Domestic Abuse and Hidden Harms during Lockdown

– in the House of Commons am 12:48 pm ar 14 Ionawr 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:48, 14 Ionawr 2021

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement. The coronavirus pandemic has presented this country with enormous and unprecedented challenges. In order to control the spread of the virus, we have had to ask the public to follow a simple but crucial instruction: stay at home. Earlier this month we entered a new national lockdown, and while we are absolutely clear that these measures are necessary, it is also important to recognise the potential impact on what we refer to as hidden harm crimes, which include domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation and modern slavery. These are some of the most pernicious, harmful types of offending in society, and they often occur behind closed doors. Given that fact, let me reiterate a crucial message that the Prime Minister delivered to the public last week: notwithstanding the restrictions in place, those at risk of abuse can leave home to seek safety and avoid the risk of harm.

Protecting those at risk of abuse and exploitation remains a priority for this Government, which is why I am so pleased that today I can announce the launch of a new codeword scheme for victims of domestic abuse called Ask for ANI. From today, thousands of pharmacies across the UK will provide this service, enabling victims to seek help discreetly. Through a signal to a pharmacist, a victim will be provided with a safe space in the pharmacy, and taken through the support available to them, whether that is a call to the police or a domestic abuse helpline service. The codeword scheme will offer a vital lifeline to all victims, ensuring that they get help in a safe and discreet way.

Let me set out more of the steps that we have taken to ensure that victims and those at risk can continue to access critical advice and support. We have provided unprecedented levels of additional funding to critical frontline services helping victims of domestic abuse. As part of wider charitable funding, the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have between them distributed more than £25 million in emergency covid-19 funding for domestic abuse organisations. That has provided almost 1,900 bed spaces in safe accommodation, and enabled domestic abuse organisations of all sizes to provide advice and support to victims. For example, Home Office funding allowed the charity Safelives to train hundreds of frontline workers online, including new independent domestic violence advisers. To help sustain those charities through the second part of the year, we are providing further funding of nearly £11 million from the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.

Although funding forms an important strand of our response, it is also vital that victims of domestic abuse, and those worried about them, know how to access help and advice. In April, the Home Secretary launched the #YouAreNotAlone communications campaign to do precisely that. The campaign has reached almost 25 million people through paid advertising, and has been supported by a range of celebrities and influencers who have shared its messages with more than 130 million followers on social media. Materials have been translated into 16 languages. The campaign directs victims to sources of specialist help and support. It also makes clear that the “stay at home” restrictions do not apply to those at risk of abuse who need to leave home to seek help or refuge. We have relaunched the campaign over the winter to reaffirm those messages, and I ask hon. Members across the House to do everything they can to highlight that campaign, and make clear to victims that help continues to be at hand, should they need it.

The police have been, and will continue to be proactive in tackling domestic abuse during this period. Courts have continued to prioritise domestic and child abuse cases throughout, as well as civil protection orders relating to domestic abuse, stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. We have seen many innovative police responses to domestic abuse during the pandemic. The Metropolitan police has developed an online function for the domestic violence disclosure scheme, whereby police can disclose previous domestic violence history to new partners. Nottinghamshire police is applying the disclosure scheme in every domestic abuse occurrence. Other forces are able to use discreet technology to take witness statements remotely, without leaving any trace on the victim’s phone. Some forces, such as Gloucestershire police, have used spare capacity to instigate dedicated domestic violence response vehicles, while independent domestic violence advisers are helping to support victims.

There are, sadly, other forms of hidden harms within domestic abuse, and we are acutely aware that the pandemic has increased risks to some children and young people, and reduced their contact with trusted professionals and adults. The Government are committed to doing everything they can to continue to support and protect children at risk, and they have provided more than £11 million since last June to Barnardo’s See, Hear, Respond service, to support more than 50,000 vulnerable or hidden children, whose usual support networks have been affected by national and local pandemic restrictions.

The Home Office has also launched a national communications campaign, Something’s Not Right, to help children who have been exposed to a range of harms, reaching millions of secondary school children in England. At this time, we are particularly concerned about online harms. With children spending more time on the internet, parents have been signposted to materials for staying safe online, including from the National Crime Agency’s Thinkuknow campaign.

A record number of reports of online child sexual abuse have been processed by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation, including a large increase in self-generated indecent images of children. The Home Office is providing £80,000 to support the development of the IWF’s campaign to support parents in starting conversations with their children around keeping safe online, and to help young people to identify the signs of coercion and to report abuse. In December, we published the full Government response to the online harms White Paper, which sets out our expectations on companies to keep their users safe, especially children. At the same time, we published the interim code of practice on online child sexual exploitation and abuse, which sets out steps that companies can take now to tackle these crimes on a voluntary basis, ahead of any regulatory system being introduced.

Another form of hidden harm is modern slavery. The Government are committed to the safety and security of victims of modern slavery, particularly during the pandemic, by ensuring that victims are provided with the support they need and that those responsible for these crimes are prosecuted. Last year, we made an additional £1.73 million available for modern slavery services in England and Wales. The funding has enabled providers to adapt the ways in which they provide support during the pandemic, including by reducing face-to-face contact where appropriate and ensuring that support can be accessed remotely. The new Victim Care Contract came into force last week and will help to ensure that victims receive the care they need. In early adopter sites, child victims of modern slavery continue to be supported by the Independent Child Trafficking Guardian scheme which is working flexibly to continue to provide effective and responsive support remotely, both to trafficked children directly and to other professionals. Law enforcement agencies continue to pursue high-risk modern slavery cases where there is a risk of harm or detriment to individuals.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have remained resolute in our commitment to tackling abuse that takes place behind closed doors and out of sight. We continue to work across Government to monitor, assess and respond to the ongoing situation, but I ask all hon. Members to consider ways in which they can point victims in their constituencies to support. We will continue to prioritise domestic abuse during and after the pandemic. To do this, we remain committed to delivering our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to further strengthen protections for victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

In addition, this year we will publish the new Tackling Violence against Women and Girls strategy, which will help us to better target perpetrators and support victims of these abhorrent crimes. We are currently running a call for evidence to inform the new strategy, and I urge hon. Members to share this via their networks within their constituencies to help us reach as wide an audience as possible. This will be followed by a dedicated and complementary domestic abuse strategy that will ensure progress following the passage of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. We will soon publish the first-of-its-kind strategy on tackling all forms of child sexual abuse, outlining our long-term ambition to drive a whole-system response in tackling this heinous crime.

In conclusion, I would like to thank everyone involved in helping victims of hidden crimes in this pandemic and beyond, from those working in domestic abuse refuges and community services and in modern slavery safe accommodation, to those scouring the internet to remove images of children being raped, as well as our police officers, our National Crime Agency officers, our Border Force officers and those working in the security services to support this work. I thank them all for what they are doing to help support victims and to stop perpetrators of these terrible crimes. I would like to finish by reassuring all victims of hidden harms that they are not alone, their voices are heard and help will continue to be there for them. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office), Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding) 1:00, 14 Ionawr 2021

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. We in the Labour party are really pleased to hear about the launch of the Ask for ANI scheme today, which will be a real innovation in helping victims come forward. Can the Minister tell the House what work her Department has done to ensure that in launching this brilliant scheme, when a victim comes forward there will be support beyond an initial phone call available, especially in cases where victims are not ready to inform the police?

We are now eight days into a third national lockdown, with a “Stay at home” message that we have become incredibly familiar with. It was welcome in this third lockdown that the Prime Minister clarified that individuals who wish to leave their homes to escape domestic abuse could do so. That message was not given back in March, and I welcome that being rectified and that the right thing has now been said.

We on the Opposition Benches welcome what the Minister has said today about the measures being taken to tackle domestic abuse and hidden harms. Back in April, the shadow Home Secretary, my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds wrote to the Home Secretary urging her to act on this important issue. He also raised concerns from the sector, including the need to bring forward urgently a package of emergency financial support for organisations doing the vital work on the frontline which the Minister has talked about.

It was the Labour party that urged the Government to put in place £75 million of financial support for the sector. When the Government announced that they would do that, we welcomed the support, but the Home Secretary confirmed back in June, months into the crisis, that only a staggering £1.2 million had been spent. Today, the Minister’s statement tells us that 11 months into this crisis, still only a third of that funding has reached the frontline. Can she explain that? Will she tell us when the £51 million unspent will be allocated? Will she confirm that the £11 million extra that she has announced today is in excess of the £75 million already announced?

The Minister has also mentioned refuge capacity, and we thank all those who struggled very hard under very difficult circumstances to create urgently needed beds that should never have been missing. We must now ask: is that still enough? I have myself this week tried to get a refuge bed and not been able to find one. Will the Minister tell us today and in the coming weeks what contact she has had with refuges about capacity? Can she today say that she is confident that there is capacity to meet the demand? Can she tell the House what specific provisions have been made for specialised services for those victims who are black, Asian and minority ethnic, migrants, LGBTQ, male or disabled?

As the Minister has mentioned, children are often the hidden victims of domestic and sexual abuse in the home. Can she tell us what work her Department is doing to ensure that vulnerable children who are out of school are safe? What, if any, detached youth work and proactive targeting of children—at the very least, those on child protection plans—has she asked for in order to reach children living in dangerous and violent homes?

The Minister mentioned the £11 million of funding to the brilliant “See, Hear, Respond” scheme, but as she said herself, it will target 50,000 children, not the three-quarters of a million children today living in dangerous homes. Can she tell us whether any of the schemes that she has announced for children cover every child in our country, so that all child victims can benefit, not just those in some areas, where a postcode lottery determines whether we fund a child’s safety?

To continue on a theme, the Minister mentioned the support of independent child trafficking guardians—a brilliant scheme that we welcome. Can she confirm that that scheme is available to all children trafficked in our country, as was promised some years ago by this Government, or is it still, as I understand, just a pilot for some areas, leaving some trafficked children without support?

Domestic abuse and community support services are currently planning for redundancies in March—quite unbelievable in the middle of a global pandemic and a national lockdown. The sector, the Labour party, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the Victims’ Commissioner have all called repeatedly for sustainable funding for at least the next year. The staff being made redundant are the very people the Minister needs for Ask for ANI to have any chance of success. Can the Minister confirm whether there have been any discussions with the sector or the Treasury about multi-year funding, and an end to the dangerous year-on-year short-termism in community services for adults and children?

The Government were too slow to act in the first and second lockdowns. I am very pleased that now, in the third lockdown, they are more alert to this issue. Labour, the shadow Home Secretary and I have been saying to the Government since April that they need to do more to protect those who cannot leave home. It is not enough to say that victims should reach out; we in this House, especially the Government, have a responsibility to ensure that when they do that there is help for them. If there is not, we risk losing them for good.

With the thought of the lockdown carrying on until March, it is imperative that the Government act, and act fast. All Members across this House need to assure their constituents that all, not just some, victims suffering from domestic abuse and other hidden harms can leave that abuse and access safety. There are people waiting and willing to help. That is the message that we need to send, and it is on all of us to ensure that that is the case.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Before I call the Minister, I must point out that the hon. Lady significantly exceeded the time allocated to her. I know this is a very serious subject, but everybody on the list recognises that, and will want to make points. I must ask for brief questions; if they are not brief, the people who are at the end of the list—everyone can see who they are—will not get to ask their questions. It is a matter of dividing the time in this House equally and fairly between Members.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Thank you for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. Accordingly, I will answer some of the hon. Lady’s issues, and then write to her on the matters that I cannot address, because I am mindful that, as you say, other colleagues would like to come in.

May I deal first with the codeword scheme? I really welcome the fact that the hon. Lady and the Opposition welcome that scheme. It has been really carefully thought through, after really careful work with domestic abuse charities, including Hestia, which has done great work with its own safe spaces scheme. We are clear that the scheme must be victim-led. In other words, when a victim is taken into the consultation room in pharmacies they will be asked by a fully trained pharmacist what they would like to do. For some it may be a 999 call. For others it may well be other forms of help, through the helplines and community services. We will look at the scheme very carefully to ensure that it is working well for victims. It is another source of information and access to help for victims, because we are so aware of how difficult it can be for victims to reach out.

The hon. Lady challenged me on the funding. We have had this conversation before, but the latest figures I have to hand on the funding that we have committed—both the charitable funding that was committed in spring last year and the Home Office’s additional £2 million fund for the helpline services and web-based services—are that a total of just under £27 million has been allocated and, indeed, paid out of Government coffers. That is across the MHCLG, the MOJ and the Home Office. We are working hard to allocate the £11 million, but that was in addition to this funding, which of course is in addition to the funding that is available in normal times.

I am really pleased that, on refuges, part of the funding that has been granted through the Chancellor’s charitable funding that was announced in the spring has allowed just under a further 1,900 spaces in safe accommodation. Clearly, we keep that under review, and want to get to a situation in which the sorts of challenges that the hon. Lady has set out do not apply. That is precisely why we are bringing in the duty on tier 1 local authorities through the Domestic Abuse Bill, and as she will know, MHCLG has already provided funding ahead of the next financial year to help tier 1 local authorities prepare for that.

There are many things that we have done for vulnerable children. In particular, we have worked with social care services and early help services to ensure that they continue to support vulnerable children and young people, along with their families. I have seen this myself, not just in the context of child sexual exploitation and abuse but, for example, in the context of gang exploitation. We have also brought thousands of social workers back on to a temporary register, the Social Work Together online tool, which we have developed in partnership with Social Work England and the Local Government Association to draw on those people’s expertise and experience where needed. We have invested not just in the “See, Hear, Respond” service that the hon. Lady supports, but in the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s helplines, Childline and the equivalent for adults.

Finally, ICTGs—the trafficking guardians—have been rolled out over a third of local authorities, and we have been clear that we want to roll this out further. As the hon. Lady will know, the model of use of the national referral mechanism by child victims has changed in recent years with the sad arrival of county lines gangs, so we have been changing the system to try to reflect the needs of those victims, as well as victims from overseas. All of this work is continuing through this pandemic, and I thank the hon. Lady for joining our call to ensure these messages are rolled out across our constituencies to help our victims, wherever they may live.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Ceidwadwyr, Chesham and Amersham

Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I have both worked on this important policy area in the past, and I commend the Minister on her statement and the added protections she is putting in place. However, evidence is now becoming available that some of the people who are suffering most adversely in this lockdown are adults and children with autism. So that more appropriate and better services can be offered to them to alleviate their suffering, what data are the Government collecting on individuals and families with an autistic member suffering from domestic abuse, and the hidden harms the Minister has referred to, during this lockdown? If the answer is none, can this be remedied immediately? If that data is being collected, can it be published on a regular basis so that specialised support for this vulnerable group of adults and children can be improved?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the needs of people living with autism and other such conditions, as she always does when the opportunity presents itself. I hope that she welcomes the mental health reforms that the Government have announced this week, which will be a real step forward in us all understanding the differences between autism and Asperger’s, and the ways in which they are wrongly treated at this point in time under the historic legislation. I also hope that she is aware of the national strategy for disabled people, which the Prime Minister is absolutely committed to publishing. Only yesterday or the day before, in fact, I attended a meeting chaired by my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson, to work out across Government how we can help people with disabilities, including those who live with autism.

As to the specific points on data, sadly, there is much room for improvement when it comes to the collection of data in respect of victims. I will take away my right hon. Friend’s specific question, because I am very clear in my mind as to how those health conditions can make a person more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and ensuring that disabled victims of domestic abuse are better looked after will be part of our work. I will draw upon her advice and wisdom in this respect, because we want to be clear that no matter what health conditions and disabilities people are living with, they should not be victims of these terrible crimes.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Abusers exploit lockdowns to increase their control, so I welcome the “Ask for ANI” scheme, which the Home Affairs Committee called for.

On the vital issue of funding for services, can the Minister explain whether the £11 million that she announced is the same £11 million announced for the second lockdown, or is there any additional funding for this difficult third lockdown? The domestic abuse commissioner called for funding to be extended beyond March. Can she tell us whether that is happening?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the right hon. Lady and her Committee for the work that they do to scrutinise, rightly, the work of Government in this regard. I hope that I was clear that the £11 million was the £11 million announced in November, and that was very much directed towards helping organisations for the rest of the financial year.

We are working very closely with domestic abuse services to understand the strains that they are facing. I know from speaking to chief execs of the charities that, like a lot of frontline services, frontline workers are just feeling exhausted by having to work in these conditions and with the extra pressures that they have faced over recent months. This money is taking us up to the end of this financial year.

On domestic abuse services beyond the end of this financial year, the right hon. Lady will know that we have just had the spending review process. We are in the middle of working out allocations, but I hope that she draws some comfort, as I said to Jess Phillips earlier, that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has already committed £6 million to helping tier 1 local authorities prepare for that really important duty, set out in the Bill, to help victims in safe accommodation.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Ceidwadwyr, South Northamptonshire

I know that my hon. Friend is aware that lockdown has been so challenging to new families with small babies; in certain tragic cases, it has been deadly to those babies and toddlers. The early years healthy development review that I am chairing on behalf of the Government has heard about the effect that lockdown has had on our very youngest. What steps is she taking to protect the youngest in our society from the effects of domestic violence?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my right hon. Friend for the amazing work that she is doing in this regard. It has long been a passion of hers, and I look forward to her drawing her conclusions in due course on this vital piece of work.

We are very conscious of the pressures on children in abusive households, including on pre-school children, which is why we have provided £3 million to support children affected by domestic abuse and, indeed, corresponding work on the development of perpetrator programmes. None the less, we are very aware of the need, as she says, sadly, to look after the youngest babies and children because of some of the figures that came out of the last full lockdown. This is why her work and our work to continue to tackle these terrible crimes is so vital, not least because seeing this abuse at a young age can have terrible effects on the children’s long-term life chances as well.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Solicitor General

Between April and November last year, referrals from the NSPCC to police and social services about child abuse increased by 79%. Schools play an important role in identifying potential abuse, so with the current lockdown, this is likely to be harder to pick up on. With local authorities already facing considerable financial pressures, what extra resources will the Government be giving them to help detect and prevent child abuse during this lockdown?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the enormous work that schools are doing during lockdown restrictions as well as in the period that we had last year between lockdown restrictions. We have invested some £8 million to help teachers spot some of the signs of abuse and distress in children. It may take some time for those signs to show when children return to the classroom, but the money is intended to help to address that. The hon. Lady will, I hope, have heard about the investment we have made in the “See, Hear, Respond” scheme. We have also provided £7.6 million to children’s charities that have suffered financial hardship due to covid-19.

We continue to fund Childline, as well as the professional helpline for adults who are concerned about a child. In addition, we are funding a helpline set up by Operation Encompass in the middle of the first national lockdown last year. It is a helpline for teachers worried about the families of children in their school, particularly in relation to domestic abuse, and want to know what they can do to help. The Operation Encompass helpline exists very much to help the teachers who help to look after our children, and I recommend it to teachers in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Ceidwadwyr, Wantage

I warmly welcome the launch of the new codeword scheme today. I have a constituent whose abusive partner is the subject of a non-molestation order, but because the place where she lives is the place where they had a joint business, he has managed to get the zonal aspect of the order lifted, on the ground that he needs to be in the location for business. The abuse has restarted, and during lockdown it is difficult for my constituent’s friends and family to support her in the right way. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how to give better support to victims of abuse in these circumstances?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I most certainly will meet my hon. Friend, and I thank him for raising a case that demonstrates the complexity of many people’s experiences of abuse, even after a relationship has ended. The Bill contains a number of measures to address that sort of abusive behaviour, including the introduction of domestic abuse protection orders that will put positive requirements on offenders, as well as negative ones. I am happy to meet him, and I hope that, through his work and support from services, his constituent is able to find a solution to the terrible situation he has described.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Llafur, Rochdale

There is a lot to commend in the statement, in particular the “Ask for ANI” scheme, but I put it to the Minister that what is really important is early detection of abuse and abusive behaviour, because that is most likely to lead to behaviour change on the part of the perpetrator. That is why it is so important, particularly during lockdown, that victims are at least given credibility and that early action is taken to support them and to work with perpetrators to break the cycle. That is vital during covid, as it is in normal times.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree. May I say that it is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman again? He is absolutely right to say that this is not just about supporting victims; we want to deal with perpetrators’ behaviour as well and to stop the cycle of abuse. That is why in addition to all the work we are doing during the pandemic this year, we are investing £7.1 million in perpetrator programmes. We want to tackle that offending behaviour.

I want to highlight the existence of a helpline, the “Respect” helpline, which can help people worried about the way they are beginning to behave. The number is on the website. Sadly, it has seen an increase in calls during the pandemic, but it offers help for people who are worried about their own behaviour—to stop a situation from spiralling, as the hon. Gentleman describes so eloquently.

Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Ceidwadwyr, Bishop Auckland

I am grateful to the Minister for implementing the “Ask for ANI” scheme, which will be a vital lifeline for victims of domestic abuse, but another lifeline is the availability of domestic abuse refuges, such as Wear Valley Women’s Aid in Bishop Auckland.

Paula, who is from that organisation, wrote to me this week to express concern that if covid spread throughout her team, they might be unable to provide their much-needed service. On that note, can my hon. Friend assure Paula and me that those who provide domestic abuse refuge services will be considered for the priority list in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out, to help ensure that there are no gaps in support for domestic abuse victims because of covid?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that really important point. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is advising the Government on the ways in which the vaccination programme should be rolled out, has focused on the highest clinical need priority groups, which include residents in care homes and healthcare workers. Once that phase is completed—we hope and expect by mid-February—we will look at the next roll-out phase.

My hon. Friend will know that there are many categories of profession, including those who work in refuge charities but also police officers, teachers and others, where great arguments will be made as to their exposure to the public and the risk of infection. I very much take her urging on board, and we will, I am sure, in due course consider her points and others in this regard.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, I am incredibly worried about the long-term consequences of covid and the increase in domestic abuse for a large number of children. There will be no short-term fixes. Will the Minister work with the APPG to embed widespread trauma-informed services across the country?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I most certainly will. Again, I refer to the contribution made by my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who is already preparing work on the effects of adverse experiences in the early years of a child’s life. Our understanding is improving as to, for example, the effect that living in an abusive household can have on a child’s life chances.

In my work on tackling serious violence, we are very clear about the theme of violence in the home being very common for those who commit violence outside the home. There are many reasons why this work is invaluable, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and the APPG on this.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My hon. Friend will be aware that organisations such as the Safeguarding Alliance have reported that there is a new frontier of vulnerable children exposed to county lines drug gangs, online harms and domestic abuse, and the BBC found that reports of online child abuse images increased by 50% during the last lockdown. Furthermore, many children on the fringes of care are often not attending school during this lockdown, even if permitted to do so.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that these children are identified by schools and checked by social services? Will she set out what measures the Government are taking to ensure that we do not have a safeguarding crisis in the offing for these young children? Finally, will she meet the Safeguarding Alliance to discuss these issues?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work he does on the Education Committee to scrutinise our work. We are all concerned about the welfare of the most vulnerable children. That is why, for example, in the first lockdown we enabled vulnerable children to still attend school, sending out the message to parents, carers and children and young people themselves that if they need that extra bit of help and support, schools are open to give them access to that. That continues under today’s restrictions, because schools are open to vulnerable children.

In terms of the work that we are doing over and above keeping schools open, I have already referred to the vital work that social workers are conducting and our efforts to increase the number of social workers available to help with that work. Some of our children’s charities have also been fantastic. I have seen for myself the work that Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society are doing to help children, particularly those who are potentially being ensnared by county lines gangs. This comes back to how we can reach these poor, poor children before those gangs really get their fists on them. It is about a combination of education at school, education and support for families—because mums, dads and carers can be very worried about their child—and ensuring that we have robust law enforcement measures in place against those gangs. One thing the police were able to do during the last national lockdown—the first one—was concentrate on targeting drug gangs. We are seeing some of the results of that work, alongside the safeguarding and early intervention work we are doing.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Llafur, Pontypridd

I thank the Minister for her update and fully welcome the new Ask for ANI scheme. Residents in Pontypridd who have experienced domestic abuse will appreciate the issue being raised here today. As my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd has said, tackling the root cause of domestic abuse requires a long-term strategy focused on interventions targeted towards the perpetrators. Will the Minister therefore confirm exactly what support the Home Office is providing and what conversations it is having with organisations working in this area?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am so pleased the hon. Lady raised the point about a strategy. She will know, I hope, that alongside our work on the Domestic Abuse Bill—she served on the Bill Committee—which is currently in the House of Lords, we are planning for a stand-alone, specific national strategy on domestic abuse. I very much expect there to be measures in relation to perpetrators within that, because although we of course want to support victims, it is vital that we tackle the cycle of abuse as well. That strategy, combined with our investment of £7.1 million in perpetrator programmes, will, I hope, revolutionise our approach in this important regard of tackling domestic abuse.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Ceidwadwyr, Brycheiniog a Sir Faesyfed

Last year, the Government prioritised the Domestic Abuse Bill Committee so that the Bill’s progress was not disrupted by the pandemic. That speaks to both the determination of the Government and the personal determination of this safeguarding Minister, and the Ask for ANI scheme is evidence of that. The scourge of cyber-flashing, whereby unwanted and unsolicited indecent photographs are distributed to mobile devices, needs to be made a criminal offence. Will she confirm that the Government are considering that?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It was a pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee with my hon. Friend, and I know her personal commitment to helping her constituents in this regard. I am pleased that she has brought up that aspect, because it enables me to reiterate to hon. Members that we are running a call for evidence at the moment on producing a new violence against women and girls strategy. I do not want to pre-guess what the public, victims, survivors and charities may say in the course of that call for evidence, but I, for one, am very aware of the offence of which she speaks. I very much want those sorts of 21st century online crimes to be dealt with not just in the VAWG strategy, but in the DA strategy and by making sure our laws are up to date—we have asked the Law Commission to ensure that. I thank her for her question and encourage her to publicise the call for evidence with her constituents.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I thank the Minister for her statement. The Prime Minister indicated to the Liaison Committee yesterday that the Government do not have any specific policies in place for survivors of domestic abuse among what the Home Office describes as those with “insecure immigration status”. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Will she look at additional protections for those seeking refuge in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I can help the hon. Gentleman with news of a specific pilot project, for which we launched the bidding process just before Christmas, to help support migrant victims of domestic abuse. He will know that there is already support available for some migrant victims, namely those who have a legitimate expectation of indefinite leave to remain because they come to this country on a spousal visa and they are eligible under the domestic violence concession scheme. We are very conscious that there is a cohort of victims who do not fall within those criteria, so this pilot scheme has been created very much in consultation with specialist charities that help such victims. We are in the middle of the bid process, and I am very much hoping we will be able to make some progress in the next couple of months so that we can help those victims first and foremost as victims of domestic abuse, and ensure that their abusers cannot continue their abuse.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Can I ask my hon. Friend what specific measures she is taking to reach out to domestic abuse victims in the BAME community who might find it harder to communicate and let others know of the plight they face?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my right hon. Friend sincerely. Yes, we know that the plight of victims in the BAME community and those of others in similar situations means they may find it very difficult to reach out. The Home Office works very closely with specialist charitable organisations—I myself have the pleasure of working with them as well—to make sure that the policies we are introducing will help with the whole realm of problems, issues and abuse that victims face. I very much thank my right hon. Friend for her help in ensuring that the Women and Equalities Committee scrutinises our work.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Llafur, Poplar and Limehouse

Running away from home, wanting a divorce, wanting to marry and saying no to marriage are some of the scenarios that victims of abuse have contacted the charity Karma Nirvana about since the lockdown. Lockdowns and this crisis have produced the economic conditions to increase forced marriage, no doubt among families already struggling with food and financial hardship in particular. Will the Minister work with her counterparts leading in the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to deliver a plan to tackle forced marriages in lockdown that provides sufficient economic protection to households so that they are not choosing between their children marrying or going hungry?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The hon. Lady sets out one of the most heinous forms of hidden harms. I hope she knows of the work we have done to tackle forced marriage both before and during the pandemic. Certainly, I always enjoy working with Karma Nirvana on this. I am conscious of time, so if I may, I will write to her with the specific steps we are taking to help victims of forced marriage.

Photo of Laura Trott Laura Trott Ceidwadwyr, Sevenoaks

I thank the Minister for her statement and for all her work in this area. The Minister referred earlier to the helpline element of Operation Encompass. There is another part of this initiative whereby the police automatically inform schools when a domestic violence incident has occurred in a child’s home. This has been, tragically, absolutely vital in my constituency, and I think it should be available nationwide. Will the Minister confirm whether the police element of Operation Encompass will be available on a nationwide basis?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am delighted to be able to confirm that not only is my hon. Friend’s force, Kent, signed up to that fantastic scheme, but so too are 40 other forces out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales. This is a great scheme. I would encourage the remaining forces to sign up, because we have seen the evidence that helping children on the morning of their return to school after a terrible incident at home the night before can pay dividends for their wellbeing.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I welcome today’s announcement of the Ask for ANI scheme. The Minister will be aware that legal aid is a vital service for victims of domestic abuse. To access this service, victims quite often need a letter from a GP to prove that their injuries are a result of abuse. There are reports of GPs charging up to £150 for a letter to do this, which is a disgrace, so will the Government today commit to ensuring that this appalling practice ends?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

On the practice the hon. Member describes, we have already, in years gone by, agreed with the British Medical Association that this is not within its recommendations, and it has made that clear to its members. I know this has been raised in the other House, and we continue to look into it.

If I may, I will just clarify a tiny point. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House answered a question on this earlier and referred to considerations within the Domestic Abuse Bill, which of course is in the other place. Just to clarify—there was a problem of translation through masks—we look at legal aid in context and it is always something we consider, but within the Bill itself we are looking very specifically at the measures available in courts to help victims of domestic abuse.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

This is a very welcome statement and initiative. The Minister has referred to the priority that is rightly being given by the police and the criminal courts to bringing perpetrators before them swiftly and promptly where there is evidence to support doing so, but will she also set out what steps the Government are taking to ensure that victims have as swift access to legal advice as to—[Inaudible]—redress in the family and civil courts without the need to go through complicated legal aid application forms?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope I caught most of my hon. Friend’s question. He will know of the sterling work being done by my ministerial counterpart the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, to ensure that victims of domestic abuse can have access to free legal advice in the initial stages of their case. The scheme is called Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors. I would really recommend it, because it has a huge benefit for people who are in the early stages of the court process. Of course, courts remain open during these restrictions. They have remained open for domestic abuse cases, and for other vulnerabilities and priority cases. We encourage anyone who needs to access a court to please, please continue trying to do so during the current set of restrictions.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Sir Robert Neill was very brief in his question, but I must beg that we go a lot faster now, otherwise not everybody will get to ask their question. It is also not fair on people who are waiting to take part in the next three items of business, so questions and answers have to be short.

Photo of Feryal Clark Feryal Clark Llafur, Enfield North

We know the terrifying impact of lockdowns on those experiencing domestic abuse, and the increased pressure on support services and refuges. What discussions has the Minister had with charities and organisations running refuges for women, men and those of the LGBT+ community about capacity, and what plans are there to ensure that a rise in demand does not mean that some people are left with a choice between staying with their abuser and homelessness?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said earlier, I am in constant contact, as are my officials, with people who work in the domestic abuse sector and provide refuges. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has provided advance funding ahead of the duty under the Domestic Abuse Bill coming into force—we hope, in April or May. We very much want to keep building this capability so that people have access to the services that the hon. Member set out.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Research by Women’s Aid has found that covid-19 restrictions and associated socioeconomic strains make leaving abusive relationships more difficult. Its data also indicates that separations are being delayed until digital restrictions are eased, rather than cancelled. Although the funding and support announced today is welcome, given that separation is a known trigger for domestic abuse escalation, what are the Government planning to put in place to anticipate this likely surge in demand?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We have been working closely with domestic abuse charities throughout the pandemic to ensure that when a surge happens—as is sadly predicted—the services are there to be able to deal with it. That is why we have committed the extra funding that I outlined earlier in the statement. We are very much looking to the future through the Domestic Abuse Bill and the continued duty on tier 1 local authorities to help people into safe accommodation.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Ceidwadwyr, Darlington

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her announcement today. It is yet another positive step from this Government on tackling domestic abuse. She is aware that victims of this heinous crime require the help and support of many organisations, just like Family Help in Darlington. Will my hon. Friend outline to the House how the Government are getting their financial support to such organisations as quickly as possible?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend, who was a sterling performer in the Bill Committee. We have taken a national, regional and local approach to community-based services and we have rolled out funding for that with the help of police and crime commissioners to commissioned and non-commissioned services. Of course, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been rolling out money to refuges. We in the Home Office have focused on the national and regional parts of the funding, including support to bolster the helplines, which so many people rely on when seeking help.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for her statement. There were 557 domestic abuse calls in the last week of March last year and 8,302 from April to June. Will she confirm that the support and help that have been announced today will also be implemented in Northern Ireland and that discussion has taken place with the Minister in charge in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that that is the case?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am delighted to say that my opposite number in the Northern Ireland Executive is working hard and has confirmed her intention to bring in similar legislation in Northern Ireland. That is a vital part of our jigsaw in ratifying the Istanbul convention, so we wish her and the Assembly well in their scrutiny of the forthcoming legislation.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Ceidwadwyr, Wolverhampton North East

To those trapped in abusive relationships, getting out can seem like an impossible task. Will my hon. Friend reassure us that, if they seek help to Ask for ANI, they will be connected to an amazing network of help such as The Haven in Wolverhampton? She also mentioned modern slavery and human trafficking. Can victims of those hidden harms also seek emergency help through the Ask for ANI pharmacy scheme?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Ask for ANI scheme is focused at the moment on victims of domestic abuse. There has been a huge and careful training programme of the pharmacists who are currently participating. Nearly 8,000 members of staff have been trained in Boots alone. They will be very knowledgeable about what to do when somebody walks into their chemist’s seeking help.

My hon. Friend is right that sometimes just getting out of the house is a huge obstacle. That is why I am delighted that we are also funding a rail to refuge scheme to help victims make that railway journey to a refuge as and when they need it.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Sadly, 1,500 children in York are growing up in a home where domestic abuse is a factor, according to the office of the Children’s Commissioner. Will the Minister give clear assurances today that victims can have the confidence that, if they Ask for ANI, they will be provided with more than a conversation, but with safeguarded housing, and wellbeing and psychological help for them and their children?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope that the hon. Lady knows that the training of members of staff has been meticulous. We have created the scheme hand in glove with domestic abuse charities because we are so concerned to ensure the safety of victims. I see it as the first avenue of support. Once the victim is in the consultation room, she or he can set out what they would like to happen. For some it will be a 999 call, for others it will be access to community services, but I hope that the hon. Lady has a picture now of the tapestry of support that we are rolling out locally to try to help victims of domestic abuse.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Ceidwadwyr, Meon Valley

Online image-based sexual abuse is a growing way in which perpetrators coerce and control their victims by threatening to release private and intimate videos and photographs online. According to the revenge porn helpline, the number of people contacting it has risen to more than 3,000—a 22% increase in 2020. Has the Minister considered the impact of that during lockdown? Will she agree to include the threat of releasing those intimate and private images as a crime in the Domestic Abuse Bill?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend is right that that can be a devastating form of abuse for victims of domestic abuse. We are very much listening to debates in the other place about the terrible factors in that type of behaviour. I hope she knows that we have already asked the Law Commission to look into the many forms of malicious behaviour that can occur online. I know that the Law Commission is considering that and we are very much looking forward to receiving the outcome of that review to see what may be needed in future.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

We know that when it comes to domestic abuse, every contact counts. The Government’s new Ask for ANI scheme is a very welcome step towards enabling victims of domestic abuse to receive the support they need, but we need to do more. Will the Minister look again at including a statutory duty on public authorities to train frontline staff to recognise the signs of domestic abuse and to fund such training?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope the hon. Lady has seen not just the announcement of the codeword scheme today but the announcement encouraging employers to join the cause and to be better informed as to how they can help members of their workforce who may be suffering from domestic abuse. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Paul Scully, has written to many, many businesses today to set out how they can help. I see this as very much part of our overall efforts to ensure that people understand what domestic abuse is, the many forms it can take, and how it is everyone’s business.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

We have considerably exceeded the time allocated for this statement, but I do not think it would be fair to cut off the last three people who are on the list. However, I say now—not only to people who have taken part in this statement but to all Members, if anyone is paying attention—that if we are going to make virtual proceedings work, we have to do it as if we were in the Chamber, and that means that we do it quickly. It is not a conversation; it is questions and answers. Now we really have to go quickly. I say the same for the next statement, because it is not fair for the people who will be here at 5 o’clock and simply will not get to speak.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Ceidwadwyr, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Due to the emergency circumstances, victims of domestic abuse sometimes have to flee, leaving behind all their possessions, including mobile phones, making it harder to stay in contact with the police and other agencies. In Stoke-on-Trent, the police have launched a fantastic initiative whereby some vulnerable residents and domestic abuse victims have been given mobile phones loaded with useful contacts based on the individual’s situation. Does the Minister agree that it is important to support measures enabling domestic abuse victims to leave their home environment while eradicating the fear of being cut off from society, especially when covid-19 is exacerbating isolation across the board?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We are keen not just to help victims to flee home when that is necessary for their own safety but, importantly, to keep them in their own homes where it is safe to do so, and to ask, or demand, that the perpetrator leaves. There is a whole host of work going on on this. Perhaps I can take the opportunity to discuss it with my hon. Friend in slower time outside of this statement, but I thank her for raising it.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

Many of us have been extremely concerned about the increased incidence of domestic abuse and other hidden harms during lockdown. However, many domestic abuse charities and anti-modern slavery and vulnerable children’s organisations have been struggling financially and have spoken about the insufficient support from Government. Can the Minister confirm what discussions she has had with the Treasury and the sector on multi-year funding?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers I have given previously, including in relation to the £25 million to £26 million that has already been paid out to charities.

Photo of Julie Marson Julie Marson Ceidwadwyr, Hertford and Stortford

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for getting to me at the end of the list.

I thank the Minister for her statement and all her work on this issue. I commend to her the work of Future Living Hertford, which does amazing work with victims of domestic abuse and their families and is running a “children’s voices” campaign to highlight the need to hear children and recognise their status as victims. Does she agree that this message is particularly important during this crisis and is completely in line with the aims of the Domestic Abuse Bill? Will she agree to visit Future Living Hertford with me when such visits are possible once more?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I would be delighted to do so. I thank my hon. Friend for her work on the Bill Committee enabling us to table an amendment whereby children are included in the Bill, reflecting the impact that this abuse has on them.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

In order to make the necessary arrangements for the next business, I am going to suspend the House for only two minutes in order to save time.

Sitting suspended.