Previous Section Index Home Page

5.17 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): First, may I apologise for leaving during the speech of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)? That was no reflection on her speech, but I needed to attend a Committee sitting upstairs. Moreover, I apologise to hon. Members of all parties for missing what I am sure were important contributions.

I am pleased to be called to speak on international women’s day, especially as its theme is “Ending Impunity For Violence Against Women And Girls”. I am also proud to support the cross-party early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), which highlights the fact that violence against women is the most common, but least punished, crime across the world.

Domestic violence is the most common form of abuse of women worldwide. It does not respect country, race, education, class or religion, and it is a problem that I want to highlight further. We have heard already that domestic violence affects one women in four in the UK, and that an average of two women every week die at the hands of violent partners. Much has been done to address the problem over the past 10 years, through improving the criminal justice system and raising awareness.

Tackling domestic violence is truly an equality issue, for how will women ever achieve equality when 25 per cent. of women living in the UK suffer violence at home? The perpetrators of domestic violence take control of their victims. They rob a woman of her dignity, self-respect and confidence. Sometimes they take away her friends or children and, in extreme cases, her life. It affects every part of a woman’s life—her children, her physical and mental health, and her prospects. For some women who suffer domestic violence, often on a daily basis, finding the strength to report the abuse can take years. Some estimates indicate that a woman will suffer up to 34 attacks before making an official report. With the lack of stability in their lives and the constant threat of violence, it becomes impossible for women even to think about a career structure for themselves or to plan a stable future for their children. Domestic violence prevents millions of women from achieving equality; it robs them of their independence and of control over their own lives.

The economic arguments are compelling. Research by Sylvia Walby of the university of Leeds into the cost of domestic violence shows that the total cost to services amounts to £3.1 billion, while the loss to the economy is £2.7 billion. The human and emotional cost is estimated at more than £17 billion a year. I do not deny that definite progress on dealing with the issue has been made over the past 10 years. Domestic violence accounts for 15 per cent. of violent crime in the UK—down from 25 per cent. Although I welcome that progress, Members will agree that the statistic is still too high.

I welcomed the announcement on Monday of a cash boost of nearly £2 million to double the number of local multi-agency domestic violence action teams—
8 Mar 2007 : Column 1756
MARACs—which involve key agencies. The police, the probation, education, health and housing services and the voluntary sector work together on cases, which means that they can build up a comprehensive picture of the abuse and develop the programme of action that best supports and protects a domestic violence victim and their family. That multi-agency initiative is fantastic, and is at last an example of real joined-up work across departments. I hope that it will give victims much more comprehensive support than the rather piecemeal help that some women have received.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary said earlier, the Government have provided £3 million to seed-fund independent domestic violence advisers—IDVAs. In effect, such advisers walk beside the victim throughout the process, providing a single point of contact both inside and outside the criminal justice system for the duration of the case, and sometimes afterwards. Such services are the key to providing continuing support for the victim to make sure that she does not drop out halfway through the process.

Although I welcome both those initiatives, they need to be rolled out on a larger scale if they are to have a significant effect on domestic violence. It is no good planning excellent initiatives unless we put them into practice, so I welcome my Government’s focus on those programmes.

The introduction of specialist domestic violence courts, one of which serves my constituency and sits every week, is a great step forward. Such courts play an important role in reducing reoffending and in decreasing the number of victims who drop out of the process, to which I referred earlier. As it is so hard for women to report domestic violence initially, it is vital that they trust and believe in our criminal justice system. They must be able to feel that if they come forward justice will be done and they will be properly supported throughout the process. Early evidence shows that in some areas of the country reoffending rates have been cut by between 50 and 90 per cent. and, importantly, that the drop-out rate of victims during the prosecution process has gone down significantly.

A further important aspect of the issue is support for children of victims of domestic violence. In a survey of mothers who had experienced domestic violence, 99 per cent. said that their children had seen them crying because of the violence, 73 per cent. said that their children had witnessed violent incidents and 10 per cent. had been sexually abused in front of their children. Unfortunately, domestic violence in families does not stop with the mother; 27 per cent. of mothers said their violent partner had also physically assaulted their children. Indeed, that is often the trigger for many women to report the abuse. There can be wide-reaching short and long-term effects on the children—affecting their health, their school work, their confidence and their future.

A fantastic project in my constituency aims to deal with those after-effects and is already seeing positive results. The “My Space, My Time” project is supported by Barnardo’s and run by a dynamic young woman, Michele Clark. She provides a service in the Dudley borough to children and young people between the ages of five and 13 who have been affected by domestic violence. Her work to unpick what the children have seen is absolutely vital and helps to deal with any
8 Mar 2007 : Column 1757
aggressive learned behaviour as a result of exposure to such violence. Michelle helps the children to express their feelings about what they experienced through play, drawings, talking and acting. If the learned behaviour is not challenged, it will obviously have a detrimental effect on the child’s development and will add to the possibility of social exclusion or of the cycle continuing.

Michelle also provides advice to women who are suffering or have suffered domestic violence about safety planning for their children. She is having a lot of success with the children, but tells me that she is overwhelmed with work. So many women and children across the borough need the support that she can offer that she needs more staff, but sustained funding is not available. To return to my previous point, if we are to undo the damage caused to women and children by domestic violence, projects such as that must be funded—and funded well.

The Sanctuary project recently announced by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—a scheme to install safe rooms in homes—can help in particular cases and has been used with success across the country. I would really like to see it rolled out in Dudley. The room features strong windows, door locks and anti-arson letter boxes so that the victim can stay in her home and does not have to move out, taking her children and her belongings in a plastic bag. She does not have to uproot the children from all that is stable in their lives. Although such safe rooms do not tackle the causes of domestic violence or punish the perpetrator, they can allow women to feel safer in their own homes—they do not have to upset their whole life. There are already examples of these safe rooms saving women’s lives.

To complete the jigsaw, much more work must be done with young men and perpetrators of domestic violence. Punishing the perpetrators is not enough: their behaviour patterns need to be modified and their attitudes changed. They must acknowledge and be able to see the effect that their behaviour is having on their families.

I welcome those innovative ideas, which have worked across the country, and I hope to see many more implemented in Dudley. I am saddened to say, however, that unless significant amounts of sustainable funding are ploughed into making these ideas a reality, they will remain just that—ideas.

There are so many areas where we could be doing more work to tackle domestic violence that I cannot possibly go into them all. They range from finding more ways to reach and support pregnant women—30 per cent. of domestic violence starts during pregnancy and existing violence often escalates—to providing enough funding for hostels and refuges so that women who have to escape domestic violence have somewhere safe to go.

Our commitment to tackling domestic violence must be far reaching and it must be sustained. It is no good simply acknowledging the scale of the problem and providing funding for projects only here and there. The Government and local authorities must continue to put their money where their mouths are and they really must continue to follow through. I am proud of how
8 Mar 2007 : Column 1758
far we have come in tackling domestic violence over the past 10 years, but I am aware that we need to do a lot more. Domestic violence perpetuates inequality by degrading, isolating and controlling women, and until we eradicate it from our society we will never have true equality.

5.28 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I wanted to take this opportunity to speak about three aspects of violence against women: forced marriage, treatment of women in prison, and prostitution. I am very glad that the Prime Minister’s announcement on forced marriage legislation means that I do not need to speak about the first aspect. On prisons, Baroness Corston’s report is forthcoming shortly, so I will leave that important debate until it is published. I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) a chance to contribute, so I shall speak briefly about the issue of prostitution.

Members will know that when I was a Minister I had the privilege of launching the Government’s strategy on prostitution. In doing so, I changed the policy for zones of tolerance of prostitution that had been outlined in a consultation document to one that focused much more on the safety of the women and dealing with the men who paid for sex. The evidence shows that that was the right approach. The countries that have licensed or regulated prostitution have seen a dramatic increase in all facets of the sex industry. There has been a huge increase in people trafficking and child prostitution, and indications of an increase in violence against women.

I want the Government to go further than I was able to persuade them to go. I want them to look at Sweden, which introduced legislation that, first, criminalises the buying of sex, secondly, decriminalises the selling of sex and, thirdly, provides proper support services to help women to escape from the capture that is prostitution. In just five years, Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of its women in prostitution. In the capital city of Stockholm, the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds and the number of men paying for sex has been reduced by 80 per cent. In addition, the number of foreign women being trafficked into Sweden has fallen massively. The Swedish Government estimate that in the past few years only 200 to 400 women and girls have been trafficked into Sweden—a figure that is negligible compared with the 15,000 to 17,000 women a year who are sex trafficked into neighbouring Finland.

The big trick in Sweden was not just to pass the two laws, but to provide the support that women need to leave prostitution. Things did not start working until the police were trained. The problem about an effective prostitution strategy is that it depends on the commitment of the police. When the police were trained about the new powers to help women to leave prostitution, there was a massive transformation. The police understood that prostitution is a form of male violence against women, where the exploiter or buyer should be punished and the victim or prostitute needs to be helped. They started to put women into projects to reduce the level of drug abuse among women, reduce the number of women involved in prostitution, and reduce the damage to their children.

8 Mar 2007 : Column 1759

Among our police forces, there is a patchy approach to tackling prostitution. Of the 629 successful prosecutions for kerb crawling in Britain, Cleveland—one of our smallest police forces—was responsible for 106. Let me praise Cleveland police force. It has the sense not only to prosecute men who pay for sex, but to arrange with the magistrates courts to deal with all the prosecutions on one day and with the local newspaper to publicise the names and addresses of the men involved. As a result, very few of the men come from Cleveland. The men in that area know what happens.

Our policy is only three quarters of the way towards the policy that we need. We ought to adopt the policy that Sweden has adopted. Even within the framework of the present prostitution policy, an enormous difference can be made simply by the way in which local police forces choose to police prostitution and paying for sex. I cannot find any successful prosecutions for kerb crawling from Thames Valley. As a Thames Valley MP, I hope that that is a failure in the statistics. There are no cautions for kerb crawling either.

In a funny way, I am not surprised. In order to get better policing of prostitution in my constituency, I had to persuade local businesses to raise £16,000 for a camera in the area where prostitution affects Slough. The local businesses were happy to do that. Slough council, unfortunately, was not. Our police said, “Yes, it’s priority, but not enough of one.” Luckily, the council offered us a slot to watch the camera, so it can have an effect. When local communities are besieged—it feels like that—by prostitution, when people have to take their children to school via drug litter, and when they bring their children back from Brownies and see men and women having sex in people’s back gardens, they cannot bear it. They feel that their home is not their home, and we have a responsibility to tackle that.

When I introduced the Government’s policy, I was attacked for including a proposal to ensure that if two women worked together in a flat, it would not be treated as a brothel, and I am unashamed of that. It is right to make the penalty for brothel-keeping 14 years in prison, but two women who are prostituting themselves together should not be sent to prison for 14 years. I ask the media not to take cheap shots, but instead to let us make sure that between us we have a policy that keeps women who are involved in prostitution safer. Last year in Ipswich we had a horrible reminder of how dangerous the profession is. Let us not fall for the myth that it is the oldest profession, and that we will always have to live with it, because we can get rid of it. The way to do that is to target the men who pay for sex and who are responsible for violence against women.

5.35 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and so many other colleagues who have spoken.

In 1997, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, and I had the great privilege of becoming the first Ministers with responsibility for women in the country. Our agenda was to develop a child care strategy, family-friendly working, and action on violence against women. I am glad to say that the
8 Mar 2007 : Column 1760
agenda survived our departure, and that so many of the successes in those policy areas have been mentioned today.

We also said that we would look into the issue of process. We wanted to ensure the mainstreaming of gender in every Department, and we wanted equality of gender in public appointments, so I decided to take a little survey last week. I acknowledge that it is much more difficult to set up those processes than to check on many of the policies of which we have spoken and on the Government’s good delivery. Discrimination against women is often invisible, and people who exercise authority over others often do not know that they are discriminating. Indeed, women may not realise that they are subject to discrimination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) said.

I asked Departments about their processes, because collecting statistics and taking specific steps to analyse gender impacts is critical to the proper delivery of equality. I asked Departments to tell me about their gender strategy, and I am sorry to say that two Departments—the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—failed to reply. All others did, but no Department has a gender strategy. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality who are on the Front Bench will take that point back to their discussion groups, because there is much more work to be done. That is not to diminish in any way the brilliant work that has already been done.

When I asked Departments whether they had a gender equality action plan, the majority of Departments said either that they did, or that they were developing one and that they would certainly have it in place by the deadline, which is 30 April. I pay tribute to my colleagues on the Front Bench, because their answers were exemplary. I wanted to share with the House all that the Departments were doing, because it is so important and interesting. People rarely know that such work is going on, or the extent to which civil servants are committed to advancing gender equality. The Departments varied in what they said, but, looking at the clock, I see that I do not have the opportunity to tell the House what they said. Some were much more expansive than others, and some clearly have very good practice in consulting widely throughout their Department—for example, some involve stakeholders and have women’s networks—and in bringing everything together. The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were able to tell me that they had got ahead and were developing strategies and publishing documents even last year, before the requirement was in place.

I also took the trouble to consider public appointments. When the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, and I began our jobs as Ministers with responsibility for women, we looked for a commitment to ensure that 50 per cent. of appointments were women. Departments gave that commitment, and they have been working towards meeting it ever since. The Department for Education and Skills is the closest, with 44.8 per cent. of public appointments made by Ministers in that Department going to women. Sadly, four Departments have made such appointments at a rate of below 25 per cent. and a couple of them have slipped back: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development.

8 Mar 2007 : Column 1761

Let me say a few words about DFID, as it is the Department that I have come to know best in my capacity as a member of the International Development Committee. The first question that I asked the Secretary of State when I became a member of the Committee was whether there was a gender strategy. There was not. The Department said that it would develop one. It has been making progress, and I understand that a document on that was either published yesterday or will be published today. Half of the senior civil servants in that Department are women. [Interruption] The Minister for Women and Equality is showing me that she has a copy of that document with her; I have not got mine yet. However, we found that of 28 appearances before the Committee, only seven were by women. Therefore, although that Department has women in senior positions, it is not sending them to our Committee. It is crucial that DFID has gender equality strategies, because the women of the developing countries of the world and of the very poorest countries are suffering the most.

Let me conclude by telling an anecdote. I have recently returned from Ethiopia. Women are running every project in water and sanitation in Ethiopia. One women’s group had built a lot of shower cubicles and latrines which they were going to have primarily for women, but they suddenly realised that they could give half of them to the men. They charged the men for their use, and they set up a tea stall alongside. Women display such entrepreneurship and initiative throughout the world—in our communities, and particularly in developing countries.

5.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate and I pay tribute to all Members who have taken part. It is an honour to follow in the line of previous Ministers for Women and to be able to respond to the debate on behalf of the Government. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) for her opening speech. We both entered the House in 2001 and Members might be surprised to learn that we used to be mistaken for each other—that might still be the case so far as I know. However, no one could mistake my hon. and learned Friend’s commitment to fighting for women’s rights, which she has done consistently both before and since entering the House.

I also want briefly to mention that today Labour women MPs invited to the House some of their women community champions so that they could see what we do. Some of them said that they were inspired by meeting women MPs and spending some time here to think about getting involved by participating in either local or central Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) talked about that.

Next Section Index Home Page