Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s a huge pleasure to be here and to speak at this conference.
I was struck by the title of the conference this year – ‘building resilience for independent futures’. I know that is what each and every one of you do, every single day.
You listen to women’s needs, you empower them and you support them on their journey to independence and you should feel incredibly proud of the work you do.
Women’s Aid is an organisation which has been at the vanguard of changing attitudes to domestic abuse over decades; bringing crimes against women out of the shadows and speaking up for women.
With Polly (Polly Neate, CEO Women’s Aid) at the helm, Women’s Aid has been at the forefront of some of the key advances in helping to tackle domestic abuse over the past few years, including the development of the coercive or controlling behaviour offence which is now enshrined in law and beginning to make a tangible difference to the lives of victims and survivors.
Polly, I know your team will be sad to see you go, but I wish you every success in your new job as Chief Executive of Shelter. I have confidence that you will do great work there too.
In October, I visited a Black Country Women’s Aid refuge to hear about the experiences of women who had fled domestic abuse and so-called honour based violence and I was impressed to hear about the work Women’s Aid do to support victims of these appalling crimes.
But I was horrified by the story that one woman told me about how she had been brought over to England as part of an arranged marriage but was then repeatedly abused by her new husband. With poor English and family pressure to stay in the marital home, this young woman felt she had nowhere to turn. It was thanks to Women’s Aid that she was able to find sanctuary.
Stories like this one highlight not only the important work that Women’s Aid do, but also the fact that there are women across the country who are abused, scared and alone.
And I am proud to serve in a Government which has put tackling domestic abuse at the heart of its agenda. In the last Parliament, we published our strategy to end violence against women and girls. We made clear that everyone needs to play their part – friends, family, employers, health providers and the police. We also brought in Domestic Violence Protection Orders, the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme and introduced a specific offence of controlling or coercive behaviour.
And we are making progress. The latest figures show that the proportion of women aged 16 to 59 who have experienced domestic abuse in the last year is at its lowest since the survey began in 2004.
But, as you all well know, the number of people experiencing domestic abuse is still far too high. Despite record numbers of prosecutions and convictions, there are two million victims of domestic abuse every year in England and Wales. That’s two million people living in fear and two million people too many.
And that is why we are introducing a landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which was announced in the recent Queen’s speech. We want to transform our approach to tackling domestic abuse to create a society where domestic abuse is stopped, where victims feel safe and supported and where perpetrators are properly punished. The bill will create for the first time, a legal definition of domestic abuse to help ensure it is properly understood as more than just isolated incidents of violence. We want to provide absolute clarity and certainty that domestic violence can take many different forms and can be financial, verbal and emotional as well as physical and sexual – and that critically it is about patterns of abuse which serve to control, belittle and sow fear in its victims.
Without domestic abuse being properly understood and recognised, we will never be able to provide victims with the services and support they are entitled to receive.
The bill will also create a consolidated new domestic abuse civil prevention and protection order. At the moment, it is not always clear to victims or professionals how existing orders can be used to protect victims of domestic abuse. A new order, to specifically tackle domestic abuse, will offer better and earlier protection for victims.
A couple of months ago, I was at a rehab centre in North London. One of the things that struck me most was that so many of the women receiving treatment had been abused, or had witnessed abuse as children. It really brought home how the long term effects of abuse can be very destructive in so many different areas. I am clear that we need to be tougher to punish those who force children to grow up in misery and fear. That’s why the bill will also ensure that if abusive behaviour involves a child, then the court can hand down a sentence which reflects the devastating and life-long impact that abuse can have.
We will also establish a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner to stand up for victims and survivors, raise public awareness, monitor the response of statutory agencies and local authorities and hold the justice system to account in tackling domestic abuse. You recommended us these things and we listened.
And the bill won’t just focus on the UK. It will also protect women and girls from violence committed abroad. New legislation will allow us to ratify the Istanbul Convention, by tightening the law around overseas offending. The law will enable UK courts to prosecute British citizens for domestic abuse regardless of where in the world the offence was committed. This will help to bring justice to women who experience these abhorrent crimes anywhere in the world and shows perpetrators that there is nowhere to hide. Because domestic violence tyrannises and it kills.
I recently read about the tragic murder of Kerri McAuley. For the benefit of anyone in this room who is unfamiliar with her story, Kerri was murdered by her partner in what Norwich Crown Court described as one of the worst cases of domestic violence the court had ever seen. What Kerri’s mum said about her daughter’s death was truly heartbreaking. She said she could no longer look at a photo of Kerri or even think about her in happy times as all her mind could see was the image of her girl, lying on the floor, hair matted with blood and her face distorted and swollen. But Kerri’s family welcomed the proposals in the Queen’s speech because action is needed. But I know that it will take more than new laws to help women rebuild their lives and combat this terrible crime. As Home Secretary I am determined to change society’s understanding about who are victims and who are abusers and what domestic abuse looks like.
The Rob and Helen story in the Archers on Radio 4 did a great job of illustrating that abuse can be long-term and emotional and hidden behind the front door of the cutest of cottages. An abuser can be confident, rich, seemingly caring. Like you, I want everyone to understand – whether they work for the police or are a member of the public – that domestic abuse is not just about physical violence. It’s about isolating, manipulating and terrorising a victim into complete fearful obedience. Neither victims or abusers fit one profile.
And the police, they need to do more too. We know that the police response to domestic abuse, while dramatically improving, is still not always as good as it should be and is inconsistent across the country. There is still a tendency for instance, to push too much responsibility for securing prosecutions onto victims. Downgrading the severity of domestic violence cases into less urgent categories is also totally unacceptable.
I will be looking at ways to improve the police response as well as continuing to hold the police to account. I will continue to chair the National Oversight Group on domestic abuse, to ensure that the improvements we have seen in the police are built upon and that we keep looking for new way to support victims and bring offenders to justice.
But the report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Inspectorate has revealed today that the Police’s response to stalking is also not good enough. Too many investigations are being poorly run and cases are misunderstood. It is unacceptable that victims are being left to live in fear. That’s why we have strengthened the law and are taking steps to include a new civil stalking protection order to protect victims at the earliest possible stage. That is why I will be speaking to national police leads about this report and what action needs to be taken.
But of course, protecting and supporting victims is about more than a criminal justice response.
It’s also about providing the right support for victims when they need it; breaking down the barriers to accessing support; recognising multiple, overlapping needs of women; ensuring our criminal justice, family court and child contact systems work together to support victims. And we will ensure our work to introduce the bill and wider social justice reforms work towards addressing these exact ends.
And a word about resources. I know from speaking to Polly and others, that there are sometimes local pressures on services for women. But I am clear that local areas are best placed to identify and address their local requirements for refuges and other domestic violence services.
We’ve published a National Statement of Expectations which Women’s Aid and many in this room, have helped us shape. The statement explains the actions local authorities should take to ensure that domestic violence victims get the help they need.
And let me make this point, this is not a case of central Government abdicating responsibility. We are showing the leadership we want local areas to follow by providing £100m of funding to tackle violence against women and girls. This includes funding spaces at refuges, providing specialist support services for the victims of domestic violence and funding rape support centres.
But we have been clear that we also need to do more to support women at an earlier stage, before they have to flee their homes, families and communities. And today I am pleased to announce where £17 million of this money through our VAWG Transformation Fund will go.
The money will be distributed across 41 local areas to make sure that victims get the right support, at the right time locally, promoting strong local leadership, a focus on early intervention and prevention, partnership working and a whole family approach.
And let me tell you about a couple of the projects we are supporting.
We will be providing £600,000 for the ASSIST project in Birmingham where health commissioners, local authorities and providers like Black Country Women’s Aid will work together to offer specialist support to victims of domestic abuse who have complex additional problems like drug, alcohol and mental health problems which mainstream services are often unable to address . Rather than just focussing solely on domestic abuse, all of their needs will be addressed simultaneously by the project.
We will also give £229,000 to the Altogether Safer Project led by Gravesham Borough Council in Kent. This money will pay for a domestic abuse adviser to be based at a local police station at weekends, who will help link women up with the support services they need, when they need them most.
It will also fund a more proactive engagement programme with the BME community to encourage the use of services as well as a perpetrators programme which involves working with perpetrators of domestic abuse to change their behaviour.
In fact, 17 of the successful projects include working with perpetrators, including programmes with teenage boys to intervene early if they are showing aggressive or worrying behaviour, before it escalates into abuse. And we will also give £1.4 million to a programme in South Wales to provide a wide-ranging programme of support using the ‘Change that Lasts’ framework. This includes rolling out the ‘Ask Me’ scheme. Up to 30 people will be trained as Community Ambassadors who will go out into their local communities and improve understanding of domestic abuse. They will help to establish hair salons, shops and sports clubs as ‘safe spaces where women can report domestic abuse without going into a police station.
And details of the successful projects can be found on GOV.UK.
But there is no single solution to ending domestic abuse. Tackling it requires a multipronged approach which includes legislation, a concerted police response and a culture shift across agencies and within our communities. The new Domestic Abuse Bill represents a once in a generation opportunity to overhaul our response to domestic abuse and we absolutely need to get it right. That’s why there will be a comprehensive consultation with victims, voluntary sector partners, community and frontline professionals on the bill and other non-legislative measures, and we really want your input and expertise. We need to make sure that the bill will be effective and that it will help protect and support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
And I want to end by making a commitment to you all. As Home Secretary I will do all I can to end the scourge of domestic abuse. If we work together then we can be part of the answer and deliver a genuine step change in this country’s response to this heinous crime and create a society in which no woman will live in fear of violence, and every girl will grow up knowing she is safe. That is the aim and I look forward to working with you all to achieve this.