Last night, the NFWI and the Prison Reform Trust joined forces once again to host a Care Not Custody parliamentary reception in Westminster. I was joined by a number of my fellow WI members, and we had the pleasure of hearing from the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley MP, and Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt MP. Both Ministers reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to diverting people who are mentally ill from the justice system into treatment and care; and Crispin Blunt told the reception that the Government ‘greatly appreciate the role of the WI in raising the profile of this agenda’. He also told us that he knew the WI, and our partner organisations on this campaign, will be there to point out ‘when the government are getting things right, and when they are getting it wrong.’ He is quite right that we are very good at being the ‘itch you cannot scratch away’ and making sure the Government deliver on their promises. With Care Not Custody it will be no different, and we will keep a close eye on the governments’ plans.
We have also seen further success on the legal aid campaign. Following considerable government concessions in the Commons debates, the Lords, who debated the Bill yesterday, have made additional amendments on domestic violence. The WI welcomed the initial concessions made by the Government, but we felt these concessions could have gone further. One of our key concerns was that, although the Government had widened the evidence gateways for domestic violence victims accessing legal aid, these concessions only applied to women who had been admitted to a refuge. We know that the majority of women who experience domestic violence do not go into refuge, preferring to stay with friends and family, and access support in the community. Women’s Aid statistics show that of the 124,895 women who accessed their services in 2010, only 17,615 were admitted into refuge. The other key issue the Lords amendment addresses in the evidence timeframe; extending the timeframe from two years to six years. Again this is a welcome step, ensuring that many more women will be able to access legal aid.
The Bill will be debated again in the Commons this evening; we watch with bated breath!