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10 Nov 2009 : Column 51WH—continued

We are funding and extending the network of sexual assault referral centres that my hon. Friend mentioned to ensure that victims receive medical care and counselling and that they can assist the police investigation through a forensic examination. The number of SARCs has increased from just five in 2001 to the current 29, and we aim and expect to have one in every police force area by 2011. We also fund the provision of independent
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sexual violence advisers in 43 areas to provide advocacy and support for victims. My hon. Friend has talked about the excellent work that they do.

This year, the Government conducted a wide-ranging consultation on violence against women, the responses to which will be published soon. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is working with the judiciary on cases in which defendants raise the issue of delayed reporting to undermine the credibility of complainants. They are working to ensure that juries are better advised and better able to understand the impact that the trauma of rape can have on victims and on their behaviour after the attack.

As well as taking action specifically in relation to victims of sexual violence and sexual crime, the Government have taken general actions to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Those actions have had a positive impact on the support that victims of sexual violence can obtain from the criminal justice system. I shall not argue that more could not be done or that we have turned the corner completely, because there is more to do. However, special measures are available to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, such as rape victims, in our courts so that they can give their best evidence in court without having to be next to the attacker or looked at by them. The victim personal statement can enable victims to have a voice in certain cases, such as where there has been a guilty plea. All that helps to ensure that the point of view of the person who has been attacked can be at the centre of the court's consideration.

I think that my hon. Friend requested this debate mainly to talk about funding the third sector, so I shall address her comments on that. The Government have done a lot on this issue. First, we have provided more than £12 million of funding in the past five years, through the victims fund, for voluntary organisations that support victims of sexual violence. For a few years now, there has also been a special fund, as my hon. Friend noted, to top up the money that is available to support the work of the third sector on sexual violence. That is a £1.6 million fund for members of the Survivors Trust and Rape Crisis to keep open local services for victims. As my hon. Friend rightly said, those charities provide invaluable support and specialist services such as counselling and advocacy to women and men who have been raped or who have experienced sexual violence. Another £1.8 million has been invested in the current year for new and existing sexual assault referral centres, and there is a £1.4 million fund for creating a national support team to bring together all the key agencies and to provide support to ensure that victims of sexual violence get the support they need in local areas to report crime. That helps to ensure that prosecutions succeed in greater numbers, where they are undertaken, and that those who rape and engage in sexual violence do not get away with it. Twelve million pounds of spending was provided over the five years prior to this year for specialist services for victims of sexual violence, and core funding was provided for Rape Crisis (England and Wales) and the Survivors Trust.

We are looking at the issue of sustainability, which my hon. Friend raised, and understand that we need to support voluntary sector organisations more. Officials from across Government are working to consider what more can be done to address the issue of sustainability
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in the sexual violence sector. We recently commissioned research and shared it with the stakeholder advisory group on sexual violence and abuse funding, a group on which officials from my Department and others and representatives of the sexual violence sector sit to look at how we can best sustain the work that those organisations do in the future.

One area we seek to address relates to cash. My hon. Friend said that many of the professionals and volunteers in the third sector organisations dealing with sexual violence spend too much of their time making applications for funding rather than continuing their work helping victims, so we are looking at trying to ensure that there is a more streamlined process.

We are looking at commissioning to see how that should be compact and compliant with equality duties, because one issue relating to the sustainability of funding for third sector organisations is that many local commissioners of services with mainstream budgets, some of which should clearly be used to support such voluntary organisations, have taken the view that those are too low down the list of priorities and, as they are women-only, do not comply with equality law. That is a misconception and incorrect, and it is something we need to educate local commissioners about more fully. We are looking at what more can be done on commissioning by those with mainstream budgets, whether in local authorities, health authorities or the criminal justice system, to ensure that it is properly understood that that part of the third sector should not be funded only by central Government from some central pot.

We are trying to ensure that the Government's capacity-building work for third sector organisations includes those from the violence against women sector and the rape crisis and sexual violence sector.

Mr. Pelling: Does the Minister have a view on those women who have no recourse to public funds because of their migration status, and on how rape centres should be better provided for to deal with their needs?

Maria Eagle: There is some central funding from the POPPY project, which comes largely through the Home Office, for those who have been trafficked into this country and subjected to sexual violence, so there is some specific funding aimed at helping those victims of sexual abuse who come to the attention of the authorities.

One of the issues with the sexual violence third sector is that it does not tend to be commissioned to provide services, as it would be perfectly possible for it to be, because those involved are specialists, such as those who deal with a particularly vulnerable part of society locally or local group. One of the strands of the work we are trying to do on sustainability is saying to local commissioners across public organisations that that area should not be ignore because it is covered elsewhere. It is an essential part of providing support for victims of crime and those who find it difficult to recover from their experiences.

I hope that the work we are doing in conjunction with the sexual violence third sector organisations will produce a better understanding across the public sector, centrally and locally, of where those organisations fit into the available services that can be commissioned by mainstream budget holders in local authorities, health services and the criminal justice system, and create awareness that by
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working together across those natural boundaries, which is always difficult but always a good thing to do, it ought to be possible to ensure better and more sustainable funding for those organisations that provide such vital services in many local areas. Indeed, one need visit only a few of those organisations to hear that referrals come from many statutory services but not necessarily with any money. The volunteers in those organisations are committed to their work, so they do not say, "Oi, where's the money for these referrals?" Instead, they get on with the job. We must find a way to ensure that money is attached to referrals.

We need to ensure that local services, whether local authorities or regional or local arms of central Government services, do not take the work that is done in those organisations as a free good that they do not have to pay for one way or another. I am convinced that the work we are doing should enable us, with good will on all sides and with a proper understanding across the statutory services of central and local government, to ensure that those organisations doing such vital work do not fall through the various gaps between the priorities of mainstream budget holders, because in many ways that is what has happened over the past few years.

I want to say a few words about the Stern review, because several recent cases that have come to the public's attention illustrate that there is still a need to address head-on some of the myths, misperceptions and wrong attitudes surrounding the crime of rape. The Government are pressing forward with the agenda of trying to ensure that more is done to support better the victims of sexual violence. There is now a review into how rape complaints are handled, from when a rape is first disclosed until the court reaches a verdict. My hon. Friend gave some examples of the experiences that victims of sexual violence have immediately after what has been an extremely traumatic experience and a crime committed against them. One is not surprised that some of those women feel unable to report properly to the police what has happened to them.

The review, led by Baroness Stern, will look in particular at how public authorities, including the police, local authorities, health providers, the Crown Prosecution Service and others, respond individually to rape complaints and interact with each other, as well as the attitudes of professionals to rape and evidence from the victims. It will take account of the emerging findings of the Department of Health task force on the health aspects of violence against women and girls, led by Professor Sir George Alberti, which is due to report early next year, and of the work done by Sara Payne, the victims' champion.

Since September, Baroness Stern has held 21 meetings with key stakeholders, including academics, public authorities, inspectorates, political leaders, local government, third sector support services and complainants, and has now embarked upon a programme of regional visits to collate further evidence and perspectives from a range of authorities, service providers, prosecutors and members of the judiciary. Regional visits will also provide her with the opportunity to speak to and visit a variety of specialist rape investigation teams, rape crisis centres, sexual assault referral centres, third sector groups and local crime and disorder reduction partnerships. She will visit the English regions, Wales and Scotland for
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some comparative discussions throughout the rest of the year. She is expecting to present a final report to Ministers at some time in the new year.

I hope that I have been able to indicate to my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to tackling rape and sexual assault, bringing perpetrators to justice and ensuring that victims get the help and support they need. I congratulate her on securing the debate and highlighting in particularly the issues that concern those in the voluntary and third sectors who do so much to help the victims of sexual violence.

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Public Transport (Disabled Access)

1 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here today. I believe this is the first time that I have spoken in this Chamber with you in the Chair, Mr. Williams. I take the opportunity to thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate.

Part of the London borough of Hillingdon is in my constituency. Every three months or so, the three Hillingdon Members of Parliament-my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I-have a joint meeting with Disablement Association Hillingdon, known locally as DASH. We meet various people who have disabilities and also those who have issues around it. A subject that has been common to various meetings is the problems that are still encountered by many disabled people in accessing public transport.

First, I should acknowledge that there has been some advance in accessibility for disabled people on public transport-I believe we all recognise that-and certainly things have improved with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, but it is obvious that there are still significant problems. It is not particularly easy to bring accessibility to transport quickly, but the situation is frustrating for disabled people. Mr. Simon Harris, who is in charge of DASH, and one of the other people who often raises this point, Mr. Allen Bergson, are appropriately forthright in trying to champion the cause of improving accessibility for the disabled.

I also acknowledge that in London, where my constituency is, we have Transport for London, and the Mayor and the Greater London authority have input. Although some of my comments will be about the UK generally, many of them will be directed by the experience in Hillingdon. However, they are relevant to many other areas.

I shall not spend a great deal of time on the tube or the Overground, because it is evident to anyone who has any form of disability, particularly those who require a wheelchair, that the underground system is difficult to access.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing an extremely important debate, and I am grateful to him for giving way. One of my constituents who has a disability and uses a wheelchair lives on a bus route served by four different drivers. She said that three of them are excellent, but that the other one has told her more than once that she is a pest. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a strong case for making disability awareness known to as many people as possible? I would not for one second disregard the importance of so many people in public life who are committed to a fair deal for disabled people, but perhaps we have to be a bit more robust in presenting a policy of awareness.

Mr. Randall: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I shall dwell on that theme later. It is one thing to pass laws and to talk about disability in this place and elsewhere, but we have to get through to the general public on a wider scale than we are doing at present.

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In my own case, having a disabled mother and, before he passed away, a disabled father, I suddenly became much more aware of the problems. Without drifting too much, too often one goes to a place and asks, "Do you have accessibility for wheelchairs?" and what we hear is, "Yes, there are only three or four steps." There is still a mentality among many people, unless they have had to get a wheelchair in and out, that things are not as difficult as they actually are. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that access and fair treatment on any form of transport are important. He mentioned buses, which I shall discuss.

I do not want to be entirely negative. One positive thing that I have noticed over the years, going up and down on the underground and buses-again, I am quoting from experience in London-are the audiovisual announcements, particularly on the buses. Previously, it was sometimes difficult for a person to know where they were, even if they were fully sighted and able-the bus could be crowded, or the windows could be misted up-so they are an improvement for all passengers. But for those who have problems, they are vital.

I believe that the Transport Committee recently produced a report on transport for the Olympics, and that it recommended that all transport should have such announcements. It is obvious that not just disabled people would benefit from them: they would be of benefit to locals and certainly will be important to the huge number of tourists who will come in. I would like that system to be extended to all buses throughout the country.

A problem with buses that I believe is probably common around the country is that many now have disabled space-in effect, space for a wheelchair-but it is limited, and those wheelchair spaces are sometimes taken up by other passengers, most obviously those with children's buggies or prams. I got a copy of a letter from TfL, which says that it encourages its drivers to ask people to move, but that they do not have powers to insist that people move. It is a matter of asking and trying to make people aware. Sometimes, the great British public are not as understanding as we would like them to be. Many people may have experienced this. People may be under pressure themselves-it is not easy taking a buggy around with a lot of shopping, a kid screaming away and all the rest-but we should try to ensure that space is available.

If the place on the bus is taken and a wheelchair cannot get in because there is no space-this assumes that the ramp is working and so on-the person has to wait for the next bus, and the next one if that one has no space. Interestingly, I noticed that a local person recently had an out-of-court settlement from a bus operating company-I believe they got £1,000-because they could not access four consecutive buses.

For most of us, that situation rarely occurs, although sometimes a bus is too full and it speeds past, but for a disabled person sitting in a wheelchair and trying to get on a bus, it must be problematic. Again, I am speaking about London, where the bus services are quite regular. I would imagine that elsewhere this could be a real problem if the next bus is not for half an hour or so. These are problems for disabled people.

As I said in response to the intervention by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), the public are sometimes surprisingly
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unsympathetic to the needs of disabled people. As Members of this House, we are very much aware of them because people come to us with their concerns. There are awareness campaigns and courses for bus drivers, and most drivers are helpful, but unfortunately, as with most things, there will be one or two who are not.

Something that never occurred to me until it was pointed out, when it became obvious, is the problem at request stops for those who are visually impaired. We take things for granted-we see a bus coming along, we see the number on it and we stick our hand out to stop it-but that is a problem for someone who has problems with their sight. I do not think that we appreciate quite how difficult that is.

The Government's statutory advisory committee, the disabled persons transport advisory committee, has found that although disabled people travel a third less often than non-disabled people, they have a greater reliance on the bus services. That committee produced figures showing that, within the disability community, blind and partially sighted people use buses significantly more than other disabled people, with 50 per cent. taking the bus at least once a month compared with 43 per cent. of other disabled people. That is why request stops and announcements are so important.

We forget that the black cabs are a form of public transport. Disabled people can find them useful in getting from A to B, but one obvious problem is the expense. Mr. Allen Bergson, whom I mentioned earlier, told me about the real problems and how, in many cases, it is cheaper to fly to Spain and back than to get a black cab. For example, Mr. Bergson lives in Hillingdon and it cost him £80.11 one way to go to the National hospital in Holborn for some drug trials. Without being too intelligent I can work out what the return trip would cost. Booking fees and credit card charges lead to a black cab costing more for disabled people than for able-bodied people because one with wheelchair facilities has to be booked. Although sometimes they can flag one down, the chances are that the first one that comes along may not be accessible. So the cost of what we might think is a relatively easy journey becomes hugely problematic.

In providing accessibility for people with disabilities, we want to try to enable them to lead as normal a life as possible, getting out and enjoying things and getting on with work. Work is another big problem, because transport is not that easy for disabled people to use.

At our DASH meetings we have endless discussions about Dial-a-ride, which provides a useful service but also leads to many complaints. It is a patchy service. People from Dial-a-ride come along to the meetings to try to explain what is going on. There is so much frustration. For example, people can book an outward trip but are unable to book the return journey, which makes the whole thing pointless.

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