Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Bill

Baroness Williams of Trafford Excerpts
Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
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My Lords, first, I wish to take a moment to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, for taking this Bill through the House and for the very constructive conversation that we had this week about it. I single out for special praise the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. It is always nice to hear men contribute to a debate that is mainly about women. I say at this juncture that the Government have given their full backing to the Bill and we wholly support its aim of ensuring that we deliver on our commitment to ratify the Istanbul convention.

We all recognise that violence is still far too prevalent in our society today, and that women still face a much higher risk of gender-based violence than men. Physical, sexual and domestic abuse affect women disproportionately: that is the stark reality, I am afraid. We also know that many of these crimes remain unreported—we talked about that at Question Time yesterday or the day before—leaving victims to suffer in silence and perpetrators escaping justice.

Our commitment to ratifying the Istanbul convention shows not only how seriously this Government are taking their responsibility to ensure that all victims are supported and that perpetrators are brought to justice but also our ongoing commitment to strengthening international co-operation in this field, which is vital.

This Government have put prevention at the heart of our approach. We have significantly strengthened the law since we first published our first call to end violence against women and girls—VAWG—strategy in 2010, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pointed out. We have criminalised forced marriage and breach of a forced marriage protection order in England and Wales. The right reverend Prelate made an interesting point about forced marriage and girls being taken out of the UK for this reason. The joint Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit provides support and advice to victims, those at risk and professionals. The FMU’s most recent statistics were published yesterday and show that in 2016 advice or support was provided in 1,428 cases; 371 of those, or 26%, involved under-18s. The unit handled cases relating to 60—

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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I am sorry to break in but I think I made a slightly different point. However, I am very grateful to have those statistics and will ask for them each year. I think the point is that we have no proactive way of working out why, for example, people are going through immigration and seeing whether there is any way that we can find out more information about that. It is simply an unknown problem. That was what I was trying to push the Government on. Can the Minister comment briefly on that?

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I am very happy to comment on that. The right reverend Prelate makes a very good point about how we should be proactive about these things as opposed to being reactive. One of the things on which we have taken significant steps over the last few months and years concerns our intelligence at the border and training border staff to look for possible cases of people trafficking or forced marriage. There is a whole host of things that immigration staff are looking out for to prevent some of these things happening. I am glad that the right reverend Prelate brought up that issue. In addition to that, we have fast-tracked female genital mutilation protection orders and have introduced a new mandatory reporting duty for FGM.

We have strengthened legislation on stalking, creating two new offences, and have commissioned training to improve the understanding of stalking among those who come into contact with victims. We will also introduce a new stalking protection order with criminal sanctions to help protect victims at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Rape Action Plan launched in 2014 and led by the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Policing Lead for Rape is aiding the Government’s drive to ensure that every report of rape is treated seriously and every victim is given the help that they deserve. We have protected funding for rape support services at current levels in 2016-17, providing independent, specialist support to female victims of both recent and historic sexual violence. We have also strengthened the law on domestic violence with a new offence of domestic abuse that covers controlling and coercive behaviour. Again, this was another thing we touched on at Question Time on Wednesday. The new offence protects victims who would otherwise be subjected to sustained patterns of abuse that can lead to total control of their lives by the perpetrator. Some victims do not even know that this is happening to them, as we also discussed.

The new domestic violence protection orders and the domestic violence disclosure scheme have also been rolled out across England and Wales. This is all alongside the Government’s work to continue reforming front-line agencies’ response to VAWG. It is vital that victims have the confidence to report these crimes, knowing that they will get the support they need and that everything will be done to bring offenders to justice.

The UK continues to be a global leader in its efforts to tackle VAWG and our reforms to domestic law support a stronger international framework. The Istanbul convention highlights the need for more effective international and regional co-operation. While there is no one-size-fits-all model in our approach, the measures in the convention will ensure that more robust action is taken through legally binding and harmonised standards.

In most respects, the measures already in place in the UK to protect women and girls from violence comply with, or go further than, the convention requires. However, before we ratify the convention, we must ensure that we are fully compliant with it. There is one outstanding issue regarding introducing extraterritorial jurisdiction—or even extra-terrestrial jurisdiction—which needs to be addressed before we are considered compliant. We already have ETJ over some of the offences covered by the convention, including the common-law offence of murder, sexual offences against children, forced marriage and FGM. However, there are a number of offences, including rape of an over-18, sexual assault and domestic abuse, where it still does not apply. Further amendments to domestic law are necessary so that we fully comply with the requirements in Article 44 of the convention. That will require the introduction of primary legislation in England and Wales, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are working closely with ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to progress this issue and, as the Prime Minister signalled, we will explore all options for bringing the necessary legislation forward.

I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who asked about the devolved Administrations. We are in regular contact with them about the Bill and the Istanbul convention, and the Minister for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism has written to her counterparts on the matter.

The Bill places a duty on the Government to lay a report before Parliament as soon as is reasonably practicable after the Bill comes into force, setting out the steps to be taken to enable the UK to ratify the convention, as well as the timescale within which ratification is expected. It also requires the Government to lay an annual report before Parliament on progress toward ratification. I recognise that noble Lords want reassurance that we will continue to update Parliament on our ongoing compliance with the convention post-ratification.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked about Brexit, but we are talking about a Council of Europe treaty that is independent of European Union functions and processes, so Brexit will not affect the UK ratifying the Istanbul convention. Once the UK has ratified it, we will be required to submit regular reports to the Council of Europe on compliance. Those reports will provide detailed information on the measures to tackle VAWG, the role of civil society organisations in addressing these crimes, and on prosecutions and convictions. We will ensure that both Houses have sight of those reports.

The Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence—known as GREVIO—which is the independent expert body responsible for monitoring implementation of the convention, will scrutinise the reports and prepare its own report with recommendations. That report will also be available for parliamentary and public scrutiny. As I have said, the Government are very pleased to continue supporting the Bill and its aim of ensuring that we formally demonstrate to Parliament our progress on delivering against our commitment to ratify the convention.

We have made progress in tackling VAWG, but we are not complacent. We know that there is more to do to ensure that the victims of terrible crimes get the support they need. Our cross-government VAWG strategy, published last March, sets out our ambition that by the end of this Parliament no victim of abuse will be turned away from the necessary support. The strategy is underpinned by increased funding of £80 million, which includes the Home Office’s £15 million, three-year violence against women and girls service transformation fund to aid, promote and embed the best local practice and ensure that early intervention and prevention become the norm. An additional £20 million for victims of domestic abuse was announced in the Chancellor’s spring statement.

This funding will help to deliver our goal of working with local commissioners to deliver a secure future for rape support centres, refuges and FGM and forced marriage units, while driving major change across all services so that early intervention and prevention is the norm. Furthermore, to ensure that all victims get the right support at the right time, we have set out a clear blueprint for local action through a new national statement of expectations. That sets out what local areas need to do to prevent offending and to support victims and it will encourage organisations to work with local commissioners to disseminate the NSE and support the implementation of best practice.

We have also recently announced some key measures that will further strengthen the response to VAWG. A major new programme of work on domestic abuse has been announced by the Prime Minister. That cross-governmental work is being co-ordinated by the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary and will look at legislative and non-legislative options to improve support for victims. The measures that come from that will encourage victims to report their abusers and see them brought to justice, and further raise public awareness.

We also recently announced that relationship and sex education will be put on a statutory footing so that every child has access to age-appropriate provision in a consistent way. The Department for Education will consult on making PSHE statutory.

We must continue to challenge the many forms of discrimination that women still face and ensure that we make VAWG everyone’s business. We all have our part to play in protecting women and girls from violence, and I feel—and very much hope—that noble Lords will join me in supporting the Bill.