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Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s emphasis on violence against women and her reference to the impact on children. I know that she is aware of the project that I am currently running with Women’s Aid
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called Kidspeak, through which we listen to the experiences of children who are affected by domestic violence. Does she realise that some of the evidence already shows that impacts include truancy, self-harm and poor school performance? There is also a terrible lack of resources to support those children. Will she urgently look into that as part of her priorities?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend set up the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, which made me remember what a long way we have come since the days of Jo Richardson, who was politely ignored if she mentioned domestic violence once in the House and had people muttering behind their hands if she mentioned it twice.

My hon. Friend’s Kidspeak work reminds us that the old view that people should stay together for the sake of the children even while enduring violence misunderstood the effect of domestic violence on children. All the evidence is that even if children are not physically caught in the crossfire—sometimes they are and sometimes they are killed at the same time as their mother—they are always traumatised and damaged by being in a household where there is domestic violence. That is why it is important not just for women, but for children in the family.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I thank the Minister for her statement; we expect great things from both her and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett). The Director of Public Prosecutions gave a rousing and informed address to the all-party group on human trafficking yesterday and admitted that trafficking was on the increase. The Minister will not be surprised to know that the statutory police performance targets do not include trafficking, so there is no pressure on the police to apprehend traffickers.

In her consultation, will the right hon. and learned Lady look at the question of compensation for victims when traffickers are apprehended? At the moment, not one penny piece has been given by traffickers to their victims. One of the most important things that the Minister could do is to make sure that the victims of trafficking receive not only the identity cards that give them the right to stay in this country, but compensation for the awful ordeal they have gone through.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman says that he expects great things of myself and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We will make great progress if we all work together on this. Many of these issues are difficult, but we need to recognise the scale of the problem and to take radical action. We have to build on these agendas or we will not make progress; we cannot be cautious. I hope that we can work with the hon. Gentleman, to whom I pay tribute, along with the other members of the all-party group, which does good work. I will consider and discuss with my colleagues his point about targets.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about compensation. The CPS has been focusing more not just on apprehending, prosecuting and punishing the offenders, but on seizing the assets. There are vast assets involved and the problem is that someone can spend a couple of years in prison, then come out and live like a millionaire. The more assets there are, the
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more they get reinvested in bringing more women from different parts of the world to be sexually exploited and raped in this country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of freezing and seizing the assets. He is also right about the importance of the courts using the powers to order compensation. I am interested to hear that he has already had a discussion with the Director of Public Prosecutions and I will discuss this with my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and with the Solicitor-General to see whether we can encourage further progress in this respect.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I once again ask Members to ask a single question and for there to be a brief response? Many hon. Members are still hoping to make a contribution.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome the priority given to women at work, especially tackling the pay gap. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look at the outstanding work being done by the YWCA, in its “More than one rung” campaign, in getting women apprenticeships in areas of skilled work that attract higher pay, such as building, electrical engineering and car work, so that they can earn more pay when they are training and throughout their working lives?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the work that the YWCA is taking forward. She is absolutely right that it helps to tackle the pay gap. However, the additional point is that if young girls can see a future for themselves and have aspirations, that is the best way of avoiding teenage pregnancy and ensuring that they have financial independence. It was said to me a few moments ago by one of the officials with whom we were talking about teenage pregnancy that the best contraception is aspiration.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): As my party’s spokesman on health and women’s issues, I welcome genuine attempts by the Government to improve the lot of women generally. However, I have some issues concerning the objectives. The right hon. and learned Lady has said:

What will the Government do to protect the Christian ethos of the United Kingdom, where currently we cannot have nativity plays or send Christmas cards because that is deemed to be offensive to ethnic minorities? Could the right hon. and learned Lady expand on that?

Also, in relation to recognised—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have stressed the importance of asking just one question, because so many people want to make a contribution.

Ms Harman: We have introduced legal protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion. There is of course no prohibition on people sending
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out Christmas cards; indeed, the House of Commons produces marvellous Christmas cards. We all send out box-loads of those cards and none of us has been prosecuted for doing so. As far as nativity plays are concerned, many hon. Members go to many nativity plays in primary schools, and long may they continue to do so.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Make no mistake: women welcome the Government’s focus on domestic violence and the progress that has been made over the past 10 years. However, those who work with and support victims, particularly women, are frustrated by the plethora of initiatives across Departments. I welcomed the comment about an inter-ministerial group. However, in the spirit of embracing talent, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider bringing on to that body people such as Sandra Horley from Refuge and women who work at Women’s Aid, who are the real experts, to assist that co-ordination?

Ms Harman: The initiatives that we have taken forward on domestic violence, such as specialist domestic violence prosecutors, specialist domestic violence courts and extra support for victims, are important and make a difference. The only problem with them is that they are not yet rolled out so that every part of the country is as good as the best. Because of those initiatives and showing that they work, we have been able to make progress.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the important work of Refuge and Women’s Aid. They are the organisations that work on the front line and they are the experts. In every hon. Member’s constituency there are women working to tackle domestic violence. They are the experts. We need to listen to them and ensure that we do more. There is a danger, however, in that we must ensure that, while saying that we will not tolerate domestic violence and are determined to act on it, we back that up with practical action, because there is a such a big need for change.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): A visible example of the inequality in society is the unequal provision of toilet and restroom facilities for women. What will the Government do to try to correct that imbalance in public buildings? Will the right hon. and learned Lady join me in condemning Tory-controlled Colchester borough council, which is building a public building worth £14 million, where 75 per cent. of the toilet provision is for males and 25 per cent. is for females?

Ms Harman: Toilet facilities are a big issue for women whose young children need to go to the toilet—they often find that shops will not let them use their facilities—and for older people, who are disproportionately women. My own view of how to solve this problem is to have more women local councillors. If, instead of only one in four councillors being women, there were equal numbers of women and men, these issues could move up the agenda and be discussed with purpose and without embarrassment.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement and the Government’s commitment to dealing with issues of concern to women.
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Will she also press local authorities that are drawing up local social care plans to take into account the needs of women caring for elderly relatives? Those women’s needs often go unrecognised.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has a background of expertise in social care based on a great deal of experience, including her work in the House. However good the social services are, it is important that older people and people with disabilities are also supported by their families. However great the health services, social services and voluntary sector may be, family care is essential as well. As part of that, we need to ensure that our planning does not only involve building lots of housing for nuclear families. The infrastructure of the community must include facilities for children—playgrounds, schools and nurseries—and it must also have housing for old people, including granny flats, sheltered housing and day centres. We need to build “family friendly” into the planning infrastructure.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does the Minister agree that we should be concerned equally about all prisoners with mental health problems, whether they be men or women? And if she really believes in equality between men and women, will she abolish her politically correct position, or at least create a Minister for men?

Ms Harman: When the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, it had a spokesperson for women who was quite often a man— [ Interruption. ] The Minister for Women in the previous Tory Government was often a man. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that women are still under-represented in the House of Commons. Indeed, there are still only 17 Conservative women Members of Parliament. To the extent that they are ensuring that he enters the 21st century, we will back them up.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. What steps will be taken to build on the excellent work of the Sure Start schemes, some of whose funding is coming to an end? They have transformed the lives of many vulnerable young children, and their mothers, in my constituency, particularly in Leek and Biddulph. They have done a tremendous amount of valuable outreach work and developed excellent children’s centres, creating a real legacy for the future.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that she did a great deal to ensure that those two Sure Start centres were opened in Leek and Biddulph. The Sure Start programme is still being rolled out, and the first centres are in place. We all know from our experience of talking to parents whose children are in Sure Start centres that they are incredibly important for those children. We will be pressing on, irrespective of various bits of research that suggest that they are neither useful nor popular; we believe that they are both.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned the 2010 pension changes, and I congratulate the Government on those changes, which will be of huge
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benefit to many women. However, although some women will benefit to the tune of £20,000 to £30,000 over the whole of their retirement, it seems unfair to bring in the changes overnight, because that could result in someone who is only one day older suffering poverty throughout their retirement. May I invite the Minister for Women to co-ordinate a meeting between me and my hon. Friends and her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to look at ways of phasing in the provision so that more women can benefit from the Government’s very good scheme?

Ms Harman: I know my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are concerned to work with as wide a group of people as possible, and with both sides of the House, as we work together to tackle the pensions problem. The Minister for Pensions Reform will deal with those issues when he discusses Lords amendments under the next item of business before the House.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement. Last summer, I spent a considerable amount of time with the Wolverhampton police domestic violence unit, which expressed real frustration with the problems it faces in getting women who are domestically abused actually to take legal action against their abusers. Will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to incorporate the suggestions and ideas of groups such as the police—and, indeed, the voluntary sector, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) mentioned—in the formulation of her cross-ministerial policy?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Those who commit acts of domestic violence should be prosecuted and brought to justice; otherwise, the sense is that someone assaulting a person while walking down the street will be brought to justice, while someone assaulting a wife or girlfriend behind closed doors will get away with it. We need to get the message out that domestic violence is a crime that will be tackled, so it is crucial to bring offenders to justice. The difficulty is that many women fear that if they report domestic violence or give evidence in court, they will be even more at risk. That is why it is so important for support services—Victim Support, voluntary organisations and local authorities—to support women in taking action against perpetrators of domestic violence. I pay tribute to the many women who are prepared to go to court. They know that if they want to walk away from it and get on with their lives, they must ensure that the man does not get on and assault his next girlfriend.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In demonstrating the seriousness with which the right hon. and learned Lady takes her role and acknowledging the importance of fair treatment for women in work, will the Minister for Women liaise with the Financial Secretary and the Minister with responsibility for prisons to stop the proposed closures of the tax offices in Kettering and the Prison Service office at Crown house in Corby? The work force at those places are overwhelmingly female, with women often working part-time and having child care responsibilities. In my view, the proposed closures of those offices are completely discriminatory. If the Minister for Women means what she says, those closures should be stopped.

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Ms Harman: I am told that a gender impact survey is being carried out on the effect of those changes. I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the work as Solicitor-General she did for bereaved families—the Mullane family in my constituency, for example—after women have been killed through domestic violence. Is she aware of the excellent work done by the Wiltshire police, who have made domestic violence a priority, particularly by opening a domestic violence treatment centre in north Swindon? What discussions has she had with ministerial colleagues across Government to enable the lessons from such centres to be learned?

Ms Harman: The domestic violence homicide that took place in my hon. Friend’s constituency was a tragic killing of a woman and her young son. Clearly, important lessons must be learned from that experience. I am pleased to hear about my hon. Friend’s support for the work of the Wiltshire police. I would add that one thing that we should do is ensure that the substantive law is right. I am concerned when it is still possible for a man to escape a murder charge if he goes out, buys a knife, comes home and kills his wife as he has planned. If he can convince the court that he killed her only because he loved her and if he can secure the defence of provocation, the charge will drop down to manslaughter. That is why we need to reflect further on the substantive law and the message it sends out. We cannot allow the victim to be blamed after being killed.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Does the Minister agree that the incidence of successfully prosecuted rape is significantly low by comparison with the number of cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service? Is it not time to reconsider the tests used by the CPS, and to determine whether they are appropriate to the prosecution of rape cases?

Ms Harman: The test for a prosecution is, and I think must remain, whether there is enough evidence, whether a jury is more likely than not to convict on the basis of the evidence that there is, and whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. It will almost inevitably be in the public interest to prosecute in cases of rape.

I think that the rate of convictions for rape—convictions as a percentage of reported offences—is falling either because reporting is increasing as a result of an increased incidence of rape, or because women are now more likely to be confident enough to report it. Possibly it is a bit of both. However, we must do more to tackle rape. It tends to be a repeat offence, and unless the perpetrators are brought to justice there is a danger that further victims will suffer.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I welcome the statement, and was pleased to hear my right hon. and learned Friend mention the Corston report and the need to implement its recommendations. Can she confirm that it will be a priority for her office to improve the services available to women when they leave prison and that, crucially, they will be available at the point of release to help prevent reoffending and women from falling back into the abusive relationships that often led them to prison in the first place?

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