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21 Jan 2010 : Column 163WH—continued

We have not spoken much about percentages, because we all know that they are pretty worthless. I hope that you will not rule me out of order, Mr. Benton, but in a moment of frivolity, although this is not a frivolous matter, I worked out that if 4 per cent. of males commit acts of violence in the family, 23 Members of Parliament-in the past, of course; no-one here would be guilty of that abhorrent activity-and 7.5 women would have done so. I am not a statistician, but someone may be able to have a stab at providing figures to show
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that it is feasible that Members of Parliament, former MPs or prospective parliamentary candidates may have a few shadows that they want to hide. That is how close the problem is. It is not a problem of class, nationality or residence here; it is a problem that exists and we have not done enough about it, although much more is being done.

Fast-forwarding from 1975 to the present, there has been a massive outpouring of literature from novelists, serious writers, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks. Although some people may disagree, the issues are debated more, and more people are aware of them. There has been a huge increase in NGO co-operation, and it is immensely valuable. Departments are not as ignorant of the issues as they used to be. Instead of having no Minister responsible for the matter, we now have a large group of Ministers from different Departments. Although some outsiders would dissent from my view that there is more sophistication among civil servants, the evidence in 1975 was laughable.

When we had the follow-on investigation into violence against children, Barbara Castle was the Minister. She was venerated, but she was more of a big ideas person and her knowledge of detail was slight. It was profoundly disappointing to see one of my icons perform so miserably and badly. She was given a bad time by the then Chairman, Willie Hamilton. I jumped in to rescue her four times, and I was irritated when I read her autobiography to see that the abusive words that I am sure she had intended for the Chairman were directed at me. Unfortunately, she had expired, so I could not obtain retribution for the terrible slur.

There have been directives from the Government, and the wonderful Library briefing gives a summary of the steps that the Government have undertaken to protect people from domestic violence since 1997. It is a long list. Some hon. Members may say that it is one thing to pass laws and to publish documents, but where is the beef? The evidence is reasonably strong, and my view is that the Government's endeavours have been valiant and largely successful, but others disagree.

Looking through the literature, the Select Committee on Home Affairs was partly supportive and partly critical. NGOs and Victim Support were critical-one would expect that from an NGO-but also complimentary. Refuge was welcoming but disappointed. The Minister commented on one, but I do not have time to list the complaints. A report to which I hope the Minister will respond is from the NGO End Violence Against Women, and was launched by Mr. Phillips. The Minister defended the Government's view. There were some powerful arguments and my hon. and learned Friend rehearsed them.

The map produced was almost entirely blank. According to the criteria, there were 13 cities and towns involved, including my home town of Walsall, but the report did not say what was going on elsewhere. If someone is lucky enough to live in my area, there is an excellent service. If they are not, however, they will have to travel a long way-if they are from Scotland, it will be an excessively long day. Looking at the map and the blanks, I was amazed at how many big cities are bereft of what the organisation would consider to be a minimal provision. There have been criticisms, but it is important to recognise that enormous reforms have been made.

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The last part of my presentation is about my constituency. I have been critical of much that does or does not go on in my constituency which, alongside that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), has a pretty high poverty rate. I do not suggest that the poorer someone is, the more likely they are to thump their spouse. However, I am pleased that there is a good service in my constituency. It is getting better, and in my view it is the epicentre of a set of fairly integrated structures. When the Minister visits other areas looking for best practice, I hope that she will come to my area and visit the Walsall Domestic Violence Forum, which is absolutely superb.

In fairness to the local authority, there is a network of structures that includes voluntary organisations, elements of the health service, the police and an excellent public protection unit-the list is long. Those are brought together into a framework that makes co-operation relatively easy. I have been to almost all of those organisations, and to the refuges-I am sorry if I have left any out-and I have been deeply impressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) looks green with envy, but her constituency attracts all our people to its shopping precincts, so it benefits in both ways.

In its annual report, the Domestic Violence Forum states:

It has 60 trained and experienced staff who do incredibly good work, so there is a relatively good side to the situation-it is something that we do well. If anybody has listened to the debate or reads about it, I would willingly pass on material to show what a good operation is.

The people who lead the forum are scintillating. I have helped them on a number of occasions and defended them from those on the council who do not have the same attitude towards that sort of service. The organisation is able to earn money by providing classes, and it has received money from the national lottery in the past. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has helped, and the organisation also provides services for social services. When money comes in, the Government push a large sum the way of related organisations in many parts of the country. However, what irritates me-and I would welcome a comment or a letter from the Minister on this-is that because the Government want to
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decentralise decision making, the decision on how that money is spent is left to the local authority. Therefore, the money is not ring-fenced as it should be, but is at the mercy of the council. Some of those people are decent, but others-and in the past, officers of the local authority-have been decidedly unhelpful.

Lynda Waltho: Is my right hon. Friend as worried as I am, representing a west midlands constituency, that Dudley council has just published its budget proposals which involve the loss of about 1,000 jobs and cuts to all sorts of departments in a drive to have the lowest council tax in the black country, no doubt vying with my right hon. Friend's local authority? Many services fear that they will be cut first. Unfortunately, and particularly with Tory Dudley council, such cuts are always made at the vulnerable end, in services to elderly people, very young people or, as in this case, aid for women.

Mr. George: I share my hon. Friend's views. I have tried not to be too partisan because this should not be a partisan political issue. Protecting the lives of a vast number of constituents and non-constituents should be top of the list. I understand why a local authority that is strapped for cash might think, "Are we going to spend the money on closed-circuit television or anti-drugs policy and so on?" It is difficult. The local authority is arguing, "Look at all the money that this organisation has got, and all the women who work for nothing." Three years ago, that organisation received £150,000, but that has gradually diminished and it is now hoping for £75,000. If we cut its income from the local authority, that will mean that it is being punished for its success.

Most of my hon. Friends will not have the luxury of such a good service, but even though it is good, there are a vast number of women-and some men-who need assistance. I am not suggesting that people are washing their hands by providing less funding than they should. There was a debate in the council last week, and the resolution was incredibly moderate. It was not meant to inflame, but it was rejected. I know that money is tight, but such causes are important. The great advantage to the council of that wonderful organisation is that its wage rates are lower than those for local authority personnel. The people involved are largely women. When the money is cut below the level of their capability, those who are not being paid will not desert. They will hang on in there, because they do not want to turn people away. That is so commendable. I am proud of them: they are searching for work at a time when most people are trying to diminish the work that they do because they are having difficulty in coping with the increase.

I will not bore hon. Members, but I know, because I have seen all the statistics, of the increase in violence against spouses in the past 12 months. That has taken place for patently obvious reasons. When there is strife and people go out to celebrate or not celebrate their lifestyle, the women face it when they get back. In the past, it might have been seen as part of the normal cycle of marriage that the woman gets hammered every weekend. In some people's cases, that has not changed.

I am not criticising my local authority to a great extent. I say to the Minister that a slight diversion en route to the north might be worth while. Do not let the
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Walsall Domestic Violence Forum be written out as an afterthought. The local authority is functioning reasonably well and among all the statutory authorities, central Government, local government and the non-governmental organisations, there is a degree of integration. I do not want it to expand to an absurd level, as though it is the finest bureaucracy in the world, but in this sphere, it is well led by women, as opposed to a pretty appalling guy in the local authority previously. Things are going really well. However, Walsall should not think that because things are going well, we can now let up. I am sorry for the others, but I am paid to represent my own constituency and I want to protect it at a time when funding is very difficult.

I am sorry that I have gone on for so long. I visit the Walsall Domestic Violence Forum every two months. My assistant is the deputy chairman. I fight for the organisation and assist it and I am pleased to do that. Not all men are male chauvinist pigs. I must say that a slight majority of men have attended this debate, but as women are hopelessly outnumbered in Parliament, I am sure that they will tell me that in reality they are the more numerous.

4.3 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): Like the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I welcome the debate. It is on a very important subject and, like him, I am disappointed that more hon. Members are not present. I want to take the opportunity to draw attention to the work of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and, in particular, its migration committee, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Only four weeks ago, I took part in a two-day seminar in Paris on migration and violence against women. That was a joint event, structured by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly and our migration committee, with strong input and support from the United Nations committee on the elimination of discrimination against women-CEDAW-of which our Government are a member.

I begin by reflecting on my time in the police more than 40 years ago. In those days, there was a general presumption that the issue was not a police matter. I would not go quite so far as to say, in the way that the right hon. Gentleman did, that women had to "face it", but to the extent that there was training, it said that, unless the violence was extremely serious, it was best to keep out; the attitude was "Let the people sort it out themselves."

Fiona Mactaggart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the recent Independent Police Complaints Commission report on John Worboys, the serial rapist in London, implies that that attitude still exists in the police, even among some specialist police officers?

Mr. Greenway: That may be true. It is not the conclusion that I drew from the IPCC report. What I drew from that was the sense that there had been a clear dereliction of duty on the part of the officers involved. There were inquiries that they could and should have followed up. However, I share the hon. Lady's disgust at what happened to the 40 or so women who were subsequently assaulted
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and raped by Worboys. It was not one of the best days in the Metropolitan police's history, and I share some of the shame.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is generous for giving way so early in his speech. My lesson from that is a slightly ironic one: I doubt whether, in the days when he was in the police, those officers would have been disciplined at all for not taking sufficient notice of women complaining, as opposed to not taking sufficient notice of a black cab driver saying that he was not guilty.

The other point that I want to raise with the hon. Gentleman is that it is increasingly important that we should emphasise the extent to which rape is becoming ever more clearly a serial offence. Many rapists are serial offenders. Women should be encouraged to see the issue in that light, and police should see it in that light, so that everyone collaborates to ensure that it is not just the individual who is at stake. She, and the police, should understand that there is a duty for the future.

Mr. Greenway: I am glad that I gave way to the hon. and learned Lady, because I agree with her completely, but I want to move on and make a lot of other points.

I sensed that even in my time in the police-I left at Christmas 1969-attitudes were beginning to change. There was a sense in which it was simply not acceptable for women to be beaten up and abused by men, even within the family. When I came to the House in 1987, I was put on the Home Affairs Committee, in my first Parliament, as I said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Walsall, South. Under the chairmanship of Sir John Wheeler, we produced a detailed report on domestic violence. Many of our recommendations became policy, and I think that we changed opinion, even among parliamentarians, on the fact that the subject needed greater focus and impetus from Government.

I particularly remember visiting places of safety, refuges. The hon. and learned Lady referred to the fact that such places are now a central pillar of policy; I welcome that. We must restate strongly this afternoon that violence against women in all its forms is unacceptable, and there can be no possible excuse. It is a very grave violation of human rights, and cultural relativism should not be invoked to justify the actions of some men.

The Council of Europe as a whole dedicated three years, from 2006 to 2008, to a campaign aimed at combating violence against women across all 47 member countries. The campaign highlighted the need to protect victims, to prosecute offenders and to prevent violence. There is even a handbook for parliamentarians, a key feature of which is to remind parliamentarians in all countries that all women living within their territories should have access to law, should have relevant victim protection and should have rehabilitation facilities available to them.

In both the committee on equal opportunities for women and men and the migration committee, work on that issue is ongoing. It is never off the agenda. One report is followed by another. We have just completed a report, adopted by the Assembly in September, entitled "Migrant women: at particular risk from domestic violence". After the part-session next week in Strasbourg, I expect to begin a report on the rights of women migrant workers. I shall come to that in a moment.

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The right hon. Member for Walsall, South, is right to say that although many recommendations are made, many reports have been written and many great ideas have been promulgated, not all of them have been taken up with the enthusiasm one would have liked. However, I would caution him that many aspects of the subject have been taken up by the Government. When we keep pushing at the door, attitudes begin to change.

The focus for the migration committee, understandably, is on migrant women and discrimination on grounds of gender and origin. Half of migrants are women, and they are at particular risk of violence. They are often confronted with language barriers, insecurity of status, family pressures, religious and cultural attitudes, and isolation with limited access to help. Psychological violence and exploitation are also often encountered in the workplace. Women are given jobs of drudgery.

There is also sexual exploitation; and, of course, there is sexual human trafficking, to which others have referred. According to the latest figure available to our committee, the industry of trafficking women for sexual exploitation is currently worth £32 billion across the whole of Europe; that includes not only the EU, but eastern European countries outside it. That is a shocking figure. It shows the scale of what confronts us. Other forms of violence against migrant women include so-called honour crimes, female genital mutilation-the Government rightly legislated on that recently-forced marriages, and rape, including rape within families and communities.

The Parliamentary Assembly migration committee has long called for a Council of Europe convention on violence against women. We need to embrace action on all the aspects that I mentioned, and I am glad that there is now general agreement that the convention should be taken forward. I hope that the Government will be extremely active, through the CDMG-the intergovernmental migration committee-in making that a reality.

As I said, the needs of migrant women are especially important. We should not underestimate the real gravity of the problem. Migrant women often originate from countries where there is a strong patriarchal family structure, in which cultural and religious conventions often treat women and girls adversely. Women are often resigned to violence and abuse, especially if it is the tradition in their host country.

Other features of the experiences of migrant women can have a very negative impact. Divorce and separation can result in the women having no status. The bad experience of migration itself, which puts families under pressure, especially if they are in an irregular situation, can be the cause of violence against the woman in the home. Women feel a great sense of shame, often based on tradition, when it comes to reporting what has happened to them. Their rights are seldom understood. Women with no individual migrant status are frightened to seek help.

As regards people in migrant and multi-ethnic communities, even in our own country, talk of prevention is futile unless efforts are made to integrate those women into their communities. That is a route towards inclusion, which reduces isolation and the risk of violence. Migrant women may have young children who were born in the host country who have no status themselves, and who suffer violence. Migrants with irregular status live constantly in fear of deportation.

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