislation addresses the issues and is used effectively in both the criminal and civil fields. As a result of this and previous Governments, there is now a single set of civil remedies with non-molestation and occupation orders to deal with domestic violence and regulate occupation of the family home. A power of arrest must be attached where the threat of danger makes it necessary. Like many people who practised law previously, I have been scarred by the failure of injunctions that did not deliver because that power was not in place. The new offences of causing harassment and causing fear of violence have also been introduced.
Domestic violence is an important issue, which demands everyone's attention. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) takes it very seriously as part of his ministerial portfolio. He has recently taken part in a conference on the matter.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes on his introduction of this debate. I also congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part. People outside this place who follow our proceedings and who are, rightly, interested in the matter will, I hope, realise that the consensus in the House of Commons is that the issue is vital. We take it seriously and are determined to work together to make progress on it.