Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

Tackling domestic violence in the ethnic minority community

AGM of Southwark Race Equality Council


Thursday 9 September 2004


Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you at your Annual General Meeting.  I would like to take this opportunity to discuss with you how we tackle domestic violence in black and minority communities.


Tackling the crime of domestic violence has been an important part of my work as Solicitor General and has always been a major issue for my constituents here in Camberwell and Peckham.  It is 25% of all recorded crime of violence and, nationally, accounts for two homicides every week.  It is, however, still largely a hidden crime.  What is reported is only the tip of the iceberg.  But we know from the homicide statistics that domestic violence occurs in families in all regions, in all social classes and across all communities. Sadly, its prevalence is universal – but the strategies that we need to adopt to tackle it must be geared to the particular issues of each community.


We need to

    * Ensure that women in ethnic minority communities have the confidence that they do not have to put up with domestic violence.  We support those who challenge the notion that women are betraying their community by reporting “the men of their community to the police where they would get unfair treatment.”  We must challenge the notion that respect for family life in different cultures should deter us from enforcing the law against domestic violence.
    * Ensure that the damage to children brought up in ethnic minority families where there is domestic violence is recognised.  The strong commitment to children in ethnic minority families should be a reason to tackle domestic violence – not a reason to cover it up.
    * Ensure that the new law being brought in by the Government – the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill which will become law later this year – is enforced in, and provides protection in, all communities
    * Support the important work of community groups and church groups who seek to stimulate debate among men in minority ethnic communities about the unacceptability of domestic violence. I particularly commend the work among men here in Southwark of the South London African Women’s Organisation and local churches
    * Ensure that there are support networks available that can address the specific needs of victims from a black and minority ethnic background, such as Southall Black Sisters and the African Families Foundation. The South London African Women’s Organisation research (June 2003) found that 89 of women indicated that they would only use African specific provided services.


The Government’s  Domestic Violence Inter-ministerial Group has specifically discussed the question of tackling domestic violence in ethnic communities and have established six principles which underpin our approach


    * The law must be fair and treat all equally.  The same protection and the same punishment should be afforded irrespective of ethnic origin.  The ethnicity of the perpetrator and cultural issues ( such as “honour” assaults or killings, or the acceptability of wife beating in the country of origin) should never be a mitigating factor for the perpetrator.

    * But ethnic and cultural issues are very likely to be important issues in providing the right sort of, and the necessary level of, support for the victim
    * There is a particular recognition of the vulnerability of those who are isolated as they do not speak English
    * There is particular recognition of the vulnerability of those who are pressurised to endure rather than report domestic violence for the sake of the reputation of their community or family
    * There is particular recognition of the vulnerability of those who fear that reporting domestic violence will lead to their deportation. Extra funding has been provided for refuges to support women who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status.
    * The government will take account of the Metropolitan Police homicide reviews that identified “cultural issues” as one of the factors to be addressed in tackling domestic homicide.


Tackling domestic violence in the black and minority ethnic community demands, to an even greater extent, close partnership working between the voluntary sector, community groups and health and social and educational services on the one hand, and the criminal justice agencies on the other.  Even where a woman is far to fearful to contact the police or any other agency to complain about violence she is suffering, she will still take her children to the GP and they will be seen by health visitors.  Her children will go to school.   So those who work in schools and in primary and community care will be the most likely to identify domestic violence problems in a family where the woman is too fearful or isolated to contact the police.  We are working to ensure that whoever is the first point of contact with a victim of domestic violence is trained so that they can identify it and offer appropriate support.


We have the opportunity to draw on the expertise and commitment of community groups – such as Southall Black Sisters and South London African Women’s Organisation.  And of MPs such as Ann Cryer.  I pay tribute to their work and the work done by the Greater London Domestic Violence Project and the office of the Mayor of London


We need to understand more about the incidence of domestic violence in black and minority ethnic families.  Domestic violence is a crime where we only see the tip of the iceberg.  That must the case within black and minority ethnic families too.  The South London African Women’s Organisation found in their research (carried out in co-operation with the African Advocacy Foundation) that 92% of women who had or are still going through domestic violence had never accessed services on domestic violence. The British Crime Surveys module on Inter-personal violence gives the overall figures – but it is not sufficiently focused to identify and map the incidence of domestic violence in minority ethnic families.  We are therefore attempting to identify how further research can help us more accurately map the prevalence of domestic violence in black and minority ethnic communities.


The domestic homicide reviews which will be established under the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill which will become law later this year will build on the homicide reviews the Met police have been conducting so that we learn more about the risk factors which escalate into homicide and take action to intervene earlier.


We need to ensure that the criminal justice system commands the confidence of all – young and old, men and women and those from all communities.  The Criminal Justice system has been striving to do more to tackle domestic violence.  It has also been striving, quite rightly to win the confidence of black and minority ethnic communities.  Much laudable work to this end has gone on in the police and in the Crown Prosecution Service.  For example, the CPS has instituted the Crown Prosecution Service Law Scholarship programme which, by sponsoring its admin and clerical staff to become lawyers is increasing the number of black and minority ethnic prosecutors.


But what about when cultural sensitivity and protection of women appear to be competing objectives.  We need to be sure that we are quite clear that they are not, that the Criminal Justice System will give the same level of protection to women in black and minority ethnic families that it gives to any other woman.  There must be no excuses for domestic violence – such as her intention to leave her husband/partner or that she is having an affair.  And nor do cultural issues provide a justification for domestic violence or a reason not to intervene.


We need to be sure that the courts are confident, and command confidence, in how they sentence crimes of domestic violence in the ethnic minority communities.  Often, perpetrators will, after being found guilty, argue for a lesser sentence on the basis there is an acceptance of domestic violence in that community or that the violence was in response to the wife’s behaviour bringing shame on her husband, family or community.  Such arguments in mitigation must be firmly rejected.  The wife in an ethnic minority family is every bit as much entitled to the protection of the law as every other woman.  Such mitigation is unacceptable as, if accepted, it would lead to a lower level of punishment for those in ethnic minority communities and thereby reinforce the notion that domestic violence is acceptable in some communities.  It is not.


In their Report of 2003 “Findings from the  Multi Agency Domestic Violence Murder Reviews in London” the Association of Chief Police Officers Homicide Working Group found that 47% of the cases reviewed involved “cultural issues and sensitivities.” MPS/URHC  Domestic Violence Murder Review Analysis 2003


I fully support the policy of the Met police that “Police should be culturally refined when dealing with victims, but racially and ethnically blind when dealing with perpetrators.”


I and the Attorney General play our part in the sentencing process when, in cases where we believe the sentence has been unduly lenient we will challenge it by referring it to the Court of Appeal.  We have done so where there has been undue leniency to perpetrators of domestic violence.  For example, I referred the case of a young woman from East Africa of Asian origin who was being assaulted by her husband’s brother. Her particular vulnerability and isolation meant her enduring the assault for years. His sentence was increased from 5 to 10 years in prison.


We have asked the Sentencing Advisory Panel to review the sentencing of domestic violence generally as part of the implementation of the new Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Bill.  They ask for comments in the consultation paper they issued in July this year saying


“An inability to speak English may make victims more vulnerable as they are unable to access services.  Furthermore, those who come to the UK for settlement as a result of marriage or their relationship with a British Citizen or person who has indefinite leave to remain may apply for settlement in their own right if they can provide evidence of domestic violence.  Until they have been granted indefinite leave to remain, however, they have no recourse to public funds and, as a result, may find it difficult to get access to a refuge …. This makes it very difficult for women to leave their violent husbands.  These barriers can be exploited by the perpetrator and enhance his position of power over the victim.”  I hope they will receive many and considered responses to their question “Do you agree or disagree that where victims are faced with cultural barriers and language barriers they are more vulnerable and this should make the offence more serious?”.


We asked the Law Commission to examine and report on the question of the defence of “provocation”. They have considered whether the degree of provocation felt by the accused should be judged on universal standards or whether it should reflect different cultural values.  They propose that the law of provocation is unsatisfactory in its present form and must be replaced.


An important way to ensure that women in ethnic minority communities have the confidence that the criminal justice system will take their complaints seriously is to have more women from ethnic minorities in the police and in the courts.  The Crown Prosecution Service already have, among the prosecutors who specialise in domestic violence, a good percentage of prosecutors from ethnic minority communities.  And many of them do exemplary work engaging with ethnic minority communities to build confidence in the Criminal Justice System.


We are piloting a domestic violence project in Croydon which specifically supports women from black and minority ethnic communities through a local advocacy service – and we are monitoring the cases closely to see how appropriately the Criminal Justice System is responding to domestic violence cases in black and minority families. Witness care units have been set up to contact victims who will be going to court to see what support they need – ranging from interpreters to travel to court and support on the day.


The new Domestic Violence Bill, when it becomes law, will provide women with greater protection by making it easier for the police to arrest when called to incidents of domestic violence and by enabling the courts to impose “stay away orders” to keep her safe irrespective of whether the case has yet been heard or whether he is convicted or acquitted.


It is totally unacceptable that, in this day and age, so many women and children live in fear as a result of violence in the home.  We must work together to ensure that we eradicate this crime.

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