HC Deb 18 March 1998 vol 308 cc1385-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

10 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate. At first sight, it has little or nothing in common with the Budget debate, but having listened for the best part of three hours to hon. Members discussing the conflict between the wallet and the purse and gender conflicts over finance, I realise that there is a direct link between the Budget debate and a discussion about what happens when families break down.

Like many Adjournment debates, this is prompted by a local constituency concern, although it has wider implications. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and I represent the borough of Richmond. Like many boroughs, it established 10 years ago a forum for domestic violence under the police-community consultative group. More recently, it established a women's information centre to deal with domestic violence. I have been increasingly involved in the centre's work, and as a result have been educated on some of these problems, and have drawn several conclusions.

I have been struck by the fact that the women's information centre is an extremely valuable and important part of the local community. It handles roughly 1,300 cases a year, and is vastly over-subscribed. The professions who work there have a hand-to-mouth existence. They devote an enormous amount of their time to fund raising and to fighting their way through the thickets of the different agencies that are responsible for women's welfare. The system for dealing with cases of domestic violence does not work.

Having become involved in the work of the forum and the women's centre, I have learnt at first hand the horrific statistics and facts about domestic violence, of which I suspect many people are unaware. It is now well established that about one in 10 women are victims of physical violence that leads to hospitalisation. Domestic violence is mostly against women: there is some violence against men, but it is a small problem. About one in three women experience some form of violence; about one in eight experience violence throughout their relationship; and about two in every five murders of women are the result of disputes involving domestic violence—roughly one every three days. Those are horrific statistics.

It is important to have this debate not only to highlight my constituency concern and the work and problems of the local women's groups, but to give the Government an opportunity to explain how they intend to approach this problem. I am well aware that this problem has a history: it did not suddenly arise.

For the best part of two decades, women's groups have established refuges, and public consciousness of this matter has gradually increased. In 1993, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a valuable report, which provided many of the recommendations on which current policy is based. The 1995 inter-agency report from the Home Office took the matter one stage further, as did the family law reform in 1996. We are dealing with an incremental process.

I thought it important—given that a new Government were in office, and given the possibility of a burst of energy and reforming zeal—that some outstanding points on the agenda would now be tackled. In the rest of the time left to me, I want to suggest—in an aggregate sense, and subsequently in more specific ways—some of the problems that I hope the Government will tackle. I am glad that both the key Ministers have taken the trouble to be here.

I feel that two key philosophical points need to be made. First, it should be recognised—I think that such recognition is now widespread, but the need for it should be reiterated—that we are dealing with a serious crime. Domestic violence is not just an accident or a faux pas; it is a crime. It has taken a long time for that to be accepted. It is rather like drunken driving or rape, in that it is a crime that needs to be punished. It needs to be dealt with appropriately by the courts, and by the judicial process generally.

The other point is more subtle, and perhaps less generally appreciated. It is much better to deal with matters such as this with preventive action than to deal with them subsequently. I have been staggered by the vast amount of public resources absorbed by problems of domestic violence that, with a little imagination, and perhaps better policy, could have been avoided.

A valuable study conducted in Hackney—I am sure that the Minister is aware of it—suggests that some £5 million a year is spent as a result of domestic violence being unchecked, the subsequent action by social services departments and the necessary process in the courts. It has been estimated that the aggregate cost in London is about £300 million. That expenditure is not necessary, and it could be avoided if policy were approached in a slightly different way. Let me suggest a few ways in which we could deal with the problem.

I want to concentrate on funding. Ministers may imagine that, as a Liberal Democrat, I will suggest a new tranche of public expenditure, but that is not my objective. I recognise that there is already quite a lot of public expenditure in this area; the issue is how to use that expenditure better within existing budgets.

As one who has come to the problem from outside, I am struck by the number of agencies that exist. There is the safer cities programme, to which some boroughs have access and some do not; there is the single regeneration budget; there is the national lottery, which is available to some parts of the country but not others.

The women's refuges—I have discussed the matter with them— are in the extraordinary position of having to deal with some 25 different revenue streams, potentially, in order to fund their activities. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions provides quite a few; the Department of Health provides others. I do not know whether the Minister knows this, but I gather that one of the key services—the help line—is due to finish on 31 March as a result of the ending of the Department of Health grant.

The issue, however, is not simply one of money being available or not available. It is about the vast complexities of funding in the sector, and about ways of reducing those complexities. Let me make some specific suggestions.

First, the Home Office could simply keep track of all the expenditure, some of which is in the domestic violence budget and some of which is not. That would give us a comprehensive picture of how much was being spent, where it was going and why it was being allocated.

My second suggestion rather goes against the grain of my belief in the unshackling of local government. I think that, as long as we have capping and close central direction, some ring fencing of central Government money may be a helpful way of dealing with such matters. For example, specific allocation of social services training funds to domestic violence would be one way of ensuring that all boroughs had access to proper funding. Alternatively, money could be ring-fenced for special provision for looking after children in refuges. I know that that is another concern of the women's movement. Ring fencing could also apply more generally to refuges.

Those are all temporary fixes, however. My main recommendation in regard to funding is that it would be very desirable if the Government arranged for the Home Office to have a fund—a pot of money—for which different projects could compete in an open market and a transparent process.

That was the main concern of the groups in Twickenham. They are not asking for more money or for the Minister to take out his cheque book. They ask for a clear process in which they can compete on merit with other projects for a pot of Home Office money that is available to all parts of the country, and demonstrate the merit of their work. In that way, they could provide some sustainable long-term funding for their activities.

One of the key criteria in judging access to that pot of funding, which could be existing money that is put under a different heading, is that projects should be preventive, rather than dealing with problems after they have already occurred. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider that point.

The other sets of recommendations are not to do with money—I am sure that they have already been debated within Government. The first involves public awareness. Over the past few years, there has been a campaign, directed almost exclusively at women, under the heading, "Don't stand for it". One could argue that the audience should be men rather than women, but the campaign has raised awareness. Much has been done, but it is clear that much more could be done, in terms of good leadership from the Government and to increase public awareness.

Let me take a few examples. As I understand it, few hospital accident and emergency wards collect statistics on injuries sustained as a result of domestic violence. That information is vital to get a picture of how serious the problem is and the type of families that are most vulnerable. However, at no stage, as far as I am aware, has any effort been made to make the Department of Health conduct that sort of statistical collection.

It is clear to those of us who work closely with the police that, in recent years, their awareness of these problems has enormously improved. Just as with race relations, the police are among the more sophisticated agencies in dealing with these problems, but there is an enormous gap between the best police officers, who are, in many ways, probably the best agents, and the worst, where the canteen culture is still alive. A lot more needs to be done with the police.

The same is true of the judiciary. I am talking not about the crass judges who think that a good beating may be the best way of dealing with a domestic situation, but more sophisticated problems of how judges deal with the award of access to children in a situation of domestic violence. Those are the sort of issues that need to be discussed with the professionals and that I suspect have not been adequately dealt with.

Finally, a whole raft of legal initiatives could be taken forward by a Government who were determined to be innovative and to reform in this sector. They already have the Family Law Act 1996 to build on, but a whole set of other things seem highly relevant. It appears that a woman who is not on benefit would have to pay, for example, about £1,000 to get a court injunction to stop her partner committing violence. Access to the courts is extremely difficult.

Legal innovation is possible in another area. We could borrow from some of the experience in the United States. There is, I think, a well-known experiment in Duluth, Minnesota, where victimless prosecution is being launched. The woman is not required to go through the whole process of enacting her horrific experiences, but the police take a proactive role in prosecution.

Probably the key issue, and one that my constituents have raised with me directly, is the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. It is notorious that very serious offences, including grievous bodily harm, are downgraded to lower charges, so that they can be taken through lower courts, probably for genuinely intelligent reasons of trying to increase the chances of securing a conviction. However, that effectively undermines the seriousness of the crime. I hope that that is something else that the Government, in their review of legal processes, will consider carefully.

I thank the Government for taking a close interest in the debate. I hope that they will exercise some leadership. I particularly hope that they will reconsider funding, which is excessively complicated and creates serious barriers to some agencies at grass-roots level, such as those in my constituency that are trying to work in this sector. I hope that the Government will make a fresh attempt to examine some of the consciousness-raising and legal reform issues that are at the heart of this complex and tragic problem.

10.14 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

There is a tradition in the House of congratulating any hon. Member who is successful in obtaining an Adjournment debate. On this occasion, however, I would rather congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on the use that he has made of the debate, and on his constructive and thoughtful contribution, to which I am delighted to be able to respond positively.

I am also pleased that the hon. Gentleman noticed that, as well as my being here to answer the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock), the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women, is also present. The existence of my hon. Friend's role, and the close co-operation that we are giving to the task of examining domestic violence and other violence against women, illustrate the Government's approach and the importance that we attach to the issue.

The hon. Gentleman was right to describe the statistics as horrific, because domestic violence continues to be the single most common form of violence against women, accounting for 17 per cent. of all violent incidents recorded by the 1996 British crime survey.

Recent new research published by Crime Concern reports that, in some parts of Britain, one woman in nine are the victims of severe beatings by partners each year. That is slightly worse than the statistics that the hon. Gentleman cited. He was right to say that domestic violence must be regarded, and underlined, as a serious crime, rather than, as it was in the past, as less serious than other forms of violence.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the need for prevention, which touches on one, indeed two, of the Government's major themes in dealing with crime. One of our favourite themes is to prevent crime wherever possible, and we are considering all sorts of ways of creating partnerships to understand and deal with the problems of crime at local level. The second is the idea of dealing with problems quickly when they arise—to nip things in the bud rather than allowing them to drift on for a long time until they become so serious that nobody can ignore them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the value of voluntary organisations, many of which make a tremendous contribution to publicising the issues and in giving help, support and advice to people who find no help elsewhere. They also help in developing the forum activities that have helped with exchanges of views, with the education of the public, and with mutual education about how to tackle the problems.

I certainly agreed when the hon. Gentleman said that the process of growing awareness of the problem of domestic violence had been slow. That growth in awareness has been inexorable, but it has taken place over a long period. Awareness is far greater among the police than it was a few years ago, and most police forces now have carefully thought-out policies, and work much more closely with local welfare organisations and voluntary organisations representing women. None the less, they are aware that they still need to do more. That sensitivity, plus the will to continue to improve their standard of response, is the keynote for the future.

The hon. Gentleman showed great financial restraint, for a Liberal Democrat. He did not spend the same penny again and again, and tell us that we simply needed to re-order the money already available. He was right to say that there is a variety of sources, and that the availability of finance is complex, and it is difficult to find a way through. The trouble is that changing funding is complex, too, and if we are not careful we could accidentally shut off the sources of supply to some valuable organisations.

Some sources of funding, such as single regeneration budgets, already embed concern about issues of violence, including domestic violence, within a wider context. It is important to see domestic violence not as existing in a backwater but as part of the wider picture of society in terms of dealing with crime and with other social problems.

I underline a very clear theme in the Crime and Disorder Bill—which is currently wending its way through another place, and will soon reach this House—which is a local partnership approach in identifying local problems of crime. Such an approach must include identifying the local nature and profile of crimes of domestic violence, promoting the joint responsibility of police and local authorities to identify those problems in a crime and disorder audit, and considering not only statistics but people's experience—by working with voluntary organisations and those with direct experience—to get to grips with the reality of domestic violence and produce a strategy to deal locally with crimes and the causes of crime.

The hon. Member for Twickenham also mentioned the courts. There are many ways in which domestic violence issues are dealt with in the courts, and he was right to seek both simplification of that process and improved access to the courts. The Government believe strongly in such improvements. However, we are looking also for ways in which we might deal with the gaps in legislation.

For many years, we campaigned for legislation to deal with stalking. We were delighted to be able shortly after the general election to implement the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Precisely in accordance with a belief in prevention rather than cure, the Act goes rather wider than its title might suggest, by allowing a variety of forms of harassment to be dealt with.

An order may be granted, for example, on the basis of evidence not only from the victim but from professional witnesses, thereby allowing certain activities to be forbidden. Serious criminal penalties may apply to the breach of an order. We are including similar provisions in the Crime and Disorder Bill, and are generally improving legislation to make our systems work well.

Downgrading cases is always a difficulty, and the matter requires much attention. One way of dealing with it is an improved relationship between police and the Crown Prosecution Service. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is pushing through reforms on the matter as quickly as possible. The reforms will lead to an improvement generally in how crime is prosecuted, and will provide significant benefits in dealing with domestic violence and violence against women.

It is certainly true that violence against women remains a blot on society, and that tackling it must be a priority. We must not tolerate a culture in which it is accepted, or in which its victims are afraid to speak out. The hon. Member was right to say that, although things have improved, there is still acceptance of violence in some areas and in some cultures. I have been working with my hon. Friend the Minister for Women because of concerns about that situation. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women recently announced in the House a national strategy to tackle all forms of violence against women.

We are certainly determined that domestic violence will be dealt with effectively. To that end, Home Office Ministers are working with Ministers from other Departments to review all policies dealing with domestic violence. The hon. Member rightly said that men can be victims of domestic violence. Although that matter should not be overlooked, a person's sex is a significant factor in the likelihood of his or her being a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence, and in the seriousness and impact of domestic violence attacks. We must therefore concentrate on the experiences of women.

Tackling domestic violence—both causes and effects—is a huge task, and much of the work will have to fall to local agencies. However, Government have a part to play. We provide court funding to the Women's Aid Federation in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and revenue funding for women's refuge spaces. Through the special grants programme, we have made funds available to the Women's Aid Federation (England) to develop training opportunities, resources and facilities for local refuges. Other funding supports projects in Scotland and Wales. Local projects in England are funded through the single regeneration budget challenge fund.

Future funding issues are being examined in the context of the increased priority being given to the matter by the Government, and the interdepartmental strategies that are being developed to combat domestic violence through both prevention, and information and support for those who have already been victims. It is very important that the issue is dealt with across Government; it is not an issue just for one Department—not even the Home Office, with its responsibilities for crime or the Department of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, given her concern for women's issues.

All colleagues in all Departments need to recognise the relevance of health, education, local government and a variety of Government responsibilities to deal with the matter. We are at the moment looking very carefully at the best way of developing a new interdepartmental campaign of information and publicity to ensure coherence that aids understanding, so that people know how and where to get help.

I should mention—the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned the domestic violence help line—that we have recently given the Women's Aid Federation (England) extra funding to enable it to continue to run the domestic violence help line. The federation will have financial difficulties in the coming year, as I was told when I met its representatives earlier in the week, but it is looking for ways to continue to run the operation. Very often, due to the patchwork of provision, people need somewhere nationally to go, if only to ask where they can get help and be given advice.

We said in opposition that care and concern for victims would be one of our priorities in government. That is absolutely right. There needs to be a switch in the attention that the criminal justice system, as well as the public service, gives to needs of victims. Within weeks of coming to office, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister kept that promise by announcing an increase of £1 million a year for Victim Support, which will enable it to establish a national telephone help line for victims of crime, and to develop its court-based and local services.

On 1 October 1997, to help victims further, we brought into force the provisions of part IV of the Family Law Act 1996. That is a very important enactment, which provides strengthened powers of arrest where violence is used or threatened. It also amends the Children Act 1989, so that, when an emergency protection order or an interim care order is made for the protection of children, an exclusion order can be attached, permitting the removal from the home of the suspected abuser, rather than the removal of the child. Those provisions are important.

Partnership between agencies at a local level is extremely important. I have already referred to the partnership required between local authorities and the police in developing local crime prevention partnerships. We certainly expect the crime audit required under the Crime and Disorder Bill to identify the level of domestic violence in an area. Local partnerships will be required to develop a strategy for addressing it in the wider strategy for crime reduction needed in the area.

In June, we set up an interdepartmental review to identify ways of improving the situation of all vulnerable witnesses. That includes victims of domestic violence—although it includes a number of others as well. Sometimes people are affected by domestic violence but not in ways that are easily recognised. I am thinking of adults with learning difficulties, disabled people, and people who have speech difficulties or language problems. For that reason, the review is very wide-ranging, and will consider the whole process from the investigation to the trial and beyond. It looks at the role of many of the agencies and professionals involved.

There are many issues to be addressed. Many, if not all, are relevant to the needs of victims of domestic violence, among the ranks of vulnerable witnesses and defendants. Such people have a right not to be intimidated. Unfortunately, some of the weakest and most vulnerable in our society have found it most difficult to see a fair trial. We expect to receive the working group's report very shortly. We shall certainly want to respond to it as quickly and as positively as possible. It will make a considerable contribution to improving the standard of justice.

The hon. Member for Twickenham has opened a wide-ranging debate. Indeed, the subject would have justified a debate of hours rather than half an hour. I congratulate him on packing a great deal into his speech, and I hope that I have been able to give some indication of our approach.

Domestic violence is not an issue to be dismissed as though it were a natural part of a women's personal life. It is not an issue that has been exaggerated by a few extremist campaigners. It is a blot on our society that affects victims physically and emotionally, directly and indirectly, in the short and long term. It wrecks lives. We want it to be recognised for the crime it is, and we are determined that it will be tackled effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.