§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on domestic violence.
Today, I am publishing a consultation paper outlining proposals to help to prevent and tackle the consequences of domestic violence. I pay tribute to many right hon. and hon. Members, including the Attorney-General; the Solicitor-General, who is here this afternoon; my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham); my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche); the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton); my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), and other members of the interministerial and all-party groups. I do so because I do not believe that there is any difference between political parties on this issue.
Domestic violence accounts for a quarter of all recorded violent crime. One in four women experience some form of violence from their husband or partner during their lifetime. Every week, two women die as a result of such violence. All violent crime can destroy lives, but domestic violence is usually a hidden crime. All too often victims suffer silently, afraid for themselves and for their children. The trauma and long-term effects suffered by children is incalculable. Domestic violence can occur irrespective of background or circumstance, but it is predominantly women who suffer.
Our consultation paper builds on the proposals that we made in last year's White Paper on criminal justice. Preventing domestic violence in the first place is at the heart of our proposals. Research shows that one in five young men and one in 10 young women believe that violence towards a partner is sometimes acceptable. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that that is never the case. If we are to prevent such violence, we must ensure that all young people understand that basic truth. It is necessary to increase understanding of the nature of domestic violence to ensure the correct response from professionals, including teachers, doctors and those in the social services, the courts and the police service.
Alcohol and drug misuse are major factors in domestic violence. We already have in place a strategy to tackle drug misuse. Later this year, the Government will publish a national harm reduction strategy, focusing on alcohol. I believe that all hon. Members agree that the home should be a place of safety. Sadly, for those affected it is a place of fear. Therefore, the second strand of our strategy is about protection for victims. The response of the police to domestic violence is crucial. Victims need reassurance that early intervention will be forthcoming. That is why we propose to make common law assault an arrestable offence, so that, at the time of the attack, suspected perpetrators can be instantly removed from the scene.
I also welcome the work being undertaken by the inspectorates that are carrying out a major review into how the Crown Prosecution Service and the police 374 handle domestic violence cases. Victims are often deterred from reporting violence and appearing as witnesses because of the handling of domestic violence cases. They are afraid of reprisals and what many see as the shame that such violence brings. That is why we are proposing to allow victims and witnesses to apply for anonymity. We would welcome views on that issue.
A number of specialist courts have been developed, demonstrating greater expertise and support for victims. In Leeds and Cardiff, domestic violence courts have increased co-ordination between agencies and the civil and criminal jurisdictions. We would welcome views on how further to develop such specialist facilities.
I think that we all agree that the civil and criminal law must be improved better to protect victims. We are therefore proposing some important changes. We wish breaching non-molestation orders and occupation orders to become a criminal offence, giving the police new powers to arrest in all cases where they believe that that is warranted. We intend to widen the availability of restraining orders under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. They should be available when there is insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction but sufficient justification for safeguards to be put in place. When appropriate, we will allow orders to be imposed at the time of charge, pending trial. The courts should have powers to impose restraining orders for any violent offence, not just the limited range under current law.
At present, the police have no way of telling whether a person has a civil order against them. That is why I am seeking views on whether to create a register of civil orders. Such a register would mean that the police would know at the time of being called to a domestic violence incident whether the suspect had breached an order and could thus be automatically arrested. In addition, I am reflecting on the suggestion of creating a broader register of domestic violence offenders. However, there are complicated issues that we need to think about and our minds are not closed on the issue. I should make it clear that access to any such register would be strictly limited. There would be a danger that wider access could deter victims or their families from coming forward.
We must ensure that sentences reflect the crimes committed. The sentencing advisory panel will consider domestic violence homicides and, additionally, the Attorney-General will issue new guidance to the Crown Prosecution Service on domestic murders. I am also referring to the Law Commission the defences offered in homicide cases. I shall ask it to focus particularly on how provocation, self-defence and diminished responsibility operate in domestic violence cases. The defence of provocation, for example, often relies on sexual jealousy as justification for murder. That is not acceptable.
Contact between children and their parents should be encouraged, but the welfare of the child must be paramount. We will amend contact and residence application forms so that judges are aware of allegations of domestic violence at the beginning of proceedings.
The third strand of our strategy is to provide practical support to victims. A total of more than £61 million is being spent on domestic violence this year, with 375 £33 million being invested in new refuge accommodation over the next three years. The first 24-hour national helpline for victims of domestic violence will be established and it will be supported by a database of safe accommodation and local services.
It is vital that we also find ways of helping victims of domestic violence to stay in their own homes. We would welcome views on how best to achieve that, including views on re-accommodating the alleged perpetrator. Victims of domestic violence whose immigration status is being decided currently have no access to public support. It is our belief that all victims, whatever their circumstances, deserve our help. We shall enable places of safety to be offered, and help to support victims of violence in such circumstances.
The consultation paper is about improving prevention and providing support for victims. We must ensure that perpetrators understand that domestic violence will not be tolerated. The proposals that we are setting out today will be a further step toward that goal. We will seek to change attitudes and help victims to break free from the cycle of violence and abuse. No woman, man or child brings domestic violence on themselves. No one should have to put up with it; the abuse is unacceptable. I am therefore asking all sides of the House to support taking the measures forward, and I commend the measures to the House.
§ Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
First, I thank the Home Secretary for giving me prior notice of the statement.
We welcome the Government's announcement on domestic violence. It brings a subject that has been taboo out into the open where it can be debated and better dealt with. The reason I am responding as shadow Minister for Women is not because we see this as exclusively a women's issue, for there are male victims and their plight is seriously underreported, but because we accord the highest importance to the fact that two women a week die as a result of domestic violence. I have a personal interest in the issue, having launched a poster campaign last Christmas to publicise where victims can get help.
There is no question but that the criminal justice system fails victims of domestic violence, but the Government need to be careful not to introduce unenforceable legislation in an area in which lives need to be saved. Legislating for unrestrained human emotions is not easy. Will the Home Secretary reassure the House that consultation will be as wide as possible and that it will involve not only main agencies, survivors and their families, but ethnic minorities and men's and grandparents' groups, because domestic violence casts a long shadow over the extended family?
At present, the courts feel like a hostile place to victims. Specialist courts represent progress toward improving the judicial response to domestic violence. Do the Government have any plans to extend these beyond the three to which the Home Secretary referred? Does he agree that the fact that over 50 per cent. of domestic violence cases receive a harsher sentence on appeal indicates that the judiciary requires more specialist training?
376 Research that shows how many young people think that violence is a normal part of their relationships highlights why prevention is a key issue. Do the Government intend to incorporate teaching on anger management and non-violent communication in the school curriculum? Perpetrator programmes are notoriously unsuccessful. Does the Home Secretary accept that changing a person's behaviour needs to start much earlier in life and to be reinforced by society's view that domestic violence is not okay?
I welcome the Government's announcement of new funds for refuges. Will the Home Secretary join me in applauding volunteers who have campaigned tirelessly to secure even the present level of one refuge per 200,000 of population? I know that figure to my cost because I have been trying for years to get a refuge in my constituency. I am appalled that there are more animal sanctuaries than refuges in this country. It is estimated that about 40,000 women are on the move in refuges every week. Such caravanning around the countryside of vulnerable women and children who are looking for somewhere to hide and sleep is barely credible in the 21st century. Does he accept that it is a fundamental injustice that the victim moves out of the family home and loses assets, status and security while the perpetrator tends to remain?
The Government must be careful not to overlook the needs of the child when reforming legislation on domestic violence. Four out of five children who run away from home say that they do so to escape family conflict, violence or abuse. What is being done to safeguard the wishes of children who may not want contact with a violent parent or who suffer mental anguish due to the guilt of not having protected their abused parent?
It is not only improving legislation that will make a difference; practical help is at least as important, if not more important. It is quite extraordinary that there is a view that if victims are housed in a safe place, they will get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Does the Home Secretary agree that there needs to be much more assistance in the aftermath of such a traumatic experience?
The subject of domestic violence is so serious that there can be no question of gesture politics. The Home Secretary refers to the first 24-hour national helpline, but the charities Women's Aid and Refuge already run a 24-hour national helpline. The Government's initiative was announced for the first time on 11 December last year, but it is still not up and running. Does the Home Secretary accept that failing to meet the raised expectations of such a vulnerable group exposes him to the serious allegation of playing politics? When does he expect the helpline to be fully operational?
Homicide reviews are all very well, but how many will it take before we finally learn the lessons? The experience of the Victoria Climbiè case shows that crimes committed behind closed doors are the most difficult to prevent and are in most need of prompt and effective intervention by agencies, which all too often allow a case to slip through the net.
377 We kid ourselves that we live in a civilised society. That cannot be true when such a high number of fatalities are too often dismissed with the phrase, "It's only a domestic."
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am happy to have the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) opposite me at the Dispatch Box and would be happy to repeat the experience. I assure her that no one will play politics on the issue. Whatever the gripes about the delay in setting up the helpline, we are making an offer, as the statement demonstrated, to work together in the interests of those who are dying and being abused every day—one woman is abused every minute in this country. I make that offer again because the subject transcends party politics and shows Parliament at its non-political best.
We need to be careful that legislation neither raises false expectations nor ends up being unenforceable. I am happy to take views on that. The consultation will be as wide as possible. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, Baroness Scotland and I visited a refuge and centre in Camden today. We promised that the victims, as well as those who work with them, will be an essential part of the consultation. I accept entirely the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made on that.
Specialist courts have proved their worth. With a new, invigorated partnership between myself and the interim Lord Chancellor, we should be able to make rapid progress. We will certainly be able to do that on training. Lord Falconer and I jointly visited the judicial studies board just few weeks ago and we are keen to work with it on building up expertise. In those circumstances where there is no specialist court, we propose to combine cases so that they can be handled by someone with the relevant expertise on a particular day in a particular week.
Teaching at an early stage is vital. In addition to teaching citizenship and democracy and providing personal social and health education, we need to spot early youngsters who display aggression and to take action on that. I want to discuss with the new Minister for Children how we can develop the children and young persons unit, and those investing in education, in a more positive way than has been possible in the past.
The refuge provision is important. Some £19 million more is being spent this year than last year. I agree entirely, however, that "caravanning" people around the country is unacceptable. The damage to children in particular is incalculable because it disrupts the life and well-being of the family. That is why we want to find ways of getting alleged perpetrators out of the house and, when they are found guilty, keeping them away from the home. The Solicitor-General and I will talk to the Attorney-General about whether we should change the terminology of the orders so that people understand clearly what they mean.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Meriden for 99 per cent. of what she said and her welcome of the measures. I look forward to us all taking them forward together.
§ Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)
May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and congratulate him on the consultation paper? I assure him that women in Wales will be pleased that the 378 Government have recognised how vital and serious the issue is and that they are comprehensively planning to tackle it further. I thank him very much for that.
I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is keen to involve victims in the consultation procedure. Will he assure me that the consultation procedure will be extensive and include women and other people in Wales? Will he ensure that Wales is fully brought into the consultation? In particular, will he involve the trade unions? I pay tribute to the work that the trade unions, especially Unison in Wales, have done to bring the issue to the forefront in the workplace.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work in Wales. I am aware of the establishment of the centre in Cardiff, which has been a beacon for activity. Not only will we consult widely in the terms that we have laid down, but we will be happy to hear from hon. Members on both sides of the House about what we could reach out to in their locality. There will be three months of consultation. We want to introduce legislation in the new Session of Parliament because people will expect us to get on with it, but we want to do that properly and will be happy to consider suggestions on the nature of the scrutiny of that legislation before we present it to Parliament.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
Domestic violence is a huge, horrible and unacceptable part of our national and home life. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who speaks on women's issues for the Liberal Democrats, and I welcome the statement, the consultation paper and many of the initiatives proposed. Our party will respond constructively, positively and urgently to the proposals in the paper.
We share with the Home Secretary the view that education is as important as anything else and cannot begin too early. Can I assume from what he said that the first and perhaps central message is that from now on—if it was not the case before—no police officer in the land will regard allegations of domestic violence as something that they should not immediately pursue on the basis that it is a domestic matter and not for them? Can he assure me that no court in the land will regard alcohol or other drugs as an excuse for violence at home?
Are statistics on domestic violence now kept separately, both nationally and locally? Is the Home Secretary satisfied that at a local level the advice is in place so that things do not get to a crisis point at which people have to leave home? Most importantly, will he work with his colleagues so that each local authority has the assurance, as my local borough of Southwark has, that the police and the local authority will act together with no bureaucracy and no delay to ensure that people get the refuge, sanctuary, housing, support and advice when they need it and for as long as they need it to look after the families affected?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's support. I assure him that not only are the police committed to doing the job singly, they are now committed, through the multi-agency panels and multi-agency reviews that are being undertaken on incidents of domestic violence, to ensuring that we have a joined- 379 up system at a local level in which they work closely with other agencies and partners. I pay tribute to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation for the way in which they have worked with us.
Many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have been close to the subject and have shown tremendous commitment to it. They will know that there has been a transformation in the approach that the police have taken to domestic violence incidents in recent years. They accept, and we accept, that there is still progress to be made, not least in terms of their response time and the immediacy of what is requested, as the hon. Gentleman said. I guarantee that we will give every possible support to those working with the police in making that progress possible.
I agree that we need clear statistics. The British crime survey provides us with a better route than merely relying on recorded crime. Part of our task is to get people to come forward and to demonstrate that they need no longer fear having the crime recorded. We have some way to go before we get a totally accurate picture of what is taking place in society. The statistics that we have are horrendous enough, but we believe that they may well not give the full picture. In that spirit, I welcome the other propositions from the hon. Gentleman. I know that we can do a good job together, as the all-party committee has done, in making sure that on this matter, if on nothing else, we are all in unison.
§ Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's thoughtful statement. The elements that it contains have been argued and pleaded for by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) has chaired with such great commitment. Does my right hon. Friend understand that there is something missing from his statement? I refer to outreach services to keep women in their homes, and in particular services for children who are affected. There is a serious gap in all services for children affected by domestic violence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to put real commitment and the necessary resources behind those?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I thank my hon. Friend. I accept that resources are needed, as well as a reshaping of services more broadly for youngsters who are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Tackling the causes, through prevention and early intervention, is at the root of what we are discussing this afternoon. Many youngsters are traumatised by the experience of seeing domestic violence. A third of children have seen domestic violence, and that rises to 50 per cent. where repeat offending takes place. It is an horrendous, traumatic experience for those youngsters, which they carry for the rest of their lives.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) would speak, but one of the penalties of being promoted to the Whips Office is that she is not allowed to address the House on these occasions.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
I welcome today's statement and the consultation paper. 380 As the Home Secretary knows, there have been some particularly tragic cases in Norfolk, such as the Lauren Wright case. The right hon. Gentleman is also aware that many of us come across cases in which there has been a serious domestic disturbance; all too often the police are called but cannot or do not do anything about it, and then there is a recurrence. What is needed is a power of arrest so that the attacker is arrested immediately. The Home Secretary also mentioned the extra work that would be put on the shoulders of the police and the extra commitment that they will have to make. What does he intend to do about extra police resources? How many extra police officers will be required?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On the first point, I accept entirely that the constituency issues that the hon. Gentleman raised require a multi-agency review of the cases that have taken place. A review is needed of the speed with which people operate. I have outlined changes to the sentencing advisory panel and the work of the Law Commission in response to the request that we are making.
On the second point, I do not wish to be the least bit aggressive. The 4,300 extra police last year—we will shortly announce updated figures—demonstrate a real commitment. I also want to make it clear that the rise in violence generally in this country is accelerated by domestic violence, with a quarter of all violence being domestic violence and one in four women experiencing domestic violence. If we can direct resources to tackle that terrible abuse, we will see a reversal of the broader figures, which worry all of us.
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
May I welcome the consultation paper, which represents progress on several fronts for victims of domestic violence? I especially welcome the strengthening of the child contact procedures to ensure that proper assessment of the risk to children arises from contact orders. What steps will be taken to make sure that we progress the initiative jointly undertaken by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Treasury to ensure proper funding for child contact centres? My constituency is keen to have one under the initiative. It is important that there are properly managed contact centres where estranged and absent parents can maintain contact with their children.
§ Mr. Blunkett
That is essential. Under the changes announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week, the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the new Minister for Children in the Department for Education and Skills will include aspects of the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department that dealt with domestic and court issues. It will be for her to take the matter forward. I will give every support, as will my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and Lord Falconer, to ensure that there is a sensible and reasonable settlement so that the centres can be expanded as quickly as possible.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
The Home Secretary is aware that domestic violence is a serious problem in Northern Ireland, and that in recent weeks I have been frustrated and angry that the Criminal Justice Bill did 381 not extend to Northern Ireland from the outset. Can he therefore confirm that the welcome proposals that he announced today will extend to Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We are liaising directly with the Northern Ireland Office. As the hon. Lady knows better than I do, in some respects Northern Ireland has been ahead of the consultation laid out today for England and Wales, not least in terms of arrestability and the way that cases are dealt with. I offer the proposal that the draft Bill should incorporate for Northern Ireland those aspects that are relevant to Northern Ireland and that are not already part of Northern Ireland practice. I thank the hon. Lady again for her assiduousness in making sure that we never forget.
§ Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend recalls that just after we were elected, we issued a discussion document entitled "Living without Fear". Quite a chunk of that document was devoted to the work that schools could do to challenge behaviour. I know that my right hon. Friend has commented on that, and I appreciate the thrust of his announcement, but since the discussion document, not a great deal has been done through schools to work against macho and bullying behaviour. Could schools from nursery onwards be encouraged to challenge macho attitudes and violent behaviour, and could teachers get involved with children—often quite small children—who are witnessing violence at home? Certain sections of certain communities do not regard domestic violence as a problem. My suggestions would be a way of protecting women in the future.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. May I say to the House that shorter questions, and perhaps shorter answers too, will enable me to call the maximum number of hon. Members?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall heed your words, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who has done an enormous amount locally, and done so bravely, by taking on sensitive and difficult issues. Yes, we must challenge those views—both from parents who make that behaviour seem acceptable, and from youngsters who make it seem normal to their peer group. It is not acceptable, and we must get that message across to all sections of our—for it is our—community.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
May I warmly welcome the statement? From a practitioner's point of view, making common assault an arrestable offence is a sensible suggestion, as is the proposal that breaches of non-molestation orders and occupation orders should become criminal offences, with police having the power of arrest where warranted. Those important steps forward will deal properly with many incidents. The register of civil orders is another important innovation. I congratulate the Home Secretary and hope that I shall be able to play some small part in the consultation process.
§ Mr. Blunkett
This is one occasion when I can be brief. Let us reach out together through the English and the Welsh languages to get this one sorted.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)
May I particularly welcome the timing of the document, which enables me 382 to launch it locally tomorrow at the annual general meeting of the East Derbyshire domestic violence forum? I echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) to consult trade unions and employers organisations. At my last workplace, it suddenly dawned on me that one of my staff found work a place of refuge from the violence that she suffered at home. It was important for me to give her time off to visit the local housing department and a quiet place to make phone calls, and to try to give support. Another member of my staff suffered violence, went back to her husband and disappeared, and we do not know what happened to her. It is important to develop workplace policies and I hope that that will be taken on board in the consultation.
§ Sandra Gidley (Romsey)
Evidence shows that a history of domestic violence is linked with a history of violence against children. The access arrangements have recently been relaxed and far more men who have a history of violence are being allowed unsupervised access to children. Does the Home Secretary believe that, if men realise that they may be denied such access, they might think twice before hitting their wives?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I think we all agree that men should think twice anyway, but we need to get a situation in play in which men respect the fact that they have a critical role in terms of their children and that if they behave in such a way, access will be either drastically restricted or removed all together. I think that that message should get through. We want to ensure that that happens in full consultation with employers and trade unions, and all those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) mentioned.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I do not apologise for asking a male question. Pursuant to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), may I ask an autobiographical question? When I was a young teacher, I was desperately concerned about the plight of a boy whose family I thought were in great difficulties. I reported the matter through the usual channels and was then much criticised for meddling. All right, it may be a matter of suspicion, but what protection can be given to teachers who act in good faith and are in a position to know, and meddle, perhaps wrongly, in what is a desperately important subject for all of us?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. When I was at the Department for Education and Employment, as it then was, we set in train a protocol to protect teachers in such circumstances, including from counter-allegations.
§ Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)
May I thank my right hon. Friend for prioritising this issue and pay tribute to the astonishing commitment of the Solicitor-General, who has transformed the approach that is taken to domestic violence? Women and children around the country will thank her for doing that. 383 I am haunted by the case of my constituent who was attacked by her estranged husband last year. Following the attack, which was made on a Friday, she rang the police and said that she was in danger. Her husband returned on the Saturday and murdered her and her daughter. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that more protection will be given to victims when they first approach the police and other authorities?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I can give that assurance. That is why the proposals determine that immediate action should be taken and that the law should be changed to make action possible immediately and on a charge being made, rather than at the point when sentencing takes place. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the role of the Solicitor-General, who has made my life a lot easier in so much of the work that she has done.
§ Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and take this opportunity to congratulate him on having a formidable team of women, including four women Ministers, who all have a track record in this area?
My right hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties in getting victims to come forward as witnesses. One of those difficulties is the number of occasions on which courts cancel hearings. That is evident from what women in Plymouth tell me and from the internet consultation that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) set in motion as chairwoman of the all-party group on domestic violence. Will he say a little more about whether there are any early lessons in respect of the special courts that he mentioned? May I urge him to ensure that the review of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police will consider the matter in a robust way?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I can assure my hon. Friend that it is crucial that we see this issue as part of criminal justice reform in terms of cracked and failed trials, listings and management of the court system in general, so that we can get this right. We will learn the lessons from the courts. I point out that there is a fifth woman Home Office Minister, in the House of Lords, and I know that she will be committed as well.
§ Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)
While I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and especially the review in respect of homicide cases, may I ask him also to look closely at cases of assault? All too often, the courts hand out sentences that merely reinforce offending behaviour. That can happen when a woman reports a serious assault, but only a charge of criminal damage is brought with regard to the man having kicked down a door to get at her. That sort of sentence does not do anything to give women confidence. Neither does the response of the police, as the policies of a division may be good, but they do not always filter through to the constable who makes the arrest. Will he also ensure that police at all levels are properly trained to respond appropriately when they are called upon?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On training and speed, the answer is yes. On common assault and the immediate work of the 384 Sentencing Advisory Panel, we are asking that body to do the work rather than waiting for the establishment of the sentencing guidelines council. We all accept that we need to get on with this.
§ Vera Baird (Redcar)
May I, too, welcome this wide-ranging and thoughtful statement and compliment the Secretary of State and the Solicitor-General on the depth of the consultation in which he has already engaged in order to formulate the proposals?
I am sorry that there is no reference to support being made available for children in refuges. I urge my right hon. Friend to recognise that he should consider that issue. About two thirds of children who accompany their mothers in such places have been abused themselves and clearly represent a vulnerable sector. In so far as contact is considered, will he ensure that it is looked at very closely indeed? The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service estimates that, in 16,000 contact cases last year, domestic violence had occurred in the marriage before it broke up, yet contact was refused in only 700 cases. Finally, when does he expect the consultation to turn into legislation?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On the latter point, I hope to publish a draft Bill in the autumn, to consult widely about it and to introduce legislation with all-party support in the next Session. I recognise entirely that where there are gaps, we must fill them. It is a genuine pleasure, which I will not take for granted, to have my hon. and learned Friend's support.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and, in particular, his intention to widen the availability of restraining orders. Will he consider introducing non-controversial powers in advance of the domestic violence Bill? In particular, will he consider introducing exclusion orders that could be associated with assault, through which domestic violence cases are often brought to our courts at the moment? As I understand it, such provision could be introduced now under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. Will he consider that issue? The sooner we can give domestic violence victims the confidence that they will be protected if they come forward and report a case, the better it will be for everybody.
§ Mr. Blunkett
My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and other colleagues will look into the matter immediately. I shall not only write to my hon. Friend, but ensure that we include any action plan in the conclusion to the consultation so that we do not wait for legislation, but take forward measures in the interim.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome statement and the Solicitor-General for the understanding and commitment that she has shown in respect of the case of my constituent Paula Watt's twin sister, Madeleine Humes, who died after being stabbed by her husband 12 times in 15 minutes in front of her children? The husband received a sentence that, with remission, could be a mere three and a half years, with earlier day release. Will consideration also be given to whether children's 385 safety and welfare can properly be protected if there is a possibility of their subsequently being given into the custody of the killer?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On the latter point, that is why it is so critical that we are readjusting the evidence provided when the cases are taken in terms of custody. That will be a crucial change. The first point clearly underlines the crucial nature of introducing the new sentencing principles and framework, within which the judges will now exercise a different sort of discretion.
§ Ann Keen (Brentford and Isleworth)
May I, too, pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend, as well as that of a former Member who is sadly no longer with us, Jo Richardson, who did so much and would today be so proud of this Government and the forthcoming Bill?
What work will be done with the health service and, in particular, front-line nursing and medical staff in accident and emergency or even primary care? Victims are rarely able to have consultations on their own, and when it comes to the words "How did you do this?" or "How did this happen?", the truth seldom emerges. I believe that it takes up to 60 visits by victims to nursing or medical staff for it to do so. I would like very much to know what work is being done in the health service.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I have an advantage here, in that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) has been elevated from her post in the Department of Health to that of Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety. She tells me that a pilot scheme is under way involving a range of questions to be asked automatically in such cases. I welcome that, as I know my hon. Friend will. Training is important, and that should include training people to spot instances in which someone needs to be able to speak quietly and privately to a nurse or female doctor—not least so that photographs can be obtained which may prove crucial later.
I am very happy to associate myself with memories of Jo Richardson, whom I knew extremely well.
§ Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)
I, too, welcome the statement.
Does my right hon. Friend share my slight concern about the fact that this is one of the few parliamentary occasions featuring a large preponderance of female Labour Members? I hope that does not mean that our male colleagues are not interested in the important issue we are discussing.
During the consultation, will my right hon. Friend work with Berkshire Women's Aid in my constituency, and also with Sahara, whose particular involvement is with women from ethnic minorities? A national 24-hour helpline is very useful, unless it is not available in languages that women can understand.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I think we are all genuinely committed to this issue, and a message to that effect needs to be conveyed today. I commend the work that is being done for ethnic minorities in Berkshire and elsewhere. The issue of anonymity is crucial, given the cultural response that can be made to this sort of terrible abuse.