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Let me say this as clearly as I can: the gender equality duty, put into the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by the Equality Act 2006, plays an important role in getting public authorities to consider what forms of positive action they should take in tackling violence against women. However, it seems that the very misunderstanding
to which my right hon. and hon. Friends have alluded has arisen, and some people think that the duty somehow means that women-only specialist services, such as those that provide support for women victims of domestic violence, should no longer be provided. I am pleased to take this opportunity to make it clear that such an interpretation of the duty is wrong.
The Solicitor-General: I wonder whether I could finish this important point first. The code of practice makes it clear that the duty is not about providing the same service for men and women in all cases. It is up to each public authority to decide the priorities for its gender equality schemes, but such authorities can be proactivethe Government would encourage them to bein tackling violence against women, if they wish, through specialist services.
I do not know whether this is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East was going to make, but let me add that similarly, there is no reason why the race equality duty should prevent authorities from catering for the special needs of racial groups in respect of domestic violence services, as in the case that we are discussing. If that is not what he was going to say, I give way to him.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) has led an energetic campaign on behalf of Southall Black Sisters, and I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her clarity this afternoon. What she is basically saying is that Councillor Stacey and Ealing council can fund that organisation if they want to.
We need to do more to ensure that the victims of domestic violence from black and minority ethnic communities benefit from our interventions. We have made that a priority for this year. An example of our commitment is the development of a specific honour-based violence action plan to address the specific forms of domestic violence that affect some of our BME communities. We shall expand the work of the forced marriage unit to ensure that potential victims of forced marriage can speak out with the certainty that they will get the help that they need.
More work is needed, however, with local community leaders to condemn the archaic and repugnant practices that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall has alluded to. We are also planning a series of regional and local seminars, starting in the summer, to publicise the work of the forced marriage unit and highlight the emerging strategies of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring that the criminal justice system responds appropriately to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
A step-by-step guide for women in black and minority ethnic communities who are the victims of domestic violence will soon provide what we hope is practical advice on the steps that victims can take to
protect themselves and their children. We hope that, in producing that guidance, we will have taken on board cultural issues, which can prove problematic.
Another example that my hon. Friend referred to, and on which we have been working with both the statutory and the voluntary sector, is to try to find ways of supporting victims with no recourse to public funds. People come in and are dependent on someone who undertakes to support them, but they are then tied to that person if domestic violence starts to become an issue. In March, we announced a new scheme for victims of domestic violence in exactly that situation whose applications for indefinite leave to remain are successful. I acknowledge that we need to speed up the process, and work is being done to do that for people applying for indefinite leave to remain. If their applications are successful, they may qualify for a contribution towards their housing and living costs.
The proposals under the new scheme will strengthen the way in which domestic violence cases are considered, enabling vulnerable victims to obtain the support that they need. We have been working closely with the No
Recourse to Public Funds Network to get a national picture of the issue and we will expand on the details of this programme of work later in the spring.
I am proud to say that over the years, I have worked with Southall Black Sisters on a number of occasions, and I am pleased to say that the Government continue to work with the group and are pleased to receive its input. I am glad that we have been able to resource it in a limited way to ensure that its business practices can be made good. I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that nothing in the gender or the race policiesnor in anything else that one can readily think of in the Governments policy or legislationcan give any local authority any reason not to fund such specialist services if it chooses to do so.