Speech on Reclaiming the Domestic Violence Agenda at Newcastle University

May I start by thanking the Angelou Centre for organising the very important debate we’re all here to take part in? The issue of domestic violence in general, and specifically domestic violence against women in the BAME community, is a huge challenge facing Newcastle  and the country.

It’s a matter of great pride to me to be standing here as the member of parliament for Newcastle Central.  I was born in Wallsend and I  grew up in North Kenton which is a couple of miles from where we are now.

When I was growing up Newcastle was not as diverse as it is now.  I remember my Mum dragging me around the green market in search of something a little hotter than paprika, and if we heard that a mango had been spotted in Pontleland, we’d get on a bus to track it down.

But what there was still a very strong community of quite traditional northern values around hard work and social equality – and I certainly benefited from that.

Receiving a great education in the local comprehensive, Kenton School, which enabled  me to go on to study engineering at Imperial College.

I should say that I found the students and professors of Imperial much less champions of social equality.

In any case  graduating from Imperial College London and Manchester Business School, I went to work in France, the United States and Nigeria.  I have now living again in Newcastle, a Newcastle which has changed significantly in many ways, mostly I would say for the better.

It’s a more diverse city, you can see that just walking down Northumberland Street.  You can see that in our food.  Lime leaves and birdseye chillis are on sale 24/7.

We have a vibrant and wide ranging  cultural scene, a strong  service economy, as well as a thriving voluntary sector, as this conference demonstrates.

But as in any city Newcastle is also blighted by the often hidden cancer of domestic violence.

For example, according to Newcastle City Council, we know that 1 in 4 women in Newcastle will suffer domestic violence at some point in their lives.   This is despite the fact that over the last few years overall crime in Newcastle has fallen 2.3%, with violent crime down a staggering 22%.

Newcastle City Council has done much good work to combat the problem of domestic violence and push it up the agenda and I know they are always looking  for ways to support women suffering from domestic violence, through Safe  Newcastle for example.   And Northumbria Police have discussed with me have they identify and prioritize victims of domestic violence.

I am not an expert in the area of domestic violence. My background is in engineering and I have been fortunate enough never to have experienced domestic violence in my life or that of those close to me.

The speakers in this session have much more experience and  will I hope set out ways in which we can support survivors.

And also I hope, ways in which we can continue to support women, despite the cuts to spending.

But I did want to say something specifically about BAME women.

Analysis in London suggests that BAME women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than their white counterparts.

I hate that.  It sounds as if we are making victims of ourselves.And yet we would be betraying women if we were not to explore the particular challenges that BAME communities often face.

This is not to seek to explain or justify domestic violence.I remember very clearly something that happened over twenty years ago which still makes me angry when I think about it.

Derek Malcolm was reviewing the film of Alice Walker’s book the Colour Purple, which follows the stories of black women in the US south in the thirties.  And Derek Malcolm said something like:

“Given the terrible challenges the men are facing in their lives is it any wonder they are beating up their women?”

That made me very angry then, indeed I wanted to punch him.  I didn’t of course because I’m a grown up and I take responsibility for my own actions and I do not resort to violence.  Also I had better things to do with my life than getting arrested for aggressing a bad reporter.

And I think we’ve moved on now from that attitude that women are acceptable punching bags for men’s social, political and cultural problems.

But it is worth repeating that it is  never be right to subject someone to physical, psychological or  emotional abuse, in the home or on the street.

Now I am also aware that the Legal Services Commission has identified a number of reasons why it may be more difficult for BAME women to escape abusive relationships.

There may be a stricter belief in the absolute sanctity of marriage. Separation may be seen as bringing shame upon the family and divorce is just not an option.BAME are also less likely to seek legal help – in fact 1.5x less likely – and they are less likely to speak to anyone outside the immediate family.  Legal Services Commission discovered women from an ethnic minority background are rarely even aware of their rights in respect to legal aid or where they can source basic information.  They will therefore be more isolated from sources of help.

As a Labour MP I am proud of what we did to try and challenge this.  For example, the Protection from Harassment Act 2007 provided for restraining orders which meant the offender could not go near the victim. In addition, Labour introduced the Crime and Security Act 2010, which brought in “go” orders, giving police the power to stop those guilty of inciting domestic violence access to their home. Another measure of significance is the laws brought in which prevented forced marriages and offered a way out for those in unconsenting unions. Within the first year 86 Forced Marriage Protection Orders were implemented.

However it is clearly not enough.  In opposition we had an early success in forcing the Government to rethink its Rape Anonymity proposals.   But we must do more to protect women.

Part of what we can do is  to speak louder about the injustice and pure criminality of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is a crime committed against far too many women, as well as some men.  But it is also a crime committed against all of us.  Because it destroys our confidence in who we are.  Thank you for helping to challenge that crime.

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