Vera Baird: The Coalition is failing abused women. A Labour administration must put their welfare at the heart of a modern welfare state.
Everywoman Safe Everywhere, Labour's commission on women's safety, began its work under my leadership in November 2011. Its aim was to investigate concerns that government policy changes and budget cuts were disproportionately affecting women not just economically, but compromising their safety.
Its initial findings just a few months later examined the cumulative impact of legal aid cuts, housing and welfare reforms as well as commissioning changes. It revealed an alarming picture of a chaotic situation threatening women's services and therefore their safety.
Within a year, the Commission had published a call for evidence on a new Domestic and Sexual Violence Board as a potential solution.
Today's report represents the response to that call. Among our most disturbing findings is the fact that 40 percent of domestic violence survivors do not meet the totally arbitrary evidence threshold brought in by the Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling to access legal aid. As a result, if they choose to seek justice, they have to represent themselves and risk being cross examined in court by the alleged perpetrator. Some refuges have closed and more are still under threat. With no place to go, more women and their children are likely to endure the abuse that already kills two women a week - and recent research by Professor Liz Kelly shows can take survivors years to recover from.
Special Domestic Violence Courts which require specialist input from police and the Crown Prosecution Service are weakened by spending cuts to both. Independent Domestic Violence Advisors are largely funded by councils, now strapped for cash and Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conferences (MARACs), which bring together housing, police and other agencies to provide joined-up support to victims are, at least in Northumbria where I am Police and Crime Commissioner are beginning to be overcrowded to breaking point, perhaps because austerity is further exacerbating family strife. A lack of expertise in commissioning is leading to local authorities ring-fencing refuge beds for local women only, despite the refuge movement being built on the premise that women may need to move to a new, safe area when fleeing abuse.
During the course of our research for example, I was made aware of a case of a young mother with her baby hanging round internet cafes overnight, having been turned away from an already full refuge and of women sleeping in casualty departments or even returning to their unsafe home.
The last Labour Government improved the law on sexual abuse; it scrapped defences that acquitted men who killed their partners in anger whilst convicting victims of abuse who struck back in fear. It introduced the 140 SDVCs and the MARACs . There was much more to do but this was curtailed by the advent of the Coalition and its policies of austerity.
Our report charges the next Labour Government with more than just reversing the decline; it asks it to put tackling violence against women and girls at the heart of our modern welfare state. It proposes a statutory obligation on Government and local authorities to develop integrated domestic and sexual violence strategies and the establishing of a Violence Against Women and Girls Commissioner to drive implementation and bring national standards of service to all. We are calling for the reform of how services are commissioned, refocusing on the practical need for specialist women-centred services with a track record of success.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has already accepted our further recommendation of a new, national refuge fund to provide the safe places that women and children need and national Rape Support Funding on a 3 year cycle, to give rape crisis centres real security
We must give better access to legal aid by, at the very least, widening the categories of evidence required to support an allegation of domestic abuse and banning charges which are currently made, in particular by the medical profession, for providing such evidence.
We can drive change in the criminal justice response, in particular by videoing evidence and cross examination of adult complainants away from the oppressive atmosphere of the courts. We should ban rape myths from trials, through judges giving juries clear directions at the start of the case. Good outcomes at court positively influence future decision-making by prosecutors and police and in my full-time role as Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, I have a team of volunteer observers watching every rape trial in Newcastle Crown Court so we can look for further improvements.
This report is about fixing this issue, in all its forms including forced marriage, trafficking, slavery, harassment, honour crimes, Female Genital Mutilation and prostitution at the heart of the modern public services that Labour will deliver. Next, we should work on a strategy for preventing violence against women and girls VAWG in coming generations, putting a desperately-needed culture change back on track.