My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady King, for securing this debate.
I have spoken several times in your Lordships’ House on these issues. It is of course dreadful that women in our communities and in our society face homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion. We will all have witnessed the effect these can have on women and those around them. What is most unfortunate is that these issues do not happen in isolation. One can lead to the other and some women suffer all three. These cases are nothing short of tragedies. So many women’s lives are ruined by these issues and their great potential wasted. It also has a huge effect on their families.
There are many more incidents of abuse which are not reported and, as a society, we must not allow this to continue. For a number of victims, the act of reporting domestic violence is an emotive and traumatic experience which can divide families and friends and result in social exclusion. The manner in which the police in England and Wales respond to domestic violence was condemned earlier this year in a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary which described the matter as “alarming and unacceptable”.
Research suggests that a number of adults who witness domestic violence as children are perpetrators of violence against their partners. Domestic violence against women often takes place in households where children are present. In some cases, these children are also victims of abuse. There should be an increase in support services for children who have witnessed abuse and for those who are victims of domestic violence.
We must do all we can to support women in seeking protection. That is why I am pleased that the Government have decided to continue to provide legal aid in private family law cases where domestic violence is a feature. I also welcome the fact that they have widened the definition of domestic violence to include both verbal and physical abuse. Domestic abuse is not just physical. It can also mean appalling emotional attacks and controlling behaviour. This can particularly be a factor in forced marriages which are an issue in certain communities. Eighty per cent of cases of forced marriage involve girls. There have been positive steps on this in recent years. I have been involved in tackling the issue of forced marriages relating to people emanating from south Asia. It is important that we continue to address them through education and by encouraging the involvement of leaders and members of the communities in which these practices are taking place.
I strongly encourage the Government to look at strengthening the law to introduce a single offence to remove any possible ambiguity regarding harassment in relationships. We must also make sure that women are made aware of those men who are a threat to them before they themselves become victims of domestic abuse. I agree with the principle that those who serve time in prison should be rehabilitated and go on to live normal lives, but we must also protect women from those who may still be dangerous. I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce Clare’s Law, allowing police to disclose to individuals details of their partners’ abusive pasts. Not all those who commit acts of domestic abuse will still be dangerous but women should be able to make informed decisions about their relationship.
Although our economy is improving, I know that a number of people are still feeling the effect of the recession. It is thought that the economic climate could have the effect of increasing acts of domestic violence in households that are struggling to make ends meet. The economic impact on victims is also felt through loss of earnings and prolonged periods of unemployment, particularly for women. It is therefore essential that victims of domestic violence are given practical support that includes counselling, emergency accommodation, support during court proceedings, and help in obtaining protection orders. I ask my noble friend the Minister to comment on this in her closing remarks.
There are a number of charities doing excellent work to support victims of domestic abuse. However, I would like to draw attention to one in particular, Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse. CAADA is a charity that receives funding from Her Majesty’s Government. I wholeheartedly support the Government’s proposal to introduce a new criminal offence of domestic abuse to include emotional and psychological harm. Coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic violence. It is vital that victims should be able correctly to identify the behaviour they are experiencing as abuse. Criminalising such behaviour may help the relevant authorities to look for patterns of continually abusive behavior rather than isolated incidents. This demonstrates that the Government are committed to addressing this issue which is a strain on the lives of victims and their dependents.
We will not see an end to domestic violence until we modify attitudes. One of the most effective ways to do this is by empowering the next generation of young men and women with the knowledge to make a lasting difference and effect changes in their attitudes towards their partners while helping the victims. Victims must have confidence that they will receive the protection and justice they deserve from the relevant authorities.