This speech was delivered by the Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, on 22 November. The speech is checked against delivery.
Good morning. I would like to start by thanking Refuge and the NSPCC for inviting me here today and giving me an invaluable opportunity to hear from these incredible young people.
It’s easy as a Minister to get stuck in Parliament or in the Home Office, and to simply read reports and meet officials, but it is so important for me to hear first hand from the people whose lives are affected by the issues I am working hard to address.
I would like to commend the panel for having the bravery to talk about your experiences.
I was so moved to hear about your lives and the difficulties that you have overcome. It is truly humbling to stand in front of you to hear about the challenges you’ve faced, but to see that you’ve not let these stop you from moving forward.
Your voices bring this research to life and underscore its importance.
I am always thrilled to meet successful business women as I’m very aware of the unique challenges they face (especially when dealing with Sir Alan!).
But your success is even more commendable in light of your own experiences as a child. It is a tribute to your character that you have not let this hold you back, and your tremendous success shows that no matter what terrible events you endure as a child, they need not define your future.
However, we cannot let these inspiring stories distract us from the reality facing so many children living with domestic violence and the important messages in your research.
Why is this report important?
As minister responsible for the Government’s action plan to end violence against women and girls, tackling domestic violence is one of my most important responsibilities and one that is always at the forefront of my mind.
The level of violence faced by women and girls continues to shock me - in the last year alone, there were over 1 million female victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales.
That’s nearly 2 women each minute - another 20 victims by the time I finish speaking. This is simply deplorable. It is a scandal and an outrage that over the course of their lifetimes a quarter of women will experience this horrific crime.
But what we forget is that these women often have children and when violence enters the family home, it enters the lives of everyone there. No one is left untouched.
Living with those 1 million victims are many more children, powerless to end the violence that surrounds them and desperate for it to stop.
Whether violence happens in the next room, directly in front of children or involves children themselves, it casts a devastating cloud over their daily lives and stops their childhood instantly.
From speaking to victims myself, I know how hard they try to shield their children from violence, to the extent that they will endanger their own lives further to protect their children.
But we are understanding more and more that when children grow up in a home tainted by violence, their development, their wellbeing and their relationships with both parents - perpetrator and victim - are all adversely affected and the damage is deep and long lasting.
We recognise in law that seeing or overhearing violence to another person in the home is potentially detrimental to children’s welfare, and, as your report identified, this is increasing the notification of domestic violence cases to children’s services. But we need to think more about quite how far reaching the impact is and how differentiated our response to children needs to be.
We know how victims in violent relationships struggle to know what they should do, but too often we don’t acknowledge the confusion felt by children trying to reconcile the image they have of a loving parent, with the violent perpetrator who destroys family life.
We often focus our efforts on moving victims and their families out of violent homes, but do we think enough about the support children need to adjust to new homes and new schools, and the new life these bring.
Government strategy and action
So what are we doing? First, let me be clear - the protection of children is a priority for this government and protecting them from domestic violence is a personal priority for me.
To that end we have allocated £28 million of stable Home Office funding for specialist violence against women and girls services until 2015.
The majority of this funding is directed to local areas and is going to support independent domestic violence advisers, and multi-agency risk assessment conference co-ordinators.
Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference Coordinators
The key feature of Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences, of which there are over 250, is that they bring together all the relevant agencies to secure the safety of high-risk domestic violence victims.
They facilitate that vital link with child-focused services, helping to ensure the needs of children are considered alongside the needs of their parents.
I was really pleased to read in your report that those areas that used these arrangements offer a better prospect of providing the comprehensive, differentiated response that children living with domestic violence need.
This year we have granted funding for 54 Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference coordinator posts and I hope that this will enable a more child-focused approach to domestic violence.
Independent Domestic Violence Advisers
Victims are represented at these conferences by their Independent Domestic Violence Adviser, an IDVA.
These are trained specialist who provides that crucial tailored support, focused on a family’s unique circumstances, including the effect on any children.
In some areas there are even specialist advisers for children. Blackpool, for example, has a specialist Children’s IDVA Service who provides weekly drop in sessions for young people at local high schools.
We know that these specialists play a crucial role in putting children at the heart of the discussion and having put funding toward 144 posts this year, I hope personalised support is making a difference to the lives of more families, and more children than ever before.
The police also play an important part and have a statutory responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
To strengthen this, we also amended the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill so that Police and Crime Commissioners would, rightly, have child safety as a priority.
Domestic Violence Protection Orders
We are also piloting new powers for the police in three areas - Greater Manchester, West Mercia and Wiltshire.
Domestic Violence Protection Orders address one of the key themes that you identified when talking to children - that in some cases children want to get away, and stay away, from the abuser.
These orders prevent the perpetrator from returning to a residence and from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days, for example.
They give a victim and her children immediate protection and also enable an unstable family environment to stabilise, minimising the disruption that is so damaging and helping children return to the normal life they crave.
If they prove successful, we will look to roll them out more widely.
We know that statutory services can do all this better with the support of children’s charities, like the NSPCC.
That is why earlier this year we announced that we would award grants worth £60 million to go directly to fund the voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations that work with children, young people, parents and families.
Over £170,000 of the grant, this year, has been awarded specifically to address the issue of domestic violence.
In addition, the Government has awarded the NSPCC a new grant totalling £11.2 million between 2011-2015 for investment in ChildLine and the NSPCC Helpline.
These services really do provide a lifeline for children trying to survive situations that, as a parent, I can barely bring myself to imagine.
But we know we must do more and that our systems do not always function as we would wish them to.
Professor Eileen Munro’s review of child protection services in England showed us that the system is not working as well as it should. And this includes working with adult’s services to tackle domestic violence.
The Government has accepted Professor Munro’s fundamental argument that the child protection system has lost its focus on the things that matter most: the views and experiences of children themselves.
As I have heard today, and seen in your report, we need a fundamental shift in the way the system works.
Children should be at the centre of discussions that affect them, not cast aside and dictated to. They of all people understand best what they need and how they feel about what has happened to them.
They need to be able to talk to skilled adults themselves; they need to be the authors of their own stories.
The Government’s approach to child protection reform is therefore driven by three key principles:
• trusting skilled frontline professionals to use their own judgement;
• reducing bureaucracy and prescription;
• and, most important of all, making the system child-centred.
We need to enable professionals to focus on the needs of children and young people, so they are better protected and their welfare better promoted.
We are not seeking to impose a one size fits all approach, nor introduce a host of new procedures. We believe that local leaders with their partners should have the freedom to design and deliver services.
But we do think that however they choose to meet needs of children and young people, they must put those children and young people at the heart of the decision making process.
And to show our commitment to making this happen, and to address one the key recommendations of your research, I would like to invite all of the young people on the panel here today to come at meet with me.
What I have heard already today has been invaluable, but I’m sure it only touches the tip of the iceberg and you have much more that you would like to contribute.
Please come to the Home Office and we can continue these discussions.