HL Deb 07 June 1994 vol 555 cc1077-80

2.45 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they intend to take to prevent the closure of REFUGE (formerly Chiswick Family Rescue) which provides sanctuary for the victims of domestic violence.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, we consider that the provision and funding of women's refuges, including REFUGE, is a matter for local judgment. We therefore have no plans to intervene in this matter.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am very sorry to hear that response. Is the Minister aware that many women and children from all over Britain are given safe haven from violence and from psychopathic spouses by REFUGE? Is he further aware that despite some funding from the London Boroughs Grants Scheme and others, REFUGE is now faced with curtailment of services and even, in the long term, with closure, which will severely damage the welfare, and even the safety, of those women and children? Will the Minister please think again?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is extremely well known for his compassion and understanding of this matter, to which he has paid great attention over many years. I have to say again, however, that while we understand the problem of refuges, we have always taken, and continue to take, the line that the matter is best left to local authorities. They know the circumstances; they know their housing stock; and they know what is available within that housing stock for dealing with the situation.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the noble Earl give some encouragement to the people who run the refuges? Are the Government so insensitive to the problem that he cannot offer at least a word of sympathy, even if there is no money?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have just given sympathy to the noble Lord. I hope that I have given humble and understanding sympathy. As regards money, I can tell the noble Lord that the Government provide between £10 million and £11 million; £8½ million coming from the Housing Corporation, £55,000 from my own department, £290,000 from the Women's Aid Federation of England, £180,000 from Scottish Women's Aid, £250,000 from Welsh Women's Aid, and a separate £61,000 from Northern Ireland Women's Aid. I hope that that expresses sympathy and money.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a difficulty in leaving this matter to local initiative? In order to evade pursuit, women often need refuges outside their own environment. Is the Minister also aware of the view of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place that provision of more refuges is the single greatest cost-saving measure that could be taken? Will he undertake to bring that view to the attention of the Treasury?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, certainly I understand the seriousness of the situation concerning refuges. I understand also the situation concerning local authorities and that some local authorities are able to pass on responsibility for refuges to other local authorities. I give yet another indication of the seriousness with which the Government regard the matter. No doubt the noble Earl is aware that the ministerial group on domestic violence which met a short time ago is considering what precisely to do about it on a central level. It is a group of which I am very proud to be a member.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, will the Minister accept thanks for his last announcement? Is he aware that the Chiswick centre has been in existence for around 30 years and that it is not just any old centre but one of the original centres providing a service for battered wives? Bearing in mind the point made in the previous question that it is not just people from the local area who use the refuge but many people from other parts of the country, will he refer the particular problems of this centre to the committee to which he has just referred?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I understand that the committee to which I referred is aware of the situation that exists at Chiswick, as it is of other situations. We are trying to deal with it on a national basis. The noble Lord is right. The centre was founded in 1971 and was the first one to be established. It has done magnificent work. I return to what I said originally. We feel that it is the responsibility of the local authority to deal with the situation as it considers appropriate.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will the Minister say to what extent it is possible to compel those who do the battering to assist with funds?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we are looking at whether it is possible to try to prevent such situations happening by raising public awareness about this domestic difficulty.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I have first to declare an interest in that my wife is a member of the council of the the Stonham Housing Association, which supports refuges. Having said that, is the noble Earl aware that this is not just a matter for local authorities? There are two reasons. First, a third of the budget of REFUGE is provided by grants from the organisations mentioned by the Minister; so two-thirds of its budget has to be raised from organisations, charities and everyone else in that market. Secondly, REFUGE accommodates 400 women and children each year and receives 10,000 calls a year on a 24-hour national telephone crisis line. That is a national question, and not a local authority one. Does the Minister agree that it is right that the committee of which he is proud to be a member should treat this matter not as a local issue but as a national issue? Will he confirm that these are questions of national importance?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I tried to indicate in my previous answers that we regard the matter not only as a local question but also very much as a national question. That is why the ministerial group was formed —to address the issues on a national basis.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I greatly appreciate the tone of the Minister's reply which was very helpful but not quite helpful enough. Does he care to dispute two propositions? First, is he aware that, unless the Government act, a great national institution will close and as a consequence women and children will go on the streets? We know that the men are waiting for them. Secondly, does he agree that it is in the Government's own interest to provide the money? If those children go into local authority care it will cost £18 million a year—that is a very careful calculation —whereas if they stay in REFUGE it will cost £150,000 a year? Is it not a matter of simple economics and in the interests of both the Government and the women and children?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we are aware of all the points mentioned by the noble Lord. They are being considered. We will never allow women and children to go on to the streets in situations of that kind. They are among our first priorities.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I must declare an interest as chairman of REFUGE. I resist the temptation to comment on the Government's homelessness review in the light of the Minister's last answer. Will he draw to the attention of the ministerial working group the fact that if REFUGE and other refuges for victims of domestic violence and their children are to be funded largely locally, there must also be a review of spending assessments and grant to local authorities to enable that to be done? Will he also suggest to the working group that the Government should set a good example in highlighting the importance of the issue in a society in which there is far more support for animals who need sanctuaries than there is for women and their children?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows well, guidelines are issued to local authorities on that aspect of the matter. I repeat that all that the noble Baroness says is completely understood. We are sympathetic. I have given a strong indication that we are looking carefully at the matter to discover the best way forward.