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John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady, who has been generous in giving way. She predicted that the interlude in which she could focus on matters that were exclusively her responsibility might be brief, and I fear that it has been. Given that the gender pay gap among part-time employees is sharply higher in the public sector than in the private sector, does she agree that it is important that the introduction of the new public sector duty is focused on the achievement of an outcome, namely the narrowing and eventual removal
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of that gap within a relatively short time frame? Can she offer us some information about when that will be achieved?

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality, who will wind up the debate, is better placed to talk about the time frame, but the hon. Gentleman perceives the issue correctly. An interesting question—again, this is my own private view—is what impact the public gender duty will have on the procurement systems of public authorities.

In April 2006, the independent judicial appointment commission was launched, and it is now responsible for the selection of candidates for judicial appointments in England and Wales. The commission has a statutory duty to encourage a wider range of applicants for judicial office, while maintaining the principle that selection for appointment is on merit. Justice is key in a thriving society and it is important that the public have confidence in our justice system.

How are women treated by our justice system? It seems that women have sometimes been disadvantaged by it. We have looked to improve the experiences of women and vulnerable people in many ways, and we are slowly but surely starting to succeed. There are some cheering figures, which I shall relay in a moment. The greatest victories have had to do with domestic violence, and let me make it clear once, and only once in this essentially non-party political debate, that that is down to Labour. It is down to the impact of 100 Labour women coming into the House. In the 30 years after Jo Richardson’s private Member’s Bill was taken on by the Labour Government of the day, there was no mention of the words “domestic violence” under the superintendence of the Opposition.

Jo Richardson’s Bill was to provide a private law remedy for domestic violence, but now we prosecute it as a crime, and we do so in specialist courts. There are domestic violence advisers and specialist domestic violence courts that aim to make victims and witnesses feel safe and well informed. They drive the case for women who, if they did not have independent advisers supporting them, would feel far too undermined by what they had gone through at the hands of the perpetrator to drive the case themselves. From April 2007 there will be 64 specialist domestic violence courts across England and Wales. Some £1.85 million in funding has been allocated for next year to fund access to training for independent domestic violence advisers who support victims throughout their case.

The IDVAs—it is an unhappy acronym—are key. They provide the support and help that the woman needs. They work virtually hand in hand with her, and help from the time that the complaint is made. The adviser will drive the case and help with benefits changes, the need for a new home, the need to move a child to a different school, child care and so on. She will have her fingers in public authority pies, and that will help her to provide those services for women who are otherwise totally on their own. IDVAs come from the voluntary sector, are independent and can be trusted.

Specialist domestic violence courts, with which IDVAs are linked, provide specialised personnel—prosecutors, officers and magistrates—who have been trained out of the still all-too-prevalent notions about
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domestic violence. They identify, fast-track and risk-assess domestic violence cases. They group them together, enhance information sharing and provide support.

I said that I would give some cheering figures. Successful prosecutions for domestic violence cases have gone up from 46 to 65.4 per cent. between 2003 and 2006, by which time the specialist courts were on stream. Guilty pleas have increased from 45 to 58 per cent. In domestic violence specialist courts, 71 per cent. of cases have successful outcomes. It is good to add that domestic violence itself seems to have gone down by 60 per cent. in less than 10 years. It remains an appalling statistic that two women a week are killed by their violent partners, but the figure used to be getting on for three, so we are making some progress, albeit incrementally.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), yesterday provided a written answer to a question of mine on domestic violence. I asked him to look into the number of offender programmes; it is important that the probation service gets involved in the area under discussion. My hon. Friend said that there is a national target for the number of offenders being coped with of 1,200, but there is very high demand for the service. Is there not a great need to deal with domestic abuse offenders by ensuring that there is an appropriate programme, because the only way that we can ensure that there is any family co-operation is if it is certain that the offender will serve on such a programme? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to do more in this area?

Vera Baird: I agree. Effective perpetrator programmes can play a role after conviction. They can also play a role before a case ever goes to court. I think that there are now two—and certainly at least one and a half—perpetrator schemes in my constituency. They are aimed at perpetrators—whose partners might have gone to Women’s Aid for help—who indicate a willingness to try to resolve the matter and to try to remedy their ways before things get out of hand. That is a very good model, but there clearly must also be courses available for when people have gone too far and have been imprisoned.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Last September I spent a day with the domestic violence support unit at Wakefield police. It has doubled its arrest rate in a period of about six months, and it has a fantastic domestic violence support co-ordinator. Also, my hon. and learned Friend mentioned independent advisers playing a role, and that was being done in a voluntary capacity by a domestic violence survivor who had been almost killed by her husband on the day that she announced that she was finally going to leave him after 20 years of abuse.

However, in Wakefield the courts have steadfastly resisted introducing a domestic violence court and have organised the court system so that each specific solicitor department has a morning or an afternoon
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instead of the domestic violence cases being grouped together. I ask my hon. and learned Friend to look carefully into that situation in Wakefield, where we have been pushing for a specialist court for the best part of two years.

Vera Baird: First, let me compliment my hon. Friend on her work in the domestic violence arena by serving on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. She obviously also exhibits powerful local leadership and intervenes where that is necessary. If she would like to come to talk to me, we shall try to unblock the jam she describes. It is not right that courts should operate in that way; they should operate around the interests of the victim.

There are now multi-agency risk assessments—they have been operating since 2003—which are triggered by the independent domestic violence advisers. They engage the police, probation services, local authorities, health agencies, housing agencies and the refuges and women’s safety units, and they share information to reduce harm to very high risk victims and children. Audit shows that, 12 months later, four out of 10 former victims suffer no recurrence of domestic violence. They are repeat sufferers, many having suffered for years, they are at high risk, and the most dangerous time is when someone leaves. Therefore, the results are very promising. I am delighted that Redcar and Cleveland Women’s Aid has a trained IDVA. Ingrid Salomonsen, who runs that Women’s Aid, tells me that the multi-agency meetings make agencies sit up and take notice when they hear the reality of a survivor’s experience, and the protection put in place really works.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): On increasing awareness, the Stockport Young Women’s Forum has produced a magazine called “Fe-mail” which gives some very useful advice and information, including for people to recognise when they are in an abusive relationship. Many young women consider domestic abuse to be simply physical abuse. They do not realise that they could be in a relationship in which somebody abuses them even though that abuse is not physical in nature. Does my hon. and learned Friend not agree that that initiative by young women in my constituency is excellent? Does she also agree that young women—who might read that magazine—are sometimes more likely to listen to what other young women are saying to them than to the authorities, and that therefore young women should be encouraged to take such steps and that this group is to be congratulated?

Vera Baird: I could not agree more. That sounds like a terrific model that we should be trying to roll out. That contrasts positively with some statistics I recall from a couple of years ago, which showed that many 15 to 17-year-old women—even women—think that it is okay for a man to hurt a woman if he is angry, and that twice the number of men of that age thought that that was okay. Clearly, the kind of scheme that has been described must be encouraged; that is a very good story.

There are now independent sexual violence advisers—or ISVAs, which is an even more uncomfortable acronym. They are, of course, the consequence of a read-across from domestic violence to rape, and it is excellent that
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that work is finally being done. They help with the decision about whether to prosecute and support the individual if they decide to do so. Only about 15 per cent. of people who are raped report it, and there is a 5.2 per cent. conviction rate. Therefore, the conviction rate is minute compared with the incidence. We must do everything that we can in this area, because sexual violence is one of the most serious and personally traumatising and damaging of crimes, and it is a huge cause—and a consequence of—gender inequality. For victims, it can have significant and ongoing impact on their health and well-being.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): My hon. and learned Friend is making a clear statement to the House that domestic violence is incredibly traumatising. I ask her to acknowledge that it is also traumatising for a woman to have to move out of her own home with a couple of carrier bags carrying all that she can hold and nothing else, and accompanied by her children who also have to carry what they can in carrier bags and leave so much behind them. When will be the appropriate time for us to request that the person who is perpetrating the violence moves out of the home and leaves the mother and the children there, as they are not only traumatised but dehumanised by the current process?

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend is right. There are now sanctuary schemes for those who are able to withdraw within their own environment and lock themselves away from the violence. Also, domestic violence legislation will soon come into force, which will make a breach of an injunction, if the woman has gone to court and the man then returns or hits her again, automatically a crime, so there will be an immediate power of arrest for the police. That puts the responsibility on the public authority to intervene and rescue her. If the case goes to court, a restraining order can be added to the man’s sentence to prevent him from coming back, putting an end to the days when a woman might have the courage to go to court and might attain a conviction but when he has served his sentence—whatever that might be—there is no restraint on him returning and starting again unless she goes to the county court for another injunction. I hope that those measures will improve the situation.

Mrs. Moon: Will my hon. and learned Friend agree to look at an initiative in Tasmania? At the first referral for domestic violence, the perpetrator is removed from the matrimonial home—or the home that they share with the person that they have abused—and they have to undertake a course of anger management. Tasmania has recognised the cycle of violence that is linked to the abuse of children and domestic abuse and which leads into criminality. What it is doing is dramatic and unique. Will my hon. and learned Friend take an interest in that experiment and see how it is progressing?

Vera Baird: That resembles something I came across when I went to New Zealand. When there is a domestic violence complaint, the police have the ability to arrest the man and remove him for a fixed period of time—I do not remember for how many days. That is a cooling-off period while the future is better settled. Clearly it is right to remove the perpetrator rather than the victim.

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Mrs. Maria Miller: The hon. and learned Lady referred to the low level of conviction for rape in our country, and I share her concern about that. Does she not share my concern about problems that many areas—such as mine in Hampshire—have in respect of levels of policing, which obviously is directly linked to the level of convictions? Recently, there has been an announcement that we in Hampshire will have 200 fewer neighbourhood policemen. Does the hon. and learned Lady not share my concern that that might not help in terms of addressing the problem of the low level of rape convictions?

Vera Baird: I think the hon. Lady will find that Hampshire has very good domestic violence results, indicating a sympathetic attitude and a reasonable level of policing. There were 1,000 convictions in the past year in her Hampshire constituency, so perhaps she should visit her local domestic violence court and see what the levels of policing are producing under the new model.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I bring the hon. and learned Lady back to her response to an earlier intervention about part of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 being brought into force? This is not a criticism, but I should be interested to know why it has taken so long to bring that part of the Act into force. Is there are a system in place for civil injunctions made as a result of a criminal offence to be notified to the local police, so that when someone asks for help, the police are aware that there is an injunction which gives them the power to act immediately to constrain the potential offence?

Vera Baird: Yes. That is imperative. It happens now in some cases because injunctions are often backed by a power of arrest, so there is a system in place but it will need firming up before the measures come into force, in June, I think. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the use of restraint orders after conviction, but they have a further advantage even if there is no conviction. Many women are not very strong in the witness box, they do not really want to see the perpetrator sent to prison—he is probably the father of their children—they may not give high calibre evidence and they may be unsure what they want. If, although there is an acquittal, the court none the less has an apprehension that there is a danger from that individual, a restraining order can be imposed. That is a concrete step. In a secondary way, it encourages the police, who would bring the case to court, then find that the complainant was not too sure, and they would get nothing from it, so to speak. It is now their public responsibility. The restraining orders give them some pay-back for persevering, which I hope will encourage them.

We have extended the sexual assault referral centre model. There will be one on Teesside near my constituency soon. That is a very good arrangement between the police and the primary care trust. These SARCs give Rolls-Royce treatment. They believe the complainant from the start. They do not raise the question of her testimony. They treat her as a patient. We have also strengthened the specialist voluntary sector, which can provide longer-term therapeutic services for such victims. Prosecuting people for rape is important, but the recovery of the complainant is vital.

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We have made a number of changes to the way that the criminal justice agencies deal with sexual offences. The definition of rape has changed, the terms in which previous sexual history can be admitted have been cut back, we use special measures such as video links, and the defence of Morgan, long a hate word on the lips of the women’s lobby, has disappeared, making the proceedings in rape cases much fairer. In the coming months we will produce a cross-Government action plan on how we intend to address all aspects of sexual violence.

It is clear that there is a strong link between domestic violence and sexual assault, and this year we are looking to merge these two important issues, bringing these two work streams closer together to provide a more strategic framework for addressing gender-based violence. Gender-based violence goes way beyond domestic violence. Forced marriages are also a form of violence, and the Government fully support the aims of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill. We wish to see provision along those lines on the statute book as soon as possible. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on the work that she has done, listening and leading in her constituency on that topic.

Honour killings also affect women disproportionately. Women whose actions, real or suspected, sometimes when they have been the victim of rape, can lead to a drive in their family, who have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honour by attacking the woman. We must tackle that forcefully too.

Joan Ruddock: May I record, at the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), her apologies for not being able to join the debate today because she is attending a pressing constituency event? She is extremely appreciative of the notice that has been taken by the Government of the issues that she has raised repeatedly, and looks forward to the legislation.

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley deserves nothing less. She has worked tirelessly.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s answer, not only as a Minister but as a lawyer, to a question about gender inequality. When a family breaks down and the question arises which parent will look after the children, every lawyer will say that the interests of the child are put first. That is right, but why is it that unless the father has a lot of money and can go to court and fight his corner, the courts overwhelmingly interpret the interests of the child as the child or children remaining mostly with the mother, not necessarily the father?

Vera Baird: Of course, the best solution is for the parents to agree. The next best solution, if they cannot do so on their own, is mediation. We have a strong drive in that direction. Cases vary and attitudes to the phrase “the interests of the children” are diverse. Some think that it is in the interests of the children to be kept in close contact with a violent father. On other
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occasions, children are given to mothers when fathers would be all too ready to take them. Is it right that there may often be a preference for them to stay with the mother? I do not know.

Mr. Burns: Excluding violent fathers, which is a different issue, where the background of the parents is similar—that is, they both work, rather than one of them being at home the whole time, so it is a level playing field in that respect—why is it that if the parents cannot agree and the matter has to be determined by a court, the courts nearly always find in favour of the mother? The only way that that can be counteracted is if the father is extremely rich and is prepared to try and fight his corner in court. Most fathers cannot do that.

Vera Baird: I do not know that that outcome is so obvious and necessarily follows as night follows day, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. What is considered is overwhelmingly the interests of the child. That is an individual case-by-case consideration by the judge. The existing pattern of care is always taken into account. The availability of the parent to cover the hours and the parent’s suitability is taken into account. It is obviously a complex balancing exercise that judges have to carry out.

Mr. Heath: I am sorry to intervene again on the hon. and learned Lady. She referred to the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill in the name of my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, which was so ably supported and largely instigated by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I asked at business questions what form the Government’s assistance to the Bill would take. Will it have Government time? Will the Government take over the Bill and introduce it as a Government Bill, or does it run the risk of losing out in the normal scramble on private Members’ Bills, which means that whatever the Government’s good intentions, it will not reach the statute book?

Vera Baird: We are considering exactly what to do and how appropriately to deal with the Bill. All that I can assure the hon. Gentleman is that there is the political will to see that it comes into force.

Human trafficking is another example of violence against women. We recently announced our intention to sign the convention against human trafficking, which will help us build on our current measures and create a framework for future rights. There is a sense that we are moving forward in that respect.

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