Bishop of St Albans calls for multi-agency co-ordination for effective response to challenges faced by vulnerable women


“It is vital that councils and the NHS maintain a basic level of support, not least because a lot of money going into this area is matched by funding from companies, charities and churches. We cannot solve the problem with just the voluntary sector being expected to pick up these extraordinarily complex problems” – Bishop of St Albans, 26.6.14

Bishop of St AlbansOn 26th June 2014, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Tyler of Enfield led a short debate to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to improve how local services respond to women with multiple and complex needs including homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and physical and mental health problems. The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, spoke in the debate. He focused his speech on three areas – the need for mutli-agency coordination in light of financial constraints, the need for a greater availability of affordable housing and the vital role of key workers to support those with multiple and complex needs. He also highlighted the issue of domestic violence and called for greater efforts to be made in improving rates of prosecution.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for keeping this vitally important area high on the agenda. I confess that I was slightly reticent in putting my name down to speak today because it is not an area in which I am an expert. However, I find myself regularly bumping into people who are involved in it and come across it as a matter of real concern for us. Certainly we are discussing a complex subject which affects women in many different ways and impacts on a wide range of agencies—police, health professionals, probation services and statutory and voluntary groups which are working in homelessness, substance use and abuse, human trafficking and so on.

It is interesting that a theme is emerging about the importance of multi-agency working and joined-up thinking, which seems to have caused so many problems in trying to move this area forward. In talking about the topicality of this subject, I noticed a few days ago reports from West Yorkshire Police that it received twice as many calls reporting abuse after England’s first match against Italy in the World Cup, much of which was domestic violence. This is not just a general problem: we see it at key flashpoints. Certainly it becomes more difficult around Christmas and on the very occasions when people want to have a more relaxing time. Indeed, it seems to be those flashpoints that are so difficult.

My personal interest in this area arises from some of the churches in my diocese which are involved in supporting women with multiple and complex needs, not least through raising money, donating clothing and food and in many cases acting as volunteers. The Mothers’ Union also does significant work in this area. Within the diocese of St Albans we have members who are actively involved in contact centres, in the prisons in Bovingdon and Bedford, the Women’s Refuge, the mother and baby home in Bedford and Manor Farm Family Centre in Sandy. Some years ago, my cathedral was one of the main funders in the early years when the St Albans and Hertsmere Women’s Refuge was being set up. I pay tribute to the work of such organisations.

I do not want to use the short time available to describe the problems—they are all too evident and well documented—so I will home in on four areas. First, let me say something about the funding of this vitally important work. It is difficult to get hold of hard evidence but it is fairly clear that funding is declining. Like everyone in your Lordships’ House, I am well aware of the financial constraints facing us in many areas, not least the problems that local councils face. However, it is vital that councils and the NHS maintain a basic level of support, not least because a lot of money going into this area is matched by funding from companies, charities and churches. We cannot solve the problem with just the voluntary sector being expected to pick up these extraordinarily complex problems.

Secondly one of the main problems for women with multiple and complex needs is affordable housing. I know this is stating the obvious but if we do not address it we are not going to get very far. When women are identified as having this need we must find a way to ensure that it is addressed with some kind of housing support, especially in places such as London where rents are prohibitively high and in situations such as those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, where people are coming out of custody or prison. I do not intend to trespass on the deeply conflicted area of how we find that support, whether it is through rent caps or finding additional funding. However, unless the accommodation issue is sorted out, we are actually immediately moving people coming out of hostels or whatever back into a situation which is much worse than before.

Thirdly, I am aware that there is a pretty vigorous debate on the Troubled Families programme, which the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, mentioned. I have been watching this subject and have asked one or two questions on it in the House. From talking to noble Lords and other people involved, I have picked up the fact that one of the most effective aspects has been the appointment of key workers. Their job is to ensure one point of contact, so that people do not fall between the various agencies, that there is data sharing and that there is a champion who will be a friend. The key is trust: in my own—limited—experience and that of everybody who talks about this, building up a strong, one-to-one relationship is absolutely crucial if we are to move forward.

It is interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, described graphically the way people turn up in place after place for all sorts of reasons. They may be told some blunt truths, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes they are simply passed from pillar to post. The key worker needs to co-ordinate data sharing and so on. We need something similar with those working with women who have multiple and complex needs. We also need to co-ordinate the financial resources as well as the personnel. For example, I was glad that in April last year the National Offender Management Service provided an extra £3.78 million to probation trusts for the rehabilitation of women. It is crucial that this is joined up to make a difference.

In my previous post I had a number of roles but, particularly, I chaired the strategic partnership in Shropshire. I know that, in some cases, partnership working is now being derided but the great advantage was that we got everybody round the table. As chairman, I had to knock heads together but there were occasions when we got various agencies to start putting funding together and thinking, “Rather than holding on to our bailiwicks and saying we are king of our castle, can we put this together and try to find a way forward that will make a real and significant difference to these people?”. This multi-agency work, with key workers or someone similar who could provide skilled help—by gum, we need seriously skilled help—and know their way round the different agencies and can gain the trust of the victims who are suffering is the way to get this level of co-operation.

Finally, I notice, in passing, that there is very wide variation in the number of successful prosecutions for domestic violence in different parts of the country. The statistics are really rather stark. For example—I have, of course, picked some of the most extreme to make the point—in 2013 just 4.2% of reported incidents of domestic violence in the Thames Valley resulted in prosecutions, but in Cheshire it was 21.7%. Would the Minister agree to write to chief constables and the Crown Prosecution Service to highlight these discrepancies and see whether there is either some way to ask people from those areas where it seems less effective to go and learn from those where it is clearly more effective, or in some other way to learn how to achieve more effective rates of prosecution? That may prevent some of this in the first place.

Baroness Williams of Trafford: …The right reverend Prelate, whom I hope I have called by his correct title today, alluded to several very important areas. One was domestic violence during the World Cup. Yes, as soon as a World Cup is on, domestic violence has the propensity to increase quite exponentially. We are running a campaign during the World Cup to remind perpetrators of the devastating effects of domestic abuse. Noble Lords may have seen some of those posters around and about. We are also supporting the Women’s Aid’s Football United Against Domestic Abuse campaign, which is working with grass-roots football clubs to highlight abuse and the services available to support victims.

The right reverend Prelate also asked whether the cuts mean that voluntary and community groups are taking up the slack. That is not borne out in reality. Certainly in my experience, we worked for many years with local voluntary and community services to tackle many issues faced by the community, all with service level agreements and funding in place. Certainly, the Government fund and work with St Mungo’s Broadway in order to provide the support that it gives to some 25,000 people a year. The right reverend Prelate also mentioned key workers. It is absolutely crucial that there is an identifiable point of contact. Perhaps I could get back to him in more detail on what we are doing. He also challenged me to write to the chief constables of Cheshire and another local area. I am not far from Cheshire and I shall follow that up.


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