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21 Jan 2010 : Column 151WH—continued

That organisation is doing work in UK schools to challenge violence and provide some of the education that the Minister touched on, and that sort of education in schools is very necessary. She referred to changing public opinion. One statistic of concern that I noted in a 2006 ICM poll is that 40 per cent. of young men thought that it was acceptable for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl if she was "very flirtatious". Surprisingly, 16 per cent. of girls agreed with that sentiment. Clearly, preventive and educational work in schools is, as she said, extremely important.

In the foreword to our 2008 strategy paper, the shadow Minister for Women, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), stated:

The key point in the document is that we need an integrated strategy across all Departments, not just in the criminal justice arena. That was about dealing with prevention, as well as the consequences; it was about working with schools, the police, health-care professionals and the voluntary sector on measures that prevent violence from occurring in the first place. When it occurs, we must back the services that support and provide advice to women.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I totally agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, particularly in relation to the shocking statistics about the proportion of young people who seem to think that sex is to be expected if a girl's behaviour is flirtatious. Does he agree that that is why it is important that proper sex and relationship education be made a statutory requirement in schools-to give young people the confidence to say no and respect the rights of others? Schools or parents would then not be allowed to opt out of it, on behalf of their children. It is absolutely essential that all children have that kind of education.

Mr. Harper: I thank the hon. Lady for helpfully raising that point. In our strategy paper, we have stated that the specific teaching of sexual consent in schools is important. Indeed, we are relaxed about the Government's proposal to include that part of sex and relationship education in a statutory curriculum. Some aspects of
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sex and relationship education should be taught in accordance with the ethos of the school, but everyone should be taught about sexual consent, so that the issues are made clear to both boys and girls.

I will not try your patience, Mr. Benton, by reading out vast chucks of the strategy paper, but I will give an indication of its flavour and scope. It covers several commitments on prevention and front-line services. It is worth noting in that respect that we want to establish a standard for contracts with voluntary-sector organisations, so that they are given funding for at least three years. That was also adopted in the strategy that the Government published at the end of last year.

On sentencing, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) will perhaps be interested to note that we want to scrap the early release of prisoners on end-of-custody licence schemes, which are of particular concern in domestic violence cases. We also want to legislate to end automatic release halfway through an offender's sentence.

Another proposal included in our strategy paper has fortunately already come to pass. We highlighted the fact that women who escape from violence to a refuge frequently rely on benefits to pay for their stay, and we said that we would introduce a three-month grace period, during which women housed in refuges following domestic violence would not be required to seek work to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. The Government adopted that measure in the Welfare Reform Act 2009.

Our document also covers proposals on rape and sexual violence, and deals with female genital mutilation, forced marriage, stalking, trafficking and honour-based violence-like the Minister, I do not like using that phrase, as there is nothing honourable about it. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) will touch on those subjects if he is successful in catching your eye, Mr. Benton.

The Minister highlighted the fact that the Government conducted a consultation on their cross-Government strategy last year and got a significant response. They published that strategy at the end of the year, and the fact that they adopted it is welcome. The Minister was right to say that the Government have adopted several measures on the issue in their 12 years in government, but it is fair to say that, until they published their strategy, they had disproportionately focused on the criminal justice system. That is not just my view; the cross-party Home Affairs Committee stated in its report that

It is good that that imbalance has been put right.

I want to draw out some of our specific proposals around prevention. As I said in response to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), prevention must begin with education, and schools are obviously one of the areas that we need to look at. There is clear scope, within the work that schools do, for a greater emphasis on the issue of violence against women. As I said and am happy to confirm, we want to ensure that pupils in schools are taught the importance of sexual consent. We want to encourage schools to use the voluntary sector. They should use some of the organisations that support women who suffer from domestic violence-
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they were mentioned by the Minister-to develop lesson plans, so that the issues can be discussed with young people.

Another proposal that we hope will be helpful, in terms of prevention, is our plan to establish a UK border agency that will better police our borders. That would be helpful in dealing with people-trafficking.

I have a question for the Minister on public-sector commissioning. She highlighted the fact that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers are well experienced on issues to do with the Equality Bill. I would be interested to know whether a matter that has been drawn to our attention has been raised with the Government. Many women's organisations, such as women's refuges, say that they are experiencing a funding cut, as public-sector funders-both local authorities and central Government-are saying that services have to cater for men and women equally in order to tick the equality box. The Minister said that many of the services do indeed deal with both genders, but it is also true-I think that she highlighted this as well-that women are disproportionately the victims of violence: 85 per cent. of domestic violence victims are women. Local and central Government must be confident in funding women-only services, where that is appropriate.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On that matter, has the hon. Gentleman spoken to the Conservative local authorities that are making the exact argument about which he complains, and that are discriminating against groups? The most obvious example in the area that I represent is Southall Black Sisters. Ealing local authority had to be taken to court by that organisation. That revealed the fact that the authority was interpreting the law incorrectly in making the kind of claims that he says local authorities should not make.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Lady supports the point that I am making. I am highlighting the fact that a number of local authorities are giving that reason for doing things. I raised the matter so that I could ask the Minister whether it had been raised with her, and whether the Government had therefore issued any guidance, or thought about issuing guidance, to make the position clear. Having sat through the many days of debate on the Equality Bill, which rolls forward existing legislation and makes new proposals, I do not think that the law precludes organisations from doing what the hon. Lady suggests and what I have mentioned. It would be helpful if that could be clarified.

The Solicitor-General: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue, and I hope that he will explain to Tory local authorities, as we have to Labour ones, that there is absolutely no bar. What he describes is the complete opposite of what the gender equality duty represents. It has been in force since 2006-it is not part of the new Bill-and it means that services need to be provided for women. Overwhelmingly, as he has acknowledged, the violence that we are talking about is against women; it occurs relatively lightly against men. Of course local authorities need to provide services for the men who need it, but, overwhelmingly, the services need to be specifically for, and almost certainly run by, women, because women do not want to escape from a man and have to talk to another man about it. We are
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keen for that message to be sent down all possible party lines, and any other kinds of lines.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. Given that the gender equality duty is subsumed in the public-sector equality duty, as are one or two other duties, it may be helpful, when the regulations are put together and the guidance that goes with them is drafted, to address the point specifically, in terms, so that there cannot be any doubt about the matter. The subject has now been raised in this debate.

One of the reasons why our strategy document-and, indeed, the Government's-looked across the whole of Government was that, as the End Violence Against Women campaign found, most Departments

That is one of the reasons why we want to ensure, as part of our strategy, that there is a single Minister responsible for overseeing progress, across Departments, in taking co-ordinated action on violence against women.

I have already touched briefly on the issue of stabilising the funding base by ensuring that funding for rape crisis centres is moved to a stable, three-year funding cycle. I know from some of the announcements that the Minister for Women and Equality has made that there has been progress on that.

I shall make a couple of specific local points, Mr. Benton, just to give a bit of local flavour, and then draw my remarks to a close. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago-not that long ago-in my county of Gloucestershire, there was a report on BBC Radio Gloucestershire by reporter Faye Hatcher, who had been speaking to Gail Meecham, the manager at the Gloucestershire rape crisis centre. She highlighted some positive news and some less positive news. The positive news was that the sexual assault referral centre, which was opened in October 2008, had been having some success, but the knock-on effect of that success was that referrals to the centre were up 25 per cent. in that one year. That was obviously putting a great deal of pressure on the staff, and made their work challenging.

It was also highlighted-this is worth saying, and I know that the Minister will welcome it-that the centre has a close working relationship with the Gloucestershire constabulary, who take the issue seriously. Their recently retired chief constable, Tim Brain, was involved with the Association of Chief Police Officers on several issues in this area. He was the ACPO lead on prostitution, and was very heavily involved in combating trafficking. I suspect that that is partly why Gloucestershire has a good record on the subject.

Finally on local authorities, I want to put on record that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is providing £1.4 million to establish three new rape crisis centres in partnership with several London local authorities, and he is continuing the funding for the existing centre in Croydon. The four centres, when up and running, will serve the north, south, east and west of London, and I understand that one will be opening in Ealing in the spring.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman perhaps has not seen early-day motion 438, which states that the Mayor of London pledged in 2008

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It goes on to complain that, in fact, he has broken his word. I believe that it is signed cross-party.

Mr. Harper: The hon. and learned Lady reads out an early-day motion that is not accurate. The Mayor of London is opening the same number of rape crisis centres that he promised. It is true that he is doing it for less money than originally intended, but I would have thought that in the current public finance climate, achieving manifesto commitments at lower cost and with better value for money would, frankly, be welcomed by the public. Governments also ought to welcome it. In this era of tight public finances, given the appalling mess that the party that wins the election will inherit from the Government, we need to ensure that we can protect front-line services and deliver them at lower cost for the people who need them.

In conclusion, we look forward to an interesting debate. There is great interest on both sides of the House. The Minister said that we are talking about an important area of policy, and indeed we are. However, a more joined-up strategy across Departments would help us to combat the problem in future years.

3.9 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): May I say how pleased I am to make a speech under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Benton? As everyone on both sides of the Chamber agrees, this is an extremely important debate. It never ceases to shock me when I look at the statistics that women in this day and age are still so far from equality and still have such a long road to travel. The result is that they suffer violence on a number of levels.

The scale and complexity of the problem is vast, and we have heard some of the statistics. Three million women in Britain experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence, while many millions more are dealing with abuse that they experienced in the past and many incidents are not reported at all. The British crime survey says that 45 per cent. of women will be a victim of domestic violence, sexual victimisation or stalking at least once in their lifetime-that is nearly half of all women. In its publication, "Justice for Rape Victims", the Fawcett Society says:

As we all know, thousands of women do not come forward, for all sorts of reasons.

Violence against women cannot be a put in a neat box. We have talked about different sorts of violence, such as domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and human trafficking, but I sometimes wonder whether we will ever get to some of the reasons and the imbalances in life that give men-it is generally men-the idea that it is okay to behave towards women in a way that is not acceptable by any measure of a civilised society.

There are a lot of issues around power and control, and they quite often revolve around money. The economic inequality that women face means that it is often impossible for them to get away from a situation because they fear
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that they will have nothing to exist on. Although there are refuges and centres for those who suffer the worst domestic violence, women often put up with it for so long that things reach a critical point and they cannot get away.

The Solicitor-General and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned mandatory pay audits. They were the one measure in the Equality Bill that would have brought about a vast step change in equal pay, and it is a great shame that pay audits have been left voluntary. Should there be a change of Government, I fear that mandatory audits might never come to pass and that parity and equality will be set back.

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Does she share my frustration when I see women in my constituency who, sadly, suffer domestic violence and are forced to go into a refuge? In some cases, that is the best solution, but in others, it is not. However, these women do not have the option of staying in the family home with their children. All too often, the man can stay there, while the lives of the children and the woman are entirely disrupted because they suddenly do not have proper accommodation. It is a huge injustice that the perpetrator of the crime and the violence can effectively get off scot-free, while the lives of the woman and the children are disrupted.

Lynne Featherstone: My hon. Friend makes an excellent intervention. The logic is upside down. In an ideal world, the woman and the children should stay in situ, and the man should be excised.

The Solicitor-General: I agree wholeheartedly. I have even known of situations in which animal welfare bodies-this is commendable-have set up refuges for pets because the women will not leave without them. The woman can take her kids, but she cannot take the dog, and the man is threatening to cut its throat or throw it out of the car on the motorway if the woman and the kids go. If we have got to the stage where we need those refuges, the right thing to do is obviously to keep the dogs, kids and woman in and put the man out.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the Solicitor-General for that. It would be really interesting to discuss the possibility of using the law to injunct the man and leave the woman in situ. However, the fear that the man would break the injunction or get to the woman has always meant that she has gone to a place of safety. I would be interested to hear what the Solicitor-General thinks might be done in that regard, because the logic is upside down. The best thing for the children and the woman would be to be left in situ, where they have some security and where they know the location and the neighbours and have all the things that give someone a life, rather than to have to flee and live in secret and in hiding.

Lynda Waltho: Is that not the point of the domestic violence protection notices, or the go notices, or have I got that wrong? I thought that they were supposed to protect the woman and her children and, effectively, to evict the perpetrator.

Lynne Featherstone: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I agree, but women's fear in these situations cannot always be overcome by the measures available to them. Often, it is not enough to give women a feeling of
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safety for the law simply to say that they should stay somewhere and that no one will be allowed to come near them. However, some analysis would be helpful.

Another issue is education, and as hon. Members have said, sex and relationships education is important. I am going to mention some ideas at the end of my speech-I was pleased that the Solicitor-General said that she would welcome ideas-but perhaps I can mention one now. There is an issue about fathers and role models. In America, they have something called "Dads and Donuts", in which schools invite men in to talk to their offspring on their own. Where families are in conflict, or where there is an injunction or trouble, the men often disappear altogether. Dealing with the issues that arise is not all about the law; it is often about education and trying to imbue people with the responsibility to hand on good behaviour, not bad behaviour, to their offspring.

Domestic violence is the thing that comes to people's minds most often when we talk about these issues. I do not have up-to-date figures on domestic violence, so perhaps the Solicitor-General can help me. The last figures that I was able to find are from 2004, when Walby and Allen said:

which is a horrific figure. They also said:

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