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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Meg’s speech on women with learning disabilities

Friday, March 5, 2004

Meg’s speech on women with learning disabilities given in the House of Commons “Women, Equality and Human Rights” debate 4th March 2004.

I welcome this debate on women, equality and human rights. It is very timely, and there are important issues to be discussed in this field.

I shall focus my speech on specific issues relating to women with learning disabilities. It is estimated that, every year, 1,400 people with learning disabilities are victims of sexual abuse. Most of these are women. Furthermore, all too often in such cases, the abusers of women with a learning disability are not brought to justice. I welcome the Government's measures, introduced in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to protect people with learning disabilities from sexual abuse. Those will come into effect this May. Wherever possible, the rights of such women should be protected along with the rights of other people through mainstream legislation, as in the 2003 Act, but there should also be specific measures that recognise these women's specific needs, where that is appropriate.

The criminal law should not intrude unnecessarily on the private lives of adults, and people with a learning disability should have the same right to engage in sexual activities as others. We must recognise, however, that some people, especially those with a severe learning disability, may be particularly vulnerable to abuse because of the circumstances in which they live. That could affect their ability to consent to sexual activity in the same way as other adults. Our law must provide full and robust protection when sexual activity is not consensual.

It is important that women with a learning disability have the right to engage in sexual activity, but we must also ensure that they have protection against abuse and rape. They are twice as likely as other people to be victims of crime, and it is estimated that they are four times as likely as people without a learning disability to be the victim of a sexual offence.

We should acknowledge that people with a severe learning disability might not be able freely to consent to sex because they do not understand the nature of sexual activity and its consequences. They might also have limited choices and a limited understanding of relationships. That is what makes them so vulnerable, because they could be viewed as an easy target. They could be easily influenced, bribed, intimidated or threatened by others.

People in a position of power or who are caring for women with a severe learning disability could use that position to coerce or deceive them. Such people could, for example, use threats such as, "I will tell your parents" or "I will tell your friends". That might worry the woman in that situation, whereas an adult without a learning disability might just ignore it. They are particularly vulnerable to people in a position of authority who care for them.

The fundamental idea?the human right, indeed?that underpins everything I am saying is that people with learning disabilities are people first, and that they should have the same rights as everyone else. It is our responsibility to ensure that our legislation does all that it can to enable people to achieve that equality, however difficult that may be. We recognise the difficulties encountered by people trying to achieve that, and we must therefore take the issue seriously.

Before the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the law was clearly unsatisfactory, and terminology such as "mental defective" was demeaning to vulnerable adults. I am pleased that progress has been made in this area. By making provision on specific offences in relation to the sexual abuse of people with a learning disability, the legislation gives protection while maintaining the right of people to engage in consensual sexual activity.


Although the new offences have been created and there is now greater protection, we must be ever-vigilant, because there are still cases in which the Crown Prosecution Service or judges might decide not to proceed. For example, they might take the view that a person's word cannot be relied on. The woman or man involved might not have very good communication skills, and extra help and support might be needed to enable them to express what has happened to them. These important issues must be considered if justice is to be done.

When that does not happen, the legal system fails to protect. It not only fails to achieve justice for someone who has experienced an awful offence, but it could leave the person who has committed the offence free to reoffend elsewhere.

The All-Party Parliamentary Voice Group, of which I am the chair?which is supported by the organisation Voice UK?met earlier this week. We discussed court processes and heard from Dame Helen Reeves, who heads Victim Support, about the work that that organisation has done to provide a witness support service. She explained the process by which any person who has to give evidence in a trial?especially a trial of a difficult or sensitive nature?can be helped to prepare for their appearance in court. She also highlighted the difficulties involved in providing that service to people with learning disabilities.

A woman who has been subjected to a sexual offence, or her carers, might not have realised that support was available, or the witness support service run by Victim Support might not have been notified that the woman had special needs. A woman could arrive at the court without anyone having done any preparation or put in place support services to enable her to do her best to give evidence in difficult circumstances.

Some money has been invested in a programme to try to support the development of better services for people with learning disabilities. I understand, however, that Victim Support is still not able to access that funding to train volunteers in that special work. It has volunteers who are experienced in the court process and in preparing people to give evidence in court, but what they do not have is experience of working with people with learning disabilities. The organisation sees a real opportunity to begin to work in partnership with the organisations that are experienced in working with adults with learning disabilities, to develop those services and move the situation forward.

What we see at present are poor assessment of people's needs, uneven availability of services and lengthy delays in cases coming to court. As we know, delay in a case coming to court is stressful for anybody. For a person with a learning disability, however, understanding why that delay is taking place and having to give evidence perhaps a year on from when the offence took place is not only clearly traumatic but, in their particular circumstances, it may cause more difficulties in terms of their ability to give evidence.

Protecting women from abuse cannot be done only through changing the law. Once the law is implemented and used by the police, however, the provision of support and counselling services alongside is crucial for people with learning disabilities who have been abused.

The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is particularly welcome for all sorts of reasons. One of the issues that it addresses is common assault, which is not currently an arrestable offence. In effect, that prolongs the amount of time before the police can take action in relation to specific offences of violence that are deemed to be common assault. That can extend the amount of time in which the person who is subject to assault is susceptible to further offences or victimisation. It is therefore welcome that the Bill proposes that common assault be made an arrestable offence, which would give the police immediate powers to act when a person believes that immediate and unlawful violence will be used against them.

The Bill also includes as possible offenders people who have frequent contact with the victim. In that regard, I suggest that further protection could be given to people with learning disabilities who suffer this kind of violence, of whom the majority, as I have said, are women. If that were extended to include "paid and volunteer carers"?an amendment of four words?it would offer greater protection. People with learning disabilities these days live in a range of settings. It is welcome that developments over many years mean that people are able to live in settings that maximise their independence, rather than assuming that they should live in a setting in which everything is provided and in which they are not encouraged to do as much as they can. That is in line with the Government's expectations set out in the White Paper, "Valuing People". Many people with learning disabilities will therefore be living at home with their parents, with other relatives, or in small group homes?environments that would not necessarily be deemed to be part of the regulated residential sector. Adding an amendment to include paid and volunteer carers would therefore provide much greater protection across the range of residential facilities in which people with learning disabilities live.

Secondly, I suggest a further amendment to the part of the Bill that deals with the offence of causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult. There should also be an arrestable offence of causing or allowing the mistreatment or neglect of a vulnerable adult. I argued that there are benefits to having this offence in the new legislation rather than seeking to deal with it through mental health or mental capacity legislation, as that recognises that people with learning disabilities are people first, who have specific needs that arise from their disability. I also urge that those offences be deemed serious enough to have sentences that reflect that. The same offence against children has a maximum sentence of 10 years, which is what we should expect. In addition to not only providing more justice in such circumstances, that should also empower the police to do their job of providing greater protection to adults with learning disabilities.

Violence, neglect and ill treatment of women and men with learning difficulties in their own homes is horrifyingly widespread. Perpetrators are not brought to justice, which is a scandal that we must do more to tackle. I want to pay tribute to the organisations that have been campaigning hard in this area, such as Voice UK, VIA?Values In Action?Respond, and Turning Point. I also congratulate the Government on the work that they did to bring in the Sexual Offences Act, and urge them to consider the suggested amendments for the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. The Government take seriously the issues of women, equality and human rights, and this legislation will move forward the rights of women and people with learning disabilities, giving them a stronger voice and strengthening their human rights.


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