MP Halfon raises tragic case of Eystna Blunnie in House of Commons

Politics / Wed 5th Mar 2014 pm31 02:52pm

estynaAFTER six months of putting in for a debate on domestic violence in West Essex and Harlow, Harlow MP, Robert Halfon was finally granted Parliamentary time by the Speaker on Tuesday afternoon.

Mr Halfon said:

“It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr McCrea. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on an important matter that affects thousands of men and women up and down the country. I want to give special recognition to Safer Places in Harlow, Essex county council, Nick Alston, who is police and crime commissioner for Essex, ManKind and Women’s Aid for the assistance they have given me in preparing for this debate. I also welcome the work done by the TUC on domestic violence training and education.

For six months, I have put in for this debate because of the particular problem of domestic violence in Harlow and because of two tragedies that have afflicted our town.

That is why I must pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Blunnie, who are in Westminster today. They have been incredibly strong throughout their ordeal since their daughter’s death, and continue to astound me with their campaign to prevent any other families from going through similar tragedies. I am hugely grateful to the Minister, who has agreed to meet the family after the debate.

This debate is much needed. Nationally, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse, with two women being killed per week by a partner or former partner.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con):

My hon. Friend makes an important point about male victims of domestic violence. Female victims are more numerous and sometimes more vulnerable, but we should not overlook male victims, who can fall victim to domestic violence in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Often they are unable to talk about the issue or to find resources available for victims of their gender.

Robert Halfon:

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Domestic violence is evil, whichever sex is afflicted by it.

As I said, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse. Today I want to focus specifically on west Essex and Harlow, where there is an above average amount of domestic abuse incidents. I am incredibly proud of my town. I love living there and am very proud to be its MP, but we cannot sweep the problems we have under the carpet and so it is important to set out some of the problems that we face. In Harlow alone domestic abuse makes up 10% of all crime, a statistic that has increased by 2% in the past year; 32% of all offences are assault with injury. Across Essex, police deal with 80 domestic incidents per day.

As I mentioned, we have sadly lost two Harlow residents to domestic violence recently, Eystna Blunnie in June 2012 and Claire Parrish in July 2012.

I therefore want to raise three issues this afternoon. First, what the situation is in west Essex in relation to domestic abuse; secondly, what steps are already being taken to improve how domestic abuse is dealt with; and thirdly, what needs to be improved and how that could be achieved.

As I have already mentioned, there are two tragic cases I would like to discuss that really typify some of the problems that we face. The first is the distressing case of Eystna Blunnie.

Before she met her ex-fiancé, Eystna was a happy young woman who had a close relationship with her family. During her relationship with her ex-fiancé she became withdrawn, and had little contact with her mother and father. In April 2012, she was taken to hospital after being strangled and falling unconscious. She was pregnant at the time, with a daughter called Rose. She made the decision to leave her ex-fiancé, and returned to live with her family. But two months later, and just days before her baby was due, she received a text from him saying he had a surprise for her. She was found by the roadside with over 50 injuries, and died shortly afterwards from severe head injuries.

Her ex-fiancé was found guilty of her murder and of causing the death of their unborn baby, Rose. He was jailed for a minimum of 27 years. I was due to see her in my surgery just a few days after she died.

During the court case, it transpired that her ex-fiancé had previously been arrested for assaulting ex-girlfriends.
The second tragic death is that of Claire Parrish, a mum of four living in Harlow. Her partner murdered her just hours after she told him that she wanted to end their relationship because of his domestic abuse. Like three in four victims, Claire was sadly one of the many who felt unable to contact the police.

Of course, those cases are horrific examples of the terrible tragedies that can occur. But they unfortunately also reflect the wider problem of domestic abuse in west Essex, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, recorded incidents of domestic abuse increased by nearly 88% across Essex; they increased by 25% between 2010-11 and 2011-12.

The cost of domestic abuse in Essex alone is £86 million per year. It represents a substantial amount of police work.
Those statistics can be interpreted in two ways.

On the one hand, we know from studies that the incidence of domestic abuse is higher in areas of deprivation, and that is sadly reflected in Harlow wards. Toddbrook, Little Parndon, Hare Street and Netteswell are in the top 30% of the most deprived areas in England; unfortunately, they also have the highest rates of domestic abuse in my constituency.

On the other hand, it is good that Essex police are recording incidents of domestic abuse thoroughly, and it has been acknowledged that changes in how records are kept and county priorities are one of the reasons why domestic abuse figures in Essex are so high.

Yet that must not stop us acknowledging that there is a clear problem with domestic abuse. In the aftermath of tragedies such as the deaths of Eystna Blunnie and Claire Parrish, it is worth remembering that Essex police and Essex county council have taken important steps forwards in how they treat domestic abuse.

They have created a new domestic abuse strategic board, and I praise them for that. I am glad for the enormous amount of work done by the Minister, who is taking a zero tolerance approach and is extending Clare’s law across the United Kingdom. I am hopeful that that will prevent victims from being sucked into a cycle of abuse that is difficult to break.

I also recognise that the east of England has the best conviction rate in the country for cases of domestic violence, with Essex having the second highest conviction rate of all the criminal justice areas in 2011-12.

That does not minimise in any way, however, the significant failings that led to a lack of help for Eystna and Claire.

There are three main problems that I wish to discuss.

First, current training regarding domestic abuse for people working in key public services is inadequate. There were a number of occasions where better training for front-line staff might have provided Eystna with the help she so badly needed. For example, she was under the care of midwives and housing officers. She was also seen at A and E, and had reported to the police that she was being abused. Despite coming into contact with all those services, she received little support.

Eystna’s case is echoed in the review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of Essex police’s handling of domestic abuse cases in 2013, which reported that:

“most staff were not able to demonstrate a broad understanding of the wider approach to domestic abuse, and of how dealing with it effectively can enhance the confidence of victims and ultimately prevent homicides.”

Nationally, training has also been identified as a priority, and a recent report said that there is a need for improved training and awareness about domestic violence and abuse for GPs and healthcare professionals.

The training also needs to extend to the Crown Prosecution Service, which acknowledged that it made a mistake by not initially charging Eystna Blunnie’s ex-fiancé when he tried to kill her in April 2012.

Healthy relationship education should be extended in classrooms. Victims of domestic abuse tend to be women in their early 20s, and education will hopefully give them the skills to deal with a bad relationship and encourage them to speak up if they are in an abusive one.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con):

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also represent a constituency in Essex, and we have many issues with domestic violence. My hon. Friend touched on the issue of training in the CPS and the health and social services.

I, too, have experienced horrifying cases. Does he agree that in addition to improving training we must integrate the services better to co-ordinate the services and support for the victims of this awful abuse and to create stronger support structures and signposting for those vulnerable individuals?

Robert Halfon:

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am proud to have her as a near neighbour in Essex. Sharing information and safeguarding are crucial issues, which I will come on to. She makes an important point, and I hope the Minister is listening to her.

Gareth Johnson:

I want to build on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I used to practise in the criminal justice system in Essex, in which I saw both good and bad practices. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) agree that it is incumbent on HM Court Service to play a role, so defendants and victims are not left alone together, for example? In my experience, the witness service does a fantastic job in preventing that kind of thing.

Nevertheless, it is important that courts ensure that the interests of both parties are protected while they are going through the criminal justice system.

Robert Halfon:

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure the Minister is listening carefully to what he has to say.

Perpetrators tend to come from families in which there is a history of abuse. Studies show that nearly a quarter of young people in the UK think that abuse or violence is sometimes okay. It must be stressed to young people that abuse in any form and for whatever reason is never acceptable.

I am pleased that Essex county council is working with schools to develop a programme to help students recognise abusive relationships. However, abuse should be tackled nationally, and the curriculum should focus on altering the creation of violence through targeted education. That could include training on self-esteem and values; learning about the help that is out there, such as Clare’s law, and how to access it; and special training for tutors in schools.

Victims have identified that how they are supported needs to be reformed. Following the terrible death of Eystna, Mr and Mrs Blunnie told me that despite good help being available from individual police officers, they felt let down by Victim Support. They received little follow-up, always had to be the first to make contact and had to speak to different people each time. Ultimately, they came to rely upon a charity called Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse for support, to which I give huge thanks for all it has done.

The situation is disappointing, and I encourage Victim Support to review what it can do for victims and their families.
Finally, one of the major problems that was identified in the handling of domestic abuse in Essex is the lack of cohesive information sharing across services, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham referred.

It is shocking that despite the fact that Eystna was pregnant and was known to many key services to have a fiancé with serious mental health problems and a history of abusing women, a sufficient safeguarding plan was not put in place. The HMIC review strongly criticised Essex police for failings across the force in that area. It said:

“We found poor communication between those providing victim care, investigators and voluntary sector support workers…The force needs to intensify its work with other agencies across Essex to develop a more co-ordinated approach to domestic abuse.”

That view has been expressed to me privately, with the suggestion that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on mental health and substance misuse issues. It is essential that services work together and share information when people’s lives are at risk.

If we are to avoid tragedies such as those that happened in Harlow and prevent such things from happening again anywhere, we must not only learn lessons but act on them.

As I have said, that means providing education in schools, investing in and focusing on areas of high deprivation and significant domestic abuse, fully implementing Clare’s law, ensuring proper information sharing among services and safeguarding vulnerable people.

The Government are making significant efforts on a national level, but we must ensure that they also work on a micro-level. Local areas—in particular, those with high levels of domestic abuse—should have everything at their disposal to deal with this ever-increasing tragedy. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

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