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21 Jan 2010 : Column 169WH—continued

21 Jan 2010 : Column 170WH

I am glad that the convention on trafficking, which the Government now enthusiastically support, is firmly understood. I say to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, that that is an example of the Council of Europe at work. I remember that three, or three and a half, years ago we pushed hard for that convention. The original response, not only from the Government but from our parties and the body politic, was, "Ah, yes, but this will just attract more of them to this country"-all the usual responses. The perceived wisdom now is that these women deserve help and support. We continue to change attitudes. Lack of access to interpretation or language training is also a frequent difficulty.

On women who are concerned or frightened about reporting because of their status, our understanding is that the United Kingdom domestic violence rule of 2002 has enabled abused women to stay here in their own right on production of evidence. It is most important that such measures be supported, approved and adopted, and that we see the consolidation of such measures in other countries.

Women need empowerment. We need to consolidate their role in society. I could give many examples. When travelling in Europe on Parliamentary Assembly business, I have been in countries where one can sense that the women are treated very badly and have little status. It is different in other places. I was in Azerbaijan in May visiting refugees, although they are in-country displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh. I was allowed to see the matriarch there; she was a powerful woman. Much of the problem is cultural, but there is much that we could do in taking a lead.

To make progress will require a significant improvement in the status of migrant women. Eventually, we will have to recognise that women need a status independent of their spouse. I accept that these are challenging concepts, but I believe that we must take primarily a human rights approach to change. That is the key to political action and the vehicle to overcoming cultural and religious barriers. Human rights primacy means that violence is not acceptable in any way. The rights of the perpetrator must never supersede the rights of women to protection from violence, but we know of instances, particularly in other countries, where that has not always been the case.

We can never overstress the importance of transnational dialogue and the development and implementation of international instruments and conventions. I accept that that may be a subject for another day, but there is considerable room for improvement. Legal instruments must translate into a guarantee of protected rights for women. We must make more of our membership of CEDAW. As a country, we should take a bigger role and a bigger lead in the various UN and Council of Europe committees. We have made much progress in this country, and I sense that our experience could be invaluable to women in other countries.

I return to the generality of the subject. Much progress has been made in the past 40 or 50 years, but there is much more to do. Yes, of course we need a strong criminal justice system. However, attitudinal change is not yet complete. In particular, among the younger generation, there does not seem to be the attitude that we want across that whole generation. That aspect, too, was referred to earlier. It is not acceptable to abuse or exploit women with impunity.

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One of my colleagues on the Council of Europe, Mr. Mendes Bota from Portugal, will chair the equal opportunities committee, and I hope to become chairman of the migration committee next week, when all the chairmanships change. He made a telling point. He said that the trouble may be that all our efforts to deal with the problem of violence against women are reactive-that everything we do is largely reactive. The priority should be education. He said that, at the pre-primary level, in many elements of society there is no mutual respect. We need to change that attitude, culture and behaviour and focus on what is socially responsible and acceptable. If we can resolve the issue for future generations through attitudinal change, there will be a huge prize, in terms of health, family breakdown figures and social and economic costs.

Furthermore, more men need to be involved in pursuing the subject. I was delighted to see that at one point there were five men participating in this debate. There are still four of us, and I am not including the Whip and you, Mr. Benton, in the Chair. We need genuine equality-not equality as an end in itself, but equality that reflects a society that is based entirely on mutual respect.

4.20 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on violence against women. I want to concentrate on domestic violence, which is an issue that I was involved with when I was a student, helping out at a refuge in Stoke-on-Trent, and then later as a teacher and MP. I am delighted to see so many Members here, given the low-level Whip on the rest of the business today, as it shows how many of us are dedicated to addressing this most vile of crimes and to improving the dire circumstances in which so many women and children find themselves.

We are all aware of the horrifying statistics. Although two lives a week is the often quoted figure, it is nice-if that is the right word-to be able to say that it is around one death a week, which reflects some improvement, but it needs to be zero. We all have to remember that domestic violence accounts for about a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales. Statistics such as that remind us how vital, long overdue and desperately needed Government action to tackle this issue has been.

I am proud to have been able to vote on some of the legislation. Although I welcome the new measures and the funding to support victims, it is by no means an indication that we can rest on our laurels. Legislation to punish offenders and support victims-although welcome-is not enough. The root causes of violence in the home must be addressed, and as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, the general attitude towards domestic violence must be changed in the community. We still need to do work within the legal profession and, sadly, within the police force.

Late last year, I had the experience of hosting Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon on her visit to the House of Commons. She was representing Avon Cosmetics in its international campaign to eliminate domestic violence, which was also backed by Refuge. It is an interesting concept because many Avon representatives go into
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women's homes, and it is seen to be a way of connecting with women and informing them. Moreover, it is a place in which women can meet, which is a good place to start. It also offers a safe way for women to confide in others or receive advice. I am happy to continue to support that programme.

During the event, I had the privilege of meeting the accomplished journalist, Wendy Turner Webster. She eloquently and movingly spoke about the effects of domestic violence on her own life. She is an intelligent, articulate and bright woman, but she still felt trapped in a situation about which she could do nothing. I could see that the experience was still painful to her. She described the destruction of her character during the many years of her first marriage.

Tragically, Wendy Turner Webster's story is echoed day in, day out in each of our constituencies, which is why the measures that we have introduced must not be undermined by intermittent funding or local cuts to vital support services. We must be aware that, despite the great advances, provision is still patchy in places. More worryingly, there is a lack of co-ordination across the services, so victims may experience a postcode lottery when they try to access help.

I want to illustrate the pathway that a domestic violence victim in Stourbridge may have to walk. If she is brave enough to report her situation or somebody does so on her behalf, she may, if she is lucky, get referred to one of the two workers who are based at Dudley Victim Support unit. We have a population of about 320,000 in the Dudley borough, but there are only two designated workers. The primary care trust employs one person, who effectively mans a telephone and does a bit of counselling, for 20 hours a week. One worker from Sandwell Women's Aid, with whom I have worked, said of the service, "Good luck if you can get an answer," not because the workers are lazy or turning people away, but because they physically cannot attend to the women who are trying to get help. Quite simply, they are overwhelmed. They have to prioritise victims, and it is only those who have suffered repeated incidents that go forward to the MARAC system. If we need to wait for three or four batterings before we can help someone, thousands of women will experience their first, second and third beating without being helped. I find that very distressing.

When I have come across cases, I often find that I take the details home with me. It is only with the assistance of the Walsall SARC group and Sandwell Women's Aid, which is in the neighbouring authority, that we can sometimes get things done. Some victims are lucky and manage to get in touch with Sandwell Women's Aid in the neighbouring borough, but they are few and far between. The focus on domestic violence in Dudley is poor. The Solicitor-General was invited to the midlands, and it is right that she should go and see the wonderful service that Walsall offers, but she should then come and see us, because there is quite a comparison to make.

Interestingly, the status of domestic violence within the local crime and disorder reduction partnership is quite low and is dangerously close to being non-compliant with things such as gender duty and the cross-Government action plan. Councillor Judy Foster, who is vice-chair of the West Midlands police authority, said:

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To add insult literally to injury, victims of domestic violence are not given sufficient priority for rehousing.

To cite a case, a lady whom I will call Miss T suffered years of violence from her partner that stopped only when he was convicted and sentenced for rape and a beating in their own home so severe that she suffered a stroke as well as broken bones and ruptured organs. She first came to see me at the end of 2007. Despite pleading and attempts to work with the local authority to rehouse her, she has been forced to live all that time in the same home, which holds such traumatic memories for her that she cannot even go upstairs to the room where it happened and lives in half the house. To use her words when she last came to see me, "Mrs. Waltho, if you had an accident in your car in which you were seriously injured, would you keep returning to the scene?" That is what she must do every day.

She has also been forced to enter Dudley's online bidding programme for a new home. She never gets to the top of the list, because officially she is adequately housed, but of course the authority managed without a problem to house her partner when he came out of jail. That is how dire the situation can be when things do not connect. The Minister must agree that that is not right.

We need to be vigilant about the wider package of support available-or, in this case, not available-to victims. We need to do all that we can to ensure that the good work done in the area is not undermined by a lack of cohesion between the wider authority services or, even worse, funding cuts. The workers at Sandwell Women's Aid do a great job, but much of their time is taken up by applying constantly for new pots of money, negotiating contracts and services and their service agreement. They need to be freed up to do the work that they were trained to do.

We must also be aware that the views of the public-and still, sadly, some in the legal profession-need to be questioned. My local paper, the Stourbridge News, reported on a particularly nasty domestic violence case:

It is hard to imagine that such actions could not lead to an immediate custodial sentence. I find it difficult to reconcile all the measures that we have put in place with what comes out at the end. There is much work to do
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with all the other support services to make things work properly for victims of abuse.

The Solicitor-General: That is a telling story. One thing that one would want to know is why she decided to write the letter. Who knows? Did anybody consider that important question?

Lynda Waltho: Indeed. I think that that is obvious. I had hoped that that everybody would come to that conclusion, because that is the one that I came to. If she lacks support, it is possible that she was coerced by the family or even her partner into writing it. Without resources behind her, she would never proceed. It is about knitting together, or the whole thing could fall down. It is certainly falling down in Dudley. That is not to say that there are not lots of people and organisations working, but they do not seem to be pulling together properly. There are so many holes that women can fall down along the pathway.

Only seven years ago, in 2003, just 46 per cent. of domestic violence convictions resulted in a custodial sentence. By 2007, according to the national crime survey, it had risen to 72 per cent. It is getting better overall, but it is not working as well as it can or should in Dudley.

4.35 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.56 pm

On resuming-

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Just to clarify, we will now continue until 5.51 pm.

Lynda Waltho: I was talking about the increase in custodial sentences. That increase is, in no small part, because of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the various initiatives that have followed. The chief executive of Refuge, Sandra Horley, has said:

The measures in that Act were the genesis of many of the pragmatic steps that the Government have proposed, including the introduction of the domestic violence courts-the Minister referred to those earlier-independent advocacy, the multi-agency risk assessment conferences and a real focus nationally on the issue.

Characteristically, it seems that the Government are responding to further advice from victims and experts alike to enact legislation that offers enhanced protection from domestic violence. That has involved true heroes of the domestic violence movement, such as Sara Ward from Sandwell Women's Aid, who is responsible for supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence in my constituency, albeit not in Sandwell.

Recent measures should be welcomed by all parties. As we mentioned earlier, the domestic violence protection notices-or "go" notices-offer a protection for domestic violence from forced eviction at the hands of the perpetrator, which is something we should applaud. However, I understand that some victims feel that is not a safe enough vehicle to protect them at home.

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The "go" notices will provide a previously unrealised protection for spousal victims of domestic violence, but I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some reassurances that they will protect not just the spouses, who are among the most prominent victims of domestic violence, but the hidden victims of domestic violence: the children.

The Home Office defines domestic violence as

That is undoubtedly the case, but I am sure the Government will want to do more to ensure that the impact on the children of those adults is considered in any measures. The Government have also committed to holding an annual debate on domestic violence-a move that is welcomed by leading domestic violence charities. Such moves have come from listening to the real experts in that difficult field, those who suffer from domestic violence and those who have to deal with it.

I would be grateful to hear from my hon. and learned Friend what further steps the Government will take to ensure that victims and stakeholders in the third sector who operate in that sphere will continue to play a leading role in developing Government policy on the topic, and perhaps even have an enhanced role. Surely, it is by proving that we value and can work in successful partnership with such experts in the prevention of domestic violence that we will make real progress in the fight against it. We must see where we can learn from their expertise and match their desire to fight domestic violence by using the will and machinery of Government.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have valid contributions to make, but before ending my speech I would like to underline an issue that is extremely important to constituents I have talked with, campaigners and domestic violence charities: sustainable funding. I have spoken many times in the House and will continue to do so about the pressing need for sustainable funding for those groups to provide help for victims, particularly of sexual crimes. Although I am unable to speak at length on that matter today, it is important stress how that situation is mirrored in the cause of fighting domestic violence. I would be grateful for reassurances from the Government that, as soon as possible, funding for domestic violence will be ring-fenced and sustained in the long term.

C.S. Lewis said:

Today there is no need for the Government to do an about-turn, because they are, I am convinced, going in the right direction on the long road to eradicating domestic violence. However, we can always do more, and I hope that the Government will bring forward further legislation that will enable us to do so.

It is well known in this place that there is a void in spending plans and no clarification on where cuts might fall, particularly from the Opposition-apparently that is matched by a void in coherent policy on how they would tackle domestic violence. A date-ordered search on their website reveals that the last time they published any strategy was in 2008, as the hon. Member for Forest
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of Dean (Mr. Harper) revealed, which was 13 months ago. He indicated that many of their strategy's suggestions have become Government policy, so I think that women all over the country have the right to ask, "What next?" The gap seems a clear demonstration of how the Opposition might let the issue of domestic violence lie again. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General can demonstrate how the Government will do the opposite and continue to be tireless in their fight against domestic violence and, wherever possible, preserve and protect the funding with which to do so.

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