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29 Jan 2009 : Column 552

Immigration status is another of the biggest problems. I find, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) and other Members do, that a number of women come over on a spousal visa but then do not apply for indefinite leave to remain, normally because they leave that to their in-laws. Often when they leave the marital home, it is without indefinite leave and often without their passport, which they have handed in. Sometimes their visa has expired.

The Government have rightly created a procedure for fast-tracking the immigration status of domestic violence victims, but for a number of women there is still real fear that if they leave the marital home, they will end up being deported. In addition, although the procedures can work extremely well, it can be hard for women who have been isolated in the home to get the evidence that they need to prove the domestic violence.

Discrimination is also a problem for women who are turned away from public services. Over the years, research has shown the different access that different communities have to public services. The consequences for the domestic violence victim can be profound. A report by the Fawcett Society found that, on average, women suffering domestic violence have 11 contacts with services before they get the help that they need. For black women, the number increases to 17 contacts before they get help.

Overall, there is the problem of poverty. The communities from which some of the women come are among the most disadvantaged. Some of the women have no independent income or even independent money. It is hard to leave a marital home, especially with children, unless some money is available. Some of the women have no recourse to public funds, and that is firmly stamped on their passports.

It might be helpful if I give a couple of examples, which show the impact that the different factors have on the women, and the scale of the suffering of some of the women whom I have seen over the years. One was a young Bangladeshi woman, who married a British man from Tower Hamlets and came to live in his family home in the east end. Soon after she arrived, he started to hit her, and so did his mother. She became pregnant and had a baby girl. She managed to gain access to different services—at one stage, she went to the GP because she was not well. However, she could not talk about the violence, because a member of her husband’s family accompanied her and acted as interpreter.

The woman finally managed to escape with her little girl and they came to Northampton, where she stayed with friends. She was deeply traumatised by what had happened. The support worker at the Bangladeshi association brought her to see me, and the first time that I saw her, she was suffering from, among other things, TB. It took about three years to win her indefinite leave to remain, during which time she was reduced to penury and repeatedly threatened with deportation. When her friend could no longer support her, social services put her into a bed-and-breakfast hostel, where she stayed for almost a year.

According to housing rules, the woman should have been moved much earlier, but the rules that bar families with children from being placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation apply only to housing authorities, not to social services departments, and a social services department placed her in a bed-and-breakfast hostel in the interests of her child. That is a discrepancy in the
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rules and complete nonsense. Protection for homeless families should be aligned across departments. This year, some four years after she fled her marital home in the east end, she walked into a home of her own in Northampton with her not quite so little girl.

A second case, from some years ago, was particularly appalling and has had a deep and lasting impression on me. It involved a woman who fled when her husband attacked her with a knife. She travelled to the north to stay with family members before returning to Northampton to reclaim her three children, who had remained with her in-laws. She was pregnant when she left her marital home and, when she returned, she went into premature labour. The baby was born with a serious disability, and she stayed in hospital with him for 10 days before his life support was turned off, and then for several weeks because she had nowhere to go. The hospital was very good and allowed her to stay. She had a little room with literally all her belongings in a bag beside the bed. It took months, if not years, to get her children returned to her, with everyone’s immigration status sorted out, and to be accepted by a local housing authority.

I have outlined some of the problems that women face, and I want now to consider the services that are available to support them. The NSPCC report highlights a profound lack of services. Although two thirds of all local authorities provide services for domestic violence victims, only one in 10—46 out of 434—have specialised services for black and minority ethnic communities. Ninety-five per cent. are in England and almost half in London, so there are only 23 services for the UK outside London. Many of the supporting services are in the voluntary sector, and the financial pressures on the third sector are a problem, as has been identified by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and, I am sure, by every hon. Member’s constituency experience. Indeed, in Northampton, the services for black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionately cut.

In addition, voluntary sector funding can be time limited. In Northampton, the Bangladeshi association applied for a lottery grant to fund a support worker to deal with domestic violence. That was an outstanding success, and two successive workers with quite remarkable commitment brought forward some exceptional cases and made a real contribution to changing the way in which things worked locally and the lives of many women. However, the funds were time limited, and the funding of the posts was not picked up by the public sector. The support services therefore disappeared, along with the knowledge and experience that those workers had built up. We also have an outstanding mainstream project in Northampton, the Sunflower Centre, which deals with domestic violence and works with black and minority ethnic communities. However, it does not have outreach services to reach the most excluded communities, including the Somali community.

I have taken up this issue with the Government before, and I have written to some of my hon. Friend the Minister’s colleagues a number of times. Their response is usually that funding is available in a number of partnerships, and that it can be accessed through those partnerships. That is all very well on paper, but in practice, chasing funding through an inter-agency partnership is not a realistic proposition for communities
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that are often marginalised and competing for funds with some of the most powerful organisations in our society.

The NSPCC has set out proposals to improve multi-agency working, and I certainly support them. However, I believe that we need a specific funding stream to provide financing for services for women from black and minority ethnic communities who are the victims of domestic violence. Such services could be provided within organisations in the community concerned, or through outreach work to enable women to access mainstream services. The result of the Southall Black Sisters court case, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) has referred, showed not only that such funding is permissible under the law, but that the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 actively requires it. The same court case also showed that equality work is essential to improve social cohesion. The provision of such a funding stream is possible via the inter-departmental ministerial group on domestic violence, which I believe is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department and which has provided real leadership on domestic violence issues in the past—for example, through the provision of more funding for refuges.

The Government have done a great deal to tackle the enormous problem of domestic violence and to stem the loss of life—two women a week are killed by their partners—by introducing legislation, providing funding for refuges, establishing the domestic violence courts and improving housing rights for homeless families. However, there are still key areas where action is needed, and one of those involves dealing with the problems facing women in the black and minority ethnic communities to ensure that they can access the services that they need and exercise their human right to live free of the fear of violence at home. Action is long overdue on that, and I ask my hon. Friend to provide assurances for my constituents and many other women up and down the country who have suffered in silence for too long.

In closing, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall, who has remained in the Chamber tonight because of his real commitment to this cause.

6.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) for raising this subject, and for her eloquent and well-researched speech. She has a strong track record on this issue, as she has demonstrated today. I welcome this opportunity to set out how the Government are responding to some of the issues that she has raised. I will not repeat all the statistics that she highlighted. Suffice it to say that we all know that domestic violence is a devastating crime that impacts on all our communities, and it is important that we address all the points that she has made.

Organisations that deal with domestic violence have played a critical role, and we owe them a significant debt of gratitude. My hon. Friend mentioned Southall Black Sisters, and there are others that have also worked with those suffering domestic violence in the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Over the last couple of years, we have been working to ensure that our centrally driven initiatives also join up at regional and local level. We may have to agree to
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differ at this point, although we are always keen in government to listen to how things are working on the ground. I do not believe that we can fix everything through Whitehall central funding and it has been a drive in government to devolve funding down to a local level so that decisions about funding particular services are made at that local level. It should be more responsive because the groups are dealt with much more directly. Some of the groups dealing with domestic violence issues, particularly in these communities, are quite small, and it is not always easy necessarily to get it right from Whitehall.

This drive to the local level has been important across government and across a number of Departments that deal with these issues. It is important to carry on with that, but as I said, we are always keen to learn more about how the excluded groups that my hon. Friend has highlighted are accessing services. We continue to talk with her, the all-party group and other groups involved about how that can be done more effectively.

One supporting strand of funding is through the “Supporting People” programme, which was launched in 2003. The aim is to create a coherent funding and policy context for the provision of housing-related support to the most vulnerable. Local authorities rather than central Government determine how they focus that funding, based on the needs and priorities they have identified in their five-year strategies. I visited the Nia project in my constituency last week and I know that it is effectively using a lot of that “Supporting People” money. I am not unaware of some of the challenges that that particular funding stream presents, but I think it is right that it is done at the local level.

We have evidence from local authorities concerning their investment of “Supporting People” funding in domestic violence cases: the evidence is positive. Local authorities are spending more of their funding on domestic violence services. A rise from £61.6 million in 2006-07 to £64.5 million in 2008 delivered increased capacity for this vulnerable group—from 8,660 units of support in 2006-07 to 9,520 in 2007-08. The proportion of black and ethnic minority women who accessed housing-related support has increased from 26.8 per cent. in 2003-04 to 28.9 per cent. in 2007. One might say that that is a modest increase, but I think that is good progress in a year. We need to make sure that all those who need the services are accessing them. Last year, more than 6,000 women were successfully supported to achieve greater control, choice and involvement in their community. A number of them were also supported with their mental health problems.

The Nia project and the Southall Black Sisters are two examples of groups that do valuable work in this area, and there are countless others. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) raised the issue of increasing the Southall Black Sisters’ funding. The Home Office has recently provided £20,000 in order to strengthen its performance management arrangements, so that it can provide national data on black and ethnic minority victims of domestic violence. The Home Office continues to work with the Black Sisters on a step-by-step basis to provide advice on domestic violence. We recognise the benefits.

Mr. Sharma rose—

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Meg Hillier: I can give way only briefly.

Mr. Sharma: On behalf of the Southall Black Sisters, I would like to thank the Minister and the Home Office for providing the support they needed. At the same time, there is a need to work closely with the local authorities so that they are asked to work closely with local voluntary and third-sector groups. In this case, there were some difficulties in the past.

Meg Hillier: In a couple of sentences, my hon. Friend has encapsulated the challenges of dealing with what are often small groups, although the Southall Black Sisters are well established. He is right to focus on the distance between Whitehall and those groups and to highlight the key role that local authorities play. I will certainly ensure that Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government are aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns in that direction. It is for them to take up these issues as well as for the Home Office to deal with them overall, working with other colleagues in government to promote issues around domestic violence and provide the solutions that we are trying to draw up.

I should say that we make some central allocations of funding. For example, we are putting nearly £1 million into a matrix of helplines to support a range of victims. It is sensible for some money to come from central Government, but we also need to ensure that we allow for the responsiveness that local funding can, at its best, provide. Where there are problems, we are monitoring them by examining the data of the groups accessing these services and by making other evaluations.

We know that we need to do more to ensure that victims of domestic violence in black and minority ethnic communities also benefit from interventions. Our delivery plan for 2008-09 specifically includes activity to support those groups, and that work will continue into 2009-10.

Let me give some examples. The Department for Communities and Local Government has commissioned three pieces of homelessness and domestic violence research. Each of those projects will involve consideration of the needs of specific groups, including black and minority ethnic households. We want to understand better what provision is out there, and whether it meets current need. There will be a report late in 2009. I have already asked officials in the DCLG to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North is kept informed and updated on the progress of the research, and will alert Ministers in the Department as well. I think it important for her expertise to be used.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of foreign-born wives and those with uncertain immigration status. That issue is important to me, as an immigration Minister. We have been working with the statutory and voluntary sectors to find ways in which to support victims with no recourse to public funds. We are also discussing one of the points that my hon. Friend raised with the Association of Chief Police Officers: we are trying to establish whether ACPO can assist in the process of obtaining formal documents such as passports for women applying for indefinite leave to remain on grounds of domestic violence. We need to obtain the evidence. We need a reasonable threshold, but not a bar that will make it too difficult for women in the circumstances described so eloquently and movingly by my hon. Friend to gain such status.

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We believe that the scheme that we announced in March last year will strengthen the way in which domestic violence cases are considered, enabling the vulnerable victims described by my hon. Friend to gain access to additional support. We have been working closely with the No Recourse to Public Funds network and other stakeholders on the details of the scheme. It has taken longer than it should have, but we must get it right. The delay is frustrating for all of us who are involved, but it is important for us to launch a scheme that it is effective, rather than launching a scheme for the sake of meeting a deadline.

About 500 women try to escape from abusive partners each year, but cannot gain access to emergency housing or other benefits because of their immigration status. That affects not just those women but their children, and a wider network of people. We have been working to try to deal with it. I am partly responsible for some of the work of the UK Border Agency. The DCLG has been working with the agency and other groups, including a network of local authorities, to explore better solutions.

As I said earlier, we are developing a scheme that will provide a contribution to the housing and living costs of people who are granted indefinite leave to remain as the spouse or partner of a United Kingdom national, but who are then subject to domestic violence within their two-year probationary period. I should be happy to discuss that and some of the surrounding issues with my hon. Friend on another occasion, because we need to get it right.

Although negotiations are still in progress, it is expected that a one-off lump sum will be paid by the UK Border Agency to the supporting organisation. That is one of the reasons for the complications: a great many organisations are involved, and it is important for us to give Government money—taxpayers’ money—to organisations that we know to have a good track record.

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Further work is being done. Unfortunately not enough time is available for me to describe all of it, but it is worth mentioning our specialist domestic violence courts, independent domestic violence advisers and multi-agency risk assessment conferences, all of which are key to supporting victims of domestic violence. We are collecting ethnicity data to ensure that those services are reaching all communities. At each step, we are trying to monitor the way in which all services meet the needs of some of the groups mentioned by my hon. Friend. The Government have been working with voluntary organisations, particularly through the DCLG, to develop a step-by-step guide for women in black and minority ethnic communities who are victims. Unfortunately it too has been delayed, but we hope to publish it in the spring.

The Government are engaged in the issue with a variety of stakeholders. I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members have contributed. On Tuesday 3 February, there will be a meeting of stakeholders with experience in this area.

We know there is still more for us to do. The Home Secretary has already announced that there will be a public consultation on a “violence against women” strategy. I encourage all organisations and communities to participate. I hope that between us my hon. Friend and I, along with other hon. Members—although none is present now—can encourage all Members to urge their local organisations to contribute. It is important for contributions to be made throughout the United Kingdom. I should be happy to work with the all-party group on domestic violence in helping to disseminate information about the consultation, and to ensure that proper contributions are made to inform the development of the strategy so that we can tackle the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

6.30 pm

House adjourned.

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