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Westminster Hall

Thursday 21 January 2010

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Violence Against Women

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Heppell.)

2.30 pm

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): It is nice to see the Front-Bench teams from the Equality Bill reassembled for one appearance only.

We take violence against women seriously in all its forms. We all have a responsibility, along with the Government, to tackle violence against women and girls within our families and communities, at our places of work or study and in society at large. The Government have developed a number of linked national action plans on domestic violence, which includes tackling female genital mutilation, forced marriage and evil crimes committed in the name of honour; sexual assault and rape; prostitution; and human trafficking. We want to increase reporting and conviction rates, ensure that victims are supported, improve the criminal justice response and maximise prevention.

The largest ever cross-governmental public consultation on tackling violence against women and girls was launched by the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith). During 2009, it received more than 10,000 responses, which informed the cross-governmental violence against women and girls strategy that we published in November.

The Department of Health has launched a taskforce led by Professor Alberti to consider the health aspects of violence against women. It aims to identify what is the current national health service response to violence against women and girls in terms of prevention and treatment, and to consider what more needs to be done. Part of that work is specifically to look at sexual violence against women and children. We expect the report next month.

The work I am describing puts into a higher gear the work the Government have done over the past decade, which has transformed the debate on violence against women. A comprehensive search of Hansard shows that the issue was very rarely mentioned by the last Tory Government. If one looks beyond the debates in the Chamber to debates on Bills, as I have done, one sees that Labour Front Benchers tried to amend Tory criminal justice Bills to get rid of the ability to cross-examine women on their sexual history and proposed support for domestic violence victims, but found their proposals blocked. Meanwhile, an epidemic of violence against women was being suffered privately.

The advent of 100 Labour women MPs in 1997 meant that the issue was taken on and run with. It has been taken on seriously, strongly and continuously by Ministers, male and female, ever since and there has been step-by-step improvement. Importantly, we have worked closely with the third sector, where there is great
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understanding of the subject-for example, Women's Aid has 35 years' wisdom. We have passed good legislation such as the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004.

As a consequence of the steps we have taken, domestic homicide rates are lower now than they have been for the past decade. I used to make speeches on violence against women in which I said that between two and three women a week are killed through domestic violence. Happily, that statistic has changed, although it is still far too high. On average, just over one woman is now killed each week.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): As the Minister knows, I take an interest in this problem. The evidence I have seen shows that the average length of sentences has fallen dramatically from 90.5 months in 2003-a year she mentioned-to 81.2 months in 2006. Can she explain that?

The Solicitor-General: Sentences for what?

Mr. Newmark: Sexual violence.

The Solicitor-General: Sentencing is imposed by the judiciary, not the Government. I do not think that those figures are correct. Rape sentencing was set down by the Millberry case about five or six years ago. It stated that the starting point for a rape case involving one rape is five years, increasing for aggravating factors, such as there being more than one victim or a campaign of rape. Life sentences and indefinite sentences are frequently imposed, for example in the case of Worboys. I do not accept that those figures are correct, but judges have the discretion to deal with each case.

We now have 700 specially trained independent domestic violence advisers nationally. That is a totally new sort of support person. From complaint to court, and if necessary beyond, they stand beside and befriend a domestic violence complainant and ensure that they are sustained through the pressures of a court case. They can help them with things such as benefits advice; home change, which may be required depending on where the violence happened; the impact on their relationship; and child care. They try to take those burdens off a woman so that she knows that if she is suffering domestic violence, she can make a complaint and have a friend beside her from start to finish.

There are 200 multi-agency risk assessment conferences, which protect high-risk victims and their children. Areas where they exist see a 50 per cent. cut in repeat victimisation of women. They have helped 29,000 victims of domestic abuse. Obviously, word has started to go round over the years that women will be supported, so women increasingly come forward. Support brings support.

I was proud yesterday to attend the Una Padel award ceremony at King's college London, where Survivors of Domestic Abuse, a volunteer organisation from Redcar, won an award for its work. It is run by young victims of domestic violence who saw the work done by Women's Aid locally and discovered that they could help people who were trying to get out of violent relationships by talking to them, sharing their experiences and giving support. It is cheering that it is young women who are doing that.

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There are 127 specialist domestic violence courts in which all parties, from magistrates to prosecutors and the police, are trained to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. That is a fundamental part of our effort to deal with domestic violence and to improve the support that is available. Prosecution rates have doubled since the introduction of those courts and the average is now 72.5 per cent. Conviction rates are going up.

We know that 750,000 children in the UK witness domestic violence. We have produced a toolkit, which since last September has been distributed to all front-line professionals to whom it is relevant. The toolkit contains risk assessments and safety planning tools designed to support vulnerable children and young people in situations of domestic violence.

We will more than double the number of sexual assault referral centres by March 2011, and there will be at least one in each of the 43 criminal justice areas in England and Wales. Such centres bring together in one place all the relevant legal and medical agencies and departments. A victim may go there on her own, with the police or with her family, or she can telephone the centre and somebody will go to get her. She will get the Rolls-Royce treatment and be supported from the beginning with the intention of sustaining her through any court case and in overcoming the trauma she has suffered. If she wants to report the assault, a specialist officer will come out.

We have announced funding of £1.6 million to enhance existing sexual assault referral centres and to create new ones. There will be further funding to extend the network of independent sexual violence advisers. Like independent domestic violence advisers, they are befrienders who support a victim from start to finish, but these advisers specialise in sexual violence.

Those services are available to male or female victims. Of course, most of the aspects I mention will focus on women-this is a debate about violence against women-but I ought to put in that footnote at this point.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I welcome that list of new initiatives, which I know are working in many parts of the country. However, services are patchy: for example, anyone who comes from Stourbridge or Dudley and needs to get to a sexual assault referral centre has to travel to Walsall, which is quite a distance. Evidence has to be kept as uncontaminated as possible, and I know women who have had to travel in a van, sitting on newspaper, so that they can be examined once they have arrived at Walsall. That is quite a journey. The multi-agency risk assessment conference system is very good but, in Dudley where provision is patchy, victims have to suffer three or four incidents of domestic violence before they are put into that system. It adds insult to injury that they have to wait until they are beaten up again for that to happen.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important to preserve evidence and I am sure doing that can be quite uncomfortable on a long journey. As I said, we are enhancing the network of sexual assault referral centres, and the target is to have one in each criminal justice area, because those are defined areas that work cohesively together. There should not
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be an absolute barrier against the travel that is implicit. People in my constituency would have to go from east Cleveland and travel quite a distance through the countryside to the sexual assault referral centre in Middlesbrough. However, the police or whoever was dealing with the case would facilitate that.

In my constituency and presumably in that of my hon. Friend, there is a system whereby a trusted female cab driver is sent out to fetch the woman and take her to the sexual assault referral centre. Those centres have a lot of technical equipment and are highly staffed, so I do not suppose it will ever be practical to have one in every neighbourhood. However, she makes a strong point about ensuring that there is a proper distribution. The MARAC system is intended for repeat offenders. Of course, as my hon. Friend says, it is very odd to have to wait for someone to become a repeat offender before someone steps in. However, the assistance of an independent domestic violence adviser will be provided after one incident.

Lynda Waltho: That is the theory of how it should work and it is what I supported when I voted for the legislation, but that does not happen in Dudley. The services are patchy. Sandwell, which is next door, has a better system. There is a better buy-in of the local authority and all the agencies, but there are only two counsellors and one primary care trust-funded counsellor available for 20 hours a week, and, in the words of one worker, "If you can get into that, you're lucky." Essentially, someone needs to wait until they have been mucked about four times before they are put into the MARAC system. It is not that the people providing help do not want to do it; the problem is there is a population of around 320,000 in the Dudley area and literally thousands of women are unsupported in relation to this problem.

The Solicitor-General: Independent domestic violence advisers are, of course, not counsellors; they are primary workers who will provide support from the start, and they are usually from local rape crisis centre or Women's Aid centre. If there is a domestic violence court in my hon. Friend's area, which there must be, there are IDVAs attached to it and they need to be utilised properly. I do not know what her local authority is like in terms of match funding or funding-she has given a thumbs down-but the difficulty is that we send out money to local authorities for these services with indicators required for their performance and they spend the money as they should, but they do not always provide the service that she is seeking.

That is a real difficulty, and it cuts across the whole question of central versus local funding. I cannot decide from Westminster how many IDVAs there should be in Sandwell. That must be done by the local authority. Of course, there is a lot of Home Office funding for IDVAs and independent sexual violence advisers, but there needs to be some funding from the local authorities, too. My hon. Friend will know about the map of gaps, which shows where the gaps are with the intention-driven by the Equality and Human Rights Commission-of making those local authorities that are not match funding do so in the future. We are doing what we can, but my hon. Friend's point is well made.

Inside Government, we have a cross-criminal justice system rape performance group and all police forces in all Crown Prosecution Service areas are checked against a series of indicators. Of course, for some years, there
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has been sexual offences training for senior police officers and advocates prosecuting rape cases. Some primary training for all front-line officers is also in process, so that hopefully no one will get anything but a totally sympathetic reception when they make a complaint.

The Baroness Stern review on rape was commissioned because we thought that the consultation on violence against women that I mentioned, which was behind the strategy, was not deeply enough representative of what was going on in rape cases. It is probably extremely difficult for people to talk about such things, so we have asked Baroness Stern to take an in-depth look. We have asked her to examine the responses of all the public authorities to rape complaints; to consider how more victims can be encouraged to report; to explore ways in which the attrition rate-the fall out between reporting and getting to court-can be reduced; to consider how to increase the conviction rate fairly; to identify how to increase victim and witness confidence and satisfaction; and to explore public and professional attitudes to rape to see how they impact on criminal justice outcomes.

Although I will primarily talk about justice issues, there is a whole tranche of the violence against women strategy, which I imagine will be buttressed by Baroness Stern, that says we need to do a good deal of public opinion work. It is just as important to protect and punish when such crimes happen as it is to prevent them in the first place. For that, we need to mobilise those members of the public who are not already on board. Baroness Stern will make some recommendations very shortly.

Turning briefly to the Crown Prosecution Service, over which the Law Officers have superintendence, those involved are pioneers. We believe that we have the first public prosecution service to integrate all forms of violence against women, according to the UN definition, into a strategy and action plan that relates work in this area to wider gender equality. That is consistent with the CPS's vision to become a world-class prosecution service. The CPS intends to improve prosecution performance by introducing a new indicator on violence against women, which includes targets for successful outcomes in relation to domestic violence, rape and sexual offences.

There have been good increases in rape prosecutions. The figure of 6.5 per cent. for convictions for rapes that are reported is much better than it was a couple of years ago, when it was 5.2 per cent. The figure is indeed small, but it is from report right through to court. When the stage of a charge is reached, the conviction rate is 59 per cent. and, and it is rising. I am not aware of any other offence that we count from complaint to court, so it is hard to compare that 6 per cent. with anything. The figure does sound small and I feel that it is, but once we get to the charging stage, there is a conviction rate of 59 per cent. In relation to domestic violence, we have exceeded the target of 72 per cent. Baroness Stern will consider the area between complaint and charge to see what goes wrong.

From the launch of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 up to last December, 107 forced marriage protection orders have been issued. From January to August last year, the forced marriage unit received 1,063 calls of one sort or another to enlist its services, which is an increase of 25 per cent. over the past year. We believe that the message is beginning to
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get out that forced marriage is unlawful and that it can be stopped. Of course, a range of people can help somebody who is a victim or who is about to become a victim to take action in court. We made civil action available because it was clear from the research done-not by us but by an independent trust-that if forced marriage were made criminal immediately, it would stop a lot of victims taking action, because they would not be prepared to criminalise members of their family.

In 2006 we established the UK Human Trafficking Centre, a multi-agency organisation centrally co-ordinating intelligence and operations on trafficking. Tackling human trafficking is now core police business, and every force should have the capacity to deal with trafficking within their area.

Prostitution is another element of violence against women. For some time we have had exit strategies in place to assist women to leave prostitution. They often come into prostitution very young or for reasons connected to their vulnerability. We have prosecuted pimps for many years, and there have been police campaigns on street prostitution for many years. Last year we conducted a review of demand in prostitution, which is linked closely to trafficking, but it is not only about trafficked women, and we concluded that it should be a criminal offence to pay for sex with someone who has been subject to exploitative conduct. That is now a crime, and there will be training for police and the CPS to ensure that it is used.

We have tackled newspapers that advertise prostitution by asking the Newspaper Society to tighten its guidelines, which it has done. The number of advertisements referring to, for example, "fresh foreign girls available every week" has diminished enormously. Tackling the trafficking element has been an effective part of the action we have taken. Personally, I am interested in looking at whether we should make it unlawful to put such an advertisement in a newspaper, as it is in Ireland, and we will look at that legislation to see whether it would help here.

The points I have raised are headlines. I hope that we have a good debate and that we hear fresh ideas, because the Government are keen, as I have said, to shift up a gear in all we are doing on violence against women. We think that we now have an effective multi-agency response and have implemented an effective approach to victims and survivors, and we will do more. We have an ambitious programme to make our community a safer place for all and, in particular, to end violence against women.

2.52 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. As the Minister said, and as I am sure all Members present will agree, this is an important subject, and I am pleased that the Government have chosen it for this afternoon's Westminster Hall debate. There is a good turnout, with colleagues from across the political spectrum wishing to contribute to the debate.

Violence against women remains serious and prevalent: 3 million women in the UK experience violence each year, and victims span a range of backgrounds, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. Different forms of violence can be linked and do not necessarily occur in isolation. There are, of course, enormous human costs, and enormous financial costs, too.

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I listened to what the Minister said about a cross-Government strategy, which is welcome. She will know that in 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) called for a cross-Government strategy for ending violence against women. In December 2008 we published our own strategy paper, "Ending Violence Against Women", which was a cross-departmental strategy. That is exactly the type of approach that must be followed. Indeed, WOMANKIND Worldwide, an organisation that works across the world and also does some work in UK schools on violence against women, commented on the publication of our strategy paper, stating:

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