§ 20. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)
What evidence she has collated of changes in the incidence of domestic violence in the last three years. 
§ The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt)
According to the British crime survey, the number of domestic violence incidents per year has fallen by 19 per cent. over the past three years. Further research is being undertaken that will give us more detailed information about domestic violence, as well as sexual assault and stalking.
§ Mr. Turner
The Women's Aid website reports that 23 per cent. of separated women suffer post-separation violence and 76 per cent. suffer verbal abuse and threats. Does the right hon. Lady recognise that one reason—although in no way a justification—is the difficulty that some separated men feel they have in maintaining access to their children, even when access has been ordered by the courts? What steps is she taking to ensure that the paramount needs of the child and the safety of all, as determined by the courts, are met?
§ Ms Hewitt
The hon. Gentleman is right about the shocking extent of verbal and physical abuse, not only in cases following a separation—one quarter of all violent crimes relate to domestic violence, and two women a week are murdered by their partners. That is utterly unacceptable. With regard to fathers' access to their children, my view is simple: children benefit from having, wherever it is possible, the love and support of their father as well as of their mother. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and his Department are ensuring that in access cases, proper attention is paid to the needs of the child. That is the overriding consideration. I would warn the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he was not seeking to do this—against in any sense excusing verbal or physical abuse. In some recent murder and manslaughter trials where the woman has been killed by her husband or partner, there has been an attempt to defend that crime by blaming the woman. That is unacceptable as well.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
In the circumstance where one third of all homicides in the country occur following domestic violence, and where there is no other crime with a higher level of repeat victimization, is there not a crisis that requires more urgent action than we have been able to deliver, not just to protect women, but very often to protect children? How can we make sure that women's lives are protected from violent men?
§ Ms Hewitt
My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has already put in place new guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service, and is working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ensure that the police and the prosecution service work far more effectively together to make sure that the warning signs of early evidence of violent incidents are 815 properly taken into account, and that women are protected against the very real risk that domestic violence will end in the death of the woman. I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has recently taken the step of referring outrageously lenient sentences in such cases to the Court of Appeal for further review.
§ Sandra Gidley (Romsey)
In a written reply from the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, on 10 December, he stated:Domestic violence is not separately identified in recorded crime statistics collected by the Home Office."—[Official Report, 10 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 233W.]Given the acknowledged high number of such incidents and the fact that one in five incidents result in a woman having to visit a doctor, would it not be useful for all agencies concerned to collect those figures separately in future?
§ Ms Hewitt
I think that it might well be, and I shall certainly draw that issue to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As I said in my first reply, we are also doing further research on this, because domestic violence is notoriously under-reported. The British crime survey can help us to get a better fix on the actual scale of the problem.
§ Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
In 1975, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended that there should be one refuge place per 10,000 people, for the protection of victims of domestic violence. Today, we have only one third of that number. Will the Minister tell the House whether the forthcoming Green Paper will contain revised proposals for meeting the shortfall in refuge provision?
§ Ms Hewitt
I agree that, over several decades, not enough attention has been paid to this issue, nor has enough investment been put into refuges for women suffering domestic violence. I welcome the fact that we will be spending an additional £7 million on developing new refuges in partnership with local authorities around the country. I also welcome the fact that the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women launched a new national 24-hour helpline in December to ensure that women who are fleeing violent partners can get the advice and information that they need.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
Given that responsibility for criminal justice was not devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly—whether suspended or not—and that that responsibility remains here at Westminster, and that the incidence of domestic violence remains at a very high level in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Lady tell the House what discussions she has had with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about measures to combat domestic violence there?
§ Ms Hewitt
I have not had discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I know that the Northern Ireland Administration, as well as those in Scotland and Wales, are closely involved in the work that is being undertaken right across government on the issue of domestic violence. We have to engage the police, the prosecuting authorities, the local authorities, 816 housing authorities and so on. All the different agencies are being involved in this, and that includes those in Northern Ireland.