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Ministers must 'unlock' system to help abuse victims, MPs told

Victims of abuse need a more coordinated response from the government during the lockdown, experts have warned.

Children’s charities, women’s refuges and England’s victims of crime commissioner called for a cross-government group to “unlock” issues that could help people trapped in their homes with abusers during the COVID-19 crisis.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee heard via videolink that one refuge website had reported a 700% increase in visits by people looking for information on support.

The committee was told that because official statistics and research had shown long before the outbreak that the home was the most likely setting for abuse, the government response should have been faster and better coordinated.

Former minister Dame Vera Baird QC, the Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, said charities and government agencies could work much quicker if there was a cross-government group with a plan.

She warned there had not been a strategic approach at the top of government to issues like child protection or domestic violence. Money had been available for bids but local agencies had been expected to work through problems themselves.

She said: “What is needed is a better strategic approach which embraces all the relevant ministerial responsibilities."

She warned a significant number of cases were going unreported because the victims were living with their abusers.

She told the committee the reporting system urgently needed to be updated to enable victims to report incidents when they are able to go to the shops.

She said: “We urgently need to adapt that inability to report. We urgently need to copy the French model which is to have emergency provision available in supermarkets and pharmacies.”

Ms Baird praised the University of Swansea for opening up empty student accommodation to victims of domestic violence and said the example could be copied across the country but ministers would have to step in.

“This requires government intervention to give help and guidance. It needs the power of the government,” she said. “It is perfectly obvious that a large proportion of abuse takes place at home.”

Charities helping children warned that the closure of schools to children other than the families of key workers had reduced opportunities to report abuse and check on vulnerable children.

Anna Edmundson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs for the NSPCC said: “The range of services that would have been there to help support families are not there. Half of referrals to social services come from schools.

“We know that babies and under-fives are at risk and teenagers are at risk as they begin to struggle with lockdown. Identifying who those vulnerable children are and where they are is a huge challenge,” she said.

But there was praise for police and social workers who had very quickly adapted to keep the safeguarding system working.

She explained: “The whole child protection system, which relies on visits, has had to be redesigned in under a month.”

But Nicole Jacobs, Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, warned more needed to be done to help charities that were being told to bid for government cash. She urged the government to bypass local authorities or Police and Crime Commissioners to avoid delays and a postcode lottery.

She also warned domestic violence charities are expecting a surge in applications for help after the lockdown is lifted.

She said: “The services they [victims] rely on are not able to fundraise. The charities need support. There are increased costs. We need to see in this week a clear view of how charities will quickly access these funds.”

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