Vera visits Newcastle's Angelou Centre

Everyone I have spoken to, locally, about violence against women admires the Angelou Centre, which is just moving to bigger premises in Newcastle’s West End.

But the Centre does more than support BME victims of violence. Its workers promote economic inclusion for BME women in the north east, identifying gaps in services, developing projects, working with partners and networking to promote voice and choice and challenging exclusion. Amongst their many projects is Aspire which gave advice and guidance on career opportunities to almost 400 women last year and which actively trained over 300 women to higher levels of skill and qualification. Angelou Carers empowers BME women carers, encouraging mutual support. The Women’s Cafe and Cookery Club brings together isolated BME women of different generations. The centre also has an over 60s group and a section for disabled BME children. Angelou recently obtained funding for a children’s domestic violence worker to counter the stance frequently taken by Social Services Departments that an organisation which represents women in domestic violence situations cannot represent her children too.

I am busy making early contact with people the Police and Crime Commissioner should consult in pursuance of her duty to find out what the public needs from the police. This is so I can ensure that the 5 Year Policing and Crime Plan to be negotiated, by the end of next March with the Chief Constable, will truly represent every part of the community if I am the Commissioner.

However, I had an additional purpose in visiting the Angelou Centre last week. I am worried that the new Police and Crime Panel, whose role is to scrutinise the PCC, will be come into being without a good racial mix of membership.  It will consist largely of Councillors, seconded by their local authorities. Although there are some very talented people on local councils, they are, not surprisingly, mostly white and yet the BME community needs to be involved in scrutinising the PCC.

There are two places on the Panel for non-councillor, independent people. The diversity of the Angelou Centre’s work makes clear that there could be no better Panel representative of the broad interests of the BME community (4% of our population) than one of their staff. Clearly, I have no role in appointments to a Panel, which, from November, may be scrutinising me but I wanted to ensure that the Centre knew about the two independent places.

Vera visits Newcastle's Angelou Centre

I met with Umme Imam, who runs the Angelou Centre and two of her domestic violence workers. We found we have a friend in common. I have worked with Southall Black Sisters on a number of Appeal cases and on legislating to improve the position of battered women who kill their violent partners. Umme and I both know and admire SBS’s joint founder, Hannana Siddiqui. Hannana  spoke at Angelou’s 2010 International Conference on improving DV policy and practice for BME women. Another connection is that Hannana has an Honorary Degree at Teesside University, where I am a Visiting Law Fellow.

One of the Angelou Centre’s most important activities is its domestic violence helpline and it is this which is likely to bring them, as an organisation, into direct involvement with the Police and Crime Commissioner.
My work in tackling violence against women over the last 30 years has shown me that black and minority ethnic women who suffer domestic violence are the least likely to tell anyone. Yet domestic violence escalates over time. BME women will not look for help unless there is a specialist local BME women’s group to turn to.  They need to know that they can talk to people who understand their cultural pressures and who will help them onto a route to safety that is consistent with what they value in their way of life.

However, there is only one 5 bedded refuge specifically for BME women in Newcastle. The Angelou Centre is worried about the tendency for authorities with financial pressures to undervalue the need for special provision and to commission cheaper services from businesses who say they can work with all-comers.

The Labour Women’s Safety Commission, of which I am chair, reported similarly last March that specialist providers of services are being hit particularly hard by Tory cuts to local commissioning. The key national BME women’s organization, IMKAAN has reported the closure of two specialist Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee refuges and that a specialist service for 16-18 year old women is
facing closure. Disabled women’s groups say that there is an increasingly severe shortage in the specialist services that meet their needs;

There are similar concerns about Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) for BME women. IDVAs support domestic violence victims to re-organise aspects of their lives, such as childcare, work or access to public services which are often disrupted when a complaint is made against their permanent partner. The Special Domestic Violence Courts which have increased the domestic violence conviction rate significantly, would agree that IDVAs play a key role in getting more cases to court. IDVAs also represent the complainant interests on justice issues such as bail conditions for the accused.

Police investigate and charge many domestic violence cases and the Police and Crime Commissioner will want to ensure that the contribution of IDVAs to the work of the courts can continue, no less when the complainant is from a BME background and in need of culturally sympathetic support. The all-round role of IDVAs, in restoring the complainant’s personal circumstances whilst enhancing justice, suggests partnership funding. There is currently a range of IDVA funding models but the Angelou Centre is right to point out the risk to BME services.

“EveryWoman Safe EveryWhere” Labour’s Commission on Women’s Safety found that deep cuts are occurring to Independent Domestic Violence Advisors across England. A recent poll of 8 IDVA services collectively supporting 13,180 clients found that reductions in council grants left 2 IDVA services facing 100 per cent cuts, 3 with 50 per cent funding cuts, 3 with 40 per cent cuts and two with 25 per cent cuts;
This national picture reflects Umme’s local concerns.

I was able to set out to the Angelou Centre staff, the Five Pledges on Violence Against Women and Girls, which I have drafted for the Labour Party and to which all our candidates for Police and Crime Commissioners have signed up.

The first pledge is to develop and roll out an integrated local action plan to tackle violence against women and girls in the first year in office, appointing a specialist to deliver it. The second is to tackle, fundamentally, the culture which underpins gender violence by working with schools, local authorities and community organizations, in particular through the six community safety partnerships in Northumbria to change attitudes and behaviour.  Thus we will tackle violence against women and some of the causes of this violence.

The third pledge is that we will maintain specialist domestic violence and public protection units within the police and to protect the existing IDVA networks with which police work. Specialist units such as these, face a direct threat in Northumbria in the light of the Chief Constable’s admirable resolution to do everything she can to protect the frontline. Obviously, the cuts will fall somewhere but victims of violence need to be fully protected.
The fourth pledge is to ensure that all police, including specialists, have sufficient training for the role they will play in tackling violence against women and girls. Further we will train staff who commission services for survivors so that they understand the dynamics of domestic and other forms of violence. They can only commission services which are appropriate to local needs if they understand more fully the nature and impact of the crimes that are being tackled.

In addition, we have pledged to pilot some preventative policing projects, so that police can monitor and manage serial perpetrators. I intend to do one of those pilot projects in Northumbria. There is still quite a low conviction rate in domestic violence cases. Although the criminal justice agencies have improved how they deal with it, issues from intimidation to wanting children to stay in contact with both parents militate against the prosecution of partners. There are many discontinued complaints so that serial perpetrators, well known to police, are free to offend again, with the same or with subsequent partners. We will look for ways of keeping tabs on such men, as police already do with other kinds of target offenders.

These pledges should ensure that, notwithstanding funding pressures, work on prevention and policing of violence against women will continue in areas where Labour wins. There is no doubt of the parallel need to develop and maintain services to protect the minority of men who suffer domestic abuse.

The Women’s Safety Commission will report further, on a broad range of issues which were sparsely covered in its speedily written first report, such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation and the position of asylum seekers who suffer violence and sexual abuse. I know that the Angelou Centre will await the next report with real interest.

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