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21 Jan 2010 : Column 157WH—continued

Hon. Members have mentioned the "no recourse to public funds" rule. Southall Black Sisters estimates that 600 women a year with insecure immigration status face violence from a spouse. Women who come to me in my surgery in Hornsey and Wood Green are often on a spousal visa and have nowhere to go. I am therefore pleased that the Government recently announced the pilot of the Sojourner project to help women with no recourse to public funds. I welcome this opportunity to ask the Solicitor-General for an update on how the project is going. Do the Government have any initial statistics on the number of women who have accessed the programme? What plans does the Home Office have to make it permanent and available to all women? There is huge anxiety about the fact that it will last only three months. By the time that we have advertised it and got people to take it up, it may already be over.

I also wondered-I have not been able to get any statistics on this so far-how many women in each constituency or borough are turned away from refuges because they have no recourse to public funds and are not eligible under the terms governing the normal availability of refuges. I would be grateful if the Solicitor-General could elucidate that.

As the Solicitor-General said, it is not just women, but children who suffer as a result of domestic violence. Some 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence, and children who live with it are at an increased risk of behavioural problems, emotional trauma and mental health difficulties later in life. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are looking for ways in which we can cope with such a vast issue, which involves numbers so huge as to be almost unimaginable; and ways to find the resource to tackle all aspects of the problem, and work with children so that they have counselling and appropriate support.

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We have heard about some of the very good work that is being done on rape and sexual assault. I want to quote the views of Katherine Rake, the director of the Fawcett Society-or rather, she is not, is she? She has gone from there. My researcher is toast. I cannot remember the lady's name; my apologies. Nevertheless, the view is that women face a postcode lottery when reporting rape to the police.

Mr. Newmark: On that subject, I am obsessed with statistics, as the Solicitor-General realises-and I am sure she will get back to me on a statistic I have given her, which I think came from her office-but it is still the case that only 15 per cent. of serious sexual assaults on women are reported. Notwithstanding the fact that she said that the figure for reported assaults resulting in a conviction has gone up from 5.2 per cent. to 6.5 per cent., that is still a pretty appalling result. Does the hon. Lady agree that we still need to address that issue, encourage women to report assaults more, and ensure an improvement in the conviction rate?

Lynne Featherstone: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I think that the Solicitor-General agrees that we must encourage women to come forward and report rape, and that our success, such as it is, is minimal in relation to the scale of the challenge. However, I am willing to give him some statistics on conviction rates, in return for his, to show how they vary across the country. In England and Wales, the average conviction rate is 7 per cent. The highest rate is in Cleveland, at 18.1 per cent.

The Solicitor-General: Who is the MP?

Lynne Featherstone: That is cause and effect.

That is a rate of just under one in five. The lowest rate is in Dorset, with 1.6 per cent., where only one in 60 reported rapes leads to conviction. The Metropolitan Police Authority rate is 8.2 per cent. and of 12 police force areas, more than one in four had a rape conviction rate of less than 5 per cent. in 2007. I think that that demonstrates the hon. Gentleman's point that there is a huge challenge to get women to come forward. How on earth, when the number of rapes hovers around the 12,000 mark and the conviction rate is still so low, do we persuade women that it is worth their coming forward when it is so traumatic to do so?

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) described the discomfort for women who have to travel and protect the evidence about something so intimate, private and personal, which they really do not want to do. I cannot imagine how a woman does that, when the first instinct would be to cleanse herself. One of the most difficult situations a woman may face must be the time lag to allow for examination before being able to cleanse that appalling crime from her. Resource is not infinite, and it is a matter of how fast and how much we can improve the conviction rate, and improve facilities.

Mr. Newmark: It goes back to the point that I made to the Solicitor-General, who I hope will correct me when she replies. I suspect that a disincentive to reporting by women is explained in the evidence that I gave her, which is set out in Hansard of 31 January 2008, at
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column 574W. The evidence shows that in England and Wales, the length of rape sentences seems to have been going down from 90.5 months in 2000, which is seven and a half years, to 81.2 months in 2006, which is 6.7 years. If the evidence is that over time the punishment, when it happens, becomes less-and that seems to be the trend-a woman will not feel encouraged to report anything.

Lynne Featherstone: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but a far more critical issue is the conviction rate. The differential between seven and nine years is a point, but not the point.

Mr. Harper: This raises an interesting point, which the Solicitor-General touched on in her remarks, about the conviction rate following charge, which she said was 59 per cent., and the conviction rate compared with the rate of original reporting of an offence. I think that the Solicitor-General said-I am sure that she will respond on this point in her winding-up speech-that Baroness Stern's review is examining exactly that issue of what happens between the reporting of a rape and the decision whether to charge, and what factors are involved.

I think that the Solicitor-General said that it was only in the context of this offence that there was a tendency to consider the statistics on report and conviction; in most other crimes the statistics used were those relating to charge and conviction. I raise that matter because I do not want women who read the debate to be put off by the percentage of reported rapes that lead to conviction, when the figures for conviction following charge are more encouraging. We shall await Baroness Stern's report to find out in detail what happens in the time between, and to see whether the situation can be improved, although it is important to stick to the principle of fairness in the criminal justice system, which the Minister touched on, as well as Baroness Stern's terms of reference. We shall await the report with interest.

Lynne Featherstone: Yes, I do not want to discourage women in any way. It is important that women come forward when they have been raped, to report it. Baroness Stern's report will be of the utmost importance, because of the difficulty of bringing a charge.

Mr. Newmark: I just wanted to back up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). He asked about the reasons, and there is one area that we should perhaps look at more closely. One of the main reasons shown in the recent Crown Prosecution Service report, "Violence Against Women", is non-attendance. There seems to be an increase in the frequency with which women do not turn up. In 2005-06, the figure was 1,593, but that has gone up to 2,226. We need to consider the reasons for women not attending court, and what may be putting them off.

Lynne Featherstone: I suspect that it is not rocket science, and that they need a great deal of support to come to that point in court. There is a raft of reasons, and I expect that they are not difficult to understand.

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The other problem with the conviction rate, and even with the charge rate, is that it perpetuates a cycle in which men feel that they probably will not be caught, and will not pay the price, at the other end of the process, for having advanced their desires-because someone was flirtatious, which I believe was something cited in the survey raised by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean.

I want to talk now about the trafficking of women. Home Office research found that up to 1,420 women were trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation in 1998. That figure was based solely on reported cases. Trafficking in people is understood by the police and organisations that work with victims to be increasing exponentially, because it is extremely profitable, with high demand and little capital outlay, and it is a growing industry, unfortunately. The Metropolitan police estimate that trafficked women forced into prostitution in London see between 20 and 30 men a day.

I believe that the POPPY project is the only dedicated safe house providing specialist support for victims of trafficking. Recent funding by the Government of £3.7 million has led to two new shelters, in Cardiff and Sheffield, I believe, giving another 54 refuge places. However, the need is still greater, and I am greatly concerned about the proposed closure of the Met specialist trafficking unit, which is the only such specialist unit in the country. In my view, this area of work is not something that easily can or should be joined with clubs and vice, and it is particularly difficult and time-consuming.

Why is this happening? As I said, there is a great lack of equality in this country. Women still are, in many situations, not masters of their own destiny and do not have any financial power, or any power, with which to write the script for their own lives. The current level of support for victims is better than it was, but the costs to this country of violence against women, as I understand it from various people who have briefed me, are as follows: the NHS spends about £1.2 billion a year for physical injuries and £176 million for mental health support, yet there is no specialist investment in this kind of NHS service.

The Solicitor-General said that nine more sexual assault referral centres are in development, which is welcome, because they are specialist centres. POPPY, of course, works with trafficked women. The sheer volume and the nature of the statistics speak for themselves. Hon. Members from all parties are trying to grapple with that problem to work out how we can get the resource and permanent support from all the Departments that need to be involved. An integrated, co-ordinated strategy is the only way forward. Only a comprehensive policy that tackles the problem on every front will have a chance of success.

The Solicitor-General asked for ideas, and I am here to offer her a few from the Liberal Democrats. In this respect, our policies include providing more rape crisis centres-up to 15-providing services such as individual counselling, support groups and advocacy; 10 new sexual assault referral centres; early intervention with education by rolling out classes about rights and fair treatment in relationships; working in schools with organisations such as Relate to break the cycle of children growing up in violent relationships; improving systems to report abuse by providing better, more supportive systems in schools and social services, such as those involving health visitors and midwives.

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Last night I attended Haringey's overview and scrutiny committee on health and was concerned to discover that there has been a severe reduction in the regularity of visits by health visitors. Although those visits have more to do with birth and developmental checks, the health visitor is the family's and the woman's friend. A health visitor is crucial in this regard, because a woman can talk to her, perhaps without the man present.

We Liberal Democrats want to ensure that women living in refuges can continue to work so that they can stay economically empowered to some degree. We found that only one in 10 of the support services were targeted specifically at ethnic minority women. Issues to do with culture, practice and language make that a specialist subject. We want to provide all women with access to services tackling violence against women, regardless of their immigration status, thereby helping those with no recourse to public funds.

We want to provide a freephone trafficking hotline, allowing women who have been trafficked and are working, or anyone else, to report concerns. This is going to sound terrible, but I went into a local massage parlour in Crouch End, because there was a complaint about the frontage. I thought at first that it was about what was going on inside, but the complaint was about the frontage, which was dirty, boarded up and grubby. The only way to find out about that was to go inside, find out the name and address of the owner and write to them. Inside were two bedraggled, tired, ill-looking girls who were a bit shocked when I walked in, but they eventually trusted me enough to let me in. Their English was not brilliant. I do not know if they were trafficked. I checked the licence and saw that it had run out, although the owner reapplied and succeeded in getting one.

One Lib Dem women's policy is that every licensed massage parlour should have to display a multi-language sign with a phone number for an emergency line for the women working there to call, because they have no contact with the outside world. If such a thing were part of the licensing agreement, that might be a route in. I accept that that is hardly the answer, nevertheless it is a minor but important point. Another of our policies is to end the increasing criminalisation of non-coercive prostitution and increase efforts to help those who wish to exit to do so and find a pathway out of the industry.

I have mentioned mandatory pay audits. Things will not improve until women have some financial parity, know their rights and have the ability and strength to fight against situations in which they find themselves. For them, it seems impossible to get away from such situations, so that in the end their only recourse is to run. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties would wish to improve matters, across all the Departments involved, in respect of all those issues that still keep women subjected to a level of violence that is unacceptable in this day and age. I look forward to hearing contributions to this debate from hon. Members from all parties.

3.35 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): If I said that I was delighted to attend this debate, it would be a gross understatement. The number of debates on this subject has been pretty low over the years. In a way, I am delighted that the Government initiated this debate,
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but I would have much preferred a Member of Parliament to have done so, because we are the ones who are supposed to be scrutinising, commenting and offering our advice, and that has not happened particularly well.

I do not know if any members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs are present, but there are not too many of them if that is so. I am disappointed, because that Committee that produced one of the few reports of violence in the family-most of it on one aspect.

I do not wish to spend too much time on history, but history is important. A couple of hon. Members present go back a long way on the staff side-not of the present Government but the last one-and almost as long as several of us have been here in the House.

Mr. Greenway: The hon. Gentleman mentions the Home Affairs Committee. I am interested in this issue as a member of that Committee in the 1987-92 Session. We produced its first report on domestic violence in many years and a lot of progress has been made from those recommendations. He is right, however: I too thought that many more colleagues would have attended today.

Mr. George: I do not want to trump the hon. Gentleman, but I want to talk about the first Select Committee dealing with this matter, before the modern, new Select Committee system was established. In 1975, I tabled a question and, for my pains, I was put on the Select Committee on Violence in the Family-an experience that I found truly amazing. In five months we held 23 meetings, heard evidence from eight Ministers-most of them pretty useless-received memorandums from 50 individuals and groups and heard evidence from a High Court judge, which was pretty unusual. We worked hard and finished that inquiry, which created quite a stir. Then we moved on to violence against children in the family, following the terrible death of Maria Colwell.

We saw, in those early days, the relationship between two major aspects of policy. I am pleased to see that, as time has gone on, there has been a greater awareness that one cannot regard a single area of policy as divorced from so many other areas of policy. There has to be a degree of integration, not just co-operation. Where is the dividing line between violence in the family and violence against women? The mistake we made in our report was calling it, "Violence in the family". As time has gone on, ever more violence has taken place outside marriage and that matter is now being dealt with far better.

We produced pretty influential reports. We received one letter from an irate constituent of somebody or other who complained and asked, "Why are you focusing entirely on violence against females? My wife is violent and she's beating me up regularly, so please include in your analysis a little bit about violence the other way round." With the passage of time, that is becoming rather more common. We started the ball rolling, and that was important.

I shall show the attitude at that time, before the present enlightened era. In our first report we said:

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provided. Responsibility is diversified

appeared before us. Our report concluded:

I do not think the situation is remotely like that now; if I said that it was, I would be punched on the nose, and deservedly so. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that there have been substantial changes.

Our report made a number of recommendations, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. We are still waiting for some of them to be implemented, which is par for the course for Select Committee reports. We recommended that more work be done in schools to break the cycle of violence-that recommendation was made almost 30 years ago. We said other things which may have become inappropriate with the passage of time, but some of our proposals remain relevant. Most members of the Committee are now dead, and I am sure that the civil servants are, but perhaps someone should read those two reports. They show that it was not the new system in 1989 that inaugurated competent Select Committees.

The absence so far of any discussion of the world outside is evidence of our indifference to the fact that other countries have domestic violence problems. Some have fewer problems and some infinitely more. I looked to see what international organisations have taken the lead and whether their words, resolutions and documents are relevant. They include the United Nations, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. There has been an enormous output of recommendations and rules-almost treaties-imploring people and insisting that Governments do more. Many have, and have been inspirational, but probably half the countries in the world could not give a toss what any such document contains, especially those where violence and warfare are occurring and where rape is almost seen as a perk-a supplement to the low income paid to those who fight. Laws are not enforced, and there may not even be any laws to be enforced. We should see our major problems in perspective. I hope that more influence can be projected into those countries that are totally indifferent to implement the legal treaties they have signed, at least to some extent. Domestic violence is international; it always has been and I fear that it will remain so for a long time, unless more influence can be exerted on countries to eliminate any freedom that men, whether soldiers or civilians, feel they have to commit it. Thankfully, some countries are bucking that trend.

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