This week, the Government announced their strategy for ending violence against women and girls (VAWG). Karen Bradley, Minister for Preventing Abuse and Exploitation, said the Government are "serious about stopping violence," adding "no one should live in fear of these crimes."
Violence against women and girls is one of the most pressing issues of our day and these words are very welcome. However, as we have seen before, encouraging words are not always followed by appropriate action.
The Government's VAWG strategy starts with a commitment to provide core funding to women's refuges, an essential part of the support network for those fleeing violence. Whilst this funding is hugely appreciated, it lies in stark contrast to the real situation on the ground. Over 17% of women's refuges have closed on this Government's watch, with a third of all referrals still being turned away due to lack of capacity. To the 1.4million victims of domestic violence last year, this is simply not good enough.
On hearing the Government's funding announcement, domestic violence charity Refuge said: "When you take into account year on year reductions in funding from local authorities, it is clear that this will not bridge the gap, nor bring back the services." Since 2011, Refuge has seen cuts to 80% to the services it provides. It is not alone in this.
It is worrying that the Government is doing very little in the area of protecting specialist domestic violence charities, especially Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) services. For the pledge of £80 million of funding to tackle violence against women and girls to be effective, it is essential that the Government ring-fences long term funding for specialist domestic violence charities. There are just 34 BAME women's services in the country, 25% down on recent years.
In my own constituency of Rotherham, Apna Haq, a specialist BAME domestic violence charity, recently had their contract cancelled and are now desperately trying to find the money to keep their service running through the summer. From reading the Government VAWG strategy, I am unclear how it will save Apna Haq, much to the detriment of its service users.
The plan to improve commissioning practices is welcome. It is right that the Government demands a high level of service from local partnerships with a National Statement of Expectations (NSE). However, the Government must not shirk from its own commitments to provide local providers with the necessary support and resources needed to succeed and not be set up to fail. It is unfair of the Government to ask more of local providers whilst simultaneously reducing local authority budgets.
Another concern for me is the fact the Government highlight that they have created new protection orders for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) cases, allowing authorities to take protective action before harm occurs. These protection orders were designed to protect 10,000 girls at risk but my parliamentary questions have shown, in reality, they have only been used on sixteen occasions. Creating legislation does not solve the issue. It is essential that the Government ensure that local authorities and police forces are using these protection orders so that women and girls are protected from violence.
Depressingly, the Government fails to make compulsory relationship education part of their strategy. Education is key in ending abuse. I welcome the announcement that education and early interventions will take a more prominent role. However, is essential that it becomes statutory so that every child from a young age can learn about respecting themselves and others. The Government's continued aversion to making this simple, virtually cost free, change makes no sense to me, or to the four parliamentary select committees also calling for it.
Whilst welcoming the steps outlined in the Government's strategy to address VAWG, I am determined to see that the commitments made to vulnerable women and girls are followed through and don't just remain as warm words and a rehash of existing funding.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and shadow minister for preventing abuse and domestic violence