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21 Jan 2010 : Column 182WH—continued

5.30 pm

The Solicitor-General: This has been a good debate, with some welcome and powerful contributions. I shall try to take on some of the issues that were raised, but I am happy to take interventions if that will help.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) referred to the need for sustainable funding. We have resolved to try to make the funding of the support sector for women who suffer violence compliant with the compact, and that is what we need to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) referred to people whose qualifications, experience and expertise was in supporting women, not in making bids for claims, although help is available for such claims, and money has gone into supporting bodies, such as Rape Crisis and the Survivors Trust, to capacity-build for that job. None the less, if people have come into an organisation intending that their role should be to support women, it is not second nature for them to make regular applications for funding.

In the past two years, the Government Equalities Office has provided emergency funding and, indeed, on both occasions had a sort of Government whip-round to make sure that rape crisis centres and other organisations did not close. It appreciated the need for better funding in the longer term, and has driven the agenda. The Alberti review of health, to which I shall turn in a moment because of comments about health sector services, will say quite a bit about commissioning. I am thinking particularly about services in SARCs and who should commission. For example, forensic medical officers are probably better coming from the core health service and being commissioned in that way. There is a bit of an analogy with the prison medical service moving over.

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I am not predicting that that is what Alberti will say, but at the moment, forensic medical examiners have a number of tasks, and it sounds as if they should be well qualified to deal with rape complainants, and many of them will be. However, they may arrive to examine a rape complainant in the middle of the night, having certified dead a victim of a road traffic accident, then seeing someone who is coming out of heroin addiction to decide whether they are fit to be interviewed at a police station, then perhaps looking at the injuries of three people who have been in a fight in a pub to see how they are and writing that down. They may not have an opportunity to specialise, and may not be particularly sympathetic to everything to which we want them to be sympathetic.

Instead of having that random-ish model, there are seeds in the Department of Health for adding a qualification so that as doctors continue their education, they can obtain a qualification in dealing specifically with sexual offending. The intention is to move the agenda along to ensure that sympathy and expertise are offered to complainants not only at the outset, but when the cases continue to court so that top-class evidence can be given in court about the nature of injuries. I think that elements of sustainability will come from a number of quarters.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean said that there is criticism of the fact that there is disproportionate emphasis on the criminal justice system. It is easy, looking back, to think that that is right, but it was critical to establish the fact that domestic violence is a crime, and that rape is a crime to be taken seriously, and to put the whole business of violence against women up front in the criminal justice system, because that was not there before. The criminal justice system sends out the message to delinquent men that such violence is a crime with which the authorities will deal, and that offenders will go to prison. It also counts numbers, so that we can see the nature and extent of the problem. Coupled with the British crime survey, it also shows the deficiencies in coverage. Women who have campaigned for 30 years have done a great job in putting it high on the criminal justice agenda. I do not regret one bit that that was our focus.

Funding must be sustained in the sector, but it is right to consider changing attitudes. We have the signals in place. We are saying that the state is against that violence. It is doing all that it can, and I shall come on to the ideas that have been mentioned on which we can press forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is right in saying that there is still much to do. However, the state is making a clear statement, and when public attitudes are lagging behind, we must bring them with us. We must do a good job in personal, social and health education, which will be compulsory in schools. We have put stuff in there about domestic violence, how women can deal with unwanted sexual attention, how young men can read signals from young women, and whether they are implementing unwanted sexual attention. We must help with public opinion-and there is no doubt that we must move to prevention-but it is important to establish in the criminal justice system the fact that violence against women is wrong. I think that those were the major points made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean.

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I return to the early-day motion, which has three signatories from colleagues from London who are closely in touch with the domestic violence and rape crisis sectors in their areas and have received expressions of bitter disappointment at what the Mayor of London offered after his consultation. He invited me to go to it, and I did with some optimism, but it has not come forward with anything. The issue is not about measuring funding because of the recession; it has simply not come forward with what he promised. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough disclosed the fact that the Mayor masqueraded behind the suggestion that the police specialist unit was closing because of Home Office funding. He tried to blame the Government, when it is well known that he has a large influence-probably too much-that he should exercise in this case over the Metropolitan police to try to persuade them to take their responsibilities more seriously. He should also take his responsibilities in that regard more seriously. I am talking about a contender for the Tory party leadership, so we should take what he does seriously, and note his shortcomings in this area.

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful for the Minister's comments about the trafficking unit, because funding was guaranteed for only two years. Does she accept that the unit is important, and would it be possible to keep an open mind on whether additional resources might come from the Government to allow the project to continue?

The Solicitor-General: I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough will make powerful representations when she leaves the Chamber tonight. I am pleased that she will talk to Cressida Dick, who was a member of the Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System when I chaired it, and who is very sympathetic to the issue of violence against women. That approach will be helpful.

The intention, as with all new areas of activity, was that core funding would be provided for a couple of years to put the matter into the middle business of policing. It should then be taken on part and parcel, and should not require supplementary funding from outside. The funding was intended to get it in there, but it remains a hot issue and I acknowledge that. We should, at the very least, keep an open mind on whether there is a danger of expertise being lost.

I am not as depressed as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)-I know that, because we had a quick word about this during the suspension for the Divisions-about moving responsibility to the vice squad. I understand that it deals much more with raiding clubs, public order, and so on, but it has an understanding of the nature of prostitution, and it deals with brothels, so it can understand the help that needs to be given to women who are imprisoned in that sort of work.

The hon. Lady talked about the need to get the man out in a domestic violence situation, and not to get the woman, the children, the dog and the cat out. I agree that "go" orders in the Crime and Security Bill will probably be immensely helpful in that regard, but the real point is the conceptual shift. Clearly, in the past there has been the notion that we must rescue the woman quickly and get her out. The man is there, he is a hazard and the police cannot stay there all the time as
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he might come back. In a way, we have gone on with that cast of mind. Even without "go" orders-I am not saying that they are of no use, far from it-there are powers of arrest for common assault, which could be just a threat when someone is close enough to carry it out. People can now be arrested in almost all domestic violence situations if the policeman senses that it is a genuine case, as it frequently will be.

A person can be arrested, taken away and put on bail with the condition that they do not go back, or be remanded in custody if they do go back. In a way, the powers are already there, and however they fill the gaps that are perceived to exist in the current framework, the "go" orders certainly ought to influence that perspective. Let us swap things around and make it the norm for the police to think, "What do we do with him?" and not, "What do we do with her?" I agree with that completely.

There are also injunctions to remove the man and keep him away, and there are now restraining orders that can be put on to the back of criminal proceedings. As the hon. Lady knows, a restraining order is a sort of county court injunction in the criminal court, and it can be applied where there is a conviction for a criminal offence by a perpetrator of domestic violence. Furthermore, such an order could be applied in cases of acquittal should the judge perceive that there is a continuing risk to the woman on the balance of probabilities. We are not talking about locking people up under restraining orders if they are absolutely not guilty. However, if they are not guilty but the nature of the case leads the judge to feel satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, there continues to be a threat even if someone has not been convicted of a crime, the judge would be entitled to place a restraining order on them, which could include keeping them out of the house.

That is not a new power, but it has only newly been enforced. It needs to be used and strongly advertised to the magistracy. It was very badly reported in the press. I recall an article in The Observer in which a journalist suggested that this was, as he put it, yet another example of the Government's illiberality. Of course, that is not what it is. It is about making it simpler for women who need the protection of an ongoing injunction not to have to go to the county court and start completely fresh proceedings when they have spent the day in the magistrates court. Their witnesses and the policeman would not have to go twice either, and that is the purpose of the power. We must ensure that it is used.

The hon. Lady also discussed the fact that there is no recourse to public funds. She is aware of the pilot scheme. This is not the first pilot scheme-there was something called the last-resort fund run by Women's Aid. Before I was a Minister, I pressed for that scheme from the then Minister at the Home Office. Somehow it did not quite click or work entirely correctly. I do not know where the fault lay, if indeed it could be allocated-that is between Woman's Aid and the Home Office. However, the effect of that pilot was to speed up the process when women show signs of domestic violence, so as to get them an immigration status of their own. It was also about widening the ambit of evidence that the Home Office will accept for domestic violence so it was not only formal affidavits, but all sort of evidence from anywhere. That was helpful and I hope that this new pilot scheme-which has a better structure than the last scheme-will show the importance of that funding and
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be carried on. It is being piloted mostly because the last scheme was not a great success. It needs to be tried out.

I cannot tell the hon. Lady how many people are ejected from refuges in each constituency because of cost. I suspect that what happens is that refuges take people on even when they cannot get benefits, and use their core funding. That is not so helpful and the figures may or may not help if I can get hold of them, although I will try to do that.

It was very good and a delight-if I can put it that way and not seek to categorise my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) as senior men with an enormous amount of experience-to see them supporting the agenda in such a powerful way. They forcefully brought to our attention the international dimension of violence against women, and I am glad that they appear to work together on that international agenda. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, the Government are enthusiastic supporters of the convention against trafficking, and I was pleased to hear him praise the 2002 process, which I have just mentioned, to improve the position of immigrant women in this country.

I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South is proud of the services dealing with violence against women that are offered in his constituency, but sad that those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge are less good. That is a problem. The popular mood is, probably rightly, for us to decentralise funding and have indicators as to how the money should be spent in local authorities. However, we then get the great disparities pointed to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge. We must look at more sustainability for funding those organisations.

The "Map of Gaps" to which my right hon. Friend referred by End Violence Against Women is a fine piece of work. The Equality and Human Rights Commission will use the gender equality duty to take proceedings against those local authorities that do not provide appropriate services. Trevor Phillips has written to those local authorities that are failing, and I have written to the MPs who represent them, asking them to go in and speak to those local authorities and tell them that they have do more. The idea behind the "Map of Gaps" has been taken up as heartily as we could wish.

Mr. Bruce George: Will the Minister tell us how many letters she wrote?

The Solicitor-General: What happened is that the commission wrote and said, "You're accused", as it were. A number of authorities wrote back and said, "No, we share services-that address is not in Walsall or whatever. You are wrong." We ended up with 18 local authorities, I think, and I have written to all of them.

Fiona Mactaggart: The point is that we have local authorities piggy-backing on neighbouring local authorities. East Berkshire Women's Aid is well funded by Slough borough council, but appallingly funded by South Buckinghamshire council, Maidenhead and others. The Minister should look behind the excuses.

The Solicitor-General: Of course, End Violence Against Women will do another "Map of Gaps". If we have
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been conned by local authorities that are doing that kind of stuff, it will look at the map again. Every time the map is published, a body of knowledge is built up that can be used next time round.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge makes a strong set of sterling points. She suggests further steps for us take and asks me what we will do. We will take on as much of the content of the debate as we can. As I say, we are at a stage at which the violence against women strategy has drawn in cross-governmental involvement that is more wide-reaching than we have ever managed before. It is time for us to up the whole thing a gear.

The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) painted a compelling picture. He obviously has a good understanding of the ever-present nature of domestic violence. He was also keen on the "go" orders and is as glad as I am that the family justice system will be looked at. I was pleased to hear him welcome our intended further restriction on newspaper advertising for prostitutes. The law in Ireland seems capable of being transferred across, although there is probably more to add, as it does not cover the internet and we would want it to do that. A well-known website called "punternet" has been mentioned, where not only are prostitutes offered for sale, but there are comments about how they have performed. We want to close that down as quickly as we possibly can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough is a doughty campaigner. It was very good to see that she got an Emma Humphreys prize this year. Emma Humphreys
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was a client of mine on appeal. She killed her violent partner who was a pimp and who had pimped her when she was 16 years old. When she was 17, she went to prison for life for murder. Ten years later, we managed to get her released as a manslaughter case, using a number of defences that I will not set out here. She died about a year after she came out of custody, still only 28. She has contributed, through that defence, to many developments in domestic violence legislation. The Policing and Crime Act 2009, which has just come into force, has in it many elements of the case that she gave rise to, so my hon. Friend was greatly honoured-and rightly honoured-to receive that award.

I shall end as quickly as I can, in about half a minute, by saying that work with the third sector is our hallmark. However, we must do more. We have a formal stakeholder group around the inter-ministerial group on trafficking. Perhaps we should do the same with rape and domestic violence. Let me say with my very last words that rape is a serial offence. Let us all please keep saying that. That is the single most important conceptual shift that has started to emerge this year. It can have the effect both of helping juries and courts to understand the nature of what is going on before them and of encouraging women to continue to report. I am most grateful for all the contributions made today, all of which we will try to take forward.

Question put and agreed to.

5.50 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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