HL Deb 24 February 1998 vol 586 cc540-3

2.40 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to improve the supply of and support for women's refuges and ancillary services.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government wish to promote and facilitate local action to support victims of domestic violence, whether through the provision of refuges or outreach and other services. Capital funding is made available to local authorities and through the Housing Corporation for spending on local housing priorities, which can include refuge provision. Funding arrangements for a range of support services, including refuge and outreach services, are currently being examined by the interdepartmental review of funding for supported accommodation. The Government's objectives for future funding arrangements were published for consultation in November 1997.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that the number of available refuge places is still less than one third of the figure recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee in 1975? That estimate itself is widely regarded as an under-estimate. Is she further aware that ancillary services, in particular help lines and support for children, are cases where spending a little money might end in saving rather a lot?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I certainly take the noble Earl's point that the ancillary services are very important. The Government recognise that refuges offer valuable respite and support, enabling victims to rebuild their lives. In 1995 the Women's Aid Federation in England estimated that there were around 340 refuges for victims of domestic violence run by women's groups plus 78 units of move-on accommodation, representing 2,104 family places. However, it is important to recognise that, as the noble Earl pointed out, there is a whole range of accommodation and support packages for victims which can be used by local authorities. Refuges are one—but not the only one—of these. Women have a variety of needs and preferences and it is important that they can be met at a local level. On that point, just over 20,000 households were accepted by local authority housing departments as homeless in 1996 giving violent breakdown of their relationship as a reason for the loss of their last home.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that it is not only the immediate local authority that is involved? It is important that women should be able to move out of an area where the husband or the violent party who created the problem can immediately find them. For that reason the problem tends to bridge a number of local authorities. Would it not be desirable to have specific funding to bridge different areas rather than just giving funding through the support grant?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we do have to look at the areas of funding. A review is going on which has recognised that funding for services is often fragmentary and can be precarious for some of the services. The noble Baroness asked about local authorities looking after women who are seeking safe accommodation outside their own areas. Under Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 local housing authorities must assist all applicants who are eligible, unintentionally homeless and in priority need. But my department is currently revising the guidance on Parts VI and VII of the Housing Act and is looking at the scope for strengthening the guidance to local housing authorities about their responsibilities in this area.

Lord Meston

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problems of demand are not confined to England and Wales and that last year refuges in Scotland were reported as having been overwhelmed, having had to turn away some 4,000 women and 6,000 children for lack of space? Does that not argue for an urgent rationalisation of the funding of refuges on a long-term and secure basis?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of the concerns that have been raised in Scotland on this issue. We have to make sure that the Government's response is co-ordinated. The Cabinet sub-committee on women's issues has a role to address all forms of violence against women and there is also the ministerial group, chaired by my honourable friend Mr. Alun Michael, specifically working on domestic violence. In addition, the Department of Social Security is leading an interdepartmental review of funding for supported accommodation. All those reviews involve the territorial departments as well as the departments—the Home Office and the Department of Social Security—that are immediately involved. However, I note the presence of my noble friend Lord Sewel on the Bench beside me. I am sure that he will take on board the noble Lord's point.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, am I to assume that this will be a devolved subject and that therefore the concerns expressed by my friend on the Liberal Benches will not be a proper subject for discussion in this House?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am advised that it is suggested that the funding—certainly the local authority funding for refuges—would be a devolved issue. However, there are wider issues than simply accommodation. There are the Home Office issues involving domestic violence, the criminal law and enforcement against offenders, and the Government have a coherent approach to those.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, have the Government made an assessment of the effect of alcohol on domestic violence? Should not more attention be paid to the causes of domestic violence so as to prevent it in the first place rather than providing more facilities to pick up the pieces afterwards?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I tried in my earlier response to allude to the point that the noble Lord is making. The Government need to ensure that we approach this issue across the board—not simply picking up the pieces, although providing appropriate support to the victims of domestic violence and their children is important, but also looking at how we may prevent the violence in the first place and dealing with the perpetrators of that violence.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, in view of the Minister's answers about the complexity of funding and the provision of refuges for women, is there not a good case now for reconstituting the ministerial committee on domestic violence? I understand from previous answers that that is not the Government's intention.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I think I made it clear that if we go into too much detail we may be in danger of needing a co-ordinator of co-ordinating committees. There is the Cabinet sub-committee on women's issues which has an overall role to address all forms of violence against women, and there is also the ministerial group looking specifically at the work across departments on domestic violence. The Department of Social Security is leading an interdepartmental review of funding for supported accommodation, including refuges. My own department, the Department of Health, and the territorial departments are all contributing to that. It is important that we get work on those topics done well and disseminated well.