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Domestic Violence

21. Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): What recent measures she has taken to help women victims of domestic violence. [103901]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Government are currently consulting with a view to legislating to tackle domestic violence. We are funding refuges, and we have funded a new helpline for women fleeing violence. My Department is developing initiatives to raise awareness, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ensure that the police and prosecution services work far more effectively together to deal with the problem.

Mr. Prosser : I should declare a non-pecuniary interest as director of the east Kent refuge.

The domestic violence statistics are staggering. Crimes of domestic violence constitute a quarter of all violent crimes, are responsible for the deaths of 50 per cent. of female murder victims, and continue to claim two lives each week. Is it not time help was given at grass-roots level—to, for instance, the voluntary refuge support groups that must still rely on jumble sales and voluntary exercises for their funds?

Ms Hewitt: I agree that far more needs to be done, especially at local level, to support not just women but children fleeing domestic violence, and to deal with this appalling violent crime. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced an additional investment of £14 million to tackle the problem—in particular, through the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships—and my hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women recently announced an additional £9 million to help women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): Following the publication of the Womenspeak survey initiated by the Minister, which found that 70 per cent. of women had experienced problems with the Benefits Agency, what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Work and

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Pensions to ensure that women who refuse to give the names of violent partners are not regarded as fraudsters? [Interruption.]

Ms Hewitt: I am sorry to note that Opposition Members appear to have no interest in this rather important subject.

I agree that more needs to be done to deal with the Benefits Agency problem. My hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women is taking it up with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the women's safety unit in Cardiff, a unique multidisciplinary project which has, during its short life, had a considerable impact in reducing the amount of domestic violence in the city? Will she join me in congratulating the unit on obtaining long-term funding from the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly to continue its good work? [Interruption.]

Ms Hewitt rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Gummer, there is far too much in the way of loud prolonged conversation. This is an important matter.

Ms Hewitt: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I readily congratulate the women's safety unit in Cardiff, which provides an excellent example of what happens when all the agencies in the voluntary sector work together to ensure that women and children are given the support that they need.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): The Minister just said that the Government had funded a new helpline, and indeed the Government held a press launch in December last year. But the line will not be up and running until the autumn, with £1 million of Government money and £1 million from Comic Relief. Why was it launched nearly a year before it will become operational, thus raising expectations and making life for the two main charities who will run it—Women's Aid and Refuge—even more difficult?

Ms Hewitt: As the hon. Lady would expect, we agreed with all our partners in the helpline that it was desirable to announce what was being done, so that we would receive the maximum support for this excellent initiative.

22. Bob Spink (Castle Point): If she will make a statement on the forthcoming Green Paper on domestic violence. [103902]

The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Home Office will shortly publish a consultation paper setting out proposals to strengthen the law against domestic violence. Those proposals will cover three broad areas, ensuring the safety of domestic violence victims, bringing offenders to justice and strengthening confidence in the criminal justice system.

Bob Spink : Does the Minister agree that it is shocking that even now two children a week die from domestic

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violence? When domestic violence takes place, children are usually in the vicinity. What will the Green Paper do to increase protection for children, and will it address the problem of low levels of supervision in child contact centres?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Ministers and local authorities are considering how to strengthen protection for children in contact centres and situations in which access is disputed. I stress that the Bill on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consult will be the first dedicated to the issue of domestic violence since 1976, when Jo Richardson—whom many, at least on the Labour Benches, will remember with deep affection—introduced the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Is my right hon. Friend alarmed to discover from recent surveys that many young men say that if their girlfriends step out of line, it is all right to give them a slap? Does that not mean

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that we should invest much more in what seems to be an in-bred cultural problem and not just the result of strains and stresses within the family?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Domestic violence is fundamentally about cultural attitudes and power relationships between men and women. The Department for Education and Skills is considering what can be done in schools and the education system to tackle the problem of appalling attitudes towards violence against women that are evidenced among too many young men today.


Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund Act 2003

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003

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Iraq (Overnight Events)

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about military operations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired at 1 o'clock this morning. Just as Saddam failed to take his final opportunity to disarm by peaceful means, so he has now failed to take his final opportunity to depart in peace and avoid the need for coalition military action. I draw the House's attention to Hans Blix's comments in New York yesterday that he was disappointed that three and a half months of inspection work had not brought clear assurances from the Iraqis of the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

President Bush announced at 3.15 this morning on behalf of the coalition that operations had begun with attacks on selected targets of military importance. Those attacks were carried out by coalition aircraft and cruise missiles on more than one target in the vicinity of Baghdad, following information relating to the whereabouts of very senior members of the Iraqi leadership. Those leaders are at the very heart of Iraq's command and control system, responsible for directing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein's regime is the chief obstacle to the disarmament of Iraq. The military plan is therefore crafted around his removal from power. We will place a copy of the Government's military campaign objectives in the Library later today.

In addition to those attacks, coalition forces yesterday carried out certain preliminary operations against Iraqi artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, and air defence systems within the southern no-fly zone. Those were prudent preparatory steps, using coalition air capabilities previously used in the no-fly zones, designed to reduce the threat to coalition forces in Kuwait. The protection of our servicemen and women is a matter of paramount importance.

The House will be aware of reports of Iraqi missile attacks against Kuwait. Those incidents are being investigated by personnel with appropriate skills and the necessary protection. There are no reported casualties so far, but I am afraid that there is nothing more that I can confirm to the House at this stage.

I would like to draw the attention of the House to two particular points. First, that coalition forces will take every possible care to minimise civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. The coalition will use modern weapons, which are more accurate than ever, but we can never unfortunately exclude the possibility of civilian casualties, tragic though those always are. However, people should treat with caution Iraq's claims of civilian casualties. The Iraqi people are not our enemies, and we are determined to do all we can to help them build the better future that they deserve.

Secondly, I caution the House against suggestions that this campaign will be over in a very short time. We all certainly hope that offensive operations will be over quickly, but we should not underestimate the risks and difficulties that we may face against a regime that is the embodiment of absolute ruthlessness, with an utter disregard for human life.

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I turn now to the United Kingdom's armed forces. I have set out in successive statements the forces that we have prepared for this purpose. We have deployed a substantial naval force of 29 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. The land force is led by Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division and includes 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 16 Air Assault Brigade, 7th Armoured Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. We have also deployed an air force comprised of about 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters. In all, about 45,000 servicemen and women have been assigned to the campaign to disarm Iraq.

Our forces will make a substantial contribution to the military action to disarm Iraq, which we will pursue at a time and on a schedule of our own choosing. They are trained, equipped and ready for the tasks they may now need to undertake. British forces are already engaged in certain military operations, although the House will understand why I cannot give further details at this stage.

Events over the coming days will dominate the 24-hour media. The House will recognise that we must all be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of "breaking news" before there has been time to conduct a proper investigation. Similarly, the House will understand—and I hope that the media will too—that if we respond to media pressure for instant operational detail, we could risk the security and safety of our forces. We cannot therefore offer a running commentary on media reports. I will ensure, however, that the House is kept fully informed of significant developments. That is why I am making this statement today. In addition to making statements as and when necessary, I will arrange for a short summary to be placed in the Library of the House, with copies made available to members in the Vote Office, as warranted by the day's events.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be travelling to the European Council this afternoon. Once further significant military action has begun, and UK forces are substantially engaged, the Prime Minister will ask to make a broadcast to the nation.

Once again we are placing an enormous weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our armed forces. We have not taken the decision to do so lightly. The commitment to military action of service personnel is always the gravest step that any Government can undertake. I know that the thoughts and prayers of this House and of our country are with them, and their families, as they embark on their mission. We hope for their safe and swift return.

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